Category Archives: Social Theory

go beyond the injunction of innovation

An interview with the principals of the Design Friction atelier:

When we teach Design Fiction or Speculative Design in schools, as many design educators have certainly heard it before us, there is a common misconception among students about these types of design postures. Since Speculative Design productions aren’t for sale, it would mean there is no practical nor professional application. We disagree.

In fact, without epiloging on the difference between problem-solving – the current dogma in design education and training – and problem-framing, we believe the latter is crucial regarding current emergencies and crises, climate breakdown being the first one of them.

In this sense, we think an applied Speculative Design (or Design Fiction) – with all our sincere apologies to the ones who will faint after reading this oxymoron – is especially well suited for public organisations. This approach might help NGOs and civic movements in their advocacy actions to help in highlighting preferable perspectives or revealing the consequences of the status quo […]

Speculative Design or Design Fiction also might support local or national governments, as well as state departments, to build future-proofed and more-than-human-centred policies. Speculative Design and Design Fiction go beyond the injunction of innovation, as creating and maintaining the public goods and the commons requires long-term thinking and radical alternatives. These forms of design are both a complement to Service Design, growing in public innovation programs, and a counterpoint to the limited and limiting perspective of “user-centric” design, that is inflating in the public realm.

Pulling this out as a quotable riposte to the inevitable “well, it’s just critique masquerading as design, isn’t it?” complaints… SD/DF approaches are going to form an important part of my work in the years ahead, and thus I assume I’ll find myself making that argument about social goods many times over.

interrupt your text

McKenzie Wark interviewed at Bomb Magazine:

I’m interested in writing that engages with the way people read now. If you are a literary person, perhaps you and your friends are on Twitter or Instagram and share photos of favorite passages from the books you happen to be reading. I certainly do. So, I wanted the text to read like a feed. I think we read texts in juxtaposition now. I make those juxtapositions intentional. I interrupt my text with my favorite writers who sometimes seem to comment or provide a contrast or who describe what I am failing to describe and do it better.

Interesting observation from a writer whose work I’ve long been inspired by. That said, I think this nascent tradition had its foundations laid in the golden age of blogging, which was often heavy on the blockquotes as well as the hyperlinks… and that was in turn surely influenced by the telos of academic texts, if not necessarily their style. A dialectics of style, perhaps?

Also wonder if this isn’t perhaps a way of short-circuiting the notorious “agony of influence”… instead of flinching from the inescapability of the megatext, make your way through it like a forest, hacking through undergrowth or racing through clearings as necessary, dodging wolves and befriending other adventurers along the way.

(The emerging genre of “theory fiction” appears to be one expression of this instinct… I’m thinking particularly of Sellars’s Applied Ballardianism, here, but mostly because that’s the only example of the genre I can confidently claim to have encountered on the genre’s own terms. Though one might counterclaim that theory fiction is just autofiction for the overeducated, I suppose… but what else are we meant to do with the multiple self-subjectivities that our scholarship has cursed us with, eh?)

inside among the outsiders

Sean Guynes on Le Guin’s The Dispossessed:

… whereas most utopian novels before Le Guin sent an outsider into the utopian society, tracing their voyage through the social, economic, and political structures of the “better” worlds offered by Gilman’s Herland or Bellamy’s United States, Le Guin cut the narrative in half, shuffled the deck, and used Shevek’s awkward social positioning on Anarres and Urras alike to explore the meanings of her version of utopia from the inside out.

Cf. Moylan’s canonical paper on the critical utopia, of course.

This was a timely thing to read on my train-travels yesterday, however, coming as it did fairly close upon the heels of a paper discussing (among other things) the specific urban-planning conceptualisation of utopia, which is predominantly a question of the deployment of urban form as a metaphor for a hierarchised systems understanding of the city as body/machine/computer… and hence a top-down perspective by necessity.

As Guynes points out, Le Guin’s intervention into the utopian mode was to totally invert the usual top-down approach, not just at the level of form, but also at the level of narratology… and I retain a belief that this radical breach of Le Guin’s is far from exhausted, whether by fictions qua fictions or any other off-label uses of the same toolkit.

contra Maslow

I really should have guessed, but I never did know that Ol’ Man Maslow was a management consultant. Sam Haselby at Aeon:

Why was corporate America drawn to [Maslow’s] hierarchy of needs? They liked it because it offered both a grand narrative and master explanation for human psychology in a changing society and a practical guide to managing people. It is precisely in the tension between these two visions of the hierarchy of needs – the reductive diagram and the rich social theory – that the hierarchy of needs acquires its power and its politics.


It is certainly not coincidental that a motivational theory dubbed the ‘hierarchy’ of needs was adopted in companies ruled by hierarchical organisational charts. The hierarchy of needs could all too easily map onto work hierarchies, with jobs at the top providing more scope for self-actualisation (while also commanding higher paychecks). Uneven distributions of work and workers surround the promise of self-actualised work; devalued work, which we don’t expect to bring satisfaction, and on the flipside, overvalued work, supposed to be all of life.

Haselby goes on to note that Maslow was not the origin of the notion of self-actualised labour, and points to Max Weber. But of course Weber got at least some elements of that notion from Marx… and I imagine someone better read in Marx than me could make a case that he in turn probably picked some of it up from Adam Smith and the other “bourgeois economists”. Which is not to rag on Marx, as such, so much as to point out (as many far smarter people than me have done before — IIRC, this is a major plank of Gorz’s Critique of Economic Reason, not that I’ve read the thing myself) that, perhaps inescapably, even the most critical understandings of capitalism end up accepting some of its fundamental assumptions.

This is, at a guess, because those assumptions long preceded capitalism’s emergence.… Weber put it down (at least in part) to the Protestant mind-set, after all, and Nietzsche was perhaps getting at a similar (though broader) point when he spoke of “slave morality”. So perhaps there’s a specifically Christian or even Abrahamic root to the notion of self-actualisation through work… though that’s perhaps a very blinkered and western thing to say, I dunno. Any thoughts out there?

the arcade fire

A long ol’ piece on Walter Benjamin’s magnum opus by Apoorva Tadepalli at Real Life. It’s the sort of epic longread that merits at least a second thorough go-thru (and has as such been stashed away to that end), but this bit leapt out as being Relevant To My Interests, as the old meme used to go:

Benjamin was fundamentally opposed to anything nearing history as a linear presentation, as development or progress: “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism,” he famously wrote in his “Theses on the Concept of History.” That the Paris arcades were long past their heyday when he began writing was no obstacle; perhaps it was even the point. The assembled fragments give us a way of reading history by collapsing time; they create the “dialectical image,” or the meaning that is generated in the sudden moment of insight that makes history recognizable in the present. Fashion, for instance, is one of the central ways Benjamin explores this dialectical image of collapsed time: style, the most transient of all markers, is forced by mass production and exploited labor into an “eternal return,” forever offering modernity.

This immersion in the ruins of history as a way of “telescoping the past through the present,” as Benjamin wrote, has political importance: It is a way of situating oneself under the spell of the enchanting material, and experiencing history in all its contradictions, rather than trying to deny it through the theoretical approach to historicism that Benjamin’s colleagues advocated. Benjamin writes of the need to “rescue” history with a “firm, seemingly brutal grasp,” to physically wrench it through time in order to clearly see the present; readers of his work today would have to do the same.

I was reading Stuart Jeffries’ Grand Hotel Abyss back in the autumn (and somehow never quite got round to finishing it, for an assortment of reasons, not all of which were time-related); even therein it’s pretty clear that, for all the intellectual originality of the Frankfurt School crew who survived the war, the loss of Benjamin was a great tragedy. He was something quite singular, even among that gang of highly singular minds.

I’ve had a hardcopy of the Project since buying it for my Masters back in 2011/12, and then being scared off by its bulk; maybe it’s time to make a project of actually reading the thing? After all, it’s no larger than the Fisher collection from Repeater, and probably more amenable to a daily randomised-and-rationed reading approach…