Lahiji, Nadir. (Ed.) 2011. The Political Unconscious of Architecture: Re-Opening Jameson’s Narrative. Farnham, Surrey, UK, and Burlington, VT: Ashgate. Pp. 334. ISBN 978-1-4094-2639-4.

Book Review by Pablo B. Markin

Seeking to reexamine Fredric Jameson’s work in terms of its theoretical impact, historical reception and psychoanalytic interpretation, this edited volume speaks to the audience of scholars and graduate students in the fields of architecture, visual studies, and philosophy.

This collection of essays demonstrates how architectural, philosophical and theoretical discourses diverged, while leaving scarcely bridgeable gaps between their treatment of space, representation and ideology. In this respect, Jameson’s texts are consistently represented to point either to their earlier theoretical antecedents, such as Manfredo Tafuri, Georg Lukacs and Karl Marx, or to contemporary philosophical developments. Taking recourse to Michel Foucault’s concept of biopolitics, Jacques Derrida’s of haunting and Giorgio Agamben’s of homo sacer, Bechir Kenzari puts Jean-Luc Nancy and Jacques Rancière into the centre-stage of his discussion of an inclusive political community and a politics of space, rather than of architecture per se. Interpreting architecture in terms of urban structure, city planning and urban design, Kojin Karatani, as a philosopher in his own right, refers to Jane Jacobs’ work on cities in connection to urban diversity, density and vibrancy. Furthermore, approaching architecture via Lacanian analysis, Slavoj Žižek concentrates on psychological, social and economic structures manifested in performance arts centers, Hitchcock’s films and virtual spaces.

In David Cunningham’s reading that returns to Marx’s thinking on abstraction and commodity, Jameson’s handling of postmodernism is an effort to go beyond the opposition between realism and modernism as Georg Lukács interprets them. In the same vein, Cunningham returns to Georg Simmel as a classical theoretical figure whose work on modernity as a process whereby monetary relations replace social ties he singles out, in order to demonstrate how the rise of money unleashed the dynamics of capitalism, as reflected in modern architecture and its historical transformations. In line with this perspective, Terry Smith emphasizes the modernity of what was termed postmodern architecture. Smith reads Jameson’s 1984 essay ‘Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism’ against its grain based on his later visits to John Portman’s hotels in Los Angeles and Detroit. Built in the 1970s, these spaces are examples of modern architecture, capitalism and culture representative of not only early twentieth century American architectural practices, but also Soviet avant-garde structures of the same period. Smith interprets postmodernism as a metaphorical reference to the future of modernity that became assimilated into architectural environments of simulated nostalgia, disorientation and globalization.

Referencing Ulrich Beck’s notion of second modernity, Hal Foster relates Norman Foster and Renzo Piano’s architecture to Le Corbusier’s modernist aesthetics. Likewise, in the context of anti-utopian, post-critical and pragmatic attitudes in contemporary thinking on architecture, Louis Martin shifts the focus of their discussion to Tafuri, K. Michael Hays and Reinhold Martin. Caught between instrumental uses and formal autonomy, architecture reflects reciprocal relations between economy and culture that set limits to alternatives and the change it can make possible. It is avant-garde and modernist aesthetics that articulates a critique of architecture in terms of resistance, negation and opposition, as Martin indicates. By concentrating on architectural photography, Robin Wilson explores architectural reification, allegory and utopia. In this regard, Wilson concurs with Jameson’s stress on the incommensurability of distinct spatial, economic and social dimensions that architecture, photography or painting can only fail to resolve or represent.

Discovering in Akira Kurosawa’s thriller High and Low spatial topologies and symptom structures, Donald Kunze approaches this film’s narrative in terms of Lacanian psychoanalysis and Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s philosophy. As she explores modernist architecture of London’s apartment blocks, Jane Rendell points to stylistic analogies between London architecture and Russian constructivism as Freudian indications of a repressed political unconscious. Similarly, Joan Ockman’s symptomatic reading of the effects of economic transformations on urban space applies Jameson’s notion of political unconscious by contrasting the architecture of Wall Street with generic urban spaces of the United States.

While these empirical analyses of film narratives, architectural photographs and urban space take Jameson’s work in Lacanian, Freudian or historical directions, theoretical contributions to this volume, such as Cunningham’s, Smith’s and Žižek’s, reevaluate classical sociological figures, critically reconsider Jameson’s legacy and open it to broader interdisciplinary discussions. A close focus on Tafuri’s vis-à-vis Jameson’s work by Gevork Hartoonian, Louis Martin and Nadir Lahiji represents a historical reconstruction of theoretical positions of Italian Marxism, architectural criticism and political theory that Jameson was among the first to explore.

Thus, this publication collects under its covers an insightful and polemical contemporary overview of appropriations that Jameson’s notion of the political unconscious finds in architecture, photography and film studies.

Author Biography:

Dr. Pablo B. Markin conducts postdoctoral research on aesthetics, postmodernity and cultural globalization at the Philosophy Department of East China Normal University, Shanghai, China. During 2008-2010, he did postdoctoral research on Berlin as a city of culture at the DAAD Center for German Studies at the European Forum of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel. In 2008, he defended a doctoral dissertation on Richard Münch, a German contemporary sociologist, at the Modern Languages and Cultural Studies Department of the University of Alberta, Canada. In 2007, he was invited as a Visiting Scholar to the German Language and Literature Department of Columbia University, New York. His graduate degree was earned in Sociology and European Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 2003.