Katarxis Nº 3
the Structure of Things
There is an entry at Britannica.com for
Poststructuralism, the philosophy of the
“social construction” of meaning that informs many of
today’s movements in art:
…It held that language is not a
transparent medium that connects one directly with a
“truth” or “reality” outside it but rather a structure
or code, whose parts derive their meaning from their
contrast with one another and not from any connection
with an outside world.
This is of course an over-simplification, as these
things usually are; nevertheless, for this discussion it
will do well enough.
For poststructuralists, the project of art is largely a project
of liberation from authoritarian meanings constructed by
elites. It is a recognition of the artificiality of
such meanings, and therefore of their illegitimate claim
to “objective reality.” On the contrary, meaning is
shown to be emergent in the structure of language and
culture, and therefore, participatory in its essence.
Meaning is a personal and social construct, to be built
with others in a participatory fashion.
There is an aspect of the underlying assertion about
language that conforms well with the latest
insights in science and mathematics; but there is
another aspect of this assertion that is entirely
inconsistent. That is the distinction I want to take up
The conforming aspect is that structure is connected to
meaning, or rather, that meaning emerges from structure.
Philosophers of science have struggled for centuries to
resolve a duality at the heart of science: the
schism between the subjective world of qualitative experience and
the objective structural world of quantitative "facts." This
schism has slowed progress in fields as diverse as
neuroscience, cognition, genetics, even physics itself.
insights are pointing to a powerful resolution of the
paradox of how "nature lifeless" could result in "nature
alive," as Whitehead put it.
New insights into the
phenomenon of life suggest that it is
indeed a vastly complex kind of emergent structure, and that feeling and subjectivity
arise from this structure. There is no need to posit a
It is vital to understand that this does not
“psychologise” meaning, explain it away as a structural
trick or an artificial property of structure. (I
need hardly point out that such a trick would do nothing
to resolve the ongoing mystery of meaning, but only push
it off into yet another inaccessible
Rather it makes
meaning an immanent trait of structure, a latent
property to be articulated and amplified in structure.
It is in essence an a priori, to be
participated in directly, but not to be explained in terms simpler
than itself – for there are none. Nonetheless
it is emergent from structure, and shaped, amplified and
conditioned by it.
Hence language can indeed amplify and transform meaning, in the
brain of the animal that experiences it. In this sense
it can indeed be “socially constructed.”
But there is an aspect of the poststructuralists'
analysis that does not conform to scientific
understanding -- indeed, I argue is entirely
inconsistent with it. It is the assertion that
language has no connection to any supposed “outside
reality”. This massive epistemological step was
taken to get around the usual ontological quagmire:
what we mean by “reality,” what is meant by its
“objective” status, who gets to determine this, what
elite and arbitrary power do they have, and so on.
want to dispense with all that. Whether
there may or may not be an “objective reality” beyond
irrelevant. For their purposes, “there is nothing
outside the text,” in the words of Derrida. This
simplifies and clarifies things enormously.
But there is a fundamental self-contradiction in
the poststructuralists' effort. Their attempt to
deny objective reality is a perfect mirror of the
positivists' denial of subjective reality before them.
In doing so each seeks to deny a metaphysical discussion
that might unite the two. But such an effort leads to
inexorable logical contradictions.
For to deny the reality
of a metaphysical realm is itself a metaphysical
In the bargain the
poststructuralists enter a fatally troublesome
semiotic hall of mirrors. As Eco pointed out, the thing
about semiotics is that a sign can only be a sign if it
signifies something. The meaning of a thing has
to originate in the structure of space in some way – in
the structure of the real physical world.
The scientific untenability of the post-structuralist
epistemological position has been demonstrated in a
variety of ways, including Sokal’s famously scandalous
spoof. For scientists, it is exceedingly difficult to
say anything coherent and useful about the physical
world when one posits that it is entirely a subjective
creation, or at any rate that it must be treated as such.
But such a quagmire results when one posits two distinct
realms, the "physical" world and some other world of
meaning, value, feeling, spirit, life -- precisely the
divide that the new sciences demonstrate is no longer
necessary. The world is structural; and it
is meaningful. This is a powerful insight.
And it does not require the poststructuralists'
is now emerging a new way of looking at things that I
will call "symmetric
structuralism." The term “symmetry” refers here to an
isomorphic property between two structures, such that
one has “symmetrical” (same-measure) aspects in relation
to the other. Importantly, these features will be
simpler than either structure in total. They will
be, in essence, abstracted structural relationships.
But in each case they will nonetheless be real features
of the "real" world, and "really" related to one another
in the structural way in question.
Thus "abstraction" does
not require some "unreal" realm; it simply exists as a
class of structural relationship.
In this view, language is only one form of symmetrical
structure, in a universe that is loaded with it.
Symmetry in this sense is very nearly identical to the
notion of “information” – but it reminds us that information
is always information about something, some real
structure in space. That is, one construct (language, DNA,
etc.) has a structure that is
in some way isomorphic with respect to another.
This isomorphic characteristic can be exceedingly
abstract. For example, I happen to have my father’s
blue eyes: that is a direct and visible symmetry, and
not at all abstract. But
it is transmitted through genetic information that is
exceedingly abstract relative to the actual
characteristic of the eye itself. It is, by
definition, much simpler than the actual embedded phenomenon
that it codes for. In fact there may be virtually no
information about the appearance of the eye itself –
only simple rules for expressing proteins that in fact
will grow into the structure I recognise as being
symmetrical to my father’s eyes. The results may well
be emergent and unpredictable.
None of this matters in nature. The information – the
symmetry – is retained, perhaps re-adapted in some way,
The important point to grasp here is that language is
simply another form of symmetry in nature -- more
specifically, a coded symmetry. And it is
the failure to properly account for that fact – to posit
some separate, unconnected realm of language and human
meaning – that gets us into such a hall of mirrors.
This view of things (this model, or this symmetric
structure!) can get us out again, and into the
full-blooded world of structure -- and emergent meaning.
Further, this view of things
carries profound implications for our art, our
architecture, and our intelligent interaction with a
The deficiency of the
poststructuralists is precisely that they can do nothing
about the "real" world, because they deny the very basis
on which we would know about this world and
intelligently interact with it. All we can do is
construct shared meanings about our plight.
Meanwhile, we seem to have no responsibility for it,
because we have no power to act. We literally have no
ability to respond.
Hence the necessary
abandonment by the deconstructivists, and other related
neo-modernists, of any project of betterment for
humanity, save a better and richer experience of art.
At best, even that is "inter-subjective."
cannot possibly make architecture that improves the
quality of people's lives, because there is no agreement
-- no possible agreement -- on what that might mean. Such a "meaning" would merely represent the hegemony of
one privileged elite viewpoint over others. Who is
to say, for example, that car exhaust is bad for people over time,
or that a
disordered environment is psychologically damaging? Such
claims are merely the narratives of professional elites
from medicine and psychology, imposing their own
Nor is there any hope of
making architecture that is balanced and sustainable,
like nature, or like the exquisitely-adapted patterns of old and venerable
human settlements. Rather, to achieve
"sustainability," specialist engineers, part
of the technocracy, might perhaps step in and provide
some new apparatus that will form the basis for more
architectural art. They might, or they might not
-- but we as artists must deconstruct that reality, and
work with it. We must accept this rigid
technological reality, and hope for some miraculously
sustainable gadgets within it. We might imagine
that such a thing is possible as part of some mythic
There is another problem
with learning any lessons from the patterns of history.
Since all is semiotics, structural lessons offered by
history inevitably come with unacceptable
political baggage, and therefore can offer no useful
bits of DNA. We must always start fresh, and
relentlessly pursue novelty. We may use
bits of historic structure, but only as an ironic
referent to be deconstructed.
This desperate poststructuralist
architecture is perhaps an
extreme view of things, and indeed many architects have
claimed to disavow it; but the fact remains that its fundamental
epistemology is ingrained in global culture and global
architecture in the late
twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. That
is why, far from being an odd fringe movement, poststructuralism represents a logical final expression
of the segregated Western view of structure and meaning,
objectivity and subjectivity, or, as Whitehead put it,
"nature lifeless" and "nature alive."
That is why I argue that
poststructuralist art is not the flowering of a new
paradigm, but the last expression of a dying one --
collapsing into inexorable self-contradiction.
But a view
of the world that follows on what I have called
symmetric structuralism looks completely different.
Since all is structure -- including language -- we can
use language to construct isomorphic models of the human
condition, and models of various scenarios to extricate
ourselves from whatever situation we find untenable.
We can construct "pattern languages" that assemble bits
of structure in new ways.
We can also now clearly
recognise that any symmetry, any isomorphism, any code,
deletes or ignores vast amounts of information.
Every physical construct is embedded in an infinitely
complex context, and the symmetrical relation is
precisely its extrication, its abstraction, from this
embedded context. ("An abstraction," said
Whitehead, "is nothing other than an omission of part of
This allows us to better
understand the essential incompleteness of knowledge and
modelling, and the limits of human intelligence.
Paradoxically such a recognition makes us more
This brings us back to
the poststructuralists' territory of political
liberation, after a fashion. Yes, every culture
and every group constructs its own models about the
world and their place in it. But these are simply
isomorphic structures: not artificial "social constructs" with no relation
to any "objective" reality. But as isomorphic
structures they are all essentially partial and
incomplete; and no one model has, in totality, an
advantage over others. It may have advantages in
some areas -- greater isomorphic fidelity, we might say
-- but may just as easily carry
disadvantages in other areas.
Therefore a culture that
imposes its own modelling system over others does so
with no justification other than the old Platonic
fallacy of justice as the will of the stronger.
On the other hand, such a
view does suggest another kind of modelling system, a
pluralist one that allows diversity of sub-systems.
The meta-system would require some reasonable allocation
of free rein within each sub-system, with an
over-arching regime of agreed human rights.
Moreover, human beings
can join together to construct meanings not only in
representation, but in reality. Constructed forms
can be not merely stand-alone iconic representations, but
connective portals to richer meaning and quality.
They can exploit deep symmetries, resonances, connective
complexity. They can embody greater feeling, and
"spirit". They can exploit the adaptive
characteristics of nature, and attain its stability and
sustainability. They can knit together a
fabulously rich new kind of human culture.
That, I assert, can be an enormously powerful thing.