William Kentridge — A drawing lesson”

“... can we be bet­ter than who we are, can we be oth­er than who we are?”
I’ve been try­ing to think about cap­ab­il­ity for a little while and try­ing to make sense of how we become able. What I’ve wanted to get away from is an idea of abil­ity that we feel defined or lim­ited by — the pre­sumed lim­its of abil­ity dic­tated, sup­posedly, by our bod­ily and men­tal capa­cit­ies.

Today I came across this lovely video of and by the artist Wil­li­am Kentridge. He expresses so much of what has engaged me in this sub­ject mat­ter, but with such elo­quence and so vividly.

Vienna art, design, and architecture biennale

Anab Jain very kindly asked me to con­trib­ute a short piece to the pro­gramme for the Vienna art, design, and archi­tec­ture bien­nale.

With the motto:
Robots. Work. Our Future”

... the Bien­nale sets the devel­op­ments in robot­ics and AI against the future of work and labour. I’ve used this as an invit­a­tion to con­sider two modes’ of cap­ab­il­ity:

When it comes to judging the capa­cit­ies of humans and non­hu­mans, we are drawn to two modes of exist­ence. In one mode, we are com­pelled to see cap­ab­il­ity as resid­ing with­in an act­or, as an intrins­ic qual­ity of their being. A favour­ite determ­in­ant is the brain-weight to body-weight ratio; anoth­er is genet­ic pre­dis­pos­i­tion. We have devised all man­ner of tests to isol­ate human and non­hu­man capa­cit­ies: IQ tests, rats mazes and Tur­ing tests among them. Nat­ur­ally, humans come out on top using most counts.

In the second mode, we observe act­ors excel in their achieve­ments. We allow ourselves to be sur­prised and delighted by exhib­i­tions of capa­city that exceed our expect­a­tions (and that con­tra­vene the first mode in so many ways). To find evid­ence of this mode, one need only turn to that vast repos­it­ory of record and obser­va­tion, You­Tube, and wit­ness the view­ing num­bers for titles like spe­cies [x] and spe­cies [y] play­ing togeth­er”, spe­cies [x] and spe­cies [y] unlikely friends”, and so on. As these titles sug­gest, cap­ab­il­ity is often recog­nised here as accom­plished with oth­ers — with oth­er objects, oth­er act­ors, oth­er crit­ters.

Spec­u­lat­ing on human capa­cit­ies — on what humans might be cap­able of and how they might work in the future — I find myself ask­ing, as the anim­al stud­ies schol­ar Vin­ciane Despret does, which of these modes is more inter­est­ing’ and which makes more inter­est­ing’. Which of these modes invites us to spec­u­late on new fab­u­la­tions of act­ors of all kinds, of act­ors becoming-with each oth­er, of becom­ing other-than-humanly-capable, of becom­ing more cap­able?

I am taken by the mode that views cap­ab­il­ity as col­lect­ively achieved and that invites those con­di­tions that enlarge capa­cit­ies through on-going inter­ming­lings. The future of work, through this mode, will be dic­tated not by the lim­its of being human, but by how we might best attune ourselves with oth­ers, how we might become more cap­able togeth­er.

Platypus blog post

The Com­mit­tee for the Anthro­po­logy of Sci­ence, Tech­no­logy & Com­put­ing (CASTAC) and Rebekah Cul­pit kindly gave me the oppor­tun­ity to write a piece for Platy­pus (the CASTAC blog).

Titled Becom­ing More Cap­able”, the blog post sketches out some of the early ideas I’ve been think­ing with in con­nec­tion to dis/ability. Spe­cific­ally, it takes up a gen­er­at­ive (fem­in­ist inspired) pos­i­tion, that under­stands cap­ab­il­ity as col­lect­ively achieved, as a becoming-with’. The Platy­pus post is here, or see a longer un-edited ver­sion below.

We need to exer­cise the ima­gin­a­tion in order to elbow away at the con­di­tions of im/possibility.

Ingunn Moser & John Law (1999: 174)

What is it to be cap­able? How might we elbow away the con­di­tions that lim­it abil­ity, to become more cap­able? (more…)

Talk at RCA, Design Products

I had a very gen­er­ous slot for present­ing to some in Design Products at the RCA this week.

Slides from RCA Design Products talk Feb 2017

In this talk, I want to sug­gest we have spent too much time work­ing with the lim­its of cap­ab­il­ity — the lim­its of the per­cep­tu­al appar­at­us, the lim­its of cog­nit­ive capa­cit­ies, and the lim­its of how crit­ters (wheth­er human or non­hu­man) inter­act and relate to one anoth­er. Draw­ing on a fem­in­ist tech­nos­cience and using examples from recent field­work, I’ll aim to show that, togeth­er, we make ourselves cap­able. That cap­ab­il­ity isn’t lim­ited to some pre-given, indi­vidu­al state, but comes into being through (inter)action, through entangled rela­tions between act­ors of all kinds. This, I’ll claim, gives us a very dif­fer­ent way of think­ing about our rela­tions with tech­no­logy and espe­cially the prom­ise of AI and machine learn­ing. Rather than machines aim­ing to rep­lic­ate human cap­ab­il­ity, I want to pro­pose an expans­ive pro­ject that allows us the chance to ima­gine some­thing other-than’ finite cap­ab­il­it­ies, that sees cap­ab­il­ity as a becoming-with’, and lays open the pos­sib­il­it­ies for much much more.


I’m hop­ing to fine-tune and do a little tidy­ing of these ideas for this talk at the Know­ledge Lab (Insti­tute of Edu­ca­tion) later this month.