I just finished going through the page proofs of my forthcoming book on the artist Stephen Willats (Bloomsbury Academic, 2021). The publication process for this book has taken a long time; I signed a contract in early 2017. While I have moved on from writing any more monographs on artists, I’m still compelled by aspects of Willats’s socially-engaged art. Similarly, Suzanne Lacy’s art in public offered strategies and tactics to artistically intervene in society and prompted me to write a book on her work, published in 2010.
So, what next? As a white, comfortably middle-class woman in my late 60s, I know there are many, many ways for me to act, to support, to resist, to make “good trouble, necessary trouble,” as John Lewis said. It’s easy to be overwhelmed and despair about what to do, but that isn’t an option for so many people, and it isn’t an option for me. My priorities have been and remain: local, cross-racial, cross-class, arts-related coalitional work. These priorities are where I learn the most and where feel that I have something to contribute. If an action or activity is arts-related, it’s likely that I won’t burn out as quickly as I might otherwise, because music, visual arts, movement and performance feed me and I firmly believe in their powers.
The ideas, arrangements and effects of white supremacy have long demanded our unstinting and creative resistance to their entrenched presence. Which brings me to this wonderful book called Ideas Arrangements Effects: Systems Design and Social Justice (2020), by the Boston-based Design Studio for Social Intervention. This book, along with Sasha Costanza-Chock’s Design Justice: Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need (2020), points me toward “spaces of possibilities,” for which I am so grateful. Both books build on the work of anthropologist Arturo Escobar, author of Designs for the Pluriverse (2018) in which he argued for the necessity of nurturing many lifeways and life forms.
The way that Ideas Arrangements Effects distills concepts into concise, digestible form certainly contrasts with the way that my brain gets quickly and easily tangled in the weeds. After struggling to understand cybernetics as applied by artist Stephen Willats, I find this book takes similar approaches but introduces them with clear and concrete examples, and never mentions cybernetics. (It does give a nod to cybernetically-related concepts, “systems” and “emergence.”) Starting with “Ideas are embedded within Arrangements which, in turn, produce Effects,” the book helps the reader understand the ways in which these abstractions interact, loop, and spread, starting with chairs. “The effects that rows or circles of chairs have on learning are important, but they are not the point here. The point is that the arrangement produces effects.” (Italics in original, p. 18)
The ah-ha moment for me is that the authors invite readers to step back and observe arrangements: “we often attend to the effects because they are urgent.” (p. 20) The points of intervention may be more effective if we attend to arrangements and how ideas are instantiated in those arrangements. They note: “We argue heatedly and repeatedly about the big ideas [democracy, justice or racism], and we get trapped there without inspecting smaller ideas and what opportunities for change they could open up.” That’s another way of encouraging folks to tackle smaller chunks of big problems not only to prevent becoming overwhelmed and but also to increase chances of success.
Another thinker whose work nicely dovetails with DS4SI’s work is the late Dana Meadows, whose “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System,” was published over 20 years ago, in 1999. She claimed that effects–what may be equivalent to she called “parameters”—were similar to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, “diddling with the details.” She noted that parameters were important, particularly in the short term, but that they “rarely change behavior.” According to Meadows, where parameters become important leverage points, however, are when they connect to an item “higher on the list” of her 12 leverage points. The power of DS4SI’s approach is that they distill the list into three categories that are manageable for me, so that I can readily link effects to arrangements. Still, Meadows’s list is more finely-grained and that, too, is really useful.
Midway through Meadows’s list of leverage points is #6, “the structure of information flows (who does and does not have access to information).”
Adding or restoring information can be a powerful intervention, usually much easier and cheaper than rebuilding physical infrastructure.
Further, she rightly noted, “It’s important that the missing information be restored to the right place and in compelling form.” She cautioned that “there is a systematic tendency on the part of human beings to avoid accountability for their own decisions,” which is why placing information in the “right place” is so crucial. Polluters need to experience the pollution they cause, for example. I would add that middle-class white people need to experience the consequences of calling the police on someone they categorize as suspicious, who is often a Black person. I’m not sure what that consequence would look like, but Black people likely have some ideas of how to hold that terror and anger in view. (I am Alfonso Jones is one powerful example. )
The DS4SI book points to the work of Ian Hacking, a Canadian philosopher who talked about categorizing people in this YouTube video, ” Making Up People “ (2018). He spoke about how when we classify people, we often limit them. Classifying people can close off options; by opening up spaces of possibilities for people and looking ahead at what any of us may choose to do, we broaden our choices.
Meadows’s leverage point #4–“the power to add, change, evolve, or self-organize system structure”–can be usefully paired with the DS4SI’s analysis of Arrangements.
The ability to self-organize is the strongest form of system resilience…. Self-organization is basically a matter of…a highly variable stock of information from which to select possible patterns and a means for experimentation, for selecting and testing new patterns.
Yep, rearrange the arrangements, increase the options, diversify, and experiment. Who says that sitting in chairs, in rows or in circles, is a good way for children to learn? Yes, it is effective at controlling children, but at what cost? As Meadows wrote: “Let a thousand flowers bloom and ANYTHING could happen!”