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Wednesday, November 19, 2003

Very odd Seminar class today on a very odd topic: topics (topi, or locus, or commonplaces or proper places).

There are very few writings about topics; a lot of people don't see them as useful. Almost anything can be turned into a topic, and that's part of the problem: they are difficult to define.

Up until now in Seminar, our readings and discussion have been about constructing meanings and arguments. But topics are about the opposite: they are about destabilizing for the purpose of invention. Topics are about breaking the fixed meaning of things to look at them in new ways, about turning the commonplace into the novel. Topics are all about asking, "What happens if...?"

There are four master places that just about everything falls into: Things, Thoughts, Words, and Deeds. By shifting something from one of these places into another (looking at a Thing like a chair as a Word, for instance), it allows us to get a new perspective. As Kenneth Burke says, we gain perspective from incongruity. Designers often have many of these places (topics) from which to view the world.

Dick cautioned us that using topics can have harmful psychological effects. When you start to go down those paths, you can lose your way. It opens the door to chaos and madness. You need some means to get out, and that means is judgment. Judgment is all about viability: is what I'm considering even possible? Not only does the idea have to look promising, it has to look viable. We test viability through prototyping.

Humans want to fix the meaning of things to make them commonplace. We do this by categorization. To invent, you need to turn categories into topics. You do this by emptying the topic of its categorical meaning. You need it to be "finite but unbounded," that is, you need the topic to have a slight sense of category ("a sight contour of meaning") because it still needs to make some sense and continue to function.

Kenneth Burke in "The Five Key Terms of Dramatism" describes this process with a metaphor. You have to sink conventional meanings down to the core to melt them down, find new meaning, then rise it up again, where it cools and stabilizes. You need to get out of the molten middle! In there is total chaos and no meaning. Another thing that typically happens is that you don't get all the way down to the center, and when you again rise up, you have the same meaning and are in the same place. It takes courage to wrestle with the molten.

The point of all this is so that you can see slight changes that can have significance. When you get a problem, search around for its topic, then shift the topic to look for a possibility. Stand it on its head, intellectually or literally. Look at it, as G.K. Chesterton advised, "inappropriately." People may, as Dick warned, "look at you as though you've lost your mind," but this is how we invent.

posted at 11:39 PM in design theory | comments (1) | trackback (0)


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