radically careful, or carefully radical

I’m working on a book in earnest now, and for that I’m getting caught up on my woefully patchy knowledge of design history. The last bunch of years have been devoted to design-build processes and to literacy in disability studies and socially-engaged art practices, and far less so to the history and theory of design proper. It’s time! I was musing on Twitter about how so much of my own design is redesign, and my friend and mentor Anne Galloway pointed me to an obvious place to start thinking about redesign: Bruno Latour’s essay “A Few Steps Toward a Philosophy of Design.” I’m thinking still about this apt description of design’s essential modesty:

“President Mao was right after all: the revolution has to always be revolutionized. What he did not anticipate is that the new ‘revolutionary’ energy would be taken from the set of attitudes that are hard to come by in revolutionary movements: modesty, care, precautions, skills, crafts, meanings, attention to details, careful conservations, redesign, artificiality, and ever shifting transitory fashions. We have to be radically careful, or carefully radical… What an odd time we are living through.”

Radically careful or carefully radical! But it will never do to simply hide in this modesty (saying that our work is merely ‘design,’ a ‘drawing together,’ as Latour says, instead of, say, ‘building’). Why? Because that apparent modesty can also collapse into romantic ambivalence, anemic timidity, a shelter from critique.

Much more to think about there, including his exhortation at the end to practitioners—a call to think about the very tools themselves and how they might be configured to represent the fullness of context and contradiction in this practice that is always re-making. Re-design as all design.

Among many other things, I’ll be reading through CMU’s Transition Design bibliography as well. Expect some notes here from those rich sources.