The Book Scales
In October 1989, those who gathered in Irvine, California to attend a conference in which Jacques Derrida would also be participating, were astonished to discover that, instead of his physical presence they would be exposed to a tape recording of his voice. The conference was on architecture (what was at the time referred to as “contemporary” architecture) and one of those who was there to listen to Derrida was the architect Peter Eisenman, an old friend and colleague of his1. I make a note of this because the voice on the tape which was indeed played at the conference addressed itself to Eisenman; it was not, therefore, a recorded lecture, but a second-person address to an old friend, which the members of the audience were invited to listen to.
Why would someone choose to concentrate on the tone of this voice? Not so much because the moment of its enunciation is of special significance to the history of contemporary architecture, but rather because in Derrida’s oeuvre the question still remains open as to the moment when someone speaks in order to articulate an obstacle or to give an “end” to something which is being shaped. Actually, I would like to talk about a secret that has to do with the texture of the Derridaian decision. When, how and from whom do I draw the right to raise obstacles? At what moment am I entitled to seek an “end”? How intensely am I entitled to promote the rupture? And in order to explore the depth of this secret, I will concentrate on the Irvine voice; this voice could be offered as a paradigm which would be given by Derrida himself; indeed – as I will try to explain – this may have been a particular paradigm.
I have started off talking about the raising of obstacles and the suggestion of an “end”. Perhaps it has already become obvious that the politics of the voice, when first heard, seemed to be withdrawing any friendly trust from Eisenman; indeed, the voice could even sound like a denunciation of the contract which the two colleagues had jointly signed. The Irvine voice, on a “first reading”, was a stern voice.
So then, Derrida, albeit absent, managed to present himself that day in California, and indeed to call upon Eisenman to deliver his apologia before witnesses. Even though he was absent he was there, even though he wasn’t listening he could be listening: “I will know all that you will have said publicly”, says the voice on the tape. And it is clear by the mis-en-scène of the voice that Derrida is impersonating a ghost or God; that he is playing with absence.
Indeed, absence and God do not only form the outline or the scene [une scène] of the enunciation, but become motifs [motif] of the Irvine voice (that was later also printed on paper2). Though it may seem odd in an environment of discussions on contemporary architecture, Derrida talks about God (absolute absence) and the difficulty of handling absence, which must be kept “in its place” in order for its significance not to be invalidated. As always, this is not something new; the theme of absence in architecture is of course new neither to Derrida nor to Eisenman3.
The word absence recurs often in Eisenman’s rhetoric, and yet the voice on the cassette does not appear to approve of this invocation. The problem is not that absence has been forgotten by Eisenman, but that – through the use that is made of it – it risks proving overly comfortable, while absence is introduced into the Derridaian oeuvre in order to complicate, to point out aporiae and impasses. Absence “takes a stand” in Derrida in order to deconstruct and not to crystallize, and yet it is crystallization, in crystal, in glass, that absence is present for Eisenman. But even before the objection of the glass (that recurs persistently in the voice on tape), Derrida has kept his distance from Eisenman4 (at the same time as he continues to work with him on the architectural plan they are working on “in common“5).
The Irvine voice is being recorded as a twin text of another earlier text of Derrida’s, entitled: “Why Peter Eisenman writes such good books“6 and written three years before the voice’s text. Both of these record a certain swinging [balancement] between related topics, a swinging which is measured by a singular set of scales that Derrida constructs with the texts. In fact, one could say that there would be a point in reading the two texts as a double one, as much as numbering (one, two, three…) Derrida’s texts may seem problematic (since his texts are not offered as self-contained entities).
The double text which we agree emerges from an essay in Eisenman’s defense and the voice which perhaps accuses Eisenman is especially interesting because it exposes us, yet again, to the enigma of the decision concerning the use (by Derrida himself) of the limit and the closed schema.
“Why Peter Eisenman writes such good books” begins with a tendency towards defending an accused. We are then, from that moment, in a courtroom environment, to which Derrida has been summoned as a witness for the defense. Strangely enough, however, the indictment is also drafted by Derrida himself7. And it contains a pretty severe accusation: that Eisenman writes books [livres].
He doesn’t write texts [texts] (“schemata” that are open to reading), but books, “whose form still displays this encompassing mania of speech.“8 But despite the fact that absence (even then, absence) remains a text, something more than a book, more than one [“l’absence reste plus qu’un livre, plus d’un livre“9] and despite the fact that Eisenman makes books, Derrida invites us to clear Eisenman of all suspicion and to accept his books, because (through his books) Eisenman introduces us to new genre of writing. He manages to write something else [autre chose], other than the closed schema, using the excess of the closed schema.
A certain credit is given therefore by Derrida to Eisenman; he is “allowed” to use the lie, the joke [Witz], the form of the book; “he needed” (wrote Derrida) “by means of something which still resembled a book effectively to clear a new space in which this uneconomy would be at the same time possible and, to a certain point,” (my italics) “legitimized, negotiated. This negotiation takes place within time, and – as it should – with the powers and the cultures of the moment. For beyond the economy, beyond the book, whose form still displays this encompassing mania of speech, he writes something else.“10
Moving from this older text to the voice on the cassette we have, therefore, not changed scenery. We remain in the region of absence, we remain in the possibility of cultivating absence, faced once again with the danger of limitation.
The symmetry of the two texts appears thus enigmatic and strange; the same general motifs are used and similar objections are expressed, and yet the first one salutes Eisenman as a friend; the second rises up like a wall.
Why does this occur? Because previously the emphasis was on the affirmation of this writing (which, based on the closed convention about something, can say something else), and now (according to the voice in Irvine) the emphasis is on its negation. Because now Derrida is focusing on the dangers which would move away (or isolate) the book from the writing beyond the book. The vacillation that results from this double gesture brings us before a balance (a pair of scales for weighing books), set up by Derrida when he is called upon to weigh the benefits derived by Eisenman (during the legitimization of the book), “beyond the book” (i.e. outside the acceptance of conventions) in relation to the dangers fostered by the hermeticity of the books themselves and the closed schemata.
The book is weighed in relation to that which is “beyond” the book and therefore the two texts could be the results of two different readings on the scales. But why are the two results so different? Why is it that in the first text, absence (as writing beyond the book) weighs more than the book itself, while in the text of the voice, the book (which is no longer referred to by its name) becomes menacingly heavier than absence?
Why is it that in the first text Derrida acknowledges Eisenman’s ability to write something that transcends the objection of the book, while in the text read by the voice in Irvine (without retracting anything regarding Eisenman’s ability), we are informed that within the objection itself of the book (in terms of that which does not directly concern Eisenman’s game), the game itself risks being decided: No specific factor is enough to prejudge or explain the results of the weighing. To tell the “truth”, the measurements of such a pair of scales must be particularly imprecise. That is not a problem for the scales. On the contrary, a condition for the weighing is that there is no precision in the measurement; that so many possibilities of error are contained in it that the measurement itself constitutes a reading. And this should not be seen as an abandonment to errors. The responsibility of the measurement lies precisely in the difficulty of reading these measurements and in the unpredictability of any such measurement. A condition for the existence of the scales is its abolition, its cancellation11 (as an organ that transforms doubt into certainty).
The limit, therefore, beyond which the result of the measurement changes radically, is not given to us in advance. Yet this limit remains critical. If I talk about weighing it’s because in every discussion about Derrida and about architecture, it is important to seek out the sensitive limit of the rigidity and hardness of an intervention which will threaten the existing organized structures without replacing them by new ones, a limit which – without any arbitrariness – we are called upon to set ourselves.
Something happened, then, that encroached upon some such limit in the time that elapsed between the two texts: Did Eisenman’s books prove heavier in 1989 than those of 1986?
I could answer yes. But I don’t want to write about this here; we don’t have to concentrate on this here. (The acceptance of the book, the “uneconomy”, the “non-negotiation” can be legitimized only to a certain point; only to a certain point is “non-negotiation” negotiable).
Through these two texts I don’t think that Derrida is merely making a turn (following the violation of a limit on Eisenman’s part); what I do believe is that he is persisting in his own obligation to leave the field for an architectural deconstruction open to the undecidable [indécidable], to vacillation. The second text neither refutes the first one, nor does it replace it. It functions with it in order to “finalize” a vacillation caused by the weight of absence.
The invitation to remain at the weighing, at the vacillation, should not be considered a task that can be wrapped in and limited to itself; the weight of absence (its weight on this singular set of scales) guarantees precisely that. By lightening and limiting the power of absence, the ability of the exterior to enter the interior is inhibited. The corrosive power of the interior is inhibited, making it incapable of poisoning the interior. Thus, the interior is isolated and its schematization takes on the form of the book.
This persistence in weighing does not therefore lead to abandonment or uncertainty. On the contrary, it aims at guaranteeing the presence of the outside, inside, of the other, here; i.e. to safeguard the place of the other in the weighing.
The preservation of absence on the scales is not only a technique for the promotion of deconstructive tasks, but it also constitutes the responsibility that I take for the other.
That is the theme that sets the pace for the voice in Irvine: the responsibility for the other (person), the responsibility for the other [pour l’autre], even though the word responsibility is not even uttered by the voice; but the invocation of absence cannot be carried out without responsibility; the continuation of the weighing allows the wakefulness of responsibility.
In the lie, in the joke [Witz], in the book, I may have already exposed the other to danger; I may have already betrayed the other. The other is at risk as long as absence ceases to participate in all these things in a radical way. And the moment that absence loses its weight in the weighing, I am called upon to renew its time. In which way? That is the prospect opened up by the scales. The scales is not set up in order to abandon us to the vacillation but in order to put an end – if need be – to the vacillation.
The task of measuring is delicate and difficult, but the scales functions in order to allow something coarse and rigid. Weighing allows the weighing to stop; it takes on the responsibility for the raising of an obstacle, for limitation, provided there is no other way to react to the closed schema. A schema, the burgeoning of which threatens to tyrannize a specific environment which “ought to” remain open. Through weighing, we seek out the limit, beyond which we “must” say no to any such schematization under formation (even or especially concerning formations that are declared to be the fruit of the task of weighing).
I am talking therefore of weighing only to the extent to which I can present in this way the difficulty of wakefulness towards the other and the delicate balance that can allow strategies of exclusion or the raising of obstacles. Derrida uses the limit, raises obstacles (not only because he is obliged to by the conventions of language, and not only when he finds himself in the environment of architecture); he decides to use the limit and the obstacle when the circumstances require it, even though the idea of setting or raising limits is presented right from the start in his oeuvre as problematic.
Responsibility thus takes on a polemical aspect, evolving as a resistance and thus taking on formations, the dispatchings, the raising of obstacles (while at the same time responsibility is called upon to protect from such kinds of formations and obstacles). Responsibility is assumed through weighing and vacillation, but it takes shape in the attack and the polemical strategy planned by giving up weighing.
Avoiding the abandonment to vacillation, we assume the duty of wakefulness in reading which aims at a polemical strategy. Within the context determined by this strategy, the obstacle can be used in order to be fostered.
The weighing of the book thus brings us back to the vertigo offered not by infinity but by the finite, to a certain syndrome of the limit [mal de limite] which is linked inescapably to aphorism but also to architecture12. Rigidity, the book, aphorism are called upon to cultivate the undecidable, the infinite, absence itself. While I judge the book, the set-up and the aphorism, and while the transcendence of the scales’ limit calls upon me to condemn one of these, I submit, through this simple observation, something that resembles a book, a certain uneconomical schema.
But with what power can I defend the stabilization of the limit that I raise in order to protect the other, when I attempt to protect it precisely from that – from the tyranny of the limit – and when I have already proved the instability of any such limit? The question must be addressed; the obstacle I am called upon to construct demands architectural elaboration; it must be built in such a way so as to abolish itself. Every obstacle I raise in front of the other in order to protect him observes the economy that deals with its very raising. It is raised in such a way so as to present more escapes rather than exclusions. The obstacle is also weighed (before it is raised), using the same scales; it is prepared as responsibly as a book. It is prepared in such a way so that, beyond exclusion, beyond the rejection that it builds through rejection, it should be able to be announcing or to be writing something else. On this condition, many obstacles should be raised, many limits should be set. And if the limit that was raised by the voice in Irvine is still standing (if it still inconveniences), that is the case “only” because it is still able to renew the time of the other; because it is still valid as a promise to the other.
- In 1987 C. Ray Smith wrote that Peter Eisenman was more active as a writer, a critic and a publisher than as an architect (Contemporary Architects, Chicago & London, pp. 263-264). This was quite natural for an architect whose c.v. still included only four built houses. But even after a few years (in which Eisenman was given the opportunity to construct many important buildings, like the Wexner Center for the Visual Arts, the Columbus Convention Center in Ohio or the Nunotani Office Building in Tokyo), the power of the written text remains significant and typical of his work. Not only - as he himself would have wanted - because the work itself is offered as a text to be read (compare Mario Gandelsonas, "On Reading Architecture," Progressive Architecture, New York, March 1972), but because Eisenman never abandoned the text per se. In fact, one could claim that, through his work, he organized a special way for the building to coexist with the printed text that accompanies it, thus influencing today’s "literary" architecture. Eisenman playfully linked architecture to modern theoretical thought (a typical example of this is the text "Moving Arrows, Eros and Other Errors" to which Derrida also refers in "Why Peter Eisenman writes such good books"). Eisenman worked with Derrida on the ambitious Choral Work project. Eisenman has been a professor of architecture at The Cooper Union in New York since 1975.
- Derrida, Jacques, "A Letter to Peter Eisenman," Assemblage 12, Cambridge, August 1990, pp. 6-13. The French version of the text was published in the journal Rue Descartes, 10, June 1994 (Paris, pp. 33-45) under the title: "Barbaries et papiers de verre ou La petite monnaie de l’ "actuel": Lettre à un architecte amèricain (fragment)." The issue of Assemblage also included Eisenman’s answer, pp. 14-17.
- Derrida does not open the discussion; he does not begin the discussion of the subject now, not only because mention of absence has already been made by Eisenman and Derrida (for examples, see the latter’s comments on writing, in reference to Condillac’s "Signatures événement contexte," Marges de la Philosophie, Paris 1972, pp. 365-393, p. 374 onward), but mainly because within the Derridaian scene this could never constitute a new subject. Concerning the subject of "starting out" or of a "beginning" [commencement] in Derrida’s oeuvre, see Bennington’s enlightening paragraph by the same name ("Derridabase" in Jacques Derrida, Paris, pp. 18-26), in which he refers the reader to fragments from Of Grammatology (1967), Positions (1972), Ecriture et Différence (1967), La Voix et le phénomène (1967), Schiboleth pour Paul Celan (1968), Oreille de l’Autre (1982), Dissémination (1972), Psyché (1987), Ulisse Grammophone (1987), Signé Ponge (1983), Glass (1974) and Parages (1986), proving how "central" the theme of the "absence/starting point" in the Derridaian oeuvre, while Bennington himself attempts (or avoids attempting) an introduction into this oeuvre.
- Kipnis, Jeffrey, "Twisting the Separatrix," Assemblage 14, Cambridge, pp. 12-61, p. 33: "While there are clear allegiances between Eisenman’s and Derrida’s work, there are also conspicuous tensions and disagreements"; he also refers to "Complexity Without Contradiction in Architecture" by Geoff Bennington; AA Files 15, Summer 1987, pp. 15-18.
- "A Letter to Peter Eisenman," ibid.: "in common," the inverted commas are Derrida’s.
- "Pourquoi Peter Eisenman écrit de si bons livres," Psyché, Invention de l’autre, pp. 495-508, p. 508.
- In the same hyperbolic article by Kipnis, ibid. p. 43, this view is also mentioned, with which I agree.
- "Pourquoi Peter Eisenman écrit de si bons livres," ibid. p. 508.
- Ibid., p. 507.
- Ibid. p. 508: "He needed, by means of something which still resembled a book, effectively to clear a new space in which this uneconomy would at the same time possible and, to a certain point, legitimized, negotiated. This negotiation takes place within time, and it needs time with the powers and the cultures of the moment. For beyond the economy, beyond the book, whose form still displays this encompassing mania of speech, he writes something else."
- The pair of scales which is under cancellation may be examined in parallel to the broader subject of the "under cancellation" [sous rature] which has its own history not only in the Derridaian corps (compare "Différence" in Marges de la Philosophie, Paris 1972, pp. 1-20, p. 6), De la Grammatologie, Paris, 1967 (p. 31, 65), but also in Heidegger, in The Cancellation of Being, the Sein in "Zur Seinsfrage." I am referring to the French translation, "Contribution à la question de l’étre," transl. G. Granel, Paris, 1968, pp. 195-525. In the same text there is a direct reference to Derrida in "Comment ne pas parler," ibid., pp. 535-595, p. 588 onwards.
- A syndrome which is already familiar from "Fifty-two Aphorisms for a Foreword": "Cinquante-deux aphorisms pour un avant-propos," introduction to Mesure pour mesure, Architecture et Philosophie, numéro special des cahiers du CCI, Cenre Georges Pompidou, 1987, which was also published in Psyché, Invention de l’autre, pp. 509-518.
Aristide Antonas is an architect and writer, associate professor in T.A.M. (Volos School of Architecture, University of Thessaly, Greece), post graduate seminar director in the National Technical University of Athens, co-founder of the plural academic persona Gregorios Pharmakis and of the curating group Built-Event (spatial practices for architecture, art, curating and urbanism), lectures in Massachussets Institute of Technology (MIT), Instituto Universitario de Architetura de Venezia (IUAV), Architectural Association, London (AA), University of Cyprus Program of Architecture, University Jose Cela, Madrid, Fine Art Academy of Gyumri, Armenia. Essays mostly published in the Internet, 6 literature books in Greek, 2 theatre plays performed by éclats d’ états, France.
this text was first published in Greek, “Η Ζυγαριά των Βιβλίων”, Σύγχρονα Θέματα, period B, No. 73, June 2000, pp. 116-120, Athens.