Part Two: The Political Tract
When I crafted a response to design-fiction from the perspective of fiction, I knew there was a good chance I was going to raise some hackles. I had decided to stand behind the line of fiction, and from there, fling over the wall a quasi-action-adventure essay, in which the noble forces of fiction were beset on all sides by the cannibalistic hordes of capitalism and design. All of which makes a good story, and a good missile. But is it correct? Or was I disingenuous, playacting with straw men, lighting off pyrotechnics without warning my audience to the presence of smoke and strobe affects in my performance?
My response was always intended as a first step: the Devil’s Advocate position. A method truly less and less reputable in this era of networked cells of concerted, street-level optimism; something somewhat out of fashion without the old grand narrative to rebel against. And yet, I wanted to turn the tables, and break down some of the current conceptions about what design fiction is, and how it works. Then, with stability shattered, propose the way forward. Which I did, but only at the very end of the essay.
But it seems that was not enough. How could it be? After I stormed in with much light and noise, how could I attempt to redeem myself in a couple of tack-on paragraphs? Could I really just set the cart back on its wheels with a gesture and depart from the room as if nothing was wrong?
The conclusion of the fiction I wrote was that design and fiction ought to work together. They ought to unite their combined mechanisms and critical eyes, and proceed in alliance to creatively map the dense network of technology that defines our present and our path towards the future. In furtherance of that goal, and to not only mend the bridge but build a better one, I wish to explain exactly how it is that design and fiction work as creative acts; and then from this, show how they might work in concert. And so, let us move on from the fiction, and begin the political tract.
The So-Called Imaginary
Time, being the dimension upon which the past and future run their spectrum in either direction from the pivot point of the present, is not an easy tightrope on which to walk. Today our technology is more grandiose, and yet more intricate than ever before in history. Our position as subjects in this time is tentative at best, evolving in tandem and in opposition to the nodes of the technological web of the material world which is always changing, even the most concrete plateaus being only as stable as fluid underneath. But we have the tools to negotiate this. We are the tools to negotiate this. Our sense of history, through which we perceive and interpret the world, is as much the network of time as the tools that built it. We’ve only ever had these tools, and with them in our hands we’ve built the whole thing, as far as we can see. These tools can be used to destroy it, to fix it, to control it, and to build it even bigger.
It is difficult to begin to move forward without assessing where we are now. And it is difficult to say where we stand, without either taking a pithy few examples as the whole, or creating a generic “average” standpoint that doesn’t actually exist: the well known fictional format I like so much. But the state of things is difficulty, and it can’t be avoided. As such, I wish to imagine an average description of the popular way we might construe the current cultural state of affairs and our historical matrix: the so-called, the Imaginary.
The Imaginary as a proper noun was most notably formulated by Lacan, as a domain of his psychoanalytic theory. The Imaginary is a ghostly realm, the place of dream, imagination, and image, set apart from the language and logic we might use to describe such things. It is differentiated from the Symbolic domain of signification; the logical structure of language that organizes, compartmentalizes, and gives form to the Imaginary. The Symbolic is the means by which we express things, but the Imaginary is the font from which ideas well.
This structural differentiation will no doubt sound familiar to many, as it is a common schema found in various philosophical theories of the Twentieth Century, with precursors extending back to Classical Philosophy. It is two-part: there is the firm, formal plumbing of the Symbolic, and there is the Imaginary flux within that conduit. The structuralist metaphor fits bipartite imagery according to a number of metaphors, rendering it to our understanding quite easily.
And accordingly, we apply this metaphor to understand our technological invention. In fact, all creative disciplines are usually explained this way. That there is a flitting dream-world of ideas half-formed and interconnected from which we draw inspiration and shape this raw, creative material into actual invention seems not only mythologically relevant, but appealing to our sense of agency. Be it on the lips of the muse, through the mystic gnosis of juxtaposition and suggestion, or only as result of hard monastic study and meditation, our common understanding of the act of creation seems to fit to this notion of “channeling”. From the Imaginary to the Symbolic, we build ideas out into reality.
The Biologic Field of Cultural Objects
Unfortunately, this mythos does not bear scrutiny. There is an imaginary field of material that we access, but it is more real than this nebulous domain. If it was more ethereal, shrouded in the fog of sub-conscious and hidden within the dungeons of memory, it would be comfortably distant. It would be something we would not have to be acquainted with directly. And yet we regularly visit it for supplies, with the pedestrian ease of the massive suburban grocery outlet. It is a myth to think that it is both of the ethereally-beyond and simultaneously in each of our grasps. Perhaps similar, in this way, to the realities of the mega-store, disavowed by the average consumer more interested in a convenient bargain than in the dirty, often tragic mechanisms of world trade. The facts are blurred by the Imaginary, conveniently forgotten, and no less uncomfortably present when we finally clear away those metaphor-implied clouds.
If it were somehow inaccessible, we wouldn’t be responsible for an ethical relationship between ourselves and our creative raw materials. We could extract from the Imaginary at will, as if it were an endless supply, some sort of water from the rock. As a different dimension from reality, the Imaginary cannot be causally linked to reality. There is no measurable ecosystem between the Imaginary and reality. Even if one were to acknowledge they were connected, how can you begin to map the transversal connections if one half of the terrain remains obscured and conveniently unconscious? Our diagrams of the Imaginary rely on weak notions of spontaneous creativity, mythic inspiration, and the heavenly-dictate of random association. But there are real mechanisms at play in the field of “where ideas come from”, and we can’t overlook them.
This milieu from which ideas are drawn, call it an Imaginary or whatever you like, is quite real and close at hand. It is the field of Culture Objects: the pieces of media, story threads, narrative concepts, and instances of human desire that have been crystallized into that which we consume when we consume culture. There is nothing imaginary about them. They are as real as our books, music, film, art, technology, food, and everything else that we have glossed with meaning in our significant world. Naturally, their borders and divisions are in a sort of sublime flux, and that makes it difficult to apprehend them as objects. Is the folio Hamlet, by Shakespeare, reducible to the narrative of a son-murdering-his-adoptive-father? Or is that merely a major theme of that work? Or is it only an archetype found in Hamlet, among other many other instances? Is a snatch of melody a Culture Object? What about a chord? How about a particular tempo? At what point do we recognize something as an original work, a derivative work, an influence, a reference, or something related on so small as to be comparatively inconsequential for the purposes of cultural analysis? Rather than worry ourselves about the difficulty of analyzing and separating the complex web of Cultural Objects in play within our creative system, it is much easier to write it off as simply Imaginary. The fluid dynamics necessary to appreciate blowing smoke or murky water are easy, compared to the relativistic perspectives we must use order to perceive the multiplicitous nodes of the field of Cultural Objects. We are on the level of cultural biology, here. You look at a desert, and you see Nature. But describe what it is that you call Nature, and you see rocks, woody plants, succulents, the occasional animal hiding from the sun in the rocks. But look closer–inside those plants are insects evolved to live only in that one particular place. Creatures that look different than those anywhere else, in any other desert. And between the grains of sand: near-invisible lichens and bacteria, clinging to life and each other. The very sand of the desert is alive. Where do the bounds of biology fall? Like Cultural Objects, everywhere and nowhere. As a complex system, the field of Cultural Objects is far more complicated the Symbolic we so egotistically claim to master, and the Imaginary we tithe to heaven.
If we understand the Biologic field of Cultural Objects as being quite nodal, capable of complex evolution and yet simultaneously beholden to the present, we can begin to analyze how our present creativity might be able to transcend the present. We can begin to identify “The Future” more clearly. Within an Imaginary, The Future is desperately useless, as an undifferentiated blob of characteristics. But in the field of Cultural Objects, The Future is a critical, analytical technique.
If we believe that ideas are drawn from an Imaginary, a magically adjacent dimension to ours, then The Future becomes equally separate from our world. Mystically distinct from reality, we are unable to fully seize grasp of what The Future is, other than to call it out when we see it, with all the immaculate criticism inherent in a dowsing rod. If we make fiction, design, or any other creative product inspired by/for a vision of The Future, and that future is drawn from an Imaginary, where else is it coming from but out of that fog, with no bounds, no definition? “Forward-leaning” is no more a point of reference than “dream-inspired”.
It isn’t easy to isolate exactly where The Future exists in the field of Cultural Objects, but at least we have something to study, and a point from which to proceed. The Future can be a genre, much like variously distinguished classifications of historical fiction. The Future has the characteristics of seeming to be what is temporally oncoming based on our understanding of history: “the shape of things we believe are to come”. Much like electronic music, that seeks to express its creativity in terms of an generally recognized aesthetic, implied by the particular means of its creation: “the aesthetic of what sounds electronically generated”. Like desert fauna, biologically determined by a host of factors supporting the line between its life and its extinction: “the sort of animals that live in a desert without dying”. It is a pattern that we generate ourselves, pushing it out in front of us, calling it out ahead of us in our imagination, until we no longer are able to see it repeated any longer. We don’t know everything about this pattern and the means of its creation, but we know much more than we do about a perceived Imaginary, in which things move about like sprites, without systematic interaction.
The Future, in the sense of its most critical self-conscious expression regarding the things of its genre, is a critical-eye with a notion of the passage of time, and therefore not only is the aesthetic of the shape of things to come, but the means by which we understand how we recognize the shape of things to come, from amid the field of Cultural Objects. This is what we’d like to think of as Futurism, at least in its modern incarnation. It is not a holistic ethos pulled from the depths of the mind, or a merely aesthetic eye, but a way of reading, manipulating, and relating to objects on the ground, and the tools at hand. Within the genre, it is an understanding of how that genre works. It isn’t enough to create something that might exist. One must simultaneously think about why and how it might exist. Otherwise, it is merely repetition of certain cultural indicators. To speak of wireless because other instances of The Future contain wireless technology, or to consider augmentation of reality because other Future Cultural Objects might augment reality. The Future lends itself towards critical expression, because its pattern is one of constant re-definition by inventive creation, and not merely mimicry. In this way, The Future is distinctly in the present, because it must be as self-conscious of its current genre in order to patently adopt its future-tense. It’s mechanism is to functionally inseminate the present with the possible, and so it must be the technician of the relationship between these things. This is its functional operation, and is the mechanical means of the reprinting of its pattern.
The Future, insofar as it can be conceived and molded into Cultural Objects, already exists. The notion of the presence of historical objects deeply networked within our current apprehension of what is “now” has been referred to as “atemporality”. The meaning is the same. Historicity is genre. Objects create their timeliness in situ, among a network of similar objects, a pattern of the genre relevant and interconnected to a certain period of time. But this genre is always already reinterpreted in terms of the present as it is recognized. To see “old”, we must understand “new”. The ability to perceive history as being historical is dependent upon a headspace firmly grounded in the continuum of temporality, the ability to think relativistically about historicity and temporality, and the critical perspective necessary to project oneself in mechanistic concert with the functional systems that evolve over the passage of that dimension t. A tall order, to be sure.
This relevatory atemporality, the biologic field of Cultural Objects, the cease-and-desist order towards the Imaginary: it’s not just a fancy existential perspective or a genre of philosophical terminology. It is a philosophical idea, to be sure; but it is part of our evolution towards an ethics of a post-moral world. Making the sort of shift necessary to push The Future beyond an aesthetic genre and into a critical perspective is not just an thinking exercise, but a crucial mentality for any creator, in the absence of other ethical guidelines.
Morality is a many-storied discipline in and of itself, and so I’ll have to reduce and concentrate the concept as I did with that of the Imaginary. We understand the principle–a guide and assessment strategy for human action. Whether justified by philosophy, theology, humanism, or other constituent articles, we come up with a plan for interpreting good actions and bad actions in reference to a judged spectrum of general good.
Short-cutting my way out of rehashing the entirety of Nietzsche’s The Genealogy of Morals, let me just say that there are some issues with a morality that breaks down the entirety of human action into the twin poles of good and bad. The world is complex, and we end up with a spectrum of good/bad, that has points marked out for ends-justifying-means, necessary-evils, greater-goods, and a host of other qualifiers that make the distinction between good and bad so relative as to make the distinction near useless on a daily basis. Attempts have been made to soldier on without losing sleep over this issue (notably, neoliberalism) but that… well, is a subject for another essay.
But ethics, as an alternate guide for assessment divorceable from morality, remains usable. An ethical system could rely on morality, but does not need to do so. It merely establishes a point of reference as its judgement schema. “Good”, perhaps most generally, but alternately “success”, “civil society”, “sportsmanship”, or “business” would work, to list a few examples. It arranges a pattern of action and assessment in furtherance of a more specific reference point than a general morality. One might consider it utilitarian, but the utility is merely a different orientation than an indefinable “general good”. Accordingly, an ethics can align the assessment towards a terrain that still has purchase, in the void of absolute right and wrong. Our interest in ethics then, in wake of my castigation of concepts like the Imaginary, should be obvious.
Supply and Demand
The ethics of creativity haven’t aligned according to “absolute good” in some time (though some proponents of an ethereal Imaginary speak as if it did), but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its own poles. Currently, in most of the world, the values that sway the ethics of creativity are effectively market-based. We assess our creations and alter our creativity process according to the reference point of demand.
It’s easy to understand why. Creativity, for all of its noble features, is dependent upon economic support. And we’re not just talking publisher’s advances, royalty checks, production costs, and the other financial forces that play into the creation of Cultural Objects. Economy includes the household-totalling of many push-pull factors in addition to finances. There is an economy of creativity based on the use-value of Cultural Objects, separate from their exchange-value and any potential for capitalistic profit and loss. One can create anything that one wants to make; but if one wants to make “something”, it better be something that someone wants. The market can be as small or as large as we choose, but there must be a supply and demand market structure within it for the product of creativity to be said to exist. Creative production is merely idle work that cannot make a product, unless that product is consumed. The interests of one person act as a pull on the creativity of another. As the fruit of human expression, a Cultural Object expresses nothing unless it expresses it to someone. Even if the creator creates only for him/herself, it still satisfies that desire in order to take place.
The creator imagines, through his/her own apprehension of the complex network of Cultural Objects and the desires and feelings connecting them, a potential demand for an envisioned Object that solidifies as an idea, then which congeals via his/her labor into the actual Object: the work of art, literature, music, or whatever it is. Causality is not implied, and doesn’t have to be. The link between the supply and the demand happens from both sides simultaneously and connects both nodes into a unit at once. It is a continuum between the creator who didn’t necessarily know s/he had anything to sell, and the consumer who didn’t know s/he had any desire to buy, until they meet up one day and at the same time begin to make an offer, in a suddenly networked transaction. The cost of the transaction is also moot, and quite likely, the exchange is not made in terms of anything like currency. What is important is that the Cultural Object is given over from the creator to the consumer because the creator was able to create and the consumer was ready to consume, and it is by this relationship that the Object can come about.
If the goal is to make Cultural Objects, the goal is to find demand, and connect it with the supply. We are all “middlemen” in the field of Cultural Objects, making connections between nodes, trafficking in flows–in the same way that every organism is in a sense a symbiont, in that through its biologic transactions of all kinds with other organisms, they all constitutes the ecosystem together. More connections between supply and demand engender more Cultural Objects. We continue to create and consume, and this ethic of demand, as a pattern guiding and assessing action, furthers itself, as life begets life.
The Obsolete and the Profitable
But on top of this general ethic of supply and demand, additionally ethic layers can be stacked like architectural vellum, shifting the meaning of the layers below. Perhaps just as natural as the desire to create, is the urge to profit. Capitalism, for better or for worse, is a fundamental ethical perspective coloring all of our actions, whether we like it or not. Enter the agents, the managers, the marketers, the gallery owners, the publishers, the retailers, the factory owners, the advertisers, and so on and so forth. In addition to guiding the flows of supply and demand to connect the nodes, they seek to extract surplus-value from these connections, by way of reprogramming the connections in a profitable way.
The “profitable”, then, is not only a connection that is demanded, but demanded with a certain furiousness. Capitalism must seek relentless profit-taking for the foreseeable future. Capitalism has long understood the concept of atemporality. There is no such thing as “new” or “old” outside of a relative judgment–instead, the ethic directs itself based on only what is profitable. And profitable doesn’t merely mean “profitable today”, but also “still profitable”, or “potentially profitable tomorrow”. Capitalism, as the ultimate ethical regime, seeks to reduce all other means of understanding systems to its own. Time, space, goodness, creativity: all of these are redefined in terms of their usefulness in extracting and channeling flows of capital. It could be a fad, a trend, a vintage, a reboot, a retro, or whatever you want to call it. To Capital, it is only profitable or it is not profitable.
Profitability, not unlike a certain abstracted genre of The Future in the sense of the Imaginary as already discussed, is self-servingly forward-leaning. One counts the profit one makes today, but plans for the profit to be taken tomorrow. The more critical aspect of The Future in the sense of the field of Cultural Objects, and its self-consciousness and the groundedness of it as a worldview, is dangerous to Capitalism unless reduced to merely the ethic of profitability: also known as “feasibility”. The sort of historical truths and radical potentialities that critical Futurism concerns itself with, such as climate change, social unrest, democracy, radical economic or political structures, personal freedoms (just to pick a few from the bag) are distractions from the overarching ethic of Capitalism. Any sort of critical break with the current systematic support, empowerment, and ethical justification of Capitalism are dangerous and potentially costly if they are allowed to occur, in that they might interfere with profitability: the bottom line. The goal is to replicate the profitable Cultural Objects of today, and anticipate those that will make money tomorrow. The goal is forward; while change, or a more specific critical analysis of historical systems, is not. Minimizing change for the foreseeable future in order to reap a steady curve of return is what the flows of Capital specialize at doing.
The opposite of “Profitable” in the Capitalist ethic is “Obsolete”. Obsolete is what used to be profitable, but no longer is. There could very well be a demand for that particular Cultural Object, but because there is way to seriously profit from that demand, it has no use for Capitalism. The LP album is the perfect example. The CD made the LP obsolete. But it never reduced the LPs use-value. It only provided an alternate, “better” use-value from the perspective of the capitalist ethic, in that it could sell itself as an improvement. LPs continued to play music just as well as they always did. But, because there was a better product in terms of the Capitalist ethic, they were officially labeled Obsolete. LPs continued to be bought, sold, created, and played. Until then one day, Capitalism had a change of heart. The system “noticed”, as it were, that despite being obsolete, LPs were still selling. And so, the technology was de-Obsoleted. LPs are now legitimate commodities once again, having reattained their position within the Capitalist ethic as Profitable. All of which would be extraordinarily surprising to the LP, if it was the sort of thing that could be surprised. It has not changed much over the course of twenty years of being Obsolete, rotating at thirty-three and a third revolutions per minute, in a similar stoic nature to the turning earth.
There is nothing wrong with making money on its face. Selling something is merely to participate in the exchange between the supply and the demand, trading value for value. But when there is a way of viewing the world and systematically understanding one’s actions that involves the flattening and reduction of all other ethics towards maximizing the flow of profit, such that the goal is to extract as much surplus-value as possible from the work of others… well, it would seem that there is a untenable situation for the long term. Legitimate use-value of the field of Cultural Objects, among a number of other important ethical considerations, takes a back seat, if isn’t run over in the middle of the road. In biologic terms, the Capitalist ethic is an invasive species: a predatory pattern that is overwhelming the rest of the ecosystem.
The Praxis of Fiction
So we take our critical-eye off the The Future as genre, and look into the atemporal distance all around us to study the mechanics and economics of creativity, rather than to simply reproduce its product. We stand up on the Biologic field of Cultural Objects, and see what is going on underneath our feet. We make our ethic firmly in terms of supply and demand as befitting our nodal networks, rather than per abstract regimes of profit and loss. We have an existential metaphysics, a politics, and an ethics. So what is it that we are going to make?
We each have our art form, our preferred medium, our home discipline, our comfortable home workshop, with our well-worn set of tools. Surely we won’t be straying too far from these. These are, after all, a fundamental element of our milieu, reference points and instruments across our own topology of the field of Cultural Objects. These constitute our praxis: our means of production, through which we engage in the market of ideas and objects with our audiences, our contemporaries, with the supply and the demand of the arena of creative human endeavor.
But is there ever a time in which it is not useful to re-evaluate, to re-strategize, to re-assess the situation on the ground, and to improve upon the plan? The praxis is always changing; the ecosystem is always evolving; the demands of our world always adjust; the terrain is always shifting and having to be re-mapped.
The map is fiction–or rather, fiction is what we draw, in attempting to map it. But we can only keep track of our creative motion insofar as we can conceive it as space. The field of creativity is our desert, which we were born to survive within. It is our ecosystem. Fiction, as the combined topology of our Cultural Objects, is the means and mechanisms by which we supply the demand of our imagination and fantasies. It is not separate from design, any more than design is separate from the world. Fiction and design are resolutely material in that they relate directly to reality, even when they momentarily retreat to the depths of our imagination. We dream in terms of the world around us, and we set our sights on what can be potentially achieved in a future connected to today.
Whether the art form is design, literature, or anything else, the praxis is the crucial test of whether we can best connect the nodes of supply and demand, for our own critical vision of the future, rather than regimes that would force us back onto the autopilot of the genre-fied Imaginary. What can we best do with our tools, that can find a place in the reality of the field of Cultural Objects? How do we already fit into the flows? What sort of creatures are we, and what sort of ecosystem is it that we inhabit? Who else lives here, and what do they eat? We must sharpen the ethical scalpel, while at the same time broadening the critical lens. These are metaphorical descriptions of creative practices, but they constitute our reality no less than any of these. We must consider the form of creativity as the means of an ecosystem, directing the flows between the nodes of means, material, ourselves, our audience, and each other: because it is. We need to stop creating products, and start evolving worlds. Because these worlds already exist.