Here are some notes on two books that I’ve recently reviewed, and one I simply enjoyed. They all relate to a growing preoccupation with futures. The plural is important, grand narratives scare me as much as simple stories do.

First off, Douglas Murphy has written an expert and entertaining book about past futures. Last Futures: Nature, Technology, and the End of Architecturewas published late 2015 by Verso. The publisher’s blurb captures its essence very well.

In the late 1960s the world was faced with impending disaster: the height of the Cold War, the end of oil and the decline of great cities throughout the world. Out of this crisis came a new generation that hoped to build a better future, influenced by visions of geodesic domes, walking cities and a meaningful connection with nature. In this highly readable work of cultural history, architect Douglas Murphy traces the lost archeology of the present day through the works of thinkers and designers such as Buckminster Fuller, the ecological pioneer Stewart Brand, the Archigram architects who envisioned the Plug-In City in the ’60s, as well as co-operatives in Vienna, communes in the Californian desert and protesters on the streets of Paris.

Now the 1960s came and went, but not entirely. World-improving activism is once again on the rise. Communes and geodesic domes, not to mention DIY-cultures of many hues, seem to be here to stay.

(This post is illustrated with examples from around Europe that I visited last summer.)


Arts for the City, St Petersburg, Russia May 2016


Besides, it’s also the case that the breathless cybercapitalist lives that today pass for normal (even desirable) owe a considerable debt to “the long 1960s”. Like environmentalism, they too emerged out of the planetary imaginaries and practical experiments (combined in the world-wide web) also fostered by the techno-eco-utopian tinkerers and artists whose products and fortunes Murphy’s book recounts.

In those days the future was “pop” and not always quite respectable. Now it’s serious business.

The increasingly influential futures research industry is hopefully learning some lessons from the utopian dreams of the past. These are not just about plans that go awry or even about unforeseeable and unintended side effects. In studying past futures one learns that human beings are fundamentally collective, social and political animals, but for all that, highly unpredictable.

That’s where I’m hoping design anthropology’s contributions might be developed.

A little bit like 50 years ago, the world is out of joint and epistemic authority is in disarray. At the meeting points of the design disciplines and the empirical social sciences, that epistemic multiplicity is being studied and fostered.


From Open Sources Circular Economy Days (OSCE), Helsinki, June 2016

Design Anthropological Futures, edited by Rachel Charlotte Smith, Kasper Tang Vangkilde, Mette Gislev Kjaersgaard, Ton Otto, Joachim Halse, and Thomas Binder. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016, 304 pp. PB 9781474280600 $29.95.

This volume has grown out of the work of The International Research Network the Design Anthropology, whose “concluding” conference I reported on earlier on this blog. The book is a collection of mostly short essays. These showcase but also problematize the methodological inventiveness of the research being done at the meeting point of designing for the future and and anthropology originally born of studying the present/past.

What makes it anthropological, is that it takes seriously the endless variety of ways in which past, present and future are conceptualised and managed by human beings. This sensibility has much in common with critical design. But arguably the so-called ethnographic record, produced in anthropology departments over the last century and a half, with its often mindbending challenges to industrial modernity’s common sense, informs its radically open conception of possible futures.

My main misgiving about the volume is that this sensibility is not more thoroughly spelled out. I doubt that the arguments as presented there would convince even a mildly sceptical reader. Still, perhaps this is because so many of the texts are rather short. Who knows what the editorial contraints were, but the authors might have benefited from more space to flesh out the empirical content, conceptual arguments, and unconventional uses of common, but polysemic terminology like ‘design’, ‘anthropological’ and ‘futures’.

To further irritate readers who might be uncomfortable with the vocabulary of critical design or with the methodological looseness of this kind of emerging social research, the prose is often hesitant and hugely self reflexive.

Having said all that, for readers already engaged in debates about creating futures of coexistence between humans and others, the texts here should provide helpful reference points for making sense of the need for and the development of design anthropology.

The other book I’ve been reviewing is:

Urban Cosmopolitics: Agencements, assemblies, atmospheres, edited by Anders Blok and  Ignacio Farias, and published by Routledge.

Cosmopolitics as a concept is likely to gain in popularity among scholars and activists engaged in designing less scary features. Developed above all by Isabelle Stengers, but also by Bruno Latour, the vocabulary and the attitude of cosmopolitics recognises and respects the existence of multiple, divergent worlds, but at the same time also recognises and respects the power of and need for theory.

In Urban Cosmopolitics the concept is invoked to address some of the shortcomings of assemblage-based urban research. Though related, cosmopolitics promises to get a firmer grasp of what is really at stake in the modes of coexistence emerging – being forced upon – the world today.

It is perhaps in cities, where dominant morphological and cultural projects are at their most intense, that future dreams and nightmares are most acutely felt. So, however one approaches the problems, there is certainly a need to spell out more clearly what recent changes in environments (in cities and elsewhere) mean for shared futures.


Melliferopolis Fest, Helsinki 2016

With a nod to assemblage urbanism, I think the following characterisation of the book might be justified: it is made up ofaccounts by sociologists, anthropologists, geographers and scholars of architecture and technology, who offer analyses involving artists, commuters, public toilets, publics, human and nonhuman actors and infrastructures, drawing on work by John Dewey and Jacques Rancière, about and inspired by networks, Madrid, Hamburg, London, Peter Sloterdijk’s philosophy, architects and, of course, the work of Bruno Latour and Isabelle Stengers.

The book has one feature in particular in common with Design Anthropological Futures, namely writing style. Hyper-alert to their own positions, to the potentially violent effects of expert abstractions, and to their indebtedness to the nonacademic partners whose work they report upon, many (though not all) of the authors produce prose that can frustrate. Readers looking simply to learn something new and be confident of having learned something new, have to work to pass through the authors’ own hesitations to get to their mostly nuanced and arguably challenging arguments.

Personally I do find both books insightful and illuminating. They testify to a hunger for epistemologies and conversations that have little place in the institutions of industrial modernity and capitalism, including the corporatised University. They indicate that new methodological approaches to more-than-human world-making are taking root and blossoming.


Urban gardening in Budapest, 2016

P.S. Today’s dominant discourses about the future feature mostly Pollyanna-ish or hyperbolic rhetoric and generally support technology driven visions. Sometimes they do put the human at their centre,  often they invoke the experience-near the virtues of design practice. Rarely, however, do they really get what these books get, which is the incredible creativity as well as unbearable necessity of coexisting with the full range of the creatures that exist through design or accident (or something else).

The discipline that’s done most to nurture appreciation of this situation is, I think, anthropology.

Links to the ventures behind the pictures in order of apperance.

About project

There are clear similarities but also differences between the debates on planetary crisis today and forty-fifty years ago. As a major similarity, there is a hunger and a thirst for different ways of doing things and living lives. This goes for Helsinki, London and Budapest, right now hosting the 5th international Degrowth Conference.

The climate march in London two years ago offered lots of examples, for instance capitalism portrayed as the grim reaper. Other examples are legion.

2014 grim reaping capitalism

Based on texts I’ve read and footage I’ve seen, the drive to think and live differently in the 1960s was quite similar to the efforts taking place today on DIY, post-growth and other alternatives to profit and competition-driven social arrangements.

I was a little surprised that even in the academic degrowth community, currently converged in Budapest, not many appear to know about and realise how relevant those 1960s and 1970s experiences were to today. Whatever you think about their long-term effects (Fred Turner’s view is worth pondering), they certainly captured the imaginations of many smart young people.

But as an anthropologist I’m bound to keep reminding myself and others, imaginations, even global imaginations, are shaped in historical context.

So here is a short text I wrote on how some young Finns in the 1960s responded then to the palpable sense of urgent crisis. Without a doubt, these people shaped many dimensions of recent Finnish history.

The text was published in Ark, The Finnish Journal of Architecture, issue 1, 2016, and came out in the winter already. Below is the start of the text, here a pdf.  The text is in both Finnish and English.

Along with the radical 1960s came more than illegal drugs and rebelliousness; in architecture the permissive mood of the times opened up new techno-utopian possibilities. A central figure of the new thinking was the American Richard Buckminster Fuller (1895–1983), a nonconformist preacher of technological  salvation. His views on how to solve the socio-economic problems of the twentieth century made an impression on business and military circles as well as on hippies. Fuller was also invited to lecture in Finland. In July 1968 he participated in a seminar held on the historic Suomenlinna fortress island under the title “Industry, Environment and Product Design”.

I’m not a historian or a design theorist. I hope someone who is both, or at least one of those things, will delve into this fascinating story in more depth and with local nuance.

With a focus on the San Francisco Bay Area, Greg Castillo has, however, written a great text available here.

A somewhat gratuitous picture of a thing, the trace of an object

A somewhat gratuitous picture of a thing, the trace of an object

Inspired by recently meeting a couple of people involved in putting together the impressive (and expensive) Objects and Materials: A Routledge Companion (Penny Harvey, Eleanor Conlin Casella, Gillian Evans, Hannah Knox, Christine McLean, Elizabeth B. Silva, Nicholas Thoburn, Kath Woodward) here are some thoughts on it.

A product of the path-breaking interdisciplinary team at Manchester’s Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change (CRESC), the book’s essays written by over forty international scholars from many disciplines include many many theoretical and methodological approaches. This certainly justifies the way that in the first sentence of the introduction its authors, Penny Harvey and Hannah Knox, invoke the crazy Chinese encyclopaedia described by Borges and imported into social theory by Foucault in Les Mots et les Choses (The Order of Things). Objects and Materials really is more of an explorer’s companion than a guide along well-beaten paths!

To summarise the work briefly is impossible, and I can only mention a handful of its themes or authors.

Still, deep breath: the collection sets out to address a relatively new but now core question in social thought: What matters about objects? Thus the back cover and the main introduction and the introductory texts to the five sections into which the volume is divided, rehearse a vocabulary familiar from humanities and social science investigations of the current condition: practice, relations (or relationality), mediation, agency (particularly non-human agency) and affect. The most prominently cited authors are, unsurprisingly, Gilles Deleuze and Bruno Latour, but it is perhaps the latter whose influence is most felt. This is reflected also in the editorial line that gives generous room to empirical illustrations but also to ethnographic investigation as a type of analytical work.

The book will interest readers from very divergent backgrounds with very different methodological toolkits (even mutually contradictory ones). Its strong anthropological  content will appeal to those already immersed in the literatures on socio-technical change, or the many different ways in which that small word, ‘thing’, has been subjected to scholarly scrutiny by so many thinkers from Martin Heidegger to Elizabeth Grosz.

But the issues are not just of academic interest. Several texts consider the shared crises that beset our times and which are increasingly framed as symptoms of earlier intellectual and even academic mistakes, notably of misplaced trust in the continuities of the material and object(-ive) world. This is perhaps the area where Deleuzian thought, especially around the concept of ‘affect’, becomes prominent: it gives the volume’s authors tools for keeping in view both instability and resistance to change.

The first section, ‘Material qualities’ offers provocations to think in new ways about what exactly the material could be, or how it could be understood, and thus rehearses philosophical questions around epistemology and ontology. The second part is titled ‘Affective objects’, the third ‘Unsettling objects’. These sections include texts that explicitly draw out emotive responses as they consider material, often fleshy processes of human suffering, but also the virtual dimensions of experience. Both consider time, objects and experience altogether in often eloquent writing. Part four turns to ‘Interface objects’ and to the capacities that objects have in different domains, such as in the household or in scientific research and, of course, the ways these are animated in human interaction. The fifth and final part, ‘Becoming Object’, left me thinking that whatever it is, the thing is stably unstable and consistently inconsistent.

Depending on the reader’s preferences, these texts may feel like an excess of self-consciously unsettling ideas and modish vocabulary, or like a timely intervention into the ways contemporary life could be rendered more adequately thinkable. Or they may inspire to think about the fragility of things these days in unexpected and helpful ways.

Considering the insights about the generative powers of materials and objects spelled out throughout its chapters, it is a little disappointing that more space was not given to ‘stuff’ understood as either consumer desirables or infrastructures, which are part of the reason for the growing interest among sociologists and anthropologists, in ‘the material’.

The volume does not pretend to offer a uniform theoretical framework for the study of materials and objects. Nor does it appear to build consistently on a specific scholarly heritage despite the Deleuzian and Latourian references or, indeed, recurrent mentions of Tim Ingold’s anthropology and other (implicitly or explicitly) Heideggerian approaches to knowing, being and becoming. What is taken as given is that to make sense of the world as social thinkers or, indeed, as artists or activists, it is necessary to understand the world as complex and relational. On the other hand, the relationship between objects and materials is something that each text deals with on its own terms. And so some of them end up labouring what should be the obvious complexity. Fortunately the authors manage to say constructive and novel things about as philosophically a tricky terrain as this without getting stuck on binaries. In a textual (predominantly) work such as this there will always be pairings that both writer and reader know to be tricky, such as matter and affect, thing and object, detached and attached.

Without a doubt, the topics in Objects and Materials brush on many important problems in political life and scholarship. So it is still worth highlighting Graham Harman’s text, ‘Objects are the root of all philosophy’, which takes aim at no less than “several centuries” of “anti-object-oriented trends” (p. 238) in philosophy. Harman also suggests that many scholars simply find grappling with the world outside the mind boring. I find the “weird model of objects” (p. 245) that he proposes anything but boring, but what bores and what excites in this varied collection, will depend quite simply on each reader’s predispositions.

This is all very academic and the hard-back version is massively expensive. But it is due out electronically and in paperback.

Last week I was in Washington DC at the annual conference of the American Anthropological Association. As editor of the European Association’s book series, I went to Washington primarily to find out what is happening in the discipline. The 7000 or so delegates swarmed across two large hotels in salubrious surroundings. What little I saw of the capital of the USA, suggests that all is well there, no potholes, no homeless people even.

The worlds presented in the conference panels told a very different story. For most people, it seems, life unfolds in crumbling infrastructures or ones built for the sole benefit of others. The conference panels presented a world shot through with imagination-defying injustices, North and South. The protests going on at the time of the conference, against police brutality, were a reminder that systematic injustice pervades cities like Washington DC as well.

I participated in a panel titled “The center cannot hold”? Pivotal spaces and political geometries in the ‘polycentric’ city, with a paper about Helsinki’s DIY urbanists.

I talked about Helsinki’s Happihuone or Oxygen Room greenhouse, which stood in leftover city-centre space from 2000 to 2007. Supported at the time with public money, initially known as Växthuset, it was a bit of DIY urbanism cleverly inserted along with an Art Garden into the city’s programme as a European City of Culture that year. (See here for another short blog-post in English). Then the Oxygen Room continued for several summers showcasing sustainable design and living quirky urban culture. In 2007 construction machines took over.

In Washington I also talkedKääntis fillarit ja kasvihuone about the Turntable urban farm and hub of environmentalist activity that flourishes today in former railroad buildings in a tucked away part of Pasila. The bulldozers have arrived here too, just up the road. Twenty-first century construction methods have taken over the plot just north of the two old turntables and redbrick roundhouses, which themselves are protected as heritage.

Alive with activity, the work-spaces, hobby-ists and the greenhouse here are a world apart from the building site. They are human scale and hopeful.

My paper drew attention to the way both these no or low-capital greenhouse schemes have captured imaginations. Both have relished their small-scale and practical world-changing activities in the shadow of massive, capital-intensive urban development. Both are considered utopian and odd. It’s the bulldozing that more often passes for normal.

Having been bombarded for years now with endless images of the great future promised to us by planning, Helsinki residents are learning to see a high-rise future Pasila as inevitable. Below is an architect’s fantasy composition as seen from more or less the same angle as in my picture of the bikes and greenhouse last summer, above.

Zucchi Pasila rendering 2011

The panel was great (with due thanks to its organisers Jonathan Bach and Michal Murawski). But it can feel odd to be an anthropologist of Nordic worlds. Things here in Helsinki are really comparatively comfortable: little extreme poverty, not that much insultingly obvious inequality on display. (How xenophobia has become respectable is of course, a topic an anthropologist of Finland might find important as well as academically productive!)

So what could I say of anthropological interest about activism in a comfortable country like Finland? Like in Margit Mayer’s study of urban activism in privileged cities (in the journal CITY), it’s clear that marginalized and weak urbanites are not involved in the activism I’ve looked at, with its focus on sustainable futures.

This might be my answer to the question: It’s not just the downtrodden who struggle in our age, those who are or should feel comfortable also struggle. And it would be worth writing about how activists and ordinary people are making a plea for a different tomorrow for everyone, for a new normal. People are trying to establish not just an ecological viability, but a scale and feel to the city to make them feel good.

Helsinki’s DIY activism is about spelling out and trying out a different normal. It is a struggle, but not for survival (perhaps). It’s a struggle over defining the good and the sane. These kinds of middle-class claims to better tomorrows also have a long history. Artists, architects and designers have always had prominent roles in this kind of utopia-exploring work. Engineers have too.

Building human-scale structures like greenhouses and saunas in central Helsinki has produced things that people want but the authorities don’t provide. Undoubtedly there is quite a contrast with the DIY urbanist efforts of people in poorer parts of the world. I’ll end by quoting from a great piece in the online architecture journal, Uncube, by Justin McGuirk.

In 2011, in the aftermath of the Egyptian Revolution, a community in Cairo built itself four access ramps to the city’s 45-mile ring road. Living in an informal neighbourhood, residents of Al-Mu’tamidiya had long been bypassed and so they took matters into their own hands. There is no denying their initiative or resourcefulness. We are used to squatter-citizens building their own homes but DIY infrastructure is still seen as somehow beyond the pale. It is no wonder that the Al-Mu’tamidiya ramps have been celebrated as a triumph of grassroots empowerment.

McGuirk insists that it’s not necessarily worth celebrating all this DIY and I agree. But I remain extremely grateful that it exists, North and South.