Slavoj Zizek on the ‘P2P’ bio-urbanistic approach of Nikos Salingaros

Slavoj Zizek writes in Living in the End Times, Architectural Parallax, p. 273-4:

(and see below, for an extensive extract from Nikos Salingaros)

“For Nikos Salingaros, the pursuit of formal or critico-ideological concerns in place of adapting to nature and the needs of ordinary human beings defines “bad architecture” which makes people uncomfortable or physically ill. Salingaros’s targets were the star postmodern architects who emphasized meaning at the expense of the concrete experiences of the people who used their buildings. Take Bernard Tschumi—from the premise that there is no fixed relationship between architectural form and the events that take place within it, he drew a socio-critical conclusion: this gap opens up the space for critical undermining. Architecture’s role is not to express an extant social structure, but to function as a tool for questioning that structure and revising it. Salingaros’s counter-argument would be: should we then make ordinary people uncomfortable and ill at ease in their buildings, just to impose on them the critico-ideological message that they live in an alienated, commodified, and antagonistic society? Koolhaas was right to reject what he dismissively calls architecture’s “fundemental moralism,” and to doubt the possibility of any directly “critical” architectural practice—however, our point is not that architecture should somehow be “critical,” but that it cannot not reflect and interact with social and ideological antagonisms: the more it tries to be pure and purely aesthetic and/or functional, the more it reproduces these antagonisms.”

Nikos Salingaros comments:

“An excellent summary by Slavoj Zizek. I could not have written a better one myself. Of course, there exists a fundamental disagreement between my group of architect/philosopher friends, many of them Alexandrians (after Christopher Alexander), and most contemporary architects and academics. We believe that architecture is an extension of human cognition and symbiotic interaction with the environment. The latter group, on the contrary, believe in severing this millennial connection so as to create a hostile inhuman environment that expresses certain human psychoses. Contemporary architects don’t quite put it in this way, but either they are being dishonest, or they are fooling themselves.”

Part Two: Excerpt from Nikos Salingaros: “The Derrida Virus”

Nikos A. Salingaros:

“Since the 1960s, deconstruction has sought to undermine all well-ordered structures. “Deconstruction is a method of analyzing texts based on the idea that language is inherently unstable and shifting and that the reader rather than the author is central in determining meaning. It was introduced by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida in the late 1960s.” (Encarta World English Dictionary, 1999). This means that texts have no ultimate meaning, and that their interpretation is up to readers. Thus, deconstruction pretends to be a call of liberation from the hegemony of certainty.

It needs something ordered (either actual or latent) on which to act and then destroy. Thus, it is entirely parasitic. With one notable exception, what its advocates say about deconstruction is clouded by confusion. Since it is an attack on logic, it does not produce logical statements. According to Derrida: “All sentences of the type ‘deconstruction is X’ or ‘deconstruction is not X’ a priori miss the point, which is to say that they are at least false. One of the principal things in deconstruction is the delimiting of ontology and above all of the third person present indicative: S is P.” (Collins & Mayblin, 1996; p. 93).

Deconstruction can, however, be understood by what it actually does. It dismantles structure, logical statements, traditional beliefs, observations, etc. When criticized for dismantling these entities, deconstructionists insist they are merely analyzing and commenting on text. This approach resembles the way viruses survive and proliferate.

Derrida himself has called deconstruction a “virus”: i.e. an inert code that replicates itself by using a host. Its strategy is to make an unsuspecting host ingest it; to force the host’s internal machinery to make new copies of the virus; and to spread as many of these copies as possible, in order to maximize the possibility of infecting new hosts. The virus requires a more complex host to invade and destroy, but cannot live by itself. Originating in France, deconstruction has “infected” most disciplines in universities everywhere. In an uncharacteristically clear statement, Derrida states his objectives: “All I have done … is dominated by the thought of a virus, what could be called a parasitology, a virology, the virus being many things … The virus is in part a parasite that destroys, that introduces disorder into communication. Even from the biological standpoint, this is what happens with a virus; it derails a mechanism of the communicational type, its coding and decoding … [it] is neither alive nor dead … [this is] all that I have done since I began writing.” (Brunette & Wills, 1994; p. 12). Fortunately, since most people cannot understand it, it has influenced society only indirectly (Salingaros, 2002).

Deconstruction erases normal ways of thinking. It may appear incomprehensible, but it is very effective: it erases associations that form coherent thoughts. It acts like a computer virus that erases information in a hard disk. The Derrida virus seeks to undermine any original meaning via a complex and entirely self-referential play of words. (Scruton, 2000). Otherwise astute critics have made the mistake of dismissing Derrida as another obfuscating French philosopher. Yet, what he has introduced is much more dangerous. He turns knowledge into randomness, just as a virus destroys living organisms by disintegrating individual cells. Its properties can be summarized as follows:

(1) The virus is a very small amount of information encoded either as a list of instructions to follow or as examples to copy.

(2) Within an appropriate host, the virus directs the partial disintegration of order and connectivity in the host structure.

(3) The virus then directs the reassembly of portions of the host structure, but in a way that denies connections necessary to achieve coherence or life.

(4) The end product must encode the virus in its structure.

(5) A deconstructed product is the vehicle for transmission of the viral code to the next host.

Deconstruction has been remarkably successful in dismantling traditional literature, art, and architecture. Like a biological virus, deconstruction is careful to balance host survival with infectivity. It only partially destroys its host, because total destruction would stop further transmission. It breaks up coherent sets of ideas by separating natural modules into submodules. Some of these submodules are then selectively destroyed in order to subsequently reattach their components randomly into an incoherent construct. A variant of the Derrida virus does not attack a specific text, but scavenges a discipline as a whole. It works on the collected work of many authors dealing with a particular topic. Its components are then reassembled in a nonsensical jumble that is only misleadingly and superficially coherent and appears viable to those unfamiliar with the host discipline and its vocabulary.

….

In viral terms, infection occurs because the virus possesses an attractive shell, which it offers to its host. No host would knowingly allow a virus to enter it, but is invariably tricked into doing so. Biological viruses possess an exterior protein that the cell finds metabolically attractive, and so ingests them; some computer viruses are encapsulated in a message purportedly coming from a friend; the Derrida virus promises “liberation from oppressive hegemony,” itself a relic of the 1968 slogans in France. This alternation of a destructive doctrine with a false promise of liberation is a recurring theme of revolutionary movements that have periodically scourged humanity. To the extent that it threatens to destroy everything else, deconstruction is not simply a worldview among others. Deconstruction takes advantage of a bad misunderstanding, which confuses multiculturalism with nihilism. A method to erase knowledge, masquerading as a new philosophical movement, cannot be quarantined within academia. Indoctrinated students eventually enter the real world threatening to create havoc.

Deconstruction involves a will to destroy. Much of it comes from absolutizing subjectivity. Shut off from the outside world, the individual is locked in an internal version of reality prone to corruption. Deconstruction seeks to achieve precisely this end: isolation, then corruption. Deconstruction isolates itself in order to protect its secret of a nonexistent content. It spins a cocoon of incomprehensibility as a defense mechanism. Unfortunately, modern physics set a dangerous precedent when it stopped making sense and no longer related to everyday experience. It made sense in a different dimension, a different scale in space and time, even though its observable consequences constitute the physical universe. As a result, its legacy is that of formal systems that contradict common sense. Taking this as its point of departure, deconstruction devalues common sense and rejects customary wisdom. It declares everything that falls short of formal proof to be irrational, but then provides an irrational formal structure to replace what it has destroyed. As a virus, it has invaded civilization, erasing collective common sense while spreading with astonishing rapidity.

Once formed, worldviews are unlikely to change and are trusted more than any direct sensory evidence. These internal worldviews become so much a part of oneself that they are unlikely to undergo any modification, unless one is forced to do so. For this reason, those who have adopted a cult philosophy deny all evidence that threatens the cult’s vision of reality. Rational arguments make no difference. Jared Diamond asked: “Why do some societies make disastrous decisions?” (2003). He was surprised to find that the most common answers assume that human beings have an innate reality check that prevents disastrous decisions. Yet, historically this has not been the case. Human beings seem inclined to fall into a kind of uncritical group think. The failure of the resulting group decisions has often led to the collapse of entire civilizations.

According to Diamond:

(1) Short-term gains often ignore possible long-term losses. A decision-making elite may advance its own interests to the detriment of society at large;

(2) People tend to be fanatically attached to irrational and self-serving beliefs, linking them to values they hold sacred; they tolerate no challenges and ignore their negative consequences;

(3) There is often denial of mounting evidence of a disaster because the truth, or coming events, are too horrible to contemplate;

(4) Signals pointing to a problem are not taken seriously. Previous disasters that arose under similar conditions are conveniently forgotten; society concentrates on the present and ignores its past;

(5) A novel threat is dismissed by assuming the continuity of a comfortable familiar situation (i.e., an unfounded belief in the inertia of the system), even knowing that change is often unexpected and discontinuous.

These indicators help to understand why deconstruction has been embraced so broadly.

Since the virus is not alive, it cannot be killed, so it makes no sense to attack it with either ridicule or with logical criteria such as truth and consistency. Those techniques are suited to falsifying and dismantling infinitely more complex systems, which have a corresponding vulnerability. The Derrida virus is simply a piece of information encoded in human neuronal circuits and in the external physical environment. It resides in the minds of indoctrinated individuals programmed to spread it, and in buildings and texts that infect us through visual systems. The only way to stop it, therefore, is to stop its modes of informational transmission.”

(Originally published in TELOS NUMBER 126, Winter 2003, pages 66-82; then as a chapter in the book ANTI-ARCHITECTURE AND DECONSTRUCTION, Umbau-Verlag, Solingen, Germany, 2008.)

2 Comments Slavoj Zizek on the ‘P2P’ bio-urbanistic approach of Nikos Salingaros

  1. camerontw

    It helps to read. (You cannot get infected merely by reading).

    Salingaros falls screaming into the chasm between the careful political writings of Jacques Derrida and what the Encarta Dictionary (come on!) define as deconstruction; a distance which is only slightly greater than that between the critical practice of deconstruction and the adolescent posturings of deconstructive architects.

    Derrida is not responsible for the pretentiousness of Tschumi and his ilk. The thought of Derrida, when read in respectfully critical ways, is the cure, not the virus, especially when it comes to understanding the politics of P2P interactions (as opposed to the homogenizing holism of the later Chris Alexander).

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