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Toward an ethics of speculative design.

In Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, And Social Dreaming, designers Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby reassure us that, "the purpose of speculation is to unsettle the present rather than predict the future." (1) Their work and the work of other speculative designers drive design beyond the user and problem solving orientation of commercial design practices. They challenge us to attend to the agency of material, to the process of making, to the demand of things on us, and most importantly to design as a critical practice of questioning ourselves through our things. Extending Dunne and Raby's call to projection into alternate possibilities, I argue that speculative design is a material practice of ethical creative coexistence as distinct from standardized, industrial design solutions. Simply put, speculative design makes us think beyond ourselves and fosters the ethical comportment of recognized non-identity resistant to instrumentalization.

My argument stems from the 21st century need to confront wasteful and thoughtless overconsumption and related social, political and environmental abuses fueled by a need to control and master, natural and artificial goods, as well as socio-economic identity. In particular, design in the 20th century that aimed to standardize production, to universalize market appeal, to emphasize uniformity, to focus on human comfort and to market products as singular, isolated machines of modernity is no longer sustainable. Countering the modern impulse to dominate the world of natural resources, technological advancements and synthetic materials speculative practices utilize an object oriented perspective of coexistence and ask how can we design beyond our own needs?

The conceptual path of my argument relies on the speculative philosophical approaches of Jane Bennett's Vibrant Matter and her attention to the agency of things, Timothy Morton's Realist Magic and his celebration of object opacity, and Ian Bogost's Alien Phenomenology and his strategies to enact an object orientation. (2) These philosophers offer alternatives to user-centric instrumental thinking in service of efficiency and commercial dominance by fundamentally challenging our relationship with things in the world. Their perspectives utilize speculation as a way to attend to the opacity, the complexity and the specificity of things able to chart a claim of object agency and in turn human responsibility. Together these efforts release us from the dominance of categorical and instrumental thinking, making and using.

Correspondingly, the concrete path of my argument relies on two design two examples that represent a range of design between universal ambition and local amplification: the globally branded Starbucks coffee cup, a standardized design object speculatively received and Marti Guixe's, The Solar Kitchen Restaurant for La pin Kulta (2011) a design project that reimagines the restaurant by structurally incorporating features of practical speculation. The project is described as a "nature-driven" restaurant experience that features flexibility and immediacy in a way that challenges consumers and the chef alike. (3) In both cases, I want to emphasize the advantage of a speculative perspective for makers as well as consumers, as both are responsible regarding how things are used and abused.

Speculative philosophy and design emerges out of the need for alternative approaches attentive to the ethical demand of coexistence. A form of speculative philosophy, Object-oriented ontology allows us to consider things beyond phenomenological "things-in-themselves," before and beyond human service as worth speculating about. Graham Harman's Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects is a helpful place to begin our search into how one can understand speculation and make it productive in relation to objects or things. In the book's introduction Harman writes of Heidegger's account of things as awaiting use and "practical" philosophy:

   Insofar as the vast majority of these tools remain unknown to us,
   and were certainly not invented by us (for example, our brains and
   our blood cells), it can hardly be said that we "use" them in
   strict sense of the term. A more accurate statement would be that
   we silently rely upon them, taking them for granted as that naive
   landscape on which even our most jaded and cynical schemes unfold.
   Heidegger's analysis by no means lead to a "practical philosophy."
   At most, we might speak of a pragmatic philosophy: not a
   pragmatism, but a theory concerning the pragmata, the tools
   themselves. (4)

The instrumental neutrality embedded in the sense of taking things for granted is what object oriented philosophers aim to disrupt. Following Harman, let us begin with the thought that a pragmatic philosophy is not "applied to" or "hidden in" things, but rather considers active encounters among and with things. As such, the speculative approach to tools is not an instrumental pragmatism but rather exposes tools, pragmata, as existential action itself. "Tool-being" and exploration of object-oriented ontologies, such as Harman's, are invitations to discover that at each moment, the world is a geography of objects, whether these objects are made of "the latest plastics or were born at the dawn of time." (5) In this world fact, fiction, magical, real, speculative and proven collide in fascinatingly creative ways. How can speculation be made ethical is first and foremost a question about how we can recognize the robust coexistence of pragmata, of tools, of units, of machines, of things in the world?

Supporting non-identity and coexistence, three features of practical speculation are worth mapping as we approach an ethics of designed things: opacity, complexity and specificity. By practical speculation, I am here referring to a philosophical orientation towards designed objects that exceed considerations of practical and symbolic function, as well as experimental material and form. Speculative philosophies address our encounter with things in the world in general, artificial and natural. In contrast, speculative design and the central concern of this paper addresses designed objects or events specifically, as intrinsically human-centric. An ethics of speculative design is an attempt grapple with our role and responsibility as makers and users of artificial things by thinking beyond functional user-centric efficiency and the comfort of categorical assignments by willfully projecting ourselves amidst dense inter-objective confrontations.

I. Object Opacity

According to Object Oriented thinking, we need to speculate, imagine, or fantasize because things exist in relative autonomy and are resistant to complete disclosure. In other words, even as makers we cannot anticipate all the possibilities of a given object. As Harman describes, a pebble can threaten an empire if the emperor chokes on it. This acceptance regarding the limits of human projection about how objects might act counters human hubris on one hand and theoretical inaction on the other. We cannot wait for full understanding in order to act, nor can we act with the assumption that we know and control any given event. We operate between chance and intent. As such, the speculative approach admits chance as consistent with causality. Recognizing the inherent opacity of things as agency without intent displaces the historical hierarchy of human consciousness. However, if we cannot penetrate the opacity of things in order to act intentionally, what are we to do? The speculative stance is not an excuse for sloppy, irresponsible arbitrary guessing. Rather, it requires considered and logical associations that retain the dense and autonomous existence of each thing. This dynamic becomes the central challenge for an objectoriented philosopher-practitioner.

In order to expose the challenge of intentionally bracketing human instrumental intent regarding things let us turn to our two examples. Consider a quotidian object like a standardized, branded paper Starbucks coffee cup. A speculative approach to receiving the cup admits that we cannot existentially and exhaustively know our morning cup of Starbucks latte. However, we can acknowledge that it exists as a unit in a web of complex relations that are and always will be beyond the limits of our current conditions of understanding. Despite our lack of conceptual control of the object, we use it and are responsible for it. All our historical, critical and causal analysis of the cup, as a commodity, as a brand, as materiality, as a ritual, as historical object, as an instrument, as waste and more does not exhaust its existence. The fictional and autobiographical existence of the cup is composed of a collection of facts, as it sits next to me at the edge of my table, half empty, in a busy weekday morning at a corner Starbucks in West Lafayette, Indiana. Yet, it exists apart from me, it is and it is not my cup. We, the cup and I, at this moment and place coexist. It does not exist merely or only for me. Speculative philosophy permits deliberated coexistence as a form of oblique and strained looking that shelters the irreducibility of objects. It accounts for our epistemological blind spot where surprises and accidents happen. By receiving the cup in a speculative mode of engagement, I can glimpse the extensive network of things and independent chance actions that made that specific moment when I took a sip from the cup, possible.

Similarly, if we consider the speculative approach utilized in the production of the Solar Kitchen Restaurant in La pin Kulta we find epistemological opacity as a structural feature. Despite daily weather reports the kitchen cannot anticipate the amount of heat it is able produce and use. Each meal is a product not only of the chef, available farmed or gathered ingredients, willing consumers but equally also a product of non-human agents such as the season, the temperature, the amount of clouds in the sky, the time of day etc. Everyday, every meal at the Solar Kitchen Restaurant, the chef and the diners are adjusting expectations, are practicing flexibility in the face of unclear, uncertain conditions. Every meal is a practice of creative coexistence with natural and artificial elements that waives the comforting belief in complete control. The restaurant facilitates an experience of uncertainty instead of efficiency. In contrast, the Starbucks coffee cup is produced as a predictable coffee delivery device and is easily overlooked by a passing instrumental glance.

II. Inter-Objective Complexity

The second feature related to co-existence and non-identity is complexity. Where does any given object end or begin? Where does the existence of a branch, door or nail begin? Where does the coffee cup begin? Where does our dining experience at the solar kitchen begin and end? If we start to notice things apart from a hierarchical whole-part logic in which humans are the ultimate meaning makers and organizers of things, a magical coexistent world opens up. The dynamic contest between relation and distinctions expose a world of things in contact, friction, rubbing, bleeding, growing, breathing, breaking, moving, blowing, resting, expanding, contracting, holding, etc.

In this kaleidoscopic light, even my standardized Starbucks latte cup becomes an inter-objective event of plastic, cardboard, liquid, graphics, steam, sugar, coffee, branding and so much more when imagined beyond my morning ritual. Bogost uses the term "units" to identify individual existential agents. (6) Everything is a certain coexistence of units like my Starbucks cup. There is no ultimate element in the sense of earth, fire, water or particles nor is there an ultimate totalizing Being. Harman calls these tendencies "undermining" or "overmining" the meaning of things. (7) Maintaining the tension, speculative philosophies seek out inter-objective complexity as magical and duplicitous moments of interaction and confrontation. All things big and small are explosions of thriving object encounters vying for time and space, vying for existence, with or without human intent.

Returning to the example of the Solar Kitchen Restaurant if we can ask where or when does a meal begin? The answer proves complex. The meal no longer exists merely on the confines of the plate ready to be consumed. Rather, it becomes an agent in a complex interaction and network of things that range from cosmic conditions to availability of ingredients. The inter-objective complexity of this single meal is exposed as an event of coexistent becoming instead of a fully realized product of human intent, as our Starbucks latte aspires to be.

III. Atmospheric Specificity

The particularity of each event accounts for the third feature of speculative philosophy that bears on design considerations. I describe this feature as atmospheric specificity in order to retain a spatial and temporal modality that gestures beyond a contextual account of coexistent things. Each thing in its opacity and complexity presents an atmospheric mood that only appears under specific conditions. In other words, the opacity and complexity of units in contact with other units all carry epistemological density and produce a sort of atmospheric noise. Graham Harman calls this black noise. (8) Speculative approaches resist generalizations and--more importantly--theoretical abstraction. The fact that water boils at 212 degree Fahrenheit is true under certain conditions such as altitude. An acorn will only grow into an oak tree, however, if the tree will grow, how long it will live, how strong it will be are all factors conditioned on its dynamic existence with other things, humans, sun, earth wind etc, A speculative attitude allows me to look at this tree here and now as worthy of independent consideration beyond its categorical assignment,

My experience of the Starbucks cup sitting on the table, held in my hand, against my lips, filled with coffee, thrown into the trash are all conditioned and contingent on a specific event, There is no single moment when the cup became my morning cup of coffee yet at the same time it does function as such, For Bogost, this simultaneity is key to supporting a multi-dimensional approach to things, (9) Similarly, the Solar Kitchen Restaurant celebrates the magical and cosmic simultaneity that produces a single meal, Quite literally the stars have to align for the sun to shine, for the chef to cook, for the diner to eat, for the stove to heat etc, The designed atmospheric mood of the Solar Kitchen Restaurant aims to amplify the black noise of converging elements by willingly accepting uncertainty and imprecision, Such speculative design projects, like the Solar Kitchen Restaurant, materialize ethical creative coexistence by noting the breadth of conditions that culminate in a single thing, a single meal, even in a commercial and functional situation, By resisting the impulse for mastery through categorical assignment this uncertain approach requires that we look at each event with fresh eyes,

Straining to see things beyond human intent demands dynamic approximation between exact factual correspondence and fictional flights of fantasy, Speculation permits existential and epistemological range, My coffee cup, explored through such a range of possibilities, exists between a functional drinking vessel and a fictional alien sonar device, Such an understanding exposes the possibilities for each object as extensive but not infinite, We are limited by our imagination, by our experience of things and most importantly by the material and formal properties of each object, I can speculate that shards of glass on the floor are of a broken flower vase, a weapon, or waste, but I cannot claim the shards are seeds for more vases, The blurred line between real and speculative, where artists and designs work, is where the coffee cup shows its other within, the sonar device, the dress, the lighting fixture, the waste that blocks the storm drain, the thing that traps a spider, the sea-waste that chokes a walrus, Exploring these real and material dimensions of things leads us to the productive potential of speculative approaches, Identifying the speculative as an active form of looking, in Alien Phenomenology or What's it like to be a thing, philosopher Ian Bogost writes:

   Speculative realism really does require speculation: benighted
   meandering in an exotic world of utterly incomprehensible objects,
   As philosophers, our job is to amplify the black noise of objects
   to make the resonant frequencies of the stuffs inside them hum in
   credibly satisfying ways, Our job is to write the speculative
   fictions of their processes, of their unit operations, Our job is
   to get our hands dirty with grease, juice, gunpowder, and gypsum,
   Our job is to go where everyone has gone before, but where few have
   bothered to linger,

   I call this practice alien phenomenology, (10)

Embracing the essential characteristic of uncertainty, speculative philosophies--such as Ian Bogost's alien phenomenology--aim to promote practice without the certainty of full disclosure and knowledge, In fact, these speculative philosophies are founded on a principled opacity of things that displaces human understanding as the only source of meaningful action, Speculative practice is not a belated application of theory because of its insistence on material, real, active agency of things,

The speculative look allows us to search the edges and contours of existent things between instrumental fact and imaginative fiction, In this way we can recognize things as active and dynamic relations that "live" independently of our intentions. How can we think beyond our own intentions? How can we think of a coffee cup as anything beyond a drinking vessel? Moreover, why should we? The willingness to creatively act without certain understanding and without epistemological control makes the speculative approach fundamentally an ethical orientation towards things that interrupts a Foucaultian convergence of space, knowledge and power. Thus, a speculative approach permits a robust and dynamic understanding of things as vibrant and vital agents. The epistemological orientation invites the ethical dimension, since speculation supports exploring the "ethos" of each thing that includes its characteristics, features, atmosphere, processes, influences, context, interactions, networks etc. (11) Attention to design practices that recognize object agency, autonomy and opacity, orients us on the ethical map of speculative design where the dynamic ethos of each thing, as produced, distributed, used, interpreted, replaced, recycled, transformed and trashed is recognized in contest with other things as well as us. An ethics shaped by a speculative perspective resists reducing objects as expendable inert instruments awaiting human command as well as categorical confinement.

The Solar Kitchen Restaurant utilizes speculative features of object opacity, inter-objective complexity and atmospheric specificity. The meal itself is composed of unpredictable components and methods, all the conditions, including the strength of the sun, time of day, season, temperature, availability of ingredients, a willing consumer, flexible and creative chefs must cooperate in order for each meal to be produced. The project exposes all the things, units, objects, factors and conditions operative in our meals everyday yet unrecognized. In this case, speculative design as ethical creative coexistence emerges as understanding but not mastery of restaurant and dining elements.

Mapping an ethics of speculative design that recognizes the opacity, complexity, specificity of things helps us exercise our imagination and celebrates the fragility of thought. As such, the speculative stance guards against the violent will to mastery by orienting understanding in experience and coexistence. Jane Bennett, Timothy Morton and Ian Bogost all consider the task of attending to human and non-human relations with ethical urgency. Bennett concludes her book about vital materialism with the following litany:

   I believe in one matter-energy, the maker of things seen and
   unseen. I believe that this pluriverse is traversed by
   heterogeneities that are continually doing things. I believe it is
   wrong to deny vitality to nonhuman bodies, forces, and forms, and
   that a careful course of anthropomorphization can help reveal that
   vitality, even though it resists full translation and exceeds my
   comprehensive grasp. I believe that encounters with lively matter
   can chasten my fantasies of human mastery, highlight the common
   materiality of all that is, expose a wider distribution of agency,
   and reshape the self and its interests. (12)

Similarly, for Timothy Morton coexistence is a necessary condition in admitting the dense autonomy of things. He writes,

   To say that existence is coexistence is not to say that things
   merely reduce to their relations. Rather, it is to argue that
   because of withdrawal, an object never exhausts itself in its
   appearances--this means that there is always something left over,
   as it were, an excess that might be experienced as a distortion, a
   gap, or void. (13)

Ian Bogost's Alien Phenomenology addresses non-identity as alien in order to again, like Morton, maintain the magical opacity of things. He concludes by reasserting the importance of existential simultaneity and writes,

   The alien isn't in the Roswell military morgue, or in the galactic
   far reaches, or in the undiscovered ecosystems of the deepest see
   and most remote tundra. It's everywhere. In place of the
   correlationist's idealist stipulation, we can propose a new realist
   codicil to append liberally, like hot sauce on chicken wings:
   meanwhile. What else is there, here, anywhere right now? Anything
   will do, so long as it reminds us of the awesome plenitude of the
   alien everyday. (14)

Bennett, Morton and Bogost, conceptualize co-existence and non-identity as dynamic existential activity rather than static theoretical categories. Bennett confronts the human will to mastery as a political imperative, Morton counters categorical subsumption by insisting on existence as coexistence, and Bogost, celebrates the co-existent alien, the non-identical. Each speculative thinker offers conceptual strategies to actively engage a world beyond our mastery, control and knowledge. Similarly, practical strategies of speculative production and consumption aspire to creative coexistence that recognizes the agency of the non-human. The solar restaurant performs the philosophical, political and design claims charted in this paper and demonstrates that a speculative stance increases our tolerance for uncertainty and challenges our will to master and control things as well as each other. A defense of coexistence and non-identity drive speculative philosophies, as well speculative designs. Both the Starbuck's coffee cup and the Solar Kitchen show that a speculative stance of non-identity recognizes the autonomy and agency of things beyond of human instrumentalization. If we understand the speculative as an ethical orientation that interrupts the "will to mastery" and cultivates creative coexistence that utilizes features of opacity, complexity and specificity, we may begin to discover a 21st map of existence with new possibilities for ourselves amongst things.

(1) Dunne and Raby, Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming (Cambridge; The MIT Press, 2013), p. 719. Kindle.

(2) Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Duke University Press, 2010), Timothy Morton, Realist Magic: Objects, Ontology and Causality (Open Humanities Press, 2013), Ian Bogost, Alien Phenomenology or What It's Like to be a Thing, (University of Minnesota Press, 2012).

(3) "It is well known that solar kitchens use alternative energy: the sun. Yet it is not so widely known how the technical parameters of the solar kitchen affect food processing when cooking. Heat is all over the food, and is not only below as in the traditional way of cooking. The time sequence is much more progressive, changing continuously. These two facts affect the taste and texture of prepared food in a surprising and positive way, bringing about a completely different tasting experience. The Lapin Kulta Solar Kitchen Restaurant also plays with several contemporary factors; it is a naturedriven kitchen featuring flexibility and immediacy.


No sun, no food: not true. We will also serve salads and whatever can be prepared without sunlight, but with bright light and mild temperatures. We thus need to test people's flexibility; if it rains, we have to learn to be flexible, adapt, reschedule and deal with delays, subject to nature. Of course information in real time is important. A cloud could ruin a business lunch. Immediacy in information, decisions and movements. The Lapin Kulta Solar Kitchen Restaurant is a business model that tries to rethink the perception of the kitchen, of cooking, and of food, and all of these in relation to nature in 2011.

Marti Guixe Barcelona and Berlin 2011"

Full Project description from

(4) Graham Harman, Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects, (Open Court: 2002), p. 20.

(5) Ibid., p. 21.

(6) Bogost, p. 25.

(7) Graham Harman. The Quadruple Object, (Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2011), p. 7-19.

(8) Bogost, p. 32-33.

(9) Ibid., p. 50.

(10) Bogost, p 34.

(11) Claudia Baracchi, Aristotle's Ethics as First Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), p 53. "Belonging somewhere, then, means to find there the possibility of flourishing, of finding the most appropriate conditions to unfold and become whatever a being happens to be."

(12) Bennett p. 122.

(13) Morton, p. 113.

(14) Bogost, p. 133.
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Author:Banu, Lisa S.
Publication:Journal of Philosophy: A Cross Disciplinary Inquiry
Date:Sep 22, 2015
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