Design and Temporality: Integration

From the Series: Design and Temporality

Photo by Victor Garcia.

In last week’s Deviation, Brent Luvaas turned the question of anthropology and design on its head. He suggested that design as a profession may have more to offer anthropology in terms of reinventing itself than anthropology has to offer design. In this Integration, I engage with Luvaas’s provocative suggestion, but depart from it by further investigating William Bissell and Amelia Hassoun’s arguments that design is more than the design profession. In investigating the ramifications of this point, I explore what I believe has been lost in this conversation, namely the theorization of power and design. As Hassoun highlighted, design is produced through interaction, both in its initiation and reception. All design is therefore intrinsically unstable, open to multiple remakings. Herein lies the question of power. Although design is indeed world-making, neither the past nor the future simply lie in waiting; instead, they are created through the interaction of people and things mobilizing unequal possibilities for realising their visions (Trouillot 1995). Notions of past, future, and the very imaginings of temporality are historically constituted and politically shaped (Buck-Morss 2002). Given this, I argue that anthropology provides one means of understanding the power relations through which designs produce temporalities.

Luvaas rightly points out that anthropologists need to overcome the conceit that they are the only ones able to critically engage with design. Just as anthropology has historically occupied itself with autocritique, so designers also interrogate their own actions and profession, fully capable of producing similar insights about elitism, technocracy, and the unintended consequences of plans that anthropologists have long prided themselves in picking apart. But while, at a macro level, anthropologists and designers may be involved in broadly similar patterns of behavior and thought, there is nonetheless a difference between noting structural patterns and the nuances of practice (cf. Bourdieu 1977). There are distinctions in moments of intervention and in the relations of power through which anthropology and design exercise their influences on the world. Most importantly, they interact through often related, yet usually temporally and institutionally distinct fields of power. It is arguably due to these disjunctures that anthropology opens up insights about design, even as design can suggest new ways for anthropologists to imagine their own discipline.

At the center of these disjunctures is the question of power, and the webs within which design as a process and product finds itself caught. While designers might very well be autocritical, they are often stripped of the opportunity to act on their own knowledge of the world. Designers have clients who tend to ultimately determine the product that is delivered. In contexts where state institutions are the clients, there is a long history of mobilizing design to enforce colonial segregation and occupation (Wright 1987), remake society according to historically situated imaginations of desirable social order (Holston 1989; Rabinow 1995), or reproduce their authority on the landscape (Smith 2003). Design can also signal state power on an international stage, with hyperbuilding often indexing state capacity or indicating global alliances (Ong 2011; Amoah 2016). Even when there is not a client clearly directing the imposition of a particular order, subtle power relations can unwittingly be enacted and taken up. Shifts in the design of homes and clothing among the colonized were often productive of new symbolic associations, social hierarchies, and relations of power (Comaroff and Comaroff 1997), and it is well documented that the design of domestic space was a key site of propaganda during the Cold War (Buck-Morss 2002; De Grazia 2005).

Although design is inherently about world-making, the nature of this world-making is therefore fundamentally political, ensconced in unequal relations of power, with people having differing capacities to realize their aspirations and visions (Appadurai 2004). Urban planning in contemporary Africa is prime example of this. Not only are many contemporary projects extremely “top-down” in conception and implementation, but the very materials made available for imagining urban futures are shot through with inequalities. Few people come to African countries for urban inspiration, unless they are patronizingly attempting to understand slum-dweller resilience and invention. In contrast, histories of colonialism, neocolonial intervention, and, most recently, the global economic circuits of engineering and design consulting firms means that African future cities have historically been, and continue to be, built in the image of designs drawn from Euro-America and, increasingly, the Middle East and East Asia (Watson 2013). Local imaginations of the desirable urban are overridden by internationally circulating political elites and consultants who project their own understandings of the urban. Design is entrapped in multiple unequal scalar levels and networks of power in which the individual practitioner is merely one semiautonomous actor.

While design is inherently unequal, Bissell astutely argues that by challenging the notion of design belonging to experts and elites, anthropology has challenged at least one variety of this inequality. Anthropology has sought to locate design in the quotidian and the grassroots. In this literature, the marginalized of society reveal themselves as designers and inventors, remaking the materialities inherited from the past and from above to enact their needs and aspirations on the world around them. In this way, the subaltern are repositioned as future-makers, the ultimate determiners of the form of things. Literature on autoconstruction (Holston 2008), planning of unofficial settlements (Amin 2014), and the design practices of the working class (Miller 1988) have emphasized nonprofessionals as the true designers of life. Equally, design has become a means for people to reposition themselves in relation to previous political orders (Fehérváry 2013). A host of studies on African urbanism has dwelt on this fact, showing how the ruins of colonial urbanism and dreams of the initial years of independence have been reworked by contemporary residents to suit the unpredictable and provisional nature of the cities in which they live (De Boeck and Plissart 2005). Anthropologists have showed how design opens a lens into the quotidian production of pasts, futures, and the self.

A focus on design from below, however, might also stand in the way of more nuanced understandings of world-making through design. Interactions are not simply between design and people, but between people in various social strata and between scalar levels. The subaltern interact with elites. The visions produced by people positioned amidst unequal power relations are nevertheless co-constitutive. Contrasting a world of vibrant grassroots design with the abstractions of technocratic elites prevents anthropologists from understanding the dialogic relationship between various actors and groups (Quayson 2015). To understand the anger and disappointment over the imposition of certain visions of the future and remakings of the past, as well as fears over the challenges to these projects, it is necessary to understand design as a product of complicity and relationality rather than of the masses versus the experts. This rethinking of relationality and interaction might also assist anthropology in shifting away from the highly anthropocentric stance through which design is studied.

Discussions of interaction at the heart of design have generally hinged on the agentive power of humans in relation to design, or of human will enacted through design. In the current moment of rediscovering anthropology’s long interest in the agency of objects, anthropologies of design need to be more explicit in centering objects, materials, and designs themselves as agents that bring about changes and open up new vistas of possibility. What an anthropology of design concerned with temporality ultimately asks of the anthropologist is to understand the worlds created through the multiple, agentive interactions of people and objects, in a process revealing the power relations behind the production of particular worlds, the disparities of future-making as well as the inequalities of imagining the past.


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