Design and Temporality: Translation

From the Series: Design and Temporality

Photo by Victor Garcia.

In this translation, I want to pick up William Bissell’s discussion of the social life of design, particularly what it might mean to “remake the world anew.” I think that this concept might provide an entry point into understanding design as an inherently imaginative, social, and dialogical world-building process. Remaking the world anew, I speculate, does not just happen after design fails; it is intrinsic to the project of design at all levels.

Remaking the world anew through design bridges the imaginary and the material, bringing worlds into being through the making of objects. Design—techne, the craft of transformation—is not just the desire to transform the material world, to build bridges and buildings. It is also the desire to bring new social worlds and ways of life into being, to make things that make people. Design is indeed for living.

If we take seriously Bissell’s provocation that design is “inevitably and inescapably dialogic,” then the social life of design becomes extremely important. Objects generate contexts (Appadurai 1986, 2013). Everything, from the floors at the Atlanta airport to data-gathering trees scattered throughout Singapore, is a product of a design process aimed at changing the way that people move through the world as they go about their everyday lives. Design’s meaning is made in interaction, in the ways that designed objects or spaces are used in ways both intended and unintended by creators. Thus the breathlessly declared shift from designing inanimate objects to animate environments—from static buildings and standalone objects to interactive smart cities and the Internet of Things—might not be such a radical change after all. Objects have always been lively, and cities have always been pulsing, living places. If we pay attention to the social life of things, a coffee cup is as alive as an iPhone: both affect the ways that people move through time and space, creating new contexts as they go.

Temporality is a crucial part of this social and imaginative life of design. Past-, present-, and future-making are material acts. As Bissell argues, design is a “leap from the here and now.” Design necessitates a dialogic relationship between times, as well as between the experts who are generally thought to be the designers of objects and those who use them. Design, like fashion, is a “tiger’s leap into the past” (Benjamin 1968, 261).

Take the case of Warsaw, whose government sought to rebuild its Old Town in the wake of the near-total destruction of the Second World War. The world the new Communist government aimed to bring into being was not that of the 1930s, tainted by the ills of capitalism; instead, it reconstructed Warsaw’s Old Town of the eighteenth century. It did not, however, construct the new Old Town based upon the Warsaw documented in historical records, but rather as it appeared in the imagination of the Italian painter Bellotto (Murawski 2009). Warsaw’s new Old Town design is, therefore, based on an imagined past that never quite was. The past, indeed, is another world.

And perhaps the present, not just the past, is a foreign country. China is full of duplicates of other places in the world: fully-formed Venices and Washingtons, complete with thriving communities. Bianca Bosker (2013) terms this phenomenon duplitecture. But is a Chinese replica of the neoclassical White House not a copy of a copy? As I study design further, I am reminded repeatedly of Michael Taussig (1993) and Homi Bhabha’s (1994) notion of the copy as mimicry that exceeds its original, or Jean Baudrillard’s (1994) simulacrum with no original at all. Copies, present everywhere, require designers to play interactive games with time as they invoke other places.

The architects of Brasília, too, sought to bring another time and another world into being through design. Brasília was supposed to be a material means of bringing Brazil into an imagined future, a city that would create social order through its architectural design. Planners attempted to design total equality: homogenous buildings, uniform apartment blocks with the same allotted space for each inhabitant, and so on (Holston 1989). But when workers who built the city refused to be expelled from it, an intensely stratified spatial configuration of center and periphery resulted, completely subverting the plans of Brasília’s architects. The city’s future, it seems, was elsewhere. The past is another world; the present is a foreign country; the future is elsewhere.

If design seeks to remake the world anew, then the failure of design has high stakes. Decay and defeat, brought on by the inevitabilities of delay and diversion, materialize the fear that designed things may not move people in the ways designers imagine they will. Architectural designs resemble ruins (like the evocative ones to which Bissell’s post links) because they “structure the present moment by orienting it towards the past or the future,” pointing to the impossibility of fully imagining what buildings have meant to the past or will mean to the future (see Augé 1995). Design always requires an uncertain play of temporalities, a world-imagining game. Failure does not just imply the breakdown of singular objects, but the failure of world-building projects, of imaginatively and materially bringing new worlds into being.

As anthropologists, however, we are capable of leaving ample room for the successful failure of design—for the emergence of alternative futures, borne by what Bissell calls “unruly desire,” to those imagined by elites and experts.


Appadurai, Arjun. 1986. The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press.

_____. 2013. The Future as a Cultural Fact: Essays on the Global Condition. New York: Verso.

Augé, Marc. 1995. Non-places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity. Translated by John Howe. New York: Verso. Originally published in 1992.

Baudrillard, Jean. 1994. Simulacra and Simulation. Translated by Sheila Glaser. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. Originally published in 1981.

Benjamin, Walter. 1968. Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Translated by Harry Zohn and edited by Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken. Originally published in 1955.

Bhabha, Homi K. 1994. The Location of Culture. New York: Routledge.

Bosker, Bianca. 2013. Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Holston, James. 1989. The Modernist City: An Anthropological Critique of Brasília.Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Murawski, G. Michał. 2009. “(A)political Buildings: Ideology, Memory and Warsaw’s ‘Old’ Town.” Docomomo E-Proceedings 2: 13–20.

Taussig, Michael. 1993. Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses. New York: Routledge.