“The walls have ears,” as an idiom, is about safely presuming that there is always someone listening. The walls, however, that constitute a room are more permanent than any of the potential residents. Buildings persist through multiple hosts and guests, making them the loci of human activity; containing it, though usually held separate from it (of course, there are many structures that hold social, cultural or religious significance, but, even then, the building is rarely a participant). What stories do these walls collect? What is the emotional detritus that collects, the echoes and ghosts that get trapped? As tenants come and go, the same walls remain, so an accumulation of the histories and an enmeshing of the buildings own history with that of the tenants creates a a unique narrative that persists as long as the building and tenant are in contact. Afterward, something is left behind on the building and more so than physical artifacts; coats of paint beneath coats of paint or wallpaper covering other wallpaper are one kind of physical ephemera of not only change, but aesthetic value, care and occupation.
Particular kinds of buildings interact with different tenants as well: apartment buildings carry much different stories—architecturally, historically, aesthetically—than legislative buildings, libraries or schools. Each suits different functions as designed, though the renovation of a building does not erase a prior identity (for example, the increased value of a factory converted into loft style apartments), but layers yet another history on top of it. I am particularly interested in schools as a somewhat industrialized design—standardized and repeated without end—that is as easily recognized from the inside as a school as from the outside. A building everyone knows, that takes on the emotional weight of the person even if they did not ever attend a particular school. A school has incidentally high turnover for its purpose, with hundreds to thousands of students constantly, literally and figuratively moving through it; classrooms are designed and redesigned, divided into classrooms, laboratories, offices and lounges (then shuffled and redesigned again) and generally always inhabited. A leftover school, all ruins and no people, keeps this history.
I propose a historical narrative of a schoolhouse. Counter to the site of an archaeological excavation or a situated cultural study of the inhabitants, the story of the school itself can be given weight and voice, to speak around the inhabitants and inform us of the condition of school as a reflection of those who inhabit and use it. Oftentimes, the classrooms themselves are utilized as not only educative spaces, but social as well while students, teachers and administrators alike are transitioning between roles (then, too, does the building). More importantly, a school space can be used as a pedagogical tool: in a way, an active participant for learning and teaching. Even administrators can utilize a classroom for a meeting: it is strange seeing parents sitting in desks meant for children. This is the thin line I am avoiding, however: the building is present in this examples, but it is not the focus. Imagine classroom for the parent-teacher meeting, but remove the people: now the classroom can speak.
Much like E.P. Thompson (1966) stated in the preface to The Making of the Working Class, this kind of narrative shouldn’t be consecutive; in fact, I do not think that it can be (12). For an all too present example, what is a school during a pandemic? The core function of the building is deprived: the students and teachers cannot physically meet. There are interruptions like this when a building is rendered silent, but the building persists. “But they lived through these times of acute social disturbance,…and if they were casualties of history, they remain, condemned in their own lives, as casualties” (13). While I do not expect the death of schools altogether, this is helpful in reframing a building to have a voice; after all, individual schools close and, often, those histories are lost soon after.
Thompson’s use of the materialities surrounding the communities he documented provides a methodology for the data collection. Buildings are thoroughly documented, in design, maintenance and use. Each of those are further documented: there are proposals for designs; specific instructions for each kind of maintenance as well as schedules; and records for use that range from intended purposes to meeting minutes. Schools particularly are institutions of the public, which not only (should) assure a level of governmental scrutiny and accounting, but also public opinion and oversight from organizations like newspapers and parent groups. There is a wealth of material surrounding the the school building, though much of it will have to be read from a different perspective. How do the discussions surrounding and within the building leave space for the building? The school building carries the weight of ideologies and virtues, as well as what is and is not allowed. The site of the school is and becomes—is forecasted to be before it is even built—a ritual site for specific behavior. If a public space is unassertive and only lightly directing by what is and isn’t there, a school, then, is not a public space devoid of identity. The school acts on its inhabitants and those populations around it. Perhaps even other buildings around it.
But to give a building a voice is problematic as, in reality, it does not have one. Here, too, a tradition of historical narrative invoking the reader’s imagination is useful, but a building’s narrative is not a life lived that can easily be imagined. The imagination is only one third of the solution, whereas a narrative of a person or people can easily be split in half between the imagination and the data. The building requires an identity beyond a configuration of space.
In order to reconfigure the identity of the school building, some work must be done to break down its static purpose as a building and reconstitute it with the willfulness of a living being. Surprisingly, Karl Marx’s treatment of commodities and alienation can be useful for this. By understanding a building as a product of labor under capitalism, it can be recast as a historical subject counter to the laborers who produced it; indeed, in order to overcome its alienation and (re)capture by another, it must. A historical narrative can empower that voice especially as it elucidates the unique circumstance of buildings that exist outside of exchange (that is, generally outside of the real estate market).
To begin, buildings are all commodities produced as all commodities under capitalism are produced (though the scale is certainly different). The construction workers, foremen and architects (as well as electricians and the many other, varied laborers needed to constitute a building) have no claim to the building or the building process; “Labour produces not only commodities; it produces itself and the worker as a commodity…This fact expresses merely that the object which labour produces…confronts it as something alien, as a power independent of the producer” (Marx 1844, 70). The commodification of buildings is two-fold: most buildings exist within a real estate market that provides it with exchange-value, while another sense of the commodification creates a use-value through the inhabiting of that building. Schools are, as I’ve mentioned, not on a real estate market while they are functioning as schools; there is no exchange-value. This creates a unique commodity that balks at Marx’s (1867) personification: “Could commodities themselves speak, they would say: Our use-value may be a thing that interests men. It is no part of us as objects. What, however, does belong to us as objects, is our value…In the eyes of each other [commodities] we are nothing but exchange-values” (328).
The school is (exchange-)valueless, though it, to continue the personification, would certainly agree about use-value being only of interest to people. If a school is disinterested in its use, it sits alien to its users as well as its producers. Who owns the school? This is problematized for the investigation of a private school as the relationships of labor are far more regular (that is, regular under capitalism), but the relationship for a public school isn’t quite as clear. A town or city may operate a school, but then an understanding of the political, democratic body at least presumes participation and, therefore, “co-ownership” of the entire political body; that is, the town or city that operates the school. Politically, there comes a reflexive re-enfranchisement of the labor over their commodity even as it persists alien to the laborers. Again, the laborers do not use the building (though their children might), yet, as members of the community which operates the building, they, in a vague sense, own it. As Marx (1844) excavated the relationship that creates private property (79), here we see the uniqueness of the alienated school affecting a sort of ouroboros of alienated labor to private property that estranges everyone. The people who use the building do not own it and the owners do not use it.
Before continuing, more time must be spent on why a school is a unique as commodity, particularly in a Marxist analysis of it in particular. Marx (1867) is clear that “A thing can be a use-value, without having value” and “A thing can be useful, and the product of human labour, without being a commodity.” However, schools are especially built as “use-values for others, social use-values” and are transferred to others (communities) as use-values (307). There is an exchange, though, curiously, the school-commodity does not gain value by virtue of being useful. If there is value, it is in a moral economy surrounding schools in society.
Therefore, the unique relationship of of schools in society is through the production of an alien object; a site of use that has cultural value, though no exchange value, and is still estranged from its producers. Unlike a commodity with both exchange-value and use-value, these characteristics of a school maintain its alien status without fully reaching the status of private property. It is in this alienated state that the school stands apart in the socio-economics of its use and can accumulate the materiality of it and its users existence within its physical construction: the detritus of use that is swallowed up in the valueless space. This materiality subjectifies rather objectifies the school as it continually accumulates use-value.
Now, a Marxist entry to historical analysis cannot rest on personifying the inorganic, nor does a historical narrative want to narrate the inorganic. How does a school take its unique position as alien and say something? The linkage I would like to attempt is through Michel Foucault’s concept of heterotopia. Through the process of alienation, the school becomes a heterotopic site, evading the utopic organization of society and eluding what the school is intended to be; after all, its users are transient and producers and owners are absent. Foucault (1986) describes the school as a crisis heterotopia “reserved for individuals who are, in relation to society and to the human environment in which they live, in a state of crisis…” so it is purpose-built, in fact, for this use-value and cannot or should not transfer or take up new meaning; it then would not be a school, of course (24). The crisis is the very transience of its use and, when the student is no longer in crisis, no longer inhabiting or allowed to inhabit the school, the site remains. What accumulates in the site? Heterotopias are accompanied by heterochronies and “[begin] to function at full capacity when men arrive at a sort of absolute break with their traditional time” (26). Here, now, the school is actually quite apart from society and does not require students, teachers or administrators to exist. Instead, it is “activated” whenever those users are present. Finally, it is in this mirrored reality that a building—an alien landscape viewed now as a heterotopia—can find a voice. The material accumulation takes on new meaning as not the facts of a school, but the reflection of an expectation of a school that is radically shifted through an alternate space-time (even if that space-time is a momentary reconfiguration in our social minds).
In order to blend Foucault’s heterotopia and Marx’s alienated object, perhaps a school can be viewed as a xenotopia; that is, a place with alien meaning that sites in a third site from utopia and heterotopia. Its alienated nature gives it agency and the dis/use of its space through at least two chronotopies creates a foreign site of differentiated meaning, Taking the school as a xenotopia demands attention to how it is itself rather than the way any students, teachers or administrators frame, work with/in or utilize the space. Through this lens the school can be viewed not as a landscape or an empty site to be surveyed, nor the collection of people to be interviewed or observed, but a phenomenon itself; the likes of which historical narrative can excavate in order to find the xenotopia’s voice.
A school’s heterochrony, then, could be reframed as foreign time, a xenochrony that furthers subjectifies the commodity-school. Throughout a school’s history, there would be multiple xenochronies, like snapshots of the school in different periods that provide distinct voices through which the school speaks for itself (now truly in its own space and time). The different accumulations of use and transience personify the school and the historical moment a school may be located in—any, that is, as its xenochronies exists simultaneously yet apart—in fact creates a unique school. An investigation here could find one school with multiple voices, which accumulate themselves. A difficulty lies in whether or not the accumulation of voices speaks to the school as yet even more unique and outside of history or a totalizing error of analysis that ends up not representing any school at all. I question, too, how the constants of a school—the building plans, static teacher-student roles, age grading—can be reinterpreted in diachronous histories…then again, are constants like these a guiding path through the multiple realities of a school?
In the end, I would expect to find an answer to what a school is: a heterotopia of illusion or compensation (Foucault 1986, 27). Or, potentially finding that the school is truly a xenotopia. Couched in the terms of Marx and Foucault, how extendable would this be outside of the school and is it even generalizable to other schools than one case study? Here historical narrative may again be a useful methodology to contain any totalizing generalizations; perhaps it is enough that one case study is a xenotopia. With that finding, the role of architecture, design and the sediment of societal use of a space takes on a renewed importance. Counter to the clinical understanding of space in modern society, perhaps a more ritualistic understanding of where the habits of a people occur can be found in a xenotopic analysis that can (re)connect people with the objectified world.
- Foucault, Michel. “Of Other Spaces.” In Diacritics 16, no. 1 (1986): 22-27. https://www.doi.org/10.2307/464648.
- Marx, Karl. “Commodities.” In Capital, Volume One, 302-329. 1867.
- Marx, Karl. Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts. 1844.
- Thompson, E. P. Preface to The Making of the English Working Class, 9-14. Vintage: 1966.