Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 17, 1999
Alex Coles and Alexia Defert, eds. The Anxiety of Interdisciplinarity London: BACKless Books in association with Black Dog Publishing, 1997. Paper $14.95 (1901033759)

The Anxiety of Interdisciplinarity is the second volume in the De-, Dis-, Ex- series from BACKless Books. The volume features interviews with Julia Kristeva and Hal Foster, essays from Rosalind Krauss, Louis Martin, Timothy Martin, Beatriz Colomina, and Howard Caygill, and photographs of Candida Höfer, all of whom focus on the intermingling and friction between the schools of art, architecture, and theory. The anxiety develops when poststructuralist theory, born of literary and political discourse, enters the hardest, most crystallized science, architecture. The anxiety ferments, because the physical nature of architecture resists relativism. The anxiety fills the proponents of interdisciplinarity, because the weight of solid matter does not in fact, fly into air, outside the liquid realm of cerebral texts, rather, the real provides the most concrete of tests to poststructuralists, a challenge engaged in depth here.

Kristeva’s anxiety is pronounced in an interview with Alexia Defert. She is cautionary in defining interdisciplinarity and who may engage in this work, “One can not be an amateur, or decide one day ’Let’s be interdisciplinary’” (p. 6). She warns against the application of interdisciplinary policies from above, maintaining that researchers of disparate fields must establish complicities, learning how to “discuss both their competencies and the outcome of their interaction” (p. 6). She also warns against the institution of interdisciplinarity as a specialty in itself. She admonishes students to set aside theory to experience art. “Theoretical research is important but remains preparatory work which is insufficient if not tested by concrete experience” (p. 6). Her warnings rise from the uneasy state in which intertextual theory has left the university. Unable to repair modernist demarcations of the colleges, detractors discredit the proponents who seek to build montages from the shards. Foster is nervous as well, worrying about how institutions will use interdisciplinary arguments to meet budgets. “Do we really want departments of literature, art, art history, architecture, architectural theory and film to be absorbed into one monster field called Media Studies?” (p. 162) He worries that such institutions will bring a flatness to studying culture by creating a false egalitarianism.

Both Kristeva and Foster address the phenomena of contemporary abject and trauma studies represented in high and low art as a reaction to the instability of forms and ambivalence of meaning. Kristeva reads the outpouring of emotion, in regard to such events as the wide expression of sympathy to the death of Princess Diana and an emergence of spirituality in culture, as symptomatic of an anomic condition in society. Foster sees the artist’s use of the abject, horror, and pain to break the cloud of relativity and as a return to the formalist debate between virtual and actual environments. Foster insists such antics are reactive and miss the revolutionary potential of intertexuality, a potential “that should not be simply canceled in an avant-gardist gesture.” Instead, he sees the need for “models of both historical connection as well as historical rupture,” models that establish a terrain for a new reconciliation between consciousness and physicality. (p. 163-64)

For Kristeva, too, the original notion of interdisciplinary work was not intended to render meaning ambivalent, but rather to institute the practice of “polyvalence,” an understanding of human events from a collection of different angles. (p. 5) Foster explains that the backlash against postmodern theories stems in part from its reductive definition as antimodernism, rather than a means to address the failure of abstract codes, stereotypes, and outworn motifs. The editors, sensing the debilitating effect such reactions have for the future of interdisciplinary work, opt in this time of anxiety and crisis for a dose of restoration and renewal. The reprint of Krauss’s 1977 essay, “Death of the Hermeneutic Phantom: Materialisation of the Sign in the Work of Peter Eisenman,” serves to trace the interplay of architecture and theory in her and Eisenman’s parallel trip from formalism to postmodernism.

Whereas modernism represented a move from the conceived idea to the perceived object or, in Krauss’s terms, from transparency to opacity, the application of linguistic models to architecture, in this case structuralism, exposed the essentializing function of formalism as ideational. Krauss compares Eisenman’s early use of nonsupporting columns to Saussure’s example of the phonetic diversity of the letter “P,” and Robert Morris’s massive L-shaped sculptures. Each, she explains, utilizes structuralist procedure to disperse modernist unities into fields of difference. Like Foster, she understands postmodernism not as a reaction against modernism, not as an elevation of perception above conception, but rather as a recognition of the inextricable nature of the sign within the system of signs. “Eisenman’s ambition,” she writes, “is to articulate the system of differences through which architecture functions as language.” (p. 52)

In a somewhat less successful essay, Timothy Martin attempts to show the architectural experiments of Robert Smithson as object lessons for Lacanian psychoanalysis. For Martin, the optical illusions of Smithson’s mirrored “Enantiomorphic Chambers” destroys the Cartesian ego by splitting the viewer’s gaze into a myriad of pieces. “From this split, Smithson wanted to draw attention to the mechanism through which the subject could enter the realm of desire. . . .” (p. 102) Martin contends the unified ego is exposed as false by Smithson’s sculpture, but can Lacan’s infant “mirror stage” be dissolved by odd angled mirrors? Martin also relates Smithson’s 1972 lecture, “The Hotel Palenque and De-architecturisation,” in which Smithson compares the Mexican landscape to a dangerously violent subconscious. Speaking on the hotel, Smithson writes that “the logic of the place is just impossible to fathom” (p. 109). In this Martin derives entropy, the unconscious, and the Lacanian “Other.” Perhaps Edward Said’s conception of the “exoticized Other” would be more appropriate here.

In a better example of interdisciplinary work, Louis Martin’s essay titled “Interdisciplinary Transpositions: Bernard Tschumi’s Architectural Theory” explains how one might integrate emancipatory theory and architectural practice. Tschumi, profoundly affected by the May 1968 revolts, fell in love with the “heterogeneity of the city: not only did it essentially define urbanity, it also provided the necessary conditions for the emergence of spontaneous uprisings” (p. 62). But his propensity for revolution and maintaining a constant state of becoming ran contrary to ideas of architecture. The paradox was due to “the impossibility of both questioning the nature of space and, at the same time, experiencing a spatial praxis’” (p. 70). For Tschumi this paradox lead to the self-annihilation of architecture. In his manifesto “Fireworks,” he insists structures are built to be destroyed. From his awareness of this paradox, a third element was brought into the formalist movement from idea to object, that of peoples. (p. 71) Whereas, for theorists such as Bataille, architecture was always a symbol of reason, Tschumi saw it as the supreme erotic object.

The effect of the convergence of Tschumi’s three components, idea, object, peoples, are seen in Höfer’s photographs of communal spaces. Each documents possibilities of arrangements, betraying diverse social organizations with quite similar materials. This conception of architecture as an object of pleasure and play is captured as well in Colomina’s essay on Ray and Charles Eames. “For them, architecture was the ongoing theatrical spectacle of everyday life. . . .” (p. 119) It was a game of restrictions demanding the selfless creativity of a child to utilize interchangeable forms and transposition in order to redefine relationships between ideas, objects, and people. Colomina tells of the Eames’s use of photomontages as blueprints and their use of experimental films as means of reconceptualizing the house as a collection of images.

Also meeting anxiety with play is the photo essay by Caygill. In an effort to see the city as an open and unfinished environment, he conducts a dérive in Naples, aping Walter Benjamin’s flaneur with disposable camera as he retraces Benjamin’s and Asja Lacis’s tour through “The City To Die For” or was it “To Die From?”

Either way, it seems anxiety, like interdisciplinarity, is here to stay. The critical methodologies explored within this volume are experimental. By exchanging conceptual systems the writers assemble new strategies for understanding culture. When these assemblages work, the meaning of the cultural phenomena being studied grows deeper in complexity and clarity. When interdisciplinarity fails, science and the pursuit of knowledge are undermined. There is a risk associated with opening up disciplines to knowledge from other fields. Sciences may either become diluted or react dynamically to the combinations of ideas. It’s all in the chemistry and specifics of how the work is done. It is important at this stage to continue debate on the poetics of interdisciplinarity, by tracing multidisciplinary trajectories and refining newer conceptual frameworks. The editors should be applauded for the collection of materials and presentation of problems here. The Anxiety of Interdisciplinarity, is a welcome report card on this unfinished revolution in thought.

David Michalski
Visual Arts Library, School of Visual Arts