Time Matters: On Temporality in the Anthropocene
Architecture is often, and for readily apparent reasons, considered through spatial perspectives, but its intersection with the Anthropocene—what the Anthropocene demands—is nothing less than a reconsideration of architecture’s temporal qualities. In an era where we see intense changes in weather, species, and geology at an unprecedented rate, the question of time is increasingly impinging on us. Indeed, the ways that architecture shifts, changes, transforms, degrades, breaks down, and evolves herald particular kinds of futures through its various territorializations and movements over time.
Elizabeth Grosz has been engaging with precisely these questions of duration, life, transformation, evolution, and time for at least the past decade. In her own book on architecture, Architecture from the Outside: Essays on Virtual and Real Space (2001), she suggests that architecture’s outside, that which affords a perspective, is precisely the question of time. Time is that which both subtends and expands or dilates space, and its consideration can push spatial practices such as architecture in different directions, towards different ways of living or inhabiting. Grosz tackles the subject of architecture again in her 2008 book Chaos, Territory, Art: Deleuze and the Framing of the Earth, but with a different emphasis. Here, architecture is placed as the “first art,” in Deleuze’s sense, as the marking of a territory that temporarily and provisionally allows chaos to slow enough for new intensities to be felt and to emerge. This framing of the earth signifies the origins of architecture, which provides the basis upon which other arts manifest themselves. It is, like all the other arts, not exclusively human, but is a property of life itself—its endless proliferation in and through difference.
Time, as the condition for the emergence of difference, is central to Grosz’s thought. As she says in her most recent book, Becoming Undone, “I would prefer to understand life and matter in terms of their temporal and durational entwinements. Matter and life become, and become undone. They transform and are transformed.” It is this capacity for transformation, for self-overcoming that, she insists, is the “condition for the emergence of art, for the eruption of collective life, and for the creation of new forms of politics, new modes of living.” It is precisely through the privileging of evolutionary time that life can be understood through its excessiveness, through its continual transformation, offering a mode of self-overcoming. And it is an overcoming of philosophy, of the humanities, by way of thinking the human in its place—as simply one species among many which emerged, flourished, and will eventually go extinct—that Grosz asks us to consider. By looking at the human through the lens of deep time, Grosz offers a new approach to philosophy, as well as to architecture. Her clarity and unflinching vision, which avoids both romantic and nihilistic pitfalls, continues to profoundly mark contemporary philosophy. It was with considerable pleasure that we posed to her these questions on how to think through architecture under contemporary geologic conditions.
Heather Davis & Etienne Turpin In the essay “Technical Mentality,” Gilbert Simondon advances a schema whereby processes of individuation occur on the level of objects themselves. In his words, “if one imagines an object that, instead of being closed, offers parts that are conceived as being as close to indestructible as possible, and others by contrast in which there would be concentrated a very high capacity to adjust to each usage, or wear, or possible breakage in case of shock, of malfunctioning, then one obtains an open object that can be completed, improved, maintained in the state of perpetual actuality.” In many ways, this objective of being maintained in a state of perpetual actuality, in a continual process of individuation, seems to be one of the goals of architecture, or architectural projects broadly speaking. At the same time, we live in an era where the obsolescence of buildings is increasingly expedited, even as their accumulation, sedimentation, and transformation into landfills becomes a contributor to what we have come to know as the Anthropocene. In our contemporary moment, what is the evolutionary force of architecture?
Elizabeth Grosz Architecture is both an evolutionary invention, one not made by man but one that perhaps made man’s emergence possible (the human requires architecture, protection, territory in its loosest sense, a non-possessable milieu, to become man and perhaps even to move beyond man). And it is itself always open to evolutionary forces, forces of destruction even more than of construction or reconstruction, always being re-contextualized, transformed both within and in its architectural and natural contexts. A building has a finite life, even if it extends beyond its currently living occupants; it tends to become rubble without active intervention. What Simondon suggests about the technical object is that its parts may be replaceable, but to the extent that an object can evolve, change its design, become something else, it must still retain some kind of form, a plan, a finality, a functionality. The object, whether a technical object or a natural or cultural object, is no less prey to evolutionary forces than any other identity or form of cohesion. But as a technical object (like a building), many of its parts can be “upgraded,” “renovated” without fundamentally transforming it; or equally, it is capable of being thoroughly transformed, a new building on an old foundation, a new building behind an old façade, in a more or less continuous movement. Evolution, as opposed to invention, always proceeds through continuity, just as invention involves the sudden cohesion or a new way of operating of many parts that may preexist the invented object.
HD&ET In Architecture from the Outside, you write: “Architecture relies on a double nature—nature as standing reserve, as material to be exploited and rewritten, but also a nature that is always the supersession and transformation of limits and thus beyond the passivity of the reserve or the resource, nature as becoming or evolution.” In the time of the Anthropocene, a period that marks itself by human intervention as much as by a surpassing of the human, how does the place of architecture change? Given the current force of evolutionary momentum, torqued and sped up to the point of human time, what futures can architecture create or inhabit? Does this necessitate an engagement with the untimely in architecture and design? Do the pressures of the Anthropocene force an evolutionary becoming of architecture at the same rate as the rest of the biological world, or as a creative gesture of futurity? Or, does our continued (biological, cultural, and economic) reliance upon nature as standing reserve draw architecture back into a necessarily reactive position?
EG This is a very complex set of questions. Architecture as we know it, human architecture, is one of the products or creations of, as well as one of the preconditions for, the age of man, if such a thing exists. It depends, of course, on how long one dates the Anthropocene, whether from the industrial revolution or from the emergence of human civilization in Africa, Asia and elsewhere. In linking the Anthropocene to the industrial revolution and beyond, for example, architecture becomes a possession; it becomes fixed, and linked less to the marking of territory than to its inhabitation. It becomes the place where living becomes separated from the lives of others. It becomes the place for the worker who produces commodities. It becomes a commodity, and then one that signifies as well as functions, that can be read just as much as it can be used or inhabited. Architecture, like all art, has the potential, or capability, of addressing and bringing into existence new qualities, new forces, new ways of living, new forms of connection and disconnection from social relations. But equally, it tends to function, like most forms of art, as a commodity more than as a mode of art. As such, the cheaper and more appealing to buyers and renters, the more consumable architecture is; the more driven by commodity production and consumption, the more “successful” it is. So architecture, in short, has the capacity to both extend man’s destruction of the environment, but also, at its best but much more rarely, it retains the capacity to invent new modes of co-existence, more sustainable ways of living and more aesthetic experiences of inhabitation.
Nature as standing reserve is nature as an endless resource to be consumed without thought. Here nature is not seen as having a force of its own, but as raw material for human ends or goals that may be imposed on or extracted from it. Clearly, we are at an historical moment when this raw resource will no longer be capable of sustaining billions of people in the same way that socially and nationally privileged subjects live. It will be only through an invention, not only at an architectural but also at agricultural and environmental levels, that new kinds of building, and new kinds of coexistence, might become possible. I don’t want to suggest, however, that the age of man can be overcome by man. This is perhaps the very same arrogance that produced the Anthropocene, the human tendency to believe in its own power, its problem-solving capacities, even as it has undertaken ruinous activity that imperils other forms of life. It is only hubris that leads us to believe that if the human has polluted and nearly destroyed vast environments, it can somehow restore what it has destroyed. It may be that we have not only summoned up a new architecture, new arts, new ways of living, but new forms of self-destruction, new ways of overcoming the human, new ends for architecture.
HD&ET How do we think the time of the future without humans? In other words, is the time of the future, that is, the becoming of humankind and its speculative evolution, an encounter with the virtual of the human as species? Is the future of humanity, as a nonhuman future, thus a time of the virtual? Does the nature of the virtual change if there is no time of the present, at least to humans?
EG Time exists without us. It is we who cannot exist or conceive of ourselves without it. Time continues whether we exist or not, for it is the condition of every existence, every object, natural or technical, every universe, and even the origin of all universes. The future may not involve an encounter with the human; its virtualities may just as readily be left un-actualized as a future life form elaborates them according to its interests. Will the human be an object of reflection for that which replaces the human? Who is to know? The past, the present, and the future do not require the human to exist and to function: just as the human emerged, gradually, through the elaboration and evolution of primates, so too the human will disappear, as an inevitability, given an indeterminate time span. Whatever the human provides for the future, or for any future species, will only emerge from what that species may require; otherwise the human will remain an un-actualized virtuality, no different than any other extinct species. Time, as simultaneously virtual and actual, past and present, will continue in precisely its own way, even without the presence of the human. The present abides, continuously, ceaselessly, whether observed, or experienced, or not.
HD&ET What brings you back, again and again, to questions of time? For at least the past decade, you have been reading and writing on Bergson, Darwin, Deleuze, and Irigaray, talking about the evolutionary time that subtends other systems, but with variation and difference in each of their iterations in your latest books. What happens to thought itself in this process of durational unfolding? How does thinking change against, or in relation to, the changing horizon of deep time?
EG One of the things that attracted me to Bergson in particular was his idea that the present contains all of the past within it, carrying it as it continuously transforms itself. The earliest events—even those bound up with the very origins of the universe, long before the evolutionary emergence of life—do not cease to have their effects on everything that is subsequent, even if they are restructured, given new impact and force, made meaningful, in their present effects. In other words, every actual present is subtended by the virtual entirety of the past. So deep time, the time of the universe’s unfolding, the construction of the earth and all that appears on it, the eruption of life forms, all the momentous and unpredictable emergences never cease; they function both as an historical horizon but also as unspent forces, forces whose effects have not been used up by all the time that has separated the present from its primordial past. Thinking can appear only at a certain moment within this evolutionary framework, as an effect of a certain degree of complexity of the body, or, as Simondon might suggest, as a result of a set of tensions at the level of the organism that requires a new order, a new mode of existence to be invented or individuated. Thinking is made in durational flow, but, as Bergson suggests, that which can think does not necessarily think its own durational invention and elaboration. Thinking is a product or effect of life lived in a hazardous world; its emergence solves a problem by creating a new level at which the problem might be addressed, if not solved. So it is not clear, as Bergson suggests of intelligence, whether thought can adequately think duration, even as it exists only as an effect of evolutionary duration. This is what I have struggled to address in the last decade: how to think time, given that time’s force is more lived, more qualitative than it is measurable, countable or mappable, which are all spatial qualities?
HD&ET Even within the writing itself—your particular aesthetic, that is—there are moments when your texts feel like a kind of musical score, with a refrain that gets repeated, both to induce a feeling of difference as well as produce something new. Deleuze and Guattari talk about the refrain as a particular kind of repetition that has the capacity to create thought, and mark the territory of thought. Is it possible to think of this kind of repetition in architectural terms—not as a scaffolding, nor in the sense of infrastructure, but in the sense of processes of territorialization?
EG Yes, I do think that there is something of the refrain, and of rhythm, in architecture, in the flows of movement, of bodies, practices, but also of air, heat, cold, electricity, and the internet, as well as the flow of materials that are used in construction. Each of these forms a refrain, a melodic tracing out of space to form a bounded territory within which qualities, particularly rhythms and temporalities, can emerge. Repetition, or perhaps seriality, is a condition of architecture, and there can be great beauty in the orders of repetition, through the spacing, materials, and movements that architecture creates. It is significant, though, that Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the refrain places architecture in a different position than music. As the “first art,” the art that enables all the other arts to emerge, architecture has a more primordial connection to the earth, to location and territory, than any other art. It is only through the “construction” or creation of a circle of safety that the refrain can emerge as such and condition the eruption of music, painting, dance and the other arts. This is architecture in its most primitive and animal form—the marking of land, whether by scent, through walking trails or a fence, and its forms of occupation, whether nomadic or sedentary. At this most elementary level, architecture is rhythm attached to the earth, a rhythm that enables other rhythms to escape their location, to deterritorialize themselves, to function elsewhere, anywhere.
HD&ET Since writing Architecture from the Outside, have you seen any shift in the relationship of architecture to gender or political economy? The postcolonial theorist Dipesh Chakrabarty, in his essay “The Climate of History,” emphasizes that while the Anthropocene has consequences for the whole species—especially in relation to climate change—it is perpetuated unevenly among the species. That is, within a patriarchal, capitalist system, those who create new risks by accelerating climate change are rarely those closest to their consequences. How would you articulate the significance of gender in the context of the Anthropocene and its political economic consequences?
EG The simple answer is no, I haven’t seen much of a change in the relationship between architecture and gender, though no doubt there are more women in architecture than ever before, and more women winning big commissions and projects. But along with Irigaray, I would say that architecture and its associated disciplines—design, urban planning, engineering—are just as male-dominated, as gender-, race-, and class-privileged as any cultural practice, and more so than most of the arts. There is no reason it must be this way, except for a history that has privileged certain kinds of practices and certain kinds of subjects over other possibilities. Climate change, the poisoning of the atmosphere, the extinction of countless species, has undoubtedly been effected by those who regulate large amounts of energy, something rarely accessible to most women throughout human history. The history of human accomplishment thus far is primarily both a history of self- and other-destruction, and a history of masculine privilege (among other things). If men and privileged masculine practices are responsible for climate change, this does not mean that, as usual, women should be assumed to be those who nurture, restore to health and heal the world (and humanity). Nor should be assumed that masculine privilege can somehow fix or overcome the harm it has produced, even if it could do so.
HD&ET The theorist Tom Cohen uses the term “telemorphosis” to describe how, within the context of contemporary environmental collapse, the spatial and temporal distance that humans once held between themselves and their actions is rapidly diminishing. In your own work, you’ve argued, contra Kant, that “space and time remain conceivable insofar as they become accessible for us corporeally.” While our corporeal experience of the Anthropocene seems to be largely at odds with our biological survival (by way of chemical contamination, toxicosis, radiation, extreme weather events, etc.), do you think there is an embodied relation that can be productive of an ethics or a politics for the contemporary?
EG That is the question of the present. I don’t know. I don’t know how we can mobilize, nor which ethical and political terms may be useful for such a mobilization of human energy toward a given goal and the prevention of such a collapse. All ethics and politics are always already embodied, lived and enacted by bodies of various types in different social and geographical spaces. But we have not found an ethics or politics adequate to the overwhelming problems the human—or at least, the dominant forms of the human—has produced. No one seems to have provided a strategy for collective action, as there seems to be no way these large, almost intractable problems can be addressed without broad collective agreement. The polarization and (party) politicization of responses to problems like climate change ensure that there is no immediately foreseeable ways of addressing these questions as shared dilemmas and collective responsibilities.
HD&ET Gilles Deleuze, in his reading of Spinoza, argues for the necessity of an ethology of affects that can preserve the specificity of the body outside of more abstract concepts of genera or species. This is precisely what Deleuze and Guattari, in A Thousand Plateaus, call ethics. Just as you have inquired about an ethology of language, we would like to ask if there could be an ethology of architecture? Can architecture produce an ethics—perhaps an “untimely” ethics—that could leverage a kind of ethology of buildings or the built environment?
EG The question of an ethics of affect in the field of architecture is a complex one, one that at least some architects are attempting to address, in whatever inventive ways they can—see, for example the adventurous architecture of Arawaka and Gins, which challenges the body out of its habitual modes while bringing about a new, almost counter-intuitive body—the way architecture impacts on and transforms the body to bring out joyous affects and to diminish sad affects, to extend life or inhibit it. This is not, however, typical of most architecture, which aims at a functionality that is as inexpensive and open to ready transformation (including its own redundancy) as possible. There are two quite different directions that an ethics or ethology of architecture may take: one is the direction of responsible, sustainable housing, in which the environment is impacted as little as possible and the costs of production are as small as possible. This produces an architecture that tries to serve a common good, to bring about a functionality that is practical for large and growing populations. The other direction is more experimental, where buildings are produced not as cheaply and functionally as possible, but rather through innovative, often unrepeatable designs that address engineering, construction, or aesthetic qualities in inventive ways. This is an ethics with a different orientation, without a clear-cut moral imperative, an ethics of the new, aligned more with art than politics. Sometimes—rarely—these two orientations are seen in a common project. More commonly, though, they tend to be two ethical or ethological directions (perhaps the two directions that also mark natural and sexual selection) between which architects must chose. The second approach is no doubt more untimely than the first, which orients itself precisely to the needs of the present and the immediate future.
HD&ET Could architecture, in your view, produce evolutionary-becomings? You have written that “[t]he living body is itself the ongoing provocation for inventive practice, for inventing and elaborating widely varying practices, for using organs and activities in unexpected and potentially expansive ways, for making art out of the body’s capacities and actions.” The pressures that produce or provoke these becomings are both internal and external to the body itself, and to the body’s own processes of territorialization, which themselves could produce further becomings. Is this an approach we can use to determine how architecture is interiorized, how it is entangled in the evolutionary process itself?
EG Yes, I have no doubt. The built environment is for most of us in the developed world the context in which “natural selection” occurs, the frame through which the world impacts the body, whether it is through natural events, like various disasters, hurricanes, earthquakes, storms, or cultural, economical or political events, wars, and crises. Cities have become our “habitats,” putting as much external pressure that we must internally regulate as natural selection does within a purely natural order. Social and cultural life does not transform natural selection; it simply orients it to different criteria that are economic and social rather than biological. Architecture produces at least some of the key elements that constitute the milieu in which forces affect living beings. It is also one of the objects of evolutionary-becoming itself, always developing new forms, new materials in new ways. This is the political and ethical potential of architecture that we discussed earlier.
HD&ET Despite the increasing tendency of architecture, as a discipline and profession, toward advertisement, spectacle, and self-promotion, there remains an important struggle to articulate connections between architecture practices and the world within which the human attempts to survive, which, at the same time, it also produces. In this regard, can architecture contribute to the generation of critical ecologies?
EG Of course it can. Architecture at its best is about providing a constructed environment which, on the one hand, contributes as little as possible to further ecological destruction, and on the other produces spatial and aesthetic experiences that enable new forms of subjectivity and new forms of social engagement to emerge. Architecture is capable of not only developing new forms of design, but also new materials that are attentive to the habitat from which they are taken, as well as the habitat to which they now contribute. This is an architecture in which humans, designers and builders, as well as inhabitants, come to acknowledge the debt they owe to the natural forces that make their endeavours possible. Such an architecture is not only possible, but actual, even though it tends to defy the usual conditions under which architecture is commissioned and built.
HD&ET The human, as a type of body (one that obviously contains a huge variety of forms and variations), possesses the corporeal and technical capacities that enable us to radically transform the earth in ways that were even a short time ago quite unimaginable. This is due, in large part, to the scale of the human as a species. In the turn to the Anthropocene, can we begin to see the collective enunciation of the human? Could we read this as a kind of evolutionary death drive?
EG This capacity for radical transformation is a function of scales of population, but even more it is a function of the scale of technologies that are now capable of terra-forming any region, leveling everything to even out a terrain in a very rapid period of time. We can now clear a forest in a matter of days, if not hours, with drastic repercussions for all forms of life sustained there, including, indirectly, the human itself. I don’t think that it is a death drive, although it is a drive that will in the longer term result in extinction: in this situation, death—extinction—is an inevitable Malthusian conclusion from the rise in populations rather than an orientation or drive from within species and individuals. The concept of the Anthropocene, in noting human exceptionalism, also participates in it. Man is not a more dangerous species than any other; but like all other species, whose species-existence is finite, this species will inevitably, over time, evolve or become extinct. Species come into existence and become extinct. Their activities may imperil the lives of those that share their environment. Man is no different. His technology increases the rate of change, the scale of change and the feedback consequences of ecological upheaval; but it does not change the nature of extinction. We have no need to posit an internal death drive that regulates humans from within, to the extent that humans already have an external limit on the ability of any environment to support their activities, for any sustained length of time.
HD&ET We are thinking here of how you describe Darwin’s account of evolution as “each species, each bodily form, orients the world and its actions in it, according to its ability to maximize action in the world, the kinds of action that its particular evolved bodily form enables.”  At the same time, the death drive is not a simple desire for death; it is, at least according to the accelerationism of Nick Land, a tendency to dissipate energy in ways “utterly alien to everything human.” Is this creative, extravagant excess, this energetic dissipation, not also part of the evolutionary process? Could it be a part of an ethology, or ethics, of the human as it encounters itself, and its own aggregate force, in the Anthropocene?
EG Yes, I believe that it is: evolution is not only the operation of natural selection, the struggle of life and death, the “survival of the fittest” (to use A.R. Wallace’s definition of natural selection), but also the operation of sexual selection which generates often extravagant, spectacular, and excessively perceptible organs, bodily characteristics and capacities that are linked to attraction and taste, a tendency not entirely compatible with natural selection. This means that not only is there an excess of life over death in the existence of species (a function of natural selection), but there is also an excess of features characterizing life that have little do with survival and much to do with sexual attractiveness. This is indeed part of evolution as Darwin conceived it, although there is a strong tendency in contemporary biology to reduce sexual selection to natural selection and to seek in such features a secret discernment of survival and reproduction (beauty equals healthiness). I don’t know how this might guide an ethics of ethology; it is very difficult to generate an ethics that incorporates not only everyday relations of sociality but also sexual and intimate relations, which perhaps function according to a different logic. Does excess and extravagance generate the possibility or actuality of an ethology? And what might such an ethology look like?
- Elizabeth Grosz, Chaos, Territory, Art: Deleuze and the Framing of the Earth (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 3.
- Elizabeth Grosz, Becoming Undone: Darwinian Reflections on Life, Politics, and Art (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 5.
- Ibid., 8.
- Gilbert Simondon, “Technical Mentality,” trans. Arne de Boever, Parrhesia 7 (2009): 4.
- Elizabeth Grosz, Architecture from the Outside: Essays on Virtual and Real Space (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2001), 101.
- Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Climate of History: Four Theses,” in Critical Inquiry 35 (Winter 2009): 197–222.
- See Tom Cohen, ed., Telemorphosis: Theory in the Era of Climate Change, Volume 1 (Ann Arbor: Open Humanities Press/MPublishing, 2012).
- Grosz, Architecture from the Outside, 32.
- Grosz, Becoming Undone, 20.
- Ibid., 22.
- Nick Land, Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987–2007, ed. Robin MacKay and Ray Brassier (London: Urbanomic, 2011), 283.