HOTHOUSE | Design Action, Leadership & the Future :: Two

Posted on 26/07/2011


At the Design Action, Leadership & the Future Hothouse, I was assigned to the blue group addressing politics, and part of our process, as with the other groups, involved a Design Fictions workshop. I’ve vaguely been aware of conversations about design fiction, speculative design and ethnographic ficton but never really had a closer look at this or put my hand to creating such a thing. As a writer, the idea of a design fiction (like a science fiction) is compelling. Even in planning work, with its strong narrative drive in bridging the present and future, it can seem like space is inscribed with all kinds of fiction particularly when the word ‘sustainability’ is written into a planning document.

As for our workshop, led by Dr Abby Mellick Lopes (UWS), the focus was initially on metaphorics. The groups were comprised of diverse mixes of interests and experiences, each bringing into the discussion of metaphors a sense of how we imagined the world could be. Definitions are usually good places to start because there can be a lack of understanding of what a metaphor is and can do in and for a narrative or design undertaking. The Free Dictionary provides a couple of definitions for metaphor:

1. A figure of speech in which a word or phrase that ordinarily designates one thing is used to designate another, thus making an implicit comparison, as in “a sea of troubles” or “All the world’s a stage” (Shakespeare).
2. One thing conceived as representing another; a symbol: “Hollywood has always been an irresistible, prefabricated metaphor for the crass, the materialistic, the shallow, and the craven” (Neal Gabler).

The etymology of the word is noted as Middle English methaphor, from Old French metaphore, from Latin metaphora, from Greek, transference, metaphor, from metapherein, to transfer : meta-, meta- + pherein, to carry; see bher-1 in Indo-European roots.

The ideas of designation, transfer or tranference are intrinsic to the work of metaphor and metaphorics, especially given the task of prefiguring and the need for vocabularies for that prefiguring and its consequent action (i.e. how to design actions with metaphors). Literary, lexical and linguistic devices are tools and technologies. They have work to do and for them to be effective they have to be put to work. In the initial workshop, we developed metaphors for political action on the understanding that politics is, as Abby proposed, the prefigured strategic situated action to deliver change. Hence, change is at the core of politics and this gives politics a particularly radical and processual imperative. A claim to politics that does not deliver change, that only perpetuates the status quo, cannot be politics in any meaningful sense. For me, there are always questions of power and resistance in the evocation of politics, particularly as it relates to decision making and governance.

Focusing on how to design actions with metaphors, bearing in mind that metaphors designate, we brainstormed metaphors like pinball, planting, piracy, gifting, barn raising, the choir, horse whispering and many others. In this sense, the metaphor is a heuristic, a strategy for accessible and quick problem solving grounded in experience. When it came to creating a Design Fiction, which would become a presentation to the larger group, the choir emerged as the prevailing metaphor. By this time, the task had shifted to applying the metaphor to the idea of Urmadic University (an idea I will need to return to to explain in the near future) in order to chart resonant ways of framing political action. At this juncture, I realise that political action and the Urmadic University are commensurate and synonymous. So in developing our metaphor for the Urmadic University, a general consensus was founded in the idea of the choir, where the choir emerged as a symbol for the Urmadic University. In its symbolism we found our voices and our beat, we found organisation, parity across difference and a sense of purpose as well as a cultural expression. But also it gained another inflection when Tony Fry suggested naming it ‘the en-choir’, which ultimately can be construed to allude to mechanisms of feedback and learning through the phonetic relationship with ‘enquire’. So this metaphor also opens itself to wordplay and other imaginings. While someone mentioned to me that the idea was rather undercooked, we can perhaps forgive that. As Abby said, the choir could be thought of as a banal metaphor, uneven and normative in its manifestations, but through exploration we can discover its richness. That’s part of the power of metaphorics and, by extension, poetry to reveal. The processes and practices we use to signify or represent the world shapes our experience of the world. I believe Heidegger as a lot to say about that.

Two days on, I am still thinking about metaphors and my most recent one is the Urmadic University as a toolbox. Perhaps another banal metaphor and one not so attuned to the idea of political action, but my thinking there is that the Urmadic University is a composite, a resource to be used, a platform for retaining and collecting things that are useful or easily lost. It’s only in learning about and using the tools that we can practice politics and catalyse change. An empty toolbox is useless and bereft, while a toolbox that we continue to develop and add to aids our survival. There is an acute recognition that that humans are nothing without tools.

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