Specters of Marks

Caroline O’Donnell is the Edgar A. Tafel Assistant Professor and director of the M.Arch. Program at Cornell University, Department of Architecture. She is principal of the design rm CODA, editor-in-chief of The Cornell Journal of Architecture, and author of the recent book Niche Tactics: Generative Relationships between Architecture and Site.
Consequence, concatenation, rattle of chains, endless procession of phenomenal forms that file by, all white and diaphanous, in the middle of the night. The apparition form, the phenomenal body of the spirit, that is the definition of the specter ... It haunts, it ghosts, it specters, there is some phantom there ... The subject that haunts is not identifiable, one cannot see, localize, any form, one cannot decide between hallucination and perception, there are only displacements, one feels oneself looked at by what one cannot see.

Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx 1

In Specters of Marx, Jacques Derrida suggests that the void resulting from the removal of the institution of communism enables an occupation by new specters. Derrida is referring to the statement at the beginning of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’s Communist Manifesto that a “specter [is] haunting Europe.”2 For Marx and Engels, that specter is communism. Derrida’s pluralization, however, invites many alternative interpretations of the specters that might emerge in communism’s absence. By acknowledging the potential power of such a void, Derrida claims that the spirit of Marx is even more relevant after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the demise of communism, and that the West’s separation from the suffering still present in the world will “haunt”3 it, and eventually provide the impetus for a fresh interest in communism as an institution.

In a series of letters between Jacques Derrida and Peter Eisenman (in which Derrida emphasizes his own absence being made present in the form of the letter), Eisenman considers the duality of presence and absence, as well as the ambiguity between presence in space and time. What Eisenman calls “presentness” is a third condition in architecture that is “neither absence nor presence, form nor function, neither the particular use of a sign nor the crude existence of reality, but rather an excessive condition between sign and the Heideggerian notion of being: the formation and ordering of the discursive event that is architecture.”4 Well before these letters, Eisenman’s trajectory was already grounded in the rejection of the icon and the symbol, in favor of Charles Sanders Peirce’s third type of sign: the index.5 Instead of representing something, the index is the impression that is left by something’s presence, something that has, as he describes, “a physical and temporal relationship to its referents ... suggesting some prior physical presence ... indices are physical marks, traces, imprints or clues concerning some real event ...” 6

The index is not the representation of a foot or the word foot, but the imprint left by the foot in the sand. It is not the representation of a crash or the word crash, but the violent crumple left in the chassis. It is not the representation of a murder or the word murder, but the blood spatter on the wall. The index is the sign of absence: a sign that something was once there, but is no longer. Thus, the index becomes the link between presence and absence — presentness, in Eisenman’s work.

Yet Eisenman’s own use of the index is more often a fantastical than a literal one: a series of traces that tell a story of “the processes by which it came to be.” 7 Projects ranging from his Cardboard Houses (1969 –75) to Rebstock Park (1991) to contemporary works such as the City of Culture in Santiago de Compostela (2011) and the Hamburg Domplatz Library (2005) competition show the architecture as a product of the imaginary forces that shaped it, like fictional geological forces of shifting, stretching, twisting, and so on.

Alongside the trajectory of the indexical is a trajectory of erasure or overwriting, one which makes the index more obscured and less legible. Layers of indices generate complexities that are not easily disentangled, and this unintelligibility is what necessitates close reading and engagement of the work without any promise of resolution.

The production of difficulty in reading the index is a strategy to which we will return. But first, let us linger here a while in order to explore the more literal possibilities of the index: what was here but what is no longer. Of all of Peirce’s signs, while the icon and the index potentially make form, the index is the only sign that potentially makes space: the imprint of the foot is the void left behind. The index, as a strategy for producing the void, opens up new trajectories for the design of monuments charged with communicating the memory of an event. While historically the memorial has been materialized by the object, the late postmodern era — as well as continuing the lineage of “monumental” objects — saw the rise of a new generation of memorials that rejected the spectacle and heroism of death and suffering and instead employed strategies that expressed loss and absence through their voided conditions. Esra Ackan, describing the shift as a move from “triumphalist to apologetic memorials,” believes that these “countermonuments” arose “out of a sense of fatigue, a desire to slow down the speedy process of modernity that renders everything easily obsolete and consumable.”8 These new memorials, Ackan believes, are as powerful as their object-obsessed predecessors because they “can still make us remember, yet through an intentionally nonmonumental representation, because they refute form, scale, and aesthetic assumptions of traditional monuments but not the necessity to commemorate.”9

The role of the index becomes particularly significant in these countermonuments, and especially so in memorials whose sites are also the locus of the memorialized event. While the English language only has one term, Britta Timm Knudsen reminds us10 that the Germans have two words for memorial: Denkmal (literally: think sometime) and Erinnerungsort (literally: remembering place), the distinction being made between the memorial in the abstract and the memorial marking the “scene of the crime.”11 Sites of collapsed buildings, plane crashes, bombs: all have the possibility of employing the literal index of the event that they commemorate. In this sense, perhaps the most literal Erinnerungsort memorial is the recent September 11 Memorial in New York City. Originally conceptualized by Daniel Libeskind, and designed by Michael Arad and Peter Walker, the memorial avoids the monumental spectacularity that was the enduring image of the World Trade Center’s collapse, and focuses instead on the two voided footprints of the collapsed towers. The act of preserving the towers’ absence is a direct indexical strategy: footprints, literally.

This “X-marks-the-spot” strategy, however, maintains the interruption in the city, and such acts might be considered too asphyxiating on the city’s ability to move on. The Erinnerungsort enforces a rupture in the city fabric, a preservation of the scar around which the city continues to grow. In many situations, such sti ing of the city is considered counterproductive, and the event to be memorialized is erased. Such was the case, for example, with the Berlin Wall, whose severance of the city’s streets and neighborhoods both literally and symbolically could not be tolerated. While most rejoiced in the city’s reunion, the wall’s almost total erasure was seen by some as “exaggerated in its thoroughness,”12 negating the possibility for remem- bering, for healing, and for warning. Proposals to maintain large swaths of the wall fell on deaf ears — Richard Rogers, for example, as a member of the Berlin planning group charged with providing visions for the postwall city, proposed that the walls be considered historical remnants worthy of preservation, and used to generate urban concepts.13 Today, only tiny fragments have been preserved, and very few within the city proper. The BernauerStrasse memorial (Kohlhoff&Kohlhoff, 1998) brackets a 70-meter stretch of the wall (actually a sandwich of two walls and the requisite Todesstreifen [death strips] in-between) in the Wedding district. Inside, the mirrored steel end-walls create the illusion of the walls’ continuation, but from the outside, the bookending — the presentation in quotation marks of a literal piece of the wall — risks a Disney cation: a memorial that might be considered more tourist attraction than an incitement to think or remember.

Absent Walls

The wound left by the removal of the city wall is perhaps the most common scar on the city’s skin. While buildings are easily deleted, the city wall is an infra- structural Goliath whose marks have been notoriously difficult to erase. Vienna’s Ringstrasse, for example, the void of a former wall, is a continuous strip from which the remaining buildings seem to recede, leaving a void, a gap inhabited by a present memory. In the case of Vienna, the wall is removed and its void re-inhabited by the quotidian city without any necessity for memorialization. For more contemporary walls, such as those in Berlin, in Belfast, and in the West Bank, their meaning and the meaning of their (potential) removal is considered by many to be a mark of the city’s history that must be preserved. The debate between memorializing and moving on is a complex one: How can a city find a balance between marking those events (and forms) that should not be forgotten from the past and moving beyond those into a progressive future that does not dwell on the past?

Gilles Deleuze describes the relationship between the past traumatic event, its memory, and the present as a scar. A scar, he writes, “is the sign not of a past wound but of ‘the present fact of having been wounded’: we can say that it is the contemplation of the wound, that it contracts all the instants which separate us from it into a living present.”14 A scar, then, is the ultimate index: a footprint in the sand fades quickly; a scar remains as a mark of the trauma but also as a sign of recovery. It marks a moment of difference within the continuous and uneventful skin surface.

Belfast’s Scars

In Belfast, a city pockmarked with Catholic and Protestant enclaves, almost 60 walls exist as a reminder of “The Troubles.”15 These are a series of discontinuous fragments, partial figures that emerge and disappear from the city fabric. Originally planned to be temporary barriers between Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods, these “Peace Lines” have grown to become solid and permanent barriers. Their materiality ranges from concrete panels to steel fence to open space. Their height ranges from 10 feet to 30 feet. Their changing formal characteristics are a projection49 of the tensions between the contexts on either side. The walls disconnect and delay interaction between city districts, cutting the urban fabric into a series of pieces in which spatial and temporal adjacency is misaligned. Belfast inhabitants exist in a perpetual state of uncertainty with regard to these walls, a constant deciphering as the walls weave and develop physically and perceptibly. While politicians call for their removal,16 those who live close to the walls often believe that their presence is necessary to ensure the safety of residents on both sides.17

Although the number of walls increased between the signing of the Good Friday peace agreement in 1998 and 2013, six walls were removed in 2014, and more removals are currently being planned. While their fragmentary presence dissects the city in a number of absurd and discontinuous cuts, their removal, as Derrida proposed, will leave a haunting in the city that will be perhaps more powerful. Being thus “out of joint,”18 the city is open for new ideas of what those former walls could become, without destroying their necessary memory.


The following design proposals from the studio Piecelines19 at Cornell, grapple with the questions of the index and the absence of the sign in the context of Belfast. The studio asks how architecture can continue to deny and reinforce the specter of separation, not as a symbol of division but as a paradoxical condition of both/and, wall/void, presence/absence, cut/stitch. The first move is in the identification of walls, not as lines but as infected areas: an area where bruising or scarring might be expected after a violent incident.

In these new maps, what was once understood as a linear mark now seeps into the city and becomes a hybrid space of infection. The restitching of these infected skins produces a series of proposals that, in different ways, address simultaneously the index and the becoming illegible of the index.

These proposals situate themselves between literal indexicality and abstract absence. Their various contours allow the subject to rise and submerge away from and back to the city, reading traces and fragments of the absent or present wall alongside planes of “infection,” which are at once zones of rupture and possibility. The strategy is decisively an anti–Berlin Wall strategy — against a project that cites, frames, and preserves the wall as a relic — but also anti-indexical, in the September 11th Memorial sense. The question, perhaps, becomes how to engage in the memorial of the anti-sign, while dealing with a literally indexical site. In this sense Derrida’s flickering specter of removal embodies the spirit of these works in that they engage with presence and absence simultaneously.

The Piecelines studio forces a rearview mirror into Eisenman’s ambivalence between the sign and its illegibility. The projects exhibit a parallel ambivalence between Denkmal and Erinnerungsort: between the marks literally made by the walls, and the meaninglessness of those marks; between the making absent of the city and the necessity of the reinhabitation of the urban condition.

Postindex Berlin

Piecelines’ ambivalence between indexical legibility, visceral bodily separation from the city, and restitching of the city is, inevitably, influenced by another Berlin project, not far from the site of the Kohlhoff&Kohlhoff Berlin Wall Memorial: Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Despite his advocacy of the index in earlier years, Eisenman rejects the use of the index here, insisting on the memorial as “a place of no meaning.” 20 The design is not an index― not a sign of anything. In Eisenman’s words, it is “a disturbance, as a series of tremors ... no longer linguistic ... neither perceptual nor indexical.” 21

Eisenman does, however, deploy a strategy of making-absent in another way in this project ― one which, through its topography, removes the subject from the city. The memorial consists of 2,711 concrete “stellae” — neither tombs nor columns nor rooms — simply unnameable elements repeated in a grid, as the ground drops below the level of the surrounding city. The combination of the eld of stellae and the removal of the city results in a feeling of disorientation. It creates a scale and a repetition that, like a maze, is a place where one cannot find their place. One is lost. This absence is no longer the absence of presence implied by the index: instead it produces absence in the body; the loss of relation to a place.

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is a memorial of the denkmal type, in which the site is not of any particular significance (presumably what allowed Eisenman to escape from the index to produce another kind of absence, now more visceral, more resonant).22 However, it does reference another memorial of the alternate type: Stefano Boeri’s memorial to the 1968 Belice earthquake. The memorial rearticulates the destroyed city of Gibellina’s urban blocks with concrete masses that rise to eye-level and, like the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, creates a sense of isolation amid the maze. The difference of course is that onto these streets and blocks we project a city life that was once literally there and is now absent. The redemarcation of the blocks in fact marks their absence in every way other than the formal. On the other hand, in the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, there is no there there: nothing specifically absent, but the memorial nevertheless generates abstract feelings of loss and disorientation.

Think, Sometime

Acts of war, terrorism, and fear are oftentimes directed at architecture and the city. Buildings and monuments are bombed as symbols of power. Cities and landscapes are severed as delineations of territory.

After these acts of destruction and division, how are we architects and designers to deal with the memories of their occurrence and the realities of the absence left behind? While society attempts to simultaneously move on while remembering, so must our city-fabric act ambivalently, flickering between the presence and the absence of these events. It is our marks and scars, after all, that give us character.

In shifting Marx’s specter to Derrida’s specters through Eisenman’s index and beyond, the specter has become a quivering figure of presence/absence, like the present itself: at the same time both past and future, a painful absence and a positive gap. In differentiating between specter and spirit, Derrida de ned the specter as something more than the spirit: something with both nostalgia and impatience. Presence, he says, is “distributed in the two directions of absence, at the articulation of what is no longer and what is not yet.” As much as the strategy of the specter points to the past, its inevitable void points to the future: a gap in which one day we might act.


1 Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx (New York: Routledge, 1993), 169.

2 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (Penguin, 2011 [originally published 1888]).

3 Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx (New York: Routledge, 1993), 120.

4 Peter Eisenman, “A Reply to Jacques Derrida,” in Written into the Void, Selected Writings 1990 – 2004 (New Haven: Yale, 2006), 4. The letters were written circa 1989.

5 In his elaboration on the sign, Charles Sanders Peirce explains the three types of signs: icon, symbol, and index.

6 Peter Eisenman, “Digital Scrambler,” in Written into the Void, Selected Writings 1990 –2004 (New Haven: Yale, 2006), 134.

7 Peter Eisenman, “Separate Tricks,” in Written into theVoid,SelectedWritings1990–2004 (New Haven: Yale, 2006), 73.

8 Esra Ackan, “Apology and Triumph: Memory Transference, Erasure, and a Rereading of the Berlin Jewish Museum,” New German Critique 37, no. 2 110 (Summer 2010): 157.

9 Esra Ackan, “Apology and Triumph: Memory Transference, Erasure, and a Rereading of the Berlin Jewish Museum,” New German Critique 37, no. 2, 100 (Summer 2010), 158.

10 Britta Timm Knudsen, “Emotional Geography: Authenticity, Embodiment and Cultural Heritage,” Orvar Löfgren and Regina F. Bendix (ed.), Ethnologia Europa 36 no. 2 (2007).

11 Finally, there is the metacategory of the Mahnmal, which is a warning for the future.

12 Alex Klausmeier and Leo Schmidt, Wall Remnants–Wall Traces (Berlin: Westkreuz-Verlag, 2004), 11.

13 Ibid.

14 Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition
(London: A&C Black, 2004), 98.

15 A con ict between Irish Nationalists seeking a united Ireland and the British Military, as well as other loyalist groups, spanning from the 1960s to the 1990s.

16 Deric Henderson and Michael McHugh, “Vow to Remove Peace Walls by 2023,” Belfast Telegraph, May 9, 2013 (retrieved May 28, 2015).

17 BBC News report, Chris Buckler, “N. Ireland: Calls to Remove ‘Peace Walls’ in Belfast,” April 10, 2013 (retrieved May 28, 2015).

18 Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx (New York: Routledge, 1993), 23. Derrida refers to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, who curses time being “out of joint.”

19 Piecelines Studio, taught by Peter Eisenman and Caroline O’Donnell at Cornell University Department of Architecture, 2009.

20 Gerd Knischewski and Ulla Spitter, “Remembering in the Berlin Republic: The debate about the Central Holocaust Memorial in Berlin.” Debate 13.1 (April 2005), 25–43.

21 Carlos Brillembourg, “Peter Eisenman,” Bomb 117 (Fall 2011), article/5991/peter-eisenman.

22 “This is a process that design and construction can only initiate, or steer in a very general way. It is a process that unfolds in a complex interaction with the messy and unpredictable forces of life itself. Less narrative, less history; more atmosphere, more effect.” Cynthia Davidson, (ed.), Tracing Eisenman (New York: Rizzoli, 2006), 64.

23 That “the specter is not only the carnal apparition of the spirit, its phenomenal body, its fallen and guilty body, it is also the impatient and nostalgic waiting for redemption, namely once again, for a spirit ... The ghost would be the deferred spirit, the promise or calculation of an expiation.” Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx (New York: Routledge, 1993), 136.

24 Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx (New York: Routledge,1993),30.

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