Operationalising the Means: Communication Design as Critical Practice

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What is critical consciousness at the bottom if not an unstoppable predilection for alternatives? — Edward W. Said

The Message as Derivate
The force of conviction of my modernist upbringing as a designer explains my fascination with the formal aesthetic side of the classic idiom of communication design. At the same time I am constantly surprised by the fact that, under pressure of the current socioeconomic conditions, modernism time and again succeeds in keeping its original liberating social intentions out of sight by concentrating on the very form itself; a conceptual and communicative shortcoming that is concealed in the abstractions of thinking and the elegance of form. This is true of all forms of cultural production, but especially of the “forbidden territories”, as Pierre Bourdieu (1979) calls them, which are less under scrutiny, such as the arts, architecture, design and so on. These are all disciplines that play a large part in the most far-ranging aesthetic production of capitalism ever known; but it is a production that lacks the sense of reality and spirit of rebellion of the avant-garde to look the ‘monster’ of the power relations under which it works in the eyes. This is intellectual and artistic deficiency that reduces the achievements of the great modernist works and ideas to that of isolated individuals in an ahistorical context.

Equally disturbing by now is a postmodernist aesthetic activism that due to this need for tranquillity in artistic production, increases the atrophy of its emancipatory capabilities and ends up in a frankly classic practice using a revolutionary terminology, but in actual practice fulfils no other than a kind of institutional opposition. This is like leaders who call for revolution, but whose social strategies, procedures and language use are routine. Now that the democratic public sphere has collapsed in the profit driven, managerial and academic inflation of the worldwide neoliberal climate, communication design’s optimistic pragmatism and belief in providing great services ends in an attractive speechlessness, knowing no other way to stay in place than the personal fashion of unbounded influence. It is a type of cultural production of the creative industry that Fredric Jameson (2015)—correctly in my opinion—compares with the derivates of the financial economy that subsume our experience under the empty fictions of conceptualisation and promotion.

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Essay originally published in Modes of Criticism 2 – Critique of Method (2016).

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