From Collective of Action toward Collective Behavior: The Human Condition 1958 and The Human Habitat 1959

by Andjelka Badnjar Gojnić, RWTH Aachen University


‘Durability, which alone determinates if a thing can exist as a thing and endure in the world as a distinct entity, remains the supreme criterion’ [i]

  1. The Collective, the Wall and the Law

In 1958, in her major philosophical work The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt refers to the term object in its Latin origin obicere as ‘something thrown’ or ‘put against.’[ii] This opposition serves as the basis upon which all further distinctions such as private and public, necessity and freedom, shame and honor, labor and action and man and the world are drawn. The human is finally positioned as a condition emerging between nature and the world. Once the world has been made up, the human can appear though activities of labor, work and action, each positioned differently between the poles of nature and the world. The appearance of the world built by ‘the work of our hands’[iii] serves as the ‘objective’ background that ‘stand against’ and ‘stabilize human life’ otherwise essentially subjective one. Being related to the ‘same chair and the same table…a man can retrieve their sameness’[iv], reconstruct their identity and overcome being part of a species no different than animal ones within elementary force and the eternal movement of indifferent nature. The sum of the things constituting human artifice stand as the world in its objective sense of being thrown in between man and nature. Such a world can be opposed to life, it is outside of life and unrelated to any of the bodily matters of reproduction, be they mental or physiological. It is the ‘worldly character of produced thing – its location, function and length of stay in the world’ which makes the distinction between ‘bread’ and ‘table’ and finally demonstrates the difference between a baker and a carpenter.[v] The criterion of the world understood as tangible, durable, permanent, and above all outside of the natural is an evaluative one. Contrary to the labor subjected to the necessity of the reproduction of life and thus the most natural of the three human activities, fabrication as a result of work produces an end beyond doubt: ‘an internally new thing with enough durability to remain in the world as independent entity added to the human artifice.’[vi] To have both a definitive beginning and a predicable end is a mark of fabrication, whose object further can be only multiplied instead of subjected to the repetition of the urged biological cycle of consumption. Although eventually subjected to dissolution, use objects – contrary to consumer goods and products of action – are present in the world long enough to stabilize nature and enable humans to appear through ‘products of action and speech…which lack tangibility of other things and are even less durable and more futile than what we produce for consumption.’[vii] Products of the action, words and deeds of the actor finally depend only upon ‘human plurality, upon the constant presence of other who can see and hear’[viii] by ‘living as a distinct and unique being among equals.’[ix]

The collective, in its notion of being done by man acting as a group, is a temporary state that falls into a web of human affairs. It is a status that has been agreed upon through men speaking and acting together. As such it is closest to Arendt’s concept of togetherness in the sense of being ‘with others neither for nor against them’[x] and having ‘inter-est which lies between people and can relate and bind them together.’[xi] Inter-est such as in-between varies depending on the group of people and constantly discloses itself by the agents of action and speech. As such speech and action are essential conditions for the collective and this is distinctive from collective action, as it would be rather ambiguous to address such a concept within Arendt’s argument. Namely, action is a highly individual condition by which man insert himself to the human plurality where in order to appear, one needs to disclose and to expose himself within the brightness of glory. Men thus seek to ‘reveal actively their unique personal identities and thus make their appearance in the human world.’[xii] This appearance is very distinct from the exposure of ‘physical identities…without any activity…in the unique shape of body and sound of the voice.’[xiii] Contrary to the labor, action is as far as possible from the realm of the natural and the actor might be the only one being freed from bodily necessities and emotional constraints who discloses himself in front of others, seeking pride and excellence. Thus, it is not the virtue of negotiation but of competitiveness in excellence that channels the final result of men acting together. The collective, rather than being a collective action, is an event that emerges out of the situation in which each man acts uniquely, exposes and competes. Essentially based on the individual, such collective shifts extensively as regards the words and deeds of the doers, not having any divine aura of its own. Though Arendt gives primacy to the individual as the man qua man situation, the unpredictable, irreversible and fragile character of action and speech are in constant danger of being absorbed by the nature of man with his necessities and emotional constraints. Thus, it is for the sake of the futility of action and speech that Arendt keeps the independency and background character of the object of the world as a guardian for their appearance. It is in the same way that object in all its tangibility, relates to the collective: ‘as a table located between those who sit around it’, ‘a world of things in between those who have it in common…that like every in-between relates and separates men at the same time.’[xiv]

Such an object is not human, let alone natural: it is the outer device with which the man of action relates and identifies in order to appear. Referring to the Greek polis, Arendt states that ‘before men begging to act, a definitive space had to be secured and a structure built where all actions could take place’[xv], the space being the public realm of the polis, while the law acts as its structure. The wall and the law are made by the architect and the legislator as the builder of a city and a lawmaker. These could be commissioned from abroad and need to be finished before any political activity begins. ‘These tangible entities’ – the wall and the law – ‘were not the content of politics themselves’[xvi] but the space of appearance, where less tangible products such as action and speech can gain the reality of being seen and heard before an audience of their fellow man acting together. As such no architect or lawmaker is an actor but rather they are fabricators, providing the infrastructure for the gathering of the men sharing words and deeds. They are not even personalized as ‘public space in the image of the fabricated object…carried only the implication of ordinary mastership where the compelling factor lies not in the person of craftsman but in impersonal object of his art or craft.’[xvii] This assured neutrality of the object is a condition sin qua non, as without the stabilizing boundaries of wall and law, the public could not survive the moment of action and speech. Furthermore, without the independence of the object and homo faber to make it, acting and speaking together could not be remembered. It is homo faber that is a guardian of the man of action, just as the ‘sharing of words and deeds’[xviii] is guarded by the object. As a background, the object is not end itself as it cannot create nor action or form a collective. It can only serve as a neutralized precondition in advance and as a guarantee of the eventual appearance as ‘for what appears to all, this we call Being’ and ‘whatever lacks appearance comes and passes away like a dream, intimately and exclusively our own but without reality.’[xix]


  1. The Collective and the Dissolution of an Object

Without the object thrown against nature no action, speech or state of the collective exists as there is no background for plurality. Although essential in deriving the human, the object of the world is the ultimate aim itself only in the case of homo faber. In the cases of two other heroes of Arendt – the man of action and the animal laborans– the object and the world are an assumed precondition sin qua non in the case of the former, while they are disguised forever in the case of the latter.

Contrary to our introduction of the collective as done by people acting as a group, Arendt refers to the collective always using the same connotation of mass society which enlarged the realm of the domestic household over the public one, until the final destruction of the latter. We can trace the ‘substitution of society of a collective man-kind for individual man as its subject’ [xx] or the ‘collective nature of labor’ with its ‘loss of all awareness of individuality’ whose ‘values are no different from pleasure derived from eating and drinking in company’ and thus rest on the ‘human’s body metabolism with nature.’[xxi] The collective is related to bodily performance such taking food and belonging to the same biological species and ultimately rests on sameness instead of equality. These connotations of the collective are followed by the impossibility of ‘collective ownership (as) a contradiction in terms’[xxii] as property and the possession of an object is an essentially individual characteristic. The loss of property appears as a direct consequence of the initial loss of a place to hide and to labor within: a man’s household. By keeping the realm of nature away from the public realm, equality in antiquity meant having to exit the household and enter public life: ‘where everybody had constantly to distinguish himself from all others, to show through unique deeds…that he was best of all.’[xxiii] With the substitution of private property – as an individually possessed tangible object – by the intangible common wealth of the enormous ‘family’ of society, the boundaries withdrew leaving man to float within modes of behaviorism that replaced action. With lost distinction, the sameness of society emerges: a large number of people, ‘crowded together’ with their ‘almost irrespirable inclination toward despotism…of a person or of majority rule.’[xxiv] Arendt points to great numbers which account for conformism, behaviorism and automatism in human affairs with their statistical uniformity and scientific outlook as the main traits for human action. ‘The more people there are the most likely they are to behave and less likely to tolerate non-behavior.’[xxv] In relation to the large number, there is no crucial difference between totalitarian or liberal constitutions apart from the fact that the former took the reality of conflict and the latter the ‘natural harmony of interests’ as their starting points. Both are rooted in the ‘communistic fiction’ that society has one interest as a whole, which derives itself primarily from the household realm rather from any class interest, as advocated by Marx. Large numbers give rise to the social sciences as ‘behavioral sciences’ that ‘aim to reduce man as a whole until the level of a conditioned and behaving animal’ until ‘social behavior has become the standard for all regions of life.’[xxvi]

The issue of great number followed by behaviorism apparently excludes any chance of action as a possibility to begin anew, rather than to behave as predicted and as statistically covered. The collective understood as oneness – a sum of parts constituting a whole – replaces the collective as a shifting state of men gathering and acting together. Within the realm of society, the latter collective apparently is not possible at all and this is most explicitly manifested in the loss of the object of the world.

It is the world alienation rather than Marx’s self-alienation that is the ‘hallmark of the modern age’ as ‘enormous mundane activity is possible without any consideration for the world but only worry and care about the self.’[xxvii] Transmitting to the artifact natural role of consuming, monuments become not outer any more but rather an extension of biological life itself. Although a fence, a table, a chair or house, remain present, these are not worldly but ‘natural’ and nondurable. By losing the outer quality of the object, the difference between the tangible and intangible is blurred, shifting things from the world toward an ever-circulating natural swing. Instead of serving as a background for the human, the object is moved to the enlarged natural environment of man serving as an extension of his body from its primordial origin toward industrial equipment.


  1. Human / Non-human: In Search of an Environment / Object

One year after first publication of The Human Condition, familiar values related to habitat and the issue of large numbers based upon sociological analysis and the study of man’s behavior were the main preoccupations of the third generation of modern architects at the Otterlo Meeting in 1959.

Oskar Newman’s report book CIAM ’59 in Otterlo begins with the Adalbert Ames’s quote: ‘the processes that underlie our perception of our immediate internal world and those that underlie our perception of social relationships are fundamentally the same.’ Participants met ‘in the peace and quiet’ of the Kröller-Müller Foundation under the working title ‘The Group for the Research of Social and Visual Inter-relationships’. The meeting was organised by the coordinating group established at La Sarraz 1957 comprised of Bakema, Rogers, Roth, Voelcker and Wogenscky and counted 43 international participants invited according to the list made by the coordinating group. The event was funded by the government of the Netherlands, whose representative pointed out the difficult task of contemporary architects in order to fulfill ‘the happy feeling of social prosperity in which there is no longer a place for slum-dwellings’ and to search for a design based on the ‘life scheme and the shape of present and future society.’[xxviii] Bakema, in his introductory talk, called for the emergence of establishing architecture as ‘three-dimensional expression of human behavior’ in order to operate the ‘function of human identification with the ever extending universal space.’[xxix] After eight days of panels presenting individual work followed by discussions, the official conclusion rested upon the distinction of participants into two groups: a neutral and an aggressive one. The latter – that would go on – showed an attempt to understand architecture as a language ‘communicating directly about human behavior.’[xxx]

Rather than the official division, the meeting was actually characterized by another split. The most prominent advocates of a new language for modern architecture came into debate with Italian participation lead by Ernesto Rogers. The heated discussion following Rogers’ presentation of the Torre Velasca in Milan was charged with a critique led by Peter Smithson and Jaap Bakema and followed by Kenzō Tange. Their accusations relied on a historic understanding of architecture, describing the Torre Velasca in terms of its closed form, formalistic realism and as a quick solution to the problem of identity finally declaring the work done as unacceptable. The distinction was historically recognized as an origin of two approaches toward the roles of nature and history in modern architecture.[xxxi] From this point on, the distinction can be further traced toward two broader thoughts behind: reaction on establishment of the field of ethology with domain of anthropology on one hand and constant reversal to the antique on another. Following the first, Team 10 concept for the human habitat rested upon influence of anthropological sources.[xxxii] In contrast, the autonomy of the human condition in regard to the nature perhaps is most accurately present in Italian participation. As such, the origin of the conflict could be seen as a spot to unite different constellations on relation of the ethos of collective and the object within postwar modernism. Under conditions in which architects ‘will be asked to build billions of dwellings’, this being not a numerical problem alone but one also limited by sociological, economical, geographical, political and plastic conditions, [xxxiii] the attempt to translate this collective into materiality  resulted in urged search for its object.

Aldo van Eyck 'Eyes'
‘Eyes’, Children’s Home, Amsterdam, Aldo van Eyck; from CIAM ’59 in Otterlo, Oscar Newman, Karl Krämer Verlag Stuttgart, 1961

Par Nous pour Nous was the slogan of Aldo van Eyck’s introductory panel for presentation of his Children Home in Amsterdam and Congress building project in Jerusalem. According to van Eyck, after leaving the Euclidian groove, art and science have expanded the universe – ‘the outside and inside universe.’[xxxiv] With this awareness, this period of ours requires a new language, one at the same time old and new. The language is old as ‘man is always and essentially the same’ and this is most explicit in the constant human proportions that architecture is constantly rediscovering. ‘Archaic principles of human nature’ and a reconciliation of basic values need to be taken into account as an absolute condition of one. This is drawn into a status quo in the same way as biological necessity: ‘Man breathes both in and out; when is architecture going to do the same?’[xxxv] Accordingly to Bakema’s ‘architecture as a three dimensional extension of human behavior’, the object is equalized with bodily functions. The language is new as society is new. By contrast with the individual, who is old, primordial and constant with his physiological and cognitive processes, society shifts and is another polarity of the ‘dual phenomenon’, the two of which are supposed to reconcile through the issue of the ‘in-between’ nature of the object. Van Eyck concludes his theoretical introduction with the example of the house: ‘me inside and you outside or vice versa…with you inside, me outside, two worlds clashing no transition, individual on one side, the collective on another’, a lots of barriers of society ‘with architect so poor in spirit to provide a door…, hair-raising, brutal, like a guillotine…Each time we pass through such door we are split into two.’[xxxvi]

An attempt to provide an object with a blurred distinction between outside and inside in high interaction with the body was made through the Children’s Home of Amsterdam. ‘The whole thing is both outside and inside whether you are inside or outside.’[xxxvii] Sometimes there are cupolas above, sometimes there is sky, interior street walls are like exterior walls, ‘lots of tiny mirrors embedded in the concrete’, ‘the electric lighting is like street lighting’, ‘illuminating spaces are shifting with darkness’, ‘child’s movement (is) as violent as outside. ‘[xxxviii] In the search for the ‘dual phenomena of the individual and the collective without wrapping the meaning of either’[xxxix] the object becomes convertor of human behavior between the two. By withdrawing any difference between inside and outside, private and public, the object gains the role of a somatic extension of the biological human, always converting him from one to the number and vice versa. Appropriated by man, the object becomes natural itself and upgrades the collective body made from the human and the industrial, while placing it within the abstract context of sun, wind, rain, earth, highway and airplane. With the loss of its background character, this ‘behavioral’ object offers ultimate certainty to the ‘just beginning humanism’[xl] and the ultimate intimacy of a man walking through his surrounding environment in the manner of a savage walking through the forest.

This is certainly not in accordance with Arendt’s reliance on Greek materialism, which argues for the object serving as a neutral background for action governed by expertise – instead, the house in stake actually expresses all the inhabitability of modern age. [xli] With the language unable to correspond to any historical period, even the contemporary, van Eyck’s work constantly shows an attempt to reduce the house to its constituent universal elements of wall, roof, celling as a system of signifiers. This new environment seeks both universal and primordial expression in last consequences of the ethnological discourse on humanism.

Against this ‘behavioral’ aspect of the object maybe mostly explicit in van Eyck’s studies on the performances of the child and its surroundings, but actually present to the majority of ‘right side’ participants, stands the most discussed case of the Otterlo event: Ernesto Rogers’s panel with The Torre Velasca.

At the very beginning of his talk, Rogers immediately sets up limit by addressing the height of the Madellina at the top of Milan Duomo as the paramount criterion with no building allowed to be any higher. Although there was no deliberate reference to regional medieval towers as historical quotation per se, the similarities of form occur due to similar conditions, such as insufficient land area and the search for light and ideal views.[xlii] In contrast to the constancy of always-universal man in van Eyck case, here the fabrication condition is relevant and the artifact stays out of the human realm. The object is a result of a technique and of a set of pragmatic decisions while the rhetoric is apparently totally reduced. ‘It is important to speak technically, because technique requires precise decisions.’[xliii] This is quite clear in the way the architect presented the work by stressing pure facts and providing short conclusions such as: ‘steel in Italy would be too expensive so the concrete is used’, ‘windows are standard production’, ‘panels between columns are prefabricated elements’, ‘the construction is a very simple one’, ‘it would be impossible to know who the occupants will be’, ‘two main colours were used’ – a brick one from the Middle Ages and the colour of stone from the neo-classical period, yet none of these were chosen due to sentimental reason, but as ‘a technical approach to the vision.’[xliv]

‘We put the apartments above the offices so that might have better access to the sky, the cleaner air and in particular splendid view.’[xlv] While the first two reasons recall typically modernist concepts, it is particularly the splendid view that is main cause for elevating apartments. Yet, the view is not toward any of the traditional modernist symbols such as greenery, traffic or exposure to the airplanes passing over the heads of The Children’s Home in Amsterdam. Instead it is a view toward the fabric of the historical city that serves as the main reason for elevating apartments as well as for increasing the height of offices in a way to correspond to classical proportions of interior rooms instead of to modernist ones. ‘It was necessary to provide space for offices of a big surface area and this allowed us to give them a corresponding increase in height.’[xlvi] The view perceived from the interior constitutes the sum of the human artifact in the same way as the view toward the tower intensifies the recognizable image of a familiar object. Additionally, the corners of the tower are chamfered with the windows placed in, thus dissolving the cubical volume of the building into the mere plane picture. In the tower, almost seen as a two-dimensional image of a city organized with the articulation of windows, the structural components of modern architecture actually serve to intensify the type components of classicism. For this reason Rogers identifies Mies as the only modern architect from whom one could learn: as the language of Mies implies, gentrification in the constitution of an object in a tradition of commonly recognizable codes serves as the background to the human. ‘He is the only architect modern in the sense that Palladio was in his time’, for whom ‘the idea of plans and schemes was the idea of giving a model.’[xlvii] The quality of the permanence of a model is at the core of Arendt’s reference to Plato’s interpretation of the word idea or ‘shape’.[xlviii] This is what guides the craftsman who makes beds and tables in accordance with an idea, with his inner eye looking on the shape of the bed as envisioned instead of the real one. As such, the idea is more durable than the concrete thing as it derives from the ‘oneness of the model’, according to which a multitude of perishable things will appear, as the model exists before fabrication starts and remains after it has come to an end.

The persistence of the model annihilates novelty throughout all speech such as ‘I don’t see our work as sort of revolution at all’[xlix] and constantly positions the object within a limit. Thus, the limits being the constraints of industry, the acceptance of the language of modern architecture where it fits well such as ‘the structure is expressed as …we think that articulation of the structure is one of good qualities of modern architecture’[l] or simply the apparently indifferent acceptance of the impossibility of acknowledging the user. Yet, by this, Rogers and his followers do not abandon interfering in the relationship of the individual and the collective. They instead give up rhetoric on holistic collectivity relevant to the rest of the attempts to structure the environment according to the levels of neighborhood gatherings within a society of a large number. Rogers seeks the fabrication of an object as a counterpoint to man instead of an environment being an alter ego of men’s behaviorism. Such an object is not biological, but instead it is completely alien to nature and alien to the human as well. Bearing in mind Arendt distinction between the nature of man and human, where human is possible only when man is freed from the natural and the natural is no different than animal, Rogers attempt could be addressed as a search for an object as non-natural and non-human. This position runs contrary to the general attitude of the meeting, which was to make the object both human and natural, without actually pointing out much difference between the two, as the nature of a man is equalized with that of a human. As it is alien to nature, Rogers’ object is fabricated from the material of the outer world, seeking a durable and tangible enough state in stable continuity in order to become the thing of the world. As it is alien to the human, the architect should leave all rhetorical attempts toward the object being able to affect the human apart from serving as its background. The only morality should come from consistency of the object,[li] which is the only means of addressing the human by actually leaving the attempt to affect the human. As soon as we succeed in fabricating a durable, recognizable object other to both the natural and to the human, as manufacturers rather than creators, we actually strengthen the image of the world and thus serve the opportunity for the individual to be able to identify himself within a delirious collective. It is the reduction of the collective toward the individual that is the main attempt of Rogers’ object rather than its historical relevance per se. It is not the love for historical language that is in the origin of his attempt but rather the consistency of the object as device for the distinction of man: as an object being thrown against man. The language of modern architecture is fit as well as historical language with no crucial difference as long as they create a recognizable pattern. This may be most explicit in the plan of the tower where apartments are not much different from any of European modern movement references within welfare hosing development. This plan could actually be whatever is most affordable and pragmatic while there is certainty that whoever user is will perceive the totalized image of the object of the city and whoever looks upon a tower will perceive the same as well.

Trying to address his critique of the Torre Velasca with a bit more sympathy than Peter Smithson, Bakema pointed out that seeing from ‘a certain distance there is something in the building’s silhouette which suggest that it could have been there for fifty years.’[lii] One could assume that only by hearing this Rogers would be satisfied that his attempt had been completed as much as if it had remained unspoken. As the chain of reasons, though technically and pragmatically rooted, seemed deliberately guided toward what remained inexplicit, making Rogers one of the pioneers of the attempt to overcome the role of the avant-garde intellectual and reduce the architect to the level of the wall-maker in antiquity.

On one hand, the dominant attempt of the Otterlo meeting saw the dissolution of the object toward environment as an adequate response for new vision of holistic collectivity. This vision was based on the ethnological discourse of the primordial and universal man at the same time by taking its biological premises into account. On the other hand, Italian participation saw the object in its antique role, as the outer model that retrieve the sameness of a man and constructs the identity of the individual within retreat from the collective. In the first case, the aura of holistic collectivity failed to distinct between the biological nature of man and its human capacities. In the second, the attempt to distinguish two failed to acknowledge the defeat of homo faber within the automation process. The stage of technological development and electricity cannot fit the categories of homo faber ‘in terms of a gigantic enlargement and continuation of old arts and crafts.’[liii] What substitutes instruments as a means to achieve the prescribed end in killing, interrupting and imitating natural processes is an ‘unchain (of ) natural processes of our own’, and channeling ‘these natural forces into the world itself.’[liv] Finally, nature and the world leave no opposition but merge together into the ‘natural word’ with the final dissolution of the object toward Adorno’s anthropomorphized one.[lv] With the defeat of homo faber as the main hero of Arendt ‘indeed a lord and a master of himself and his doings’, ‘maker and the fabricator and the erector of the world’[lvi] and Tafuri’s dissolution of type within the process of prefabrication seemed that holistic collective of ethnological discourse gain dominance over the polis’ one. It is in this sense that, for the moment, van Eyck’s child took primacy over history and the collective over the individual.

[i] Arendt, H., The Human Condition, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1998 (1958), p. 163.

[ii] Id., p. 137.

[iii] Arendt referencing to Lock, Id., p. 79.

[iv] Id., p. 137.

[v] Id., p. 94.

[vi] Id., p. 143.

[vii] Id., p. 95.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Id., p. 178.

[x] Id., p. 180.

[xi] Id., p. 182.

[xii] Id., p. 179.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Id., pp. 52, 53.

[xv] Id., p. 194,195.

[xvi] Id., p. 195.

[xvii] Id., p. 227.

[xviii] Id., p. 198.

[xix] Id., p. 199.

[xx] Id., p. 117.

[xxi] Id., p. 213.

[xxii] Id., p. 256.

[xxiii] Id., p. 41.

[xxiv] Id., p. 43.

[xxv] Ibid.

[xxvi] Id., p. 45.

[xxvii] Id., p. 254.

[xxviii] Newman, O., CIAM ’59 in Otterlo, Karl Krämer Verlag Stuttgart, Stuttgart, 1961, p. 20, 21

[xxix] Id., p. 10.

[xxx] Ibid.

[xxxi] Pedret, A., ‘CIAM ’59: the end of CIAM’, in Team 10 1953-1981 in search of a Utopia of the present, ed. by Max Risselada and Dirk van den Heuvel, NAi Publishers, Rotterdam 2005

[xxxii] For a reading of critical themes of postwar modernism see introduction in Anxious Modernisms, ed. by Goldhagen, S. W., and Legault, R., Canadian Centre for Architecture and The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England, 2000; for discourse on anthropology see Conklin, A., In the Museum of Man, Cornell University Press, 2013

[xxxiii] Newman, O., CIAM ’59 in Otterlo, Karl Krämer Verlag Stuttgart, Stuttgart, 1961, p. 13

[xxxiv] Id., p. 26.

[xxxv] Id., pp. 26, 27.

[xxxvi] Id., p. 28.

[xxxvii] Id., p. 32.

[xxxviii] Id., pp. 31, 32.

[xxxix] Ibid.

[xl] Ockman, J., ‘Venice and New York’, reference to van Eyck’s attack on Manfredo Tafuri arguing that: ‘The path of language as the communication of messages, which is the discourse of humanism does not exist and henceforth is completely closed’, from Europa/America Architetture urbane, alternative suburbane, ed. Franco Raggi (Venice: La Biennale di Venezia, 1978), pp. 174-82.

[xli] On overview to the notion of inhabitability of modernity see eg. Heynen, H., Architecture and Modernity. A Critique, MIT Press, 1999

[xlii] Newman, O., CIAM ’59 in Otterlo, Karl Krämer Verlag Stuttgart, Stuttgart, 1961, p. 92.

[xliii] Ibid.

[xliv] Ibid.

[xlv] Ibid.

[xlvi] Id., pp. 92, 93.

[xlvii] Id., p. 96.

[xlviii] Arendt, H., The Human Condition, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1998 (1958), p. 142.

[xlix] Newman, O., CIAM ’59 in Otterlo, Karl Krämer Verlag Stuttgart, Stuttgart, 1961, p. 219.

[l] Id., p. 92.

[li] Id., p. 95., Rogers responding to P. Smithson on issue of morality brought about by the latter

[lii] Id., p. 97.

[liii] Arendt, H., The Human Condition, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1998 (1958), p. 148.

[liv] Id., p. 149.

[lv] Adorno, T., ‘Functionalism Today’, Oppositions, no. 17, 1979

[lvi] Arendt, H., The Human Condition, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1998 (1958), p. 144.



On Matters, Materiality, and Materialism Entanglements with Art History

by Vanessa Badagliacca, New University of Lisbon

Addressing the significant role covered by materiality and matter as more than a superficial texture or feature to display the inherent meaning of artworks—whose content is generally considered as the unique herald to define and analyze them—it seems worthwhile mentioning Daniel Herwitz’s Aesthetics (2008) referring to Canova’s marble in sculpture.


Change the material and everything changes with it. The materiality of the finished form is something that cannot be abstracted from visual experience, or from meaning and effect. […] These things give truth to Hegel’s adage that ‘not all things are possible in all media of art’, and related, that it is the discovery of the potentialities of any given medium, their exploitation and indeed, creation, that defines the history of an art form as much anything else.”[i]


Herwitz’s assertiveness could lead the reader (a general reader external to the investigation in art history) to think about the central role of materiality in art as a given issue, but it is not. After a long marginalization of materiality in the arts over the last century, an interest in this field of enquiry finally emerged in the 1990s: the art historian Florence de Mèredieu provided an outstanding contribution with Histoire Matérielle & Immatérielle de l’Art Moderne (1994). In the introduction to her book she argued that “art history has always appeared as the result or the encounter of two opposed, and consequently, complementary factors: matter and form. […] Therefore, art history, for a large part, is that of its materials.”[ii] Nevertheless, she also acknowledged that, at least within the field of Western art, “it is noteworthy that these materials were relatively limited. […] Art, therefore, remained quartered for a long time in a relatively closed field of materials.”[iii] Moreover, she stated that every technique also evolved over the centuries, and consequently, de Mèredieu highlighted that, especially in the realm of European Avant-gardes at the beginning of the 20th century, artistic practices enriched and diversified themselves through the use of non-traditional materials .

Poor, recycled, industrial, inferred from nature, and even involving the human body, the materials of the 20th century inform one of an expansion in the realm of art, going hand in hand with the historical, economic, cultural, and societal developments of the century. In 1997 the art historian Adalgisa Lugli developed her investigations on Wunderkammern. Her approach—as Krzystof Pomian pointed out in the introduction to her volume—was stimulated by the conviction that an artwork cannot be treated as a text, in other words, “an artwork cannot be separated from its materiality.”[iv] This statement means that the choice of using one medium instead of another is not, and should not, be indifferent to the art historian, since that difference is foundational for the producer as well as for the consumer of a given art object.

At that time, the last decade of the 20th century, digital media were encountering a wide spread, which provoked the rise of visual studies as a field of interdisciplinary encounters. In this context, art history, traditionally the discipline devoted to the analysis of images and art objects, would lose its centrality. In that same period, art historian Carol Armstrong also emphasized the attention to the difference in materiality, in other words, to the use of a material instead of another for artistic purposes. Her statements, in fact, appeared in the “Visual Culture Questionnaire” published on, the journal October (1996), and directed to several art historians including Carol Armstrong.[v]

As a first remark, my aim is to follow Armstrong’s attention to artifacts in their materiality in a context broader than art history—as that of visual studies is. To that extent, I will appropriate a sentence formulated in 1980, “Do Artifacts have Politics ?”, the question entitling an article by Winner (1980). By transposing it into an affirmative sentence, inverting the order of the question, I would, therefore, argue that “artifacts do have politics,”[vi] and for this reason materiality should not be overlooked by art-historical studies. However, if we consider that art history might tend to privilege the visual aspects rather than the material ones, the image over the object, these references could be observed just as sporadic examples in this discipline. Nevertheless, more recently—precisely in the second decade of the 21st century—literature on art history and materiality have finally started to pay serious attention to this everything less than secondary aspect of art history.

Conversely, an essential part in archaeology research since the inception of the discipline in the 19th century, always involved the materiality of objects. “Material culture” is grounded on an analysis of material objects inherent to a specific context in which they were produced—especially in cases in which objects are the sole resources of information due to a lack of written documents. Apt to provide elements for knowledge on a specific culture, material culture has therefore been at the core of anthropology and sociology research as well. Regarding the relationship between material culture and art history, the art historian Michael Yonan argued


Materiality […] has been an implicit dimension of art-historical inquiry for more than a century, one that has suffered at the expense of other artistic qualities. Art history has tended to suppress its status as material culture even as it has flirted continuously with materiality, and this has evolved into a serious intellectual limitation. The prestige recently accorded to dematerializing approaches to art, which have resulted in a diminished concern for materiality in general, has only exacerbated the situation.[vii]


The issue of dematerialization stressed by Yonan underlines the importance of materiality in art. Moreover, Yonan also associated the disregard to material culture in art history as a theme which inevitably “overlaps with the larger concerns of historical materialism, which in art-historical discourse has meant a Marxist (or Marxist-inspired) history of art interested in the economic and therefore material conditions from which art is produced.”[viii] The materialist approach— inspired by Marxist historical materialism—would lead us to consider artworks as a commodity, an overly reductive perspective that has caused major resistance for applying it to art history.

At this point, it is important to underscore that the defense of materiality’s art as a perspective for art history research, neither me or Yonan (recalled here as a useful reference) or the art historians mentioned above, attempt to pursue any prevarication of materiality over the visual, but rather “to some extent it is possible to imagine visual culture and material culture as interrelated aspects of the same scholarly project.”[ix] Even“the digital image”, in its disembodied bi-dimensionality, “still requires a material means of conveyance […] to be seen.”[x] Moreover, I would add that the same technological devices are not neutrally interchangeable, since they affect the way we access information differently, and interact with people, facts and things; in this case, the way we see an image.[xi] Afterwards, Yonan referred to the position previously defended by Armstrong in 1996. According to the latter, whether the advantages of including visual studies in art history, it threatens to conceal  the importance of materiality. She, therefore, concluded her intervention to the questionnaire arguing:


The material dimension of the objects is, in my view, at least potentially a site of resistance and recalcitrance, of the irreducibly particular, and of the subversively strange and pleasurable. It is again, at least potentially, a pocket of occlusion within the smooth functioning systems of domination, including the market, the hierarchical thought-structures, and subject-positionalities: a glitch in the great worldwide web of images and representations. […] [T]o subsume material objects within the model of “text” is to discredit and misunderstand the particular intelligence involved in material facture. And least, I would propose that the differences between kinds of production, be they literary, or pictorial, painterly, sculptural, photographic, filmic, or what have you, matter absolutely, that they are the source of whatever philosophical work it does, and that to ignore those differences is to submit utterly to the system of exchange and circulation in which any cultural object undeniably participates.[xii]


In continuity with Armstrong’s insight, Yonan pointed out that “the interdisciplinary practices of material culture” must be taken into account, and suggested “mov[ing] toward a more complete synthesis” between art history and material culture, also highlighting “that art has a physical, sensual dimension, and not just a visual one. […] The physical dimension is an indissoluble component of art’s capacity to mean.”[xiii] He eventually proposed, instead of the allegory of shadow represented by Plato’s cave in The Republic, to consider Aristotle’s Metaphysics, “in which the philosopher conceives the world not as traces of something else but as organized embodiments of matter and form.”[xiv] Following this path, according to Yonan, could have the only beneficial result of empowering art history.

Nevertheless, this attention to materiality in art historical and theoretical investigation has just begun, if we also consider the position of the Dutch art historian Ann-Sophie Lehmann. She opened up her recent essay “The Matter of the Medium: Some Tools for an Art-theoretical Interpretation of Materials” (2014) declaring: “Materials, in spite of their decisive role in determining the meaning and effects of visual artifacts, have long been overlooked in art-theoretical discussion.”[xv] According to her colleague and scholar in gender studies and philosophy Iris Van der Tuin, Lehmann coined the “4Ms”, which attempt to define “the precise relationships between matter, materials, materiality, and materialism.”[xvi] Her approach must be framed in the broader intellectual context of cultural theory, whose interest in matter has determined in recent years the so-called philosophy of New Materialisms. According to the initial theorists of this current, Diana Coole and Samantha Frost


For materiality is always something more than “mere” matter: an excess, force, vitality, relationality, or difference that renders matter active, self-creative, productive, unpredictable. In sum, new materialists are rediscovering a materiality that materializes, evincing immanent modes of self-transformation that compel us to think of causation in far more complex terms; to recognize that phenomena are caught in a multitude of interlocking systems and focus and to consider anew the location and nature of capacities for agency.[xvii]


As Yanbing Er pointed out, the New Materialisms’ focus on matter involved also investigations in the fields of “material culture, eco-critical discourses, material feminisms, and science studies,” in the attempt not to abandon “the historical legacies of materialist thought,” but rather “to reconsider the notion of matter in “acknowledgement of the powerful constellation of geopolitical and biotechnological forces acting in the world today.”[xviii] These connections and inclusions towards pluralistic theoretical approaches, overcoming “the otherwise narrow boundaries of traditional academic disciplines,”[xix] highlight the transversal orientation of New Materialisms. The terms transversal, transversally, and transversality are repeatedly emphasized in Rick Dolphijn and Iris Van der Tuin’s New Materialisms: Interviews and Cartographies (2012) regarding different aspects.

In the first place, this theoretical approach dismantles the Cartesian dualism of mind and body. This cultural theory

Does not privilege matter over meaning or culture over nature. It explores a monist perspective, devoid of the dualisms that have dominated the humanities (and sciences) until today, by giving special attention to matter, which has been so neglected by dualist thought. Cartesian dualism, after all, has favored mind.[xx]


In second place, the transversality of New Materialism is also proposed as a “shift” from the

Dualist  gesture of prioritizing mind over matter, soul over body, and culture over nature that can be found in modernist as well as post-modernist cultural theories. […] In other words: a new materialism is constituted by demonstrating how the canonized relations between the aforementioned terms are in fact the outcomes of “power/knowledge” according to which Truth is an instantiation of a politics or régime, as Michel Foucault (1980) would have it.[xxi]


Moreover, renewed concern about the matter, materials, and materiality in artistic practices realized in the first years of the 21st century also coincides with a different approach to the objects in the ocean of production and consumption of them. In the realm of pollution, nature devastation and increasing amounts of waste, strategies such as recycling, reusing and even using less interrogate our own attitudes towards materiality even in our most ordinary activities. These concerns do not only belong, or can be relegated to, behavioral practices to which we can sympathize with, or have an interest in, but rather they have became a crucial necessity calling us to participate and take responsibility. Song Dong’s Doing Nothing Garden (2012) is just an example of this kind of reflections in the artistic practices.

Particularly remarkable Diana Coole and Samantha Frost’ statements at the core of the theories around the New Materialisms:


As critically engaged theorists, we find ourselves compelled to explore the significance of complex issues such as climate change of global capital and population flows, the biotechnological engineering of genetically modified organisms, or the saturation of our intimate and physical lives by digital, wireless, and virtual technologies. From our understanding of the boundary between life and death and our everyday work practices to the way we feed ourselves and recreate or procreate, we are finding our environment materially and conceptually reconstituted in ways that pose profound and unprecedented normative questions. In addressing them we unavoidably find ourselves having to think in new ways about the nature of matter and the matter of nature; about the elements of life, the resilience of the planet, and the distinction of the human.[xxii]

Facing “the elements of life, the resilience of the planet, and the distinction of the human,” the way the authors put them, in a time in which other philosophical perspectives replaced anthropocentrism, we should approach, more than ever, materiality as a resource for further investigations in the realm of art history. Regarding the most recent practice and theories of art, it is remarkable, in this context, the pivotal exhibition for the 21st century held in Kassel in 2012. In fact, curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev conceived Documenta 13, with a program that was the fruit of a “‘holistic and non-logocentric vision,’ whose associative structure insisted upon ‘a more balanced relationship with all the non-human makers with whom we share the planet and our bodies.’”[xxiii]  This kind of perspective may be adopted not only for the analysis of artistic practices occurring in our present time, but also to re-read and propose renewed perspectives in the study of past artistic practices. In a nutshell, the discipline of art history would be enriched by including materiality in lateral sense in its field of research.


[i] Daniel Herwitz, Aesthetics. Key Concepts in Philosophy, London, New York: Continuum, 2008, 139.

[ii] “L’art est toujours apparu comme la resultante ou la rencontre de deux facteurs opposés et, par voie de conséquence, complémentaires: la matière et la forme.” […] L’histoire de l’art est ainsi, pour une large part, celle de ses matériaux.” Florence de Mèredieu, Histoire matérielle & immatérielle de l’art moderne, Bordas, Paris, 1994, 1.

[iii] “Mais, si l’on reste dans le seul champ de l’art occidental, il convient de remarquer que ces matériaux son restés en nombre relativement restreint. […] L’art est donc resté cantonné longtemps dans un champ matériel relativement clos”. F. de Mèredieu, Histoire matérielle & immatérielle de l’art moderne, Cit., 1.

[iv] K. Pomian, “Adalgisa Lugli: materialità e significato dell’arte”, Introduction to Adalgisa Lugli, Wunderkammer. Le Stanze delle Meraviglie, Torino: Allemandi, 1997, 14.

[v] See “Visual Culture Questionnaire”, October 77 (Summer 1996): 25–70. Available at <> (accessed in September 2015). Quoted by Michael Yonan, “Towards a Fusion of Art History and Material Culture Studies”, in West 86th, Vol. 18, No. 2 (Fall-Winter 2011), The University of Chicago Press, 232-248: 239.

[vi] Langdon Winner, “Do Artifacts Have Politics?, Daedalus, Vol. 109, No.1, Modern Technology: Problem or Opportunity? (Winter, 1980), 121-136. I find extraordinary this kind of reflection having appeared already in 1980 and I think it can be useful to summarize its key points and arguments. In this article Winner suggested that technology is generally considered as a symptom by which we might recognize an authoritarian versus a democratic society. “We all know that people have politics, not things”, he argued and later added, “What matters is not technology itself, but the social or economic system in which it is embedded.” He also noticed that this would be a easy conclusion for social scientists and, therefore, proposed a theory of technological politics, in the attempt of, not replacing, but rather complementing theories of social determination and technology (Marxism, for instance). The approach would pay “attention to the characteristics of technical objects and the meaning of those characteristics.” For instance, Winner distinguished two ways that artefacts can contain political properties: 1) a specific invention, design or technical device can determine a particular social effect in a community (I would call it inductive) or; 2) when a particular political situation is the essential condition to establish a specific “man-made system” (I would call it deductive). He afterwards offered some examples of both ways, like Robert Moses’s buildings of roads, parks and public works (infrastructures) between the 1930s and 1970s in New York to create borders between upper and lower classes, white and black people; and the atomic bomb as “an inherently political artefact”.

[vii] Michael Yonan, “Towards a Fusion of Art History and Material Culture Studies”, in West 86th, Vol. 18, No. 2 (Fall-Winter 2011), The University of Chicago Press, 232-248: 233.

[viii] M. Yonan, “Towards a Fusion of Art History and Material Culture Studies”, Cit., 235.

[ix] M. Yonan, “Towards a Fusion of Art History and Material Culture Studies”, Cit., 239.

[x] M. Yonan, “Towards a Fusion of Art History and Material Culture Studies”, Cit., 239. Moreover, I would add that even technological devices are not neutrally interchangeable, since they different affect the way we access information, in this case, the way we see an image.

[xi] It seems appropriate remembering the writer Evgeny Morozov’s statement “Why technologies are never neutral”, which entitles the last part of the 10th chapter of his E. Morozov, The Net Delusion. The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, New York: Public Affairs, 2011.

[xii] Carol Armstrong, in “Visual Culture Questionnaire”, October, Cit., 28.

[xiii] M. Yonan, “Towards a Fusion of Art History and Material Culture Studies”, Cit., 243.

[xiv] M. Yonan, “Towards a Fusion of Art History and Material Culture Studies”, Cit., 245.

[xv] Ann-Sophie Lehmann, “The Matter of the Medium. Some Tools for an Art Theoretical Interpretation of Materials”, in The Matter of Art: Materials, Technologies, Meanings 1200-1700, in C. Anderson, A. Dunlop, P. H. Smith (eds.), Manchester: Manchester University Press 2014, 21-41: 22.

[xvi] Iris Van der Tuin, “On the Threshold of New Materialist Studies”, Forum: University of Edinburgh Post-Graduate Journal of Culture and the Arts, Jessica Legacy and Yanbing Er (eds.), Issue 19, Autumn 2014, 1-12: 4. Available at <> (accessed in December 2014).

[xvii] Diana Coole & Samantha Frost, “Introducing the New Materialisms”, in D. Coole and S. Frost (eds.), New Materialisms. Ontology, Agency, and Politics, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010, 1-43: 9.

[xviii] Yanbing Er, “Editorial Introduction: The New Materialisms”, Forum: University of Edinburgh Post-Graduate Journal of Culture and the Arts, Cit., 1-6: 2-3.

[xix] Yanbing Er, “Editorial Introduction: The New Materialisms”, Forum: University of Edinburgh Post-Graduate Journal of Culture and the Arts, Cit., 3.

[xx] Rick Dolphijn and Iris Van der Tuin’s New Materialisms: Interviews and Cartographies, Open Humanities Press, University of Michigan Library, Ann Arbor, 2012, 85. Available at <> (accessed in December 2014).

[xxi] Rick Dolphijn and Iris Van der Tuin’s New Materialisms: Interviews and Cartographies, cit., 119.

[xxii] D. Coole and S. Frost (eds.), New Materialisms. Ontology, Agency, and Politics, Cit., 5-6.

[xxiii] C. Christov-Bakargiev, “The Dance Was Very Frenetic, Lively, Rattling, Clanging, Rolling, Contorted, and Lasted for a Long Time”, dOCUMENTA (13), The Book of Books, Catalog 1/3, Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2012, 34. Quoted by Christopher Cox, Jenny Jaskey, Suhail Malik, “Introduction”, in Christopher Cox, Jenny Jaskey, Suhail Malik (eds.), Realism Materialism Art, Cit., 15-31: 28. Regarding the relationship among human and non-human agents sharing the planet and the human, in her essay Christov-Bakargiev made reference to D. Haraway, When Species Meet, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007.