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Lisa Robertson’s thoughts on the architectural “ornament” reminded me of a text that I am writing about for another class, Frankfurt School theorist Siegfried Kracauer’s “The Mass Ornament,” written in 1927. Robertson’s claim that “ornament is the frontier of the surface” finds support in Kracauer’s essay, which does not address architecture specifically but borrows its terminology to describe the ornamental “surfaces” of “mass culture” in general. Kracauer argues that the illusion of the “mass” results from an abstractive rationality—which he calls “Ratio”—inherent in capitalism. The mass obscures the particularity of the individuals within it. Despite his belief that the mass is mere “surface” or “ornament” however, he believes that it provides direct access to the historical significance of a given epoch:

“The position that an epoch occupies in the historical process can be determined more strikingly from an analysis of its inconspicuous surface-level expressions than from that epoch’s judgments about itself. … The surface-level expressions, however, by virtue of their unconscious nature, provide unmediated access to the fundamental substance of the state of things … The fundamental substance of an epoch and its unheeded impulses illuminate each other reciprocally” (Kracauer, The Mass Ornament, 75).

For Robertson, this reciprocal illumination between the “impulses” visible on the surface and the “fundamental substance” takes place not only in the constructed buildings of human architecture but also the “softer” forms of nonhuman nature. To understand history and contingency, she believes, one must move away from “essence” or “structure” and attend to the superficial variations which document the particularity of a moment:

“We believe that structure or fundament itself, in its inert eternity, has already been adequately documented—the same skeleton repeating itself continuously. We are grateful for these memorial documents. But the chaos of surfaces compels us towards new states of happiness” (128).

Importantly, Kracauer also does not restrict his discussion of surface to human forms. Indeed, the “mass ornament” is the site where “bare nature” manifests itself, “the very nature that also resists the expression and apprehension of its own meaning” (Mass Ornament 84). Robertson similarly compels us to consider the “superficies…formed from contingent gesture” throughout the natural world as resistant to the human’s search for essential meaning. Rather than provoking confusion and disorientation, however, these volatile surfaces afford us “new states of happiness”; there is a unique joy in the inability to know and to classify the surface, because it supports the survival of curiosity and the human drive to continue interacting with the world. Moreover, ornament serves as “the decoration of mortality”; the cycles of decay followed by renewal throughout the organic world do not merit fear but fascination, because they offer dialectical counterpoints to the “inertness” of eternity (128).

Given Kracauer’s interest in the “mass” of human culture, I wonder if placing him in conversation with Robertson could offer new ways of understanding her architectural intervention into the division between natural forms and so-called artificial ones. Kracauer’s project of turning the intangible “mass” into an immanent, concrete surface seems compatible with Robertson’s goal of dislocating the “structural essence” of an object from its interior to its exterior. To what extent could we think of the taxonomic classifications based on appearance which take place in the sciences—such as the long efforts to interpret “cloud physiognomy” that Daston discusses—as abstractive assimilations of chaotic variation into the single “mass” that we represent as “nature”?

Although critical of the mass, Kracauer suggests that societal change must “go through” the ornament rather than avoiding it. Robertson’s theorized “Office of Soft Architecture”—a sort of satirical nod to the bureaucratic, institutional linkages between nature and culture—seems like the sort of codifying apparatus which could galvanize the nonhuman mass into action.

~Graham

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