Seismic buildings (for Les and whoever else wants to follow this thread)

Nestor Gorojovsky nestorgoro at
Sun Jul 27 18:19:15 MDT 2003

Les wants me to further explain my metaphor/comparison between a
dialectical and an un-dialectical (e.g., Althusserian) view of the
relations between structure and super-structure.

It was an example, in fact, which I found useful some years ago. If
it is useful to others, I will be very glad. Hope so.

There exists a "common sense materialist", vulgar, one-sided, and
deterministic take on the relations between structures and super-
structures.  It is very characteristic of social-democratic,
Stalinist and Althusserian Marxism (which, as seen from my own
vintage point looks like a Marxistized positivism rather than a form
of Marxism). This view makes superstructures absolutely dependent on
independent structures.

Determination (and "over-determination") comes always from below and
always proceeds upwards.  Nothing that happens above has, in the end,
any consequence in history. The world of spirit has no autonomy at
all, and in the most consequent versions of this position subjects
themselves disappear in a game of objective structures where
"meaning" has no meaning at all, is a "spiritualist" residue that any
serious Marxist should throw to the wastebasket.

I think otherwise. And that is where the seismic building analogy
comes to play.

Let us begin by the beginning. Human beings are total unities, that
is at the individual level structures (relations that allow people to
have food, shelter, etc.) and superstructures (ideas, beliefs, and
other relations of the same kind) cannot be separated. Thus, and
precisely because people are constituted in such a way that without
food, shelter, clothing, etc -that is, without "structure"- we cannot
love, think, guess, etc., structure is a precondition for
superstructure. This is what I call "historic materialism". Not that
I consider myself a new Einstein for this discovery, which however
was a great discovery for the human sciences and took many centuries
to take shape and become a conceptual framework for historic research
and action.  I hope we agree in that this self-evident tautology
tends to be either forgotten or blurred in non-materialist

At the same time, however, I believe that (save for the above, which
is important but _may be not all-important at any moment_ in history)
the "subjective", "super-structural", side of things can acquire an
autonomy of its own, and I also know that it is in _this_ realm of
super-structures, not in the realm of structure, that the _political_
and _ideological_ battles on structural issues take place. So that if
I want to understand  and change history (and nobody can attempt to
become a serious politician without at least a general but solid
understanding of history), it is at the level of superstructure that
I will have to act, I need to debate and struggle in the
superstructure albeit never forget that anything that happens "up
here" has something to do with what happens "down there". This is a
very different take than that which always seeks an unidirectional
(unmediated or sophisticated, but at any rate unidirectional)
connection between ideology and the material structure of society, a
connection where ideology is somehow to be sanitized if we want to

Things are quite more complicated. The interplay between structure
and super-structure, in social and historic systems (as well as in
most other systems), tends to keep the dynamic totality that we know
as "society" within the bounds of some particular "steady state"
which does not imperil both social reproduction (endless, and
increasingly incremental, accumulation of surplus value in a
capitalist society) and the extraction of excedent from the exploited
classes by the dominant ones through biased redistribution of surplus
labor (surplus value from the proletarians by the bourgeois, in a
capitalist society).

In a sense, class societies react to the unescapable social stress
generated by the permanent contradiction between (old, fossilized)
relations of production and (ever changing) productive forces as if
they followed a particular version of the Le Châtelier principle of
dynamic equilibrium in a physical system (well, you see, just another
analogy, but don't care about it, let us stick to the building).

While structures change -and (we are all agreed) structures, like the
wind, are always a-changing, are we not?-, things in the
superstructure (yes, the superstructure, but "real"  life for most
people) do not change _that_ fast.  That is, there is some kind of
"friction" between what happens in the realm of material production
and the realm of spiritual production:  people do not realize the
consequences of changes in the material foundations of their everyday
life until it is too late and in the end, we have to go to a nice
revolution to _restore_ the general equilibrium (I am summing up,
roughly, the introductory remarks by L.D. Trotsky to the _History of
Russian Revolution_).

Were it not so (and I am still copying LDT), revolutions (that is,
sudden bursts of political action through leaps in the consciousness
of the masses) would not be necessary.  This old equilibrium, which
up to the moment of revolution looked like "natural", becomes
"unnatural":  people discover that the "natural" equilibrium that
only yesterday was the object of fetishist worship spells further
destruction for their everyday life tomorrow, thus they begin to seek
a _different_ equilibrium than the old one, an equilibrium which was
so succesfully predicated by the old society (via superstructural
institutions, usages, etc.) that we all believed we were living in
the best of possible worlds. Gramsci has a lot to say on these
issues, too, BTW.

Now, on to the seismic analogy.  Seismic buildings are, by
definition, _flexible_ buildings. This, at first sight, is counter-
intuitive: wouldn't it be more intelligent to build stronger, more
rigid, less "shakeable" structures? In fact, this was or is said to
have been the first reaction.

Today we know better. When we design seismic buildings, of course, we
take into account the most important natural determination for a
building, that is the force of gravity.  The foundations (the
structure) are the actual anchorage of the building in material
reality, and anything built upwards must be designed from the
foundations upward.  When you have an earthkwake (revolution),
however, the conditions of the system are violently transformed.

Gravity (a) gets "reversed" by vertical shaking or/and (b) gets
"challenged" by horizontal shaking.  IF the structure were the
single, unilateral, determination of the building, as it would have
to happen in an "Althusserian" design, then the whole thing would
instantly crumble down DUE TO ITS RIGIDITY.

So that the "intuitive" answer to earthkwakes (stronger, harder-to-
rock constructions) is the wrong answer. When the land shakes,
buildings actively "counter-shake", the uplifted (super- in Latin
roughly meaning "uplifted") side of the structure _actively_ reacts
against the movements challenging it from deep below, from the
stuctural foundations themselves. The whole thing reacts as if it
were (which it is) a _calculated custard_, and in the end, the
vertical and horizontal stresses are absorbed. The seismic building
will stand brightly pointing up to the sky over the blue waters of
San Francisco Bay Area, unchanged and unchallenged. Unlike the strong
oak that the hurricane tears out, the palm tree bends to the wind and
rebounds upwards again.

Of course, the analogy stops here. Societies never emerge from an age
of convulsion unchanged, as seismic buildings do ---and should do,
because that is what they are _designed for_: it would be quite
uncomfortable to find a wall today where yesterday we had a clear
passageway, of course, which is exactly what happens with social
structures after a revolution (But then, again, social structures are
undesigned, natural portions of reality.)

However, even in foreknowledge of this limit of the analogy, I found
it an useful didactical tool when explaining the complexity of the
relations between structures and super-structures against the
debasement of these concepts by vulgar materialists.


Néstor Miguel Gorojovsky
nestorgoro at

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"Sí, una sola debe ser la patria de los sudamericanos".
Simón Bolívar al gobierno secesionista y disgregador de
Buenos Aires, 1822
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