Discursive Tools of Subversion

Generative metaphors are one tactic that some members of the listserv use in order to create binary oppositions favoring particular forms of research activity over others. Another interesting strategy evident in two of Ken’s messages to the list is that of rhetorical attribution. By “rhetorical attribution,” I refer to the act of attributing thoughts, beliefs, or opinions to someone else in an effort to persuade an audience to accept an argument. Unlike formal references, rhetorical attribution does not necessarily entail direct quotation. It is speculative. Perhaps even hypothetical. When Ken attributes an opinion about “research creation” to Picasso, for example, he says, “Picasso would have laughed at the notion of research-creation.” Ken does not know with certainty that this is the case even if he is familiar with Picasso’s life and works. In this section, I focus on Ken’s rhetorical attribution of key thoughts, beliefs, or opinions about research-creation to Picasso. I ask, “What does this rhetorical attribution do? What is its function in the discussion?”

Early in the RtD thread, David Durling posts the preliminary findings of the Research Excellence Framework (RAF), which is “an assessment by an expert panel [in the UK] on the quality of submitted research, environment, impact etc. [from local universities]” The findings, as summarized by David, “make the sector [of practice-based research] seem quite healthy, and the [specific praise in the report aimed at the practice-based community]… stands in stark contrast to those who still cannot understand the value of investigative design practice.” In short, the government of the United Kingdom acknowledges the value—the legitimacy—of practice-based research, inclusive of art and design. Ken is the first to post a response to David’s email. And he writes, “David’s post reflects my views.” This does not sit well with one other member of the listserv: Martin Salisbury, a Professor at the Cambridge School of Art.

“On the face of it,” Martin writes, “[the well-established presence of practice-based research in art and design] would seem not to reflect your views but rather to clearly contradict them as stated in your previous post.” Martin supports this thesis with evidence from Ken’s earlier posts. In particular, he extracts four quotes in which Ken seemingly enumerates the reasons why “research creation” is not research. In short, Ken states that research creation (1) lacks a question, (2) has little impact, (3) is irrelevant to a scholarly community, and (4) does not document its processes. But Martin also points to a quote in which Ken cites Pablo Picasso. “Pablo Picasso once said, ‘Others seek. I find.’ He was a magician and an artist, not a researcher.” This quote stands out to Martin because no one on the listserv had suggested that Picasso was a researcher. Furthermore, Martin argues that Ken’s characterization of artistic practice as “magic” is misguided and indicative of someone who misunderstands the ways in which artistic practice—like design practice—can be construed as research activity.

One of Ken’s primary tasks in responding to Martin is persuading him that research-creation does not constitute academic research activity. Ken may not be able to prove this conclusively. But one approach he can take to persuade Martin and others of the “truth” of his claim is to attempt to discredit its inverse, i.e. discredit the view that research-creation constitutes research activity. One way to discredit the claim is by referencing definitions of research and demonstrating the ways in which research-creation does not fit with the definitions. But Ken has already taken this approach, and it apparently did not work. Martin remained skeptical. Another way Ken might discredit the notion of research-creation as legitimate academic research is by subverting the dividing line between his views and Martin’s. In other words, get someone “on Martin’s side” of the debate to espouse Ken’s views. Demonstrate that there is dissent in the ranks. If he were to attempt to do this with a listserv member, however, he would likely be unsuccessful. All of the members participating in the RtD thread who might define themselves as artists or designers—and not as academics—express views firmly in line with Martin. Ken must find his subversive elsewhere. Enter Picasso.

Picasso functions as a tool of subversion. Ken uses him to subvert Martin’s argument that research creation is a legitimate form of research. Picasso was an artist. Martin is an artist. All the other members of the listserv actively arguing for “research-creation” as legitimate academic research activity are artists. But unlike the other members of the listserv Picasso was critical of the idea of the artist as an academic researcher. According to Ken, Picasso “would have laughed at the idea of “research-creation,” and he would not have wanted a PhD.

Ken thus positions “one of the greatest artists of the 20th century” in opposition to the members of the listserv arguing for “research-creation” as a legitimate (academic) research activity. If Martin responds, then he must respond both to Ken and to Picasso. This is perhaps a more formidable task than responding to Ken alone. That Ken is perhaps “outsourcing” his argument to Picasso suggests that he might also serve as a kind of stake inoculation. By attributing a particular perspective on research-creation to Picasso, Ken could be construed as ceding responsibility for the position espoused through Picasso. “Picasso would have laughed at the notion of research creation,” is written as an objective claim. Is Ken arguing through Picasso? Or is he reporting the truth of Picasso’s own views? This is an important question, but I believe its answer has little to no effect on Picasso’s functionality in Ken’s message.

Since Ken cannot prove that research-creation does not constitute academic research without referencing definitions that do not seem to convince his audience, Ken tries a different approach. He uses Picasso in an attempt to discredit the view that research-creation is legitimate, academic research. If Picasso, one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, disavows the possibility that artistic practice could (or should) be construed as research, then certainly those members of the listserv arguing the inverse should take note and perhaps temper their position. Picasso could also be said to function as a stake inoculator for Ken. When Ken attributes certain thoughts, beliefs, and opinions to Picasso, he does so in the manner of a journalist reporting facts. Picasso would have laughed at the notion of research creation. Picasso would not have wanted a PhD. Yet for all the fastidious attention to references in this (and other) message(s), Ken provides no source material from which he derives these beliefs. It would be interesting to consider the possibility that the Picasso Ken invokes in his post is largely a fictional character with little resemblance to Picasso in reality. This may not change the intended function of the rhetorical attribution, but it would almost certainly change the way Martin and others might read and respond to Ken’s post.

Generative Metaphors in Discourse

Generative Metaphors. In his original post to the listserv, Mauricio took up a position on research through design and its role in PhD-level research. “I add that ‘research through design’ and ‘research-creation’ are not, yet, mature approaches to reliably use them in PhD level research.” He does acknowledge that it is possible for these approaches to become mature approaches. But this is part of a set of qualifiers that others on the list use in order to justify their argument that certain ways of doing research are legitimate and others are not—an argument that they refuse to abandon or modify. The set of qualifiers could be averaged in a statement like, “I am not arguing that RtD can never be research. I am simply arguing that in order for it to be research it must adhere to established definitions and criteria.”

But what is perhaps interesting about Mauricio’s statement is his use of the word “mature” to denote worthiness of use in PhD-level research. This is a normative statement. An approach to research should be mature in order for it to qualify for (reliable) use in PhD-level research. His use of the word mature thus creates a binary opposition between mature approaches and immature ones, where maturity is the “legitimating” characteristic and “immaturity” a characteristic of illegitimate research. It would be interesting to explore the reasons behind Mauricio’s claim. But he does not provide any. He simply characterizes by implication RtD and “research creation” as immature, or “maturing,” and thus unworthy for PhD-level research. What does this characterization do?

Of course it reaffirms the legitimacy of research (as defined by Ken and others) as fully formed or fully developed. Perhaps we can see evidence of this “fully-formedness” in Ken’s definitions and sets of criteria. When a thing is fully formed, then it can be observed, analyzed, and described. When a thing is forming, then it can be observed, analyzed, and described in terms of the process of formation rather than its final form. A description of research through design, for instance, could use Ken’s definitions or criteria as an analytical framework. It could attempt to describe where research through design is relative to its “fully formed” final state and theorize about how to move RtD to this final state in an effective and efficient way. But this points to one of the other functions of descriptors like “mature.”

They shape the way the reader thinks about the thing they describe. They are generative metaphors, a term I borrow from Donald Schön. Schön describes generative metaphors in as “[producing] a selective representation of an unfamiliar system that sets the values for the systems transformation. It frames the problem of the problematic situation and thereby sets directions in which solutions lie and provides a schema for exploring them.” (Schön, 1993) Generative metaphors are part of Schön’s theory of synthesis, which describes how designing happens. I am suggesting that “mature” is one among many generative metaphors used by the discussants on this listserv that set the directions in which the solution to the problem of “research through design” lies and provides a path for exploring possible solutions.

When I read that RtD is not yet “mature,” I start to explore its path towards maturity. I perhaps assume that maturity better than immaturity when it comes to research approaches even though this is not necessarily the case. To subscribe to such an assumption is to commit a logical fallacy: things are neither better nor worse simply because they are mature or immature. But I am nonetheless inclined to think this way since generative metaphors “embody normative ideas.” Mature is better than immature.

And throughout the listserv messages, similar metaphors operate—metaphors that could “live in the same neighborhood” as maturity—in order to establish the path towards solutions. Serious is better than lax. Significant is better than insignificant. Useful is better than useless. “Serious, significant, and useful,” like mature, function (normatively) to set directions in which solutions lie. Legitimate research must be serious, significant, and useful, and the definitions for even these metaphors are highly precise and prescribed by those who invoke them. In other words, the ways to be serious, significant, and useful have already been defined. But this is something that (I suspect) Schön would find problematic.

Generative metaphors point towards inquiry, but they do not prescribe the ways of exploring nor do they presume (an) outcome. The generative metaphors used in the RtD listserv presuppose that a concrete definition of (or set of criteria for) research exists and that this definition is sufficient. All paths lead back to the definition (or criteria). Schön would argue that generative metaphor presupposes no outcomes and has no foreknowledge of its final destination. It is simply designed to initiate the journey. It raises interesting questions about the words these discussants use. What does it mean to be mature? What are the strengths and weaknesses? What are the strengths of immaturity? What are the many ways in which one might define seriousness or significance? How many kinds of usefulness are there?

These questions presuppose the flexibility of language. The internet, not the fishing net. There are many ways to understand usefulness and possibly many ways for an approach to be useful to a research community. One of Ken’s tacit assumptions must therefore be that definitions and criteria have to be strict if they are to be meaningful. In other words, even if definitions and criteria are agreed upon or decided by consensus, they become objective through the process. This can be understood as the movement from social meaning to objective meaning—an ontological shift. This does not exempt the things that I describe as “becoming” objective from malleability. The meaning of “research” can change, but perhaps the change is more likely to happen slowly over time. Perhaps it is likely to change because of discussions like the RtD listserv thread.

What is important to keep in mind is that readers remain keenly attuned to the way metaphor shapes their interpretation of a text and that they not fall victim to the trap of assuming that mature is better than immature, significance is better than insignificant, or, as is the case with this thread, that there is one and only one way to be significant or serious or useful.

Contextualizing Discourse

Who can write? Who can speak? The PhD-Design listserv is a publicly accessible email thread. Its current and archived communications can be accessed via jiscm@il, which is a collection of “email discussion lists for the UK Education and Research communities.” Despite this description, the PhD-Design listserv has global membership with “delegates” representing communities from six of the seven continents and too many countries to do justice to them all in a brief list. The breadth and depth of its membership yields a broad range of thread topics including: professional design practice issues, academic resources such as reading lists or book recommendations, student advising, calls for conference and journal participation, and even job postings. In short, no topic is off limits. And in principle no participant is off limits either. In other words, there are no formal criteria for starting or responding to a thread. Both seasoned researchers, whose presences are well known and expected on the list, to prospective PhD students looking for recommendations can post. Even the occasional troll posts to the listserv. Anyone can write. Anyone can post. This is at least the case in theory. It is not evident in practice. Some context will be helpful.

Not all topics yield discussion. Job postings, for example, seem to be “one-off” posts wherein a message is blasted to the entire list and it receives no responses—or at least the respondents do not address the whole list. They may respond only to the sender. Calls for participation in conferences and journals have yielded responses before. These fall into one of two categories: either (1) the respondent mistakenly sent their response to the whole list or (2) the respondent is calling attention to what they perceive to be the signs of a fraudulent conference. The topic of fraudulent conferences has received much attention on the listserv over the years. Topics of general interest tend to yield the most discussion. By “the most” I mean greater than five responses, each from a different author. A quick tally yields the average number of responses in January, February, and March of 2015 as X, Y, and Z, respectively. Few threads make it past 15 responses. And very few make it to 50. When a thread passes 50 responses, it is worth taking notice of what is going on, and an important part of this taking notice involves looking at who writes and speaks.

Mauricio’s thread, Research through design (hereafter: RtD) includes 55 posts from XX different authors. This is a fraction of a fraction of the list’s 2786 subscribers. Demographic data is not available for individual subscribers and so it will be impossible to ascertain with certainty who is not speaking or writing without engaging in a lengthy analysis of the archives in order to identify names of members who did not post on the current thread under scrutiny. However, I can attempt to synthesize a generic profile of the writers and speakers based on how they identify themselves to the list. Many writers identified as associate professors. Others identified as “research group leaders.” Still others identified as journal editors, while some identified through their university affiliation without indicating their role or responsibilities. Finally, a minority group identified as practicing designers. Note that members of these groups did not “identify” in the body of their messages. Their email signatures provided their credentials. Only one respondent to the thread identified his standing in the body of his message: a PhD candidate named “Joe” who explicitly cited his status at the HighWire Centre for Doctoral Training at Lancaster University.

It is perhaps apparent that although anyone can speak, not anyone “can” speak on the PhD-Design listserv in the context of a topic of general discussion whose primary discussants are highly credentialed senior researchers and practitioners. When less credentialed (read: less experienced) voices do speak they are written off or ignored as was (seemingly) the case with Joe’s contribution to the listserv. Joe began his post with the phrase, “This is my first post to the list… I thought it worth sharing my thoughts on the subject [of Research through design] (and various resources/perspectives that I don’t think have been mentioned thus far in the conversation.” I point this out to draw attention to the value with which Joe attempts to imbue his post. He is apparently posting something valuable to the discussion. Valuable on the grounds that (1) it has not yet been posted and is relevant to the discussion and (2) the resources he has are “good” resources worth looking into. The “goodness” or “badness” of resources is relevant to a sequence of emails preceding Joe’s in which several senior members attack and debate what counts as a “good” resource.

Despite the value with which Joe attempts to imbue his post, the next three emails ignore it completely. The fourth message (after Joe’s first) comes from him again, and it begins, “Just to add in my interpretation of Christopher Frayling again, because…” Joe seems to be making another bid for acknowledgement if not more in-depth engagement from the group. He reminds the listserv that he has added this interpretation before and sets up what ends up being an amplified argument for why it matters. But the response he gets is (again) perhaps not what he hoped for or expected. The next email in the thread came from an associate professor, Jeff.

Jeff writes, “It is very difficult to ask how design does research without becoming bewitched by scientific research norms or foundationalist attempts to find powerful arguments in Frayling that frankly aren’t there to be found.” Without acknowledging Joe as the one who raised Frayling, this comment seems to make a straw man out of Frayling and perhaps by commutation out of Joe. I characterize this as a straw man because Jeff does not engage with Frayling’s arguments, which have been treated formally by other prominent researchers. [xxx] Instead, he simply states that there are no powerful arguments to be found in Frayling’s work. He does not provide any grounds to support this statement perhaps because he assumes (possibly rightly) that the listserv will not require any additional argumentative support.

Joe contributes no more posts to the thread following this comment.

I am not suggesting that Jeff is out of line in his critique of Joe’s post. Nor do I mean to suggest that Joe refrains from additional contributions either (1) because of a lack of responses or (2) because of Jeff’s critical response. I am not even claiming that this type of interaction is typical for PhD candidates contributing to a discussion thread dominated by professors and practitioners. I am claiming that in this instance, which is one of two in which a PhD candidate contributes to the thread, that the candidate’s voice is (1) ignored and (2) critiqued and written off. PhD candidates “can” speak, but they do so perhaps knowing that there is risk involved and so they might opt out more often than they opt in.