By Lieve Orye
Theology and anthropology ‘by means of design’
What happens when in between theological books, one of which is Rachel Muers’ Living for the Future (2008), a chapter on design anthropology is read, especially a chapter in which anthropology of design is exchanged for an anthropology ‘by means of design’?
Anthropologists Tim Ingold and Caroline Gatt rethink the relation between design and anthropology and in the process rethink both. Interestingly, they attempt to clarify the move they make from ‘of’ to ‘by means of’, by drawing a parallel with anthropology's relation to theology. They see the closest equivalent of what they are trying to do in a 2006 article by Joel Robbins in which he sees three kinds of anthropological engagement with theology: (1) anthropology exposing and critiquing theological roots of anthropological concepts; (2) anthropology using theologies and theologians as data and informants for ethnographic analysis and (3), the promising one, the closest equivalent for Ingold and Gatt, an approach in which anthropology opens itself up to theology as a potent source of inspiration for its own projects, “acknowledging that we have much to learn from the faith, commitment, and wisdom that give hope and commitment to others’ lives” (Robbins 2006:285 in Ingold & Gatt 2013:141). Ingold and Gatt’s ‘anthropology by means of design’ is then not aiming for (1) a critical design anthropology that looks for cultural imaginaries and micropolitics behind the science and practice of design, nor (2) for an anthropology that places activities of designers in their social and cultural context but is (3) an anthropology opening up to design as a potent source of inspiration for its own projects. Cross-pollination, though, would mean that those interested in doing theology in conversation with anthropology, as Michael Banner is recently suggesting for moral theology in his book The Ethics of Everyday Life (2014), could engage in drawing parallels the other way around: is there relevance in Ingold’s and Gatt’s reflections on ‘anthropology by means of design’ for how or what we do in theology, especially when it is a theology that wants to reconnect to everyday life? A full discussion would take at least an article, could easily fill a book, but let me give just a few hints of what might be possible.
Design conundrums: keeping life going
Design, Ingold and Gatt write, "is about shaping the future of the world we live in" (Ingold & Gatt 2013:144). But they point out that curiously design seems predicated upon the failure of our predecessors and upon an understanding of our successors as mere users who simply implement the designs already made. Our predecessors did not succeed in shaping a future for us whereas if we succeed to do so, the next generations can only implement. "Designs, it seems, must fail, if every generation is to be afforded the opportunity to look forward to a future that it can call its own" (Idem). Ingold and Gatt suggest, rather than to think design in terms of ends and final answers, to think it in terms of what keeps life going. That is, to stop thinking in terms of forms as specific results while paying attention to 'form-giving'. In other words, they plead for a shift from predictability and foreclosure to a life process that is open-ended and improvisatory.
We want to argue that design, far from being the exclusive preserve of a class of professional experts tasked with the production of futures for the rest of us to consume, is an aspect of everything we do, insofar as our actions are guided by hopes, dreams, and promises. That is to say, rather than setting the parameters for our habitation of the earth, design is part and parcel of the very process of dwelling (Ingold 2000). And it is, by the same token, about the ongoing creation of the kinds of environments in which dwelling can occur (Ingold and Gatt 2013: 144-145).
Key is that whereas an anthropology 'of' design, or 'of' any other human activity, turns the activity into an object of analysis and looks back over times past, Ingold and Gatt instead set out "to restore design to the heart of anthropology's disciplinary practice" and to move forward with people in tandem with their dreams and desires (Ingold & Gatt 2013:140). Such a shift also results in a very different understanding of what it means to be human. But even more, could a shift towards an open-ended forward-looking concept of design that refocuses attention on ongoing everyday life not be of interest in the search for an open-ended concept of ethics?
Christian dreams and hopes as open-ended Design?
Rachel Muers’ Living for the Future (2008) is currently lying on my desk. Hers, I reckon, is a search for a theological ethics that saves itself (and us) from the design/future conundrum to allow again room to think ‘care for future generations’ without tying the future completely to the present and past nor, cutting it lose completely. Furthermore, she writes, “[i]t is not a question of applying existing ethical principles to future generations, but of existing ethically in a way that allows the future to happen” (Muers 2014:41). With Ingold and Gatt, I dare to suggest that to live Christianly is to design Christianly, is “to design things in a world that is perpetually under construction by way of the activities of its inhabitants, who are tasked above all with keeping life going rather than with bringing to completion projects already specified at the outset”(Ingold and Gatt 2013:145). Such Christian design might then be understood as improvisation in which Christian dreams and hopes and Christian imagination of the human give specific direction, specific sign-posts involving a seeing into the future, seeing a new world in becoming. We have a song in Flanders in which Christians ask God to teach them his future. This is not a request for a plan or a project to be implemented. Rather it seems to me to be a plea to redirect our attention from plans and designs that promise security, predictability and control to the signs in our ongoing participation in the world and the lives of others that point to the coming into being of the New Kingdom.
Let’s wrap this up in a more general way: I would say, fruitful conversation between theology and anthropology requires for both a focus on concrete ongoing life and attention to ‘keeping life open’ both in thought and practice.
Banner, Michael (2014) The Ethics of Everyday Life. Moral Theology, Social Anthropology, and the Imagination of the Human, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Ingold, Tim and Caroline Gatt (2013) ‘From description to correspondence: Anthropology in Real Time’ in Design Anthropology: Theory and Practice, Wendy Dunn, Ton Otto, Rachel Smith.(eds.), London: Bloomsbury Academic, pp 139-158.
Muers, Rachel (2008) Living for the Future. Theological Ethics for Coming Generations, London: T&T Clark.