An intellectual (whose work is worth reading) is more necessary than ever

Francesco Perrotta-Bosch

A dictionary begins when it no longer gives the meaning of words, but their tasks. Thus formless is not only an adjective having a given meaning, but a term that serves to bring things down in the world, generally requiring that each thing have its form. What it designates has no rights in any sense and gets itself squashed everywhere, like a spider or an earthworm. In fact, for academic men to be happy, the universe would have to take shape. All of philosophy has no other goal: it is a matter of giving a frock coat to what is, a mathematical frock coat. On the other hand, affirming that the universe resembles nothing and is only formless amounts to saying that the universe is something like a spider or spit.”[1]

                                                                              Georges Bataille

Should we admit that "the universe resembles nothing and is only formless" we will realize that any human construction, either in the material or the intellectual level, is not an absolute truth. Or indestructible. Or even eternal. Men build taxonomy of everything in the universe in order to own it. Taxonomy is the practice of giving form to any content. But forms are not the contents themselves. If organizing, categorizing, cataloguing and ordering are mechanisms to stop knowledge –the “mathematical frock coat”–, it is equally valid to encourage disruption of such order. This is the bataillean operation of déclasser: to declassify. This is where the pertinence of the formless lies.

These terms give rise to a discussion on which is the most stimulating stance to the world of an intellectual (whose work is worth reading). When can we say that individuals who give their opinion on the state of things (ignoring the authors of posts and tweets) are fulfilling their role properly?

The founding act is to adopt a position. Not any position, but that which questions common sense and does not fall in the comfort of the commonplace. That which requires a non-servile attitude before the powerful, let alone before personal ambition. Adopting a position is incompatible with the submission to the politically correct and the alignment with the majority –by the way, this description is highly subjective as the majorities of a national electorate, of a professional class, or of the bubble of colleagues connected to your social networks are different-; all the while, these majorities are equally harmful for an intellectual (whose work is worth reading). To a certain extent, it is necessary to swim against the tide. Adopting a position is an act of reply. Of opposition.[2]

It is necessary to take the rather uncomfortable antagonistic position that to some extent, resembles that of the polemicist. Undoubtedly, it moves away from the comfort of the merely festive. Ultimately, an intellectual (whose work is worth reading) contradicts unanimities and heroes, provokes transgression of (for some people) convenient conventions, overthrow of the status quo, disruption of procedures, breaking of rules, destruction of myths. These targets are not attempted as actions of personal vanity but as generous acts to find new liberties, id est., fields of thought devoid of restrictions –always disguised as truths or certainties- established by society itself.

Therefore, the objective of an intellectual (whose work is worth reading) is to raise doubts in the reader. To challenge something greater than oneself[3]. To make some people challenge what they had taken as certainty. To communicate that a certain fact or situation is a problem. The first step to solve it will always be to acknowledge it. The ultimate purpose is to stimulate –sometimes, even to trigger- public debate.


Architecture is the expression of the very soul of societies, just as human physiognomy is the expression of the individual’s souls. It is, however, particularly to the physiognomies of official personages (prelate, magistrates, admirals) that this comparison pertains. In fact it is only the ideal soul of society, that which has the authority to command and prohibit, that is expressed in architectural compositions properly speaking. Thus great monuments are erected like dikes, opposing the logic and majesty of authority against all disturbing elements: it is in the form of cathedral or palace that Church or State speaks to the multitudes and imposes silence upon them. It is, in fact, obvious that monuments inspire social prudence and often even real fear. The taking of the Bastille is symbolic of this state of things: it is hard to explain this crowd movement other than by the animosity of the people against the monuments that are their real masters.
It is obvious, moreover, that mathematical organization imposed on stone is none other than the completion of an evolution of earthly forms, whose meaning is given, in the biological order, by the passage of the simian to the human form, the latter already presenting all the elements of architecture. In morphological progress men apparently represent only an intermediate stage between monkeys and great edifices. Forms have become more and more static, more and more dominant. The human order from the beginning is, just as easily, bound up with architectural order, which is no more than its development. And if one attacks architecture, whose monumental productions are at present the real masters of the world, grouping servile multitudes in their shadows, imposing admiration and astonishment, order and constraint, one is, as it were, attacking man. [...]”[4]

                                                                                     Georges Bataille

Order is an eminently architectural action. For Bataille, architecture formats the networks of human relationships that build communities, establishes systems that bring people together, gives meaning to what is produced by and for more than one individual. Defining meanings is the same as introducing models. These models regulate the social body and "imposes silence on the masses". According to this interpretation, architecture is, therefore, the materialization of power.

The taking of the Bastille is the primeval fact that Bataille sets up to trigger a debate on architecture. In other words, the taking of a prison is the starting point for a critical view of architecture.

In the first paragraphs of his book Against Architecture: The Writings of Georges Bataille, Denis Hollier gives an explanation of this issue: "There have been endless arguments over whether the origin of architecture was the house, the temple or the tomb. For Bataille it was the prison.[5]” His notion of architecture is associated to repression. It is closer to the notion of monument, but mainly as a symbol of authoritarian representation.  Leading someone to believe that architecture would be the authority is the same as saying that architecture is a symbol of institution.

Going back to the dissection of the quote, special attention should be paid to this part of the text: "And if one attacks architecture [...] one is, as it were, attacking man". The French philosopher does not attack the man inside or outside an architectural construction: the attack is against the architecture inside man. It responds to the condition of the body subjugated by power. Then, we have a fight against the conventions, labels, habits, customs, protocols, praxis and rules that we are taught to apply on ourselves. This is a battle against determinism: the fight to liberate individual behaviors from models (directly or indirectly) imposed onto them by the authority. Repression of human nature. Bataille is opposing the idea of "make himself an architectural composition”[6]. The architecture problematized here is human form.

The aim –or what is taught or even imposed- is the right model for that human form. The man confined into a body willing to reach perfection. Therefore, writing about human form is to get into the field of idealism. Not by chance, Bataille says that in his opinion, architecture "is only the ideal soul of society".

Thus, the critical view of architecture is the permanent battle against idealism. An intellectual (whose work is worth reading) should attack idealism.

Now it seems rather obvious to note that, according to Bataille, architecture is not made by architects.  Architecture speaks of physiology, physiognomy, economics, politics, of everything and everyone. Even when related to the construction of buildings, the role of the architect is not that of the great author.  An architect is far from being the demiurge responsible for the creation, and plays a minor role, that of a translator materializing authorities.

No less important is to consider that Georges Bataille's notion of architecture as the representation of authority, as synonymous with institution, should also be repositioned within the parameters shaping the present; otherwise, we will reach a hurried conclusion on the mismatch of Bataille's notion. From 1929 to 2018 the meanings of architecture and institution have changed. Ultimately, what is the form of an institution of the 21st. century? In the light of the speed of contemporary life, institutions do not need static, long-lasting solutions any more, let alone the (sometimes incredible) desire of being eternal. If, on the one hand, control systems have been dematerialized, on the other hand, systems have become more complex and disseminated. Should we rely on the idea of architecture as a structure of order and attraction of a wide group of persons, we will conclude that never in human history architecture has been so present as it is today. If we transpose Bataille's notions to the 21st. century, his great architect would be Mark Zuckerberg.  His architecture would be Facebook, Google, Instagram, Bordering the irresponsibility of an assumption, I believe that Bataille would hardly recognize as architecture anything at this Biennale.

Acknowledging this fracture between architect and architecture, the very core of the profession is threatened. The discussion of basilar issues is reopened. Which is the present role of the architect? Which is the role that the architect could have in the future? Which is his real power? Bataillean disruption may lead us to think in the end of the architect's legitimacy as we know it today; meanwhile, at the same time, its shows us that thinking of architecture is essential to reflect on Humanity. This criticism of architecture is an irrefutable foundation for an intellectual (whose work is worth reading).

Francesco Perrotta-Bosch, master's degree in architecture, essay writer, critic and curator in architecture.  He coordinated the team in charge of research and assembly of the Coleção Arquitetura Brasileira da Casa de Arquitetura in Portugal, 2017. He was curatorial assistant of the Brazilian Pavilion at the International Architecture Exhibition at the 2016 Venice Biennale, and assistant curator of the exhibitions: “Conjunto Habitacional” and “Lutar. Ocupar. Resistir” of Studio X. He is a member of the architecture jury of Asociación Paulista de Críticos de Arte".
[1] BATAILLE, Georges. Documents. 1929. In: BOIS, Yve-Alain; KRAUSS, Rosalind. Formless. A User’s Guide. New York: Zone Books, 1997. p.5.
[2] It should be noted that not all is subject to criticism:  therefore, it is essential to select what is worth criticizing. Nor all requires a public opinion –in some cases, refraining from giving an opinion (or even ignoring someone's opinion) expresses a stronger position.

[3] There is always the risk of being quixotic or of falling into a propagandistic discourse. And the risk of grandiloquence and exhaustiveness. By the way, perhaps these are the problems of this essay supporting an intellectual (whose work is worth reading), written by me, a non-intellectual (whose work perhaps is not worth reading).

[4] BATAILLE, Georges. Documents. 1929. In: HOLLIER, Denis. Against Architecture: The Writings of Georges Bataille. Cambridge: The MIT Press,1992. p.46-54.

[5] HOLLIER, Denis. Against Architecture: The Writings of Georges Bataille. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1992. p.IX.
[6] BOIS, Yve-Alain. Threshole. In: BOIS, Yve-Alain; KRAUSS, Rosalind. Formless. A User’s Guide. New York: Zone Books, 1997. p.5.