This work has an ambition to explore the non rationals behaviors that are inherent to design. It is the story of my comprehension of our relation to objects in a world made of passions and affects. By considering a point of view inherited from Baruch Spinoza’s philosophy, I’ve tried to show the very passioned bound we have to tangible proprieties. It came to me that design, by its very principle, filled objects with power to affect us. What we call design produces objects as well as a way of seeing these objects.
The conceptions and preoccupations that I have mostly encountered in industrial creation, starting with my own, have often had the defect of over-representing a design with rational aspects. Through this text I wish to explore the effects that I am however unable to recognize in these aspects. The reading keys that I have sometimes used, those that I have been given, those that I have seen at work, seem to me to capture only a small part of what design is. We often represent ourselves in the activity of industrial creation, as solving problems, rationalizing production, inventing new scenarios or simply giving birth to useful or well thought objects. Some even conceive themselves as transforming an object into a sign or a piece of jewelry, but this is then said lightly and with modesty. These points are important, they describe a reality. But this reality is not the whole reality. I can't bring myself to think of the passionate outbursts that are the "black fridays" by seeing the actors only as rushing on useful and well thought objects. I can't imagine Jean Prouvé's tables being sold for more than a million dollars for their intelligence or for the degree of rationalization in their production. It seems to me that there is something else hidden there, something that these phenomena have in common. I would like to show here how much design seems to me to owe to passions, and especially what it has to gain by being considered as such.
In order to do so, it is first necessary to rigorously circumscribe what I mean by passion. Far from describing a fluttering of the soul, a romanticism or any other passionate emotion, I mean the term passion as a certain anthropological condition. I understand it as inherited from the ontology of the great rationalist thinker of the XVIIth century Baruch Spinoza, as the condition of the human being: determined in all things. The term "passion" designates our passivity towards the mechanisms of our own psyche. Thus, we feel spontaneously free to choose more or less aspects of our lives, but this choice remains consigned to what we desire. Choice does come into play in identifying the most desirable option, but we cannot choose what we desire or how we desire it. And if, for example, I could choose to desire in the most intense way, say, a frying pan or a toothbrush, I would be easily satisfied because it is relatively easy to obtain them in 21st century Europe. Unfortunately for me, these objects, although practical in daily life, do not mobilize my desire more than reason. Conversely, there are many people who are eagerly pursuing the desire to acquire a sports car, a house, or even to fulfill themselves at work. If they had been free to choose their desires, they would be much happier in choosing to desire with the same intensity a Ford Ka, a caravan or a delivery job at Amazon. It would have been easy for them to be fulfilled. Without judging them, these desires are easier to satisfy in the current social order. However, we can feel very well that the hold of the will over the desire is not of this nature.
It is this rupture that Spinoza makes us think of, by describing our desires, our envies as coming from outside, as determined outside our will. Whether to pursue a good or to avoid an evil, we always choose "among what we want" and not "what we want". The Spinozist enterprise is to say that man lives in a state of heteronomy imposed on him by his desire. That is to say, that the way his desires are determined forbids him to say he is autonomous. "Men are mistaken when they believe themselves to be free only in that they are conscious of their actions but unconscious of the causes that determine them" (Ethics, book II, scolie 35). The fact of desiring this or that end is determined. Let us try to describe the process. In the first place, an affection comes to us from outside, that is to say something that has an effect on me. An affection is the burning sensation that the flame of a candle inflicts on me. It is also, much more simply, the shape of an object which prints an image on my retina. There are also many things that do not affect me. Infrared light, for example, does not print any image on my retina, although we know that it exists. In a second step, the effect of this affection is produced on our body. This effect is called "affect". It is the way we perceive an affection. Spinoza describes it in a binary way: we perceive an affection either as a beneficial thing that is done to us or as an adverse thing. Affections are temporary, they are events, affects are what we keep from our encounter with reality. They are what will direct our desires in such or such direction, to possess, to flee, to destroy, to pursue such or such object. They combine to shape our desires.
The range of infrared light does not affect us except when we can reveal it through a technical process / Photo © Richard Mosse
In the end, identifying the exact interplay of affects and the resulting associations in this or that case is of little importance, and moreover it is such an entanglement that one can only speculate. It would be necessary to unravel endlessly the chain of causes and consequences of the affections that come to me from the physical world as well as from the social world. A process where the images of films and advertisements that have marked me are mixed with the rewards that I have received or not from society by demonstrating certain types of behavior rather than others, etc... This work is that of sociologists and is fascinating in itself, but what I propose to keep in mind from this diptych of desire/affect is the image of a desire that is mainly driven by passions. But understood in the strict sense, that is, directed by causes towards which we are passive. Seen from this angle, the desire of utility in an object appears to me on the same level as, for example, the desire of prestige that a good can bring us. When I pursue an object for its utility I pursue it neither more nor less passionately than when I pursue it for, say, its beauty. There is no difference in mechanism, no desire that is better than another. At the stage of survival one begins by wanting a fruit in order, through it, to avoid one's own withering away. When such needs are evacuated, one comes to desire the same fruit for the sensation it gives, for its taste. A little further into the complexity of social relationships, we may still desire the same fruit, but this time for the prestige that eating it will bring us in the presence of others. We can even imagine desiring this fruit under these three modalities simultaneously. All these desires I ask to see them as passions.
To link this to the social utility of objects, the step is taken by Thorstein Veblen in his study of ostentatious consumption. He describes a model of social interactions that determine us to desire objects for what others think of them, which I share: "Every class [...] competes with the class immediately above it in the social scale, while it scarcely thinks of comparing itself with its inferiors, nor with those who surpass it by far. In other words, the criterion of propriety in matters of consumption [...] is always proposed to us by those who enjoy a little more credit than we do." It is in a way by a mimicry trickling from the top to the bottom that the dominant class would diffuse in all the layers of the society, the definition of the prestigious goods. The precise mechanisms at play would be infinitely long to describe, but I would like us to at least recognize that this is an interesting way of effectively shedding light on the situations that design is experiencing. How can we not consider that the very name of a designer attached to his objects has no other efficient function than the prestige it brings to his buyer? How not to imagine that the form of the objects, that their aesthetics do not attach to demonstrate the value in the society of their owner ?
We can still make Spinoza's philosophy speak more about this relation to the useful and to material goods in general. The most enlightening thesis about this relation is condensed in the scolie of Ethics III, proposition 9: "we do not strive towards some object, we do not want, pursue, or desire it because we judge it to be a good, but on the contrary we judge an object to be a good only because we strive towards it, because we want, pursue, and desire it". From all the premises already mentioned - the nature of desire, the status of affects - would follow this consequence. What defines a material good would not be an intrinsic property, something that would be proper to it, but the very fact that we are driven to desire it. This idea may seem abstract, but finding its manifestations can make it more intelligible. And indeed, one can be convinced that the same object, without altering its nature, can have different statuses. A horse in the wild, for example, if no one is interested in it, cannot be considered as property. On the other hand, the same horse that a man wishes to ride to cover long distances becomes in fact a material good. We know how decisive the question of horse ownership has been in the history of humanity. This example is generalized beyond what we can find in nature.
Thus we produce throughout our life a lot of things, having very different statuses. For example, while cooking, our hands work to produce, among other things, potato peels. These peelings are the fruit of work, just like a piece of jewelry or a piece of clothing, but the fact that we do not project any desire on them denies them the status of material goods. Nobody thinks of owning potato peels. They are waste. Of course, some people make an economy out of this waste, as do the sorting plants which, desiring them in order to make a profit out of them, will see them as a good. But as a good in their generality, as a mass of waste to be treated. In the opposite direction, many other things are produced from potatoes that clearly have the status of material good. In addition to food, we can think of starch glue, which is not so different from peelings, except for a few stages of transformation. I therefore tend to adopt the view that our desire defines what is a material good and what is not. Could we extend this to say that the way we desire a good defines its nature? It is indeed curious to note that according to the way we desire a coin, it is either the most banal utilitarian object or the most precious of jewels. We must also consider that a designer chair, for example, can only be such because we desire it as a designer chair. I mean, there are countless chairs, all of them have been designed, but in proportion, only very few offer themselves to us as "designer" chairs. Couldn't we say that what defines them as such is the fact that their designer's fame makes us want them in a way that is partly a matter of prestige, whereas another chair whose designer has been forgotten does not have this particular utility and will be considered otherwise? Of course, these chairs may present desirability characteristics of their own, but they will simply be well-designed chairs. It would then only be a step to conclude that this characterization would come in the first place from the fact that the desires of "designer chairs" have formatted the appreciation of what we find well designed ?
I have spoken so far of the attitudes and relations to objects that I consider deducible from Spinoza's philosophy as I understand it. These deductions have led me to see a world that, in our stead, conditions and determines what we desire by the marks that experience leaves us, by affects. These affects, I conceive them as propagating between human beings in such a way as to create a multitude of desires of a social nature that are found as many functions with a social aim in the objects that we pursue. These same objects whose different statuses as material goods I am then inclined to see as a function of the very nature of the desire we have for them. Up to now, we have been talking about objects, but not about design in any way other than briefly or indirectly. It is therefore design that will be more specifically discussed now. Some people want to see design as a particular discipline, as being defined by what it produces. Product designer is the one who designs products and fashion designer is the one who does the same for clothes. Others consider it as a behavior that any creator adopts, as an approach. All the creators would not then be designer. Only those who, in their approach, meet certain criteria of creativity would be designers. These criteria can vary according to the theorists who have formalized definitions of this type. For example, for Andrea Branzi, the designer is "an inventor of scenarios and strategies". For Danielle Quarante "the role of a designer is to determine in advance, taking into account all the constraints related to the problem, the shape of a product". I do not have the ambition to decide these questions here. I think that design owes to these two definitions and to many others. But they would not be very useful for my purpose, or even to describe reality, if I did not add another aspect to it. Thus, design can be a discipline as well as an approach, but I ask that it be considered also as a certain disposition of social relationships. It is perilous to consider understanding design without perceiving in its positivity (positive as opposed to normative) the place it occupies in society. Design, among other things, is also a set of socially situated practices. The position of the designer in relation to the means of production, his incorporated cultural capital, his position as an operator of value... Without forgetting the position of the individuals who consume "design", also valued. The issues that institutionalize design, decoration, aesthetics, tend to place it quite high in the scale of relative social values. Design seems to me to occupy a place in society that would place it rather on the side of the powerful. We observe that until the Neolithic societies, the refinement of utensils, their careful work, was the prerogative of rich and powerful individuals. It is not a question of making any judgement, but just to testify to the fact that design enjoys, in the long term and in the majority, a certain prestige, as much for its amateurs as for those who are at the source.
These remarks are important. While going over them, I was led to formulate for myself another way of defining, at least of considering design. By considering it by what it does. Not as previously mentioned, that is to say that the essential thing is not so much that it produces this or that type of object; I am more interested in the answer it gives when it is really asked what it does, from the point of view of the Spinozist concepts I have outlined. It seems to me that we could formulate its answer as follows: Design is about charging objects with affects. The ways in which it proceeds seem to me to be the result of a conscious process of the creator as well as of passionate mechanisms independent of the will of the different actors involved.
The concern for clarity led me first to look at what the designer does, what he instills, consciously or not, so that objects result from his practice that concentrate so much power to affect. The first of these components is also the most obvious. It is the utility that the designer imagines in consciousness, it is the function, the use. The first of the ways in which objects affect us is their ability to function. The first reason I can imagine wanting an object is obviously for the purposes for which I consciously intend it. This desire for usefulness -in the restricted sense, excluding social usefulness which is more or less consciously pursued according to the cases- is indeed, as previously specified, a passion, the result of an affect. Except for the dramatic incompetence of the designer, he will always manage to instill at least that in his object. Moreover, he has almost no choice, this affect can only result from following the codes. It is that the affect in question comes from the capacity of an object to evoke its function, and it holds of the designer as much as of the habitus. Nevertheless, this affect is one of the most mobilizing, in that Spinoza describes us as pursuing affections of joy. But this term, far from describing any state of mind, is in fact rigorously defined as an increase of my power to act. One understands then that any object that I use on my behalf, towards any end, will have for property to increase this power to act and will affect me consequently. The objects that project in me the image of an end successfully pursued are thus effectively mobilizing desire.
The range of affects widens considerably when the designer starts to load his objects with signs, with codes. And I say the designer, but I understand that the object is loaded with them no matter what, whether it is the designer's will or not. But what is interesting in this aspect is that the resulting desires are not perceived with the same clarity, the same discernment as those previously described. For example, the effects that a particular color, a Norwegian style rather than a minimalist one, or a steel tube structure rather than a plastic shell will have on us are for me certain, although much more diffuse and more intricate. All these signs, the designer has a chance to be aware of them and to incorporate as much as he will be able to do knowingly. But I call to conceive that by the very nature of the signs and the affects, he will be able only of a very limited control on these last ones. So, they derive their existence only by our tendency in practice to associate different affects between them. We are consequently, as the receiver of a design, the concrete operators of the signs that we will find there. I then come to look at the designer as placing in his productions the seeds of the symbolism that each receiver will crystallize in the affections and thus the desires that the chains of their memory will have pushed them to form.
Considering in the process of design what partly escapes the designer leads me to see what escapes him completely. I am indeed called to support that a particular category of affects invests his objects, for which he does not have as a principle to control the effects, nor even the formation. These affects result from the social position of the design and the designer described above. In the paroxysm of the symbolism that is formed outside of the designer's will are the signs that his own socialization institutes. For design has a value in society as design, it is an institution that valorizes the productions that claim it. The design institution itself is an important factor in the desirability of the objects it produces. I am forced to recognize this capacity in view of the function of prestige that operates, for example, a Mies van der Rohe chair. Another example would be the strategy of the firm IKEA which, knowingly or not, validates wonderfully the model of Veblen previously described. Namely, their propensity to regularly reinterpret valued creations of authorial design, is very well represented by the idea of top-down trickle down of prestige and desirability standards.
Veranda lounge chair designed by Vico Magistretti for CASSINA in 1983 / "Skye" lounge chair designed by Tord Björklund for IKEA in 1987
The design process of a designer thus leads him to charge his objects with affects in several ways, both consciously and unconsciously. It is this clause that for me determines the stakes of the practice. My approach was first to consider the relationship of a "consumer" to material goods. My vision was that these desires for objects were dictated by the way the world affected him. I argued that his relationship to objects was lived in the mode of passion, whatever the ends sought. I ended with the idea that the very way of desiring something defined its status. I ask that we now look at this conjuncture where affects form desires, which themselves form our look on the objects of these desires, and where these same objects are partly the source of the affects that make us desire them. It is almost geometrically, in homage to Spinoza's process, that I am tempted to deduce that design produces objects as well as a way of seeing objects.
Ethic's IV, 14th proposition tells us that "True knowledge of good and evil cannot suppress any affect, insofar as this knowledge is true". It is the idea that a pure idea cannot supplant an affect. That an idea to be effective must necessarily come to us, carried by an affection. Now, could we not see there the exact modus operandi of the design? Even more, since the latter produces affects, will it not make us desire what we perceive as its conditions of possibilities, its causes, with a proportional ardor. What could be, in my opinion, a conclusion of this path would be to recognize the design a formidable capacity to convey ideas and value systems. Examples are numerous throughout history. Couldn't we recognize the blazing richness of the objects of the catholic cult as responsible in part for its solid implantation in front of the more austere protestantism? Or the immense power of attractiveness of contemporary goods as partly responsible for the export of the Western model of consumption, whatever we think of it, throughout the world ?
In any case, it will be admitted that the way in which our objects affect us confers a special status to those who are supposed to fill them with the power to do so. In the terms of Spinozist onthology, it is clear that design can do a lot. It produces its effects, it sets bodies and ideas in motion. Design is a pole of power, it is not a subject to be ignored for those who want to build and think society.