The Work of the Blog

I cannot deny the irony in posting this bit of writing on a blog, though I am somewhat critical of the blogosphere I am also inclined to think positively towards its power in redefining our thinking in the 21C. This essay was based on an assignment that asked us to emulate Barthes as he tackles material culture in Mythologies. This is about the blog’s incredible hold on twenty-first century imagination. Consider this as almost a curious ode to a powerful artifact of our time.

The Work of the Blog

A form of communication, the blog is a believed symbol of free public space. As an oscillating combination of text, images, and media it functions as interactive commentary within an external network. It gives a political voice to the individual user, constituted by the desire to reveal experience. Belonging to a horizon not yet fully known, it hovers in a fetishized space, one that is part of the mystical fiction of pure uncontested democracy. A fiction held true by the powerful schizophrenic nature of a web of digitalized information deemed ‘accessible’ to all. The ideology of constant and open communication has us praising it as the apogee of the First Amendment, for we believe we are granted emancipation in the discursive space of the web.

No longer confined to the inert materials of everyday scenes, political voice is amplified through active virtual space. The form of this supposed democratic platform is absent of defined walls. It is imagined to grow simultaneously, while remaining contained within the hardware of a computer; systematically pumped with verbiage. Through a screen, its visible interface adopts numerous looks from the fading material world: a journal, photo album, book. The exact locale of its expression is unknown, lost in a labyrinth of code and displaced origins amongst a sea of reveries; however, its location in some imagined space is of no immediate interest. For the blog tantalizes us by inviting acts of democracy formerly felt restricted.

An abstract depository for the mind; the blog provides storage and access of data. The political economy extends itself to a remote database server, belonging to a shared network called ‘the web’, which transmutes our experience for us. Finally, the private interior space becomes a network open to the public. Coming closer to our eventual transformation to cyborgs, our psychological interiority is displaced by the psychology of open connected networks. Consequently, the inner is indiscriminately made outer unfettered by those debilitating human emotions. In this evolutionary unfolding the human mind is an accessible cross-fertilization of global ideas, with expression no longer limited by the sober decorum of social contracts. Globally synchronized networks mimic the combinatorial possibilities of the atom and the electron. At any desired time, the user produces narrative, tracks her readers, links to friends’ blogs, invites comments, all by the external commands of clicking and typing. Manipulation of discourse, now accepted, grants the ability to self-imagine and reconfigure society against the sovereign of History. Playing puppeteer with one’s own life has never been more desired; with the death of the Author the human regains power to bring into being the ideal self, however fictional.

Further contributing to the ‘desacrilization of the Author’, the blog transfigures authors out of the Author. In vain the blog writer believes herself transformed into Author as she partakes in self-making, yet merely is filling an empty role. Hands incessantly press down on the keyboard in an act of performance. In the century of the Image the blog writer wishes to create, but is in fact only translating signs drawn from a library of images. Signs, which are no longer read with an Enlightenment sentiment, are clouded with an immense sense of cultural and ideological mixing in a diasporic public realm, produce multiple translations. Faced with the complicated images of our world, the blog writer desperately seeks to identify herself, yet in the blog space she is never truly Author only reader. As she ‘cuts’, ‘crops’, and ‘pastes’ she is not creating anything new, but using the functions of a computer to read herself in the present.

Modernity requires instant gratification in its transitory moments. The attraction to the blog is its ability to validate a thing through an instantaneous state of presence in the present. Computer computation retrieves clusters of content from a serving database, in a matter of seconds. Identification of the self is then contingent on the materialization of this content through a reflecting screen. Though sincere in what she claims to do, the blogger gives no thought onto the present configuration. What sudden panic besets us when our wired saviors ‘crash’ and turn mute. We are confident the desired freedom prize is floating in this alternate dreamy world, yet it is kept distant from us and only visible through a designed screen. The debauching hardware and systems required for its use, belies the claim to freedom. The computer screen becomes the window into a fantastical world strictly kept leveled, intertwined among moderating systems.

Cultural institutions have helped to ensure the free-for-all myth. Conveying an image of decentralization, chaos, bottom-up creativity is in fact, however still bound by its Domain Name Servers and IP Addresses, which are run by the centralized mechanisms of corporations. Without any necessary understanding of its devices, the ‘cloud’ tantalizes us with its impalpability in delivering a service. Institutions maintain its dynamics made possible by thousands of hidden fiber optic cables running across the world. Keeping information flowing across wide expanses of area does in fact, require tangible transfers. Still, its physicality is of minimal concern in comparison to the chimerical world of its merit. The more beautiful the world imagined by the encouraged human has produced an ambiguous world kept in check by powers of systems and hardware. The play of self-imagining, an extended voice, and value of shared ideas though liberating, are never independent of a network and its chargers.

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Food for Thought from Adorno

I absolutely love the poetic writing of Adorno, which seems nearly impossible to emulate. His insights offer some interesting propositions for rethinking the conditions of the twenty-first century. We can choose to blindly go on with our everyday lives or choose to be more cognizant of our ability to reconfigure that which is set before us. Consider this passage “Do Not Knock” from Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life

Technology is making gestures precise and brutal and with them men. It expels from movements all hesitation, deliberation, civility. It subjects them to the implacable, as it were ahistorical demands of objects. Thus the ability is lost, for example to close a door quietly and discreetly, yet firmly. Those of cars and refrigerators have to be slammed, others have the tendency to snap shut by themselves, imposing on those entering the bad manners of not looking behind them, not shielding the interior of the house which receives them. The new human type cannot be properly understood without awareness of what he is continuously exposed to from the world of things about him, even in his most secret innervations. What does it mean for the subject that there are no more casement windows to open, but only sliding frames to shove, no gentle latches but turnable handles, no forecourt, no doorstep before the street, no wall around the garden? And which driver is not tempted, merely by the power of his engine, to wipe out the vermin of the street, pedestrians, children and cyclists? The movements machines demand of their users already have the violent, hard-hitting, unresting jerkiness of Fascist maltreatment. Not least to blame for the withering of experience is the fact that things, under the law of pure functionality, assume a form that limits contact with them to mere operation, and tolerates no surplus, either in freedom of conduct or in autonomy of things, which would survive as the core of experience, because it is not  consumed by the moment of action.

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What are Objects?

If we are to really understand Design culture, should we not spend some time thinking about what objects mean to us in our everyday life? Seemingly a simple question with a simple answer: we use objects, they are helpful, perhaps we derive pleasure from them, they can be gifts, and so on. But this is not all that they do, objects tell us much more about ourselves as humans than perhaps we do with one another. Even the earliest philosophy has dealt with objects, giving it a proper place within society. Plato in The Republic viewed objects as representations of knowledge. An object was a representation of what it actually was but never was the thing itself. As early as 375 BC when Plato presumably began writing The Republic, there is a distinction made between the world known through sensuous experience versus the ultimate reality of the world that is only known through enlightenment (the cave simile). Since Plato, philosophy has bracketed objects as representations. Though they may speak to being, serve as modes in knowing the real, or in their making tell us about the world, they are always reduced to representations as felt by our senses.

I would venture to say that in the twenty-first century as many critics have claimed, modern man’s most profound interactions are not between men but with objects (just think of the social meaning of the IPhone or Blackberry). As Elaine Scarry describes in The Body in Pain, creating objects first arises from the imagination, the human interior works on the object, then follows a projection of the live body into the matter, thus the object must be self-aware. Take this passage that it in itself is enough inspiration to call for a reconsideration of objects:

A lightbulb transforms the human being from a creature who would spend approximately a third of each day groping in the dark, to one who sees simply by wanting to see: its impossibly fragile , upright-then-folding filament of wire is the materialization of neither retina, nor pupil, nor day-seeing, nor night-seeing; it is the materialization of a counterfactual perception about the dependence of human sight on the rhythm of the earth’s rotation; no wonder it is in its form so beautiful. (Scarry 1985).

Its design must anticipate how it will be used and be aware of what it is relieving. In this sense, objects are not just representations, but are much more exalted. They are in fact being. They are our own self-being mirrored back to us. So while the human creating includes the creating of the object, the object is also creating the human being. It may have been at one time that objects were easily understood as never crossing the line of representation, but when the individual begins to create narrative and define identity using the objects in the everyday environment, in some sense these objects are absorbed in the very meaning of what it is to be human. In a type of evolutionary unfolding, objects not only give us a human world but they indeed help shape us. They simultaneously recognize our sentient desires and intimate needs, while also projecting a concrete reality for our experience.

Still there is more clarification and criticism needed in how we live with objects. For considering all of the “junk” produced today, certainly not all objects are things as Martin Heidegger suggest in The Thing. There is as he suggests, a phenomenological aspect of perceiving objects from things, from the nearness which is a thing thinging. What does it mean for our being when indiscriminately objects are mass-produced and put out into the world? What happens when objects are disposable and no longer cherished? Of course to say that the human being equates his being from objects that are themselves not only projections of our interiority, but are things self-aware so therefore mirroring back to us being means that we must be more careful in what we produce and allow to dictate our everyday life. As a civilization that includes objects, if we don’t care about the objects essentially we are saying we don’t care about civilization. If we can ask an ethics for persons, Design can ask an ethics of its objects.

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LAMP: Literature, Art, Music, Philosophy: Where Does Design Fit?

When studying Design what can art, literature, philosophy, and even music tell us? What metaphors are inherent in LAMP and contrastively what can it not say about Design? My group- Jacquie, Sarah, and I sought to pull our expertise together to arrive at a few core questions that could get at design’s place within these disciplines. Jacquie having a philosophy background assigned the class The Origin of the Work of Art by Heidegger, but realizing its depth opted for the translation and summary by David Bret. Sarah assigned a reading from Alfred North Whitehead a mathematician turned philosopher. And I, with my art historical background assigned the class Rosalind Krauss’ essay “Sculpture in the Expanded Field”. Seemingly disparate pieces of writing incidentally connected us to a key theme: Categories. For what all of these readings when read together taught us, was how great the malleability, influence, and affinity for Categories (as a subject) are and has been . The way in which history has defined art, literature, music, and philosophy has much to do with how the fields themselves are viewed, as well as the problematization of them.

Rosalind Krauss, writing in 1978, at the height of post-modernism delivers extremely logical and insightful criticism on the state of Sculpture at the time. The main question concerning her criticism is that art history essentially did not know how to define or discuss sculpture as it rapidly changed, breaking the boundaries of context that critics had placed it in. In our inclination to historicize, because we believe history mitigates difference, the term ‘sculpture’ became obscured to the extreme. She writes, “…but the category itself has been forced to cover such a range of heterogeneity that it is, itself, in danger of collapsing. And so we stare at the pit in the earth and think we both do and don’t know what sculpture is.” The problem of what to do with an expanding field, is what Design is dealing with now, as instead of looking at the output of its work and deciding how to define it, it often looks to past models in moving forward. We are not sure what to call it if a designed object blurs into art (Boym’s pieces, Ai Wei Wei, Tobias Wong, etc) nor what to call it if Design is used to organize systems and create businesses (Design Thinking?), or even what Design for social innovation might mean for the term ‘Design’. In an attempt to more appropriately address the capabilities of an expanded field, Krauss constructs a Klein group starting with the neutered form of sculpture resting between the problematization of two opposites- “not-landscape” and “not-architecture”. By virtue of the fact that these things themselves had certain interests, as well as the expanding use of mediums in the 1960s, these terms then became expanded.

Because of ruptures in the field of sculpture caused by artists such as Robert Morris, Robert Smithson, Richard Serra, Sol LeWitt, and Bruce Nauman, new ways of defining the work were needed. Design might benefit from an analysis such as Krauss’.

Alfred North Whitehead, writing much early in the 1920s also dealt with the lack of complexity in modern thought. In his “Lowell Lectures” he called for the inclusion of an aesthetic education into the modern curriculum. He believed aesthetic apprehension spoke to a metaphysical doctrine, which increased the depth of one’s individuality. Because of the increase importance in ‘specialization’ in modern society, Whitehead believed we as a culture got lost of our wisdom, believing our attachment to materiality over values had led society to disastrous oversights. He writes, “…Art concerns more than sunsets. A factory, with its machinery, its community of operatives, its social service to the general population, its dependence upon organising and designing genius, its potentialities as a source of wealth to the holders of its stock is an organism exhibiting a variety of vivid values. What we want to train is the habit of apprehending such an organism in its completeness. It is very arguable that the science of the political economy as studied in its first period after the death of Adam Smith, did more harm than good.” Whitehead is picking up on the limiting nature of ‘categories’ on modern mentalities and its consequent failures. A prescient thought as contemporary society seems also to be too caught in the specialization of a field rather than complex relationships of multi-disciplinary fields.

On a deeper level and aligned with Heidegger’s thinking, Whitehead believed art to be necessary for the “fertilisation of the soul” and this brings us to why reading The Origin of the Work of Art can be helpful in understanding design as well. Heidegger views the ‘work’ of the work of art as the mode in which the human can realize truth. It is the opening between ‘the world’ we inhabit and ‘the earth’ (or materiality) that the world rests upon. Within the work, there is a rift, an opening where one can know truth. Art is not simply an act taken up, but it is the knowing bringing forth of Being into unconcealment. Rather than reflecting on the mere materiality of art, a work actually only functions as a work when we remove ourselves from our commonplace routine and move into what is disclosed by the work. It is an opening up that should be valued in art more so than its other qualities. Van Gogh’s often cited work, A Pair of Shoes from 1886 was viewed by Heidegger in Amsterdam in 1930 and for him was the type of work that can reveal truth, the essence of “shoeness” seen in the painting of shoes.

“On the leather lie the dampness and richness of the soil. Under the soles slides the loneliness of the field-path as evening falls. In the shoes vibrates the silent call of the earth, its quiet gift of the ripening grain and its unexplained self-refusal in the fallow desolation of the wintery field. This equipment is pervaded by uncomplaining anxiety as to the certainty of bread, the wordless joy of having once more withstood want, the trembling before the impending childbed and shivering at the surrounding menace of death. This equipment belongs to the earth, and it is protected in the world of the peasant woman. From out of this protected belonging the equipment itself rises to its resting-within-itself.”

Of course much can be said about Heidegger’s The Origin of the Work of Art. In comparison to the other writings by Krauss and Whitehead, it brings up the restrains of relying too heavily on ‘categories’ of what a thing should be (in terms of philosophy). Art is not just simply using tools to manipulate materials, but can be a way in which the human can know and represent the world as well as reflect on being in it. When reading all of these authors together we wondered about the category of Design and if it could in fact be an umbrella for LAMP. If Design becomes integrated into LAMP, we have to ask what is it that is lost by looking through this lens in addressing Design? Is there a uniqueness to Design that cannot be captured through these disciplines?

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Designerly Ways of Knowing

Can a “Designtific Method” be formed using the established Scientific Method, but in a designerly way of knowing? Emphatically I say No. After trying it out in seminar last Wednesday, I became frustrated at the task. Using the following model:

My group tried to construct a method for design. The first problem my group ran into was that instead of accepting the problem at hand, we immediately begin to think about what is possible. While in science the researcher might ask questions that are restricted within the given laws commonly accepted within the field of Science, Design does not deal with such laws. Virtually anything is possible, whether it be a redefinition of questions, an approximation, or a reshaping of context. As we study the scientific method process we realized the reason a Design method could not be fit into the same type of structure is that there are knowledge areas that are just not represented within the scientific method process. Designers not only deal with the body of knowledge embodied in a thing, but also with a wide range of contexts. Science deals in truths and Design deals with complexity. As we went through each step we roughly translated what each step might mean in a designerly way of knowing:

Research ——–> Understanding of conditions, constraints, as well as opportunity. Defining the contexts and get to know it

Hypothesis ——> Proposition, prototype (which might be conceptual), ways of understanding particular situation, objective innovation (taking away, yet giving something back that is better)

Test with an experiment ——–> Fit to a context, compromise, negotiation

Analysis results ———–> Understand complexity, making something that resonates, an understanding of the features and capabilities of a person and a thing, fit psychologically

Report Results ————–> Can never fully know effects of results, can not repeat because artifacts come out of particular contexts, may arrive at multiple answers, a redefinition of a situation

Largely the reason that it is difficult to equate Design with Science is that there are many ambiguities that design deals with. Science is arriving at an understanding of facts, of truth in existence a priori. Design deals with imagining new ways of existence that might not have ever been. While we can roughly outline some steps involved in a designerly way of knowing, these steps will inevitably change or even be pushed aside dependent on the particular context a designer is working with. Perhaps one doesn’t even need steps. The knowledge that is inherent in design is one that is experimental (this might be its connection to science), but also one that is about creating options, trying new things, and approximating. It is an acute apprehension of the human situation and the psychology of this where as a scientific way of knowing is about fact, laws, and a faith in the consistency of them.

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The Problem with Articulating Design

When trying to articulate the scope of Design Studies, one realizes that language as the bridge between the objects made and the concepts arrived to, often is inadequate. A ‘Designer’ translates needs and desires into objects and ‘Design Studies’ does a translation of the objects to its larger social and cultural constructions, yet this is where language becomes difficult to describe this translation. Especially when, as my seminar last Wednesday discovered, Design covers a scope that cannot be confined or bracketed. We often like nice, neat definitions the same way we are drawn to symmetry because they fit with routinization and progression, however, if we can learn to live with complexity better I think we can learn to live with the fact that the scope of Design Thinking is quite broad.

Design is never one thing, as we have discovered through conversations in our seminar, design is many things and often all at once. As the seminar broke into groups, my group addressed specifically: What is the scope of design? and Do you agree that design is a discipline based on utopian ideals? As I’ve said Design we discovered is not ONE thing, rather it is negotiation, mediation, a method of collaboration, translation of capabilities, imagination, all of which can be applied to many things whether it be graphic design, furniture design, system design, or a business design. In a way it is understanding the choices and conditions that go into a thing. As Clive eloquently put it, the “visual emblemization of configuration”. Of course this vagueness and inclusiveness poses many questions for further study: Is a wide scope an opportunity or a problem? Is it Design if it doesn’t have value?

I think the fact that Design has no laws is a good thing. Yes, we can talk about issues such as quality control (can anyone be a designer?). But truthfully, I think yes if you have the ability to put forth an analysis of objects, systems, things, and be able to be both critical and praising of the art of making, your ideas have the potential to add to those things in a productive way. Also the fact that there are no laws, affords us moments of utopia in the realization that Utopia might not ever be met. In the condition of hyper-capitalism, speed, globalization, and post post-modernism, the idea of a Utopia seems archaic and even fantastical. What would the Utopia even be in the 21c? However, through experiences of objects or systems that make sense, feel right, have some type of intuitive quality, or as Clive describes it is a ‘gift’, we can actually feel and know utopia. The beauty in the freedom allowed in Design, is that rather than capitulating to a constructed reality made for you (that is often made with the aims of homogenization, a reliance on commodity culture, and a desire for objectification), one can defend the right to a way of being configured by the individual herself. This is a value that every individual should cherish. If the discipline of Design in practice  and academia change its myopic view of Design to one that is derived from different contexts, than Design would also more closely resemble 21C culture. Even if that means that Design be accepted as a chaotic study that can include the intangible, incorporeal, and virtual then it would be allowed to change as our culture has. I don’t think this is the easiest thing to do, especially when part of us wants to hold onto ideals of the 20C, perhaps we aren’t quite ready to be the same way the things we have made are being. Maybe its fear, maybe we like tradition, or maybe as discussed before we aren’t quite ready to let go of nature, whatever the reason we are still trying to figure out being modern, which is certainly why Design is unsure of itself.

Leather Book Case for Ipad


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Victor Margolin on What A Design Studies Program Should Be

This evening Victor Margolin came to our seminar to discuss the state of design research, specifically the possibility of a doctorates degree of Design Studies. After a brief summary of the evolution of the design research field since is rough beginning in Great Britain around the 1950’s, Margolin concluded with the call for a need to require collective standards within the university system that would demarcate a specific Design Studies field. Grounded in canonical texts, history, theory, and an interdisciplinary approach, the study would then become legitimate as a doctoral program. Unlike the various ‘studies’ that came into being after the Civil Rights movement, such as ‘Black Studies’, ‘Chicano Studies’, ‘Gender Studies’ etc, which sought to develop clear roots and a visible subject matter for study, the burgeoning discipline of Design Studies would have to constantly “keep up” with the field of design practice by consistently changing its program of study with the evolving subject matter of practice. Why has Design Studies lagged behind in becoming a commonly accepted field, such as art history or sociology? Across the board there is the alarming view that in a sense, Design is still invisible. The  most important ways in which Margolin believes this can be combatted is through 1) acknowledgment of the array of applications Design carries 2) creation of a sense of shared problematics 3) an openness of the Design Research Committee to the interdisciplinary nature of Design, as well as the establishment of collective standards grounding the expanding field.

Margolin holds an optimistic hope for the future of doctoral pursuits in Design Studies, however, one striking comment was his belief that it should be a field that is definitely not practice as Design Studies is not about the making of the objects so much as it is about the reflection in combination with history and theory. However, I believe that while it is easy to believe that Design Studies gives an ethics to practice, elucidates themes in work, or as Clive says, “tweaks” it (it certainly does all of this), there is a very important agency within it as well. Obviously you would have to ask WHY Design Studies at all if not for the objects created? Design Studies is the unique field that deals with the future, and if situated carefully within academics can be the mediation between theory and practice (also technology) that can lead to imaginative design. A huge question is what else will Design Studies need besides formative texts that can elevate what it imagines design to be from mere representation to performative realities? Also if the University were to have its way, how much of an ‘expanded field’ would Design Studies be allowed? Think of Buckminster Fuller’s projects with students in Carbondale, Illinois. Fuller’s entire notion of what a designer should be or what a study of Design should do was cross disciplinary, even describing himself as a “comprehensive anticipatory design scientist”. His design philosophy sought to solve global crisis such as poverty, ecological destruction, education, and energy among others. Most importantly Fuller understood the relationship and significance Design had to the future. Without digressing into an entire new topic on the prodigious production of works and projects by Fuller, let say that what is interesting about Fuller’s new teaching approach at Carbondale was that, as early as the late 1950s Fuller viewed Design as a type of expanded Design Studies field.

Ultimately his work with students in Carbondale was abandoned and largely forgotten (last semester Mark Wigley gave a fascinating lecture about the possibility of imagination in architecture and concluded it was not quite possible after reviewing the demise of Fuller’s work in Carbondale). Is the reality that the experimentation allowed within academics will largely only remain within academia? Considering our state of hyper-Capitalism, where the University now functions as a business, would having the gusto of Fuller even be able to create a unique program of Design Studies? The paralysis of how to move forward with the growing discipline of Design Studies springs from our inability to see it as a comprehensive study that deals with the making of things, the future making of things, and the human reflection and reaction towards those things. It cannot be divorced from practice nor from the humanistic tendencies of its sister disciplines such as, sociology, history, psychology, or cultural studies. What makes Design Studies unique from other ‘studies’ is the very fact that it is the type of study that has the potential to create a new vernacular for modern, responsible living in the twenty-first century.

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