John May

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51: Multihyphenate


What, do you imagine that I would take so much trouble and so much pleasure .  .  . do you think that I would keep so persistently to my task, if I were not preparing—with a rather shaky hand—a labyrinth into which I can venture .  .  . ? Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same: leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in order. At least spare us their morality .  .  . 

—Michel Foucault, Archaeology of Knowledge


In a general sense, multihyphenation simply means a conscious diversification of one’s productive output within the realms of intellectual and material culture. In practice, the situation is far more complex. When done exceptionally well, multihyphenation involves a continual and coordinated distribution of one’s mental and manual labor across various formats, forums, and material systems. It demands a patient and careful choreographing of the tangencies, adjacencies, sympathies, tensions, and divisions within an entire “body of work”1 (past, present, and imagined future)—this, by means of an incessant admixture of speculation, experimentation, production, and reflection. Multihyphenation, knowingly and intentionally, distributes productive energy according to the carrying capacities of distinct media formats: spoken, written, imaged, constructed, performed, etc. It is, in other words, a lived and living media theory

Seen in this way, multihyphenation is nothing new. The type (but not the term) may in fact be as old as aesthetics itself2—that domain of existence which emerged during the long process of hominization, out of a desire for life to somehow exceed survival, a desire for life to be pleasurable and more than merely “the collection of functions that resist death.”3 If archaic and transhistorical as a general type, we can nonetheless be certain that the specific conditions out of which different kinds of multihyphenation have emerged (not only discrete bodies of work, but also entire subcultures and countercultures of concerted hybridization) differ drastically. These conditions will always be numerous and entangled—historically, geographically, politically, economically, etc.

Ours is a moment of convergences and coalescings. Among the innumerable changes that demarcate our present from the past—and setting aside, for now, the near-incomprehensibility of our “new climatic regime”4—two recently emergent realities can be identified as foundational elements, serving as preconditions, but also as motivation and fuel, for many contemporary hyphenated practices: vertical disintegration and “telemasis.”5


We tell ourselves many stories about neoliberalism—its preconditions, its emergence, its ongoing variants. Always forced toward a degree of theoretical generalization bordering on meaninglessness, neoliberalism diffracts a spectral structure whose radiance seems to illuminate all of contemporary life. Despite this (or perhaps because of it), it has become a ubiquitous explanatory category, permeating everything from economic discourse to domestic spending habits and labor policies. We are all, it seems, neoliberal, even if we are unsure of what that means. Vertical disintegration describes a series of specific realities that avoid this semantic emptiness.

Referring straightforwardly to the composition of firm ownership over a specific production or service process, vertical disintegration sits at one end of a theoretical continuum with its opposite, vertical integration, at the other. In the former, a firm (in any sector of the economy) seeks out strategies of subcontracting, outsourcing, and divestment as ways of minimizing exposure to risk and regulation. In the latter, a managerial strategy of total or singular ownership over supply and commodity chains preoccupies the psychology of wealth accumulation. Although the historical and geographic distribution of these divergent managerial approaches varies, and although both are always present in any modern economy, the period typically referred to in political-economic literature as neoliberalism (ca. 1973 to the present) is one in which strategies of vertical disintegration have predominated industrial and service firm structures.

Some degree of disintegration has always pervaded market economies. In strict terms, no such thing as total integration exists in any complex corporate structure. But when disintegration is generalized, as a culturally dominant managerial mindset, certain realities press to the fore: a byzantine disarticulation of production decisions and activities that range from firm location (offshoring), to an increasingly complex spatial and temporal division of labor (subcontracting, outsourcing, part-time wage structures, etc.), to the relentless pursuit of temporary flexibilities at the level of general employment and in corporate obligations more broadly (space, equipment, etc.). In vertical disintegration, costs and risks of all kinds are strategically redistributed downward and outward, which of course requires a parallel commitment to deregulation on the part of state regulatory apparatuses. The total effect is what economic life looks like in the 21st century: an intensifying combination of precarity and inequality not seen since the Gilded Age.

Paradoxically, disintegration has led to a condition in which some of the largest firms in many economic sectors—especially in the consumer retail and finance, insurance, and real estate sectors—are somehow everywhere and nowhere at once. They are ubiquitous, and yet so amorphous as to require a research project to determine the physical locations of management and ownership. As Achille Mbembe observes, “geographic distance as such no longer presents any obstacle to mobility.”6 This condition of absent-presence—this sublime and meticulous telepresence—was well-established before the COVID pandemic, which only then sharply intensified it.7 


Neatly paralleling the rise of corporate disintegration in recent decades is the emergence of a generalized state of “telemasis.”8 More than simply a workplace IT adjustment, in which hardware and software are made present as collaborators in mental labor, telemasis is the psychosocial dimension of computational capitalism, wherein socialized and “socializable” electronic images are the primary mode of communication. In it, imaging itself is established as the primary fabric of social life. And, because socialization and individuation are reciprocal processes—because thought is inseparable from the technical media used to express it—telemasis is also a condition in which socialized imaging forms the very substrate of aesthetic intuition itself. 

Contemporary multihyphenation—as process, and as a state of mind—thus belongs to imaging. Superficially, it belongs to the content of the images consumed and exchanged, but because those are innumerable, and increasingly impossible to delineate in any sensible hierarchy of influence,9 multihyphenation more consequentially belongs to the temporal and spatial structure of algorithmic image transmission. 

Anticipatory, breathless, incessantly presentist, and thoroughly conditioned by the logic of real-time processing and transmission, multihyphenation today takes place within a technical regime unknown to any previous historical period. If there have always been multihyphenates, until very recently their thought process and ways of working, as well as their exchanges with other like-minded practices, did not operate within a constant, global (portable, immediately storable, retrievable, duplicable, etc.) cascade of visual signals. Early modern architectural correspondence was typographic and telegraphic. High modernism was telephonic and televisual. Postmodernism was “telefaxual.”  The contemporary moment is thoroughly telematic. Its intuitive structure and communicative language are imagistic, constantly giving rise to “halos of association” around its work,10 establishing relations between objects, images, and texts that often exceed or purposively elude discursive articulation.11 

More anticipatory than contemplative, more expectant than reflective—also more exhausted than fatigued, and more emotional than Georg Simmel’s blasé metropolitan type12—navigating the technopolitical structure of the present requires a completely new conceptual armature. As a lived condition, telemasis is the collective expression of algorithmic automation. Image feeds of every category are organized, individualized, and distributed in time and space only by way of algorithmic processes, and, to the extent that an aesthetic subculture is immersed in those processes (Aren’t we all fully immersed?), that same subculture is now completely saturated in forms of mental automation absent from any previous historical period. If the industrial age of vertical integration—from early mercantilism through the apex of postwar Fordism—concentrated its technical efforts on the mechanized automation of manual labor, the recent age of vertical disintegration is obsessively dedicated to the signalized automation of mental labor.13

It is impossible to predict the full consequence of this techno-theoretical coalescing, between abstract economic and managerial theories, and the messy work of automating “nonroutine mental tasks” (say, for example, all design “tasks”).14 We are already experiencing some of its more obvious realities: rapidly deepening precarity among clerical and technical divisions of the workforce, whose skills seemed, until relatively recently, mostly resistant to automation; the inexorable trend toward firm consolidation in global markets, through acquisitional techniques learned from the finance, insurance, and real estate sectors; targeted, short-term underbidding in local markets by global firms, followed by the predictable upward readjustment of prices and fees once local competition has been eliminated; the diversification of economies of scope under globalized firm structures, which specifically for the design fields means the expansion of services along existing networks to include not just design services, but also construction management, insurance and hazard analysis, and even real estate development capital; temporary and rapid subcontracting of workflows to firms in the global periphery, to exploit looser wage and labor regulations while also reorienting labor processes around a 24-hour cycle; etc. The list is long and until very recently, mostly predictable. 


Nothing here argues that multihyphenation is the best or only model for the practice of architecture, or any other field of cultural production. There are as many models as minds, and hyphenation cannot establish itself without more singularized entities, with which it often collaborates. (One increasingly common form of multihyphenation is a strategic parallel hybridization among a series of like-minded non-hyphenates.) But today, and arguably going forward, there is stability and power in a thoughtfully cultivated fluidity. One way of navigating a terrain dominated by shockingly large, globally telepresent, vertically disintegrated corporate singularities is to become a multiplicity. One way of competing in a field defined by fixed identities is to carefully disintegrate into a kind of fluid. Doing so entails risks, for job placement, for promotion, even for employment itself. But when the entire landscape of productive labor is so thoroughly perforated by strategically disintegrated corporate risks, the mathematics of hybridity are made clearer. 

Hyphenation of any kind is deeply confusing to institutional frameworks—public or private, corporate or academic, etc.—in which protocols and hierarchies are woven from the tacit assumption that if specialization is unquestionably effective and desirable, then hyperspecialization must be even more special. But efficacy and truth are not always coplanar, and for some, other truths insist on being explored. On Peter Sloterdijk’s analysis:  

The problem that begins to make itself apparent here is so extensive that it would seem justifiable to attempt to reformulate it. Might it not be true that, within the framework of an integrated experience (whatever that might be), knowledge of the world and self-expression belong close together?—closer, in any case than they are usually found to be under modern day conditions? Has not the division of labor of talent that characterizes our times led to the tendential opposition of the psychic attitudes that capacitate scientifically oriented knowledge to the expression of self, while those that accommodate self-expression betray a propensity that is hostile to knowledge? Are not the cults of science and aesthetics the prototypical “complimentary idiots” of modernity?15  

Telematic constellations of mediated impulses, distributed across diverse, dissimulated formats—some verbal or textual, others visual and material—each with unique conceptual and experiential carrying capacities, but all emerging from a common and evolving set of curiosities and concerns. Thoughtfully, even meaningfully, coordinated accumulations of signalized materiality16—labyrinths in which to venture—experimentally realized by consciously, adamantly dis-integrated practices and identities. Whole bodies of work, whose many elements remain purposively suspended in extreme proximity, fiercely protective of fragile ambiguities, seeded with concealed degrees of freedom, all retaining more of their vitality and depth when kept at an intimate distance from one another. Formats continually juxtaposed with one another but never permitted to obtain any direct, instrumental relations, and never placed in service of, or made supplemental to, one another. Everything carefully fashioned to relate obliquely, exchanging glances, affiliations, resonances, near-tangencies, and shared sensibilities, but always as equals

An entire life project, gathering ideas and energies in processes more akin to weather systems than to any stable, corporate entity. Too mobile to imitate; too abstract to diagram; too volatile to mass produce; too diversified to be acquired; too monstrous to incorporate. Always, one too many hyphens. 

1 Michael Meredith, “Toward the Body of Work,” in LOG, no. 35 (Fall 2015), 11–14.

2 “I use the word aesthetics here in its widest sense, where aisthēsis means sensory perception, and where the question of aesthetics is, therefore, that of feeling and sensibility in general.” Bernard Stiegler, Symbolic Misery. Volume 1: The Hyper-Industrial Epoch (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2014). 

3 Xavier Bichat, Recherches Physiologiques sur la Vie et la Mort (1800), paraphrased in Georges Canguilhem, “The Living and Its Milieu,” trans. John Savage, in Grey Room, no. 3 (Spring 2001), 7–31. 

4 Bruno Latour, Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime (Cambridge, UK; Medford, MA: Polity, 2018).

5 John May, Signal. Image. Architecture: Everything Is Already an Image (New York: Columbia Books on Architecture and the City, 2019), 105. 

6 Achille Mbembe, Necropolitics (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019), 12.

7 We are currently witnessing some signs of a targeted reengagement with strategies of vertical integration—in the cases of Amazon warehousing, or Tesla’s approach to battery production, for example—but these are occurring only under very specific conditions; disintegration remains the overwhelming trend in most corporate structures.

8 May, Signal. Image. Architecture: Everything Is Already an Image, 105.

9 Ana Miljački, Under the Influence: Symposium (New York; Barcelona: Actar Publishers, 2019).

10 Andre Leori-Gourhan, Gesture and Speech (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2018), 209.

11 MILLIØNS, “A Loose Collection of Objects, Images, and Texts,” in K. Michael Hays and Andrew Holder, Inscriptions: Architecture Before Speech (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Graduate School of Design, 2021).

12 Georg Simmel and Donald N. Levine, “The Metropolis and Mental Life,” in On Individuality and Social Forms: Selected Writings (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015). Regarding the contrast between industrial fatigue and postindustrial emotional exhaustion: Anson Rabinbach, The Human Motor: Energy, Fatigue, and the Origins of Modernity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992). And: Byung-Chul Han, Psychopolitics: Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power (London and New York: Verso, 2017).

13 Jesse LeCavalier, The Rule of Logistics: Walmart and the Architecture of Fulfillment (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016).

14 Simon Nora and Alain Minc, The Computerization of Society: A Report to the President of France (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1981).

16 Peter Sloterdijk, Thinker on Stage: Nietzsche’s Materialism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), 12.

16 Antoine Picon, The Materiality of Architecture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2020).