Artist, writer, and co-author of Xenofeminist Manifesto, Patricia Reed, speaks on how to seek solidarity in a time of uncertainty and transform human self-conception to withstand the challenges posed by the Anthropocene.
We stand at the prehistory of a fundamentally other world, living in a period of hyper interdependence and planetary-scale computation, coupled with the uncertainties of anthropogenic climate change and growing resource disparity, argues writer and Strelka visiting lecturer Patricia Reed.
Technology has allowed us to expand our knowledge of the universe and to reach deep into the molecular level. Our understanding of ‘intelligence’ is also undergoing substantial transformation due to widened perspectives opened up by studying animal cognition as well as the proliferation of computational intelligence – both of which are vastly different from our own. Despite this, we somehow still face a situation where the threat of climate change is often deferred and power relations across most fields and social systems remain deeply unequal. Biases of gender, race, and class are still firmly embedded in many world views – even smart algorithms reflect the implicit values of their human designers, resulting in the Amazon AI recruiting tool showing bias against women, or facial recognition technology demonstrating racial prejudice.
Reed believes that to enact any substantial social change we must intervene not only on the level of symptoms, but on the level of cosmology, or what Foucault called the episteme. Instead of multiplying instructions on “How to create ethical AI,” we need to transform the very core of human self-understanding, from which new modes of governance and world-making emerge.
Strelka Mag spoke to Patricia Reed on how to gain traction and political mobility in the wake of the Anthropocene.
Feminism fit for 21st century
Based in Berlin, Patricia Reed is an artist, writer, and designer working at the intersection of the theory of knowledge and politics. Exploring connections between feminism and epistemology, she advocates for the construction of better accounts of our reality at the scale of planetary interconnections.
She is a member of the Laboria Cuboniks collective and co-author of the Xenofeminist Manifesto, which was re-issued by Verso Books in 2018. Among her recent writings are “Solidarity without Sameness,” “Making Ready for a Big World,” and “Platform Cosmologies: Enabling Resituation.”
The Manifesto is a result of the collaboration of six female authors attempting “to articulate feminism fit for the twenty-first century.” Described as a pocket color manifesto for a new futuristic feminism, the book advocates for gender, race, and class abolitionism in a succinct, intransigent manner. It channels several lines of argument in parallel, which emerge from the different disciplinary backgrounds of the researchers.
Reed’s stake in the Manifesto draws from one of the central concepts of feminist epistemologies – “situated knowledges” from Donna Haraway. She extends it to our present, complex condition – which forces us to contend with a certain scale of reality.
Haraway criticized the assumption that researchers are neutral observers of reality.
“Haraway’s significant contribution was, and is, to make the claim that knowledge production involves the historical-material situation (mind, body, geography, culture, and instruments) of particular knowers and institutions of knowledge - acknowledgement,” explains Reed. “This plays out in an interesting dynamic with Foucault’s ‘episteme’ – a pre-condition for knowledge production bound to certain socio-historical contexts, that set a boundary of what counts as knowledge, and what sorts of questions ‘make sense’ to even be asked.” Reed sees the need to understand situated knowledges in a two-way fashion, suggesting that the agency of thinking is not only tied to an object of study, but also how knowledge works back upon the knower. “When the results of thinking from a situated position are internalized and translated into action, when your concept creation becomes part of lived existence, one is re-situated through this reciprocal activity, meaning situatedness is not a permanently fixed state.”
Reed argues that addressing global complexity requires “distributed situatedness” – a kind of cognition which is composed of multiple human and non-human intelligences dispersed across geographies and multiple scales.
“The idea of situatedness is important, but it needs to be extrapolated for a condition that factors in distributed geographies/bodies and how they are linked together. We need to be aware that humans and non-human entities co-exist in disparate geographies simultaneously and create vehicles of perceiving that interrelation. It’s a condition where knowledge can only be formed through the non-trivial amalgamation of forms of situatedness to co-constitute a common object of study.”
Simply knowing that a problem exists doesn’t directly or fully determine a set of consequential actions to be taken as a result of that knowing. Reed emphasizes the importance of better understanding the translation of knowledge into activity, from strictly “knowing that” to also “knowing how.”
“What I appreciate about feminist epistemologies is the way that they don’t just talk about knowledge in this propositional realm of ‘knowing that,’ but also highlight a materialist theory of knowledge and its derivative practices,” she explains. “To me, this creates a much broader framework through which to evaluate knowledge in a gestural way, not just as informational transmission, but knowledge put into practice, knowledge put to transformative use, which to my mind, requires that new knowledge be narrated.”
Transforming human self-conception
How can we face the challenges posed by the Anthropocene and enact any substantial change in the existing condition of the world? According to Reed, we must intervene at the root construction of human self-understanding, as a source for new modes of governance and world-making. “If we radically transform our conception of ‘human,’ we create new perspectives from which to observe and engage with the world, as well as constructing different formulations of what ‘makes sense’ and how we figure relations,” she says.
In this regard, Reed looks to writer and cultural theorist Sylvia Wynter, whose “Re-Enchantment of Humanism” is parsed through the lens of racial discrimination, the legacy of colonialism, and representations of humanness.
“Wynter took Foucault’s concept of the episteme further, arguing that the episteme determines codes of governance that instantiate a particular ‘genre of being human,’ how we frame humanness, in its image. If we transform human self-conception, we will have a whole set of other consequences and ramifications cascade out of that,” Reed explains.
Wynter’s reclaiming of humanism casts light on the brutal contradictions and modes of exclusivity that lie at the heart of its Eurocentric enactment – pointing to the chasm between its ideals and its materialization in the world. The framing of the “human” has long been a cause for countless injustices and violence, so “until the historical exclusivity of this category ‘human’ is grappled with, hopes that we humans may unite under the common threat of the Anthropocene remain an ahistorical idealism, trapping us in the immobility of wishful thinking” writes Reed in her recent essay.
The deployment of a situationally localised concept at a global scale, without the labour of accounting for localised differentiation, is an erroneously dangerous way of approaching the global, she argues, as it is a small world perspective inflated to a big world proportion. It’s what gives this issue of scale a negative connotation, since it becomes easily conflated with the processes of homogenization and domination (as we have seen historically with Eurocentrism). The question is, can we construct a continuum between scales of situatedness - our particular and our generic human situation “that can account for and be accountable to plurality, complexity, and systems of human and nonhuman interdependence, without the false and oftentimes vicious cognitive comforts of reduction.”
Enacting social transformation in the face of crises with shared causal forces, albeit with vastly different degrees of acuteness and specificity of issue, requires coalitions of distributed communities (and entities for that matter) that often don’t have common cosmologies or experiences, and which don’t resemble each other. How do we build alliances that are not bound by familiarity? Is there a possibility for a non-absolute universal – a concept that acts as a binding agent for solidarity-making without squashing particular differences?
“There is an understandable mistrust of the term ‘universality,’ given that it’s often come to entail those in power imposing their position and forcing populations to mirror their way of being – it’s been a way to erode differences in order to conform the world into a familiar image for those forcing this imposition. This cannot be claimed as any sort of universality at all, since what I’ve just described is about reduction and uniformity, whereas I think we need to approach universality as a kind of gluing operation traversing – but not obliterating – difference. In the very least, we need to find ways to maximize solidarities, and because this ambition is tethered to the preservation of situational differences, those alliances cannot be premised on sameness. We require a very large amount of people to come together to enact transformations of the scale we want, and need,” Reed says.
In order to “maximize solidarity” we would need to reevaluate certain priorities that get emphasized at different moments in political theory, she argues. “Political theory emanating out of a more managerial, stagnant phase of politics in the Global North, from thinkers like Chantal Mouffe or Giorgio Agamben, are heavily reliant on Carl Schmitt, who based his politics on the power or decision to draw the line between an ‘us’ and ‘them.’ This is a politics that foregrounds separation, where antagonism or agonism is upheld as the force to achieve this. On the one hand this is definitely necessary so as to create a separation from ‘that way things are,’ but it strikes me that today, we have a proliferation of divisions and borders, so perhaps the script needs to be flipped and ask how to emphasize, rather, a ‘we’? What happens to the way we figure politics when that ‘we’ is prioritized, a ‘we’ that is not given nor homogenous, but demands construction?”
Hypotheticals and Making Ready
As an artist, Reed also reflects on the possibility for artists to engage with emerging post-anthropocentric cosmologies. “Because of the current crises in the world, as well as those within the art field, you ask yourself these existential questions – ‘Why should I do this? What relevance does art bring to the world in light of these crises, and what role can artists play within them, without perhaps inadvertently reinforcing them?’”
She believes that artists can seize the opportunity to bring these new speculative geometries of counter-intuitive scales from the molecular to the planetary level, to human experience.
“There’s an expression outlined by philosopher Robin Mackay that I’ve found helpful as a way to orient artistic practice, what he called ‘making ready.’ It’s an idea he wrote about following its coinage from the artist Simon Sterling. Obviously it’s a play on words as a follow-up to the paradigmatic ‘ready made’ operation of artistic production, which is more about the presentation or recontextualization of things that already exist. What I infer in the idea of ‘making ready’ is a more hypothetical position; rather than reconfiguring what is, it engages propositionally with what could be. This ‘making ready’ is a way to prepare the sensorium for worlds, and configurations that don’t (yet) exist, so it’s potentially a way make these unknowns experiential, in order to make them amenable to cognition since so much of the phenomena we’ve been talking about often escapes sensory perception. Even if those ambitions for artworks may seem a bit bloated, I think of this ‘making ready’ in a humble way, away from the tropes of a heroic singular artist. Sylvia Wynter once noted that abrupt change doesn’t just magically come about, that the seeds of seemingly abrupt change have been planted and cultivated for some time, so perhaps in this light we can see our role as contributing to a setting of such seedbeds for hypothetical worlds to come.”