Thursday, August 7, 2008


History of Design
Philippa Abbott
Reading: “The Forgotten MaN”
Manfred Max-Neef

This article is very interesting in terms of how we can look at the past to see how we are to move forward from our current point of global crisis. The idea of “paths not taken” as a starting point for interrogating how to move forward is wise and sad. Many great peoples voices have been lost over so many centuries in favour of “reductionist science” and because of this it is true that we “find ourselves in a world of confusion; a world of disenchantment where progress is paradoxical and absurd, and reality becomes so incomprehensible that we desperately seek refuge in a technology that offers us escape into virtual realities” (p8).

We have pillaged the earth and much of it’s people for the creation of industrialised society with an undying thirst for more and more products and more and more money. Social progress and individual success is too often gauged in monetary terms and the translation of this into objects beyond necessity. Each object in this system has an integrated cost which is not financial. It is social. It is environmental. These other costs are invisible to the eye of gleaming consumerists, like monkies with shiny objects we want without consideration of the input of every object - the transportation, the embodied energy, the human disempowerment and poverty creation; the self destructive character of societies that allows this in the name of “neoliberal globalisation”. We have simultaneously constructed the delusion of searching for happiness and the attachment of this too material wealth, and many other social myths to displace the guilt of our ways and where we have come to.

Each man listed spent a life interrogating what was the meaning of life - what ideas could be used for an individual and society to live. Francis of Assisi believed that love is embodied in nature and is the path to universal meaning. Machiavellian thought created a dark world of fear as an effective means to control society. Mirandola believed that the reconciliation of different philosophies/religions and the respect and understanding of them was the key to social harmony; society constructed many truths rather than truth being static and immoveable in meaning. Bacon believed truth was absolute - inferring there was one right and by consequence everything else was wrong. Effectively creating a policy of inclusion/exclusion creating the Other. This Other is a dichotomy that is interlaced through all Western social constructs today - one such example is the “haves” and the “have nots”.
Absolute truth creating one right answer meant creating an absolute system of power. Those who were right, or in other words, knew the absolute truth had power over all others. Those who believe in different truths were automatically outcasts and the target for harassment or worse.

This was underpinning society before Bacon however his association of absolute truth with extraction of “fact” from nature under the name of science became particularly poignant in view of the past few centuries; the industrial revolution, technological advancement, consumerism and global crisis.

The beliefs of Bacon or Descartes become the dominant belief systems when articulated and accepted publically by the majority, or for the majority by those in power. At these points we see bifurcation. We see a place to start looking for what other opportunities as societies and individuals we have. By looking at Mirandola’s views we can then see how the other avenue may have worked, critically analyse this in terms of modern day issues and find a way forth.

It is interesting to then think about how the social conditions of how the theories of Bacon, Descartes, Newton or Gallileo became the path creating such drastic implications. The growth of past societies in such a way that society as a whole desires these thinker’s theories as an acceptable path. When I read Descartes, “what I see through my window are hats and coats covering automatic machines”, I do not believe he meant for the “triumph of mechanism and reductionism”. To me it is a social comment on the lack of initiative among the people around him, a feeling of alienation within Descartes and his desire for creative thought and individualism within the world he lived in. I here a forewarning in this quote of mechanism & reductionism as negative and to be feared. This is not in my view a call to rapidly create a dysfunctional society obsessed with technology, Descartes is saying society needed to recognise itself to become human.

This in itself is an interpretation of truth. I do not absolutely believe Max-Neef or my own explanation. Each though, can be argued as an engagement with the past to construct a world view in the present. A way then, of perceiving reality and create the next path.

What then does the next path hold? What can be drawn from Francis, Mirandola, Bruno and Goethe? There is a pattern of characteristics throughout the fields, that of integrating notions of love, feeling, intuition and contemplation of the world around us into scientific and thus wider social discourses, as a part of multiple accepted truths. This would mean accepting Machiavelli, Bacon, Descartes, Galileo and Newton also. All paths are truths due to the nature of truth, tolerance of difference and enlightenment. They are a key perception at a point in history of the world and their ideas of the future.

Max-Neef comments on Goethe’s contemplation, “the arousal of the feeling of wonder through contemplative looking in which the scientist would come to see God in Nature and Nature in God”. (p6) Much has come from the minds and hearts of many great thinkers who were also greatly religious - there is no doubt of this. This seems to exclude those without religious faith as having any power to believe in that which cannot be proved by scientific method. Science is beautiful, the discoveries from within it are incredible and prove the awesome power of the universe itself. This is Goethe’s contemplation however without the absolute truth that is created of the believer’s God. This may be Christian, Muslim or Jewish. So I think it is not a fair comment of Max-Neef to say, “Feeling , intuition, consciousness and spirituality are still banished from the realm of science.” I think the scientific method is to prove or disprove a totality in practice; it still allows contemplation of ethereality in the findings of this method. So although I agree that we do need to bring other senses into our interpretation of the world on a mass scale; this is not to say it as been banished from all discourses and that this in itself is the cause of “virtues such as faith, hope and charity manifest themselves today metamorphosed as schitzophrenia, depression and narcissism“ (p 8).

There is a deeper quality within basic values of mankind no matter the God that is tied to the Earth and the way in which we interact with it and each other.
The plethora of knowledge created from science is a means of bringing us to the point of navigation to experience. Unfortunately at a historical point we chose to use this information to advance technologically and lose our connection with nature and other people.

Max-Neef’s explanation of the difference between knowledge and experience is very enlightening. We can know many things however the less we experience and involve ourselves the more disassociated we become, “understanding is holistic, while knowledge is fragmented”.
I think this is particularly pertinent within the West where the indirect channels of goods to bring the product to the user (completely unattached to it’s origins) to become a commodity in a supermarket. Children in Australia have no idea beef comes from a cow. Meat originates in a supermarket to them. Although children voice this more clearly, most adults have also chosen this path also. They are so inebriated with consumer culture, so disattached from the experience of a cow‘s death to satisfy their hunger. Instead it is a slice of meat, cut, packaged in plastic (with no though of what has gone into creating that plastic or the transportation of livestock) available on a shelf in a supermarket.
I wonder whether this is a culmination of guilt, deliberate disattachment due to a subconscious or underlying realisation that all is not quite right with the world and we may not have chosen the right path, that each person must change to make any change. This is as Max-Neef states:

“a period in which global poverty has increased dramatically, debt burden has crippled many national economies and generated brutal over expolitation of both people and natural resources; destruction of ecosystems and biodiversity have reached levels unknown in human history; and accumulation of financial wealth in ever fewer hands has reached obscene proportions”.

We as Westerners are locked within our self inflicted reality and too addicted to change. Consumerism is an addiction and one with drastic consequences as Max-neef describes well. This must change, we cannot live in bubbles with our things whilst others suffer. I differ from Max-Neef in believing knowledge is incredibly important factor in the experiencing of the world, we need to integrate this knowledge into the experience. Without knowledge we could not talk of Descartes or Goethe. Without knowledge we could not read this article or discuss possible paths. It is the importance of not justifying actions for the sake of knowledge, knowledge needs to be living and breathing. It would be incredibly “wise to unearth the alternative map of the route we did not navigate”. I think this map needs to be learnt from and experienced through the reformation of social systems in accordance with values that have been swept aside by the whirlwind that is the pursuit of knowledge. These values are a spirituality however do not need to be attached to a God, and if they are, this may again be their denial once again. The world is suffocated : there is no longer any bifurcations if we want to continue living upon this Earth.
Knowledge itself has to be deregulated and sustainability must be the key to experiencing the world once more as something outside ourselves and our absurdly short time frames. We need to see ourselves as part of the living system that has been for many eons before and hopefully will be for many after.