Wednesday, October 4, 2006

On mess and method and designing for debate

I've read Latour's awesome Socratic explanation of ANT many times, but today Jean focussed on something that I still need to get a better handle on in my writing:

Professor — I would leave aside all ‘underlying frameworks’, if I were you.

Student — But, your sort of ‘science’, it seems to me, means breaking all the rules of social science training.

Professor — I prefer to break them and follow my actors.

Wittgenstein - the pragmatist - got it too: "Philosophy simply puts everything before us, and neither explains nor deduces anything." (See also: On Certainty.)

Do we really need to explain how a person died in order to understand that they are dead? The explanation in that case is meant to be definitive: to account for death. But what about death are we wanting - or needing - to understand with such an explanation? Forms of life - and death - need to be experienced. What if we can point at them, maybe describe them, but never really explain them?


I'm currently revising (again!) my methods discussion. I never anticipated what a big chunk of my dissertation it would become, nor ultimately, how interesting I would find it.

Really, I've been a bit overwhelmed by how to deal with the unruliness I've encountered. And despite my reasonably strong grasp of the theoretical issues at hand, I've still found myself struggling to order these messes - to do exactly what I argue should not (or cannot) be done.

As John Law explains:

"Vicky and I were finding it impossible to map what was going on precisely because it was a mess. And, somewhat strangely in a way, our instinct was to ask reality to adjust itself so that indeed it could be properly mapped . . . [W]e were trying to study something that was turning out to be a moving target. Actually a shape-shifting target too . . . What on earth, we wondered, was it that we were actually studying? Why couldn’t we hold it still? Why did it keep on going out of focus? Why, when we were ‘supposed’ to be finding out about the treatment of ALD did we end up talking about other things? Related things perhaps. But nevertheless not what we were supposed to be talking about . . . Maybe we were dealing with a slippery phenomenon, one that changed its shape, and was fuzzy around the edges. Maybe we were dealing with something that wasn’t definite. That didn’t have a single form. A fluid object. Or even one that was ephemeral in any given form, flipping from one configuration to another, dancing like a flame."

Law also mentions the moral dimensions of these questions and observations. How much we expect ourselves and our colleagues to do "good" sociology. To get it sorted out. To explain it all. To resolve things. To reach conclusions. You know, all those things that Latour's student has been taught in her social science training too. All those things my professors taught me.

All those things that I'm not at all convinced are necessary, let alone valuable or, sometimes, even possible.


I get very frustrated when artists and designers demand I give them something useful to work with. That I tell them how to make better objects. That I effectively shut down discussion and debate instead of opening them up. I've been asked to bring more social and theoretical concerns to the table, but when I don't give them what they expect or desire, they dismiss the validity or relevance of my work, of sociology, anthropology, history, philosophy...

Of course it isn't that simple - astute readers may have noticed that I strip myself of any agency or responsibility in that rant, despite my repeated use of the word "I". And actually I'm just feeling really weird this morning about my talk at UIUC last week.

J. told me that I did the best thing possible: I gave them something to talk about, to argue about. (For a week now, apparently.) But because I've become all self-absorbed with the dissertation, all I can think is "Fuck. My methodology failed. There was no enrolment!"


But maybe I misunderstand. Maybe there is no failure. Or rather, maybe my expectations of methodological success are a bit off.


I manually searched through four years of blog posts and copied all the posts I thought were related to the trajectory of my research over that time. I printed them and cut/taped as needed to turn individual posts into individual artefacts. Then I arranged them on the dining room table. For several days I moved them around and used different coloured yarn to make temporary (but thematic) connections. I rearranged them chronologically, in reverse order of their publication, and I photographed all of this. Then I wrote about it. Again.

This world of thinking and ideas and writing was very much a material and embodied experience. In fact, we do and make things at each step in our research - they simply aren't things or products that others always recognise or value. And we're not the only ones with this problem.


I still don't understand why I should set out rules for more socially and culturally responsible design. I don't believe in universalism. Plus, it implies that designers are separate from the objects they produce. That regardless of their own everyday values, their own worldviews and ways of living, there are external, relatively objective guidelines that will make it all better.

(An oddly similar logic runs through the following statement: "I have nothing against fat people; I'd just never want to be that way myself." How can we support in others what we are unable to tolerate in ourselves - and vice versa? This is also a matter of individual versus social ethics.)

A very insightful friend and colleague (I haven't asked permission to quote so I'll leave it anonymous for now) gets at similar concerns in artistic practice:

"Within theory, history, and other aspects of the humanities, it's enough to produce a discourse, to frame a debate, AS a discursive statement. In art, there seems to be more expectation of locating the work IN discourse, not AS discourse.


For those who produce discursive objects more than discourses, but are attuned to and interested in a theoretically informed understanding of their own lives and objects, there is a keenly felt desire for solutions. Even the most articulated and detailed description of Why Things are the Way They Are, and how we are implicated in the production of that Way, leaves one asking, "How can I make an object that escapes that Way?" or "What can my objects do differently?"


We need to help students understand the role of theory in practice as shaping who they are, and not just what they make. And we need to allow them to live with a split there - to experience what it is like to feel consciousness changing faster than the evolution and improvement.of dexterity. Our students may change the world, but I'm beginning to think that we shouldn't teach them that their objects can."

This last bit especially intrigues me. I doubt that this person would draw a hard line between us and our objects, but this does point out a reciprocal relation that often gets overlooked. (I also think some designers and artists still get too hung up on the notion that objects can be granted agency, as if it's something they don't already have.)


Rather than designing objects that can make the world a better place, Tony Dunne has advocated designing for debate as a means to critically engage theory and practice without a need for closure: "
Your design proposals should pose questions rather than provide answers, making complex issues tangible, and therefore debatable."

I think this is very good.

In a commercial context it may not be the only appropriate means of research and design, but surely it can play a valuable role in the early stages of a project, and as a means to move forward (or backwards or sideways) at each juncture in an iterative design process.


Life is messy. Things are messy. And people are especially (spoken in my best Sideshow Bob voice) messy. I could try to convince myself otherwise, to make it otherwise, but that doesn't sync with any of my actual experiences - or what other people tell me - and so I immediately consider it a lie.


These things and practices that constitute pervasive computing research and design - the subjects of my dissertation - have been quite unruly and uncooperative. "Moving targets" indeed. When so much seems only tangentially related doesn't that suggest the boundaries around what is relevant need to be reconfigured?

How can I - and why should I - clean this mess up?


Blogger jbleecker said...

To paraphrase Latour, if I remember correctly:

Anne: How can I clean this mess up?

P: I think you can clean that mess up by writing however many words your department expects for your dissertation.

Anne: Well, why should I clean it up?

P: So that you can complete your dissertation!

Anonymous anne said...

"Well that's an annoyingly pragmatic response isn't it?!" she says with a big grin. Thanks for catching me in my own logic Julian!

Anonymous nick knouf said...

Thanks for writing in a post the multiplicity of things that I've been thinking! Especially the part about putting agency into objects when it's already there; I definitely recognize that, but I'm still trying to do it. Good to keep it in mind.

If only I could convince lab sponsors and my advisor of the messiness of the world...

Anonymous anne said...

thanks nick! i've noticed that people from cognitive psych & human factors backgrounds especially like attributing agency to the individual mind/will. hence, we grant agency to objects - i.e. they don't *really* have it, but we sort of impose it on them because we like to anthropomorphise things.

in contrast, my training locates agency in all socio-material interaction. in other words, agency is always already distributed in-the-world or "external" to minds and intentions. in this sense, an object always has agency - so the much more important question becomes what kinds of agency are possible at different times and in different assemblages.

btw, i see you've been reading "conversations on science, culture, and time" - good stuff! and nice to see you on the idc list too. looking forward to hearing more along these lines...

Blogger Trevor said...

Unsurprisingly, I had exactly the same problem earlier this summer. My director gave me some incredibly good advice.

Student: Its sometimes not obvious to me that I should be more clear given the messiness of the body as a topic, or that I should subliminate the difficulties of writing about the body.

Professor: Sure, but you are writing, Student. A dissertation is a piece of writing.

Student: Oh.

Resulting piece of text, which I'm actually happy about.

The philosopher Donn Welton articulates this concern by noting that,

We are not simply living but engaged beings. We do not simply understand our existence, as if detached from all places, located in what is noplace, but walk a path that thought would never find sufficient reasons to trod. We not only use language but we speak; we not only criticize but we also affirm; we not only consider but we also confess. It is these excesses of concrete existence that philosophy has always had so much difficulty snaring in its nets.*1*

I'm convinced that Welton is accurate in his depiction of the task, and failure, of philosophy on this matter. Still, I'm not in a place to simply show you my body and watch the questions slowly dissipate. In writing and argument I will attempt to be clear about one argument for the constitution of a body that can understand. We begin an abbreviated review of the body in philosophy.

*1*{Welton, 1998, Body and flesh : a philosophical reader, vi, 360 p}, p.240

Blogger Trevor said...

I also really like the word subliminate and I nominate that we replace sublimate with it.


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