Avoiding the Post-critical

MoC1-EditorialSoon after the financial services firm Lehman Brothers collapsed in 2008, economics occupied a central position in the media. For decades, the financial sector had been driving a process of de-politicisation of society. However, the exposing domino effect caused by the auto-destructive nature of capitalism allowed it to continue suppressing an already fragile public, political discourse. Terminology such as ‘subprimes’, ‘derivatives’ and ‘collateralised debt obligations’ headlined public statements and TV reports, as infographics attempted to explain what had really happened.

As European countries started to implement severe policy measures and cuts in all areas of public life, civil unrest was imminent. This took form as an outburst on behalf of the people, in response to the pressure exerted by banks, the International Monetary Fund and the European Commission, to which society felt both powerless and not responsible. Government arrangements with the financial sector under neoliberalism became the norm, attempting to establish a consensual, inevitable state of affairs managed by technocrats. To the condition of eliminating the “proper political,”right 01“Proper politics exists whenever the count of parts and parties of society is disturbed by the inscription of a part of those who have no part.” [Rancière, 1998, p. 123] philosophers such as Jacques Rancière and Slavoj Žižek call the ‘post-political.’ Throughout the media, a shift in the discourse emerged. There was one reality before the global financial crisis started and another one after it begun. A ‘pre’ and a ‘post’-global financial crisis. These prefixes are recurrently used to mark the before and after of a social, political and cultural event in time.

When the main focus of Western governments is a desperately obsessive yearning for economic growth at any cost, the state of crisis naturally spreads not only to all layers of society, but also to all disciplines. Graphic design is no exception. Trapped between disciplinary discourse and personal, private and public interest, graphic design has another opportunity to re-examine its complicity with the current state of affairs. In other words, the present economic, political and social crisis highlights the fragilities, limitations, but also the potential of the discipline. Yet, at a time when it is fundamental to be critical, the very term has become ubiquitous, cool and vague. While it is possible to identify overlapping levels of criticality, as suggested by the personal (reflecting on own work), disciplinary (expanding disciplinary issues) and public (addressing societal phenomena), what is meant by critical is open for debate.

In a conversation between the designers Zak Kyes and Mark Owens published in The Reader (2009), the latter makes an important observation concerning the (mis)use of terminology adapted in graphic design discourse. Owens argues that graphic design tends to be delayed in engaging with terminology that is under discussion in other disciplines, more often than not using terms that are “frequently founded on some unacknowledged misreading or misunderstanding.” (Owens, 2009, p. 327) He notes that ‘postmodernism’ was an exhausted term within fine art and architectural discourse by the time it started to take hold in graphic design in the late 1980s. Adding to the list of examples, he says that the same applied to the discussions of ‘graphic authorship’ in the 1990s and, more recently, the exploration of the term ‘relational design’ by retrofitting Nicolas Bourriaud’s ‘relational aesthetics.’

The term ‘post-critical’ seems to follow this legacy. As the above examples, compared with other disciplines, it is still a recent term within graphic design discourse. As Owens points out in relation to other terms, its reading and interpretation are likely to generate misunderstandings in disciplinary discourse, but also overlaps with the applications developed in other disciplines. In Critical of What: Toward a Utopian Realism (2005), architect and critic Reinhold Martin provides a succinct account of the manifestations of the post-critical within architecture. Martin constructs his argument by referencing and extending the article ‘Criticality’ and Its Discontents (2004) by the architect George Baird. Martin characterises practices operating under the banner of the post-critical as “sharing a commitment to an affect-driven, non-oppositional, nonresistance, nondissenting, and therefore nonutopian, forms of architectural production.” (Martin, 2005, p. 104) According to Martin, the kind of practice he described citing Baird, failed to deliver “an actual, affirmative project,” hiding instead behind adjectives such as “easy,” “relaxed,” and “cool.”

Martin suggests that the post-critical may be seen as the shift from ‘political critique’ to ‘aesthetic critique’. He argues that the former can be defined as “Frankfurt School-style negative dialectics” in reference to critical theorist Theodor Adorno, and associated with theorists like Manfredo Tafuri or Michael Hays. In other words, it follows a tradition of what the word critical is traditionally associated with: negation, resistance, emancipation. Hays has notably described critical architecture as “one which is resistant to the self-confirming, conciliatory operations of a dominant culture and yet irreducible to a purely formal structure disengaged from the contingencies of place and time.” (Hays, 1984, p. 14) Martin notes, too, the disbelief and dismissal of architecture’s potential by the post-critical, as it “usually winds up testifying not to the existence of a critical architecture, but to its impossibility, or at most, its irreducible negativity in the face of the insurmountable violence perpetrated by what the economist Ernest Mandel called, some time ago, ‘late capitalism.’” (Martin, 2005, p. 105) This is particularly important, as graphic design has to deal with (proportionally) similar political and economical constraints as architecture in its search for space for critical autonomy. Yet, the architect Peter Eisenman explicitly diverted his criticality, as Martin argues, towards the questioning of the discipline’s internal assumptions and processes, thus resulting in what he calls aesthetic critique, and architects Robert Somol and Sarah Whiting call projective architecture. By demonstrating both disinterest and resistance towards the political, social and economic struggles architecture has to deal with at professional and academic levels, Martin says that Eisenman semantically changed what was understood as ‘critical.’ Using the rationalist architect Giuseppi Terragni who worked under the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini as example, Martin alerts to Eisenman’s illusion that a “formal syntax could be separated definitely from its political semantics.”

In issue 64 of Emigre (2003), a concern with a generalised uncritical state of the graphic design discipline was openly expressed, namely by design curator Andrew Blauvelt. Commenting on a reality observable within graphic design discourse after the vivid contributions generated during the 1980s and 1990s, such as the discussions revolving around ‘design authorship’, Blauvelt presented a dark account of the state of the discipline. In the article Towards Critical Autonomy or Can Graphic Design Save Itself?, pluralism seemed to be the word that best described graphic design at the beginning of the 21st century. The discipline’s constituent elements were so “scattered and destabilized”, that for Blauvelt, “any attempt at definitions becomes meaningless.” He goes even further, introducing the ‘post-critical’ term to graphic design discourse by arguing that “any critical edge to design—either real or imagined—has largely disappeared, dulled by neglect in the go-go nineties or deemed expendable in the subsequent downswing. However, the reason seems not a factor of cyclical economies, but rather the transfiguration of a critical avant-garde into a post-critical arrière-garde.” (Blauvelt, 2003, p. 38)

Five years later, Blauvelt reaffirmed this post-critical condition. In the article The Work of Task (2008), he reviewed the birth of the magazine Task Newsletter. This magazine, edited by designers Emmet Byrne, Alex DeArmond and Jon Sueda collected a series of conversations with influential design figures and writings on a diverse range of themes. Blauvelt argues that Task Newsletter was being symptomatic of an installed, non-confrontational attitude in graphic design practice. He questions: “The presence of Task asks, How do you make a magazine for the post-critical, post-movement moment of contemporary graphic design?” After the application of the ‘post-critical’ term was contested in the blog post’s comment section, Blauvelt provides a clearer reasoning for its use, shedding light on its meaning: “In my opinion the critical establishes a position. The post-critical does not. I’m not evoking a specifically architectural reference for the term, only alluding to the idea that there is nothing to define, uphold, be against, or resist, etc. The issuance of an object into the world does not necessarily establish a critical position. It is possible that we can have more objects and fewer critical positions.” (Blauvelt, Design Observer, 2008)

Reinhold Martin’s analysis points to a de-politicised manifestation of a new uncritical form of criticality. The lack of ideology is the ideology. It is one which, perhaps unwittingly, blurs, confuses and ignores what critical has been known to mean in the past. The ‘aesthetic critique’ reconfigures what the word ‘critical’ can mean in relation to graphic design, thereby liberating the word and allowing it to be attached to virtually any kind of practice that deviates from an uncritical approach to design. This opens up two additional possibilities: 1) the critical as criticool—visual formulas can be developed in order to rapidly make a project look critical; and 2) the critical as simply a synonym of thinking. As a result, there is no need to bridge—or justify—any gap between theoretically-grounded research/critique, visual output and effect. The post-critical places itself beyond criticism, delusionally rendering the tradition that preceded its existence neglectable. Martin suggests that the post-critical avoids becoming obsessed with the past, looking instead optimistically to the future. The designer Stuart Bailey seems to partially reinforce this idea in his open letter in Dot Dot Dot 20 (2010). Responding to design critic Rick Poynor’s criticism of overlooking graphic design history and tradition associated with the term ‘critical design’, Bailey said that they (referring to a group of participants of the exhibition Forms of Inquiry: The Architecture of Critical Graphic Design) have their own tradition, make their own and will continue to do so, sustaining his arguments with a series of eclectic references. For them, Emigre is as much as an influence as an independent record label or a band.

The impact the financial crisis had on graphic design, such as precarity, student debt and budget cuts, has been briefly noted by design writer Adrian Shaughnessy in When Less Really Does Mean Less (2012). Here, it is possible to see the introduction of another ‘post’: post-graphic design. This over-dramatic term does not suggest that graphic design will cease to exist. Instead, it points to imminent changes. The fierce competition from businesses of ready-to-use, categorised templates and logos, to crowd-sourced services such Fiverr or 99 Designs, will drastically reduce the need for typical graphic design work. People producing generic work via these services at reduced prices will, too, be out of work, replaced by automated, data-driven tasks. In this sense, the term also draws attention to the extremely dangerous rise of surveillance, big data and pre-emptive personalisation, which are important to design. It alerts to an increased acceleration of algorithmical automatisation, which anticipates personalised graphic design across media based on collected data across devices. This can render the traditional role of the graphic designer redundant and close even more opportunities for criticality. This ‘post’ serves to introduce, as all the posts, the “notion of posteriority, the transition from a known classifier to an unknown but suggestive future” as architectural theorist Charles Jencks suggests in What is Post-Modernism? (1986).

The post-political and the post-critical have two goals. The first draws attention to the elimination of politics and the bankruptcy of the dominant political systems. At the same time, it opens up new possibilities: direct action, impromptu public forums, new governance models, movements and parties, for example. The second has a similar orientation. On the one hand it alerts to the crisis of the word it is claiming to be moving away from. On the other, it indicates other approaches operating or diverging from its original meaning, suggesting a new definition of what is meant by critical. While these and other ‘post’ terms surface within graphic design discourse, it is unlikely that designers will want to wear their corresponding badges, avoiding pigeonholing in an increasingly volatile and fast changing discipline. That is also arguably the least relevant contribution of their emergence and existence. They are useful to signal paradigm shifts, to indicate upcoming demises, challenges and especially to open up discussions and platforms, which in turn can foster new approaches to deal with current social, political and cultural conditions—ultimately keeping the discipline under much needed scrutiny. The post-political and the post-critical will keep highlighting shortfalls and promoting possibilities. In this sense, it may well be the political and disciplinary conditions that lead to the emergence of such prefixes—creating a state of indefinite crisis—that will force the ‘critical’ to really become critical once again. The post-critical is a term that graphic design does not need to borrow or adapt to. It signals, however, a crucial opportunity to clarify, debate and define what the critical in graphic design can and should be—to generate a critique of the critical.

Bailey, S. (2010) Another Open Letter, In: Dot Dot Dot 20.
Baird, G. (2004), ‘Criticality’ and Its Discontents, Harvard Design Magazine.
Blauvelt, A. (2008) The Work of Task, Design Observer.
Blauvelt, A. (2003) Towards Critical Autonomy or Can Graphic Design Save Itself?, Emigre 64, Princeton Architectural Press.
Hays, M. (1984) Critical Architecture: Between Culture and Form in Perspecta 21, MIT Press.
Jencks, C. (1996) What is Post-Modernism? London: Academy Editions.
Martin, R. (2005) Critical of What? Toward a Utopian Realism, Harvard Design Magazine, no. 22.
Owens, M.; Kyes, Z. (2009) Forms of Agency in Iapsis Forum on Design and Critical Practice: The Reader, Sternberg Press.
Rancière, J. (1998) Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy, University of Minnesota Press.
Shaughnessy, A. (2012) When Less Really Means Less, Design Observer.
Swyngedouw, E. (2011) Designing the Post-Political City and the Insurgent Polis. London: Bedford Press.

Essay originally published in Modes of Criticism 1 – Critical, Uncritical, Post-critical (2015)

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1. “Proper politics exists whenever the count of parts and parties of society is disturbed by the inscription of a part of those who have no part.” [Rancière, 1998, p. 123]