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Adherents to these perspectives are known to have viewed as antagonistic the relationship between those behaviors devoted to the pursuit of desire and pleasure and those devoted to the provision of what is needed. If neo-structuralist thinkers like Jacques Lacan and Roland Barthes are today largely remembered as theorists of pleasure and desire, it is because they challenged the utilitarian underpinnings of our common assumptions concerning these terms, teaching us not only to separate the vicissitudes of desire from the exigencies of mere need, but also to observe behind what we imagine to be our pleasures a jouissance whose most salient quality is its indifference, even hostility, to our personal well-being. From 1968 to the end of the 20th century, the influence of structuralist and post-structuralist thought (Ferdinand de Saussure, Roman Jakobson, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Barthes, Lacan, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Jean Baudrillard) exercised a significant influence on a wide range of professional (Herman Hertzberger, Bernard Tschumi, Jean Nouvel, Peter Eisenman) and critical (Massimo Cacciari, Manfredo Tafuri, K. Michael Hays, Anthony Vidler, Mark Wigley, Beatriz Colomina) practices in architecture. Although important differences can be observed between these various players in their various domains, a set of intellectual and ethical commitments can be said to characterize the corporate ethos that emerges from that diversity: an insistence on the autonomy and artificiality of all forms of social and cultural practice (an insistence typically, though not invariably, predicated on the assumption of a radical discontinuity separating the cognitive and symbolic capacities of humans from that of other animal species); a suspicion, allied with this notion of cultural autonomy, of every naturalist or necessitarian explanatory framework for describing the genesis of human pleasure and desire and those cultural activities associated with them (hence the celebration of the destructive and transgressive impulse at work in all forms of cultural sublimation, as against the interpretation of those forms as strategies of bio-cultural adaptation); and, finally, but perhaps most consequentially for our purposes, a resolute insistence on negation of the given as a precondition for the production of human significance (a negation typically conceived as involving the expurgation of all vital substance from those materials comprising the given).

The counter-vitalist ethos that underpins this constellation of commitments is aptly expressed in Jacques Derrida’s sympathetic assessment of the structuralist legacy, offered in an essay written in 1963, in which he links the revelation of structure to a certain de-animation of form: “The relief and design of structures appears more clearly when the content, which is the living energy of meaning, is neutralized. Somewhat like the architecture of an uninhabited or deserted city, reduced to its skeleton by some catastrophe of nature or art. A city no longer in-habited, not simply left behind, but haunted by meaning and culture.” The conception of architecture that these lines communicate follows a legacy that includes, alongside Hegel’s description of architecture’s original vocation as one of containing not the life but the death of the mind, Adolf Loos’s description of architecture as the precise inverse of a machine for living: “When walking through a wood, you find a rise in the ground, six feet long and three feet wide, heaped up in a rough pyramidal shape, then you turn serious, and something inside you says: someone lies buried here. There is architecture.”
hdm #30
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