Design, Thing Theory, and the Lives of Objects
College Art Association Conference, Los Angeles, February 22-25, 2012
Panel Convener, Leslie Atzmon, Professor, Graphic Design and Design History, Eastern Michigan University
Literary critic Bill Brown’s groundbreaking special issue of Critical Inquiry (Autumn 2001) spurred a new fascination with objects across the academy. Waggishly dubbed “Thing Theory,” this field has the potential to be an emerging site of interdisciplinary practice for design practice and design scholarship. Thing Theory can be understood as a deeply pragmatic form of material culture studies in which objects are evaluated for more than just their cultural exchange value. Have Brown’s ideas expanded our understanding of the meaning-making capacity of the
aesthetic and material forms of objects? Has this theoretical approach fundamentally changed
the types of objects we consider, or make, or what we identify as a thing? Design, with its
focus on the way objects make meaning in the cultures in which they are created or
used, is particularly well positioned to play a crucial role in the future development of Thing
In Thing Theory the lives of objects are evaluated according to the varied traditions of many disciplines, and the overlap among disciplines makes room for fruitful interdisciplinary endeavors. The “object” category doesn’t necessarily divide material objects from immaterial objects; objects can be digital or physical (or even imaginary). David Thorburn and Henry Jenkins argue that “medium-specific approaches,” oversimplify the relationship between old and new media. A more inclusive approach, they conclude, would stress the ways that media “interact, shift and collude with one another.”
What is at stake in the productive interplay between Design and Thing Theory? This panel investigates how Thing Theory levels hierarchical or chronological distinctions among media, and in so doing produces a point of view that can foster new directions in design thinking. This panel also considers how we can reframe the interdisciplinary aspects of design in response to ideas about objects from other disciplines. Finally, this panel suggests how design could play a special role in shaping the newly emerging interdisciplinary practice called Thing Theory. This panel welcomes examples from critics, historians, practitioners and theorists.
The College Art Association (CAA) is an international organization that “promotes the visual arts and their understanding through committed practice and intellectual engagement.” The yearly conference features panels on a wide range of topics related to the visual arts, including the history and theory of visual arts.
Dr Grace Lees-Maffei, Reader in Design History
School of Creative Arts, University of Hertfordshire, Hatfield AL10 9AB.
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