[This discussion is the conclusion of a series of talks: Designing Energy Transformation: From the Modern Infrastructure Ideal to Liberatory Technologies; Design Justice for the Green New Deal; and Amniotechnics (not transcribed)]
Kai Bosworth: Okay. So, questions from the audience? Or otherwise I have one. [very long pause] Silence.
Okay. So, I think that one thing that I was thinking about while both of your presentations were happening is the degree to which a question of not only design or technology but the limits of what we can design or hold power over is at stake in precisely thinking about how to make a better future. And I’m wondering if you agree or disagree with me, and if so does that throw a wrench in thinking about a sort of broad-scale transformation of the planet?
Sophie Lewis: I understand you to be…partly— Just to check on the sort of question, you’re kind of talking about the prescriptive element in what I would—in—yeah. I was saying. Sasha’s presentation was all about the democratic process, and mine was very much about what I…what I want. It’s an interesting tension to have highlighted.
Yes. Well, that’s a really great question. I suppose I’d like to hear what you think yourself, Kai and also— [indicates Costanza-Chock] But I suppose my…my “defense,” if that’s required, is that I truly think that the sorts of normative claims and requisitions and demands and…you know, to some people slightly indefensible sort of utopian assertions in my book are very genuinely a process of interpretation and reading the struggles that have gone before. I don’t really think any of the ideas are “original.” They have emerged from kind of full-spectrum doulas, midwifery struggles, black feminist polymaternalist practices… Yeah, it’s going to be complicated to prosecute the ideal of family abolition given that lots of people…not just Tucker Carlson, but—who’s not a fan of mine. But many people are extremely…you know. We are enemies on this issue. Family comes first is an idea that…it has vast popularity across the political spectrum. I would argue it is anti-ecological idea. Family comes first is not an ecological way of thinking. But… Yeah, we’re gonna have a problem I suppose. I think there is a role for a certain kind of universalist discourse. I say that kind of polemically. If you want communism, you know, you have to say what you want. And that’s going to abut, and produce antagonisms. And that’s not a very great answer. Yeah.
Sasha Constanza-Chock: I mean, I haven’t read your book, yet. But I’m certainly going to now. I feel like…you know, coming from queer and trans communities, a lot of the discourse is right around the families that we have to create. So we talk about chosen family, we talk about possibly refiguring, rethinking, and maybe even destroying or abolishing the hetero- and cisnormative traditional idea of the family in favor of other figurations, including you know frankly the figurations of family and community that existed through most of human history and largely were violently displaced, destroyed, erased through processes of settler colonialism and the arrival of capitalism and the need to produce urban spaces in certain types of ways, produce units of workers, produce demand for you know, family-level or individualized goods, consumption. So I think there’s a lot in there that I agree with. You know I’m certainly… I’m not that into top-down anything. So, abolition of the family as something that’s coming as a state project wouldn’t be something that I’d support but I certainly think that we do need to think about ecological survivability, something that’s going to require significant restructuring of and return to some of these other forms of chosen family and community to replace…or community-esque family.
And I think that for designers— And it’s interesting because I don’t come from urban planning and architecture, or landscape. You know, I come more from HCI—human computer interaction—and from the design of software? And in the Design Justice Network we’ve created sort of some shared strategies and principles, but also there are tensions between… We’re lumping a lot together when we say “design,” and part of one of our tasks right now is for subgroups within the Design Justice Network to kind of think about what does design justice mean for X, where “X” is a different designerly practice. But yeah, I mean I think all of the subfields of design will have to think about what it means to recreate a future that isn’t built around that nuclear unit with the transportation, living, and consumption patterns that we’re supposed to be socialized into. So I’m into that.
Audience 1: Thank you for the panel. This is kind of a…I guess a question for Sophie. I haven’t read your book but I look forward to doing that right away. I’m fascinated by your ideas, I just have a question about the move to technologize the idea of water. And the way that Sasha was just historicizing the idea of family and saying that we have a history that we can refer to in which family was abolished or you know, it didn’t exist in the way that it exists now for many of us. So in the same way, we have kind of a reference to water not being redefined or something. So I think you get what I’m saying. I mean, is it a— So, thinking about water as technologized or cyborg-ized, is that a move away essentializing a relationship to water? Or I guess I’m just asking about technologization of water and cyborg…why that has to fit into your vision.
Bosworth: Let’s gather the other question and then we’ll respond.
Audience 2: Thank all three of you. I kind of was thinking about the concept of designing for discomfort at the beginning, and some of the tensions in all of your presentations between what makes you come alive as an individual and like, makes us feel bright, and makes our communities in the perfect wind farm configuration feel perfect; versus what when we’re in the big space of what our world in a bigger picture needs to function and combat climate change at the speed that we need to combat it. Those things seem intentioned in a lot of ways. So just thinking through that I wonder what your thoughts are.
Lewis: You go first.
Bosworth: I should go first. Okay. Yeah, so I guess I’m a geographer and so we’re supposed to know things about scale? And one of the things that’s really difficult about scale is precisely this question of how do different collectives interface with each other and interface as part of one another. One of the things that I think has been interesting about some of the conversations I’ve been having around designing energy transformation as well as thinking about both of my colleagues up here, their comments today, is how that is also strangely a kind of…we get into these recursive forms of design, right, where we have to also design interfaces that scale up from our kind of face-to-face meetings to the international and planetary scale.
So that’s certainly a difficult proposition. And yet, you think that there’s a lot of examples from both historically and from the present of different kinds of internationalist movements that were both capable of holding at the same time their sort of provisional chosen community around them in a sort of localized or a sort of place-based way, at the same time as they were able to bring those concerns to a broader scale and scales through and beyond the supposed nation-state sort of orientation.
And so, I would hope that that would be one thing that—I mean I think is absolutely necessary in any conversation around a Green New Deal or around ecological futures, is that there isn’t one sort of designable scale that is superior in some kind of way, but it’s really the ongoing interfaces between and among various different kinds of scales that are kind of you know, best-shotting producing a just environtment future.
Costanza-Chock I’m gonna get in on this one because you know, at MIT the students are constantly taught from the day they arrive that they need to scale, they need to build something for a billion people, or it’s meaningless to do. And I think that that’s…personally I think that’s the opposite of what we need. I don’t think that design justice principles support that. I think that that very principle, that’s about the production of monocultures, and by monocultures we could talk about that in terms of organisms, and we would talk about that in agriculture, but we could also talk about it in terms of human cultures. We could talk about it in terms of languages and language death that’s happening now. We could talk about it in terms of even information technology systems, where we’ve started with the promise of the decentralized Web and the liberatory potential of you know— I remember it was actually just last week twenty years ago today that Indymedia was born in the tear gas clouds in Seattle out of the feminist, indigenous, and labor, and green coalition that came together to say no to the one world vision of the World Trade Organization and we used the nascent net and open publishing and free software to try and document and circulate struggles. And now fast forward twenty years, and that’s been replaced by a corporate monoculture of a handful of information companies that are…you know frankly even just in the energy that they… We need to talk about energy justice and information processing power. There are increasingly reports coming out around the amount of energy that’s consumed by this handful of firms in the construction of the Internet infrastructure, but also in terms of the new move towards artificial intelligence and the amount of energy that it takes to produce new AI models which themselves are monoculture-producing data surveillance and protection systems that are about eliminating anyone who is an outlier or doesn’t fall within the range that a data model has been trained on. And I’ve written about this elsewhere.
So I’m not into big scale. I into like, redecentralization and small, local community control, and the Detroit Community Technology Project that’s building community-owned wireless, mesh networks, with digital stewards who come from the communities and are installing that infrastructure themselves and learning how to do that. Yeah.
Bosworth: Sophie, last word.
Lewis: Sometimes at the end of discussions I have about this sort of…formerly really quite familiar on the left but now almost unthinkable, kind of makes your brain explode kind of phrase, family abolition, is that you know, people say something along the lines of, “Oh. Well you know, having historicized it like this, I guess my takeaway is I would love to abolish the family except it doesn’t really exist,” the sort of paradox is that families have in practice already sort of abolished in a sense…families against The Family is a way… Although I don’t want to go too far in that direction and try and claim that we’ve already sort of got there, we’ve already got to the… But you glimpse in reality comradely modes of social reproduction because that’s how people who were not meant to survive, in Audre Lorde’s phrase, have actually stayed around. And the knowledge and the skill of how to sort of not just survive but thrive under conditions of kind of exclusion from the property form of the family, and that white image of the nuclear private household is how sort of like, family against family has evolved. So, you know in a sense some people would make the polemical claim that like, the phrase “black family” is an oxymoron, you don’t— You know, the people being put in cages for instance at the border of the United States are not being treated as The Family, even though they’re…families and they’re being biogenetically tested to see if they are biologically linked to one another.
Anyway. But your question about water is something I wanted to briefly come back on about… So I perhaps would dispute the term…not critically, but “technologize” is not perhaps what I would describe… The proposal of a cyborg concept of water is, to go back to the Cyborg Manifesto, not about a sort of received notion of technology. It’s more about understanding the bothness and the non-purity of this medium. So, my broader project has a lot to do with questioning the idea that romanticizations of things is good, is loving. You know, can we have a kind of liberatory ecological practice that sets up certain things as kind of just good, like water. Which I was trying to say— I mean, so “care” as well is one of these words. People say care, you know, we need care, we need…you know, just care.
And you know, to understand something really deeply and respectfully, you have to understand the morbidity, the violence, the brutality even, inside it, and that includes the placental sort of worksite—the way that a fetus and and a gestator interact is not very…pretty, and you can’t simply describe it as generosity. There’s a lot of kind of no, and antagonism in this kind of relation of bodily care. Perhaps we could even dispense with it and have little biobags filled with slurry that we pass off to one another in a low-tech DIY way that like, resembles Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time scenario, with Mattapoisett’s sort of centralized brooder, which is sort of tactile and…
But you know, an anti-work approach to sort of biology but also informed by the i— You know, in an ultrasound image, you don’t see the water. You see this kind of spaceman. [laughter] Which Donna Haraway pointed out… Donna Haraway pointed out that the image of the Earth, decontextualized, was born at the same time as the image of the fetus that seems to not be in a relation of production, producedness, and sort of gestating back the gestator. And that’s partly because you don’t see the water. And water is not just nice. I’m trying to point out it drowns us, and it nourishes us. And medicine too is not just nice, that’s the whole notion of like, the cure, right. Like it— [inaudible comment from Bosworth] Yeah, okay. But like the duality of like…you know, the poison and the and the life-bringing substance, you know. To understand that the sort of nature of the world around us I’m attracted still—I’m still a little bit loyal to the concept of the cyborg because of its ability to show us that there’s no pure. And so it makes sense to talk about water as a technology for that reason. Because care is messy and sometimes…brutal
Audience 3: I have a question for Sophie, is that— So, I am very— I loved your talk, I’m looking forward to reading your book. I’m very aligned with the things that you espouse. But I have a little problem with some of what feels to me as the polemicism of this language, the idea of abolishing the family. My problem with the polemicism, or what I perceive to be the polemicism of it, is that for better or for worse, you don’t need to sell me on the problematics of the domestic unit of the family. But for better or for worse, that discourse is a part of our reality and as such it has been appropriated by communities that have been on the violent receiving end of that term, right. The idea of family is so important in communities of color. It’s so important for the survival and for the resilience of people that have faced directly the violence done by the patriarchal systems that the family is metonymic for. And so, how do we leave space for that appropriation? The fact that that… You don’t—again, don’t need to reiterate the importance of the critiques but that discourse is important. Is there any way in which we can retain the family, and not abolish the family, but do that radical important work that you’re calling for?
Lewis: Yes. Um… This is the nub of the issue. So, eh… I don’t think it’s facetious to say it kind of returns us to the the impossibility of the word fa— I mean the lived reality of family is in a sense only historically active in communities that are not, in an institutional sense, The Family. I mean it’s as though the only place where there has beens something worthy of the name, in a positive sense, is where it does not exist in the sense of relations of capitalist accumulation and sort of reproduction.
So, you know—and I someti—yeah. I should sometimes make this perhaps more clear at the beginning of talks. I don’t have a kind of… I know, for instance in the black church the language of brother, sister, etc., or not—beyond the black church as well. It’s sort of foundational and it’s anti-familial, you know. To referred to one another as kin, it’s not something I’m trying to argue against, per se. A lot of the time when that is happening, there is no metaphor active in the ideology driving that that has to do with biogenetic kind of, or blood-based, or inside or outgroup kind of purity, right. It’s kind of the opposite. So I guess…yeah, I don’t know if that— Yeah. I think family abolition paradoxically is kind of about uplifting black families against the state? And perhaps that’s something that I should not be saying, situated as I am, but my sense is that the inspiration for this project come—you know, from people like Alexis Pauline Gumbs, for instance, whose contention is that black single mothers have always been queer and outside. Sort of refugees from the institution of the family, right. But there’s a lot more to speak about. I’d love to talk to you later about it.
Bosworth: Okay. So thanks everyone. This is a fascinating conversational. I’ll just remind us how important some kind of utopian project is to it the Green New Deal. And if we want to produce some kind of just future it’s going to require probably upsetting our notions of what utopianism is or means or how it can be designed. So, thanks for this conversation, for sticking around. We’ll see you all after lunch at…whatever time Damian says.
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