Doing the Work of Agonism

The foundation of agonism is a commitment to contestation and dissensus as integral, productive, and meaningful aspects of democratic society. To claim that adversarial design does the work of agonism means that designed objects can function to prompt recognition of political issues and relations, express dissensus, and enable contestational claims and arguments. In the case of Million Dollar Blocks, the maps document patterns of incarceration and urban development and serve as objects that raise questions and proffer implicit judgments about the allocation of capital and social resources within cities. By revealing the conditions of political issues and relations, adversarial design can identify new terms and themes for contestation and new trajectories for action.

For example, beyond the literal naming of a condition (as million- dollar blocks), the Million Dollar Blocks project reveals previously obscured configurations in the cycle of crime and incarceration, making them available for debate, further investigation, and as leverage positions in future actions. In subtle ways, the designed artifacts and activities of the project challenge the common understanding and use of crime statistics and practices of mapping, and they raise questions concerning the facts, understandings, and implications that are often left out of analyses and representations. This, in turn, provides an opportunity for productive dissensus concerning the relationships between crime, the built environment, and policy and the political effects of maps as artifacts and mapping as a process. Kurgan (2008) herself seems well aware of this, when she states,

With this map, we stop talking about where to deploy police resources or how to track individual prisoners for institutional purposes; instead we begin to assess the impact of justice on a city, even a city block, and start to evaluate some of the implicit decisions and choices we have been making about our civic institutions.

The purpose of design in Million Dollar Blocks (and of adversarial design more generally) is not to achieve a readily identifiable form or instance of change but instead to prompt debate and serve as a kind of material evidence in political discourse. Whereas design for politics strives to provide solutions to given problems within given contexts, political design strives to discover and express the elements that are constitutive of social conditions. For example, whereas the DfD Ballot and Election Design program works to resolve problems in the process of voting, the Million Dollar Blocks reveals and documents correlations between imprisonment and qualities of the urban environment.

Although not an exhaustive review of contemporary design projects, this comparison of the AIGA DfD initiative and Million Dollar Blocks outlines distinctions between design for politics and political design and makes a case for them as different endeavors. In doing so, it also provides insights into what it means to do the work of agonism. With this bit of background into agonism, it is worth returning to design to contextualize adversarial design within fields of contemporary practices.

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