I FINALLY GOT IT ALL TOGETHER. NOW WHERE IS IT?

GLOSSARY

Anthropocentrism

Anthropocentrism is a philosophical view according to which the human is the measure and center of all things. ‚Anthropos-‚ (Greek for ‚human‘) is also used to refer to the influence of humankind, for example in describing the present age as the Anthropocene, the human age. 

Humanism

Humanism is a western philosophical attempt to explain the world with the help of human reason and natural law, not relying on myths, traditions or religion.

Inhuman

The term ‚inhuman‘ refers to the structural discrimination and exclusion of entire social classes that are not considered full human beings. Standards and gatekeepers for acceptable ‚humanity‘ are race and ethnicity, gender and sexual differences, class and education, and health and able-bodiedness (Braidotti & Hlavajova, 2018, p. 2).

Material Feminism

Material feminism rejects human mastery and suggests that matter is agential, that it is lively, which destabilises anthropocentric and humanist ontological privilege (Neimanis, 2018. p. 242).

Non-human

The non-human denotes the status of the degraded, ‚others‘ whose existence has been excluded from the realm of anthropocentric thought and confined to non-human life (Braidotti & Hlavajova, 2018, p. 2).

Postdisciplinarity
Postdisciplinarity refers to more transgressive forms of academic knowledge production that destabilise, deconstruct, and break down the hegemony of the traditional academic division into human, social, technical, medical, and natural sciences (Lykke, 2018, p. 333).

Posthumanism

Posthumanism is a philosophical perspective that deconstructs the figure of the human being as the supposedly only being capable of action and analyses the transmission of dichotomies such as woman/man, nature/culture or subject/object.

Transhumanism

Transhumanism is a philosophical approach that is concerned with the capacity of emerging technologies to overcome the body through mind, thus completing the imagined mind–body split (Åsberg, 2018, p. 158).

We need to take on the task of thinking differently about our current predicament.

(Braidotti & Hlavajova, 2018, p. 2)

Within this paper, I am trying to disentangle. Trying to clear up a mess in my head that has been existing for a while. My aspiration is to develop a feeling for material feminisms and posthumanisms, to become aware of their interdependencies and to be capable of putting those into understandable words and conclusions. In doing so, I will explore the question of what decolonial practices and forms of knowledge might support accountability and the decentralisation of anthropocentrism while recognizing alternative forms of subjectivity, relationality, and sociality. At the moment you are reading this paper, this process will certainly not be finished yet – if it ever will be. Rather, the paper can be seen as a snapshot of where I am in my fourth semester of studying transformation design. 

My approach can be understood as postdisciplinary, according to the definition of Nina Lykke, which can be read in the Posthuman Glossary1 or summarised in the glossary. In this paper I have mostly chosen not to use the passive voice, which is usually used in academic writing. Thus, the focus is not on the processes, but is related to the people experiencing them. I am not yet aware of the effect on the quality of this text, as it is an experiment. Furthermore, it is important for me to note that I am writing from the position of a white2, able-bodied3 woman who grew up in Germany.

  1 Lykke, 2018 pp. 332-335 

2 I deliberately write white in italics to make clear that it is a political term and not a skin color reference. It is about a position associated with social, political, and cultural privilege.

  3 The term able-bodied describes people who are outwardly perceived as unharmed, non-disabled.

My engagement with the topic of material feminism began with the conception of a workshop for a semester project in winter 2021. The overarching theme of this semester project was the critical exploration of a new curriculum that enables power-critical action in educational contexts. We addressed the predominance of androcentric and eurocentric perspectives in order to give more space to queer and collaborative (re)production of knowledge. The course was offered by our instructor Lisa Baumgarten. The workshop 

format on bodies and somatic education in teaching and learning spaces was intended to promote individual, non-comparable experiences and to impart knowledge in a way that cannot be generalized, borrowing from Donna Haraway’s ’situated knowledges‘ (Haraway, 1988). In doing so, a fellow student and I wanted to distance ourselves from the historical development of western-influenced design, which as a professional and academic field is an exclusive discipline that often sees itself as universal (Merly, 2022).

In a design theory essay I wrote in the same semester in the class of Lisa Baumgarten, I addressed the question of how to acknowledge the inevitability of the body as the foundation of human action. At the time I had not yet made the connection, but now in retrospect I would say that this was the first time I took a materialist feminist position, demanding that the influence of our bodies on our position of power and in society be acknowledged. For „material feminisms don’t think merely ‚about‘ matter. They attempt to think with it, in ways that articulate specific ontological, epistemological and ethical commitments. 

Material feminism is thinking with matter.” 

(Neimanis, 2018, p. 242)

Furthermore, Astrida Neimanis4 describes material feminism in the Posthuman Glossary as a position that understands matter „(including nonhuman nature and the biological substrata of human life)” (ibid.), as something that „feels, speaks, suffers, desires, craves, and remembers” (Barad, 2012, p. 60). As some things that attempt to „question, solve, control, calculate, protect, and destroy” (Wilson 2015, p. 82). Material feminism thus suggests that matter is agential, with agency being about changing the possibilities of transformation. As „all matters take part (differently) in this agency-as-a-doing” (Neimanis 2018, p. 243), material feminism can help to decentralize anthropocentrism and to understand agency beyond the limits of one’s self. More, it can help dissolve these limits.

4 Astrida Neimanis is a cultural theorist working at the intersection of feminism and environmental change

Regarding the discussion that materialism does not include discourse, experience, or the ‚in-between‘, material feminism offers a position that allows for a tremendous amount of agency there. ‚Thinking with matter‘ can help dissolving the mind-body duality, recognizing that they can and do not work separately from one another. Thinking cannot be understood as a process detached from matter, from the body.
This view is also held in posthumanism.

Figure No. 1: Rundgang 2022 – hbk Brunswick – Work by Solvey Schnönknecht. Own image.

„[…] the nature of thought itself, and not just the object of thought, must change if it is to be posthumanist. More precisely, the ‚human‘ can no longer be considered either the origin or the end of thought […]” 

(Wolfe, 2018, p. 357)

Thus, when humans are no longer seen as the origin and end of thought, that is, when the influence of the material world around us is included and boundaries that separate humans from non-humans become blurred. Posthumanism therefore holds a lot of potential to decentralise anthropocentrism as it „proposes the philosophical critique of the Western Humanist ideal of ‚Man‘ as the allegedly universal measure of all things“ (Braidotti 2018, p. 339). The Posthuman Glossary, edited by Rosi Braidotti5 and Maria Hlavajova6, provides a

good cartography of the discourse and names two other terms – the ’non-human‘ and the ‚inhuman‘ – that show aspects of our current social reality. „The non-human refers to the status of depreciated naturalized ‚others‘ whose existence has been cast outside the realm of anthropocentric thought and confined within non-human life” (Braidotti & Hlavajova, 2018, p. 2). Historically, these refer to members of ethnic groups other than the authoritarian and colonial European powers. But they also involve plant, animal and planetary life and, more recently, the genes and genomic codes that form the underlying architecture of existence (ibid.). By ‚inhuman‘, Braidotti and Hlavajova refer to “a double phenomenon, which raises both analytical and normative questions” (ibid.). Analytically, the term addresses the dehumanising effects of structural discrimination and exclusion of entire social classes who do not enjoy the privilege of being considered fully human. Race and ethnicity, gender and sexual difference, class and education, and health and able-bodiedness are crucial standards and gatekeepers for acceptable ‚humanity‘ (ibid.). From a normative perspective, however, the ‚inhuman‘ also denounces the dehumanising, unjust practices of our time. It emphasises the violent and murderous structure of contemporary geopolitical and societal relations, also known as „necropolitics”7

Furthermore, I want to briefly outline the term posthumanism and its origin. The first half of the word post-humanism – ‚humanism‘ – was a western philosophical attempt to explain the world with the help of human reason and natural law, not relying on myths, traditions or religion, thus supporting the separation of religious and state instructions (Wikipedia, 2022). This intellectual movement gave rise to renaissance humanism, which emerged in Italy in the thirteenth century and spread outside Italy through books and people. Humanists emphasised the importance of classical literature for the transmission of intellectual discipline, moral standards and civilised taste to the elite – an educational concept that endures to this day (ibid.). This stance has been shaped by modernist and capitalist mouldings, resulting in a definition of the human being that is „very much a male of the species: it is a he. Moreover, he is white, European, handsome and able bodied.” (Braidotti 2013, p. 24). The universal modern human is a neoliberal-ableist citizen, able and willing to work. Postcolonial writer Sylvia Wynter argues that this category „enables the interests, reality, and well-being of the empirical human world to continue to be imperatively subordinated to those of the now globally hegemonic ethnoclass world of ‚Man’” (Wynter, 2003, p. 262).

But such humanism has come to its end, i.e. that it is post-humanism. Posthumanism deconstructs the figure of the human being as the supposedly only being capable of action and analyses the transmission of dichotomies such as woman/man, nature/culture or subject/object. 

5 Rosi Braidotti is an Italian-Dutch contemporary philosopher and feminist theorist. She is currently Professor Emeritus at Utrecht University, where she has taught since 1988

6 The Slovak art historian Maria Hlavajova is the founding director and artistic director of BAK, basis voor actuele kunst, Utrecht, since 2000

7 Necropolitical practices include the expulsion of people from their homes and homelands in the wake of increasing global neocolonial power relations and growing economic polarisation (Braidotti & Hlavajova, 2018, p. 3)

„It seems we tried to make nature into our image,
but with a less than pretty result.“

(Åsberg, 2018, p. 157)

A characteristic of posthuman analyses is the opening for „new forms of subjectivity, relationality and sociality” (Goodley et. al. 2018, p. 343), which are associated, for example, with posthuman concepts such as the cyborg8 (Haraway), rhizomes9 (Deleuze & Guattary) or bodies of water10 (Neimanis). This expanded definition of being-in-the-world acknowledges and values diversity, discards dualisms and exchanges them for a philosophy of relationality and multiple interdependencies. The combination of materialist feminist and posthumanist philosophies can thus enable an anti-humanist and post-anthropocentric stance that understands agency beyond the boundaries of one’s self.

8 „A cyborg is a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction” (Haraway, 1991, p.3)

9 A rhizome is a concept describing a nonlinear network that “connects any point to any other point” (Deleuze & Guattari, 1978, p. 21)

10 Bodies of Water develops an innovative new approach to posthuman feminist phenomenology that understands our bodies as fundamentally part of the natural world, not separate from it or privileged over it (Neimanis, 2017)

Figure No. 2: Documenta 15 – Komposthaufen (Karlsaue) – Work by La Intermundial Holobiente11. Own image.

But as emancipatory as this discourse with its concepts and theories may be, it still largely takes place in an academic context. In the Posthuman Glossary, Stefan Herbrechter12 distances critical posthumanism from popular posthumanism, which he calls „more or less uncritical” (Herbrechter 2018, p. 94), while critical posthumanism is a „reflective approach that investigates the current post-anthropocentric desire” (ibid., p. 95). Herbrechter cites science fiction films or popular science magazines as examples for the popular approach to posthumanism. However, there can be a lot of potential in debating posthumanist issues in pop culture. The term ‚popular‘ derives from the Old French ‚populaire‘ and directly from Latin ‚popularis‘, which means „belonging to the people, general, common, democratic”13 and thus indicates a negotiation process.

Yet still, problematic posthumanisms circulating in mainstream media, however, often have in common a belief in modern progress, in technology as redemption from bodily weaknesses, even from death. This figuration of posthumanism, ‚transhumanism‘, strives to transcend and overcome the body through the mind, thus completing the imagined mind–body split (as seen in science fiction fantasies of digitally downloadable brains) (Åsberg, 2018, p. 158). By highlighting the potential of popular humanism, I am not referring to this figure of ‚transhumanism‘, but I would still like to emphasize that popular posthumanism doesn’t need to be uncritical. Pop cultural discussions about posthumanist perspectives are most likely more low-threshold and therefore can be more inclusive than some philosophical debates. At best, the dichotomy is dissolved here too and popular posthumanism can be critical at the same time.

11 English translation: „Contributors: The wind, the sun, the trees, the atmosphere“

12 Stefan Herbrechter is a freelance writer, academic, researcher and translator

13 (Popular, 2022)

„The need is stark to think together anew across differences of historical position and of kinds of knowledge and expertise” 

(Haraway, 2016, p. 7)

Fulfilling the above need involves developing a practice that recognises non-eurocentric forms of knowledge – taking the posthumanist discourse out of the academic bubble means not equating competence with the level of education. Nevertheless, while a conscious use of technical terms is necessary in order not to dilute them, theoretically sound arguments should not be taken as the measure of all things as „truth and knowledge are deeply connected to power and hegemony” (Halder & Michel, 2018, p. 12). Feminist posthumanities live up to this claim, as they „may describe postconventional research that already thrives on the margins or outside the conventional scholarly comfort zones” (Åsberg, 2018, p. 157). Moreover, like posthumanism, feminist posthumanism is one response to the age-old feminist question who may be considered a human being in the determinant standards of the humanities and natural sciences. The response is multifaceted, characterised by its openness, its inter-, trans-, or post-disciplinarity. In light of this, it has become apparent that nothing is obvious or given anymore, as the human body today may well be considered a “microbiotic multi-species ecology in and of itself” (ibid.). 

„The more the world is becoming interconnected, the more we realise how important interconnections are, the more we realise we actually know less than we thought we knew.“ 

(Stalder, 2013, p. 16)

Compared to posthumanist studies, feminist posthumanist theorising is characterised by thinking in terms of relations, and builds on existing considerations from gender-, queer and human-animal studies (Åsberg, 2013, p. 7). U.S. biologist and philosopher of science Donna Haraway, U.S. physicist Karen Barad, and the previously mentioned Italian-Dutch philosopher Rosi Braidotti are protagonists of the debates about feminist posthumanities. They all oppose basic essentialist14 assumptions and instead emphasize the becomingness and contingency of history, matter, and living beings, but differ in their references to feminist conceptions: While Haraway and Barad adopt a queer feminist perspective15 (Haraway, 1991), Braidotti takes a difference-feminist position16. Besides, the feminist-posthumanist research agenda incorporates three central perspectives: The first perspective concerns the question of subjectivity. Feminist posthumanism acknowledges the agency and activity of all living beings, artefacts, hybrid beings, and other animate and inanimate configurations (Braidotti 2006) which intersects with perspectives of materialistic feminism. Secondly, the differentiation between nature and culture and the associated boundaries between male/female and white/Black are criticised, assuming „a nature–culture continuum that defies binary thinking” (Braidotti & Hlavajova, 2018, p. 2). Third, it raises the issue of body configurations and delimitations (Halberstam & Livingston, 1995, p. 115). Body boundaries in this perspective are not fixed, but socially constructed, highly contextual, and can sometimes become blurred. In this regard, the body-boundness of the category gender is also questioned. „Gender […] may well in this setting be regarded as an engine of discovery as much as a critical category of intersectional difference analysis” (Åsberg, 2018, p. 158).

14  Essentialism is the view that entities have a set of attributes that are essential to their identity

15  Queer theories can be understood from their original approach as theorisations of sexuality. Sexuality is analysed as configuration, instrument and effect of power relations. (cf. Cocco) 

16  Difference-oriented feminist thinkers criticise the orientation towards male standards and want to positively occupy femininity – beyond capitalist logics of exploitation (cf. Theißl) 

To make these academic approaches more tangible and to highlight where they are already implemented but not yet recognised as such, the following part of this paper is devoted to Indigenous feminisms. I focus on decolonial, Indigenous practices and non-Western forms of knowledge because I perceive the theoretical foundations of the discourse I presented in this paper so far to be mostly academic, Western and white. In contrast, „Indigenous communities have long held robust, functional concepts and practices for understanding and utilising collaborative engagements between human and nonhuman material and semiotic agencies“ (Babbitt et. al., 2020, p. 2).

To return to the concept of gender, in the South American language ‚Tupi‘ there are the terms „Çacoaimbeguira“ and „Tibira“. These refer to people who do not fit into the binary gender system. A system that did not exist in the Tupi culture until it was imposed on them by colonisation (Koshino, 2022, p. 13).

In Amarete, a Bolivian village, everything has a gender, be it people, fields, mountains, objects, offices or rituals. The social gender of people depends on the gender of their field (‚wachu‘ gender) and the office they may hold. This results in ten different gender roles. However, there is a clear hierarchy in that ‚male‘ sits on the (better) right side and ‚female‘ on the (worse) left side and the whole system is based on two biological genders (Rösing, 2001, p. 86). 

An example of how the materiality of plants, animals, minerals and other substances enter reciprocal relationships with humans is a shrine created by the Asante people in Besease, 

a town in the central region of Ghana (Eglash et. al., 2020, p. 6). Traditionally, the royal stool was the most distinguished position, although a poor citizen with a stool can also offer hospitality. The depiction of the ‚adwa’ (stools) on the walls of the shrine show that gnomes (‚mmoatia‘), who can for instance display plants that help to cure diseases, are welcome to the temple (ibid.). The ‚mmoatia‘, tiny forest spirits, form a bridge between human and non-human and illustrate that the traditional relationships with nature that formed the basis of Asante life were based on reciprocity between these realms.

Approaches to feminist materialisms of the agentiality of matter can be found among the Mapuche, a group of Indigenous inhabitants of present-day south-central Chile and southwestern Argentina. In their language, Mapuzugun, ‚mapu‘ means ‚earth‘ and ‚che‘ means ‚human‘ – Mapuche are people of the earth (di Girolamo & Terra 2022, p. 72). For them, the material world has life in the form of spirits of nature, the Ngen. These take forms based on humans, animals and plants. ‚Ngen Kintuantü‘, for example, is the spiritual force that seeks the sun (ibid., p. 83). Thus, while the material world is said to have agency rather indirectly, this approach generally recognises the influence of the material environment on humans and has a different understanding of being-in-the-world.

 Figure No. 3: A nature spirit.17 
      Source: di Girolamo & Terra 2022, p. 81. Own image. 

17 English translation: „Like the Ngen: The protective spirits of nature“

 One Mapuche principle, the good life for all, ‚Küme Mogen‘, is regularly addressed in transformation design when talking about possible futures. It is the basis of the Mapuche assumption that everything is life, without exception. ‚Küme Mogen‘ consists of family, friends, animals, plants, Ngens, rivers and mountains (ibid., p. 101). The formation of many lives that share the same space and are interdependent form a larger life, which can be attributed to the posthumanist idea of being interconnected with more-than-human actors. Furthermore, those already existing perceptions describe the characteristics of posthumanist analyses very well, in that they represent the opening for „new forms of subjectivity, relationality and sociality” (Goodley et. al. 2018, p. 343). But what Goodley et. al. call a characteristic of posthuman analyses, the „new“ forms of subjectivity, falls short, considering that these concepts have existed since at least the 13th century (di Girolamo & Terra 2022, p. 101). I have therefore avoided the use of the term ’new‘ in the introduction of this paper and replaced it with ‚alternative‘, as I believe this formulation is more reflective of the past and expresses the recognition of non-Western forms of knowledge. Because Western epistemology suppressed any kind of deviation from its conception of the norm at the time of colonialism and continues to do so today (as shown in the definition of the term ‚human‘). In contrast, Indigenous epistemologies that bring together human and nonhuman actors should not be seen as static. In African traditions, they are sources of fecundity that mobilise and transform themselves. This is evident in the prevalence of recursive geometric forms (fractals) in African designs (Taylor, 2005, p. 162).

Figure No. 4: ‚Kanga18‚. Proverb in Kiswahili: „SINA SIRI NINA JIBU“ – „I have no secrets but I have an answer“. Source: Kaderdina, 2022

18 A Kanga is a typical African garment that can be used as a skirt, head-wrap, apron, pot-holder, towel, etc. (tenuci.com).

Although four hundred years of slavery, colonialism, and extraction economies took their toll, there were also forms of resilience and resurgence. For example, South Africa was the first country in the world to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in its constitution in 1996, supported by arguments that drew on Indigenous traditions to promote human diversity (Murray, 2001, p. 246). This is just my selection out of many examples of what pre-existing materialist, posthumanist, and feminist forms of knowledge can look like. These practices and ways of thinking overlap partly with the approaches of ecomaterialism or ecocriticism, which, given the scope of this paper, cannot be addressed to the extent that would be appropriate. However, the Posthuman Glossary is a good starting point and offers a good overview of the literature in these fields. Furthermore, it is important for me to reiterate that I have written about these approaches from the position of a white, privileged female student. In the context of this paper, another collaboration was not possible, but it holds a lot of potential, or rather, I see it as a necessity to work postdisciplinary, which in any case means collaborating with people of Indigenous heritage. Otherwise, „the appropriation of Indigenous symbolism […] can be seen as an extension of settler colonialism in which white people claim ownership of lands, resources and symbolics with little understanding of them or their histories“ (Babbitt et. al., 2020, p. 16). I believe that the discussion about posthumanist futures does not have to be completely questioned, but it should shift its focus more on what feminist movements and especially indigenous fights have been demanding for a long time – the recognition of alternative, queer, and non-anthropocentric forms of knowledge and practices. I propose that this can have immediate and practical benefits for alternative visions of a generative society that identifies pathways to a just and sustainable future.  

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REFERENCES

Cocco, Enea: Queerfeminismus
feministisch-veraendern.de
Feministisch Verändern, 2022 [last opened 16th August 2022]

Kaderdina, Abdulhaq: Kanga
www.britishmuseum.org/collection [last opened 16th August 2022]

Merly, Tabea: Körperschaft
transformazine.de/koerperschaft
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https://www.etymonline.com/word/popular [last opened 16th August 2022]

Theißl, Brigitte: Differenzfeminismus: Gleichberechtigt, aber nicht gleich
derstandard.de/differenzfeminismus
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Wikipedia: Humanism
wikipedia.org/wiki/Humanism [last opened 16th August 2022]
PAPER
I finally got it all together. now where is it?
by Tabea Merly

Seminar:
Paul Feigelfeld
Digital Cultures and Sustainability
Summer Semester 2022

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