Building a Critical Interpretation
This post continues a multi-part series on interaction criticism begun here. The series goal is to offer a useful introduction to criticism in the context of interaction design, targeted at interaction design professionals.
In the previous part, I laid out some critical reading strategies, that is, techniques that critics use to identify specific interesting or resonant passages/elements of a cultural artifact, for example, particular passages from a novel, phrases/diction from a poem, phrases from a sonata, architectural details in a building, camera angles in a film, or the shapes of the heels in haute couture footwear.
What does a critic do when she has identified a number of interesting individual elements, passages, or features? The critic develops a critical interpretation, that is, an expository explanation drawn from an analytical reflection on each of these elements or features. The development of this interpretation is the subject of this post.
A note before I begin: The linearity of a multipart series and written discourse itself exaggerates the linearity of this process. It is, of course, not at all the case that a critic identifies resonant passages without having any idea of the interpretive direction. Having a sense of your overall purpose and audience obviously shapes the kind of things you look for in the first place. Anyway, the point is not to take the implied linearity of what I am writing as a step-by-step recipe to be followed in order. I only separate strategies to tease out nuance that might be hard to see otherwise.
Now, the critical explanation that the critic is trying to produce may or may not make claims about the work as a whole. A book review ultimately does offer an overall sense of whether one should buy the reviewed book. But one might equally only focus on a focused aspect, such as sound design in several French New Wave films; these critiques may not say much of anything helpful about the overall quality or entertainment value of these films, though they would help filmmakers and students of film master their craft. And “critical theory” in its classic sense, associated with the Frankfurt School, studied cultural artifacts with the hope of exposing social injustice in such a way as to facilitate (design) interventions; they had comparatively less to say about the overall aesthetics of a work.
In other words, although a critical interpretation organizes resonant passages around a coherent and largely unified theme, the particular direction of the theme is up to the critic. Or to put it another way, the reason for the criticism (book/fashion/film reviews in the newspaper, criticism in service of product design, art or aesthetic criticism, etc.), the intended audience of the critic, and the critic’s own dispositions determine or at least shape the theme.
For professional interaction designers, my assumption is that criticism would often be oriented in one of two directions. If a designer has a specific design problem, criticism would be oriented toward generating insights particularly useful to that problem or problem space (e.g., if I were designing an interface for an online radio station, I might do a critique of the Pandora‘s training interface as an instance of experience design). If, on the other hand, the designer wants to improve her craft in a more general domain, criticism could accordingly be geared to understand a particular technique, material, or experiential effect (e.g., if I were designing wearable computing, I might critique instances of high functionality in haute couture, say, comparmentalization in Louis Vuitton handbags, and then contrast it to fashion in high tech gadgets, such as, say, a GPS device built into a BMW). (Damn–I just made that up, but it sounds like a fun project!)
Specific Strategies of Critical Interpretation
Obviously, it is harder to be explicitly directive in this step, as opposed to part 2, but I can offer a handful of broader interpretative strategies that are at least illustrative of common patterns in this step.
- Reflect on and relate what you are seeing to prior/similar examples. This reflection is not casual; it is creative, erudite, innovative, speculative, thoughtful. It cannot be lazy or complacent. You, the critic, are constructing meaning by examining these relationships–you are not decoding or finding what is empirically there (social sciences are much better suited to this goal). Instead, you are offering a new way to see or think about something; you are developing the very concepts that you and others later on (including social scientists) will use to understand and evaluate a phenomenon in a new light.
- Speculate: What would X look like if…? Elizabeth Churchill often uses the metaphor of science fiction when talking about design. She thinks of design as offering a fictive projection of a possible future, a possible world. This fictional world isn’t uselessly disconnected from our reality; instead, it is connected to our reality through … design! But the point is that this is only possible through speculative leaps of imagination, not through evolutionary iteration (which is obviously valuable too, just in different ways). The key obviously is that some speculation is vacuous, implausible nonsense, while other speculation can be operationalized into a design strategy. Here the quality of the critic (to have a worthy vision in the first place) and the designer (to evaluate/develop the plausibility of the vision) work hand-in-hand.
- Expose the hidden in order to subject it to possible intervention. One of the primary contributions of criticism is its expository nature. Criticism renders visible aspects of our lives that are so everyday that they seem natural, and yet they are arbitrary (i.e., could be otherwise), and they may also be undesirable. For example, Foucault’s theories of power implicated knowledge production in the social sciences within systems of power, exposing a dependence of knowledge professionals on the docility of disempowered groups (e.g., mental patients, prisoners, schoolchildren). Today, human subjects committees reflect a sensitivity to this relationship and proactively intervene to manage it. Roland Barthes’ critiques of popular culture (magazine advertising, slogans, clothes) brought the rigor of literary analysis to texts hitherto considered unworthy for that type of analysis; one benefit has been to raise our collective awareness of how the values of dominant social classes are insinuated into everyday life.
- Use concepts from criticism (e.g., organic unity, construction of the self, panopticon, dialogic, signifier, space/place, story/discourse, base/superstructure, embodiment) to develop one’s understanding of cultural artifacts and their features. I say “develop examples,” not “tag examples” because we are not trying to find an example of X concept; rather, we are trying to use concept X to help us think creatively and originally and profoundly about a particular cultural artifact in such a way that we understand the example much more robustly than we would without the concept. This sometimes leads to a technical vocabulary that is hard to understand, which can lead to one of two unfortunate extremes–obscurantism (e.g., deconstruction’s “mise-en-abyme“) or banality (e.g., “the medium is the message”)–even when the original contexts and uses of that vocabulary are intellectually powerful (as is the case in Derrida’s use of deconstruction as a critique of Western philosophy or McLuhan’s theories of media).
Common to all of these is that the interpretation itself is original, carefully and rigorously developed through extensive reading and reflection. Its contribution is not the glimpse into external reality it affords, but rather an expert’s take on that external reality, with the assumption (that must be justified) that the expert’s take helps us understand that reality in transformative ways, that is, ways that transform how we act or understand this reality. Because it is about the expert’s take, criticism is not fundamentally empirical, though of course empirical evidence surely contributes to the expert’s take in important ways. In simpler terms, the expert interpretation, not the data, is the message.
It’s probably worthwhile to recapitulate the main points from the first part of this series about what critics do:
- Think deeply about associations and relationships among the studied artifact/experience and other artifacts/experiences
- Model the act of reading/interpretation in such a way that others can appropriate interpretive strategies in their own critical encounters with culture
- Identify resonant passages/examples
I hope that parts 2 and 3 flesh out and illuminate these points.
In the next part of this series, I will talk about how criticism is written. As a form of intellectual prose, it has distinct features and characteristics, and these are often different from the forms of prose that social science is often embedded in. As I have tried to show, the two enterprises have different goals and epistemologies, and it should not surprise that their written forms also differ.
Continue to Part 4.