Digital Caricature

A new article by Stephen Turner and me about the digitas published in DHQ: Digital Humanities Quarterly (link):

For Vilém Flusser, philosopher of technology, the advent of photography heralded the return of the image from its subjection to the linearity of written language. Here we extend his concept of the “techno-image” (successor of the pre-historical hand-drawn image and the historical printed word), to consider the digital image-text that today dominates reading and writing. Our question: Can we reader-writers think the digitas, or are we doomed to perform its functions in an “automati[c]” or “robotiz[ed]” fashion, as Flusser put it, so that, if anything, the digitas now “thinks” us? The short answer to our question is as follows: we can think the digitas, but only if we consider it, firstly, as a kind of writing (“digital orthography”) and, secondly, as a caricature of thinking, both impoverished and, dare we say it, funny (“digital caricature”).

Sommer, E. "Portrait Vilém Flusser". Vilém Flusser Archive. 2012. Reproduced by permission of Ed Sommer.

Sommer, E. “Portrait Vilém Flusser”. Vilém Flusser Archive. 2012. Reproduced by permission of Ed Sommer.


Kelly and Lanier on Techno-Literacy

Kevin Kelly offers some principles for “Achieving Techno-Literacy” in the New York Times (16 Sep. 2010):

  1. Every new technology will bite back. The more powerful its gifts, the more powerfully it can be abused. Look for its costs.
  2. Technologies improve so fast you should postpone getting anything you need until the last second. Get comfortable with the fact that anything you buy is already obsolete.
  3. Before you can master a device, program or invention, it will be superseded; you will always be a beginner. Get good at it.
  4. Be suspicious of any technology that requires walls. If you can fix it, modify it or hack it yourself, that is a good sign.
  5. The proper response to a stupid technology is to make a better one, just as the proper response to a stupid idea is not to outlaw it but to replace it with a better idea.
  6. Every technology is biased by its embedded defaults: what does it assume?
  7. Nobody has any idea of what a new invention will really be good for. The crucial question is, what happens when everyone has one?
  8. The older the technology, the more likely it will continue to be useful.
  9. Find the minimum amount of technology that will maximize your options.

See the NY Times timeline of classroom technology and Jaron Lanier, “Does the Digital Classroom Enfeeble the Mind?” (ibid.).

To speak . . .

Stephen Turner and I will be talking about the neo-Gothic architecture of the neoliberal university at the Unsettled Containers: Aspects of Interiority Conference at The University of Auckland, 8-10 October 2010.

The abstract:

Crystal Capital: the Business of University Building

For Peter Sloterdijk, the Crystal Palace, venue in the 1850’s of the “Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Continents,” expressed the “global inner space [Weltinnenraum] of capital” (2008: 11). The word Weltinnenraum, from poet Rainer Maria Rilke, implies a pantheistic space disclosed by affect:

Everything beckons us to perceive it. … One space spreads through all creatures equally – inner-world-space [Weltinnenraum]. Birds quietly flying goflying through us. Oh, I that want to grow, the tree I look outside at grows in me! (1957: 193)

What is disclosed in the enclosure of the splendid University of Auckland Owen G. Glenn Business School building is the pantheistic affect of transnational or “transcendental” capital (Hage, 2003: 18-20). In its see-through space, an outside – every other place, in fact – grows in us. There, everything communicates psychically with everything else in the code of capital: the language – the logo-rhythm – of the academosphere is encoded according to the design-drive of econometrics, namely, in terms of economic calculability and accountability. And the mission of the University is growth, a mission that transcends its onetime imperative to educate and demands a glasshouse of industry: in Sloterdijk’s terms, an “immaterialized” and “temperature-controlled” enclosure (2008: 12).

The architecture of this glasshouse is transcendental, a negative monumentality, affording a Crystal Palace-like sense of transparency, lightness, flotation, vacuum. Its pantheistic affect is generated by three main features: generous atria, curved rather than rectilinear surfaces, and the use of glass as prima materia. This is the negative theology of neo-liberal Gothic, “a transcendental architecture composed of space, light, line, and geometry,” now aspiring outward to all places, rather than upward to heaven (Trachtenberg and Hyman, 1986: 252). Neo-liberal Gothic aims both to immaterialize and interiorize, to capture a positive void of investment space for transcendental capital. As Chris Barton writes in the NZ Herald, “[t]he building cuts and thrusts . . . slicing the air. It means business” (2008: n.p.). And its glass and steel exterior displays the transparency and integrity of its inner processes, practices and products. Today the University is business.

University of Auckland Business School Owen G. Glenn Building, Auckland, New Zealand.

However, the design-drive of transcendental capital makes human fallibility an excrescence. All the machinery of education – classrooms and cloisters, books, writing, projectors and operating systems – is screened out; the all-but-translucent architecture is mirrored in the ap- parent transparency of its processes, practices and products. Education approximates to thaumaturgy. All we see is surfaces on and through which magic is worked: “open” spaces and open plan offices; terminals, real or virtual; images, projections, GUIs, and panels. The human scale is discounted, via amplification and wireless connection, in favour of the telematic (Gk “acting at a distance”) and the telemetric (Gk “measuring at a distance”). The danger of this disclosure of the one space of the transcendental university, a space that grows in us and in which we grow as teachers and learners, is that it closes out the many human foibles by which education flourishes: just talking, being idle, sharing, charity, invention.

The Crystal Palace Again

From Brian Dillon, “Under Pressure,” Frieze 99 (May 2006) . . .

The Crystal Palace from “World Architecture Images—Crystal Palace” at Essential Architecture

According to Mary Merrifield’s “The Harmony of Colours as Exemplified in the Exhibition” that accompanied the Great Exhibition Catalogue (1851), the Crystal Palace was

the only building in the world in which the atmosphere is perceptible. . . . To a spectator situated in the gallery at the eastern or western end, who looks directly before himself, the most distant parts of the building appear enveloped in a bluish halo. (qtd in Agamben 39)

Here is the original (it has “blue haze”; the evocative phrase “blue halo” in Agamben is an effect of retranslation):

Merrifield ii.

The blue haze interiorizes the sky, as if to phantasmagorically capture its openness, which suggests the free movement of capital (transcendental capitalism) and information (telematics), the Gods of the coming age (see Heidegger on “the Serene“).

For Sloterdijk, what is prophetic is the atmosphere of the Crystal Palace—it is for him, as Dillon puts it, “a pneumatic machine for representing the world”—but also its transportability. At the time, The Palace was also considered a triumph of modular construction. (See Stephen Turner and my essay from Interstices 12, “‘Built Pedagogy’: The University of Auckland Business School as Crystal Palace.”)

In an address at “Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy,” an exhibition curated by Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel at ZKM in Karlsruhe in 2005, Sloterdijk half-seriously extrapolates a “Pneumatic Parliament” to broadcast democracy globally:
a parliament building that is quick to install, transparent, and inflatable; it can be dropped in any grounds and then unfolds itself. In a mere one and a half hours, a protective shell for parliamentary meetings is ready, and within the space of 24 hours, the interior ambience for these proceedings can be made as comfortable as an agora.

The Pneumatic Parliament

But, as Dillon puts it, “the democratic bubble is a perilously delicate object: it might easily be contaminated by the very freedom it is built to protect.” He quotes James Russell Lowell’s Inaugural Address “Democracy” (1884):
All free governments, whatever their name, are in reality governments by public opinion, and it is on the quality of this public opinion that their prosperity depends. It is, therefore, their first duty to purify the element from which they draw the breath of life. With the growth of democracy grows also the fear, if not the danger, that this atmosphere may be corrupted with poisonous exhalations from lower and more malarious levels, and the question of sanitation becomes more instant and pressing. Democracy in its best sense is merely the letting in of light and air. (my emph.)

That is to say, because air, for Sloterdijk, is “the last common property.” But most often he sees it negatively: it is both weapon and target in modernity; hence,

  1. the environment as habitat or resource, and
  2. what Dillon calls “aerated art”:


  • Giorgio Agamben, “Marx; or, the Universal Exposition,” Stanzas: Word and Phantasm in Western Culture (Minneapolis, MN: UMP, 1993) 39-40 (ch. 7, 36-40).
  • Martin Heidegger, “Remembrance of the Poet” (trans. Douglas Scott), Existence and Being, ed. Werner Brock (Vision, 1949) 251-89.
  • James Russell Lowell, “Democracy: Inaugural Address on Assuming the Presidency of the Birmingham and Midland Institute, Birmingham, England, 6 October, 1884,” Essays: English and American, vol. 28, The Harvard Classics (New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909–14;, 2001).
  • Mrs Merrifield [Mary Philadelphia Merrifield], “Essay on the Harmony and Contrast of Colours as Exemplified in the Exhibition,” The Arts Journal Illustrated Catalogue: The Industry of All Nations, 1851 (1851; reprint, London: David & Charles, 1970) i-viii.
  • Peter Sloterdijk, “Airquakes,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 27.1 (2009): 41-57, excerpt from Sphären III: Schäume (Suhrkamp, 2004) 89-126.

The iPad as iText

Matt Greenop argues that it is “only Apple’s reality distortion field that could turn [the iPad] into a real success story.”

The iPad, first fielded today (Gadget Republic).

From wikipedia (edited):

Reality distortion field (RDF) is a term coined by Bud Tribble of Apple in 1981 [see Andy Hertzfeld, Revolution in The Valley (Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly, 2005)], to describe company co-founder Steve Jobs’ charisma and its effects on the developers working on the Mac project. Later the term has also been used to refer to perceptions of his keynote (or Stevenote) by observers and devoted users of Apple stuff. Bud Tribble claimed that the term came from Star Trek. In essence, RDF is the idea that Steve Jobs is able to convince himself and others to believe almost anything with a mix of charm, charisma, bluster, exaggeration, marketing and persistence. RDF is said to distort an audience’s sense of proportion or scale. Small advances are applauded as breakthroughs. Interesting developments become turning points, or huge leaps forward. Impossible-seeming schedules, requirements or specifications are acceded to. Snap judgments about technical merits of approaches are sometimes reversed without acknowledgment. Those who use the term RDF contend that it is not an example of outright deception but more a case of warping the powers of judgment.

See Nitrozac and Snaggy, “The Reality Distortion Field is Breached,” The Joy of Tech (2007).

This kind of boosterism that “adds value,” in the ideological—not to mention,  financial—sense, to a product is not far from Roland Barthes’ “effect of reality” or “reality effect.” A reality effect is a textual device that establishes a literary text as realistic through ecphrasis (“description,” from ekphrazein “to recount, describe”): the description of or commentary on a visual work of art, or, more generally, of a real or imaginary thing, place, time, person or experience, subject to aesthetic and referential constraints (“The Reality Effect,” in The Rustle of Language, trans. R. Howard [Berkeley, CA: UCB Press, 1989]). From Homer on Achilles’ shield to Heidegger on Van Gogh’s peasant shoes, this trope has proliferated.

The “referential illusion” thus created is plainly a problem for discourses that trade in “reality,” e.g., science or historiography, i.e., in what proportion are their objects and outcomes of enquiry real and illusory? To rephrase the very real problem of relativism (which is *in essence* the absence of a fact-value distinction): if value-added texts (VATs) of all types are the stuff of poeisis, it’s questionable whether there could be a value-free text. Every text is an iText (ideology-text), the iPad just its latest avatar.

Tom Phillips, Self Portrait (ekphrasis)
Oil on canvas, 80 x 50 cm, 1989.

The Smart World of Ogle

Richard Ogle, Smart World: Breakthrough Creativity and the New Science of Ideas (Harvard Business School P, 2007)

See Smart World at and Ogle’s blog (with some excerpts).

Creativity is an emergent process in networks, not a property or product of individual actors or their actions.

The mind is embodied (Andy Clark, Francisco Varela et alii): we cannot understand it if we confine it to what happens inside a skull but have to understand it as inextricably woven into the environments in which it exists. In fact, the mind is extended—it stretches out to network with other minds. (Clark calls this “outing the mind” [9].)

We don’t create with our brains (the mind-inside-the-head or MITH model of conscious human agency—what Clark calls “pure thought” [xii]).

We create an environment, i.e., a world of technological artefacts and systems (tools)—or, indeed, “myths, cultural or social practices, scientific paradigms, business models, and . . . art forms” (Ogle 12)—that thinks for us (the embedded intelligence or EI model—what Clark calls “embodied thought” with the “mind as controller” (Clark xii, 7).

“Idea spaces” are the hubs or “hotspots” in the network. These are like the “attractors” of complex systems, for example, websites that all of a sudden attract huge numbers of visitors and links. These hotspots can generate tipping points, like the “bifurcators” of complex systems, where the systems undergo a “phase transition” into a new state (see Bob Leckridge’s blog).

Creative people let the environment or system think for them.


[W]e constantly have recourse to a vast array of culturally and socially embodied idea-spaces that populate the extended mind. These spaces . . . are rich with embedded intelligence that we have progressively offloaded into our physical, social, and cultural environment for the sake of simplifying the burden on our minds of rendering the world intelligible. Sometimes the space of ideas thinks for us. We live in a smart world. (Ogle 2, plagiarising, alas, Daniel Dennett’s Kinds of Minds [NY, NY: Basic Books, 1996] 134)


[T]he creative mind shifts culturally or technologically embedded intelligence from one idea-space to another.

(This is essentially Arthur Koestler’s “bisociative act [that] connects previously unconnected matrices of experience” [The Act of Creation (1964; Penguin, 1990) 47], i.e., the recontextualization, usually wilful, playful or mistaken, of an idea, image, etc., but turning the artist or thinker into a catalyst, rather than a genius. Creativity is paratactic, then.)

The creative “revolution” of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) exemplifies this process:

[-] Picasso didn’t make a sudden “leap” on his own,
i.e., it wasn’t genius + inspiration → leap;
[+] “the leap he made over what preceded it is due primarily to the powerful effect of African sculpture,”
i.e., it was genius surrendering to an inspiring world → leap.
[H]e surrendered his genius to a strangely exotic world, that, with the shock of the new, radically reorganized and reshaped his art. Picasso invented neither the nonrepresentational, fractured plains nor the exorcist function that would leave such a searing mark on twentieth-century art. African art possessed its own aesthetic and logic, and this became a space to think with. Almost immediately, its energy, forms, and purposes began to drive his own. Encountering a powerful new idea-space, he entered it fully and let its strange but compelling logic think for him. (9)
Debbie A. Foster visualizes the book in her excellent blog, My Mind on Books:


This fisticuffish visage belongs to Raoul Hausmann (1886-1971), an Austrian artist and writer, and a key figure in Berlin’s Club Dada. (This 1919 portrait is by Hannah Höch, who was his lover from 1915-22.)

He invented photomontage—at the same time, supposedly, as his co-conspirator dadaistes George Grosz, John Heartfield and Johannes Baader. In the spring of 1918, when Hausmann and Höch holidayed on the Baltic Sea, the guest room in which they were staying had a generic portrait of soldiers onto which the patron had glued photographic portrait heads of his son five times; in 1958, he recalled,

It was like a thunderbolt: one could—I saw it instantaneously—make pictures, assembled entirely from cut-up photographs. Back in Berlin that September, I began to realize this new vision, and I made use of photographs from the press and the cinema. (Leah Dickerman and Brigid Doherty (eds), Dada . . . [Washington: National Gallery of Art, 2006] 90)

“ABCD” (c.1920; see Dietmar Elger and Uta Grosenic, Dadaism [Taschen, 2004] 40).

He developed typographical experiments into collages into what he called “phonemes,” or more exactly, the practice of opto-phonetics, that is, “the science of visible speech sounds,” probably the model for Kurt Schwitters’ “Ursonate” (1922-32).

“kp’erioum” (1919)

Such constructions embodied the Dadasophy he created for Berlin Dada that embraced “destruction as an act of creation,” a schizo-aleatory process (Dada . . .); at the same time, when read aloud, they disconnected phonetics from semantics and became “exercises in strange forms of vocalisation and sound production” (Cornelius Brock, “Sound Work and Visionary Prosthetics: Artistic Experiments in Raoul Hausmann,” Papers of Surrealism 4 [Winter 2005]: 16).

But, more than that, they were prosthetic—”an outperformance of the human body” that was “a mechanical intensification of our natural faculties”:

Typography is an intermediate domain between art and technology, between seeing and understanding, and is one of the most obvious means for the permanent psycho-physiological auto-instruction of human beings. (“Biodynamische Naturanschauung,” in Eva Zürchern (ed.), Scharfrichter der Bürgerlichen Seele: Raoul Hausmann in Berlin 1900-1933 [Ostfildern, 1998] 171)

(Note that aside from his collages, his most well-known work was assemblages like “Mechanical Head.”)


Spheresphaira (Gk)
  1. ball, Homer, Odyssey 6.100.
  2. any globe (Parmenides 8.43), thus, sphere, as a geometrical figure, etc., esp. the terrestrial globe, earth (Strabo 2.3.1).
  3. hollow sphere or globe: in ancient physics, from the time of Anaximander, of the spheres believed to revolve round the earth carrying the heavenly bodies, and according to the Pythagoreans arranged after the intervals of the musical scale (Cicero, Republic 6.18; Aristotle, Metaphysics 1073b18); thus, sphaira aplanês, the sphere of the fixed stars, and hai planômenai sphaira, a planetary sphere (Plutarch 2.1028a).


Athanasius Kircher’s reconstruction of the sphere of Archimedes, imitating the motion of the planets with the aid of magnets.

From Magnes, Sive de Arte Magnetica (1643 ed.) 305.

sphairopoiia (Gk)

  1. artificial sphere (hence the thaumaturgic globe-makers of Alexandria of the third century BC, the first of whom was apocryphally Archimedes; see Evans and Harley & Woodward);
  2. making of the heavenly spheres

cf. sphairopoièsis, “invented” by Peter Sloterdijk to describe the generation of the characteristic shape or “thought-figure” of globalisation in its metaphysical (à la the Greek philosophers), territorial (à la the Iberian voyagers) and terrestrial (à la transcendental capitalism) forms (see “Geometry in the Colossal: The Project of Metaphysical Globalization“).

Archimedes’ hefting of the idea of the globe to the status of ruling metaphor in Greek science realized Plato’s metaphysical (or, as Sloterdijk might say, cosmogonic) theory of the cosmos in the Timaeusand, to a lesser degree, Aristotle’s On the Heavens, which, alas, superceded Plato’s through the undue influence of Ptolemy’s cosmology (the Almagest). And he found us a place to stand—which was, of course, no place at all (he was playing Atlas, as all modern scientists do) . . .

Archimedes' Lever

Archimedes: “Give me a place to stand on, and I will move the Earth”

(δῶς μοι πᾶ στῶ καὶ τὰν γᾶν κινάσω).

From Pappus of Alexandria, Synagoge 7.

cf. Einstein: “it is the theory that decides what we can observe” (Timothy Ferris, The Red Limit: The Search for the Edge of the Universe [Harper Collins, 1983]) and μοχλός (lever) and μηχανή (machine)” and “‘About the Word Design’ by Vilém Flusser.”

μοχλός (lever) and μηχανή (machine)

Models for understanding the role of writing or writing studies in denaturalising and reworking the university, i.e. writing—Derrida calls it “philosophy”—as potentially a lever on the university (which in itself is a lever on nature—or rather, on culture or second nature; any lever being a machine that is designed to deceive, to cheat nature or to become nature), the question being the degree to which or which part of the old university might serve as the fulcrum on which the lever rests to vault us into the new one  . . .

1. The lever (μοχλός, mochlos)

Archimedes: “Give me a place to stand on, and I will move the Earth” (δῶς μοι πᾶ στῶ καὶ τὰν γᾶν κινάσω [from Pappus of Alexandria, Synagoge 7])

Vilém Flusser on the lever: “The Lever Strikes Back” (The Shape of Things: A Philosophy of Design [Reaktion Books, 1999] 51-54) and “About the Word Design” (Shape of Things 19). The lever, like all technologies, cheats the laws of nature by exploiting them, thereby “to replace what is natural with what is artificial”:

Flusser Mochlos

c.1300, from O.Fr. levier “a lifter, a lever,” agent noun from lever “to raise,” from L. levare “to raise,” from levis “light” in weight, from PIE base *le(n)gwh- “light, easy, agile, nimble.”

Jacques Derrida on the lever (“Mochlos; or, the Conflict of the Faculties” [1980; 1984], Eyes of the University: Right to Philosophy 2 [Stanford UP, 2004] 83-112 and Richard Rand [ed.], Logomachia: The Conflict of the Faculties [U NE P, 1992] 1-34):

To found (or find) something new in “history, morality or politics” involves a compromise with the old, the old thus serving as “a support [hypomochlion] for a leap” toward the new (hypomochlion: the point of support or fulcrum of a lever, centre of rotation of a joint, or point of rest of a process). The difficulty lies “in determining the best lever,” i.e. mochlos, “something, in short, to lean on for forcing and displacing” (or to throw into the eye of a Cyclops, perhaps). As a result, “the most serious discords and decisions have to do less often with ends . . . than with levers.” See Derrida 2004, 110-11:

Derrida Mochlos 110

Derrida Mochlos 111


2. The machine (μηχανή, mechane)

Henry Ward Beecher: “A tool is but the extension of a man’s hand, and a machine is but a complex tool. He that invents a machine augments the power of man and the well-being of mankind” (Proverbs from Plymouth Pulpit).

Vilém Flusser on the machine: An Essay on the Ontological Standing of Photographs: An Essay on the Ontological Standing of Photographs” (Leonardo 19.4 [1 Oct. 1986]: 329-32), and About the Word Design” (17). A machine is designed to deceive.

Flusser Mechos

1549, “structure of any kind,” from M.Fr. machine “device, contrivance,” from L. machina “machine, engine, fabric, frame, device, trick,” from Gk. makhana, Doric variant of mekhane “device, means,” related to mekhos “means, expedient, contrivance,” from PIE *maghana- “that which enables,” from base *magh- “to be able, have power.” Main modern sense of “device made of moving parts for applying mechanical power” (1673) probably grew out of 17c. senses of “apparatus, appliance” (1650) and “military siege-tower” (1656). Machinery (1687) was originally theatrical, “devices for creating stage effects;” meaning “machines collectively” is attested from 1731.

“About the Word Design” by Vilém Flusser

Flusser argues that once we become aware of design—as deceptive, and bridging art and technology—art and technology are demystified, i.e. de-signified (stripped of their “value” or significance, i.e. their “truth [meaning] and authenticity [aura]”; cf. Walter Benjamin) . . .

Vilem Flusser

Thilo Mechau, [Portrait of Vilèm Flusser,] Vilèm Flusser Archive

Give me but one firm spot on which to stand, and I will move the earth (Archimedes)

About the Word Design (1993)

In English, the word design is both a noun and a verb (which tells one a lot about the nature of the English language). As a noun, it means—among other things “intention,” “plan,” “intent,” “aim,” “scheme,” “plot,” “motif,” “basic structure,” all these (and other meanings) being connected with “cunning” and “deception.” As a verb (“to design”), meanings include “to concoct something,” “to simulate,” “to draft,” “to sketch,” “to fashion,” ‘to have designs on something.” The word is derived from the Latin signum, meaning “sign,” and shares the same ancient root. Thus, etymologically, design means “de-sign.” This raises the question: How has the word design come to achieve its present-day significance throughout the world? This question is not a historical one, in the sense of sending one off to examine texts for evidence of when and where the word came to be established in its present-day meaning. It is a semantic question, in the sense of causing one to consider precisely why this word has such significance attached to it in contemporary discourse about culture.

The word occurs in contexts associated with cunning and deceit. A designer is a cunning plotter laying his traps. Falling into the same category are other very significant words: in particular, mechanics and machine. The Greek mechos means a device designed to deceive—i.e. a trap—and the Trojan Horse is one example of this. Ulysses is called polymechanikos, which schoolchildren translate as “the crafty one.” The word mechos itself derives from the ancient MAGH, which we recognize in the German Macht and mögen, the English “might” and “may.” Consequently, a machine is a device designed to deceive; a lever, for example, cheats gravity, and “mechanics” is the trick of fooling heavy bodies.

Another word used in the same context is “technology.” The Greek techne means “art” and is related to tekton, a “carpenter.” The basic idea here is that wood (hyle in Greek) is a shapeless material to which the artist, the technician, gives form, thereby causing the form to appear in the first place. Plato’s basic objection to art and technology was that they betray and distort theoretically intelligible forms (“Ideas”) when they transfer these into the material world. For him, artists and technicians were traitors to Ideas and tricksters because they cunningly seduced people into perceiving distorted ideas.

The Latin equivalent of the Greek techne is ars, which in fact suggests a metaphor similar to the English rogue’s “sleight of hand.” The diminutive of ars is articulum—i.e. little art—and indicates that something is turned around the hand (as in the French tour de main). Hence ars means something like “agility” or the “ability to turn something to one’s advantage,” and artifex—i.e. “artist’—means a “trickster” above all. That the original artist was a conjurer can be seen from words such as “artifice,” “artificial” and even “artillery.” In German, an artist is of course one who is “able to do something,” the German word for art, Kunst, being the noun from können, “to be able” or “can,” but there again the word for “artificial,” gekünstelt, comes from the same root (as does the English “cunning”).

Such considerations in themselves constitute a sufficient explanation of why the word design occupies the position it does in contemporary discourse. The words design, machine, technology, ars and art are closely related to one another, one term being unthinkable without the others, and they all derive from the same existential view of the world. However, this internal connection has been denied for centuries (at least since the Renaissance). Modern bourgeois culture made a sharp division between the world of the arts and that of technology and machines; hence culture was split into two mutually exclusive branches: one scientific, quantifiable and “hard,” the other aesthetic, evaluative and “soft.” This unfortunate split started to become irreversible towards the end of the nineteenth century. In the gap, the word design formed a bridge between the two. It could do this since itis an expression of the internal connection between art and technology. Hence in contemporary life, design more or less indicates the site where art and technology (along with their respective evaluative and scientific ways of thinking) come together as equals, making a new form of culture possible.

Although this is a good explanation, it is not satisfactory on its own. After all, what links the terms mentioned above is that they all have connotations of (among other things) deception and trickery. The new form of culture which Design was to make possible would be [i.e.,] a culture that was aware of the fact that it was deceptive [i.e., designed]. So the question is: Who and what are we deceiving when we become involved with culture (with art, with technology—in short, with Design)? To take one example: The lever is a simple machine. Its design copies the human arm; it is an artificial arm. Its technology is probably as old as the species homo sapiens, perhaps even older. And this machine, this design, this art, this technology is intended to cheat gravity, to fool the laws of nature and, by means of deception, to escape our natural circumstances through the strategic exploitation of a law of nature. By means of the lever—despite our body weight—we ought to be able to raise ourselves up to touch the stars if we have to, and—thanks to the lever—if we are given the leverage, we might be able to lever the world out of its orbit. This is the design that is the basis of all culture: to deceive nature by means of technology, to replace what is natural with what is artificial and build a machine out of which there comes a god who is ourselves. In short: The design behind all culture has to be deceptive (artful?) enough to turn mere mammals conditioned by nature into free artists.

Archimedes' Lever

This is a great explanation, is it not? The word design has come to occupy the position it has in contemporary discourse through our awareness that [Thus?:] being a human being is a design against nature. Unfortunately, this explanation will not satisfy us. [No:] If in fact design increasingly becomes the centre of attention, with the question of Design replacing that of the Idea, we will find ourselves on uncertain ground. To take one example: Plastic pens are getting cheaper and cheaper and tend to be given away for nothing. The material they are made of has practically no value, and work (according to Marx, the source of all value) is accomplished thanks to smart technology by fully automatic machines. The only thing that gives plastic pens any value is their design, which is the reason that they write. This design represents a coming together of great ideas, which—being derived from art and science—have cross-fertilized and creatively complemented one another. Yet this is a design we don’t even notice, so such pens tend to be given away free—as advertising, for example. The great ideas behind them are treated with the same contempt as the material and work behind them.

How can we explain this devaluation of all values? By the fact that the word design makes us aware that all culture is trickery, that we are tricksters tricked, and that any involvement with culture is the same thing as self-deception. True, [+] once the barrier between art and technology had been broken down, a new perspective opened up within which one could create more and more perfect designs, escape one’s circumstances more and more, live more and more artistically (beautifully). But [-] the price we pay for this is the loss of truth and authenticity. In fact, the lever is about to lever all that is true and authentic out of our orbit and replace it mechanically with perfectly designed artefacts. And so all these artefacts become as valuable as plastic pens, become disposable gadgets. This becomes clear when we die, if not before. Because despite all the technological and artistic arrangements we make (despite hospital architecture and death-bed design), we do die, just as other mammals die. The word design has managed to retain its key position in everyday discourse because [i.e.,] we are starting (perhaps rightly) to lose faith in art and technology as sources of value. Because we are starting to wise up to the design behind them.

This is a sobering explanation. But it is also an unavoidable one. A confession is called for here. This essay has had a specific design in mind: It set out to expose the cunning and deceptive aspects of the word design. This it did because they are normally concealed. If it had pursued another design, it might, for example, have insisted on the fact that “design” is related to “sign”: a sign of the times, a sign of things to come, a sign of  membership. In that case, it would have given a different, but equally plausible, explanation of the word’s contemporary situation. That’s the answer then: Everything depends on Design.

About the Word Design” [“Vom Wort Design“]. The Shape of Things: A Philosophy of Design [Vom Stand der Dinge: Eine Kleine Philosophie des Design]. Trans. Anthony Mathews. 1993. London: Reaktion Books, 1999. 17-21. Also translated as “On the Word Design: An Etymological Essay.” Trans. J. Cullars. Design Issues 11.3 (Autumn 1995): 50-53. Also published in Alex Coles (ed.), Design and Art (London: MIT P, 2007) and Ben Highmore (ed.), The Design Culture Reader (London: Routledge, 2008).

The annotations are mine.