Decolonizing Design

An informal, reflective blog written for an Independent Study on decolonial theory and design, advised by PhD candidates Ahmed Ansari and Silvia Mata-Marin at Carnegie Mellon University School of Design

Week 2

Reading: Introduction & Conclusion to Janet Abu Lughod’s “Before European Hegemony: The World System AD 1250–1350”

This was an enlightening read, because, although we learn about “world history” in junior high and high school, we don’t really learn about the global system or how different parts of the world interacted with and influenced one another. I was especially intrigued to learn that there was no superpower—that all states enjoyed relatively equal levels of power, influence, and prosperity, until the European states turned this on its head. On page 361, Abu Lughod states

“Perhaps [the old world system] had adapted so completely to the coexistence of multiple trading partners that it was unprepared for players interested in short-term plunder rather than long-term exchange. More than anything else, then, it was the new European approach to trade-cum-plunder that caused a basic transformation in the world system that had developed and persisted over some five centuries.”

That so many different, individual states lived symbiotically for so long demonstrates to me that 1) that the Eastern world wasn’t a lawless, fearful placed filled with plundering savages that needed civilizing, and 2) that cooperation is better for the overall system than competition.

Discussion 1.23.18

Our discussion session was about world systems theory. Ahmed talked about how, beginning with French historian Fernand Braudel, people began to approach history not just from a people-and-events perspective, but from a large-scale, civilization-wide perspective that took into account cultural, social, and political factors, which laid the ground for world systems theory.

Immanuel Wallerstein who wrote a 4-volume book, “The Modern World System,” was influenced by Braudel, and took this systems-wide approach to understanding the origins of capitalism. He looked at how people organize themselves, beginning with mini-systems, which were indigenous tribes and city-states whose aim was to trade with and not to conquer one another. Next came empires with a core and periphery, whose goal was to expand and conquer. These empires also manifested different structures and hierarchies, such as the military, the elite, and administrative departments. These socio-cultural structures grew from the center and influenced the periphery.

According to Wallerstein, the first global world system originated between the 18th and 19th century. Characteristics of this system was that it was continent-spanning, there was no center or core, and there was a single economic and political model, namely democracy and capitalism. The world system subsumed empires and mini-systems and displaced all other values.

Abu Lughod takes issue with Wallerstein because, by beginning his narrative in the 16th century, he favors the Europeans and disregards all of the developments laid down by preceding civilizations. He neglects to note that a world system did exist prior to European hegemony, and not only that, but that it engaged in global, free exchange of trade and culture in relative peace and harmony.

Week 3

Readings

Coloniality of Power, Eurocentrism, and Latin America by Anibal Quijano

This paper discussed how the “new model of global power” was rooted in racism and the control of labor. Quijano wrote about how the idea of Cartesian dualism enabled people to separate the spirit from the body, thereby subjugating brown bodies as inherently inferior. On page 534, Quijano writes, “In America, the idea of race was a way of granting legitimacy to the relations of domination imposed by the conquest.” This also enabled the white minority to control labor, deeming black slaves and indigenous peoples as unworthy of paid labor. “The control of a specific form of labor could be, at the same time, the control of a specific group of dominated people” (537). By controlling the labor market, they were able to influence “means of production in the whole world market” (537).

He goes on to describe how non-Western peoples and traditions were rebranded as inferior, backwards, and no longer relevant (a mentality in which Nazism is likely rooted). In so doing, the West was able to erase non-white histories and cultures, rendering “modernity and rationality as exclusively European products and experiences.” The reorganization of time and history that Quijano writes of was especially interesting and insightful. I was a little disappointed, however, when the author tried to minimize the “mythic-magical” indigenous beliefs (p. 543), as if “rational science and secularization of thought” are the only legitimate ways of knowing. Ancient Greece also had elaborate mythologies but contributed a lot to modern civilization. I don’t believe mythological beliefs suggest any absence of rational thought.

I find the deep psychological impacts of colonization and Eurocentrism to be particularly interesting. On page 556, Quijano states:

We possess so many and such important historically European traits in many material and intersubjective aspects. But at the same time we are profoundly different. … Here the tragedy is that we have all been led, knowingly or not, wanting it or not, to see and accept that image as our own as belonging to us alone. In this way, we continue being what we are not. And as a result we can never identify our true problems, much less resolve them, except in a partial and distorted way.

He goes on to describe the internal and external colonization of peoples, the internal being within the nation-state itself, and the external being of those of colonized territories beyond the nation-state. On page 561–3 Quijano explains how the nationalization and democratization of the United States necessitated the “reidentification” of immigrants, and contrasts that with Latin American states that sought homogenization through elimination and exclusion. I would have liked to know more about the “revolutionary” process of decolonization that Mexico and Bolivia underwent.

Prologue and Chapter 1 of “From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia” by Pankaj Mishra

As hard as the accounts of the European conquests were to read, I at the same time found this reading fascinating. I’ve read different accounts of the rise and fall of the Islamic empire (e.g., Destiny Disrupted by Tamim Ansary), wanting to understand how they were able to be subdued and what Muslims can do differently today to reclaim their dignity in the world. I have yet to arrive at an answer to that second question.

It was equally depressing to read about how Britain was able to exert control in China, and how, wherever they went, they were ruthless and cunning in their strategies of conquest. It’s sad and at the same time a bit comforting to learn that one of the reasons the West was able to conquer so easily was that the East was not as cunning—conquest was not their goal, and they naively thought that the West’s intentions were good and sincere. I think I prefer naiveté to ruthless cunning.

In the prologue, Mishra quotes Sun Yat-sen in 1924:

Men thought and believed that European civilization was a progressive one—in science, industry, manufacture, and armament—and that Asia had nothing to compare with it. Consequently, they assumed that Asia could never resist Europe, that European oppression could never be shaken off. Such was the idea prevailing thirty years ago.

It’s heartbreaking to read these accounts that almost reflect a lack of self-esteem and faith in oneself, especially since this attitude is still present in people living in lands that were former colonies. I wonder what greatness might be restored if those people could recognize the value in their traditions and worldviews. After all, who defines progress? Is the ruthless military prowess that the West exhibited all across the globe, and the economic chokehold they have on the world today admirable? Is GDP all that matters, by any means necessary?

Discussion 1.30.18

In this session, we discussed a lot of the history of how race came to be a new form of hierarchy and power structure in the world. In previous empires, the conquering power settled and fully integrated and intermarried with the locals, so race was not employed as a means of domination over the other. To use Ahmed’s word, they were syncretic civilizations that, as mentioned above, engaged in global trade and cultural exchange. The European colonization was entirely different in that it exploited race in order to gain power, and though they settled, they never fully integrated or intermarried with the locals. We discussed tactics that colonists used to exploit race, such as divide and conquer in India and racializing wage labor in the Americas.

The Mishra reading begins at the point where the Islamic and the Chinese empires are beginning to see the European encroachment as a threat and realizing that their civilizations are in decline. Mishra focuses on intellectual thinkers throughout the world who are grappling with and trying to make sense of this decline. It’s interesting to note that we Americans are in that same position today—recognizing and seeing it all go to pot, but unable to do anything but just watch it happen. Today, we see that the Islamic empire and Chinese empires went in very different directions and (presumably, though I didn’t read the rest of the book) made very different decisions regarding how they would respond to the changing tide.

Ahmed also talked about how this “grappling” with the decline of their civilizations was really a negotiating of modernity. China had a very long history and strong culture, and modernity was a threat to that. Similarly, some orthodox Muslims felt that modernity was at odds with the religion.

Week 4

Readings

“The Lived Experience of a Black Man” by Frantz Fanon

I haven’t read anything this poetic, incisive, deep, and honest in so long. The writing is just exquisite. I’m so glad I was introduced to this!

This piece really spoke to me, and though my experiences were likely significantly less severe than Fanon’s, I could definitely relate to the experiences and emotions he was describing as someone who has internalized colonialism, wants to and tries to resist it, knows his own value but at the same time is constantly faced with reminders that he is different, unwanted, and unwelcome.

Fanon writes on page 89, “any ontology is made impossible in a colonized and acculturated society,” and goes on to describe the many ways that his identity and sense of self was deprived from him. It reminded me of Malcolm X’s moving speech where he asks, “Who taught you to hate yourself?”; the struggle of reclaiming that identity from people who very emphatically want to keep you down is what Fanon describes so well.

On page 93, he writes “Where do I fit in? Or, if you like, where should I stick myself?” This idea of not/belonging is something that I think most immigrants and children of immigrants struggle with. Umebinyuo describes it so well in the poem “Diaspora Blues”:

so, here you are
too foreign for home
too foreign for here.
never enough for both.
— Ijeoma Umebinyuo

On page 111, Fanon perfectly breaks down the motivation behind the white savior complex. He says, “In a sense, you reconcile us with ourselves.” We discussed this idea of needing to rescue the poor/black/indigenous/whatever in order to fill some personal void quite a bit in my history class as well.

I need to read this again, and maybe several times more to fully absorb and appreciate this piece.

“Shooting an Elephant” by George Orwell

In this story, Orwell describes “the real nature of imperialism—the real motives for which despotic governments act.” I had never read a white colonists perspective on imperialism before, much less one of attrition. This one was compelling and morbid and surprisingly honest, but I don’t think that “not wanting to look like a fool” was the true motive for imperialism. It was clearly about wealth, power, domination, and control. One doesn’t commit genocide of natives to avoid looking foolish. So, although a very compelling and moving story, as an exposition on imperialism it is far too reductive and simplistic.

Week 5

Readings

The Edward Said Reader: Chapter on “Orientalism”

Of course I had always heard of Edward Said and Orientalism, but had never read any of his writings or books, so I was glad for the opportunity to read a selection here. Though Said focuses on Islam and Arabs, these readings provide an interesting context for how everything that isn’t the West is perceived as a foreign “other.” More particularly, though, it explains a lot of the rampant Islamophobia that we see today. I had no idea this type of rhetoric and the aim to dominate/subdue/subjugate the Islamic world had been going on so long in America. As a Muslim in America, with a foot in both worlds, this is naturally hard to reconcile.

In the Introduction, Said writes, “Orientalism is a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between ‘the Orient’ and (most of the time) ‘the Occident’” (201) and “Orientalism [is] a Western style for dominating, restructuring and having authority over the Orient” (203). The Oriental is only seen as a “disrupter of Israel’s and the West’s existence,” (194), so the desire to understand the Orient was only a means to “control and manipulate what was manifestly different” (192).

Naturally, this skews one’s perspective and how one represents the Orient. In so doing, they take away the voice of the Oriental. They are only as the West wishes to represent them—an idea, not a truth. Said talks about the “hegemony of European ideas about the Orient” (212) that dominates the discourse about Arabs and Islam.

Said’s discussion of geography and the Suez Canal makes clear why this dichotomy is necessary. “After [the building of the Suez Canal] no one could speak of the Orient as belonging to another world, strictly speaking. There was only ‘our’ world, ‘one’ world bound together…. Thereafter the notion of ‘Oriental’ is an administrative or an executive one… The Oriental, like the African, is a member of a subject race and not exclusively an inhabitant of a geographic area” (225). The thought process being, “though we (the West) occupy and live in the Orient, that doesn’t make us like you. You’re still the inferior race.”

The discussion about an author’s bias and politics in humanism was interesting. Western writings about the Orient are presented to be an objective, anthropological survey of thought and behaviors in the Muslim world, but their intent to subjugate and dominate underlies all of it. It is essentially propaganda. The sheer volume of these perspectives gives legitimacy to this propaganda though. On page 244:

The ensemble of relationships between works, audiences, and some particular aspects of the Orient therefore constitutes an analyzable formation — for example, that of philological studies, of anthologies of extracts from Oriental literature, of travel books, of Oriental fantasies — whose presence in time, in discourse, in institutions (schools, libraries, foreign services) gives it strength and authority. [emphasis added]

This lengthy diatribe on page 289–291 was such a powerful summary of imperialistic thought:

To restore a region from its present barbarism to its former classical greatness; to instruct (for its own benefit) the Orient in the ways of the modern West; to subordinate or underplay military power in order to aggrandize the project of glorious knowledge acquired in the process of political domination of the Orient; to formulate the Orient, to give it shape, identity, definition with full recognition of its place in memory, its importance to imperial strategy, and its “natural” role as an appendage to Europe; to dignify all the knowledge collected during colonial occupation with the title “contribution to modern learning” when the natives had neither been consulted nor treated as anything except as pretexts for a text whose usefulness was not to the natives; to feel oneself as a European in command, almost at will, of Oriental history, time, and geography; to institute new areas of specialization; to establish new disciplines; to divide, deploy, schematize, tabulate, index, and record everything in sight (and out of sight); to make out of every observable detail a generalization and out of every generalization an immutable law about the Oriental nature, temperament, mentality, custom, or type; and, above all, to transmute living“reality into the stuffs of texts, to possess (or think one possesses) actuality mainly because nothing in the Orient seems to resist one’s powers: these are the features of Orientalist projection entirely realized in the Description de l’Égypte…

I’m curious why Said never mentions Islam’s encounter with the West in Muslim Spain. When talking about Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt in 1798, Said writes, “For the first time, the Orient was revealed to Europe in the materiality of its texts, languages, and civilizations” (270). But the Islamic empire was literally in Europe a thousand years before that. Why no reference to it in either of these chapters? I’m sure that period had a powerful influence on how the West thinks about Islam.

The Edward Said Reader: Chapter on “Islam as News”

This chapter is my lived reality, so a lot of it articulated what I already know, and writing about it may only trigger long rants. Of note, however:

  • It was surprising for me to read that the West has always viewed Islam as a latent threat or an empire of provocation. In my lifetime, the Muslim world has always been weak, so this comes off as sheer paranoia. Is Arab oil really that valuable that the West would expend billions (trillions?) on military to incapacitate the Muslim world? That seems so absurd, especially in light of the Abu Lughod reading, where she showed that power doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game; all can benefit and still live harmoniously. Greed is a nasty thing.
  • There is no allowance for nuance or understanding when it comes to Islam and Muslims. “Instead of analysis and understanding as a result, there can be for the most part only the crudest form of us-versus-them. Whatever Iranians or Muslims say about their sense of justice, their history of oppression, their vision of their own societies, seems irrelevant…” (437)
  • The lack of Islamic scholarship on the part of people who claim to speak on behalf of and about Muslims is something every Muslim is acutely aware of. When referring to Kifner’s inaccurate claims about Muslims and Marxism, Said writes, “The interesting thing is that Kifner can say what he says without any danger of appearing either wrong or absurd” (443). This barrage of completely inaccurate information in the media makes having the Muslim voice heard such a battle, even more so since “white is right” and is much more likely to gain credibility than a Muslim perceived to be a latent threat. “All of this is presided over by the great power establishments — the oil companies, the mammoth corporations and multinationals, the defense and intelligence communities, the executive branch of the government” (484) —this is what the Muslim voice is up against.
  • On page 476–477, Said talks about the modernization and development. Modernism and the implications thereof is something I want to learn more about, so this was interesting to me. He writes,
Still, a very great amount of writing on the virtues of modernizing traditional society had acquired an almost unquestioned social, and certainly cultural, authority in the United States, at the same time that in many parts of the Third World ‘modernization’ was connected in the popular mind with foolish spending, unnecessary gadgetry and armaments, corrupt rulers, and brutal United States intervention in the affairs of small, weak countries.

Discussion 2.13.18

Week 6

Reading: Decolonizing Post-Colonial Studies—Ramón Grosfoguel

In this paper, Grosfoguel is addressing the problem of creating subaltern epistemologies using Western thinkers and frameworks. He explains that Western thinkers conceal their politics to give the impression of objectivity:

By delinking ethnic/racial/gender/sexual epistemic location from the subject that speaks, Western philosophy and sciences are able to produce a myth about a Truthful universal knowledge that covers up, that is, conceals who is speaking as well as the geo-political and body-political epistemic location in the structures of colonial power/knowledge from which the subject speaks (4–5).

He discusses Cartesian dualism for a bit, and although I’ve tried many times to understand this concept, I still don’t feel I fully comprehend what it means and what the implications are.

The hierarchies Grosfoguel lists ties into the concept of hegemony my history class discussed last week. This was a powerful list; reading it one realizes the extent to which Western thought controls our conceptions of: economy, labor, military, race, gender, sexuality, religion, cosmology, language, art, pedagogy, media, age, ecology, and space. He refers to Aníbal Quijano’s “colonial power matrix,” in which “race and racism become the organizing principle that structures all of the multiple hierarchies of the world-system (Quijano 1993)” (10). These hierarchies were “globalized and exported to the rest of the world through the colonial expansion as the hegemonic criteria to racialize, classify and pathologize the rest of the world’s population in a hierarchy of superior and inferior races” (11).

“The complex multiplicity of power hierarchies at the global scale in the present world-system we inhabit is not just a social or an economic system, but a civilization that has conquered the world trying to colonially impose the ways of thinking, acting and living to the rest of the peoples in the world” (13).

Grosfoguel makes the distinction between coloniality and colonialism, arguing that “coloniality is not reducible to the presence or absence of a colonial administration or to the political/economic structures of power” (13). Coloniality exists, even if colonialism no longer does:

The mythology of the ‘decolonization of the world’ obscures the continuities between the colonial past and current global colonial/racial hierarchies and contributes to the invisibility of ‘coloniality’ today. (14)

I found the discussions around ‘division of thought’ to be particularly interesting and insightful. He refers to Wallerstein’s world-system analysis where he states that the “trinity” of “the division of social analysis into … the economic, the political, and the socio-cultural… [is] blocking our intellectual advance (1991a:4)” (17-18). Although Islam is distasteful to much of the world, it’s worth noting that Islam encompasses all of these concepts plus religion. I feel early adherents to the religion (as it was intended to be practiced) understood that all three elements of society must be in balance and therefore must be dealt with as one.

The discussion about development was also interesting to think about and ties directly in to the history class I am taking. Grosfoguel talks about how the West has always had some justification for imposing their ideas on the rest of the world. He writes on page 22–23:

Developmentalist discourse offers a colonial recipe on how to become like the ‘West.’ … Constructing peripheral zones such as Africa and Latin America as regions with a ‘problem’ or with a ‘backward stage of development’ concealed European and Euro-American responsibility in the exploitation of these continents. The construction of ‘pathological’ regions in the periphery as opposed to the so-called ‘normal’ development patterns of the ‘West’ justified an even more intense political and economic intervention from imperial powers. By treating the ‘Other’ as ‘underdeveloped’ and ‘backward,’ metropolitan exploitation and domination were justified in the name of the ‘civilizing mission.’

I was confused by Grosfoguel referring to the Zapatista movement as “a critical decolonial redefinition of democracy from the practices, cosmologies and epistemologies of the subaltern” (25–26). Must it be called a “democracy” then? Is the Western concept and term “democracy” being used to legitimize an alternate, indigenous political system? Why can’t it be called what it is: something new, different, and unique to the indigenous population? I raise this question because I’ve heard many Muslims defend Islam as not being incompatible with democracy, as if Islam can only be deemed tolerant and acceptable if it is democratic. Surely there are other acceptable political systems that don’t immediately suggest one is a totalitarian heathen.

Overall, what I found most valuable out of this reading was the call to examine our cognitive frames—whose values and ideals are we projecting or even advancing? As a child of immigrants who was born and raised in the United States, how do I distinguish coloniality from my American-ness? As an American, is it even possible for me to dismantle coloniality? From where does my epistemology derive?

Discussion 2.20.18

This week, we covered a variety of topics addressed by Grosfoguel. We talked about the 15 hierarchies he listed, and that what we consider to be knowledge all come from Western frames. These assumptions go unquestioned and are very deeply embedded into the society.

As an example, Ahmed talked about artificial intelligence as a “materialization of the human mind” that attempts to “process reality like humans.” However, he argues, the mind and body are not separate, so a machine cannot think link a human without a human body. AI is based on a European knowledge system that is rooted in Cartesian dualism. Cartesian dualism is something I’ve tried to understand before but never fully grasp, but as Ahmed and Silvia explained it, it is a very binary way of thinking that doesn’t make room for nuances. As I now understand it, dualism separates the mind and body, such that things are described as either being tangible, measured, objective, quantitative (in the body) or intangible, metaphysical, subjective, qualitative (in the mind). However, as Grosfoguel argues, dualism is not the only valid epistemology.

I asked what Grosfoguel meant by “international division of labor,” as he seemed to be using “division of labor” in a sense that I had never heard before. According to Ahmed and Silvia, this has to do with the division of types of labor based on race, location, or even gender. The intellectual and innovation hubs of tech giants are all located in Silicon Valley, but the production and other menial work takes place in other international offices, or is outsourced altogether. The division of labor Grosfoguel is concerned with is connected to knowledge and privilege, and, as Ahmed put it, keeps “marginalized people in a constant de facto stance of reaction” in which they are expected to work harder for the same jobs.

We briefly talked about Black Panther and how Haiti won its independence from the French, so my assignment for next week is to watch the movie and read up on related topics.

Week 7

This week I was asked to watch Black Panther and reflect on the film through other assigned readings. After seeing the movie through a “decolonial” lens, I think it largely missed the mark. The Frantz Fanon reading “On National Culture” articulated my feelings about the film exactly. So I’ll start there

Readings

On National Culture—Frantz Fanon

On page 148, Fanon writes about the desire of colonized people to restore the past:

…The passionate quest for a national culture prior to the colonial era can be justified by the colonized intellectuals’ shared interested in stepping back and taking a hard look at the Western culture in which they risk becoming ensnared. Fully aware they are in the process of losing themselves, and consequently of being lost to their people, these men work away with raging heart and furious mind to renew contact with their people’s oldest, inner essence, the farthest removed from colonial times….
…Colonized people…must have been overjoyed to discover that the past was not branded with shame, but dignity, flory, and sobriety. Reclaiming the past…triggers a change of fundamental importance in the colonized’s psycho-affective equilibrium (Fanon).

This is precisely what Black Panther attempts to do, but muddles it by creating a futuristic Africa based on stereotypical African tropes such as tribalism, thick accents, spears and shields, and clothing made from furs and hides, neglecting to acknowledge the diversity of Africa and Africans. Fanon explains this perfectly on page 158, saying,

…All [the colonized intellectual] brings back from his adventures are terribly sterile clichés. He places emphasis on customs, traditions, and costumes, and his painful, forced search seems but a banal quest for the exotic. … Rediscovering one’s people sometimes means in this phase wanting to be a “n*****,” … the sort defined by the white man” (Fanon).

What is ironic and strange about Black Panther is that instead of reclaiming their roots, black Americans have coopted and appropriated African culture for the benefit of American consumers, thereby reenacting and perpetuating colonialism.

I wonder how many Africans (from the continent) contributed to the making and styling of Black Panther, because the Africans in the movie seem to be depicted through the eyes of a foreigner, not an African him/herself. For example, the Wakandans with large lip plates is one obvious example of how Black Panther plays into the exoticism of Africa. Again, Fanon explains this phenomenon much more eloquently than I can on page 160–161:

The colonized intellectual, at the very moment when he undertakes a work of art, fails to realize he is using techniques and a language borrowed from the occupier. He is content to cloak these instruments in a style that is meant to be national but which is strangely reminiscent of exoticism. The colonized intellectual who returns to his people through works of art behaves in fact like a foreigner…. The culture with which the intellectual is preoccupied is very often nothing but an inventory of particularisms. Seeking to cling close to the people, he clings merely to a visible veneer (160)…. The creator, who decides to portray national truth, turns, paradoxically enough, to the past, and so looks at what is irrelevant to the present (161).

For example, Shuri’s character, technologies, and lab are all clearly inspired by Q’s character in the James Bond series. The Africans are speaking with an accent, depicting them as foreigners or outsiders. And even the futuristic Africa they created was inspired by Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid. Were there no African architects with whom they could have collaborated? Is an American (black or otherwise) designing the Africa of the future its own kind of colonialism? I’m very curious to know how many Africans were actually involved in the designing of this film, the costumes, and the sets.

Also, I didn’t find the vision of Africa to be especially futuristic or original. The cityscape is filled with skyscrapers (which originated in the West and are a Western symbol of modernity), and includes a building similar to the Mosque of Djenné, which was built in the 13th century. This lack of creativity, too, is addressed by Fanon on page 171 and 172:

… The colonized subject is ineffectual precisely because the colonial situation has not been rigorously analyzed…. There is no such thing as … innovations or reforms within the context of colonial domination, and there never will be (171)
…. Little movement can be seen. There is no real creativity, no ebullience. Poverty, national oppression, and cultural repression are one and the same. After a century of colonial domination culture becomes rigid in the extreme, congealed, and petrified (172).

“‘Black Panther’ is Not the Movie We Deserve”— Christopher Lebron

This article addresses the disparity in how black Africans are depicted in Black Panther versus black Americans, arguing that the “devaluation of black American men” in the film is racist (Lebron 1). Where T’Challa is presented as a noble, dignified black leader, Killmonger is portrayed as a “black thug from Oakland hell bent on killing for killing’s sake,” “as a receptacle for tropes of inner-city gangsterism (Lebron 3). For Lebron, Black Panther is “a movie about black empowerment where the only redeemed blacks are African nobles.” Although the film is praised for how equitably women are presented in the film, Lebron argues that this is not true for the black American woman, who hardly speaks and is killed off early in the film. Lebron points out that many of the racist elements in the film diverge from the storyline in the comic books, which makes the racist undertones even more disappointing.

“‘Black Panther’ and the Invention of ‘Africa’”—Jelani Cobb

This article does a good job of quickly breaking down the history slavery and colonialism in Africa and the concept of the African diaspora. However, I disagree with Cobb that this film is a “redemptive counter-mythology” for reasons already stated above. He writes, “If the subordination of Africa had begun in the minds of white people, its reclamation, [pan-Africanists] reasoned, would begin in the minds of black ones.” However, what Cobb neglects to note is that, however well-intentioned, black Americans are still Americans. Including more African perspectives in the making of Black Panther would have added a much-needed dose of authenticity instead of coming off as gimmicky fetishism of African culture.

Discussion 2.27.18

Today we talked about the deeper issues with Black Panther and the history behind why some of those issues exist. We talked about the very nature of how blacks came to America, and that perhaps the first generations were lost in a land they were brought to against their will. Black Panther, Ahmed argued, was a “displaced fiction and memory of Africa.” It is nevertheless a very American movie as far as the technology represented in the film, the storyline, etc., with a patina of African aesthetics and imagery.

We talked about how those aesthetics are an amalgamation of several different African cultures and how this may be a manifestation of the message of pan-Africanism in the movie. (Each character in the film represents an ideological position about black liberation, so pan-Africanism is not the only message.)

We also talked about the film in the context of design: if design is the genre that imagines the future, the film falls short in some ways. What, then should disasporic designers or indigenous designers do, when they’re caught between an ancestral past and a Western present? How can we design to reconcile issues like identity?

Finally, Ahmed explained the difference between colonialism and imperialism: colonialism is the “globalization and displacement of logics,” whereas imperialism has to do with empire-building, military expansion, and direct rule.

Week 8

Readings

Imagined Communities—Benedict Anderson
The introduction and first chapter of this book talk about how the idea of a nation is essentially a political construct that suffers from “intellectual poverty and even incoherence” (p. 30 of epub). The borders that were drawn have no logical basis—not geographical, ethnic, tribal, or even linguistic. Yet, nevertheless, we what Anderson considers an imagined connection with co-nationalists, even though we have never met those people before, know nothing about them, and likely never will. As he writes on page 34 of the epub:

Finally, it is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings.

I thought his argument that nationalism is a new form of religion particularly interesting.

Discussion 3.6.18

I mentioned to Ahmed that I wanted to discuss what a joint final project for both independent studies might look like, and during our discussion he explained to me his framework for decolonial design efforts. Several of the areas were compelling, but he suggested that I very specifically locate my project in one of those six areas (as a means of scoping the project), so I will think about which one would be most suitable. The framework is copied below; potential areas for my project are in bold.

Empowering and Emancipating
1. Have more platforms for diversity
2. Articulate politics of a phenomena, show how oppression works through design
3. Bring canon of cultural studies into the design discourse, showing how practice & pedagogy can change
Delinking & Fostering Pluriversality
1. Design ways to delink from the world system, such as capitalism and power relations
2. Create alternative ways to design, new approaches and ethics, different ways of seeing, doing, and thinking
3. Encourage local communities to become independent through local and indigenous design

Like Dan and Jonathan, Ahmed suggested making an ethical guide for humanitarian designers that gets people to think more deeply about the issues discussed here. He also pointed me to other decolonial designers who are doing interesting work, such as Donna Abdullah and Sara Ahmed.

Next we talked about the readings, beginning with Imagined Communities. Ahmed spoke about how the concept of a nation as a “collective thought bubble” that binds the way we think of belonging to a particular group. People of the same nation are presumed to share a common worldview and reality, but essentially we are ascribing to an imagined concept. What then does it mean to have a national culture, language, or religion?

Ahmed talked about the role of culture in producing a nation, that it must be culturally produced because the nation itself is imagined/produced. Thus, there are “practices brought into existence to give form to the vacuous abstract notion of a nation,” and that the “abstraction is built up and materialized int he form of memorials and unknown soldiers.” It is easy to point to what is un-American, but difficult to define what is American. What then is the essence of a nation, and what is ritual?

Ahmed also had me read “Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation” by A.K Ramanujan. Ramanujan’s research into how the Ramayana (an ancient Hindu epic poem) was modified across time and cultures illustrates how “religion is subject to cultural inflection.” Though the story, morals, and interpretations of the Ramayana changed over time, it is still recognized as the Ramayana.

The text of the Ramayana demonstrates, too, the ways in which religion is materialized in terms of an artifact. Ahmed argues that religion in fact cannot exist without materialization. Similarly, design materializes the symbolic and imagined future.

Week 9

Readings

“Thinking-feeling with the Earth”—Arturo Escobar
This reading was left over from a previous week so is a bit of an outlier from the others that were assigned. Nevertheless, I always find alternative worldviews fascinating to learn about, so this reading was very interesting. An important point Escobar makes on page 16 is that “the understanding of the world is much broader than the western understanding of the world…. To think new thoughts, by implication, requires to move out of the epistemic space of Western social theory and into the epistemic configurations associated with the multiple relational ontologies of worlds in struggle.” Escobar highlights some of the ways these epistemologies are in conflict, such as the ways in which indigenous cultures often see the human, non-human, and spirit world as “three non-separate worlds” (17). The Western hegemonic worldview however sees nature as resources and “‘objects’ to be had, destroyed, or extracted…for profit” (18). On page 23 he writes, “from an epistemic and ontological perspective, globalization has taken place at the expense of relational and nondualist worlds, world-wide.”

On page 19 Escobar discusses ‘ancestrality,’ and it is interesting to think that, by marginalizing or even denying indigenous practices around ancestrality, they at the same time deny those people their futuralities, too. The relationship between the past and future and modernism’s role in breaking that relationship is very interesting to me. I see now that that rejection of the past that modernism introduced served the West many purposes.

The concept of Buen Vivir really appeals to me. According to Escobar, Buen Vivir is “defined as a holistic view of social life that no longer gives overriding centrality to the economy [and] ‘constitutes an alternative to development…’” (25). I like that Buen Vivir considers the human being as a whole, and attempts to dismantle or undo some of the pathologies that Capitalism has created, such as overwork and the emphasis on accumulating wealth, which is a quite revolutionary way to decolonize our work and lives.

“Many Persian Mahabharatas for Akbar”—Audrey Truschke
The preface of Culture of Encounters does a good job of introducing its themes:

This book is about culture, literature and power. More specifically, it is about how power works in relationship to literature, how poets and writers participate in politically fueled cross-cultural movements, and the elusive dynamics of cultural traditions. The case study is how and why the Mughals—one of the most impressive imperial powers of the precolonial world—engaged with Sanskrit texts, intellectuals, and ideas, and how Sanskrit intellectuals—some of the most sophisticated thinkers and poets of the precolonial world—responded to and participated in this demand for Indian stories, practices, and philosophies (ix).

As someone of South Asian descent, I was not at all familiar with this cultural exchange. (To be fair, I’m not well-versed in Mughal history in general). Truschke goes into great detail and depth explaining how this exchange happened, and how it was a form of political maneuvering that helped to foster a strong relationship with their intellectual subjects. Truschke explains the Mughal thinking behind this at various points on pages 18–19: “What Sanskrit offered the Mughals was a particularly potent way to imagine power and conceptualize themselves as righteous rulers…. the Mughals saw literary pursuits themselves as a crucial part of a successful imperial formation….the Mughals aligned themselves with a literary culture possessing the deep historical roots in India that Persian lacked…. leaders [formulated] their own locally flavored sovereign identities and narratives of power.” Thus cultural engagement was a strategic means of making their rule indigenous.

In fact Muslims rooted themselves in the local culture wherever they went, but newer Muslims in America have largely failed to do this and seem to resist engagement with the local culture. I know that Islamophobia has a lot to do with this, but it’s interesting to think in which ways Muslims might better engage with and immerse themselves in the indigenous American culture.

What Is Islam?: The Importance of Being Islamic—Shahab Ahmed
In this book, Shahab Ahmed attempts to address what Islamic characteristics unite Muslims from all different parts of the world, such that, for example, architecture in Morocco and Pakistan and Indonesia are all identifiable as uniquely Islamic. He looks at six different aspects of Islamic culture that intertwined with religious practice: philosophy, Sufism, the “thought-paradigm” of Sufi ibn ‘Arabi, the Divan of Hafiz, Islamic art, and wine. He argues that the fact that these contradictions manifested in many different parts of the Islamic world is what unifies them as Islamic. He writes,

First, to demonstrate to the reader that in relation to Islam, we are actually talking not so much about conceptualizing unity in the face of diversity, but rather about conceptualizing unity in the face of outright contradiction. As such, keen diagnostic attention needs to be paid to the prolific scale and definitive import of the phenomenon of internal contradiction to the constitution of the human and historical phenomenon of Islam. [emphasis is his]

I take issue with Shahab Ahmed’s terminology, however, because I feel that the religion and how it is practiced can be two very different things. I wouldn’t refer to the things that Muslims tend to do as Islamic if it contradicts with the texts. I realize this is a very orthodox way of reading religion, but there are dangerous to conflating practice with what is ordained. For example, terrorists are killing innocent people in the name of Islam and people have identified that as an Islamic practice. But it is completely antithetical to the text. Similarly, Zionism has been conflated with Judaism in order to offer divine ordainment as a justification for the occupation of Palestinian land, but they are two completely different things. Just because the majority of Zionists are Jewish does not mean it is a religious practice. It is a very slippery slope to label practice as the religion itself, and I found that very problematic in the Shahab Ahmed reading.

Discussion 2.21.18

On page 15 of the Escobar reading, he mentions the “sociology of absences” and “sociology of emergences.” Silvia asked Ahmed what this means, and he said that history doesn’t account for people other than the elite or privileged. The subaltern is essentially erased. Even where a pluriversality exists, a lot of those plural worlds are closed, invisible, or inaccessible because of our own privileges. Silvia and Ahmed both agreed this invisibility is actually a good thing, because once the subaltern is made visible it is subject to appropriation and subsumption. One critique they raised about Escobar is that he does not consider history or genealogies of thinking.

We next discussed the Shahab Ahmed reading, which illustrated that religion and culture are intertwined. Ahmed felt that this book was important because it shows that the way we think about religion is a historical phenomena. In chapters not assigned to me, Shahab Ahmed actually shows how the perception of the Prophet Muhammad and Islam changed over time, including how people relate to the Quran. I agree that is interesting to think about, as I tend to interpret religion through the lens in which it was taught to me, and this lens is reinterpreted and changed from teacher to student, generation to generation.

Week 10

Readings

Chapter 6, “Questions” in What Is Islam?: The Importance of Being Islamic by Shahab Ahmed
I really enjoyed the author’s explanation of the link between meaning and form in Islamic art. Towards the beginning of the chapter he writes, in Islamic society “the enactment of the principle of meaning-making beyond the letter or beyond the form is found not only in modes of speaking, but in all variety of creative and explorative action…. It is a society in which the metaphorical truth of this world is conceived as the bridge to the Real-Truth.…”

Later on in the chapter he describes how Islamic artifacts are “symptomatic of a particular valorization of everyday life as meaningful.” I never thought of Islam or Islamic art in this way, but found it a beautiful insight. He explains that these artifacts

“[bear] testament…to a higher value beyond the immediate quotidian environment” and “[invite] the user…to an engagement with the (beautiful) form of the object with a view to “Pass from the Form, and go to the Meaning. The engagement with these objects has, in other words, the effect of refining and heightening the value and meaning of these daily actions in the consciousness of the actor.”

In addition to this reading, I watched “Had Anhad: Journeys with Ram & Kabir,” a documentary by Shabnam Virmani that shows how the poet Kabir has been claimed by both Muslims and Hindus as their own.

Discussion 3.28.18

I again discussed with Ahmed what an output for this independent study might look like. We talked about participatory design and the presumption that it is universally good or desirable. He mentioned that a lot of cultures are not naturally democratic, but that subaltern resistance exists in all oppressive societies. This coming together and solidarity can be seen as an element of democracy. Like jugaad is an informal type of design of the working class as a resistance to Design, might participatory practices be preserved as something of the oppressed or marginalized? Interesting to consider.

We next talked about the particular form this output would take, and Ahmed strongly suggested I do a workshop. He talked about working with the American Muslim community, and we briefly talked about identity and the importance of contributing to cultural production that is uniquely our own— “what is this new thing we are creating here?” Why was it easier for earlier Muslims to absorb and syncretize the way American Muslims can’t? He referred to how African Americans created new forms of culture such as jazz, rap, and the blues that were uniquely their own: neither African nor white. Syncretism, he said, comes from reaction to oppression, where victory is a group’s cultural production becoming mainstream.

He reiterated that I need to identify which group or community and which specific site I wish to engage with for this project. I like the idea of working around issues of identity and cultural production with American Muslims, but there are many challenges in working with that group as well. But I suppose challenges will arise no matter which group I choose, so perhaps that is a non-factor.

The discussion about Kabir gave some insight into why American Muslims haven’t been particularly impactful. Ahmed talked about how Kabir was an ambiguous hybrid that some argued was Muslim, some argued was Hindu, but the truth is unclear. His poetry freed the oppressed from both religions by making sense of both religions’ texts in a way that inspired and emancipated. What might American Muslims offer to the marginalized and oppressed in America?

Week 11

Project

Documentation on the outputs and deliverables for both my independent studies this semester will be recorded in this Medium post.

Readings

The readings this week were a good summary of a lot of the ideas I have read about this semester, with the additional context of applying them directly to design theory, pedagogy, and practice. They gave me a lot of think about regarding the guidebook I was planning to make as one of the final outputs for the semester.

Editorial Statement, Decolonising Design
This statement very clearly highlighted many of the issues with design pedagogy and practice that—if not curbed—can perpetuate systems of oppression. I enjoyed this reading because it calls for greater substance, criticality, depth of understanding, and plurality of voices in design. It is a bit disillusioning to hear designers talk about the great problems that design can solve, but then in practice they are only feeding the status quo.

“What Is at Stake with Decolonizing Design? A Roundtable”
A lot of these contributors seemed to be seeking to remove hypocrisy from design in some form of another. For example, Matthew Kim writes, “academics and designers are adept at mimicking the representational dimension of movements — “political or otherwise” — without necessarily generating or supporting the substantive changes that political concepts are designed to bring about” (82). On page 93, Oliveira writes, “the spaces from which we think and practice design — spaces like the privileged site of academia — must represent the interests of the population whose life is most threatened by the designed engines of colonization.”

On page 85, Schultz writes that we are over-simplifying complex problems to make them comprehensible to our rational minds: “by mapping social messiness into rationalist Cartesian and instrumental typologies of convenient commensurability to modern world-system minds.” On page 93, Oliveira writes, “Such a pre-packaging and systematization of complexity in terms that might be tackled by a single approach of ‘making’ or ‘thinking through making’ assumes a ‘solvability’ which is immediately assigned to a mode of shaping the world into a certain ‘order’: designing…” (93). He continues on, writing,

“[A decolonizing project] rejects the impositions of neoliberal academia and the colonial framework of result-driven, well-defined, problem-solving design” (Oliveira 93)

This is interesting to think about, because I always defined design as a discipline that solves problems, but framed as these authors have, I now see how that can be problematic, especially from a decolonial perspective.

Ansari sees this as being due a lack of depth in the design discipline:

[Design] practice is doomed to fail because the horizons of what it knows are neither deep enough nor wide enough, i.e. it does not go far enough back in time, nor does it span space and place. Design practice has no alternatives because it lacks the very thing that makes alternatives possible: the understanding of historical and contextual difference” (Ansari 88).

I thought Ahmed Ansari’s categorization of the marginalized was interesting to think about. On page 84 he lists:

  • “The ex-colonized (i.e. new, hybrid subjects that so eagerly embrace globalization);
  • the extra-colonial, (i.e. those rare Indigenous peoples that live on the outskirts of the world-system and tenaciously preserve ways of being that have otherwise died out in the world);
  • and the subaltern castes (i.e. those who have been “left behind” by modernity, never sharing in the privileges and spoils of becoming modern while nevertheless forming the living reserve that fuels the mechanisms of the neocolonial world-system).

The hierarchies within a marginalized group that Canli hints at on page 98 are important to consider. For example, within the American-Muslim community (itself a marginalized group) there are issues of power, hierarchy, and disenfranchisement. As Canli says, “we cannot ignore the complicities and power interests of the colonized, nor many different forms of subjugation between the oppressor, oppressed and inter se, especially when it comes to gendered and racialized bodies residing at the lowest levels of the hierarchical power” (98). Thus, it’s important to keep in mind that people within a marginalized group can still be complicit in forms of oppression.

Several authors write about their concern that “decolonization” is becoming a buzz word for engagement that lacks any real depth or commitment to dismantling hierarchies and structures of power. On page 89 Abdullah critiques the “morality aesthetic,” arguing that it “risks simplifying decoloniality and stripping it of its criticality.” She then goes on to describe how this is happening: “Just imagine: “The Decolonizing Design Toolkit” (featuring Venn diagrams, bite-size lines of inspiration, and witty one liners, set in Champion and Bryant and poppy colors) provides a step-by-step method on how to decolonize design.” This is nearly the type of manual/guidebook I was hoping to create as an output for this project. I intend for it to be something useful that prompts designers to think critically, but clearly how I approach it will be very important.

Other important points raised:

  • Schultz: “Because of the industrialization of memory through socio-communicative digital technologies, people’s abilities to imagine being otherwise is being eliminated (Escobar forthcoming; Fry 2012, 2017; Stiegler 2009; Virilio 2008, 2012)” (84).
  • Schultz: “This leads me to wonder if we might use design education that takes seriously the destruction of biophysical worlds (sustainable design, eco design) as a model for design education that takes seriously the destruction of human lifeworlds and autonomy from excessive techno-mediation” (85).
  • Ansari: “colonialism and modernity mean different things to different peoples and cultures, and therefore lead to different questions, concerns, and politics. …It is therefore imperative, I believe, that designers committed to a decolonial politics do the work of delving into their own civilizational histories” (88).
  • Abdulla: “Designers aim to provide a “voice” for the disenfranchised, using aid discourse, and maintaining dominance over the production of knowledge by using these communities for their school projects” (90).
  • Keshavarz: “I realized that discussing the politics of design and the design of politics without discussing their colonial histories is a partial project” (92)
  • Oliveira: maybe decolonizing design means “rethinking and redesigning our relationship with designing altogether” (93). “I see decolonizing design as a project that promotes an ontological change in how design is understood” (94).
  • Prado: “ It is not enough to shift our focus from a Northern- and Western-centric perspective to one that is Southern-centric. We must also address the masculinist structures of power that govern knowledge production in design” (97)

Things to consider for the manual:

  • Kiem: “it is a question of who controls, profits from, or is protected (or not) by the ways in which intellectual and other forms or re/production and consumption are organized” (83)
  • Ansari: “any engagement with articulating a religion between decoloniality and design necessitates…engaging with the nature of what design practice helps bring into being” (83)
  • How do I not risk playing into the “morality aesthetic” Abdulla writes about on page 89?
  • Keshavarz: “it assumes the position of center for itself as given, and approaches other epistemologies from that given center, trying at best to collaborate with or at worst to assimilate them” (92). From which “center” am I operating?
  • Prado: “what counts as valid knowledge, and who generates that knowledge” (97)
  • Canli: designers and researchers must “delink” “from the humanitarian design endeavors that other the others further and replace a multiplicity of voices with tokenism and diversity” (98)

Discussion 4.4.18

We started out with me updating Silvia and Ahmed on my progress on the deliverables for the independent study (which is outlined in this post). Silvia suggested I look at Maria del Carmen Lamadrid’s Social Design Toolkit, which I intend to do. I asked Ahmed if my guidebook might be replicating some of the problems that Danah Abdulla mentioned in one of the readings for this week, and he said she was critiquing prescriptive toolkits, whereas my guidebook will be more reflective. Ahmed said what I had was good so far so I am moving forward with it.

Next we discussed the Radhakrishnan reading “Review: Ethnicity in an Age of Diaspora.” Ahmed referred to Radhakrishnan’s point about naturalized citizenship as a shedding of the old and taking on of a new identity. What a person once deemed their identity (Indian, Peruvian, Nigerian) is now a qualifier subsumed by one’s citizenship-identity of ‘American.’ Even so, one always stands out and is separated by virtue of that qualifier. We also talked about the fact that for some (namely in the global South), the ethnic qualifier must be relegated to the citizenship, whereas for others (in the global North), identifying oneself by one’s ethnicity alone is never deemed problematic. For example, for a naturalized citizen from Pakistan to say they are “Pakistani” would be viewed as an unpatriotic, unloyal rejection of America, whereas a Polish person living here for just as long can refer to themselves as Polish without any issue. Thus the “uncritical commitment” is demanded from some but not others.

Next we discussed the readings on decolonizing design, and how design within a Western framework is cut off from alternatives because their knowledge and experience is limited, and is therefore also cut off from truly innovative ways of thinking, knowing, and being. As Ahmed put it, “designers can’t think beyond modernity if they’re thinking through modernity.”

Week 12

Discussion 4.11.18

In this meeting, we discussed the results of a workshop I ran on American Muslim culture. I mentioned that many of the participants defined culture as a set of values and ethics, and that all agreed that it was diversity of cultures that defined American Muslim culture and set it apart from other Muslim cultures in other parts of the world. He remarked that there is likely a difference in how Muslims construct their identities, depending on their relationship to Islam and America (i.e., whether they are American converts, immigrants, or 2nd-generation Americans who are born Muslim). This would be an interesting research area to study. Nevertheless, he noted that what binds them in spite of these ontological differences are the values, morals, and frameworks of Islam as a religion. He saw the Muslim idea of diversity as being different from American Cosmopolitanism, in that there is still a third identity of “Muslim” that everyone shares.

I mentioned that American Muslims feel free to practice the religion unhindered by cultural baggage, and he was intrigued by this. He said that Islam in other countries is very heavily “culturally inflected,” and was surprised that in American we feel the religion can be free of cultural and historical context. I’m not clear if he sees this as an impossibility? He asked, “for something bound to no culture, what is cultural production?” Perhaps he is right that it may not be inflected by “foreign” cultures, but it is still influenced by the context of America. I will have to reflect on this a bit more.

Week 13

Readings

“An Exchange: Questions from Tony Fry and Eleni Kalantidou and Answers from Walter Mignolo”

This was another good overview of important ideas related to decolonial theory and design. The first part of the interview is about the “logic of coloniality,” which Mignolo defines as the “‘engine’ to generate un-justice in the name of modernity” (175). On page 176, Mignolo describes the progression of the colonial matrix, from Christianisation to civilization to democratization and development to the implementation of nation-states and to the model of economic growth and finally to neoliberalism.

This paragraph on page 177 is a good demonstration of how coloniality and modernity have altered how we conceptualize and understand the world. Fry asks about “how the geopolitical and geo-cultural world is viewed,” and Mignolo responds by saying,

I would say first that it is not for me ‘how the geo-political and geo-cultural world is viewed’ but, on the contrary, ‘how the world is viewed geo-culturally and geopolitically’. The world is not geo-political and geo-cultural in and of itself. It is the work of the colonial matrix of power, global linear thinking as Schmitt has it, that divided the world geo-politically and geo-culturally according to the interest of Europe first and the US later (e.g. the invention of the Middle East, invented by the Anglophile Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840–1914) to US interests). (177)

His explanation of how coloniality is intimately tied to modernity struck me:

“ For us modernity/coloniality is not a contradiction, but the very ‘nature’ of modernity. Coloniality is not the contradiction of modernity. It is its darker side. Modernity is half of the story; coloniality is the other hidden half” (177).

On page 178–179, he talks specifically about what it means to decolonize, and argues that nation-states “can hardly engage in decolonization, simply because the global economic system won’t allow it.”

In the next part of the interview, Fry and Mignolo discuss technology and design. On page 181 he says that technology only changed the “content of coloniality. The logic is the same that was put in place in the sixteenth century.” He then lists out various consequences of digitalization on society, all of which I agree with:

1. Digitalisation brought significant changes which separates human beings more and more from the world (replaced by ‘representations’) and between human beings. Increasing technological connectedness increased the dismantling of person-to-person communication. Look around when you walk in the city or airports: everyone and his or her aunt is being ‘connected’. They are totally oblivious of what is going on around them.
2. It facilitates the human use and human control of human beings, as Wiener predicted.
3. And, most devastating, it demands the exploitation of natural resources in the ‘non-developed world’. The non-developed world is a source of natural resources, exploitation of labour and consumers of a technology whose materiality is devastating their own societies (e.g. Coltan, open-pit mining). (181–182).

Specifically about design, he writes,

Design is in my view something that requires ‘learning’, and that learning could be implemented in the reproduction of the colonial matrix or it could be re-directed toward decoloniality, that is, towards learning to unlearn design in order to re-learn design for liberation rather than for reproducing the human uses of life and the regeneration of life. (183)

I loved this excerpt Mignolo quotes on page 184 from Leanne Simpson’s piece “Our Elder Brother. The Lifeblood of Resurgence”:

In pre-conquest time, we did not rely on ‘funding’ to support the cultural aspects of our lives. Grandparents were willing to teach their grandchildren their culture. Communities, clans, and families supported and took care of their Knowledge Holders …
In ‘modern technologically advanced’ Western society, knowledge requires capital because Western society is exclusively literate, as opposed to oral (or aural). Knowledge production in Western society requires vast amounts of natural resources. Western society requires money to produce and distribute books. It requires computers (plastic, heavy metals, dioxins, etc.) to store and retrieve information and electricity (hydro-electric, development, nuclear waste, etc.) to run the computers. The production of high-tech knowledge equipment (computers, cell phones, fax machines, printers) requires natural resources, and at the end of their short life cycle, they become highly toxic techno-trash releasing dioxins and heavy metals, including mercury and lead, into the environment. (Simpson 2008, p. 77)

I had never considered before how American culture is so resource-intensive and wasteful. Film production alone consumes billions of dollars of labor and resources to produce. We take this for granted and, because American media brings even more money into the economy, we never question the damage it is doing to our environment.

“Modernity and Design in the Arab World”

I’m not sure what to make of this piece. On page 63, Akkach seems to argue that architecture was not respected or did not find its rootings until the 1400s, but there were awe-some structures all over the world built before that. Just because architects weren’t treated as celebrities and given awards like today doesn’t mean they weren’t “esteemed.” He seems to suggest that only the Western concept of Design is what gave architecture its merits, which to me sounds like he has bought into colonial dogma that only the West is intentional and intelligent about what they do. On page 63 he writes,

…the Western tradition has esteemed architects more than other traditions, such as the Islamic tradition, for example, wherein no equivalent books are found and very little is known about the architects up to late nineteenth century. In many ways, today’s professional image of the architect owes much to Leon Battista Alberti, and the architect’s social status still carries the vestiges of his self-centred projection. The current perception of the architect as a creative genius with unique design skills and lofty ideas, a visionary artist with social, ethical and environmental responsibilities, whose mission in life is to change the world and bring about a better living environment, while often needing to educate an ignorant public, has its roots in Leon Battista Alberti’s successful campaign.

On page 67, he writes “the Arab world, which suffers largely from widespread poverty, social inequity and political corruptions, was not poised to make room for this new breed of professional designer.” He seems to suggest that non-Westerners are too poor and too low to appreciate fine aesthetics or sensibilities that design brings. But the cultures are rich and their architecture is magnificent and finely detailed. This statement doesn’t make sense to me.

On page 69–70, Akkach seems to argue against decolonization, arguing that “cross-cultural interaction [is] the norm for civilisational development…. In these trajectories the notions of cultural autonomy and borrowing has no place, since it views the process of civilisation as shared ownership that ebbs and flows in different ways during different periods” (69). He blames decolonization efforts for the state of the developing world and seems to suggest they had been better off being colonized:

…the process of marginalisation began much later in the postcolonial period and coincided with the self-conscious desire of the Arabs to disentangle themselves from the colonisers history, the history of the West, and to rewrite their independent national history and reconstruct their cultural identity. A period of resistance and emancipation though it might be, it has, in many ways, proved to be a disabling and marginalising experience that ran counter to the cross-cultural grains of social reality, resulting in the conflicting state with the West that we are currently witnessing today.

I can’t begin to understand this rationalization of the murder, oppression, exploitation, and theft of resources on the part of colonizers.

Discussion 4.18.18

We started out talking about Tony Fry and that he was one of the first people to take interest in this idea of decolonizing design. He was interested in the issue of sustainability and understood that indigenous knowledge was critical to sustainability because indigenous people understood how to live sustainably. He realized that modernity was killing indigenous knowledge and preserving that knowledge would be key.

Ahmed talked a bit about ontological design and the idea that “design designs humans” or “modifies the ontology of humans.” [Unclear about this part:] Decolonizing theorists argue that ontology also designs Design, and culture designs Design that designs humans in different ways around the world. We didn’t get to discuss this much further, as the majority of the time was spent discussing the guidebook I was working on. (See documentation for the guidebook here.)

Week 14

Reading

Cultures of Computing

Ahmed asked me to skim through this XRDS journal issue, and especially focus on the reflections by Nicola Bidwell on organizing AfriCHI, an exclusively African Computer-Human Interaction conference. It was very interesting to read the different ways the organizers tried to create a more inclusive and decolonized conference, such as allowing for a diversity of languages and forms of submission (aside from just writing) to make space for a greater range of contributors. However, I wonder if this can be limiting in a way, too, since many of those languages are not broadly spoken or understood.

Discussion 4.25.18

In our discussion, I asked Ahmed and Silvia about this limiting aspect, and they talked about how the exclusivity of decolonizing efforts is a point of debate. Some don’t want African design to be a “fringe” discourse, when others (such asHamid Dabashi and Syed Mustafa Ali) feel that subaltern platforms should be separate with hard boundaries. He talked about there being an advantage to staying hidden from usurpers who take their ideas, appropriate them, and make them mainstream, arguing that once an idea becomes mainstream, it “empties out the revolutionary essence of the revolution” and becomes a mere fad. He said that this is happening now with decolonization, where it has become something of a buzzword that more people use but few people truly understand.

This led into a discussion of the limits of people’s understanding, and Ahmed spoke about knowledge being ontologically bound and linked to experience. He said when revolutionary ideas are made mainstream, they are taken up by people who can only deal with them as an abstraction, not as their own lived experience, and therefore the ideas become a diluted version of the essence that sparked them.

The discussion about the watered-down mainstream versus the original essence reminded me of these lines from Gang Starr’s song, Mass Appeal:

Just like the seashore I’m calm
But wild, with my monotone style
Because I don’t need gimmicks
Give me a fly beat and I’m all in it

Word is bond, I go on and on
For you it’s tragic, I got magic like wands…
Cause I be kicking the real
While they be losing the race trying to chase mass appeal
.

This seems like a strange note to end the semester on, but there you go!

Thank you to my advisors Ahmed Ansari and Silvia Mata-Marin who generously gave their time to guide this research.


Reading List

  • Abu Lughod, Janet L. Before European Hegemony: The World System AD 1250–1350. Introduction and Conclusion. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
  • Ahmed, Shahab. “Applications and Implications: Coherent Contradiction, Exploration, Diffusion, Form and Meaning, Modern.” In What Is Islam?: The Importance of Being Islamic, 405–541. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016.
  • ———. “Questions.” In What Is Islam?: The Importance of Being Islamic. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016.
  • Akkach, Samer. “Modernity and Design in the Arab World.” In Design in the Borderlands, edited by Tony Fry and Eleni Kalantidou, 61–75. New York: Routledge, 2014.
  • Anderson, Benedict. “Cultural Roots.” In Imagined Communities. London: Verson, 2006.
  • ———. “Introduction.” In Imagined Communities. London: Verson, 2006.
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