Methodological Notes (3)

Amendment to the research structure: the method of presentation of contents

After going through an internal discussion on the suitability of the current research structure to some methodological and practical considerations I concluded the following: that it is not advisable to proceed according to the path taken by Marxian dialectics in Capital. I do think that the method is right, but it has to be considered that the overall plan outlined by Marx was huge, and the same could be said of his preparatory notes. On this matter, David Harvey points out that ‘[I]t’s crucial to understand the he is constructing an argument on the basis of an already determined conclusion’.[1] I thought that to ‘begin from the beginning’ I needed to start the whole analysis from scratch, and in that way work through it from the general to the particular, from the concrete totality to its abstract defining elements. Then the conclusion or synthesis would consist in reconstructing this totality in its movement. In attempting to avoid too extensive work I ended up outlining something apparently even more extensive.

In his section on the method of political economy, Marx makes some really important remarks about how his method will avoid the mistakes of classical political economy, namely, its drive to rely on reductionist abstractions.

It would seem to be the proper thing to start with the real and concrete elements, with the actual preconditions, e.g., to start in the sphere of economy with population, which forms the basis and the subject of the whole social process of production. Closer consideration shows, however, that this is wrong (…) If one were to take population as the point of departure, it would be a very vague notion of a complex whole and through closer definition one would arrive analytically at increasingly simple concepts (…). From there it would be necessary to make the journey again in the opposite direction until one arrived once more at the concept of population, which is this time not a vague notion of a whole, but a totality comprising many determinations and relations. The first course is the historical one taken by political economy at its inception.[2]

Marx understood that although historical materialism starts from the premise that the material relations between human beings are the basis of all life and knowledge, the latter has to necessarily start the other way around –i.e. knowledge has to proceed from ideal abstract concepts up to the reconstruction of the concrete totality under consideration now under the form of a complex conceptual totality.

The concrete concept [e.g. living organism, population, nation, state, world market] is concrete because it is a synthesis of many definitions, thus representing the unity of diverse aspects. It appears therefore in reasoning as a summing-up, a result, and not as the starting point, although it is the real point of origin, and thus also the point of origin of perception and imagination.[3]

The dialectical relation between the abstract and the concrete, the universal and the particular, can thus be defined in the following manner: the abstract cannot exist without the concrete and vice versa, they are mutually exclusive yet dependant on each other. The universal corresponds to what remains constant in the relation between concrete things. Marx argues that advancing from the concrete to the abstract can only succeed on the first instance but it is not sufficient.

The first procedure attenuates meaningful images to abstract definitions, the second leads from abstract definitions by way of reasoning to the reproduction of the concrete situation (…) the method of advancing from the abstract to the concrete is simply the way in which thinking assimilates the concrete and reproduces it as a concrete mental category. This is, however, by no means the process of evolution of the concrete world itself.[4]

Taking Marx’s insights into consideration and thinking about the main categories with which I was working, I realized that most of the analysis was in a sense already done, perhaps not in a formal way, but the elemental categories seemed to be already operating: nature, active and passive body, labour, object, thing, the act, extension, magnitude, wall, space, production, value, use, exchange, property, capital, the political, ideology, and so on and so forth. These elements could eventually explain how architecture relates to the human body and its movement, how it relates to human labour, to social relations, what is its relation to nature and society, what is its role in the capitalist mode of production, and how to relate the growth of capital to the production of certain types of architecture that encourage or challenge the accumulation process. Therefore, the resolution is to begin with the fundamental irreducible elements over which will arise progressively the totality of the object of study, and not from a general overview, empirical surface or concrete appearance.

 About the general structure of the research

The title of this thesis can be understood in two ways according to the terms used: the first term, emancipatory, is a claim to the search for alternatives to the current state of affairs in bourgeois society. It is clearly a political statement insofar as it presupposes the failure of the attempts to advocate the eternal naturalness of capitalism, hence its inevitability.[5] The second term, horizons, has more architectural implications, for what is a horizon, both philosophically and architecturally? It is the frontier between the perceptible and the imperceptible, the visible and the invisible, but also between the possible and the impossible.

Emancipation is a loaded word, therefore its meaning is not self-evident and is strongly dependant on its historical background. However, for this thesis, emancipation will designate the opposite of domination. Only what is identified as dominated, as oppressed or subjugated, can be said to have the potential for emancipation. On the other hand, the concept of horizon has at the same time perceptual, philosophical, and political implications. The distance of the horizon is determined by how far our sight can reach in relation to its height above the ground. It is the three dimensional boundary that encloses our body and determines the reach of our sensory apparatus. If we talk about a historical horizon, then we are designating what are the limits of our current situation and, simultaneously, what are its future possibilities.

It seems that there is one concept in which these two term can converge: that of utopia. Also a highly charged notion, the possibility of the utopian seems to have been eclipsed from both, our historical and political imagination and our everyday life experience. Wouldn’t be more accurate to rename this thesis as utopian horizons? Perhaps, but we have to bear in mind that not only has utopian thinking been dismissed after the end of the cold war, but also has come to designate a very different kind of utopia, one that we could call ironically a realist utopia, the utopia of free market society. But this last utopia often looks more like a dystopia, in that it compels us to foresee an ever worst kind of future than the present we have. David Harvey summarizes this contradiction in his book Spaces of Hope:

The broad rejection of utopianism over the past two decades or so should be understood as a collapse of specific utopian forms, both East and West. Communism has been broadly discredited as a utopian project and now neoliberalism is increasingly seen as a utopian project that cannot succeed (…) So, should we just let the whole idea of utopianism of any sort die an unmourned death? (…) There is a time and place in the ceaseless human endeavour to change the world, when alternative visions, no matter how fantastic, provide the grist for shaping powerful political forces for change. I believe that we are precisely at such a moment. Utopian dreams in any case never entirely fade away.[6]

If we want to keep alive utopian thinking, understood not as unreal or unpractical, but rather as emancipatory and radical, we have to submit our existing society to a radical critique, and a radical critique can only succeed if we use a radical theory to pursue it. Thus, every attempt at emancipation from the different forms of domination capitalism has subjected us, has to begin first with an emancipation of thinking. In The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels argued for the emancipatory potential of the working class precisely because they saw it as the primary oppressed class and furthermore the class which directly produce all the wealth in capitalist society.[7]

Emancipatory horizons means that architecture is inherently driven by the desire to imagine possible worlds, be this particular or universal, concrete or imaginaries. The concept of project and projection exemplifies this perfectly. To project is to throw ahead, to imagine the not-yet-real. We cannot fail to avoid the utopian dimension of architecture, its unique capacity for envisioning a reality not yet achieved. In this sense, architecture is inherently utopian, but not necessarily emancipatory. Why not revolutionary architecture then? Because that term implies not a thing, but a process which is by definition transient, and also entails the notion that architecture could be in itself a revolutionary force, which as we will see is far from accurate. Unlike the catch-word revolutionary, to believe that an emancipatory horizon can orient the production of architecture towards the challenging of capitalism rather than its reproduction, means above all that architecture can have some role to play in the struggle of human beings for the control over their lives, for their emancipation from a system in which abstract and impersonal forces determine the course of history, regardless social, political, and environmental impacts.

That being said about the title, let us turn into the general structure of the thesis. The structure is composed by three main parts plus a preface and conclusions. Both the totality and the component parts are organized though the dialectical method of presentation of the argument, starting from elemental theoretical concepts up to more complex and historical issues deriving from these basic categories. These three parts have a distinct function within the thesis, the first deploys mainly a theoretical argument, the second is mostly historically concrete, and the third is a synthesis of both. Let’s review them in more detail, including the preface and conclusion (the number of words is suggested only):

Preface (5% = 3.000 words = 5 pages approx.): The introduction to the thesis, comprising an overview of it, but also a description of how it came into being and insights about the method of inquiry and presentation. It will begin by asking what are the possibilities for an emancipatory architectural practice, under the current form of capitalism. Then, I will give an overview of the limits that capitalist accumulation imposes over architecture and architects, and the roles that they have assumed with respect to these processes. Lastly I will suggest a glimpse on the potential conclusion, arguing for the concept of autonomy within the discipline and its practice.

Part I: The Architecture of Capital (30% = 18.000 words = 30 pages approx.): This part deals with both the fundamentals of architecture and of capitalism, seeking to unravel its structural relation starting from its basic defining concepts. Although this research is not about architecture or capitalism in general, it is argued that in order to give a satisfactory answer to the question of the possibility of emancipation through architecture, one has to understand the nature of both, capital and architecture, together with their inner connections and underlying contradictions. To do that it will be necessary to put into relation the theories that best have analysed these phenomena, and that sought to construct a unitary theory. This merging of distinct theories will set up the necessary foundation for the concrete historical analysis of the second part.

Part II: The Production of Architecture under Late Capitalism (40% = 24.000 words = 40 pages approx.): In this section, the argument will be mainly historical, taking concrete examples in which architecture has been thought from the perspective of revolution whether aesthetic, social, or political. Three historical moments are seen as the more representative: 1) the neoclassical architecture of the enlightenment period around mid eighteenth century, underpinned by the French Revolution, and the dawn of liberal-bourgeois society and industrial capitalism; 2) the constructivist architecture of the Russian Revolution; 3) the radical architectural utopias of the 1960s. As the main concern is with the period starting after the Second World War, known as late capitalism,[8] the emphasis will be placed on the third moment. It will be argued that the late 1960s were the crucial decade were postmodern architecture was forged and as such established a new relation with capitalism whose basic features have more or less remained after the years went by. This was the moment were the decline of architecture’s horizons begun. The main task in the last chapters will be to perform a radical historical-materialist critique of contemporary architecture and determine the key economical, social, and ideological factors that led into the current state of architecture where the possibility of an emancipatory practice seems apparently exhausted.

Part III: An Emancipatory Architecture? (20% = 12.000 words = 20 pages approx.): This part is presented as a question for two reasons: the first is that it implies a relation with the kind of reality in which we inhabit, namely global capitalism, in which challenging the system is almost automatically dismissed as utopian or ideological endeavours destined to failure. The second, on the contrary, leaves the question open as a kind of invitation, but also warns us about the idealism implied in it: can there be an emancipatory architecture in itself? Or perhaps architecture can play a role in a broad emancipatory project? It will first be discuss the limits of architecture under the laws of capital, which means a close look at why architects think and act the way they do, and how contributes to a kind of spatial transformation that merely reproduce existing conditions, namely the city, rather than its resistance or transformation. Secondly, it will take the opposite perspective of the concrete relation between a particular work of architecture and revolutionary social change. Can architecture play a role in social transformation? What would be this role and how it would be played out? And third, can architecture, with its own methods and possibilities, effectively challenge capitalism? Can a work of architecture, for example, be designed to act as a potential blockage to capital flows through the various networks of the city?

Conclusions (5% = 3.000 words = 5 pages approx.): A restatement and summary of the main findings and theses of each part. Conclusions will assess the validity of the proposed theses and also will recognise its limitations, thus encouraging further investigations. Questions about the meaning of program in architecture, understood as a set of fundamental rules that guide both theory and praxis will be discussed as a potential next step to follow.

As has been shown, this outline overall structure is composed around the triad theory-history-praxis, their inner contradictions and dialectical unity. The proposed path for the development of the arguments will be also according to this (dialectical) line of thought. Part one starts with the contradiction between nature and man and ends up with the social struggle for the production of architecture as the only way to overcome this contradiction. The second part begins with the contradiction between liberal emancipation and socialist emancipation, and closes with an emancipated practice of architecture as the only possibility to overcome our current predicaments. The last part initiates with the contradiction between reproduction and transformation, and finishes with an outline of an emancipated practice of architecture in which the work itself would be both a vehicle and a device for the resistance and the eventual emancipation from capitalism. The macro antagonism between theory and praxis will take the particular form of the contradiction between the process of architectural design and the socio-political program on which it is based.


[1] Harvey, David. A Companion to Marx’s Capital. London, Verso, 2010.

[2] Marx, Karl. A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Moscow, Progress Publishers, 1859. Accessed December 10, 2011. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/Marx_Contribution_to_the_Critique_of_Political_Economy.pdf. p. 122

[3] Ibid., p. 122

[4] Ibid., p. 122-123

[5] See: Fisher, Mark. Capitalist Realism. Is there no alternative?. Winchester, O Books, 2009.

[6] Harvey, David. Spaces of Hope. Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2000. p. 195-196

[7] Marx, Karl; Engels, Friedrich. Manifesto of the Communist Party. In: Marx/Engels Selected Works, Vol. One, Moscow, Progress Publishers, 1969. Accessed December 10, 2011. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/pdf/Manifesto.pdf

[8] See: Mandel, Ernest. Late Capitalism. Thetford, Norfolk, New Left Review, 1975.


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About patriciodestefani

My main focus is on the role of architecture within capitalist society and the search for a radical alternative practice. https://artificialorder.wordpress.com/
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