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Hidden Labor and the Delight of Otherness: Design and Post-Capitalist Politics


One of the most intriguing tasks of the theme and thesis of this issue of e-flux journal is the imagining and reframing of cultural and aesthetic practice in decidedly post-capitalist terms—that is, as embedded in and engendered by processes of globally networked solidarity, diversity, cooperation, interdependence, and so forth. I would like to begin by supplementing the notion of practice with the notion of design, which may provide the discussion with an initial spin. Of course, “design” is a contested term, and its meaning and function can differ dramatically. In this article, “design” will be taken to be synonymous with “urban design,” though even this specification doesn’t help much to reduce the problem of reference and cultural difference, as “urban design” is deployed in highly ideological ways and is necessarily steered by varying institutional interests.

The very notion of “design,” not to mention the ideologies and machinations implied in “designerly approaches to problem-solving as potential disciplining force,” are most questionable. Moreover, the “logics of design” are being mixed and modulated to transform society in heretofore-unknown ways. According to Michael Hardt, “design” has become a “general name” for post-Fordist types of production, which is to say that nobody can claim to be outside of design anymore. As Hardt argues, this marks “a position of great potential” for the immaterial laborer, and can also indicate “a certain kind of critique and struggle that can be waged from within.” Hence, the usual rebuttal of design (and urban design in particular) to accusations of being a top-down, master-planning imposition of value-making schemes of urbanity (justified as it may be) needs rephrasing, as it tends to freeze the critique in predictable anti-capitalist stances without looking for ways of negotiating differing visions of urban and cultural production pursued within the practice itself. As Hardt points out, the immanence of design—the fact that design cannot be escaped because it effectively organizes post-Fordist subjectivity, both materially and metaphorically—necessitates a political and ontological reframing of design discourse, as a discourse on being as both designed and designing.

That said, a perspective might be proposed that goes beyond well-rehearsed figures of critique, namely, those accusing design and its practitioners of being complicit with capitalist commodification and, ultimately, exploitation; or looking at the neoliberal city in the only way that seems viable and acceptable from and for a position of the radical Left: as something to be relentlessly opposed, denounced, and scandalized.

While there are certainly countless reasons for criticism, rejection, and disgust, one may also agree with Adrian Lahoud—an architect and critic from Sydney who maintains the (quite fantastic and tellingly titled) blog “Post-Traumatic Urbanism”—in his opinion that

Read the full article here.