Of Identity and Hubris

Identity, most certainly in the way Adorno and his sympathizers use this term, signifies a notion quite separate from that familiar to us in common usage. Identity has come to convey meaning upon the individual in a way which retains part of the material truth of existence but also reduces the uniqueness of individuals to descriptive groups and to ideal categories. Adorno insists upon non-identity with respect to individuals, that is to say he insists upon the non-identical-ness of individual objects in the world, be they beings or events, in order  to  counter hypostatization; a process by which objects are drained of their past. The object of perception is for Adorno, a conglomeration of its material affects; it is a palimpsest of sorts, conveying a history of its cultural construction. From this perspective aesthetics is not passively disinterested but critical and active.

Little has changed in the way architects consider aesthetic problems in so far as, current discourse, much like the haughty Victorianism which preceded it, remains dominated by the Kant / Hegel idealist view of the good. This is an aesthetics which has, at its conceptual centre, a deluding notion of abstract identity; of the talented; of the contemporary; of the authentic; of the original and of the beautiful. Objects of interest, precisely the products of the institution which calls itself Architecture, – writings, drawings, buildings and verbal statements- are subsumed into these ranked categories between which social notions of authority and power are projected. There is no sense in which any truth concerning the socio-political and socio-economic foundations of architectural production can be critically appraised. The products of architecture remain unexamined in terms of an extended socio-cultural analysis. Fetishised and deluding categories emerge consequent upon this abstraction, which play within an extended market of power exchange. Representative personalities, some of whom enjoy international celebrity, subsume, not merely an extended history of discovery in the tradition of Architecture itself, but also the effort and ability of all those who are employed and paid to comply. Celebrity in the cause of the production of Art is precisely, a function of the reduction of aesthetic categories to tradable abstractions. What is necessary for notoriety and thereby celebrity, is that categories of identity are commonly shared and ranked so that individuals can be associated with the highest good. Celebrity, from this perspective, is little more than the fetishisation of social rank.  Shakespeare’s famous maxim “Be not afraid of greatness; some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them.” reflects diachronically from the prospect of posterity. Celebrity on the other hand is manifestly synchronic, a phenomenon of the moment, trading in the present; conditions of this trading necessarily forgo those aspects of a material critique which would hinder its liquidity.

Primus inter pares[i] sets the context for modern celebrity in the arts in general and for architecture in particular. What is a useful deceit for the constriction of democratic political structures is the antithesis of critical praxis.  It is not the specificity of individuals, how they differ from others, but their identity[ii], how they are similar and in what they share in common, which permits this trading in social distinction. Tribal instincts are strong for architects who herd in nominal groups; traditional Modernists, neo-Modernists, Post-Modernists, Classicists, neo-Classicists, Deconstructivists. Such a will to tribalism defers the courage necessary to tell a specific truth. The pack mentality is a corollary of identity thinking. Those who are shocked by the hubris of architectural tribesmen would do well to think them indistinguishable from the herd. It is their braying which makes them donkeys.

[i] First among equals.

[ii] In philosophy, identity is the quality of being “the same as”.

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