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Interview with Elizabeth Grosz

The AR talks to the philosopher, theorist, and author of Architecture from the Outside about boundaries, representation, and the thickness of the ‘in-between’

In 2001, you wrote Architecture from the Outside about ‘a peculiar place’ outside both architecture and philosophy. Where is ‘outside’? 

The outside is a relative but also an absolute term. Spatially speaking, it is always relative: outside this area, that building, this country, beyond a specific location, however large it might be. But non-spatially, I understand the outside as what is beyond representation or comprehension. We have some alternatives for agency and action, for even a degree of conscious control, in speaking of a spatial outside; with a non-spatial (perhaps a temporal) outside, however, we are forced into a relative passivity in which we must submit ourselves to the exigencies of that outside as best we can while extracting what we need to live. 

I am thinking here, for example, of the climactic outside – which is extra-spatial as well as spatial – or, on a larger scale, a cosmic outside that is beyond our comprehension or control. This outside is a philosophical concept, an outside of representation, or what we can only approximate in our knowledge. This outside is what generates the generic problems that life must face: how to live and survive in a specific environment with the resources with which one is born or comes to learn. This is the outside that generates problems we cannot solve but must always live with or somehow accommodate, that generates invention, action and interaction so we can accommodate ourselves to it.

Where is outside architecture?

Outside architecture is what makes architecture possible without itself being architectural. Nature, the animal (that also contributes to architecture), the material: the pre-architectural (inhabitation without building), all those things that architecture may, eventually, draw into itself. Inside and outside are relative terms: the boundary between them is always constructed and to that extent, arbitrary. In the world before or beyond representation, there are no boundaries or divisions; the boundary is constructed, not only by humans with representations and plans, but perhaps with many – if not most – living things, which require a safe space, a home, whether it be a burrow, a nest, a hole.

‘A periphery does have its own space, but this is not counted as its own but only understood as containing other spaces’

What is the nature of the boundary between inside and outside? Where can you situate your understanding of the periphery? 

Where home is always defines the inside; the outside is what is beyond the home’s boundaries and protections. Any home is defined in part by the boundaries that establish and stabilise it. The home, whether a nest or large block of apartments, is not by itself the inside: every inside is separate from its constructed outside by a periphery, sometimes a yard, often a fence, a border that contains and is larger, sometimes minimally, than the home and warns of intrusion into its space. The periphery, defined by the creation of these containing spaces of safety (or danger) is neither the inside nor the outside, but the protector of their division.

You write in Architecture from the Outside about the ‘in-between’: ‘a place related to other places but with no place of its own’. What is the relationship between the periphery and the in-between?

The periphery is not the same as the in-between. The periphery is a boundary, whether hard or soft, determinate or vague, that separates an object from its environment. The in-between is what can occur between two peripheries or between an object and its periphery. A periphery or boundary is always a containment of an area of space but the in-between does not distinguish what it is in between. It is autonomous or in itself, where a periphery or boundary only contains a field or objects within a field. This is maybe why, unconsciously, I used the term ‘in-between’. It does not require things between which it exists, while a boundary or periphery does.

‘Binarised thought does not address two terms but only one; all the other terms are placed in the negative category’

Is the periphery always a line? Can it have a thickness and contain its own space like the in-between?

There are many kinds of periphery, all with a thickness, even the most minimal – it certainly need not be a line although, at its most elementary, it is a line. A periphery does have its own space, but this is not counted as its own but only understood as containing other spaces. The peripheries you have in mind here – the edges of cities, the borders between countries – are always arbitrary or conventional. Which is to say that we can change them under certain conditions and do so with great regularity: cities are continuingly spreading out and borders are increasingly contested. So, as I understand these terms, the in-between need not have a space of its own – it can be a vacuum or an emptiness – although it usually has its own qualities too. The periphery or border is, by definition, bound up to what it borders; the in-between is not.

I don’t think I have ever used the notion of ‘periphery’, although it is an architectural concept, and a useful one – especially at this political moment in which peripheries or boundaries are commonly equated with, and belong conceptually to, the notion of borders, and especially national borders. In this moment of intensified migration, and the increasing vilification of migrants as ‘illegals’, ‘unwanted’, ‘undesirables’, ‘other than us’ or ‘different’, this has become a concept that is loaded with a new weight of justified or unjustified belonging to a nation or a people.

You describe the in-between as ‘the very site for the contestation of the many binaries and dualisms that dominate Western knowledge’. Why?

This is why I prefer the concept of the in-between to the periphery. While it may be used in these political contexts, it is also a logically significant term – although, of course, it can be understood spatially as well. For me, it is a useful term precisely because binarised thought, in spite of its connotations, does not address two terms but only one (A); all the other terms are placed in the negative category (not-A). All those that are not the privileged terms (for example, body, emotions, nature, God, child and woman) are defined only as being not-dominant (such as mind, reason, culture, man) rather than entities in themselves. 

Binarisation is a process that privileges only one term or category and reduces the differences of all the other terms and categories to being simply that term’s negation or opposite. It always produces a relation of A/-A; it never enables the creation of a relation between two terms – A/B, which enables the possibility of a C, D and so on. In other words, binarisation, or dualism, allows no second, third or other terms, only itself and its negation, opposite or complement.

The in-between is impossible in binarised thought because there can be nothing that is between A and not-A. Moreover, the binarised model, A/-A requires a periphery or border preventing one term, the not-A, from contaminating the other. The slash between A/-A is untraversable. In other words, binarisation precludes difference and insisting on the space between terms is a way of insisting on their not being subsumed under other terms.

‘The outside is now those who are excluded, those in need of other spaces and ways of living’

Where do you situate marginalised societies and cultures?

Societies are marginalised by other societies and each society marginalises a part of its own population. Marginalised cultures, subcultures, forms of sociality within a particular society – gays and lesbians, transsexual people, members of marginalised races, classes and sexes – are, as Foucault recognises in ‘Of Other Spaces’, remarkably inventive in occupying or provisionally transforming marginalised spaces: the nightclub, the cemetery, the carnival, spaces that are within each society but are capable of and sometimes specifically arise to cater to needs and desires inadequately represented in the norms and operations of the rest of society. Following Foucault, every society has such spaces of meeting and engagement within the civic order but outside the direct gaze of power. These spaces may shift and move, but they represent an occupation of spaces that may temporarily function according to different norms and goals than those regulated through knowledge and power at a particular time. In other words, there is no occupation of social space, and particularly institutionally regulated space, without the possibilities of its transformation and its co-existence with ‘other’ spaces.

How has the outside changed since you wrote Architecture from the Outside? What has been the role of the internet, social media and other technologies in relocating the outside?

The internet was already operative and in development as I wrote Architecture from the Outside in 2001; however, the commercial and political scope of these mediatised technologies was, as yet, not as clear. Before the era of Facebook and Amazon in the late 1990s, there was already the beginning of a Foucauldian intensification of pleasure, knowledge and connection through the global connectedness the internet guaranteed, but it is only in the last 15 years that data mining, the focusing of advertising on specific groups and demographics, the accumulation of individualising information for the targeting of ads, news and information, the focused meddling in foreign or local elections, became logistically and financially feasible. We have seen the world of digitised media move from a free open space, mainly aimed at communication and information storage and dissemination, to a huge global market aimed at the sales of products, images and services that were unnecessary and even undesirable 15 years ago. 

While there might be, and no doubt are, pockets or spaces of ‘outsideness’ on the web, spaces for individuals and groups to connect in whatever ways they choose, the information provided by our phones and computers no longer serves just us – it is now operating in the world of the capitalist selling of products, and information, that we maybe do not want and have not chosen. The outside in this setting is either fully within the web, hacking, unveiling, revealing – as investigative journalists, activists and eccentrics have done – or, more clearly, outside new media entirely, in the world, and especially in those parts of the world outside the direct focus of these new strategies of selling. The outside is now those who are excluded, migrants, refugees, those in need of other spaces and ways of living; it is also where we have not yet mapped, explored, understood – in the world itself, those analogue parts of the world that the digital order simplifies, codifies and regulates but does not adequately represent.

This piece is featured in the AR May 2019 issue on Periphery – click here to purchase your copy today