PARADOX AND POETICS: SPEAKING TO THE STICKY SIDE OF DESIGN
Dr Keith Russell, Communication and Media Arts, University of Newcastle
The struggle to determine a dogma seldom equals the struggle to resist. Speaking beside the accepted opinion is all too easy a task: the stage of rhetoric has a comfortable place already organised for the junior revolutionary. Like the sons of William Blake's Orc, we sit next to those who would have it away with our energy. The cycle reinforces the status quo. How to break out? How to create a para-dox?
The cruel joke of repression is its release. Where else to speak but in to the authorised space? Speaking thus underwrites the humour that all speaking, no matter have much against, is always an affirmation of that which it resists. The positive emerges regardless of how well or poorly we provoke absence.
And then there is the activity of drawing a circle into which to speak. The active determination of a discourse allows that what is determined, in the here and now of the discourse, is itself a dogma and a para-dogma of its own coming upon (invention). Saying "once upon a time" opens the drama afresh if not differently.
This saying is essentially social and transpersonal. Which gets us to the dark part of the matter: in being in the world, just which world are we in? In being in designing, just which designing are we in? What is the priority of object-relations apprehended as a poetic or understanding? What is it to intend to design? Do I approach the object, in this case, a stick on the side of the road? And is my approaching itself an object? To my own intention, my approaching is an object; I am outside myself as my intention approaching myself as my intention in the approaching of the stick. In taking up the stick I take up myself as myself apprehended as the object of my own intention. I am now the man taking up the stick. I have become myself as that which was not myself.
Such is the logic that Hegel takes us through and we find ourself with a stick; it is of me. First I am my outside (the one apprehending the stick) then I am outside myself (the uptaker of the stick) then I am myself again but now differently (as the synthesis). In this myself-as-synthesis I find a causality that is not that of cause and effect (time-based or epic - I move through time and perform operations that bring time to objects that come in to time through my causation - they thus becomes like accidents to my substance - they adhere to my identity as events in my personal history). I find a causality that is not that of a simple reciprocity (space-based or dramatic - I am in space and the objects of my attention, like me, are objects in space - my actions give form to these contents and become, in turn, the contents of the form of more and more abstracted actions of consciousness - the objects, myself included, are inter-substantiated). The causality that I find is far more fluid then these two understandings of cause and effect. It is a causality in which all things are open to connection with all things in patterns of connection (identity-based or lyric - I am the unity of a manifold which is its own disjunction and process of conjunction and disjunction). The urgency in this pattern is brought out by Hegel as the turning of consciousness towards its "own present world". In this present world and turning, it is the self that quickens the abstract (Hegel, 1977, p 488). And, in turn, it is my present world, like the stick taken up, that then quickens my consciousness. The stick I take up, becomes sticky to me both in the sense of my being marked by that which I take up and in the extended sense that what marks me also and always exposes the double nature of its origin and its present location as is the case with stickiness. It is this double nature of the turning of consciousness towards its own present world that is the true doxa of design that has become, in turn, the para-doxa.
How has this conversion taken place? Rather than Hegel's model of causality, it is easier to have it that what is designed is intended as a matter outside myself that starts outside and remains outside. As I go through my approaching the stick, I am making more and more subtle variations before I take up the stick. The pen-ultimate elevation and election of one event pretends to confirm the softness of the maker's making as the "key" decision: "that way and no other": I have taken up the stick; it is mine?
In this passive appropriation, I sustain myself as the subject. I have a pattern in mind: a paradigm. Which then is also a placing beside, a comparing of a pattern with a pattern to re-determine the pattern as the pattern. Here the agony resides in the insult of receding cognition. The further I go in this way the further away I am from being able to establish the pattern that established the pattern. I have announced myself as the fool of my own understanding. I might seek to re-origin my pattern only to find that the relationship I have superseded has been superseded. In my election and elevation of this over that I have closed off designing. I have the stick in my hand but I am claiming I am not stuck.
Hegel, again, reminds us of the slippery anti-spirituality of this closing off. The reciprocity of action and reaction, within the life of the individual, points to the need for much more sophisticated models of materiality and causality. Stace offers this analysis:
. . . this distinction [between active substance as cause and passive substance as effect] cannot be maintained. . . . But substance is an absolute negativity, and therefore exerts power, is active. The distinction between cause and effect thus collapses. Each is a cause, and each is an effect. Substance A, as active, operates on substance B, as passive. But B as active, equally operates on A. This is reciprocity, or action and reaction. . . . We see the same truth [action and reaction] in a more advanced form in the spiritual life of man. We speak of temptations besetting us as if in temptation we remained wholly passive. But it is only because our own feelings and emotions are incited to activity by the outer stimulus that we are tempted. There is really activity on both sides. If we were wholly passive temptation would be impossible. (Stace, 1955, p 218)
Let's move on and/or start again - differently? Here in the sand I draw a line; a line to draw water; a line to e-duct. The stick calls attention, the drawn water calls attention. But why?
. . . Royce, in contrast to Heidegger, regards . . . originating sociality as completely primordial. Heidegger begins by pointing to our discovery of our being among things in our problematic situations of involvement with aspects of the physical world. Physical nature would thus seem, in its bits and artifacts, to have been the first discovery. Royce, on the contrary, insists, "Our belief in Man . . . is logically prior to our interpretation of Nature," [Royce, II, p. 168] just because what we mean by nature is what "we conceive as known or as knowable to various men" [Royce, II, p. 166]. The material world, which we all take for granted and presuppose as prior to our own being, is yet discovered by us, and understood by us, as an outcome of social experience. For what we experientially mean by the physical is that "collection of actual and possible experiences" [Royce, II, p. 167] which we share with each other; the physical is, then, that about which individual experiences are indeed public, and the initial differentiation of the physical from the mental is precisely the act of distinguishing those experiences which are immediately shared or shareable from those which are not. (Sherover, 1987, p.151)
It makes no sense to take up a stick and draw a circle, it makes no sense to take up a stick and draw a line knowing it will draw water, it makes no sense to do these things except as part of my already knowing myself as potentially made in my experiences of finding myself (determining) making which is always human and therefore determined as a relation of desire. Now I am doubly stuck. Once with the taking up of the stick and now again with my appropriation of the stick as the stick.
Art, science, play are activities of appropriation, either wholly or in part, and what they want to appropriate beyond the concrete object of their quest is being itself, the absolute being of the in-itself.
Thus ontology teaches us that desire is originally a desire of being and that it is characterized as the free lack of being. But it teaches us also that desire is a relation with a concrete existent in the midst of the world and that this existent is conceived as a type of in-itself; it teaches us that the relation of the for-itself to this desired in-itself is appropriation. We are, then, in the presence of a double determination of desire: on the one hand, desire is determined as a desire to be a certain being, which is the in-itself-for-itself and whose existence is ideal; on the other hand, desire is determined in the vast majority of cases, as a relation with a contingent and concrete in-itself, which it has the project of appropriating. (Sartre, 1981, p 84)
Am I seeking "truth" or merely "facts"? Am I seeking "knowledge" as "maths"? Would it be enough to have the stick as Hegel's "property" or Sartre's "contingent and concrete in-itself"? Who cares about the stick? If I have "facts" as "finished acts" then why would I need to bother with the processes of action that lead up to and away from the "facts"? A "factory" is a place where acts become facts; a place where factors do the bidding of their masters to bring about facts; a place where clothes go from home-mades to factory mades and thus take on the glamour of "fashion"; a place where confections are confected that would not otherwise be things at all ("For without a constellated fabrication or confection all these presaging mirables (and the like) signifie nothing in effect" Gaule, Magastrom, xxiv, 223 - quoted here from the OED). Is this the straight doxa then of design? Objects in this straight doxa, are the facts, the factored, the results of the manufacturing, the constellation of things that in themself are as nothing in effect unless they be confected first. Made up as finished acts, design offers, in the end, its own beginning (I have a plan - here is the outcome of my plan - I have a plan). Here the thing is stuck, but we, as designers, are not stuck. Our designer problem then becomes how to stop these things or facts from coming unstuck?
If we replace "philosophers" with "designers" in the following extract, we can come to see partly how we might talk to the side of design. Also, we can see how it is that design manages to talk itself out of its own stuckness. Corrington, in his introduction to a collection of papers with the title, Pragmatism Considers Phenomenology, reveals much of the confusion that surrounds the practice of phenomenology and, indirectly, much of the confusion that surrounds any and all practices that have acquired a history.
Philosophers traditionally assume that some complexes are more real than others, often confusing type of being with degrees of being. Pervasive throughout human history are versions of a commitment to ontological priority. This perspective makes probing into traits difficult because of a recurrent methodological bias toward those "realities" which are permanent, inevitable, or spatio-temporal. For Buchler, this confusion is one which blunts the generic spread of any systematic articulation of the world. . . (1987, p 23)
We will go on to look at the alternative that Buchler presents, but first we need to look a little more closely at this complaint, in terms of how it impacts on design and the world of sticks. Designers, as fancy factors, are very open to the ever-ready assumption that what can be made has a greater design reality than that which can be merely imagined or taken up at the side of the road. Designers are also open to the view that what can be made lots of times has a higher level of design awareness (is more designed or at least is better designed) and, that what can be made lots of times and sold lots of times over lots of time periods is really real design.
Here the complaint is against poetics in the sense that it is poets who bring an open attention to attention and to all things that can be attended to, including the taking up of sticks. Many designers would rather keep attention for only those things they bother to call design - that is, like professionals who have not found cause to reflect, they seek to circumscribe the domain of concern through a closing down of attention rather than through a demand that attention be allow its potential range.
This bias and distortion is then carried through the full set of terms offered by Corrington. Designers notoriously gravitate towards concrete objects, concrete objects that are very concrete in terms of largeness and or social obviousness and concrete objects that resist the structure of the sticky as reciprocity. A big bridge is pretty good even though it starts to intrude on engineers as an abstract sequence of relations that points more to bridging that to any bridge and thus bridges are in danger of becoming sticky in their reminding of the quickening of the concrete through consciousness. A big building is better than a bridge since it gets us through bigness into the domain of builders and building designers who want to be called real real real designers, otherwise known as architects. Buildings tend to resist the sticky fate of bridges even though sometimes they haunt like tents which are very sticky. Bigness mostly works since, as we think we know, elephants and whales, both of which are big, have about them a monumental quality like things which are permanent because their time flux is beyond human recall and whatever they might be they exceed us.
The whole permanence thing has been recently recovered, by a slight of logic, via the false morality of ecology and its companion dream of sustainability. Somehow my sticky marks are obliterated through my ecological concern. Because my taking up of things has been implicated in their being taken up again, in a future cycle of taking up, my taking up is not quite so sticky. My being in the world is then blunted, by my own giving over to the discourse of complexes that match the thickness and dumbness of the concrete and permanent and the sustainable.
How to unblunt my acquaintance with complexes? How to institute the generic spread of a systematic articulation of the world, including the world of design? Again, we need to flip the terms in the next extract to allow that designers do unto themselves what philosophers also do if not always with the same urgency and resolve.
Philosophers, less concerned than men of affairs with making their world manageable and more with making it intelligible, develop types of trust and distrust comparable to those of common life. Some aspects of the world provide them with clues to other aspects. Some provide them with the impetus to build their guiding concepts. Those which they are compelled repeatedly to acknowledge, those to which they feel they are led back irresistibly in their interpretations, get accredited as "real" or "most real". Degree of explanatory usefulness gets transformed into degree of "being". (Buchler, 1974, p 124)
This means, that just like philosophers, designers flop back into the comfy chair at night and make again what they have made before and find it good because it reinforces that what was made before was good and that the rubbing and kissing of the gold idol of habit around the neck makes the sequence of this something more than a concatenation. If we made more than two successful things then we are obviously on to a method here for the making of successful things. Buchler offers us the poet and by extension, poetics, as an alternative that is instructive.
Some complexes may have more or less importance, more or less pervasiveness, more or less moral significance, more or less interest, for the poet; but none has more or less being than any other. The poet's working attitude is an acceptance of ontological parity. "Acceptable" is the term rather than "assumption". Ontological parity does not function for the poet as a theoretical commitment or assertive presupposition. It functions as an unwillingness to deny the integrity of any complex discriminated. (Buchler, 1974, 126)
The "integrity of any complex discriminated" gets us back to design and the sticky, this time with the chance of determining something of the "complex" or constellation. The following account of a successful door handle maker, from Germany, is instructive. The interviewee is Jürgen W. Braun:
One day we were sitting in Johannes Potente's old studio - it must have been June 1985 - and Aicher asked: "What makes the products of Johannes Potente different from other door handles?"
We all looked at one another. Somebody said: "They feel good in the hand." We started to describe what "feeling good in the hand" might be. I said something like, "the thumb finds its stop, the index finger its indentation, the roundness, the volume..." and after quarter of an hour we had defined the four laws of grip. Otl Aicher wrote them down immediately: 1. thumb stop, 2. index finger indentation, 3. roundness, 4. grip volume - and did a drawing to go with them. That led to a poster. Although here in the company, people were initially embarrassed. (Geberzahn, interview with Jürgen W. Braun , 2001, URL)
The "four laws of grip" exceed my taking up of the stick only in the respect that the handle that I take in my hand has been determined as a thing that is open to the appropriation of being taken in the hand. Here a complex has been discriminated in its own integrity; the poetic of door handles has been articulated complete with its own sense of identity reciprocity or stick. The rapid slide from this articulation to object semantics closes over the momentary apprehension of objectness for the place of the object in another, more substantial, complex of useful things, As Braun points out:
The semantic effect is fundamental. The language of our products is unambiguous: here's the exit, here's the entrance, take hold of it, shut the door... There is nothing that can replace these semantics.
From this point on, Braun's account of the design process is much what we have come to expect from a person expert in design:
First of all every product has to function. In this respect we are good functionalists. But symbolism and aesthetics are equally important. Not to mention the material. There is a time for plastic, for aluminium, for stainless steel. It is wrong to ignore the symbolism of the materials. Nor can aesthetics be entirely separated from the zeitgeist. So what I would say to a young designer is this: take a material that is in line with the times, design a functioning product and rely on your own taste, which should differ distinctly from that of your grandfather.
In this classical model, following Sartre, "production precedes existence". That is, things are made before they are made: they are designed or inspired by a preceding concept that determines their being. In the case of a pair of scissors or paper cutter, "essence - that is, the ensemble of both the production routines and the properties which enable it to be both produced and defined - precedes existence" (Sartre, 1957, p 13).
Making with a plan to a plan is then a making which attempts to avoid making as the determination of the absence of essence in the human - it is an attempt to redetermine the human, as the made in the sense that the hand and the handle are both appropriated, by the same sliding logic, in their operation, into the system of semiotics in which the private hand and handle relationship, which we have here disclosed as a poetic, is then re-closed as a functional appropriation within a system of language just as pervasive as the everyday world of advertising. Having found our hand, at the handle, having determined the poetic relationship, we must then collapse this idealism (unfinished relationship) for fear that we might disclose the pro-duct as the e-duct and the sticky. Do we fear we will forever stand at the door, hand on handle, transfixed by the poetic, now unable to take action according to our semiotic narrative - take handle in hand, turn knob, push door forward, gain entry, cross threshold, enter? Homer Simpson lives in all of us as we rush to unhold our holding, to unstick ourselves, and be at peace in the unreference of passing. This affect of hurrying from the scene of our poetic encounter can be disclosed when we take hold of a handle that is actually sticky, or sit on a toilet seat that has the warmth of the body of a recent user.
And so, another conversation might be designed with the theme set and undertaken as follows:
The Poetics of Sticky or Why Smooth is not Enough
A "toilet" is a little cloth. A "lavatory" is a place to wash. Somehow the names, nice as they are in their origins, come eventually to mean that which they were meant to euphemise. Bathroom, washroom - I just need to go plop.
Recently, at an industrial design conference in Milan, I came upon the hole in the ground serving as sewer. All nice and smooth, all indented so the nice white vitreous china offered some purchase for feet, the hole in the ground was rather cute. Piss surrounded the hole announcing how much free expression the hole involved. The room was rather large. A group of males might congregate around the hole crossing their streams. Indeed, the amount of piss-splatter seemed to indicate this kind of sport. To further enhance the dramatic function of the hole in the floor, the bottom of the entrance door to the room was six inches off the tiles, presumably to assist with cleaning. This gap became even more obvious as one thought of squatting over the hole. Now the gap under the door seemed to be there to add a sense of observation. This was the only facility available for women and men.
Here, faced with the decorated hole, I was no longer "going to the toilet" or "lavatory" or "bathroom" or whatever cultural name I was raised with. Of a sudden I was the "shitter" or man defecating. Of a sudden, unasked for, I was a character in the Decameron or Satryricon. Now all the whiteness and all the symmetry and all the sterility of polite personal hygiene became apparent as inadequate: smoothness was exceeded by the sticky.
Which gets us to the very deep philosophy of such matters; it gets us to the poetics of sticky. While the toilet example might seem to suggest a trivial Marxist analysis (the repressed will return), it is not really all that important. The dimension of the abject is excluded from genteel society and non-gentle society, even if differently. We are well used to the vantage of returning reality, complete with attached Third World graphics or Bladerunner semiotic grunge.
This return of the sticky is very familiar. Jerry Seinfeld has made millions out of recovering snot and any other bits that fall off; Bill Clinton has reminded us that sex leaves its sticky trace, a trace so fascinating that samples are collected to recollect the passion in Proustian moments of reverie. And, to follow Proust, we can point out that the Viaticum is more than a sweet biscuit, more than the taste of almond icing: it is also the viscous bits that resist decay and deformation and hang about the self as a burnish or veneer made up from our falling apart.
It is our falling apart that mostly emerges from what we make of the sticky bits of life. Not only are we touched, but everything we touch, takes and leaves traces of our being. We make touch into an index of our apprehension that we ourselves finally cannot touch or be touched in any way that is permanent. The viscosity of our touching both draws us into our own sensory making of ourselves, through our experiences of the self as sensation, and, it holds us at a distance to ourselves, through our knowing our sensations as hanging on but not quite staying.
The smooth pebble that we take up and rub between our fingers, the smooth pebble that we may place in our mouth and toss with our tongue, this pebble is warn in a way that pleases our want for touching that which has already lost its surface of difference and become anonymous. We lust after the smooth in ways that nipples are not smooth. We lust after the smooth as a guarantee that what we touch is not sticky and will leave us as we were except that we have touched the smooth. Here we dominate the smooth and its subtle shapings that shape to us.
A simple experience can illustrate this double touch. Allow another to gently scribe circles on the palm of your hand with their finger. Gently, around and around the smoothness of another against the smoothness of the self becomes, in time, a touching that is a being touched. Here the boundaries of the self are compromised by the complement. Now I am no longer sufficient, I have become the object of touching and the object which is touched. The boundaries become confused and intimacy is found. The smooth has now become the sticky as we find ourselves inscribed with the otherness of our own surface. Smooth no longer guarantees that we can readily take and not be taken from. Traces of the touching remain to remind us of the unavoidable nature of our falling apart and our falling out into the world.
This complicity is reinforced in language as touch. If I say "I love you", you automatically become the one touched. When the words are uttered they are like the hands of the beloved, but also, they are like the hands of the molester who touches us, secretly, in a packed train, or in passing in a crowded space. If I do not wish to become "the one loved", if I do not wish to become "the object of desire", then I am caught in the ambiguity of the sticky touch. People wish to touch their idols so that they will, in turn, become touched. There is nothing smooth in this, it is all about stick. As the fan is touched, by the idol, so they wish to touch. Such touching, at a distance, is the measure of just how far the sticky can be stretched.
When smooth and sticky come together, as they do in boiled sweets, we are able to take in all the sticky with all the smooth and there is no remainder. Or, if we have got some sticky on our hands or face, we wash it off or lick it off and then we have our sticky and smooth all to ourselves and there is no remainder.
The same can go for phlegm which we find no problem with, in general. When we cough to clear our lungs and then swallow the smooth and sticky substance that we have coughed, no one shudders. Should this material exit our body, we then are faced with re-integrating what has now become the abject. The eating of snot is quite common in children. Many adults practise the secret eating of snot. Generally we socially resist this behaviour though from the evidence in public places, not only do we spit on the ground, but we adorn walls with hard sticky remnants of our nose waste.
Why do we do these things? What is our secret sticky life? Where do we end and where does the world begin? To answer these questions we need a poetics of the sticky. At the end of my leg is my foot and at the end of my foot, there is the world: I am stuck with being in the world.
May I not talk to the side?
Berger, John. (1982) Ways of Seeing, based on the BBC TV Series, Ways of Seeing, London: BBC & Penguin Books.
Buchler, Justus. (1974) The Main of Light, NY: Oxford University Press.
Corrington, Robert S. (1987) Introduction to Pragmatism Considers Phenomenology, Robert S. Corrington, Carl Hausman and Thomas M. Seebohn (eds), Washington: University Press of America.
Geberzahn, W. O. (2001) Design Report from Germany, an interview with Jürgen W. Braun, http://www.designboom.com/news/june/designreport.html
Hegel, G.W.F. (1977) Phenomenology of Spirit, A.V. Miller (trans), Oxford: Claredon Press.
Norman, Donald A. (1988) The Psychology of Everyday Things, NY: Basic Books.
Radice, Barbara. (1993) Ettore Sottsass: A Critical Biography, London: Thames & Hudson.
Royce, Josiah. (1904) The World and the Individual, 2 vols. NY: Macmillan
Russell, Keith. (2000) "Getting on Sartre's Bike: Teaching the Object that Essence does not Precede Existence", Design (Plus) Research: Growing a Knowledge, Politecnico, Milano, Italy, May 18-20, 2000, pp. 194-199.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. (1957) Existentialism and Human Emotions, Bernard Frechtman and Hazel E. Barnes (trans), New York: The Wisdom Library.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. (1981) Existential Psychoanalysis, Hazel E. Barnes (trans), Washington: Regnery Publishing.
Sherover, Charles M. (1987) "Royce's Pragmatic Idealism and Existential Phenomenology" in Pragmatism Considers Phenomenology, Robert S. Corrington, Carl Hausman & Thomas M. Seebohm eds. Washington: Center for Advanced Research in Phenomenology & University Press America, pp. 143-164)
Stace, W. T. (1955) The Philosophy of Hegel: A Systematic Exposition, London: Dover Publications.