Oh Hai! We are A Parede, a brazilian design research duo currently living in Berlin. Our research interests fall within decolonial thought, radical pedagogies, gender and sound studies.

Drop us a line for collaborations, requests, ideas and/or general friendliness: hello@a-pare.de

Privilege and Oppression: Towards a Feminist Speculative Design (2014)

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This is a transcript of Luiza’s paper presentation at the Design Research Conference 2014 held in Umeå, Sweden. The full version of the paper can be downloaded as part of the Proceedings here or individually here. This research is funded by the Brazilian Council for Research and Development (CNPq).

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The idea for this paper first stemmed from a few concerns that had been nagging me since I first started working with SCD. Speculative and critical design (SCD) was conceived as a response to affirmative design, a strategy to question the status quo, to provoke, to reflect.

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But does it?

I’m asking because even though the initial project is exciting and ambitious, as I got to know the discipline i was a bit underwhelmed.

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Why?

Because production in the field usually falls much short to its critical aspirations.If you want to question the status quo, provoke and reflect on design’s role within society you need to acknowledge and address issues of social justice (like gender, race, class, ability and so on) that design is ignoring in favour of very narrow, privileged ideas of what “critical” could mean. I really think that in order for the discipline to evolve it is essential for the discussion to move on and to acknowledge these issues instead of either glossing over them or ignoring them altogether. So I wrote this paper as part of my PhD research in hopes to promote discussion on how issues of gender, specifically, are framed within SCD, through an intersectional feminist perspective (which is something i’ll get to in a moment). For a more comprehensive critique on other aspects of the privilege permeating SCD you can check out the text I co­wrote with Pedro Oliveira, which is available online.

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To start my analysis here I looked into a three key questions:­ where does SCD come from -­ geographically, socially, culturally ­- and who is involved with it?­ How is the subject of gender approached in the discipline?­ How can we change the problematic stances on gender that permeate the discipline?

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While these questions were important starting points, so was my own perspective when exploring them ­ because this idea that design is neutral is complete bollocks.­ An apolitical position means complying with and contributing to the status quo -­ which is why I chose to position myself as a feminist. Oppressions (of gender, race, ethnicity, class, among others) cannot be understood separately, for they are part of the same system -­ which is why I chose an intersectional feminist approach, as gender oppression is necessarily related to other oppressions.

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So, to start exploring my first question, I suppose most of you are familiar with critical theory and its beginnings in the Frankfurt School ­ Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse, Habermas and a whole string of european white men who look remarkably similar to one another.

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The chaps from the Frankfurt School were responsible for the initial proposals for critical theory, a philosophy current aimed at

“emancipation and enlightenment, at making agents aware of hidden coercion, thereby freeing them from that coercion and putting them in a position to determine where their true interests lie” (Geuss 1981, p.55­56).

It urged people to understand the world “not by accepting unthinkingly the teachings of authorities such as the Church, but through individual reasoning” (Sengers et al. 2005). It probably goes without saying, the Frankfurt boys sure were extremely patronising and arrogant ­- once again rich, white european men were saying what others should or shouldn’t think/do. It’s also interesting to note how shallow these first formulations of CT could be; in fact a lot of the criticism towards the Frankfurt School was aimed at the fact that their push for critique was more of an intellectual exercise than a struggle for social justice.

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That is not to say, of course, that CT didn’t have its importance, as it has come a long way since its flawed beginnings to be one of the most relevant philosophical currents of the 20th century, influencing a wide range of disciplines and schools of thought, from queer theory to ­ of course ­ critical design. Now, Dunne and Raby have tried to distance themselves from critical theory, but their discourse bears rather obvious markers of CT, as Bardzell and Bardzell note. Unfortunately SCD seems to also have inherited CT’s patronising stance, operating from the entitled and privileged point of view of the white, academic, middle class designer from the developed world, who is either unaware of or doesn’t care about realities different from their own.

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That doesn’t mean that SCD is ill-­intentioned, but it does mean that we have a very serious problem of privilege and entitlement permeating the discipline. This privilege and entitlement is a general problem in design and a specific problem in SCD. It’s something that’s bound to happen in disciplines developed within the safe confines of expensive universities in developed countries ­ a situation that sometimes becomes painfully evident, like on yesterday’s opening debate. The few projects that show some concern with the reality of the oppressed have a worrying tendency to speak for them instead of giving them their own voices; furthermore, it’s nothing but ironic that even these projects are caged in galleries, universities and other spaces that are inaccessible to the oppressed people they’re supposed to be about.

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So now exploring my second question: how is gender approached in SCD? Well, first of all finding projects that specifically focus on issues of gender is surprisingly hard, even though there are plenty of women in the discipline. Sputniko is one of the few practitioners in SCD who overtly tackles these issues; one of her most famous projects is the “Menstruation Machine”. This is her description of the project:

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This project did promote discussion of some issues related to gender, but its very description shows lack of a basic understanding of gender and queer theory. It’s pretty evident in a series of problematic statements:

  • the use of a derogatory term ­”transvestite”­ to refer to the character Takashi
  • the uncritical use of the concept of “biologically dressing up” as a gender, implying that binary trans* people, for instance, are not really men or women due to their biology, and confusing the two distinct concepts of gender and sex
  • the portrayal of a gender-­nonconforming person (by a cissexual woman, nonetheless) for shock value.

Cissexual people, by the way, are those who identify with the gender they were assigned with at birth, as opposed to trans people, who do not.

These problems in Sputniko’s discourse highlight not only the need to talk about gender, but to know how we are talking about it, and from which perspective. We cannot ignore serious issues of social justice, but at the same time we cannot talk for others.

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In order to help understand issues of gender I want to introduce the concept of intersectional feminism ­ usually associated with the third wave of feminism that started in the late 80s/early 90s. Intersectional feminism understands gender oppression as part of a larger framework of oppressions ­ where race, class, ethnicity, ability all play a role and are all intertwined. This means that I, for instance, am not merely perceived as a person: here in europe i am perceived as latin woman ­ two entangled layers of gender and ethnicity. One clear example of this interaction is how I was singled out for questioning on the first time I went to London: while other, european women in the line were allowed in the UK freely, I, as a brazilian woman, had to answer a string of unrelated questions which literally only ended when I mentioned I was there with my boyfriend.

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Curiously, intersectional theory has strong ties to critical theory -­ the same discipline that’s been scrutinised over its nonexistent preoccupation with minorities. Thing is, like i said before, that critical theory evolved from its initial concerns; it was absorbed, changed, reshaped and taken over by the same minorities it used to ignore. The black feminist movement has created their own version of critical theory, as did the folks from queer studies. So why shouldn’t SCD take the same path? As much as reflections on the hertzian space, on smart homes or on the future of telecommunications are necessary, they aren’t the only subjects where SCD can take interest. When SCD practitioners create worlds devoid of those marginalized by society they are essentially reinforcing a status quo that marginalised people due to their gender, sexuality, class or skin color. When minorities are not represented in future scenarios, they are having their futures erased and their plights silenced, and there is nothing critical about that.

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So what I want to propose here is the idea of a “feminist speculative design” as a strategy that might help addressing these questions. Feminist speculative design responds to these future scenarios that continue to marginalise instead of including; it departs from the dystopian presents of minorities to investigate futures where issues of gender are brought to the foreground by intersectionality. I’m not advocating for an utopian depiction of gender; instead, I want to use the uncanniness and the discomfort, the social friction typical of speculative design to highlight much­neglected issues. The word “feminist” is used here on purpose: the f-­word is a widely-known term that tends to cause all sorts of defensive reactions, so I deliberately chose it as a provocation. This feminist approach to speculative design would allow for a better understanding of the interaction between how designed objects relate to gender oppression in our ­ in the unsurprising choice of words in design literature ­ “man­made world”.

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Now, production of knowledge in the field of gender studies is mostly textual. This is one of the reasons that lead me to advocate for something that essentially mixes gender studies with SCD: the belief that SCD could benefit from the theoretical knowledge and militancy, and GS could benefit from the tangibility of SCD. SCD can also be very mundane in a sense, which goes against CT’s (and Dunne’s) claim that mass culture cannot be critical.

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Feminist speculative design would focus on using artefacts to provoke reflection on the privileges that give undue advantage to one part of the population while oppressing another: objects that would incite discussions on gender­related internet privacy, question the underlying politics meritocracy or address gender­-based violence could be outcomes. Feminist speculative design would question the already dystopian nature of the present for minorities, and ask how their futures would be like; through the poetic, subjective and abstract dimensions of the designed artefact, it would challenge observers to question their own roles in maintaining social injustice. It would be essential to avoid presenting these artefacts merely within academic settings, galleries or museums. Feminist speculative design projects would need to occupy democratic, accessible spaces; they would need to be shared, collectively constructed, commented upon, questioned and criticised in order to be culturally relevant. Representation, another highly problematic issue in SCD, would also need to be carefully addressed through an intersectional perspective: if a video or a photo series on a future scenario only depicts white, european, middle class people, what does that say about the future of minorities?

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While feminist speculative design would certainly not be the only possible path for developing a truly critical discourse within design, it has the potential to be an effective one. Whereas words might be difficult to assimilate ­ especially words that incite us to leave our comfort zones ­, experiences are far more effective tools for provoking estrangement, discomfort and, ultimately, reflection. The mediation of designed objects on our daily interactions is built around a skeleton of complex hierarchies of power; it is the bone structure under the skin of technology that feminist speculative design hopes to expose, reflect upon and, hopefully, alter.