Evan Huggins
industrial design & technology

Thesis Blog: The Food Chain

WRITE: Episteme, Affordance and the Lumberjack

Episteme, according to Foucault, is the boundary of acceptable knowledge in its given time and place. This applies to all modalities of inquiry that are not based solely on empirical data. For the sake of clarity, let us compare episteme to a circumstance in which rules and objectives are very defined:

If the pursuit of a certain set of knowledge were equated to players in a game of football, then the boundaries of the field and rules of the game would constitute the “episteme” of the game. However, it would not end with these obvious constraints. The barometric pressure, humidity, and temperature would all contribute to the epistemetic boundaries of play, as would unspoken rules of conduct and honor. The location of play, known as “home field advantage” and each team’s history and culture would further complicate the epistemetic boarders.

The analogy of a game is apt in this circumstance because the pursuit of knowledge is in itself a sort of exalted game—one that gains credibility by deliberately subverting its own rules. The aggregated sum of these rules (both subverted and overt) then coalesces to form the episteme of a given epoch. “When we establish a considered classification,” Foucault says, “when we say that a cat and a dog resemble each other less than two greyhounds do, even if both are tame or embalmed, even if both are frenzied, even if both have just broken the water pitcher, what is the ground on which we are able to establish the validity of this classification with complete certainty?” That ground, fertile with the seeds of a multitude of shared presuppositions, is the episteme of a given era and invariably lays the foundation for the affordance of objects designed and built in that era.

According to Norman, affordance refers to the “relationship between a physical object and a person.” Because it is neither the skills/traits of a person nor the properties of an object, but rather the relationship between the two, affordance is invariably in flux. An object-person set may have certain characteristics that the same object may not have with another person or with the same person on a different day.

For instance, in the U.S. a standard sheet of plywood measures 4’ x 8’. It has an affordance of being easily handled by men of average build. But, for a shorter man or average height woman, the 4’ width makes it very difficult to maneuver. This is no accident; lumber standardizations were deliberately designed with a specific affordance in mind—the optimized relationship between the prefabricated sheeting material (constrained only by mechanical properties of the mill) and the construction worker (presupposed to be a man of average or greater size).

While the affordances of dimensional lumber standards developed out of the realities of the milling and construction industries in1924, they also predetermined a plentitude of future anti-affordances, both mechanical and social. The predominance of men as the only workers in the field, long supported by social, political, and familial systems was thus reinforced physically. Design of all future machinery would adhere to new set of affordances that relied on a much more tightly constrained set of objects (dimensional lumber) and thereby implicitly devalued the subject (carpenter), who’s skillset of fitting joinery was no longer as important.

In this way, affordances in design are both resultant of the world in which they reside and simultaneously create that world. In much the same way, knowledge both creates and is held captive by the episteme of a given era. In this context, knowledge is defined as a body of learning that is perceived as absolute truth. Affordance is defined as possible physical arrangements that conceivably exist between a person and an object. However, inherent in both of these definitions is the presupposition that one’s understanding of the absolute and the possible is correct. This certainty must be based in an ordering of things, in, as Foucault says, “categories that make it possible for us to name, speak, and think.” In short, both knowledge and affordance must be based in episteme.


Works Cited

Foucault, Michel. “Preface” The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences.Trans: Les Mots et les Choses. New York: Random House, 1970.

Norman, Don. The Design of Everyday Things. Philadelphia: Perseus Books, 2013.

Smith, W. and Wood, W. “History of Yard Lumber Size Standards” Madison, Wisconsin: Forest Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, 196

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