Ursula LeGuin and speculative design

Anne Galloway has a fascinating essay up on Ethnography Matters:

By way of background, I think all ethnographers are taught that Ursula Le Guin’s father was the famous American anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, and her mother an accomplished writer, so it comes as no surprise to us that her culturally rich stories are so capable of rendering the strange as familiar, and the familiar as strange. Le Guin has written many excellent essays, but the one that currently preoccupies my research and gives me my definition of “fantastic” is called “The Critics, the Monsters, and the Fantasists.” Ostensibly written in defense of fantasy narratives, it is also a brilliant critique of the kind of modernist realism that informs so much of today’s fiction, design and design fiction. Le Guin reminds us that not only is our distinction between factual and fictional narrative historically quite recent, but that we’ve forgotten how to even read fantasy. Imagine, she suggests, if we were to “judge modern realist fiction by the standards of fantasy.” We would find ourselves, she continues, faced with “a narrow focus on daily details of contemporary human affairs; trapped in representationalism, suffocatingly unimaginative, frequently trivial, and ominously anthropocentric.” (When I first read this I was sure she was describing most of the social and cultural research I had to read for my postgraduate studies, not realist fiction!)

Le Guin’s essay challenges us to probe what exists beyond realism, beyond anthropocentrism, and to carefully question what this space can and cannot bring forth. … Feminist critiques of science have long demonstrated that scientific rationality is connected to practices and values of modern, affluent, male-dominated, Western culture. Indeed, ‘good’ science fiction is often predicated on its ability to be scientifically plausible—just as ‘good’ ethnographic fiction is meant to be culturally plausible. To escape, or exceed, these ways of thinking and doing, then, requires the sort of critique seen in feminist science fiction and the incredible, unruly, premodern sensibility that infuses the fantastic.

LeGuin (and Galloway) seem to be saying that it’s not just enough to call into question “realist” narratives that are “anthropocentric” and “trapped in representationalism.” If that’s our first stop then we still find ourselves in a cul-de-sac defined by “modern, affluent, male-dominated, Western culture.” Imagining an alternative requires the resources of the “fantastic” with its “unruly, premodern sensibility.”

Galloway later goes on to say that the speculative approach does not involve providing possible alternatives. If the goal of speculative genres (architecture, design, literature, science fiction, etc.) is not to offer an alternative, what might it then be? Towards the end of the essay, Galloway writes: “although fantastic ethnography and speculative design don’t have to derive their plausibility from realism or rationality, they should move people—because the space of the fantastic and the speculative is, after all, affective space, or the space of potential.”

Ok. But doesn’t all of this also describe what we usually think of as the “aesthetic” in general? What I find interesting here is that Galloway’s argument is not really about literature (speculative or realistic) at all. It’s about design. Since the 19th century, aesthetics (autonomous, decadent, useless) and design (instrumental, bourgeois and utilitarian) have played at an intricate counterpoint. We’re used to the arts being criticized for not being sufficiently useful or relevant. Now, finally design is being criticized for not being sufficiently useless.