Ethical Becoming, Ethical Fetishism, and Capitalist Modernity: An Ethnography of Design Education

Doctoral Thesis


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This thesis comprises an ethnography of design education on which a proposed intervention into the theory and praxis of ethics education is created. It is based on an investigation – conducted in conversation with undergraduate interior design/architectural technology students – into the hegemonic structures of higher education and the singularities that may have the potential to transform them. The ethnographic work involved interrogating students' design processes and ethical sense-making across three semesters of a community-engaged course at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. The course was designed to mirror the operations of an architectural firm, and community partners acted as “clients.” As students designed floor plans, they were affected by multiple actants and forces. The design actants and affective forces constituting student designs are identified to reveal the relations of design. These relations were often concealed and devalued through the hegemonic design logic of capitalist modernity that manifested in ideas such as the “American Dream” and discourses of professionalism which were reproduced through the ideological state apparatus that is the university. While students often made meaning of their experience of design relations through such a hegemonic design logic, such meaning making was not absolute and alternative meanings arose, expressing ethico-aesthetic modes of valuation. When students' meaning making was captured by capital, influential relations were concealed and devalued, creating hauntings within designs. Notions of commodity fetishism and dead labor are utilized to further theorize the concept of ethical fetishism and, in doing so, to imagine new ways both to reveal design's ghostly relations and then to value them for the creative role each plays in constituting the present. By seeking to understand how extensively student design processes are or are not captured by an otherwise totalizing system of capitalism and the beliefs, assumptions, and values of modernity, the thesis identifies moments of slippage where singularities flee the articulating forces of capitalist modernity and the discourses and ideologies born from it. The thesis ends with suggestions towards a new potentiality for ethics education (i.e., ethical becoming) that recognizes and cherishes relationality whilst challenging the beliefs and values of capitalist modernity designing us every day.