Otto von Busch, XXI magazine, iss 104, Nov 2011

Can the subaltern craft?

In a famous essay, the Indian theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak put forth a powerful argument about the voiceless subaltern, the socio-politically oppressed subjects at the bottom of society. The essay from 1988, “Can the subaltern speak”, was a milestone in post-colonial theory, discussing the disruption and deconstruction of western perspective and theory about “the Other”, that is, the non-European subjects. The core of Spivak’s question could be put like this: Can the subaltern reality be discussed fairly as the subjects themselves are vigorously muted?

Spivak’s text has been criticized for only examining formal symbolic systems and a reality that is nothing but text or language. Likewise, as she means the subalterns are silenced, she does not even try to decipher the other signs they do produce. It may be excused for an academic to put text as the foremost reality, but for most other people reality is real enough in its many forms.

But in resonance with Spivak’s claim, over the last decades designers who deal with social design have often strived to become the voice of the poor or the subaltern, perhaps primarily inspired by Brazilian educator Paulo Freire’s book Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Sometimes this approach may bear fruit and we as designers make projects that articulate issues that were before repressed, tacit or unspoken. Marginalized groups with social stigmas may be rendered visible as designers mark them onto the social maps and render their problems visible. In some co-design projects we create and produce a local product and tell the story of the collaboration and the fantastic things that happened. We might find ways to sell some of the local crafts and money thus comes back to the community. With these small endowments the kids can go to school, the streets get repaired, a park is being planted, or whatever charitable cause we addressed with our design. The design may have put voice to a tacit issue; even if the subaltern cannot speak a voice was heard telling their story. Perhaps someone heard their shout in the dark.

But the issue still remains. The shout is a short cry in an ocean of silence. After we have become the temporary voice, what happens then? Or to perhaps rephrase the issue in Paulo Freire’s terms; How do we help educate speech or literacy among the subaltern? That is, how can our projects be more honest over the long time and address social issues from a longer perspective? If we want the subjects to speak, how can we help them speak for themselves?

what is really amplified in the social design process?

If we help people temporarily, will they become more at risk after we leave? Will we have upset the local power-balance and instigated antagonism in the community we wanted to help? And more materialistic; will they have debts and mortgages after we provided their first money? Have we raised the attention of the local mob? As designers we might need to rephrase some issues of agency, to move from being at “where the action is” to instead address how we become long-term educators, rather than temporary problem-solvers?

Is education really the issue of designers? No necessarily, it is primarily the work of educators. But if we take a strategic and holistic approach seriously, how do we also become more honest about the long-term implications about our practice? Will we have to become better teachers?

Over the last decades much of development work has moved away from providing service or voice to the oppressed, to instead deal with the empowerment or development of the poor. Instead of flying in big projects the aim has been to co-create practices that build from below, from the grassroots, rather than development being the act of giving crumbs from the table of the rich.

One approach to this issue from the design community has been social innovation, in which designers help amplify initiatives of certain social groups, establishing small businesses around local crafts or social services in communities. For example, the Italian design theorist Ezio Manzini has been a strong proponent of social innovation, and has defined it as a process of change emerging from the creative recombination and development of existing assets within a community. The aim is to co-create socially relevant solutions and communication programs which can impact larger societal challenges and changes. Designers are often taking on the role of amplifying or recombining the ideas and craft of local communities, but not initiating the processes or imposing ideas or designs. The motivation and basic assets have to come from the local community to make sure they have the ownership of the project and outcome, so they also have the skills and incitement to continue the project after the designers are gone.

But when recombining the assets of the poor we face a similar problem with that of the voiceless; as we amplify their crafts or ideas, how do we make sure we do not deprive them of their strongest experience of self-empowerment? We believe, in our design tradition sprung out of Arts and Craft practice, that we should not touch their ideas, as that proves the “originality” of their practice. Instead we simply help them amplify their practices; articulate tacit knowledges, recombine dispersed facilities and skills of production and retail, develop business and sustain incomes. But is it not this specific process of amplification that is the most valuable design and endeavour in this process? If we address empowerment, is it not the amplification which is the power sought after rather than the “original” ideas or designs?

If we are a little self-critical, do we not too often romanticize the craft and traditions of “the Other” while at the same time keep the real design work for ourselves. We praise their authenticity but keep the discipline, control and skilled contacts needed to make ideas become products and profit for ourselves. In this way we speak with double tongue; we exoticize the foreign crafts, looking for genuine craft, while at the same time denying there is such a thing in out own practice, which suddenly becomes only shallow (yet powerful). We do not define our interest or goals with the projects but appear altruistic. As we are afraid of pushing ideas on the oppressed, in order for them not to loose ownership of their creations, we instead rob them from the most valuable experience in design; that of empowerment through self-amplification and the recognition earned by our peers’ compliments. Our gift of social design may be the very craft which will steal their soul.

As we engage with social design and development we need to be more critical on the perspectives we take concerning craft practice as part of social innovation. If we are to engage with the oppressed and subaltern we also must question our own unspoken methods and standpoints, and finally ask our collaborators; can the subaltern craft?

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