What is a foam vessel?

April 13, 2011

Peter Sloterdijk writes in Foam City that individuals operate in their own ‘bubble’, distinct from others because of their individuality. Accordingly we operate and connect not as a collective under the umbrella term of ‘society’ but rather through “symbolic exchange and contracts based on transactions”. With every man an island the world we operate in is ‘flatter’ than the uneven power distribution of the last century, which heavily focused on “the division and recombination of labour”. However, rather than society as an archipelago, Sloterdijk uses the analogy of foam, with its “co-isolated islands” where each distinct bubble shares “at least one partition wall with an adjacent world cell”.

Sloterdijk asks that we no longer define ourselves as the ‘masses’ whose collective will is controlled by those in power. This no longer (indeed never did) apply. In recognising this we are able to reclaim the power which resides in the foam analogy. Here, the isolated island is not a negative withdrawing from ‘the other’ (as de Cauter argues) but instead is seen as a positive. However similar each individual unit is, it is still uniquely disparate, which means it is almost impossible to amalgamate into a directed whole – a “totality” can never form. Outside control from a sovereign body or State is much harder to enact.

Sloterdijk outlines the challenge for architecture is to create a spatial configuration which recognises the foam behaviour of our society – one that “enable[s] both the isolation of individuals, and the concentration of isolated entities into collective ensembles of cooperation and contemplation”. Using the interesting social and political awakening of France during its revolutionary years in the 18th century, we are shown a number of methods which were used to assert the power of the collective. Using the process of Umfunktionierung, or refunctioning an existing building into a new function, does not work as the new event is “still housed in the past”. Despite bids to create a new world, they were inhabiting spaces which were symbolic of the old. New spaces must be created.

Using the creation of the Champ de Mars as an example, we see however that new spaces created during the French Revolution were still based on historical models, such as the Greek amphitheatre and the Roman circus. These spaces were a place for individuals to assemble, conceived to contain the “mass of the society itself”. The overarching theme of these spatial types however are that they are “absolutist fantasies of administration and control”. Here the crowd can unify and cooperate but only with the loss of any sense of individuality.

If there can be “no dough without a vessel to form it in” then architecture must lose its (historically) inherent controlling nature with the creation of entirely new spatial conditions. What constitutes a foam vessel?

-Tim Brooks


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