Book Review: Swedish Design, An Ethnography

Review: Murphy, K. 2015. Swedish Design: An Ethnography. Ithaca: Cornell University Press

Murphy’s ethnography, Swedish Design, is a thoughtful analysis of the ways things are “designed to be political” or more generally, how things are “made to mean” (Murphy 2015: 2), and one of the first major ethnographic works in the anthropology of design. His mode of inquiry is defined by a perspective that situates design, as a cultural and social phenomenon, at the center of an analysis of the structure of Swedish social-democratic ideology. One which is composed of, and constantly reproduced by, a network of not only both human and non-human agents (i.e. people and things), but also practices, narratives, forms and ideas. The overarching goal of his analysis is to show that in this Swedish context, everyday objects are “not just things from a discursive point of view; they are just things” (2015: 1). That is to say, that everyday Swedish-designed objects are not just an addendum or prop of Swedish political ideology, but they are in fact the most culturally permeating ways that everyday Swedes experience the morality of social democracy (2015: 4). The book crucially advances the anthropology of design by raising a number of insights regarding the relationship of design as a practice to the reproduction of a larger network of sociocultural phenomena. This brief review first addresses the books’ theoretical perspective with respect to semiotic-materialism as a contemporary theoretical paradigm, and secondly, its general contribution to the anthropology of design.

For Murphy, design “is primarily an intentional structuring of some portion of the lived world in such a way as to transform how it is used, perceived, or understood”, design both “delimits and affords relational configurations between people, spaces, and things, and does so in considered and unconsidered ways” (2015: 32). Design is a mode and method of imbuing the physical world with meaning, and configuring it to afford interpretation based on the thing’s own perceptible characteristics and in its relation to a larger system or symbolic structure. As Murphy puts it, “design is a kind of directed creativity with meaningful social consequences, a gradual and granular enstructuring of the everyday world” (2015: 32).

The key theoretical component of Murphy’s analysis of design is the Deleuzian diagram (Deleuze: 1988). For Murphy, the diagram is a rhizome-esque set of relations which link the everyday world – composed of objects, spaces, people, and more – to the cultural ideologies that motivate, in the context of Swedish design, “the persistence of a social democratically infused ‘way of life’” (2015: 37). It is a map of social relations and forces between social relations, that is “agnostic as to the ontological state of its components”, marking “no distinction between content and expression, a discursive formation and a non-discursive formation” (1988: 34). According to Murphy, Swedish design is a diagram which maps Sweden’s sociopolitical landscape: composed of lines drawing together people (designers, consumers, curators, citizens, politicians), things, (everyday objects, their particular forms and arrangements), and ideologies (of care, democracy, responsibility, equality, justice, beauty) such that the contemporary sociopolitics of Sweden, with all of its norms and cultural values, is constantly remade at the level of everyday life.

Diagrams are delineated by two types of lines: lines of enunciation, “whatever can be articulated” (1988: 32), and lines of visibility. Lines of the first type underpin a “fiat ontology” (2015: 38), ideologically-flush descriptions of the world which articulate (i.e. enunciate) the ideological aspects of design through connections to value-loaded propositions (2015: 42). Lines of the latter type are those within the domain of the sensible and concrete: the curves, angles, lines, planes, and textures that “compose the silhouette of the materially experienceable” (2015: 43). Essentially, these second-order lines are manifest in the core physical characteristics which qualify the style of the designed world.

There are a few remarkable things about Murphy’s theoretical perspective. Firstly, it appears to be a welcome digestion of Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus (1987). This mainly concerns how Murphy has distilled Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of a rhizomic network made of assemblages of enunciation operating within other machinistic assemblages, and the incorporeal transformations of forms through the repetition of performance ontology (1987). Murphy effectively clarifies these ideas through his own interpretation and by organizing them through other theoretical perspectives, such as Wittgenstein’s language games (2015: 12). Despite being theoretically valuable and contributive to the vein of semiotic-materialism in anthropology, propagated authors like Ingold (2012) and Harraway (1988), Deleuze and Guattari’s own work has been called a “puzzling” example of “obscurantism” (Hertz 2016: 147).

Secondly, there is an unresolved but potentially productive tension between Marxist materialism and the “new” school of semiotic-materialism mentioned above. This tension arises from the distinct absence of any definitional clarity as to what constitutes ideology. Implicitly, ideology is treated as one which is identical to that of Marx’s superstructure, with a particular emphasis on ideology as being defined by politics and morality (for example, page 126). This seems like an apt interpretation given the treatment of politics, morality and ideology as nearly interchangeable terms (see page 30, for example), Murphy’s explicit reference to the hegemony of Swedish design (2015: 211), and his focus on design as a form of economic “production” which reproduces social relations in Sweden. This latter point is most clear in Murphy’s exposition of design as a particular kind of labour that enables produced objects to be the heteroglossic forms which can be politicized (2015: 93, 208). This interpretation necessarily, however, seems to betray Murphy’s contemporary semiotic-materialist perspective (one ostensibly ambivalent about Marxism). In fact, Murphy explains early on in his introduction that his perspective is one which builds on approaches to material culture studies, such as those primarily authored by Daniel Miller (1987, 2010, 2012), Tim Ingold (2012), Bruno Latour (1993, 2007, 2008), and Michel Callon (1986, 1987). All of which are, distinctively, non-Marxist.

Murphy’s preoccupation with tracing lines, i.e. with finding the connections between the facets of a purported ideology and their reproduction in the cultural sphere through design work and material space, seems confused as to whether it can or even wants to make the case for modern new materialisms in favour of more Marxist versions of materialism. Whether the work is one, or both, or neither, merits a discussion. Nevertheless, Murphy’s conclusions denote that the expertise of design is “distributed and dispersed, and in many ways necessarily so” (2015: 206). Essentially, that whatever an ideologies’ capacity to produce a kind of subjectivity is(whatever theoretical lines upon which that process of subjectivation is conceived), the discursive power to do so is not found in one place, but distributed across many places and experiences tied together by a kind of final vocabulary which stiches them together and which is constantly reproduced at the level of both economic production and the everyday use of those produced things by the would-be subject (2015: 215).

This theoretical perspective of the diagram necessitates that Murphy’s analysis consider cultural flows outside of designing. As Murphy puts it, “the people who cultivate design are always subject to the particular cultural flows of history, ideology, and politics on which ‘moments of designing’ travel” (2015: 32). Ergo, the thing that makes Swedish Design exist both in and outside of professional “designers”. As Murphy remarks, the engendering of meaning through design is not only contained to the studio, but is a product of associations between form and narrative made both in the studio and in the larger discourses of Swedish society (2015: 6). For this reason, Murphy follows several of these domains: museums, trade shows, exhibitions, social programs, conversations, education systems, and many others which form the Swedish design “world” and produce discursive currents through which the forms given to objects become substantially ideological.

This inside versus outside the studio perspective holds a great deal of practical applications to the study of design from an anthropological perspective and the connections that Murphy establishes along lines of enunciation open a range of possibilities to anthropologists looking to explore how form acquires symbolic meaning. For example, in chapter 2, Murphy explores how the home is both materially and ideationally, and largely through the efforts of specific politicism, intellectuals, and designers, “the foundational source of the enduring poetic entanglements between Swedish politics and Swedish design” (2015: 59). In chapter 3, Murphy explores the work of designers as a product of the necessity of designers having to navigate the demands of their interlocutors (critics, clients, peers, etc.), to make a profit and run a successful company, and standout among other designers as artists (2015: 90). It is in this political-economic tension that designers, despite their effort to avoid the politicization of their work explicitly in the studio, “nonetheless continuously reproduce the conditions by which the objects they design are able to tolerate the final vocabulary of Swedish design – regardless of the pointed fact that designers rarely use it” (2015: 91).

Inside the studio, as Murphy explores in chapter 4, the semiotic language is kept alive in the order words (2015: 142) that structure designers “ways of working, talking and thinking” (2015: 209). In chapter 5, Murphy again goes outside the studio to the exhibitionary complex in which lines are weaved together into coherence, “where the diagram of Swedish design is most explicitly delineated” (2015: 173). All of these chapters, and Murphy’s work as a whole, constitute a contribution to the exploration and analysis of not only the multitude of spaces in which shapes are given meaning, but also the extent of their interconnections manifest and resonate in people’s lived experiences (2015: 212).

Works Cited

Callon, M. 1986. “Some Elements of a Sociology of Translation: Domestication of the Scallops by the Fishermen of St. Brieuc Bay.” In Power, Action and Belief: A New Sociology of Knowledge?, ed. J. Law, 196-223. London: Routledge

Deleuze, G. 1988. Foucault. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

Deleuze, G. and F. Guattari. 1987. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Translated by Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Haraway, D. 1988. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective”. Feminist Studies, 14(3):575-599

Hertz, E. 2015. “Pimp my fluff: A Thousand Plateaus and other theoretical extravaganzas”. Anthropological Theory, 16(2-3):146-159

Ingold, T. 2012. “Toward an Ecology of Materials”. Annual Reviews of Anthropology, 41(1):427-42

Latour, B. 1993. We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Latour, B. 2007. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Latour, B. 2008. “A Cautious Prometheus? A Few Steps Toward a Philosophy of Design (with Speacial Attention to Peter Sloterdijk).” Keynote lecture presented at the Networks of Design meeting of the Design Historical Society, Falmouth, Cornwall, UK, September 2008

Law, J. “Technology and Heterogeneous Engineering: The Case of Portuguese Expansion.’ In The New Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology, eds. W.E. Bijker, T.P. Hughes, and T. Pinch, 111-134. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

Law, J. 1992. “Notes on the Theory of the Actor-Network: Ordering, Strategy and Heterogeneity.” Systems Practice, 5(4): 379-93

Miller, D. 1987. Material Culture and Mass Consumption. Oxford: Blackwell

Miller, D. 2010. Stuff. Cambridge: Polity

Miller, D. 2012. Consumption and Its Consequences. Cambridge: Polity

Murphy, K. 2015. Swedish Design: An Ethnography. Ithaca: Cornell University Press [ebook version]

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