Theoretical concepts can be dangerous tools!

March 3, 2011

Beware! As Eyal Weizman has argued, theory can be lethal! Even though certain commentators in the Academy (that is, the places where we learn about our discipline, whether it be architecture, philosophy, other…), have been lamenting the waning of theory, as it turns out, the military, specifically the Israeli Defense Forces, has been making instrumental and pragmatic use of some of the concepts invented by such thinkers as Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, also appropriating techniques such as Guy Debord and the Situationist International’s notions of ‘dérive’ (drifting through a city based on a psychogeographical approach) and ‘detournement’ (the adaptation of buildings, even language and other forms, for uses they were not originally designed for) (Wiezman, Lethal Theory: p. 68). According to Weizman, the well-educated IDF (Israeli Defence Forces) have invented their own method of ‘walking through walls’ or ‘un-walling the wall’ (note also the near palindrome, as Weizman does, of wall/law, and thus a suggested and profound relationship between the wall and the law!). Rather than occupying the designated enemy territory (that is, the Palestinian camp or settlement) via its alleys and roads, and entering via doors, or even windows, they have discovered that this ‘syntax’ or structural arrangement of the city, will only reveal them to their enemy. Instead of traversing the public thoroughfares, they will progressively eat their way through the interior, private, domestic spaces of the city, punching through walls, ceilings, floors, in order to surprise the enemy combatant (who may have been a mere civilian just moments ago!).

A further more general question that is of interest to us is the relationship between theory and practice in architecture. If you read Deleuze and Foucault’s conversation, Intellectuals and Power (see READINGS), you will discover their argument about how theory can be used like a box of tools, and that the relay between theory and practice moves back and forth like a shuttle. That is to say, you may well never get to the bottom of the question as to whether theory comes first and practice follows, or, vice versa, whether practice must be undertaken first through trial and error and the accumulation of embodied knowledge and know-how, only then to be formulated, after the fact, as a theory!

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