The architecture of potentiality: weak utopianism and educational space in the work of Giorgio Agamben.
The article first examines the interrelationship between time and space in Giorgio Agamben's formulation of messianic utopianism. While time has been given a privileged position in Agamben's philosophy of potentiality, I attempt to uncover the equally important spatial logic of potentiality. In particular, I examine four spatial figures that appear throughout his books: the stanza, limbo, the door, and the operational image. The operational image is the most interesting precisely because it illustrates the interrelationships between time and space within his overall theory of the messianic. The notion of weak utopianism that I develop is connected directly with the question of education. For Agamben, the action that, more than any other, represents the messianic moment is the act of studying, or studious play. The temporality of weak utopianism is not simply the messianic time of the now but also the temporality of perpetual study, where the student holds judgment in suspension in order to experience the potentiality of thought itself. Likewise the space of weak utopianism can be thought of as an educational space. In conclusion, I illustrate the educational importance of weak utopianism through an example taken from school architecture exemplifying the inherently educational dimension of Agamben's messianic utopianism.
Italian critical theorist Giorgio Agamben is well known for his rigorous attempts to redefine political, aesthetic, and theological concepts through messianic categories. For Agamben, the messianic is not concerned with perpetual waiting for a savior to come and redeem the world. Rather, it concerns the radically open potentiality for action within the contemporary moment. While the temporality of the messianic moment has been emphasized both by Agamben and by the vast secondary literature that has provided ample reflections on his body of work, the important concept of messianic space has not been given equal treatment. Space and time must be thought together if we are to appreciate the unique qualities of Agamben's notion of utopianism. For critics such as Dominik LaCapra, Agamben's political and social theories have been rejected precisely because they embody an "ecstatic, anarchistic utopia that remains terra incognita and whose relevance to present problems or commitments is left utterly blank" (2007, 155). At the same time, supporters such as Carlo Salzani argue that Agamben's theory of the coming community and his emphasis on "a messianic notion of politics, which renounces representation and upsets the temporality of political imaginary" (2012, 214), are decisively anti-utopian. For Salzani, Agamben undermines the very idea of the utopian imagination, which is predicated on the construction of images of the future. In this essay, I will argue that both LaCapra and Salzani fail to properly understand the relationship between messianic space and time and utopia. The spatial and temporal dimensions of messianic utopianism are not so much about positing a model for a future perfection (as with many classical utopias). Nor are they about revealing the inherent, ideological limitations of our imagination to think utopianism (as Jameson  argues). Rather than utopian or antiutopian, I suggest a third category, an impossible suture between the two. Key to this impossible suture is what I will refer to as weak utopianism. As opposed to Keith Booker's reading of weak utopianism as a mode of "anti-utopianism" (2002, 29), I suggest that it is a form of utopian thought informed by messianic temporality and spatiality that is situated between everyday chronology and the end of time. In this sense, Agamben's utopianism is, like pensiero debole as such, a weak thought, or a utopianism as not utopianism. If strong utopianism builds blueprints in order to actualize or concretize the potentiality of the utopian imagination, then weak utopianism resists constructing such blueprints in order to live within the potentiality of the present.
The notion of weak utopianism that I will develop throughout this article is, importantly, connected directly with the question of education. For Agamben, the action that, more than any other, represents the messianic moment is the act of studying, or studious play. The temporality of weak utopianism is not simply the messianic time of the now but also the temporality of perpetual study, where the student holds judgment in suspension in order to experience the potentiality of thought itself without destination or determination. Likewise the space of weak utopianism can be thought of as an educational space--a space wherein thought experiences itself as a pure means. Messianic space is a clearing that offers the slightest of adjustments within the cartography of the present through which thought as thought can appear. In conclusion, I will illustrate the educational importance of weak utopianism through an example taken from school architecture. This example is not simply an illustration of how weak utopianism can be applied to education but should be read as exemplifying the educational space and time of weak utopianism as such. Here utopianism does not result in an image of the future but, rather, in the decompletion of the present in the name of a potential freedom.
Weak Utopianism and the Messianic
Weak utopianism is the experience of the potentiality of utopianism without the command to make this utopianism a determinate, materialized form or shape. As such, Agamben's rethinking of the messianic provides the most immediate education in human potentiality that is available. From De Anima, Agamben argues that Aristotle enables us to think two kinds of potential: generic and effective. A generic conceptualization of potentiality explains how a child is able to grow up to be a particular type of person with a particular occupation (a statesman, for example). Through education, the child suffers an "alteration (a becoming other) through learning" (Agamben 1999, 179), where "the passage from the act implies an exhaustion and destruction of potential" (Agamben 2005b, 136). In terms of educational renewal, the student must suffer an alteration that destroys the not yet in order to fully actualize a latent potentiality. Yet to fully actualize potentiality is to destroy it. In this schema, potentiality becomes subordinate to actuality--it is in some senses what makes the actual possible but also what must be eliminated in order for the passage to the act to be complete. Potentiality is sacrificed in the process of actualizing generic potentiality.
In addition to its generic form, Agamben argues that there is a second notion of potentiality in Aristotle's work that can be referred to as "effective potentiality" in that it represents a "conservation of potential in the act and something like the giving of potentiality to itself" (1999, 136). This is the type of potentiality that interests Agamben the most. Those who have knowledge are in potential, meaning that they equally have the capacity to bring knowledge into actuality and to not bring knowledge into actuality. Agamben then gives the example of an architect who "is in potential insofar as he has the potential to not-build, the poet the potential to not-write poems" (1999, 179). By conserving itself, potential remains "impotential." Impotential, in my usage, is not simply impotence but an active capacity for not-doing or not-being (rather than "not able to," it refers to the paradoxical capability to "be able not to do"). To experience impotentiality is therefore the experience of not-writing that enables the poet to develop proficiency through sustained reflection, planning, speculation, imagination, and so on. Joanne Faulkner argues that Agamben's theory of impotential, instead of a stumbling block that must be continually denied, repressed, or overcome, "refers not simply to incapacity but rather to a being-able that abstains from doing" (2010, 205), which permits a new relation to one's own impotency. Thus, all theories of potentiality must also and equally be theories of the impotential.
It is the giving of potentiality to itself that is the experience of freedom. Agamben writes, "Here it is possible to see how the root of freedom is to be found in the abyss of potentiality.... To be free is, in the sense we have seen, to be capable of one's own impotentiality" (2010, 183). What makes us human, according to Agamben, is precisely the capacity to not be, to remain impotential, to experience being-rather. It is this paradoxical existence that opens history to contingency--to the potential to act otherwise or to be otherwise. Evil in this sense is derivative of a flight from an indetermining impotentiality into the logic of pure or complete actualization or materialization. It is a denial of the constitutive link between growth and impotence. Citing Agamben, "Evil is only our inadequate reaction when faced with this demonic element [our impotential], our fearful retreat from it in order to exercise--founding ourselves in this flight some power of being" (2007a, 31-32).
The time of potentiality is the messianic moment, or "the time that remains between time and its end" (Agamben 2005b, 62). Neither chronological nor secular time nor the end of time, it is the time of the now. This moment presents time as a remnant, wherein "the division of time is itself divided" (Agamben 2005b, 62). The messianic present is a creative time that exceeds chronological time by introducing future eternity as an internal surplus to the everyday and likewise bleeds the chronological as excess into the eternal. It is, in other words, a zone of indistinction that short-circuits definitive boundaries between the past, the present, and the future. Hence, as Agamben states, "the messianic world is not another world, but the secular world itself, with a slight adjustment, a meager difference" (2005b, 69). The messianic reveals immanence between this world and the future world through the alteration of a detail. For the messianic moment, it is the choice of detail that matters most, precisely because a seemingly insignificant trifle can, if moved even a fraction of an inch, have dramatic results.
The time that opens up in the gap between chronology and the end of time is the time of the now, or cairos. Cairos is "an incoherent and unhomogenous time, whose truth is in the moment of abrupt interruption, when man, in a sudden act of consciousness, takes possession of his own condition of being resurrected" (Agamben 2007b, III). As opposed to homogeneous, empty, and linear chronology, cairos is the time of authentic history in which the past returns to the present. Such a time is not the end of time but the full realization of time, a condensation of time in which the past breaks through to be retroactively redeemed to become an opening for the future. Rather than a new chronology, this radical interruption of the division of time results in "a qualitative alteration of time (a cairology)" (Agamben 2007b, 115). Here it is important to differentiate Agamben's theory of messianic time from Hegelian dialectical sublation. Agamben writes, "While messianic time ... also introduces a disconnection and delay into represented time, this cannot be tracked onto time as a supplement or as infinite deferment" (2005b, 100). In other words, messianic time is an interruption of punctual moments or instants that cannot be reconciled through a global process or teleology of destruction and resurrection. Cairotic time is the sudden appearance of a time that is now rather than later, a time that is singular and thus cannot be redeemed through a dialectical synthesis.
The messianic time of the now produces what Agamben refers to as a "state of exception." In this state of exception, there is an indiscernibility of the law in that the law ceases to operate in relation to an inside and an outside. The suspended law gives neither a commandment nor a prohibition. It is a "being in force without significance" (Agamben 1999, 169). Here Agamben points to Saint Paul's treatment of the relation between the Jew and the non-Jew. In the moment of the now, Paul argues that a third figure is produced that breaks down the division of the Jew and the non-Jew constituted by the law--a division within the division that renders it inoperative. Between the Jew and the non-Jew resides the Jew of the flesh and the Jew of the breath. For Agamben this division of the division means "the partition of the law (Jew/non-Jew), is no longer clear or exhaustive, for there will be some Jews who are not Jews, and some non-Jews who are not non-Jews" (2005b, 50). The remnant is the non-non-Jew, who cannot be fixed either within or outside the law, cannot be defined either as a Jew or as a non-Jew. Throughout Agamben's work, the figure of the remnant appears and reappears as a destabilizing figure always on the margins of the social and the theoretical. The remnant for Agamben includes homo sacer or the sacred individual from Roman law who can be killed without the charge of murder, those held in the concentration camp whose existence hinges between life and death and between life and speech, and finally the refugee who exists without the guarantee of civil rights granted by the nation-state. In such states of exception, the result of legal suspension is not the closure of the law but, rather, its fulfillment in its very deactivation. The law that separates is held in potentiality, giving itself back to itself and thus potentially opening up a space for a radical rethinking of community beyond the logic of the sovereign ban that founds the law.
The sign under which the messianic operates is not the "as if" but, rather, the "as not." Philosophies of the "as if" function to negate the present from the perspective of redemption in the future. For those in critical theory, the "as if" is often articulated as the ethical injunction: "We must act as if the sign of equality can be realized in a possible future." Yet the messianic moment in which the future, past, and present coalesce in the now speaks to the as not. Quoting Agamben: "The messianic tension thus does not tend towards an elsewhere, nor does it exhaust itself in the indifference between one thing and its opposite. The apostle does not say: 'weep as rejoicing' nor 'weeping as [meaning] not weeping,' but "weeping as not weeping.' ... In this manner, it [messianic time] revokes the factical condition and undermines it without altering its form" (2005b, 24). The messianic does not cancel out this world in relation to a possible future so much as it pushes this world to itself through itself and thus prepares this world for its end in the form of the as not. In short, if the prophet represents the "as if"--contemplating the present from the position of redemption and the future realization of that which has been lost--then the apostle of the messianic moment represents the now as not now, containing the past, present, and future in a state of indistinction.
The radical gesture of deactivation that characterizes the "as not" is represented repeatedly in Agamben's work as the figure of "withdrawing from." For instance, Nathanial Hawthorn's Bartleby the scrivener is a character who undertakes a great refusal in order to preserve potentiality. According to Agamben's defense of Bartleby's famous refusal to work, "His potentiality is not, therefore, unrealized; it does not remain unactualized on account of a lack of will. On the contrary, it exceeds will (his own and that of others) at every point.... As Deleuze suggests, the formula ["I would prefer not to"] thus opens a zone of indistinction between yes and no, the preferable and the nonpreferable. But also--in the context that interests us--between the potential to be (or do) and the potential not to be (or do)" (1999, 255). He is, in other words, embodying a line of flight, an exodus in order to remain in potential. While it might seem like such a character becomes passive and indifferent (and thus achieves nothing) or has engaged in a determinate negation (through which Hegelian sublation occurs), Agamben argues that Bartleby conserves potentiality against the act of exploitive labor, thus making labor freely available for reconstruction or re-creation outside of capitalist alienation and surplus extraction. Messianic time does not destroy or annihilate but, rather, deactivates and suspends efficiency, thus giving potentiality back to itself. Through this inoperative suspension of the law, nothing changes, and yet, everything changes all at once. This is the moment of radical transformation within the very immanence of the presence that characterizes the messianic "as not." The "as not" overcomes the sovereign act of division--rendering the sovereign inoperative--precisely through the capacity to live in potential. The "meager difference" of the "as not" is therefore opposed to the prophetic and the apocalyptic in that it is disengagement from the law that results in its deactivation without the movement of dialectical negation.
In the messianic moment of weak utopianism, we experience a time of suspension where the rules prohibiting certain behaviors and decisions are left to idle. Suspension offers a time of free use wherein time is no longer held above or outside of our practices and thought is released from the injunction to continually actualize itself in terms of efficient and pragmatic action. Agamben argues that the activity that best captures this sense of suspension is the act of studying. Studying is, for Agamben, "interminable" (1985, 64). His description continues: "Those who are acquainted with long hours spent roaming among books, when every fragment, every codex, every initial encounter seems to open a new path, immediately left aside at the next encounter, or who have experienced the labyrinthine allusiveness of that 'law of good neighbors' whereby Warburg arranged his library, know that not only can study have no rightful end, but does not even desire one" (1985, 64). With each new book discovered, each new reference tracked down, the trail of clues becomes more elusive and the end more and more distanced from the studier. Thus "studying and stupefying are in this sense akin: those who study are in the situation of people who have received a shock and are stupefied by what has struck them, unable to grasp it and at the same time powerless to leave hold" (Agamben 1985, 64). Studying makes us stupid and preserves the state of stupidity without end. Justin Clemens provides a wonderful summary of this condition: "The scholar, smacked across the forehead by an unexpected enigma, who is no longer convinced that he or she knows what he or she is supposed to know, compulsively pursues his or her stupefacation [sic] through the texts that he or she may once have thought that they had known, deranged by details which now shift and crawl and become other than they are meant to have been" (2010). Indeed, the prime example of the studier for Agamben is none other than Bartleby. At the moment when Bartleby stops writing, he becomes the "most exemplary embodiment of study in our culture" (Agamben 1985, 65). By preferring not to fulfill his legal obligations as an employee, Bartleby suspends the law of efficiency and productivity that drives Wall Street and sends his employer into fits of confusion. While the outside world might view Bartleby as lethargic, apathetic, or even parasitical, Agamben emphasizes how Bartleby's seemingly weak and impotent gesture withdraws from the quantification of labor in order to open up a space and a time for reflection, contemplation, and study. The strangely indeterminate action of study renders Bartleby silent, melancholic, stupid, seemingly without destination or vocation, seemingly without purpose, yet obliquely militant, disruptive, and resolute, dwelling indefinitely in a paradoxical state.
The infernal quality of studying produces a pain not unfamiliar to anyone who has undergone intense and concentrated research--without clear direction, without a clear methodology, without an end in sight, we stumble along on a quest for new clues. Masschelein and Simons (2010) have drawn upon Agamben to describe study as an educational "statusless status" without destination--the dwelling in a scholarly potentiality that is not concerned with any particular educational standard of measurement or any particular economic outcome. To study is to undergo a certain inoperativity where we are, to appropriate a phrase from Thomas Carl Wall's study of Agamben, "exposed to all its [thought's] possibilities (all its predicates)" and yet are "undestined to any one or any set of them" (1999, 152). Studying in this sense is not reducible to simply (a) "giving" information to students to fill in a lack or (b) a social orthopedics that corrects their potentialities in accordance with the imperative of economic productivity. Studying resists instrumental ends and instead dwells in the moment of messianic stupidity without end, without destination. Stupidity is thus the gift that thought gives itself in order to remain impotential. Stated differently, it is the guarantee that thought can actualize itself without extinguishing itself.
It is interesting to note that at the end of his book on nudity, Agamben briefly turns to the question of knowledge. He writes, "The ways in which we do not know things are just as important (and perhaps even more important) as the ways in which we know them. There are ways of not knowing--carelessness, inattention, forgetfulness--that lead to clumsiness and ugliness, but there are others--the unselfconsciousness of Keist's young man, the enchanting sprezzatura of an infant--whose completeness we never tire of admiring" (2010, 113). Thus we must find new ways of valuing the "principles of an art of ignorance" (Agamben 2010, 113) that are found in the child. We have to revitalize our relationship with the zone of nonknowledge through study, which produces indefinite stupidity as a kind of inoperative gift.
If we simply remain mired in the ontology of generic potentiality, studying remains a burden, and the goal of education becomes an attempt to overcome this latency period as quickly as possible, separating the experience of education from an ethical relation to our impotential. Thus there is a rush to meet national standards through testing ("we have to meet standards now so that you can become productive citizens!"), or there is a rush to close the gap between education and political praxis ("we have to act now in order to change the world!"), or there is the rush to finish the dissertation ("the only good dissertation is a done dissertation!"). In these perspectives, studying is an obstacle, an irritant, an infuriating reality whose only utility is its instrumental value for reaching another end. Such predetermination organizes studying in terms of a linear chronology that ends with the actualization (and measurement) of latent potentiality. Yet this negates the generative time of study, which is neither "not yet" nor "no longer." Rather, the time of study is the messianic time of the now, which is both "no longer" and "not yet" simultaneously Or, better yet, study indistinguishes these concepts through suspension. This is the moment of the messianic in Agamben's workman inoperative time of stupidity that gives us access to our pure potentiality for thought without having to organize this potentiality in terms of a specified or determinate end.
Study is the threshold to radically new possibilities of life. Commenting on Benjamin's analysis of Kafka, Agamben writes,
In the Kafka essay, the enigmatic image of a law that is studied but no longer practiced corresponds, as a sort of remnant, to the unmasking of mythico-juridical violence effected by pure violence. There is, therefore, still a possible figure of law after its nexus with violence and power has been deposed, but it is a law that no longer has force or application, like the one in which the "new attorney," leafing through "our old books," buries himself in study, or like the one that Foucault may have had in mind when he spoke of a "new law" that has been freed from all discipline and all relation to sovereignty. (2005a, 63)
Suspended, the law that is studied is deactivated, no longer in force, and thus open to play. Again we might think of Bartleby at this point and his inscrutable gesture of refusal, which is both absolutely serious yet also playful, rendering the law of employment completely inoperative. Key here is that Bartleby does not simply destroy the law but, rather, suspends its efficacy; he is no longer within the law and not yet outside the law. He can stand before the law and studiously Flay with its remnants. As Agamben argues, Kafka's characters all attempt to study the law and thus play with it. Agamben summarizes: "And this studious play is the passage that allows us to arrive at that justice that one of Benjamin's posthumous fragments defines as a state of the world in which the world appears as a good that absolutely cannot be appropriated or made juridical" (2005a, 63). Studious play is not simply passivity but a heightened activity within the threshold of a coming justice--not a justice that exists in a future state but, rather, justice that exists in the now-time of messianic utopianism. In studious play, we experience a form of life and the arrival of a thought let loose from any relation of identification with the proper or the improper, to the inside or the outside of the law. Through studious play, the studier experiences the smallest of gifts: the freedom of thought as a pure means.
Space of Weak Utopianism
While Agamben's work on the messianic is overtly concerned with time, space does play a minor role in his analysis. In fact, before Agamben's theorization of messianic time, he first turns his attention to messianic space through the analysis of the poetic stanza. Agamben writes, "European poets of the thirteenth century called the essential nucleus of their poetry the stanza, that is, a 'capacious dwelling, receptacle," because it safeguards, along with all the formal elements of canzone, that joi d'amor that these poets entrusted to poetry as its unique object" (1993, xvi). The stanza, for Agamben is a potential space or a third space between subject and object, animal phone and human logos. The space opened by the stanza is a space of harmonia, or a "laceration that is also a suture, the idea of a tension that is both the articulation of a difference and unitary" (Agamben 1993, 157). It is, in other words, an impossible synthesis that separates and conjoins criticism and poetry, pleasure and reason, gathering and concealing. Uniting phantasm, word, and desire, the stanza is a chamber or site in which "the beatitude of love is celebrated" (Agamben 1993, 128) through a kind of Borromean knot that heals the fracture between desire and a phantasmal or unattainable object. It is this impossible synthesis between desire and phantasm in the space of the stanza that ties it to weak utopianism and, in turn, messianic redemption.
The stanza, an unreal space of an impossible unity, appears in Agamben's Coming Community as the ambiguous space of limbo--a kind of theological architectural enclosure for unbaptized children. Rather than a dystopian figuration of abandonment, Agamben turns this image on its head and argues that the lack of a relation to God and salvation is actually a weak utopian longing. "The greatest punishment," writes Agamben, "thus turns into a natural joy: Irremediably lost, they [the children] persist without pain in divine abandon" (2007a, 5). Beyond perdition or salvation, the forgotten children "remain without a destination ... [and] are infused with a joy with no outlet" (Agamben 2007a, 6). Limbo emerges in this analysis as a space of ease wherein all destinations are suspended, all desires for salvation are interrupted, and the children are exposed to a queer kind of freedom: the freedom of a profane life abandoned by God. Without predefined destinations (or the hope for future salvation), those in limbo are free to experiment with unimpeded becomings. As the space for a coming community, limbo, like the stanza, is an impotentiality that is not determined in advance for this or that use or constructed according to this or that law of utility. If the law exists here, it is a law that is left idle and therefore open to new appropriations and unforeseen articulations. It is a law that applies only in not applying. Limbo is an indeterminate space or impossible space that exists despite attempts to separate the sacred and the profane--a remnant of spatial indiscernibility that always returns despite best efforts to maintain boundaries.
A third image of weak utopian space is found in Agamben's repeated analysis of the threshold. He writes, "It is important here that the notion of the 'outside" is expressed in many European languages by the word that means 'at the door' (fores in Latin is the door of the house, thyrathen in Greek literally means 'at the threshold'). The outside is not another space that resides beyond a determinate space, but rather, is the passage, the exteriority that gives it access--in a word, it is its face, its eidos" (2007a, 68). The doorway is a threshold that paradoxically holds together and simultaneously separates two binaries (inside and outside, real and unreal, phone and logos, salvation and perdition). The threshold as a door is the architectural form of impotentiality--an impossible suture that is neither outside nor inside but, rather, a state of exception where such distinctions are rendered inoperable.
The most exacting theorization of the threshold as an architectural chamber of impotentiality is, interestingly enough, found in Agamben's examination of operational time--or the time it takes for an individual to create an image of an experience. According to Agamben's reading of the philosophical linguist Gustave Guillaume, humans experience time but do not have a representation of it. To represent time, the mind must "take recourse to constructions of a spatial order" (Agamben 2005b, 65). The time that thought has to travel between the temporal experience and the time image (its spatialization) is "operational time" or, as in Agamben's reading, "messianic time" (2005b, 66). Summarizing, Agamben writes,
It is as though man, insofar as he is a thinking and speaking being, produced an additional time with regard to chronological time, a time that prevented him from perfectly coinciding with the time out of which he could make images and representations. This ulterior time, nevertheless, is not another time, it is not a supplementary time added on from outside to chronological time. Rather, it is something like a time within time--not ulterior but interior--which only measures my disconnection with regard to it, my being out of synch and in noncoincidence with regard to my representation of time, but precisely because of this, allows for the possibility of my achieving and taking hold of it. (2005b, 67)
This time within time that is nevertheless outside of chronological time is also a space outside of space yet within space. It is a topos "as not" a topos--a spatial excess. Operational space is, in other words, a state of exception that is neither here (in this spatiality) nor over there (in a utopian vision). "Utopia," writes Agamben, "is the very topia of things" (2007a, 103). This topia is the slightest of differences between what is and what ought, between the world and Nirvana, between the experience of time and the image of time as a spatial inscription.
The perfect example of an operational image is the "empty throne," which Agamben analyzes as part of his archaeology of glory in political theology. The empty throne reveals the vacuity at the very center of the Western governmental apparatus--a threshold wherein the division between the Kingdom of God and the Government of Humanity enters into a state of suspension. This is the spatial inscription of Glory as what remains when human life and divine life are indistinguishable from one another. The purpose of the empty throne is therefore, according to Agamben, "to capture within the governmental machine that unthinkable inoperativity ... that constitutes the ultimate mystery of divinity" (2011, 245). In the messianic space of the throne, the ceremonies and the symbols of power are left idle, open to new uses and appropriations that fail to compartmentalize themselves into either the sacred or the secular. The empty throne--with its discarded or abandoned liturgical implements--is akin to the paradoxical space of limbo as a kind of weak utopian space. Both are spaces that have been abandoned--surplus spaces or spatial remnants that lie outside the topography of religious binaries in inoperative zones of indistinction. Weak utopian space is the operational image--the open potentiality of the utopian image before the image is actualized in terms of a concrete representation, political manifesto, or architectural blueprint. The empty throne (with its suspended symbols of Glory) is a kind of impotentiality or infinite openness for creative appropriation or repurposing.
These examples leave us with a final question: What is the space of study? Where does the studier dwell? The studier cannot simply dwell in the space of the everyday; nor can he or she be completely detached from the world and thus oriented toward some distant future. There is a lesson to be learned here from Bartleby, who stands before the law (not fully inside or outside its domain). Studying as weak utopianism must exist within the present as not the present, must exist in a kind of limbo where all determinations are held in suspension, all presuppositions left idle, all vocations forgotten. This would be a kind of educational limbo, or educationally empty space where the injunctions to learn, to produce, to maximize outputs, are deactivated indefinitely. Of course, informal spaces of study abound, countersites that appropriate space for alternative uses are always being invented by subversive studiers. But what I am most interested in here is how Agamben's theory of weak utopianism can help us to reimagine school architecture as not school architecture: in other words, how a certain potentiality for study can be located within the slightest of shifts within the organizational grammar of school rooms. Indeed, this would mean that the weak power of messianic utopianism need not wait for the future but, rather, that the school as a panoptic tool of normalization and examination (Foucault 1979) can be interrupted from within, offering a clearing wherein thought as thought can dwell, wherein studious play can profane the efficiency of the school. As such, I end with a small--indeed, seemingly impotent--example that shifts from the abstract notion of weak utopian space to a concrete manifestation of educational architecture. This example demonstrates how educational architectural design need not offer utopian blueprints of the perfect school in order to transform life in schools.
Study must be located within the time and space of weak utopianism, otherwise potentiality becomes subservient to actuality, means to ends, and education to instrumental learning. Potentiality is therefore cleaved from any relation to impotentiality, and studying becomes nothing more than a "waste" of time, energy, and resources. Certainly the many paradigms of messianic time and space that Agamben provides are useful for constructing a constellation through which the various dimensions of study can be apprehended and conceptualized. Yet it might be helpful to end this article with a simple example of weak utopianism directly drawn from educational architecture. As historians David Tyack and Larry Cuban note, after years of policies to "revolutionize schools" or "build the schools of tomorrow today," New York architects commissioned to design six new elementary schools in the 1990s took a radically different approach. Instead of starting from scratch and constructing a new blueprint based on their own utopian visions of the perfect school, the architects instead focused on a simple detail within the classroom. Taking the square classroom as their inspiration, they introduced a notch that created space for a new bay window as well as a small space for introducing new learning technologies, bookshelves, and so on. Tyack and Cuban summarize: "By combining both tradition and flexibility in their design, with teachers at the center, the architects promoted reform from the inside out rather than imposing it from the top down" (2003, 137). The result of this remarkably simple alteration of an existing floor plan was a new notion of teacher-centered innovation.
The notch in the classroom wall is a clear example of weak, messianic utopian space suddenly appearing and disrupting the grammar of the schoolhouse. As with the messianic, this notch was the smallest and most insignificant of details that nevertheless altered everything from the configuration of the classroom to pedagogy to student interactions with peers. Rather than the classroom today as if it were the classroom of tomorrow, it is the classroom of today as not the classroom of today. In other words, the notch suspended the logic of the classroom within the form of the classroom and thus was an alteration from within rather than from without. This meager transformation of space was not a grand utopian design but, rather, preserved the traditional classroom layout in suspended form. Indeed, this tiny modification--or spatial displacement--seemed radically impotent when compared with the grand history of utopian educational architecture (both real, as in John Dewey's laboratory schools, and imagined, as in any number of utopian novels and science fiction thought experiments [see Ozman 1969]). In this example, the school, as a particular institutional form and architectural logic, is not destroyed but, rather, opened up for free play through innovative design practices. What emerges is a space to invent and experiment with the notch as a surplus of difference within the tried-and-true spatial vocabulary or grammar of the school. Using Agamben's terminology, I would argue that the notch is an "unrepresentable space" or "space adjacent" (2007a, 25) to the functioning classroom that opens up to new, collective experimentation. Like the halo in messianic theology, the notch is an "inessential supplement" or "supplemental possibility" (Agamben 2007a, 55-56) that is poised at the very limit of the grammar of the schoolhouse. As an unrepresentable space and time, the notch cannot be fully mapped in terms of radical reform or simple repetition of preexisting forms. Rather, it is a suspension of the law of classroom design without destroying or negating this design--it is the empty throne of education, a kind of diagonal line that introduces an education limbo into a highly codified and regimented classroom space directed toward learning, evaluation, testing, and surveillance. In the notch, the potentiality for x, y, and z is not necessarily actualized in any measurable outcome so much as experienced as impotentiality in and for itself. In this way, the notch acquires a kind of statusless status without a destiny that can be accounted for within the means-end logic of learning imperatives. It is a clearing where students can study with ease.
While Tyack and Cuban must be given credit for recognizing the importance of this event in educational architecture, the way in which they frame their discussion of such innovation is problematic precisely because it erases the messianic dimension of the notch. For Tyack and Cuban, the notch is a form of ground-up reform. As the title of their book suggests, it is a way of "tinkering toward utopia." In this sense, the notch is oriented toward a future yet to come that, in the end, erases the present moment as a present. "Tinkering toward" reintroduces a telos to school reform that always defers educational opportunities for a future time/space, which realizes the latent potentiality of the present. If the operational image enables us to reach the time image, then this operational image, as Agamben would argue, also and equally delays its arrival. It is this delay and the immanent freedom to invent and experiment with the present as a constant emergence that Tyack and Cuban all too quickly reabsorb back into the long century of public school reform, with its strong utopian promise.
There is yet another important way in which the notch is not simply reform. Reform is, in essence, a piecemeal process that tackles particular problems within the educational system one issue at a time. Even with large-scale reform movements such as Race to the Top, elements of the school structure are left out of the overall plan, thus creating a certain lag time within the school or unevenness to the reform. What is unique about utopianism, and utopian architecture specifically (Coleman 2005), is that its view is inherently linked to the question of totality, of how every element is part of a larger whole that, in turn, is embodied within each and every element: hence, the obsession with detail in classic utopian literature as well as the need for imagining radically new educational architecture along with new pedagogies and new student-teacher relationships. It is the ability to dialectically hold all of these elements together within a single form that is a virtue of utopian imagining. Yet, as Tyack and Cuban argue, such a virtue can, in relation to actual school restructuring, lead to unforeseen problems and undesirable outcomes that negatively affect teachers, students, and their communities. But this does not mean that we should abandon the central importance of totalization. Indeed, weak utopianism is not mere reform precisely because it understands the relation between the part and the whole and strives to alter the totality through the smallest of details. Thus it does not simply abandon the question of totalization often associated with utopianism and its revolutionary leap into a qualitatively different world. For weak utopianism, it is less a question of building the perfect school than it is discovering the precise detail that will transform the classroom and the school as a whole from within the existing classroom. As stated above, messianic time and space do not destroy or negate so much as deactivate from within yet against the structure and chronology of the schools that we already have.
In this sense, weak utopianism should not be conflated with mere reform, and the authors do a disservice to their own analysis and to the architectural innovation that they highlight when it is returned to the framework and language of reform. Reform can only be rehabilitated if it is carefully and critically separated from (a) its futurist orientation and (b) its piecemeal approach to localized problems/issues. In other words, reform has to become a pure means rather than simply a means to another end. The time and space of the operational image are a time and space of a pure means that releases potentiality from its submission to future actualization/determination. It is here--in this messianic now--that we can locate the notch. In short, the surplus space of the notch does not anticipate anything beyond itself. Rather, it merely introduces a new dimension into the square space of the classroom for free use, for new innovation within the present. Because Tyack and Cuban lack such philosophical distinctions, reform drains their analysis of the notch of its utopian potentiality and in turn misrecognizes the space and time of tinkering. Like the door for Agamben, the notch should be conceptualized as the architectural form of impotentiality--an opening to the experience of studying without predefining the specific social or educational ends that must be fulfilled by this space.
Conclusion: Weak Utopianism as Tinkering
If Tyack and Cuban have missed the mark, we can nevertheless take seriously the concepts and examples that they deploy--even if this means that we must radically reinterpret such concepts and examples in light of weak utopianism and its messianic time and space. Thus I would like to end with a reconsideration of the importance of the concept of tinkering in their analysis for architectural design as such.
To tinker is to engage in studious play with the operational image that delays and withdraws from utopia as much as it marches toward utopian horizons. In this sense, to play with educational space is to develop an architecture that conserves the old for new uses. And it is this suspension that should be the first principle of weak utopianism in educational architectural design. Instead of negating, design as weak utopianism deactivates. Instead of destroying, design as weak utopianism preserves but only for the purpose of opening up the possibility for exploring impotentiality anew. To enable studious play in the classroom, educational architectural design should itself be a stupid practice, one always engaged in studious play with the architectural grammar of the classroom and of the schoolhouse. Engaging in studious play means that designers cannot be led by predetermined ends set in advance by the educational establishment or architectural norms. The potentiality of the design should remain latent (rather than determinate) and thus primordially generative for those who dwell and study within the space. If Tyack and Cuban have the right example (the notch in the wall), they have the wrong theoretical framework (the language of progressive reform). The result is a confusing analysis of educational architecture that misses precisely what is most radical about both the function of the notch and its design. The difficulty here is precisely the difficulty of the time image coinciding with the experience of time. Stated differently, the central issue that these scholars face is one that is inscribed in the very nature of weak utopianism itself and the perplexing, if not paradoxical, spatial-temporal relations that it folds into the contemporary moment. Perhaps the lesson of school architectural design--and in particular the notch--is therefore a lesson for all those who are engaged in the question of utopian thinking yet have misrecognized the educational importance of the time and space that remain: that utopianism is not prescription or negation but, rather, suspension in the pensive (and forever stupid) moment of studious play.
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|Title Annotation:||Utopia & Education|
|Author:||Lewis, Tyson Edward|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2012|
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