Transformative Design in its most explicit terms is a practice in which an object, system, or relationship is made with open, authentic, and accountable dialog that invokes intention, takes stock of emotional engagement, and the residual consequences and feedback loops of production on the finite and animate landscape.
Origin Point: Viewing Culture as an Emplaced Phenomenon
1969 Ralph Holloway sought to prove that culture was a strictly human phenomenon. He defined it as “the imposition of arbitrary form upon the environment” that then created feedback loops oscillating between man’s conception of himself [the projected] and his altered environment [the built] as well as how they informed and affected each other – fig 1. Holloway went on to describe that man makes “delusional systems work” yet does so in the affirmative, to joyfully congratulate man for his superiority, proclaiming that culture as the title pronounces is man’s and man’s alone. In modernity, this remains the common [western] lens by which we frame our interaction with the world, we are informed by what we have built yet lack both a substantive and relational acknowledge of it.
This is why really grasping what culture is can be a deeply convoluted process. In our age it has two very distinct and often oppositional nuances in meaning. The Holloway slant is the path of letters; we as humans can overcome our ‘barbarism’ through artifice [though in reality just masking our primal instincts with fancy words and assumed expectations]. The other is the lateral path, at its heart is the practice of intergenerational communities built around clearly defined values and in dialog with their surroundings.
The underlying difference between them is an acknowledgement of congruence that draws back to the word’s etymology. Culture was first derived from a term ‘cultura animi’ used by the Roman philosopher Cicero to describe the cultivation of the soul through the stewarding of place. This was to be laterally connected to, bound by, and interdependent with, the more than human landscape or better stated, with Other.
Holloway’s culture has taught us in the west that culture and its resulting conventions are autonomous or worse sovereign when in fact they are anything but. For better or worse we have the ability to choose whether our lives are in congruence with their larger contexts or not and the world itself absorbs the out cost. For the defining characteristic exhibited by human beings, which sets us apart from natural systems, is that we can choose to act against our nature, we can choose to ignore the lessons of constancy and illusion. We can empirically, rationally, and instinctively know the truth and yet through a denial or denigration of it choose to act in conflict with it. If you put your hand in a flame even though you know it will cause you injury, you can leave it there, just like you can enter into destructive relationships that affect both yourself and others. The choice is informed equally by our perception [the way we view the world] and esteem [the way we view ourselves in relation to it] both being adjacent to our culture. Yet there is a crucial aspect of this dynamic missing: reality [the way the world actually is]. So let us qualify that culture can only be arbitrary when it has no bearing or affect upon a finite system or in other words before it becomes built through action. And further since it affects us and we affect the world, there is really no such thing as ‘arbitrary’ form at all.
Culture then [as an extension of ourselves] must be understood as inexorably bound causally to both its human and non-human contexts. It is resultantly the residual and aggregate forms we craft from our available resources. This means we must be engaged in a mindful vigilance when thinking about what it is we make and what paradigms inform their making.
Throughout antiquity all things in and outside of ‘culture’ had a purpose, and it was found through inference. For artificial things this was external like a carpenter’s plan for a table; however for natural things the final cause was internal. This wasn’t necessarily a purpose like we define it but a description of the end of successive developmental change. Something’s form was its end; it’s what it is to be something. The purpose of a thing is its nature, like a bird to fly, a fish to swim, etc. Though we cannot know a thing’s true purpose we can look towards nature to provide us the tools through example to make educated guesses. Because things in nature for the most part operate through instinct, and so happen true to form. Formal, efficient, and final causes can often have the same answer, the bird for example, when asking what kind of a thing it is, what produced it, and what is it turning into, all result in the same answer. In nature the form exists prior to, not as a result of the thing. It isn’t simply a classification by shape, but function. To say what a natural thing is, is to say what it does and most importantly why it does it.
But after the enlightenment we lost the final cause from our lives, moving from asking questions like what is a thing for, to how quickly, cheaply, and plentiful can we make it. The process slowly became wholly epistemological IE moving from a focus on ontology and being to pure process focusing on function only. This is how we became fooled into believing in the sovereignty of culture, and laying the seeds for the Holloway path to sprout.
But we know better, in every breath we know that our feet are resting on a sphere that’s spinning at thousands of miles per hour hurtling round a burning star in a solar system and thus universe so infinite we cannot begin to fathom it. And the distractions inevitably fail us, because our instincts scream the truth, Ex Nihilo Fit Nihilo, nothing comes from nothing. In other words, nothing’s free. The things we produce must come from somewhere and upon being made affect the world both in relying upon a finite resource pool for their existence and physically affecting their contextual environments and ecosystems. As such it is up to us to practice mindfulness and transparency when we engage in cultural creation, to recognize that our culture is not only a reflection of who we are but of the animate landscape from which it was born. Transformative design urges us to supplant the destructive feedback loops with ones that are emplaced and congruent with reality – fig 2.
Authenticity and the Aesthetics of Enchantment
Since that heralding of the Enlightenment, meaning was suddenly and irrevocably transformed from something found into something made.
For the first time in human history we, not anyone or any thing else, became responsible and accountable for creating and maintaining the meaning in our lives. We act, and in so acting, meaning is made, along with the implications and consequences of those actions. We in effect became our own Prometheus.
Suddenly within everything existed the opportunity to fashion the world in whatever way we desired, to produce function, purpose, and meaning as aggregate forces that unify into a single vision. Our will was made manifest as the truest end of an examined and joyous life. What could possibly be more magical than the fabrication of meaning seemingly from nothing? But things are never simple in real life, remember nothing’s free, falling in love with something is not the same thing as committing to all of the little and uninspired maintenance that goes into its stewardship over time. We need a reason to commit, a purpose to hunker down through the long and often listless twilight of the every day. This is why our hearts cry out for the sacred and the sublime, for experiences that are primal, initiatory, transformative. The cosmos is big for a reason, consider the words of John Haines, in his essays on country living:
“When life is simplified, its essence becomes clearer, and we know our lives as part of some ancient human activity in a time measured not by clocks and calendars but by the turning of a great wheel, the positions of which are not wage-hours, nor days and weeks, but immense stations called Seasons.”
This comes from a lineage of belief that reception, not action, is the true progenitor of meaning and purpose within one’s life.
We as creative animals, are in need of an ultimate or necessary arbiter. In this instance, not as a monotheistic or any kind of God, or an overarching government, but instead, as a natural system that includes us as simply another part of itself. To both actively take responsibility for the creation of meaning [as emplaced culture], while also engaging in active emotional engagement in a given system or experience keeps us involved in our own lives. It allows us to simultaneously understand and remain spellbound by the reoccurring and patterned cycles of the world on which we depend, to begin walking the path of enchantment.
This opens the doors to recognizing there is no discernible difference between art and magic, that art in point of fact is a magical act – fig 3. To emotionally invest in cultural creation through intention is to tap into the underriding force of the universe. Whether the labor of a devoted craftsman or the elegant proof of a mathematician, the chaotic forms of the sculptor or the method by which someone sweeps a floor. When we choose to focus or bring intention to our receptive faculties, those that enable us to be open to mindful and meditative types of experience, we are able to more properly channel the universe through what is not us, through Other.
Art is a historical form of magic that we have separated from its origins as it evolved from capturing time and essence to creating them. David Abram describes the spell of language as indigenous cultures saw it in interacting with cultures that had letters bearing no connection to anything but the sounds of themselves. They thought it a spell creating the essence of a thing wholly independent of the word around it. Because oral cultures lived in a world where spirituality was horizontal and equilateral as opposed to vertical, and hierarchical. To indigenous peoples the rocks and earth took just as much part in the language as they did and worked through them to connect to a collective memory that spanned the expanses of time itself. The beauty of this isn’t just nostalgia or ethnocentric rhetoric, it’s that our creative process can remember its magical ancestry and do just the opposite. We can remind ourselves of our journey, one that isn’t reaching outward towards expansion or to fill some void but towards a center in which we move through a collaboration of becoming in rhythm with our surroundings.
These experiences create a sense of deep and momentous time, a time described as pregnant with the possibility of vision. The Greeks described this as kairos a time in between cronos or linear time; these are the moments when special things happen, when we are moved to wonder or reverie. This is art as vision quest, where the senses are heightened, and perspectives are liminally flipped on their heads.
Transformative Design as practicing this kind of art compels us towards thresholds, towards the practice of an enthralling and enchanted aesthetics, an aesthetics which makes space for the implications of Other, whether that be indicative of a person, place or thing. It’s to approach all actions with a clear and present understanding of one’s intentions and the resulting consequences of their enactment.
This is an aesthetic that brings the why back into our daily lives. If we begin an endeavor by first asking what the end of that action is not only will our goals be more effectively reached but we will feel an honest joy in achieving them.
When a person does good work, when they foster and hone a skill, something they truly love to do and can offer that skill or product you have the foundation for the most beautiful moment in life: the feeling of competence and efficacy forged though a personal acknowledgement of ability and tempered by the same in and with others. To undertake the equivalent exchange of value for value is how we learn real and healthy pride, not one rooted in arrogance but self-respect. It is the foundation for all functional relationships, and the cornerstone for building lasting community. We must begin not only to bring the why back, but to connect it to legacy, the effects of our actions across time. Legacy is how we emplace ourselves where we are, how we build the reference points both physically and mentally to remind us who we are and who we’re becoming.
Enchanted and transformative aesthetics as an interpretation and celebration of craftsmanship is more than just a way to describe the efficacy and ability by which something has been made; it is a direct extension of the maker’s character. For never was there a more apt adage than that all art is inevitably self-portraiture.
If humanity is to survive the immanent changes in its environment it must be done so by a people who see themselves and their surroundings clearly, congruently.
It will be because of people who honor emotional literacy and congruence over convenience and impulse. If you are to make a life for yourself in that world, it will be by the effectiveness of the creativity that struggle demands of you. A struggle that will charge us not simply to survive but to flourish, to find the work that lights up our being, sets fire to our hearts, and brings us most fully and authentically into relationship with something larger than ourselves.