Reflections on Design Culture Salon 16: What does design do for citizenship in the age of the consumer?

If ever there was an outcome of Design Culture Salon’s discussion that reflected our political times, then this evening’s was one of them. When it comes to thinking about how design could function in new ways to produce new politics and new forms of citizenship and participation, we all agreed that we are in a moment of ‘existential angst’. All bets are off. We don’t know exactly what should happen, but something should…

We weren’t going to reach a perfect (Nordic-style) plain of consensus through two hours of talk. Indeed, we discovered early on that there were some fundamental disagreements even with the premise of the argument.

By reference to Abercrombie et al’s 1986 book Sovereign Individuals of Capitalism, I opened the discussion to argue that while capitalism was deeply social, the notion of the free individual (and by extension, consumer sovereignty) was a trope that runs through centuries of cultural production.  Think:  late-Renaissance portraiture, Enlightenment literature, the modernist canon in painting (cf. Clement Greenberg). Individualism has had its representational gloss over capitalism for a long time.

But there’s something specific about the date of Abercrombie’s book:  it came out in the mid-1980s when Thatcherism was in full sail and the notion of the expression of freedom through individual consumerism was in full swing. Are we still locked into this or does design have a role in reframing both consumerism and citizenship?

l to r:  Irenie Ekkeshis,  Gordon Hush,  Noortje Marres,  Barry Quirk, Leanne Wierzba, Guy Julier. Photo:  Jocelyn Bailey

l to r: Irenie Ekkeshis,
Gordon Hush,
Noortje Marres,
Barry Quirk, Leanne Wierzba, Guy Julier. Photo: Jocelyn Bailey

Irenie Ekkeshis also placed this turn toward the ‘consumer’ in the mid-1980s, arguing that consumer identity had dominated public discourse ever since. However, she noted this was, finally, being challenged. Digital technologies were allowing other possibilities of identity to circulate. As design has been partly responsible for getting us into this framework (‘another fine mess’), it can also be active in taking us to other sets of relationships and identities. Her work at the New Citizenship Project is focused on getting organizations and individuals to see through a citizen lens. For example, a new project of theirs is called Rabble; it finds ways of connecting families into volunteer activities and as such, it garners new possibilities beyond merely ‘going shopping’.

Gordon Hush put us right by arguing that notions of the consumer even went back to the seventeenth century. Aside from this correction, he also suggested that design itself can’t really do much for citizenship, but designers can. Citizenship as a concept is profoundly uneconomic in that it isn’t directed at maximum rent. So if designers look to working in this framework, then they have much to contribute but must look to other frameworks and ways of working. He cited the Scottish Parliament’s clear-sighted engagement with design methods, led by Cat Macaulay where policy is fostered by talking to people, visualising change and prototyping possible outcomes.

Noortje Marres challenged the separation of consumption and citizenship in the debate. These are not separate realms but are deeply entangled with each other, she argued. Design is, indeed, culpable in the process of giving these apparent autonomy. Once the consumer is disentangled from citizenship, then s/he is rendered unaccountable. (I take this to mean ‘alienated consumption’. Noortje cited Walter Lippmann’s 1922 book Public Opinion for its critique of the propensity to conceive of things like citizenship as somehow existing outside ‘normal’ or ‘everyday’ living. This takes politics out of ordinary activities. Design, according to Noortje, should and could be active in showing how politics and the quotidien everyday are entangled.

Barry Quirk began his intervention spectacularly by quoting Gracchus in Ridley Scott’s 2000 film Gladiator: ‘The beating heart of Rome is not the marble of the Senate, it’s the sand of the Colosseum’. With 250 days of circus at the height of the Roman Empire, entertainment prevailed over other concerns. There is another point here, though: the world of consumption is not entirely about the private individual – consumption is also a public activity. We vote to have influence over how the taxes we pay are spent, for example. Design, Barry argued, imprisons consumption in its own past. It structures and promotes modes of being rather than opening out new possibilities. How, conversely, can design work to promote empathy and social inclusion in systems of care?

Leanne Wierzba followed up on Barry’s observations on the dominance of consumer culture and its infantilizing effects by reminding us of Barbara Kruger’s 1987 work, ‘I Shop Therefore I Am’. Through this she took us to thinking about Jacques Lacan’s notion of the mirror stage and how ‘I organize myself in relation to the world out there’. Consumerism has become a dominant mode because it helps us position ourselves where other points of reference for the self seem to have faded or gone adrift. There is the possibility, though, that design can provide another mirror to help us look beyond the immediacy of the self-as-consumer and reflect back on the broader social, political, ecological and economic implications of this tendency in our culture.

The question as to whether design should be mobilized to make civic participation more attractive and more celebratory is challenging. At one level, the ‘pencil on a string’ mode of voting is dull; but it is also appropriately dispassionate, it could be said. Gordon Hush argued that we should disentangle politics from spectacle and allow a quiet space for us to think and engage in it, rather than ‘sexing-up voting paraphernalia’. Elsewhere, though, Noortje Marres saw the parallel in issues and brands: both are things that are enroled in; they draw in personal enthusiasm and concern.

Meanwhile, Irenie Ekkeshis sees a great opportunity lost with so much creative power amongst professionals and non-professionals alike when it isn’t mobilized more into the domain of citizenship. This can also come down to the way that choices are arrived at and Barry Quirk made the case for designers to be involved in developing more sophisticated forms of citizen participation in decision-making.

Leanne Wierzba brought up the eternal question of cost versus value here: currently, it is cheaper to maintain ‘old’ forms of citizenship (high consumption levels, high environmental impact etc.) than it is to derive new value in the social domain. The challenge, perhaps, is to design low-cost ways of achieving higher social and environmental value.

One of my current obsessions is refuting grandiose declarations of ‘design is this or that’. Can we have a more nuanced discussion where we are more precise about the kinds of design objects we are talking about, the economic frameworks in which design is functioning and the kinds of designers we mean? It seems to be one of the great immaturities of much design scholarship that it takes forever to get us beyond vapid generalisations. I was delighted that we began to talk about the different scales and materialities in which design, consumption and citizeship take place, therefore. These are different, for example, in the home, in the neighbourhood, in the borough or county or at national levels.

Citizenship is pegged to nationhood but may be active in various ways in different territorial conditions. (I refer you here to Doreen Massey’s excellent 2004 essay ‘Geographies of Responsibility’.) These may be brought into relation with one another, though. ‘How does a thermostat mediate climate change?’, Noortje Marres asked. The question perfectly entangles consumption and citizenship. But it also suggests that such everyday and intimate things can open up agonistic spaces where debate about our places in the world and the worlds we want can be activated.

Existential angst, folks, begins at home. But let’s get out there as well.


Guy Julier, 13 April 2015


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1 Response to Reflections on Design Culture Salon 16: What does design do for citizenship in the age of the consumer?

  1. Pingback: User friendly elections | Joss.Bailey

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