Deflation of human agency

senateHouse

One of the premier Art Deco buildings in London, the famed Senate House (above) keeps resonating in my mind every time I wander in it. Especially overnight.
Vastly different in concept but equally capable of impressing with its geometry, the Brutalist masterpiece by Ernő Goldfinger (Trellick Tower: below) gives a sort of shock on its first appearance.

Trellick Tower was an ideal-typical realization of Le Corbusier’s “Radiant City” concept but in “A Clockwork Orange” Kubrick placed Alex and his comrades in one of Britain’s most notorious environments, Tavy Bridge area of Thamesmead South: in the Brutalist architecture Kubrick sensed the scary vibrations coming from Skinner’s “Beyond Freedom and Dignity”. Who was right?

Norbert Wiener said that the fundamental assumption of 1930 dictatorships rested on a conceptual fallacy, i.e. the misrepresentation of the human nervous system:

[the] aspiration of the fascists for a human state based on the model of the ant results from a profound misapprehension both of the nature of the ant and of the nature of man. […]. The human individual, capable of vast learning and study, which may occupy almost half of his life, is physically equipped, as the ant is not, for this capacity. […] Those who would organize us according to permanent individual functions and permanent human restrictions condemn the human race to move at much less than half speed.
( The Human Use of Human Beings, pg.51-2)

Both the modernist utopia of the Swiss architect and the dystopia hinted at by Wiener rested on the same assumption: life is path-dependent, human being is intrinsically plastic, and can be cast in various shapes. In  “Variation of Animals and Plants” (1871),

Darwin had already found that the brains of hares and rabbits that grew up confined in boring hutches were 15 to 30 percent smaller than those of their wild counterparts. Conversely,  when animals are placed in an “enriched environment,” a large enclosure full of objects that are renewed each day and in which they can play with one another, their brains grow and develop more synapses. Children who are seriously neglected during their early development also have smaller brains […]; their intelligence and linguistic and fine motor control are permanently impaired, and they are impulsive and hyperactive.  (D. Swaab, “We are our brains”, 2014)

The question at stake in the dilemma above is really the interplay of freedom and necessity. This is the message that resonates from the Senate House and the Trellick Tower. We cannot escape this message:  we can only hope to be able to stand their presence, to endure their shadow.

The organization of society implied by those massive structures is a reminder that man is a social animal, thriving in the social organization of labor. At the same time their very conceptual and physical presence deflates human agency to the level of the ant: which corresponds in material terms to the epistemological pessimism of Dostoevsky’s “Great Inquisitor”, when he assumes that the elite has to control the common man as he is not able to discern good from evil for himself. Christ gave men liberty out of a misplaced thrust, the Inquisitor’s stance reads.

Truth is that today we cannot do without the towers and what they represent. We have to inhabit these imposing concrete islands. We have to pass through them, to rise to their level if we want to face our time. But we have to accomplish that without losing the touch with our uniqueness of human beings. We do not want to relinquish Enlightenment’s epistemological optimism, lest we end in Great Inquisitor’s trap.

There is no room to regress to previous modes of social interaction. We have to struggle for “the human use of human beings” while inhabiting the many towers of Modern times.

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