[...] diffract the rays of technoscience [and other social practices] so that we get more promising interference patterns on the recording films of our lives and bodies.
We live in a world where we have to keep up with a lot of environmental, social and personal emergencies. Considering the prevailing technology and the subsequent global connectedness, we have to acknowledge the situation we currently find ourselves in and meet the universe halfway. The capillary distribution of the global affair requires constant attention and calls for innovative solutions to its intrinsic hyperobjects and entanglements.
In an effort to comprehend the complexities of the present, feminist scholars have pushed forward theoretical and methodological endeavours promoting more inclusive reworkings and re-evaluations of philosophical thoughts. One of these contributions goes further into the methodological rabbit hole. Karen Barad’s Agential Realism diffracts from Quantum Physics in general and from Bohr’s philosophy-physics in particular and incorporates epistemological, ontological, and ethical considerations that attempt a new perspective in regards of both the natural and the social.
Art and design also find themselves in the front line when it comes to finding alternative metaphors to present circumstances. Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby have popularised the field of Speculative and Critical Design, making it a central focus of the now discontinued Design Interaction Program at Royal College of Arts. Their approach still resonates however within today’s art and design practices that, animated by the precariousness of our times, situate themselves in the timespan between present and future.
Speculative approaches in design aim to open up various pluralities and justified distortions, focusing on some unlikely but not difficult to envision future dimensions. What separates speculative from conventional design practices is the idea of putting forward fictions that stretch established conventions, whether physical, social, or political. By proposing cautionary tales of future prospects, Speculative Design (SD) strives to adopt a critical position, the same way Karen Barad’s Agential Realism entails a rethinking of the responsibilities of being within and as part of the world.
By breaking down some aspects of SD as seen through the lenses of different Baradian concepts, this paper aims to evaluate what, if anything does Barad’s Agential Realism tell us about the nature of speculative practices. In the following pages, I will analyse various considerations put forward by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby in their book Speculative Everything which many consider to be one of the most insightful books in its field.
I will start by considering how reflective viewpoints can limit critical imprints and how Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby’s view on design does not manage to go beyond mere representationalism. In order to investigate the applications as well as the implications of speculative scenarios and their effective configuration in space and time, I will adopt a focus starting from Barad’s seminal text from 2007, Meeting the Universe Halfway.
The leitmotif of Speculative Everything is Dunne and Raby’s encouraging suggestion to speculate more (speculate everything), in order to create a multitude of world views and possible relationships with our reality, that can make it more malleable. In support of their argument, throughout the book they cite various examples from their own design and teachings as well as other projects from fine art, design, architecture, cinema, and photography that develop future perspectives within frameworks of critical engagement. Given their propensity for inclusiveness, these scenarios strive to make the spectator part of the apparatus of a future-fiction by means of suspension of disbelief. SD’s play with the uncertainty of the future should include that much of this uncertainty advances an urgency to trouble time and to produce collective imaginaries able to directly stir up the present, instead of proposing future projections of the world.
Talking about time, Barad points out that “[n]othing less than the nature of and possibilities for change and conceptions of history, memory, causality, politics, and justice are conditioned by it.”Karen Barad | Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning | Duke University Press | 2007 She also suggests that Quantum Theory manages to trouble time by opening up radical spaces for exploring the possibilities for change from the inside of the applied systems. To this extent, by intra-acting within, Barad’s Agential Realism is able to take advantage of a new perspective by exploring the patterns of diffraction happening inside phenomena. Considering this methodology, I will propose an alternative view of Dunne and Raby’s celebrated PPPP diagram. More on this later.
Given the present-future dichotomy and its intrinsic entanglements, I pose the question as to how a more situated view of SD can enable valid apparatuses of critique in regards of our globalised context, able to open up possibilities for understanding and maybe even addressing the situation we find ourselves in. This personal attempt to create new perspectives of analysis over SD aims to be explored and debated further through more profound readings and considerations. I hope my condensed remarks will provide useful points for debate as I believe a deeper understanding of speculation can emphasise its social potential.
A NEW PERSPECTIVE
On July 4th 2009, the headline of a 14-page special edition of The New York Times announced the end of the Iraq war. Among other featured stories, an article reported that all Americans were being given free healthcare while another one talked about a bill to eliminate university tuitions that was expected to pass within days. The newspaper that came up as a hoax put together by the media-activists The Yes Men and their collaborators, bared the motto “All the News We Hope to Print”, a veiled anti-capitalist call that tingled the minds of the New York commuters that morning. This was more than a simple hoax. It was an active event that asserted a logic of possibility.
A drive in SD is to create hyperrealistic representations of possible future outcomes, starting from given suppositions that proceeds to unfold into a whole speculative universe. Sometimes these applications are misunderstood as hoaxes, fact that is greatly limiting their critical intent to simplistic, narrow renditions of how our present situation could turn out to be. When it comes to understanding the position that SD wants to assume, we have to start by addressing our susceptibility to view art and design as purely representational. Usually, this perspective sees creative outcomes as mere reflections of the world, without having an actual effect on it. By creating a material artefact (prop) with which the commuters could interact, The Yes Men activated a specific speculative trajectory able to provoke discourses on the desirability of “the news we hope to print” in the future. The entanglement between the routine-bound New Yorkers and the fictitious journal represented a direct intervention on the present, or as Barad would put it, a performative standpoint: “Unlike representationalism, which positions us above or outside the world we allegedly merely reflect on, a performative account insists on understanding thinking, observing, and theorizing as practices of engagement with, and as part of, the world in which we have our being.”KarenBarad|PosthumanistPerformativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter | Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society vol. 28 | University of Chicago | 2003 | 802–831
Representationalism has constantly been contested by post-humanists, as it takes for granted the idea that representations reflect (social or natural) reality and mediate the relation between presence and representation, and in doing so they submit thought to a proper relation to an outside rather than to a direct engagement with it. When referring to theorisation, many post-humanistic scholars subscribe to different methodologies that go beyond the mirroring of pre-existing stances. Considering Barad’s background in Quantum Physics, it is safe to say she advocates for a non-representationalist approach. She points out how representational- ism fails to take account of the practices through which representations are produced, saying that “[i]mages or representations are not snapshots or depictions of what awaits us, but rather condensations or traces of multiple practices of engagement.”KarenBarad|TroublingTime/sandEcologies of Nothingness: Re-Turning, Re-Membering, and Facing the Incalculable | New Formations: A Journal of Culture/theory/politics vol. 92 | September 2017 | 56–86
Barad also remarks about how people have always used vision and optical metaphors to theorise about knowledge. In fact, optical phenomena have a tradition of being used as visual metaphors. Reflection is the most common: when it comes to thinking, it is fairly common to say people contemplate or reflect on things. “Hence mirrors are an often-used metaphor for representationalism and related questions of reflexivity.”Anthony Dunne, Fiona Raby | Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction and Social Dreaming | MIT Press | 2013 If we were to consider a representationalist attitude towards speculation, we would have to look at SD practices as bounded mirrorings of the present instead of situated systems within the entanglements of the latter. Dunne and Raby seem to subscribe to a more situated nature of SD as they believe in its ability to “unsettle the present rather than predict the future.”Anthony Dunne, Fiona Raby | Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction and Social Dreaming | MIT Press | 2013 This statement suggests an active disturbance, something more than just simple representations of possible outcomes. The strategy of SD should therefore consist of overcoming the matter of perception, animating passages beyond presence and representation. In an attempt to apply a methodology that can subscribe to this strategy, I turn to Karen Barad, who proposes an approach that I find to be very effective. This approach was first introduced by Donna Haraway.
Donna Haraway found a substitute to the metaphor of reflection in the phenomenon of diffraction. Diffraction is a physical phenomenon exhibited by waves, as they pass through an aperture or around objects. A classical example of the diffraction phenomenon would be the water ripples that occur when throwing a pebble in a pond. For Haraway “[...d]iffraction patterns record the history of interaction, interference, reinforcement, difference. Diffraction is about heterogeneous history, not about originals. Unlike reflections, diffractions do not displace the same elsewhere, in more or less distorted form. [...] Rather, diffraction can be a metaphor for another kind of critical consciousness [...]”Donna Haraway | Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium. FemaleMan_Meets_OncoMouse | Routledge Publishing | 1997 219 Barad adopts Haraway’s diffractive viewpoint within her Agential Realism, suggesting that a diffractive methodology can provide a better understating and a deeper insight to the world’s entanglements: “Diffraction as methodology is a matter of reading insights through rather than against each other to make evident the always-already entanglement of specific ideas in their materiality.” Her diffractive methodology is therefore to be seen as a critical practice of engagement that allows us to learn about how phenomena come to matter and how they participate in the ongoing reconfiguring of the world. Barad also points out how “[m]aking knowledge is not simply about making facts, but about making worlds, or rather, it is about making specific worldly configurations–not in the sense of making them up ex nihilo, or out of language, beliefs or ideas, but in the sense of materially engaging as part of the world in giving it specific material form.” Looking at SD from this point of view, a lot of projects seem to be detached from the present, existing in their own speculative bubble (out of language, beliefs or ideas), somewhere in the future. This strategic placement makes difficult any meaningful way of direct engagement and subordinates them to a reflexive standpoint.
Instead of accepting speculative endeavours as reflections of the present in the future, enabling diffractive viewpoints within the world can help us engage in a deeper analysis of how speculations can actually come to be. Such viewpoints subvert the strategies of representation by way of clearly positioning fiction in the present and by diffusing a state of engagement between spectators and speculative scenarios. SD should therefore be used as a diffraction apparatus, a tool that can help us as we move from future questions of correspondence (reflection) to future matters of practices, doings, and actions.
Dunne and Raby suggest that SD is not interested in experimenting with how things are now, but how things could be. Given their claim that speculating is based on imagination and social dreaming, throughout Speculative Everything the two authors do not go further into suggesting any direct methodology for conducting speculation, but rather they limit themselves to examples and comparisons with other fields of practice to define where SD strives to operate and what it wants to bring forth. They propose the A/B manifesto, which consists of two complementary lists: each element in the A list represents what SD is not, while each element in the B list represents what SD is and how these propositions can help widen the horizon of traditional design, argued by the two designers to be limited by dogmatic user-centred and user-friendly principles. In an attempt to delineate where SD situates itself, they also evoke The Futures Cone, a diagram first introduced by futurologist Stuart Candy and later adapted by the two designers under the name PPPP. The diagram illustrates a horizontally positioned cone, whose vertex is designated by the Present and from where different future possibilities take off. I will briefly describe them in the order of their increasing spectrums. Traditional design mainly operates in the Probable cone, as it extrapolates from what is likely to happen and is conditioned by current trends and constraints. The cone of Plausible futures designates what could happen through scientific discoveries or alternate social practices. The widest cone represents the Possible future, the field of the speculative culture—writing, cinema, science fiction, social fiction. Intersecting a part of both plausible and probable futures, a Preferable area delineates where SD should be deployed in order to collectively define a preferable future. This area requires new design methods, roles, and contexts. Dunne and Raby suggest that “[...] we need to shift from designing applications to designing implications by creating imaginary products and services that situate these new developments within everyday material culture.”
In my reading of this quote, SD needs to operate with(in) the present and I believe Dunne and Raby’s diagram does not convey to this intention, as it is limited by a wrong perspective. Their depiction offers a static, objective viewpoint rather than an inclusive one. Returning to the problem of representationalism, the way in which in the rays spring out from the Present-point seem to delineate projections (mirrorings) of the present without any possibility to affect the latter. Moreover, the projects diligently referenced throughout the book as examples of speculation, seem to cast the core of SD further away from reality.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A TRIANGLE AND A CIRCLE
I believe that by addressing its positioning and by advancing a stable methodology, SD can function as a contemporary form of forward-thinking intervention. To begin with, I want to propose a new perspective over The Futures Cone (see Fig. 1): rather than viewing it horizontally as a triangle, I suggest a frontal circular view which depicts the Present-point diffracting into future probabilities.
Situating ourselves in the middle of the circle and acknowledging the implication of our position, should facilitate a direct engagement with applied apparatuses of speculation.
This brings back Barad’s standpoint. Under Agential Realism, each reconfiguration of the world is generated by entanglements of phenomena of both matter and discourse, actively intra-acting. The notion of intra-action is a key element in Barad’s framework. In contrast with the concept of interaction, that assumes separate individual agencies that precede their interaction, intra-action suggests that agencies do not precede, but rather emerge through their intra-action. Again, instead of considering sets of pre-existent and autonomous phenomena (material nature of practices), Barad goes beyond matters of representationalism (and the nature of representations), focusing directly on how these phenomena intra-act within. Each phenomenon is to be seen as a result of both matter and meaning, able to blur the lines between inner and outer worlds, between past, present and future and between reality and fiction. As Barad puts it, “[...] time and space, like matter and meaning, come into existence, are iteratively reconfigured through each intra-action, thereby making it impossible to differentiate in any absolute sense between creation and renewal, beginning and returning, continuity and discontinuity, here and there, past and future.”
On the left, a rendition of PPPP taken from the book Speculative Everything (2013) by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby. On the right, a personal, frontal representation of the cone, that shows a diffraction pattern, as inspired by Barad’s framework of Agential Realism.
If we consider speculative scenarios as Baradian phenomena, each SD practice should unfold a specific possible reconfiguration of the present and within the present. A configuration is designated by a specific pattern of diffraction produced by an applied SD apparatus (that is, a specific narration), that delineates a specific entanglement that consequently excludes any other configuration or narration. Beyond the mere imprint of provocation, the patterns of difference between the present and the suggested future should be able to activate more inclusive forms of criticism against the dimensions of our society and within our globalised context.
We’ve already discussed how the limit of representationalism can be addressed by applying a diffractive methodology within the present. In the context of Agential Realism, Karen Barad also proposes a performative reading that instead of focusing on questions of correspondence between descriptions and reality, deals with a posthumanist analysis of how matter comes into being. We have to emphasise that under Agential Realism, the concept of performativity is different from that of Judith Butler, who refers to the gendering of sexed bodies as reiterative performances that conform to a gender norm. Barad uses the notion of performativity as an apparatus for contextualisation. For her, performativity indicates how matter comes to matter, that is “[...] through the iterative intra-activity of the world in its becoming.” Returning to my considerations of SD practices as apparatuses of possible worldly (re)configurations, Barad’s view on performativity validates the nature of SD practices as being performative.
A performative understanding of SD can help us overcome our representationalist concerns once and for all, bringing forward a direct material engagement with the world, rather than just a mirroring of the latter. In order for SD phenomena to be performative, it needs to embody both material and discursive practices, meaning that even though they operate with(in) fiction, SD practices should be instantiated in matter as well as in theory. Dunne and Raby view design as critical thought translated into materiality, but they also assert how without an intellectual framework, it is very difficult to advance the practice of SD. Both intervention and theorisation is needed in order to put forward stable speculative scenarios. My remark is that this requirement should be focal for any kind of contemporary intervention, whatever their background. Any art or design-related endeavour should stimulate the imagination as well as engage the intellect.
The public fascination with the possibilities of better tomorrows animates numerous domains of inquiry. The applications that strive to open up spaces of debate and discussions sometimes find immediate justifications for any kind of superficial provocations. This can happen when the apparatus of inquiry does not consider both the material and the theoretical aspects needed in order to convey a strong narration.
In the circular diagram I proposed above, each SD practice has to operate as a diffraction apparatus of production, making the ongoing mattering and meaning of the speculation propagate into the future, being it preferable or not. From my perspective, SD is not just about imagining preferable futures, provoking or seducing an audience into raising questions. If we consider that dealing with future scenarios is nevertheless a matter of reconfiguring the world, identifying the diffraction trajectories mapped out by fictional scenarios as well as the performative quality of these narratives can reveal the flexible and adaptable role of speculation in art and design. Although SD generally deals with registers of possibility, by analysing these practices through a stable framework we can see how, when applied correctly, SD can summon the social emergencies we need to address in the present, by means of interference. While recognising SD as part of the present, we approach speculative phenomena as fields of capacity and power that can be creatively diffused in a variety of viewpoints under different intra-actions within and as part of the world.