Designs for the Pluriverse: Radical Interdependence, Autonomy, and the Making of Worlds

Designs for the Pluriverse: Radical Interdependence, Autonomy, and the Making of Worlds

by Arturo Escobar


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In Designs for the Pluriverse Arturo Escobar presents a new vision of design theory and practice aimed at channeling design's world-making capacity toward ways of being and doing that are deeply attuned to justice and the Earth. Noting that most design—from consumer goods and digital technologies to built environments—currently serves capitalist ends, Escobar argues for the development of an “autonomous design” that eschews commercial and modernizing aims in favor of more collaborative and placed-based approaches. Such design attends to questions of environment, experience, and politics while focusing on the production of human experience based on the radical interdependence of all beings. Mapping autonomous design’s principles to the history of decolonial efforts of indigenous and Afro-descended people in Latin America, Escobar shows how refiguring current design practices could lead to the creation of more just and sustainable social orders.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822370901
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 03/22/2018
Series: New Ecologies for the Twenty-First Century Series
Pages: 314
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.75(d)

About the Author

Arturo Escobar is Kenan Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Read an Excerpt


Out of the Studio and into the Flow of Socionatural Life

Design is evolving from its position of relative insignificance within business (and the larger envelope of nature), to become the biggest project of all. ... Massive Change is not about the world of design; it's about the design of the world.

Bruce Mau and the Institute without Boundaries,Massive Change

A purely technocentric view of innovation is less sustainable now than ever. ... What we need is an approach to innovation that is powerful, effective, and broadly accessible ... that individuals and teams can use to generate breakthrough ideas that are implemented and that therefore have an impact. Design thinking, the subject of this book, offers just such an approach.

Tim Brown,Change by Design

In a world in rapid and profound transformation, we are all designers. ... The more tradition is weakened, the more subjects must learn to design their own lives and shift from a prevalence of activities carried out in a traditional way to one in which choices are mainly of design.

Ezio Manzini,Design, When Everybody Designs

Statements on the rapidly changing, and increasingly transformative, character of design abound in the literature of the past decade. The intensification of the globalization of images and commodities fostered by markets and technology has led today's critical design theorists to advocate for new kinds of engagement between design and the world. This starts with everyday life but moves on to infrastructures, cities, the lived environment, medical technologies, food, institutions, landscapes, the virtual, and, in the long run, experience itself. The claims about design's potential new roles range from the significant to the earth shattering. A key question becomes: how does one design for a complex world? Instead of keeping on filling the world with stuff, what design strategies will allow us — humans — to lead more meaningful and environmentally responsible lives (Thackara 2004)? As some design researchers contend, we all live within a design cluster, that is, immersed in designs of all kinds, which means that design becomes "a category beyond categories" (Lunenfeld 2003, 10), opening up new spaces for linking theory, practice, and purpose, connecting vision and reality. This brings forth the endless process of discovering new territories for design through research (Laurel 2003).

To be sure, the majority of design treatises still maintain a fundamental orientation that is technocratic and market centered, and do not come close to questioning design's capitalistic nature. Many navigate in between, alternating between uncritical celebration and venturesome ideas and critiques. Design has its caustic critics as well, although few and far between. A well-known text by Hal Foster, for instance, finds that the pervasive, almost total character taken on by design today not only "abets a near-perfect circuit of production and consumption" but instantiates a "pan-capitalist present" (2002a, 192). According to Foster, this type of present effects a perpetual profiling of the commodity that drives the contemporary inflation of design. Whatever transgressive character postmodernism might have had, Foster argues, it has become routinized by design, contributing to the exhaustion of any critique under the label of the post or the neo. This "wising up" of commercial culture has fashioned the designed subjects of pancapitalism (Foster 2002b). Design has certainly been fully integrated into the neoliberal model of capitalism that has become pervasive since the 1980s (Dunne and Raby 2013). For Sanford Kwinter, the resulting "pop-libertarian aesthetic," according to which every aspect of our daily lives is susceptible to becoming a design objective (in affluent societies), has been accompanied by the capitulation of criticism in the academy and the public sphere to such trends. Nevertheless, asserting that "much more than our living rooms and silverware are at stake" (2007, 17) and acknowledging that it implies a highly developed form of rationality, Kwinter considers that design is also a vehicle for the deepest human aspirations and as such should be a matter of widespread concern.

This chapter looks at some of the most salient critical trends in design studies and practice. It discusses recent proposals for transforming design from an expert-driven process focused on objects and services within a taken-for-granted social and economic order toward design practices that are participatory, socially oriented, situated, and open ended and that challenge the business-as-usual mode of being, producing, and consuming. It highlights design frameworks that pay serious attention to questions of place, the environment, experience, politics, and the role of digital technologies in transforming design contexts. The chapter ends with a discussion of whether a critical design studies field — one that emerges at the intersection of critical social theory and design studies — can be said to exist. A main goal of the chapter is to prepare the ground for more detailed discussions of ontological design, transition design, design for social innovation, and autonomous design, particularly for those readers with little background in design studies. I start with an intuitive, but I believe analytically suggestive, entry into the nature of design.

"When Old Technologies Were New": Design's Arrival in Gabriel García Márquez's Macondo

It is often the case that highly accomplished literary works reveal essential aspects of human life and history with a sharpness and clarity that philosophy and the social sciences can hardly aspire to match. Such is the case, for instance, with One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez (1970), a novel that hides unsuspected lessons about the early phases of the deployment of technology and design in so-called traditional societies. Let us start by recalling the book's beginning, often considered one of the most perfect opening paragraphs of world literature:

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. At that time Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point. Every year during the month of March a family of ragged gypsies would set up their tents near the village, and with a great uproar of pipes and kettledrums they would display new inventions. First they brought the magnet. ... (1)

But the magnet and the ice were just the beginning of what turned the premodern, seemingly designless reality of the poor people of Macondo topsy-turvy. A long paragraph at the start of a later chapter brings us up to date on the dialectic of wonder and disappointment, enthrallment and confusion, felt by the town's people in response to so many modern inventions, such as electricity, the cinema, the phonograph, and the telephone. Let us listen to this amazingly lucid summary paragraph:

Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo did not know where their amazement began. They stayed up all night looking at the pale electric bulbs fed by the plant that Aureliano Triste had brought back when the train made its second trip, and it took time and effort for them to grow accustomed to its obsessive toom-toom. They became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for the character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears of affliction had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many felt that they had been the victims of some new and showy gypsy business and they decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings. Something similar happened with the cylinder phonographs that the merry matrons from France brought with them as a substitute for the antiquated hand organs and that for a time had serious effects on the livelihood of the band of musicians. At first curiosity increased the clientele on the forbidden street and there was even word of respectable ladies who disguised themselves as workers in order to observe the novelty of the phonograph from first hand, but from so much and such close observation they soon reached the conclusion that it was not an enchanted mill as everyone had thought and as the matrons had said, but a mechanical trick that could not be compared with something so moving, so human, and so full of everyday truth as a band of musicians. It was such a serious disappointment that when phonographs became so popular that there was one in every house they were not considered objects for amusement for adults but as something good for children to take apart. (164)

As anthropologist Tim Ingold (2011) says, we moderns who have science can feel a certain degree of astonishment at novel discoveries — the newest iPad or electric vehicle, a seemingly miraculous drug just hitting the market — yet no real sense of wonder, as the people of Macondo did then. So, when the telephone was finally introduced, "it was as if God had decided to put to the test every capacity for surprise and was keeping the inhabitants of Macondo in a permanent alternation between excitement and disappointment, doubt and revelation, to such an extreme that no one knew for certain where the limits of reality lay" (164). That was to change significantly with the passage of time, especially as more and more marvels and strangers came to town on the weekly train. And here, at the very end of this page-and-a-half-long paragraph, one hears that "among those theatrical creatures, wearing riding breeches and leggings, a pith helmet and steel-rimmed glasses, with topaz eyes and the skin of a thin rooster, there arrived in Macondo on one of so many Wednesdays the chubby and smiling Mr. Herbert, who ate at the house" (164–165). Those who have read the book will recall what happened next: Mr. Herbert took his scientific instruments to study the banana he was served at the Buendías' house, and, as the saying goes, the rest is history, for shortly thereafter he returned to stay, along with the entire banana company, which eventually caused what García Márquez describes as a leaf storm or whirlwind. For the writer, the banana company represents the political economy of modern technology and design, the main driving engine for the whirlwind of modernity.

I grew up in Cali, Colombia, already with many of the technologies that so marveled and at the same time disappointed the people of Macondo, but in a predigital age. My family did not own a TV until I was fifteen. Before that, kids in our middle-class neighborhood would crowd together in the early part of the evening in the living room of one of our luckier neighbors to watch TV for an hour or so, an occasion for much merriment and communion among the kids; then we would go out to play on the street. By the time I finished college in 1975 — still living at home, as was and still is the custom — my parents had acquired, with significant financial sacrifice, our first, low-tech stereo player. That was one of the technological highlights of those years for me, and little by little I started to build a small collection of the vinyl records of my favorite artists. I would stay up late at night in my bedroom studying and doing homework, after everybody else had gone to sleep, while listening at low volume to my favorite station on an old, worn-out radio that surely had seen better days. In college I learned to program in Fortran IV; we would write up by hand in pencil the simple programs that would enable the endless calculations for our engineering homework, and each of those programs was converted into a large number of punch cards with little holes in them that would then be read by our huge, brand-new, and resplendent IBM 360, which lay impassively in a large, air-conditioned room of its own. We would look at the reddish machine in awe from behind the room's glass windows as the young technicians ran our programs and we waited for the results, which came in the form of long reams of paper put out by the dot matrix printers of the time, with a unique sound that quickly became part of our technological sensual repertoire. By the time I was doing my PhD at Berkeley in the 1980s, all of this had changed dramatically, of course. Yet I invariably wrote the first draft of my dissertation chapters by hand, at a café on Clement Street in San Francisco, before typing them up on my first PC at home nearby, a large and heavy Kaypro 4, somewhat popular among academics at the time (it operated with two 64K floppy disks, one containing the word processing program, the other the data).

The point of this microethnography of my own practices around technology as well as García Márquez's account is not just anecdotal. Nor is it nostalgia for times and things (or lack of things) past, and certainly is not intended to convey a reified account of the rapid pace of technological innovation. My first goal in telling these stories is simple: to make us aware, before I go on to discuss contemporary design in some detail, of the complex entanglement of science, materials, technologies, capitalism, and culture that makes up the matrix of modern design. My second goal, more pertinently for now, is to highlight the social and cultural histories of the body that surround all design, the fact that design is a key element in who we become because of the kinds of practices designed objects and tools call on us to perform. (Does it matter whether we write with pencils or on an iPad? Whether we engage in activities collectively in the neighborhood or in the solitude of our individual rooms in nuclear homes? Whether we dance and make music with others or listen to it in silence through our earphones? In what ways do these diverse practices construct different selves and societies? Does it matter?) To be sure, it doesn't have to be either-or, and certainly it is not a question of finding out whether things were better before than they are now, or the other way around, but of foregrounding the indubitable ethnographic fact of the diverse ways of being-through-practices with which our tools have much to do. Toys are us, aren't they?

The power of tools and design to shape being and identity is eloquently attested by the buzz caused by the world's fairs, from the mid-nineteenth century till today, which became showcases for designs embodying the technological and cultural accomplishments of the age. The famous Crystal Palace Exhibition in London in 1851 (Stocking 1987; Bürdek 2005) paraded for the first time in a specially designed space the technologies, trinkets, and prototypes of the day — power looms, pumps, steam engines, industrial machines. As visitors made their way through the glass cathedral, it became clear to them that not all peoples in the world had achieved the same level of "development," for there was no way the arts from "the stationary East" nor the handicrafts from "the aborigines" could ever match the "progress" of the West. Machines, after all, were "the measure of men" (Adas 1989). World's fairs were not only shrines for the collective adoration of the "civilization" and progress brought about by the Enlightenment era but also machines for effecting what in current Latin American critical theory is called coloniality, that is, the hierarchical classifications of peoples in terms of race and culture.

We no longer point at things, of course, as in Macondo's times; design gives us their names, and in this naming we are given to them, too. We rarely think these days about the ways in which our lives are thoroughly designed. Previous inventions constitute, too, the history of our designing — of both their making and our being made by them. It is a sedimented, and thus invisible, history, yet no less effective because of that. From time to time scholars remind us that old technologies were once new, to paraphrase Carolyn Marvin's (1988) wonderfully imaginative title, and that technological development is about "implementing the future" (Marvin 1999). Objects and products are of course central to this. This is strikingly the case with all the design innovations for the home space, from the mid-nineteenth-century Singer sewing machine to the entire range of modernist innovations in the 1920s–1950s (plywood chairs, table lamps, Bauhaus-style furniture, door handles, stackable dishes, vacuum cleaners and washing machines, Braun toasters and kettles, cars of course, Swedish furniture, Finnish glass, and those iconic brand objects of Italian Bel Design, such as Olivetti typewriters and that most beautiful device for modern mobility, the Vespa, introduced in 1946).


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Table of Contents

Preface and Acknowledgments  ix
Introduction  1
I. Design for the Real World: But Which "World"? What "Design"? What "Real"?
1. Out of the Studio and into the Flow of Socionatural Life  25
2. Elements for a Cultural Studies of Design  49
II. The Ontological Reorientation of Design
3. In the Background of Our Culture: Rationalism, Ontological Dualism, and Relationality  79
4. An Outline of Ontological Design  105
III. Designs for the Pluriverse
5. Design for Transitions  137
6. Autonomous Design and the Politics of Relationality and the Communal  165
Conclusion  202
Notes  229
References  259
Index  281

What People are Saying About This

Cameron Tonkinwise

“For so long, design researchers have been waiting for social researchers to take heed of the ontological politics of designing. Arturo Escobar does so but precisely to clear a space in global consumerist modernism for urgently needed alternatives. A by-product of this thorough and clear book will be the project of decolonizing the discipline and practice of design."

Manifesto for Living in the Anthropocene - J. K. Gibson-Graham

"In this exciting work Arturo Escobar steps out of the familiar territory we associate him with to engage with the cultural study of design. Significantly advancing thinking about societal transition in the context of climate change, Latin American politics, and the ongoing challenges of decoloniality, Designs for the Pluriverse makes a timely and important intervention."

Human-Machine Reconfigurations: Plans and Situated Actions - Lucy Suchman

“In this impassioned call for design for the pluriverse, Arturo Escobar asks how we might translate insights of a relational ontology into politics of transformative change. He turns to the prospects of ‘transition,’ led by autonomous communities and social movements in Latin America and the global South. This remarkable book is a way forward for all who are yearning for the radical remaking of design, as a contribution to decolonizing and remaking worlds.”

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