Bruno Latour

A Cautious Prometheus?



The fourth advantage I see in the word “design” (in addition to its modesty, its attention to detail and the semiotic skills it always carries with it), is that it is never a process that begins from scratch: to design is always to redesign. There is always something that exists first as a given, as an issue, as a problem. Design is a task that follows to make that something more lively, more commercial, more usable, more user’s friendly, more acceptable, more sustainable, and so on, depending on the various constraints to which the project has to answer. In other words, there is always something remedial in design. This is the advantage of the “not only… but also” feature although I criticized it above. This split is a weakness to be sure (there is always the temptation of seeing design as an afterthought, as a secondary task, as a less serious one than those of engineering, commerce and science) but it is also an immense advantage when compared to the idea of creation. To design is never to create ex nihilo. It is amusing that creationists in America use the word “intelligent design” as a rough substitute for “God the Creator”. They don’t seem to realize the tremendous abyss that exists between creating and designing. The most intelligent designers never start from a tabula rasa. God the designer is really a redesigner of something else that was already there —and this is even truer for His Son as well as for the Spirit, who both are sent to redeem what has been botched in the first place… If humanity “has been made (or should I have said designed?) as the image of God”, then they too should learn that things are never created but rather carefully and modestly redesigned. It is in that sense that I take the spread of the word design as a clear substitute for revolution and modernization. I do so furthermore, because there is always something slightly superficial in design, something clearly and explicitly transitory, something linked to fashion and thus to shifts in fashions, something tied to tastes and therefore somewhat relative. Designing is the antidote to founding, colonizing, establishing, or breaking with the past. It is an antidote to hubris and to the search for absolute certainty, absolute beginnings, and radical departures.


I hope I have not been too far off the mark by proposing (out of ignorance, surely) these few steps toward a philosophy of design or by introducing Sloterdijk as its main contributor. I wish to conclude by offering a challenge to the specialists of the history of design assembled here. When I said earlier that there is something inherently normative in design because of the necessary follow up question, “Is it well or badly designed?”, I also mentioned that this was a good handle for bringing in the question of politics. If the whole fabric of our earthly existence has to be redesigned in excruciating details; if for each detail the question of good and bad has to be raised; if every aspect has become a disputed matter of concern and can no longer be stabilized as an indisputable matter of fact; then we are obviously entering into a completely new political territory. As every one of you knows too well, it is the perverse character of all ecological questions that they branch out in all sort of counterintuitive ways. It is probably of ecology that St Paul was talking when he said: “I don’t do the good I wish to do and I do the bad that I hate”. Political ecology is bringing political difficulty to the square. For according to this marvellous rather Paulinian quote of de Gaulle: “If of the good only good would ensue, and if of bad only bad ensued, government would be rather simple: a village parson could do it”.


So here is the question I wish to raise to designers: where are the visualization tools that allow the contradictory and controversial nature of matters of concern to be represented? A common mistake (a very post-modernist one) is to believe that this goal will have been reached once the “linear”, “objectified”, and “reified” modernist view has been scattered through multiple view points and heterogeneous make shift assemblages. However, breaking down the tyranny of the modernist point of view will lead nowhere since we have never been modern. Critique, deconstruction and iconoclasm, once again, will simply not do the job of finding an alternative design. What is needed instead are tools that capture what have always been the hidden practices of modernist innovations: objects have always been projects; matters of fact have always been matters of concern. The tools we need to grasp these hidden practices will teach us just as much as the old aesthetics of matters of fact —and then again much more. Let me be clear – I am not advocating another CAD design for Prometheus. What I am pressing for is a means for drawing things together —gods, non humans and mortals included. Why should this prove to be an impossible task? Why can the powerful visual vocabulary that has been devised in the past by generations of artists, engineers, designers, philosophers, artisans and activists for matters of fact, not be devised (I hesitate to say restyled) for matters of concern?

Posted: January 2019
Category: Essays