Designs for the Pluriverse — [book review]

Designs for the Pluriverse — [book review]

In Designs for the Pluriverse : Radical Interdependence, Autonomy, and the Making of Worlds, theorist and distinguished critic of development Arturo Escobar joins a chorus of works that seek to articulate the recent ontological turn with our shared global, ecological crisis. As I made my way through this challenging and well written work, I came to feel as if theoretical discourses on ontology, something I am curious about but which lies outside my area of expertise, sharpened into focus.

Escobar casts wide the net of his critique, his objective is not merely to tackle neoliberal capitalism, rampant individualism, patriarchy or colonialism — although each of those topics are explored in detail. He is writing against nothing less than all of modernity, a “particular modelo civilizatorio, or civilizational model… an entire way of life and a whole style of world making.” Our toxic, modern lifestyle in the Global North and the way it understands (or fails to understand) the relationality between humanity and other forms of life plays the dominant role in creating the contemporary crises. To preserve the future we need a different way of life and way to relate to all of life, “no less than a new notion of the human.” The crises are inseparable from our social lives. We need to step outside of our established worldviews to bring about significant transformations. Is this possible? How can we achieve such a transition?

The monumental scale of this task is not lost on Escobar. “[It] is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of modernity,” he writes. Subverting all of modernity seems impossible in no small part because the modern worldview precludes some epistemic domains, limiting our ability to dream some dreams. How could one even know where to begin to think these thoughts, much less teach others to think them? The answer will not come from within, says Escobar quoting the German sociologist Claudia Von Wherlof, “This rupture is almost unimaginable anywhere, except within the indigenous worlds.”

We are facing modern problems for which there are no modern solutions, hence the need to learn from non-modern or a-modern worldviews. With a nod to Melanesian and Amazonian studies, and a smattering of asides to Buddhism, Escobar turns to a cohort of Latin American activists living in small-scale communities and their work to secure autonomy within their respective territories.

Imagining autonomy as a subject for design, Escobar’s innovation is to bring the ontological turn to bear upon design theory. He writes, “If we start with the presupposition, striking perhaps but not totally far-fetched, that the contemporary world can be considered a massive design failure, certainly the result of particular design decisions, is it a matter of designing our way out?” Design offers a tantalizing tangibility, “critical design is critical thought translated into materiality… All good design offers an alternative to how things are.” To riff on the classic Anthropology as Cultural Critique, this is design theory as cultural critique.

Design, by virtue of its materiality, ‘hardwires’ particular kinds of politics into bodies, spaces, or objects. Quoting Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa, “A building is not an end in itself. A building conditions and transforms the human experience of reality; it frames, structures, articulates, links, separates and unites, enables, and prohibits.” The design of infrastructure has implications for what kinds of relationalities are possible when humans occupy those spaces or access those resources. Changes in infrastructure design have the potential to change relationality, hence material designs have ontological implications. If we are to change our being-in-the-world we need to consider our ontology, the infrastructure of our reality, as something with the potential to be designed. To do so successfully, Escobar argues, ontological design ought to be for and from spaces of political autonomy.

We can think of this as a kind of meta perspective, designing designs. Traditionally design has been about objects and things, but Escobar wants us to attend to how designs structure being-in-the-world and how our being-in-the-world structures the kinds of designs we make. How do we reform design on the meta level such that new worlds and ways of being are possible? How do we design for dreams of futures that have a future?

A major problematic presents itself. Isn’t autonomous design basically an oxymoron? Escobar’s autonomous design is anti-development, but isn’t all design, to some extent like development, imposed from the outside? Design and design theory, Escobar argues, epitomize modernity and we can read the failure of development and the imminent threat posed by a capitalism unrestrained as design failures. Thus, the crucial question: can design be creatively reappropriated by subaltern communities? Can we change traditions traditionally? Advancing this notion requires a reconceptualization of what design, long a handmaiden to consumer manufacture, is and can be.

In order to subvert the capitalist, modernist heritage of design, Escobar turns to the radical political critiques offered by indigenous activists in Latin America. The result is a theory of what one might call deep design. By working at ontological depths, Escobar hopes to get at what he calls the Pluriverse, or, to paraphrase the Zapatistas, a world where many worlds fit. As a shorthand one might think of the Pluriverse as offering alternative worlds, although that word is not quite right. Escobar reminds us, “It is not about ‘expanding the range of choices’ (liberal freedom) but is intended to transform the kinds of beings we desire to be.” He writes, “I present ontological design as a means to think about, and contribute to, the transition from the hegemony of modernity’s one-world ontology to a pluriverse of sociocultural configurations; in this context designs for the pluriverse becomes a tool for reimagining and reconstructing local worlds.” Design for radical transformation will come from radically different, non-modern, relational world views.

Escobar’s literature review and theoretical discussion stand out. Some of the ground he covers includes critical design studies, ethnographic approaches to design, participatory design, and decolonized design. Anthropology has a lot to offer design, Escobar argues, because we study the interplay of materiality, meaning, and practice. Anthropologists could explore how design gets depoliticized, demonstrate how to insert reflexivity into design, and reinfuse design with politics. The author commands a truly astonishing grasp of global literature. Escobar’s discussion is built on a foundation of work emanating from a panopoly of Latin American scholars, all of whom appear to be fascinating in their own rights. Its embarrassing to admit, but there is literally a whole other world of socio-cultural scholarship outside of North America and Europe of which I am almost completely ignorant. Through Escobar I felt like I was glimpsing the depth and breadth of that body of literature for the first time.

His theory is challenging. Often I found myself reading and then rereading passages, letting it sink in, and then going back to reread again. The book is very well written and I was never made to feel like this extra effort was a burden. I enjoyed the challenge! Early on he claims to lean heavily on Heidegger, especially “the question concerning technology” and “dwelling.” I must confess that Heidegger is a weak point for me. My strategy was to piece together a bread crumb trail from phenomenology to the anthropology of experience and more familiar ground. But to be honest, another reader with a more sophisticated grasp of Heidegger might have composed a different review than I.

Ontological studies are theoretically exciting because they upset long-held notions of truth. The idea that there is one nature (one reality) and many cultures. That the world carries on by itself, that it exists outside us. All this and more are brought into question.

Moderns imagine the world as an inanimate surface to be occupied; for many relational cultures, on the contrary, humans and other beings inhabit a world that is alive. While moderns occupy space, non-moderns dwell in places.

I think what this comes down to is an ontological critique of modernity rooted in ethno-philosophy. For Escobar the significance of bringing these discussions back to design is about stepping away from purely theoretical spaces and towards the domains of materiality and experience.

There are some extraordinarily strong sub-chapters on ontology, political ecology, feminism, and epistemologies of the South. I do not consider myself an expert in any of these fields, but even with my limited background I felt like I was able to grow my understanding through Escobar’s work. Much to my delight I felt like, for the first time, I was really “getting it” when it came to the ontological turn.

What defines this turn is the attention to a host of factors that deeply shape what we come to know as reality but that social theory has rarely tackled — factors like objects and things, nonhumans, matter and materiality (soil, energy, infrastructures, weather, bytes), emotions, spirituality, and so forth. What brings together these very disparate items is the attempt to break away from the normative divides, central to the modern regime of truth, between subject and object, reason and emotion, living and inanimate, human and nonhuman, organic and inorganic, and so forth. This is why this set of perspectives can properly be called postdualist. More colloquially, it can be said that what we are witnessing with postdualist, neomaterialist critical theories is the return of the repressed side of dualisms — the forceful emergence of the subordinated and often feminized and radicalized side of all the binaries.

He explores the related projects of feminist political ecology, which delves into “other ways of worlding, including new insights about what keeps the dominating ontologies in place.” Adjacent is political ontology, which “examines political strategies to defend or re-create worlds that retain important relational and communal dimensions.” Turning toward the indigenous is necessary, Escobar argues because, “To think new thoughts, by implication, requires stepping out of the epistemic space of Western social theory and into the epistemic configurations associated with the multiple relation ontologies of worlds in struggle.”

Although Escobar calls his work postdualist political ecology and sharply critiques Cartesianism he relies on dualisms throughout, including: North and South, modern and non-modern, patriarchal and non-patriarchal, etc. The author claims that his objection is not with dualism in essence, but with dualism’s dominance and role in constituting the dominant, modern ontology that he is writing against. I am less persuaded by this rhetorical move, especially given the strength of the claims he is making. This strikes me as similar to Spivak’s “strategic essentialism” of which I am also skeptical. In the final chapter, Escobar addresses this and other critiques he anticipates. I found it quite refreshing to read a work of theory that effectively concludes with a critique of itself.

Finally, to bring this all back to design: “what would it entail to construct a non-Eurocentric design imagination?”

[An] ontological approach to design provides paths towards imagining design practices that contribute to people’s defense of their territories and cultures. We will call this approach autonomous design.

I came to this book because the prospect of autonmous design was so appealing, I knew nothing of Escobar’s position beforehand but the phrase was enticing. I work in public libraries, where our ethos is “give the people what they want.” If people want sewing circles, you organize sewing circles. If people want to play Magic: The Gathering, you play Magic: The Gathering. If you live in a food desert and people want groceries, you get them their groceries. The professional public librarian ought not imagine themselves as limited to books and shushing, we are creators and facilitators. Its a bit like applied anthropology, a bit like design. The notion of bringing autonomy into the mix seemed a natural fit for an exsquitely local institution like a public library.

After reading this book, I did not feel well prepared to bring my supervisor plans for an autonomous design program. It did encourage me to think deeply about serving my community, how I might discover what my community needs, and how those needs could be addressed. With its emphasis on the global ecological crisis it made me think and rethink about how something like, say, low high school graduation rates might be related to people’s relations with the natural environment. I found this book to be productively challenging and was not at all disappointed in it even when book’s utopian visions seem distant and their general applications to anthropology unclear.

Escobar has very little to say about urban life in the Global North. Or whether we can think of something like gentrification as a design problem (I think we can). He intentionally limits himself to a few Latin American case studies. It was never the author’s intention to solve all the design problems in the world or claim that his theoretical innovation is the only solution. Nevertheless, I would welcome a study of ontological design that was more explicitly suited to the needs of everyday people in urban/suburban United States. One work which Escobar discusses at length, Ezio Manzini’s Design, When Everybody Designs : An Introduction to Design for Social Innovation looks like it has a lot of potential for my needs. I skimmed the first few chapters and I’m very excited to read it in greater detail later. Also, I think the language of Manzini’s work, in contrast to Escobar’s high theory, will have a better reception among my peers.

One aspect of this book that I wish was been better developed is hinted at in Escobar’s frequent asides to the role of religion in creating and sustaining modernity, and the potential spiritual side of autonomous design and political ontology. He critiques organized religion, along with governments, corporations, and universities, as among of the principle contributors of modernity and its failed design projects. In his discussion of Latin American activism he alludes to the role played by liberation theology and even mentions it as among the factors in his personal biography motivating him in this project. He also makes a number of references to Buddhism in thinking about alternatives to dualism and explaining the ontology of relationality. He even includes Bob Marley on the dedication page and name checks “Redemption Song”! There’s obviously something going on here with religion, ontology, autonomy, and materiality, but Escobar is opting to dance around the issue (to a reggae beat, no doubt) rather than going on at length to unpack it. I’m curious to hear him elaborate on this subject! How does a critique of “progress” square with an embrace of liberation theology? Does the power of design truly stem from its materiality, or is there some magic at work here too? Where does religion fit into convivality and the commons? Surely it must factor into well-being and Buen Vivir somehow. In this work, Escobar chooses to answer other questions.

Its difficult to say who this book is for. “Social Theory – Latin American Studies – Design Theory” read the topic headings at the top of the back cover. That’s an odd Venn diagram. This would be a good fit in a grad seminar on the ontological turn of course, but it would also be a good theoretical core for any study of social movements. Someone interested in getting to know Latin American social theory could curl up with this bibliography and find dozens of erudite scholars from the South to explore. I enjoyed reading this book, it was difficult but not out of my league. The language is so strong, I never felt like I was getting the run around. Some passages were heavy and I couldn’t lift them on my first try. It wasn’t punishing, merely hard.

By way of farewell, I’d like to dedicate a song to Arturo Escobar, Paul Simon’s “Everything bout it is a love song,” from his 2006 album Surprise, a late career gem produced by Brian Eno. Is singer-songwriter electronica a thing? Maybe it should be.

Anyways. When Escobar writes that design theory ought to be steered towards “practices attuned to the relational dimension of life,” we must recognize that the word “life” is doing double duty here. Although Escobar chooses not to make this sartorial decision, we might read this notion of life as Life with a capital ‘L’. On the page it is life — as in quotidian life, everyday life — but the implication is Life itself, all of planet Earth. And when Simon’s lyrics swoops from from bittersweet Homeric metaphors of riverbanks and arrows and frost to visions of reincarnation, finally coming to rest in outer space, “The Earth is blue and everything bout it is a love song” we know that he too is talking about life. Love is life and all life comes from love, and by love I mean doing it.

Look outside your window. Life is everywhere! Where did all that life come from? I’ll give you a hint, its the opposite of war. Bird songs and insect calls, the bold colors of flowers that entice pollinators and inspire human devotion. Everything bout it is a love song.

2 Replies to “Designs for the Pluriverse — [book review]”

  1. I just returned from a religious conference in Tanzania. Unlike the US, the major religious organizations in Tanzania are united in their efforts to discuss and address climate change.

    Thus, I visited a Christian community in the central rural highlands that has installed a water well for the nearby village. Among his many goals of the well, the engineer who directed the project (a hired leader of the church) believes that the modern well will help him teach local livestock herders how to plant trees and grasses to replenish tracks of land deforested by the migration of their animals searching for water in dried river beds. The faith-based engineer believes that a community access, solar-powered water well – modernity – is a significant instrument for helping migratory herders return to “traditional” horticultural practices that allowed their ancestors to thrive along with the land.

  2. Thank you for reviewing this. I was not aware Dr. Escobar had published a new book, and I look forward to learning more about it.