Is describing already an act of transforming?

Jane Rendell

For ALLES IST SCHON DA, we have borrowed from Jane Rendell the quote “to transform rather than describe” to mark our intention to define urban curating as a practice of relational intervention. She is a central influence and inspiration, when we come to define our work as queer and feminist urban curators. Jane Rendell has coined Critical Spatial Pracitce (2006) and Site-Writing (2010) as terms and as practices. She is professor of Critical Spatial Practice at the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, MA Situated Practice, MA Architectural History and director of the Bartlett’s Ethics Commission.

“To transform rather than to describe” – this phrase comes from the introduction to Art and Architecture: A Place Between1 , where I introduce the concept of critical spatial practice. To do so, I go back to the work of critical theorists of the Frankfurt School, which included such thinkers as Theodor Adorno, Jurgen Habermas, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse and Walter Benjamin. Their writings, taken together, could be characterised as a rethinking of Marxist ideas in relation to the shifts in society, culture and economy that took place in the early decades of the twentieth century. In The Idea of Critical Theory, Raymond Guess explains how critical theories are forms of knowledge, which differ from theories in the nat- ural sciences because they are “reflective” rather than “objectifying” – in other words, they take into account their own procedures and methods. But more than that, critical theories seek neither to prove a hypothesis nor prescribe a particular methodology2 or solution to a problem. Instead, in a myriad of ways, critical theorists offer self-reflective modes of thought that seek to change the world, and to offer the potential to emancipate by providing a critique of normative attitudes. For my part, I extend the term “critical theory” to include the work of later theorists – postcolonialists, feminists and others – whose thinking is also self-critical and desirous of social change.

Revisiting this phrase gives me pause to reflect on it, again. And in doing so, I discover that I am no longer sure that transforming is a practice that is undertaken rather than, or in the place of, describing. I am drawn to the ethical qualities at work in practice of describing – oneself to another, another to oneself … oneself to a place, a place to oneself. Describing can be considered ethical because it involves situating, positioning, relating, and as such it holds the potential for change. Describing in relating one to another is perhaps an initial step in a process of transforming.

This line of thinking takes me towards psychoanalysis and the work of Jessica Benjamin and Judith Butler. In a different part of Art and Architecture I focused on the making of relationships between one and another in critical spatial practice. There I discuss how the psychoanalyst Jessica Benjamin suggests that Theodor Adorno’s version of self-reflection – one where identity is critiqued through negation – does not acknowledge how a negation of the self can occur through the entry of another3 . I also note how Judith Butler indicates, following Emmanuel Levinas, that it is precisely our relation to the other that negates our identity. She writes:"I cannot muster the ‘we’ except by finding the way in which I am tied to ‘you’, by trying to translate but finding that my own language must break up and yield if I am to know you. You are what I gain through this disorientation and loss. This is how the human being comes in to being, again and again, as that which we have yet to know."4

This question of how it is possible to recognize another is at the heart of psychoanalysis, and it has also been taken up as a pressing enquiry in feminist ethics, philosophy and practice. The question of what the practice of description might offer us in this regard is what I’d like to put forward for discussion over the next few days. How might describing – as writing, as drawing, as performing – function in urban curating? The act of description demands that one pays attention to what is already there. What it is that gets ‘recognised’ in the process of describing what is already there is precisely what is at stake here.

In her book Strange Likeness: Description and the Modernist Novel Dora Zhang suggests that ‘description is an important site of attention – and experimentation – for a number of early twentieth-century writers.’5 . She goes on to show how writers such as Henry James, Marcel Proust, and Virginia Woolf ‘reimagin[e]’ the practice of novelistic description ‘as an open process of association, one whose social analogue is a nondetermined mode of relationality.’6 . Zhang suggests that descriptive practices can ‘direct us to perceive not so much objects but relations – social, formal, and experiential – between disparate phenomena..7 . Following Ian Hacking, for Zhang, new possibilities for action come into being as a consequence of new modes of description.8 . And for Zhang, it is precisely because ‘description is the crucial means by which we come to know everything outside our own minds and bodies,’ that ‘What is at stake in description … is a move from the private bounds of the self into the wider public world.’9 .

In Site-Writing: The Architecture of Art Criticism, I explored the possibilities for writing architecture rather than writing about architecture. I suggested that re-making an architecture or site through writing engages processes of mimesis and exphrasis, that is, the making of one thing like another or relating through similarity. To describe the qualities of a site in writing already involves a certain set of choices or interpretative judgements; but to also try and make the writing like a site is to transform the materiality – physicality, spatiality, temporality – of a site, as a lived place, into the material possibilities offered by textuality. Such a process is both transmedial and potentially transformative.

The use of analogy – the desire to invent a writing that is somehow ‘like’ the artwork – allows a certain creativity to intervene in the critical act as the critic comes to understand and interpret the work by remaking it on his/her own terms.10

  1. Jane Rendell, Art and Architecture: A Place Between (London: IB Tauris, 2006).
  2. Jane Rendell, Art and Architecture: A Place Between (London: IB Tauris, 2006).
  3. Jessica Benjamin, Shadow of the Other: Intersubjectivity and Gender in Psychoanalysis (London: Routledge, 1998), pp. 92-3.
  4. Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London: Verso, 2004) p. 24.
  5. Dora Zhang, Strange Likeness: Description and the Modernist Novel, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020). p. 4.
  6. Zhang, Strange Likeness, p.5.
  7. Zhang, Strange Likeness, p.6.
  8. Zhang, Strange Likeness, p.7.
  9. Zhang, Strange Likeness, p.152.
  10. Jane Rendell, Site-Writing: The Architecture of art Criticism (London: IB Tauris, 2010).

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