Design Culture or design culture?

Marquard Smith’s scarily ingenious article in the journal of visual culture (4, 2: 237-56) entitled, ‘Visual Studies, or the Ossification of Thought’ provides a number of provocative warnings to anyone concerned with emergent academic disciplines. He starts by picking apart W.J.T. Mitchell’s assertion that visual culture embodies both the academic study and the object of study. This conflation, he argues, does nothing to separate the doing of scholarly enquiry – research, teaching, discussion, writing – from its field of enquiry.

To take this in a direction that Marquard Smith perhaps didn’t intend, it is interesting, perhaps, to think of the notion of ‘field of enquiry’ in Bourdieusian terms. Thus, the ‘field of visual culture’ is a place that has its particular forms of practice, its rules of engagement, its attitudinal tropes that are to be learnt. The end-game of this would be a form of ‘encultured visuality’ wherein the objects of study are knowingly encountered or produced.

In turn, Marquard Smith is interested, it seems, in acknowledging a more critical distance between academics and their stuff. This is partially motivated by a political ambition to avoid the techno-bureaucratization of a discipline. He argues, by drawing on Bill Reading’s The University in Ruins (1996), that academia has come to be driven by abstract concepts of ‘excellence’ that de-differentiates between disciplines and practices. Disciplines themselves become bureaucratized so that, for example, canonical texts are established or re-established in order to provide a ‘tick-box’ level of legitimation for study in order to meet targets, provide performance indicators and show that the job is being done. Albeit a fluid and open form of enquiry (or perhaps because of this), Visual Culture (upper case version) as a discipline can be less instrumental and more differentiated and disruptive.

I think a similar confusion exists between Design Culture and design culture. The former, in upper case, would be the academic discipline. The latter, in lower case, would be the object of study. Now and then I come across declarations that individuals make of their ‘passion for design culture’ and that by studying design culture further then they will become more encultured designers. Now I am passionate that Design Culture is a generative discipline – that it provides conjunctions of ideas and approaches that spark off each other, creating minor luminescences to light up forms of everyday action. But to accept that there is a straightforward path to enlightenment, prescribed by a bureaucratized routemap is not what I mean.

Smith identifies Visual Studies as the discipline where the conflations of enquiry and object of study within a bureaucratized educational system take place. Unfortunately he does not clearly describe what Visual Studies does on a day-to-day basis, where it exists or who does it. But perhaps there is a parallel in Design Studies, a discipline that is more instrumental in its practice and within its own object of study than Design Culture needs to be.

The stuff that is looked at, that is questioned, measured, recorded, examined, analyzed, speculated on and critiqued is design culture. Design Culture provides frameworks for doing this. But these are in themselves complex, unstable and probably post-epistemelogical.


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