Mapping the Pragmatic Imagination: An Interview with Ann M. Pendleton-Jullian (Part 5)

You cite designers Anthony Dunne and Fiona Ruby as saying, “The purpose of speculation is to unsettle the present rather than to predict the future.” Does this imply that science fiction and other speculative genres might have a particularly powerful role to play in fostering the Pragmatic Imagination? What do you see as the relationship between speculative fiction and speculative design?

 

Yes, absolutely, and in two ways. Speculative genres serve as provocation, whether as a challenge directed at society through speculation as critique, or as an evocative object/text/construct, that sets the imagination in motion in the reader – orchestrating their participation in the speculation. But speculative genres can also serve as methodologies, meaning that one can engage in the making of speculative fiction – writing scenarios of one’s own as part of a larger process of speculation around a topic or problem. In Pragmatic Imagination, we have a chapter on this issue of setting the imagination in motion – tricking it to appear when one has something they need it for.

Speculative genres are powerful because they are much bigger than merely predictive. When done well, they honor the same muses of prediction – they understand the need to find trends in the present that will impact the future – but they don’t stop there because they do not assume that the future is pre-written, nor are they uncritical of trends and their possible trajectories. Dunne and Raby’s statement hit a chord with me because of the opportunity that is inherent in shifting from prediction to speculation. Prediction implies that the future is something playing out and that predicting it in advance puts us in a better position when we get there. Unsettling the present is about actively accepting the responsibility that we are all constructing our future with the decisions we make and the things we do. Trends then are merely trajectories with a history but also with an alterable future. Both speculative fiction and speculative design work to question trends and their interactions by speculating on what might play out (for good and bad) and presenting alternatives that may be either worse or more desirable. Science fiction and speculative fiction can do both. They can play out trends the authors see emerging – alerting us to the monster in the backyard or pointing out the angel of opportunity in the driveway – but they can also break with the logic of trends, unsettling the present by speculating on futures that would demand action in the present to get there.

Speculation comes in different genres – is present in different genres. We see it as fantasy and horror, as science fiction, and even as satire or mock non-fiction. Speculative fiction and design can be extreme fantasy or it can be just one note shy of reality.

The kind of speculative fiction I have always been most drawn to is the one that is just a note shy of reality; one that opens up a gap of dissonance between what you think you know and some peripheral parallel possible reality. I remember discovering Ray Bradbury when I was very young . . . Growing up in the Midwest – not one particular place – but lots of the same kinds of places – suburban towns-not-quite-towns – where the trees never grew taller than 5 feet (seemingly – we moved a lot) and the back yards blended into one unending undifferentiated lawn. Under-stimulated intellectually and emotionally, I took to reading Ray Bradbury. I remember discovering Something Wicked This Way Comes, October Country and The Illustrated Man (preparing me for my obsession with Magical Surrealism later on). These are not what we think of when we think of science fiction – perhaps closer to an American surrealism that blends some aspects of science fiction with liminal horror and fantasy. These novels completely captivated me because they revealed an edge or crack in reality. Inside that crack was a mirror reflecting back a hyper-perspective – an uncanny space alive with possibilities, both good and bad. This instilled in me the sense of alternate spaces and stories just out of reach, simultaneously just beyond the big-sky horizon at the end of my street and embedded in the folds of too much time on my hands. I became captivated by the notion of what else might be out there, especially possibilities that might make little or no sense in the calculus of the present, although one might reverse engineer them to.

So back to your question more directly, I think the value in science fiction is that it speculates on what the future might look like if we play out certain trends in science and technology. This helps us see where we might be headed. If we don’t like it, then that certainly unsettles the present, emotionally. The Matrix is one very good example of this as is Stephenson’s work. Socially oriented science fiction tends to critique the world, show us the repercussions of our ways, and in a space that we emotionally respond to whether positively or negatively. Science fiction when it is story based tends to create an emotional look and see. But science fiction can also speculate on what one might accomplish in the future. This is where the fiction of Jules Verne or Asimov might fit in. Jules Verne’s work not only socialized the science and technology but created desire for.

Science fiction helps readers imagine alternate scenarios constructed on playing out science and technology trends or desires. There has always been a gap between those who are scientifically and technologically sophisticated, or even knowledgeable, and those who are not – usually the majority of a population. This gap is only increasing. Science fiction brings this science and technology into the realm of the social. It does so to entice and to warn, playing out fantasy and fears. The unsettlement is the emotion of being confronted with these. In a complex evolving world, there are always unintended/unforeseen consequences of things we do – the sciences and technologies we develop. But when a monster appears in the back year, most of us believe it will disappear because it wasn’t there yesterday or the day before. We believe it must be an aberration. Science fiction writers recognize these monsters – the good and bad ones – for what they are, imagine what they might become, and construct stories around them. This is valuable. But the problem with science fiction (why I am less interested in most of it) is that it doesn’t necessarily speculate on possible alternative states that may or may not be about trends. And science fiction often does all the work for the reader.

Science fiction that engages in world building goes beyond science fiction that is meant to show us something. In creating an entire world context with texture and coherence, the reader is now asked to participate in that context. In doing so, they contribute, they speculate. They write new stories and build out more of the world. This moves one from the big picture of, for example, machines dominating the world in The Matrix, to the texture of a prototyped near future – Minority Report – in which the big picture cascades through all facets of the world in which we participate. In this kind of science fiction, we run into conflicts as things bump up against each other. Driving for coherence, we seek to resolve, or wrestle with these conflicts: marketing and surveillance and bio-engineering and cars and family life . . . So beyond the message and themes, one participates and wrestles with the world one is speculating about. This is valuable.

I am much more interested in fiction that explores and tests boundaries to stimulate insights about the world around us – to challenges us to see the world less naively – and then provoke a space of possibility in which we can imagine – non-naively – the world differently – different for better, whether only incrementally better or hugely better.

World building can do this.

But this brings us also to speculative fiction. It would be fair to say that all fiction is speculative but of course what you mean, what we mean, when we refer to speculative fiction is fiction where one is speculating, usually about a world space, around some theme or idea. For me the paradigmatic example of this is the short ‘story’ Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius by the Argentinian poet/writer/intellectual Jorge Luis Borges. Tlön is written as a narrative account of finding a piece of an encyclopedia for a supposedly real, but obviously fictional, world. In parallel to telling the story of the discovery of this encyclopedia, it cites from the encyclopedia, providing a textured sketch of the world of Tlön, which is built on a specific philosophical ideology that exists in the society in which Borges lived. He speculates on what a world based on Berksonian Idealism would look like – in all domains from language to animals to social and economic systems. He does this in order to speculate on how this idea would play out – what a world based on this concept would look like. This kind of speculative fiction is stunning in that it allows us to play with concepts or trends or anything in order to see a different possible world. This disrupts how we think and act in the present. Borges did not set Tlön n the future. Instead it was an alternate now (actually, an alternate then – it was first published in 1940) that was intended to disrupt and influence – unsettle – the now (then).

Speculative fiction can be in the realm of futurism, but it does not have to be. This is where it parts company with science fiction. I am actually much more interested in speculative fiction that is used to interrogate the present, unsettling it so that we might actually act differently (so back to the quote from Dunne and Raby).

Another one of my favorite books, which is speculative in nature, is The City & the City by China Miéville. Alex McDowell introduced me to this when we were doing the RiLao world building studio. The City & the City interrogates the notion of two cities that exist overlaid, or interleaved. One city is wealthy and modern, while the other is struggling and not modern. There are forces that believe the two cities were one city and forces that are responsible for policing the difference. Citizens of each city are required to ‘unsee’ the other city, even if a car from the other city is hurtling towards them – stepping out of the way without ‘seeing’ the car. To travel between cities requires going through customs and immigration even if the person you want to meet with lives in the building next door to you. Miéville denies different interpretations that frame the book as only a critique of given conditions in our cities today. I suspect it is because he is more interested in the speculation than the critique – interrogating what this condition means for one’s love life, business, etc. and then speculating on how to get around it. The novel is a who-done-it set in a world of ‘what-if’. As we participate in the who-done-it aspect, we begin to engage with the premise and try to see a few steps ahead. Speculative fiction allows us to see a story or a world based upon a ‘what if’. And usually, it engages us to participate in speculating on that what if. But it stops there. It might emotionally and intellectually motivate us to action but it does not really ask us to, nor does it provide a framework for action.

Speculative design on the other hand is a call to action, even if only for the designers. Design that is speculative, even if existing on a very theoretical plane, is always a call to action because design by nature goes from ‘what-if’ (the speculative question) to designing ‘as if’ if were real (fiction and world building does this as well) but because design is engaged within a practice that is geared towards ultimately producing things in the real world, it puts speculation and imagination around speculation to purpose. Even when not realized, it is there ready to be released into the real world because speculative design is meant to circulate. It “depends upon dissemination and engagement with a public or expert audience” – those who are in a position to do things in the real world.

Speculative design can be about small things (Superflux – a camera to photograph 5 dimensions) or it can play a social and possibly political role, “combining the poetic, critical and progressive by applying excessively imaginative thinking to seriously large scale issues,” quoting Dunne and Raby again. Dunne and Raby have a project called “The United Micro-Kingdoms”, which they talk about in their book Speculative Everything. They refer to it as ‘big design’ because it is societal systems level design. But it actually does both. It speculates at the ‘big’ systems level and then designs artifacts that both manifest and interrogate the ‘big.’ The project speculates on four different possible futures based upon a set of four different political ‘what-if’ scenarios that are derived from crossing degrees of personal freedom with degrees of economic freedom. They used a scenario planning framework where two axis cross representing two different current trends one wants to focus on, creating four quadrants that represent four possible scenarios. Unlike traditional scenario planning though, the axes are not associated with real world trends but (conflicting) political positions, and the scenarios are not anticipated scenarios but imagined states. Instead of “it will play out this way”, they ask “what if we could imagine it this way.” The project creates four concurrent micro-Britains, each of which is based upon an alternate ‘what if’ scenario. Not stopping there, they then do a partial world build of those scenarios and then focus on the automobile and its infrastructure as a physical artifact and system that manifests many aspects of that world. In the end, the results play out, critique, and interrogate current positions and trends. But they do so by speculating on alternate courses of history based upon other values and intersecting ideologies.

While being a type of research, it is more. It opens up a public imagination (speculative design is meant to be disseminated – the United Micro-Kingdoms project was extensively exhibited and published) to possible future realities. Speculative design, even in its extreme form, is not fiction. It is meant as research into possibilities. And like all good research, the most successful speculative design can be rigorously interrogated and assessed.

This is part of the pragmatic dna: to not imagine gratuitously or for personal pleasure only, but also, for public influence and agency. For me, as an architect, this is when it becomes very interesting – when it leads to agency in the real world.

Speculative design is a space between reality and the impossible. It focuses on how to think about reality in a sophisticated, complex, world-space way. To use the imagination both freely and synthetically – for sense-breaking and sense-making to radicalize reality. In Pragmatic Imagination, we talk about setting the imagination in motion and then instrumentalizing the products of the imagination for action in the world. Speculative design offers a framework for setting oneself in motion within the context of a big question or problem that draws on the pragmatic imagination. It also suggests a practice of design speculation that instrumentalizes the products of the speculation through public dissemination. But one need not stop there.

Ann Pendleton‐Jullian is an architect, writer, and educator of international standing whose work explores the interchange between architecture, landscape, culture, science, and technology within complex contexts. She is currently Full Professor and former director of the Knowlton School of Architecture at Ohio State University, distinguished Visiting Professor out of the President’s Office at Georgetown University, and periodically co-teaches world building studios at USC’s School of Cinema.

ApJ’s projects range in scale and scope from things to systems of action. Notable projects demonstrating this range are: a house for the astronomer Carl Sagan and his wife; award winning prototypical bioclimatic houses – one for Tenerife; various winning or placing competition entries including a New Congress Hall in Valparaiso, Chile, and an urban design project for the Miguelete River basin sponsored by the Municipality of Montevideo. Much of her recent work focuses on empowerment and economic development through various projects including the Asian University for Women in Bangladesh and an eight-village ecosystem conceived around rural craft tourism in Guizhou province in China. Currently she is working on a new Jesuit University for Eastern Africa, including its pedagogical model, the future re-imagining of the Pardee RAND Graduate School of Public Policy, and a house in an environmentally sensitive part of the Pocono Mountains. ApJ has five authored books and portfolios, including: The Road That Is Not a Road and the Open City, Ritoque, Chile by MIT Press (’96); Games for Shanghai (’08) published by CA Press in Shanghai; and Design Education and Innovation Ecotones (’09).

Mapping the Pragmatic Imagination: An Interview with Ann M. Pendleton-Jullian (Part 4)

Let’s shift to a topic that is central to both of us — why is it important that adults retain the capacity for play?

 

There are six critical reasons that have to do with one’s relationship to the world in the world: for learning and unlearning that leads to new learning; for constructing and evolving meaningful social relationships; for experimenting with possibilities in order to imagine alternate perspectives and pathways; for its cooperatively competitive aspects; for its emotional aspects; and for resilience because all of the others build resilience.

 

For learning and unlearning-leading-to-new-learning: The smallest children play as a form of unencumbered experimentation. This is how they begin to learn about the world as unique individuals – playing on their own to discover the world and themselves in the world as a concrete thing. Then play becomes social. One plays to learn with others, then about others and how one fits into the social puzzle. For children, play is a way to learn about the world – concretely and socially – experimenting to see how things respond, testing boundaries, playing with possibilities. The world is a place of magic because the ‘rules’ of the world are not yet clear to them and so their imaginations are as engaged in making sense of it, as in seeing the possibilities in it.

A stick is as much a wand as it is a stick until one ‘learns’ that the normative rules of physics and biology declare it just a stick. But play is a space of permission to relax those rules. So, for adults, play is a space of permission to unlearn ‘rules’ in order to experiment with possibilities that re-imagine the world under different terms – concretely and socially – with different rules or with themselves in different roles. Imagining ourselves in different roles, playing with those roles, allows us to discover new capacities, new interests, imagine alternate pathways forward, and build new social relationships. Imagining different rules governing reality, playing with those rules allows us to imagine alternate contexts, how they might work, and entertain as viable, alternatives that would not have seemed so before.

Both of these are valuable – maybe necessary – in a world that will always provide us with unanticipated events and often-drastic unforeseen change. Unlearning through play allows us to open our minds to learning things anew. Playing/experimenting with alternate selves in safe spaces of play, allows us to potentially evolve an authentic, not default, self. In a world rapidly changing with radically contingent unanticipated changes, authenticity is one’s center of gravity.

Play is, by nature, social. We play with others. Play helps us construct social relationships that are meaningful and it helps us sustain and evolve those relationships. On the individual level, playing with self-authored instructions one lives by in order to find where there is play in the system, helps one evolve in a social body. On the level of personal relationships with others, one constructs and evolves relationships through play, tapping into the emotional aspects of play as a means to draw someone closer. Playing with someone else in an emotional/playful space to create intimacy, but also to probe for similarities and dissimilarities – Do we believe in the same things? Do we play by the same rules? – in an unthreatening way because these underlie the play. One is probing, not debating.

 

Play also constructs social groups and scaffolds learning through social groups. My good friend and co-author John Seely Brown, when he left PARC in 2000, asked the video game designer, JC Hertz to reverse mentor him in the world of MMOG’s (massively multi-player online games). This experience led to him writing “The Play of the Imagination” and then A New Culture of Learning with Doug Thomas. I remember one of my very first conversations with JSB was about World of Warcraft and the peripheral communities that have grown up around the game – the way role playing, emotionally charged collaborative efforts, invented means of review and assessment for learning, all of these contributed to social communities of highly diverse individuals from around the world. And had the capacity to amplify learning around collaboration and leadership.

 

So I want to come back to this idea of a space of permission. Play, by definition, and by nature, is a safe space because we agree that it is not serious. When we enter into play (Johan Huizinga called this the magic circle), we agree that the endeavor is without any of the consequences of our normal lives. While based in reality, it is not reality. Therefore, play is rarely free form or random. It advances by rules, be they well designed and articulated as in complex game environments (from Go to WoW), or tacitly accessed and lightly present (children’s role playing games or affectionate repartee). Rules create coherence for play. They create the logic for what one can do. Animals frolic for exercise and socialization. Humans do too, but early on in life, stories begin to creep into the space of play providing the catalyst and the coherence for rules of play.

Because stories (close to, or far from reality) provide coherence and the calculus of play, play is a space of permission that relaxes the constraints of reality, allowing us to play with our own concrete and social relationships to reality. Concretely, we can do physical things differently. Socially, we can try out different roles and relationships. This can, and does spill out into the real world for both good and bad, But on the good side, playing new roles, we can learn about ourselves and we can also imagine as viable, new possibilities for ourselves. We can also learn about the world as it is by playing with ‘simulations’ of it, but we can also test boundaries, jump boundaries, and push on them. But we can also use play to imagine as viable, new possible futures. This is important for evolving as individuals and as social groups.

 

Play is an emotional space. As a space of permission where one relaxes real world rules, there is a sense of emotional and even cognitive relaxation. And there is delight in a space of play. There is delight in the cooperative pact of ignoring reality’s rules, for fun, for the game of it. But play is also competitive. One plays to win, even if only in the breaching of reality. In games that are set up as specifically player competitive, whether one on one or raid team against raid team, there is both collaboration and competition, which creates an emotionally charged social space. This entanglement of cooperation and competition in an emotionally charged space heightens the experience, which can amplify learning and capacity for real life collaboration and leadership. In play and games, where the consequence is insubstantial, one will take risks they will not take in the real world. And one will play them out in a space that still has a story’s logic. Mistakes will have to be fixed or at least analyzed for learning. One can fail big, learn and live to tell about it.

 

So all of these – learning and unlearning, evolving meaningful social relationships, experimenting with possibilities in order to imagine alternate perspectives and pathways, the cooperatively competitive emotional aspects – all of these lead to resilience and adaptability. If only for this, adults should not only retain the capacity for play, but they should play more. Not merely recreate more, but play more.

 

And then there is innovation, novelty, and the evolving of society and culture itself, including novelty and innovation around things – technological and otherwise – but also around the institutions and systems that make up society, and around the ideas that evolve culture, especially in a problematic age. For innovation and novelty, one needs to find the play in the system – where rules can be bent, broken, written anew. And even more radically, create rules for new systems – writing new stories that catalyze whole new rule sets – and then designing ways to close the gap between the present and envisioned future.

 

The fuel of play is the imagination, in all of its colors – the full spectrum of cognitive activity from perception to improvisation, all mixed together and inextricably entangled with the action of the ‘play’ that is in play. (This is what The Pragmatic Imagination outlines.) In the opening of play, we create a break from reality that invites our imaginations to participate as dominant cognitive activity. It requires our imaginations to participate, first to help us break with reality, and then to help us participate in constructing new rules of play – new instructions for action. So for what we term, in our book, sense-breaking, and then sense-making.

 

In our book, we talk about the imagination like a muscle. In play we exercise the imagination and the more we exercise the imagination, the more we can engage in meaningful play. One of the baseline perspectives of our larger system of books Design Unbound is that the world has “just come together too quickly” (to quote one of our colleagues) and that “we need a new tool set” (to quote another one). But in addition to a new tool set, we need a new ontology – a new way to be. I would suggest that this is a triangular ontology.

Several years back, JSB began to speak about a necessary new shift for learning from Homo Sapiens to Homo Faber. Sapiens literally translates as wise, but implies scholarly knowledge, and faber translates as artisan. So from learning through scholarly pursuits to learning through the act of making, loosely conceived. While supportive of the Maker Movement, it was more about all of the tacit, but bodily-imbedded ways we learn about the world. A triangular ontology – a way of being that we believe is critical for the 21st century – would be the simultaneity of homo sapien plus homo faber plus homo ludens. Engaging the world – both learning about it and acting in it – through acquiring knowledge, making things, and playing. Homo sapien is about the world of the mind. Homo faber, the physical world. And homo ludens is about us as social creatures that engage in storytelling

So, adults need to play more because, from stories for role-playing to stories for ‘what-if’ scenarios of new worlds, we interrogate the world through play, which leads to imagining and then prototyping new possibilities. This is critical not only for evolution of self, but also for evolution of society and culture. So we have a sixth critical reason for adults needing to play more. In addition to resilience and adaptability in the world, it is about agency on the world.

John also has been a great supporter of the Maker movement. In the earlier days he was supporting a shift. He used Homo Sapien to Home Faber as a construct – Faber being making. With all of his interest in WoW and my own interest in games and using them in studios . . . I became so fascinated with play and games, that I added homo ludens to the other two – not replacing but adding. Homo Faber is about the material world that we learn about through our hands/bodies, through making things. Homo Sapien is the world of the mind that we learn about through thought and reading and . . . Homo Ludens is the social world – the world of our relationships with others – that we learn about through play. Triangular ontology.

 

Ann Pendleton‐Jullian is an architect, writer, and educator of international standing whose work explores the interchange between architecture, landscape, culture, science, and technology within complex contexts. She is currently Full Professor and former director of the Knowlton School of Architecture at Ohio State University, distinguished Visiting Professor out of the President’s Office at Georgetown University, and periodically co-teaches world building studios at USC’s School of Cinema.

ApJ’s projects range in scale and scope from things to systems of action. Notable projects demonstrating this range are: a house for the astronomer Carl Sagan and his wife; award winning prototypical bioclimatic houses – one for Tenerife; various winning or placing competition entries including a New Congress Hall in Valparaiso, Chile, and an urban design project for the Miguelete River basin sponsored by the Municipality of Montevideo. Much of her recent work focuses on empowerment and economic development through various projects including the Asian University for Women in Bangladesh and an eight-village ecosystem conceived around rural craft tourism in Guizhou province in China. Currently she is working on a new Jesuit University for Eastern Africa, including its pedagogical model, the future re-imagining of the Pardee RAND Graduate School of Public Policy, and a house in an environmentally sensitive part of the Pocono Mountains. ApJ has five authored books and portfolios, including: The Road That Is Not a Road and the Open City, Ritoque, Chile by MIT Press (’96); Games for Shanghai (’08) published by CA Press in Shanghai; and Design Education and Innovation Ecotones (’09).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mapping the Pragmatic Imagination: An Interview with Ann M. Pendleton-Jullian (Part 3)

I have been taken lately by a phrase from Stephen Duncombe’s writing about the value of utopian imagination, where he speaks of the “tyranny of the possible,” suggesting that our solutions to problems get limited when we are thinking only within the constraints of what we currently accept as reality. What are some of the tools you have discovered that people are using to think beyond “the tyranny of the possible”? How do we address the concern that unfettered imagination is by definition impractical if we are to achieve that mix of imagination and practice you advocate throughout the book?

 

I love this phrase – “the tyranny of the possible”! Similar to it is one by Erik Olin Wright from Envisioning Utopias where he writes, “the actual limits of what is achievable depend in part on the beliefs people hold about what sorts of alternatives are viable.” The problem that I see with holding too tightly to only the viable and the possible is that one often ends up being purely tactical in nature – going after solutions to pieces of problems based upon one’s own biases and expertise – optimizing for what one thinks is most important and/or what one can ‘realistically’ do. This is fine for simple or complicated problems (think bicycle or Tesla) but will not work for complex problems that need real work at a dynamic systems level (think rainforest) where breaking apart the problem or operating tactically often causes negative versus positive outcomes. These are the problems that require a pragmatic imagination for reasons already touched upon.

Complex problems require thinking forward more than solving for the present. Imagining a better state and then working towards it. The “tyranny of the possible” when it looks forward only sees trends of today playing out. It is stuck in only what is known. It assumes that the future is a version of today playing out. But if you think about it, the future – in any domain, any piece of it – is an unknown. More importantly, it is an unknown that we are constructing, whether consciously or not, with every decision or action we take, small or large. In fact, I would suggest that it will be only a default construction if we wrestle in real time with problems and opportunities constrained by both the tyranny of the possible and the tyranny of time.

 

Utopian thinking, or imagining utopian states/societies, is liberating precisely because utopias are fictional no-places. But what if you want to think about real places and especially new possibilities, new possible states of existing conditions, problems even, how do you ‘land’ utopian thinking. How do you make it useful? How do you avoid the rejection of its results as being (tautologically) ‘utopian’? Historically, utopian thinking has acted as an invaluable critique of existing society, existing realities. As such, its role has been as an agent to prod others to act. So I come back to the question of how do you land it? In fact, how do you start it in a way that it is valuable and then how do you land it?

As you know, I have been interested in, and involved with world building for several years now. I am fascinated by its two-sided nature. It helps us escape the “tyranny of the possible” by giving us permission to imagine and then build a world based upon a larger construct, whether that construct is utopian or not. And then, because we engage in building out that world, with texture, across a wide range of domains, from those that are material (geography, climate, architecture, clothing), social domains (family structure, politics, markets and advertising, crime), mental domains (language, culture, memes), and technology, we create something so vivid that one can actually imagine inhabiting it.

At the 2014 TED conference (its thirtieth anniversary), the rock musician Sting gave a presentation in which he spoke about his rise to stardom and a period in which he was unable to write. After years of silence, he discovered a new muse in reflecting on his childhood. David Brooks wrote about this saying that “most TED talks are about the future, but Sting’s was about going into the past. (TED conference speakers generally live in hope and have the audacity of the technologist. And there’s a certain suspension of disbelief as audiences get swept up in the fervor and feel themselves delightedly on the cutting edge.) The difference between the two modes of thinking stood in stark contrast. In the first place, it was clear how much richer historical consciousness is than future vision. When we think about the future, we don’t think about the texture and the tensions, the particular smells, shapes, conflicts – the dents in the floorboards. Historical consciousness has a fullness of paradox that future imagination cannot match.”

 

What is interesting and so valuable about world building is that you are after imagining, and then creating through text, images, games, film, books, artifacts, “the dents in the floorboards,” So much so that one can actually imagine inhabiting that world. And even desiring to do so. In world building, one is making a whole range of viable and not so viable possibilities actually tangible enough that we are willing to consider them. We are willing to consider them because, as strange as the individual details might be, the world is coherent and therefore credible. And most world building starts in some aspect of reality that draws us in. The coherence keeps us involved until we begin to suspend our disbelief and run with the proposition in all of its detail and texture. And in capturing the “fullness of paradox” or paradoxes that one finds in real life, one is not only entertaining possibilities that escape the tyranny of the possible, you are also wrestling with conflicts and paradoxes that might belong to the present – but now in the way they may play out in the future (The Matrix or Hunger Games) – and/or actually discovering new paradoxes that are specifically related to what might happen if you place different imaged scenarios into the same world building container and let them bump up against each other through story (Minority Report).

There are different purposes for world building in cinema, literature and games. One might aim to create an intensified experience – frightening, delightful, fantastic or humorous; or, to immerse us in an historical period; or critique the present. World building can help us play out hopes and fears. But it can also be used to prototype a future: playing out trends to see where they might go; interrogating conflicts and paradoxes; but also to imagine, or hypothesize, a future based upon an idea or desired outcome – to imagine an ideal state, an ideal response, or a better world, and then build the world around it in the world building space so that one can build towards it in reality.

The value of this for real world situations and problems is just this: to imagine a desired future state, with texture, detail, and coherence, and then build towards it, as opposed to trying to solve for present problems – the kind that, in fact, cannot really be solved – in a fractured way. This can be done at the scale of a world situation, but it can also be valuable at the scale of an organization, or even an individual. I have engaged in world building my future and am actually doing a course this term for the students at Ohio State on exactly this. But I have also worked with organizations to world build the future of their institution in a way that has created something completely unforeseeable and catalytic. I have worked with students and faculty in three institutions to world build the future of the university. And I have worked on world building projects that have generated insight about the future. In these kinds of projects, one of the greatest contributions is that world building uncovers unforeseen questions, paradoxes, conflicts and even opportunities in the process of thinking big.

 

I was immensely fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with Alex McDowell, the production designer for Steven Spielberg on Minority Report, probably the best example of world building that aimed to prototype the future by bringing together the most advanced thinking, trends and inventions on the horizon to intersect with each other. Alex was recruited to a faculty appointment at the School of Cinema at USC and we worked on his first world building studio together. The project was a wonderful conceit. He was interested in working with either Rio or LA as a beginning point. I had been fascinated by a book of José Saramago’s called The Stone Raft in which a seemingly benign incident causes the Iberian Peninsula to break off from the continent and float out to sea. Saramago plays out the political, social and personal repercussions based upon the historical and contemporary relationship of Portugal to Spain. This influenced the generative idea for the studio: a portion of Rio had experienced a cataclysmic event, sending it out to sea, as did a portion of LA. They had collided in the ocean, somewhere non-specific and far from civilization, creating a new city-island-state called RiLao. As the students picked this up, they added more to the history including a major plague that had isolated the island from the contemporary world for a period of time, trapped a series of visiting scientists and technologists who developed a parallel, but different from any mainland society, science and technology – one that was very biologically oriented and highly constrained by resources. There was also a foundational mythology and economy.

 

The catalytic beginning point of Rio and LA collided together allowed us to look at the city as a site of major economic and cultural divides – both Rio and LA have this in common – multiple city islands within the city (we also read China Miéville’s 2009 novel The City & the City). It also allowed us to play with similarities of cultural exuberance and other themes. We found many similarities that underlie global trends and differences that characterized different expressions and possible future trajectories of these trends. World building worked off of the original premise of the collision of the two cities and themes that came from there, but also from student preoccupations as they mapped their own interests onto this world.

There was a fascinating oscillation between playing out reality with permission to let go of the ‘tyranny of the possible’, and the overlay of large ideas and questions that came from the students’ own preoccupations and obsessions about the future. It was fascinating! The responsible irresponsibility led us to find and wrestle with some hard questions. Not in the abstract, but in terms of how they might play out in a world – or a future world. In world building, coherence is the magical mechanism because, while you have permission to imagine beyond, or other-than, reality, the fact that you are building a world, demands coherence. It demands that all of the parts stick together in some sort of mesh of imaginative calculus. This is why and how one discovers paradoxes, conflicts, questions and opportunities.

 

For example, we had students interested in the plague and biological mutations that occurred because of it. Others were interested in the relationship of the plague doctors to the evolution of medical science on the island, while others were interested in how these plague doctors intersected with mythology and religious/cultural constructs. Some students played with the role of memory and identity associated with the plague generation, and how this conflicted with younger generations. The size of the island and its increasing population led to terra-forming, drones for construction, drones for cleaning and repairing buildings that were no longer accessible by infrastructure . . . the increasing divide between the dense lower income city and the new terra-formed neighborhoods . . . artistic traditions from both LA and Rio lent a surreal aspect to much of this . . . all of these contributed. Everything new folded back in to recalibrate the rest of the world.

 

One of the many memorable projects – just to show you the way things bumped up against each other – was the project of a Media Arts and Practices doctoral student, Behnaz Farahi, who was interested in how the densification of the city and the biological overlay intersected with issues of privacy, identity, fashion, architecture and expression. She was playing with the trend of machine-augmented humans with the assumption that the isolation of the island had allowed and demanded an accelerated level of development of biomechotronic parts. But concurrently, she was also deeply interested in how other life forms both protected and expressed themselves through camouflage, defensive adaptations, dramatic coloration and plumage. And then, of course, this resonated with the exuberant artistic cultural heritages of Rio and LA.

Camouflage from WbML on Vimeo.

Her project resulted in a ‘wearable’ device of feathers/armament that was controlled electronically through connections to the electrical output of the skin. Although it was prototyped as a wearable, there was always the assumption that it might actually be a permanent addition to a body. Featherlike in appearance, making reference to the elaborate costumes of Carnival, it could open and close providing privacy, defense and possibly shelter in a hyper-dense environment. The questions the project raised relative to future forms of humans, cybernetics, mutations, identity, space etc were fascinating, and deeply provocative – real questions that we should be entertaining with more rigor and imagination. In assuming the existence, and not the denial, of these trends, Behnaz allowed us to see something that might be as magnificent and useful as it might also be frightening. I have touched on this only briefly but it gives you an idea.

 

A second world building studio that I had the opportunity to witness the results of stands in productive contrast to the RiLao studio. Sometimes, one world builds around responsible and important questions. I was able to sit in on the final review of a world building studio that took on looking at solutions for a highly marginalized community in Lagos. The work was very responsible to the problem and beautifully produced. But wanting to be viable so that the results might be implementable, it got stuck in the tyranny of the possible. Specifically, many of the projects were evocative manifestations of assumed ‘solutions’ around education and health – solutions that others involved with these communities have already identified as necessary. The world building part added certain new technologies to the mix. Not to deny that these are important assumptions, but they are partial solutions that, while viable, have not yet gotten enough traction because the system – the world – around them (lack of funding, lack of government participation, community belief structures, etc) remains intact and immovable.

Going back to the RiLao example, the one project I cited – one of several very successful projects of the first studio – allowed one to see further and more critically – to use one’s imagination to interrogate the present in an exaggerated situation and to look for possible alternate paths of emerging trends. This is not to say that the fearful issues go away, just that one is willing to entertain possibilities that escape from normative biases. And entertain them in a way that lets you see them in a more complex context, technologically, socially and even culturally.

 

The RiLao studio spread after its first semester into a much larger group of participants. When it finished its ‘run’ after two years, 9 other schools in 7 countries had participated in building and interrogating this world with tremendous richness and imagination. Some of the work was pure fantasy but much of it provided windows into how to think about the future and real prototypes for projects that can actually be built today. This is another aspect of world building – that, if successful, the world is so evocative, that others can, and will, begin to build upon it, adding new content to the world and new stories that play in that world.

 

In world building for real world impact, we can target a future date that is far out enough to allow us to break with the present, yet close enough to avoid the seduction of fantasy. Far out enough gives us permission to imagine more than if we stay fixed in the problems, opportunities and solutions on our doorstep. Over the past three years, I have done a series of three studios with a colleague of mine at Georgetown University and one on my own at Ohio State to world build the future of the university for 2033. The first studio at Georgetown was in 2013. Our students were (mostly) twenty years old and so adding 20 years to 2013 meant that we were adding a ‘lifetime’ to the present year.

 

This created enough of a ‘too far out’ to escape fixed views of what is viable. They were still students that had emotional and epistemological attachment to their university, and so that, by default, provided responsibility. Sometimes too much so, but we persevered in pushing them. At the moment, there are two camps in both thinking and action around innovation in higher education. One looks at the problems to resolve, usually picking one to three of them to optimize for, and then creates mechanisms to do so. The other comes from the ‘let the new technologies disrupt’ side and promotes new technology rich methods for learning. Both of these are valuable, but partial, carving off a piece of the problem to work on when the university of today is actually the legacy of an era that is so distinctly different than our own that a new model is required. The digital hyper connected age could not be further from the industrial age, structurally, socially, epistemologically, emotionally, in terms of identity, and in terms of the functioning of the world. Therefore, we focused on what the ‘university/higher ed’ would look like if one world built it for the world of 2033. In world building a new model, the students worked to create integrated, rich, textured and coherent systems/models where conflicts and paradoxes are taken into account and held (not resolved) by the world.

 

The question then becomes: if one world builds a future, which we have said is not necessarily viable today, how practical is that? How can you ‘land it’? How can you create concrete things and actions that lead to change? How do you close the gap between the world that you have imagined/built and where we are now?

 

If we accept that the future is not known, that it emerges out of actions taken in the present, based upon actions in the past, then one has to work to shape the emergence. This means that you cannot create strategic plans in the traditional top-down five-year-prescriptive sense. In Design Unbound, we present a meta-tool that is a System of Action which works both in and on the context to shape change – to close the gap between a new imagined context/world or condition and the present reality.

 

Unfettered imagination should not be seen as impractical. The issue is that it is often seen as not actionable for anything but individual artistic expression. But pragmatic means being able to accomplish something. The pragmatic imagination means being able to marry imagination to action that has purpose and agency.

World building helps one do that. It helps you imagine beyond what you know to see more than you knew. Systems of action or any mechanism that instrumentalizes the imagination helps to put it to pragmatic purpose.

But I also want to be careful. One of JSB’s colleagues, who is an artist and website creator, was offended at even the term pragmatic imagination. He felt that it was demeaning or demoralizing to think of the imagination as pragmatic. As a person, myself, who is very thankful for having a practice that traffics in imagination, I’m not sure I understand completely his concern, but I can imagine that if one thinks that pragmatic means only practical, or that one has to even start purposefully, then I have the same problem. But the concept of the pragmatic imagination is actually the opposite of that. It is the fact that we use the imagination for everything to different degrees. Our point is that it needs to be understood more, valued for more, scaffolded – developing practices that set it in motion – and instrumentalized – both it and its products.

 

Sometimes the imagination just happens, but too often, especially as one matures if one is not in a discipline that specifically traffics in imagination, the imagination is illusive. The pragmatic imagination recognizes this. It looks at ways that others use to set it in motion all along the spectrum. Some of these just happen covertly, while others intentionally provoke its emergence. Pragmatic imagination consciously avoids the rhetoric around ‘we all just need to use our imaginations more’. Instead, it pragmatically sets out to talk about how, why, when, and where we can make more use of it as a cognitive muscle that releases us from the tyranny of the possible!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mapping the Pragmatic Imagination: An Interview with Ann M. Pendleton-Jullian (Part Two)

Break down the core concept — the pragmatic imagination — for us. What do you mean by imagination? In what senses can our imaginations be turned into pragmatic tools for changing the world?

 

When most people think of imagination, they mostly – or only – think of it in terms of the role it plays in artistic or speculative activities, those activities that we tend to associate with the word ‘creative.’ It has been deified within the realm of cultural pursuits and demonized when it emerges to get in the way of important thinking and serious work.

Those who trade in reason for a living recoil at its undisciplined nature. While others claim that we should not squander it on ‘practical’ work. Throughout western history, we have seen philosophers, artists and scientists setting imagination up against reason. Pragmatic Imagination proposes that the imagination is actually integral to all cognitive effort and therefore all activities in the world. But it is integral in different ways and to different degrees of effort. Understanding this allows us to unpack its role in the relationship between thought and action and then propose a way to think about how to amplify its capacity for meaningful activity of every kind.

We began by defining imagination. Because imagination and creativity are too often used interchangeably, we started by uncoupling the two. To do so, you need to enter into the domains of linguistics, philosophy and the brain sciences. (I said earlier that DesUnbound was its own ‘design’ project. This is because it moved forward through questions and more questions around those questions. As we asked and wrestled with questions, we discovered unforeseen perspectives, openings and branchings in previous thinking. This whole chapter is a good example of that!).

In wrestling with a good way to think about the imagination we went back to word origins. Both imagination and creativity are associated with novelty. That’s why they get conflated. But etymologically, ‘imagination’ is the capacity for, or the product of, imagining, which refers to the making of mental images. ‘Creativity’ is associated with the verb ‘to create’, and refers to inventive, productive and usually intentional action that results in the making of something.

Creativity is aimed at making things that enter the world, while imagination is a specific kind of cognitive function. It is the power or capacity of humans to form internal images of objects and situations. We usually think of these images as visual images, but they can also be auditory, olfactory, or motor ‘images.’

My colleague, the renowned neuroscientist who directs the Brain and Creativity Institute at USC, Antonio Damasio, talks about how the imagination relies on banked images that one recalls, brings ‘on line’ and then operates on to create novel combinations. The banked images he refers to come from both the world outside the mind and images that we are continually working on inside the mind. Experiences create images for the imagination to hold. But the imagination, with its propensity for playing with associations, also creates new renditions of them. So, real world experiences seed rich image banks for the imagination to draw from. The imagination is eclectic. It does not care where it gets images from and ‘real’ images are quickly replaced by ‘interpreted’ images.

Both imagination and creativity are processes that create products. But the product of the imagination is the image itself, while the product of creativity is something that enters and belongs to the world, whether that something is material – a new gadget – or immaterial – a new policy. And – (this is a critical difference) – they are differently experienced because they are different processes of human cognition and interaction with the world. The imagination is primarily an intra-psychological process, occurring in the brain on a temporal scale of microseconds, and ending when a resolution between an individual’s experience, and the internal image formation that this experience calls forth, emerges.

Creativity is a process that is part of a social domain of action. It operates on a longer time scale, ending when an internal cognitive product – a solution to a problem, an idea or an image – becomes embodied as something that enters the world of social relations – a world that has a history to it. Both are socially and culturally mediated products but the experience is different and the relationship of the product to the world is different. Because of this, we tend to associate creativity with intentions and purpose and we tend to associate imagination with the luxury of individual expression.

Why do I dwell on this? Because in looking at the imagination this way – as the cognitive process of making mental images – we were then able to interrogate how this cognitive process functions, and when. New research in the neurological and cognitive sciences – different work that focused on specific activities from basic perception to jazz improvisation – led to a pretty good framework for understanding how it functions. In understanding better the how, we then asked when. It is important to add that, while the concept and framework of the pragmatic imagination might have been catalyzed by scientific advances, it is actually a blend of science, philosophy, experience, and speculation.

A catalytic discovery for us was the work of two cognitive psychologists at UCSD who were working off of the shoulders of the famous Russian psychologist Vygötsky. Lev Vygötsky built a theory of human cultural development that theorized the interaction between the social and biological aspects of our evolution. The work that interested us was on how culture mediates perception – specifically, the most basic function of perception, which is seeing. Everything we see is mediated by the images we hold from past experience – images that are personal and cultural interpretations of the ‘real’ experience. (This is why two people seeing the same event might not agree on what they saw, or worse, a whole group of people might agree on the something they saw or experienced in a manner that completely contradicts what actually happened.)

Two UCSD cognitive scientists, Pelaprat and Cole, did a series of experiments, three quarters of a century after Vygötsky’s seminal work, that actually showed how, in the physical act of seeing, the brain relies on nano-second gaps in vision. When those gaps were removed, the brain ‘saw’ nothing . . . the image in front of the subjects disappeared to gray. In those gaps, they theorized that we use existing banked mental images to correlate the new image with what we know. In other words, to make sense of what we are seeing. This is where Pragmatic Imagination begins because this suggests that the process of creating, retrieving, and making mental images is not just about the most extremely undisciplined activities we might associate with this kind of cognitive activity, but, if it is also part of perception itself, then why not part of everything in between – an entire spectrum of cognitive activity.

Once you understand that the cognitive operations that are the imagination can serve in multiple roles from the most basic cognitive activity that we believe is a direct translation of reality – I’m talking about seeing – all the way to dreaming, which is considered the least directly related to reality, then the bi-polar dichotomy between reason and imagination is no longer relevant. This sets up the first principle of Pragmatic Imagination, which is that the imagination serves diverse cognitive processes as an entire spectrum of activity from perception through three forms of reasoning, speculation, experimentation, and all the way to where the free play of the imagination dominates.

There is a quote by William James that I love. He gets it. He says, “There are imaginations, not ‘the Imagination,’ and they must be studied in detail.”

In our interest to ‘study in detail,’ we then went on to look at the role of the imagination in this spectrum, and to specifically ask about the role of the gap. The gap being the difference between the unmediated thing we see, or experience in the world, and what we know; between the new ‘image’ and our banked ‘images.’ On one side of the spectrum – in perception through reasoning – we use the image making capacity of the mind to resolve that difference. The imagination helps us close the gap and make sense of the world. But as one moves along the spectrum, we actually use the imagination to enlarge, or create, new gaps and then to assist in resolving them to different degrees depending upon how the image is meant to intersect with the world. When we speculate on something, we begin to entertain things that are not necessarily viable – we begin to form images of things that might not be possible – of things that are strange to us. And then we use the imagination to make sense of these strange things – or at least to make them familiar enough to assimilate them. So there is a sense-making capacity in the imagination but there is also a sense-breaking capacity.

These are the first two principles of our framework. The next four go on to talk about how to harness all of this – the whole spectrum for pragmatic purpose. This framework allows us to talk about how the imagination, in all of its cognitive roles, can be put to purpose for agency and impact in today’s world. But it is also important to clarify that we use the word ‘pragmatic’ in its richest sense. We do not mean ‘practical.’ They are often used synonymously to refer to common sense conduct that is concerned with ordinary activities and ordinary work. This may accurately define ‘practical’, but it is insufficient for ‘pragmatic’ as both a way of acting and a way of thinking.

The Pragmatic Imagination draws on a deeper and more textured meaning of the word by borrowing from philosophical Pragmatism whose foundational premise was that thinking and acting in the world are integrally associated; they are indivisible and reciprocal, meaning that thinking – learning actually – depends upon empirical action in the world and action depends upon thinking. In Pragmatic Imagination, we are building a framework to understand how imagination and action can sustain a similar productive entanglement to support agency in the world. And how this is critically relevant in today’s white water world.

Pragmatic Imagination is a framework of six principles that build on each other in a manner that is intended to be useful for getting at how the imagination can be better understood, prompted into action, and then converted into work for all activities, but especially to create a new capacity for working on complex problems in ways we have not been able to do – and, to use your words, “to change the world.” In complex problems, or almost any problem, or opportunity, or interaction with the world, it is often those things which one doesn’t see clearly, or cannot foresee, or will not entertain as viable, etcetera, that are most difficult for us, yet potentially most useful. Often in focusing too hard, responsibly, earnestly, on a problem, we miss seeing the problem completely. Imagination is cognitive peripheral vision that helps us ‘see’ all of those things that are lying just out of range of what we know. And helps us discover things unknown.

The framework draws from advances in the cognitive and neuro-sciences that have allowed neuroscientists to watch the brain functioning under different imaginative activities. It draws from first hand accounts of moments of intense awareness of this kind of cognitive activity. And it draws from personal experience as participants in, and mentors of, imaginative activity. It talks about different methods used to provoke and scaffold the imagination and then looks forward to Design Unbound as a tool set for instrumentalizing the products of the imagination.

The six principles of the Pragmatic Imagination are encapsulated here:

  1. The imagination serves diverse cognitive processes as an entire spectrum of activity.
  2. The imagination both resolves and widens the gap between the unfamiliar (the new/novel/strange) and the familiar. This gap increases along the ‘role of imagination in cognitive processes’ spectrum from left to right. Within the range of abductive reasoning, there is a significant shift from using the imagination for sense-making to sense-breaking, where one first widens the gap and then resolves it with the imagination.
  3. The Pragmatic Imagination pro-actively imagines the actual in light of meaningful purposeful possibilities and sees the opportunity in everything.
  4. The Pragmatic Imagination sees thought and action as indivisible and reciprocal. Therefore, it is part of all cognitive activity that serves thought and action for anticipating, and thought and action for follow-through; and the generative/poïetic/sometimes-disruptive side of the spectrum is especially critical in a world that requires radically new visions and actions.
  5. The imagination must be instrumentalized to turn ideas into action – the entire spectrum of the imagination especially the generative/poïetic/sometimes-disruptive side.
  6. Because the imagination is not under conscious control, we need to find and design ways to set it in motion and scaffold it throughout meaningful activity.

Ann Pendleton‐Jullian is an architect, writer, and educator of international standing whose work explores the interchange between architecture, landscape, culture, science, and technology within complex contexts. She is currently Full Professor and former director of the Knowlton School of Architecture at Ohio State University, distinguished Visiting Professor out of the President’s Office at Georgetown University, and periodically co-teaches world building studios at USC’s School of Cinema.

ApJ’s projects range in scale and scope from things to systems of action. Notable projects demonstrating this range are: a house for the astronomer Carl Sagan and his wife; award winning prototypical bioclimatic houses – one for Tenerife; various winning or placing competition entries including a New Congress Hall in Valparaiso, Chile, and an urban design project for the Miguelete River basin sponsored by the Municipality of Montevideo. Much of her recent work focuses on empowerment and economic development through various projects including the Asian University for Women in Bangladesh and an eight-village ecosystem conceived around rural craft tourism in Guizhou province in China. Currently she is working on a new Jesuit University for Eastern Africa, including its pedagogical model, the future re-imagining of the Pardee RAND Graduate School of Public Policy, and a house in an environmentally sensitive part of the Pocono Mountains. ApJ has five authored books and portfolios, including: The Road That Is Not a Road and the Open City, Ritoque, Chile by MIT Press (’96); Games for Shanghai (’08) published by CA Press in Shanghai; and Design Education and Innovation Ecotones (’09).

Mapping the Pragmatic Imagination: An Interview with Ann M. Pendleton-Jullian (Part 1)

Every so often, you are introduced to a person and by the time the first conversation is completed, you know you have met someone who is going to be a vital part of your intellectual community for years to come. This is what happened to me when John Seely Brown, AKA JSB (of Xerox Parc fame) introduced me to Ann M. Pendleton-Jullian.  Ann is an architect and urban planner, currently at the Knowlton School at Ohio State University, but she is so much more than that.

Like JSB, with whom she sometimes collaborates on research and writing projects, she has a profoundly interdisciplinary mind. They are both fearless about pursuing their interests where-ever they lead them and they consistently ignore divides between science/technology and humanities/culture in doing so. They are  also both people with a pragmatic approach — they want to identify the most compelling problems of our time and work with others to find innovative and meaningful solutions that make a difference on the ground.

In Ann’s case, problem-solving increasingly involves a design process grounded in the concept of world-building as it has been shaped by the realms of speculative fiction, production design, and participatory planning. Every time I meet her, Ann describes to me new projects she is undertaking around the world, all of it growing out of a belief that humans have the creative agency to make a difference in their own lives if they are given the freedom and resources to do so.

The two have  been working together to produce a profoundly important project, Design Unbound.  As I’ve discussed it with Ann across the past few years, this project  has taken a variety of different shapes — it is epic in scope, sprawling in content, and totally original in its bold synthesis of ideas coming from all different directions.   As Ann explains in response to my first question below, the project has required them to constantly reflect on what kind of thing a book is in the 21st century, what it means to read and publish such an object, and how a book can be the beginning as well as the end point of a creative and intellectual process. We still do not know the final shape this project will take, but along the way, they have put together what they are calling a “single,” a stand alone booklet-length essay on The Pragmatic Imagination.

Given that some strands of my own current research centers around what we call The Civic Imagination, I’ve enjoyed many conversations with Ann about the value of imagination in confronting real world problems and so I am using the publication of The Pragmatic Imagination as an excuse for an extended public discussion with her about those aspects of their project. The result was something unique — certainly not an interview in the sense I normally feature here.  She took each of my questions as a prompt for an extended essay which spells out many core aspects of her approach and along the way she provides us a vivid model for how she thinks and works. We might see the whole exchange as two polymaths thinking about thinking.  I am so excited to be able to share her responses with my readers over the next two weeks, hoping that they inspire others to think more deeply about the value of combining play/imagination/speculation/design with problem-solving.

You can learn more about The Pragmatic Imagination here. 

You describe The Pragmatic Imagination as a “single.” Can you explain a bit more why you are releasing this segment in advance of the book proper and how it fits into your larger project? What does it mean to think of Design Unbound as a “system of books” rather than as a self-contained volume?

Pragmatic Imagination is the last chapter – chapter 19 – of the larger project Design Unbound. Designing for Emergence in a White Water World. In a sense, it is the generative idea but we had to write the entire ‘book’ to discover that.

We began this work five years ago as a project to answer the challenge of a colleague of ours. We were at an Aspen Institute roundtable that was focused on how new technological tools could be used to influence diplomacy around the world. The dialogue ranged from conversations around drug wars to weaponized computer viruses. One participant, in a moment of exasperation said something like ‘the world has just come together too quickly to make sense of it,’ and our colleague John Rendon responded that the problem is we are using an old tool set and that it was time to develop a new one. We had already begun work on what would become Design Unbound, and JR’s challenge became an interesting provocation.

Design Unbound set out to define a new tool set for the world we find ourselves in – a world that is rapidly changing, increasingly interconnected, and where, because of this increasing interconnectivity, everything is more contingent on everything else happening around it – much more so than ever before. We characterize this as a white water world in reference to white water river kayaking, where navigation – often survival, even – depends upon understanding how to skill up for dynamic contexts in which things change and emerge without respite. One can see this as a difficult context or as an adventure. We chose the latter. The super interesting thing about whitewater rivers is that they are navigable, just not under the same terms. They require very different tools, skills, dispositions, and even epistemological frames.

Design Unbound is a tool set for having agency in today’s world, whether it is personal agency or agency to make progress on complex problems. It is about being able to navigate this white water world and/or to influence it – to work in it and even on it. The kinds of tools it presents are not the tools of a carpenter or coder but tools that are directly associated with a new kind of design that is an offspring of complexity science married to architecture.

We begin in architecture because principally architecture is about designing contexts in which things happen. It is an ambidextrous endeavor in which the social and technical come together to both hold and shape peoples’ relationships to each other and to the world. From a room, a house, a complex ensemble of buildings, cities, landscapes, and territorial systems of occupation, it is only one more level of abstraction to imagine design, unbound from its material thingness and from its disciplinary boundaries, set free to work on designing contexts as complex systems/ecologies.

These might be physical contexts (smart cities), institutional contexts (education), political contexts (making progress on networked terrorism), policy contexts (poverty, homelessness, environmental vulnerabilities), or cultural contexts (the ethics of data science). These contexts can accommodate well-practiced relationships and behaviors, or they can open up new possibilities of exchange, interaction and meaning creation.

Complexity science gives us a new lens through which to view the world – viewing that leads to action. It is an epistemological lens just as Newton’s and Darwin’s were. We don’t see it as replacing those first two (gravity still works, last time I checked, and species still adapt and evolve), but, instead, as adding a third way to make sense of things, especially today when simple cause and effect do not seem to give us answers that stick, or solutions that can adapt to emerging events.

This third lens or window draws deeply from complexity theory and specifically from the perspective of ecology science – from understanding the complex dynamics of ecosystems. A Newtonian window looks at the world as described by physics. A Darwinian window focuses on processes and optimization. The complexity/ecological window looks at the world as a context – not a thing – and that context is a space of dynamic exchanges between all of the components.

These exchanges can be material in nature. They can be social in nature – exchanges influenced by our social systems (like economics and politics). And then there are all those things that are bound up in the dynamic exchange of ideas – the ideas that motivate us, the stories we build identity and culture through. We think of these as three registers or ecologies for this new window: material, social and mental ecologies of exchanges.

This is where Design Unbound begins. It then uses case studies and reflection on those case studies to present a series of tools that can be used to understand the world today and act with agency in it, and for impact on it.

Beginning the project that would become Design Unbound five years ago, it has gone through a series of different ‘completions’. We actually thought it was finished twice before. The first soft publication was around 225 pages; the second just shy of 375 pages and this last – ‘last’, meaning it’s done – manuscript has just weighed in at 800 pages. But more importantly, design unbound from thingness and disciplinary boundaries became not only the framing concept but also the way we worked. As the book became its own project, it transgressed more and more into other fields. This means, first of all, that the audience for this system of books is going to be broad and diverse.

So we decided to divide Design Unbound into five books for two reasons. Firstly, people read differently today. Shorter attention spans and multi-tasking means that we are often reading several things simultaneously. I am certainly reading in smaller chunks and as I do so, something I am reading in one area might get stuck to something I am reading in another: global affairs with landscape ecology with fiction with . . . By stuck, I mean that they overlap on each other in my mind, creating interesting correspondences. So I see reading in smaller chunks as being full of possibility. Publishing five books of smaller size makes it easier to focus on one part of the larger work at a time; to come and go cognitively.

Secondly, because Design Unbound draws from a vast array of domains: from architecture, science and technology, philosophy, cinema, music, literature and poetry, the military, even, different books within the larger system of books will resonate with different reading audiences. DesUnbound aims to blend a polymathic reservoir of thought seamlessly with real life examples of successful design and action, but it does not expect all readers to be polymaths. So, from architects to people involved re-conceiving higher education to the public policy or defense and intelligence communities, each audience will find different books most relevant. Each of the five books has its own narrative arc within the larger arc of the full book. They each have a different framing chapter and a different set of inter-related tools.

For a while, we thought of Design Unbound a little like a manual, and we were using that analogy until a friend of ours called it a ‘system of books.’ We were having trouble describing succinctly what it was – more than a book and yet not a series in the sense of being ‘serial’ where coherence depends upon the way short installments or successive pieces of something follow one on another in a linear fashion.

Instead, DesUnbound’s coherence is dependent on the way the different books and their chapters interact with each other to create an aggregate whole. They can be shuffled and grouped differently, yet still do the same kind of work. If we think of systems: in biology, a system is an assemblage of organs or related tissues that are concerned with the same function – their coherence is given by the fact that they are all working towards the same thing. Similarly, DesUnbound is an assemblage of books and chapters (tools and lenses) that are concerned with the same function – designing for agency. In astronomy, a system is a collection of celestial bodies that act together according to certain laws of physics – our solar system, for example.

DesUnbound is a collection of books and chapters that act together according to certain concepts (not exactly laws) around the entanglement of agency and imagination. And In ecology, an ecosystem is an assemblage of components that form a complex whole by the manner in which they interact with each other and with their environment. They interact by participating in material and social exchanges. DesUnbound is an assemblage of books and chapters that are meant to interact with each other, through how different tools use other tools, creating new capacities that either tool alone does not hold. So calling it a ‘system of books’ began to work for us.

 

As a system of five books, DesUnbound can be read together or separately. Like a reference manual or a vinyl analog album, one can leave and return to it, picking up the needle and placing it in the groove of a specific tune or skipping around among songs. Different books will probably interest different people, although all of the books together create a rich integrated tool set. The five books present a set of ten knowledge-, skill- or method-based instruments for acting through design and two meta-tools that do work of a higher order, at the level of the ecology of the project.

 

These tools, separately, and together draw on Pragmatic Imagination’s conceptual framework. But they also instrumentalize the pragmatic imagination. They depend upon the imagination for fuel just as muscles working physical tools depend upon food as fuel. But they also convert the imagination into work in the real world, just as muscles convert energy from food into work. As the last chapter of DesUnbound, Pragmatic Imagination is a framework for the productive entanglement of imagination and action that supports agency in the world.

We have called Pragmatic Imagination a single in reference to the music industry. I am a great fan of the television series Nashville. It and real work on DesUnbound began around the same time. So I will admit that this influenced the thought at the time.

Like a single released before an album, Pragmatic Imagination is meant to preview the larger work, introducing concepts and themes that anticipate, but also encapsulate, the larger project. And also like a single, we feel it can stand alone because of the way in which it anticipates and encapsulates the larger project with a singular coherence.

At one point we called it a prequel but that made less sense because it is not a single part of a linear story. It is part of the whole story. It carries the critical themes. But I will say that, as a theory, the irony is that it is less like the tool-oriented chapters – the more pragmatic chapters. But it sets the stage for them. It is the foundation, the dna, the primary autotroph, of DesUnbound. The kind of world we are navigating now, the kinds of problems we want to have agency on, demand a new tool set in which imagination is a not an embellishment or adjacency to real work in the world, but the keystone capacity upon which all other work depends because it advances understanding (empathy even) and it drives novelty. As a muscle of agility, it is necessary in whitewater.

 

Ann Pendleton‐Jullian is an architect, writer, and educator of international standing whose work explores the interchange between architecture, landscape, culture, science, and technology within complex contexts. She is currently Full Professor and former director of the Knowlton School of Architecture at Ohio State University, distinguished Visiting Professor out of the President’s Office at Georgetown University, and periodically co-teaches world building studios at USC’s School of Cinema.

ApJ’s projects range in scale and scope from things to systems of action. Notable projects demonstrating this range are: a house for the astronomer Carl Sagan and his wife; award winning prototypical bioclimatic houses – one for Tenerife; various winning or placing competition entries including a New Congress Hall in Valparaiso, Chile, and an urban design project for the Miguelete River basin sponsored by the Municipality of Montevideo. Much of her recent work focuses on empowerment and economic development through various projects including the Asian University for Women in Bangladesh and an eight-village ecosystem conceived around rural craft tourism in Guizhou province in China. Currently she is working on a new Jesuit University for Eastern Africa, including its pedagogical model, the future re-imagining of the Pardee RAND Graduate School of Public Policy, and a house in an environmentally sensitive part of the Pocono Mountains. ApJ has five authored books and portfolios, including: The Road That Is Not a Road and the Open City, Ritoque, Chile by MIT Press (’96); Games for Shanghai (’08) published by CA Press in Shanghai; and Design Education and Innovation Ecotones (’09).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cinema and Life Interpenetrated: A Conversation with Anand Pandian (Part Two)

This is part two of a conversation between Ritesh Mehta, my former student, and Anand Pandian, author of Reel World: An Anthropology of Creation.

 

Cinema and Life Interpenetrated: A Conversation with Anand Pandian (Part Two) by Ritesh Mehta

 

RM: Going back to your table of contents, I think that one of the most valuable contributions of your book is the methodology and approach—which I also attempt to employ in my dissertation—of trying to see the phenomenon from the point of view of your subjects, but as you point out towards the end, return it to a universal sense so that the distinction between subject and object disappears. I found that extremely valuable. I wouldn’t be as drawn to your book if you had a table of contents that was more concrete.

 

AP: None of us would be drawn to any film if it insisted incessantly upon the subject-object distinction. Cinema as a mode of experience depends precisely on the confounding of that distinction between self and other. There would be no affective involvement in something like cinema if it were not possible to undo that divide. And the challenge with this book was to find a way of acknowledging that, and writing in a spirit of fealty or fidelity to that essential quality of the phenomenon, rather than, say, domesticating it or reorganizing it in the name of a knowledge that ultimately would have very little to do with the nature of the thing itself.

 

RM: There’s a way to do fieldwork where you subsume your observations under the tyranny of concepts, and I really appreciate that you haven’t done that. At the same time, I love how you’ve woven in a broad range of literature throughout every chapter. It’s not even literature as much as, seemingly, an inventory of influences that you’ve interwoven your observations with. They connect the daily life of cinema production that you observed with things that have already been written. I appreciate that.

 

AP: It was important to me to pass through the book with a certain spirit of naiveté. That is to say, could I sort of wend my way through the materials and through the story in a manner that would allow new possibilities of thinking and perception to emerge, moment by moment, rather than having everything determined too heavily from the outset? I am quite drawn to the idea of the essay as itself a kind of narrative mode of peregrination. There are many literary critics who have commented on the ways in which the essay as a narrative form might be understood as a kind of walking in writing. It was important to me to see if I could write this book in such a fashion. That is to say, could I disarm myself sufficiently with what I have at my disposal as a critic, as a knower, to really allow these circumstances to act on me, to provoke unexpected questions, associations, sometimes even leaps that may or may not be quite intelligible, again as a way of being responsive to the openness of the medium.

 

RM: That’s great and makes a lot of sense. But from an actual writing standpoint, though, how did you do it? You were writing throughout, I’m assuming. When you bring in Hirokazu Miyazaki [note: the anthropologist, not the Studio Ghibli founder], for example, in the chapter “Hope,” did you plan in advance that in this chapter you will bring in Miyazaki, or did you come across him unexpectedly? How did you decide to weave in the quotations you bring in from your inventory of influences?

 

AP: I would say that this was a very curious aspect of this process. The whole period of researching and writing this book was one in which I had to really confront my own tendencies to be overly controlling and to recognize that a lot of the charge of not only things like cinema but of these dimensions of experience—of Art, Rhythm, or even of Fate—has precisely to do with the sense of being caught up in something and you don’t know where it’s going.

 

So the process of writing this book was essentially a series of experiments in seeing to what extent I could allow this spirit to infect the way that I wrote. Could I set up some set of initial conditions and then just follow them through, regardless of where they led? Like that chapter on Desire, for example, I can’t even tell you how it struck me that it might be interesting to have a chapter as a sentence that never ended, a chapter like a scream. It felt intuitively like the right way of proceeding, given that the director that I was writing about here was like this. That in writing that way, I might be able to reach that idiosyncratic texture in that particular situation. A lot of the writing got worked out as I went along. I think one value in thinking about writing as a kind of walking or a kind of movement is that the analogy forces us to take seriously that with every step, with every movement, you can only work with where you are. And I think there is something liberating in that, in knowing that there are any number of things that we do, that unfold step by step, literally, rather than require everything be foretold at the outset. And indeed, that’s precisely the nature of the process as I found it here. It was an incredibly improvisational way of proceeding that I saw with these filmmakers.

 

RM: Is this improvisational style with initial conditions a new approach for this book, or have you tried that with your prior writing as well?

 

AP: I think I’ve probably always done it. I think at some level we do always do it. I think there are any number of circumstances in which we make the most of where we are. We really have no other better choice. But because in this circumstance I was writing about something that was so insistently made that way, so insistently of the moment, I wanted to try to do it more deliberately. I have learned through the process of writing that to try to work in this manner can actually deepen your insight into what you’re writing about.

 

Again, what are the initial conditions here? One is trying to make sense of an incredibly chaotic and improvisational process. How is it that things keep appearing in a non premeditated manner over and over and over again? This is such an open process that nonetheless results in finished films that, mind you, do fail a lot but then sometimes don’t. How do we account for the genesis or the production of order, of integrity, of unity through such spontaneity? John Dewey speaks of experience as qualitative unity. How do we make sense of the fact that things like cinema with a qualitative unity of their own can emerge from such apparently chaotic processes? Perhaps the whole book itself—I’m thinking now as you’re asking me—became a kind of experiment in trying to make sense of that problem through the very process of its writing.

 

RM: In which case I really admire your mind. I just find that if I had to write something like this, I don’t know if I could let myself improvise too much. If I were involved with my field notes, I don’t know if I could spontaneously work in quotations. I find it admirable that you were being experimental, writing with naiveté, as you said.

 

AP: This is a book that has about 110,000 words. That means that there are at least 110,000 spaces between words, any one of which is a point of entry, a point of insertion. The book as a medium is extraordinarily discontinuous. We invest books retrospectively with a kind of coherence and integrity and closedness that they actually don’t have because they are rife with openings. And that was again, one thing that was interesting about entering into cinema not from the standpoint of finished films but from the standpoint of bits and pieces, some of which were never finished. So I think that the process of doing the research was one of having to attune myself to the necessary unfinishedness of things.

 

RM: That’s wonderful because you’ve written this book very deeply from a personal methodological perspective. So I feel like your understanding of your own subject and your understanding of what you wanted your writing to be has been beautifully interwoven with your actual observations and findings. I have hardly heard people describe their approach your way.

 

I feel like people bring other frameworks to writing. For example, a lot of the literature that I cited in my dissertation was from the field of production studies, which can be described as an offshoot of cultural studies, which is very influential in communication. When these scholars talk about the film industry in Los Angeles or other parts of the world, the frameworks they bring are not about continuity, etc. They’re about difference, they’re about conflict, they’re about power structures. And those frameworks inform what they see in the field.

 

AP: That’s right.

 

RM: And I find that a little bit misleading, like putting the cart before the horse. If you are invested in being critical about the material conditions of labor and people “below the line,” which is a very legitimate concern, if you bring those frameworks and concepts with you to the field, chances are that you’ll find that. That’s been one of my critiques of production studies. Methodologically, I am also like you, invested in interpretation before critique, and I think that a lot of the work that I have seen, other ethnographies even—e.g., Vicki Mayer’s ethnographic study of television producers below the line—I found myself not being able to relate to that at all because Mayer brings with her the definition of labor as a sort of an exploitative surplus that benefits political economies. So I think that methodology determines a lot of what we’re going to write about.

 

AP: Yes, absolutely. I should emphasize that there is a critical project here. There are problems and it is important to be able to find our way around them, to find openings, to rework them, remake them, undo them. All these things are important. But there are some really interesting and important methodological questions around how it is we do that. My disappointment with some of the work in cinema studies has precisely to do with what you’re talking about. The problems are defined so tightly and so straightforwardly that the work can do nothing more but to reiterate the existence of those problems.

 

Whereas I think that one can approach the kind of texts that we write, the work that we do, as not simply representations of a situation that is out there that needs to be re-described as accurately as possible but instead perhaps as pragmatic interventions in their own right. As modes of imaginative storytelling, as occasions in which we take a set of conditions and find the right circumstances or lines that might confound them. That we begin with a structure and find a point where it begins to fall apart. I am really compelled by the idea—Deleuze and Guattari speak of it in terms of the molar and molecular—that anything can be conceived of in both overwhelmingly molar or block-like terms on the one hand and simultaneously in terms of those possibly infinite lines of flight that undo the consistency and integrity of those block-like formations. As a critic, and I do think of myself as one, as a critical observer of various dimensions of contemporary cultural life, I feel that what I can do best is to seize upon some of those lines of flight or escape, and ride with them a bit, and to show that something really isn’t as integral as its power-laden purveyors might make it out to be. That’s the kind of critical project this book pursues.

 

To put it very concretely, I try throughout the book to actually undo my own authority as a scholarly observer. I deliberately confound the clarity of my own analytical understanding of what’s happening, not to write a deliberately obscure book, not to write a book that puts forward deliberately confusing messages, but instead to ask the question: “Can we arrive at a more creative and possibly more radical form of critical practice by disarming ourselves a bit, and learning to think with concepts, ideas, circumstances, challenges that are utterly foreign to the ones that we take for granted”? If the purpose is to pluralize our modes of analysis, to open up our capacities of perception, to expand our critical vocabularies, that requires a more vulnerable observer. And a vulnerable observer is someone who must enter into a scene without the ability to wrap it all up with what they came with.

 

RM: I have a lot of empathy for that approach. For my dissertation, I was responding to the production studies scholars by trying to show that my subjects, who were student filmmakers in film school in Los Angeles, had more agency than what the critical scholars would deem them to have. But I had to go in with that hypothesis and try to see whether various instances of interaction and utterance during the filmmaking process confirmed, denied, or added another dimension to those mini hypotheses, which would then lead to my interpretation and grounded theory. However, if I went in thinking that student filmmakers are going to be churned out by film school into the media industries as future labor, then I would just be using one more set of subjects as an example that confirms production studies’ larger critical project. To me, that’s not the way to do things. That feels very disingenuous.

 

AP: When a commercial filmmaker says that so much of the force of cinema, so much of the action of cinema, so much of the pull or charge of cinema depends on the extent to which it can leave the viewer asking, “What comes next?”, “What comes next?”, “What comes next?”, what do we do with that? Do we see that as a straightforward moment of manipulation, of pulling the strings, of having these subjects of cinema come along with those strings? Or can we at all take seriously that sliver of indeterminacy that the question holds, the sense that we may not actually know what comes next. This is the value of thinking of cinema as something that is woven together, something that is full of gaps and fissures, moments when one truly does not know what comes next, rather than always anticipating and projecting forward to what will come next, the more conventional, analytical, suturing move that robs that moment and that question of any kind of potency.

 

RM: Going back, again, to the Table of Contents (you see, I am obsessed), is there a blurring across the modes of experience? Is there interpenetration across these “modes of experience”? So, does your chapter on Desire, for example, about the screenwriting process, also contain examples of what you call Imagination?

 

AP: Of course.

 

RM: So how do you decide to frame one set of examples and experiences of production under Desire and others under Imagination? How did you make those decisions?

 

AP: Do you want me to make sense of why the chapters have the kind of framing that they do?

 

RM: Yes. So how is the chapter in which you talk about the idea of Dreams—coming up with story ideas—is that different from how you understand Imagination playing out?

 

AP: I knew for a long time, even when I was doing the research for this book, that it would follow the process. I knew it would have to begin near the beginning and end near the end. I knew I was invested enough in the trajectory of the filmmaking process as a process, that it would have to track these stages.

 

But I didn’t want these chapters to amount to nothing more than “this is how this is done.” For me, what’s at stake in this work is not simply how films are made but how their making comes to matter for how it is that we live. And what I found is that there is an organic relationship between the kinds of experience that occasion cinema and the kinds of experience that films make possible. So, what I was trying to do with the material was to find a way of moving across that line: literally moving from one side of the screen to the other. Can we say something about the way in which films work, the way in which they work on us, by trying to make sense of how it is that these materials become invested with those capacities?

 

So, why Dreams? Because this director is constantly talking about dreams. He was really very Freudian in his thinking. He was constantly interpreting dreams. And it turns out that there is a very dreamlike quality to his films. And it turns out that the whole process of writing for him and his crew was itself dreamlike in its unfolding. Why Time? Because there was something about that director being lost in the moment that stood out for me as more essential than anything else about his filmmaking practice. So in each case, I suppose, the conceit was to see if I could find a kernel of experience that would allow me not only to make sense of how these filmmakers were working, but to tap into the ways in which films work on us as well. Can we actually build out from the experiential openness of something like an immersion in time, of something like being lost in dreams, as a way of saying something about how a film can leave us with precisely those kinds of openings?

 

So, I think I landed on those particular ideas—of Imagination, Light, Color, and so on—because those were the ways I could move most effectively from the kinds of experience that were charging those processes as they were unfolding, and to the charge that the films themselves carried forward to viewers.

 

RM: I like what you said about moving across the screen from the production side to the side of life. That makes a lot of sense.

 

AP: As you said that, I was literally imagining, can you leap through a screen? Imagine standing behind a film screen and jumping through it. That’s the endeavor of a book like this.

 

RM: And that itself is a very cinematic proposition!

 

 

From the online companion Chapter on Rhythm – Editor interview

Rhythm3 from Anand Pandian on Vimeo.

From the online companion Chapter on Light – “Light invites an epic scale”

Light2 from Anand Pandian on Vimeo.

Cinema and Life Interpenetrated: A Conversation with Anand Pandian (Part One)

Ritesh Mehta, a recently minted Annenberg School PHD (My advisee) and a regular contributor to Movie Maker Magazine, pitched me recently about doing an interview for the blog with Anand Pandian, the author of  Reel World: An Anthropology of Creation, a work which Mehta feels represents a bold new experiment in academic writing and a ground breaking contribution to production studies. How could I refuse? Mehta’s conversations with Pandian runs over the next two installments. You can read Mehta’s review of the book here.

Cinema and Life Interpenetrated: A Conversation with Anand Pandian (Part One)

By Ritesh Mehta

The first thing you stop at when you leaf through Anand Pandian’s book Reel World: An Anthropology of Creation—other than its Foreword by the great American editor and sound designer Walter Murch, who finds another avatar of his filmmaking mantra of “closed openness” (p. x) in Pandian’s field sites in and around “Kollywood,” “the studios and byways of the Kodambakkam area of western Chennai” (but also on location in Switzerland and Dubai)—is its table of contents.

 

You glimpse and take in the chapter titles, “Desire” and “Fate,” “Light” and “Color,” “Pleasure” and “Wonder,” among others. You begin to hope that this ethnographic work on the production cultures of Tamil cinema is going to prove quite different from other ethnographies not just of Indian cinema and television but of various global media industries. You begin to entertain the notion of ethnographers and anthropologists being philosophers and novelists. You begin to think about how phenomenology works alongside ethnography both in the field as well as while writing. And you begin to wonder whether the experiences and utterances—discourse and practice—of Pandian’s subjects represent agency or forebode circumscription, or some glorious or god awful interpenetration of the two.

 

One of his most fascinating informants is Logandurai, whom the book opens with. A farmer who sings fragments of a song from a popular Tamil film even as he toils in an orchard far away from the rush of Chennai. Pandian juxtaposes the meanings of the lyrics in Logandurai’s imaginary with the humble material conditions of his life. In doing so, he sets the premise of his work in his general observation that “cinema here [in Tamil Nadu] bends itself towards ordinary life, while ordinary life hankers after cinema.” Thus begins his series of “experiments in cinematic experience: trials undertaken by certain Indian filmmakers and also by an anthropologist wandering and writing in their midst.” (pp. 10-17) I won’t elaborate further and instead will let our conversation attempt to grasp at Pandian’s own grasping of the unfurling entanglements between cinema and life.

 

Ritesh Mehta: Since we are approaching this exchange as a conversation rather than an interview, allow me to first gush just for a bit. I’ve been obsessed with this book the past couple of weeks. I read just a bit and have to set it aside, since it just fills me in the way movies fill me: I am in the mindspace of evocation and signification. In fact, I found it challenging to come up with a set of prompts because I’ve wanted to linger in the book’s lifeworld without further interpreting, critiquing or even reflecting on it. Thank you for allowing us to linger. In our conversation, though, I’d love to hear your responses to my proto-responses, so if anything, you can help me and our readers arrive at a sense of the incredible, unique work this book is doing.

For me, the book has been about “imponderabilia” and “heteroglossia,” and I don’t readily name drop Malinowski and Bakhtin. I see in your pages the inscription of the wagging of tongues of a smorgasbord of cinema creators, producers and workers, as well as your sieving through and shifting among and alongside their minds and bodies. So the book is as much about immateriality as it is about variegated materiality with regard to creating cinema. As I continue reading through your “experimental vignettes,” I get the sense that you have synchronized an anthropological orchestration for your big themes, which I think are Continuity versus Flux on the one hand, and Possibility versus Embeddedness on the other. I found these themes, these contradictory modes of living, to be getting work done for your cinema makers because they are in fact such heady and rooted contrasts. My immediate thought was: that’s India.

 
I love the ways in which you’ve wondered about this as well. How a screenplay that begins in Dreams (Chapter 2), themselves fluctuating but effervescing ultimately into a narrative with continuity, can end up completely at the mercy of Fate (Chapter 18), of a box office opening that might have seemed throughout the filmmaking process as full of profitable and pop cultural possibility but is ultimately embedded in the lifeworld of a myriad of throaty thrushes in theaters: Tamil audiences and their sansaara. You return your observations about Tamil film production to the eternal cycle of creation and destruction that is known from within life itself.

 

Going back to the table of contents, you’ve described what Rhythm, Voice, Space, and Art mean in different and useful ways throughout the book. For instance, you refer to them as “modes of experience” as well as the “formal properties of cinema.” But it strikes me they’re also what philosophers and metaphysicians call universals: mind-independent entities that are available for all of us to partake in, which make human beings similar if not identical to one another. The prospect of wrestling with universals in an ethnographic work about a regional cinema—a cinema you call “marginal” even—I find incredibly exciting. Thinking back to The English Patient, a film that not so coincidentally <strong>Walter Murch edited, what inspired me the most about the movie when I saw it two decades ago, was its depiction of the desert. Even though it was about a very particular desert—the one in 1942 Libya—it evoked the idea of being a desert in general, everywhere: the quality of being vast, the property of being without maps, the disposition of being wind. In the novel and later in the film, the desert was evoked as a universal that I could partake in. In your book, the particularly rhythms, voices, speed, and fate of Tamil film producers are evoked as universals that they partake in.

So thank you, once again for this work and for listening to me wax ineloquently.

My initial questions are what I think the book does not seem to be about, concepts that I would have expected but did not find–in a good way. I wanted to point these out and get your reactions.
 

I was provoked by one of your opening questions in the book: “What happens when everything begins to look like film?” Or when everything starts to look like a “cinematic scene.” On the flip side, I like how you point out that “cinema draws its force from the affective lives of its makers” and you quote Coomaraswamy in saying that “craftsmanship is a mode of thought.” One of the reasons I am running this on Henry Jenkins’ blog is because one of the first classes with Henry at USC was on medium specificity. Because of the way you describe the connections and interpenetration between cinema and life, would you say that your book bypasses the debate on medium specificity? Is your book about the medium neutrality of cinema? Or do you treat cinema as a medium in the way media scholars do?

 

Anand Pandian: There are certainly many moments in the book when I treat cinema as a medium in the way that cinema scholars do, because in part what I’m doing is thinking through these moments in Tamil cinema in relation to what media scholars have said. For example, if you think of Baudry’s ideas around the apparatus theory, or you think of Mulvey’s questions around the phallocentrism of cinema… there are many arguments that have been made with regard to this particular medium—cinema—that I found useful to think with, with regard to both the films that these filmmakers were making, and the way in which they were making them and how they were thinking about them. So on one level, certainly the endeavor here is to think with film studies and to ask the question, What can an anthropologist, approaching this thing we call “cinema” as an ethnographer, from the standpoint of an ongoing emergent production practice, tell us with regard to these essential questions around the ontology of the cinematic image; the relationship between image and spectator; the ways in which cinema can be understood to carry ideologies in its body, in its materiality; the relationship between thinking and feeling when it comes to spectation? There are any number of questions that scholars have posed with regard to the medium in particular that I try to reach as an ethnographer.

 

But having thought through that and having wrestled with those problems, what I kept finding time and again is that the questions that kept emerging in those production contexts seemed to blur the distinction between cinema and other kinds of things: the divide between cinema and other kinds of arts (painting, sculpture, or visual effects work in a digital setting, or the composition of music or dance), the distinction between cinema as a medium and these other media that we think of as contrary media of expression, that distinction begins to break down. But even more than that, because what one is dealing with when one is looking at the making of film are people who are positioned in a world that includes the film but exceeds the film, the world that contains that world in a sense, but is obviously much bigger, because that is a frame that is on a location or a studio somewhere, that is surrounded by ever so many other things, the more basic distinction between art and life, between creative endeavors and ordinary endeavors, itself began to break down… such that what I began to arrive at was a sense of the creative process that might even encompass the cinema, that might even assume particular forms in regard to the making of film, but certainly had resonances and relationships far beyond that particular domain.

 

RM: That’s why I think your approach refreshingly bypasses the debates that have happened on medium specificity. It seems as though you do address them but also step out, show the larger picture and how the distinctions that you mention above blur. You have a different way of talking about light, color and sound than some of the proponents of medium specificity.

 

AP: If I could also add one thing, this has also to do with the way I came into cinema. I didn’t write this book because I have had a lifelong fascination or even love for cinema in particular. It’s that I was deeply involved in the ordinary life of rural people in South India over the course of a few years for my dissertation research and turning that research into a book. I found that I couldn’t think about that life except in relation to these bits and pieces of cinema that were slipping into it constantly. My entry into cinema as an object of investigation was through these fragments that permeated ordinary life in India, that were of a piece with ordinary life. What is the medium then? The medium there was the countryside, and cinema was just one means by which that medium found a certain kind of expression.

 

RM: That makes complete sense to me. Growing up in Mumbai, I had a similar sense of how for many people for whom cinema may not be an important part of their everyday experience, it’s impossible not to engage with the fragments. You’re constantly surrounded by these fragments: they are hurtling at you when you live in a city like Mumbai. So I imagine it’s similar in many parts of Tamil Nadu as well.

 

You brought up the word “ordinary”— on page 2, you talk about cinema being “ordinary.” This reminded me of one of my favorite articles that I read as a PhD student: Raymond Williams’ 1958 piece, “Culture is Ordinary.” The first four paragraphs remind me of your writing. He describes a bus ride from an urban area to an industrialized countryside where he grew up. He talks about how the countryside changes as he goes higher and higher into the mountains, and about culture is woven into the landscape and the meanings into the land. It’s in a way a Marxist exploration without being Marxist upfront. His thesis is that “culture is ordinary” in that it is about a whole way of life. It represents old meanings that we are born into and use as well as the new meanings that we express. But what interested me was that I didn’t find too much direct talk about the word “culture” in your book. Many readers who know that you’re an anthropologist might find that intriguing. I was wondering if you could comment on that. Is this a valid observation?

 

AP: It’s a very interesting question. One of my favorite books by Raymond Williams is “The Country and The City,” which in some ways is an account of the changing relationship between culture and cultivation in British literature that is an investigation of the image of the British countryside, and in particular of the agrarian countryside as it comes in and out of focus as a site of desirable life over the course of a lengthy period of time in English literature. Williams is quite helpful in thinking through the materiality of something like culture, of reminding us that culture is a mode of practice, that it involves not only the ascription of certain ideals and attention to certain kind of symbols, but the way in which those ideals, symbols, those venerated qualities, are tied into concrete ways of living in, engaging and working to transform the world that one finds oneself in, which is his materialism, as an analyst, as a thinker.

 

So, certainly, yes, “culture” as an object of analysis may not be explicitly present in this book. But I would say that there is no question that the practices of certain kinds of filmmakers are essential here: what holds together the way in which an editor thinks and works with cinematic material as opposed to the way a camera man thinks and works with cinematic material, as opposed to the way a musician or composer thinks and works with cinematic material. Those differences are essential to the way the book is organized, the way it’s written.

 

And there is, in a way, an argument the book is making that we cannot make sense of the ways in which these different elements of cinema work on us if we don’t adequately understand the way they are put to work through the practical engagements of these different technicians. Perhaps not culture then in the sense of “high culture,” culture in the sense of “ideology,” but perhaps culture in the sense of poesis, of a practical work of creative activity, is essential to the way the book is organized.

 

RM: Right. My point in bringing up these two questions is simply to say that in a way it’s liberating to not use those words. Because people who have written a lot about “culture” and who have certain understandings about culture, or medium specificity for that matter, if they see those same terms in the book, that might imply a different way to process the book as opposed to when you talk about them indirectly and not label them as such. I think that’s useful and productive.

 

AP: This is the reason why the book is organized the way that it is, the reason why it has these rather abstract elements—like desire or light or sound—as organizing rubrics rather than the studio floor, or the recording booth… Obviously, the table of contents could be much more concrete than it is. It’s because as an anthropologist, I have come to recognize and try to acknowledge the value of thinking with the concepts that come out of the experience of others. That is to say, rather than trying to apply my own concepts, or concepts that I am attached to as an analyst to these different situations, I try to allow my own thinking to bend itself to the ideas and concepts of the people that I encounter, those that the ethnographic experience seems to be organized around.

 

So when one is working with, say, a camera man, you can make sense of his or her experience in really any way you want. We have all kinds of tools at our disposal to say what it is they are doing. But the interpretive effort with this book was to think as closely to the grain of their own thinking as it is embedded in the way in which they work with this material, whether it’s light or sound or color or time, and to see how far one could run with these thoughts that emerge from a practical milieu.

 

RM: I’m writing this post for Henry Jenkins’ blog, and Henry is your premier fan studies scholar. Let me read to you a paragraph from one of his chapters currently under review, and I’d like to get your reaction in relation to your chapter on Imagination, where you talked a bit about Tamil cinema fans.

“I’ve long argued that fan cultural production was born from a mixture of fascination and frustration. Fans engage closely with texts because they are fascinated. They continue to rework them because they are frustrated with some aspect of the original. Yes, fans poach. They take what they want from texts they did not create. And fans resist. They often rewrite stories so that things come out differently. But fans also engage with the text on terms not of their own choosing, so that the process looks very much like what cultural studies calls “negotiation.” (Jenkins, forthcoming)

I was wondering about your understanding of how Tamil fans negotiate based on Henry’s description, and how does that connects to your idea of “imagination” as a phenomenon.

 

AP: I appreciate the attention to openness and indeterminacy in what you read and in Henry’s thinking. I might still ask the question, “Fans of what?” What if we were to set aside the assumption that a film is first and foremost a text and instead ask the question, “What form or what body does the film assume or in what form or body does the film become most significant for its fans?” Here, the body of the hero becomes essential. Because in Tamil cinema, you have fans, you have cinephiles who are fans of particular actors and directors or even editors for that matter. You have technicians who have their own legion of fans. But the way in which those technicians are venerated is almost a reflex of how those heroes are venerated.

 

So the question of fandom brings us back most centrally to the hero’s body and how that body is conceived. The thing that is important to keep in mind here is that body is both this-worldly and other-worldly. It taps and channels energies and forces of devotion and attachment that aren’t entirely secular, that partake of the divine, that bring practices and rituals of worship and veneration into play, that occasion modes of engagement that may be more about devotion than about negotiation. That is to say, less about carving out a space for myself than about submitting myself to a force that is bigger than me. Power assumes different forms and faces in different contexts. Certainly one way to understand fan clubs as they operate in India is as domains of politics and political engagement, and there are ways in which these clubs devoted to one star as opposed to another star operate and allow for the expression of the political ambitions of those who run them. I did meet quite a lot of fans as well and I talk about them in that chapter. But I think to reduce these clubs to that kind of politics is to rob their experience of its essential texture. Because their mode of engagement is, in fact, religious.

 

RM: One of the core themes across Henry’s work, not just in fan studies but also in media literacy, in industry studies, is “remixing.” Henry has found a plethora of examples of remixing and appropriation practices by fans. Is that quite different from devotion?

 

AP: That’s a fascinating question, actually. Because as we know, the body of the god in Indian Hinduism is not a unitary body, and there are ever so many ways in which that body travels: it moves through the space of the city; it possesses people. There are ever so many ways in which one can participate in divinity. Now, we could call that remixing. It’s interesting. To call that remixing, for me, lends a little too much value or attention to the cleverness of the remixer. If you look at these videos on YouTube, you’ll see these videos of people acting out these scenes in films of their favorite actors—I’m not sure if the idea of remixing captures enough that sense of fidelity, of participating through a certain kind of corporeal practice in the power and aura of this other being.

From the online companion Chapter on Imagination — Fan reception at a film release

Imagination2 from Anand Pandian on Vimeo.

From the online companion Chapter on Art – an action sequence

Art2 from Anand Pandian on Vimeo.

Fostering Civic Engagement in a Networked Era:An Interview with Eric Gordon and Paul Mihailidis (Part Three)

A real strength of this collection is a movement between theoretical pieces proposing conceptual models for thinking about civic media and engagement and more case-study based pieces which document specific design practices or implementations of civic media within local communities.  You are trying to bridge the theory-practice divide, in other words. What value do you think the conceptual work brings to design practices and applications? And conversely, what insights do you see emerging through design that modifies or challenges existing conceptions about civic engagement?

It is remarkably difficult to combine theory and practice. The more we do this work, the more we realize that it’s about juxtapositions, not hybridity. The book aspires towards theory-informed practice and practice-informed theory. But it’s not necessarily looking for a hybrid form.

Too often, we see attempts at hybridity as just being bad practice or bad theory. But we both live that tension. We are primarily academics, trading in research and writing. We were each granted tenure at an academic institution based on this work. But we are also both practitioners, building programs and tools designed for immediate social impact. Each of us can say, unequivocally, that our academic work has deeply informed our practice, and vice versa. But the worlds of scholarship and practice are still quite separate. When we work across domains, we are engaged in a kind of rapid switching.

The poet Charles Baudelaire wrote about the flaneur, the urban wanderer, who sat in a Parisian café looking out at the crowds of people on the sidewalk. He was both of the crowd and apart from it, a spectator and a participant. But to gain that critical perspective, Baudelaire wrote, he needed to remain alienated from both.

In many ways, this theory/practice divide is similar. It’s a place of anxiety, of being detached from both worlds, while also knowing that the greatest insights come from that detachment. So, we are deeply invested in bringing together scholarship and practice, but we don’t want to remove the anxiety that defines the in between space.

We want practitioners to understand the histories and theories of civic media, and we want academics to feel the messiness of social reality and practice. But we actually want them both to never get comfortable with habits of mind or practice. The main benefits of bringing theory and practice together might just be that it destabilizes both, creating a possibility space that remains fluid.

One of your projects here is to bring work about media literacy towards the center of the study of civic media. Why is it important to understand civic engagement in relation to media literacy? What would it mean to bring a Civic Media perspective into the classroom?

 

For a long time, the field of media literacy has struggled to articulate a vision beyond the teaching of critical thinking and production skills. It has focused on teaching young people how to critically analyze and critically produce the media. But how these skills and dispositions translate from the classroom to the real world has not been clear. Civic media is clarifying in this regard.

The process of making and participating in civic media represents a media literate subject. It requires a level of critical thinking and production that is, by definition, beyond the classroom. In fact, in a recent article on civic media in liberal arts education, we make the argument that civic media transforms the project of higher education from the dissemination of knowledge to the sharing of “usable” knowledge, wherein critical media skills are applied directly to matters of public impact.  Our project in this book, and elsewhere, is to consider the ways in which knowledge in education translates into social action.

Eric, much of your early work had to do with the development of games as a particular form of civic media, and you were a key figure in the serious games movement. I know you’ve started to shift your focus from games to play more broadly defined. Why?

Games are systems that structure players’ interactions typically with a goal, and specific rules and mechanics for progressing towards that goal. I spent a lot of time making and thinking about games that foster civic engagement by creating meaningful interfaces between public institutions and individuals.

The games I studied and even the games I made, taught me a great deal about how civic systems work. They taught me about the motivations people have (or don’t have) for engaging in civic process and civic life more generally. I am still deeply invested in the possibilities that games have to meaningfully structure civic life.

But what I’ve come to realize is that what’s important about the game is not the game, but the kinds of interactions it enables. Games ask people to play towards achieving a goal. They present a logic whereby a player might feel a certain freedom to experiment or explore towards achieving a goal that is decidedly separate from everyday life. They also present a logic of human systems whereby quality is not measured by efficiency of moving through it, but in fact how meaningful the system’s inefficiencies are. Games present us with unnecessary obstacles that motivate play and increase interest not only in achieving the goal, but in the act of playing itself.

So, as I continued to work in this unlikely intersection of games and civics, I started to ask how these meaningful inefficiencies found in game systems are being practiced in civic life in all sorts of unexpected ways. From playful performances in public spaces to methods of public management that integrate unorthodox feedback loops, or even, when games get designed and played to facilitate public process.

So, quite distinct from gamification, which has become a business trend wherein game mechanics are used to efficiently motivate people to achieve stated goals, meaningful inefficiencies are the elements of civic systems that prompt play for play’s sake. It is a way of maneuvering around the traps of commodified engagement, to motivate a system’s thinking that is generative, as opposed to limiting.

Paul, you’ve been the leader of the Salzburg Academy of Media and Global Change for a decade. In some ways, this Academy represents an experiment in bringing people from around the world to live, learn, and work together. How have these experiences informed your work on this book and other projects? Why is it important to test our ideas about civic media in a global context rather than one that is grounded in national particulars?

 

For a decade now, the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change has gathered young media makers from around the world to explore how media can respond to global social problems. We’ve had over 750 young people and 150 faculty and scholars come through the program, all of whom have sought to make connections across borders, across cultures and across divides.

The Salzburg Academy is indeed an experiment–one that has informed much of our thinking about the intersection of media, activism, and social change. The Academy has focused on topics as wide ranging as terrorism, migration, rights of journalists, and freedom of expression. Each year, as people from around the world gather in a learning community, we are reminded about the importance of human connections in media.

As the flow of information is increasingly fluid across national borders, these gatherings are reminders that human connection requires more than digital connectivity. The importance of people coming together to face challenges as a cohesive unit cannot be underestimated, where diversity is embraced, and where differences become assets. At the Academy we bring students from Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Pakistan, Argentina, Mexico, South Africa, Palestine, Canada, England, China, Slovakia, Sweden, Kenya, and the United States, among other places, and ask them to think about media as a tool for inclusivity, equity, tolerance, and justice.

To this end, what the Academy has taught us about the need to experiment in a global setting is that as populations continue to move, and cultures continue to integrate, media-based initiatives need to embrace global diversity. When we engage on a human level, we can think expansively about media and its application in the world.

We’ve seen so many alumni go on to engage in social change work that is often guided by their experiences in Salzburg, and sustained by the network that still supports them. The Salzburg Academy offers the space and time to articulate those processes with a group of devoted, passionate, and diverse people, devoted to striving for common good with the media as their tool.

We spent three weeks together thinking about the current crises around refugees and migration. What roles might civic media platforms and practices play in helping to work through the cultural shock produced by these massive population shifts?

Our work this summer in Salzburg was focused on media, migration and the civic imagination. We explored how the media too often rely on distant and de-personalized stories to explain (and exploit) the issue, ignoring its nuance and deeply personal nature. In order to combat the “objectivity bias,” students at the Academy were asked to make personal the issue of migration by reimagining narratives through the lens of personal stories and popular culture. The goal was to overcome some of the xenophobic sentiments and harmful stereotypes perpetuated by and through the media.

This work was shared in an online publication called Move: Media, Migration and the Civic Imagination. The site highlights over 20 multimedia essays, created by diverse groups of students, working across their own unique understanding of the topic to reinvent how migration is portrayed.

Our work at the Academy sought to put civic media into action by mobilizing young people’s critical analysis and production of media. The civic media lens enabled us to think beyond the tools and specific applications of media, and to consider how individuals, groups and entire communities can actively reshape the stories they consume and produce, especially on matters of global import.

This was not about the informed global citizen, it was about the active and critical global citizen able to use and reuse the media tools at their disposal to effect social change.

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Fostering Civic Engagement in a Networked Era: An Interview with Eric Gordon and Paul Mihailidis (Part Two)

There was an early discourse that read digital media in terms of “virtual communities” largely unmoored to physical geographies and unrelated to the locations where we live, work, and vote. To what degree is this book part of a larger move to reintroduce “location” and “locality” into our understanding of how online communities operate?

To a large extent, we want to mobilize civic media to look across online or offline divides. In 2011, one of us (Eric) wrote a book called Net Locality: Why Location Matters in a Networked World. The reason for writing this book was to do precisely that.

While one of its chapters was on civic engagement, it was more concerned with the qualities of urban environments. The book critically addressed how locality or location-awareness (both human and machine) was impacting urban form. What cities look like and how people interact within them was being impacted by the increasing amount of located data found within them.

In Civic Media, we pick up those arguments again. But instead of focusing on questions of urban form, we focus on how people are coordinating and cooperating to get things done with media, in space and across space. We focus on how the texture of located communities influences online interactions, and vice versa. We question how power, through access, digital literacy, and institutions, defines who uses the media and to what ends. The concept of civic media necessarily interrogates false binaries of physical / real, online / offline, and located / distributed. This is the generative work of the term.

Many early conversations about civic media assumed a fairly simple link between the ideal of the “informed citizen” and the emergence of information technologies. Yet, many of the examples running through your book are focused less on civic engagement as a structure of knowledge and more as a structure of feeling. So, what place should there be in the study of civic media for more touchy-feely concepts like community or empathy or the imagination?

We wouldn’t call a structure of feeling “touchy-feely.” Indeed, we see this move away from the informed citizen as a move towards the affective, and/or experiential aspects of civic engagement.

Knowing does not necessarily lead to acting. What motivates young people, for example, to participate in civic life is not primarily the understanding of an issue, but the experience, or promise of the experience, of acting on that issue.

Creating or sharing memes, connecting within a social network, even playing a game—these can all be civic actions disconnected from work-a-day rational self-interest or interest in cause. These actions can be motivated by the desire to “act with” and “to feel a part of,” and in some cases have no connection to a particular knowledge base.

This is what is inspiring about the range of civic media forms; knowing is only one piece of experience. The frame of civic media has the potential to unlock civics from its long dependence on rationality.

To some degree this book represents an attempt to define or at least solidify a field of researchers focused on civic media, many of whom are appearing together here for the first time and who reflect a broad range of different disciplines. What can you tell us about the tribes you are bringing together here? What disciplines have had the most to say on these topics? To what degree does the interdisciplinary conversation a book like this represents add something that would not exist if everyone remained in their disciplinary spaces?

Academic disciplines are not designed to solve problems in the world. They are designed to create generalizable knowledge, disciplined by methodologies and theories. Applied social research is often difficult, because the social world, with all of its complexity, does not easily succumb to disciplinary structures. So the promise of interdisciplinary work is prioritizing problems to be solved over knowledge to be made.

Civic Media brings together scholars and practitioners from a range of disciplines, including Philosophy, Sociology, Communications, Media Studies, Computer Science, Urban Planning, Art, Government and Law, to answer the question “What can civics be?” While the media scholar might ask “how is civic life mediated?” and the sociologist might ask “how are the structures of civic life changing?” and the artist might ask what are the forms that civic life can take?” when each speaks only to those asking similar questions with similar methodologies, knowledge refines, instead of generates. We see civic media as a generative project, made possible only by the cross pollination of intellectual perspectives and traditions.

“Engagement” has been described as a buzz word of our times, one as likely to be used by commercial industries (“fan engagement”) as by governmental agencies set up to increase citizen engagement. So, what do you see as the relationship between these two discourses about engagement or indeed, are they two separate discourses? To what degree do commercial understandings of engagement spill over into the work of governmental agencies or nonprofit organizations?

You’re right, engagement is an annoyingly “buzzy” term. But we still find it to be productive. We run a lab called the “Engagement Lab,” where we investigate the interfaces between individuals, communities and institutions and we strongly believe that “to engage” is a transitive verb. People engage in nouns: people, places and things. They are typically not engaged by nouns.

In other words, engagement is relational, it just doesn’t happen to you. When commercial industries invest in customer engagement or fan engagement, they are looking for a way for engagement to happen to people. And sadly, even when public institutions use the term, they are looking to “do engagement,” to make people engage with a service or process, but not to enable people to act together.

But just because the term is overused, we don’t believe we should abandon it. Engagement means caring; and there is a difference between attentiveness to a product or service and caring. One way of understanding that difference is that caring is relational. We take care because of how others perceive our actions, or we care for others through some structured reciprocity. Engagement in the business and (sometimes) government sectors has come to mean extreme attentiveness, but the frame of civic media places it back into the realm of caring.

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Fostering Civic Engagement in a Networked Era: An Interview with Eric Gordon and Paul Mihailidis (Part One)

In spring 2015, I ran a series of guest posts on this blog to celebrate the launch of The Civic Media Project website, which Eric Gordon and Paul Mihailidis, the Co-Directors of Emerson College’s Engagement Lab,  had developed in anticipation of their MIT Press book, Civic Media: Technology, Design, Practice.

Well, that book is finally out and in the world.

The new book includes essays by some of the key thinkers on contemporary media and politics, including W. Lance Bennett, Beth Simone Noveck, Beth Coleman, Renee Hobbes, Roman Gerodimos, Elizabeth Soep, Molly Sauter, Ceasar McDowell, and Joseph Kahne, among many others. My research team contributed an essay exploring superheroes, the civic imagination, and contemporary youth activism — an extension of the argument we developed through By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism.  The book moves between conceptual statements about the current moment in the development of civic media and more focused case studies of projects in the U.S. and around the world.

Here’s how Gordon and Milhailidis described their understanding of the concept of Civic Media:

Civic life is comprised of the attention and actions an individual devotes to a common good. Participating in a human rights rally, creating and sharing a video online about unfair labor practices, connecting with neighbors after a natural disaster: these are all civic actions wherein the actor seeks to benefit a perceived common good. But where and how civic life takes place, is an open question. The lines between the private and the public, the self-interested and the civic are blurring as digital cultures transform means and patterns of communication around the world.

As the definition of civic life is in flux, there is urgency in defining and questioning the mediated practices that compose it. Civic media are the mediated practices of designing, building, implementing or using digital tools to intervene in or participate in civic life.

This past summer, I had the privilege to spend time with Eric Gordon and Paul Mihailidis at the Salzburg Academy for Media and Global Change. Paul has directed this summer program for the past decade and Eric regularly participates as part of the affiliated faculty, engaging students with both theoretical and design-focused workshops. This past year, they brought together undergraduate and graduate students from thirty different nations to reflect on the changing media landscape, to develop a deeper understanding of the mechanisms for fostering social change and political mobilization, and to put their emerging grasp of media literacy to work by collaborating to produce an online magazine, Move, which explored the current refuge crisis and global migration more generally. I was proud to be the keynote speaker at this program and to have my research group run a series of workshops and seminars with the students concerning our work on the civic imagination.

You might also want to check out this essay the two wrote for the current issue of the Journal of Digital Media Literacy dedicated to how we help students make the transition from voice to influence.

What became clear to me from my time with these two remarkable scholar-practitioners was how deep and original their thinking was about the future of civic media.  They both knew how to create a collaborative environment where original thinking and creative experimentation took place, and they both pushed everyone involved to dig deeper and question established thinking about the nature of civic engagement in a networked culture.

Returning to the book today, I am struck by the ways that its project is an extension or amplification of what they brought to the students during this summer program.  I can’t wait to introduce this book to my students at USC; it provides resources that can help redefine how we teach civic and political life.

While we were there together, we hatched the plan to do an interview with Eric and Paul about the Civic Media book. Across the following three installments, we criss-cross the core themes that animate the book and suggest further developments in their thinking.

You begin the book with a core question: “What does civic engagement look like in a digital age?” I can imagine some traditionalists having issues with this formulation, since it assumes a link between media/communication infrastructure and civic engagement/practice. So, what’s the case for thinking about civic engagement through the lens of civic media more generally and digital media in particular?

We start the book with a question about appearances. What does civic engagement look like when people are connecting to their various communities online? When people gather in public squares or head to the voting booth, the meaning of such actions appear to be clear. They are civically engaging. But when people connect to each other via their phones or computers, independent of the reason or purpose of such connection, the actions might appear more like self-indulgent distractions than civic engagement.

So, at the start of the book, we don’t assume a link between media/communication infrastructure and civic engagement/practice; we actually assume a distortion in appearances, and we encourage a certain comfort with that distortion. From there, we seek to reframe civic engagement using the lens of civic media. Without claiming that civic engagement in democratic cultures is fundamentally different, we claim that when you expand the frame of civic engagement to include a myriad of practices previously ignored, the practice field of civic engagement changes. And, inevitably, as you expand the field of practice of any domain, you will slowly and empirically expand the definition of that domain.  

How are you defining “civic media” in this book? To what degree can we describe particular media platforms as “civic” as opposed to specific media practices? How do we decide that something is NOT civic media?

We define civic media as the “technologies, designs, and practices that produce and reproduce the sense of being in the world with others toward common good.” We offer this intentionally broad definition to accommodate what we see as a growing range of civic practices. And we hope that the term is generative, not restrictive – that it sparks the imagination about what it might include. But this isn’t simply a casual investigation.

There is urgency in defining the term, as there is danger of these emerging practices of civic engagement simply getting lumped into larger media trends, or on the flip side, getting written off as anomalies narrowly defined. The term civic media suggests an “acting with” as a means of achieving a common good. It is inclusive of the range of intentional actions that people take with and through technologies, designs, or practices (aka media).

As for what the term excludes: media with civic content that is passively consumed and media actively consumed that stands to benefit only the individual actor. So, on one hand we would likely exclude an effort like iCivics, which is a great example of classroom games with civics content for middle school kids, and we would exclude something like Pokemon Go, which is a highly interactive, place-based game, but playing it (at least as it most commonly used) stands to benefit only the individual actor.

In both cases, however, there can be emergent uses that would move them into the civic media category. There is something unique about civic media – not in the technologies or the tools themselves, but in the ways people are using them.

Some would argue that many of the core platforms of the web are profoundly anti-civic or non-civic (or at least anti-social) in their effects. You will find plenty of critics of Youtube, Twitter, Facebook, and other sites in terms of damages done to civic life. Can we reconcile such critiques with the idea that at least some uses of these same technologies may actively contribute to civic engagement?

Absolutely. Tools facilitate actions. YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, etc. are tools that can be used for a range of activities. Just as a hammer can be used to build a house and to knock someone over the head, social media can be used for mobilizing a social justice campaign and bullying a peer with hateful speech.

But, as Marshall McLuhan said, technologies are not valueless: their form has implicit or explicit meaning. For example, the design of Facebook values broad connectivity over intimacy. And while it might be used for intimate conversations, one could argue that the tool predisposes its users towards particular outcomes. Such is the case with civic media.

While tools are malleable and multi-functional, they do carry with them certain values that compel users towards particular outcomes. Consider the domain of civic technology. The tools designed and implemented by government are meant to facilitate or streamline government processes, from paying parking tickets to providing input on urban plans.

These tools are designed for particular purposes in particular contexts and while they can be misused or appropriated, the technology largely shapes social interaction. The category of civic media is inclusive of these single function technologies, but is not limited to them. It is not a descriptor of tools. Instead, it provides a context to analyze the intentional actions that people take with tools, designed or modified for civic outcomes.

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