What are you reading?

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.

* * *
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.

1. Tsing, A. L. (2015). The Mush­room at the End of the World: On the Pos­sib­il­ity of Life in Cap­it­al­ist Ruins. Prin­ceton Uni­ver­sity Press.
2. Ahmed, S. (2017). Liv­ing a Fem­in­ist Life. Duke Uni­ver­sity Press.
Tsing, A. L. (2015). The Mush­room at the End of the World: On the Pos­sib­il­ity of Life in Cap­it­al­ist Ruins. Prin­ceton Uni­ver­sity Press.
Ahmed, S. (2017). Liv­ing a Fem­in­ist Life. Duke Uni­ver­sity Press.

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