Configuring Critique


In 2013, I wrote an essay on the practice of artist/architect Apolonija Šušteršic where I examined her work in relation to seven problematics—critical, spatial, pedagogical, functional, relational, performative, and transitional—as sites for debating and enacting artistic alternatives to neolib- eralism. If, I asked, the term ‘liberal arts’ refers to the seven subjects of the medieval university curriculum, which include the Classical Trivium of grammar, rhetoric, and logic, and the Renaissance Quadrivium of mathematics, geometry, music, and astronomy, what kind of arts education do we need for the neoliberal times in which we live?1

I reconfigured those seven problematics into a lecture that questioned the governance struc- tures of the contemporary university, as an entity undergoing neoliberal marketization. The talk was delivered under Chatham House rules,2 at the University of South Australia (Adelaide), in November 2013, in response to an invitation to give a keynote address at the conference ‘Critique’. I have since altered the transcript of that spoken text into a ‘site-writing’3 for this publication in order to provide a more public mode of telling. This site-writing concerns events that have taken place since 2013 when I first questioned University College of London’s (UCL’s) decision to accept US$10 million of funding from the mining corporation BHP Billiton to create an International Energy Policy Institute in Adelaide, and the Institute for Sustainable Resources in London at the Bartlett Faculty of the Built Environment, of which I was then Vice Dean of Research.4 The partnership was initially set up in a time of enforced austerity econom- ics in the public sector and higher education in the United Kingdom, taking place after the bank bailout and the introduction of £9,000-per-year fees for undergraduate students.

As it is based on a text derived from a speech, this essay is a form of rhetoric, which has been described as “the art of addressing pressing public concerns by employing deliberate persuasive strategies before a public audience at a specific occasion in order to transform some aspect of a problematic situation by encouraging new forms of thought and action.”5 In making a judgment about a ‘good’ and how one should pursue it, rhetoric involves using a number of tools: reason (logos), credibility (ethos), emotion (pathos), and style (lexis).6

The style or lexis of this particular rhetoric is close to what Donna Haraway and Rosi Braidotti might call a “feminist figuration.”7 Configured in seven parts, it is told through multi- ple registers or voices. The first voice, Pathos or Waking Up (set in bold), takes an emotional tone; here I convey worries about the work involved in my institutional role at UCL, which woke me before dawn over a seven-month period from January to July 2013. This is followed by a second voice, Logos or Configuring Critique (set in plain text), which sets out a more reasoned mode of argument where I speak of ideas taken from my own intellectual writing set in relation to concepts generated by others concerning critique and what it can do. A third aspect of rhetoric is its ethos or appeal to credibility. So, for the third voice, Ethos or Strong and Consistent Narratives, I have chosen to present two narratives of credibility concerning BHP Billiton’s actions. This includes data (set in bold italics)8 gathered by RepRisk, a company who

In the landscape of available ESG information . . . takes a unique approach to assessing risk . . . capturing and analyzing data from media, stakeholders, and other public sources external to the company. This insight helps balance and substantiate the information provided by the company itself, and helps assess whether a company’s intention— policies, processes, and commitments—translates into practice.9

These are followed by texts drawn directly from the BHP Billiton’s website (set in italics), which convey the values of the corporation itself. These words may include those devised by Blue Rubicon, an award-winning communications consultancy, who in 2013 listed BHP Billiton as one of their clients, and who specialize in the creation what they call “strong and consistent narrative[s]”:

We build powerful and compelling stories to shape positive sentiment and protect rep- utation in difficult times. By testing narratives rigorously, we de-risk communication, helping major corporations, ambitious smaller organizations and brands, to develop messages which cut-through to quickly connect with their audiences.10

Jane Rendell, ‘Configuring Critique’, Chris Brisbin and Myra Thiessen (eds), The Routledge Companion to Criticality in Art, Architecture, and Design (London: Routledge, 2018).

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Other Chapters
A life of its own
A Way with Words: Feminists Writing Architectural Design Research
Activating Home and Work
An Embellishment – Purdah
Architectural History in Critical Practice
Configuring Critique
Constellation, Insertion, Act? approaching Frontier – The Line of Style through critical spatial practice
Constellations (or the reassertion of time into critical spatial practice)
Critical Spatial Practices – A Feminist Sketch of some Modes and what Matters
Curating, Editing, Writing – Critical Spatial Practice
Cut on the Bias: Relating Art and Architecture through Interdisciplinarity and Transdisciplinarity
During Breakfast
Feminist Architectural Figurations
Figures of Speech: before and after Writing
Foreword: Critical Spatial Practice: Introductions and Adjustments and Postscript: From Critical to Ethical Spatial Practice
From Architectural History
From Austin Texas…
Fuggles Writes (An Autumn Draft)
How to take place (but only for so long)
May Mo(u)rn – A Site-Writing
Seven Studies for ‘A Holding’, 23 March–31 May 2020
Silver: A Courtroom Drama
Space, Place, Site – Critical Spatial Practice
Spatial Imagination
Surface Encounters: On being Centred, Decentred and Recentred by the works of Do-Ho Suh
Tendencies and Trajectories – Feminist Approaches in Architecture
The Architecture of Psychoanalysis – Constructions and Associations
The Place of Prepositions
The Research of Place/The Place of Research
The Setting and the Social Condensor – Transitional Spaces of Architecture and Psychoanalysis
The Siting of Writing and the Writing of Sites
The Transitional Space of Interdisciplinarity
The Transitional Space of the Social Condensor
Thresholds, Passages, Surfaces
To and Fro/Tours and Detours: Writing between Sites and non-Sites
Trafalgar Square – Détournements (A Site-Writing)
Traveling the Distance
Undoing Architecture
When site-writing becomes site-reading or how space matters through time
Where the thinking stops…
Working (Through) the Field
Writing in the place of speaking
X Marks the Spot that Will Have Been
You tell me