Happy to have the short conversation I had with @danielarosner published in Interactions Magazine’s regular “What are you reading?” column. We experiment with a brief interchange about two wonderful books: Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World and Sarah Ahmed’s Living a Feminist Life.
Below is the long-winded version before tidying and editing.
A conversation with Alex and Daniela for the “What are you reading?” column in interactions magazine, Nov. 2017.
A.S.T.: Daniela and I wanted to try something a little different for this issue’s “What are you reading?”. We wanted to read something together that had a resonance between us, and that might give rise to a generative discussion. After a bit of deliberation, we settled on two books. The first is Anna Tsing’s “The Mushroom at the End of the World,” an extraordinary examination of one of the world’s most rarified mushrooms across capitalist supply chains and histories of multispecies cohabitation that explores the tensions between capitalist destruction and collaborative survival. The second book is Sarah Ahmed’s “Living a Feminist Life,” a feminist treatise that weaves together ideas from feminist of color scholarship with personal meditations on everyday feminist encounters.
Although quite different in scope, and although investigating topics conventionally outside HCI, both volumes explore feminist figurings of materialism that Daniela and I have been mulling on for quite some time. […]
Before getting into the readings, I feel it’s important to share that over the last eight years Daniela and I have grown together as scholars. Early on, we shared a keen interest in materialities as articulated by people like Tim Ingold and Bruno Latour. Over the years, this mutual interest has developed to centre far more on a feminist figuring of materialism and a particular concern for the entangled enactments of being and doing in the world, probably best exemplified in Donna Haraway’s figures of the cyborg, companion species and, most recently, the chthulucene. At the same time, Daniela has gone on to develop a mature reading of craft, hand-work and repair, and demonstrated the importance of these to HCI. And my own interests have threaded a variety of topics together, but been unified by a deep interest in the structural effects and affects of computation. Together, then, we hoped our convergences and divergences might make for something engaging, if unconventional for an interactions’ reader.
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Having read these books what makes them valuable to be read together, and critically how do they come to be valuable together as feminist figurings of materiality?
D.K.R.: I’m in awe of these authors — the scope of their work, their ability to entwine a strong activist agenda with a crisp theoretical focus, and their skillful nurturing of a poetics of practice with powerful analytic potential. How to search for understanding while asserting difference? Thinking through mushrooms, I’ve learned, can help.
Before reading Tsing’s book, I never thought much about mushrooms as more than something delicious (or deadly!) to consume, and certainly not as an object for feminist world-making. But as with Ahmed’s focus on feminism, reading Tsing’s account of the matsutake mushroom is a deeply personal account of noticing —showing how the impulse to notice can take multiple forms. For Ahmed noticing is a political act, drawing forth and realizing exclusions and omissions. What is it that people learn not to notice? In learning and unlearning across difference Ahmed promises opportunities for listening, for noticing. Tsing works with a noticing of unpredictability, the dance of following tracks in the dark, of follow the mushrooms, of noticing what matters. Bodies, both living and dead, become tools for “show[ing] us how to look around rather than ahead.” (2015, 22) They enroll additional instruments for knowing; forms of political listening that, in Tsing’s words, “look for disturbance-based ecologies in which many species sometimes live together without either harmony or conquest” (ibid, 5).
Have these forms of noticing infected your work? What did you find?
A.S.T.: You capture a strong commonality between what have been for me two exhilarating and deeply moving texts. I felt the same way: noticing is thoroughly enlivened by both authors. I found their ideas turned and folded in together — involuted! (Hustak and Myers) — to offer up something more and at the same time pointing to a deeper, more critical attention to things.
I was delighted with Tsing’s insistence on following the stories, of choosing to turn away from the usual modes of scholarly accounting and, instead, stay with the noticed details of lines spun by mushrooms and people across time, and along global supply chains. Also, I was touched by Ahmed’s attention to revisiting her own profound encounters with violence, (un)happiness and self-discovery, and responding by daring to ‘get in the way’ — like Wolf’s Mrs Dalloway, finding ways to stop and orient the body differently. Between them, such shifts in scale! But together they invite, as you say, a care for paying attention and asking, to use Ahmed’s words, “questions about how to live better” (2017, 12).
It’s with an emphasis on the latter that I want to respond to you, and that I mean to ask a follow on question. Certainly paying attention to the details has been central to my research in studying how lives entangle with technologies. This has always been the starting point for the ethnographic enterprise that channels my work. And yet, I’ve managed to bracket this kind of eye for detail from what I bring with it, what worlds I bring with such noticings. I agree with you, Ahmed and Tsing (along with other feminist writings) show how noticing has its politics, that by ‘merely’ noticing we are always already entangled in a cosmopolitics (Stengers) in which the personal and structural are strung together, and where injustices, inequities and violence are immanent. What Ahmed’s and Tsing’s noticings show for me, then, is a commitment to much more than the detailed accounts of the world. By paying attention to the troubled conditions we are implicated in, they are making the space to seek reparative methods and the possibilities for other more bearable worlds.
What I’m curious to hear is whether these ideas of what I am beginning to think of as ‘resistances and reparations’ resonate with you in reading the texts and, perhaps more importantly, if/how you see them coming through in the design research you do.
D.K.R.: I like thinking of these as reparative methods — and, in this sense, I see their methods as reflections of genealogy. The lineage of design we receive as HCI practitioners looks very different from the one I inherited as an undergraduate design student, which looks different from the one I now seek to recuperate in my recent work (exploring the practices of women who wove early forms of computing memory by hand). In this multiply produced trajectory, in seeking out varied pathways toward defining design, I see possibilities for reconfiguring what comprises design today. Design might not work toward progress or toward ruin but instead, after Tsing, it may help us think with “salvage rhythms.” It might help us notice the uneven, contingent, and collective work required for change. Ahmed writes of women’s studies departments:“We have to shake the foundations”
“But when we shake the foundations, it is harder to stay up” (2017, 232). Does design call for the same willful commitment to keep going, “to keep coming up?” (ibid, 12).
Ahmed and Tsing don’t speak directly to design as a field or as a practice. But I wonder if you see in their critiques and potentials — from “decentering human hubris” to “diversity work” — an opening for elaborating a different kind of technology design? Tsing writes, “To listen politically is to detect the traces of not-yet-articulated common agendas” (2015, 254). As you do this listening, this reparation and resistance, what not-yet-articulated common agendas might you find?
A.S.T.: There’s so much to say in response to this, but in the interests of space (which we are running out of), let me limit my answer to one thing in particular, namely what I see to be our contemporaneous obsession with numbers, counting and simulacrums of the market place. To me, this unerring drift (that sometimes feels like a surge) towards measurement and the market rationalising of everything, has become such a big part of how we approach technology design. It operates as a rationalising force in so much work, to the point that we mask how — in the way Tsing shows so compellingly— labour and capital is strewn together through such a heterogeneity of flows, eddies, disturbances and even ruin. Indeed, the labours and products that many of us are involved in appear to be so bound up with this powerful logic, but there are still so few possibilities to question or resist it, to “shake the foundations” and “keep coming up”.
For me, Tsing and Ahmed show that we need, urgently, to find ways to act together, to make more possible with the possibilities you write of. Inspired by Ahmed’s language, in particular, I come away wanting to build an army in which each of us is not afraid of putting our bodies into it. All around us, there are ideologies, structures, methods, norms, practices, etc. that seek to smooth so much over and remove each of us from being counted, really counted, from being “alive with a world”. What we need are ways to keep pushing, resisting, and being sensational. We need to ensure our noticings are noticed.
D.K.R.: So maybe then, for HCI, this call to arms makes possible a renewed concern for the problem-solving heritage of the field. Across its methodological rubrics and case studies, HCI scholarship tends to frame design as a means of accomplishing ends, of seeking out too-easy resolutions rather than encouraging creative listening, in Tsing’s terms. These texts, by contrast, caution against such prefabrications and fatalisms. They show that what is at stake in making and inhabiting unpredictable encounters is our ability to recognize and become more accountable to those who lose out — to the things that lie outside our immediate view, to the bacteria that make the soil in which many designers mine, to the “users” haunted by our patriarchal legacies of innovation work. Tsing and Ahmed ask readers to struggle against — to take in and wrestle with our surrounding ecosystems. “We become a problem when we describe a problem,” writes Ahmed (2017, 87). For HCI, Tsing and Ahmed show that designers are not self-contained entities but designers-in-motion, continually working together across difference.