reflection 10 · assigned reading: “the whole is the untrue” (ian balfour)

[…] artists discover the compulsion towards disintegration in their own works, in the surplus of organization and regimen. […] However, the truth of such disintegration is achieved by way of nothing less than the triumph and guilt of integration. The category of the fragmentary […] is not to be confused with the category of the contingent particularity. The fragment is that part of the totality of the work that opposes totality.

Adorno in his Aesthetische Theorie

Upon first reading the chapter this blog entry is titled after, I felt puzzled and slightly irked by not understanding the author’s argument. I found the essay’s wording to be too convoluted and unnecessarily elegant, which I get because it’s an academic paper but nonetheless it demands to be reread at least twice to fully get the gist of it. It is slow and repetitive in explaining and affirming the main concept that is so beautifully and concisely summed up from the get-go, “the whole is the untrue.” A statement which I consider an adequate ontological perspective for making sense of reality/truth.

Even though I was irked by the essay’s fancy philosophical and redundant talk, it got me thinking about human subjective experience and our own thoughts about that experience (meta-awareness). I believe this “fragment-aware” way of thinking stems from a higher awareness of the limitations of our perception as humans; maybe it’d be best to say that it stems from the understanding that our experience cannot be totally encapsulated or reproduced by human-made models (artistic representations). The ideals of reality that, say, an artist involuntarily conveys through their works of art are but fragments of the whole; a particular scene perceived through a particular perspective.

This belief that human reproductions can encapsulate the totality of reality is based on an anthropocentric ideology that supposes human experience (ego) as the locus of reality. Now this is a tricky subject because on the one hand, it is true given that without individuals who experience reality, there is no reality (if a tree falls in a forest and there’s nobody around to witness it, does it make a sound?); on the other hand, which is what I mean to emphasize, what we experience are only fragments of the whole of reality that we collectively assume to be “out there”. As such, any human idealizations that unfold/unfurl across canvases (an example of a way of representing reality) will never be able to represent the totality of reality; they are but fragments of the “whole” that become so the moment they are perceived, interpreted, and represented.

Regardless of the human tendency to categorize what we perceive and experience into absolutes, we will never be able to fully get the sense of the “big picture”, or at least not in my lifetime. The whole, the all, is infinitely complex and incapable of being reduced to a single human generated image/model. As unsettling as this realization might be, I think we can all find comfort in accepting this fact as part of the fundamental nature of our existence, basically what you get with this whole being a human deal.

The author ends his essay trying to give more credit to the fragment as an isolated and singular entity that, despite its broken off nature, can still be autonomous/sovereign, similar to when stem cuttings from a plant are replanted and become plants of their own.

The ending sentence, “Which is why nothing remains but the fragments” pretty much sums it up perfectly. We think of our world and daily experience as whole because it is the all that we experience; it makes up all of our picture. We can get so caught up in it that we forget we and everything we perceive are just as well fragments, part of a whole whose true extent we don’t exactly know and surely can’t begin to imagine in terms of scale and amplitude.

This was my takeaway from such an abstract reading in practical terms (how it applies to my everyday life). If somehow I was meant to connect the concepts of this reading to something related to the actual course material or architecture in general, I apologize but stand firm by my impressions.


As a small side note, the beginning sentences about the “other” reminded me of one particular design project from my second semester of my first year. I chose to design a physical container for the abstract quality of “otherness” or “alterity”. The premise I stood my concept off of is pretty much summarized in the following taken from this assigned essay,

The identity of any entity is determined by everything that it is not, by the totality of its determinate negations.


Again, just a side note given that the author only mentions Hegel in his essay to illustrate previous Western thinkers’ perspective on the subject of the whole and the fragment and how Adorno is one of the first to swim against this current and “propose the preponderance of the fragment.” I bring this up to explain why the featured image and because, still to this day, it is the project I have most immersed myself in and genuinely enjoyed (perhaps because I love the artistic process too much, one whose relevance quite sadly diminishes as I advance through my design semesters).

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