The Work of Design in the Age of Cultural Simulation, or, Decoloniality as Empty Signifier in Design

Recently AIGA just published an article on OCAD’s efforts to create what they are calling a curriculum with a decolonial agenda. What’s particularly interesting is that the article has been pitched as a ‘success’ story that American schools would do well to emulate. While this piece has been written sounding like a direct critique of the OCAD vision for decolonial design education as given in the article (regardless of how closely it follows the visions of the specific people cited in the article — I am aware that Dori Tunstall is a recent addition to OCAD and would question the extent to which the article accurately presents its content as specifically her vision for the school), the piece should be taken more as a general critique questioning the AIGA’s Diversity and Inclusion Initiative and the kind of approaches and thought it champions regarding critical issues on gender, race, culture, and politics.

The critique will lay out why I think that the particular approach to decolonial design given is not only shallow, an approach that deals with symptoms rather than causes or roots, but actually dangerous, both in that it misrepresents and subverts the work that has been done in this area and co-opts the term into serving the very thing it opposes, what theorists of decoloniality like Walter Mignolo term the ‘modern world-system’ (Mignolo, 2002), or Euro\American neo-liberal capitalism, and in these early days when these conversations are new within the design disciplines, risks reducing and limiting them by taking on a prescriptive tone. At this time, when we need more nuanced thinking coming into the debates on design and its relation to the politics of difference, the last thing that will help, in my opinion, is rushing to turn what are extremely complex issues to think through into an ‘action plan’. Therefore, instead of telling other design programs what they should be doing, the following could, using the case study above, be used as a guide on what not to do, and what to be very careful about, when setting up a program with a decolonial agenda.

Since the article is vague on its definitions and lacks any sources, it is first necessary to understand what decoloniality is, and why decolonial theory emerged as a very specific field of responses to a very specific framing of the legacy of Western colonialism — what separates it from say, the way scholars working in subaltern studies or globalization theory deal with coloniality and modernity (the understanding of both is, I might add, also by and large absent in design knowledge — as a field, historically, the design disciplines’ understanding of culture and cultural theory has always been poor). Firstly, decoloniality is nothing new. Although theoretical scholarship on decoloniality can be traced as far back as the 1910’s (As a scholar specializing in South Asian contexts and histories of decoloniality, I trace it to Rabindranath Tagore’s early writings on nationalism and the future of India — other scholars would cite people like Frantz Fanon writing in the 1950s and 60s about decolonization movements in French Algeria and elsewhere in Northern Africa), decoloniality as a specific political agenda can be traced back to the Bandung Conference in April, 1955, when 29 nations from Africa and Asia convened in Indonesia to explicitly front a combined effort to find alternatives to Western political and economic paradigms of development, i.e. to both capitalism and communism, and in doing so first outlined a global project to delink from what were recognized as global designs and paradigms by the American and Soviet blocs during the Cold War era.

Hence, right from the outset, it is important to note that not only was there an epistemic programme to delink from Western knowledge systems, based on a recognition not only that, as Walter Mignolo notes, that “Western democracy and socialism are not the only two models to orient our thinking and our doing”, but that modernity itself “is not an ontological unfolding of history but the hegemonic narrative of Western civilization. So, there is no need to be modern. Even better, it is urgent to delink from the dream that if you are not modern, you are out of history. Alternative or subaltern modernities claiming their right to exist, reaffirm the imperialism of Western modernity disguised as universal modernity.” (Mignolo, 2011)

Hence, the central danger of continued coloniality, of Western political, economic, socio-cultural and epistemic systems fracturing the histories of the colonized and displacing their presents in the name of international development, progress, and ‘becoming modern’, is not merely epistemic but ontological — modernity and the modern world system, the global system of institutions that continue to dictate how things should be in the ex-colonies, are a threat because they change and have changed who we, the colonized, are. When writers like Franz Fanon write that black people modify their speech, body language, and actions to “prove the existence of a black civilization to the white world at all costs” (Fanon, 1952), what he points to is the awareness of the colonized that they exist always in relation to a colonizer — their very existence is grounded in a power difference. Projects of decoloniality are therefore double projects — the colonized must, as they attempt to delink from the modern world system and find alternatives, must also begin with questions of who they are now, what they are becoming, and what they should be. When histories have been ruptured and the link to the past is tenuous, the colonized must negotiate a new relation to the past in addition to navigating through the constantly shifting contours of the present. So before we go any further, just to underscore what I have said, decoloniality proceeds from two basic observations:

a) that we need to reimagine and produce alternative systems as we delink from present colonial systems;

b) that we need to reimagine our link to our histories and negotiate and try to answer to who and what we are in the present and could become in the future.

If we accept that the material or the artificial, i.e., the designed, plays a crucial role in determining our ontologies as different beings spread across the world, that it determines not only how we see and interpret the world but in how we define ourselves, then one begins to realise that the role that international paradigms and practices in the design disciplines have also played, and continue to play, a large role in the perpetuation of the modern world system and in colonial difference. Just as, at the Bandung Conference, a consortium of African and Asian nations were asking what alternatives to modern political and economic systems could be developed, the role of the decolonial designer becomes one of questioning the very foundations of design as practice and discipline: how does contemporary design practice perpetuate the imperatives of Western neoliberal capitalism, can it be separated or delinked from the particular paradigms and histories that ground the latter, with their roots in the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, and can we then imagine different practices, perhaps even different definitions, of what it means to design?

Now, we come to an analysis of the very particular role, given the nature of the AIGA article, of the role of graphic design and visual communication vis-a-vis coloniality and culture, and the assumptions that the good folk at OCAD have made regarding the nature of coloniality.

Like Mignolo, Ramon Grosfoguel, Anibal Quijano and other scholars, while OCAD rightly identifies that part of the problem in modern design education has to do with the fact that programs prioritize “European art and design histories as the key pedagogical source over non-Western design lineages” (I would point interested parties here to Grosfoguel’s Transmodernity, border thinking, and global coloniality (2015)), it fails to state clearly why this is a problem other than the fact that it does not a) reflect a diversity of indigenous influences in Canadian culture, and b) by relegating the visual culture of an indigenous minority group to being a object of specialized courses within a curriculum rather than allowing that visual culture to be part of the cultural production that design does in a society. This of course, also has then to do with c)the false dichotomy, first articulated by designers like Christopher Alexander in the first Design Methods movement during the 1960s, that Western designers plan and ‘design’ while non-Western civilizations merely imitate and produce ‘craft’. ‘Craft’ then takes the place of curiosity and novelty in Western design education and acts as the counterpoint to ‘true’, methodical, problem solving oriented practices of design.

On the surface, there is nothing wrong with problematizing any of these claims. However, issues become apparent in how OCAD then chooses to frame and tackle these issues. The first critique I have, of course, and this is a problem with the very nature of contemporary design practice, is in how designers see themselves, first and foremost, as problem solvers and therefore, of coloniality as a problem to be framed and solved, instead of as a condition of being modern that needs to be constantly negotiated with, and part of that condition is the role that material systems (note that I do not say specific artifacts or products but systems or totalities — just as Heidegger said that the essence of technology lies in no specific technology, the essence of coloniality lies in no specific thing it produces) play in producing specific kinds of human subjects. Trying to “solve” coloniality by producing a range of cultural artifacts without trying to change or at the very least, reimagine, the systems within which those artifacts are imagined, produced, distributed, and consumed, is like treating a severely ill person by merely alleviating their symptoms.

From a systemic perspective, therefore, instead of treating the problem of representation of indigenous perspectives as a multifaceted epistemological problem of erasure and privilege, i.e. that entire ways of seeing and knowing the world have been effectively erased from (and one could question here whether erasure is, from the perspectives of the Canadian Native Americans, a good or bad thing)that stems from the nature and structure of academic institutions today, it reduces the problem to a political problem of participation: if we could only get more Native Americans to train as designers and have them create more culturally informed artifacts, and teach more Native American visual and material culture histories, then we’ve insured that they can also continue to be good producers and contributors to the present system. This is like saying that racism could be solved by simply allowing more African Americans and other minorities to be given more representation and their cultural history taught in school classrooms, or that sexism could be solved by hiring more women in the workforce, and is one of the logics by which neoliberalism reproduces and perpetuates itself — by ensuring adequate representation in and contribution to its own systems of production and consumption without changing them.

If we were to go deeper though, to the ontological issue of what it means to be Native American, given that Native American history and identity was fractured by the arrival of European settlers, then the question of what contemporary Native American visual identity is as an expression of the current culture and its link to its own past comes into play and is worth problematizing, as is the question of how that identity comes to express itself and through what kinds of artifacts. Here, the nature of communication design as discipline begs to be questioned — historically, communication designers have seen themselves primarily performing in two capacities: in the sense of design as cultural production, communication design performs the task of creating symbolic systems that, among other things, reinforce a sense of continuity of cultural identity, and in the sense of its capacity to problem solve, it has the performative role of awareness building and (re)education.

As cultural production, the creation of symbols, and their role in educating the masses happens within a larger system where symbols function in sustaining an order of particular imaginaries (ways in which people perceive cultural Others, build a sense of community, construct their desires, etc.), the colonized, especially the indigenous colonized living in a land that still continues to be occupied and ruled by colonizers (as opposed to ex-colonies like India where there is no direct presence), are faced with the problem of not only which symbols to produce and perpetuate, but with the role that those symbols can play in either maintaining or challenging the popular imaginaries of the dominant system. There is a certain troubling assumption that culture is reducible to the visual and the symbolic within communication design that becomes apparent in the examples that the article gives. How are we to assume that artifacts that borrow aesthetic and symbolic sensibilities from Native American history wholesale without changing the nature of the products that it is a part of (language apps, playing cards etc.)will not perpetuate an exoticization and fetishization of the culture and produce ever more ‘novelty’ products for easy consumption by a primarily white market (what makes Nishology, for example, mentioned in the article, any different from Ten Thousand Villages)? Which of course, eventually leads us to more questions: from a decolonial perspectives, what should communication design be, and what should Native American communication designers be doing in relation to symbolic systems that go hand in hand with oppressive political, economic, and material systems? What role should visual culture play: why is it important for Native American designers to know visual histories, and to what end — is the past something to be recovered and repeated or is it to something to be used as part of the ground for a process of coming up with something new, given that the past cannot be retrieved and that our modern condition is one where we need to live as moderns without necessarily following the Western project of modernity? Should Native American communication designers be actively trying to maintain difference, instead of trying to normalize it?

These are not easy questions, and ones for which there are no universal answers — what will work for indigenous peoples in the Americas will not work for colonized civilizations of the East or South; what works for India will not work for Kenya or China or Indonesia (a further problematic assumption that the article makes is in conflating the ‘indigenous’ with ‘colonized’, itself a word with a problematic history and romantic\orientalist roots: “colonization has affected indigenous cultures from all over the world”). Furthermore, a politics of decolonial design that ignores deep analyses and introspection on the (deeply unequal) relationship between colonizer and colonized, that ignores both the local and global nature of colonial systems, and that assumes identity to be unproblematic, a given, is no decolonial politics at all.

There are other problems that I have with the article: for example, the way it ignores the work that design academics and practitioners alike in the ex-colonies have been doing for decades and thus displaces both the history and geography of decoloniality in design — the majority of names given in the list at the end of the article are white or from prominent institutions in the Western\Northern sphere (thus also maintaining the colonial illusion that whatever meaningful work on decoloniality has happened in Western institutions). Furthermore, it misrepresents the nature of the recent debates on decoloniality that have been happening at DRS and other forums such as the design PhD lists. Far from being “fertile grounds for the discussion of decolonization in education and within the greater design community”. platforms like DRS were harrowing and frustrating experiences for the designers involved in raising crucial questions. My colleagues in the Decolonizing Design platform were at the heart of very abrasive, in some cases abusive, exchanges at the hands of mainstream academics — in fact, we created the Decolonising Design manifesto and platform in response to DRS (www.decolonisingdesign.com). The article thus misrepresents even the recent history of decoloniality and design — whether this is through ignorance or oversight or deliberate is up for questioning.

In sum though, I think I am not alone in saying that we who have been and are involved in working through questions of what it means to live and act in global systems that limit our agency, that constrain, deny, and oppress us, refuse to see decoloniality become just another buzzword, another thing to check off in a list. Too much is at stake, and when easy explanations and ‘solutions’ are offered for things like culture, race, gender etc., by turning them into empty signifiers and divesting them of their critical agency, design becomes not only shallow and reductive but actively dangerous.

References:

Alexander, Christopher. Notes on the Synthesis of Form. Vol. 5. Harvard University Press, 1964.

Fanon, Frantz. Black skin, white masks. Grove press, 2008 (orig. 1952).

Grosfoguel, Ramón. “Transmodernity, border thinking, and global coloniality.” Nous 13 (2015): 09.

Mignolo, Walter. “The geopolitics of knowledge and the colonial difference.” The South Atlantic Quarterly 101, no. 1 (2002): 57–96.

Mignolo, Walter D. “Geopolitics of sensing and knowing: on (de) coloniality, border thinking and epistemic disobedience.” Postcolonial studies 14, no. 3 (2011): 273–283.

The writer is a PhD candidate in Design Studies at Carnegie Mellon University who works at the intersection of theories of the designed artificial and cultural difference, ideas of immunology and excess, and South Asian contexts and histories. He is also a part of the Decolonizing Design platform (http://www.decolonisingdesign.com/).