November 13, 2007

Dharmic Architecture: The Stoics

I find all kinds of lovely things in the most bizarre places, including exceedingly dry, excruciatingly technical, architectural theory texts which insist on debating the meaning of almost every Latin word (and its Greek counterpart) found in Vitruvius’ Ten Books on Architecture until one would beg for mercy had one the breath left to do so. In any event, this is what I found there:

Arrian (Roman writing in the 2nd Century AD): “Some Indian sophists, the story goes, were found by Alexander in the open air in a meadow, where they used to have their disputations; when they saw Alexander and his army, they did nothing more than beat with their feet on the ground they stood on. When Alexander enquired through interpreters what their action meant, they replied: ‘King Alexander, each man possesses no more of this earth than the patch we stand on.’”

More to the point, there was also included a chapter on signification in Vitruvian thought.

Vitruvius (Roman architect writing in 44 BC or thereabouts): “These two things are contained in all matters, but above all in architecture: that which is signified and that which signifies. What is signified is the matter set forth by what is said. What signifies this is a demonstration developed through the principles of learning.”

McEwen (theorist writing in 2003 AD exactly): “It is important, first of all, to understand that significare in Latin means to ‘show by sings,’ no ‘represent.’”

Sextus Empiricus (skeptic philosopher writing the 2nd or 3rd Century AD): “The stoics … [say] that three things are linked together, what is signified, that which signifies, and the existing thing. That which signifies is the utterance … what is signified is the specific state of affairs indicated by the spoken word … the existing thing is the external reality … Of these, two are bodies, the utterance and the existing thing. But the state of affairs signified is not a body but a lekton.”

McEwen explains: “Lekta are not bodies. Like void, place, and time, lekta are what the Stoics called ‘incorporeals.’ Lekta, things signified, mediate between the words of significant utterances and existing things.”

Am I the only one who thinks that sounds an awful lot like the Buddhist idea of concepts. Like the preconceptions and ideas we build our world on but which may or may not have much resemblance to that which is. This is the first reference I have found in any of the literature of a third entity in the previously dualistic relationship of signifier and signified, sign and thing.

I cannot help but be a bit guilty of stereotyping as I attribute McEwen’s ending phrase with her probably eastern background given that her full name is Indra Kagis McEwen. However, I take genuine delight in her closing sentence, which sounds too much like a koan to me:

”You cannot chisel ‘Imperial Ceasar’ onto water.”

4 comments:

TK said...

I still think the dharmic form must be divorced from signs, significance, meanings, experience, and perhaps even from environment and function. (What that means to architecture, I have no idea). Which brings us to the "modernism" that you detest.

Monica said...

TK, since you have interests in decon, you might find this gentleman interesting - Charles Peirce, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Sanders_Pierce

"His 1907 definition of semiosis is 'action, or influence, which is, or involves, a cooperation of three subjects, such as a sign, its object, and its interpretant, this tri-relative influence not being in any way resolvable into actions between pairs'.

How would a deconstructuralist approach deconstruction of something which is not dualistic by tri-listic (is that a word?)?

On another note, perhaps "detest" is too strong a word. I have at least come to repect what Modern architects were trying to do and the way in which contemporary Australian architects are currently reinventing and reinterpetting Modernism is rather pleasant.

Then again, perhaps "detest" is just the right word...

Anyway, I always enjoy your comments because they always tend to point a sharp stick at my assumptions. The fact that we come at the same questions from different backgrounds is helpful. Thanks!

TK said...

Well, I wouldn't know if I'm interested in decon since I don't know exactly what that is.

This discussion has been of interest to me because I once thought about it and concluded that abstract art devoid of recognizable samsaric features is only thing worthy of buddhist pursuit. But then, that seems just about impossible in poetry as is in architecture...

Anyway, I'm glad to be of any help at all.

Monica said...

TK, I'm sorry. I thought you were the one who made references to deconstructionism ("decon"), which is both a literary and architectural movement. Maybe I'm getting my conversations confused. Wouldn't be the first time.