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ARQ (Santiago)

versión On-line ISSN 0717-6996

ARQ (Santiago)  no.90 Santiago ago. 2015

http://dx.doi.org/10.4067/S0717-69962015000200019 

READINGS

The re-creation of habitat as a co-production of the body and world

 

Matías Garretón*(1)

* Professor, Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez, Centro de Inteligencia Territorial, Santiago, Chile. matias.garreton@uai.cl


Abstract

The extensive use of participatory strategies and their transformation into politically correct slogans have made this concept lose its strength; however, there is still unexplored potential when we overcome the mere participative rhetoric. From that path, this article argues that temporary interventions that encourage participation favor social cohesion, because as they co-produce the world people tend to value diversity and, in the words of Latour, can also ‘learn to be moved’.

Keywords: Participation, aesthetics, Latour, Paris, France.


 

The acceleration of cultural, technical, and economic transformations in the contemporary world has shifted the interest in traditions and stable structures towards an emphasis for innovation, ductile objects, and adaptable systems. This directly affects the activities of human habitat creation and blurs the lines between design, architecture, and planning while simultaneously imposing new challenges to the practice of these disciplines. In particular, the influence that human habitat exercises, composed of works, tools, dwellings and systems, on individual and collective development implies an ethical responsibility that demands an awareness of the scope that the conception and construction of these elements can have.

This is even more relevant when considering that we are at the threshold of two substantial historical transitions. First, the progress of artificial intelligence permits the autonomization and flexibilization of the productive potential of the machine, allowing to substitute human labor at the specialized manufacturing level and even highly skilled tasks such as medical and legal assistance (Brynjolfsson & McAfee, 2011). This is remarkable, because from prehistory until the beginning of the modern era production has depended essentially on human and animal labor; afterwards, the Industrial Revolution integrated the machine into the productive process thus increasing added value. Now we face the possibility of human labor becoming unnecessary for production. Second, the Geological Society of London and several authors state that we have entered the Anthropocene age, a geological era characterized by human influence on the planet (Gibson-Graham & Roelvnik; Steffen et al, 2011). Today humanity is an agent that generates a determining impact on the global ecology, having caused a loss of biodiversity comparable to the large-scale prehistoric extinctions and undoubtedly anthropocenic global warming. Each year we consume 150% of the resources that the earth can renew sustainably, i.e. we are living on a credit of the stock accumulated since the appearance of life on Earth (unep, 2012). The combination of these two historical climaxes could generate unpredictable cultural, social, and economic transformations. Placing us in this historical context, this discussion examines the role that falls on the production practices of human habitat in an age of accelerated change, analyzing the dynamic and retroactive effect of the creative action on the body and society. In particular, we consider that recyclable, reversible, or reusable projects, such as temporary urbanism, clearly manifest a juncture where we seek new meanings and solutions for the co-construction of the body and the world. To understand the motive and aim of these processes, it is necessary to redefine the analytical categories that established radical distinctions between nature, man, and machine (Haraway, 2013). From this perspective we can argue that to adequately appreciate the role of design, architecture, and planning in the contemporary world, it is necessary to understand the act of perceiving as a co-transformative experience of the subject and the world. With this objective, we will analyze the divergence between philosophical traditions that have opposed transcendent and immanent aesthetic approaches. In this discussion, we will refer to Aesthetics in the primary etymological sense of aisthetiké,(1) referring to the ability to perceive the world. Specifically, we will examine the concept of phenomenon coming from the Greek phainomenon, which refers to that which is perceived through the senses, relating the subject that observes and the observed subject.(2) In the field of art, practices, and sciences of human habitat production, this interaction involves a creator subject that conceives an object with a specific goal. This object is not restricted to a passive role but one that can produce a sensation in the receiving subject. This reflexivity of the subject-phenomenon-object triad leads us to the central argument of this essay: the phenomenon should not be understood as a mere connector between subject and object but conceived as a space of co-production between the body and the world.

This investigation will begin with a brief debate between two aesthetics of the perception of the phenomenon: Platonic-Kantian idealism and Humanism-Existentialism from Spinoza to Heidegger. Later we will discuss the concept of “learning to be affected” (Latour, 2004), which allows one to grasp phenomenon as the co-production between subject and object. Then we will present certain implications of this existential aesthetic in the exercise of the creation practices of the human habitat. In conclusion and arising from this aesthetic discussion we will propose a glimpse of the ethical scope of design, architecture, and planning in the contemporary world.

Transcendent intermediation versus immanent experience

For Plato, the sensible reality was a reflection of the world of essences whose truth would only be revealed intuitively thanks to an acquired capacity in a previous existence. Thus, the gap between the physical world and the essence of ideas could only be saved thanks to the intermediation of the immortal soul (Brisson, 2000). This correspondence between the incompleteness of the material and the need for transcendent intermediation was taken up by Christianity and incorporated into its theology and the political systems with which it was co-built.

In particular, the feudal monarchies of Europe based their capacity for social control in the acceptance of the king and the feudal lord as governors delegated by God. Life was in service to the salvation of the soul in the same way that the peasant served his lord. Between life on earth and the incomparably more valued eternal life, a transcendent intermediation was instituted from which God was personified through angels, saints, and clergy reaffirming the authority of the monarch.

With the cultural revolution of the Renaissance an opposing aesthetic approach emerged even though it was inscribed within Judeo-Christian theology. Baruch Spinoza, one of the most important thinkers of premodern humanism, sustained that God and Nature were inseparable (Yovel, 1992). However, this also supposed an unseen essence as Spinozastated that the revelation of this truth could only be the fruit of a cultivation of virtue and systematic reasoning. Unlike Plato, for Spinoza the understanding of essences did not come from a previous knowledge of the soul but from the indissoluble fullness of man with the divinity of nature.

In this way, Spinoza delegitimized the external mediation between man and his transcendence with humanist and revolutionary thinking for his time. The idea that each man and the multitude could be in a direct relationship with God and Nature was in direct contradiction with the theological foundations of feudalism. In effect, the understanding of life and society as immanent phenomena where the truth would be a historical, technical and political construction (i.e. contingent) was the decisive blow that Renaissance thought dealt to the ideology of medieval monarchies (Hardt & Negri, 2001).

The political and philosophical reaction against Renaissance humanism was driven by the absolutist thinkers and consummated by Kant’s idealism. On one hand, the monarch was raised as a direct and indisputable representative of God, qualitatively superior to the nobility and, in practice, imposing on the Church. On the other hand, the Kantian aesthetic reintroduced knowledge previous to “pure reason” as the transcendental intermediary between the perception of phenomena and universal truth (Kitcher, 1998). Thus, Kant traced an insurmountable border between knowledge that can be obtained through science and the intuition of transcendental ideas placed on a plane in which the world, soul, and God would be connected. In this way, to the everimperfect knowledge of phenomenon by means of the senses is added the impossibility of knowing the noumenon, the essence of “the thing itself.”

This radical philosophical split between man and the truth was analogous to the political gulf between the subjects and an absolute monarch who, claiming to represent God, was unquestionable. Both approaches required one to disregard direct experience and trust in truths revealed by a transcendent intermediary. Later, the “invisible hand” of the market as theorized by Adam Smith would be consolidated as a transcendent(3) economic principle that defined the common minimum of reason for the State in parallel to the transfer of the legitimacy of the absolute monarch to the abstract construct of the nation (Hardt y Negri, 2001). In sum, the constitutive ideology of the modern nation states are based on a transcendental aesthetic that denied people certainty, autonomy, and control of their existence by relativizing knowledge of phenomenon.

Although Husserl’s phenomenology was a valuable attempt to bridge this gap between experience of the world and ultimate truth, it was Heidegger who decisively confronted Post-Kantian metaphysics. Existentialism reclaimed the priority of life experience in rejection of the absurd genocide of the two world wars, the climax of the dispute between state leviathans driven by transcendental reasoning. In a line of thinking that we can connect with the all-embracing humanism of Spinoza, Heidegger (1988) refuted substantive divisions and said that essence would consist of the same existence and, therefore, man would build himself through free choice.

Heidegger described the failure of Western metaphysics as the misunderstanding of the relationship between the essence of man and the truth of being leading to the classification of agencies as ‘objects’ that can be dominated by a human ‘subject.’ Thus a technical, exploitative and alienating relationship would have been established between humanity and nature (McWorther & Stenstad, 2009). Instead, Heidegger defined the Dasein (‘being here and now’) as a sensitive and thinking entity that builds itself in the world. In short, the aesthetic exclusive of transcendental intermediation opposed an immanent aesthetic so that each instant is a singular phenomenon of realization of the subject through its direct and existential interaction with the objects in the world.

Without denying the possibility of transcendental realities outside human knowledge, we consider that this humanist-existentialist aesthetic helps avoid the bias and abuse that can result from the delegation of decisions contingent to institutions and revelations that escape public scrutiny. However, this focus is not enough to inquire about our relationship with contemporary reality. In fact, the approaches so far reviewed implicitly assumed the invariability of the world as on a transcendent plane or as a matrix in which existence is built. That is, there are ideas limited to a pre-anthropocenic conception of the human habitat where the only thing relevant is the change that happens to the subject and not the lasting effect that its action exercises on the universe. On the contrary, the contemporary world is not immutable as the progress of civilization alters both the living conditions of the beings as the traditional practices of integration of human beings in society. This context requires rethinking both the agency as the sensibility of all the entities involved in the evolution of a shared reality (Haraway, 2013). So, in addition to adopting the perspective of a direct and reflexive relationship between subject and object, in the next section we will analyze the mechanisms to understand this interaction as a space of reciprocal transformation between the body and the world.

Learn to be affected: co-production of the actor and his world

The historical climax in which we find ourselves is the result of the efficacy of the scientific positivism that has progressively gained mastery over nature and the increase in productivity based on the gradual replacement of human labor by the machine. This leads us to two substantial problems. First, how to move from an economic regime of quantitative growth and extensive exploitation of natural resources to a sustainable one of qualitative development in a homeostatic relationship with the planet (Daly, 1991). Second, how to integrate socially and in equal conditions to a growing number of people that are being excluded or undervalued by the labor market, that is, how to overcome a societal model constituted by and for production (Castel, 1995).

These dilemmas cannot be resolved by policy adjustments or technological innovations arising from the same ideology and methodology that has generated them. A reasonable alternative is to replant our relationship with the world in a receptive, reciprocal and pragmatic way (Gibson-Graham y Roelvnik, 2010). In this sense, Latour (2004) develops the concept of ‘learning to be affected,’(4), which overcomes the dualism of the domination of the subject to the object, focusing on the act of perceiving as a transformative experience. To illustrate this vital learning process, Latour refers to the training of a perfumer by means of a matrix of odors:

It is no accident that this person is called ‘a nose,’ as if by practice she had acquired an organ that defines her ability to detect different chemicals. Through training sessions, she had learned to have a nose that allowed her to inhabit a richly differentiated, odoriferous world. Thus, parts of the body are progressively acquired at the same time that ‘counterparts of the world’ are being registered in a new way. To acquire a body is then a progressive business that at the same time produces a sensorial medium and a sensitive world (Latour 2004:207).(5)

Thus, Latour conceives a dynamic and proliferative relationship between the body and the world. The intermediation between both is internal to the body and created by experience, thus leading us to two important observations. First, as the subject develops new sensibilities, the perceived and re-created world is specialized and expands toward new possibilities. Second, this co-transformation implies that the subjects are not identical nor are the worlds they inhabit. Note that the auto-transformative effect of acting in the world has left significant traces in the evolution of the mind and human body. In particular, the areas of the motor and sensory cortices dedicated to the control and perception of the hand have been developed in parallel to the anatomical opposition of the thumb to favor pressing, the capacity for elaboration, and the use of tools.

At the same time, humanity has transformed the world, civilizing it and dominating it. Thus, along with extending the capacities of one extremity, the human body has increased the perception and anticipation of the possibilities that this offers, becoming more relevant as tools proliferate and the world is rebuilt to be managed by the hand. In sum, the co-production of the hand and the habitat has been generated and consolidated in this sensitive and predictive space of the human brain, essential for the evolution from the primate to the homo sapiens. This process has been accelerated to the point of a historical climax, during our time, within which the practices of human habitat creation play an important role, a role that will be addressed in the next section.

The proliferation of the sensibilities in the creation of human habitat

The human habitat is a social, symbolic, cultural, and material space that during the process of global civilization has built an anthropocentric world rich in ‘objects’ apt for being used by human ‘subjects.’ However, these distinctions are diluted as artificial intelligence animates the machine and as the body uses mechanical or virtual extensions to increase its capabilities (Haraway, 2013). In this evolution, the creative practices play a fundamental role, opening new spaces for interaction between the body and the world and encouraging us to learn new sensibilities.

In the field of design each original object has been conceived by an imagination enriched by previous experience and, upon use, will produce new sensations and capacities to interact with the world. Smart phones and other devices for accessing the virtual reality are clear examples of the intensity this dynamic has reached today. In effect, we are witnessing cyber-cultural transformations at such an acceleration that a cognitive generational break has been produced as in our perception of daily life we integrate the sensibility that allows a glimpse into an unprecedented computer world.

In the practice of architecture a particular conformation of light, voids, structure and systems is designed and anticipated, resulting in a construction that will be perceived as a home for its inhabitants and whose arrangement will influence their lives. The residence we inhabit domesticates us and becomes progressively linked with our habits as we occupy it, decorate it, expand it, or reduce it. Our inhabitation is adapted to our tastes and molds it; the space at our disposal conforms to whoever, however many, and with what frequency we receive in it, influencing in the place and form of our social relationships. The emotional and social world are co-built, among other things, with the living space, both having an intimate relationship with the representation of oneself and his or her aspirations.

In the city, our habits and predispositions determine who we seek out or avoid, how much traffic we generate and how much trash we throw away, participating in collective behaviors that are fed with the functioning of land markets, transportation systems and other urban dynamics. The socio-spatial, economic, educational and participatory exclusions influence how we see one another and the state of peace or tension that assume the collaboration or competition in society. Care of the body, tolerance to diversity and the individual eco-systemic impact are co-produced with institutional incentives, the integration or segregation of social groups, and economic imperatives.

All these dimensions are intertwined in the organization and construction of transitory events and spaces. From the traditional carnival in different societies to the seasonal urbanism of the ‘Paris beaches’(6) (Fig. 1), ephemeral urban events are acts that shape the collective representation of a shared identity in the city (Schuster, 2001). In the case of Paris, the beaches mounted every year on the banks of the Seine have evolved with new ways to inhabit this space, ways made possible by the intervention itself and then modifying it in return. At the same time, new policies and public-private institutional structures that create strategies for municipal management have been generated (Pradel, 2008). In short, festive objects, transitory places and the ephemeral-cyclical uses create spaces of experimentation and rediscovery of the body in collective creations that generate new uses and ways for organizing and perceiving the world.


Fig. 1. Paris beaches.
© Peter Haas, under licence Creative Commons

Additionally, the material and conceptual structures today are intertwined and more dynamic. The techniques of digital fabrication allow for complex designs composed of unique pieces at an even lower cost while the interactive virtual interfaces are increasingly present in public space. So, the opportunity is opened for architecture to conceive beyond the removable, reusable, and recombinable. A work is no longer limited to its original form but is able to participate in an evolutionary process and respond to unknown questions arising from sensibilities that it has awoken in the bodies inhabiting it. Even though this co-construction is not fundamentally different from what occurs between a family and their home, the aperture of this space for interaction and its explicit recognition in the foundation of creation can generate radically new perceptions and uses in the body-world relation.

Unlike the inductive-deductive reasoning that has driven these innovations but at the same time has triggered the anthropocenic crisis, we find it unnecessary to determine the causes, effects and use of these processes. We affirm that the important thing is to be aware of how we learn to be sensitive to all these phenomena and how we transform ourselves in the process. In fact, human action in general and the practices of habitat creation in particular are processes for learning and transforming the perceived and recreated reality. Therefore, these have an impact on the possibilities of gestation or cancelation of other beings and worlds that lead to an unavoidable ethical responsibility. In conclusion, we insist on a dimension that seems relevant to us so as to assume this condition.

Conclusión

Through this text we have tried to discern the implications of participating in the transformation of the contemporary world when we take up a creative practice. Alluding to Latour, we consider that the understanding of phenomenon like the proliferative dynamic of co-production between bodysubject and world-object is an appropriate basis for addressing this task. All this in a civilization that has an unprecedented capacity for a transformative understanding of self and nature.

In this sense, to give value to the ‘learning to be affected’ capacity implies an appreciation for the irreducible multiplicity produced by the simultaneous proliferation of conscious bodies and perceived worlds. Latour argues that the concept of the universe is a premature unification composed of essences of which only its primary qualities can be recorded. Conversely, a ‘multiverse’ made up of habits would permit the expression of all the possible articulations between creator subjectivities (Latour, 2004). In this space, the collective benefit would not come from equilibrium in the dispute for scarce resources but from the mutual enrichment generated from the acquisition of each new sensibility in the face of previously imperceptible differences. Considering the historical climax of cybernetic substitution and the Anthropocene age, to preserve human dignity and perhaps survival, it is necessary to encourage the proliferation of sensitivities, transmuting this expansive and dominant civilization into an inclusive and tolerant ecosystem (Gibson-Graham y Roelvink, 2010).

Unlike previous times, characterized by material deprivation, the potential technology currently exists to produce a wealth greater than ecologically sustainable consumption. If it were appropriately distributed, it would be enough for the subsistence of every inhabitant of the planet (De Wispelaere & Stirton, 2004). This allows for a transition from quantitative growth to qualitative development (Daly, 1991) requiring a reorientation of the knowledge of design, architecture, and planning together with a reassessment of the creative capacity of each person. We consider that the repetitive reproduction of objects and works, such as the segregation of functions or social groups severely limit the possibilities of cognitively enriching a world where material consumption must be limited. On the contrary, the invention of artifacts and dialoguing spaces co-produced with their users represent an inexhaustible potential for creating original, non-exclusive values.

In this sense, to end this discussion by identifying the role that falls to the practices of human habitat creation, we propose the ethical principal of the ‘affection for the different.’ This goes beyond tolerance for diversity and implies an active assessment of the differentiation of singular sensibilities. This creative contemporary ethic requires learning to be co-responsible for the invention of a world where everything and everyone has the time and place they need to exist. We trust that these objectives are achievable in the extent that we are able to evolve from these forms of socio-political organization of domination towards others that promote the proliferation of subjectivities.

 

Notes

1. Unlike the study of beauty which is another philosophical meaning for the term ‘aesthetic.’

2. This discussion will be developed from an elemental definition of phenomenon the both precedes and is broader than the phenomenology based on the work of Husserl. Unlike this philosophical current which tries to find common features between different subjective appreciations of a phenomenon, this article explores the proliferation of subjectivities that can be generated through practices of creation and perception (Latour, 2004). The reader interested in the relationship between the phenomenology and architecture can find a literary synthesis in Seamon, 2000.

3. Not in a spiritual sense but as a principle that transcends control and human existence, because it is assumed that it would respond to an optimal form of productive organization as inevitable as the laws of nature.

4. ‘Learning to be affected’, as it was translated to English.

5. Author’s translation; commas come from the original text.

6. Translation from Paris Plages, see:http://www.parisinfo.com/decouvrir-paris/les-grands-rendez-vous/Paris-Plages

 

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1. Matías Garretón | Architect, Universidad Católica de Valparaíso. Master, Urban Institute of Paris. Doctor of Urbanism and Planning, University Paris Est. Academic, Center of Territorial Intelligence, Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez. Researcher for the Center for Conflict and Social Cohesion Studies. He has taught at the Urbanism Institute of Paris and the Universidad Diego Portales. His research is focused on the relationship between urban, inequalities, mobility and government with a focus on political justice and city rights.

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