There comes a moment (though not always) in research when all the pieces begin to fall into place, as in a jigsaw puzzle. But unlike the jigsaw puzzle, where all the pieces are near at hand and only one figure can be assembled (and thus the correctness of each move be determined immediately), in research only some of the pieces are available, and theoretically more than one figure can be made from them. In fact, there is always the risk of using, more or less consciously, the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle as blocks in a construction game. For this reason, the fact that everything falls into place is an ambiguous sign: either one is completely right or completely wrong. When wrong, we mistake for objective verification the selection and solicitation (more or less deliberate) of the evidence, which is forced to confirm the presuppositions (more or less explicit) of the research itself. The dog thinks it is biting the bone and is instead biting its own tail.
In this way Carlo Ginzburg and Adriano Prosperi synthesize the labyrinthine path of historical analysis and the dangers with which it is fraught, in one of the few recent volumes that have had the courage to describe, not the Olympian and definitive results of research, but rather its tortuous and complex iter. But why should we propose, at the beginning of a volume dedicated to the adventures of architectural language, the problem of the “jigsaw puzzles” characteristic of historical research? In the first place, we could answer that our intention is to follow an indirect path. Contrary to those who pose the theme of architectural writing — the term “language” should, it seems to us, be adopted only as a metaphor — we shall present the theme of critical writing: is it not the function of criticism to constitute the historical (and thus the real) specificity of artistic writings? Does not historical work possess a language that, entering perpetually into conflict with the multiple techniques of environmental formation, can function like litmus paper to verify the correctness of discourses on architecture?
Only in appearance, then, will we speak of something else. For how often, when probing what is on the fringes of a given problem, do we discover the most useful keys for dealing with the problem itself — particularly if it is as equivocal as the one that we are about to examine.
Let us further define our theme. Architecture, language, techniques, institutions, historical space: are we simply lining up on a wire stretched over a void a series of problems, each with its own intrinsic characteristics, or can we legitimately contest the “terms” used here to trace these problems back to an underlying or hidden structure, in which these words can find a common meaning on which to rest? It is no accident that we have reduced to “words” the density of historically stratified disciplines. Every time, in fact, that the critic’s zeal causes his guilty conscience to erupt, constructing linear routes that force architecture to migrate into language, language into institutions, and institutions into the all-encompassing universality of history, one feels the need to ask how such a totally illegitimate simplification could gain currency.
After the persuasive demonstrations of the untranslatability of architecture into linguistic terms, after Saussure’s discovery that language itself is a “system of differences,” after the calling into question of the conspicuous features of institutions, historical space appears to dissolve, to disintegrate, to become a justification for disordered and elusive multiplicity, a space of domination. Is this not the final outcome reached by a good part of the “Lacanian left” or by an epistemology of pure registration? And after all, is not architectural writing (this phantasm that we now recognize as divided and multiplied into techniques incommunicable among one another) itself an institution, a signifying practice — an ensemble of signifying practices — a multiplicity of projects of domination?
Is it possible to make a history from such “projects” without breaking away from them, without abandoning the multiple perspectives of history itself, and without inquiring into that which permits the very existence of history? Is it still necessary to remember that the totality of the capitalist means of production is a condition for both the cohesion and the diffraction of techniques, that the “mystical character of the commodity” breaks up and multiplies the relationships that are at the base of its own reproduction?
A series of questions confronts the historian who discovers the dishomogeneity of the materials of his work. These questions go to the very roots of historiographical work, uniting indissolubly the question of languages, of techniques, of sciences, of architecture, with that of the languages of history. But which history? Toward what productive ends? With what long-term objectives?
The questions that we are posing arise from a precise assumption. History is viewed as a “production,” in all senses of the term: the production of meanings, beginning with the “signifying traces” of events; an analytical construction that is never definite and always provisional; an instrument of deconstruction of ascertainable realities. As such, history is both determined and determining: it is determined by its own traditions, by the objects that it analyzes, by the methods that it adopts; it determines its own transformations and those of the reality that it deconstructs. The language of history therefore implies and assumes the languages and the techniques that act and produce the real: it “contaminates” those languages and those techniques and, in turn, is “contaminated” by them. With the fading away of the dream of knowledge as a means to power, the constant struggle between the analysis and its objects — their irreducible tension — remains. Precisely this tension is “productive”: the historical “project” is always the “project of a crisis.” Franco Rella writes:
Interpretive knowledge has a conventional character and is a production, a positing of a meaning-in-relation and not an uncovering of the meaning. But what is the limit of this operari, of this activity? What is the locus of this relationship? What lies behind the Fiktion of the subject, of the thing, of the cause, of the being? What, then, can bear this “awful plurality”? The body. “The phenomenon of the body is the richest, the most significant [deutlichere], the most tangible phenomenon: to be discussed first [voranzustellen] methodologically, without coming to any decision about its ultimate meaning.” This, then, is the limit of interpretation, that is to say the locus of the description… In fact, through criticism and the “plurality of interpretation” we have acquired the strength “not to want to contest the world’s restless and enigmatic character,” and in this way genealogy has proved itself to be a critique of values, for it has discovered the material origin of them, the body.
Thus emerges the problem of the “construction” of the object — disciplines, techniques, analytical instruments, long-term structures — to be put in crisis. Immediately the historian is confronted with the problem of the “origins” of the cycles and phenomena that are the objects of his study. But is it not precisely in the study of long-term phenomena that the theme of the origin seems mythological? However much Weber’s “ideal types” or Panofsky’s conceptual structures appear to be instrumental abstractions, is it not precisely in them that the fundamental difference between beginning and origin is posed? And why a beginning? Is it not more “productive” to multiply the “beginnings,” recognizing that where everything conspires to make one recognize the transparency of a unitary cycle there lies hidden an intertwining of phenomena that demands to be recognized as such?