An Ode to the Gambiarra

Chapter 1—Epistemologies of Design

Before this dissertation can go anywhere new, it is fundamental to clearly establish what exactly is meant by epistemologies of design. Epistemology is, in broad terms, the branch of philosophy concerned with the theory of knowledge, especially regarding its nature, source, methods, validity and scope (DeRose, 2005). The way I will use this terminology throughout the paper is to refer to the theory of knowledge and worldview from which specific practices of design emerge from—and therefore  embody—and to investigate how those epistemologies came to be dominant in the field through what Mignolo calls ‘epistemic totalitarianism’ (Mignolo, 2018).

This line of inquiry, particularly the source and validity of knowledge, will serve  to map out, analyse and understand what epistemology informs our dominant design practice and later to propose a new epistemology of design based on a different  socioeconomic context. By applying the lens of epistemology over the practice of  design I hope to make evident that any form of design or creative expression (or any action for that matter) emerges from a specific body of knowledge and way of relating  to the world (Willis, 2006). 

Hand painted pedestrian crossing sign over faded standard sign (Guarçoni, 10 Apr 2019, Havana)

“To put it differently, all creation is collective, emergent, and relational;  it involves historically and epistemically situated persons (never autonomous individuals)” 

—Escobar, 2018, page XVI

Once we begin to see any form of creative manifestation as an output of a set  body of knowledge, questions begin to surface: what has shaped that particular body  of knowledge? What is the source of it? Where is it rooted? What perpetuates it? How does it evolve? There are deep and rich answers to each of those questions that this  paper cannot fully explore but woven into all of them would be something along the  lines of culture and/or society (Mignolo, 2018). This might seem like an easy route or  an overplayed cliché, but as feminist and decolonial thought over the past years have  shown, the root of most oppression—and the perpetuation of such—is founded in  society’s investment in the preservation of a specific hegemonic narrative. The fields of design and creative practices are by no means exempt from the influence of this invisible hand. 

“The materiality of the world (its ontology) is shaped by epistemology (world sense projected into storytelling and argument [logos]) coded, in every culture and/or civilization, as knowledge (epistemology).” 

—Mignolo, 2018, page 196

Escobar does a superb job of outlining what is the dominant narrative that  permeates design and, in doing so, he has laid out what I see as the foundation of the  epistemology which shapes the mainstream practice of design as it currently stands:  Anglo+Eurocentric capitalist hegemony. Early in his book he makes frequent reference  to patriarchal western capitalist modernity as the civilizational model that birthed the  functionalist, rationalistic, industrial tradition of design that we find ourselves immersed in (Escobar, 2018). This sharp insight leads us to pinpoint where geographically and economically this form of design originated—namely the middle and upper classes of  the Global North—and the systems which allowed it to flourish—industrial capitalism and patriarchal modernity.

Still from film I—fruit stand by the side of the road (Gambiarra, 2020)

Fry and Kalantidou’s book provide us with the arguments to investigate this idea further by helping us understand how this particular narrative became dominant and how it has kept the design field in a stronghold for so long. The authors openly address  questions of design’s historical involvement with colonial imposition and discuss ideas of “epistemological colonialism” (Fry and Kalantidou, 2014) which have been  monumental in helping me see the practice of exploring other epistemologies as an  intellectual resistance to neocolonialism in the design field.

“Epistemological colonialism can be understood as a certain kind of viral afterlife of a progenitor; it goes on doing the job of colonisation long after the material trappings of its parental host have departed. As such it continues to extend key features of the values, mode of thought and worldview constituted as the colonised mind.”

—Fry and Kalantidou, 2014, page 16

‘All food is organic in Cuba’ (Guarçoni, 18 Apr 2019, Havana)

Between the authors’s ‘epistemological colonialism’ and Mignolo’s ‘epistemic totalitarianism’ (2018) it becomes clear how a western imperial capitalist epistemology established itself as supreme over any other form of knowledge produced outside of  that geographical space of mind and, consequently, stifled any ontology that endangered its dominance. Fry and Kalantidou then go on to speak about globalization in an illuminating manner  by posing it not as a consequence of capitalism but as a tool used by it. The authors provide insightful views on economic colonization and how the ongoing depreciation of local epistemologies is strategically designed into the system of globalization.

“Globalization (...) destroys the counter-developmental potentiality of what is already present in the local (be they creative and craft practices, knowledge, farming and horticultural skills).”

—Fry and Kalantidou, 2014, page 16

Fruit stand by the side of the road – in season (Guarçoni, 9 Aug 2020, Colatina)

From their work it becomes clear that design has been used to not only  perpetuate but also propagate neocolonial ideas and values and therefore been an  instrumental arm of globalization. Much like colonial rules that prohibited the expression of any form of cultural manifestation from the African continent in the  Americas, the Anglo+European hegemony in design serves the same purpose of suffocating other epistemologies while imposing a false idea of supremacy by monopolizing the field (Fry and Kalantidou, 2014). This dynamic presents the “double  face of modernity/coloniality” in the way that it consolidates “Eurocentrism as a system  of interconnected knowledges” (modernity) while simultaneously “dismissing  principles of knowing and knowledge created in non-European languages and non European systems of belief” (coloniality) (Mignolo, 2018, pp 197). 

Once we understand that design practices are built from a specific theory of  knowledge (epistemology) specific to the culture from which it came, it becomes quite  obvious that different cultures have inherently different methods of practicing design  (Krenak, 2019). That statement’s potential should invite us to dream of endless learning opportunities, and it would... if it were not for the hierarchy of epistemologies ingrained into us as practitioners and consumers which have disabled us from seeing different ontologies as rich and valuable (Mignolo, 2018). In order to begin to dismantle that hierarchy and its accompanying bias against different realities we might want to look at Franz Boaz’s original notes on cultural relativism;

Brasil/Babylon–communication tower na terra da Gambiarra. (Guarçoni, 24 Mar 2016, São Paulo)

“[Boaz] became convinced that all education is relative. All civilization is relative. All culture, in a way, is relative to a time and a place. What it means to be a full, mature adult, what it means to be smart, what genius is depends on when you're asking about it, where you're asking about it, the context you're asking about it in.”

—Charles King in Arablouei and Abdelfatah, 2020