Thomas Lee is a Senior Lecturer in Design Studies at the Faculty of Design, Architecture and Building, University of Technology Sydney. He is a visiting fellow at CRASSH, 2019 – 2020.

Q. Tom, you recently joined CRASSH as a Visiting Fellow. Could you tell us a little bit about what you are working on during your fellowship?

I’m working on how to better communicate the world of mind and technique associated with the discipline of design, particularly as it is practised and imagined in the context of scholarly communities or communities of learning more broadly.

My story, as an academic, involves the coming together of two different trajectories: one trajectory sees me coming through an undergraduate and postgraduate education involved primarily in the study of texts typically categorised as literature, philosophy, theory and to some extent history. I wrote my PhD thesis on the prose fiction of W. G. Sebald. Though already, in this seemingly literary preoccupation, were the seeds of my so-called other trajectory: that of an academic teaching and researching in a school of design. Sebald’s books combine image and text in distinctive ways, that element of his works connected me with some visual communications academics. I also used ‘thing theory’ quite liberally in my approach to reading Sebald, which made some of what I was thinking and writing about relevant to some of the things product design academics do.

I’ve taught in the design school at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) for more than seven years now, and mainly publish work in design theory or design studies, but this work is oriented very much towards the doing of writing about design, rather than the doing of design per se. As a result, I’m concerned with 1) the way different forms and practices of writing impact how design is imagined within a scholarly community of designers and 2) how design is understood to relate to more broadly to what the German philosopher Peter Sloterdjik calls ‘anthropotechnics’, in other words, the technological dimension of humanity.

UTS, Design School, product design researchers at work on a project

Q. What drew you to your research initially and what parts do you find particularly interesting?

In terms of my present research interest, I’ve ended up where I am on account of a calculated decision to give coherent form to what until recently might have seemed like a relatively ad hoc intellectual trajectory. I should add, in relation to the above, that I also write narrative fiction and enjoy writing about things that happen to me, something for which there isn’t much room, apparently, when submitting academic papers to journals of the kind where I habitually send my thoughts about what I read. I think all my research is in a sense an effort to make knowledge happen to me, and then find appropriate ways to make this more broadly relevant—an activity that continues the happening of knowledge, in a way, but which isn’t as easy to write about. I particularly enjoy writing about things that exist right on the border between knowledge that is generalisable to some degree, or that affords generalisation, and things that happen to me, among which the happening of knowledge might be one. Put crudely: I’m trying to invent a new way of writing about design so I can include more of things that I enjoy writing about. I use ‘fiction’ as a proxy for this writing, which seems to excuse certain aesthetic decisions in terms of the way the text is constructed. Put more ambitiously, I’m inventing a new genre of fiction, changing the way design conceives of itself in the process and offering a valuable account of more obscure though no less important aspects of human doing, feeling and thinking.

Q. Who are your favourite literary writers, and have they impacted your research in any way?

I’ve always liked swapping between different writers to experience their stylistic differences. For example, I love Ian Hacking’s use of the short sentence, and his writing communicates this distinctively curt, dour, witty personality, that makes reading his often very analytically rich content a pleasure. I find it very challenging to read things that aren’t witty, which undoubtedly limits the scope of my thinking. I find seriousness and sincerity quite difficult, particularly when it appears contrived, which prevents me listening to thinkers who might otherwise have excellent things to say. I also like reading the work of the current Director of CRASSH, Steven Connor, for his poetic acrobatics, for one, but also for his knack of hitting on unexpected but illuminating topics for research. In terms of writers whose works I find in the fiction section of bookstores, Rachel Cusk is a recent favourite, and I’m playing around with how a certain adaptation of her approach might be usefully applied in the context of writing about how design is practiced and imagined in a university context.

Q. You are currently working on a book, could you tell us about it?

I’ve recently completed a manuscript for MIT Press that combines short essays, narrative fiction and reflective writing. There are five chapters in the book, each of which explores an emerging technology or a technology as emerging: VR, autonomous vehicles, ubiquitous computing, 3D printing and computer vision. In the fictional sections, I’m writing about technologies as continually morphing projects, rather than stable objects, which is the common approach in science fiction, the genre which typically has the most to say about technology. The two unique things about the book are: 1) that it includes these different forms of writing together in the one book by the one author, and weaves them together in a very particular way (I’m interested in how the difference between the forms of writing allows for movement between and across, rather than the specialness of each particular mode in itself); 2) that the book focuses on design projects as interest generating agents across the different forms of writing. In this sense, I’m hoping the book might provoke some new thinking about how to communicate design practice and offer some broader insight into how humans relate to things before they become settled objects.

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