Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

The Politics of Design. The Anti-Politics of Design.

I'm teaching a graduate seminar on the political theory of design practice at the San Francisco Art Institute this term into which I've been pouring an enormous amount of the agony and enthusiasm for technoscientific and anti-futurological topics that usually play out instead in my writing online here. A participant in the seminar sent me one of those end-of-term e-mails one always gets, in which a distinction on which much of the conversation has productively turned the whole term suddenly gets called into question as she sits down to write her own paper about one of the seminar's objects at greater depth. The question had to do with getting clearer about what really has been a kind of foundational distinction for the course, that there is a sense in which design is at once political but also anti-political (of course this anti-politics is also political, and round and round we go). The student seemed embarrassed to ask the question, but of course the truth is that such questions at such times are the whole reason to take a course such as ours. Anyway, since the course replays themes that also preoccupy the blog, and because the blog may have suffered this term because of my preoccupation with the course, I thought I might publish here some of my answer to my student's question for my interlocutors here as well:

"Good question -- this is, of course, THE question of the course. And here at the end is the best time to be asking it in earnest.

"At the root of all political thinking is the recognition that a diversity of people live together in a shared world. Quite simple, right? The key is diversity/plurality. As Arendt said, when one is looking at the world politically, 'Plurality is the Law of the Earth.'

"The people with whom we share the world are different from one another, their histories are different, their capacities are different, their aspirations are different. Even an authoritarian politics imposing its will on that diversity must take into account the complex dynamics produced by such diversity as it tries to manage, control, and get desired results from diverse subjects, but of course in more notionally and substantially free and democratic political orders this becomes ever more clear as one struggles to reconcile stakeholder differences at the legislative level and manage stresses at the administrative level and reconcile competing aspirations at the cultural level, right? This insight is what gives Foucault the confidence to say that wherever there is power, politically speaking, there is also always resistance.

"When I say that design is political I simply refer to the way particular designs reflect a host of decisions arising out of such political questions: how will this made thing serve best the most problems and ends of its diverse stakeholders, how will it be taken up by the rich dynamic social and cultural worlds of which it will become a participant, how does it bespeak the designer's own contribution or intervention in ongoing struggles and conversations of which it is a part, how will it constrain and enable certain outcomes over others all of which have constituencies?

"Designs reflect politics, designs are symptoms of politics, designs are participants in politics, designs contextualize and articulate politics. This is an obvious insight, I should think, but one that it is easy to lose sight of to the cost of understanding what one is really up to when one is doing design, and even when one contemplates the furniture of the designed world that is at once the setting for present-onto-futural politics as well as the archive of politics present-out-of-past.

"It would seem, however, that we are always tempted to pretend that design is engineering, to pretend that the made is the natural (never forget the kinship of the natural to the customary), and hence pretend that what is now in the world has not been otherwise and could not be otherwise and will not be otherwise the better to evade the responsibilities and responsivenesses demanded by and promised to the political dimension of human life.

"When I say that design is anti-political, then, I refer to the way design as a discourse would achieve ends (for example, sustainability, democratic participation, 'optimal' humans) of a kind that are, properly speaking, political and whose problems and possibilities are political through and through. But design in some of its current (and, I would add, prevailing) construals as a discourse, and The Designer as an actor/actant within such a discourse, assumes a vantage in respect to these political ends that disavows their profoundly political character and fancies that clarity and power results from this assumption.

"This amounts to a particularly dangerous form of kidding yourself about what you are up to when you are designing or contemplating design -- for example, denying the parochialism of your own political vision, ignoring the difficulties that actually attend the accomplishment of what are actually political goals, mistaking the substance of your vision as something it is not, pretending something controversial is really neutral or that an effort at political reconciliation and liberty is really an effort at scientific prediction and capacitation.

"People can't be tricked or cajoled into sustainability by a priestly elite of architects. Permaculture really is cultural, just as it says it is, and so, a matter of a conviviality (etymologically: a living-together) of the diversity of lifeways, of compromises, conversations, shared sacrifices and mutual aid in a shared (and finite) world.

"People can't be tricked or cajoled into citizenship by a priestly elite of software coders. Code, like every tool/technique, can be taken up in political efforts to rule, to fool, to steal, to cheat, to spy, to help, to agitate, to educate, to organize, but it does not circumvent the political itself. It always has politics but it never has a politics -- as say the boosters: inherent democracy! as say the conspiracists: secret plutocracy!

"People can't be tricked or cajoled into the Good Life by a priestly elite of geneticists. When one speaks of 'enhancement' one is always actually speaking of enhancement -- of what capacities? for which constituencies? in the service of whatever ends? at the cost of the frustration of what other ends? with which other constituencies? The Human, properly so called, has never been given but has always been a site of contestation and collaboration, human being has always been a becoming one dimension of which is absolutely and ineradicably political.

"As we will see in seminar tomorrow, once all this has been grasped, the interesting questions become a matter of thinking the temporality and spatiality of design as political/historical struggle rather than (or by means of) scientific/instrumental rationality."

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