28.10.2013 Latour – A cautious Prometheus? A few steps toward a philosophy of design

Latour, B., 2008. A cautious Prometheus? A few steps toward a philosophy of design (with special attention to Peter Sloterdijk). In Proceedings of the 2008 Annual International Conference of the Design History Society, pp. 2-10.

Text chosen by Hilal Bugali

Bruno Latour is a philosopher, sociologist, and anthropologist, best known for his contributions to the philosophy of science and technology studies over the past thirty years. He developed the idea of culture as a network of associations through his version of Actor-network Theory (ANT), which focuses especially on the relationship between science, technology, and society.

My research concerns design for social intervention and I am particularly interested in why –above all other professions- designers take part in social projects. I find Latour’s ideas relevant to the investigation of design’s significance within a social context, as he includes non-human actors within the domain of social relations. By explaining the reasons of why he thinks of design as an advantageous concept, he legitimises design’s interference with the social.

In this keynote speech for the meeting of the Design History Society, Latour firstly discusses the definition of design, and then talks about the five advantages of the concept of design. He suggests that modesty is one of the advantages design has over other concepts like “construction” or “building”. He calls the expansion of the word “design” as a post Promethean theory of action; this is particularly important as it emerged right when we started to acknowledge the need to redesign all the things surrounding us. So, design retains its humility even when it gains a significant role in our Umwelt.

The second advantage Latour mentions is the attention to details. The fact that the attention to detail has always been associated with design, along with “skills”, “art” and “craft”, makes design the perfect vehicle for revolution, because these attributes slow down any hasty move for progress and prevent (or at least reduce) the chance of failure. This precautious attitude was what modernist ethos lacked.

The third advantage design possesses is that it wraps the artefacts with meaning and opens them to interpretation. When we look at the artefacts as an outcome of a design process, we immediately start to analyse the underlying meanings and interpret them, and so we stop conceiving them as mere objects. They become “things”; they evolve from being “matters of fact” into “matters of concern”.

Another advantage Latour relates with design is that it never claims to create ex nihilo. It always embraces and builds on existing knowledge; to design is always to redesign, to make things more usable, more user friendly, more efficient, more commercial, more sustainable, and so on. Latour describes this as “remedial”; so design is the remedy –the antidote- to founding, colonising, establishing, or breaking with the past. Instead of looking for an absolute answer, design follows a cautious process.

The last, and maybe the most important advantage linked to design is that it involves an ethical dimension, enclosed in the evaluation of “good versus bad design”. Unlike modernist approach, which strips matters of fact from goodness and badness, design connects materiality with a sense of morality. And this is vital in a world, where not only everyday artefacts, but also cities, landscapes, societies, genes, brains are being redesigned.

Latour concludes the first part by referring to Mao: “the revolution has to always be revolutionised”. He assigns design as the proper tool to realise this revolution, because of its attitudes that no other revolutionary movements managed to combine before, like modesty, precaution, skills, crafts, meanings, artificiality, relativity, etc.

In the second part of his speech, Latour discusses Sloterdijk’s contribution to design philosophy by investigating the concepts in Sloterdijk’s magnum opus, “Spheres”. “Spheres” is about “spaces of coexistence”, envelopes commonly overlooked or taken for granted that are crucial to developing a definition of humans. Latour proclaims Sloterdijk as the “go-to philosopher” for design, because he manages to resolve the modernist dichotomy of emancipation and attachment (or facts versus values, nature versus culture) through explicitation. Latour also believes that explicitation allows us to understand that it is possible to include the notion of matter in rematerialising process and exclude the modernist “matters of fact”. Sloterdijk’s philosophy offers another idiom to replace “matters of fact”, namely “matters of concern”. This idiom evolves matters and materiality into something that can and must be carefully designed.

In the last part of his speech, Latour raises a question to designers: “where are the visualisation tools that allow the contradictory and controversial nature of matters of concern to be represented”? He says that even with the advances like perspective drawing, projective geometry and computer-aided design tools that help designers draw Gegenstand, they still have no clue about how to draw Ding. He concludes his speech by suggesting that innovation is needed to develop a way to address the conflicting natures of all the things to be designed, and to do this by including all the actors: gods, non-humans and mortals.

For further reading, you can have a look at Latour’s “Reassembling the Social – An Introduction to Actor Network Theory“, which is particularly relevant to the investigation of design’s significance within a social context, as he includes non-human actors within the domain of social relations. 

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