Design is a peculiar aspect of the modern economy, figuring significantly into the production of the lived world, and often overlooked. Design, until recently, has been overshadowed largely by scholarly emphasis on aspects manufacture “production”, treated thoroughly by Marxist lenses of analysis. Design is peculiar both in terms of its sequence and kind of labour, but also with respect to the agents and actors who undertake it (Murphy 2016: 433). The anthropology of design is an emerging focus within the transdisciplinary relationship of design and anthropology, a looks to position these practices, conditions, intentions and the symbolic language of design as its object of analysis.
Given that Keith Murphy has recently published an annual review of the state of design and its relation to anthropology (2016), this review instead looks to connect the most recent monograph explicitly oriented to an anthropology of design (by Keith Murphy no less), with two precursor ethnographies of a prototypical kind. In his annual review, Murphy argued for a need to expand anthropology of design to explore the irreducible aspects of design: action, form, and consequence: “Given that much of the artificial world is designed in some way, design represents perhaps the most common channel through which humans intervene, directly and indirectly, in the lives of other humans” (2016: 435). It is to address the state of the politicism and morality of design, and the role of design in the production, and reproduction of cultural norms, values, and ideologies, that Murphy makes his call, and that this review is written.
These three ethnographies, DIY Style: Fashion, Music, and Global Digital Cultures (2012); Addiction by Design (2012), and; Swedish Design: An Ethnography (2015), represent valuable contributions to an anthropology of design and the slow movement in anthropology from material culture and science and technology studies (STS) to an explicit anthropology of design practices in which the designed world is contextualized or out-rightly replaced by the act of designing as the object of anthropological analysis. Further, they contribute to that which Murphy called for in his annual review: further understanding of the political, ethical, and moral dimensions of the relationship between action, form, and consequence of design and within the broader category of the built world.
Murphy’s ethnography is exemplary in uncovering the political dimension of design practices, but the ethnographies which he is put into conversation with here, although older and not expressly ethnographies of design, have much to offer with respect to how to imagine an anthropology of design preoccupied by the political, moral, and ethical. This review puts these texts into conversation with each other, to establish the ostensible trends of a budding anthropology of design, and answer significant questions for this emerging discipline.
Swedish Design: An Ethnography
Murphy’s ethnography, in many ways is far more explicit than both Dow Schüll’s and Luvaas’ both in its intentions to be an anthropology of design sine qua non, and in its straightforward mode and method of inquiry. Murphy sets to address the question: how are things designed to be political? Swedish Design is about “how design and designing work in Sweden, and how the ordinary things of the world [in Sweden], the often-unnoticed accoutrements of everyday life have come to acquire a certain political vitality” (2015: 1). This political aspect of design in Sweden, according to Murphy, specifically that of Svensk design, is one of social democracy (2015: 4).
Swedish Design: An Ethnography takes place over a year living in Stockholm between 2005 and 2006, and shorter trips (between 2 and 6 weeks each) to Sweden in general spread out over another 8 years, between 2007 and 2013. Its structure is similar to what Ingold calls a “following” (Ingold 2012) of the ways in which certain things are given form in Sweden, why they matter, and how those things are rendered political objects. Building on approaches in material culture studies, primarily authored by anthropologist Daniel Miller (1987, 2010, 2012), and Actor-Network Theory (ANT), most commonly associated with Bruno Latour (1993, 2007, 2008), Michel Callon (1986, 1987), and John Law (1987), it probes the relationship between the concrete and the abstract, and how it is reproduced and perpetuated as a credible and culturally significant bond in Sweden (2015: 4).
Murphy’s subjects exist both in and outside of professional “designers”. As he 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 in the larger discourses of Swedish society (2015: 6). Murray follows several of these domains: museums, trade shows, policies and other media forms, discursive imaginaries, which form the Swedish design “world” and constitute the means by which the forms given to objects acquire ideological substance (the processes by which the political is applied to the physical). In fact, for many of the designers Murphy interacted with, design as a practice in the studio was often an apolitical activity (2015: 126).
A key methodological (in terms of its applications for mapping these connections of politics and form) and theoretical (with respect to how that map is structured) approach for Murphy is the Deleuzian diagram (1988) of Svensk Design. For Deleuze, the diagram is a 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” (Deleuze 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, 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” (Deleuze 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 (read: 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, the core physical characteristics which qualify the style of the designed world.
These ideas are exemplified starting in chapter 2, “Building the Beautiful Home”, in which Murphy narrates the results of his observations of how the Swedish home is treated as both a real place, a real building composed of lines of visibility and occupied by a real family, and as a concept, a resonant political metaphor used as an organizing principle by a political party (in this case the Swedish Social Democratic Party) intent on transforming society (2015: 58). Historically, the home was seen as the motivation for, and the object of, large-scale social engineering projects shaped by a utopian vision to improve the conditions of society as a whole by addressing the everyday problems of each of its members (2015: 58). The home was (and indeed remains) 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). These lines of enunciation, the domains through which the political are tied to the physical, are inextricable from engagements between designers within the studios of design, the professional “design” processes which give objects their forms (2015: 6).
This is well illustrated in chapter 3, “In the Design World”. In chapter 3, Murphy explores the work of designers as both 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). As well as in chapter 4, “In the Studio”, he takes to examining the minute details of interactions between these actors as they negotiate the associations of ideas with forms amongst each other in private, but always tethered to the larger contexts of manufacturers who contract them, factories who produce their works, the critics who assess them, and the consumers who buy them (2015: 130).
Murphy’s conclusion is essentially that, in Sweden, design as a practice is designated a tool for improving individual practices, common problems, and shared needs and functions as the basic starting point for “crafting a just society” of a quintessentially-Swedish variety (2015: 11). The moral denotation of designed objects produced in these lines of enunciation, of values like “care”, “equality” and “wellness”, is configured in a complex and pervasive national discourse which establishes the connections between form, symbol, and practice, not as “a distant utopic vision of the way life should be, but rather is squarely oriented towards reminding the public that this is the way life is” (2015: 206 original emphasis).
Addiction by Design
Dow Schüll’s ethnography approaches addiction in the context of machine gambling in Las Vegas. She draws on research conducted between 1992 and 2007, including a continuous 18 months of research between 1998 and 2000, in the context of a booming Las Vegas casino industry. Though it follows in the footsteps of works like that of Irving Goffman’s ethnography of Las Vegas blackjack dealers (1961), and the interpretative anthropology of Clifford Geertz’s Balinese cockfight (1973), Dow Schüll does not find the existential character contests or tournaments of prestige which gambling has in those cases taken the shape of. Instead, she finds that, consistently, gamblers who use slot machines often do so to escape their lives into a place called “the zone” (2012: 24). The zone, as many of Dow Schüll’s informants describe it, is nothing like the facilitated risk offered to the subjects of Goffman or Geertz, a place of socially meaningful deep play or a release from a safe and momentless life. Instead, the zone is a reliable safe “zone of insulation from a human world” in which players perceive that “time, space, and social identity are suspended in the mechanical rhythm of a repeating process” (2012: 12, 23).
Addiction is concerned with giving a chance to gamblers to be experts in understanding the dynamics of gambling in which they are caught up in, rather than maladapted consumers oblivious to their self-destruction. According to Dow Schüll gamblers can provide the study of gambling addiction with insight into the aspects of gambling overlooked by others. She considers them experts in this zone they inhabit, which she argues “resonates to some degree, with the everyday experiences of many in contemporary capitalist societies” (2012: 24). It is never her intent to study the design of these machines explicitly, rather, it is revealed that this part of her ethnography is a necessary step; to understand the experiences of these gamblers, there needed to be a better understand the machines they were playing.
The author thoroughly follows this human-machine relationship, and the ethnography is broken into four consecutive parts which transition in focus from machine to gambler: part one, “Design”, explores casino architecture, machine interface, and machine programming; part two, “Feedback”, addresses the dynamic relationship between software programming and players’ intentions, advanced data analysis of gambler habits to heighten their absorption into the machines, and “choice making” during gameplay as “self-dissolving” (2012: 25) illusion of control offered by machines; part three, “Addiction”, marks a shift to the gamblers themselves, exploring what “the zone” reveals about social forces and values about money, time, and social interaction, operating in gambler’s lives, and how the dynamics of control help to articulate the personal stories of gambler’s lives; finally, in part four, “Adjustment”, Dow Schüll explores the paradoxical remedies to gambling addiction which often become implicated in the problems they try to fix, namely among the therapeutic techniques and social policies and regulatory schemes of larger government systems.
In many aspects of her ethnography, Dow Schüll is much less direct (when compared with Murphy or Luvaas) in terms of theoretical underpinnings, often moving from sociologists like Max Weber (1946) when discussing the enchantment of the rational calculating machine world (2012: 77), to philosophers like Deleuze and Guattari (1987) to interpret the feeling of time suspension that gambler’s have while in “the zone” (2012: 202). Implicit connections in her work are also important to note: for example, her discussions which would resonate within the movement in anthropology towards understanding material affect (Bennett, 2010). This stands out particularly in discussions of gambling machines’ ability to distill the chief aspects of contemporary capitalism into their most elementary forms “formatted in such a way that they cease to serve as tools for self-enterprise and instead serve as the means to continue play” (2012: 208). In form and function, gambling machines are active perpetuators of the economic logic of what Schüll describes as “late stage capitalism” (2012, 208).
This latter point is one of the most valuable contributions of this work to an anthropology of design, one which runs central to Dow Schüll’s work and embodies a very affective materiality-like approach to design: the negotiation of designs by designers, policy makers, bureaucratic regulatory mechanisms, and ideas about “what consumers want”, imbue machines with an affective capacity to engender within users a sense of “the zone”. This affective capacity is in many ways physiological and conducive to the symbols which gamblers bring to the machine, for example, as a kind of “vacation” which suspends the gambler’s need to socially interact with others (2012: 194). Solutions to this generally negative affect are, however, certainly part and parcel to the political semiotics of larger social discourses. As Dow Schüll writes: “tensions over who or what is in control in the context of the machine gambling encounter, and who or what should be accountable for the loss of control” (2012: 259) necessitate a discussion of the processes by which these machines are conceived of and developed. In essence, “the process of affixing blame lead to different ways of fixing the problem” (2012: 259). This is a particularly valuable endeavor with respect to Dow Schüll’s insights regarding the regulation of certain elements of gambling machines’ designs; the approach of regulatory bodies towards mitigating the risk of gambling to players by indirectly modifying their behaviour through design tweaks presents a sticky contradiction, given that indirectly modifying behaviour is exactly what gambling machines set out to do in the first place (2012: 274).
Though this new materialism emphasis should be remarked upon for future ethnographies of the anthropology of design, her ethnography certainly raises, more directly, questions about the contradictions of capitalism present in the design studio. More specifically, it raises questions about the complexity of designers positions in negotiating the creative revenue maximizing practices of firms and governments alike through gambling machines, with its ostensible moral perplexities. All of which distill into the eventual final form of the object. Designers, as central to what defines the design of the machines, find themselves caught in what Dow Schüll calls a “dissonance” (2012: 291), between programming consumer preference-shaping and the inviolability of consumer sovereignty.
DIY Style: Fashion, Music, and Global Digital Cultures
Luvaas’ ethnography of Indonesian Do-It-Yourself (DIY) practices explores how the south Asian cut-and-paste style of “critical appropriation” (Luvaas 2012: “Introduction”, para. 1) has come to exemplify an increasingly widespread attitude of “creating by any means necessary” in the regime of expanding global capitalism (2012: “Introduction”, para. 3). This attitude marked by a constant need for conspicuous cultural creation rather than conspicuous consumption is viewed through an often-ambivalent Marxist lens of analysis as Luvaas’ ethnography considers the DIY ethic.
For Luvaas, the ethic is loosely defined as a “structure of feeling underlying DIY production, the attitude that fuels it, the sentiments that surround it, and the logic that guides it” (2012: “Introduction”, para. 12). His work argues that this DIY ethic is a mode of design and creativity born out of specific history, and inseparable from the conditions of labour and production of advanced post-industrial capitalism (2012: “Introduction”, para. 13). The DIY ethos is sometimes its counterpoint, and usually as something predicated on the very same ideological pillars of creativity, experimental go-getting, and innovative entrepreneurial spirit (2012: “Introduction”, para. 13). The DIY ethos is defined by the elements of creativity, independent thinking, and passionate pursuit of producing on one’s own terms, all of which are thoroughly compatible (and in many ways demanded by) the modern, global, economic market (2012: “Introduction”, para. 14).
Luvaas’ notion of the specific history responsible for the DIY ethos of Indonesia is assembled in much the same way as Murphy’s Swedish design, a national political current: bred out of the same cut and paste attitude that the Indonesia government had when it unified an Indonesian national culture out of the myriad of regional traditions of the archipelago, which were in themselves already cobbled together through long histories of conquest and trade (2012: “Indonesia, Republik DIY”, para. 9). DIY, in this context, emerges “out of a failed promise of revolution and an internalization of national development thinking” (2012: “Indonesia, Republik DIY”, para. 10), “inextricably embedded in a class politics it seeks to both erase and overcome” (2012: “Indonesia, Republik DIY”, para. 54). Luvaas moves deeper into the contemporary manifestations of this relationship in chapter 2, “DIY Capitalism: Class, Crisis, and the Rise of Indie Indonesia”, where he explores the political and economic factors that contributed to the growth of DIY production in Indonesia, and the active appropriation of the tools of global capitalist production by Indonesian youth (2012: “DIY Capitalism”, para. 11). In doing so, he establishes that capitalist expansion is manifested, produced and reproduced, in the continual work of Indonesian DIY designers; Indonesian DIY designers are the mechanism for neoliberal expansion intricately tied to the symbolic attitudes of indie sub-culture (2012: “DIY Capitalism”, para. 64).
Aside from historical analysis, Luvaas’ primary fieldsites were the distros, the small distribution outlets, operating in Bandung West Java and Yogyakarta. In Indonesia, these distros are distributors of clothing and music, “varied from ramshackle shops to large upscale boutiques” (2012: “On Method”, para. 4). Many are run like ordinary businesses, with expected business hours and stable staff, others functioning more as collectives managed by groups of friends who take turns designing, marketing, selling and hanging out into the late night.
Chapter 3, “DIY in DIY (Daerah Istemewa Yograkarta): Everyday Production in the Indonesian Scene”, is integral to a larger comparison between these three texts, particularly concerning the locus of design practices, and the lines of enunciation which Murray argues are integral to the connection between ideologies and forms. In chapter 3, Luvaas is concerned with the everyday activities and practices of DIY cultural production in the Indonesian indie scene: chronicling the cast of characters and their typical routines within a distro called “Reddoor”. It is here that we see the political and ethical DIY ethos negotiated and reproduced in the afterhours “hanging out” of various actors (designers, marketers, band managers, and other conspicuous cultural producers), for example “Boys Parties” (2012: “DIY in DIY”, para. 43). The casual interactions of these actors if not more so than in the studio where physical designing happens, is paramount to the work of what Murray would call lines of enunciation. It is during these long periods, when they hangout, drink, talk casually, that they do “real cultural work”, negotiating positions of taste, on fashion, politics, and music, as well as place themselves and their designed forms into the larger debates occurring in Indonesia (2012: “DIY in DIY”, para. 70). In contrast to work by Murphy, who remarks upon the way that the physical is engendered by the political through formal domains, like galleries, classrooms, intelligentsia, and political currents, Luvaas highlights the importance of informal sites of this engendering. Similar to Murphy’s emphasis on the minute interactions in the studio between designers, are the seemingly inconsequential interactions between the Indonesian youth during after-hours casual conversation.
Inside the studio, it is through the practices of cutting and pasting that apparently hastily produced assemblages of graphic on t-shirts come to perform the re-writing of power relationships embedded in the narrative of the nation’s encounters with neoliberal capitalism (2012: “On Cutting and Pasting”, para. 12). This bricolage approach to design nuances Murphy’s observations about Swedish design, which sees political ideology attached to form through lines between rhetorical propositions, forms, and even proximal associations in highly politicized public domains. The cut and paste design style, rather, physically appropriates the politicized imagery of corporations, political bodies, and established designers, which have already subsumed the ideological narratives of those domains, and in doing so allows DIY designers to infuse existing narrative with a new ideological potency (2012: “On Cutting and Pasting”, para. 12).
Luvaas conclusion, generally speaking, is that the DIY movement is not about moving beyond capitalism, and replacing it with a utopic version of the future in which consumption and production are meaningful. Rather it is about the irrelevancy of the proposition entirely: DIY embodies the belief that capitalism has already won, but it need not leave us “cold, alienated, and aching for something more meaningful and fulfilling” (2012: “Conclusion”, para. 63).
The key contributions of these three texts are fundamentally with respect to how to conceive of design in anthropology, methodological approaches to studying design. Both of which contribute to illustrating the facets by which to approach the politicism of the designed world and its moral, and ethical corollaries.
In his ethnography of Swedish design, Murphy explicitly defines design as “a kind of controlled and cultivated creativity”, with a “stress on the practices involved in planning and creation” (2015a: 31). Design is something which is essentially a basic “way of making” that is “not quite art – though it often bumps against it” (2015a: 31). It is neither “restricted to those with technical training or institutionally recognized skill, but applies widely to any kind of creative action that involves planning and forethought” (2015a: 31). In a sociocultural context, 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”, which both “delimits and affords relational configurations between people, spaces, and things…in considered and unconsidered ways” (2015a: 32). Dow Schüll and Luvaas provide works which support this definition.
Methodologically, things are much more varied between the three works: according to Murphy, Swedish design is interpreted as a Deleuzian diagram, mapped with lines of enunciation and of visibility, which illustrate the constant production and reproduction of Sweden’s social democratic sociopolitical landscape in everyday life. Forms and discourses are connected through domains like museums, galleries and IKEA stores. The political aspect of design for Murphy is that which is connected through these highly politicized domains, which are in turn constantly negotiated into formal existence in the minute interactions inside the design studio.
Dow Schüll’s theoretical lenses are highly varied, and her methodological approach is one which puts users at the center of understanding design. Dow Schüll sees the political attached to the physical by way of the problematization of machine gambling: by framing who is responsible for addictive technologies (the machine, the creator, the government, the gambler), political and semiotic elements are diffused into designs (sometimes in very explicit ways) as solutions to the highly politicized problems. In other ways, Dow Schüll seems attuned to the affective capacity of designed objects to evoke symbolic associations from their users, like the notion of a vacation in the suspension of social obligations. These are symbolic connections which designers in turn leverage to facilitate more efficient and effective revenue generation, and more immersive experiences in “the zone” for gamblers.
Luvaas’ ethnography of the cut-and-paste DIY ethos is a rigidly Marxist approach to contextualizing the political aspects of design, though apparently ambivalent about its apparent mechanisms. The DIY ethos found in the distros of Indonesia is sometimes counterpoint to the post-industrial mode of production, but usually as something predicated on the very same ideological pillars. Methodologically speaking, Luvaas highlights the importance of informal interaction among all those involved in the practice of conspicuous cultural production, which designers, marketers, and even band managers find themselves. Luvaas articulates an anthropology of design wherein the informal is as substantial as the formal in operating as domain for lines of enunciation.
Aside from Murphy’s ethnography reviewed here, the ethnographic literature of the anthropology of design is largely confined to a disparate group of articles and edited volumes. Even rarer, it is only recently that works have been conducted and assembled with the express intention of exploring the politicism of objects through a design-centric approach. Notably, the edited volume by Yelavich and Adams, Design as Future-Making (2014), is one such example, drawing together essays from various disciplines and authors, including designers, critics, and anthropologists, exploring the utopian design as interventions of a social, environmental, or political nature. With respect to the works discussed here, however, an important point may be made regarding the politics of design: an inquiry into design as an intentional push towards a specific kind of future by a set of professional institutions should not overlook the significant contribution of the fiat ontologies of the everyday present.
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