A Correction of One of Mr. Bryant’s Bizarre Misconceptions about Marx

In one of Levi Bryant’s recent posts, he writes:

As Marx argues, because we work under conditions of forced necessity, and because we are alienated from the products of our labor – yes, yes, I know, Marx later abandons the alienation thesis, yet this is still a valuable point to emphasize in understanding the dynamics of capitalism and why we should care about them – work comes to be seen as something outside life, something other than life, rather than as one aspect of life that contributes to our flourishing or eudaimonia.

Forgetting, for a moment, the rather odd question Levi poses about eudaimonism (one of Bryant’s passing conceptual fancies) in labor, it must be emphatically pointed out Marx never “abandons” his earlier thesis of alienation. I’m not sure where Mr. Bryant is getting this idea from, especially as he has repeatedly assured me that he is “widely read” in Marx’s works (he cites Mikhail Emelianov as having in the past “suggest[ed] that I [Levi] know nothing about Marx (I have quite an extensive background)”).

And what is perhaps even more troublesome, Bryant writes as if the idea that Marx jettisoned “alienation” from his theorization of capitalist society is common knowledge, adding “yes, yes I know…” and thereby suggesting that this was somehow a clearly established fact.  I can say with confidence that this is an error standing in grave need of correction.

Now it might be fair to say that the concept of alienation was more prominent in Marx’s earlier writings, but it would be a blatant distortion to say that it disappeared completely.  Certainly, in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 the term appeared with greater frequency, as he was writing the work in the peculiar philosophical idiom of Left Hegelianism. Alienation was a more pervasive concept in that work, but by no means does Marx ever drop the notion of “alienation” from his conceptual apparatus. This can be seen in some of the following quotes from Capital.

From Capital, page 182:

Things are in themselves external to man, and therefore alienable. In order that this alienation [Verausserung] may be reciprocal, it is only neces­sary for men to agree tacitly to treat each other as the private owners of those alienable things, and, precisely for that reason, as persons who are Independent of each other.

From Capital, page 204:

Leaving aside its exchange for other commodities at the source of production, gold is, in the hands of every commodity-owner, ‘his’ own commodity divested [entiiussert] of its original shape by being alienated [veriiussert]; it is the product of a sale or of the first metamorphosis C-M. Gold, as we saw, became ideal money, or a measure of value, because all commodities measured their values in it, and thus made it the imaginary opposite of their natural shape as objects of utility, hence the shape of their value. It became real money be­cause the commodities, through their complete alienation, suffered a divestiture or transformation of their real shapes as objects of utility, this making it the real embodiment of their values.

From Capital, page 205:

Money is the absolutely alienable commodity, because it is all other commodities divested of their shape, the product of their universal alienation.

From Capital, pg. 716:

[T]he worker himself constantly produces objective wealth, in the form of capital, an alien power that dominates and exploits him; and the capitalist just as constantly produces labour-power, in the form of a subjective source of wealth which is abstract, exists merely in the physical body of the worker, and is separated from its own means of objectification and realization; in short, the capitalist produces the worker as a wage-labourer.

In this magnificent quotation, from pg. 799:

within the capitalist system all methods for raising the social productivity of labour are put into effect at the cost of the individual worker; that all means for the development of productIon undergo a dialectical inversion so that they become means of domination and exploitation of the producers, they dIstort the worker into a fragment of a man, they degrade him to the level of an appendage of a machine, they destroy the actual content of hIs labour by turning it into a torment; they alienate [entfremden] from hIm the intellectual potentialities of the labour process in the same proportion as science is incorporated in it as an independent power; they deform the conditions under which he works, subject him during the labour process to a despotism the more hateful for its meanness; they transform his life-time into working-time, and drag his wife and child beneath the wheels of the juggernaut of capital.

On pg. 990:

What we are confronted by here is the alienation [Entfremdung] of man from his own labour. To that extent the worker stands on a higher plane than the capitalist from the outset, since the latter has his .roots in the process of alienation and finds absolute satisfaction in it whereas right from the start the worker is a victim who confronts it as a rebel and experiences it as a process of enslavement.

From Capital, page 1,003:

We have seen that the capitalist must transform his money not only into labour-power, but into the material factors of the labour process, i.e the means of production. However, if we think of the whole of capital as standing on one side, i.e. the totality of the pur­chasers of labour-power, and if we think of the totality of the vendors of labour-power, the totality of workers on the other, then we find that the worker is compelled to sell not a commodity but his own labour-power as a commodity. This is because he finds on the other side, opposed to him and confronting him as alien property, all the means of production, all the material conditions of work together with all the means of subsistence, money and means of production. In other words, all material wealth confronts the worker as the property of the commodity possessors. What is proposed here is that he works as a non-proprietor and that the conditions of his lab our confront him as alien property.

Alienation is even explicitly connected to the fetish-form of the commodity. Same page:

The objective conditions essential to the realization of labour are alienated from the worker and become manifest as fetishes endowed with a will and a soul of their own.

Pg. 1,006:

Conversely, work can only be wage-labour when its own material conditions confront it as autonomous powers, alien property, value existing for itself and maintaining itself, in short as capital. If capital, in its material aspect, i.e. in the use-values in which it has its being, must depend for its existence on the material conditions of labour, these material conditions must equally, on the formal side, confront labour as alien, autonomous powers, as value – objectified labour – which treats living labour as a mere means whereby to maintain and increase itself.

And more examples can be found all over the rest of the book, and in its subsequent volumes (this entry only covers examples from Volume 1).

A Hitherto Untranslated Letter from Le Corbusier to Anatolii Lunacharskii

Le Corbusier sitting in front of the site for the Tsentrosoiuz Building in Moscow (March 1931)

The following letter, from the famed French architect Le Corbusier to the Soviet Commissar of Enlightenment Anatolii Lunacharskii, has up to this point never available in English translation:

13 mai 1932

Monsieur Lounatcharsky


Cher Monsieur,

Vous ne m’en voudrez pas de revenir sur l’entretien que nous avons eu à Genève samedi dernier concernant le Palais des Soviets.

Le Palais des S[oviets] est (dit le programme) le couronnement du Plan quinquennal. Qu’est le Plan quinquennal? La tentative la plus héroïque et véritablement majestueuse dans sa décision d’équiper la société moderne pour lui permettre de vivre harmonieusement. Au bout du Plan quinquennal, une idée. Quelle idée: rendre l’homme heureux. Comment atteindre, au milieu des résidus innombrables d’un premier cycle de civilisation machiniste, un état de pureté capable seul d’ouvrir une ère de bonheur? En n’hésitant pas à se tourner résolument vers l’avenir, en décidant d’être d’aujourd’hui, d’agir et de penser «aujourd’hui».

Ainsi a fait l’URSS. Du moins le croyons-nous, nous qui regardons de loin votre effort. Nous le regardons avec un tel intérêt, avec une telle soif de voir se réaliser quelque part sur la terre, cette aspiration universelle vers un état d’harmonie, qu’une fois en est née, partant, une mystique. Cette mystique: l’URSS. Poètes, artistes, sociologues, les jeunes gens et surtout ceux qui sont restés jeunes parmi ceux qui ont connu la vie, — tous ont admis que quelque part — en URSS — le destin avait permis que la chose fût. L’URSS se fera connaître un jour matériellement — par l’effet du Plan quinquennal. Mais, dès aujourd’hui, l’URSS a allumé sur le monde entier une lueur d’aurore. Des coeurs vrais sont tournés vers nous. Ça, c’est une victoire, — bien plus forte que celle qui suivra sur le plan matériel.

«L’architecte exprime la qualité d’esprit d’une époque.» Donc le Palais des Soviets révélera, dans la splendeur des proportions, la finalité des buts poursuivis chez vous depuis 18. On verra de quoi il s’agit. Le monde verra. Plus que cela, l’humanité trouvera sous les auspices de l’architecture un verbe exact, infrelatable, hors de toute cabale, de toute surenchère, de tout camouflage: le Palais, centre des institutions de l’URSS.

Vous avez fait connaître par le monde que ce palais serait l’expression de la masse anonyme qui vit l’époque présente.

Décision: comme la Société des Nations, le Palais des Soviets sera construit en Renaissance italienne…

La Renaissance italienne — comme les Romains et les Grecs — construisait en pierre. Si grands que fussent les rêves, la pierre fixait les limites de sa mise en oeuvre et de son obéissance aux lois de la pesanteur.

A la Renaissance, il y avait des princes lettrés qui dominaient les masses. Un gouffre séparait la fortune et le peuple. Un gouffre séparait le palais, logis des princes, de la maison du Peuple.

L’URSS, union des républiques soviétiques prolétariennes, dressera un palais qui sera hautain et hors le peuple.

Ne nous illusionnons pas dans la rhétorique: je sais parfaitement que le peuple — et le moujik aussi — trouve admirable les palais de rois et qu’il est de son goût d’avoir des frontons de temple sur le bois de son lit.

Mais la tête pensante des Républiques soviétiques doit-elle conduire ou flatter et cultiver des goûts prouvant la faiblesse humaine?

Nous attendons de l’URSS ce geste qui domine, élève et conduit, parce qu’il exprime le jugement le plus haut et le plus pur. Sinon? Sinon il n’y a plus d’URSS et de doctrine et de mystique et de tout…Il est EFFARANT de devoir être conduit à poser de telles questions.

En un mot pour conclure: il est effarant, angoissant, dramatique, pathétique que la décision actuelle de Moscou puisse commencer son oeuvre de désagrégation de l’opinion, de désenchantement, d’amère ironie. Et que le Plan quinquennal se couronne de ceci: «petitesse des hommes».

Cher Monsieur, dans mes propos, nulle amertume de candidat évincé. Non. Mais j’aime trop l’architecture et trop la Vérité pour désespérer déjà. Je voudrais aller parler à Moscou, expliquer, exprimer. Je voudrais aller dire ceci: l’effort innombrable, l’immense labeur anonyme ou signé de ces cent années de sciences, a créé sur le monde la grande collaboration. Il n’est un appoint technique: béton armé, fer, verre, chauffage, ventilation, acoustique, statique, dynamisme, il n’est un outil: machines de toutes natures — qui ne prouvent la grande collaboration.

L’architecture — en l’occurrence l’architecte — a pour mission de mettre en ordre cette armée de collaboration et par la vertu de la puissance créatrice de composition, par la puissance d’une intention élevée, elle peut exprimer le visage unique et magnifique de cette humanité créative. Ce visage serait-il un masque? Jamais, non jamais.

Me permettez-vous de parler objectivement? J’aimerais aller à Moscou.

Le 29 de ce mois, s’ouvre à Barcelone la session du Comité inter[nation]al pour la préparation du Congrès international d’Architecture qui se tiendra à Moscou en septembre.

Mon voyage d’Alger peut être remis (je viens de l’apprendre) à mai.

Je suis attendu à Rome pour deux conférences présidées par Mussolini et pour une entrevue avec lui. But: les Italiens me demandent d’aller arracher le Duce à l’erreur dans laquelle il s’enfonce en ordonnant de construire l’Italie en style Romain (Vous voyez combien le mal est partout.)

S’il vous était possible de préparer mon voyage à Moscou? Je vais même être indiscret: ne m’avez-vous pas dit que vous retourniez sous peu à Moscou? Alors ceci: s’il m’était possible de vous accompagner dans ce voyage, je pourrais vous entretenir de tout ce qui bouillonne en moi, relativement aux villes et aux maisons.

A Moscou, je pourrais, en dehors du Palais parler en public de la Ville Radieuse et expliquer où le progrès et une vue large nous ont conduits et exposer à votre pays qui est le seul ayant les institutions permettant la réalisation des programmes contemporains, le détail technique de la question:

la réforme architecturale

la journée solaire de 24 heures et son programme

les nouvelles techniques de la respiration exacte à l’intérieur des bâtiments (avec les résultats des récents essais du laboratoire de St-Gobain) (Problème décisif capital pour l’URSS)

les problèmes de l’économie du sol dans l’économie domestique

l’insonorisation des logis


Là sont des vérités, des réalités, des choses à longue trajectoire qui sont dans l’esprit du Plan quinquennal — beaucoup plus que certaines méthodes restrictives, sans imagination et malthusiennes, auxquelles on a fait grand accueil en URSS.

Et si l’on veut, je pourrais parler de proportion, de beauté, de ces choses qui sont les impératifs de ma vie, car il n’y a pas de bonheur possible, sans l’esprit de qualité.

A Buenos Aires en 1929, j’ai fait dix conférences (un cycle) en quinze jours. Je veux bien le faire à Moscou.

Cher Monsieur, voici vingt ans que je vis comprimé. Paris m’a été jusqu’ici indispensable car Paris est le champ clos de la qualité. La vie sévère que j’y mène a porté des fruits. Ignorant en tout, je le sais, je connais toutefois beaucoup de choses de l’architecture et de l’urbanisme.

J’ai à Moscou des amis de coeur, des collègues dans lesquels j’ai grand espoir. J’ai à Moscou des ennemis, mais, je crois, beaucoup d’amis.

Je vous dirai encore ceci: à Moscou j’ai toujours défendu M. Joltowsky qui est un vrai architecte, sensible et plein de talent. C’est cet arrêt inattendu sur une forme historique de l’architecture qui a créé nos divergences. Mais je parlerais avec lui d’architecture, infiniment mieux qu’avec la plupart de mes collègues occidentaux qui se dénomment «architectes modernes».

Je termine : entièrement désintéressé, passionné d’architecture, à l’âge de maturité où un homme doit donner, j’offre ma collaboration en toute loyauté et sans espoirs de gains.


Tout cela était long à dire. Voulez-vous me pardonner d’avoir retenu si longtemps votre attention.

V[otre] bien dévoué

— Le Corbusier

Here, for the first time, is a full English translation of the letter, provided courtesy of my father, Michael Wolfe, and his friend, Michael Vogel:

May 13th, 1932

Mr. Lunacharskii


Dear sir,

You will excuse me for returning to the discussion we had in Geneva last Saturday concerning the Palace of the Soviets.

The Palace of the S[oviets] (hereafter referred to as the “program”) is the crowning achievement of the five-year Plan.  What is the five-year Plan? The most historic and undeniably majestic attempt in its decision to equip modern society in order to enable it to live harmoniously.  At the end of the five-year Plan, an idea.  What idea? To make mankind happy.  How is it possible, amid the innumerable residues of the initial cycle of machinistic civilization, to achieve that state of purity which alone is capable of ushering in an era of happiness? By not hesitating to turn resolutely toward the future, by deciding to be contemporary, to act and think “today.”

This is what the USSR has done.  At least this is what we believe, we who observe your effort from afar.  We observe it with such an interest, with such a thirst to see achieved, somewhere on Earth, this universal aspiration for a state of harmony, from which is consequently born a mystique.  This mystique — the USSR.  Poets, artists, sociologists, young people, and above all, those who have remained young among those who have experienced life — all have admitted that somewhere — in the USSR — destiny has allowed the thing to be.  One day, the USSR will make a name for itself materially — through the effect of the five-year Plan.  Yet the USSR has already illuminated the entire world with a glimmer of dawn, of a rising aurora.  The hearts that are true have turned toward us.  That in itself is a victory, one that is far greater than the one that will follow in material terms.

“The architect expresses the spiritual quality of an era.”  Thus, in the splendor of its proportions, the Palace of the Soviets will reveal the finality of the goals pursued in your country since 1918.  We will see what this is all about.  The world shall see.  But even further, humanity will find under the auspices of architecture a precise, uncorruptible verb, devoid of cabalistic machination [cabale], of exaggeration, of camouflage: the Palace, center of the institutions of the USSR.

You have made known throughout the world that this palace is to be the expression of the anonymous mass that is witnessing current events today.  Decision: like the headquarters of the League of Nations, the Palace of the Soviets will be built in the Italian Renaissance style…

The Italian Renaissance — like the Romans and the Greeks — built with stone.  However grandiose the dreams, stone set the limits for its realization, in compliance with the laws of gravity.

During the Renaissance, there were literate princes who dominated the masses.  There was a chasm separating the wealth from the people.  A gulf separated the palace, the dwelling-place of princes, from the house of the people.

The USSR, a union of proletarian soviet republics, shall erect a palace that will be haughty and separate from the people.

Let us not be blinded by rhetoric: I know perfectly well that the people — as well as the muzhik — admire regal palaces, and that it is their taste to have the headboards of their beds engraved with temple façades.

Should the leadership of the Soviet Republics, vehiculate or flatter and cultivate tastes that attest to human frailty?

From the USSR, we expect the type of sweeping gesture that dominates, elevates, and conveys, for such a gesture is a reflection of the highest and purest discernment.  If not? Well then there is no longer such a thing as the USSR, or its doctrine, or its mystique, or anything else…the mere notion of such a thing is INCONCEIVABLE.

In other words — inconceivable, tormenting, dramatic, and indeed saddening [pathetique] that with the actual decision Moscow is now making, it may commence its work of disaggregating opinion, disenchantment, bitter irony.  And for the five-year Plan to be thus crowned: only by “the pettiness of men.”

Dear sir, my opinions do not reflect the bitterness of a defeated candidate.  No.  But I love architecture and the Truth too much to already have lost all hope.  I would like to go to Moscow to talk, to explain things, and to express all this.  I would like to go to say this: The immeasureable effort, the immense labor of so many persons — some known, some nameless — in the sciences these past hundred years has created all over the world the great collaboration.  There is no method of construction — using reinforced concrete, iron, glass, heating systems, ventilation systems, acoustics, or statics and dynamic elements; there’s no tool or any sort of machine that doesn’t reflect the existence of this great collaboration.

Architecture — and in this case the architect — must strive to discipline this army of collaborators, and by virtue of the creative power assemble all these elements.  By the power of its lofty aims, it can express the unique and magnificent face of all mankind’s creativity.  Is this face a mask? Never.  No, never.

How can I put it to you any more directly? I would like to go to Moscow.

On the 29th of this month, in Barcelona, there begins a meeting of the of international committee responsible for planning the upcoming International Congress of Modern Architects [CIAM] that will be held in Moscow in September.

My trip from Algiers can be put off (as I’ve come to learn) until May.

I am expected in Rome for two conferences presided over by Mussolini, and for a meeting with him.  Its aim: the Italians are asking me to save il Duce from the blunder into which he has driven himself by ordering the building of Italy in the Roman style.  (You see how much the evil is everywhere).

Is it still possible for you to set up my trip to Moscow? I’m even going to be indiscreet: didn’t you just tell me that you would be returning to Moscow soon? Consider this: if I could accompany you on this trip I would explain to you everything that is broiling inside me, as concerns towns and houses.

In Moscow, I could — outside the Palace — publicly speak of the Radiant City, and explain where progress and the grand view have led us and shown to your country, which is the only one possessing the institutions that permit the realization of modernist programs.  The technical detail of the questions concerning:

architectural reform

the 24-hour solar day and its program

the new techniques of exact respiration inside buildings (with the recent laboratory experiments at St.-Gobain) (the most pressing problem facing the USSR)

 the problems which agriculture poses for the domestic economy

the soundproofing of homes


Here are the truths, realities, the long-range items that are informed by the spirit of the five-year Plan — much more than certain restrictive methods, Malthusian and lacking imagination, which have been so warmly embraced in the USSR.

And if anyone wants, I could speak of proportion, of beauty, those things that are the driving forces of my life, because happiness is not possible without a sense of quality.

In Buenos Aires in 1929, I presented at ten conferences (one after the other) in fifteen days.  I really want to do the same in Moscow.

Dear sir, I’ve lived a confined life these last twenty years.  Until now, I have not been able do without Paris, because Paris is the only place that holds this quality.  The austere life I’ve lived has borne its fruits.  Though I can admit ignorance to everything else, I have always known a great deal about architecture and urbanism.

I have some close friends in Moscow, colleagues for whom I have great hope.  I have enemies in Moscow, but I believe also many friends.

I will tell you this again: in Moscow I have always stood up for M. Zholtovskii, who is a true architect, sensitive and quite talented.  It is this unexpected stopover in an historical form of architecture that has caused us to part ways.  But I would much rather talk with him about architecture than with the majority of my Western colleagues who call themselves “modern architects.”

Let me finish: entirely disinterested and passionate about architecture, at an age in adult life when a man must give, I offer you my assistance with completely loyalty and no hope of gain.  There you have it.

It took a long time to say all this.  Please pardon me for taking so much of your time and attention.

Yours truly,

Le Corbusier


Some recent blog entries and threads of note:

1. Over at the blog An und für Sich, there has been a recent post regarding Moishe Postone’s fascinating and insightful thesis that Nazism (and historical anti-semitism in general) is a perverse form of misrecognized anti-capitalism.  The comment thread has now turned into a broader discussion of neoliberal capitalism and the state of the Left.

2. Also, once again the blogger Pete Wolfendale of Deontologistics has posted a brilliant and thorough rejoinder to Levi Bryant’s irresponsible and frankly indefensible anti-epistemological and anti-representationalist speculations.  I expect that Bryant will feign ignorance to it, will not directly respond to it, even though it is both polite and extremely charitable in taking anything that Bryant has to say seriously.  My own critique of his post on commodities, objects, and persons, of which he is doubtless aware and which he has almost assuredly has read and broiled over, will likely never receive a response either.  I do not know whether to attribute Bryant’s refusal to respond to such legitimate criticisms is a sign of his intellectual incapacities or of his general cowardice when it comes to confronting harsh critiques of his work.

Also, a blog I recently discovered:

3. A brilliant website on architecture and other interesting topics, aggregat456.  As the author of the blog explains in the right-hand column of his site, “Originally conceived as a place to post thoughts about architecture, this site now contains a variety of design-based ideas that cut across various disciplines.”  One of his posts proved to be extremely helpful for the composition of my recent post on the Palace of the Soviets.

Cenotafio de Newton: Boullée, Étienne-Louis,

Revolutionary precursors

Radical bourgeois architects in
the age of reason and revolution 

Étienne-Louis Boullée’s
Cénotaphe a Newton
(Cenotaph to Newton), 
night & day


Emil Kaufmann’s classic 1952 study,
Three revolutionary architects:
Boullée, Ledoux, and Lequeu

See also the image gallery included at the end.

Étienne-Louis Boullée's reimagined Cénotaphe a Newton (1795), interior

Étienne-Louis Boullée’s reimagined Cénotaphe a Newton (1795), interior

In honor of the Platypus Affiliated Society’s Radical Bourgeois Philosophy summer reading group, I thought I would devote a blog entry to the celebration of radical bourgeois architecture.  I’ve been writing a lot of posts related to the subject of the revolutionary avant-garde architecture that followed October 1917 in Russia and in Europe, so I think that it might be fitting to take a step back and review some of the architectural fantasies that surrounded that other great revolutionary date, 1789, the year of the glorious French Revolution.  The three utopian architects whose work I will be focusing on here also happen to be French — perhaps not coincidentally.

Jean-Jacques Lequeu's Monument to Isocrates

Jean-Jacques Lequeu’s Monument to Isocrates

Claude-Nicolas Ledoux's Théâtre de Besançon, Interior (1784)

Claude-Nicolas Ledoux’s Théâtre de Besançon, interior (1784)

Étienne-Louis Boullée (1728-1799), Claude-Nicolas Ledoux (1736-1806), and Jean-Jacques Lequeu (1772-1837) were each architects and thinkers whose ideas reflected some of the most radical strains of liberal bourgeois philosophy, with its cult of reason and devotion to the triplicate ideals of liberté, égalité, and fraternité. The structures they imagined and city plans they proposed were undeniably some of the most ambitious and revolutionary of their time. At their most fantastic, the buildings they envisioned were absolutely unbuildable — either according to the technical standards of their day or arguably even of our own. Continue reading

Chess Fever by Vsevolod Pudovkin and Nikolai Shpikovskii (1925)

A charming little early Soviet film about Chess Fever, featuring easily the most dominant champion of the first half of the twentieth century, the Cuban José Raúl Capablanca.  His endgame skills were also purported to be unparalleled.  In speed-chess he was thus perhaps even more feared than he was during longer, official events.

Anyway, this film thus encapsulates two of my favorite things: (1) chess, and (2) early Soviet cinema.  Enjoy!

The Past that Wasn’t: International Modernism and the Palace of the Soviets

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Much more later, but for now:

First, an excerpt from El Lissitzky’s “‘Americanism’ in European Architecture” (1925):

Europe is adopting American principles, developing them in a new way. From this point of view it is interesting that of the huge number of entries submitted to the competition for a skyscraper design, organized by the Chicago Tribune, only a few European architects, for example, the Dane Lundberg-Folm, and the Germans Gropius, May, and Bruno Taut, attempted a form suited to American construction. America herself had covered her steel skeleton with endless metres of Gothic and rosette-like ornaments.

Europe is ahead of America in one respect, namely in dealing with the housing problem, and more particularly with workers’ housing. In this field Holland has surpassed other countries. Model complexes can be seen in Rotterdam; very modest, almost austere as seen from the street, open along their whole frontage to the courtyard at the back, which is thus transformed into an enclosed space with little playgrounds for the children and gardens for relaxation. Europe adopts the organized, practical ideas of America, but clarifies and defines them. This process must be applied not only to exterior architecture, but also to an even greater extent to interior design.

The truth is that here Europe makes it her aim to meet the demands of economy, strict utility and hygiene. Architects are convinced that through the new design and planning of the house they are actively participating in the organizing of a new consciousness.

We had occasion to meet a number of great masters of the new architecture in Europe and were convinced of the difficulty of their position. They are surrounded by a chauvinistic, reactionary, individualistic society, to whom these men, with their international mental horizon, their revolutionary activity and their collective thinking, are alien and hostile. That is why they all follow the trend of events in our country so attentively and all believe that the future belongs not to the USA but to the USSR. [my emphasis — RW]

 [From Krasnaya Niva, No. 49, 1925]

Extracts from Erich Mendelsohn’s private diary:

Charlottenburg, July 11th, 1926


Still no final decision from Leningrad. My telegram in reply to the renewed Russian invitation is so far unanswered. In this I see neither a good nor a bad omen, but am simply remaining completely indifferent to the way things are developing, which is hard enough to control from close to and quite impossible at a distance.

The endless space of Russia makes dream and aspiration — idea and action — impenetrable in the negative sense, infinite in the positive. [my emphasis — RW]

Even having to reckon with the reality of the few months when building can be done in Leningrad upsets numerical calculations and shifts their emphasis. The constants remain, but the indices explode, because the Russians are not sufficiently knowledgeable about their inner value, and their necessary correlation.

Meanwhile speculation continues about our possible handling of the whole project development. My studio is today a complete forum for statical computations, not, as it is generally, a trapeze of intuition or a firm springboard of organized planning.


Herrlingen, July 14th, 1927

O Russia, the holy!

Courage again.

Just now, two hours ago, I had given it up — on account of history, of lack of modern Russian examples.

I write through the eye of an architect, purely visually.

From buildings I deduce history, transition, revolution, synthesis…Synthesis: Russia and America — the future of Utopia! I am compensating for a lack of modern Russian examples by the new international, collective, parallel architectural views.

The contrast between the thirst for power of the unconsolidated élite and the nullity of the serfs and the proletariat and their yearning for salvation, between Eastern resignation and Western activity, reveals the soil of Russia as ready for revolution.

I hope to put onto paper a work of my own on these lines, a creative vision. A credo of our age, of the future, as a product of mechanization and divine mystery… Continue reading

Soviet Constructivist Architecture – Blueprints and Realizations

The following pictures are examples of architecture built in the Soviet Constructivist style, a style founded by the Vesnin brothers (Aleksandr, Leonid, and Viktor) along with Moisei Ginzburg between 1923-1925.  Officially, the Society of Modern Architects (OSA) was the main organ for all Constructivist architecture.  However, I have also included pieces which clearly exemplify the Constructivist style, even if the architects involved were not technically members of OSA.  Both blueprints and photographs of the eventual realizations of their plans are shown here:

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On Commodities and the False Liberation of the Object

The Soviet avant-garde produced agitprop and advertisements for goods, such as this beer advertisement by Maiakovskii and Rodchenko. The point of advertisement in a postcapitalist society, it was argued, was not to entice the customer to buy unneeded products, but rather to inform the consumer of new goods that had become available

In a recent series of posts over at the blog An und für sich and Larval Subjects, Levi Bryant and the author Voyou have engaged in a discussion trying to link Object-Oriented Ontology to the much-celebrated Marxian concept of commodity fetishism, outlined in the first chapter of Capital.  Voyou seems to want to use the Object-Oriented Ontological approach because it promises for him a sort of “liberation of the object,” the object being the thing commodified.  Bryant follows him in this respect by stating first that under capitalism, “things are no less alienated in commodities than labor,” and then rephrasing it couple paragraphs later by saying that “things are no less alienated under capitalism than persons.”  Without conflating their positions too much, it would thus seems that the “liberation” Voyou proposes would be the object’s liberation from its own self-alienation under the commodity-form, as Bryant construes this state of affairs.  There is some small amount of truth to this proposition, but in such a manner that neither Bryant nor Voyou traces out.  This will become apparent in the following.

Backtracking a bit, Voyou mentions at the outset of his piece the seemingly counter-intuitive nature of an Object-Oriented Ontological approach to commodity fetishism.  He rightly notes that “[o]ne of the criticisms of object-oriented ontology which has some currency is the suggestion that it is a form of, or a philosophized alibi for, commodity fetishism.”  This stems from the Object-Oriented Ontologists’ “daunting” claim that objects exist independently of their relations.  Or, as Voyou puts it, anticipating the obvious philosophical criticism:

But, you might say, doesn’t object-oriented ontology, with its isolated objects that never enter into relations, make the mistake of commodity fetishism to an even greater degree than the anti-consumerism argument, by completely removing objects from the social relations of which they are the bearers?

Levi Bryant, remarking on this passage from Voyou’s exposition, offers an important corrective to this rather simplistic understanding of relationality within the framework of Object-Oriented Ontology.  “OOO doesn’t claim that objects don’t relate,” insists Bryant, “but that objects are external to their relations such that they can move out of a particular set of relations and into another set of relations, i.e., objects aren’t constituted by their relations, though they are certainly affected by their relations.”  But here Voyou’s subsequent comments about how different kinds kinds of relations entail different forms of dependence for the objects involved come into play.  Voyou thus continues to note the fact that “objects cannot be reduced to their relations does not mean that they could have come to exist without these relations. The relations of production which produce commodities as commodities are no less visible on an object-oriented view.”

In other words, if I may draw some conceptual distinctions of my own, Object-Oriented Ontology does emphatically deny that the existence of objects is dependent on their relation to human cognition, to their mental representation by a subject.  However, it would be preposterous to assert that objects exist independently of the objective forces of the social relations of production.  An object that has been subsumed beneath the commodity-form could not appear in such a form were it not for these shadowy relations 0f production that take place “behind the backs” of these objects, to paraphrase Hegel.  Even in precapitalist modes of production, when the preponderance of the commodity-form was not as yet total, the appearance of objects that were the products of human labor would clearly be the result of relations of production specific to that social formation.  The mark of their artifice would be inscribed in their objectivity.  And so again, the existence of certain objects could not appear external to the productive relations that gave them their shape and constitution.

This point does not seem to be controversial, and I believe that most Object-Oriented Ontologists would gladly concede it.  However, I should like to make the further claim commodities do not exist independently of their relation to cognition, either.  In fact, it is only through their social recognition as commodities that they can function as such, as essentially fungible and equivalent to one another.  This recognition alone provides the key to how commodities can function as fetishes, how they are able to reify the conditions of the present into the seemingly timeless conditions that obtain in all societies, past and present.  For it is only through their transfiguration into objects of ideology that qualitatively multiform objects, each unique in the aspect of their utility, can be reduced to quantitatively uniform equivalencies.  The overarching thought-forms of society, the ruling ideologies, allow (among other things) objects to be represented t0 the social subject as commodities available in their quantifiable immediacy.  Of course, it is through the general social acceptance of this representation as empirically valid that allows capitalist society to sustain itself, not as some sort of illusory veil pulled over the eyes of the masses, but as an historically specific reality.  In his dialectical unmasking of this ideological fetishization, Marx notes that

[t]he categories of bourgeois economics consist precisely of forms of this [relative] kind.  They are forms of thought which are socially valid, and therefore objective, for the relations of production belonging to this historically determined mode of social production, i.e., commodity production.  The whole mystery of commodities, all the magic and necromancy that surrounds the products of labour on the basis of commodity production, vanishes therefore as soon as we come to other forms of production.

And it is precisely this “representationalist” aspect of commodity fetishism that so constantly eludes the grasp of Object-Oriented Ontology.  Vigorously denying the legitimacy of “correlationist” philosophies, which hold that the objects of experience arrive to the subject only in the form of “representation,” Object-Oriented Ontology is unable to make sense of how the phenomenon of reification or commodity fetishism takes place.  Their realism is such that it simply tries to bypass the eidetic apprehension of reality.  This allows for their unfettered speculation into the constitution of the real, without having to bother with troublesome socio-epistemological questions of how subjects perceive and misperceive the world.  In fact, it is unclear whether or not the contemplative subject of post-Cartesian philosophy vanishes entirely.  This point is brought up in a brilliant comment by the poster Utisz, who highlights not only the methodological quandaries involved when Object-Oriented Ontology is forced to deal a counter-intuitive concept like commodity fetishism, but also the superficial way in which Marxist theory has been appropriated by members of the OOO movement.  His comment, which seems otherwise to have been ignored, runs as follows:

I think this would hold water if any of those who actually put forward OOO were that interested in Marx and showed any desire to acquaint themselves with debates within Marxism 1850-2011 or were by any stretch of the imagination political activists. They seem more interested in fighting ‘anthropocentrism’ and riffing on a strange combination of Leibniz, Whitehead and Arne Naess. I’d recommend reading a figure like Naess – this is the sort of thing we’re really dealing with here. Of course there’s an ‘orientation’ to things in Marx (critically not speculatively so, there’s the rub) as there was to objects in Hegel (critically and speculatively). But no analysis of things in today’s world can with any responsibility ignore or downplay their relation to labour or to the subject respectively. A better approach would be: no object-orientation without equal subject-orientation (the subject, yes, scandalously different from rocks and flowers and bacteria), no speculation without critical self-reflection, awareness of contradiction, paralogism, etc. Object-orientation is forever caught in a dualism flailing around trying to battle a supposed privelege of subject over object by merely plumping enthusiasticaly for the other. Abstrakte Negation. No Glasnost for me, I’m afraid.

Utisz hits the nail on the head when he mentions Object-Oriented Ontology’s obsessive mania to avoid anything that even remotely resembles “anthropocentrism.”  For the movement’s adherents, human beings are just one kind of object leading an unprivileged existence within a more inclusive “democracy of objects,” to use Bryant’s terminology (though I’m not quite sure how inhuman objects can constitute a demos).  So while Object-Oriented Ontology is quick to attribute the category of “agency,” a faculty usually reserved solely for human subjects, to non-human objects (Latour’s “actants”), it is slower to admit the qualitative difference of human agents from the rest of nature.  A microcosm of this tendency appears in Levi Bryant’s post concerning his rather opaque concept of “wilderness ontology,” in which he collapses the distinction between human and non-human architectural enterprises.  “[T]here is, in a wilderness ontology, no categorical distinction between the natural and the cultural, the human and the natural,” asserts Bryant.  “There is just a flat field where, occasionally, human creations happen to populate this field in much the same way that we occasionally come across the marvelous architectural feats of termites on the African and Australian plains.”  The astounding difference between anthills or termite mounds, which are the blind product of natural social instinct, and a modern skyscraper, a profoundly unnatural, geometricized conglomeration of synthetic materials like ferro-concrete and glass, designed by an architect or team of architects — all traces of this qualitative difference disappear within a shapeless mass of equivocation.

And this is what returns us, circuitously, to the problem of commodity fetishism in the first place.  For one of the most pernicious features of the commodity is its tendency to naturalize its own existence within the collective consciousness of society.  The existing social relations it engenders are reified into a bizarre sort of “second nature,” wity its own set of seemingly immutable laws and forces.  Or, as Lukács explained it:

[M]en are constantly smashing, replacing, and leaving behind the “natural,” irrational, and actually existing bonds, while, on the other hand, they erect around themselves in the reality that they have created and “made,” a kind of second nature which evolves with exactly the same inexorable necessity as was the case earlier with irrational forces of nature (more exactly: the social relations which appear in this form).

And this is what separates the speculative realist approach of Object-Oriented Ontology from the critical realist approach of Marxism.  There is nothing in the positive constitution of the commodity would suggest that there is anything peculiar about it; in enumerating its objective qualities, the social matrix that engendered it is nowhere to be found.  The analysis thus undertaken rises no higher than the level of the empirical, extracting only the metaphysical properties from the datum of immediate experience.  By contrast, the ruthlessly critical essence of Marxism presumes a radically anti-empirical approach to the study of reality.  Nothing is as it immediately seems.  For only through a rigorous dialectical investigation is one able to discover the quasi-theological roots of the commodity’s existence.  Through this method the underlying category of socially congealed labor-time is exposed, which allows for the possibility of exchange and a potential equivalence between otherwise fundamentally different objects of use.  The physical immediacy of the commodified object conceals its dark origins in the web of social relations, contained within its value-dimension.  In the case of commodity fetishism, a social relation between people becomes objectified as a permanent state of affairs that exists independent of their own activity, as “just the way things are.”  Or, as Lukács put it, “a relation between people takes on the character of a thing and thus acquires a ‘phantom objectivity,’ an autonomy that seems so strictly rational and all-embracing as to conceal every trace of its fundamental nature: the relation between people.”  Bryant thus rightly quotes a passage from Adorno that confirms this totalizing logic of homogeneity within capital and in the commodity fetish in particular:

The barter principle, the reduction of human labor to the abstract universal concept of average working hours, is fundamentally akin to the principle of identification. Barter is the social model of the principle, and without the principle there would be no barter; it is through barter that non-identical individuals and performances become commensurable and identical. The spread of the principle imposes on the whole world an obligation to become identical, to become total.

This passage simultaneously also demonstrates how Bryant misconceives Adorno’s critique of “identitarian thinking” in Negative Dialectics.  For Adorno is only trying to save that dialectical principle of non-identity, of the inadequacy of the concept to its logic.  He acknowledges that the logic of identity that dominates late capitalist society (“administered” society) is real, it is simply Adorno’s concern that theory does not become complicit with it.  It is only through the resolute apprehension of reality as dialectical, contradictory, and antagonistic that one’s thought avoids becoming a mere symptom of that reality.  But as Adorno would be the first to point out, facile emancipatory gestures toward the utopia that does not yet exist, impotent performances that simulate resistance or difference, are just as assimilable to the capitalist totality as those behaviors that are straightforwardly conformist.  And this is precisely why the “identity politics” of recent times falls prey to the homogenizing logic of our present social formation.  Clinging to instantiations of difference, performances that “defy” the normative or “challenge” the status quo become integral to the maintenance of the present order.  Or as Adorno’s true successor in critical theory, Moishe Postone, points out,

[T]he contemporary hypostatization of difference, heterogeneity, and hybridity, doesn’t necessarily point beyond capitalism, but can serve to veil and legitimate a new global form that combines decentralization and heterogeneity of production and consumption with increasing centralization of control and underlying homogeneity.

But to return to the original premise of the “liberation” of objects, a few words might be said.  The “liberation” of anything non-human is a decidedly abstract notion.  Unlike their non-human animal counterparts, humans are able to sublimate their primordial drives and urges in order to pursue rational action.  As Freud famously pointed out, this formed the entire basis for any further possibility of “civilization.”  For despite his animal origins, the first seeds of self-consciousness and free will were gradually awakened in the mind of man.  The natural instincts that drove him mindlessly toward the satisfaction of this or that primitive desire were gradually suppressed, and sacrificed so that man might cultivate the earth and himself along with it.  This is taught not only by Hegel in his dialectic of the master and the slave, but also (as mentioned) by Freud, who saw that the redirection or sublimation of these natural instincts toward conscious ends was a prerequisite for society.  “Sublimation of instinct is an especially conspicuous feature of cultural development; it is what makes it possible for higher psychical activities, scientific, artistic, or ideological, to play such an important part in civilized life,” wrote Freud.  “If one were to yield to a first impression, one would say that sublimation is a vicissitude which has been forced upon the instincts entirely by civilization. But it would be wiser to reflect upon this a little longer. In the third place, finally, and this seems the most important of all, it is impossible to overlook the extent to which civilization is built up upon a renunciation of instinct, how much it presupposes precisely the non-satisfaction (by suppression, repression, or some other means?) of powerful instincts.”

Humans, who can approximate or aspire toward the ideal of Kantian freedom, self-governing rational autonomy, apart from pathological drives, instincts, and inclinations, are therefore uniquely poised to take hold of the emancipatory opportunities offered by society.  Human liberty is thus a concrete, real thing, easily intelligible to anyone.  By contrast, concepts such as “animal liberation” or (in the present case) the “liberation of objects” are hopelessly abstract.  For what sort of rights or freedoms might an animal possess, slavishly following its most base instincts? Even more difficult to grasp is how objects might ever be “liberated” from their commodity form.  This liberation, should it be called such at all, would not be a liberation for the objects themselves, but for the society that utilizes them.

Here is where the notion of a “liberation” of objects from their “bondage” as commodities actually bears some semblance of truth.  As Marx justly observed, commodities predated the existence of capitalism, but capitalism arises only when commodities become the primary form of goods that are produced.  Once the primitive accumulation of capital ripened to the point where it could be unleashed upon a mass of workers freed from the countryside, commodity-production superseded by leaps and bounds all its competition.  From this point onward, as capitalist relations reproduced themselves through the constant selfsame mutation of capital through its money- and commodity-forms, the circulation of commodities became the primary site of the realization of value that had already been revalorized by labor.  With the capitalist social formation rapidly outstripping and assimilating rival modes of social existence, the objective quality of nearly every individual product everywhere was essentially commodified.  Furthermore, since capitalism is predicated on the notion of commodity-production being the predominant object of society’s labor, a postcapitalist society is only imaginable to the extent that the commodity-form can itself be overcome.  The objects that exist presently as commodities for exchange must be “freed” of their need to constantly valorize themselves through the processes of production and circulation, and must instead be directed toward society’s most vital needs.  Use-value, the old aspect of the commodity-form that was so frequently overshadowed under capitalism by exchange-value, would thus be gloriously resurrected in an emancipated society.  Artificial objects, materially appropriated from nature, would have as their societal intent the idea of how they might best be put to use, for the benefit of society writ large.  And so yes, if the notion of the “liberation of objects” is confined to this more modest proposition, then indeed the shackles of their commodification can be cast off for the good of all humanity, if not for themselves.

Models and Sketches from Nikolai Ladovskii’s Studio at VKhUTEMAS-VKhUTEIN (1922-1930)

The following models and sketches were produced by students at VKhUTEMAS (1921-1928) or VKhUTEIN (1929-1930), under the supervision of Nikolai Ladovskii, in his famous classes regarding architectural problems and formal solutions, unbound by physical constraints.  Though I will not be adding captions for each individual piece, I will say that they are in roughly chronological order:

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