An exploration of
dirty design philosophy
by Marjanne van Helvert


the Dirty MIND -
DURATIon 4 life!!1

Before talking about the present and the future of design, I am going to the past for a bit. About a hundred years ago French philosopher Henri Bergson developed a theory that is both timeless and incredibly relevant to the present time. It is something that I think could prove to be helpful in the age of what Bruce Sterling calls atemporality (see A DIRTY TIME - WHY NOW?), as it could work as a foundation for a new way of looking at and dealing with our current state of post-postmodern disorder, and with the place of design in this broad universe of human endeavors.

The core of Bergsonian theory is the concept of duration, which is an understanding of life as essentially dynamic, as always in process. It is of a more fundamental nature than his similar concept of becoming, which was later popularized by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. Deleuze and Guattari's recent popularity can be accounted for a rising interest in Bergson, as they derived important parts of their theories on Bergson's work. Duration is a way of describing reality as it really is and as we intuitively experience it, but as we do not seem to be able to rationally comprehend it. This is based on the premise that our way of thinking is structured around matter, around quantity. We think of things of which we can see a beginning and an end, because for hundreds of thousands of years that was the most important for our survival. But according to Bergson this way of thinking is not a good reflection of how things really work in the universe. It is interesting to note that Bergson's ideas arose around the same time as Einstein's theories did. They both require a mindset that moves beyond common sense, beyond our conventional way of thinking that is structured in our languages and symbols, in signs for finite objects that are either black or white, on or off, here or there, singular or plural, in the past or in the future.

In Creative Evolution (1907) Bergson writes that our intellect is intended, through evolution, "to think matter". He argues "that our concepts have been formed on the model of solids; that our logic is, pre-eminently, the logic of solids; that, consequently, our intellect triumphs in geometry, [...] where the intellect has only to follow its natural movement, after the lightest possible contact with experience, in order to go from discovery to discovery, sure that experience is following behind it and will justify it invariably. But from this it must also follow that our thought, in its purely logical form, is incapable of presenting the true nature of life, the full meaning of the evolutionary movement." He continues: "In fact, we do indeed feel that not one of the categories of our thought—unity, multiplicity, mechanical causality, intelligent finality, etc.—applies exactly to the things of life: who can say where individuality begins and ends, whether the living being is one or many, whether it is the cells which associate themselves into the organism or the organism which dissociates itself into cells? In vain we force the living into this or that one of our molds. All the molds crack." (Bergson 1911, p. ix-x)

Let us take the common sense assumption of time as an example. We rationally refer to time in spatial terms: we imagine a sort of timeline, where moment follows moment, hour follows hour, era follows era. Our words, systems and codes that denote time all seem much like the mechanism of film, where the succession of static frames creates the illusion of a moving image. Instead, our experience of time is not at all of moments, but of a forever flowing, slippery thing, impossible to put a stop to, something that just goes on and on, and that can even appear to go at different speeds in spite of the clocks measuring its steady pace. We refer to time as a sequence of static things, while time's essence is movement.

This reality of eternal movement is what Bergson calls duration, and it is something that we cannot seem to grasp with our intellect, our rational mediation of things, but that is all the more natural to our intuition and our direct experience. The concept of becoming in this light is far more revolutionary than Deleuze and Guattari's rather banal, dualistic and reactionary appropriations such as "becoming-minor" or "becoming-woman" (Deleuze and Guattari 1972). Deleuze and Guattari pair it with the reintroduction of the very political, stiff designations they supposedly are trying to deflect, while Bergsonian becoming does not mean something that is in between these two fixed states or two static notions, but something that is by nature always in movement, something that has no fixed state and cannot be identified as moving toward a fixed state, which is in fact applicable to all of life, to everything in the universe.

Duration is essential for understanding our planet, which is changing so slowly it is perhaps difficult for a single generation of people to grasp. Duration applies to ourselves, to our bodies that are always in the process of renewing themselves, even though we consider them the same bodies throughout our lives. It concerns the objects we use: houses that require maintenance, carpets that collect traces of what passes on top of them, jeans shaping themselves after our bodies, electronic devices collecting our data and our shortcuts. But it also pertains to our concepts and our truths. Things we considered to be determined and obvious turn out to be more ephemeral than we realized. Laws are made and abolished, preferences evolve, values change. As Bergson states: "Matter or mind, reality has appeared to us as a perpetual becoming. It makes itself or it unmakes itself, but it is never something made." (Bergson 1911, p. 272)

In the light of these statements, I would humbly like to place the concept of dirty design. Bergson's theory of duration can help us face the divergence of the dynamic, complicated, dirty reality that our mind has learned to wrap up in simple, clean terms and unambiguous abstractions. In our networked society we can no longer inhabit the illusion of a neutral zone of unconnected material surfaces. We are embedded in all that our consumerism has established. We are part of the life of the sweatshop worker through the touch of our clothes, we are connected to the smoldering heaps of discarded electronics through the reflection in our LCDs. We breathe the dust coming from our shiny vehicles, we eat the immune bacteria that evolved on our engineered crops. The way we design and consume is part of the ongoing process of the evolution of life: it cannot be seen as a separate, perfect entity operating on a different plane of reality.

In the ahistorical, globalized reality that we live in, we seem to be overwhelmed by the fact that previously clear convictions have become diffuse and corroded. For me this extends to the utopian appearance of products, to the aesthetics of design objects that cover up their dynamic material reality, their making and their inevitable decay, their construction and destruction. These products hide in a hermetic shell through which we cannot see, cannot intervene, can improve nor adapt. They attempt to place themselves in a perfect world that we invented, one where things stand still and stand on their own. One that does not exist.