Politics and the political

Politics, plural noun

  1. The activities associated with the governance of a country or area, especially the debate between parties having power.
    1. A particular set of political beliefs or principles.
    2. (Often the politics of) the principles relating to, or inherent in, a sphere or activity, especially when concerned with power and status.

Political, adjective

  1. Relating to the government or public affairs of a country.
    1. Relating to the ideas or strategies of a particular party or group in politics.
    2. Interested in or active in politics.
    3. Motivated by a person's beliefs or actions concerning politics.

In most dictionaries, the word ‘political’ is defined as an adjective related to the noun ‘politics’. Nevertheless, ‘the political’ is a useful term, a convenient abbreviation of the phrase of ‘the political condition’ – an idea used in order to make sense of the circumstances in which we live in today, and to understand contemporary institutionalised society, as well as in protest or resistance. It can be useful in distinguishing between ‘politics’ and ‘the political condition’ as categories. Politics and ‘the political’ can thus be seen as two distinct concerns – ‘politics' as the everyday routines and rituals of policy-making, and ‘the political' as the presence and enactment of social discrepancy and antagonism.

Corresponding with the idea of ‘politics’ and ‘the political’ being seen as two different matters, Carl DiSalvo, author of the book Adversarial Design, distinguishes between ‘design for politics’ and ‘political design’ – the former aiming to improve the institutional platforms and application of political systems, the latter to support agonistic public engagement. At Design Academy Eindhoven ‘design for politics’ and ‘political design’ are both viewed as ways to engage with, and contribute to, societal change.

Design theorist and philosopher Tony Fry, calls politics a circumscribed activity expressed through institutionalised practices exercised by individuals, groups and sovereign powers. Politics includes the strategies, actions, procedures and institutions through which a diverse set of people meet to find an answer to a pre-determined problem. The institutions associated with politics include parliaments and participatory councils, and, within what is known as the democratic system of politics, related procedures include voting and citizen participatory auditing.

Prominent French philosopher Jacques Rancière, understands politics as a set of technocratic mechanisms and consensual procedures that operate within the undisputed paradigm of representative democracy, free market economics, and cosmopolitan liberalism. As its counterpart, he recognises ‘the political’ as standing for disagreement and for a definition of the social as something that doesn’t have a presumed order. The political accounts for the radical heterogeneity that constitutes society – for the fact that there is continuous debate and disagreement. It stands for what Rancière calls ‘dissensus’, and what Belgian political theorist Chantal Mouffe, calls ‘antagonism’.

In an attempt to make use of such antagonism, Mouffe and her partner, the late Ernesto Laclau, imagined a move from 'the antagonism of the political' to an 'agonistic politics’. This could enable a democratic society in which relationships of conflict are sustained, rather than erased; where the institutions that define 'politics', organise human coexistence and establish social order under conditions that are marked by ‘the political’, and are therefore always conflictual; where this tension is stabilised through debate and discussion, without lapsing into the 'imposed consensus of authoritarian order'.

DAE examples

  • Manon van Hoeckel, In Limbo Embassy, Graduation project Man and Leisure, 2015
  • Bernhard Lenger, This is Ecocide, Graduation project Man and Leisure, 2016
  • Giuditta Vendrame, What is the purpose of your visit?, Graduation project Master Social Design, 2015


  • DiSalvo, C. (2012). Adversarial Design. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Fry, T. (2010). Design as Politics. London: Bloomsbury.
  • Mouffe, C. (2000). The Democratic Paradox. London, New York: Verso.
  • Pater, R. (2016). The politics of design. Amsterdam: Bis Publishers.
  • Rancière, J. (2015). Dissensus. On Politics and Aesthetics. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.
  • Swyngedouw, E. (2014). Where Is the Political? Insurgent Mobilisations and the Incipient ‘Return of the Political’, Space and Polity, 18(2), 122-136.