Escaping the Pressure: Critical Thinking in Theory and Design


Peter Jakobsson

Nine · Escaping the Pressure: Critical Thinking in Theory and Design

Critical Fashion Project

What is the nature of critical thinking and doing? Why does critical thinking always seem to be in a state of crisis? How come that critical thinking has both a prominent position and is “pressured” out into the margin? Does critical design require the adoption of a particular form or visual language? Is all good design critical design? These are some of the issues that Peter Jakobsson, researcher in media studies and a former staff member at the Department for Artistic and Contextual studies at Beckmans, explores in this text. Beginning with a historical introduction to the concept of critique in the humanities and social sciences, the text moves on to a discussion of critical design. In the final section, potential futures for critique are discussed in response to current pressures from public authorities and other institutions. Could critical design help to form new identities and envision new ways of being in and experiencing the world?

Critical thinking seems constantly to be in a state of crisis. Critique requires distance, Walter Benjamin noted in the 1920s, as he simultaneously determined that access to critical distance was declining: “Critique is a matter of correct distancing. It was at home in a world where perspectives and prospects counted and where it was still possible to take a standpoint. Now things press too closely on human society.”1

Today, critique plays a prominent role in many social spheres. Critical thinking is presented by people in leading positions in society as a cure for all sorts of problems. But the “pressure” on critical thinking seems not to have disappeared. Sociologist Luc Boltanski points to how an institutional reflexivity, initiated by public authorities, organizations and the world of business win space at the expense of independent voices and autonomous critical thinking.2 So-called “policy professionals” become increasingly important in decision-making processes.3 Even industrial designers are recruited to practice what is known as “design thinking” which is expected to produce “smart solutions” to pressing social problems.4 But often, the requirement for this type of thinking is that fundamental issues of the redistribution and use of resources are left out.5 Thus the competence of researchers, designers and artists is increasingly in demand, but these professionals are recruited for instrumental aims of finding solutions to predefined problems rather than with a view to encouraging more basic research and without being granted the authority of posing the relevant questions.

At the same time there is discussion in the humanities and the social sciences that takes the position that the problem for critical thinking is not primarily external, but that it is the critical tradition in itself – the way in which critique is normally conducted – that has to be rethought and revitalized.6 In a frequently cited article, French philosopher Bruno Latour has described how the strategies that so-called climate sceptics use in questioning scientific facts and thus sowing seeds of insecurity as to climate scientists’ methods and conduct, do not appear to be essentially different from the strategies the critical thinking in the social and cultural sciences employ.7 Has critical thinking, with its roots in the Enlightenment – a period in which scientific and rational thinking assumed the position as the dominant belief system – severed its own roots?

“Has critical thinking, with its roots in the Enlightenment – a period in which scientific and rational thinking assumed the position as the dominant belief system – severed its own roots?”

Critical design can also be described as having always had a marginal position. Here it is also easier to identify what it is that “presses” critique out into the periphery. The relative lack of autonomy of the design field because of its proximity to the market and to mass production means that it is more difficult for designers to legitimize and finance their activities outside the market, in comparison with a scientist or artist. Who wants to be identified as a “critical” designer when it is time to apply for a job in a market in which “critique” is little valued, as opposed to “creativity”, “innovation” and a positive attitude? True, certain lines of business have incorporated the “critical” spirit of the times in their business model and have thus given critique a certain market value. Sarah Banet-Weiser’s discussion of “popular feminism” in advertising and the fashion industry illustrates how critique has become a method of selling goods, but it also gives an indication as to how seemingly progressive policies can readily be exchanged for something else as the spirit of the times changes.8

British cultural theorist Angela McRobbie maintains that degree courses in design are increasingly shaped on the lines of courses in business management rather that in courses at the corresponding art colleges.9 The emphasis thus lies on the project model and on meeting a deadline compared with a training that puts more weight on the process and in which there are greater opportunities for basic research. Speed is emphasized at the expense of a carefully crafted task and there is less time available for reflection. The important thing becomes getting something to add to one’s CV or portfolio. As soon as a project is initiated it becomes important to find a new project that one can join. Such an environment tends to force out critical thinking into the margins, in favour of skills and abilities that are more easily documented and measured.

To sum up, in both the humanities and social sciences, as well as the design field, developments are taking place that, initially, can be seen as conflicting processes, in which critique and critical thinking are given a central position, at the same time that they are “pressured” out into the margin. This unanimity is not surprising since critical design has often sought to find an “intellectual base” in the humanities and social sciences.10 That which takes place in one of the spheres thus influences the other. There is, for example, in design, just as in the humanities and social sciences, a search for a new, “critical paradigm” as well as discussions of a “post-critical condition”.11

The following text is partly an introduction to the concept of critique in the humanities and social sciences and in design respectively but there is also the intention of a closer investigation of what has been described as the crisis of critique. Even though no definitive answers are presented in the following, it is to be hoped that the contrasts that come into play when the concept of critique within the humanities, the social sciences and the field of design, respectively, are discussed side by side, makes it possible to pose a number of questions about the nature of critical thinking and doing.

I should mention that my background is as a researcher in the field of media studies and that the following discussion is unavoidably coloured by my background. The article begins with a brief introduction to critique and critical thinking in the humanities and social sciences, and then moves on to a discussion of critical design. In the final section, the text points to potential escape routes for critique, in order to get away from the pressures that critical thinking is currently facing.

The Tradition of Critique

What does critique mean in the traditions of the humanities and social sciences? The modern notion of critique has its roots in the classical Greek word krinein which means to distinguish, to separate or to evaluate something. The word very suitably also has links to the Greek word for crisis in the sense of a turning point or culmination of a critical situation. The constant crisis of critique is, thus, etymologically rooted. At a later date in history the word critique came to be used to describe an academic dissertation in some subject with Kant’s three famous critiques of pure reason, practical reason and judgement being the leading exponents. Kant is also important in this context for having identified the 18th century Enlightenment with the courage to think for oneself regardless of authorities. But in more recent times, the notion of critique has increasingly been associated with being in opposition to something and the practice of critique has increasingly come to be used in the sense of criticizing something or someone.12

During the first decades of the 20th century an influential form of critique developed, that was philosophically rooted but aimed at society and with the ambition of effecting social change. The leading exponents of this were the so-called Frankfurt school which, influenced by psychoanalysis and Marxism, aimed at developing a “social critique”.13 Inspired by Karl Marx’ claim that the task of philosophy was not solely to interpret the world but to change it, the Frankfurt school’s theory served as a means of emancipation rather than a goal in itself. One of the school’s leading figures, Max Horkheimer, distinguished between so-called traditional theory and critical theory, the former being characterized by its main preoccupation with solving narrowly defined problems using established modes of thought and protocols for action.14 The aim of critical theory, in contrast to this, was to expand the space possible for thinking and acting. Another of the school’s more illustrious names, Theodor Adorno, developed what he called an immanent critique which was concerned with identifying and criticising society’s and culture’s innate conflicts and self-contradictions. In their book entitled Dialectic of Enlightenment, Horkheimer and Adorno developed an immanent critique of the Enlightenment and the idea of progress by attempting to demonstrate how the values of Enlightenment under industrial capitalism came to be turned against themselves and how the dominance of scientific rationalism undermined society’s long-term survival.15

“The social critique reached a peak during the 1960s and 1970s when new elements of critique were incorporated into the critical tradition, for example, feminist, postcolonial and environmental ideas.”

The social critique reached a peak during the 1960s and 1970s when new elements of critique were incorporated into the critical tradition, for example, feminist, postcolonial and environmental ideas. Common to these theories, is the fact that they include a combination of descriptive and normative conceptions, i.e. that they aim both to describe reality and to understand how it can be changed in order to better live up to normative ideals. The theories offer concepts and perspectives for analysing both the historical and the contemporary situation, as well as the mental and material obstacles that obscure possibilities for change. Boltanski calls critical theories strong theories, meaning that they claim to have understood a fundamental aspect of reality that other theories have not succeeded in grasping.16 By means of the theory the fundamental structures of the real world are revealed – and can thus be overcome.

A strong theory thus offers an elevated platform for social criticism, providing an engine of critical analysis. But the elevated position also means that the critical analysis is associated with certain problems and risks. One such problem is that the theory can come to be regarded by its adherents as conveying an undisputable truth and that the theory is not then subjected to reflection and self-criticism. A further potential problem is that the concepts and perspectives that the strong theory offers are formulated at such an abstract level that they can be applied to a broad spectrum of contexts and to many different sorts of material. In one sense this is a strength, but it can also be a problem when the same critique is multiplied and repeated for each of the objects that the critique aims at. Besides the fact that the critique thus risks being stretched and thinned out, it can also, in cases where there is a lack of critical self-reflection, lead to the concepts obscuring the reality that they were intended to illuminate.

Another problem associated with social critique has to do with its modus operandi and the central role that revelation has played in critical theories. Pulling back the curtains and revealing the hidden mechanisms, daring to know, in the spirit of the Enlightenment, is one of two paths that critical thinking has taken during modernity, according to philosopher and social critic Michel Foucault.17 The other path, which Foucault advocates, deals instead with studying the “ontology of actuality”, i.e. of posing the question of the contemporaneity of a certain mode of critical thinking and asking what the possibilities of critical thinking is in a particular historical situation. The problem with the first of these two paths – critique as revelation – is that if this critical gesture is to function it is necessary that, behind the falsehood, there should be a simple, identifiable truth to present as an alternative, and that this truth should be sufficiently revelatory to motivate change. Many critics have questioned whether references to “facts” and asserted “truths” have such an effect of motivating people to action.18 Sven Anders Johansson claims, for example, that a causal connection of this sort is undermined by the cynical condition that characterizes our times. In his view we live in an era in which cynicism on a personal level acts as protection against the official cynicism that characterizes everything from the public discourse on climate change to discussions of economic and social inequality.19 We “know”, for example, what we need to do in our daily lives to counteract climate change, but cynicism acts as a shield that prevents knowledge being transformed into action. And so it becomes necessary for critical thinking to follow Foucault’s exhortation and to find some other means than that of the dramaturgy of revelation.

“Surprisingly often, just doing things differently – inventing new forms and new practices – seems to suffice in fulfilling the demands for critical design.”

Design that opposes the state of things

If we turn away from the critical tradition in the humanities and social sciences and look at how “critique” has been conceptualized in design we find many similarities, but also certain differences.

A recurring definition of critical design is that it is design that questions or opposes “current practices” or “current conditions”. This scant definition is often accompanied by a series of qualifications – for example, that it is a matter of questioning one’s own practice, one’s profession or social situation.20 As some sort of everyday professional understanding, or doxa to use philosopher and sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s terminology, this reductive description of critical design seems to be widely spread and very popular. Surprisingly often, just doing things differently – inventing new forms and new practices – seems to suffice in fulfilling the demands for critical design. One reason for this is, presumably, that it is a definition of critique that can mobilize many types of allies. The quest for newness can satisfy both the design field’s, and the educational system’s demands for critical consciousness and the market’s demand for new goods and products.

Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby are sometimes credited with having coined the term critical design, defining it as follows:

Design can be described as falling into two very broad categories: affirmative design and critical design. The former reinforces how things are now, it conforms to cultural, social, technical, and economic expectation. Most design falls into this category. The latter rejects how things are now as being the only possibility, it provides a critique of the prevailing situation through designs that embody alternative social, cultural, technical, or economic values.21

Elsewhere they define critical design as design that “uses speculative design proposals to challenge narrow assumptions, preconceptions, and givens about the role products play in everyday life”. But they also write that it was initially more a matter of an attitude, a “position rather than a methodology”.22 But even their more recent writings give the impression of their not having come further than assuming a position. Something lacking within Dunne & Raby’s theoretical work is a closer definition of which “assumptions” or “preconceptions” critical design aims to challenge, as well as normative ideas as to why these particular assumptions are problematic. The definitions are diffuse and evasive, and the notion of “critical” seems mostly to be exchangeable with “newly created” or “challenging”. Ultimately they end up in a circular argument claiming that “All good design is critical design”.23

Also missing in Dunne & Raby is a discussion of why certain design problems, solutions, and ways of doing things, dominate and are preferred over others. What is it that gives rise to this limited vision among certain designers causing them principally to concern themselves with “affirmative design”? Is it a matter of individual and psychological limitations? Or is it professional norms and institutions which force them to choose certain perspectives and working methods? Is it the broader structures of society and cultural notions that erect outer boundaries for what can be achieved through design and that permeate everyday work and the understanding of design? What part, for example, is played by power structures that have to do with financial capital, cultural capital and symbolic capital? What role is played by the power structures that have to do with gender, skin colour, class and sexuality? True, such discussions are held in other areas of the design field, but critical design – in which such discussions are expected – is characterized by an absence of theories whose aim is to recognize and problematize such issues.24 Thus critical design is characterized by a lack of what was termed strong theories above – theories that seek to clarify the material and symbolic limitations that characterize the design field as such; which provide a normative foundation for questioning the state of things; and that point a way forward that can surmount the obstacles that lie in its path. Critical design, as formulated by Dunne & Raby, instead goes directly to the last stage. It produces solutions to problems that have not been clearly defined.

According to Karin Ehrnberger, so-called norm-critical design has partially developed as a way of dealing with the conceptual vagueness with regard to various power structures and normative issues that have characterized critical design.25 But even if norm-critical design provides answers to certain of the questions raised above – principally concerning the normative foundations of critique – the fact that norm-critical design privileges practice ahead of theory means that other issues also remain unanswered within this critical design paradigm.

The concept of norm criticism was popularized in the public debate in Sweden at the beginning of the new millennium, perhaps primarily on account of it being used in norm-critical pedagogics and in movements working for changes in gender politics.26 Norm-critical pedagogy for example made use of ideas from feminism, queer and post-colonial theories with a view to revealing and questioning injustices and repressive norms in pedagogical contexts. This use of critical theories is however not always as clearly articulated in norm-critical design. Ehrnberger claims that visual images are often a better way of explaining what norm criticism entails, rather than taking the way through the theoretical discourse.27 True, visual images are an effective way of communicating which norms are problematized in norm-critical design – male and female, pink and blue, rough and smooth, and so on. But, at the same time, it can be difficult to understand how visual images can replace the need for clarity and depth enabled by theoretical discussion. Visual images convey in a direct manner the design elements that are the carriers of certain norms and often let the viewer experience, vicariously, the problematic nature of the norms in question. But even if images in some sense can convey processes, they are not very good at explaining origins, nor are they good at explaining how norms are communicated or reproduced. These unanswered questions then leave the observer in a state of uncertainty as to how norm-critical design can be used as a tool for changing the norms that are perceived as being problematic.

The exhibition Norm Form held at ArkDes, the Swedish Centre for Architecture in 2017, showcased many interesting and well-presented items of norm-critical designs. But at the same time, the exhibition also highlighted some of the shortcomings with the privileging of practice over theory, in contemporary critical design discourse28. The catalogue and the texts accompanying the exhibition made only minimal attempts to shed light on important issues regarding the whats and whys of the exhibition. Instead of contemporary critical theories regarding for example gender, ethnicity, class, etc., the catalogue referred to the Swedish legislation against discrimination. Arguably, this gave the exhibition a normative foundation on which to build, but, apart from the fact that this move excludes norms not included in this particular piece of legislation, for example norms pertaining to sustainability and economic inequality, the referral to the domain of law also misrecognises the historical and political context of the norms in question. The legal language does not provide any clues regarding, for example, how certain norms relate to power, position and status. True, this is precisely what the exhibition in itself is meant to do. By carefully inspecting and digesting the exhibited objects the spectator’s gaze becomes schooled in revealing such relations. Nevertheless, one suspects that a more profound commitment to theory should make it possible for norm-critical design to have something interesting to contribute, even after the low-hanging fruit has been picked. Without such a commitment there is an evident risk that norm-critical design will encounter the same problems that faced earlier formulations of the critical design paradigm. That issues about aesthetics and functionality exclude questions about design’s ontological actuality and its normative foundations.

New Forms of Critique

Does critical design require the adoption of a particular form or visual language? Literary critic Rita Felski has noted how critical theories in literature often return to certain idiomatic expressions, parables and metaphors.29 Thinking critically about literature is thus not just a matter of adopting particular theories or applying certain methods, it also implies specific ways of writing and expressing oneself. Critics devote themselves to for example “close reading” of texts or they take a step back and consider texts “from a distance”. Close reading involves the critic trying to “look behind” the text or searching “beneath the text” for hidden or tacit meanings. Reading from a distance involves understanding the text “in its context” and in grasping the “larger setting”. Some maintain that critical design, too, can be identified by its use of certain recurrent visual formulae. Sceptical voices even claim that critical design is primarily an aesthetic expression that is used for creating recognition and community among similarly minded designers.30 Francisco Laranjo calls this criticool, an approach to design that implies that those who fail to adopt the same aesthetic are automatically un-critical and – from the point of view of the prevailing dogma – naïve, non-reflecting, opportunistic and uninteresting.31

But even though one can often see whether there is a critical intention on the part of the author of a specific design, this does not automatically imply that it is a matter of mannerism or the construction of boundaries between the critical and the un-critical. Rather, it is the case that critical design, in the same way as other forms of design, works in a certain tradition and that the tradition contains certain ideas and notions as to what critical design should look like. These ideas about aesthetics are, in turn, linked to a notion about how certain visual expressions work communicatively and how they lead to a certain effect on the part of the beholder. Art historian Cilla Robach, for example, identifies radical design and anti-design as two historic predecessors of what is known today as critical design.32 But it also appears that critical design has picked up ideas and notions about criticality from neighbouring cultural fields – literature, film, theatre – that often have their origins in modernist art.33 Critical design frequently focuses on ideas and expressions that are historically and theoretically related and that can be summarized as “transgression, provocation, defamiliarization, and estrangement”.34

Critical design is often considered to presuppose an “un-beautiful” aesthetic that seeks to awaken a critical consciousness on the part of the beholder by means of letting the design break with established aesthetical norms and communicative codes. The supposition is that a break with the aesthetic and communicative expectations will lead to the observer not just having to assume an interrogative approach to the design object as such, but that the aesthetic rupture will also lead to a more distanced approach to the beholder’s social world and context. This, in turn, creates a distance that can lead to a critique.

“Critical design is often considered to presuppose an ‘un-beautiful’ aesthetic that seeks to awaken a critical consciousness on the part of the beholder by means of letting the design break with established aesthetical norms and communicative codes.”

One interesting trend in critical thinking in the humanities and social sciences in recent years is however that when it has turned to the design and art world for inspiration this has not been in order to understand how form and aesthetics can create distance and alienation. On the contrary, it has been on account of the opportunities inherent in design and art in creating totalities and a sense of wholeness. Bruno Latour has, for example, coined the expression compositionism as an alternative to the concept of criticism and associates this with music, dance and visual art.35 The aim is thus not to deconstruct or disassemble that which appears as reality, but to construct and re-assemble that which appears to be shattered and broken into attractive wholes. The post-human philosopher Rosi Braidotti also approaches art and design from the perspective of critical theory and emphasizes the creative capacity as an essential part of an updated critical paradigm. Finally, Chantal Mouffe even proposes to incorporate visual languages and modes of address from the advertising industry, in a discussion about how the critical tradition should develop.36

For Braidotti and Mouffe, however, this does not mean that the need for critique in a more traditional sense has disappeared. Braidotti argues rather for a critique that combines strategies of defamiliarization with a creative imagination that envisions new ways of being in and experiencing the world. The task of critical thinking is thus both to release the individual subject from the emotional and ideological ties to the current social order, as well as creating new, alternative connections. The task of critical theory is, according to Braidotti, to activate people to “enter into new affective assemblages, to co-create alternative ethical forces and political codes – in other words, to compose a missing people”.37 In line with this, Mouffe maintains that artistic practices are central to the project of social critique, but that these practices should not only attempt to disrupt the subject’s points of identification, but have also to create conditions for the formation of new identities and for collective political projects. Critical practices in art and design, just like advertising then, need to mobilize desires and affects in a manner that creates novel subjectivities that are in a position to transcend the current social order. This does not necessarily mean that it is meaningless to distinguish between so-called “affirmative” and “critical design”, but at least it means that critical design should not be equated with breaching aesthetic norms and communicative codes.

Nowadays, Fredric Jameson’s contention that it is easier for us to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, is often repeated. This is seemingly so, even if the constant need for economic growth is now threatening the very foundation of the technologically governed and complex societies at the forefront of capitalist development. In the light of this, Braidotti’s and Mouffe’s call for collective projects and the composition of a “missing people” may remind us of critical theories from previous periods, that included utopian notions about a future ideal society. But in neither Braidotti’s nor Mouffe’s work – which I have used here to represent an ongoing and broader discussion – do we find any such utopian notions. Their attitude is hopeful and searching and their focus aimed at constant experimentation, rather than devising grand schemes. At the same time they are aware of the need to defend and maintain the very conditions for a critical discourse, at a time when the pressure on critique is once again increasing.

Peter Jakobsson has a PhD in Media and Communication Studies and is a former Senior Lecturer in History, Theory, Context at Beckmans College of Design. Since this fall he holds a position as Senior Lecturer at Uppsala University. His work has been published in journals such as The International Journal of Cultural Studies, The European Journal of Communication and The European Journal of Cultural Studies. He is currently co-editing an issue for the journal Nordicom Review on class and/in the media and an issue for the journal Culture Machine on Machinic intelligences in context – beyond the technological sublime.

  1. Benjamin, 1979, p. 89.
  2. Boltanski, 2011.
  3. Garsten, Rothstein and Svallfors, 2015.
  4. Design thinking includes the application of working methods and processes from the design field to other sorts of problems besides designing individual products. For a critical discussion see Kimbell, 2011.
  5. Bratton, 2015.
  6. Kosofsky, 2003; Best and Marcus, 2009; Felski, 2015; Rancière, 2011.
  7. Latour, 2004
  8. Banet-Weiser, 2018.
  9. McRobbie, 2016.
  10. Maze and Redström, 2007, p. 3.
  11. Anker and Felski, 2017; Laranjo, 2015; Martin, 2005.
  12. For a discussion see, for example, Stiernstedt, 2014.
  13. Fornäs, 2013.
  14. Horkheimer, 1972 [1937].
  15. Horkheimer and Adorno, 2012 [1944].
  16. Boltanski, 2011.
  17. Foucault, 1989, p. 55.
  18. Sloterdijk, 1988; Žižek, 2001.
  19. Johansson, 2018.
  20. See, for example, Maze, 2009.
  21. Dunne and Raby, 2001, p. 58.
  22. Dunne and Raby, 2013, p. 34.
  23. Ibid.
  24. For a discussion of this aspect of Dunne and Raby’s work, see Prado, 2014.
  25. Ehrnberger, 2017, p. 21.
  26. Alm and Laskar, 2017, pp. 137–160.
  27. Ehrnberger, 2017, p. 199.
  28. Maze and Redström, 2007.
  29. Felski, 2015.
  30. Tonkinwise, 2015.
  31. Laranjo, 2015.
  32. Robach, 2005.
  33. Malpass, 2017.
  34. Bardzell and Bardzell, 2013.
  35. Latour, 2010.
  36. Braidotti, 2017; Mouffe, 2016.
  37. Braidotti, 2017, p. 21.
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