(Notes Towards) Speculative Design—Benedict Singleton

On craft, being crafty, approaching and making design as traps, and mêtis.

The link that Plato asserts is that traps of all kinds embody an ‘inauthentic’ attitude to the world: an ignoble, even downright sneaky, evasion of the ‘proper’ effort. (...) any form of hunting ‘in which the strength of beasts is subdued by nets and snares, and not by the victory of a laborious spirit’ is culturally toxic.

The chase is an appropriate way to conduct oneself, a sacred pursuit in which formidable skill is coupled with great effort against a worthy opponent. While such trials of strength and fleetness are improving to the soul, traps are ‘lazy contrivances’ that permit the wily hunter to procure undeserved success.

The making of traps ‘foster[s] the qualities of cunning and duplicity which are diametrically opposed to the virtues that the city of the Laws demanded from its citizens’ (Detienne & Vernant, 1991: 33).

Plato’s writing, needless to say, casts a long shadow, but he is representing here a more general Greek tendency to intellectually disparage practices of making on the grounds that it fostered a tricky kind of thought. Suspicions about the use of technology to contrive results without ‘proper’, ‘fair’, ‘authentic’ or ‘natural’ effort were felt widely and deeply.

poesis → making; techne → art or skill.

But there was also a third term, one that precisely describes the kind of unpleasantness which Plato wanted to oust from the world: métis. (...) It denotes a form of cunning, wily intelligence, which animates acts that are not exactly ‘skilled’ (contra techne), because they are often improvised; nor are they ‘productive’, in the conventional sense of ‘making an object’ (contra poesis)—the operation of mêtis does not necessarily leave a material trace, at least not in the rather obvious form of, say, a table or a building. It compounds ‘skill, ingeniousness [and] prudence’ with ‘trickery’ and ‘wiliness’ (Vernant, 2006: 12).

Métis, in the words of Detienne & Vernant is:

a type of intelligence and of thought, a way of knowing; it implies a complex but very coherent body of mental attitudes and intellectual behaviour which combine flair, wisdom, forethought, subtlety of mind, deception, resourcefulness, vigilance, opportunism, various skills, and experience over the years. It is applied to situations which are transient, shifting, disconcerting and ambiguous, situations which do not lend themselves to precise measurement, exact calculation or rigorous logic.

[métis] must be regarded less as a ‘concept’ to be deployed than as a ‘spirit of approach’.

Jean-Pierre Vernant describes artefacts as ‘traps set at points where nature allowed itself to be overcome’.

Mêtis invites this sense of (often distrustful) wonder. The most intense displays of mêtis appear, at the first glance of the uninitiated, to be resolutely magical.

All productive activities are measured against the magic-standard, the possibility that the same product might be produced effortlessly, and the relative efficacy of techniques is a function of the extent to which they converge towards the magic-standard of zero work for the same product. Magic is the baseline against which the concept of work as a cost takes shape... Magic haunts technical activity like a shadow; or, rather, magic is the negative contour of work... [M]agic is the ideal means of technical production.
Gell, 1999: 179-180

Mêtis, on the other hand, implies the exception to the rule, rather than the expected result of applying it (Bok, 2001); it’s what distinguishes ‘the ‘true’ potter and the man who merely works at making pots’ (Helms, 1993: 14-15). It is precisely not ‘technical, routine, impersonal, and oriented toward the continuous production, in series, of goods’ but ‘unique, strange and potent’.

In animal traps, Alfred Gell writes, ‘we are able to see that each is not only a model of its creator, a subsidiary self in the form of an automaton, but each is also a model of its victim’ (...) traps also ‘subtly and abstractly represent parameters of the animal’s natural behaviour, which are subverted in order to entrap it’.

for Gell, there is a certain disturbing poetry to this: ‘The fact that animals who fall victim to traps have always brought about their downfall by their own actions, their own complacent self-confidence, ensures that trapping is a far more poetic and tragic form of hunting than the simple chase. The latter kind of hunting equalises hunters and victims, united in spontaneous action and reaction, whereas trapping decisively hierarchises hunter and victim’.

Hyde calls the trickster, therefore, a technician of appetite and instinct.

Its logic is that of outsmarting, evading capture, prostheticising itself with what’s at hand, and then moving on. Subversively exploiting ‘sweet spots’ in the environment, mêtis is directly contrasted to a vision of the intellect that aspires to be ‘pure, ordering, embodying the solar world of clarity and light’; instead, it ‘insists that there are always cracks and gaps in such perfect architectures; intelligence moves forward by keeping on its crafty toes, ever opening into a world that is messy, unpredictable and far from equilibrium... [a] fecund space of possibility and innovation...’ (...) The world of mêtis is a world understood to be a ‘fund of opportunity’, as Detienne and Vernant put it, which is also ‘a world of snares’. Or, perhaps more accurately, the mêtic world is one that funds opportunity because it is full of snares: ‘a system of complicity, a whole fierce and subtle mechanism’ (Genet, 2006: 38).