Andrew Pendakis ponders buildings-in-the-making in the urban spaces of China.
… children are particularly fond of haunting any site where things are being visibly worked upon. They are irresistibly drawn by the detritus generated by building…
China is among the first economies in history to undergo full-scale industrialisation after postmodernity. What this means is that the industrialisation that has taken place in China since the Gaige Kaifeng (the opening begun by Deng Xiaoping in 1978) has taken place within the subsumption of what was once called ‘experience’ by the post-industrial image. This is not, of course, to say that China was pre-industrial in 1978, only that there are qualitative distinctions to be drawn between capitalist and communist industrialisation (a difference in phenomenological tone, quality and speed). What does it mean to witness whole cities emerge seemingly overnight; to encounter villages dramatically displaced; immense geological formations altered, amidst the complete saturation of lived experience by the light of the smartphone? Even the poorest urban worker in Shanghai can be seen watching films on their cellphone in the dark; those too poor to afford an apartment – sleeping instead on cots set up amidst the fruit or spare parts they sell – are fully integrated into the simultaneity and fractal spatial logics of the web. If modernity is often conceptualised as the era of production, and postmodernity roughly commensurate with that of consumption, it bears reflecting on the strange, inverted semiological loops produced by a reality that seems to be scumbling these times and placing them into odd new proximities and overlap. What echo, then, do tools, scaffolds, laboring bodies – the whole anachronistic clamor of construction – have in a life-world organised under the imprimatur of the selfie?
In this article I want to reflect on some of the antinomies of postmodern industrialism by looking sideways at the politico-aesthetics of construction in China. Buildings in process are enormous open-air factories; as such they are accessible to the gaze and to a social dialectics usually pre-empted by the remoteness and secrecy of the contemporary factory system. The construction site then is an interestingly exposed node of capitalist (re)production: it happens on the edge of mundane experience, in full view of the lived, forcing into contact processes of production and consumption, the separation of which is the very condition of possibility of the postmodern economy. The building in process is a swarming, temporary factory which verticalises itself until completion after which it sews itself up, cauterises its surface and promptly represses any memory of its construction. It becomes a space of (or for) consumption, a space of commerce, a domicile, etc. This is an old story: something in the sutured quality of the structure abolishes the traces of its existence as process: it comes to appear as a result that is at the same time an absolute origin, a self-sustaining, autotelic entity, that though not properly speaking ‘natural’, can still not in any way be seen as the effect of labour or work. Hegel, Marx, Lukacs and Debord, of course, are the great poets of this suturing and have provided us with a now very familiar vocabulary – that of reification – with which to think and describe it.
One of the organising conceits of attempts to think the specificity of the modern (but also the postmodern) is the contention that our moment is uniquely disoriented or confused: speed, intensified connection, and constant change leave us jittery and displaced on the level of the atom. There is another angle, however, from which one could affirm a directly opposed thesis: the kind of lifestyle that has come to be known under the signal ‘America’ is not simply perpetual displacement, but always and at the same instant a preternatural peace, a beatitude or comfort that seems to arrive from another time or age, or perhaps is better understood as timelessness itself: the pleasure of a time without time, or of a time that ticks in the direction of something always already known in advance. This is the time (space) famously measured out in coffeespoons by Eliot. Capitalism, then, is counter-intuitively the inverted realisation of every prior Platonism: it reaches Platonic identity, the inherent fitness (or Goodness) of things, not via the intense to and fro of philosophy, but by the rhythmic circulation of commodities. Capitalism is a world in which the tranquility of an older idealist truth, the comfort of what Deleuze called the ‘model’, is no longer outside the domain of appearances but entirely commensurate with them: sophia does not arrive at the end of a process of collection and division, but exists complete and dead within the object, no matter how evanescent or disposable. Heaven as imagined by Christian eschatology was always the end of the story: the biblical tradition has little to say about events after the Parousia. Heaven, in other words, is the beginning of an end that is eternal. Something in the phenomenology of postwar abundance echoes this metaphysics of final peace. This is no less the case during an era in which this model has entered into permanent crisis. If the factory was frequently intuited as the opposite of heaven – recall Blake’s ‘satanic mills’–-how does the Satanism of industrial construction intersect with the frozen temporalities of the digital city? What are the echoes or ripples introduced into urban spectacle by the sudden appearance in its midst of an enormous vertical factory, complete with tableau vivants from modes of labour long past, as well as sounds of pain and exertion, of destruction and making, wholly incompatible with the affective tone of frictionless capitalism (the eerie silence of the earphoned)?
Fabric, Wraps, Mass: Logics of the Shroud
Practically any window in China opens onto the view of a building in the process of being completed. There is a particular motif proper to China at work here: unwalled floors and bare concrete girders are wrapped tightly in a green gauze-like substance that encloses the exposed structure of the building like the skin of a tent. Held in place by scaffolding, this gauze is taut, partially translucent, and prone at points to rips and tears. These shrouds, of course, are solutions to the basic problem of contagion: they prevent the dust and toxins of construction from escaping into the street even as they impede curious sight lines from gaining access to the always controversial (and dangerous) site of production. It would be difficult to exaggerate the ubiquity of this substance: it is an elemental piece of the mise-en-scene of the contemporary Chinese city, a key factor in its dominant spatial tone.
There is a particular visual pleasure, a distinct obsessional quality to these objects. They attract the drives. It is as if the visual logic of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s wrapped buildings had been loaded into the very operating principles of the Chinese city; its effects are no longer an aesthetic exception, but a governing infrastructural rule. It would be difficult to identify a moment in the history of cities in which the tonal archai of an urban space were saturated to this degree by the sheer presence to the eye of raw fabric. Only the modern revolution – always, of course, at the same instant a revolution in color, an explosion of new fabrics and flags, even the metamorphosis, often almost overnight, of local fashions – can perhaps rival the scale of today’s omnipresent Chinese shrouds. In the case of the revolution fabric is not only politically expedient – logic disguised as colour, a fast universalisation of the new – but also a dramatic way of demonstrating in a flash a basic (Deleuzo-Marxist) truth: that things can be otherwise. Fabric in such moments is the opposite of stone, the opposite of structure: it is a here and a now waved in emphatic defiance of a there and a cannot. The flag enchants in such moments, not only as an effect of whatever sad national bauble should happen to flap at its center, but because undulation itself, the wicked flapping and motion of the fabric, makes visible the transformative thematics of wind, a knowledge born of all things free-flowing and unchecked. How then does mass fabric, fabric on such a scale, work in the context of the consumerist Chinese city?
On one hand, wrapped volume on this scale is first and foremost an encounter not with the building itself, but with an abstracted formal rendering of it. One oddly only comes to see the structure of a building – its outline, its size – when it is obscured in this way; a precisely analogous effect takes place around a tightly clothed human body and is in fact why the latter naked is so often experienced as a vague kind of sadness. The naked body collapses into genericity by losing the distinctness provided by relief. Silhouettes, then, allure via exaggeration, via a kind of excessive reduction, but this lie captures something essential about the conatus of Things, about the energy exerted by an entity in its effort to maintain its difference from everything it is not. Wrapping transforms the object’s bewildering texture and complexity into pure Cartesian extension. Bare three-dimensionality is accentuated at the expense of qualitative multiplicity. Seemingly derivative and insubstantial ‘secondary qualities’ are here dispensed with to make way for an experience of the generic thereness of a Thing; in this there is a bizarrely classical philosophical gesture, the buzz of the many, of the particular, of the senses, replaced with the sudden appearance to the eye of pure knowledge, a radiance of line, shape, and form. In other words, wrapping something is the spatial equivalent of math, a kind of counting: it momentarily withdraws the thing counted from the smudged colour and light of impressionist space and gives it over to a strange monadic liberty. Though the veil has often been pressed into the service of a whole series of emphatic irrationalisms – think, for example, of Magritte’s ‘Lovers’ – it here seems to work in the direction of intelligibility, a strong Cartesian clarity and distinctness.
Wrapping is at the same instant the paradox of something made bigger via compression and concealment. This is in part because the object ceases to have an interior: it suddenly dilates to fill entirely the volume of its own space: it becomes unfathomably heavy even as it stretches out to the very limits of its own extension. Locke’s insistence on solidity as a property of body here replaces the Cartesian identification of extension with mere three-dimensionality. It is as if everything tightly wrapped were immediately transformed into stone. Why is the wrapped structure ‘bigger’ than its unwrapped counterpart? It would be easy to reply with some variation on the cliché that knowledge is smaller than ignorance. What the shroud packages in this sense is nothingness itself: it is this packaging of the negative that transforms mere utility into a black box of anxiety and expectation. In the case of the wrapped Chinese building, however, concealment is never complete; the veil remains translucent and perforated, less a perfect screen than a colored lens. Dimly visible through the structure are the moving bodies of workers, bursts light from welder’s irons, the silhouettes of wheelbarrows, etc. Under such conditions, such shrouded structures do not trigger anxiety, nor a sense of pure weight, but rather seem to draw attention to a surface that is more than the simple ‘outline’ of the building. A better answer to this question of intensified mass has to do, then, with the modern semiotics of fabric itself and its difference from concrete, perhaps the substance of industrial modernity par excellence.
Concrete, today, strikes us as a substance without limit: though its final form is solid, phenomenologically ‘unbreakable’, it retains a sense of original plasticity and a proximity to pure Aristotelian hyle. Plastic too has this connotation of modal infinity, but one de-linked from the co-ordinates of the primordial; concrete in contrast takes place as a substance at the outer edges of culture, it seems to arrive from a natural chemistry of earth, rain and heat. In other words, concrete has about it the original spontaneity of mud. It is on this basis that the sight of an enormous concrete object is for us moderns quintessentially banal: the improbability of its scale is somehow contradicted by the seeming naturalness of its substance, with nature here a synonym for the common, the barely noticed. In a thought which teaches us a great deal about our moment’s structuring politico-economic imaginary we conclude that nothing this common, this omnipresent, could possibly harbor value. In capitalist societies concrete is almost as ‘cheap’ as water and air.
But this is not the case with fabric, which strikes us still as determinate and rare, the bearer of a resilient (if not anachronistic) idea of ‘value’. Even when they are little more than residues of mass production and petro-chemistry, fabrics retain some echo from the world-historical drama of textiles, a value negotiated by rarity, by colonial mercantilist romance/brutality, but also by a sense for the labour of the artisan and of a warmth construed as difficult synthesis (of nature, skill and time). Regardless of how mechanised contemporary textile production is it is still the case that almost every shirt we wear has been sewn by the hands of another (usually exploited) human being. This is, in part, at the root of the striking visual quality of any large flag or parachute: beyond the mesmerising movement there is the sheer amazement induced by improbable quantity, a ‘how much’ that deifies the usual apportioning. A wrapped building distorts scale by taking a substance that is usually small, encountered determinately, and worn directly on the body and placing it jarringly into direct competition with the expanse of the sky. When the shroud engrosses us it is because we are witnessing a glitch in the memory of blankets, a scalar error; the blanket with all of its associations of intimacy and enclosure becomes an inflated, impersonal sea. A pre-sentiment of this is found in the tendency of children to discover in fabrics portable little universes: blankets draped between hooks in a room or over a table are experimental cosmogonies, gestures on the edge of whole new universes.
At the same time, we should see in this gauze a far less alluring and prosaic extension of the tendency of capital to frenetically conceal the site of production. They are veils or screens. Production, of course, has always been the primal scene of capitalism, the site of an enormous project of disavowal and hiding. This is not merely an effect of the unpleasantness of work, its effects on empirical bodies in the form of scandalous injury or death, or even mere boredom; it would appear that there is a broader injunction here, one linked to a desire to obscure any trace of production as a process, the very memory of production itself. It is as if the factory must be forgotten by our cultures as the de facto point of departure for any working consumerist smoothness: erased are the inherent potentialities of the space, its dangerous apportioning of force, the collectivities that it sets into motion even in its most exploited or deluded forms. We might say that the factory, every factory, harbors the possibility of a sudden inversion in form, the sudden collapse of profit as a motive and its reversion to a space of need, collectivity, and sustenance. The machines, an empty shop floor, materials stored in a warehouse, workers smoking on a break: from a certain angle, they look like generic possibility, potentiality incarnate, even if so often they demarcate nothing more than boredom, repetition and sameness.
Screened out by the shroud, then, are not merely the risks of work, but the very appearance of a labour. The worker (partially) disappears behind this shroud; its closest visible analogue will be the clean, conscientious, socially admissible body of the retail clerk. This is especially interesting in the case of China: discernibly darker and smaller, the body of the Chinese construction worker immediately signals a difference in kind. This difference makes it easy to intuit such bodies as destiny: nature comes to be seen as laying out in advance an individual’s role in the social machine. This error – that misrecognising as cause what is in fact an effect – was of course famously ridiculed by Rousseau, who saw in Aristotle’s construction of the natural slave its paradigmatic example. However, there is another angle from which such unquestionably other bodies can themselves begin to function as instantaneous testaments to the inherent biological unfairness of capitalism: they are, after all, the material expressions of inequality, direct material effects of an economic system that badly maldistributes basic nutritional possibility. In the case of China, what is rendered invisible by this shroud is class transformed into the emphatic difference of race, a social division hyperbolised to the point of direct physical alterity. In the 1950s in China the term gongren signaled a very different kind of subjectivity. Integrated into the imaginary of Chinese communism, its values came from the future, from a particular conception of revolutionary consciousness and from a dream of modern profusion and intensity. Gongren was a power, not merely in its capacity to transform the object via labour into something useable and new, but in the way it radiated a certain collective transvaluation, a social war, waged as much against feudal parochialism as it was imperialist capitalism. Today the term has dilated to include not merely the industrial worker proper, but anybody whose work has more to do with their body than their brain. It indicates blankly one’s location in the economic machine; it is taxonomic, rather than heated and visionary. To be a gongren is to exist within maddening sight of a thousand better social destines.
It is interesting to consider just how removed the scene of contemporary construction is from its classical antecedents. The pyramid or cathedral gained its right to sovereignty, to control of the horizon, but also a certain symbolic and functional centrality, not in spite of, but precisely because they could be directly intuited as acts of sacrifice. Such structures were always enormous vertical cemeteries, engines of ideology that nevertheless carried within themselves a disruptive collective memory of terror, labour, and death. We should dispense entirely with any fantasy that these structures were made out of good Hegelian ‘ethical substance’, that those who labored there were simply happy cogs in a whole they desired without restraint or limit. Instead, labor pressed to a point of extremity has perhaps trans-historicially indexed the outer fringes of ideological control. Pressed to a point it cannot help but become a series of questions: what am I doing? To what end is this exertion? Who am I obeying? Why continue? Despite their ritual function as arbiters of the eternal these structures continuously rehearse their origins in the negative. This is not the case in the contemporary Chinese city: the thousands of construction workers toiling in Chinese cities like Chongqing or Xiangtan, are almost always immigrants from somewhere else. Not only, then, does the modern superstructure efface every trace of its own composition – it appears ‘clicked’ into place by the pure intellection of design – the very drama of its construction – the inevitable negation, injury and pain which feed into any large-scale project – is itself segregated via a strange kind of ‘internal’ outsourcing. Stories do not trickle back into the community in the way they still did around a mine in Britain even in the 1970s (a feedback that often took the form of songs or poems or resistance); like the aluminum barracks-style accommodation in which workers sleep at night they are quickly dismantled, folded up, and spirited away.
Luminous Structure: The Political Sublimity of Blueprints
The unfinished building, when only partially shrouded, has its own very precise visual signature. Sometimes twenty floors can be seen protruding above the shroud; occasionally whole buildings can be seen free of their covers. These entities are like the unconscious of a capitalist city made visible in the form of a spectacular pile or pillar: in a life-world that has radically neutered the vertical, normalising it, secularising it, we should not underestimate the surprising power of structure in process to render intelligible the inherent negativity of construction, its radical physical improbability. Before the building has acquired its determinacy, all of its divisions and utility, there is a moment of excruciating beauty in which the floors and the space between them stand out like the bones of a ribcage or the lines on an empty page. The pleasure fed by this sight is that of understanding something: the eye does not reach the frustrating limit of a surface, the intrinsic tautology of walls, but encounters unexpected depth and distance, a volume open to reconnaissance and free play. Experienced is the delight of improbably touching something with the eye at a great distance, a sense of the reach of gazes, their length and muscularity. This is not mere ‘reflection’, but a knowledge that is also at the same time a kind of instant power. If windows have always been secret little panopticons – glass is rarely as transparent as we think – then the building stripped of its walls, achieves a certain kind of spatio-visual parity: one cannot see without also being seen. One wonders about how much of the psycho-geography of the modern city finds its roots in its paranoid system of undetected gazes, gated gazes that could be at home in a worried medieval keep, and which usually travel from behind and above to something exposed, suspicious and below.
At the same instant, however, these naked and somehow luminous structures engross us precisely because they are the unmistakable products of human intentionality and will (more so, paradoxically, than the finished building itself which reverts to the state of second nature described above). In the exposed infrastructure of the building we detect something like an organisational sublime, an ecstasy of clear thinking that has to do with the sudden recognition of the rarity and residual powerfulness of the human’s capacity to invent things. Unlike the three-dimensional printer which injects commodity fetishism directly into the body of the object, naked architectural structure articulates itself as the unmistakable jurisdiction of the blueprint, of a whole era of knowing and doing in which the Idea was at once distinct from the real, negatively oriented towards it, and realisable, actionable, only via the mediation of social work. The power of the blueprint, its utterly radical social power, has been so totally colonised by creative capitalism (but also by the failed trajectory of modern industrialism itself), by hieratic TED Talks and ‘frictionless’ innovation, that there is a way in which the imaginary it draws on – an old faith in the susceptibility of what is there to be strugglingly changed by what is not – seems momentarily re-empowered and believable. The susceptibility of what is merely contingently existent to be changed by what is still virtual, but nevertheless powerful, collective and real: in Hegel this is the Absolute Idea, arguably the only real idea we’ve ever had; in Marx, when added to a concept of class, it becomes the rudiments of historical materialism. Blueprint, intentionality, but also an exhilarating kind of openness: the strange beauty of infrastructure is perhaps best understood as a simultaneously painful/delightful encounter with the open potentialities of space and form, the pure reversibility of every plan: it is an encounter, frankly put, with the anything of Being itself. There is a desire encoded here for the end to sequestered space, to all of the rooms and cubicles that sort life into functions and people into types. To have done with the occluded social metaphysics of rooms: this is the fantasy that for just an instant can be glimpsed in between the bare volume of the unfinished building. In an age which fetishises spontaneity, unconsciousness, and error as absolute epistemological horizons, an age which cannot think collective political action without imagining its consequences as ruin, the shimmering exactitude and humanism of the blueprint, the momentary radiance of an Idea in a Thing, should not be ignored by anyone interested in theorising genuinely new ways out of an (in some respects) extremely old present. Whatever excess the auto-production of the human as an idea has abetted, whatever blindnesses and cruelties it has fed, it is impossible to imagine a way out of the present that does not pass via the capacity of the human to purposefully alter or re-shape itself (and its environment). There is no relationship to the object that is not interventionist, no repose within being that is someone closer to what is, just as it is not within the capacity of the object to spontaneously fix the problems of ultimate concern to human beings. Whatever its limits, the worker in motion is still an endlessly more ripe and interesting figure of political potentiation than the object-orientated philosopher transfixed by the density of connections between things.
We should also note here the peculiar way naked infrastructure has of existing on the margins of property. This is the case regardless of the legal relations that actually subtend them. The construction site requires a fenced perimeter and a night watchman because the structure’s absent walls and doors are already immediately intuited by outsiders as an open invitation. It is as if the spectacle of property assembling itself could not help, but belong to everybody. For Hegel, rent was intrinsically incompatible with the subjective disposition of property; the subject’s will, having ‘penetrated’ via work into the smallest molecules of a space, was nevertheless haunted from within by the violating shadow of the owner. The landlord was an arbitrary despot in what ought otherwise to be a sovereign republic of property. However, it may in fact be that the opposite is closer to the truth: the rented apartment complex haunts property itself with the spectre of its own inessentiality. A sprawling apartment complex, a system of block housing, feel somehow intrinsically communist: everything is too intertwined and proximate for the fantasy of distance required by property to take root. There is a sense that at any moment its form could overflow its content and become something radical (complete with communal meals and socialised childcare). We should see this for what it is: a cultural residue from a broader sense for the absolute fiction of property, the ludicrousness of any claim to definitively possess something. Though for Rousseau the shift from the state of nature to civil society replaced mere possession – prone to insecurity and loss and characterised by a kind of animal vigilance – with the radiant citizenly substance of ownership we know that at its root the proprietor never escapes ontologically the evanescence and humiliation of rent (ie, all is lost).
Punks and squatters, thieves and inventors, late-night strollers, the homeless, urban spelunkers: construction sites draw in these subjects via a thousand tiny threads. In the unfinished building, squatters discern a frugal outline of shelter and life: even this bare apparatus can be outfitted resourcefully with the provisions needed to reproduce existence. La Torre de David in Caracas is paradigmatic here: designed by architect Enrique Gomez it filled up with families after work stopped on its construction in the 1990s. Squatters in such moments immediately make clear to us is the social ugliness of ‘renovation’ the utterly impoverished imagination of a people that can only live in spaces that are always differing from themselves, always finding new ways to intensify a costly and ultimately ecocidal ‘convenience’.
A Note on Scaffolds
It bears noting that alongside this exposed infrastructure there is always, invisible right there on the surface, a system of scaffolds. Scaffolding is the para-structure required in order to have structure in the first place; it is the crutch used by structure to become itself. Scaffolds are tricks of the trade, sleights of hand: they are the ladders kicked away after completion so as to hide the fact that a structure’s essence is nothing more than process. Attached to the infrastructure of the unfinished building the scaffold is a kind of habitat: it supports the world of the worker and is a key element in its safety. Like the infrastructure it supports and makes possible, the visual pleasure of these objects is that of transparency, though it is here intensified and taken to a new limit, a handful of constituent units – couplers, tubes, and boards—skillfully combined and multiplied to produce an entire inhabitable cosmos. Scaffolds are reductionism transformed into an intense pleasure, wholes, and in this sense they are extensions of the fascination still exerted on us by Lego.
There are a number of factors at work in what we might call the dialectical posture of the scaffold: 1) the scaffold is a structure that can be entered at any point; it has no doors, rooms, or windows; 2) it requires very little in the way of technical competence to be used effectively; it feels egalitarian, free, and subtracted from esoteric specialist knowledge though without ceasing to remain ‘scientific’, a product of thought; 3) the scaffold is inherently scalable; its top can be reached from its bottom; 4) it works on a principle of economy, it engenders structure precisely in and through reduction; 5) it is a relatively self-sustaining habitat that requires next to nothing in the way of complex maintenance; 6) scaffolds are modular, open to an endless process of simple addition (or subtraction); 7) they reach a kind of absolute genericity of the tool, their functionality open to experimentation and play (one can just as easily imagine them outfitted with hammocks as one can a system of slingshots).
In all of this, scaffolds are the architectural opposites of palaces: if in the sixteenth-century structures like Henry VIII’s Hampton Court legitimated sovereign power via an exorbitant stability of comforts the scaffold is temporary, democratic, and absorbed in the process of making something. Its aspiration is to do and to be, rather than to wait and to seem. The whole turn within contemporary art towards curatorial transparency, towards messy, self-disclosing curations (complete with packaging tape, random trash, exposed frames, etc) reflects this desire for a kind of socio-political nakedness that is at the same time a style of community and a system of holding things together. These are not of a piece with earlier postmodern nods to form and process: where the latter are specialist, intra-citational, and frequently ironic, self-congratulatory or smug, these gestures foreground a new kind of sincerity that seems to implicitly oppose itself to consumerist spectacle and excess. It is a celebration of labour and a political culture of simplicity detached from both the ontology and implicit moralism of workerism that at the same time taps into a desire to reject root and branch an economy that lives only for as long as it can produce new forms of inessentiality, novel desires and needs without end. There is a strange way then, in which Descartes becomes the best possible solution to problems ostensibly traceable to Descartes himself (developmentalism, scientism, etc): the scaffold, in all its reductive inventiveness and flexibility, is the ultimate model for a post-enlightenment reason, a rationalism that is as frugal and precise as it is creative and collective. What would architecture, a society, or a political economy look like that took as its model an epistemology of scaffolds?
Andrew Pendakis is Assistant Professor of Theory and Rhetoric at Brock University and a Research Fellow at the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics. He writes about contemporary political culture with a special interest in the history and morphology of centrism. He’s presently at work on a monograph entitled Critique of Centrist Reason.