Bearing, Witnessing, and Standing: 
The Mass Appeal of Unsustainable Development Practices

Lauren Mitchell

Figure 1. Seeing the space of Libidinal Infrastructure


"Ours may be the age of testimony, but this is not to say that anyone knows how to witness." (Greg Ulmer, Electronic Monuments, 96).

Problem solving has emerged as a predominant place to begin design projects within schools of architecture. The discipline's relentless searching for architectural answers to crises has led architectural efforts from innovative poetic and cultural research methods. Rhetorical scholarship can help this field better understand its dominant topoi, or conceptual starting places—how it most commonly frames creative impulses in order to expand them.

Within Distant Publics Development Rhetoric and the Subject of Crisis, rhetoric scholar Jenny Rice examines why unsustainable development in this country is so pervasive "even though its negative effects are familiar enough to serve as plot points in popular TV dramas." [1] Hoping to push her field toward an ethic of inquiry, away from predominant ethics of argumentation, Rice identifies harmful patterns of public discourse surrounding urban and suburban development. She hopes to cultivate public subjects who can imagine the "incongruent and asymmetrical networks," that either restrict or foster agency [2]. Rice suggests that empowering students with more ways to question, wonder, inquire, investigate, and archive within the face of crisis can help change how a public subject writes her/himself into given rhetorical scenes (i.e. from injured or victimized toward agentive or inquiring) [3].

Figure 2. The signs and billboards populating King’s Highway in Myrtle Beach, SC are dangerous. Massive yet truly unseen, these hunters lurk above our conscious awareness and prey upon primal human temptations.


Figure 3. Distracted by our hunger, lust, and desire we remain oblivious to the emptiness masked by their shadows. The heat and vastness of the parking lot seems foreign after feasting.


Figure 4. Walmart Supercenter across from Myrtle Beach Mall, adjacent to Meher Spiritual Center’s virgin forest.

Figure 5. Hooters and Outdoor World at Myrtle Beach Mall, along Highway 17.

I argue that architectural education can similarly gain from expanding its methods of inquiry, or methods of design. To demonstrate, the following project visualizes an invented phrase, libidinal infrastructure [4], and points to human impulse and desire as a viable place to begin design and design research processes. Libidinal infrastructures are understood here as externalized (physical and/or digital) manifestations of human desire-driven actions [5]. They are found readily within capitalistically driven developments such as strip-malls and big-box franchises that reach broadly across the United States. In Myrtle Beach, South Carolina libidinal infrastructures are more easily observable at the intersection of American tourism practices and loose sprawling development [figures 2-5].

Figure 6. Electrate Apparatus Diagram, redrawn by research assistant, Chelsea Silvia, with the permission of Greg Ulmer for the sole purpose of this article.

Figure 7. Porta-Potty Blind, Photo by Jon Bryan Ranch. Printed with permission by Jon Bryan under Creative Commons License 3.0.

Figure 8. Deer Stand for sale in a small grassy patch of Outdoor World Parking lot. 

Figure 9. Outdoor World at Myrtle Beach Mall.

Tourism takes part in forming national and/or cultural identity, and our discretionary income is spent more readily when we are on vacation. I posit this intersection as significant for more critical cultural inquiry. I invite designers to work with the immaterial, libidinal infrastructures working upon human impulses, and suggest we look to desire as a topic for further analysis. Doing so, I argue, will help our field make the things we make matter, thus yielding more sustainable design.

Figure 10. Deer Stand typology study, graphic assistance by RA Chelsea Silvia.

Witnessing Libidinal Infrastructures

Libidinal infrastructures trigger a state of heightened desire. In this state, we retreat into our minds and bodies, acting more quickly upon fleeting impulses [figure 1]. At a distance from our immediate physical surroundings, we seek to advance our own hyper-realities [6]. That is, we see past almost empty parking lots, obnoxious daily leaf blowers, expansive unarticulated building surfaces and exposed utilities equipment, gazing instead upon our individualized fantasies. I respond to these observations as exciting opportunities for disciplinary expansion.  The deer stand [figure 8] struck me as I stood within Outdoor World’s parking lot at the Myrtle Beach Mall [figure 9]. Its poised formal qualities resonate with memories of iconic works by architect John Hejduk. The sporting paraphernalia did not elicit dreams of hunting in me, yet it did not fade into the immense space of the parking lot, as it would have for many uninterested in hunting gear. The stand employs a second layer of unintended camouflage, blending into the utilitarian infrastructures populating big-box landscapes such as pedestrian bridges, highway sign infrastructures, air conditioning units, and cell towers. Like these residues of cultural land-use behaviors the deer stands, perched for sale in a small grassy patch, remain invisible unless they vibrate as useful or additive to one’s desiring structure.

Figure 11. 10 Mile Stretch along HWY 17 in Myrtle Beach, SC, a popular biking strip, graphic assistance by Chelsea Silvia.

Figure 12. Deer Stands bearing witness in context, graphic assistance by RA Chelsea Silvia.

The stand operates within the parameters of Gregory Ulmer’s theory of "electracy," [figure 6] [7] offering a more biting and timely conception of design [8]. Ulmer argues that our current communication capabilities wield supplemental and accelerated logics. He points us to witness the wisdom in institutions and practices of entertainment. Drawing upon Immanuel Kant, Ulmer refers to a third axis of reason, the pleasure/pain transversal [9], as the body’s ability reason. The metaphor conduction, as apposed to induction or deduction, becomes a more appropriate speed for electrate reasoning [10]. An undercurrent within my own research argues that architects have skill sets capable of assisting Ulmer further this research.

Figure 13. Bearing Witness Stand positioning, graphic assistance by RA Chelsea Silvia.

Figure 14. Harley/Hooters BWS, 33°47’25”N 78°46’06”W, graphic assistance by RA Chelsea Silvia.

Big-Box Blind

Figure 15. Alexander McQueen/Anthropologie® BWS, 33°40’06”N 78°56’22”W, graphic assistance by RA Chelsea Silvia.

Jean-Françios Lyotard devised a theoretical construction, the differend, to punctuate situations that exceed communicability. According to Lyotard, differends address irresolvable conflicts between two parties where a rule applicable to both sides is lacking [11]. He asks us to pause in the face of differends. Such pauses offer room for the invention of alternative conceptual starting places. With its function soliciting connotations of surveillance, a deer stand (found for sale in a sporting goods parking lot) has instigated a materialization of Lyotard’s powerful theoretical construct. This materialization is my attempt at advancing the theory "electrately" [figure 7]. Lyotard explains that a differend marks an unstable state signaled by an inability to find the right words. Lyotard asks his reader’s to pause in the instance of a differend, or crisis, rather than pressing for action/argumentation/problem solving. With it, he stresses the importance of situations that necessitate new and altered conceptual starting places. 

I re-read the differend now with urban and architectural motivations—motivations professionally and ethically bound to the health, safety and wellbeing of the public. The bearing witness stands call attention to a differend between the field of architecture and popular culture in the United States. As we gained from Rice’s work, much of America seems blind—perhaps blissfully—to rampant unsustainable development practices. Yet, architects seem blind to society's blissful blindness, failing to appeal to masses. Unsustainable development practices are ubiquitous, yet fast and loose developments elude the discipline of architecture. We argue with them, but at cross-purposes—without finding common ground. Their likability and persistence threaten our curricula. We do not see their underlying cultural complexities, turning away when big-boxes generate contexts for many lives to happily unfold. This conceptual project invites architecture to pause and bear witness to the mass libidinal appeal of unsustainable development, intervening conceptually with hesitation as a pedagogical imperative.

Figure 16. Ferrari/Thee Dollhouse Gentleman’s Club BWS, 33°46’53”N 78°47’23”W, graphic assistance by RA Chelsea Silvia.

Figure 17. Harley/Hooters BWS in context.

Figure 18. Distancing Mechanisms, reference note 14.

Bearing, Witnessing, Standing

"Bearing Witness Stands" are positioned consciously along the Grand Strand in Myrtle Beach, SC, a site for two large yearly motorcycle rallies. Stealthily, the stands are located by way of geolocation, and reveal themselves according to the speed of social media [figure 11]. Mood is carefully exploited with the construction of each stand. These trans-disciplinary objects are conceived to disappear as ready-mades from a distance. With a delicate, human scale, these bearing witness stands disappear completely into the big box landscape. With careful detailing, the associations each stand solicits attract only certain pockets of desiring bodies. Viewers are targeted selectively both through each stand’s unique texture and detailing, and with their intentional and strategic placement [figures 13]. The stands lure in bodies, asking them to bear witness to new and imaginative thought processes [figure 12]. 

Figure 19. Highway Space BWS, 33°47’23”N 78°46’05”W, graphic assistance by RA Chelsea Silvia.

Figure 20. Walmart Supercenter BWS, 33°47’14”N 78°46’06”W, graphic assistance by RA Chelsea Silvia.

Lyotard and Ulmer point to the sublime mixture of pleasure and pain as a way to better understand current cultural practices. Architecture’s sustainability rhetoric often gets in the way of witnessing sublime edge conditions like the one between the Meher Spiritual Center and the Wal-Mart Supercenter to its left, across the highway from Myrtle Beach Mall [figure 4]. In this space, virgin forest crashes against the abject spatial quality that can only be found on the top and behind big box stores. This is a space worth experiencing, and culturally revealing. Architects might have a lot of fun with them if we could allow ourselves institutionally to "go there" [figure 20]. 

The stands offer individual bodies a similar interaction with highway space [figure 19] and libidinal excess. For example, they position the body behind a nearby strip club, revealing objects of desire off-stage—as daughters, mothers, and wives [figure 16]. They also offer bodies a chance to pause behind a franchise restaurant, [figure 14, 17] revealing unsustainable practices of meat consumption and treatment of animals. While enduring blowing meat-fragrant air, a rendering industry by-product receptacle comes into focus [12]. Stripping such distancing mechanisms, typically masked by libindal infrastructures, recalls Roland Barthes' essay "Striptease" in Mythologies, giving it a tectonic-rhetorical spin [figure 18]. Barthes suggests that a naked woman standing still, without the distance the choreographed strip tease allows, would actually be more overt and forcefully sexual [13]. The female body is not unlike the millions of chickens Americana consume daily. Yet, unlike the tons of discarded chicken carcasses thrown into rendering cookers each day, the female body remains within the libidinal economy. She can act as a witness to her numerous exploitations. We are able to learn from the female body, and from the featherless chicken [14], as evidence of shared abject cultural values.

Electronically and virtually connected, the stands engender disciplinary expansion and cultural production. They call into question unsustainable practices by pointing to desires and impulses. Each construction asks us to pause before continuing to argue the same points, hoping to expand the conceptual places from which we can begin the design process.


Lauren Mitchell is passionate about the unruly beginning stages of the design process. After completing a traditional professional architecture degree, she went on to receive her doctoral degree from Clemson University in a trans-disciplinary doctoral program where she studied the intersections of rhetorical invention and architecture/design. Within practice, she now draws upon this research to help make spaces that matter, and to promote the importance and value of good design.

Lauren recently joined the small, yet potent firm, Archimania of Memphis, TN. Ranked 20th in Design by Architect magazine in 2016, Lauren was drawn to Archimania’s ability to incite awareness about design by doing great design.

Lauren is fascinated by the misalignments between architecture (the discipline) and the predominant everyday practices of Americans today. Her work perpetually returns to the “ugly” architecture from where she came–big-box urbanism, or “suburban sprawl.” This fascination can also be explored in her design research, which has been featured in the Journal of Architectural Education and Florida, an anthology edited by rhetoric and digital media scholar Jeff Rice.



[1] Jenny Rice, Distant Publics Development Rhetoric and the Subject of Crisis, 5.

[2] IBID, 163.

[3] IBID, 196.

[4] See Jean-François Lyotard’s book Libidinal Economy.

[5] A companion piece by the author, “Orlando Florida’s Libidinal Boxes,” was recently published in Florida (Anderson: Parlor Press, 2015), edited by Jeff Rice. In this chapter, the concept of “libidinal infrastructures,” externalized (digital or physical) manifestations of human desires and energy pathways, is introduced.

[6] See Rem Koolhaas’ Delirious New York for more on a hyper-reality.

[7] Ulmer’s apparatus diagrams, of which this is a recap, (figure 6) illustrate the broad strokes of his theory of electracy. Electracy, according to Ulmer is an evolution of literacy based upon images and intensified through digital technologies. The term is an invented phrase, which conflates literacy and electricity. Ulmer argues we are witnessing a contemporary cultural shift from a literate epoch into an “electrate” epoch. He traces cultural shifts from orality into literacy in order to understand the current growing pains surrounding cultural practices within the emergent “electrate” epoch. For more see:

[8] See Electronic Monuments, 38-50. Here Ulmer suggestss that the word design, in electracy, becomes design, spelled with an “S”, but pronounced with a “Z,” and represented as the dollar symbol (de$ign). Ulmer explains through Roland Barthes that the slash of the letter “Z” stings.

[9] See Ulmer’s forward to Inter/Vention by Jan Holmevik, XIV-XV, as well as to the “Kant” link again found here: .

[10] Ulmer, Electronic Monuments, 58-59, 150 and 248. “Reasoneon,” is one of many puncepts Ulmer works into his projects, adding a layer of poetics (conductive logic) and entertainment to his dense scholarship.

[11] Auschwitz is a charged example used by Lyotard to explain the “double bind” or catch 22 of a differend. In the case of Auschwitz, victims (witnesses) of the Nazi gas chambers cannot prove their case according to the judge’s requirements for an eyewitness testimony, for there may be no surviving “eyewitness.” Though the subject matter of this project will never match the painfulness of Lyotard’s, exigency for bearing witness to new architectural “idioms,” or offerings is far reaching in the United States. In places like Myrtle Beach, and much of the country, libidinal infrastructures rival the institution of architecture for attention, and I believe they are currently winning.

[12] The rendering (animal co-products industry exposes another means for understanding ubiquitous libidinal infrastructures that generally are not part of the architectural/urban conversation, but could be used compellingly and productively as topoi. I highlight a funded research project on the US rendering industry, conducted with Dr. Andrew Hurley of Clemson University’s Packaging Design program, within my dissertation.

[13] Barthes, “Striptease,” in Mythologies.

[14] See Jack Hitt, “The Year in Ideas, The Featherless Chicken,” in New York Times Magazine, December 15, 2002.


Barthes, Roland. "Striptease." Mythologies. Trans. Annette Lavers. New York: Hill and Wang, 1972. 84-87. Print.

Hitt, Jack “The Year in Ideas, The Featherless Chicken,” in New York Times Magazine, December 15, 2002. Print.

Holmevik, Jan Rune. Inter/vention: Free Play in the Age of Electracy. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2012. Print.

Koolhaas, Rem. Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan. New York: Monacelli, 1994. Print.

Mitchell, Lauren. "Orlando, Florida's Ubiquitous Libidinal Boxes." Florida. Ed. Jeff Rice. Anderson: Parlor, 2015. 248-70. Print.

Rice, Jenny. Distant Publics: Development Rhetoric and the Subject of Crisis. Pittsburgh, PA: U of Pittsburgh, 2012. Print.

Ulmer, Gregory L. Electronic Monuments. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 2005. Print.