Matter and Meaning: a Crisis Between Facts and Social Meaning in Design

Is there such a thing as a 'fact'? Or is everything socially constructed? What is the role of a 'fact' in understanding 'reality'? Is our gender 'factual'? Could design have any predefined meaning reflected in its materiality? Or is the meaning of design socially constructed? This paper addresses the distinction between 'facts' and social meaning in the context of design through the work of philosophers, Michel Foucault, Slavoj Žižek, Judith Butler, and Karen Barad.

For centuries scientific knowledge was considered as objective truth. However, French philosopher Michel Foucault disagreed. He believed that the biased values of our societies, ethical and political commitments, had shaped our scientific outlook. He considered scientific knowledge "rather diverse units of discourse maintained and created in the interests of particular social need, in which scientists are not autonomous explorers but discursive agents" (Delimata 2019, 71).

Similarly, post-Lacanian Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek suggests that truth, knowledge, desire, and drive are interconnected–that desire is a set of fantasmatic features that constrain our interpretation of knowledge. As Žižek puts it, "Truth and knowledge are thus related as desire and drive: interpretation aims at the truth of the subject's desire (the truth of desire is the desire for truth, as one is tempted to put it in a pseudo-Heideggerian way), while construction provides knowledge about drive" (Zizek 1997a, 37). Žižek believes that re-inscribing scientific drive into the constraints of the life-world is fantasy at its purest–"the fundamental fascist fantasy," as he puts it. He states, "Science belongs to the Real and, as a mode of the Real of jouissance, it is indifferent to the modalities of its symbolization, to the way it will affect social life" (Žižek 1997a, 38).

Could it be said, however, that the 'data' supporting the 'real' is in itself 'factual'? Žižek believes that data could be used to construct historical narratives as realities. He provocatively proposes that he could even write a book using 'true data' to convincingly demonstrate that Hitler was justified in claiming that the Jews had excessive influence. He believes that psychoanalysis could help us understand lies as 'factual data.' In this case, Hitler distorted facts and used them to sustain a general lie about society. That is how Žižek differentiates 'factual accuracy' from 'hysterical lies.' As Žižek notes. "The aim of the psychoanalytic treatment is thus to (re)focus attention from factual accuracy to hysterical lies which unknowingly articulate the truth, and then to progress to a new knowledge which dwells at the place of truth, to a knowledge which, instead of dissimulating truth, gives rise to truth-effects, i.e., to what Lacan called 'full speech,' the speech in which subjective truth reverberates. This notion of truth, of course, belongs to a long tradition, from Kierkegaard to Heidegger, of despising mere 'factual truth'" (Žižek 1997b).

But let us shift our attention from the historical discourse of 'factual truths' to the discussion of our bodies. Is our gender 'factual'? Does the very 'fact' of our biological sex define our gendered identities?

In her seminal book, Gender Trouble, philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler argues that there is no such thing as pre-given, ontological gender identity and that gender is socially constructed. She perceives gender identity in a far more fluid and dynamic way than any traditional approach. Although her claims challenge many given biological 'factual truths,' her argument about gender is performative. She differentiates between biological sex and socially and discursively constructed gendered identities, which superficially mimic sex. Instead, Butler argues that our actions, gestures, and behaviors produce a series of effects, which consolidate the impression of our gendered identities. Butler notes "That the gendered body is performative suggests that it has no ontological status apart from the various acts which constitute its reality. This also suggests that if that reality is fabricated as an inner essence, that very interiority is an effect and function of decidedly public and social discourse, the public regulation of fantasy through the surface politics of the body. This gender border control differentiates inner from outer and institutes the 'integrity' of the subject" (Butler 2006). In other words, Butler's feminist theory refuses to grant authority to the 'real' and sees representational gender as a 'phantasmatic ideal' enacted through imitative strategies. For instance, when we are behaving heterosexually, we are imitating the phantasmatic ideal of heterosexual identity.

Although groundbreaking in her approach, Butler has been criticized for her over-emphasis on the linguistic frame of reference in Gender Trouble, while dismissing the materiality of the body itself. After all, the very materiality of sexual difference might result in various bodily affordances. For example, the New Materialist feminist thinker, Karen Barad, focuses instead on the performativity of matter and its entanglement with meaning. As she notes, "…the entanglement of matter and meaning calls into question this set of dualisms that places nature on one side and culture on the other. And which separates off matters of fact from matters of concern (Bruno Latour) and matters of care (Maria Puig de la Bellacasa), and shifts them off to be dealt with by what we aptly call here in the States "separate academic divisions," whereby the division of labor is such that the natural sciences are assigned matters of fact and the humanities matters of concern, for example" (Dolphijn and Tuin 2012, 49).

Instead of scientific realism versus social constructivism, Barad invites us to see reality through the notion of 'diffraction.' Similar to how diffraction allows us to study both the nature of the apparatus and also the object (the nature of light), she believes that 'reality' is rather a dynamic process of 'intra-activity.' As she explains, "matter is a dynamic expression/articulation of the world in its intra-active becoming. All bodies, including but not limited to human bodies, come to matter through the world's iterative intra-activity, its performativity. Boundaries, properties, and meanings are differentially enacted through the intra-activity of mattering" (Dolphijn and Tuin 2012, 49). Materiality, according to Barad, is no longer "either given or a mere effect of human agency," but rather "an active factor in processes of materialization" (Geerts 2016).

Moving beyond the human body, how might meaning be associated with any designed object? Does a created object acquire meaning through its form and materiality, or is it socially constructed through its use? Could its 'meaning' arise from the performativity of materials? Similarly, in the context of architectural space, does space gain meaning through its form and materiality or through the performativity of people in space? How might the 'intra-activity' of materials and social context give rise to purpose in any design?

I would suggest that while many designers and architects typically assign meanings to their designs –similar to how they assign functions to various forms– the relation between matter and meaning is more complex and requires more reflection. As such, we cannot merely map specific meaning onto certain forms, just as we cannot merely map heterosexual identity onto the female sexual organs. For instance, we can't call a specific architectural space with curvilinear forms a 'feminine' space. Equally, we cannot map any particular social practice onto any architectural form. For example, a restroom would need to be remodeled substantially to be used as a classroom.

In the case of a building, issues such as access, use, security practices, transport networks, are among various factors that define its meaning. In this approach, materiality and form do not determine the meaning. As Neil Leach puts it, "There is no intrinsic meaning or political potential to any form" (Leach 2003, 40). Meaning is not ascribed by the intentions of the designers. Nor does it merely arise from the specific use of the built environment. Instead, it emerges through a more complex set of intra-actionalities between matter and its social purpose. These sets of relations offer a new form of causality, which–as Barad suggests–is not interactional, but rather intra-actional.

With the emergence of new materials and synthetic sensing, the distinction between meaning and matter once again becomes a necessity. Emerging materials are inherently different from traditional ones, in that the substrate of the matter is now becoming a blend of physical and digital information. As such, the matter could become a machine, augmented with sensory technologies capturing 'data' from their environment. While we might challenge the 'factuality' of the captured data, it might open up new ways of social practices.

Allow me to reflect on these issues through the lens of my work. I have worked with a variety of new smart materials, which respond to temperature, humidity, and other factors based on their surrounding environment. Moreover, by embedding computer vision and AI technologies into the substrate of matter, I have worked with materials that respond to a more complex set of 'data' from the users. For example, Caress of the Gaze, is a 3D printed cape that responds to the gaze of the onlookers with organic movements.

Figure 1: Careess of the Gaze: 3D printed garment, which moves in response to the onlooker’s gaze by Behnaz Farahi. Photographer: Elena Kulikov.

Figure 1. Careess of the Gaze: 3D printed garment, which moves in response to the onlooker’s gaze by Behnaz Farahi. Photographer: Elena Kulikov.

For this purpose, I have worked with a facial tracking camera embedded inside the cape, which detects the age, gender, and gaze direction of the viewers.

Caress of the Gaze equipped with facial tracking camera, detecting age, gender and gaze orientation of the onlookers. Photographer: Charlie Nordstrom.

Figure 2. Caress of the Gaze equipped with facial tracking camera, detecting age, gender, and gaze orientation of the onlookers. Photographer: Charlie Nordstrom.

The location of the onlooker's gaze is detected, and that information is used to activate smart materials embedded inside the cape with the help of a micro-processor.

Small tracking camera -with lens smaller than 3mm embedded underneath the quills. Photographer: Charlie Nordstrom.

Figure 3. Small tracking camera -with a lens smaller than 3mm embedded underneath the quills. Photographer: Charlie Nordstrom.

As argued in this paper, gender is performative. It doesn’t depend on pure representation. And yet, the movement of a garment based on the viewer’s gaze could unfold a new set of social meanings. If you are the wearer, you know which part of your body is being looked at, and if you are an onlooker, you know that your action has been noticed.

This smart garment could change and influence perception and social interaction. Photographer: Charlie Nordstrom.

Figure 4. This smart garment could change and influence perception and social interaction. Photographer: Charlie Nordstrom.

As we begin to introduce new sensory technologies and AI algorithms into the built environment, from the scale of wearables to architectural space, we might question the 'factuality' and 'biases' of the captured data. In the midst of the crisis between scientific facts and social meaning, I would like to suggest that we need to engage with a more in-depth investigation of the relationship between matter and meaning–one that embraces not only 'factual' and 'non-factual' data, but also 'materiality' and 'social practices' and recognizes their relevance within the discourse of design.