Embodying Space. An Interview and Lived Spatiality (The Spaces of Corporeal Desire) – Elizabeth Grosz
by Sven Fawer
Elizabeth Grosz is an Australian philosopher and feminist theorists. She taught philosophy at various universities in Australia, the United States and Europe and is working as a professor in the field of feminist and gender Studies. She wrote her PhD on Psychoanalysis and social construction of subjectivity 1in 1980 at the University of Sydney. Her research field on 20thcentury French philosophers as Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida, Luce Irigaray or Gilles Deleuze makes her a central figure of a contemporary critical thinking in traditional ideas of space and body as well as an interesting reading for the discipline of architecture.
In Embodying Space. An Interview a personal approach by the author to the relativities between philosophy and humanities to architecture as a discipline is made. The Interview is in a way helpful to follow some of the thinking steps made in the second part, namely Lived Spatiality (The Spaces of Corporeal Desire). The Essay brings up the philosophical topic of subjectivity but also early deeper thoughts on situatedness in a recent concept of virtuality. A foreword to this publication is made by Peter Eisenman, who was at that time himself working on a referential field towards Jacques Derrida’s deconstructivism.
The beginning of the interview is a matter of Grosz’ personal interest in architecture and makes one thing clear: There is no interest in reinventing architectural thinking. Although she sees the complicity of architecture in traditional hierarchical systems, “it is the one discipline beyond philosophy and the humanities that is actually interested in, and in some ways committed to, what the humanities have to say”(Grosz, 1985 XX). She sees clearly that architecture has a general uncertainty as where to position its discipline but is at the same time on an eternal quest for self-definition, looking for it also outside of its field of work. I would probably remark at this point that there is an arrogance coming from architects’ side as well, similarly to what Grosz remarks in philosophy as critique about methods of all other disciplines. I would argue that it merely happens in a less open and eloquent way. Further, she mentions the opportunity in the production of metaphors in architectural practice, provoking philosophers but also evoking a productive interaction, especially for the future. It means that positions in architecture have and will always be understood by people “from the outside”. This is here not only a notion used by Grosz when she requests that architecture should open to its outside but a philosophical concept too referring to Gilles Deleuze. As Jacques Derrida’s deconstructivism, this could become a trend in architecture as well. Ideas like a denial of fixed entities when thinking about built structures and their becoming over time are central in this argument.
Deleuze opens also the field for a new question, namely virtuality, when he is speaking about technological openness of constructions. Marginally Grosz explains the concept of openness referring again on another French philosopher, Henri Bergson, who distinguishes between virtual and possible. The possibleas a “preformed version of the real”, virtualityas an openness of the future, something of surprise in relation to the actual and therefore something Grosz misses in architecture.
Along with the thematization of the virtual, a relativity between the body, or more precisely embodiment and architecture comes up. Following Elizabeth Grosz, the fact that itis something that is here and leave its traces in architecture, makes this concept an unspoken condition for the discipline. What is missed in an architectural context is the sexualized and racialized nature of embodiment. Interesting is here, again, an interlaced structure of real and fictional, where for her, virtual environments, designed in a rather patriarchic way, cannot provide an escape from reality due to fact that they are to be immerged from reality. Thus, one cannot liberate itself from the body…or the real. What one can maybe criticize at this stage is that this may apply to spaces of desire, but from the point of view of a disabled minority of today, technology can definitely have major positive escaping aspects of escaping reality.
But Grosz’s central message has no lack of deepness when she is basically saying we should understand the notion of body as it isbefore creating generic, virtual pictures of corporeality. The body-question being a traditional philosophical topic, is therefore set in quite contemporary context. In other words, the Cartesian concept of the body needs to be rethought fundamentally. She also detects a distinct lack of heterogeneity when it comes to the making of space, especially when saying “there has never been space by and for women”, what also applies to a queer society and is criticized by cyberfeminists in a virtual setting.
The essay, for his part, begins with an attempt to situate the body in a social context, as “theprimary sociocultural product” (Grosz 1985), as well as in space and time. At the same time Elizabeth Grosz certainly sees the difficulty to bring this concept of corporeality in a debate with a binary or dichotomous concept of society which includes also intellectual milieus. Subjectivities, spacialities and temporalities are seen as correlating notions through time or more precisely history, what takes us back to an obsolete Cartesian, patriarchic ideology. But for her, philosophy has its own portion of unreconstructed thinking too when mentioning some conceptualized theories of Freund about the ego “as a projection of the significance of the body for the subject”. This is what I would call a quite sensible sketching of a phantom body when it comes to sexuality or psychic diseases as hysteria. Grosz is also showing a related thought where she writes about the dichotomy between hypermasculinity and narcissism and further, body building actually complying both points.
Mimicry as tool of cheating one’s subjectivity in space through representing it. This is an approach Grosz gives us when mentioning French philosopher and sociologist Roger Caillois being himself a counterpart of the surrealist movement and requesting a stronger focus on the consciousness of individuals. In his theory of mimicry being a “dangerous luxury”, he uses a paradigm of camouflaging moths making themselves to victims because of confusion. Thus, camouflage is a way insects as well as predators perceive space, what is on the other hand referring to a form of psychosis described by French psychologist Pierre Janet, “in which the subject is unable to locate himself or herself in a position in space” (Grosz, 1985). According to Grosz, a complex entangling of the body’s position in space related to its other components fails in psychasthenia. Not only is a psychotic looking at him or her from the outside but is also being replaced by space itself instead of another subject. This sets the affliction equal to the concept of mimicry of insects. Coming back to a question of gender, she states that relevant theorists of the body like Freud, Lacan, Deleuze and many others have missed or yet rejected a determination of a sexual specifity and so been operating an active role in “a neutralization of the female sex”. Corporeality has thus always been constructed from a one-sided point of view, namely a white, male, European, middle class one, denying an alternative subjectivity.
A recurrence of a one-sidedness has taken place not only in science but also in a virtual space. Grosz clarifies here something I pointed out earlier. The localization of the virtual within an actual surrounding. She distinguishes cyberspace from VR with the concept of enabling one’s active participation versus a simple phenomenon in technology. But what is more important here is the disavowing way against feminity from technology trying to transcendent embodiment. The neutrality one can experience through disembodiment makes VR surely an attractive concept, but what Grosz criticizes here is its ugly fundament. Part of this problematic phenomenology is a culture of “something for nothing” referring to virtual sexual experiences described by cyberspace theorists Randall Walser and Howard Rheingold and can be read as an industry of fantasy merged with desire but mainly disconnecting body and subject. Those fantasies and thus their technological translations are for her “products of collective fantasies of the body’s forms and functions” (Grosz, 1985). Elizabeth Grosz concludes with her, in my eyes, main claim consisting of the production of knowledge and technology (or space) which is adequate for women too, in the best case made by women and not least the overcoming of men dominated conceptualizations of space.
1 Grosz, Elizabeth (1980). Psychoanalysis and social construction of subjectivity (PhD thesis). University of Sydney
All citations are from the publication itself:
Grosz, Elizabeth, «Embodying Space. An Interview», in: Architecture from the outside:Essays on Virtual and Real Space, Writing Architecture Series, MIT Press, Cambridge, 1985
VIEW (Virtual Interface Environmental Workstation), early“telepresence” research in the late 1980s at the NASA-Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, led by media-artist and director Scott S. Fisher.Photo by W. Fisher / S. Fisher, Courtesy of Scott Fisher, NASA-Ames Research Center