A Cautious Prometheus?


Bruno Latour



It came to me at a launching party for a Networks of Design meeting – I was struggling to grasp the extent to which the word “design” has been expanded when we were invited to visit an exhibition called “Re-imagining Cornwall”! I was aware that corporations had to be reengineered, natural ecosystems reclaimed, that cities had to be remodelled and wastelands redeveloped. I knew that neighbourhoods had to be beautified and political platforms scripted, and that interiors had to be redecorated and journal layouts restyled. The Cornwall exhibit confirmed that I was indeed on the right track: if entire provinces can be redesigned then the term no longer has any limit.

When I was young, the word design (imported to French from English) meant no more than what we now call “relooking” in French (a good English word that, unfortunately, does not exist in English). To “relook” means to give a new and better “look” or shape to something – a chair, a knife, a car, a package, a lamp, an interior – which would otherwise remain too clumsy, too severe or too bared if it were left only to its naked function. “Design” in this old and limited meaning was a way to redress the efficient but somewhat boring emphasis of engineers and commercial staff. Design occurred by adding a veneer of form to their creations, some superficial feature that could make a difference in taste and fashion. Even if design could be greatly admired, it was always taken as one branch of an alternative: look not only at the function, but also at the design. This dichotomy was true even though the best design was one that, in good modernist fashion (as it did in “functionalism”), approximated function as closely as possible. “Design” was always taken in this “not only… but also” balance. It was as if there were really two very different ways of grasping an object: one through its intrinsic materiality, the other through its more aesthetic or “symbolic” aspects.

I know this is a very poor rendering of what you now want to mean by “design”. (I am well aware that the French use of the word is much more restricted than the Scandinavian or the English one). However, I want to utilize this definition from my youth as a base line from which to fathom the extraordinary career of this term. From a surface feature in the hands of a not-so-serious-profession that added features in the purview of much-more-serious-professionals (engineers, scientists, accountants), design has been spreading continuously so that it increasingly matters to the very substance of production.

What is more, design has been extended from the details of daily objects to cities, landscapes, nations, cultures, bodies, genes, and, as I will argue, to nature itself – which is in great need of being re-designed. It is as though the meaning of the word has grown in what logicians refer to as ‘comprehension’ and ‘extension’.

First, it has grown in comprehension – it has eaten up more and more elements of what a thing is. Today everyone with an iPhone knows that it would be absurd to distinguish what has been designed from what has been planned, calculated, arrayed, arranged, packed, packaged, defined, projected, tinkered, written down in code, disposed of and so on. From now on, “to design” could mean equally any or all of those verbs. Secondly, it has grown in extension – design is applicable to ever larger assemblages of production. The range of things that can be designed is far wider now than a limited list of ordinary or even luxury goods.

The reason I am interested in the spread in comprehension and extension of the term design is not because of any intimate knowledge of design practice. (I know even less about its history and I hope the many historians of the notion among you will not contradict me too much). Yet I take its expansion as a fascinating tell tale of a change in the ways we deal with objects and action more generally. If it is true as I have claimed that we have never been modern, and if it is true, as a consequence, that “matters of fact” have now clearly become “matters of concern”, then there is logic to the following observation: the typically modernist divide between materiality on the one hand and design on the other is slowly being dissolved away. The more objects are turned into things – that is, the more matters of facts are turned into matters of concern – the more they are rendered into objects of design through and through.

If it is true that the present historical situation is defined by a complete disconnect between two great alternative narratives – one of emancipation, detachment, modernization, progress and mastery, and the other, completely different, of attachment, precaution, entanglement, dependence and care – then the little word “design” could offer a very important touch stone for detecting where we are heading and how well modernism (and also postmodernism) has been faring. To put it more provocatively, I would argue that design is one of the terms that has replaced the word “revolution”! To say that everything has to be designed and redesigned (including nature), we imply something of the sort: “it will neither be revolutionized, nor will it be modernized”. For me, the word "design is a little tracer whose expansion could prove the depth to which we have stopped believing that we have been modern. In other words, the more we think of ourselves as designers, the less we think of ourselves as modernizers. It is from this philosophical or anthropological position on design that I address this audience tonight.

Five advantages of the concept of “design”

I dare to articulate this odd argument based (very flimsily I agree) on the various undertones of the word “design” itself. It is the weaknesses of this vague concept that give me reason to believe that we can take it as a clear symptom of a sea change in our collective definition of action. The first section of this lecture will review five successive connotations of the concept of design. In the second I will provide an introduction to Peter Sloterdijk’s philosophy of design. And finally, I will end with a brief conclusion on how to draw things together, that is, to design.

As a concept, design implies a humility that seems absent from the word “construction” or “building”. Because of its historical roots as a mere addition to the “real” practicality, sturdy materiality and functions of daily objects, there is always some modesty in claiming to design something anew. In design there is nothing foundational. It seems to me that to say you plan to design something, does not carry the same risk of hubris as saying one is going to build something.

Introducing Prometheus to some other hero of the past as a “designer” would doubtlessly have angered him. Thus, the expansion of the word “design” is an indication (a weak one to be sure) of what could be called a post Promethean theory of action. This theory of action has arisen just at the moment (this is its really interesting feature) when every single thing, every detail of our daily existence, from the way we produce food, to the way we travel, build cars or houses, clone cows, etc is to be, well, redesigned. It is just at the moment where the dimensions of the tasks at hand have been fantastically amplified by the various ecological crises, that a non- or a post- Promethean’s sense of what it means to act is taking over public consciousness.

A second and perhaps more important implication of design is an attentiveness to details that is completely lacking in the heroic, Promethean, hubristic dream of action. “Go forward, break radically with the past and the consequences will take care of themselves!” This was the old way - to build, to construct, to destroy, to radically overhaul: “Après moi le déluge!” But that has never been the way of approaching a design project. A mad attention to the details has always been attached to the very definition of design skills. And ‘skill’ is actually a term that is also attached to design, in the same way that design is associated with the words ‘art’ and ‘craft’. In addition to modesty, there is a sense of skilfulness, craftsmanship and an obsessive attention to detail that make up a key connotation of design. The reason why this is a point worth remarking is because it was unthinkable to connect these features of design with the revolutionary and modernizing urges of the recent past. To the contrary, a careful attention to detail, craft and skill, was precisely what seemed reactionary as this would only have slowed the swift march to progress. The expanding concept of design indicates a deep shift in our emotional make up: at the very moment when the scale of what has to be remade has become infinitely larger (no political revolutionary committed to challenging capitalist modes of production has ever considered redesigning the earth’s climate), what it means to “make” something is also being deeply modified. The modification is so deep that things are no longer “made” or “fabricated”, but rather carefully “designed”, and if I may use the term, precautionarily designed. It is as though we had to combine the engineering tradition with the precautionary principle; it is as though we had to imagine Prometheus stealing fire from heaven in a cautious way! What is clear is that at this very historical juncture, two absolutely foreign sets of passions (foreign for the modernist ethos that is) are having to be recombined and reconciled.

The third connotation of the word design that seems to me so significant is that when analyzing the design of some artefact the task is unquestionably about meaning — be it symbolic, commercial, or otherwise. Design lends itself to interpretation; it is made to be interpreted in the language of signs. In design, there is always as the French say, un dessein, or in Italian, designo. To be sure, in its weakest form design added only superficial meaning to what was brute matter and efficiency. But as it infiltrated into more and more levels of the objects, it carried with it a new attention to meaning. Whenever you think of something as being designed, you bring all of the tools, skills and crafts of interpretation to the analysis of that thing. It is thus of great import to witness the depths to which our daily surroundings, our most common artefacts are said to be designed. To think of artefacts in terms of design means conceiving of them less and less as modernist objects, and conceiving of them more and more as “things”. To use my language artefacts are becoming conceivable as complex assemblies of contradictory issues (I remind you that this is the etymological meaning of the word “thing” in English –as well as in other European languages).* When things are taken as having been well or badly designed then they no longer appear as matters of fact. So as their appearance as matters of fact weakens, their place among the many matters of concern that are at issue is strengthened.

The transformation of objects into signs has been greatly accelerated by the spread of computers. It is obvious that digitalization has done a lot to expand semiotics to the core of objectivity: when almost every feature of digitalized artefacts is “written down” in codes and software, it is no wonder that hermeneutics have seeped deeper and deeper into the very definition of materiality. If Galileo’s book of nature was written in mathematical terms, prodigiously expanding the empire of interpretation and exegesis, this expansion is even truer today when more and more elements of our surroundings are literally and not metaphorically written down in mathematical (or at least in computer) terms. Although the old dichotomy between function and form could be vaguely maintained for a hammer, a locomotive or a chair, it is ridiculous when applied to a mobile phone. Where would you draw the line between form and function?

The artefact is composed of writings all the way down! But this is not only true of computerized artefacts and gadgets. It is also true of good old-fashioned materiality: what are nano- or bio-technologies if not the expansion of design to another level? Those who can make individual atoms write the letters “IBM”, those who implant copyright tags into DNA, or who devise nano cars which “race” on four wheels, would certainly consider themselves to be designers. Here again, matter is absorbed into meaning (or rather as contested meaning) in a more and more intimate fashion.

The fourth advantage I see in the word “design” (in addition to its modesty, its attention to detail and the semiotic skills it always carries with it), is that it is never a process that begins from scratch: to design is always to redesign. There is always something that exists first as a given, as an issue, as a problem. Design is a task that follows to make that something more lively, more commercial, more usable, more user friendly, more acceptable, more sustainable, and so on, depending on the various constraints to which the project has to answer. In other words, there is always something remedial in design. This is the advantage of the “not only… but also” feature although I criticized it above. This split is a weakness to be sure (there is always the temptation of seeing design as an afterthought, as a secondary task, as a less serious one than those of engineering, commerce and science) but it is also an immense advantage when compared to the idea of creation. To design is never to create ex nihilo. It is amusing that creationists in America use the word “intelligent design” as a rough substitute for “God the Creator”. They don’t seem to realize the tremendous abyss that exists between creating and designing. The most intelligent designers never start from a tabula rasa. God the designer is really a redesigner of something else that was already there —and this is even truer for His Son as well as for the Spirit, who both are sent to redeem what has been botched in the first place… If humanity “has been made (or should I have said designed?) as the image of God”, then they too should learn that things are never created but rather carefully and modestly redesigned. It is in that sense that I take the spread of the word design as a clear substitute for revolution and modernization. I do so furthermore, because there is always something slightly superficial in design, something clearly and explicitly transitory, something linked to fashion and thus to shifts in fashions, something tied to tastes and therefore somewhat relative. Designing is the antidote to founding, colonizing, establishing, or breaking with the past. It is an antidote to hubris and to the search for absolute certainty, absolute beginnings, and radical departures.

The fifth and decisive advantage of the concept of design is that it necessarily involves an ethical dimension which is tied into the obvious question of good versus bad design. In the modernist style, this goodness and badness were qualities that matters of fact could not possibly possess. They were supposed to sit there, undisputable, and removed from any normative judgment. This was so much so that their entire purpose was to make the fact/value distinction possible. “We are there whether you like it or not”. But it is easy to understand that when you say that something has been “designed”, you are not only authorized but forced to ask whether it has been well or badly designed. The spread of design to the inner definitions of things carries with it, not only meaning and hermeneutics, but also morality. More exactly, it is as if materiality and morality were finally coalescing. This is of great importance because if you begin to redesign cities, landscapes, natural parks, societies, as well as genes, brains and chips, no designer will be allowed to hide behind the old protection of matters of fact. No designer will be able to claim: “I am just stating what exists”, or “I am simply drawing the consequences of the laws of nature”, or “I am simply reading the bottom line”. By expanding design so that it is relevant everywhere, designers take up the mantle of morality as well. I will come back to this in the conclusion: suffice it to say now that this normative dimension that is intrinsic to design offers a good handle from which to extend the question of design to politics. A politics of matters of facts and of objects has always seemed far fetched; a politics of designed things and issues is somewhat more obvious. If things, or rather Dinge, are gatherings, as Heidegger used to define them, then it is a short step from there to considering all things as the result of an activity called “collaborative design” in Scandinavia. This activity is in fact the very definition of the politics of matters of concern since all designs are “collaborative” designs – even if in some cases the “collaborators” are not all visible, welcomed or willing.

A small parenthesis on our two disciplines: when science and technology studies (STS) scholars began to revisit the old materialist traditions some forty years ago, they too would deeply transformed [sic] objects into projects. They too had brought meaning into what was defined as mere “material constraints”; they too had disputed the form versus function argument; transformed matters of fact into complex and contradictory assemblies of conflicting humans and non humans; they too had demonstrated that “artefacts have politics” and that a parliament of things could be assembled. But because of the word “construction” (used especially in the infamous expression “social construction”), they too were divided by the modernist opposition between what was social, symbolic, subjective, lived and what was material, real, objective and factual. No matter how many efforts were made to escape the trap that the modernist constitution has laid in the path of empirical inquiries, science and technology studies has always lurched into it.

(Would things have looked better had we talked of “social design” instead of “social construction”? I doubt it). The trap has been nearly impossible to escape. Impossible that is, so long as we remained officially modern. But what is so interesting to me is that in the spread of design, this concept has undergone the same amazing transformations as my own field. STS, that was until a few years back but a small subfield of social (alas, alas, so social!) science, has now received the formidable support of a much larger movement. What was a slightly far fetched and a clearly scandalous claim, namely that there are no objects but only things and disputed assemblages, is now fast becoming common sense. Everything that was conceived of earlier as hard objective undisputable material drives (remember the “irresistible path of progress” “the white heat of technology”?), has now melted into air. Yes, everything that has been designed during the four or five former industrial revolutions has had to be redesigned —including Cornwall. It is the same material world, but now it has to be remade with a completely different notion of what it is to make something. What has gone is mastery —this odd idea of mastery that refused to include the mystery of unintended consequences.

Of course, all five of these dimensions of design as well as the development of STS could be taken as a clear sign of postmodernism, as a quiet and lazy abandonment of the tasks of Promethean modernism. Some diehard modernists do think that way, but I don’t believe this is the case. As I pointed out earlier, the spread of the word “design” doesn’t come at a time when there is less to do; it comes at a time when there is more to do. Infinitely more, since it is the whole fabric of life that is now concerned thanks to the ecological crisis. What no revolution has ever contemplated, namely the remaking of our collective life on earth, is to be carried through with exactly the opposite of revolutionary and modernizing attitudes. This is what renders the spirit of the time so interesting.

President Mao was right after all: the revolution has to always be revolutionized. What he did not anticipate is that the new “revolutionary” energy would be taken from the set of attitudes that are hard to come by in revolutionary movements: modesty, care, precautions, skills, crafts, meanings, attention to details, careful conservations, redesign, artificiality, and ever shifting transitory fashions. We have to be radically careful, or carefully radical… What an odd time we are living through.

*Latour, B., From Realpolitik to Dingpolitik. How to Make Things Public. An Introduction., in Making Things Public. Atmospheres of Democracy, B. Latour and P. Weibel, Editors. 2005, MIT Press: Cambridge, Mass. p. 1-31.

This is an abbreviated version of Latour's talk. The full text is in: Fiona Hackne, Jonathn Glynne and Viv Minto (editors) Proceedings of the 2008 Annual International Conference of the Design History Society – Falmouth, 3-6 September 2008, e-books, Universal Publishers, pp. 2-10.). Translated from the French by George Collins. http://www.bruno-latour.fr/node/69