Smith and Otto’s contribution to the edited volume Design Anthropological Futures (2016), is a provoking piece that, though somewhat obfuscated by the language that typifies the philosophically-oriented works of the post-modern turn, presents at its core some valuable questions regarding the epistemological implications of a discipline oriented towards futurity. Smith and Otto draw on the works of Rabinow and Deleuze. The former is a notable scholar of Foucault, and the latter, the Batman (or Robin) of post-structuralisms’ possibly most notorious duo since Derrida and transcendental signifier.
Smith and Otto’s intention with the piece is to draw attention to the fact that what design anthropology is in fact oriented towards is an ever emergent future. In fact a future which is one of many that are determined by the artefacts and ideas of the present. This becomes an exercise (or exorcism) of the most Foucauldian kind – there is inevitably a politics of the present by which what is understood to exist now in effect determines the boundaries of the possible. As Smith and Otto put it, “At a fundamental level, one can argue that social reality is always in a state of emergence…past and future are not independent entities, but accessible only as dimensions of the present” (para. 7). The future, emerging as it is, is already populated by the environments, things, skills, ideas, institutions, and cultural permutations of the present which, in some sense, influence the space of the possible. Smith and Otto’s goal in this chapter is to move away from an anthropology of design (by in effect of the future) by moving away from what is, what might be. In an effort to do so, in their argument, the discipline must shift its set of tools. To do so they rely on Rabinow and Delueze.
They draw two concepts from these theorists as a way to shift their analytical perspective towards to possible: virtualness, and untimeliness. The productive contribution of which should be subject to discussion. The virtual world is one, according to Deleuze, which exists in a kind of metaphysical parallel to the current emerging future. This kind of adjacent world is produced in the process of ethnography, for example. Ethnography effectively produces a representation of that emerging world in a very recursive and temporally isolated way, and often constructs that world in a way which is markedly different from the one constituted in “the reigning opinion” (in their words). The world produced in ethnography is in effect, slowed down and critically distant from the world which it represents.
The authors expand on these ideas through the construction of a Digital Natives, interactive exhibition. The purpose of this Danish exhibition was to explore and develop the ways for museums to engage audiences in the cultural heritage of a highly digital era. Contrary to expectations, the youth which constituted the subjects of the research revealed a fractured set of practices aligned with the digital artefacts that the museum expected to showcase. They did not see themselves as digital natives, never really in fact identified with the concept, and actually highlighted both aspects of tradition and criticism of their uses of the technologies surrounding them. The youth (teens specifically) that were selected for the project represented “diverse forms of everyday engagement with the digital – from engaging in the cultural production of artistic film and photography, through political and cultural activism, to the shaping of identity through fashion blogs, gaming, or engagement via social media platforms” (para. 13).
The virtualness and untimeliness of ethnography is not enough, for Smith and Otto, instead it is just something to build on. So rather than just develop insights into the digital worlds of the ethnographic subjects, the aim was to actively explore and co-create “the imaginations” of these worlds. The traditional properties of a cultural heritage exhibition were backgrounded, and effectively replaced with a list of highly dialogical principles with the intention of creating an exhibition space that was processual, and open-ended. It sought to situate potential audiences within the point of departure for a continually emerging set of cultural practices. The exhibition itself was the experiment exploring an emerging future in a context of virtualism and untimeliness: according to Smith and Otto, it was untimely through its ethnographic categorization – defining Digital Natives through a concept which was not part of the culture being observed (a category constructed in the recursive ethnographic representation), and virtual because the exhibition itself was separate from (or rather adjacent to) the emergent realities themselves.
Smith and Otto argue that is was in the Digital Natives project, the concrete interventions (via a virtual mode), that particular futures and pasts were defined and experimented with in exhibition co-creation. Their concern, as I mentioned earlier, is primarily about opening up a dialogical space, eliminating or subverting the notion of an authoritative and singular future defined by the power structures of the present. They make the claim that, for example, in some exhibitions, their dialogic structure (their open-endedness) is a solution to the authority of what would otherwise be constructed as formalized knowledge – essentially that the museum space communicates both past and future as uncertain, emerging, contended, etc. and anything but determined.
Yet, the creation of a parallel metaphysical present, one that escapes the confines imposed on it by existing ideas, artefacts, etc. seems almost nonsensical. Would not every parallel present be somehow constrained, existing as a simple re-arranged sort of the same artefacts and ideas? Can one escape the authority of the museum, one ostensibly invested with the authority of showcasing (and therefore establishing the legitimacy of) the past and present (and by extension the future)? It seems to be that either the museum as an authoritative institution undermines the attempt to create an infinitely open-ended notion of the future, or the attempt to create an infinitely open-ended notion of the future undermines the very purpose of a museum, which is to present a kind of collective authoring of time, which necessarily must limit the future to one which incorporates it.
Michel-Rolph Trouillot comes to mind with respect to his conceiving of history (or rather historicity). His book Silencing the Past is one which argues that there are ever changing politics of the present which establish what constitutes legitimate facts of history, and that we might change one and therefore the other. Slavoj Zizek has also written about the way that ideology constructs history in a kind of retroactive process, constantly re-evaluating what constitutes fact, and how those facts might newly constitute the point “up to now”. Zizek, unlike Smith and Otto here, argues that this is inevitable and impossible to avoid.