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I’m going to try do do something a little bit different with this post; I’m making a pass over the reading this morning before class, and then post a followup after I’ve had a chance to read other’s responses. – J

Attempting to take apart Folkmann’s excerpt on aesthetics is an exercise in patience, more than anything else. By the time I reached the end of the reading, it dawned on me that it is actually very well organized; the topic is just divided into so many sub-classifications, it can be difficult to hold the whole concept of the paper in one’s head at once. At the outset, Folkmann makes a concerted effort to identify aesthetics “as a relationship between subject and object rather than an essence that can be physically grasped, determined, and circumscribed,” (Folkmann, p27) which to me suggests that his appreciation of aesthetics is closely tied to perception of an artifact. However, he also elaborates that his discussion of aesthetics in design “will not go through the traditional discussions of art as a medium of aesthetic appreciation and communication,” which separates it from simply a curatorial critique of a collection of designs. (Folkmann, p28) By scoping his examination of aesthetics in this way, Folkmann is able to explore the space of aesthetics as it relates to experience.

Folkmann divides his overview of aesthetics in design into three key distinctions (or dimensions) of aesthetics;

…I claim that design is important by virtue of its sensual effects (the sensual-phenomenological platform), its ability to challenge our understanding (the conceptual-hermeneutical platform), and its capacity for creating and construing meaning on the level of society (the discursive-contextual platform). (Folkmann, p32)

The first of these, the sensual-phenomenological, is centered around form and appearance, and how our sensory perception of an artifact influences both ourselves and the objects that are observed. But Folkmann criticizes the dichotomy between subject and object, and instead embraces the idea of ambience. The key tenets of ambience involve the subject/object relationship, but as a coherent whole rather than distinctly separate entities, and also can be manipulated through aesthetics. (Folkmann, p36) Taken holistically, the sensual-phenomenological allow us the “means of structuring the appearance and the surface that signify ‘world’ in our perception and cognition.” (Folkman, p38)

The conceptual-hermeneutical platform is the construction of “meaning” in aesthetics. Meaning in this sense is comprehension; whether a design or design aesthetic makes it easier or more difficult to understand its intended purpose. With this follows the opportunity for aesthetic objects to provide us with new lenses for understanding the world in an artifact-mediated way, “as schemata for a new kind of perception and understanding that transcends everyday perception.” (Folkmann, p46) Folkmann goes on to demonstrate this idea through a series of examples of chairs, which although they contain a large amount of “meaning” in their physical forms, nevertheless retain some degree of utility and function inasmuch as they are objects to sit on.

The final category of aesthetics Folkmann identifies is the Contextual-Discursive (or Aestheticization) platform. This is the “ethical aesthetics” approach to design, which incorporates the means of “distribution [of] the sensual with an emphasis on the overall impact of aesthetic media” (Folkman, p57). To me, this is the part of aesthetics that deals with the “ecology” of design: where and how the design situates itself in the context of the world around it. It is also viewed here as a mediator, through its material and sensual impact, to guide a person towards its intended experience. I found it interesting that Folkmann chose to include the critical design movement within his discussion of aestheticization, as a form of disruption; this to me raises questions not only about sensual and materiality, but also about proposing new models of structuring experience. (Folkmann, p66)

Baxandall’s idea of “horizons” makes me think about Lucy Suchman’s situated action:

However, a significant part of Baxandall’s account is to do with what the previous chapter explained in terms of ‘horizons’, or ‘life-worlds’. It is about the ways in which the beliefs, hopes, fears and desires of fifteenth-century, affluent, middle-class Italians produced their interpretations of the paintings they saw. For Baxandall, it is also about the ways in which these beliefs, hopes and so on produced the paintings themselves.

This chapter has nothing to do with situated action. It talks about interpretation again. However, since Baxandall’s interpretation about paintings include the concept “horizon”, it looks like a specific example of situated action. How people interpret a particular painting is related with people’s beliefs, hope, fears and desires. Of course, these things vary among people and time, which definitely need situated action.

I went to Guggenheim Museum a few days ago in New York. It was really interesting to see how artists intentionally try not to affect viewers by trying to provide a way for viewers to interpret the art work themselves. One of the art work I saw was only several pieces of yellow clothes hanging together on the wall. The description of this work said that the artist here would like to invite every viewer to create his/her own interpretation and value of the work by providing such a pure form of art, other than seeing viewer struggling to guess what the artist was meaning to say.

This form of art can be seen as a slogan of individual freedom in certain ways. I’m sorry that I didn’t take photos because it was not allowed in Guggenheim.

Right. My thoughts are not very clear right now, I’m just trying to get them out of my head. I’m playing around with this idea of semiotics in Information Visualization. There is a common language to what we expect, what the conventions are for creating and representing data as Shneiderman and others have outlined. They aren’t perfect by any means and the lines of distinction are fuzzy. However, I’m wondering a few things.

How do we judge whether or not a visualization is successful? Many visualizations are not easily understood by your average person, like networks. These are hard to read unless one is trained n Information Visualization, but that isn’t the point of this field. The point is to make convoluted data readable in visual form for a particular audience. So, I guess another question is what is readable by your average person? How can complex information be structured or created in a way that they can learn new things or understand the story the visualization/data is telling?

I’m also wondering how high dimensional data is currently represented effectively. I guess it all goes back to the understanding of information visualizations. I keep thinking about Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics and can’t help but think there should be one for visualizations so more people can read them.  That’s all for now, just loads of questions as I start collecting former work and visualizations.

As an active user of Pinterest, I thought it is nothing more than a tool to organize images, which should be gender neutral. However, demographic data shows in 2012, 83% of the US users were women. I was surprised at first but suddenly thought of all those wedding dresses, jewelries I saw during my daily update. And here’s my closer look.

I’m not sure whether female are more of visual creatures than guys, but it’s so easy to hear “oh this is pretty”, “it’s really cute” from a female. They are also enthusiastic shoppers and home decorators: sometimes satisfied by just looking around without buying anything. While guys more often do their shopping with a clear goal and looking more into functionality. It’s also women who tend to care more about whether they look good in photos and check their current “image” from mirrors, just like Cleo. Some study shows as early as four months old, baby girls can distinguish facial features and are able to distinguish between photos of people they know versus strangers. Baby boys are not able to do that. Even a brief look into the default categories Pinterest provides for people’s collection boards, seem to give us some hints: there are 32 categories in total, in a quick tag I did, there are 11 categories which are more “female” such as DIY & crafts, gardening, hair & beauty, while 7 are more “male”, such as cars & motorcycles, geek, science & nature. Female also “wins” on the Popular page of Pinterest, where you may see babies, panda sushis, women’s apparel and cute pancakes.

a screenshot of the popular page on Pinterest

The popular page of Pinterest, accessed on April 16. Pinterest is a Virtual Pinboard, where people create “boards” (collections) and put “pins” (images) on it.

In the feminism chapter from the shoe book, Barnard mentioned “Feminism points out that there are gender differences and argues that the gendered position of the understanding subject has a part to play in, and makes a difference to, the understanding of understanding.” To some extent, the user of Pinterest is also creating their understanding of certain words (usually the title of their collection board), e.g. on User A’s board “Spring”, she not only put what people would normally put: flowers, but also pictures of Easter and St. Patrick’s Day, which shows she might be a religious person. The Spring collection might have influence in the following way (1) to other viewers, who has never thought from a holiday or religious perspective about spring, they may have more insights about the season now (2) shape the author’s own understanding of spring by consistent interaction with the board. It’s like the part and whole relationship we covered in previous class: the author’s “horizon” affects what she puts on the board named Spring, and what she put on the board (sometimes may be a random or suddenly inspired choice) will also cast influence on her understandings.

screenshot of a board named spring

A collection named “Spring” (the St.Patrick Day picture is not shown in this screenshot)

When talking about the weakness of feminist is a gender-based approach to understanding visual culture is reductive. I randomly looked into 5 male and 5 female’s collections. There seems to be no big difference in quantity. But very “gender-biased” is the content, even under the same category they might have totally different pictures. For example, under “Travelling”, female users usually have pictures of flowers, landscape, but rarely boats; under “Architectures”, rarely do they post high-tech buildings as some guys do. It does appear to me gender-based understanding is reductive, because the filter of a woman’s eyes might keep the softer, more emotional staff, while the guy’s might retain the harder, more rational things. However, I don’t think it’s a weakness. Actually different individuals, groups, organizations, classes, should have distinct understanding towards the same thing. Feminist might look at the subject from a cultural perspective while scientist are studying the scientific formation or structure. It is such and such reductive understanding that come together to make it more holistic.

a screenshot of a male user's "home home home" board

a screenshot of a female user's "home home home" board

A male user’s (up) and a female user’s (down) collections with the same title “Home Home Home”

Shaowen’s paper pointed out “The interaction design process takes place independent of gender considerations, and even today the central concept of the whole field—the user—remains genderless.” I am curious whether the designers of Pinterest have thought about gender but I will not be surprised that the content of the default categories might have been changed according to what the users are putting up on their boards. If so, then it is a participatory process where the first release of the product can still be counted as part of the design phase. This is similar to the user-centered lane building process where people walk across a big lawn and stepped out a path, then the workers build the lanes accordingly. In that case, if more passers-by are female, the final lane should is more likely to be a female route (if there’s difference btw male and female about path picking).

a picture of the lawn in Stanford

A lawn in Stanford. The walking paths were built according to the people’s walking route on the original lawn (with out any path).

In Shaowen’s paper she also mentioned some qualities of feminist interaction:

Pluralism, which refers to “design artifacts that resist any single, totalizing, or universal point of view”, is well practiced in Pinterest. Though the functions are the same and quite limited, people turn to be creative and everyone’s boards are different.

Advocacy, which encourages designers to “question their own position to assert what an ’improved society’ is and how to achieve it”. I’m not sure if the designers have thought about the “good society” but though what people put up for topics like home, wedding, life, dream, it’s not hard to have a glimpse of at least a small group of people’s image of “good society”.

Self-disclosure, which refers to “the extent to which the software renders visible the ways in which it effects us as subjects”, is carried out by the function that the user can follow the whole collection of a person or a specific board.

I feel just by looking at what each individual has put up there can help me easily create a mood board about gender differences. Those collections cast light on things that women and men like respectively and would probably each be willing to spend effort on. It might face some harsh critique but I think it will be very interesting if we can filter the search result for a certain topic by gender. So far, it’s really hard to pick out males from random users because there are too few…

I understand that this is last minute. But if you can, please quickly revisit the Eldridge article (Understanding Art). Or at least bring your printout of this article with you.

Here are a few juicy quotes that will help steer our discussion today (thank you, Jeff).

“We become able ourselves in light of new readings to see particular works both more comprehensively and with more awareness of the multiple significances of details” (Eldridge, 2003, p. 148).

“…elucidatory-critical understanding of the arts is, in Dewey’s formulation, both analytic or parts-discriminating and synthetic or overall-organization-discerning. Elucidatory-critical attention moves back and forth between attention to discrete elements and the location of elements in an overall arrangement. (Eldridge, 2003, p. 143)

“To understand art critically is to explore it imaginatively, guided by a range of relevant comparisons and conceptions of rational action and focused on how a work presents its subject matter as a focus for thought and emotion. When we thus explore works imaginatively, we can understand them anew, more deeply, and yet in coherent elaboration of our prior understandings, as the complex results of overdetermined human action that they are.” (Eldridge, 2003, p. 149)

See you all soon!

This evening (much earlier than the 2:26 am write time) when I was looking over the Cupchik article, I came across a quote that really just stuck out to me as I took a rather late night walk. When the Author is describing Mikel Dufrenne’s Phenomenology of Aesthetic Experience. I’ll go ahead and drop that quote here:

“The object of use ‘is beautiful if it manifests the fullness of the being which has been imparted to it, if it answers to the use for which it was intended, and if it shows by its appearance that it does answer to it”

I’m drawn to this, because it reminds me of Jeff’s discussion that we design hunks of metal, and we’re culturally understand the appearance of say…a cheese grater, as he puts it. I think for some things, a cheese grater is much easier to understand. I find myself more curious though, about the evolution of our digital artifacts. And maybe, it’s because I’m thinking in a way that excludes the software that’s run on them, but I’m hard pressed to find that many of our digital artifacts ‘show by appearance’ an answer to its use.

Barnard claims that there are two intellectual traditions from which stem all understanding [of visual culture]: the “structural tradition” (fairly self-explanatory) and the “hermeneutic tradition” (understanding and meaning as the business of individuals.) I’m wondering if anyone else finds this dichotomy bizarre or troubling in any way. While I certainly won’t argue with Barnard that these may be two of the most fundamental foundations for understanding [visual culture] I feel uneasy accepting these as the only two – especially since hermeneutic seems like a bit of a cop-out to me. After all, some structural interpretation is certainly subjective to personal perspective; but then again, Barnard even specifically cites that there is overlap, methods that inhabit both traditions.

I guess my problem is that he is saying we either understand because of the structures inherent [in visual culture] or because how we as individuals bring our unique perspectives to our perceptions and understanding of cultural norms and artefacts. Now, I’m as much an interpretivist as the next girl, but is Barnard suggesting that there is no discovery way of knowing, no real “Truth” that can be known? Where does Barnard draw the line between “knowing” and “understanding?” Can we truly ever “know” what visual culture means? In that case, as scholars, how do we reconcile the need for a class such as this, for an “understanding” or interaction culture, when there is no real truth?

I don’t have answers for all of these questions, but I think they open the door to some potentially interesting questions…


***I forgot to update my post last night, but I realized after completing the second (Cross) reading for this class that I had read the incorrect Barnard for today. By the time I realized this and rectified that reading snafu, I had forgotten about coming and updating my blog post to be more relevant. Sorry! 😛

I want to expand on my previous post about Etsy Gifts. I’ve been thinking about this some more and I want to pose the argument that Etsy gifts is a mediocre gift suggestion system because it is based in structuralism, when the best gifts come from a phenomenological understanding of a persons lifeworld or a relationships fusion of horizons.

We’ve explored phenomenology over the course of this semester. Phenomenology as an approach to studying culture“stresses the role of the individual consciousness in understanding. Here understanding is either something that individuals do or something that happens to individuals :either way it is the product of specific, intentional, historically and spatially located individual awareness.” It “principally concerned with the elements of human experience” [1]. Barnard discusses how the interpreter as well as the artist (author) both have intentions. These intentions are the “beliefs, hopes, fears, and desires about the world and its contents an individual has at any one time.” [2]  These intentions are all different for each individual. They change and are dependent on an individual’s context. Each individual also has a lifeworld of their own; a set of horizons which are constructed through an individuals experiences.

Giving a gift is a phenomenological action because it requires the giver to interpret and understand the lifeworld of the gift receiver. This is wrapped in context, interpretation, subjective understanding of a person, and awareness of the other individual. If we related gift giving to Gadamaer’s explain of understanding in a hermeneutic perspective, it is a “mediation, a fusing of the horizons” [2].

Etsy gifts fails to take a phenomenological approach because it does not take into account that the computer doesn’t recognize the lifeworlds of me and Jeff. I am a student he is teacher. It doesn’t consider that he is male (earrings). It does not take into account that toilet paper with Obama’s face on it was not meant for someone who supports Obama. The application removes context from the item being presented, the meaning of a search term (supporting Obama vs not), and the relationship between the giver and receiver of the gift.

We’ve also discussed structuralism. Barnard discusses this in terms of the mind saying that the mind “operates in terms of categories. These categories, sets of distinctions and oppositions form structures. These structures may be used to understand the external world. Consequently, they may also be used to understand the culture that is itself using them. These categories, these structures, are not under the control of individuals. They are a product of mind, or consciousness, but they are not the products of individual minds or consciousness” [2]. Facebook uses these structures and categories to help users construct a profile or online identity of themselves. You can select if you are a part of the population that identifies themselves as a swimmer (or not), singer (or not), shopper (or not), etc.

A friend’s profile consists of terms that create an identity of themselves. What they are interested in or like, what they see as important to share and represent, etc. In a way, the actual creation of this profile is somewhat hermeneutic because they have determined what information is important to share or not. They have selected the language used to describe themselves. However, the profile itself is situated in a structuralist way through the links created by Facebook. Clicking on “swimming” will go to a swimming page which connects everyone in the “I like swimming” category. The same thing happens when an Etsy seller posts an item. They use “tags” to assign labels to each item. These tags categorize and group certain items together


It is this profile information that provides Etsy Gifts with the information for the gift recommendations. When Etsy Gifts gives a user recommendation, they use these categories of interests to search for items. Each interest just becomes a word or a phrase, but does not take other pieces of information into context. Barnard stated “These categories, these structures, are not under the control of individuals” but these structures have been created by developers of the Facebook API and the Etsy application. They have completely left out social context, and rather based the recommendations on word or phrases.

So, again, Etsy gifts is a mediocre gift suggestion system because it is based in structuralism, when the best gifts come from a phenomenological understanding of a persons lifeworld or a relationships fusion of horizons.

What improvements could be made to make this gifting application more phenomenological? Take context into consideration. Look not only for key search terms but also at the relationship between the friends, ages, gender, context of the terms (Obama example), etc.


[1] Dourish, Paul. (2001). Where the Action Is: The Foundations of Embodied Interaction. Cambridge: MIT Press.

[2] Barnard, Malcolm. (2001). Approaches to Understanding Visual Culture. New York: Palgrave.

Etsy recently launched “Gift Ideas for Facebook Friends describes the feature as follows:

“The Gift Ideas for Facebook Friends tool gives shopping for friends and family a new twist by connecting with Facebook to find gift ideas based on their public profile information. When you connect to Facebook using Gift Ideas, Etsy can suggest items to you related to the likes and interests of your Facebook friends.”

Great! I don’t have to work quite as hard coming up with Christmas gift ideas for Jeff! Let’s see what Etsy and Facebook suggested I get him:

Interesting, we have some nice accessories that relate to some class novels and embroidered toilet paper. Would I give any of these things to Jeff as a gift? Most likely not. This has not accomplished the task of making my Christmas shopping list easier to figure out.

Etsy Gifts, Netflix recommendations, Amazon recommendations, or other similar search and recommendation sites, all have a major issue. These features don’t have lifeworlds and can never have the context that we has humans have. These sites are built in a very structuralist way: does the key phrase “Barack Obama” appear in the title of an item on sale? Yes, put it in the results. No, don’t put it in the results. However, building search and recommendation results based on this binary opposition misses a lot of the key contexts. Someone who likes Barack Obama most likely won’t use toilet paper with his face on it — the connotations of that just don’t quite match up to real feelings about Mr. President.

Now as a shopper, I can look at these results and know that I’ve never seen Jeff in dangly earrings and he most likely won’t hang a crocheted Obama tapestry in his office as it would clash with his current decor. Because of my lifeworld and my interpretation of Jeff’s lifeworld, I can make a judgment on the appropriateness of a gift. This falls in line with the phenomenological perspective.

I want to take this one step further: how do we construct the identity of a person through applications like this? Jeff did his part by making a publicly available list of things he likes or is interests him:

This isn’t a holistic view of Jeff, but it is one that he constructed as a way to represent himself. This profile screen shot is only a fragment of Jeff. takes a fraction of this fragment by only displaying 11 of his many interests listed.

In modernism, the self is seen as static and unified where as in post-modernism the self is fragmented and is continually being constructed through remediation, appropriation, and construction of fragments. Initially, computers were designed for efficiency, and unity but as they become more ubiquitous, they have become “universal media machines” (Manovich) where information is fragmented and we must use them and our knowledge of culture to construct our understandings.

When one constructs an online profile, they pick fragments of who they are and post them online. There is a disconnect between who they are in a profile and who they are in real life. What I see on for Jeff does not do an accurate job of portraying the Jeff Bardzell that I know. Sharon Turkle wrote :

As we stand on the boundary between the real and the virtual, our experience recalls what the anthropologist Victor Turner termed a liminal moment, a moment of passage when new cultural symbols and meanings can emerge. Liminal moment are times of tension, extreme reactions, and great opportunity.

I don’t feel like is using this liminal moment of self-identify as an opportunity. It isn’t exploiting the possibilities because it is stuck in its code, where ones identity, although initially constructed by themselves on facebook, has been distorted and reduced to a point where it doesn’t really grasp who a person is, what their interests are, or how to shop for them. doesn’t know that I am Jeff’s student, that I’ve never seen him with dangle earrings, and doesn’t know the connotations of toilet paper with someones face on it. It doesn’t know who Jeff is as a whole, or who I am as a whole, or any of that. Sure, it’s fun to play around with, but it doesn’t accomplish its intended  goal of finding gifts for someone.

Special thanks to Christian Briggs and his i310 material from Fall 2008, I hope I didn’t butcher it too much 🙂

In class on Thursday I was getting caught up on the word “Identity” and I’d like to use this post to discuss different meanings of identity.

Jeff wrote “Difference vs Identity” on the board refering to structuralism and phenomenology* where difference stood for the idea that nothing has meaning in itself but rather only has meaning when it is in a network and creates oppositions where was Identity was the idea that someone or something had inherent properties, it has an essence, and this was not dependent on context.

So how does this idea of Identity as essentialism relate back to the idea of ones personal identity? For me, the two are very interrelated. Identity in the essentialism way states that I have some sort of Katie-ness which is intact even when my context changes. However, I think that my Katie-ness is constructed based on my past experiences. It is what we experience in life that shapes our lifeworld. If my lifeworld changes do I still have the same essences as Katie? How do these two relate to each other?

In class, Jeff seemed to have a fairly strong stand on this, although we didn’t really get into his thoughts on it. I’m curious what others in the class thought about this. Can we separate who we are from our lifeworld and experiences? How do they related to each other? Do they relate to each other? What exactly is the difference between Identity and Identity?

* Can Phenomenology and Hermeneutics be used interchangeably? I’ve been using them interchangeably but I’m not sure if there is some subtle difference between the two that I missed…