Saturday, September 18, 2010

Faking it: Design as Re-making

Ackbar Abbas (with Pamila Gupta)

Ackbar Abbas started out his lecture on “History in the Faking” by acknowledging his debt to a borrowed pair of scissors “without which this talk would not have been possible.” Indeed, a closer look at his notes revealed a Frankensteinian mishmash of segments from typed notes interweaved with handwritten interjections. The next day at breakfast I came across a folder containing the rejected remnants of earlier notes, holes marking the passages Abbas found particularly relevant to our workshop. I wished I could look at the remainders more closely, perhaps try to figure out why they were rejected, but I already felt like I was snooping.

Maybe Abbas would have been sympathetic to my snooping – after all, in a masterful closing argument delivered during the workshop’s concluding he returned to the title of the lecture on the previous day, Wreckages of Utopia, urging us to reexamine the ruins, claiming that one can only see Utopia in the wreckages. Using Walter Benjamin’s conception of the ruin, he suggested that one can ‘pick up and pick out fragments of a Messianic time, embedded like broken glass in the ruins’ (my approximate paraphrase) – the key is not to turn to the ruins either in a spirit of traumatic repetition or nostalgic return.

The question of how one should view these wreckages returns us to the key word in Abbas’s earlier lecture – design. Critique, he argues, has lost its efficacy – when critique is everywhere, it is also nowhere. Instead of critique or theory, he urges one to design. Design, in this argument (which I do not purport to follow perfectly), is to make something from conditions buried underground – returning us to the wreckages or ruins. The starting point of design is thus not having an idea of what a good design would look like (in fact, Abbas is invested in ‘poor’ design, which he stresses is not the same as bad design), but rather, addressing that which is confusing or unanswerable. ‘The South,’ as we have been thinking about it, provides a rich ground for design because it is the space where the anomalies of contemporary society (call it global capitalism or late capitalism or the information age, whichever you choose) become most clearly visible in the juxtapositions between the most advanced and most basic forms which coexist there. As Abbas reminds us, the marginal can no longer safely be dismissed to the margins.

For example: fakes. Abbas uses the proliferation of fakes (handbags, watches, etc.), particularly as made in China, as the focal point of his lecture. Fakes are, he says, a ‘hysterical symptom’ of capital – I believe one can also see them as the pieces of broken glass in the ruins, bearing a disconnected resemblance (like allegory in Benjamin) to that which they purport to reflect. Illustrating his argument with a reference to Holbein’s painting The Ambassadors, he says that, just as in this work there are two perspectives at work, the conventional and the anamorphic (the painting contains a stretched-out skull which only becomes decipherable if one views the painting from the side, at which point the rest of the painting becomes blurred), fakes illustrate that the space of the market economy also contains multiple incompatible frameworks which are not visible from the same perspective, even though they are ‘right in front of you.’ The purpose of design, then, would be to make these frameworks visible.

Design, thus, is a remaking. Abbas references J.L. Borges’s Pierre Menard as the model. In this short story, Menard painstakingly ‘recreates’ or ‘remakes’ “the ninth and thirty-eighth chapters of Don Quixote and a fragment of chapter twenty-two” (Borges, Labyrinths, p. 39. Translated by James E. Irwin). This is not a fake: “Needless to say, he never contemplated a mechanical transcription of the original; he did not propose to copy it. His admirable intention was to produce a few pages which would coincide – word for word and line for line – with those of Miguel de Cervantes” (ibid.). Menard has not copied the Quixote, but remade it. In Abbas’s formulation, the faker copies, but the artist falsifies. It is in this spirit that one can approach the wreckages or ruins: a spirit which is creative, not imitative.

I realize I have probably not done a very good job of relaying Abbas’s argument, nor was that really the point of this blog post. What I was trying to do was anchor his talk in our shared concern of how to think from the South. The fear Abbas addresses, I would say, is that the South is doomed to repetition, to belatedness, to imitation, while innovation happens elsewhere. He makes it clear that this is not the case – that it is from the South, and perhaps only from the South, that we can start thinking the present. Belatedness, being in the wrong time or the wrong place, becomes the basis for a liberatory politics.

Nienke Boer