We cannot afford the pre-modern innocence of non-design, and, at the same time, we cannot afford a modern, hubristic sense of design. The question of what comes next is on my mind, as well as yours, I dare say, since the complexities of being in a mutating and entangled world have vastly entered the public space and consciousness as matters of concern: accelerated climate change effects, an ongoing pandemic, asymmetric distribution of resources in world-systems, incensed social movements. 2020 seems not only a well-rounded number but a real nodal moment when past practices and imageries are no longer satisfactory, while new practices and imageries have yet to come. Matters of design.
Some matters of design are bound to technology. Yvonne Förster writes on technology that gets “closer to the body and under skin”, on the ubiquitous network of distributed technology and infrastructural intelligence, from wearables such as smart devices to more futuristic „digital skins” that become part of our sensing bodies. Sensing becomes a way to allude to distributed processes of human and technological agency. Sensing becomes therewith an ecology of relations that would allow for the emergence of a theory of sense-culture, as opposed to a culture organised around meaning.²
There is a fundamental shift here. The culture of meaning, of origin, has already had its ill-design exposed through the practice and theory of deconstruction. This is a twofold overthrow: of an ideal culture of meaning, and that of the Derridean text-culture, namely the culture of signifying free play. We ask, again, what comes next? Yvonne Förster, drawing on the writings of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Luciana Parisi and Erich Horl, hints at a future of materialist, phenomenological, distributed and corporeal embedment – yes, a sense-culture – through technological means. Technology encompasses here ground-breaking fashion and art projections such as in Nobumichi Asai’s Omote (which beautifully means both “face” and a kind of mask in Japanese), along with the oldest techne: language and the power of collective virtual articulations.
Nonetheless, some matters of design require a further attentiveness to embodiment. If Yvonne Förster focuses on this accelerated, experienced continuum between human and artificial sensing, on “digital skin” (and “digital flesh”), we might forget for a moment that the non-digital skin is just as intricate and just as much a matter of design. Nobumichi Asai’s Omote uses real-time face tracking and projection mapping to morph the face and allow it to become mirror or liquid-like. Omote is a site that renders visible and enacts/ projects/ performs the volatility of the skin; yet, this volatility of life-forms is exactly what Maurice Merleau-Ponty was beginning to glimpse at: “My body is made of the same flesh as the world (it is perceived), and moreover […] this flesh of my body is shared by the world, the world reflects it, encroaches upon it and it encroaches upon the world (the felt [senti] at the same time the culmination of subjectivity and the culmination of materiality), they are in a relation of transgression or of overlapping.”³
Art has ways to perceive and render the invisible. What becomes visible through artistic intention (an important enterprise!) was, arguably, already there. So how does this constitute a matter of design? Where lies the freedom to occupy the future as a confrontational object or a swarm of fighting virtualities?
As my idea unfolds, this “occupy” has to do with a specific “weird” branch of ecology, linked to modes of embodiment specific to our times. The times become ours through the working artifice of a “we.” This localized and situated “we” is made of the living bodies of the Anthropocene. This “we” should not, however, efface the unequal access to environmental goods and the unequal distribution of social responsibility and climate change consequences that are already at work. Asymmetries among humans about nature produce a certain kind of “second” discourse on bodies that is necessarily bound to the geopolitical relations and social realities of how “we” experience nature. The “anthropos” of some Anthropocene studies, as a massive opaque block of people, as species, does seem to efface the harsh social stratified reality of the human impact on Earth. However, the “anthropos” that I am referring here – this “we” that I dare bring into discussion – is a necessary lucrative fiction, a placeholder for the sake of design, which does not mean it is less real than, for example, the human of late capitalism, the human that “shops” for a face. Both are fictions that are able to produce real effects.