Journeying Through Precarity
Design writers plot out narratives that inspire collective cultural investment. In writing, they offer interrogation and reflection, and call for meaningful change.
This is an essay by faculty member Jennifer Rittner, written for the Class of 2019 publication Everything That Rises: Thinking about Design in Precarious Times.
The theme of precarity brings to mind the seminal 1941 Jorge Luis Borges short story, “La Biblioteca de Babel.” Written in response to another not-so-distant foray into mutually-assured self-annihilation, his narrative fantasy offered readers a metaphor for the biblical scale of our global, cultural crisis. This work by the avowedly anti-authoritarian Borges might help us navigate the complexities of our current state of instability. In it, he constructs a metaphysical institution comprising all the meaning of the universe, available to us if we can only decode the language within its finite collection of books. Everything that has been written and all left yet to write, contained in one place yet entirely undecipherable by those with the privilege of access to its treasures. Proximate but impotent.
How to make sense of our present precarity has been the work of the 2019 Design Research, Writing and Criticism cohort, as each student set their critical lens on questions of disorientation, ephemerality and reinterpretations of reality. Destabilized and pained by our inability to make sense of ourselves, of one another, of our catastrophic mistakes, these eleven writers and researchers find themselves enticed by the possibility of finding—perhaps even creating—a universal answer key.
What does it mean to claim knowledge? Siri, Alexa, Wiki-worlds and Reddit threads stroke our algorithmic egos with the promise that with aggregated brain power, we can know it all. “See?” our crowd-sourced databases tell us with hypno-botic authority, “we know all the things of the universe. It’s all here to be shared, borrowed and claimed.” But knowledge is a flaccid goal. Meaning is what we’re in need of, if only we can find the key.
Meaning exists within and beyond the insufficiency of language. We are challenged to communicate our shared values across the ephemeral boundaries of culture, geography, belief and identity. Is there any one truth within our finite library of meaning that can hold us all?
Here we wander, dazed, with our devices of infinite promise, while the incessant, indecipherable babble of data and disinformation overwhelms us and sends us teetering. The new velocities of change keep us untethered from stable frameworks. Ephemerality is less a phenomenon than a regular state of being. The earth beneath us is crumbling. We sense the destabilizing forces of climate change in the observable idiosyncrasies of the seasons. Global, urban infrastructures are in disrepair and woefully unprepared for the influx of disaster migrants seeking shelter there. So how do we fight these new precarities? How do we journey through to find something of value, some meaning in the muck?
New people in new places–bringing new ideas, inhabiting new landscapes, being shaped and re-shaped before we have time to accommodate the old landscapes–offer new opportunities. Societal disjuncture leads to new forms of meaning, new creolizations of place, language and culture. Borrowed, appropriated, re-interpreted. We collectively determine what aspects of culture and experience belong to whom as we redefine the order of maker and made.
Nomadic lifestyles keep us feeling like strangers in strange lands – “What is my culture? What do I bring to this place? What new me should I become in order to fit in here? To feel safe here? To thrive? How can I be me when I never learned what me is?” But in disrupting the old order it also portends the introduction of new norms that, now precarious, may perhaps correct the corruptions of the past. Here, then, the language of place is more than its words, but the multiplicity of experience held within them. Words can be interpreted – and misinterpreted – and so we must work to create meanings that can be shared. While context and meaning shift into new realities, present moves more quickly into the past, memes becomes extinct at the moment of send, and we strive to make new places feel settled.
Still, design writers plot out narratives that inspire collective cultural investment.
They critique and interrogate the privileges of those who shape our world, and therefore construct the content and contexts of our mental models. They critique architectural structures and pedestrian streetways, pedagogical and penal systems, urban wayfinding programs and lunar missions, social media and geological photoscapes. In writing, they offer interrogation and reflection, and call for meaningful change.
To the graduating class of 2019, I offer this thought as you journey through precarity to make new meaning in the world. The narratives you write will come from many sources: past experiences, interwoven with tales from books you read and deciphered as children; synthesized ideas from experts you’ve studied and those you will work with over a lifetime; and your observations of the world around you. The languages of your sources will become familiar and serve as stabilizing forces for your personal journey. But many of those around you will continue to struggle and suffer with precarity as the tides continue to rise and wars continue to rage and disinformation continues to spread; and as the babble of data continues, unceasingly, everywhere. Hopefully their stories will send you off in search of new interrogations and incisive critiques that bind us together in shared meaning.
I look forward to seeing how far your voices will carry, and the intention with which you forge new possibilities for all of us.