“Presentism happens when any theory conforms its critical insights to the very theory late capitalism offers of itself. More specifically, presentism results when critics adopt decidedly even and indifferent models of the present, like networks, rhizomes, ﬂat ontologies, vital materialisms, and object ontologies (to name but a few). These are all ontologies of the present. As such, they are the identities of our age—that is, the new philosophies of indifference tasked to elbow out the old philosophies of difference.
Networks, I admit, have a certain counterhegemonic, democratizing appeal. They are vast, interconnected in inﬁnite ways, multi-nodal, decentralized, nonhierarchical and feature agency distributed to every actant, mediation for every action, translation for every relation, and so on. they are so resilient as to be eternal. Yet they are still systems in which a permanent interruption or systemic die off ends everything in a ﬂash, if not a boom. And then what? Rhizomes, if you know anything about plants, grow by dying, the “node” being as much about death and disconnection as it is “life” or connectivity. Rhizomes also perish when the conditions around them aren’t supportive. Multiplicities—rhizomes by an-other name—exist only on the “plane of consistency” (after Deleuze and Guattari), which means that they are even and smooth through and through. I’m not conﬁdent that these formulations help us think our uneven and troubled present. Rather, they seem to stylize it.”
Andrew Cole, ‘The Function of Theory’
The interesting thing here is not the term, ‘presentism’ nor is it the critique of rhizomes but rather what it says about our relationship to theory. I have often argued that theories or bodies of knowledge, or for that matter, ways of doing things, aren’t automatically supplanted by what comes after. Yes, in some cases a new theory exposes such weaknesses or blind spots in a previous theory that make it difficult to persist with them. Often, however, a new theory is simply another way of seeing or offers another aspect into what objects are or can mean.
I have often found myself at the pointy end of discussions when it comes to architectural ideas, theories and methods; I am often seen as Luddite or just old-fashioned (I was once accused of the following: “you seem to believe architecture ended in 1975”). I’ve never claimed that structuralism offers a complete explanation of things, but it’s a damn good way to start thinking about things. The fact that all things can be identified by their opposition to other things, rather than by intrinsic and identifiable qualities, is a useful thing to know. The pressure to adopt new theory and reject the old is something the art historian Yve-Alain Bois has referred to as ‘theoretical blackmail’. Often accused of being a formalist and using only ‘outdated’ theory to talk about art, Bois in fact is happy to utilise deconstruction when the object in question suggests it might be a fruitful way to think about the work (for example, see ‘Matisse and arche-drawing’ in Painting as Model). If I can be accused of a particular tendency when it comes to contemporary theory then it is scepticism. Cole’s thoughts are one reason to be sceptical, though I wouldn’t dismiss (and I don’t think he does) contemporary theory outright.
Finally, the closing line suggesting that when theory sits too closely within the world-view it is attempting to analyse or critique (‘Rather, they seem to stylise it.’) is extremely powerful and perhaps goes some way to architects and architectural theorists tendency to treat theory as style.