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Iteration, ventriloquism and design

Jos Vela Castillo
Ie University, Architecture, Spain
The aim of this paper is to develop some insights on the general process of design in its
application to architecture. Although it will not point to the building of a theory on the
processes of disclosing knowledge that happens to happen in design in itself, it nevertheless
will try to clarify two of its main traits: the question of iteration and the analogy with
ventriloquism. Both topics, repetition the destabilizing notions of identity, origin, failure
and success, meaning and the phenomenon of ventriloquism the staggering event of
speaking with/through an-others voice and of giving place to what has not, each in its
own distinctive way, seem to be relevant to the general process of design but especially to the
particular traits of the project of architecture. In that sense, the question at stake is the
question of the pro-jection of architecture, of its never being finished, of its ever impersonating
some an-other character and its final opening to what is to come. Be it what it should.

Conference topics
Aspects of improving the artists own awareness of his/her
own practice and the knowledge it incorporates;
Aspects of insight, understanding and knowing in the work;
Discussion of the processes of making the work/design/music
in the context of own and other practices;
Discovery/definition of values in the process of designing/
Implications of uncovering the aspects considered as tacit;
Exploration of the tension between the understanding and
emotional experience of the work of art or design;
Forms and frames relevant to represent knowledge based on
creative practice;
Investigation of the relation between the creative work and its
description interpretation explanation;
Inwards and outwards communication in designing/music/arts.

I am not going to finish this work. You finish it. (El Lissitzky)
Repeat again and again the gesture; redo again and again the figure, always the same
and always different. Not-only-repeating-again-and-again-to-achieve-perfection.
Perfection is impossible; it is not even the goal, it has no potential, is only a dead end,
sterile and paralyzing. Again: Repeat and repeat again and again as the symbol (without
symbolization) of iteration. In the impossibility to achieve a final and perfect state (of
design, of architecture, of meaning), in the impossibility of fixing a primeval origin
recognizable as such, iteration is the operativeness of design: the constant movement
of tracing and retracing the signature and the mark and the trait and the inscription on
the world: the voice of an/other, the (at least double) voice of the ventriloquist. Like
Penelopes loom. Trait/re-trait/erasure/trait. Whose is the voice if not of the Other?
This paper will develop some insights on the general process of design. Although
it will not point to the building of a theory on the processes of disclosing knowledge
that happens to happen in design, it nevertheless tries to clarify two of its main traits:
the question of iteration and the analogy with ventriloquism. The original field of these
remarks is architecture. My own experience in teaching design studio for years (and my
own design practice) is the substratum of these observations. I am not going to present
a particular case of study, though, neither to establish a general theory, but to, following
the general frame of design as a goal-oriented activity, somehow disclose the hidden

Fail more, fail again, fail better - Jos Vela Castillo

Design; architecture; iteration; inscription; ventriloquism.

Figure 1
Ghosts / Self-portrait (Author: Pablo Romn)
In a former article on the processes that have their place in the design studio, I have
proposed the concept of the paradigm as the theoretical frame for the design action/
output, and I have also worked out the key question of iteration. I will, then, draw on
some of the ideas on iteration presented there (Vela Castillo, 2012). My aim now is to
deepen some of those ideas in a more general context concerning design, especially
addressing the question of failure. In a second part, the question of ventriloquism will
open up the question to new horizons, particularly to the problem of giving (a) voice to
that/those who do not have one, or, in terms of design, giving place to what (formerly)
does not have place.

As it is known since Derrida (1982), the process of repetition (with variation) that we
call iteration always designates the sign of an absence, marks the failure of any origin
as origin and sets in motion the possibility of meaning in its breaking away with any
given context. But this impossibility of pointing to any original origin is, also, the
impossibility of achieving any given end, of considering even the possibility of any
predicted end, of a perfect goal, telos as completion. Hence, the process of design is
always an open-ended process, a process, in fact, not dissimilar to the general processes
of signification.
This process of iteration, of constant movement from an origin that lacks its origin
to an end that would not be closed anymore defines the movement of design in general
and of architectural design in particular. And, of course, it is a process that always
fails. Samuel Beckett (1983) wrote, in Westward Ho, his penultimate novel: All of old.
Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
The very process through which this short piece is written is, in that sense, indebted to
this concept of iteration. At time immobile and in constant flux, Becketts text seems
to lead to nowhere and surely happens to come from no (recognizable) place. But at
the end, it does. The piece blurs the line between failure and success, problematizes it
until the point that we truly understand the impossibility of defining a text in terms
of success of failure. So to say, the meaning of the text is neither in the text nor in
the author. But not in the reader either. Not even in the summation of all the possible
readings of the text, of all possible (infinite) readers, of all possible interpretations
(as Gadamerian hermeneutics will propose). The meaning of the text, as such, does
not exist, or does not exist in any present, in its presence, in its presentness. There are
only meanings in perpetual deferral. Or, as Derrida would put it: A text remains,
moreover, forever imperceptible. Its law and its rules are not, however, harbored in
the inaccessibility of a secret; it is simply that they can never be booked, in present,
into anything that could rigorously be called perception. And hence, perpetually and
essentially, they run the risk of being definitively lost. Who will ever know of such
disappearances? (Derrida, 1981, p. 63).
Of course, you surely realized that, this is also (at least in Derridean deconstruction)
the general process of signification (Derrida, 1974). Hence, if there is no absolute
meaning, there will always be a lack (short fall) of signification in any text (and in any
speech, given its textuality); there will always be a lag, a distance impossible to fulfill. A
text, any text, then, can only miss its target. It is an intrinsic condition of the general
process of signification.
Of course, you will say: Ok, but, is it not design that is at stake here, and not
literature? Or even meaning?
Processes of design, then, always fail in similar ways that texts do. Im not here
now to delve into or dwell on, again, the question of meaning in architecture and
the question of architecture as text, although I assume that its general textuality is
well established (Eisenman 2004; Derrida 1974; 1978). What interests me now is to

Fail more, fail again, fail better - Jos Vela Castillo

face of two common assumptions: that failing in design is a failure, so to say,

an unexpected outcome that does not fulfill the expected goal, and that design and
designer speak with one and the same voice, hence being the failure of one is also the
failure of the other. On the one hand, it can be reasonably said that iteration destroys
or at least destabilizes the (antithetical) notions of failure and success. On the other,
ventriloquism shows us that in design there is always, as in deconstruction, more than
one voice (plus dune voix: which is saying the same and not the same as plus dune langue,
Derrida, 1988, p. 33), and, apart from deconstructing phonocentrism, it introduces
performance into design.

collapse were integrated in the final building. The question of the never-finished state
of any architecture, being both banal and fundamental, usually goes unnoticed. But, it
seems self-evident by now, that this very condition of the process of failure/iteration in
design exists/subsists.
In its infinite but de-finite deferral and differentiation, in its differance, the process
of design is always on the move, constantly oscillating between what is new and what
is known. Iterability opens, for Derrida, at the same time the path of the (necessary)
recognition through repetition and the introduction of the new through alterity, as
Derrida explains linking the prefix iter, that designates repetition, with Sanskrit itara that
means other (Derrida, 1982, p. 315).
But it is not only a question of what is opened to the time to come (the future of
repetition) and to the other, but of what is also opened to the time that has come. And
here enters the specter (see Derrida, 1994), the ghost that performs the double game
between what is new and what is repeated that is the nucleus of iteration. Between
the absolutely new (and hence impossible to re-cognize) and what is already known,
the trait of the design opens its path to disjointing time. The idea of iteration implies
both the re- of repetition and the new of the event collapsing time into the space of
design. Space is then interrupted by time, opening it, so to speak, to meaning and to
experience. Derrida writes:
Repetiton and first time: this is perhaps the question of the event as question
of the ghost [...] Repetition and first time, but also repetition and last time, since the
singularity of any first time makes of it also a last time. Each time it is the event itself, a
first time is a last time. Altogether other (Derrida, 1994, p. 10).
The construction of a final design is, in that sense, not only a repetition of
the architectural project, an iteration of a proposed architecture idea (concept), but
the arbitrary cut that gives sense to the process precisely because it leaves open the
possibility of its continuous re-working (the process will never end, even if it eventually
was built), and of its failure (because the cut, as said, is arbitrary, and there is no telos
other than as unknown other to the entire process).
Tell me, O muse, of that ingenious hero who travelled far and wide after he had
sacked the famous town of Troy (Homer, The Odyssey)
This famous beginning of The Odyssey introduces one of the known topos of the
ventriloquist: the one that speaks with the voice of another. It is not Homer, but the
Muse who speaks, his words are her words, his tone is her tone, his voice is her voice.
His authority is not his, but hers. By the term engastrimanteis the Greeks meant the
ventriloquist: prophet (manteis) of the belly. Prophets in fact, or priests, seem to use
frequently this technique, but, beyond technique, speaking with the belly (though it is
not exactly what happens, technically speaking) is the way of confusing and deceiving
the audience, any audience, and making true the forgery of giving speech to the one
who cannot speak (the Pitia, for example). Yet different from the Oracle, which also

Fail more, fail again, fail better - Jos Vela Castillo

point to this general process of signification (and definitively design has to do with
meanings), to the inherent failure of any process of inscription (and definitively design
and architectural design are processes of inscription; see a good rendition of that in
Badiou, 2009, p. 132). Iteration means, in that sense, failure. For as much as care is put
into control and perfect rendition (and the present obsession with quality controls,
quantity surveyors, project management and the like is indicative), and as much as
money is put into that, more clearly there arises its impossibility its failure. Thus, it is
a slightly different question that needs to be asked, in-between design as process and
design as a final product a question regarding translation of concept to reality (a
problem related to mimesis proper rather than production). It is a matter of inscription,
or the inscription of the non-existent (as Badiou would say), this process of disclosing,
since it breaks up metaphysical certainties (at least up to some point), and it allows the
unexpected (the failure) to break in through rupture.
We could even argue that error or failure is productive, not in a general moral sense
(given ones failure, it is necessary to overcome it), but in the sense that acknowledging
the creative power of failure in unsuccessful designs (and in unsuccessful renditions
of particular designs) is the same thing as saying that this inscription needs to be reinscribed (re-written), opening hence the very possibility of a future, of a time to
come, of new worlds (to awaken), of, and here the ventriloquism, giving voice to what
formerly does not have any say in anything. Because the error, the failure (if it is said
that it happens by accident) is, in fact, the condition of success. If there is no perfect
rendition of an original, and if there is not a totality that through design could be
researched and explained (no original origin, no final telos actualized so to speak), what
always happens is the real design (or construction) of an error, a failure (even a fake,
but that is another story). There is always a (prior) lack of existence in what is inscribed
in reality (through design) and that precisely allows design to exist and to be productive.
Otherwise it will be superfluous.
Failure, then, is the condition of iteration. As Beckett stated Fail more, fail again,
fail better (Beckett, 1983). And, as we said, the impossibility of a closure, the necessary
failure of the (design) process, the unachievable telos (because there is no end),
demands, nevertheless, its constant repetition. One can be tempted to understand
the issue in mathematical terms, repetition similar to the common understanding
of integral calculus: the progressive approach, although in minimum (differential)
increments will, at the limit, reconstruct the original image of the mathematical
function. But, as said, in design, there exists nothing like this mathematical function,
the certainty of a finished totality, although unachievable except at the infinite. The
process of design (architectural design) does not have a final perfect state, there are
always too many issues that forbid this closure: from the different needs according
to the different users of the building, to, for example, the multiple deviations that
inevitably (the obsession with precision nevertheless) will happen in the process of
construction (that can also be reintroduced creatively, like in Enric Miralles architecture.
The extreme example could be his project for the Huesca Sport Pavilion, 1990-94,
Huesca, Spain), in which the deck collapsed during its construction and traces of this

perspective that, nevertheless, I am not going to explore now, but that is worth having
in mind.
Giving voice to what does not have voice: this is the process of design. Giving
place to what has no place: the inscription (upon the world) of the non-existent. This,
of course, is not a question of bewitching or even of speculation and metaphysics.
It is a question of voices, as many as you might want. My point is that between the
designer and the design, in the process of inscription of (new) things upon the world a
phenomenon of ventriloquism takes place. When ventriloquist and dummy engage in
a conversation, each with their own voice, what seems to happen is that each one has
his or her own personality, but, in fact, it is the ventriloquist who lends the dummy a
distinct personality, gives the puppet the possibility of expressing something that the
ventriloquist cannot do by himself. It is not that the ventriloquist lets the dummy speak
for himself, but instead infuses the puppet with its apparent own ideas, feelings, ways of
expression, and attitudes toward things. The ventriloquist uncovers parts of himself
otherwise hidden or unnoticed through the wooden lad. Similarly, the designer, in the
performative process (which clearly involves his own subjectivity), lets something new
or formerly unknown to become apparent. Yet, nevertheless, the design has its own life
apart from the designer. In the same way that the dummy is, at the same time, a wooden
creature and an individual that can speak (Goldblatt, 1993, p. 392), architecture has this
double life.
Badiou, A.: 2009, Pocket Pantheon, Verso, London and New York.
Beckett, S.: 1983, Worstward Ho.
Derrida, J.: 1988, Mmoires pour Paul de Man, Galile, Paris.
Derrida, J.: 1974, On Grammatology, The John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.
Derrida, J.: 1978, Writing and Difference, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London.
Derrida, J.: 1981, Dissemination, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London.
Derrida, J.: 1982, Signature, Event Context, in Derrida, J., Margins of Philosophy, The
University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London.
Derrida, J.: 1994, Specters of Marx. The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New
International, Routledge, New York and London.
Detienne, M., and Vernant, J-P.: 1974, Les ruses de lintelligence. La mtis des Grecs,
Flammarion, Paris.
Eisenman, P.: 2004, miMISes READING: does not mean a THING in Eisenman, P.,
Inside Out. Selected Writings 1963-1988, Yale University Press, New Haven and
London, pp. 189201.
Fogu, U.: 2011, El dilogo del ventrlocuo: bases hermeneticas para una conversacin
entre humanos y no humanos in Arenas, L. and Fogu, U. (ed.), Planos de [inter]
seccin: Materiales para un dilogo entre filosofa y arquitectura, Lampreave,
Madrid, pp. 238273.
Goldblatt, D.: 1993, Ventriloquism: Ecstatic Exchange and the History of Artwork,
The Journal of Aestheticas and Art Criticism 51(3), pp. 389398.

Fail more, fail again, fail better - Jos Vela Castillo

serves as a medium and says what is it not possible to say in other form (and who
is usually blind: the one who can see farther in time is the one who cannot see the
present), the engastrimanteis plays the trick of doing apparently by not doing: he fakes
a voice, the voice of the other, retaining, nevertheless, his own voice. It is not that
his words were dictated by the other, but that he doubles himself/herself and both
impersonates his own voice and this other voice. He fakes the other voice, the voice
of the other. In that sense, Homer, who writes (speaks) the words that the Muse says
to him (at his ear, so to say) differentiates himself from the engastrimanteis. It is not that
Homer mimics the voice of the Muse and incorporates it as another voice to his own
discourse, as is the case of the engastrimanteis. In its Latin translation, the venter loqui,
the ventriloquist, the one who speaks through the belly, eliminates the reference to the
prophet. In that sense, the Latin detour is important: it moves the point of attention
from the prophecy side to the delusive side, and enhances the technical component
of the question.
Nevertheless, the question of technique is important. Maybe it is not a coincidence
that the main character of The Odyssey is Ulysses. Ulysses the trickster, the polymath, the
one who represents to perfection the kind of practical intelligence mixed with ingenuity
that the Greeks called mtis. Mtis is the type of intelligence that includes the know-how
of the artisan, the ability with words of the sophist, the prudence and diplomacy of
the politician, the art of steering the helm of a boat (Detienne and Vernant, 1974). But
mtis is also an intelligence of the artifice, of the ruse, of the trick, of deceiving. It is,
then, the art that best fits with the (modern and banal) de-sacralized ventriloquist. Yet it
can be, arguably, the type of intelligence the architect must have, a type of intelligence
that is set in motion by the process of design. Detienne and Vernant aptly linked mtis
with Daedalus, the mythic first architect, the one who made, among other buildings, the
Minotaur Labyrinth. And what is a labyrinth if not a deceiving machine?
The modern (nihilist) ventriloquist, linked with theatre (vaudeville) and the
entertainment industry, comprises two figures: a man and a wooden puppet or dummy
(Glodblatt, 1993 and 2004). The ventriloquist, then, doubles himself both as the
dummy and himself, lending his voice to the wooden puppet, usually sitting on his
knees. This performance allows people to think that, in fact, the dummy has its own
voice (with the ventriloquist trying to speak without been noticed, his voice changing
in register). But he also gives the dummy his own personality, noticeably distinct from
the ventriloquist. A perfect combination of technique and magic, the intelligence of
the (modern) ventriloquist, shown in performance, seems to render the Greek mtis to
perfection. In that sense, the performative experience of the ventriloquist can be linked
with the performative experience that happens in art (Goldblatt, 1993), and, I propose,
even more clearly, in designing architecture. And the key, I think, has to be found in the
unique mixture of technique and illusion that allows the architect to give place, donner
lieu (Marion, 2005; Vela Castillo, 2011). In addition, it must be noted the close link
between ventriloquism and mimesis (Nancy, 1975), both mimesis in art and mimesis as art
(as in the art of the mime, see The Double Session in Derrida, 1981, p. 173), a link
that retraces back again the whole problem to Plato and beyond. This opens up another

Goldblatt, D.: 2006, Art and Ventriloquism, Routledge, Oxford and New York.
Homer, The Odyssey, retrieved March 12, 2013,
Nancy, J-L.: 1975, Le Ventriloque, in Agacinski, S., Derrida, J., Kofman, S., Lacouelabarthe, Ph., Nancy, J-L., Pautrat, B., Mimesis Desarticulations, Aubier-Flammarion,
Paris, pp. 271338.
Marion, J-L.: 2005, Acerca de la donacin. Una perspectiva fenomenolgica, Jorge
Baudino/Unsam Buenos Aires.
Vela Castillo. J.: 2011, Donner lieu: Giving (the) Place of Architecture, paper read in
the World O.P.O Conference Reason and Life. The Responsibility of Philosophy
that took place in Segovia from the 19th to the 23th of September of 2011. The
proceedings of the congress have not been published yet.
Vela Castillo. J.: 2012, Re-serch Studio or Do Search Twice, Its Allright, in De Vos, E.,
De Walsche, J., Michels, M., Verbruggen, S. (ed.), Theory By Design: Architectural
Research Made Explicit In The Design Teaching Studio, Artesis University College,
Antwerp, pp. 3744.

Fail more, fail again, fail better - Jos Vela Castillo

Grateful thanks to Gavin Keeney (work on words) and Pablo Romn (work on ghosts).