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[this is for Clarice]

Rafael Cardoso Denis (heretofore alluded as RCD) is professor of Design History in Brazil. Or something like it. He actually has graduated in Sociology and then got a Mastership and Doctorate in the fields of Art History. He has a paper on design called “Design, Cultura Material e o Fetichismo dos Objetos” (which means “Design, Material Culture and Object Fetishism” — this and all other translations here being mine, including some emphasis).

Although this paper is fairly old (published circa 98) he seems to still hold to the opinions expressed therein, as he repeats most of them in “Putting the magic back into design” (an article published in 2004 — PDF here) and in his talk at N Design 2007.

Anyway, here is some discussion of the article:

In the article, RCD argues that design is, ultimately, a process of imbuing objects with significations, significations which can vary infinitely in form and function, and in this sense it is part of a larger fetishist tradition. And Fetishism is the spiritual, ideological and psychic action of adding symbolic value beyond the mere concrete existence of material artifacts: that is, to give things another life, a different life. That’s in a way to humanize things or even deify them, and therefore to make the non-human human, and at the same time to connect ourselves to it’s essential nature and to what we suppose to be it’s mystical essence. (pages 29 and 28, respectively)

I think there are some very important points in his discourse, but there are two objections that would require an important reformulation there.

The first objection is: why should we favor the symbolic qualities of artifacts over any others? Why should it be the central consideration of design?

For example, when a designer adds «ease-of-use» to a keyboard or «desire» to a magazine, he is investing meaning into objects, in the sense that people will look at the objects and understand that they are easy to use or desirable, but he is also doing other things: diminishing motor effort to the typist, or enhancing ruggedness, or following international standards, or exerting a personal aesthetic taste, or reproducing moral and ethnological biases he is unaware of, and a number of other things. Why not to focus, for example, in political concerns, or economical, or cultural, or human-factors, or anything else?

The symbolic aspect of the action-of-designing is definitely important, but why should it be the primary concern?

In a communications theory/ semiotics context, Meaning or Signification is the content of a Sign or Symbol, the idea produced by interpreting a Sign or Symbol — and a Sign is something that stands for something else, a thing that is in place of something else. In this stricter sense, a keyboard does not signify ease-of-use, except in the case that someone might try to interpret it, to take meanings out of it. The ||keyboard|| is not in place of «ease-of-use», it has «ease-of-use».

It is pedantic to require semiotic precision to a definition of design, but i do it nevertheless because the strength of this definition is it allows designers to work with symbols. This is a new and important power to designers. But if you become a Symbol-worker you need Symbol-tools, and this means you need Semiotics.

But if for RCD Signification means more than our precise, narrow definition allows, what exactly does he mean? I’ll orient myself through this passage of his text:

We have historically, then, three big meanings for the word Fetishism, which respectively revolve around: 1) a kind of religious worship where supernatural powers are attributed to objects; 2) one aspect of economic theory that explains the attribution of transcendental values to a kind of objects (commodities); 3) a sexual behavior where the person attributes sexual charge to objects. (pages 27 and 28)

We have, then, three ideas he is connecting with Signification: power, value and charge. Signification, then, would be a psychological or social dimension of design.

Put this way, it is very interesting to argue design must deal with the non-inherent Significations of things. But the simplicity of the formulation is lost. I mean, dealing with «psychological or social dimension» of artifacts is not easier than dealing with «good design» in a void.

And the second objection is: there are no inherent meanings.

RCD himself states that things do not have fixed significations, that what people interpret artifacts to be changes over time. But he says some meanings are derived from the physical and concrete reality of things, and those he calls Inherent Meanings. He uses a distinction somewhat like that:

Fixed Inherent Adherent
immutable Constant during the period at hand constantly changing
not-derived derived from physical nature derived from circumstance
independent created as the artifact is done created by use

His example of inherent meaning is the watch, which according to him does not lose it’s watch-ness in any conceivable real-life situation. Objects according to RCD have a strong resistance against being emptied of their most basic Significations, which were cast upon them in the context of their building and their original usage. The point being that, although meanings for objects are assigned by persons individually, case by case, idiosyncratically, some of those meanings are taken directly from the very physical reality of the object, and are therefore subjected to much less change than the rest of the meanings. Those inherent meanings are almost the same thing as Function (as in Functionalist).

But let me offer a counter-example. My mother’s uncle used to live at her farm for some time, and he was an experienced fence-maker. During this time, it used to be a common joke for us to present an strange object to visitors and ask them what they thought it was. The thing was a “esticador”, a wire-tensioner, used for passing wire through the holes in the fence-posts, and making it straight (something like this, but not quite…). No one ever came close to figuring out what that thing was for, or how it was used. Despite the fact that the object is very simple, devoid of ornament or styling. And still, the fence-maker would think that the tensioner’s meaning came directly from it’s concrete reality.

The stability of what RCD calls inherent meaning doesn’t come from being derived directly from the materiality of the artifact. What is stable is not the Inherent Meaning. What is stable is the social repertoire of know-how. We cannot deprive a watch of it’s watch-ness because we cannot force ourselves to forget how to use a watch.

This is important because, if the inherence of meanings reside in the social repertoire of forms of use, then they will change if this repertoire is changed. In other words, RCD is arguing that Inherent Meanings (or Function), being almost fixed, allow very little space for creativity and design, and that the design process is more important when it focus on non-inherent meanings, so as to affect use instead of searching for some unreachable essence.

While i do disagree with him on that, i do disagree with Functionalism also. It is possible to alter the “Function” of something through altering it’s form, that is, out-design Function, but i really doubt that most designers will ever want to do so. Most designers will not want to make a watch that lacks watch-ness, even when they are able to see this possibility (which is rare). The idea of «Function» was created to expand the reach of design, but that it later became a prison to designers. But being anti-Functionalism is just another way of being still tied to the old yoke. Or, for that matter, defending non-inherent meanings.

One example close at hand is how the ubiquitous display of time in mobile phones has changed the otherwise very fixed relationship between people and watches — a change i still do not comprehend completely.
But if i do not think that design deals mainly with symbols, nor that there are inherent symbols, what exactly can i find of good in the definition that design is the process of attributing non-inherent significations to artifacts?

First of all, his discourse seems to me to be a very direct opposition to Functionalism-thinking. Even when he proposes new concepts, i think those are designed to undo Functionalist concepts, instead of being simply aimed at understanding the world. But i do believe very much that Functionalism-thinking is a huge obstacle to understanding design and it’s place in the world. RCD’s Fetishim concept goes much further in desconstructing the Functionalist biases than most of the previous criticisms.

His Fetishism is very strong because it not only criticizes the Functionalist concepts, he also criticizes the Functionalists way of thinking, their modus cogitandi. He criticizes the constant recurse of Functionalism to unquestionable ideas, like Function or Inhabitation or Industry or Technology. Those kinds of Essence-driven thinking always lead to narrow comprehension of the world — as a consequence of their method and not their arguments! Instead, RCD urges us to think outside the essences, to run away from absolute (and apparently safe) values, to accept that a design cannot be good in general but only in it’s actual circumstance.

More than that, i love RCD’s idea of design as involved into something like a «psychological or social dimension» of artifacts — even if he uses another name for it. I believe this enlargement of the point of view of design is the only thing that can turn designers into something more than Photoshop-filter-employers. We need to understand form in a much broader sense than we currently are able to. The only shortcut to achieve formal excellence is comprehension of form. Without it we need the progressive evolving through centuries of building and rebuilding. And to comprehend form without comprehending culture is shallow. To believe that all that designers need to understand of culture is the repertoire of uses is myopic to the point of blindness. Culture creates us, it drives us, it defines us.

Needless to say, his review of anthropology in the section «Design as Material Culture» is almost priceless. The distinction between «Object» and «Artifact» is very useful and important.

But, most of all, he is trying to understand design instead of stupidly reproducing decades-old biases. This is what we all ought to be doing.

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