The phantoms formed in the human brain are […] sublimates of their material life-processes […]. They have no history, no development; but [individuals], developing their material production and their material intercourse, alter, along with this their real existence, their thinking and the products of their thinking.

Karl Marx, The German Ideology


Every design problem begins with an effort to achieve fitness between two entities: the form and its context. The form is the solution to the problem; the context defines the problem.

Christopher Alexander, Notes on the Synthesis of Form

Preface

This essay would not be possible without the thoughtful contributions to my thinking and continued support of Kristian Bjørnard, a designer and sustainabilitist teaching in the Graphic Design department at MICA. It is the culmination of a semester of research performed with Kristian on the affects of ideology on designed forms, attempting to unmask images and aesthetics to reveal what lies behind them. While this essay is by no means a comprehensive investigation of the concepts unearthed in our research (my Freudian reading of aesthetics remains underdeveloped), it should serve as a basic introduction to many of the concepts we have begun to articulate. I should also note that the epistemic status of most of the thoughts contained in this essay is subjunctive or theoretical; that is, I have not yet had a chance to test these ideas on edge cases. That said, there is far more territory to cover in this vein, and I hope to continue exploring it in future work.

Introduction

We live in a world of images; there is nothing outside of the image.1 In recent centuries, the world has seen an accelerating proliferation of images, constantly under siege by their internal messages and the aesthetics that communicate them. Therefore, aesthetics are ground zero for praxis. As the image replaces the text as the dominant means of communication in social life, the political and ideological potentials of visual aesthetics grow in equal proportion. Crucially, this leads us to two observations. First, that the production of images and their aesthetics is bound up with the political. This much is empirically obvious. Second, it means that the act of looking itself is bound up with the political. In a world saturated by images that are shot through with political potentials, as bell hooks writes, “there is power in looking.”2 What follows from these observations is also critical: aesthetics are ideological.

Aesthetics and their consumption are bound up within a matrix of ideology and the everyday. The present essay is concerned with opening a door to the political and material potentials of aesthetics within the discipline of graphic design, which have heretofore been considered by the normative design discourse as tertiary and subservient to form and function. It will examine the act of producing images to discern where ideology hides in a visual aesthetic and how it can be revealed. Furthermore, it will attempt to introduce aesthetics as a construct that has a direct relation to the to the material base, and as such as a tool for radical praxis in the world of images. As Henri Arvon wrote, “The political potential of art lies […] in its own aesthetic dimension.”3 This essay intends to uncover that potential by mapping the boundaries of the aesthetic dimension.

Ideology and the Synthesis of Form

There are myriad reasons to consider aesthetics as a part of a Marxist discourse on ideology. First and foremost: aesthetics are ideology made concrete. In other words, aesthetics are the synthesized, material form of an idea. To begin to understand this, we first need to understand how ideology manifests itself in an aesthetic form, and how form itself is synthesized. As Christopher Alexander writes in his seminal work Notes on the Synthesis of Form, “When we speak of design, the real object of discussion is not the form alone, but the ensemble comprising the form and the context.” Part of this ensemble is ideology.

Ideology is a critical force in the world. The weight of ideas, not only in the history of Western philosophy (which has favored idea and essence over object and appearance), but also in political life, is unfathomable. It is abundantly clear that ideas are what dictate the position and directionality of social reality — whether society’s ideals, values, attitudes, and material relations will move forward, backward, or remain stagnant. While this contradicts a great deal of Marxist literature, which tends to assert the opposite (that society’s material relations dictate the progression of its ideas), we cannot discount the weight of ideas in driving and altering material relations. The social and material progression of the human race is bound up with the dialectical progression of its ideas. In contemporary life, these ideas are materially manifested largely through the means of images, of which a large portion are authored by graphic designers.

Diagram of the Synthesis of Form

A diagram depicting the synthesis of form and the points at which form is vulnerable to ideological manipulation.

“The ultimate object of design is form.”4 The design process leading up to that form is an effort to “achieve fitness between two entities: the form in question and its context.”5 The form in question is a design object — in our case, we can consider it to be something like a Platonic ideal of a particular form. The context is the milieu surrounding the design problem and the final designed form, and it can be further divided to provide a distinction between content and context, which are fundamentally different in that context is not controllable by the designer, while content generally is able to be manipulated through aesthetic means.

Form is synthesized through a dialectical process of context, content, and material coming together in a flash, as Walter Benjamin says, to form a constellation.6 This dialectical process is brought about by the constant tension between material, context, content, and form. As the designer attempts to balance the forces introduced by these facets of the problem space, form naturally arises as a crystallization of process. On a macro level, however, the dialectic is a bit different. Historical traumas in the material base, such as a large change in the means of production, produce new visual phenomena (as a result of cultural ruptures) that push the ability to express content within existing materialities to its furthest bounds. At the far reaches of material expression — that is, the ability to express an idea to viewers with a given material — we hit a material-concept barrier, where a material’s common forms can no longer express concepts in an effective or culturally impactful way. This is when we see the synthesis of new forms, aesthetics, approaches to material, and materials themselves. Through this process of synthesizing form, ideology works its way into aesthetics via the design process, because the design process is driven primarily by subjective decisions by the designer in an attempt to balance the forces of the problem space. Any subjective decision will have ideology embedded in it; as a result, aesthetic choices do as well. Additionally, ideology seeps into an aesthetic framework or designed form at many points in the process of its synthesis, as can be seen in the above diagrams. Any juncture that involves the control of a force by the designer is open to conscious or unconscious manipulation by ideology.

However, in contemporary design it seems that more often than not, designers repress their ideology in favor of the dictates of the context surrounding the design problem space. The designer is a worker, almost a creative machine, not a salient and political individual. In a sense, the designer is forced to be un-individuated, that is, made a subject of the content they are designing around. There are client specifications to be met, target audiences to understand, approaches to consider, and problems to solve; ideology becomes the least of the designer’s worries. This repression leads to the sublimation of the ideology into the aesthetic dimension. This ideology is able to be recovered by means of its trace, or by deconstructing the absence of ideology in an aesthetic with regard to the signifiers that are present in it and its context. By deconstructing an image of a dominant cultural aesthetic, we are able to discern what the dominant ideology of a society is in relation to its material base. Take this image as an example:

Screenshot of slack.com

The above image is a page from the marketing website for Slack, a collaboration hub and chat platform with the goal of making work “simpler, more pleasant, and more productive.” At first glance, this is quite a pleasant image and appears to be a-political in its orientation. But when we consider the image in relation to its surrounding context, we find something interesting: that the aesthetics of the image have an ideological undercurrent. This undercurrent is a goal of making work appear and feel more enjoyable and productive so that employees can produce more, in less time, and with less complaints. As we can see, this image is now caught up in the dominant ideology of the material base in the current capitalist system: that of the increasing value of immaterial labor and the profane acceleration of the economy that immaterial labor produces. Additionally, we see that this ideological aesthetic is used to placate workers and relegate them to normative social roles within the base.7 This is what I would call a repressive aesthetic: one that follows the status quo of popular aesthetics, making it inherently conservative and in direct alignment with the directionality of the political economy.

Through this inquiry we arrive at the crux of the matter: the work of art, the aesthetic form, is perhaps the truest indicator of the sentiment of the material base in relation to the superstructure. Aesthetic developments are driven by the material base: every new development in material, every new approach to existing material and production, renders a turning over of the formal dialectic. The function of aesthetics is generally either regressive, emancipatory, or repressive with respect to the material base and its milieu. Consider, for example, William Morris and the arts and crafts movement. This movement, its ideology and aesthetics, were a direct response to the revolution in capitalistic modes of production around the turn of the twentieth century. They sought a return to hand-crafted, small-batch, artisanal craftsmanship of goods. The movement’s aesthetics were in a sense both emancipatory and regressive; they invoked Marxist theories of labor and production, but also signaled a wish to break with the normative aesthetics constructed by capitalistic production. Since aesthetics are driven by the material base, they represent at once the synthesis of the ideological milieu and the possibility of social transformation of the material base itself, as we see form reach the limit of its expression in the world.

Unmasking Aesthetics

Vilém Flusser believed images to be unclear and inaccessible to the viewer or subject, and unable to be read by humans in their linearization.8 The crucial problem of the relationship between ideology and images is that images obscure the processes that went into their creation, as well as the processes that unfold within them. Images are not entities; they are processes that are continually unfolding and being coded and decoded through interaction with the viewer and their subjective view of the image’s signification. By using a deconstructive operation similar to Derrida’s, we are able to unmask the image and reveal what is behind it. Baudrillard once wrote, “It is dangerous to unmask images because they dissimulate the fact that there is nothing behind them.” I disagree; it is dangerous to unmask images because what is behind them is a grim reflection of the dominant ideas of a culture, and therefore of a culture’s material base, which in part dictates the progression of those ideas.

Currently, and for much of history, the social consideration of beauty has relied on binary logic to describe phenomena of an entirely different nature. Aesthetics have been considered in terms of good and bad, beautiful and ugly, right and wrong, positive and negative. This means that we have heretofore viewed aesthetics and designed forms as static and binary entities rather than dynamic and vital processes. Consequently, our understanding of aesthetics is merely a tracing of aesthetics and forms, not a true and deep mapping of their inner workings. Aesthetics, rather than binary oppositions between subjective valuations, are rhizomatic processes, crystallizations of numerous quanta both internal and external to the aesthetic, of which ideology is one. Aesthetics are a discipline in the Foucauldian sense: a wide field in which power relations in society are formed and displayed through language (in this case, visual language and semiotics) and various practices (like design, writing, editing, consuming, and looking). If aesthetics form or embody power relations, it is necessary and proper to analyze this field and deconstruct it through some sort of discourse analysis. This analysis is not just an analysis of aesthetics as such but of the political, economic, linguistic, semiotic, social, and other stratificatory and contextual modes in which humans create and consume aesthetic forms.

Another way to put this is that, in order to unmask aesthetics, we require a deconstruction of aesthetic signs. If we view aesthetic forms and frameworks in terms of their constitutive significations instead of as things-in-themselves, as pure qualities of forms, we open up new ways of seeing the world we live in; we see that everything is only a sign of underlying mechanics, conditions, and interplaying forces. From a singular perspective, the perspective of the aesthetic flaneur, these forces stabilize, giving the appearance of unity; but this objective-seeming unity is actually perspectival subjectivity. As Marx wrote in Capital, “In the same way the light from an object is perceived by us not as the subjective excitation of our optic nerve, but as the objective form of something outside the eye itself.” Society typically views aesthetic forms in their totality, ignoring the parts that constitute them; this leads us to miss critical parts of an aesthetic’s signification, including the ideology signified by an aesthetic’s political position. The solution is to view every image, every artifact, every form, as a process rather than what it appears to be; to view everything as a set of forces rather than a whole constituted by discrete parts; to unpack these forces until we arrive at a conclusion about the responsibility and authenticity of the form. This has historically been the job of art and design critics, but now should become the job of the designer and the active/critical viewer.

Conclusion (To Be Continued…)

As we have now seen, aesthetics are inexorably bound up within a matrix of ideology and the everyday viewing of images. In a world absolutely inundated with images, aesthetics and those that produce them carry tremendous responsibility. Aesthetics are dangerous precisely because they are a mask for ideology — images are dishonest, they do not tell the full story. To read between the lines by deconstructing images is the only way to dismantle the power relations, social roles, socioeconomic relations, and cultural significations instantiated and signified by those images. If the political potential of art lies in its aesthetic dimension, it is the responsibility of designers, critics, and theorists to deconstruct aesthetic frameworks to reveal the ideology behind them, making the world more transparent. By deconstructing aesthetics, we gain the ability to reveal a great deal of qualitative data about a society’s dominant material relations and ideological sentiments.

While the present essay has not provided an all-encompassing phenomenological critique of aesthetics and their relation to ideology, it has opened the door to a new form of critique: that of dissecting dominant cultural aesthetic trends at the macro level in order to learn about the material base. That an analysis of the superstructure’s aesthetics can give us the pulse of the base is truly remarkable. The superstructure itself is a material manifestation of, or a conduit for, the base’s ideology. Walter Benjamin wrote that images are dialectics at a standstill; through deconstruction, we are able to put those dialectics back in motion.9


  1. Alternatively: There is no outside-image. This is intended to communicate the contingency of the world in relation to images; there is no escaping the grasp of images, and every day we spend our attention on images. Images wield a tremendous amount of power in society today, and constitute a new social reality and a new social regime. For more, see my essay “Into the World of Images: Passages On the Technics and Dialectics of the Image.” (Coming soon). 

  2. bell hooks, \“The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectator” in The Feminism and Visual Cultural Reader (New York: Routledge, 2003), 94–105. 

  3. Henri Arvon, Marxist Esthetics, trans. Helen R. Lane (Ithica: Cornell University Press, 1970), xii. 

  4. Notes on the Synthesis of Form, 15. 

  5. Ibid. 

  6. Cf. Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2003), 462; N2A, 3. 

  7. For more on this, see my essay “The Aesthetics of Soft Automation”

  8. Cf. Vilém Flusser, Into the Universe of Technical Images, trans. Nancy Ann Roth (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011), 15. 

  9. Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2003), 462; N2A, 3.