Textual Agency: pitfalls & potentials

"Textual Agency: pitfalls & potentials"
chapter in Design and Agency: Critical Perspectives on Identities, Histories, and Practices (Bloomsbury: 2020) edited by John Potvin and Marie-Ève Marchand.

A few years ago, I had the following brief conversation with a postgraduate student:

JH: How is your thesis progressing?

Student: I’m finished.

JH: Congratulations!

Student: I just need to add the theory bit.

I have recounted this story with a wry smile to many academic colleagues in the years since it took place, often in conversations about the fraught relationship of theory to practice within the academic models I can claim as familiar. The student I quote did not intend to be humorous, nor do I think they were particularly interested in testing my patience. In fact, I have begun to reflect on their honesty and have come to the conclusion that I am something of the fraud...

Despite the claims of most recruitment literature, education across the arts, design and craft disciplines remains surprisingly loyal to educational conventions. As PhD programmes built around the values of artistic research or practice-based inquiries grow, doctoral level education needs to continue to negotiate the terms on which it wishes to be judged. This may perhaps be most acute within the field of craft discourse, which has emerged only relatively recently as a discipline recognised within doctoral education and even now a small and dispersed academic community.

Craft often manages to find itself uncomfortable in all company. For some function continues to hold importance; concept enjoys primary recognition in other camps; design and art are treated as either friend or foe depending on your vantage point; history can be seen as a starting point or a dead end. While the lack of consensus confirms that those drawn to the crafts are unlikely to toe the line, some common agreement will be useful if we are to shape doctoral education in crafts that is distinct in ways that are useful to the international craft community.

Thinking, perhaps most acutely in studio-based studies, often follows patterns of development that are not linear. If craft education teaches (consciously or not) that writing and text continue to hold greater sway than the knowledge learnt through material discovery, intuition and non-linear routes, we undermine many of the projects that we also claim to be interested in fostering. But if we express frustration at academic models which do not capture the values of the craft disciplines, we must also be ready to account for what should be built instead.

Craft as an emerging scholarly field shares much in common with previous decades’ development of postcolonial thinking within literary studies. Instead of acting out the poor relation of fine art or design education, craft must build discourse that captures the lived concerns of the discipline without reliance on existing but ill-fitting models. Crucially, if craft scholarship is to avoid alienating the constituents at its very core it must be pertinent rather than peripheral to the practitioner.

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  • Image credit

    courtesy of Leonor Antunes from the performance commissioned by If I Can't Dance I Don't Want to be Part of Your Revolution at Aldo van Eyck's Hubertushuis, Amsterdam 2016.