Currently I’m having a bit of a spat with other graphic designers over in another pocket of the Internet. My question is: can design be understood to have an ontology, can there be an ‘ontology of design’? Does this make philosophical sense?
I’m wondering if the assemblage that is my discourse, field, discipline, community, etc. can be understood as a thing? I like the notion of tracing it through all of those lenses and coming to a networked definition. A flat ontology perhaps? Does this make sense?
Hopefully he won’t object to me posting his question here as I think it’s an extremely interesting question that goes straight to the heart of what I’ve been working on with regard to cultural and social theory. Within the framework of my onticology, the criteria by which something is real lies in making a difference. As I put it with my ontic principle, “there is no difference that does not make a difference”. Thus, to be real is to make a difference. More recently I have described the ontic principle as a deflationary move. I’ve stolen the idea of “deflationary moves” from my buddy Nate over at the terrific blog What in the Hell. Nate praises Badiou for the deflationary move of placing ontology in the domain of mathematics. Where philosophy has been obsessed with the question “what is being?” or “what is the meaning of being?”, “Badiou’s” ontology is deflationary in the sense that it says “this question has already been answered and if you would like to know that answer go study mathematics.” As a consequence, Badiou is able to set aside the question of being, dethrone it from center stage, and instead focus philosophy on the question of truth. Deflating the ontological question allows the object of philosophical inquiry to be shifted elsewhere.
Unlike Badiou (and Heidegger), I do not think the central question of philosophy has been “what is being?” or “what is the meaning of being?” Rather, following Zubiri, I think the central question of philosophy is “what is reality?” However, like Badiou, I try to effect a deflationary move with respect to the question of reality. Since roughly the 17th century, philosophy has been obsessed with the question of how we might come to know reality. As such, reality has been treated as a transcendent beyond that must be reached, and which is to be distinguished from something else that is not reality. What this thing that is other than reality, I do not know. It seems to be mind, culture, language, power, and a host of other things relating to the human. The problem is that situated in these terms the question of how we can know reality is hopeless. Why? Because one of the central lines of thought we inherit from the 17th century is the thesis that we only have access to our representations. Well, if we only have access to our representations then we can only ever scan our representations to find the marks of reality, but since these marks are themselves representations we have no criteria for determining whether they are marks or simulacra: Descartes with his mind in a vat.
If the ontic principle is a deflationary move, then this is because it strives to undermine this question altogether. By beginning with the hypothesis that to be is to make a difference, it refuses the distinction between one domain, the real, that contains the “really real” differences, and another domain, the human, that contains some other type of differences. Instead it says that if it makes a difference, then it is. But really, this is a rather stupid, vulgar, and obvious thing to assert. And in certain respects, that’s the point. What is being said is “quit obsessing over this question of access and instead get busy investigating differences, how they’re linked together, how they form systems, how they relate, how they act, and forget all this glassy nonsense about how we reflect the world.” In this regard, I think there are certain resemblances between my position and the position Rorty outlines in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, where his strategy isn’t to solve certain philosophical problems or refute certain philosophical positions, but simply to abandon them. Like Newton who was unconcerned with explaining how two bodies could interact with one another across a distance so long as he could describe the regularities, the epistemological question as it has traditionally been posed is simply abandoned so we can get on with work. This doesn’t entail that epistemology is itself abandoned, only that we no longer begin from the “mind in a vat” stance (i.e., the mind as only relating to its representations) in posing these questions.
All of this is a roundabout way of saying to my friend that “yes, I do think design has an ontology.” Insofar as design makes a difference and engages with differences, it is necessarily ontological according to the ontic principle. However, the rub lies in the question of what it means to have an ontology. For some reason Nate is on my mind today, so I’ll say that this reminds me of a discussion Nate and I had when we first met online years ago. Even then I was “all ontology all the time” and had a deep suspicion of epistemology. Nate was just the opposite, having a suspicion of ontology and a certain fondness for epistemology. Now Nate has always been among the best interlocutors you could want. He is always charming, friendly, charitable in his interpretations, while nonetheless raising his criticisms and pointing out what he thinks is incoherent. In other words, he’s someone with whom dialog is possible.
As Nate and I explored our difference– and this has really been going on since about 2006, I believe –it became clear to me that Nate had a very specific understanding of ontology that justified his suspicion. For Nate ontology meant something like a theory of “the really real”, that then functioned to police human practices, thought, inventions, and so on. Coming from a perspective that could be roughly described as “historical materialist”, I can see why Nate would be suspicious of ontology. This is also, I suspect, why a number of people are suspicious of the position of realism. They see realism as an exclusionary position that functions to sort the real from the unreal, denigrating the latter. Anti-realism thereby becomes an attractive position because it is able to accommodate multiple epistemologies that account for the variety of human experience without this sort of exclusionary logic that has been so often associated with colonialism, ethnocentrism, and the police reign of the so-called [scientific] experts that are purported to silence everyone else.
This certainly is not the sort of realism I advocate, and, no doubt, with respect to these kinds of realists my position very likely looks like an anti-realism for with the anti-realists I advocate multiplicities and pluralisms, with the caveat that these are real rather than simply human. If it makes a difference, then within my framework it is. At any rate, I suspect that within the framework of my friend’s debate the thesis that graphic design has an ontology is very likely being heard as a police thesis that limits the creative possibilities of graphic design. Yet there is another way of understanding what it means to claim that graphic design “has” an ontology.
I have often remarked that texts are not simply about something, but also are something. In this connection, I hope to capture the materiality of texts, how their existence or instantiation in the world makes a difference, and how they circulate throughout the world. For example, one reason you might not want to publish a book with Kluwer or Palgrave is purely material. The outrageous price of these texts diminishes their ability to circulate throughout the world, insuring that only well stocked library and deeply interested scholars will pay for these texts. How much has the ability of Husserl’s texts to make a difference been diminished as a result of Kluwer’s editions that can run upwards of three hundred dollars? How much has the thought of Toscano and Brassier been held back because of the outrageous price of Palgrave books? These are purely material issues of circulation that have nothing to do with the content of the text, but they make an important difference in the degree to which a text circulates throughout the social space and make differences.
The process of difference-making can also occur at the level of style. Some texts lodge themselves in minds because, like the Oscar Meyer Wiener song we simply can’t get them out of our heads.
Popular self-help book, science books, philosophical commentaries, spiritual books, etc., seem to circulate and function in this way. There’s a way in which they reduce more complex things to highly iterable patterns that then easily circulate throughout the social field for whatever reason. Other texts circulate strongly for entirely different reasons. Thus, for example, Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition, Hegel’s Science of Logic, and Derrida’s Dissemination seem to circulate in part, not because they are like stupid songs that stick in your head or teutonic chants that conveniently stereotype a philosopher, but rather precisely because of their elliptical, allusive, and suggestive nature. In short, these texts are difference engines. By a “difference engine” I mean something that does not so much replicate itself faithfully, so much as something that creates the occasion for many different and divergent replications that proliferate throughout the social sphere. In other words, these sorts of texts are difference-makers in the sense that they produce many different differences in their appropriation. Thus you have right and left Hegelians. You have all sorts of different appropriations of Deleuze. You have hundreds of different versions of Marx. There is something about the style of these thinkers, its gaps, its allusiveness, its suggestiveness, and so on that makes it highly fit for cultural circulation. Drawing on a term from Husserl, we could say these texts have anexact essences. Unlike the essence of a triangle, for example, an anexact essence cannot be rigorously defined. However, there is nonetheless some abiding identity in such essences, even if it is fuzzy. Counter-intuitively, these anexact essences seem to guarantee maximal fitness where the circulation of texts is concerned as they contain just the right mixture of entropy and order to allow them to successfully resonate in a variety of different cultural contexts.
My point, then, is graphic design is real in the sense that the product of design itself makes differences and circulates throughout the world. However, it would be a mistake to simply investigate the ontology of graphic design from the perspective of its products. It must also be approached from the perspective of its production. Drawing on a term from Daniel Dennett, each type of object has its design-space, and these design-spaces play a central role in defining fields of constraint and affordance. “Design-space” might be described as the practices, techniques, available technologies, media, and existing design strategies available to designers at a particular point in history. Thus, for example, a design-space restricted to media such as paper, pencil, and paint structures possibilities differently than a design-space where photography becomes available, where the printing press becomes available, where digital technology becomes available, and so on.
There are real physics involved in design-spaces. You can do things with digital technology that you cannot do with analog mediums such as pre-digital photography, and vice versa. For example, when the camera companies decided to stop selling film for instant cameras there was outcry from a number of artists that worked in this medium because there are effects that you can get from this technology that cannot be achieved in any other way. Recently my friend Jacob Russell bemoaned the fact that my book, Difference and Givenness was not organized like my blog, with pictures accompanying text. Although it is certainly possible to publish illustrated texts (and we will see more of this as publishing continues to move online), part of the reason Difference and Givenness was put together in this way had to do with the design-space in which it was produced and published. This placed some pretty high constraints on how it was produced at both the technological level, the legal level, the economic level, and also the level of locating images insofar as the book was written at a time where the internet was only beginning to gain steam. With blogging, new styles of writing become possible that integrate text, image, video, sound, intertextuality (through hyperlinks), and which also have a very different temporal structure. Where written texts are very slowly produced over the course of years as you go from the research to the writing to the editing and proofing process, online writing has a very different temporal structure that both has its advantages and its drawbacks.
Here we approach something like what McLuhan had in mind when he said the “medium is the message”. What McLuhan is referring to is the manner in which different forms of media have different constraints and affordances that play a role in what types of objects are produced. You can do different things with a blog than you can with a printed text. These differences not only render new possibilities available, but they also change how people think and experience the world. My philosophical thought has changed fundamentally since I began blogging, as can be observed from the nature of my style when I wrote primarily on online discussion lists and in the early years of this blog. Part of this has been the evolution of my thought. Another part of this has been the nature of the medium itself. Discussion lists, for example, are organized around “master-thinkers”, so they tend towards scholarly discussion of the intricacies of that thinker or questions about where something might be found in the thinkers body of work. Writing articles for journals tends to be a largely solitary exercise that involves careful engagement with scholarship and composition. Blogging, by contrast, involves a cacophony of voices, each with their own interests and backgrounds, hyperlinked cross-blog discussions, multiple forms of media, and so on. The medium in all these cases plays a formative role in the formation of content.
However, when McLuhan claims that the media is the message he’s not simply talking about affordances and constraints that play a role in what sorts of artifacts are possible, but also the role that media play in affording or constraining certain forms of social relations. Only certain forms of social relation are possible when you have nothing but dirt roads and horse driven buggies and where messages are sent through regular male. It is said that part of the sexual revolution was kicked off through the wide availability of cars among teenagers that gave them a place where they could neck away from home. Indeed, Ford originally designed the first Mustangs to be cheep and to have a larger, flat backseat so that they would be available to teenagers and because he new that conveniences like large flat back seats are of particular interest to teenagers with raging hormones. And, of course, the internet creates social communities across wide distances of space that would never otherwise come together. All of these elements of design-spaces, of media, play a central role in the success of certain productions as well as the lack of success of other productions.
Finally, in any design-space there is what Deleuze, in Frances Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, called the “virtuality” of the canvas. According to Deleuze, no artist ever faces a blank canvas or piece of paper, but rather the canvas is always populated by virtual singularities which play a role in the genesis of the work of art. These virtualities consist of the history of art or other artistic productions, the manner in which the artist has been trained, features of the medium, familiar artistic themes, plot lines, and so on. The artist or producer of any sort faces a particular situation. On the one hand, as Lacan liked to say, we are all plagiarists in that we borrow themes, techniques, concepts, and styles from others. How could we not? Like bricoleurs, we work with available materials. On the other hand, there is a constant pressure to invent new variations within existing design-space, or to find new niches for our own work. Design-space is thus not fixed, but is an ever moving and shifting field of production that re-assembles itself with each new production.