In this section i move from a critical to a creative mode. I will now try to see what material-discursive performances could lead to the emergence of posthuman assemblages. This analysis is informed by two related fields: critical feminist epistemologies of standpoint theory and Haraway’s ‘situated knowledge’, and Barad’s posthumanist understanding of knowing practices. I also discuss these epistemics in relation to the feminist politics of location. I believe that these approaches have rich insights to offer to a posthuman eco-aesthetics due to their emergence as critical responses to modern epistemologies, and their inseparability with political struggles for social justice and emancipation1. Furthermore, the feminist epistemological and political tradition underpins and in many respects founds neomaterialisms and environmental humanities, so there is a clear genealogy in which i am situating this thinking.
Modern science embodies Galileo’e early exclamation: “anyone can see through my telescope” (Harding, 1993: 51). From this viewpoint, modern epistemology is based on the assertion that there is one ‘objective’ and ‘value-free’ knowing location (the seer). Donna Haraway has criticised this epistemology as performing a transcendental “god-trick”, resulting in “the view from nowhere, from above, from simplicity” (Haraway, 1991: 195). Nancy Hartsock further equated this position with that of ‘abstract masculinity’ (1983), an epistemology embedded in dualisms (gender, first of all) and tied to the sexual division of labour. In this politico-epistemic settlement, women are relegated to the domain of reproduction and material support for the masculine exercise of thinking (ibid.). Feminist standpoint epistemology reformulated both the status of the knower and the definition of knowledge-making projects.
The centrality of social location, its embeddedness in the relations of gender, class, race, ethnicity, has been the principal contention of feminist standpoint theory (Collins, 1991; Harding, 1986; 1991, 2004; Hartsock, 1983). Standpoint theory claims that some social positions—those pertaining to women, marginalised and minoritised—are repressed and that knowledge projects starting from these positions make for better accounts of the world and could serve as means of achieving social justice. Standpoint theory proposes that knowledge is “grounded in particular, historical social situations” (Harding, 1993: 59). Standpoint theories thus propose embodied and embedded knowledge projects that account for the everyday lives of the marginalised, an “epistemology of ‘everyday life’” (Code, 1993: 16).
The question of standpoint epistemology is how to gain ‘access’ to a standpoint, how to “start thought from women’s lives” (Harding, 1993: 56). This represents an important innovation for the Marxist claim that the proletariat had a special insight into their oppressed status inside capitalism. The task for a feminist epistemology is then not to know the ‘other’ (as object of knowledge), but to reclaim the marginalised as knowing subjects and to know with them. Standpoint theory has been criticised for this idea of ‘epistemic privilege’2. Without expressing judgment on this complex debate, i believe that these critiques could be transformed if we see the standpoint as challenging the topographical understanding of social location (fixed identity)3. The standpoint is a process of relational, thus topological, positioning:
a standpoint cannot be thought of as an ascribed position. … Rather, a standpoint is an achievement, something for which oppressed groups must struggle, something that requires both science and politics … (Harding, 2002: 8)
Knowledge-making is a relational project that can be aligned with a topological understanding of social location. The key points i wish to highlight in standpoint theory are proposals that: knowledge is topological (or positioning), and that knowing is a collective endeavour. I will transpose some of these claims into the posthumanist continuum to understand the dynamics of assemblage.
There are important resonances with questions of environmental justice in these claims. In ecofeminist analyses, a number of world-making projects are captured by the logic of domination. If ecofeminism is situated into a posthumanist continuum, a large variety of knowings can be considered suppressed. Some of these knowings do not involve humans. Other-than-humans engage in their unique, singular onto-epistemic entanglements, “practices of knowing in being” (Barad, 2007: 185)4.
The key passage from standpoint theory to a posthumanist epistemology can be made through Donna Haraway’s formulation of ‘situated knowledge’ in 1988. In dialogue with standpoint theories and ecofeminism, Haraway makes the case for feminist objectivity that “is about limited location and situated knowledge, not about transcendence and splitting of subject and object” (ibid.: 190). The very nature of situatedness in Haraway opens towards a topological epistemic dynamics: “partial, locatable, critical knowledges sustaining the possibility of webs of connections called solidarity in politics and shared conversations in epistemology” [my emphasis] (ibid.: 191). Situated knowledges emerge communally and through territories of power relations: “knowledge:community::knowledge:power” (ibid.: 196). Because the “knowing self is partial in all its guises, never finished, whole … it is able to join with another, to see together without claiming to be another” (Haraway, 1991: 193). To be partial is not a limitation as in modern epistemology, it is the very condition that enables engagement with the world’s iterative intra-activity. Partiality opens towards an expanse of possibilities for semiotic-material intra-connectivity that lead to generating a ‘larger vision’ (ibid.: 191). This vision is however only possible from “somewhere in particular” (ibid.: 196), bodies and fields. This situated-webbed knowing location i believe strongly resonates with the dynamics of assemblage.
Partiality (composition), conversation, ‘webbed accounts’ (polyvocality), community/solidarity (affect); i think these can be imagined as traits of assemblage knowing. For Haraway, knowing is an intra-action of subjects and the world, “a power-charged social relation of ‘conversation’” (ibid.: 198). The humanist concept of ‘conversation’ here traverses natures and cultures, because the world is understood as a ‘witty agent’, an agential ‘coyote’ or a livel ‘trickster’. Because of this worldly unruliness, knowing is a ‘messy’ practice of care and cross-breeding, of “making kins”, becoming-by-knowing-with-other5. Shared conversations can be had only between partners. Following Vicki Kirby’s concept of ‘natural convers(at)ions’, the question for posthuman situated knowledge is how to join and participate in this wider field of lively talking.
In intra-active dynamism, knowing is entangled with iterative agential cuts, enacted through subject―object determinations. Knowing is a meeting, it implies material causality. Niels Bohr, in describing particle physics experiments, says that “permanent marks …. [are] left on bodies” (in Barad, 2007: 119). The object side of an agential cut experiences power. Each knowledge ‘leaves’ consequences. Situated knowledges are thus immediately ethico-political:
knowing requires differential accountability to what matters and to what is excluded from mattering. That is, what is required is differential responsiveness that is accountable to marks on bodies as part of a topologically dynamic complex of performances. (Barad, 2007: 380)
Accountability and responsibility/responsiveness are different from knowledge oriented towards objectivity as critical distance from object. Together with the ‘cutting apart’ of subject and object in onto-epistemic dynamics, there needs to be a ‘cutting together’, an intensification of relations of accountability and responsibility, especially towards what gets “excluded from mattering”. Knowing is always a question of ‘ethico-onto-epistem-ology’ (ibid.: 185).
(In a critical/analytical mode, it must be noted that most of the apparatuses in the present do not cultivate situated epistemology. In capitalist, imperialist, modernist apparatuses, it is merely optional if subjects will treat a guinea pig as a person. When agential cuts are made in non-responsive fashion, some agencies are turned into objects-as-things, ‘others,’ fetishes, black boxes, commodities, collateral damage, or a means to an end. When a subject properties objects in this way, it installs a ‘blind spot’ of transcendence over the rest of apparatus, avoiding relations of accountability.)
The question remains, if relationships to marks made can be more responsive, can marks be empowering for the marked objects (as much as the subjects)? Can there be a knowing that undoes the dynamics of agential cut, or that does otherwise? Can there be other types of knowing/sensing, ones that do not involve a constitution of a subject?
In her recent writings, Barad makes steps in this direction through an ethico-onto-epistemics of quantum ‘touching’ (2012a, 2012b, 2015). Barad invites us to learn from electrons. The dynamics of mattering in quantum field theory (QTF) opens for a radical re-imagining of being―knowing and aesthetics. The details are technical, but the dynamics is fundamentally poetic. In Barad’s reading of the quantum field of vacuum, electrons are not separate from the void, instead they collectively engage in tireless experimentation with infinities of possible becomings. The vacuum itself is brimming with “quantum fluctations” performed by “virtual particles” (Barad, 2015: 396). The void is “an endless exploration of all possible couplings of virtual particles, a ‘scene of wild activities’” (ibid.:). Electrons not only “traffic” in virtual particles with the void, but also with themselves (emitting and re-absorbing photons). “Matter is an enfolding, an involution, it cannot help touching itself, and in this self-touching it comes in contact with the infinite alterity that it is” (ibid.: 399).The so-called point particles, and the vacuum itself, are an incessant (self-)experimentation. In the end (that is, in the middle), what comes to matter are “condensations of responses, of response-ability” (ibid.: 401). Becoming as (self-)touching displaces the paradigms of visuality in both epistemology and aesthetics. Most importantly, “the self is dispersed/diffracted through time and being” (ibid.: 400). ‘The self’ participates in the in/determinacy of non/being, dispersing and absorbing others’ dispersions, ‘self-touching’ and ‘self-touching the other’. We should not be led to think that this ‘polymorphous perversity’ belongs only to electrons (ibid.: 399).
In a consonant fashion, Vicki Kirby interprets the touching of earth and cloud in flash lightning. It is not that lightning ‘strikes’ somewhere, a lightning is an upwards and downwards conversation between the currents of the thunderstorm and earth. The electric charges start ‘travelling’ from the cloud in a zig-zag pattern, until about “ten or a hundred metres” before the ground, and then the earth responds by discharging “a travelling spark” from the point where the strike will occur (Kirby, 2011: 11). In Barad’s analysis of Kirby, lightning is “an energising response to a highly charged field” (Barad, 2015: 397). The field between earth and cloud comes into being as the electric charges experiment their way (ibid.: 397). There is an advance, the cloud “flirts” with the earth, until electrons from the ground respond (ibid.: 398). This is a becoming, a double deterritorialisation, and it almost uncannily embodies DG’s concept of “line of flight”, which draws two agencies into a joint path. However, what should be pointed out is that the ‘line of flight’ is only the dramatic expression of a broader field of self-touching. Knowing consists in assembling of an intense field of possibilities, through which a becoming, a new possibility, may draw its agential path to touch itself. From this depiction, to ‘touch’ or to ‘know’ a ‘thunderstrike’ is an entanglement of self-touching (being affected) and self-touching the other (affecting). In intra-action of becoming, subject and object are situated and dispersed.
Lightning is a materialisation of assemblage. Both the cloud and the earth need to align to different degrees. There are two key elements of assembly: the ‘flash’ or becoming, and the field. The flash is the ‘location’ of becoming, becoming-earth of the cloud and becoming-cloud of the earth. It can be correlated to the achievement of a collective standpoint; a figure, a tree, standing in the field in relation of response-ability with the cloud. However, it is only an expression of a much broader field of collective intra-activity, numerous zig-zag patterns of experimentation that slowly made their way across the initial gap. In this ‘murmuring’ (Barad, 2012a: 216) of the virtual touches, assemblage is already-not-yet-there, it is in the virtual, but it is real. Becoming ‘response-able’ to the yearning of matter is to begin to know-as-assemblage (hooks, 1990)6. Matter is made up of “condensations of responses, of response-ability” (Barad, 2015: 401), and to participate in mattering is to be response-able before the flashes of matter.
Following up on situated knowledge, i believe that assemblage can be considered through Magdalena Górska’s concept of ‘situated-dispersal’ (2016: 67-9)7. Posthuman knowing implies situated work within power and knowledge apparatuses and a dispersal of force and desire. This dispersal may invoke the field into a ‘shared conversation’. Situating and response-ability are entwined performances of knowing/meeting the inhuman. From the viewpoint of human(ist) apparatuses, initiating an assemblage dynamics implies “sensing the abyss, the edges of the limits of ‘inclusion’ and ‘exclusion” (Barad, 2012a: 216)— facing “the inhuman”—embodying that “each of ‘us’ is constituted as responsible for the other, as the other” [my emphasis] (ibid.:215). Responsibility comes before a response, it is becoming-other before the other. ‘Before’ stands for the spatial and temporal orientation of yearning. Because the world is response-able and brimming with irreducible will to self-touch anotherness, a field of assembly may come into being.
From this we can see how apparatus and assemblages are two entangled modes of mattering―meaning. Apparatuses know by way of cutting together/apart of subjects and objects, with different degrees of accountability and responsibility. Assemblages are touches in fields of shared experimentation. It should be clear that both assemblage and apparatus participate in the same dynamics of worldly spacetimemattering. I am drawing an analytical distinction in orientation between the two modes. Apparatuses are performances of ‘cutting together/apart’ whilst assemblages are performances of touching of aparts-together, (self-)touchings with other (self-)touchings.
Matter ‘comes to matter’ through apparatuses and assemblies, but no other entities’ apparatuses are as violent in cutting apart as humans’ are currently. Human apparatuses cut much more than they touch, and in this they profit from the immanent surplus of life. From the position of life in biocapitalist apparatuses of capture, the virtual or the inhuman is the excluded-within. This is Agamben’s ‘state of exception’ (1995), the fundamental formulation of biopolitics. Appropriation by exception is possible only because apparatuses imply making cuts. In this context, it is imperative to insist on other modes of knowing, on assemblages that are “a symbiosis, a ‘sympathy’” (Deleuze, in De Landa, 2006: 121). To know/touch the inhuman implies a re-orientation of “practices of knowing in being” (Barad, 2007: 185). In this light, i see eco-aesthetics as fundamentally a mode of ethico-onto-epistemic performativity. The main question for art is how to meet other bodies in response-ability, how to learn to touch others without domination. Eco-aesthetics can thus be one of what Foucault called ‘techniques’ or ‘practices of the self’ (1997: 225). However, in view of the ontico-epistemic entanglement, the ‘self’ has become radically other. I therefore believe that more than ethics, we are speaking about a practice of posthuman polytics.
- Feminist epistemologies seek to decentre the Enlightenment knowing subject, and as such they join intentions with post-colonial, antiracist, minoritarian, and other critical-political projects that try to displace the white, male, and patriarchal projects of domination. In this, critical feminist epistemologies share ethos with ecofeminist critiques of domination, which is the conceptual-political ground of this work.
- A claim that women’s lives afford an epistemic privilege has been criticised as essentialising from the point of view of postmodern feminism (e.g. Hekman, 1996). As a result, standpoint theories have moved from claiming women’s social location towards a pluralisation of positions. However, this attentiveness towards plural positionings has been present even in early formulations of the standpoint, as Sandra Harding reasserted that feminisms are historically embedded and thus that there are many positions from which to start thought off (1993: 60). There is no final word on this, and it is not my task to resolve this important dispute.
- Insight for this comes from Karen Barad’s critique moved against how feminist social theory uses spatial metaphors which are primarily of modern nature, i.e. ‘space as container’ (2007: 223-6).
- For example, Karen Barad extensively describes the onto-epistemology of a brittlestar (2007: 371-383). Importantly, Barad does not claim that other-than-humans ‘have’ their epistemologies, but that humans should practice ‘onto-epistem-ology’ to better ”come to terms with how specific intra-actions matter” (2007: 185).
- In fact, Haraway shares conversations with primates, cyborgs, dogs, laboratory mice, and many other others (1989, 1991, 1997, 2003, 2008).
- ‘Yearning’ is affect-feeling with which bell hooks condenses her vision of liberatory Black feminist consciousness, “desire for radical social change [that] is intimately linked with the desire to experience pleasure, erotic fulfillment, and a host of other passions” (1990). I am encouraged to use desire and yearning in posthumanist register by Karen Barad (2012b). Significantly, Barad emphasises that yearning is indeed a material force. “Don’t for a minute think that there are no material effects of yearning and imagining” (ibid.: 13). I use yearning in conjunction with DG’s notion of ‘desire’ as a driving force of the social. ”There is only desire and the social [the field], and nothing else” (DG, 1983: 29).
- Magdalena Górska formulates ‘situated-dispersal’ by diffracting “situated knowledges” with inter-textuality to describe the movement of signifiers (and matter) among heterogeneous planes. Situated-dispersal also relates to her subject of inquiry, to the process of breathing: situating and dispersing particles and affects. I find this figuration highly evocative for imagining posthuman assemblies in which it is not only humans that sense and know.