Coming from a Media Studies background, I did not know what to expect from the DHS conference and how my work would be received. It turned out, however, that my apprehensions were groundless. Dr. Elizabeth Kramer and Dr. Janine Barker created a welcoming atmosphere for rigorous and stimulating intellectual exchange. I enjoyed the lively discussions that took place both on the panels, during breaks, and during the gala dinner, where I learned a lot about the field of design history and the Design History Society from both senior scholars who generously shared their professional and personal experiences,and fellow PhD students who are pushing the boundaries of the field with their exciting new research. I would like to thank Dr. Kramer and Dr. Barker and their team for the wonderful experience.
One of the goals of my dissertation project is to carve out a space for dialog between Media Studies and Design History, two disciplines that share many common objects but have minimum scholarly interaction. Working on my dissertation, I knew theoretically what were the barriers that prevent interdisciplinary exchange and where bridges might be constructed by scholarly working between the two fields. The DHS conference provided an opportunity to see how the conversation could be facilitated, confirming my initial understanding and offering new ideas at the same time.
Dr. Rujana Rebernjak’s paper “Designing Bureaucracy: Self-Managed Economy, Cybernetics and Design in Post-War Yugoslavia,” which showed how cybernetics was reimagined in Yugoslavia as a way to liberate “citizen-workers,” was fascinating in this regard. The concept of “cybernetic socialism” deviated from the trajectory that “American” cybernetics took, which I was familiar with. How Yugoslavs appropriated cybernetics, a means of (automatic) control, for “self-management” counters what Norbert Wiener and the cybernetics group envisioned. As cybernetics was redefined and given a new political as well as economic purpose, design’s role in cybernetic operation had to change as well: it was used to aid average workers to whom the rhetoric of cybernetics was impenetrable and encourage user interaction through “programmed artwork.” This “dreamscape” was destined to go awry, however. If I understood it correctly, cybernetic socialism is inherently paradoxical—control of people who self-manages; and even though automation was perceived after Marx as “the technology of socialism, if not communism,” such automation, for decision making in particular, was a recipe for labor exploitation and control as Dr. Rebernjak contended. Nevertheless, the Yugoslav experiment points to imaginative alternatives for the use of cybernetics despite its failure and raises questions regarding subjectivity and subjectivation under what could be named as “cybernetic bureaucracy/technocracy” and the relation between different modes of production and cybernetics.
“Alphabets, Syllabaries, Ideograms: Negotiating Typography as Infrastructure in Asia,” a paper given by Dr. Vaibhav Singh, examined how printing technology, developed in the West based on the Latin script, reshaped non-Latin and non-Alphabetic writing systems and how these written languages become “invisible sites of resistance and struggle” in this process. Dr. Singh’s argument reminded me of the works of Friedrich Kittler, Christopher Bush, and Tom Mullaney, and showed how the seeming gap between Design History and Media Studies—as well as History, STS, and Literary Studies—could be easily linked. Dr. Singh’s approach, however, was unique as its focus was not only on printing technology but also on the typographic forms. (Mullaney does touch on typography in his book, The Chinese Typewriter, and shows how some of the non-Latin languages were redesigned for a single-shift typewriter but his focus is not entirely on design.) I agree with Dr. Rathna Ramanathan, who presented on the same panel as Dr. Singh: “printing press carries Latin bias.” It is a bias against non-Latin scripts, which are reformulated as a “problem” (to borrow from Mullaney) that must be solved. In many of the cases, as Dr. Singh has demonstrated, it is not engineering but typographic redesign and “script reform” that “solves” the problem by taking the Latin Alphabets as references. This solution does not challenge Latin script and Western technology’s false claim on universality—rather, it further consolidates its hegemony.
I also questioned the notion of “universalism” in my paper on the Olympic design. Designing for the Olympic Games requires a delicate balance of the Olympic ideal of “universalism” and national identity of the host country. My paper looked at how the designers of the 1988 Summer Olympics held in Seoul designed “traditional” motifs, that were rapidly reinvented using the Orientalist archive as a marketing tool that ensures the international sales, in the International Style, which they mistook for the “universal” style. This unimaginative solution that is short of critical understanding of modernist design and modernity exemplifies what Peter Sloterdijk calls “skillful lack of competence”—or “design,” as he puts it. I argue that both modern design practices and objects from the West bring with them discourse as well as technology to the non-West, which reinforces discursive asymmetry. This unevenness not only results in the false universalism but lack of skill in the “skillful lack of competence” on the part of the non-West, who is denied of indigenous discourse and technology, and deprived of the advantage of generational accumulation.
I enjoyed every panel that I attended. Dr. Rebernjak’s and Dr. Singh’s papers were particularly interesting as two of my dissertation chapters are related to cybernetics—its influence over “Design Management” and “Design Thinking” strategies—and typeface design and politics. It was extremely helpful to see the current landscape of Design History and where the field intersects with Media Studies. The theme of the 2020 conference “Memory Full?” which plays on the digital warning and stands for the issues of memory, archive, storage, and data—all the themes that Media Studies engages with, especially in Digital Media—excites me. I look forward to the interdisciplinary conversations between the fields and productive outcomes it will yield.
Sloterdijk discusses how “Modern Europe’s spiral of expanding power and competency can be described as a serial game in which each new generation—starting from the competency level of the older one—added its own particular chapter to the novel that highlighted the epoch” (84). Sloterdijk recognizes Eurocentrism of his own idea and delimits the scope of his argument to Europe or the West in the cases such as this. The non-West does not have the knowledge, technology, and competence accumulated for generations and even though the individuals of both worlds are caught in the spiralling whirlwind of modernity, their position is quite different due to this accumulation.*
Seungyeon Gabrielle Jung is a Ph.D. Candidate in Modern Culture and Media, Brown University
*See Peter Sloterdijk. “The Right Tool for Power: Observations on Design as the Modernization of Competence” in The Aesthetic Imperative (Cambridge: Polity, 2017).