The Architecture of Control

Dec 17th, 2012 | By | Category: Book News

As a critical rejoinder to the discourse of Panopticism, The Architecture of Control is essential reading for everyone who is interested in new modes of resistance to the designs of biopower and imperial democracy.

Techniques of Archio-Discipline: Panopticism and Feng Shui.

It’s somewhat peculiar that Panopticism and Feng Shui, the two great populace discourses on architecture and social control, haven’t been thought of as conversant topos on the micro-physics of architectural power. But why is this? Of course, there is the eastern/western divide and the fact that one of these systems of belief predates the other by more than a millennium. However, the obvious answer to the question at hand is that the first of these two dispositif’s is only a ‘populace’ discourse in academia, and the field of surveillance studies in particular, while the second has become a massified discourse about neo-spiritualist design strategies.  As such, we can say that they are not populace discourses in exactly the same sense. Panopticism is a model of architectural discipline — or as Foucault would have it, a system of techniques associated with the development of self-regulating power — while Feng Shui is based on how orientations, energy flows and material objects effect our sense of psychological wellbeing, (or at least, this is the westernized notion of Feng Shui practices).

Universalized Panopticism: Underdetermination and Overdetermination as Models of Social Control.

Paradoxically, it is this marked difference between high and low motifs — between strong architectural interpellation and weak orientational determinism — that makes the dialog between Panopticism and Feng Shui a site of critical import. Not only is the heterogeneity of these two disciplines a means of deconstructing the binary oppositions of rationalism/mysticism, design/divination, functionalism/taboo, control of the visible field/control of the ancestral past, etc., — but the twofold deployment of these diagrams of control in the home, the workplace, the classroom, the hospital and almost every other architectural apparatus is a sign that we have come to live in a time of universalized Panopticism. This appears to be the case not only because hyper-Panoptic surveillance is spreading through every ‘developed’ and developing nation, but also because Feng Shui techniques often disrupt the deployment of Panoptic power — offering us something of a positive reaction formation to the hegemonic forms of social control that condition the body socius today.

On the (re)Distribution of Architectural Discipline: Rational, Spiritual and Aesthetic.

While Panopticism enjoys a broad equality of distribution in relation to security measures, workplace monitoring and even scopophelic forms of entertainment, the rapidly expanding field of Feng Shui practices still seems to represent an esoteric ecology of exchanges in the popular mind. Evolving out of disparate rural beliefs and mystic traditions, Feng Shui has been re-appropriated by western models of functionalism in order to be repackaged and sold to fortune five hundred companies, specialized interior design firms and a fledgling industry of pseudo-spiritual advisors. As such, Feng Shui can be characterized as a duplicitous discipline that promotes a sense of architectural control, (or control over architecture), by attributing a supra-natural dimension to the arrangement of objects.

However, beyond the reification and/or popularization of its practices, what has given Feng Shui a new sense of purchase in the present is how its varied methodologies work to undermine the unlimited extension of Panoptic determinations and archiodisciplinary measures. Among its highly specialized schools, anti-Panoptic techniques of arrangement and distribution are central concerns without being interpreted as part of an explicit political agenda. Instead, such counter-statist positions are associated with redirecting qi (energy flow) into a balanced relationship with the surrounding environment — reasserting a sense of harmony over the composition of lived space as well as against the designs of well-controlled space. Considered from this point of view, Panopticism seems to be a mode of architectural interpolation that is everywhere aligned with the directives of governmentality, while Feng Shui appears to be closer to neospiritual, aesthetic, and even quasi-humanist concerns.

Challenging the Micro-physics of Power from East to West: Popular and Critical Genealogies of Self-Mastery.

In light of this conflicted state of affairs, we should attempt to ask a rather pedestrian question, or at least, a seemingly obvious one: could the critical use of Feng Shui be one of the answers Foucault was searching for in valorizing ‘techniques of the self’ as a mode of resistance to Panoptic domination? And might the different readings of architectural power offered up by practitioners of Feng Shui be a crucial consideration in attempting to locate counter-Enlightenment strategies to the omnipresence of networked Panopticism? At the very least, isn’t the sudden spread and westernization of Feng Shui practices the populist answer to the naturalization of Panoptic systems of control — despite how conflicted, contradictory and commercial such motivations might seem? In short, can Feng Shui, with its many schools and historical permutations, offer us a place to think about the conditions of subjective freedom in relation to societies of control and techno-Panoptic surveillance?

Grant Vetter develops an entirely new lexicon for analyzing architectural power in the twenty first century.

Through six meditations on the ideology of architecture, Grant Vetter is able to give us an entirely new set of coordinates for understanding social control in the twenty-first century. Moving between historical precedents in the east and the west, Vetter's work reveals a hybrid order of architectural power that acts on subjectivity from within rather than without. Whether characterized as a process of indo-colonization, social ionization or a sub-atomizing social physics, Vetter's account of architectural subjectivation requires a complete rethinking of power/knowledge as invested in producing perfected subjects rather than normative ones. This new paradigm can be described as a sovereign power in as much as it acts directly on the body through enterrogatory discipline, inferrogatory infomatics, modulated (in)dividualism, auto-affective attunement and incentivizing injunctions. As a critical rejoinder to the discourse of Panopticism, The Architecture of Control is essential reading for everyone who is interested in new modes of resistance to the designs of biopower and imperial democracy.

ISBN: 978-1-78099-293-8, $22.95 / £12.99, paperback, 224pp

EISBN: 978-1-78099-294-5, $9.99 / £6.99, eBook


Grant Vetter currently teaches philosophy at the School of Science and Architecture in Southern California. He holds degrees from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, the University of California, Irvine and the European Graduate School in Saas-fee, Switzerland. He participated in the CTE (Critical Theory Institute) from 2006-2009 at UCI and is a founding member of Autonomie, a non-profit organization that supports critical art production. He is also a board member of FAR (Foundation for Art Resources) which has produced lectures and exhibitions about critical issues in art production since 1977. He lives in Los Angeles. He Blogs here.


If you enjoy the Zero Books podcast consider listening to the Inside Zero books podcast on Patreon!

Leave a Comment