True or False? v’s Good Design?

Further excerpts from Stephen Duncombes Open Utopia.

“But criticism has run its political course. What was once a potent weapon against totalitarianism has become an empty ritual, ineffectual at best and self-delusional at worst”.

“The idea that there is a power in knowing the Truth is an old one. As the Bible tells us in the Gospel of John (8:31-33)  “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”7  What constituted the “truth” at that time was hardly the empirical fact of today”–

“There was once a certain logic to this faith in the power of the possession of Truth–or, through criticism, the revealing of a lie. Within an information economy where there is a scarcity of knowledge, and often a monopoly on its production and distribution, knowledge does equal power. To criticize the official Truth was to strike a blow at the state or church’s monopoly over meaning. Critique was a decidedly political act, and the amount of effort spent by church and state in acts of censorship suggests its political efficacy. But we do not exist in this world anymore. We live in what philosopher Jean-François Lyotard named “the postmodern condition,” marked by the “death of the master narrative” in which Truth (or the not so Noble Lie) no longer speaks in one voice or resides in one location”.

“Today’s informational economy is no longer one of monopoly or scarcity–it is an abundance of truth…and of critique. When power is wielded through a monopoly on Truth, then a critical assault makes a certain political sense, but singularity has now been replaced by plurality. There is no longer a communications citadel to be attacked and silenced, only an endless plain of chatter, and the idea of criticizing a solitary Truth, or swapping one for the other–the Emperor wears clothes/the Emperor wears no clothes–has become increasingly meaningless. As the objects of criticism multiply, criticism’s power and effect directly diminishes”.

“Poor mental health upon reflection”. PJBR 2012

“Dystopia, Utopia’s doppelganger, speaks directly to the crisis in belief, for dystopias conjure up a world in which no one wants to believe. Like Utopias, dystopias are an image of an alternative world, but here the similarities end. Dystopian imaginaries, while positing a scenario set in the future, always return to the present with a critical impulse–suggesting what must be curtailed if the world is not to end up the way it is portrayed. Dystopia is therefore less an imagination of what might be than a revealing of the hidden logic of what already is. Confronted with a vision of our horrific future, dystopia’s audience is supposed to see the Truth–that our present course is leading us to the rocks of disaster–and, having woken up, now act. Dystopic faith in revelation and the power of the (hidden) truth makes common cause with traditional criticism and suffers the same liabilities.

Furthermore, the political response generated by dystopia is always is a conservative one: stop the so-called progress of civilization in its course and … and what? Where do we go from here? We do not know because we have neither been offered a vision of a world to hope for nor encouraged to believe that things could get better. In this way dystopias, even as they are often products of fertile imagination, deter imagination in others. The two options presented to the audience are either to accept the dystopic future as it is represented, or turn back to the present and keep this future from happening. In neither case is there a place for imagining a desirable alternative”.

In any cases I have read to date am I seeing an open acceptance that all is relative. In order to negate the infinite it is essential to understand the finite. Is not discourse merely the chart from which one navigates?

I feel the urge to suggest a new word to the english dictionary: Ustopianism..  absurd indeed, a momentary lapse of fun and a play on words, as I continue to chase my tail…

This further text, excerpts again from Duncombes translation of More’s Utopia..  continue   to underpin the very means of structure that can be adopted in the search for socially  ‘acceptable’ social alternatives.

“…This revealing exchange may be understood in several ways. The most common reading among Utopiascholars is that More’s advice (within the book Utopia) to Hythloday is an argument for working within the system, to “go through with the play that is acting the best you can,” and to abandon a confrontational style of criticism in favor of “another philosophy that is more pliable, that  knows its proper scene, [and] accommodates itself.” To be successful, More seems to counsel, one must cast oneself within “the play that is acting, ” that is, the status quo, and “accommodate” one’s ideas to the dominant discourse. Shortly before writingUtopia, More had been asked by Henry VIII to enter his service as a counselor and he was still contemplating the offer while at work on the book. It is thus easy to imagine this whole discussion as a debate of sorts within his own head. More’s conclusion–that to be effective one needs to put aside the high-minded posturing of the critic and embrace the pliability of politics–can be understood as an early rationalization for his own decision to join the King’s council two years later, in 1518.22 (A decision that was literally to cost the man his head in 1535, when he–high-mindedly–refused to bless Henry VIII’s divorce and split from the Catholic Church). Another popular interpretation of this passage proposes that More is merely trotting out the standard classical arguments in defense of the practice of rhetoric: know your audience, cater to their preferences, and so forth.23Hythloday, in turn, gives the classic rebuttal: the Truth is fixed and eternal. It’s the debate between Aristotle in the Rhetoric and Plato in Gorgias, retold”.

“While not discounting either of these interpretations, I want to suggest another: that More–the character and the author–is making a case for the political futility of direct criticism. What he calls for in its place is a technique of persuasion that circumvents the obstacles that Hythloday describes: tradition, narrow-mindedness, and a simple resistance on the part of the interlocutor to being told what to think. More knows that, while the critic may be correct, their criticism can often fall on deaf ears–as it did in all of Hythloday’s attempts. What is needed is another model of political discourse; not rhetoric with its moral relativity, nor simply altering one’s opinions so they are acceptable to those in power, but something else entirely. Where is this alternative to be found? Answering this question entails taking More’s dramatic metaphor seriously”.

“The play’s the thing. What drama doesis create a counter-world to the here and now. Plays fashion a space and place which looks and feels like reality yet is not beholden to its limitations, it is, literally, a stage on which imagination becomes reality. A successful play, according to the Aristotelian logic with which More would have been familiar, is one in which the audience loses themselves in the drama: its world becomes theirs. The world of the play is experienced and internalized and thus, to a certain degree and for a limited amount of time, naturalized. The alternative becomes the norm. Whereas alternatives presented through criticism are often experienced by the audience as external to the dominant logic, as “discourses that are out of their road,” the same arguments advanced within the alternative reality of the play become the dominant logic. Importantly, this logic is not merely approached  cognitively, as set of abstract precepts, but experienced viscerally, albeit vicariously, as a set of principles put into practice”.24

“What works on the stage might also serve in the stateroom. By presenting views at odds with the norm the critic begins at a disadvantage; he or she is the perpetual outsider, always operating from the margins, trying to convince people that what they know as the Truth might be false, and what they hold to be reality is just one perspective among many. This marginal position not only renders persuasion more difficult but, paradoxically, reinforces the centrality of the norm. The margins, by very definition, are bound to the center, and the critic, in their act of criticism, re-inscribes the importance of the world they take issue with. Compared to the critic, the courtier has an easier time of it. The courtier, as a yes man, operates within the boundaries of accepted reality. They needn’t make reasoned appeals to the intellect at all, they merely restate the “obvious”: what is already felt, known and experienced. The courtier has no interest in offering an alternative or even providing genuine advice; their function is merely to reinforce the status quo”.

““Casting about,” or the “indirect approach” as it is elsewhere translated,25 provides More with a third position that transcends critic and courtier–one that allows an individual to offer critical advice without being confined to the margins. Instead of countering reality as the critic does, or accepting a reality already given like the courtier, this person creates their own reality. This individual–let’s call them an artist–conjures up a full-blown lifeworld that operates according to a different axioms. Like Hamlet staging the murder of his father before an audience of the court and the eyes of his treacherous uncle, the artist maneuvers the spectator into a position where they see their world in a new light. The persuasive advantages of this strategy should be obvious. Instead of being the outsider convincing people that what they know to be right is wrong, the artist creates a new context for what is right and lets people experience it for themselves. Instead of negating reality, they create a new one. No longer an outsider, this artist occupies the center stage in their own creation, imagining and then describing a place where their ideals already exist, and then inviting their audience to experience it with them. Book I– a damning critique of direct criticism–ends with this more hopeful hint at an alternative model of persuasion. Book II is More’s demonstration of this technique; his political artistry in practice”.

“If there is little crime in Utopia, it is not because the Utopians are inherently more law-abiding, but because there is a rational criminal justice system at work and no private property to be gained or lost in theft. Hythloday makes the same argument about crime and private property as he does in Book I, but in Book II he is more persuasive (at least, no one interrupts to tell him he is wrong) because he shows the world as it might be instead of telling people what is wrong with the world as it is. Through the imaginative space of Utopia, More has assembled a new context for his readers to approach old, seemingly intractable social problems and imagine new solutions”.

I feel this passage of excerpts quite sums up the message of more’s Utopia, certainly in so far as my Masters study is concerned thus reinforces my approach to design. In order to reach good, better design, one must embrace the possibilities of life, how else can we evolve?

On a design note, it could be fair to take stock from this teaching. As I have stated in previous writings and designs: The Art of Utopia must ‘allow for learning’ rather than ‘enforce a teaching’.


About generalmagnetic

Designer Maker / Technician 3D Design - Architecture
This entry was posted in Fellow Utopian Practitioners, Practice in Context, Theory into Practice. Bookmark the permalink.

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