XXIX.5 September - October 2022
Page: 13
Digital Citation

Deliverance through design

Gopinaath Kannabiran

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What can't design do? Here I sketch a critical provocation about deliverance through design, wherein deliverance is constituted by the act of setting free from and uses the rhetoric of being rescued out of. Contemporary secular knowledge practices, specifically in technology-related public discourses, tend to harness and yet downplay the religious zeal in doing design. I call attention to discursive religiosity in doing design with the goal of lampooning saviorist attitudes and amplifying concerns about theorizing on behalf of others. If we are to believe that design can deliver us from various socioeconomic maladies and ecological crises, then researchers/educators/practitioners situated in-here gain discursive legitimacy and moral justification as missionaries who can and must reform the world out-there awaiting rescue. While climate change—related crises affect us all, not everyone is affected equally. Therefore, the discursive politics of speaking on behalf of others warrants critical scrutiny. When does the project of reforming the discipline of design on behalf of others become a projection onto others?


Deliverance through design is a discursive strategy for professionally claiming the pulpit of pastoral stewardship: telling others what they ought to do on behalf of others as a care practice. Addressing ecological and social justice issues through design necessitates interventions as not only solutions to problems but also ethical and moral imperatives for other designers and society at large. Shedding the guise of an impartial observer describing reality, design theorists are required to make impassioned arguments by appealing to other people's sensibilities with the goal of legitimizing their agenda for pushing reality in a certain direction. Irrespective of whether one approaches their work as a calling (what a person feels they must do) or as a career (usually what one chooses to do), doing design is discursively enshrined as potential for doing good while also cautiously tempered as a rationalistic practice devoid of, or at least safely distanced from, religiosity When religiosity and rationality are discursively cast as incompatible with and antithetical to each other, secular design knowledge practices gain the benefit of appearing to be less controversial and benign, if not politically neutral. But how much of our desire to do good on behalf of others is fueled by our desire to be needed and seen by others as doing good?

Deliverance through design is a discursive strategy for professionally claiming the pulpit of pastoral stewardship.

The implied benevolence of speaking on behalf of others through design often unfolds as an evangelical enterprise. Doing design as reformative politics involves proselytizing desirable subjectivities (persuading consumers toward environment-friendly choices, training ecologically responsible future designers, etc.) that are legitimized through networks of experts as certifications, standards, norms, and so on. Design efforts are justified as ethical interventions on behalf of others, deployed as public regulatory infrastructures, and sanctioned as reformations of disciplinary boundaries. Ideally, designers are interested in changing the world for the better and therefore must convince others about what is worth pursuing among competing prospects for what our shared future ought to be. Emphasizing discursive religiosity, the root religare interpreted as "to bind fast" and "to place an obligation on" is relevant for design education. Educators are expected to train future designers for gainful employment while simultaneously inculcating ecologically responsible attitudes and socially reformative practices. Design researchers are required to devote meticulous attention over time to projects while acrobatically kowtowing to balance: 1) the pragmatic need to serve what is discursively defined as practical, and 2) the critical impulse to challenge existing sociotechnical practices. Deliverance through design as a Herculean quest to save the world is enticingly righteous and professionally rewarding until we ask: Who gets to theorize about whom?

We must understand theory as an interest-guided discourse. Peter Zima notes, while developing theory, "we are dealing on the one hand with cognitive processes, the other hand with strategic conflicts involving symbolic capital (reputation, prestige, etc.) and a redistribution of assets and roles in the field"[1]. Symbolic capital informs how one form of knowledge production is evaluated and positioned as more desirable than others under the auspices of interdisciplinarity. Norman Fairclough illuminates important insights about the "reconstruction of professional identities of academics on a more entrepreneurial (self-promotional) basis, with the foregrounding of personal qualities" [2]. In fields like HCI that are predominantly funded to design technological interventions, discursive construction of the academic researcher's professional identity as a personable entrepreneur is codified through institutional practices, often unavoidable, and can be beneficial. Therefore, it is crucial to examine not just the application of a theory but also its own conditions of possibility; not just What does theory produce? but also What produces theory?

Are the current knowledge practices of HCI researchers ethically motivated and structurally equipped to acknowledge the struggles and hopes of elsewhere?

Theorizing on behalf of others gives rise to pragmatic tensions around inclusion/exclusion and center/periphery. Zima characterizes theory "both as an instrument of knowledge and as a strategy designed to ensure individual or collective predominance in the scientific field" [1]. Academic researchers are systematically incentivized, if not required, to build and establish a unique brand—as theories, concepts, frameworks, patents, labs, grants received, books published, international conferences attended, public policy consultations, invited talks and media engagements as subject matter experts, sociocognitively curated citation networks, clearly traceable pedigree through recommendation letters on institutional letterheads, and fenced collaborations networked to harness symbolic capital. Further, as Fairclough states, "there is a widespread instrumentalization of discursive practices, involving the subordination of meaning to, and the manipulation of meaning for strategic, instrumental effect" [2]. For instance, volunteering often becomes a way to establish a professional network. Service bartered as social currency sanctions high-visibility communal roles as an earned privilege bestowed upon a select few based on recognized merit and symbolic capital. Phoebe Sengers and colleagues present an insightful analysis on the role of technoscientific design speculations that are "oriented towards breaking from the past to establish a more promising future" and how they give rise to "a necessity to reject the past-which-is-present-here in order to achieve modern futures which already exist elsewhere"[3]. When theorizing on behalf of others, what is the design researcher's responsibility toward the past-which-is-present-here that refuses to vanish despite well-intentioned efforts toward a promising future?

[T]hought of the Other is sterile without the other of Thought. Thought of the Other is the moral generosity disposing me to accept the principle of alterity, to conceive of the world as not simple and straightforward, with only one truth—mine. But thought of the Other can dwell within me without making me alter course, without "prizing me open," without changing me within myself. An ethical principle, it is enough that l not violate it.

The other of Thought is precisely this altering. Then l have to act. That is the moment I change my thought, without renouncing its contribution. l change, and l exchange. This is an aesthetics of turbulence whose corresponding ethics is not provided in advance [4].

Is inclusion ethically enough? In the above passage, Caribbean postcolonial philosopher Édouard Glissant insists that inclusion of others does not necessarily instigate changing me within myself or altering the status quo. For instance, hiring international researchers and boasting inclusion through performative optics (thought of the Other) does not always allow room for critique, dissent, and demands in institutional policy changes that reflect the concerns of immigrants. Indigenous feminist Zoe Todd points out that "without being aware of competing or similar discourses happening outside of the rock-star arenas of Euro-Western thought, "it becomes "easy for those within the Euro-Western academy to advance and consume arguments that parallel discourses in Indigenous contexts without explicitly nodding to them, or by minimally nodding to Indigenous intellectual and political players" [5]. Inclusion and participation can become glib feel-good labels without questions about included how and participating in what? Glissant reminds us: "When you awaken an observation, a certainty, a hope, they are already struggling somewhere, elsewhere, in another form" [4]. Are the current knowledge practices of HCI researchers ethically motivated and structurally equipped to acknowledge the struggles and hopes of elsewhere?


The ethical choice to parse the past through the lens of discontinuity is often presented as inevitable, necessary, possible, and desirable for all. Michalinos Zembylas argues, however, that the "rejection of Eurocentric forms of humanism and highlighting of the entanglements of the human and the non-human will not necessarily result in greater humility for humans' interdependence with other living and non-living beings nor will it fight the various manifestations of structural violence, colonialism and racism" [6]. Perhaps due to survivor guilt about being privileged in the unfair present, performative declarations about renouncing power over another are common. Public admission of guilt can be deftly employed to discursively position oneself as: 1) instigating revolutionary rupture and discontinuity with problematic past, 2) central to decision-making processes and narratives in the present as claim for redemption, and 3) signaling sincerity with demands for collective trust to reimagine futures that promise to be inclusive and benevolent toward all. The imperialist project of strip-mining and then renouncing power over impoverished colonies during crises without appropriate reparations is parasitic nomadism that claims rebirth without responsibility. How might HCI researchers responsibly speak on behalf of others in a relation that "rightfully opposes the totalitarianism of any monolingual intent" [4] in the context of issues such as climate change?

back to top  Acknowledgments

I would like to thank Sarah Barnette, Alex Taylor, and Olav Bertelsen for their support and feedback on this work.

back to top  References

1. Zima, P.V. What Is Theory? Cultural Theory as Discourse and Dialogue. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2007.

2. Fairclough, N. Critical discourse analysis and the marketization of public discourse: the universities. Discourse & Society 4,2 (1993),133–168;

3. Sengers, P., Williams, K., and Khovanskaya, V. Speculation and the design of development. Proc. of the ACM on Human- Computer Interaction 5,CSCW1, 121 (2021). ACM Press, 1–27. DOI:

4. Glissant, É. Poetics of Relation. Univ. of Michigan Press, 1997;

5. Todd, Z. An Indigenous feminist's take on the ontological turn: 'Ontology' is just another word for colonialism. Journal of Historical Sociology 29, 1(2016), 4–22;

6. Zembylas, M. The entanglement of decolonial and posthuman perspectives: Tensions and implications for curriculum and pedagogy in higher education. Parallax 24, 3(2018), Taylor & Francis, 254–267. DOI:

back to top  Author

Gopinaath Kannabiran is a design educator, HCI researcher, yoga instructor, and sexual rights activist. [email protected]

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Copyright held by author

The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2022 ACM, Inc.

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