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The responsibility of design

left_alignedimgThe information age represents a quantum leap in the direction of dromological power, as Paul Virilio terms it. Speed, acceleration, telepresence, the collapse of distance: these are the building blocks of an interconnected world based on data. While it could appear that this movement towards an integrated world is a function of anonymous advances in efficiency, as Virilio reveals, there is a wider field, which he terms the taking over of history by military intelligence. The timespan of this “take over” is not the 20th century or the opening decades of the third millennium, but rather the entire horizon of the modern State, passing back to the waning of the Middle Ages and the birth of the Renaissance. Michel Foucault charted the physical and epistemic consequences of the evolution of modern systems of power, including the barracks, and the place of this evolution vis-a-vis the question of live populations. In short, there is a political history to what appears as natural around us.

Throughout the span of this history, two directions emerged as countervailing forces to the unification of the local, national and now global social field: delinquency and art. At times the two have been linked, though we now live in a troubling time where delinquency has been assimilated by the dominant system (resistance to power, rather than submission to power, being for sure the more prevalent meta narrative; indeed, power itself is constantly problematised). Pure delinquency has much in common with incompetence, if we can use that word without making a moral judgement. Almost genetic, there is a structural clash with the system, or any system. An autonomous, likely unexamined will makes for the pure delinquent assimilation impossible, even where it may be desired in the ethical abstract. In short, the delinquent stands as a figure that cannot be broken down by the State. It is to this figure that the range of disciplinary institutions (school, prison, asylum) responds. And indeed, over a long enough timeline, this natural level of freedom is erased from the genetic pool of the population, and supplanted by a poor shadow: the sovereign individual.

“Naturally paired with efficiency, can design also be art?”

left_alignedimgOn a distant pole, art has historically represented the other means of escape. Mostly, though defence of common human animal life has been prevalent (Bosch, Bruegel, Aertsen), the larger part of art seeks elevation beyond what is strategic and technical, and into the ephemeral or the abstract. Leonardo’s world-famous Mona Lisa can be understood as an early example. It is the enigma of her expression that makes the painting renowned. Mysterious and oblique, the broad stream of art that follows in Leonardo’s wake, through landscape to Goya, to Klee and Picasso, is suggestive of the eternal layers of human experience, still present amid the military unification of the world. So two streams: the delinquent as the being of instinct, and the artist as the expression of so many infinities. These constitute two poles of social struggle that extend across modern history, amid the relentless, everyday extension of military and strategic knowledge, and what this really represents when seen on a wide enough horizon for the history of human life.

Where does design fit in this picture? Naturally paired with efficiency, can design also be art? Routinely deployed as a weapon in an open market, can design also be dangerous, in the sense of expressing and sustaining that which escapes, which is to say instinct. While we reflect on these questions, and try find our way collectively and individually amid the pressures of the debt system and private property, the saturation of the social field by military knowledge continues, whether through the Internet as a quantum leap in global surveillance, or the rebel as an icon of modern individuality. Always and ultimately linked to “things,” is it possible for design to also retain a link to “non-things,” and perhaps what preceded the advance of things?

Art requires no justification, and its goal is more simple. To elevate or shock or disturb, or to express, in the way of witnessing. But design is more operative, and in many ways is more present. It extends beyond the symbols and images we see in print and online, to the everyday objects in our homes, and what we wear in the street. What would historically and socially aware design do, and all the more in a world accelerating to telepresent unity? There are no immediate answers. But it is beholden upon designers to formulate and consider such questions, if their field of endeavour is to have its own history, and to be conscious of itself in the wider field in which it exists, between the State and the market, and the delinquent and art.

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14 November 2013
Ian Douglas

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