In March 2013 I had the pleasure of participating in the 4C’s conference with Raúl Sánchez and Laurie Gries. Both Raúl and Laurie did an excellent job in framing, positioning, and posing questions about D4D and our role in writing culture.
This panel will examine practices and theories of writing/design in the context of indigenous communities that are trying to compose and assert their contemporary collective identities as they venture into global marketplaces of capital and culture. The panelists treat “writing” and “design” as synonyms, terms that refer to symbolic interaction and communication generally.
Maria Rogal will discuss her experiences working as a graphic designer with Mayan farmers and artisans in rural Mexico. She will discuss her ongoing project, Design for Development (D4D), which helps marginalized people communicate their own ideas and cultures as they make, market, and sell their own products. She will describe how she and her students enter into full partnership with these farmers and artisans, resulting in a creative, communicative, and entrepreneurial process. She will address a fundamental concept of D4D, working-in-context, whereby designers go “into the field” at the earliest stages of project discovery and problem identification in order to understand their partners’ needs, goals, means, and potentials in their fullest possible complexity. Finally, she will highlight the thorough interdisciplinarity that informs D4D as it draws on theories and methods of cultural anthropology, postcoloniality, intercultural communication, and semiotics. A major and constant concern is to avoid objectifying and stereotyping. Toward this end, ethnography offers a plausible way to conduct first-hand research of practices of everyday life. At its best, it is multivocal, including voices of both researchers and members of communities. It informs designers and generates content. Working ethnographically, one is required to observe, interact, and document without making premature judgments in a complex environment.
Raúl Sánchez will explain how D4D and other such projects can be seen as incubators for identity events that are, in effect, collective acts of writing. Of course, as Paul Prior notes in “Tracing Process: How Texts Come Into Being,” despite the great care one might take in analyzing and describing the various factors that inform an act of writing, there is “no way to get the whole story of any text.” The best one might hope for is a rich store of methods with which to examine “the intersection of the cognitive and the social in activity that is distributed across individual acts, collaborative interactions, and many socially and historically developed tools.” These methods arise from correspondingly rich theoretical orientations that can account not only for people’s empirical situations within complex networks but also for the complexity of the writing/designing act itself. Situating D4D conceptually within contemporary discourses of coloniality, neocoloniality, and postcoloniality, Speaker 2 will examine the various and overdetermined contexts—political, economic, and cultural—in which such projects presently and necessarily function, as well as the constraints against which Yucatecan Mayans and other indigenous groups presently and necessarily struggle as they assert, preserve, and transform their identities while participating in the circuits of global capital that simultaneously threaten and empower them. He will argue that, in the long run, D4D’s identity events—these inscriptions on the empirical surface of commodities cum significations on the semiotic surface of culture—might create new, more hospitable, less overdetermined contexts in which indigenous people can live their lives.
Laurie Gries will respond to the first two speakers.