Thing as Other (2000)

At this conference, “thing” is being discussed in terms of six themes: thing as abstraction, thing as object, thing as material, thing as feeling, thing as idea, and thing as obsession. But among these six constructs, one thing is missing: thing as other. I have been assigned to thing as idea-something about which I have no idea what to say. But since I can talk here about anything, I would like to talk instead about thing as other.

What do I mean by thing as other? In many ways, it relate4s to what Kant called the “thing-in-itself”. In the Kantian view, what we call an object is actually a phenomenon rather than a thing. Because the object is already constituted by subjective forms and categories, we cannot know it in itself. However, the thing-in-itself is not mystical (in this sense, it is not like what Jacque Lacan called the real). Rather, it is a plain and secular matter. When Kant developed this concept, he in effect was saying that things exist regardless of our subjectivity, yet we cannot fully grasp them. But in discussing this concept, he specifically addresses a particular thing: others. We recognize the other person through the body, gestures, and language. These, though, are nothing more than phenomena, not the thing in-itself, which is the subjectivity or freedom of others. (Incidentally, freedom in this case does not mean a free society, but rather the autonomy of the will; being free from causality.) Others remain opaque to us. This is the otherness of others. What Kant calls thing-in-itself then is precisely such a free subject. He regards it, therefore, not as a theoretical construct but as a practical and moral issue.

These ideas can be related to Bertrand Russell’s question of how we know the pain of others. Russell imagined that we perceive other people’s pain through external appearance, gesture, and language. As a result, he fell into a kind of skepticism. Wittgenstein subsequently criticized this view with the observation that when someone gets burned, we rush to treat that person. In other words, the pain of others is first and foremost a moral and practical question. The theoretical question of whether or not we can actually know the pain of others is then irrelevant. Wittgenstein, in this way, implicitly inherited a Kantian problematic. Just like Kant, he was talking about the other as thing-in-itself.

In his first Critique, Kant regards the thing-in-itself as a thing or natural object, whereas in the second, it appears as freedom or personhood. Scholars of Kant have long tried in vain to unify this apparent discrepancy. Yet there is really no enigma here. Karl Popper criticized Kant’s subjectivity as monological and lacking other subjects, claiming that the scientific proposition should be rendered in the refutable form and that it is provisionally true so long as it is not refuted by others. Kant would not have objected to this argument. In fact, Kant does not preclude others from scientific judgment. He argues that universal natural law is not obtained from exhaustive examinations but by induction from limited cases or singular propositions-so a hypothesis can only be true when it is refutable rather than refuted. Things as objects never refute; it is others who refute with their data about things. This is to suggest that for a natural law to be true, it requires not only the agreement of others but also the agreement of the unpredictable others of the future. Thus when Kant wrote about thing-in-itself, he was, in fact, implying others. In other words, others are a thing-in-itself, so there is no contradiction, then, between the first and second Critiques.

My own criteria for otherness would be with those who do not share our language. We might, in this way, take foreigners and psychotics as examples of others. A more extreme example of others would be the dead and the unborn. While it is not entirely impossible to come to some kind of understanding with others who are alive, no matter how different their culture or how insane they may be, it is, however, impossible to do so with the dead and the unborn.

Let us apply this to environmental problems. If the capitalist market economy continues as it is, we will no doubt face an environmental crisis on a global scale. In such a situation, it will not be easy for advanced countries to reach an agreement on how to handle the situation. However, it will be even more difficult for advanced countries to forge an agreement with their world countries. Why should the people of the third world sacrifice themselves and cooperate with the people of advanced countries, whose quality of life caused the crisis, and moreover, forced them to pay for it? In spite of this difficulty, it is still not impossible to negotiate with such “others”. Yet we cannot negotiate with the unborn, who will surely be the ultimate victims of environmental contamination. According to Kant’s moral principle, the ultimate message of moral law lies in the imperative: “So act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means.” If we sacrifice the others of the future in order to maintain our living standards, they we are treating them merely as means to our own ends. In Kantian thought, such an attitude is in no way ethical. In contrast, what Jurgen Habermas called communicative reason or public consensus is confined to the West, or at best to more advanced countries. There is no place here for thing-in-itself as the other.

Thus, as a theoretical object, the thing-in-itself is unknowable. Yet certain philosophers argue that we can reach this thing-in-itself through aesthetics. For instance, Henri Bergson believed that one could transcend linguistic articulation and intuit the thing-in-itself as duration. For him, things are images. Heidegger offers another example, distinguishing between thing and object, in effect as another version of the Kantian distinction between thing-in-itself and phenomenon. But for Heidegger, there was no ethical moment in the thing-in-itself—rather, it disclosed itself in poetry or art. Arguing this point, he offers the example of a painting of a shoe, stating that the painting enables us to see the shoe in itself by bracketing our interest in its practical usage. But does this really take us to the thing-in-itself? There is really nothing new about this idea of bracketing-it was already presented by Kant in his third Critique, seeing art as a way of looking at things by bracketing our interests. But does the thing-in-itself emerge through the bracketing of such divergent interests as use and exchange value? In never does. Instead, what we find are phenomena, for example, the discovery of beauty or the sublime is a result of subjective imaginative activity. Therefore, it would be wrong to claim that art reveals the thing-in-itself.

What Bergson and Heidegger demand is for us to take an aesthetic stance toward the actual world. Ceding to this demand, over the last ten years there has been a tendency to go back from Jacque Derrida to Heidegger, and from Gilles Deleuze to Bergson. I have witnessed this over the course of the Any conference. Perhaps one reason for it is that Derrida and Deleuze took a more clearly Marxist position after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Those who instead regress to Bergson or Heidegger are doomed from the outset. (It should be noted that when these ideas were realized in politics, the inevitable result was fascism—that is, the aesthetic sublimation of actual class conflicts.)

In art, to be sure, we view things by bracketing our interests. However, bracketing is not confined only to art. When we confront the world, we have at least three kinds of simultaneous judgment: cognitive judgment of truth or falsity; moral judgment of good or bad; and aesthetic judgment of pleasure or displeasure. In actuality, these judgments are interwoven and difficult to distinguish; aesthetic judgments, for example, bracket questions of both true and false and good and bad. In the same way, scientists observe things by bracketing moral and aesthetic judgments; only by this act can the objects of cognition come into existence. This, however, is not limited to the natural sciences. For example, political science since Machiavelli has focused on the effect of political action by bracketing it with moral aspects. Moreover, we can also say that works of find art become economic objects when they are considered only in terms of price. The scientific, aesthetic, political, and economic stances all come about through bracketing. As a result, a thing appears in various aspects. Nonetheless, it is not a thing-in-itself but a phenomenon. This being the case, where does the thing-in-itself emerge? It emerges only in the ethical stance of bracketing all other dimensions because this is to see the other as a free subject.

It does not necessarily follow, however, that an ethical stance assumes priority over all other criteria. What counts here is not simply bracketing but also un-bracketing. For instance, through a scientific lens, others are so-called objects. In fact, during surgery physicians bracket their patient’s personhood, as well as their own aesthetic or sexual interests. To do this requires professional training. Needless to say, after surgery they should remove the brackets. As another example, when we see films whose heroes are Mafia or Yakuza gangsters, it is ridiculous to criticize them for their immorality, just as it is absurd to object to science-fiction films on the basis that they are not scientific enough. Rather, we bracket other interests at the movie theater. Once you leave the theater, you have to un-bracket. The same is also true of the moral stance. If you adhere to moral principles in assessing the cinematic work at eh movie theater, it does not make you ethical, just foolish. Therefore, we need to learn both bracketing and un-bracketing at the same time.

The same is true of architecture. Architecture, like film, exists on a number of different levels. From a historical viewpoint, architecture first and foremost aims to supply habitable places to shelter human beings from the natural environment. Second, architecture builds monuments to display religious and political power. Since the ancients, architecture has existed between these two extreme poles. With modernity, however, came the vision of architecture as art. This view could only become possible by bracketing other interests—namely, the practical and the political. This is not to criticize the discipline but to recognize that architecture has its original dimension and its own language. However, we should be able to undo this bracketing at any time. The history of architecture has essentially centered itself around religious and political monuments, but these aspects are bracketed in its articulation as the history of pure form. In this context, architecture can be the quotation of the past texts or be deconstructive or virtual. However, this perspective overlooks two points. One is that architecture should supply habitable places to shelter human beings from the natural environment. The second is that in reality most architecture is dominated by practical, economic, and political interests. Plainly speaking, architecture is part of the capitalist construction industry. Architects cannot transcend this basic condition, no matter how artistic they may be.

In regard to these two points, I remember two incidents that took place at previous Any conferences. First was the Anywise conference held in Seoul after the major earthquake in Kobe, Japan. Aside from Arata Isozaki and myself, none of the participants mentioned this earthquake. I thought that the destruction that it caused raised issues far more fundamental to architecture than simply ideas of deconstruction; namely, that architecture as construction exists first and foremost as protection from the natural environment. Could we then say that the earthquake disclosed a thing-in-itself? Did the earthquake disclose the power of nature, or what Akira Asada called the Mononoke, or the Lacanian real? In this instance, the answer is an unequivocal no. In this instance, the thing-in-itself meant the death of 6,000 people. The dead never speak. Of course, most of the architects at the conference were not directly involved in the urban development of Kobe, and they do not bear any personal responsibility for the disaster. But for me, architects who fail to take this problem to heart will never have any relevance.

Second, I remember that at the Anyplace conference in Montreal there was a discussion on “architecture and politics”. I left with the impression that what was being termed “politics” was too abstract, tending toward the linguistic games that architecture plays. The conference also took place immediately after the arrest of an executive at the Shimizu-Kensetsu Construction Company, the principal sponsor of the Anyone Corporation. However, I was the only one to touch upon this issue. In Japan, the construction industry is the very foundation of conservative politics, and it continues to maintain close, and somewhat byzantine, connections to the Yakuza. Even if they are only indirectly tied to this web of associations, Japanese architects, including Isozaki, cannot claim to be innocent bystanders. Japan, of course, is not the lone exception. As David Harvey remains us in his recent book, Spaces of Hope, in the midst of so-called globalization, we must lok at how the construction industries of advanced countries behave in the third world, and how their presence there is supporting and influencing the relations of production and power structures. The Any conferences, circling the world, have been too indifferent to these issues.

These conferences have long been considered a place of interaction between architects and philosophers. However, I do not really see myself as a philosopher, and I have no interest in discussing architecture theoretically. With a couple of exceptions, I have attended all the Any meeting over the past ten years, but who then have I been at these conferences? In effect, I have been a thing-in-itself as other. That is to say, I have not shared the same language with most of the other participants, nor did I try to do so. I refused. As a consequence, I was rejected. At Any, I have been a thing-in-itself but not a phenomenon. Indeed, many people were even unaware of my presence. Perhaps the organizers hoped that I would fulfill just such a function. But for me, this is not a pleasant position to be in. And so, in many ways, it comes as a relief to me that this role is finally over.

Anyone, the first Any conference, was held in 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Also crumbling at this time were the formerly radical resonances contained in postmodernism. There was no longer any validity in the postmodernist stance of ironically praised the deconstructive force of capitalism. This has become increasingly clear over the past ten years. During this time, or more precisely, in the last few years, my own position has fundamentally changed. I have come to hold the view that we should take a positive stance, that we should positively counteract the movement of capital and states. Thanks to Any, I was able to publish Architecture as Metaphor. However, this book was the work of the 1970s and ‘80s, and does not reflect my thinking today. These more recent thoughts will manifest themselves in English with the publication of a new book, Transcritique-Kant and Marx. From its title, it is clearly not a book about architecture, but in a broad sense I believe that it suggests the future course that architecture should take. This book is also the product of my interactions with Any participants over the last decade, and for that I am thankful.

(June, 2000)