Kenneth Frampton & Paul Ricouer: A Dialogue

A conversation across disciplines

This piece centres on a close reading of French philosopher Paul Ricoeur’s short essay ‘Universal Civilization and National Cultures’, which forms part of his wider collection, History and Truth (1965). Kenneth Frampton’s seminal essay ‘Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance’ (1983) and the later revised version (1992) – which inform many applications and understandings of the framework of critical regionalism – open with a lengthy quotation from Ricoeur’s essay. Certainly, Frampton’s selection from the essay at hand helps to crystallise the paradox which both see – reconciling history and truth in philosophy, or the local and the universal in architecture, respectively – but to revisit the original source for Frampton’s prefacing reference, is to reveal a wealth of material and ideas which further compliment and supplement Frampton’s argument and which the critical regionalist can incorporate into an understanding and implementation of the methodology, as this essay seeks to demonstrate. What is sought here is a broadening of critical regionalism, to trace the roots from which the framework has emerged and to explore the routes it might now travel. We can assume, given the prominence Frampton affords him, that Ricoeur’s work is important to an understanding of the critical regionalism which he puts forward. What is also demonstrated here is the extraordinary prescience of Ricoeur’s thinking; writing as he was here (in 1955; the English translation not published until 1965), prior to any perceived ‘true’ advent of that illusory thing variously labelled globalisation, cultural imperialism, Americanisation, and before its ramifications had been conceived of, experienced, or fully comprehended.

It should be noted here that I refer to two essays by Frampton on the subject of critical regionalism: subtitled ‘Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance’ (1983) and ‘Modern Architecture and Cultural Identity’ (1992). The latter recycles much of the former but also, and significantly, expands the quotation from Ricoeur. In doing so it takes in another element of the philosopher’s work which, in itself, helps to clarify the possible uses of critical regionalism in cultural studies, as will be explored later.

In his prefatory remarks to History and Truth, translator Charles Kelbley illuminates the paradoxes and accompanying dialectics at the heart of Ricoeur’s philosophy – objectivity and subjectivity; abstract and concrete; universality and singularity – and “for which he seeks a reconciliation” (1965:xii). According to Kelbley, for Ricoeur, these paradoxes are both representative of “the divisive character of man’s existential status” (xiii) and, “exemplifications of [his] bivalent nature” (xii). Whilst these dialectical categories relate to the collected essays which make up History and Truth as a whole, they are a particularly useful starting point from which to approach the arguments laid out in ‘Universal Civilization and National Cultures’, and from which to simultaneously and dialogically, explore their relevance to, and re-articulation in, Frampton’s vision of a critical regionalist architecture.

The very title of Ricoeur’s essay hints at one such ‘existential division’ which requires attempted synthesis. He suggests that civilisation and its attendant cultures (the singular of the first and the plural of the second being of great significance to his argument), “are under the strain of two different necessities which are both pressing” (1965:271). We might characterise these ‘necessities’ as emanating, one, from the universal civilisation – “the free access to progress” (ibid) – and the other, from national cultures – “the exigency of safeguarding our heritage” (ibid). This inherent paradox, the “dialectical interplay between civilization and culture” as Frampton (1983:17) later conceives of it, frames Ricoeur’s entire essay and culminates in the section which serves as an opening to Frampton’s later work. Herein, the paradox is most clearly identified: “how to become modern and to return to sources; how to revive an old, dormant civilization, and take part in universal civilization” (1965:277). For Ricoeur, this problem affects our civilisation and its cultures ‘en masse’ and emerges continually; not only in his arguments but also in the histories through which they are examined.

What is it then that brings this problem into being; that sees Ricoeur raise it and Frampton revive it three decades later? To begin to answer this question we must examine the two manifestations of the universal civilisation which Ricoeur posits: the ‘elementary’ and the ‘mediocre’.

Ricoeur begins by tracing the spread of four elements of universal civilisation – technics, tools, politics and economics – and determines the reasons and ramifications for their manifestation beyond the boundaries of national cultures. In all cases he suggests that their ubiquity manifests as “a sort of de jure [by law] unity” (272). Technics and tools, we might say, are controlled by scientific law, their unifying quality as a result of their basis in scientific and rational thought and that these “technical revolutions … escape cultural isolation” (ibid). Politics and economics are brought into line with this thinking by Ricoeur prefixing them, admittedly tentatively, as ‘rational’, their universality evident in their becoming “the most decisive criteria of the accession of a State onto the world scene” (273). These four universal phenomena converge and become “supra-national, without a country” (274) because they constitute ‘progress’ and, thereafter, an “elementary culture” (ibid) emerges. Universal civilisation in this sense, Ricoeur concedes, constitutes an “absolutely positive benefit … freedom from want … access to comfort” (275), representative of progress and liberation.

This “rational unity of mankind” (272), inherent in Ricoeur’s definition of a universal, ‘elementary’ culture, appears and spreads “not because it is Greek or European but because it has a human dimension” (ibid). From this emerges “the awareness of a single humanity … mankind a more and more compact network” (275). Here, the prescience of Ricoeur’s thought is evident; this ‘compact network’ reminiscent of definitions in more recent times, of the ‘global village’. In this awareness of the interdependence of the universal civilisation of mankind, comes recognition of the dangers of, in Ricoeur’s example, nuclear destruction: the threatening corollary of the freedoms afforded through the implementation of rational science and politics at the level of the universal.

This threat to mankind is felt en masse and is but one peril which Ricoeur identifies in the imposition of the universal civilisation upon a multiplicity of cultures. Of a less apocalyptic nature, but key to a broader understanding of Frampton’s work is “the absurd counterpart” (Ricoeur, 1965:276) of elementary culture: “a mediocre civilization” (ibid). In this incarnation of the universal, Ricoeur sees “the same bad movie, the same slot machines, the same plastic or aluminium atrocities” (277). This is where Frampton’s work can shed further light on Ricoeur’s early warning of the effects of universalisation at a cultural level, and vice versa. Frampton states, “we may construe these different forms … as setting the rationality of normative technique [of elementary culture] against the arationality of symbolic structure [of mediocre civilisation]” (1992:315).

Ricoeur arrives at the conclusion that culture – any culture – must enter into dialogue with what has preceded it, what is occurring around it, and what will follow it. Ricoeur conceives of his own culture as being “in a tunnel” – on the cusp of globalisation and teetering over the precipice of universalisation which both prompt Frampton’s later critique – “at the twilight of dogmatism and the dawn of real dialogues” (284). To embrace dogma is to risk the ‘coagulation’ of culture. And yet – another paradox – we cannot ‘jettison’ our past; no matter how entangled with dogma it is, this too must be embraced. A cultures base, the tectonic whose importance Frampton highlights, is marked by deposits which accumulate, sediment, and whose own characteristics cannot be reduced to the level of simple dogma. To attempt to do so is to “look for the meaning of culture at an excessively rational or reflective level” (278): as in, we might say, regionalism, as will be examined shortly. Whereas, for Ricoeur (and Derrida, Deleuze, and Tschumi, again, to be explored later), “there is a kind of harmony in the absence of all agreement” (283), which ‘real dialogue’ will raise into existence.

Here, Ricoeur is also clear that “nothing is further from the solution to our problem than some vague and inconsistent syncretism” (283), that this ‘disagreement’ cannot be bridged by a “mere historical formation” (ibid). In this sense, we may begin to draw parallels with the regionalism from which critical regionalism springs, as for Frampton, regionalism in architecture (and for us here, beyond and into other cultural formations) is one such ‘historical formation’ seeking to combat the universalising of civilisation through the construction of distinctive localised cultures. Actively building – physically and mentally – an identity linked to a site or territory. But this regionalist impulse is entirely arbitrary, stereotypical and mythologising: “simple-minded attempts to revive the hypothetical forms of a lost vernacular” (1983:21). Regionalism here is not “progressive [or] liberative” (18), it does not free people from the ‘mediocre civilisation’ Ricoeur envisages as one character of his schizophrenic universality. Rather than revive, or “unearth a … profound personality … and replant it in its past” (Ricoeur, 1965:277), it represents an “ever present tendency to regress into nostalgic historicism” (Frampton, 1983:20) in the search for a consensus which is then imposed upon, within and through culture.

We can see this process in action in regionalist interpretations of the American state of Alaska which will form the basis of my later work. In the dislocated ‘Frontier State’, as it is commonly referred to, Alaska finds itself encoded as part of the journey across America, enshrined in American culture by Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1893 ‘Frontier Thesis’. As such, it becomes part of the ideological narrative of “inevitable progress westward and its formative influence upon the creation of an American character” (Campbell, 2000:7) in the region of the West. This essentialised, geographical determinism “finds no space for women or ethnic groups, and Native Americans” (ibid:8) and, as a result, echoes Frampton’s positioning of regionalist architecture as one of “repression and chauvinism” (Tzonis & Lefaivre, in Frampton, 1983:20); the creation of a false consciousness which does not have “a spontaneous existence in the people” (Ricoeur, 1965:279). Culture in this instance ‘coagulates’ and “represent[s] a phenomenon of inertia” (ibid:280). Regionalism, conceived as a reaction – a resistance – with which to combat the homogenising elements of a universalised culture, through its ‘inertia’, still creates a universality which equally “does violence to the life of individuals whose singularity always remains invincible” (Kelbley, 1965:xiii); an ‘arational symbolic structure’, as was discussed earlier.

Critical regionalism does not seek consensus, but, through the openings of culture “on a much lower level” (Ricoeur, 1965:279) than those represented to us through regionalism, endeavours to account for, and enter into dialogue with, the plurality of cultures (or ‘vertigo of variation’ as Ricoeur memorably terms it elsewhere) we might encounter beneath the facade of regionalism. He calls for “a level of authentic dialogue … by means other than conquest and domination” (283): the first element – dialogue – is absent from regionalism, the second – domination – , we could say, is more than apparent in its ideological component, in its imposition of “the imperialism of unity … [upon] a multiplicity of truths” (Kelbley, 1965:xiv), seeking through this, “the substitution of personality” (Ricoeur, 1965:277). We can see this ‘substitution of personality’ at work in regionalist interpretations of the Western frontier in America, in the interrelationship of domination and repression, the coagulation and inertia which does symbolic violence to the multiplicity of experiences homogenised by the dogma of a single unified history.

However, the consensus sought through these elliptical histories – such as those exhibiting the regionalist impulse – do not lose all meaning for Ricoeur. As Kelbley again notes, “Ricoeur contends [there is] only one way of emerging from the narrowness of the human condition, and this is communication” (1965:xv). Furthermore, “[t]here is meaning in the sense of logical progression and contextual relationships; but is it not equally clear that there is meaning in singularity devoid of contextual causality and logical sequence” (xiii). For Ricoeur, this is the centre of the paradox, a problem which will only increase in the face of dialogue and communication across and between cultures, and one for which we cannot enforce synthesis. Frampton proposes an aesthetic of “synthetic contradiction” (1983:21) in response to these competing dialogues, which he envisages will combat the “compensatory facade” (17) of regionalism.

This call for dialogue and communication in Ricoeur’s work forms the basis of the expanded quotation alluded to earlier and to be found in Frampton’s (1992) revised ideas for a critically regionalist architecture. Specifically, Ricoeur states that “no one can say what will become of our civilization when it has really met different civilizations by means other than domination and conquest” (1965:277). In the ‘interregnum’ Ricoeur suggests he is writing in, “the dogmatism of a single truth” (283) can no longer be practiced, and in this ‘lull’ we must work to overcome the scepticism with which newly revealed – or recovered – truths are greeted. Just as civilisation as progress has “depended for [its] intrinsic development on a certain cross-fertilization with other cultures” (Frampton, 1992:315), the dialogue and communication which facilitated the pollination of technics, tools, politics and economics on a global scale, must now also be employed at local, cultural levels.

Critical regionalism, as Frampton frames it, comes about when we “regard regional culture not as something given and relatively immutable but rather as something which has … to be self-consciously cultivated” (ibid). It is at this level that the ‘synthetic contradiction’ which this architecture might employ, takes place: after Ricoeur, is not contradiction a form of dialogue? This helps to clarify the paradox which arose, necessarily, when Frampton suggested in the essays original incarnation, the need for both a “high level of critical self-consciousness” (1983:21), and a “discreet recourse to universal technique” (20). This is not, therefore the simple syncretism or permanent synthesis which Ricoeur suggests national cultures should guard against in the face of universal civilisation. The suggestion that the technics and tools afforded us by universal civilisation may become inert and coagulated if they are not transformed by national cultures: “a culture dies as soon as it is no longer renewed or recreated” (Ricoeur, 1965:281). This plea for dialogue is taken on by Frampton who suggests that we must not remove ourselves “from that eclecticism … which appropriated alien, exotic forms in order to revitalize the expressivity of an enervated society” (1983:21). Mediation – another form of dialogue – is the watchword here. Not only in architecture is this dialectical and dialogical interplay between civilisation and culture still as pressing a necessity as Ricoeur identified nearly six decades ago. In wider culture, it could be argued that it has become an even greater imperative.

As Frampton demonstrates, architecture can play a significant part in the negotiation of localised positions between civilisation and culture – as usefully theorised by Ricoeur – reinstalling the fluidity of ideas which ceases in regionalism but which has brought us to the position where the possibility of negotiation, mediation and dialogue through culture are afforded to us with greater flexibility.