The Indirect Acts of History

May 26, 2021   •   By Michael Osman

Medium Design: Knowing How to Work on the World

Keller Easterling

IN THE SPRING of 2020, there was a moment of emotional exhaustion (one of many), in which something like hope seemed improbable, maybe even naïve. During the dizzying horror of the Trump reelection campaign and throughout the first wave of COVID-19 deaths, I imagine that the author and professor at the Yale School of Architecture, Keller Easterling, was making final adjustments to her new book, Medium Design (Verso Press, 2021). At that exasperated moment, political activism felt nonetheless urgent, with momentum behind new waves of civil rights protests and in light of the frightening forms of discourse associated with the political right. With an enviable sense of purpose and poise at that disorienting time, Easterling set out to address how we might intervene in the affairs taking place on a heating planet without declaring war, without building up any one enemy, without, even, political dispositions we associate with radicality. Her book is a strong statement of belief, even optimism, in the resources of what she calls the spatial medium, or environment; hence, the title: “medium design.”

“Knowing How to Work on the World” is the book’s subtitle; “knowing how” is a reference to Gilbert Ryle’s distinction of this form of knowledge from “knowing that,” which, he argued, belonged to scientific method or philosophical concepts. Ryle’s coinage comes from his 1949 book The Concept of Mind, and building on its legacy, Easterling has written a sort of guide for enactments of practical knowledge as they pertain to the world today. Medium Design is especially fulfilling for readers of her earlier work, as this short text develops and refines language drawn from Extrastatecraft (Verso, 2014), Enduring Innocence (MIT, 2005), and Organization Space (MIT, 1999), to provide a direct sense of how ideas regarding “interplay,” “medium,” “entanglement,” “disposition,” and “affordance,” which Easterling employed in those earlier texts, have operated in some recent history and might be applied to produce new forms of political engagement.

The sources for these terms are heterogeneous. For example, “disposition” borrows from a note in François Jullien’s The Propensity of Things (Zone, 1995) that a ball possesses a disposition when it is placed at the top of an inclined plane. The concept thus offers a view of immanent relations and potentials that reflect on dynamics inherent in seemingly stagnant settings, a useful view for those concerned with the increasing instabilities anticipated by climate science. Beyond describing such interpretative tools, however, the book also calls upon J. J. Gibson’s notion of “affordance” to pivot toward a perception of objects based on “what [we] can do with them.” This concept helps reinforce Easterling’s interest in activating “knowing how” for the sake of political action within the spatial medium, which she takes to be a sphere of intervention as well as invention.

In other words, the notion of politics described in the book is not the usual theater of representational government. Importantly, Easterling’s central thesis depends heavily on the argument that design is not an alternative to political action through government; rather, design allows interpretive freedoms and techniques of operation that simply do not conform to the means and methods used by elected officials. In order to understand politics as a form of design within a spatial medium, the book offers a terminological habit of mind for focusing on actions and their relations within the physical environment. Easterling describes this domain as made up of “lumpy” bits, a phrase that brings her readers’ attention to both the various sizes of things as well as the variability of their embedded information.

To work on the world in the way, the book proposes, we must first admit that humans are always immanent within the design and redesign of this lumpy spatial medium. Even more, there is nothing natural in this environment — meaning there is no “original” state of homeostasis that precedes human intervention. Instead, active nested networks of humans and nonhumans are constantly operating nearly everywhere along the surface of the earth. To act on these networks for an intended purpose is, by the book’s definition, a form of “activism.” Extending Ryle’s concept of practical knowledge into political action leaves Easterling pointing to tools for reconfiguring contemporary spaces and their protocols, particularly through urban infrastructure: land trusts and land readjustment, automated vehicles and suburban train stations, climate risk and debt assets. The designer is a unique agent within such a vast array of actors in that they find opportunities to work in the spatial medium, anticipating and organizing an act’s impact within this networked infrastructure.

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The organization of Medium Design reflects the overlaps found in the urban terrain it describes. It develops in five parts with five interludes, but the whole reads continuously. The interludes are short and pull lessons from literature and film — Richard III, Jane Eyre, Spartacus, and others — while the chapters are longer and give extended analyses of events drawn from history. The informal style allows for mixing scholarly research with cultural commentary. For example, in the fourth chapter Easterling cites the concept of “industrial wilderness,” pulling from the mid-20th-century conservationist Benton MacKaye to address the potentiality of industrial society’s forgotten edges. Such a sideward glance toward the hinterland then quickly refocuses on the effects of climate change as they increasingly intertwine the industrial center with its periphery. The clearest exposition of the book’s thesis is found in the first chapter, which is the most heavily embedded with textual references to define the book’s key terms. The four that follow connect those references to immediate problems in urbanism, transportation, property, and migration, as those topics inflect to changes wrought by the planet’s warming. Based on this diverse array, one can imagine future chapters too: as we near the end of a global pandemic, for example, how might zoonosis figure in new forms of urban activism?

The core tension in Medium Design is thus established between Easterling’s optimistic view of new opportunities for potential activism against the overwhelming influence of “binaries” and “closed loops” that currently structure urban policy in the United States, corporate strategy around the globe, and academic discourse. The difficulty of a binary is its axiomatic framing of the world in various forms of opposition: between two well-worn ideological positions, i.e., left and right, but also the binary assumption of declaring a position right or wrong or deciding on an experiment’s success or failure. With problems so deeply intertwined within a spatial medium, she argues, there can be no such simple answers or silver bullet solutions. Moreover, closed loops reinforce stagnant oppositions by building and reinforcing narrative structures that exclude the relational thinking that Easterling seeks to develop in the book.

This is the role she imagines for “interplay,” where two or more problems are strung together to build unexpected resonance through overlap. What was once built up as an inescapable opposition, a deadlocked binary, interplay allows alternate roles. Or, if played differently, such apparent antagonists can reinforce a common agenda. One can only imagine how an operation of such complexity requires acrobatic acts of intervention; however, using the language of electrical circuitry to refer to the existing spatial medium — “rewiring” is the book’s preferred metaphor — helps reveal how unsuspecting allies can be found and potentially joined toward a greater purpose. For example, in an effort to adapt cities to climate change and include more constituencies than the current entrenched systems of bankers and developers, urban residents might act with a strategy of “rewiring” to pool risk and use existing finance structures to develop their own forms of assets (and agency). She poses the following hypothetical questions:

What if mortgages were rated not by financial abstractions, but rather by their heavy, situated environmental values, like proximity to transit or climate risks related to flooding or wildfires? And what if these mortgages could be considered and scored in pairs or groups that encourage, even accelerate, the contraction of development away from environmental risk?


Such proposals require a particular turn of mind, which is apparently rather widely shared, as some examples in the book are more than hypothetical and already underway. What makes Easterling’s questions particularly fresh is how open they feel against the tired fallbacks found in econometric analysis, or other reductive formulae that rely on “elementary particles” such as rational choice to reach goals, which, stated or not, seek nothing more than capital accumulation.

By contrast to the binary dispositions described above and their corresponding closed loops, Easterling espouses an engagement with “temperament.” This is the word she uses to describe an indeterminate field of action often navigated in families, where parents defuse tense situations with certain forms of embodied know-how: food, for example, is often used as a palliative ritual in generational stand-offs. Temperament, in traditional parlance, is also associated with the theory of the four humors — a pre-modern philosophy that held that personality types were linked to the blood (sanguine), yellow bile (choleric), black bile (melancholic), and phlegm (phlegmatic). This theory proposed that the proportions among these humors should be recalibrated during sickness, where food might also serve as a direct infusion of a missing humor into one’s temperament to return to equilibrium and therefore to better health.

While Medium Design does not employ humorism to explain the concept of temperament, as I have, it helps to think of the book’s proposed entanglements as anachronistic because of the way they wed a certain archaic thinking to post-cybernetic protocols. Better yet, this approach might be called “non-modern,” drawing on Bruno Latour’s formulation, a concept used often in the book. That is, Easterling’s approach to today’s complex urban dilemmas do not leave the future to be determined by “matters of fact” — with its associated categories of obstinate undeniability — but by “matters of concern,” which pull on the heartstrings of experience and invest in the possibilities offered by a “hunch.”

This development in Latour’s discourse was his attempt to defend scientific knowledge against those who cast aside theories of climate change because of their empirical uncertainty. Precisely by maintaining a binary between the discourse of truth and that of experiment, but also between concern and fact, Latour resisted closing narrative loops that opportunistically used uncertainty to dismiss theories of immanent crisis. Binaries, in other words, do not necessarily produce closed loops; they might, in their interplay, very well open them up.

In his effort to demonstrate that “we have never been modern,” Latour turned to the historiography of early modern science, where we learn of 17th-century scientists who argued for the value of observation against metaphysical claims to truth, not as truth. Focusing on the air pump built for Robert Boyle (1627–1691), a natural philosopher and pioneer of modern scientific method, Latour extended Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer’s argument that Boyle carefully used language to produce a working philosophy that, because of its explicit embrace of failure, offered framework of knowledge that made no claim on total certainty. If moderns were said to have separated the tensions of deliberation (truth) from the objectivity of science (fact), Latour shows how those categorical differences — binaries — tend to collapse.

More recent historians have found other instances of early modern know-how that shed light on the analogy I am drawing between Easterling’s notion of medium design and the formation of scientific epistemology. For example, Matthew Hunter has unraveled the drawings of Robert Hooke (1635–1703) to reveal a more piecemeal technique of knowledge production, approaching the craft of cooking, rather than the stable notions assumed in the Enlightenment’s valorization of knowing-that. Despite Easterling’s focus on the recent past, there are clear affinities in the book’s thesis with scholars who position knowing-how as an alternative to rendering the early modern period with “appropriately clear” Enlightenment categories such as precision, abstraction, and purity.

Another effort in this vein is The Novel and the Sea (2012), in which Margaret Cohen reads the history of the novel through the medium of water, a space of navigation, cunning, and adventure. On the sea, the novel is dislodged from its usual political situation in a nation — the American novel, or the French novel — which develop into all-too-predictable genealogies. Instead, centering attention on a medium such as the sea makes isolating one national tradition from another impossible. Much like Easterling’s examples, this technique draws on the interplay already present in the historical record. Among the most notable instances of this scholarly trend is Cornelia Vismann’s Files: Laws and Media Technology (2000), where the media structure of a Roman wax notebook, once compared to an early-20th-century binder and the file structure of a computer operating system reveals reciprocities and continuities in the technical substructure of knowledge. Following both Vismann’s and Easterling’s emphasis on the relationships revealed by the dispositions of things within a medium, it appears that scholarship itself is increasingly influenced by the interplay of searchable infrastructures of metadata surrounding original sources.

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Perhaps the ubiquity of such databases has already begun to produce the kinds of entanglements and affordances to scholarship that Easterling invests in the concept of medium design. Rather than stabilizing the role of an author, their signature, and the reciprocity of a creation to its creator, Easterling’s notion of medium design focuses on collaborations and relays. Indeed, the reason her readers return to her work is to remember that we already “know how to be unreasonable.” To embrace the agency of un-reason, political activism turns to acts of design. When the philosopher G. W. F. Hegel wrote about his concept of world history, he argued that the “quest for mastery” ultimately (and inevitably) introduces its undoing: the cunning of reason. Individuals who clearly state their ambitions are, by this logic, over-exposed by their militance; the elements that escape their attention will eventually win the day. Easterling’s work turns reason’s cunning — and therefore the indirect acts of history — into a vibrant political theater for our age.

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Michael Osman is associate professor in the Department of Architecture and Urban Design at UCLA where he directs the MA and PhD programs.