Performatism, a post-postmodern architecture style in an integral age

Estre Hotel, Berlin (Credit: Hayva.com)

A common way to define integral design is to say that it is a practice involving the application of a comprehensive methodological framework such as AQAL. For example, Vernon Collis and Anna Cowen write in “An Architectural Practice as an Integral Organisation,” that:

Our design process opens with an in-depth mapping of any context we work in. The context could be organizational or physical or both. This mapping process (which could be likened to the observation phase of Otto Scharmer’s “U” process) is an AQAL affair. We map as exhaustively as resources permit, integrating both local and expert perspectives, moving up and down the spiral, and looking from the 8 ‘hori-zones’, as Ken Wilber calls them. We are engaged with the design of a range of processes where communities map themselves, and in so doing, develop tools to drive development from within. These processes employ all quadrants, effectively cross-training participants in self, culture and nature through reflection, group work and systems analysis. We then enter a reflective space (the presencing space of “U” theory), integrating and synthesizing learnings from the mapping. From here, action emerges – design interventions we view as acupuncture needles, releasing trapped potentials, and enabling the various systems to both heal themselves and to thrive. Our work is deeply informed by many years’ experience of embodying our work through physically making.

While that’s an important definition which needs to be explored, I am also interested in the question of what is a distinctively integral design aesthetic, just as there are styles definitive of traditional, modern, and postmodern architecture. How is it that designers are reacting against postmodern architecture’s concern with eclecticism, irony, and ornamentation to create new styles of architecture?

Neues Kranzler Eck Shopping Mall (Credit: inmagine.com)Postmodern architecture is sometimes called “neo-eclectic,” and is concerned with the context of structures in diverse respects: the types of materials used (e.g., ecologically sustainable materials/green building), the historical context of the neighborhood and city (e.g., historical preservation), etc.

The Performatist turn in architecture

One way of characterizing post-postmodern design is “Performatism.” Wikipedia summarizes:

A systematic attempt to define post-postmodernism in aesthetic terms has been undertaken by the German-American Slavist Raoul Eshelman in his book Performatism, or the End of Postmodernism (Aurora, Colorado: Davies Group 2008, ISBN 978-1-888570-41-0). Eshelman, who coined the term “Performatism” in 2000, attempts to show that works in the new epoch are constructed in such a way as to bring about a unified, aesthetically mediated experience of transcendence. Performatism does this by creating closed works of art that force viewers to identify with simple, opaque characters or situations and to experience beauty, love, belief and transcendence under particular, artificial conditions.

In “Performatism in Architecture. On Framing and the Spatial Realization of Ostensivity,” Raoul Eshelman writes:

Performatist thinking and art reorients itself to the latter-day equivalents of a “meaningless” but nonetheless deeply significant, irreducible inner frame. This frame can hardly be deconstructed because it has little or no semantic content and almost no context; it works simply through the truth of its own existence, as a reminder of the performative foundation of the human. It is also the place where beauty, love, belief, morality and all the other originary, performative situations that postmodernism dismisses as “metaphysical” were established–situations that are now being revitalized in aesthetic settings.

Kant Triangle Berlin (Credit: Jose-luis-ortega via Flickr)Everything in that description of Performatism seems applicable as a literary description of many Integral writings as well. Ken Wilber’s “simple feeling of being” (his description of the nondual spirituality at the heart of his writing) seems aptly described as “meaningless yet significant,” undeconstructible, irreducible. Steve McIntosh’s emphasis on Integral Consciousness as bound to Truth, Beauty, and Goodness could be imagined as “performative situations” that postmodernism dismisses wrongly as metaphysical.

One feature of the Performatist aesthetic, according to Raoul Eshelman’s “Performatism, or the End of Postmodernism,” is the return of the phallus:

Finally, the unifying intention of performatism is closely tied to the return of the phallus as a positive enabling force in culture. Contrary to the poststructuralist assumption that the phallus functions only by muzzling, suppressing, or penetrating the female, the performative phallus creates a positive, gender-transcending unity through a process of more-or-less voluntary self-sacrifice.

This attribute also parallels one of the striking features of AQAL-influenced integral thought: its origin by a male writer whose work is sometimes wrongly attacked as “patriarchal” or “phallocentric” by postmodern feminists. But performatist architecture is not phallocentric so much as a reclaiming of a positive, trans-gender identity to balance the overemphasis of postmodernism on feminine virtues.

An integral design as demonstrative, functional, and monistic

Eschelman claims the key to understanding its aesthetic is not its reclaiming of masculinity, but its Spatializing Ostensivity. Ostensivity appears to be a self-explanatory neologism based on ostensive, meaning “directly or clearly demonstrative.” Ken Wilber frequently points to the self-verifying feature of AQAL, as when in Integral Vision he repeatedly asks the reader to simply examine her or his immediate awareness in order to locate the quadrants and other theoretical components (stages, lines, types, and types). Eschelman says:

Performatism in architecture arises when minimal spatial relations are configured in such a way as to suggest the possibility of achieving transcendence…. performatist architecture stylizes functionality and tends to use simple forms suggesting a single, monistic end. However, unlike modernism, performatist architecture is aimed at evoking transcendency through devices that are perceived neither as being motivated by modernist notions of ideal functionality (whose most obvious token is the grid or square) nor as displaying an ornamental plurality in the postmodern sense (citing and mixing received, recognizable codes). Instead, performatist devices call attention to spatially mediated, minimal relations which seem to overcome certain intractable material or physical limitations. One might call this transcendent functionalism, as opposed to the rational or technical functionalism of modernism. Instead of expressing a geometrically founded principle in a consistent, foreseeable way, the performative device suggests the possibility of overcoming some spatial limitation with heretofore unrecognized functional means.

He actually identifies nine distinct devices of performatist architecture: Theistic creation (addition/subtraction of mass), Transparency (dematerialization), Triangulation, Kinesis, Impendency, Wholeness (closure), Framing, Centering + ostensivity, and Oneness (generativity). (Note: I’ve added four of the buildings described by Eschelman as examples of performatism on this blog post so you can get an impression of how these devices are employed.)

While a detailed exploration of performatist design is outside the scope of this blog post, I deeply appreciate Eschelman’s contribution to the exploration of a post-postmodern aesthetic and look forward to learning more. Its principles reveal the integral phenomenon just as I see it emerging in the world: organically, holistically, rising from the earliest ashes of postmodern sensibilities into something new, unprecedented, and unpredictable.

The British Embassy, Berlin Wilhelmstraße (Credit: Panoramio.com)Integral architecture is not simply about applying a single integrally informed methodology to new, unconstructed “Integral Buildings,” (however important that practice perhaps is), but is something already in our midst. We have only to recognize its features, bring our awareness to them, construct attempts at definitions, and then play with the novelty until something new emerges.

Design that allows the reader to feel the “powerful, preterhuman hand of the architect,” (what Eschelman calls theistic creation) is indeed new. It is, I think, a characteristic that describes the literary output of Ken Wilber whose 25 books and voluminous output of interviews and articles creates an aesthetic impression of virtual “theistic omnipotence.”

My own contribution to Integral literature, the memoir Soulfully Gay (Integral Books/Shambhala, 2007), also employs a highly unusual theistic literary device, beginning with an Introduction featuring a secret-withholding theistic narrator setting the stage for a drama which promises a sort of “surprise ending.” The book itself is a sequence of journal-like entries featuring an in-the-dark protagonist with whom the reader can identify, and who then is seen gradually rising step-by-step in consciousness culminating in his realization of God Consciousness.

Certainly, the Performatist style will continue to be influential for many years to come, in architecture, philosophy, art, literature, and other disciplines without limitation.

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Comments

  1. says

    Wonderful, Joe. I find this thrilling, both in discovering what looks like integral expressions emerging out of post-modernism with out the umph of AQAL; and in witnessing the ‘self-verification’ of these structures. I find them inspiring. In my recurring visions of the positive future to come, I often imagine architecture and public spaces as a touchstone. Thanks for taking the time to bring this forth.

  2. says

    Agreed. Architecture is just so solid when you see something new and anti-postmodern it’s just so intriguing.It’s like taking a look at integral from the prism of “Whatever comes after post-modernism in response is THAT” with AQAL being one reflection of THAT in the domains of philosophy and interdisciplinary methodological theory…

  3. says

    Hi Joe,

    Have been enjoying your blog lately and this post is another good one. Wanted to chime in and add Charles Jencks to the picture. He’s witten a lot of really great stuff detailing modernism and post-modernism, and he’s one hell of a designer.

    http://www.charlesjencks.com/current.html

    I’m not familiar enough with his work to give any real synopsis here, but as I dig into it I’m constantly blown away by his perception and articulation of the cultural processes all around us. A good cat to keep up on.

    Thanks for the good work, B