2017 Reading and 2018 Goals

One of my goals for the New Year is to be better about academic blogging in 2018. I should have plenty to blog about, as I get into my orals reading and continue carrying research for the dissertation.

Here is a list of some of the most interesting books I read in 2017, not in any particular order. Wild readings to say the least.

  1. William E. Wallace – Michelangelo at San Lorenzo: The Genius as Entrepreneur
  2.  Anthony Blunt – Borromini 
  3. Karsten Harries – The Bavarian Rococo Church
  4. Jürgen Habermas – Theory of Communicative Action, Vol. I
  5. Manfredo Tafuri – Architecture and Utopia: Design and Capitalist Development
  6. Angel Rama – La Ciudad Letrada
  7. Franco Moretti – The Bourgeois: Between History and Literature
  8. Keller Easterling – Organization Space
  9. Niklas Luhmann – Theory of Society, vol. I
  10. Manfredo Tafuri – Interpreting the Renaissance

The labyrinth called History

I am reading and slowly re-reading Tafuri’s works; currently Architecture and Utopia and The Sphere and the Labyrinth. My sense with Tafuri is that he has been largely ignored in the American academy, in Art History and in History departments, as well as in other departments where his suggestive, highly original, and very complex work should hypothetically be of interest. There are, however, a few scholars working to reassess Tafuri’s work, perhaps foremost among them Pier Vittorio Aureli, who among other things has written about the role of Fredric Jameson in framing Tafuri’s reception in the United States. Nonetheless, it seems to me that the work of systematically traversing Tafuri’s thought has just begun. Although I am just beginning a dissertation on discourses on space in Bogotá, Colombia, in the period between 1970 and the present, Tafuri has already largely informed my approach to the problem of architectural discourses as they relate to the city and capitalist expansion. I have the feeling that out of the current work, another long-term project, this one on Tafuri, is slowly emerging.

The introduction to The Sphere and the Labyrinth includes a fascinating theoretical discussion on the approach to historical work in general, and to architecture history in particular. Here Nietzsche and Foucault are clearly registered as thinkers of influence for Tafuri, though critique is levied against basic concepts underlying Foucault’s theoretical framework. (Which leads me to ask: is cultural critique in literature, cinema, art, and in similar fields, now approached in a performative manner, in which a schema is applied almost as an experimental framework in order to “yield knowledge,” regardless of the theoretical and philosophical cohesiveness of given framework? In current academic writing in the humanities it seems less and less likely to find a rigorous theoretical discussion that takes into account the philosophical grounding of basic concepts, preceding the work of analysis).

Tafuri adopts Foucault’s notion of genealogy, as counter to a notion of historical work as method for revealing an origin. Nor does historical work simply trace a linear dynamic. Each event registered by the historical analysand is encountered in its quality as rupture, as shift, as derailing of a perceived relation of cause and effect.

Yet Tafuri questions genealogy’s differentiation of history into an unbound plurality that devolves into a new set of idealities:

“The danger that menaces the genealogies of Foucault–the genealogies of madness, of the clinic, of punishment, of sexuality–as well as the disseminations of Derrida, lies in the reconsecration of the microscopically analyzed fragments as new units autonomous and significant in themselves” (Tafuri 5).

There can be no new synthesis at the level of basic elements:

“One could try endlessly to exorcize the uneasiness provoked by the perception of “epistemological breaks” by attempting to regain the innocence of archetypal symbols; the pyramid, the sphere, the circle, the ellipse, and the labyrinth could be installed as permanent structures of inexplicably changing forms, so that the archaeologist [in Foucault’s sense of the term] could placate his anxiety by recognizing “an eternal return of the same.”” (6)

As for the relationship between practices and discourse, Tafuri describes it as such:

“The “many languages” of the forms thus lead us to discover that the limit of the forms themselves does not contain monads casually floating in their “divine” self-transformation. The boundary line… is there to mark the points of impact that determine the interaction of signifying practices with power practices endowed with their own specific techniques.” (8)

But how to navigate the unacceptable poles of idealism and of an analysis of fragmentation that at another level is also based on censure, repression, negation? In other words, how to subvert the will to knowledge inherent in all discourse, including “critical discourse”? Here is the key passage of the introduction:

“As representation, history is also the fruit of a repression, of a negation. The problem is to make of that negation a determinate abstraction, to give a sense of direction to theoretical work. Not by chance does Marx employ abstraction for the analysis of political economy” (10)

In terms of a strategy and a goal, then, to put things in very instrumental terms, the discourse of the historian is an abstraction, but one that has effects on the real and that therefore calls for another level of reflection on the part of the historian: “Every analysis is therefore provisional. Every analysis seeks only to measure the effects that it sets into motion in order to change itself according to the intervening transformations” (12).

Two problems arise, as far as I am concerned, from these reflections.

On the one hand, it seems that Tafuri reconfigures a Marxist critique of political economy into a tool of discourse analysis in the mode of a genealogy, an amalgamation that seems unstable on the very surface of things.

Related to this, there is the problem of the normative ground for this historical method. Where Marx is brought into the discussion by Tafuri it seems that the underlying reason of application has to do with the notion that the division of labor wrought by capitalism is intricately related to the differentiation of discourses and techniques. Yet here Tafuri ties this differentiation between discourse and technique directly to the workings of Power. “Is not the distance that separates words from things–the divorce of the signifier from the signified–an instrument of differentiated techniques of domination?” (12)

Note the close association implied in the divorce between signifier and signified (a tool of power) and the division of labor as a form of abstraction (wrought by capital, a field of practice and discourse criscrossed by power relations).

Is there a concrete situation that would undo both abstract labor and the division of signifier and signified and return to practical life a concrete fit between values and practices at the level of social life? Or would such a utopian end-point only classify as one of the idealities that Tafuri figures as mythical (and ultimately abstract)?

But this raises the question: Historical work, which is incessantly reconfiguring itself based on its effect in this field of forms (of discourses and practices), measures the effectiveness of its influence, decides how to proceed based on reflection on that influence and its effects… how? What is the normative stance from which it proceeds? Which is the superordinating framework here: that of Marx, or that of Foucault?

To put things most simply: are we dealing here with formations of power, where power is the key term, or with capitalism as form of the relations of production that features its own dynamics of exploitation at the level of labor. Perhaps these are not conflicting stances, and they can indeed be fitted together. Is there a legitimate form of power?

Tafuri goes on:

“This means placing emphasis on the dialectic that in time comes to establish itself between concrete labor and abstract labor, in the Marxian meaning of both terms. In this way, the history of architecture can be read on the basis of historiographical parameters that are relative to both the vicissitudes of intellectual labor and to the development of the modes and relations of production'” (14).

Marxist ideological analysis seems in the end to be the predominating framework. Yet this would mean the positing of that utopian end-point in which a crystal-clear society realigns to an extent signifier and signified, use value and labor, at the level of concrete social practices. Does not the amalgamation of Foucault and Marx campaign agains this? Put another way: does not Tafuri’s attention, framed in Foucault’s terms, to the flux of languages and practices (forms) also preclude this possibility?

The theoretical framework applied here remains in a state of tension, which I think requires further analysis.





On Scholarly Research

One of the difficulties of doing a Ph.D. in an American university, even in an elite institution, is the disconnect between the advisor relation and instruction on methodology. Despite the fact that I have excellent advisors, they hardly have the time to delve with me into methodology as it relates to historical tasks, i.e. the political tasks of research and theory. I have had to seek instruction on these matters in other places: in books. The academy, it seems to me, is increasingly becoming a place where scholarly “performances” which disconnect methodology from a theoretical and political intent or grounding, are increasingly in vogue.

I am currently reading the late Manfredo Tafuri’s The Sphere and the Labyrinth, a complex and evocative work by a great historian of architecture. The introduction is a masterful and polemical meditation on the nature of historical research. It seems to me at the very least symptomatic that this is the sort of writing I rarely came across during my courses for the doctorate: courses that were taken in literature and art history departments. Now that I have begun the dissertation, passages such as the following by Carlo Ginzburg and Adriano Prosperi, quoted at the beginning of Tafuri’s introduction, are providing much grist for the mill:

There comes a moment (though not always) in research when all the pieces begin to fall into place, as in a jig-saw puzzle. But unlike the jig-saw puzzle, where all the pieces are near at hand and only one figure can be assembled (and thus the correctness of each move be determined immediately), in research only some of the pieces are available, and theoretically more than one figure can be made from them. In fact, there is always the risk of using, more or less consciously, the pieces of the jig-saw puzzle as blocks in a construction game. For this reason, the fact that everything falls into place is an ambiguous sign: either one is completely right or completely wrong. When wrong, we mistake for objective verification the selection and solicitation (more or less deliberate) of the evidence, which is forced to confirm the presuppositions (more or less explicit) of the research itself. The dog thinks it is biting the bone and is instead biting its own tail.

Carlo Ginzburg and Adriano Prosperi, Giochi di pazienza: Un seminario sul “Beneficio di Cristo”, in Manfredo Tafuri, The Sphere and the Labyrinth, MIT Press, 1980.

Discourses on Space in Bogotá: Update 1

The second year of my Ph.D. is wrapping up, and it has been a busy one. I have not had much time to update this blog, and in fact have severely neglected it, but I am looking forward to offering more regular posts on my research now that I am finished with coursework and already setting the groundwork for a dissertation project.

My current objects of analysis are the urbanism discourses of the current mayor of Bogotá, Enrique Peñalosa, and the prominent Colombian architect Rogelio Salmona. In the past few months I have honed my attention more closely on the analysis of these discourses on the city, which correspond and diverge in interesting ways. What interests me about Peñalosa’s discourse, and the discourse of cultura ciudadana more widely, is its privileging of the notion of the public and the centrality that design and culture play in mobilizing this vision of the public. The use by Cultura ciudadana (and vice versa) of the work of perhaps the architect that has had the most influence in shaping the material space of Bogotá (Salmona), is a phenomenon I find worth considering for its implications relating to the utility of art and design within current development ideologies, particularly those whose object of management is the city in Latin America.

The lines of investigation I am following for the moment include continued reading about cultura ciudadana, continued analysis of its discourses, as well as more engagement with secondary literature on the subject. Luckily, Stanford university has a good collection of material relating to cultura ciudadana.

I am faced with the need to also delve into work relating to the POT (Plan de Organización Territorial), an important administrative instrument developed in Bogotá to manage the growth, development, and management of the city. I need to understand the development of this instrument from a historical perspective and in terms of its current status: what institutional and political preconditions allowed for its development; what political, administrative, civil, or society actors pushed for its creation or had a stake in it; what are its main institutional outlines in terms of structure and function; what elements of the POT come together to forge something akin to a discourse on the space of the city that remain relevant for my overall project?

On the other hand, initial work on Salmona leads me to suspect that he has received little by way of critical scholarship, though this is only an initial conjecture which has yet to be verified. Stanford holds only two taschen-style presentation volumes on his work, both by Ricardo Castro. I have read the first one, essentially a hagiography. I am looking forward to reading the second one soon. Archives on Salmona are in Bogotá and Paris. A trip to take a more careful look at these will probably be warranted soon.

The state  of architecture in general in Colombia is of interest to me even as a sort of oblique indicator of certain trends in the city. The state of Salmona as a sort of García Marquez of Colombian architecture; the analogies between his figure and the generation of Latin American architects he belonged to and the Latin American literary Boom; to me these two factors beg inquiry into the ideological nature of Salmona’s lettered molding of Bogotá, as part of an overall development of the city. Trips to Bogotá are also more in urgency with this in mind, as I look to take a closer look at Salmona’s works, writings, and also at the works of lesser known Colombian architects who might be following different lines of thought on the city.




New book on politics of security in Bogotá, Colombia

Austin Zeiderman, Endangered City: The Politics of Security and Risk in Bogotá, Duke University Press, 2016, 290 pp., $26 (paper) $95 (cloth), ISBN 9780822361626 On the night of May 27, 2016 the recently-positioned mayor of Bogotá, Enrique Peñalosa, gave the order to evict 3,000 homeless men, women, and children from El Bronx, a cluster…


The Vertigo of Power: A Review of Stephen Graham’s “Vertical: The City from Satellites to Bunkers”

A review of what sounds like a must-read

Deterritorial Investigations


In his 1991 tome on postmodernism, Frederic Jameson famously suggested that under “late capitalism” – that is, the kind of globalized, flexible capitalism that tore past the limit points imposed by earlier stages of development – we’ve lost the ability to properly deploy ‘cognitive’ maps of our environment, thus producing a disorienting effect in which what was once familiar becomes unrecognizable. Jameson’s insight was drawn from the work of Kevin Lynch, the MIT-based urban planner and author of The Image of the City, who had suggested that people’s relation to their urban environments relied on imaginary representations to properly orient them; the city, then holds a psychological dimension wedded to the repeated movement of individuals through the spaces they live in. Radically alter that space – or set off a cascade of seemingly never-ending modulations – and the ability to tap into that imaginary representation begins to decay. Jameson…

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The Roots of the FARC

An excellent historical context for understanding the rise of the FARC. The Roots of the FARC

Also for getting a sense of the extent to which the rise of guerrilla groups in Colombia (FARC, ELN) in the middle of the last century is related to the trenchant conservatism of its elites, with their historically steadfast resolve in countering any sort of social or agrarian reform or opening of the political system. Also for understanding how the NO vote against the peace deal with the FARC is still connected to questions of land ownership in the countryside. For anyone interested in further understanding the context for the rise of the FARC, I recommend the excellent book by historian Herbert Braun: “The Assasination of Gaitán: Public Life and Urban Violence in Colombia”.

Current Research – Bogotá


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My current pre-dissertation research focuses on Bogotá mayor Enrique Peñalosa’s current Development Plan. Here is a link to the plan itself:


Enrique Peñalosa served as mayor of Bogotá from 1998 to 2001, and was reelected in 2015 to serve the 2016 – 2019 term. His first tenure was characterized by an emphasis on public works projects which are often seen as building upon and expanding the political project of his predecesor, Antanas Mockus. Generally, Mockus and Peñalosa are viewed as independent politicians (Mockus, for example, was a university administrator before becoming mayor) not beholden to the status quo. In terms of their policies, Mockus’s political project has been seen as focusing on building up civic values through the use of didactic methods, while Peñalosa’s has been understood as expanding public space through the construction of schools, libraries, new forms of public transportation, etc. The emphasis given by these politicians (and by other Latin America mayors, such as Sergio Fajardo in Medellín) to urban planning as a tool of governance, has made them worldwide referents for urban development.

The current Development Plan is an ambitious effort to reorganize Bogotá institutionally and territorially, and as such will have long term consequences for the development of the city. The plan, as laid in the above linked document, details a complex program for directing the development of the city in accord with an envisioned urban form and functionality. This vision of the city in turn reflects an explicit notion of urban space as it is constituted and is constitutive of the economic and civic practices of individuals, and as such reflects and seeks to produce a specific form of community.

In further posts I will seek to systematically lay out and analyze some of the main elements of this development plan: its concrete proposals at the level of institutional reform, territorial development, and public policy, as these relate to stated aims and tactics of producing a given citizen and political community.

My analysis will center on the Development Plan’s given representation of space, and how this representation in turn relates to existing representational spaces and spatial practices. In short, I will be analyzing Peñalosa’s Development Plan and public policies from the perspective of an analysis of the production of space, as characterized by a given arrangement of the forces of production and of the social relations of production, not only in the context of Colombian society but in the context of globalized capitalism. Apart from this overall intent of analysis, some of the questions which I will attempt to answer are:

From the perspective of the production of space in the context of globalized capitalism,

What sort of vision of the citizen does Peñalosa’s development plan envision?

What sort of normative framework, and thus what sort of community?

How are the economic and political realms partitioned or unified within this community?

What role does labor play within this vision? What role does leisure and art play?

What function and partition is assigned to functional spaces (housing, commerce, industry, leisure, transit), and to the public and private realms?

What utopian vision of the city is at play here?

How does this vision relate to the development of capitalism?

How does it relate to the political project of neoliberalism?

What sort of contradictions are present? How might they point to ruptures  or new developments in society?



New issue from The Funambulist Magazine

After the first year of existence of The Funambulist Magazine that examined the politics of militarized cities, the suburbs, clothing, prisons, structurally racist designs, and objects, I am delighted to begin this second year with an issue dedicated to health-related political struggles. This 7th issue opens with a new recurrent section entitled “Political Walks” that asks…

via The Funambulist Magazine 07 Health Struggles Is Now Published — THE FUNAMBULIST MAGAZINE