Fake Science in Design Writing

Fake Science in Design Writing

photo: flickr member oskari kettunen shows us how phrenologists measured noggins.

I’ve thought for a while the design disciplines in America have a too-cozy relationship with the same entities that separate our society by class and race—advertising and self-proclaimed tastemakers.

It makes me deeply uncomfortable to hear design writers speak about ideas of “highbrow” and “lowbrow” culture without ever referencing (or realizing?) that those terms are themselves deeply, horrifyingly racist.

They’re everywhere in design writing. For example: here’s a Google search index of Design Observer. See what I mean? It’s everywhere, it’s not based in any sort of fact, and I wonder if these people know what they’re actually saying when they throw those words around.

Phrenology itself is a weird pseudoscience that kinda made roots in late 18th century Germany. Its basic presupposition, roughly, is that a being’s disposition and character can be traced to a series of intellectual centers of the head, and their various sizes determine the composition of the cranial sizing and scale. The way this worked out, a higher browline connoted intellectual, “honorable” thoughts and a lower one meant a greater presence of baser thinking skills. So you could, in essence, determine a person’s moral and personality makeup by measuring their head with a caliper.

So by this definition, anyone with a lower brow and deepset eyes became a visualization of the other, of the baser aspect, of a criminal. And that led straight into the Holocaust. It’s essentially a way to define racism in scientific terms.

So yes, please, let’s please continue this wildly racist, classist, outdated, and scientifically invalid system of cultural references in which smart, wealthy, good, beautiful people participate in honorable pursuits while the rest of us wallow in the muck, dancing to our base, stupid pop music, like the garbage we clearly are.

Or, more wisely, we can simply look at our culture honestly, and forget about how well our brows are groomed.

Many thanks to Maria Popova for inspiring this with her entry at Brain Pickings.

4 thoughts on “Fake Science in Design Writing

  1. Pingback: fixing the hobo suit » “Fine, I will also fix the hobo suit.”

  2. johnnyjumpup

    Patric, Thanks.  We lowclass, non-educated, non-western, street designers get what you are saying, without having to write a report or thesis about it.  For centuries, our designs and creative output has been ”recontexturalized” (read appropriated) over and over again and sold for millions in their ”new contexts,” while we ourselves have been dumped.  Our material wealth becomes ”highbrow” while we remain looooooow brow.  Take the thing, leave the person/people.  aNo worries.  We still create and exist.  Haha.

  3. Patric King Post author

    so, two things.
    first: the hitler thing was taking it too far, and i’ll own it. in my defense, i very nearly linked to Godwin’s Law to wink about it. i was secretly thrilled that i was writing on the interwebs and it actually led back to hitler, because i’ve never actually gotten that to work out before.
    secondly: i understand that the words have been de- and re-contextualized over and over. but, in that claim of it “always being about the context” is a loophole for anyone to blink big doe eyes and say they were only being postmodern.
    there are, in fact, a shitload of designers who do, in fact, mistake snobbery for taste or style, and that puts them directly at the side of those who think that european culture is the way to goodness, that cheap american pop culture leads to nothing. these are the ones throwing around highbrow and lowbrow without irony, without blinking. i hate these people, passionately.
    many working in design are remarkably uncomfortable with the fact that most of pop american culture bubbles up from the streets and the lowerclasses, and i see them trying as hard as they can to invalidate the poor, invalidate those they see as trashy, simply because it’s not within the canon of designer taste. it’s basically barely-disguised class warfare and aspirational hopefulness.

  4. Turner

    Patric, this argument is non-sequitur. The terminology has been repurposed from it’s original meaning many times over, and has a legitimate place in conversations about culture, aesthetics, and the cross-over between the two. Additionally, it does not make subjective judgements on the value of the works it references as you have implied; calling something high-brow can easily be a pejorative as the inverse in the right context (it’s ALLLLL in the context, by the way, that applies the value judgement).

    I applaud your interest into the etymology of the terms, history has an important place their understanding and use, but do not condemn them, discuss them. Finally, In reference to another “Nazi’s did it!!” argument I saw refuted earlier, Hitler wore boots and had a mustache, does that make boots and mustaches “wildly racist, classist, outdated”? Realize that even the study of phrenology was based in a (very poorly conducted attempt) to understand why class and culture play such important roles in our lives.