On Character

First, I would like to admit a certain limitation that I have found in myself in terms of thinking of the human subject:  a rather embarrassing residue of dualism, a thinking of the subject primarily, almost entirely, as split between mind and body.  I have thought a lot about the dualism over the years, and determined that it is harmful and does not take into account present knowledge about the close linking of the two.  The mind is generated by the body and lives through the body, and likewise the body in many ways has mind:  our thoughts are indelibly influenced by the patterns of the body from which it is generated, and our thoughts occur through the mechanisms of the body.  Neural cells exist throughout the body, including in the spine and in the gut, and these take part in what we call consciousness.

But nonetheless, no matter how enlightened I become of these close connections between body and mind, I still think along the lines of dualism much of the time.  Two things have bothered me a great deal about this split: first, the incredible disappointment I feel when very intelligent people behave badly, which happens a lot; and second, the thought of what happens when someone is neither intelligent or physically strong or well.  Intelligence, although modified greatly through experience and the patterns of thinking we adopt, is primarily a 'given', an example of what Heidegger referred to as 'throwness', but what you might just as easily call fate.  Physicality in the same way, through learned habit and through planned exercise can be modified, but primarily it too is also a given.  Yet many wonderful people are neither intelligent nor physically strong/well.  Many people who I would rather spend time with fall into this category.  Hell, I even fall into this category.  What of us?  We will not win Olympic medals or become ivy league professors - but this doesn't make us any less deserving, does it?

And so I have come to add a third category to the dualism that I have inherited, and for this I would like to adopt an old term: character.  It is a word that you would normally associate with 19th Century brits or with American football coaches, but I think it could be useful!  I think of this third category as being of equal merit to the body and mind.  However, it is notably different, what one could call an operational category:  it stretches through a skein of connections in and around the first two categories, organizing them and energizing them. 

So what is this thing that I want to call character?  Character is in many ways similar to love, but I would like to say it includes love.  Character is the ability to carefully draw a circle of empathy around oneself, and to adjust this as you see fit to include certain things and exclude others.  Character is personal discipline.  Character helps us responsibly choose the rules by which to live and to honestly and strongly enforce them.  Character is the ability to recognize the opinions of others as the waves upon which we float, different from ourselves.  Sometimes we will be rocked and swayed by these opinions; character helps us steer through them in the direction which we choose.  

Many of these things are often associated with intelligence, but I don't think they should be.  It is character and not intelligence that allows us to see creeds for what they are and to be skeptical of them, & to keep our heads afloat amidst the onslaught of confusing information, and amidst the swirling torrents of emotion arising from our own depths.  It is character and not intelligence that allows us to simultaneously stand by our convictions and allow them to be questioned. 

Another good way to think about character is to say that it is what guides us in how to spend our time.  We only have precious limited time in this life and so the question of how to use it is incredibly important.  Exercise?  Hobbies?  Work?  Spending time with friends and loved ones?  Spending time and work in the service of a cause you believe in?  Pursuing ideas?  Pursuing leisure?  Character guides these decisions although they are enacted by mind and body. 

Like the mind or like physicality you cannot say that someone has less or more character - it is rather a question of the quality of their character.  This sounds so anachronistic!  But, one of the things I like most about this old idea, and hence see it as worth revisiting, is that character is far less an issue of 'throwness' and more an issue of development.  It is something you can adjust, and build.  Ergo, while I'm at it, the following are some key aphorisms that I personally find useful in thinking about what makes good character:

1)  As the philosopher Martin Buber once said: "you shall not withhold yourself";
2)  Plato popularized the ancient Greek entreaty to "know thyself";
3)  As Shakespeare's Polonius advised, "To thine own self be true";
4)  In the Christian New Testament, Jesus says "do unto others as you would have them do unto you";
5)  Kant, very similarly, wrote that you should "act as if the maxim of your action were to become through your will a universal law of nature";
6)  Jeremy Bentham said that "the greatest happiness for the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation," a phrase that is often reworked as the imperative that "one should act in favour of the greatest good for the greatest number of people";
7)  And finally I have always enjoyed Donna Haraway's argument for "‘pleasure’ in the confusion of boundaries and for responsibility in their construction".

For me, these aphorisms point diversely in good directions for the development of personal rules to live by, and most of them I'm sure you've seen before.  I have, however, found for myself it to be a useful exercise to aggregate them here, and I hope, should you happen upon this, that you find them useful too, and likewise consider this outmoded idea of character worth revisiting for yourself.  For, to think about it yourself, and aggregate your own rules is the whole point, after all.



The following is the text of a research proposal I prepared in March of this year that, sadly, was not accepted.  

Initially drawn to architecture by its promise to ‘make ideas manifest’, I was profoundly disappointed throughout most of my formal architectural education with the lack of emphasis placed on the individual in the space.  While ideas were always there, they always seemed to deal with something bigger, more abstract, and thus somehow less fundamental than what I had hoped for.  It was not until undertaking my masters that I encountered the writings of the likes of Joseph Rykwert, Gaston Bachelard, and Juhani Pallasmaa, and was delighted to find writers who shared my interest in the human subject in its encounter with architectural space, complete with all of the psychological complexity and messiness that that involves. 

The more I thought seriously about our experience of architectural space, however, the more I realized that the space described by these writers is notably different these days; our experience of the world has been profoundly altered by technological change.  Not only has ‘mechanization taken command’ and are our environments very ‘well tempered’ indeed, but as Alberto Pérez-Gómez has put it, “the reality of our changing mental landscape and our technological flesh” is “undeniable.”1   As Anthony Dunn has rightly observed, the electronic object rarely features in literature concerned with “the poetry of everyday objects,”2 the sort of literature that I am drawn to in order to explain architectural space.    

This, hence, has been the focus of my work over the past three years, both to attempt an approach to contemporary technologically mediated spaces myself with an eye to the ‘mythopoetic’ (or the ‘phenomenological’ perhaps) as well as to gather around me a collection of authors with a similar agenda.  Amongst this literature I have been particularly interested in postphenomenology, what I would describe as the philosophy resulting from the collision of phenomenology and American pragmatism.  This recent development in philosophy is interesting to me because largely it is an attempt to continue the project of classical phenomenology while adding to it two very useful notions: a) that humans do not exist outside of their basic situatedness amongst the community of things; and b) that, it is possible to speak of philosophy separated from the human subject, to develop “an ontology of things themselves.”3  As Don Ihde has described, human perception, consciousness, even Dasein itself, do not exist except that they are mediated.4  And as the other hero of this line of thinking, Bruno Latour, has described, this mediation is a very complex affair, involving many thousands of actants, both human and non-human.5  In this way, postphenomenology gives us tools for pushing our understanding of architectural spaces forward to include the pronounced mediating qualities of advanced computational technologies.

Graham Harman’s reinterpretation of Heidegger’s famous tool-analysis and his attempts to connect it with Latour’s Actor Network Theory (ANT) is especially promising in this regard, as is Peter-Paul Verbeek’s parallel attempts to connect ANT with Don Ihde’s work.  Harman sees Heidegger’s distinction between the being-at-hand and the present-at-hand as being his central contribution to philosophy and the most promising ‘toe-hold’ (to borrow Richard Rorty’s phrase) for philosophy in the 21st Century to work with.  In Human-Computer-Interaction (HCI) terms, this is very similar to the distinction between ‘calm’ and ‘active’ media, and his elaborations upon this with the help of the theory of actants should have very interesting consequences for the design of these.  Similarly, Verbeek’s postphenomenological arguments for the inclusion fo things in the ‘moral community’ because of their mediating role and ability to affect human behaviour also clearly has important implications for HCI & Architecture. 

Were I to be offered the present fellowship I would be very glad to have the opportunity to continue working on this material, clarifying my initial hunches and developing in the collegial environment of __________ a formulation of what I believe to be the profound consequences of these writers for the understanding and practice of architecture. 


In tandem with this, and somewhat to balance the scholarly nature of this work, I propose during my year at _____ to embark on what I hope to be a thorough survey of recent advances in tangible computing, and specifically that technology  being developed for people living with disabilities.  For obvious reasons, much advancement in tangible computing is currently made in the name of this community.  My interest is in how these same technologies may be more broadly deployed in the interests of making our experience of information increasingly ‘spatialized’ and ‘embodied’.  My primary focus therefore would be on what I call synæsthetic technologies - technologies that translate information we are accustomed to receive though one sensory mode into another.  Technologies that assist a visually-impaired person in using social media for instance, or an aurally-impaired person in experiencing the music of Bach could also be employed to help the rest of us, as Edward Casey has put it, “get back into place.”6   Despite Pallasmaa’s proposition that a proliferation of images would distract us into a renewed ‘orality,’7 or McLuhan’s prediction that the electronic would draw us into a new, gentler ‘tribal’ state,8  neither of these idealistic suggestions have a hope until we can get beyond the two-dimensionality of the graphic user interface that currently mediates the mass of our information.  Synæsthetic technologies promise much in terms of doing exactly this.

My intention, further, is to tie this research into synæsthetic technology with an elective course that I could teach.  Groups of students would focus either on specific senses through which information can be communicated, or on specific disabilities.  Thus, one group of students would focus on sound while another would focus on texture, another on temperature and humidity while another would focus on taste and smell.  Another group could focus on electrical stimulus of skin and the direct stimulation of nerves, while another could focus on technology designed to assist people living with autism.  In addition to required reading on subjects such as synaesthesia, embodiment, neural-flexibility, ANT, and media, students would undertake intensive case-study research into their assigned senses or disabilities and associated technologies.  Once the research and presentation phases of these case studies are completed the course could proceed through a series of charrettes using these technologies to final design proposals for tangible media environments.  Ideally, at the end of the year this student work would be presented in an exhibition format.

1. Alberto Pérez-Gómez, “Dwelling on Heidegger”, Cloud-Cukoo-Land 3 no. 2 (1998).
2. Anthony Dunn, Herzian Tales (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2006), 5.
3. Graham Harman, Tool-Being (Chicago: Open Court, 2002), 3.
4. Don Ihde, Bodies in Technology Electronic Mediations Series Vol. V  (Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 2002).
5. Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).
6. Edward Casey, Getting Back into Place: Toward a Renewed Understanding of the Place-World (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1993).
7. Juhani Pallasmaa, The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the senses            (London: Academy Editions, 1996).
8. Marshall McLuhan & Quentin Fiore, The Medium is the Massage: an Inventory of Effects (Toronto: Bantam Books, 1967).