Bruno Latour: "Designing Nature: Life in the Artificial Spheres"

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Latour, Bruno. "Designing Nature: Life in the Artificial Spheres." Keynote address, Networks of Design, annual international Design History Society Conference, Penryn, UK, September 3, 2008.

Key Words: (re)design, Desein, visual, Peter Sloterdijk, matters of concern, Bauhaus

Other Words: spheretology,

NB: These notes are very rough. Please see Latour's forthcoming paper for a more accurate and comprehensive presentation of his ideas.


Abstract (published in the catalogue): Taking its cues from the crucial work of the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, this paper will draw on the idea that design has now become the artificial, careful, precautionary and innovative construction of breathable spheres of life. This is of course a classical definition of architecture but it has today a particular feature of including nature itself in the domain of the artificial to be designed. It also has the problematic trait of trying to reconcile tow opposite modernist passions: that of radical innovations and that of care and caution. Finally it makes design on f the new words for political assemblies, a connection that was not so common during modernism. “Political design’ is highly a problematic term.


To warm up the crowd, Latour quipped something to this effect: “Like so many other keynotes about design, my talk aims to reinvent the discipline. Why is this such a compulsion?” Perhaps it’s because design being a vague concept, something Latour claimed he would expand on through five points. Cinzia, Michaela and I were hard pressed, however, to identify all of them clearly. (Not that it really matters, though it’s interesting to note how he conjugates ideas through multiple PoV. The same can be observed in five sources of uncertainty explored in Reassembling the Social) Indeed, others in attendance commented afterwards that they had “No idea what Latour was talking about.” One audience member (Marc Garrett to be exact) even went to so far as to say the sociologist was talking to the wrong constituency.

Point One: Design implies humility: there is no design, only (re)design The term “design” seems to have replaced “revolution” So design is precautionary Latour won’t make a distinction between “designing” and “making”; though he sees a critical distinction between “designing” and “creating” Design is post-Promethian action

Modernist design: Was concerned with objects Here matter is obscured into meaning The modernist globe has been deflated Two conflicting narratives united through explication 1. Attachment 2. Emancipation Objects were treated badly under Modernism and we still need to come to terms with them. (Matters of concern are concerned with matter, viz. stuff [DING]) Nature has disappeared - How could human existence be better designed?

Contemporary design: Complex assemblies of complex issues

Point Two: Design pays attention to detail Design cares: But what do we mean by radically careful design? What’s gone is mastery; today there is greater modesty The great importance of Sloterdijk’s philosophy of design is his emphasis on matters of concern We need to purge the hubris of Modernist design What if Prometheus has been a woman? Would there be more attention paid to innovation and conservation?

(Possibly) Point Three: Design is about semiotics It is made to be interpreted It is impossible to separate form and function in design

Point Four: Design always starts in the middle To repeat the above, “design is always (re)design” This relates to Heidegger’s notion of Dasein (Design is Dasein) = Outside is another inside with a different climate control

Point Five: Design always involves an ethical question Normative Aspects: When you ask if something is “designed,” your really asking if its “well” designed or badly “designed.” Talk of design seems to involve making a value judgement. (“I do the bad I don’t want to and I don’t do the good I’d like to”) This relates to design’s normative aspects (making things better or worse) Political Design: Scandinavian “collaborative design” To define “human” is to define a life-support system Think: envelopes, spheres, “spheretology”

Latour's audience challenge: In it’s long history, design has done a great job of drawing the future, but what’s been missing are the controversies. What we need is a new perspective, something other than the single-point perspective “discovered” during the Renaissance. We are still unable to draw a thing, which is different from an object. We need techniques for representing the conflicting nature of things. Tools like Google earth are very sneaky, the way they zoom in and out.


Key metaphors used in his talk:

  1. Not Prometheus but “Promethia”: a hypothetical female version who would (apparently) take more care—would pay greater attention
  2. Spheres ("spheretology")
  3. “Drawing” as in drawing things together and drawing things out

Key quotes used in this talk:

  1. "Outside is another inside with a different climate control."
  2. "Design is Dasein"

(Audience) Questions, Comments or Concerns expressed in the Q&A [summarized]: Question: Are you talking about visualization literally or figuratively? Answer: I’m talking about it literally.

Question: I’m afraid things can’t be made visual. Objects emerge through their use. A thing is lived. Answer: I'm interested in developing a tool for mapping controversy, a gun for capturing fleeting emotion, a way to make it "inspectable". He’s interested in looking at the sociology of our practice.

Question: Why isn’t the Internet the kind of visualization tool you’re looking for? Answer: Google is both our friend and our enemy. I want to connect to the feeling states of design. Design is the symptom of modification in the philosophical feedback…Why can’t you do what the Bauhaus did? They grappled with politics, aesthetics, nature…Can we imagine a contemporary Bauhaus? If so, what would it entail? If not, why not? (Though Latour seemed pretty certain it was not only possible but also indispensable.)

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