Psychoanalytic and Poetic Devices in South African Architectural Education
Sumayya Vally and Stephen Steyn
‘the critique of ideology should not begin with critiquing reality, but with the critique of our dreams.’i
There are two kinds of dreams. There are the dreams that we share, and there are dreams that are our own. One could say ‘I have a dream’ (meaning ‘I have an ambition’) which can be shared, and which then becomes political. And one could say ‘I dreamt’ (meaning, ‘I hallucinated while unconscious’) which is a more personal experience. Architecture, and the politics of dreams — or the dreams of politics, for that matter — form the context of this essay, but before we get there, it is necessary to delve briefly into some of the mechanics of the dreams that occur during sleep.
It appears that in the current state of oneirology, the most prominent hypothesis for the function of dreams is that they are a by-product of processes of memory formation, consolidation and storage.ii Even a cursory glance at contemporary neuro-scientific debates surrounding memory reveals a world of contradictions and ambiguities. The field is expanding, and any related investigation will require some inferences and assumptions. We begin this argument somewhere between two apparent poles in the debate; a popular computer metaphor on the one hand, and Robert Epstein’s ‘Empty Brain’ on the other.iii The computational metaphor is a seductive framework for conceptualising human memory which compares the brain with the workings of computer memory. Here, the brain is thought to store and retrieve memories as bits of information and images. This framework is thoroughly and eloquently contested in Epstein’s argument, which reveals a historical tendency to simplify consciousness into the techno-scientific metaphor de jour. According to this critique, your brain does not store information at all, but rather creates virtual experiences anew with every memory. These experiences are not retrieved from somewhere in the brain, but is instead an effect of the form of the brain. It is, for our argument, most useful to take a moderate approach to this debate, and assume that there is some storage in mnemonic processes. And that the deformations which occur during remembering are the result of the virtual reconstructions of whole memories out of stored fragments. In other words, we shift the exploration slightly, from re-presenting (making present, again) to include a fair amount of re-membering (putting back together). We assume then that some memories, or parts of them, are stored — sometimes quarantined — somewhere in the body, and that some become a part of what you are, on a formal level.iv
The Quiet Violence of Dreamsv
The fact that emotions are often overwhelming in dreams is likely due to condensation. Condensation is among the terms Freud used to describe the dream work — the transformation of the latent content of dreams into the manifest content (or, to simplify, the process of turning the meaning of dreams into the experience of dreams).vi The applications of metaphor, metonymy and synecdoche in condensation are immediately apparent. The reason why these devices are so popular in poetry, is because of the reduction in space (higher density) which they make possible. Metaphors are used to pack experience into denser forms since single images can contain multiple meanings simultaneously. Metonymy can economise space since something small could stand in for something large, or something simple for something complex. In synecdoche — when a fraction of something stands in for the whole — something small is recorded (or stored) in order to trigger a representation of the whole.
Condensation has an analogue in design. When formal and theoretical processes are combined, composed and conflated in designed products, the products themselves become dense repositories of intent, desire and context. Like dreams, these products are nebulous documents of struggle and aspiration. And, as such, they are subject to analysis and interpretation. Unlike dreams, however, designed products in general — and architectural works in particular — are experienced communally. They are shared, and by implication, they are political. Memory serves here as a conceptual link between the different senses of the word dream; the highly personal visions of the unconscious, and the ambitions of our society. By establishing connections between architectural concepts and literary devices employed in memory management, we can reveal some of the workings of architecture as a cultural mechanism which both stores shared memories, and, through interpretation and occupation, produces new culture.
Disclaimer: We Contradict Ourselves, We Contain Multitudesvii
In psychoanalysis, the quarantine of memories is known as repression. And it is through repression that the ego seeks ‘. . . to exclude certain trends in the mind not merely from consciousness but also from other forms of effectiveness and activity’.viii In the South African context, where the past is often experienced as a nightmare, a fundamental inquiry into the precepts of architectural design and shared history has the potential to relocate repressed events of trauma. These events, which currently exist primarily in the historical record, can be translated into the present, and shown to still be active, but exerting their effects surreptitiously.
This essay aims to illustrate and elaborate these definitions through brief readings of three design-research projects conducted in Unit 11 of the Graduate School of Architecture (GSA) at the University of Johannesburg. The primary current mandate of the GSA is summarised as Transformative Pedagogies. An important part of this concept is the development of alternatives to that which is generally considered canonical, either by bringing research from the periphery to the centre, or by describing works in existing, established canons from new points of view, or in new languages. A number of projects are being developed which work through (rather than resolve) concerns of material memory, cultural edifices and politics, employing metaphors of ghosts, nightmares, phantom limbs, exquisite corpses and plastic identities. By illustrating (or designing, if you will) such conditions, the unit attempts to bring to the surface some of the historical fragments haunting the South African collective subconscious.
In 2017, Unit 11 operated under the title Radical Heritage. As such, its primary interest is in the potential of processes that make significant changes to history and heritage not only on its surface (the narrative of history) but also its structure (the language in which history is recorded and legitimised). The means of instruction falls comfortably within established traditions of studio-based design practice. Design-research students are encouraged to make associations more or less freely in the early stages of the design process after which, through critique, reflexive relationships are established between designed work and its interpretation. The Unit makes extensive use of allegory and figuration to create a slight distance between the researcher’s immediate frame of reference and the complex political realities with which the projects are entangled. This method allows researchers to expose and interrogate their biases and proclivities, which may otherwise have remained concealed.
In something of a direct act of projection, the projects below experiment with the definition of architecture through a number of analogies, some of which are compatible and can coexist with other definitions, and some which are exclusive and contradict other definitions. In this psychoanalytical analogy, architecture can be defined in a number of ways. It could be cast as the ego, sifting through experiences and storing (in built form) desired memories while repressing others. Or, architecture could represent repressed memories themselves, which are stored at a safe distance from the ‘consciousness’ of society. They also define architecture as a collective dream, condensing, sorting and forgetting our history. Rejecting Cartesian dualism, they do not simply make architecture the body of society, but instead, treat them — the mind and the body, the built environment and society, the dream and reality — as inherently inseparable (and at times, even interchangeable).
Disclaimer: there is no there thereix
The reflexive relationship that exists between a society and its architecture means that architecture can not only function as a document of oppression, it is also an agent in oppression. Since the cultural production of architecture is selective, it can give permanent form to (and thus worsen) problematic conditions. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a series of public hearings and confessions which took place between 1996 and 1998 was intended to purge institutions of their Apartheid heritage.x While it is possible for institutions to reform, the procedures for the reform, or transformation, of architectural structures are significantly less established. In order to address the implication of architecture in apartheid (and colonial) heritage, we rely on the weak links between physical objects and their intended meanings. In other words, buildings, instead of having to be physically dismantled can be taken apart figuratively, and new meanings can be proposed for them. Though there may be truth, and there may be reconciliation, neither is absolute or final – they are continuous processes. We delve into our history over and over, digging up, revealing and confronting the conditions which give form to architecture and to which architecture gives form.
Psychoanalysis has many well-documented applications in both medicine and literary criticism (some more contentious than others). We are, however, of the opinion that these investigations are at their most interesting, and necessary, when they are not required to be conclusive. Following Adam Phillips’ assertion that ‘. . .it is more illuminating to read psychoanalysts as poets. . . rather than failed or aspiring scientists’, we are not here interested in definitive diagnoses and treatment.xi We are not attempting to resolve conflicts. We are, instead, attempting to mix some of the traditions of medical diagnostics with literary criticism in the context of South African heritage debates in order to illustrate ‘different ways of living with ourselves and different descriptions of these so-called selves.’xii
iSlavoj Žižek, Trouble in Paradise: From the End of History to the End of Capitalism, London, 2015, p.193.
iiJ. Lee Kavanau, ‘Sleep, Memory Maintenance and Mental Disorders,’ in The Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, Volume 12, Issue 2, May (2000), p. 199-208.
iiiRobert Epstein, ‘The Empty Brain: Your Brain does not Process Information, Retrieve Knowledge or Store Memories. In Short: Your Brain is Not a Computer’, in Aeon (2016), available from: https://aeon.co/essays/your-brain-does-not-process-information-and-it-is-not-a-computer. Accessed 12 August 2017.
ivIn ‘The City as Dreamworld and Catastrophe’, Susan Buck-Morrs points to this possibility by positioning consciousness (after Freud) on the surface of the subject, rather than at its centre. Consciousness is recast as a shield against the outside world. Susan Buck-Morss, ‘The City as Dreamworld and Catastrophe,’ in October, Vol. 73 (1995), p. 3-26.
vK. Sello Duiker’s award-winning 2001 Bildungsroman by this name explores, in depth, the emergence of individual (marginal) identity in the context of South African politics of race, class, sexuality and aspiration. It effectively merges the two primary meanings of the word dream – goals or ambitions, and the apparitions of the subconscious – which are both implicated in race, class, sexuality and aspiration.
viSigmund Freud, The Ego and the Id, translated by Joan Riviere, New York, (1923, Reprint 1960), p.8.
viiParaphrased from Walt Whitman’s poem ‘Song of Myself’ in Leaves of Grass, New York, (1855).
viiiSigmund Freud, On Dreams, translated by M.D. Eder, New York (1914 Reprint 2001).
ixGertrude Stein coined this pun in 1937 in Everybody’s Biography. It refers simultaneously to a lack of a destination, a lack of character, and a universal lack of consolation.
xStephané Leman Langlois and Clifford Shearing (2008), ‘Transition, Forgiveness and Citizenship: The TRC and the Social Construction of Forgiveness’ in Justice and Reconciliation in Post-Apartheid South Africa edited by F. Du Bois and A. Pedain, (2008) Cambridge.
xiAdam Philips, One Way and Another: New and Selected Essays. London, 2013.
xiiAdam Philips, ‘The Art of Nonfiction No.7’, in The Paris Review, Issue 208, (2014). Available at: https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/6286/adam-phillips-the-art-of-nonfiction-no-7-adam- phillips. Accessed 10 August 2017.
xiiiJacques Derrida, Dissemination, translated by B. Johnson. London, (1981) p.130.
xivSigmund Freud, The Uncanny, (1919), London.
xviWarsan Shire, ‘Conversations About Home (At the Deportation Centre)’, in Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth, (2011), London.