If I Sit in a Forest And Nobody Sees Me, Did I Actually Sit?

9 April 2008

[Incidentally, this is not about Jordan. Not even a little.]

I came upon a call for a design competition entitled “One Good Chair.” You can check out the details yourself if you like (or enter the competition, if you’re a tool, er, up for it), but I’ll sum it up.

The competition is to design a “new kind of eco-chair” (as opposed to the old kind, I suppose), one that focuses on form, first and foremost. What shapes can minimize resources while maximizing comfort and enjoyment? How can design integrate ecology and ergonomics?

This is something I’ve been thinking about on and off for a while now; whether or not designs inherently possess certain characteristics. A more specific question would be, are technologies, in and of themselves, political? The question is not whether certain technologies can be used for political ends, which is fairly clear. Rather, do certain technologies, by their mechanics and physical configurations, necessarily entail or presuppose, or perhaps are just “strongly compatible with,” certain political configurations? This is a question pondered by Langdon Winner in his 1986 book The Whale and the Reactor, and while the age of the book precludes a discussion of the internet, which is arguably more germane to the question of political technology than the issue of nuclear power which seems to be the main thrust of the book, it is still a fantastic attempt at developing something like a philosophy of technology.

As Winner relates, Engels, in one of his rebuttals of anarchism, cites the inevitable authoritarianism that arises from the material conditions of our production, even after the revolution (Marxist materialism’s hard-line towards technology also interestingly popped up in Soviet perspectives on environmentalism…I’ve found some nifty sources for that, and I hope to post on it some time soon). This is an echo of the much older argument in Plato’s Republic that ships, by their nature, demand the steady hand of a captain as well as the concerted and coordinated labors of a subordinate and hierarchical crew. Of course, these arguments beg the question of the naturalness or inevitability of these configurations, and, at least to me, suggest a certain poverty of imagination of how alternative technics might operate. I seem to remember David Graeber reflecting on anthropology’s extensive documentation of a staggering variety of cultural responses to subsistence, from the starkly egalitarian to the rigidly hierarchical, often within close geographical proximity.

In any case, it seems that we get caught up in the dialectic between an argument for objective realism (the physical reality of the technology is self-evident and we react to it as to an objective fact) and an argument for social determinism (technology lacks any inherent meaning apart from that which we socially impart to it… if we don’t see the tree fall, it doesn’t exist). Winner perceives both as problematic, though I think the latter is perhaps less so than he assumes. Anthropologists work a lot with artifacts – our fancy word for any kind of stuff that gets worked on/constituted by culture, which, um, I guess is, um, everything (I am already leaning toward the social determinism with that one) – and are quite keen on this dialectic. I will admit that there is a certain facile seduction in the postmodern notion that the world of things has no real existence outside of our perception and social categorization of those things (of course if you tell that one to someone in one of the “hard sciences,” they might spit on you). And I will also admit that, as Winner points out, such a perspective can easily lead to the dismissal of the artifact (be it an adze, a ship, a chair, a nuclear reactor, or the internet) as epiphenomenal to the “real,” social stuff going on. Consequently, it is easy to overlook the ways in which technologies not only are constituted by the social, but turn around and do some constitutin’ too. But I think the key point is that this re-constitution, this creative spark that an artifact can set off in a social tinder box, is not predictable, constant, or uncontested.

There is perhaps a parallel in the study of the human body which, according to the Cartesian mind/body dualism, is something of an artifact in itself. Students of gender like Judith Butler have sought to decouple the logical homology between (biological) sex and gender, suggesting that the social construction of gender, of masculinity and femininity, are not determined by biological sex, but rather are built and sustained through social discourses and practices of gender. The point is not to deny the importance of the body, or to trivialize biological difference. Rather, I think it is important to see the body, and the material in general, as something of a garden of differences-in-waiting…the human body does indeed boast sexual dimorphism, but the terms of that difference, and its significance for human-being, must be developed, indeed, sustained through unremitting discursive and practical interaction. And crucially, the terms of that difference are not contained within or prefigured by the material.

Talking about the body allows us to start returning to the question of design, since architectural design, for example, must (unless it is entirely textual and absurd) at some point acknowledge the physicality of the human form that will (hopefully) ambulate through its created space. Many architects, in my experience, love to ground their work in the eternal, universal human form. The design of spaces, then, becomes the search for spatial vocabularies that in some quasi-mystical (and generally, poorly-explicated) way resonate with the unchanging human form. Exeter Library, Louis KahnLouis Kahn, for one, expressed this sentiment in his notion of “monumentality:” a spiritual quality in a building conveying a sense of eternity, of timelessness and of unchanging perfection. Though this quality remains enigmatic, it seems to reside in a certain spatial vocabulary: “the basic forms of the vault, the dome, and the arch continue to reappear,” throughout architectural history, but with added powers of contemporary technology and engineering. In willful rebellion against the International Style prevalent at the time, Kahn emphasized his appreciation for architectural history…well…Italian architectural history, which he confused for universal human history. The lessons he learned from that history are radically different than the lessons I would take from such an experience. As Kahn wrote, “History is that which reveals the nature of man. What is has always been. What was has always been, what will be has always been.” I proceed a bit differently. One of my favorite quotations is from L.P. Hartley: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” This perhaps explains the methodological and theoretical affinity between anthropologists and historians – the work of understanding the past is similar to the work of understanding foreign cultures. Anyway, if a spatial vocabulary (namely that of imperial Rome) recurs through architectural history, I find it a bit of a stretch to assume that is because that vocabulary contains within it a natural affinity with the human form, or with some universal human experience of space. Maybe we should think about the potential for the expression of the symbolic power of empire through classical forms. Think of architectural vocabularies as embedded within bounded fields (in the Bourdieuian sense) of value. I’m getting away from myself here, but the point is that architectural forms, I think, do not possess an inherent timelessness, or unqualified affinity with some external universal. Architecture is a garden of difference-in-waiting.

Much in the same way, I am unable to countenance the idea that architectural forms are inherently political. They can be used politically to invoke authority, or in projects of nation-building, but such a use is dependent upon memory, and discourses of what is natural, what is modern, etc. And most importantly, it is a slippery and dangerous use, which requires constant and active upkeep to sustain it against challenge and subversion.

Chinese people learning about freedom.Given this, the remarks of a pair of rather heavily-esteemed and lauded architects become a bit absurd. Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron (who in 2001 won the Pritzker award, which is sort of like the Nobel Prize for architecture) recently spoke about the potential for their Olympic stadium design in China to…um…free the Chinese by giving them multiple entrances, I guess: “The very architecture – an open basket or ‘bird’s nest’ of girders in which visitors can choose their own, random paths, is pointedly designed. ‘We wanted to do something not hierarchical, to make not a big gesture as you’d expect in a political system like that,’ de Meuron says, ‘but [something that for] 100,000 people [is still] on a human scale, without being oppressive.’” I have no doubt that the two are acting in good faith, and very well may believe that their architecture has the power to spread democracy (I suppose a bit like how a poor hospital design can spread tuberculosis). But their explanation hinges upon the assumption that a design can be inherently democratic, which, as I have endeavored to show, is nothing more than an unfortunate assumption. Moreover, it demonstrates a startling inability to understand the ways in which people produce and consume (social) space.

And so we can now return to the original issue of the chair competition. One of the judges wrote a book which is considered the authoritative work on the “history” of chair design. A review of the book exclaimed the following:

“The radical notion put forward by a new breed of ergonomic designers that chair design…should not be restricted by ‘traditional cultural expectations.’ They want to change traditional workplace design. For them, the beginning and end of design should be the body.”

The implication here is that the ergonomic needs of the body are universal, and that the cultural epiphenomena that have (needlessly) dressed up our chairs for millennia are finally giving way to the rational, scientific knowledge of what is naturally appropriate for our bodies. But, again, I would argue that the body is much less a knowable object than a collection of innumerable contours, gradients, and differences, which are seized upon to the carry the emblems of culture, and the ergonomic is merely one system of ordering the body among many.

Given this, I cannot imagine a perfect chair. I cannot imagine a chair that is universally appropriate to a body which is constantly made, unmade, and remade in historically, geographically, and culturally specific ways. I cannot imagine a chair that is inherently good for the environment [this is another dimension of the question whether technologies are political… can a technology be inherently green? I’ll deal with that in the next post, I hope.]. The perfect “form” does not and cannot exist.

But this post is so long and boring already, I might as well dream up a few chairs, just for the hell (or futility) of it.

  1. The Bone Chair: A chair made of human bones. What better to address the needs of the human frame than a human frame! And humans are certainly renewable… zestfully so. Designer Joris Laarman has a less macabre version:
    Joris Laarman's Bone Chair

    Joris Laarman's Bone Chair

  2. The Cactus Chair: It’s a cactus. Because you should be out biking or gardening or something. And it’s sustainable because it’s a friggin’ cactus.
  3. [ ]: Sitting shall not be commodified or abstracted from its context. Window ledges, nooks, sturdy shelves, logs. Look for the places already in the built/natural environment that invite sitting. And this chair is the true eco-chair: it doesn’t have to be built, because we already have plenty of places to sit.

I like the last one the most. But the $4,500 prize is intended to support the fabrication of the winning design, so I guess it wouldn’t work. Too far out there, suggesting we actually sit on the chairs we already have.

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One Response to “If I Sit in a Forest And Nobody Sees Me, Did I Actually Sit?”

  1. […] 31 July 2009 Update to an earlier posting! […]

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