Intersectional Perspectives on Design, Politics and Power – Session Three

Conflictual design artefacts reveal vertical power relationships
by Max Mollon

Contemporary issues of occidental society are multi-faceted and addressing them needs bringing multiple points of views around the table. However, making every voice heard is a challenge, especially voices in the margins. On the other hand, the concept of intersectionality allows one to consider how various categories – including sectarian ones as race, gender, age, ability… – simultaneously compose traits of one’s identity. Here, rather than focusing on how identity is constituted or intersections of various categories, I address “domination” as a common attribute to these vertical relationships. In fact, many of these oppressions remain silent, because of being untold, unthought-of or unknown. They remain embedded and hidden in everyday life and everyday objects. Indeed, human-made objects often support these states of power – as they involve many actors and assumptions in their making and using. But objects also allow for interference in the silence, opening a space for horizontal discussion. I argue that “Speculative and Critical Design” (SCD) artefacts have this potential when thought of as objects of “dissensus”.

The present text is a work in progress. Its main contributions are: a case study using a conflictual artefact to trigger participant responses, using SCD in a collective discussion context; empirical results; and the future research directions that emerged from them. These research leads – based on new connections between existing academic works – are open to discussion with the symposium members before further development. I argue that the case study does not directly avoid oppression to take place, neither does it unveil it publicly. Rather, it allowed me to spot it; it allowed the participants to talk about the conflictual artefact, but most of all it allowed them to talk to each other despite variable present states of power in the room. Based on this I briefly enumerate research directions and related literatures, under two main strategies: seating in- between; and breaching the norm. And I promote the use of the “dissensus” in “Participatory Design” contexts.

Full paper available here.

Design as Symbolic Violence: Reproducing the ‘isms’
by Joanna Boehnert and Dimeji Onafuwa

The concept of symbolic violence describes how priorities, values and even sensibilities are reproduced through cultural practices, processes and institutions. Through symbolic violence, individuals learn to consider unjust conditions as natural and even come to value customs and ideas that are oppressive. Feminist, race and anti-colonisation scholars and activists have described how patriarchy, colonialism and imperialism exist within oppressive structures – and also within cultural practices and artifacts that embed domineering ideologies in everyday life. Design functions as symbolic violence when it is involved with the creation and reproduction of ideas, practices, products and tools that result in structural and other types of violence (including ecocide). In this paper, we describe the theory of design as symbolic violence and present sexist, racist, classist and ecoist examples. Acknowledging that the various ‘isms’ are reproduced through design, we then consider how to address these problems by constructing a Framework for Allies in design.

Full paper available here.

Decolonising the Toilet
by Nadine Botha

The toilet shortage, effecting one third of the world’s population, has attracted a fair amount of scholarly and practice-based reflection without much gain. While this conversation centres on the waterborne sanitation system, a legacy of British colonialism used to include and exclude, the portable flush toilet or porta potty has, like its users, been ignored. Designed in the 1960s for the US leisure and camping market, in recent years this seemingly benign object, which has attracted no scholarly attention or critical reflection, has become a loathed, abject object leading political protest in Cape Town. If design is the process whereby an object acquires meaningful form, the portable flush toilet has been redesigned not by a designer but by social, legal, political and cultural forces. By reading the city’s ongoing toilet wars through the lens of this recast design object, it becomes clear how what is sometimes considered the uncompromising tactics of social justice movements are actually epistemic intersectional challenges to the dominant logic of modernity/coloniality. Returning to the global toilet shortage, it is through this convivial chaos that new ways of being can be uncovered.

Debate (audio)
moderated by Tristan Schultz

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