{Literature Review #1} Stoekl


Stoekl Gift, Design and Gleaning (available here)

In this article, Stoekl examines the human relationship with its products.The disposable nature of our current capitalist driven consumption and disposal, as a one-way current that separates us from other animals, and somehow delimits our species as more developed. He contrasts this with some alternatives, found in other forms of structured societal consumption (ants), under-represented but still present cultural philosophies (gift-giving), and evolving modes of waste repurposing and recirculation of artifacts (gleaning) which have evolved in spite of or rather in tandem with, our departure from traditional attribution of value, and careful use of our products and waste.

Focussing on the notion of re-cycling versus up-cycling, Stoekl traces some observations, arguments and points made by architects, chemists, anthropologists and philosophers, on the modes of production currently employed by society at large.

Beginning with McDonough and Braungarts’* comparative parallel between leafcutting ants and human consumption patterns, and their suggestion that this could define a model for a new way of consumption for humankind, he discusses the repercussions of this model. This model, he concludes, would entail the reframing of the way we humans think of consumption and waste, our relationship to our use and disposal of our products, and in essence our conception of our selves and our existence.

Where the ant has no emotional attachment or visceral reaction to the materials it produces, consumes and up-cycles, humans have a very complex system of values and meanings attached to equivalent items in our societies. He highlights the existential crisis that results from a reading of all our attachments and culturally imbued reactions as ephemeral and only valuable on the level of their chemical makeup and no more.

He repositions this debate in the context of gift-giving, in the sphere of Lewis Hyde, Marcel Mauss and Georges Bataille, and shows how the intrinsic ‘value’ of something that is made to be continuously circulated lies in the notion of its perishability as well as its continuity. It is the act of the movement of the gift that holds the value, not the gift itself. ‘So the gift has to circulate, and in circulating it passes through the entire community, bringing it together.’**

In doing so, Stoekl provides an effective critique of the Cradle to Cradle model of McDonough and Braungart, highlighting the too rationalist and sterile parts of their proposition and proposing an already culturally extant philosophy that can marry itself to this project, in a way that would, rather than overturning the inarguable (although deteriorating, in so far as the current disposable culture heralds a departure from traditional craft based attribution of meaning and value) human instinct to invest meaning and value in its products, would serve to guide a new approach in a more intuitive way, and thus, perhaps, a more sustainable one?

He then places this discussion in the context of the act of ‘gleaning’ or the collection of the remainder. Things like foraging waste bins or collecting food after the harvest constitute gleaning. Here, he highlights an observation made by Varda, that in the act of gleaning, there is the concurrent and inherent notion of continuity and gift-giving. The gleaning is a communally enjoyed activity, and brings communities together, in fact bringing the community into being. Thus, in the continuity and cyclical ‘immortality’ in this recycling and repurposing and sharing, we are creating a community, strengthening a shared set of cultural values, and so, as designers, we must consider, the products we make, are they ephemeral, or eternal? How do they, about their function, serve to create and maintain a society that is cohesive, and not individualistic. We should design for the degrade, I believe is his point, design with humility, design in a way that can be broken apart, and allow the ‘gift’ or ‘hau’ of Hyde’s narrative, continue, and regift itself. We need to embrace our part in an ecology, rather than trying to control it and distance ourselves from its cycles and patterns.

This article also calls into question the role of creativity in gift-giving, expanded upon by Hyde in his later work and specifically in the book ‘The Gift: How the creative spirit transforms the world’, review of this to follow also.

* McDonough, William, and Braungart, Michael Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things San Francisco: North Point Press, 2002.

** Stoekl, Allan Gift, Design and Gleaning Design Philosophy Papers, Issue 1 2009



…I’ll have something to say.