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Reified design

The difference between something that is well-designed and something that is merely designy seems pretty self-evident if you base the judgment on functionality. But the difference between the two is always being blurred, usually by marketers trying to gain an edge for a product that's not essentially different from its market competitors. So we get designy bottles of dishwashing liquid, designy stainless-steel appliances, designy retro-looking appliances and other pseudo-novelties. Design improvements that allow us to consume or use a good more efficiently are conflated with improvements that shift our attention away from use to abstract contemplation -- the good becomes a mirror in which we see reflected our own good taste. Designy-ness, like so many consumerist products, lets us consume ourselves.

These efforts to sell products as a vehicle for design combine to create a climate in which design for its own sake is functionality, an aesthetic end that inherently enriches the lives of those who get to handle such "beautiful" objects. Industrial designers like Apple's Jonathan Ive get elevated to the status of artists, as if their aim was not to sell more goods but to create the Good. Consumerism is thereby transformed into a kind of democratized connoisseurship; Target (or, if you are still trying to preserve class distinction, ABC Carpet & Home) becomes a museum from which you can take home the objets d'art.

So what is wrong with that? This may not be a convincing answer, but designy-ness is an ideological sheen on consumerism, redeeming commodification while furthering it, permitting mass-distributed designy-ness to supplant genuine heterogeneity. In genuine heterogeneity is the chance that we might really redeem the promise of individualism -- that we will be able to garner social recognition for being ourselves, and recognition could be separated from being judged or taxonomized. But designy-ness and its off-the-shelf aesthetic (often prepared by lauded gurus) militates against that. However much we enjoy our own tastes in such stuff privately (solipsisticly) we become typecast when we exhibit those tastes publicly.

Terry Eagleton gets at this problem in the Kant chapter of The Ideology of the Aesthetic:

In the aesthetic representation...we glimpse for an exhilarated moment the possibility of a non-alienated object, one quite the reverse of the commodity, which like the 'auratic' phenomenon of a Walter Benjamin returns our tender gaze and whispers that it was created for us alone. In another sense, however, this formal, desensualized aesthetic object, which acts as a point of exchange between subjects, can be read as a spiritualized version of the very commodity it resists.

Designy goods, as spiritualized versions of consumer junk, elevate the practice of their exchange to something more seemingly dignified and become the medium for social contact itself. That is, as good possessive individualists molded within capitalism, we are isolated by our tastes and the goods whispering our ersatz uniqueness to us, and we gloat in our transcendence until the loneliness overwhelms us, and we are driven to participate in society, which we can do only on those same terms, at the level of our tastes in everyday goods, in mass entertainments, and that sort of thing. We think we are curators of our own personal museum of tasteful, design-y goods, but in the end it's someone else's institution and we are just the guards.

(For more deep thoughts about design, see this post at one of my other venues.)

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

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Music

The World of Captain Beefheart: An Interview with Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx

Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx (photo © Michael DelSol courtesy of Howlin' Wuelf Media)

Guitarist and band leader Gary Lucas and veteran vocalist Nona Hendryx pay tribute to one of rock's originals in this interview with PopMatters.

From the opening bars of "Suction Prints", we knew we had entered The World of Captain Beefheart and that was exactly where we wanted to be. There it was, that unmistakable fast 'n bulbous sound, the sudden shifts of meter and tempo, the slithery and stinging slide guitar in tandem with propulsive bass, the polyrhythmic drumming giving the music a swing unlike any other rock band.

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From Haircut 100 to his own modern pop stylings, Nick Heyward is loving this new phase of his career, experimenting with genre with the giddy glee of a true pop music nerd.

In 1982, Nick Heyward was a major star in the UK.

As the leader of pop sensations Haircut 100, he found himself loved by every teenage girl in the land. It's easy to see why, as Haircut 100 were a group of chaps so wholesome, they could have stepped from the pages of Lisa Simpson's "Non-Threatening Boys" magazine. They resembled a Benetton knitwear advert and played a type of quirky, pop-funk that propelled them into every transistor radio in Great Britain.

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Acid house legends 808 State bring a psychedelic vibe to Berlin producer NHOAH's stunning track "Abstellgleis".

Berlin producer NHOAH's "Abstellgleis" is a lean and slinky song from his album West-Berlin in which he reduced his working instruments down to a modular synthesizer system with a few controllers and a computer. "Abstellgleis" works primarily with circular patterns that establish a trancey mood and gently grow and expand as the piece proceeds. It creates a great deal of movement and energy.

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Beechwood offers up a breezy slice of sweet pop in "Heroin Honey" from the upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod.

At just under two minutes, Beechwood's "Heroin Honey" is a breezy slice of sweet pop that recalls the best moments of the Zombies and Beach Boys, adding elements of garage and light tinges of the psychedelic. The song is one of 10 (11 if you count a bonus CD cut) tracks on the group's upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod out 26 January via Alive Natural Sound Records.

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