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This review appeared in Volume 6 (2) of The Semiotic Review of Books.

The Semiotics of Glass and Light

Charles Lock

Walter Benjamin's Passages. By Pierre Missac, translated by Shierry Weber Nicholsen. Cambridge, MA; M.I.T. Press, 1995, 233. ISBN 0-262-13305-9.

American Technological Sublime. By David E. Nye, Cambridge, MA; M.I.T. Press, 1994, 362. ISBN 0- 262-14056-X.

What is the sublime, precisely in the terms with which Kant opposes Burke, but that which exceeds the semiotic? For Kant, Burke shows us 'where a merely empirical exposition of the sublime and the beautiful may lead.' (277). The sublime differs from the beautiful in that the former cannot be contained in any sensible form (246):

we express ourselves entirely incorrectly when we call this or that object of nature sublime, even though we may quite correctly call a great many natural objects beautiful. For what is sublime ... cannot be contained in any sensible form but concerns only ideas of reason, which, though they cannot be exhibited adequately, are aroused and called to mind by this very inadequacy, which can be exhibited in sensibility.
Inadequacy, then, can be represented. The sublime is the excess, we might say, of significance over signification or, in short, the inadequacy of signs, the limit of semiotics.

The sublime concerns only 'ideas of reason,' naming reason as what exceeds the sensible: Kant as much as Burke is part of the negotiation of the Enlightenment with Romanticism, of drawing the line between the rational and the mysterious, the phenomenal and the noumenal. Modernism may mean, if that label serves any purpose, an opposition to the Kantian contract on the limits of the sign. Among modern thinkers we may instance Walter Benjamin, whose ambivalent struggle against the 'aura' marks all his work. Pierre Missac, whose credentials are best presented merely by mentioning that he met Benjamin in 1937, having been introduced by Georges Bataille, has written a remarkable book, a memoir, commentary, tribute, translated as Walter Benjamin's Passages. Explicitly, Missac offers the book as a tombeau, to one who has no marked grave.

A marked grave is the very focus of an aura, just as the graveyard is a major locus of the eighteenth Century sublime. The opacity of the grave, the impenetrable mystery of matter, stands in opposition to the unconcealment of glass. Benjamin was greatly inspired by Paul Scheerban's Glasarchitektur of 1913 (which Scholem had recommended to him and in his essay of 1934, 'Experience and Poverty' Benjamin pronounced: 'Die Dinge aus Glas haben keine Aura.' (Things of glass have no aura). Scheerban had formulated and conceptualized a theory of glass in architecture, from Paxton's Crystal Palace of 1851 to the arcades which Benjamin was to distinguish as the type of modern space. Scheerban was a prophet not only of the aesthetic possibilities of glass, but of its architectural and above all technological merits: as materials brick and wood were too fragile, he argued, and soon no material would be as strong as glass. Scheerban was relying in part on the work of the chemical engineer Jules Henrivaux, who, in La Verrerie au XXe siecle (1911) saw no reason why glass should not be made stronger than cement. Modern banks seem to agree. (Missac, 154-55).

Glass has no aura. The freedom from aura, from mystery, from the sublime, is what the new technology promised, and it is fitting that the Crystal Palace should have been built for an exhibition. Glass is the most exhibitionist of materials. No wonder that the University Museum in Oxford, completed in 1860, one of the first purpose-built museums of science, should have taken Auskin's neo-Gothic skeleton and used nothing but glass between the ribs. Yet we are not surprised either, that Ruskin, whose Medievalism was mediated through Romanticism, who, after Neoclassicism, celebrated Turner for putting 'mystery' back into painting, should have objected in 1854 'You don't want your museum of glass - do you? If you do - I will have nothing to do with it." (Hilton, 217). Science was arcane until technology became part of the rhetoric of national prestige. Science knows no archives and has no interest in conservation (unlike all other museums) but only on display.

Glass exposes what is secret, dissolving optical barriers while preserving the physical distinction between inside and outside. Our eyes are invited, solicited inward, even as our bodies remain excluded. This is not only at the technological level an extraordinary sensation for the eyes, but also at the political level a sign of openness, of optical accountability. Unlike science museums, art galleries have seldom favoured glass, for the obvious reason that physical vulnerability is hardly more dangerous than optical intrusion: paintings must be protected from direct natural light. To what extent, one wonders, has this contributed to the inaccessible and elitist image of art galleries today? Even banks and office buildings appear more open and friendly than those supposedly public institutions. I.M. Pei's pyramid at the Louvre plays with this notion, in a paradoxical way, for the pyramid affords no visual access to any work of art, and is itself enclosed within a courtyard.

As long as glass is properly transparent, modern office buildings can provide a sense of openness and honesty, of everything that is opposed to what might be supposed to be going on behind closed doors. Missac is alert to the dangers of "two-way glass": "the fact of being exposed to the view of the passers-by has supposedly led the employees to display better and slightly conformist behaviour...." (Missac, 159). By 1924 Scheerbart had taken his theory of glass architecture beyond the spheres of technology and design, and into the realm of ideological critique: "It will not be possible to transform our architecture if we do not stop enclosing the rooms in which we live." (Missac, 158). Adolf Behne in 1929 went further: "The European has to be torn away from his comfortable intimacy. When all intimacy has ceased, man begins to breathe." (Missac, 158). In the same year Benjamin himself pronounced: "Everything to come stands under the banner of transparency" (Missac, 158); ten years had passed since Gropius' "First Bauhaus Proclamation" on Glasarchitektur - "crystal symbol of the new faith of the future" (Hight, 36) - and transparency was still a lucid ideal.

Intimacy and privacy are bourgeois values indeed, yet they can hardly be deemed hostile to democracy and the values of the open society. The open society ought to protect its citizens' right to intimacy. Missac makes the point that glass buildings have long been available to those who would choose to live without intimacy. And only those without choice have lived so: prisoners in Bentham's panopticon (1791) and plants in a greenhouse. (Missac, 149) Here one might invoke the proverbial expression that those who live in glass houses should not throw stones. This is recorded in English in the 14th Century, and somewhat earlier in Italian. The proverb seems to be based on no known architectural instance, but rather to speak of some deep fantasy or fear. (It is of course quite likely that the glass house of the proverb is as factitious as Cinderella's glass slipper; a mistranslation due to the homophone verre/vair (squirrel fur). The survival of Cinderella's glass slippers against the stones of scholars suggests that some need is met). Chaucer gives the proverb in a form concerning not houses but helmets, and we should be alert to Chaucer's use of "verre" rather than"glass":

who that hath an hed of verre
Fro cast of stones war hym in the werre!

(Troilus and Criseyde,11,867-68)
What in war could be more useless than a glass helmet, offering no protection against either material or optical darts, neither protecting the face nor masking its look of fear. A helmet not made of glass is always itself a weapon of intimidation; architecture, unless in glass, always serves as a mask. What the proverb expresses, with either house or helmet is the two way optical traffic in glass: one can see out and one can be seen.

William Cowper's celebration of the greenhouse, in his long poem The Task (1785) is proleptic of the modern North American atrium, in which the public finds itself within the greenhouse:

Who loves a garden, loves a greenhouse too.
Unconscious of a less propitious clime,
There blooms exotic beauty, warm and snug,
While the winds whistle and the snows descend....
The ruddier orange and the paler lime
Peep through their polished foliage at the storm
And seem to smile at what they need not fear
(''The Garden', 566ff)
What strikes one here is the consciousness ascribed to plants, that they should be restrictively unconscious only of a warmer climate, their natural habitat. The plants "peep through" and "seem to smile" in the way in which anything looked at through glass may "seem to" look back at the viewer. We note the contemporaneity of Cowper's poem with Bentham's invention of the panopticon (using iron bars rather than glass for cells, of course) which made possible the continuous observation of prisoners and ensured an absolute deprivation of intimacy.

Scheerban died c. 1930, and Benjamin remarks that the Glasarchitekur which he had celebrated was to be banished from his country as "subversive" after Scheerban's death. (Missac, 153) Banished by that most sympathetic of Nazis, Albert Speer, surely the best proof of Benjamin's belief that Fascism is the aestheticization of politics. Speer seemed to find Nazism little more than a grand architectural opportunity, and an alternative to the Bauhaus. When in Spandau, Speer was able to read in May 1955 an issue of American Builder in which he was surprised to find so many of his fellow-students and architect-colleagues now working, quite prominently, in the United States:

With astonishment I note the many German names Gropius, Mendelssohn, Neutra, Breuer, Mies van der Rohe. Naturally I know them all... If I can believe the magazine, something like a universal style is arising for the first time ... But what is altogether astonishing to me is that it comes from Berlin... In the United States Mies and Gropius in particular seem to have had the kind of broad influence that they failed to win in Germany
(Speer 273)
In going on to explain how their "failure" in Germany was matched by the "success" of his own ideas, Speer places himself in the line of Prussian classicism, and draws our attention quite specifically to the greenhouse in the garden of the new Chancellery. That he implies, is the proper place for Glasarchitektur. Now, in 1955, the terms of success and failure have been reversed; yet Speer is willing to concede that his Bauhaus opponents are themselves, now, in the line of Prussian classicism:
The German Mies van der Rohe, with his glass skyscraper on Alexanderplatz, the first in the world, was a along way from my sort of thing. But the photo in the American Builder of works by the American Mies van der Rohe show me that such work too has evolved out of the spirit of Schinkel. I agreed with Hitler that Mies van der Rohe's glass and steel constructions belonged rather to the world of technology rather than to the world of government... Was I then thinking too narrowly...? It is plain that at the age of twenty-eight (i.e in 1933) I did not understand the Bauhaus. But even now, at fifty, I am deeply convinced that the glass high-rise is wrong when it is used outside the industrial realm. Whether what we had in mind was good or bad, I still think that people have a need for walled-up space. It comes down to the question of whether people's happiness is more dependent on the sense of shelter or the number of flux (units of light)
(Speer, 273-74)
There is something persuasive about one who speaks in favour of shelter and against light and glass, from within Spandau, after ten years in a walled-up space. Luckily for Speer, Spandau was no panopticon. Imagine not longing there, for glass and light, but sticking still to one's anti- Bauhaus principles. As for the industrial realm, Speer would have approved of Henry Ford's decision to enable the public to admire the machinery in his Highland Park factory, which was kept sparking clean. And, of course, displayed behind the massive panes of sheet-glass, the workers too would be under observation (Nye, 134) In the industrial sphere the rulers need to see what the workers are doing, and the public is able to admire and approve; in the government sphere, however, intimacy retains its value.

We are not surprised that Nazism should like to do its work of government behind closed doors, nor do we wonder at the function of the sublime in Nazi ideology. What precipitated Benjamin's hostility to the aura but its abuse in and by Fascism? Yet even in the 1930s Benjamin was disturbed by developments in glass architecture, even in the work of Mies van der Rohe. For Mies had not heeded Scheerbart's warning that glass architecture must put all the emphasis on transparency, and must eschew reflection, or what Scheerbart called "Tiffany effects" (Missac 160, 185). Yet Mies came to see in reflection rather than in transparency the very distinctiveness of glass architecture. This was not so much a compromise with the Prussian tradition of Schinkel as Speer saw it, but a serious taking up of that tradition. Phillip Johnson moved almost seamlessly from an admiration for Speer and most things German in the 1930s to an ardent advocacy of Mies in post-War America. Between the opacity of stone and the opacity of reflecting glass there is no deference at all except for the element of parody, and cruel, mocking humour. The ultimate cruelty is that, confronted with the facade of a reflecting- glass building, such as the Hancock Tower in Boston, one's eyes search for some relief, and find not even a window.

What in the modern city could be more sublime than a sunset, except its reflection? Truly there is something sublime about seeing a sunset in the east. Sublime, kitsch, and not without an aura. Reflecting glass is only an intensification of the mystery of opacity: surely it must by now have been used for a gravestone? '"It is neither easy nor smart" writes Missac "to announce the end of the aura)." (183).

Missac makes an important distinction between the reflecting glass of the skyscraper and the transparent glass of the atrium. We may add that transparent reflecting glass marks spaces as public/private. And that the public sees only itself, wherever it looks. The secrecy of the private sphere is thus disguised by the vanity of the public. What happens then to the sublime? Surely a compulsory urban narcissism does not constitute the sublime?

David Nye's well-documented American Technological Sublime begins with Kant and the natural sublime of Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, and Virginia's "Natural Bridge" whose name unfortunately escapes comment. Nye moves on to canals, railroads and sundry unnatural bridges, from the Brooklyn to the Golden Gate, skyscrapers, the Hoover Dam and the launch of Apollo 11.

Nye's speculative theory of the origins of the skyscraper in America (where land was far less limited than in Europe) is attractively ingenious: American cities tended not to be built on or near hills for they were the creation of the rail road. In Europe cities were seldom (e.g. St. Petersburg) placed with deliberation, but grew up on the site of settlements determined by the requirements of trade or defence. From the surrounding hills we obtain the panoramic view that we associate with most European cities. American cities tended to grow up around rail road junctions, whose advantage was largely in flatness. Nye further argues that the logic of the skyscraper resembles that of the panopticon, "transforming the city into a site controlled from above and dividing its populace into the majority who scurry along the ground and the few who survey them from above." (Nye, 97) At the same time, however, building upwards was considered a cheap and slightly devious alternative to lateral expansion, and that helps to explain the presence of so many early twentieth-century banks on street corners: "Banks often built ostentatiously low structures on corner lots.... their wealth permitted them conservative horizontality." (Nye,90).

Nye's expertise lies in electricity (see his Electrifying America: Social Meanings of a New Technology 1880-1940, MIT 1990), and the condensation and elaboration of his earlier work forms the central and most fascinating chapter of this one. "The Electric Cityscape" is subtitled "The Unintended Sublime" and this provides a clue to the sublime, and explains the apparent paradox of a technological or artificial sublime. The sublime must not be deliberately sought; the effect of the sublime should be an unintended consequence of purely technological and functional thinking - an atom bomb, for instance. Americans apparently expect their sublime to be artificial, and there is surely sublimity in the question often asked at the Grand Canyon: "What tools did they use?" (Nye 289). If there had been a use, a function, it would have made no difference to our appreciation of the Grand Canyon, as long as its intention had not been to impress us with the Sublime. In degrees of sublimity there may be no difference between the Grand Canyon and the Golden Gate Bridge. Although Nye is most enthusiastic about fireworks and special lighting effects, I (and how on this topic to avoid the subject?) do not find such displays remotely sublime. The unintended subnme is the only sublime.

Electric lighting was invented in Boston in 1878, and as Nye puts it, rather well: "The first electric nights advertised themselves." (Nye 176) By 1881 the first electric sign was made - that is to say, a sign in excess of its own luminous significance. In the Paris Exposition of that year a simple arrangement of lights formed the sign "EDISON". Nye notes that most histories of both advertising and architecture ignore the electric sign, and he provides an outline of the history that needs to be written. In 1907 a building was floodlit for the first time: The Singer Tower was at that time the tallest building in New York, but by then vertical prominence was insufficient. In 1913 the Woolworth Building succeeded the Singer Tower as the tallest in New York, and it too had to be floodlit. But there was a difference: the design of the Woolworth Building was actually undertaken in consultation with electricians, for to be illuminated was the reason it was to be built. The contractor responsible for the building was most distressed by the fact that he had to charge F.W. Woolworth $13.5 million, as it was obvious to him that the structure would never repay such an investment: "Then Mr. Woolworth let me into his secret - that there would be an enormous hidden profit outweighing any loss. He confessed that the Woolworth Building was going to be like a giant sign-board to advertise around the world his spreading chain..." (Nye 92-93).

The first electric signs after "Edison," stuck to text images and, very soon, moving images and "dynamic texts" were developed in the first decade of the century, not only on Broadway. Europeans were fascinated and repelled. Henry James in 1904 revisited America and was shocked at the "skyline" (the word had come into general use in the 1890s) which resembled "some colossal hair comb turned upward (and) deprived of half its teeth". (Nye,98) James was so upset by the skyline - "the horrific glazed perpendiculars of the future" - that he failed to comment on the electric signs. Yet as early as 1896 William Dean Howells protested about Broadway: "if by chance there is any architectural beauty in a business edifice, it is spoiled, insulted, outraged by these huckstering appeals." As it was assumed that American architecture generally lacked aesthetic merit, especially in its office buildings, Howells was pleased to conclude: "It seems as if the signs might eventually hide the city. That would not be so bad if something could then be done to hide the signs." (Nye 187:88)

When the idea of illuminated signs came to Europe it met a far stronger opposition, one convinced of the architectural worth of the buildings that were to be used and obscured. In 1925 André Citroèen arranged for his name to adorn the Eiffel Tower. In 1926 bylaws were introduced banning further illuminations in Paris. The authorities had already prevented Citroèen from advertising through "skywriting," by charging him at commercial rates for the use of the air, by the cubic metre. The Parisian solution to advertising was austere: there was to be no "detached advertisings and advertisements could be attached only to the premises on which the advertised goods were sold." (Nye, 190). Sky-writing was of course ruled out by this measure; in America, legislation against advertising, always lax, was recently taken in Congress, where a ruling was made (in 1991?) against intra-satellite laser beams which would produce night signs legible across the entire hemisphere: a diabolical parody of Lotman's "semiosphere", whose commercial attractions are surely too powerful to be resisted merely by Congress. Under whose national legislation might such space-signs fall? Such are the dangers of not having ruled from early days against "detached advertising."

European advertising (and let us add that Canada's advertising regulations are much closer to the European than to the American) thus functions by metonymy, while American advertising is metaphoric, and topographically accidental: an American sign typically has to include on its written surface a distance and a direction, without which one could not connect the sign with its referent. When the referent is reached, after twenty miles, fifteen miles... ten miles... it would be a disappointment to find a mere building and so the sign merges with its referent in the shape of a house-sized tomato or hamburger or frying-pan, or, in a semiotic refinement of this merge the shape of an M, labelled not as an initial "M for..." but by a visual pun on the form and colour of a particular shape of M, the "golden arches": the referent takes the form of the initial letter, quite arbitrarily related to the product American roads are thus continuously signed, measured out by distances between advertisements and that distant site to which they advert. Ogden Nash's "Song of the Open Road" sees the world disappearing behind signs, as if an empiricist were caught in the act of ceasing to be native:

I think that I may never see
A billboard lovely as a tree
Perhaps, unless the billboards fall,
I'll never see the tree at all.
The logic of the merger between signs and buildings is that a building is not only that to which the sign is attached, the ground of the sign, but that the building itself becomes a sign, as F.W. Woolworth understood in 1913. When buildings become signs they lose or void their inferiority: there can be no depth to a sign, which is probably why a semiotics of architecture has been slow to develop. "Facade" has been associated with ornamentation in architectural polemics, while "function" has always served to justify the look of a building by what goes on "inside". Thus architectural discourse, caught between intention and function, is oddly embarrassed. by appearance, often invoking it only to explain its necessity: hence Ove Arup's determination that the roof shells of the Sydney Opera House should be "honestly self-supporting." No beams were to be used, nor any hidden supports, for then that astonishing roof would be merely"ornamental" if not "dishonest". (Mark, 3-5) (Such architectural dishonesty can now, of course, be flaunted under the name of the postmodern

What is it that we see when we look at a glass building? Is it sublime? Is the absence of a semiotics of modern architecture related to the impossibly of a semiotics of a sublime? For Benjamin the prospect offered by Glasarchitecktur was of transparency and an end to the aura, the mystique, the sublime. In reflecting glass, as Benjamin had already seen by the 1930s, the sublime was introduced again, not through the back door but through the back of the glass, through or on an invisible tain (for which we have no signs).

Many writers expressed their shock and revulsion at the new architecture of the early twentieth century. Others expressed their admiration in terms of purity, functionality, the destruction of the aura. Ezra Pound, that most implicated of poets, visited New York in 1910, and was ecstatic by twilight: "It is then that the great buildings lose reality and take on their magical powers. They are immaterial; that is to say one sees but the lighted windows. Squares after squares of flame, set and cut into the aether" (Nye, 192). At twilight transparent glass begins to reflect, and reflecting glass, illuminated from within, becomes less than opaque. Glass alternates between sign and not-sign, ground and figure, naive and sentimental, transparent and sublime. Now you see it now you don't. What you see is a sign; what you don't see is the aura, outside of sensible forms, inferred only by the intermittent absence of the seen.


Chaucer, Geoffery, The Riverside Chaucer, ed L. Benson. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.

Cowper, William, The Poetical Works, ed. W. Benham. London: Macmillan,1902.

Hight, Eleanor M., Picturing Modernism: Moholy-Nagy and Photography in Weimar Germany. Cambridge, MA: M.l.T. Press,1995.

Hilton, Tim, John Ruskin: The Early Years. New Haven CT: Yale U.P.,1985.

Kant, Immanuel, Critique of Judgement, translated by W. Pluhar. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett,1987.

Mark, Robert, Light, Wind, and Structure. Cambridge, MA: M.l.T. Press,1990.

Speer, Albert, Spandau: The Secret Diaries, translated R. & C. Winston. London: Collins 1976.

Charles Lock is Professor of English at the University of Toronto. Among his recent publications are Criticism in Focus: Thomas Hardy (1992); articles on petroglyphs in Semiotica, on Bakhtin in Strumenti critici on Jakobson in Canadian Slavonic Papers; 'Llewelyn Powys and the literature of tuberculosis' in The Powys Journal, and regular contributions to the Semiotic Review of Books.

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