about neoliberal discourse

MARTIN MAN (M. Arch I ’19)

In considering the discourse which prevails at the Yale School of Architecture, I will draw on Michel Foucault’s thought and treat discourse as a system of thought, attitudes, practises, ideas, etc. which conditions a subject and governs their relation with society.

Let us begin by examining the persistent culture of over-work in architecture school, centred around the studio. Despite the near-total consensus that students are overburdened, sleep-deprived, and lack free time for both leisure activities and independent learning, there seems to be a baffling but parallel consensus that such a pervasive crisis is not only as it should be, but can be worn as a badge of pride for the institutional establishment.

When this problem of overburdening inevitably leads to academic underachievement, mental distress, and physical affliction, the perceived ‘failings’ of the student body to ‘keep up’ are continually blamed on individual students having ‘poor time management’ or ‘slacking off’. It is in this motion that we can perceive the discourse which underlies the rhetoric that exists in architectural education—a neo-liberal discourse.

Responsibility is shifted onto individual students as a smokescreen to avoid addressing whether or not the acknowledged collective crises reflect institutional deficiencies. The same operation is at work when a corporation shifts risk onto employees through job insecurity, outsourcing, internships, and temporary work; when social benefits are cut by pointing the finger to ‘slackers mooching off the system’; when ‘entrepreneurs’ are celebrated as ‘self-made men’ who achieved success by pulling themselves up by their own proverbial bootstraps, and so on.

In short, and this should come as no real surprise, the neo-liberal discourse which pervades society finds its way into the microcosm of the architecture school. Chalking up systemic over-work to individual fault in time management and motivation is but an element of a larger motion enforcing a certain neo-liberal subjectivity whereby education is framed in predominantly economic terms.

This economised subjectivity is manifested in the experience of an incessant push to produce; the organisation of life is to maximise productivity. One takes a break in order to be more productive, goes home earlier to sleep so as to return with greater productivity, goes to exercise when one feels too sluggish to work, sits down to a long lunch for a clearer mind on return to working, ad nauseum. Instead of engaging in activities for their own merit, necessity, or pleasure, they derive their value from an instrumental cost-benefit analysis in relation to increased or decreased ‘productivity’.

The process of design is also economised, as evinced by the split between that which is ‘deliverable’ and its implied opposite, the ‘un-deliverables’. Why, after all, is our work distinguished under such transactional terms? Our broader society sidelines less commodifiable processes such as education, care-giving, maintenance, and repair in favour of gadgets, apps, and novelty. Neo-liberalism’s pursuit of the commodifiable object over the sustained process is reproduced in architecture’s valorisation of ‘deliverable artefacts’ as the ultimate aim and presentation of design.

The injunction to incessantly produce pervades discourse in a systemic fashion, such that variety is stifled through a simple restriction of time, resulting in a domination of thought. When one is forced to produce constantly, one relies on prior assumptions and existing biases/beliefs, flawlessly euphemised by the word ‘intuition’. The ‘Pinterest’ board becomes a convenient source for quick references that reduces each one to pure imagery divorced from intent, context, and history. Without time to understand and research, precedents are easily drawn on thoughtlessly.

To turn from a conservative reproduction of the status quo to a critically progressive trajectory entails an interrogation of why one thinks what architecture is in the first place. What conceptions have been handed down, or what has been unwittingly absorbed from society?  

How, then, to shift the terms of architectural discourse from ‘production’ and ‘work’ to ‘imagination’ and even leisure and play, in order to allow for genuine avant-gardist exploration of what is possible? Not simply a superficial aesthetic freedom (permissible under the neo-liberal paradigm anyway) but one which reconsiders the very organisation of life, design, education, and subjectivity to encompass concepts so antithetical and inimical to capitalist economy?

The problem of over-work in architecture school is well-covered terrain, however the point of demonstrating its implication in a wider discourse is to show that a reformulation of architectural education and practise to open up space for critical/creative endeavours is and must be inherently political.

The most material symptom of this reality is that the educational model of over-work, sleep-deprivation, and stress ultimately socialises future architects to submit themselves to the work/life imbalances, unpaid internships, and low salaries, etc. which plague professional practise under neo-liberal politics/economics.

A shift in the terms of architectural education, then, finally also holds the potential to resist, and propose alternatives to, much wider social conditions. The space of the university possesses much greater freedom to envision a different reality, after all, than the workplace. It is only incumbent upon us now to prefigure that future.

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