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XXX.4 July - August 2023
Page: 24
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In Dialogue with the More-than-Human: Affective Prefiguration in Encounters with Others

Ann Light

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I have been talking about practices that give people the chance to feel differently. Not only to feel different, but to feel relationships that are not ubiquitously available at present. I call this affective prefiguration.

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To effect urgent change, we require different capacities for feeling as well as different feelings.
Affective prefiguration means giving experience in the present of what else might be emotionally and relationally possible.
Dialoguing with the more-than-human broadens our repertoire of feeling and supports transformations toward more just and sustainable futures.

We have seen the idea of prefiguration enter design in relation to prefigurative politics. Carl DiSalvo championed it [1] and there is inspiring work from, for instance, Mariam Asad and Alix Gerber. In its political form, prefiguration is commonly understood as enacting the change one wants to see. Much of this thinking has concerned itself with alternative and progressive organizational structures—new economies, different legal systems, regenerative care facilities—emerging in niches and created as part of social movements determined to do better. Sometimes the new structures become absorbed; others persist as alternatives; some exist only as long as needed to make a point. These structures and the imaginaries that accompany them are what Davina Cooper has called everyday utopias [2]. They leave a legacy, giving us something to aspire to: a direction of travel. In ways akin to utopian science fiction, they present us with a hopeful but practical vision. Even those that fail to take hold signal how difference could arise. David Graeber and David Wengrow's colossal book The Dawn of Everything [3] presents, in this spirit, the diverse ways the anthropologist/archaeologist authors believe people configured their societies in prehistory—making a manifesto on the mutability of political structure by showing both variation in societal framework and the processes for negotiating it.

But prefiguration looks forward, not sideways or back. It prototypes enactments of different and better that could still be to come. For instance, transition towns have appeared worldwide, showing how people can come together to work toward zero-carbon lifestyles; their network website is a host of stories. The Internet (and social media) supports the orchestration and spread of resistance by this kind of remaking. In pockets, we make desirable futures happen, with all the anticipatory baggage we hope that brings. Every small utopian project sits in tension with, and as a critique of, the dominant systems of the present, niggling away, fueling not only conviction but also imagination. Possibilities are revealed by offering what is worth living for through living as. Design is implicated in providing such tastes of an intentionally different future and in affecting people's sense of potential.

But I am considering feminist dialogues, so let me get more specific. If I put these prefigurative practices into discussion with the relational work appearing in new materialist and feminist technoscience contexts (and long seen in Indigenous wisdoms about the interdependent nature of all life), what happens? If I want to introduce ideas of entanglement as lived experience or create encounters with other life-forms as something more than "going out into nature," what do I bring into play? And if I aim to share moments of being-in-relation that we cannot ordinarily know, how can understandings of prefiguration help?

Young women protesting in central London, September 2019. Young women protesting in central London, September 2019.

Research shows that the Occupy movement not only protested—through its occupation of public space—but also created new sets of relations that participants remember as transformative [4]. When Extinction Rebellion set up regenerative culture spaces at festivals and protests, the goal was not just to support exhausted activists but also to give space for rehabilitated relations to find articulation. This argument is perfect in its logic: If we are protesting for a more careful world, we cannot do so without care for the protesters; if our ambition is to change systems so that care is central, then it follows that care must motivate and accompany other actions taken. I have often quoted Sarah Corbett's "A Craftivist's Manifesto" (which I now have hanging on my wall), but its sentiments bear repeating: "If we want our world to be more beautiful, kind and fair, can we make our activism be more beautiful, kind and fair?" (https://craftivist-collective.com). This gentleness has been shown to be effective in, for example, changing workers' pay [5].

All of this suggests there can be a method to making opportunity for relations that we do not normally know or experience and a point in asking what happens when we encounter them. It may be hard to measure or attribute impact to this kind of encounter, but most of us know something of the feeling. I am referring to a relational aesthetic: a jolt, perhaps, that is part sensorial, part emotional, and, though mostly fleeting, memorable for its very feeling-ness.

In trying to pin these elusive qualities down, I began talking of "participative intimacy": something that one feels and benefits from in collaborating with other people, above and beyond the outcomes. I took my understanding of intimacy from Lauren Berlant as "portable, unattached to a concrete space: a drive that creates spaces around it through practices" so that "in this spreading way," it can generate "an aesthetic of attachment, but no inevitable forms or feelings" [6]. In judging the work that comes from joining in an endeavor to be generative of new bonds, I am alluding to not merely the immediate connections that are made (such as, perhaps, understanding, shared camaraderie, or friendship) but also the potential for reconstituting societies through the mutual appreciation that comes from experiencing a moment of this kind together. We live the difference in the moment that we catch someone's eye and know that they, too, are curious, amused, apprehensive, or in awe. We feel an emotional charge or spark. This is not the same as inventing a new currency or a federation model for social media, however ideal they may be. Instead, it relates to the social fabric that helps such material initiatives into being: It is to focus on the aspect that few see, where the work of collaboration is done. In other words, experience is central and the goal is to broaden relations themselves to enable us to encounter a world that understands relations as they might be—something we can never do by merely watching existing relatings. We benefit when we take that experience of connection and connectedness and use it to underpin our worlds in the making.

I am talking about an affective change: a widening of affective repertoires, which, while possible to forget, is impossible to un-experience.

This work may be partly the act of empathy. I do not argue with that claim, particularly when our energy is orientated toward specific beings, but I wonder whether what I am talking about is more, or different altogether. It may instead be ontological, in that I am positing not so much (change of) feeling for/with other life, but rather the act of feeling our relation to everything—a possible metanarrative about what it means to live and be alive. That includes feelings of empathy, as well as an ability to feel something enduring outside the moment of connection—feelings of how things could feel; feelings of a different way to feel; feelings that do not live in a particular encounter. I am talking about an affective change: a widening of affective repertoires, which, while possible to forget, is impossible to un-experience.

This may not fall within everyone's grasp, but it is, even at the level of an idea, something to speculate with. And if we are to make change by introducing a different relational aesthetic, we can look first to the people who see cultures as mutable and are prepared to feel more or differently in pursuit of that mutability. Only after that might we look at what else to do.

I will give examples, then, of designing different relations that might involve some affective prefiguration. I draw on two studies. Both are reported elsewhere, which allows me to focus on the key aspects, since I cannot do justice in this thought piece to the thinking behind them or the methods involved.

The first is a counterfactual world exercise I run sometimes [7], giving people the chance to call up a life in which a more relational philosophy of relations persists. This world is inspired by Sámi cultures, but was created to make a space where groups of Swedish civil servants could sensitize themselves in/to a relationality that doesn't experience our Western enclosure-oriented boundaries (between, for example, animate and inanimate, sentient and insentient, nature and culture, human and other life, human and nature). Different groups have since tried it out and found their way into this make-believe; each group has been creative in their deliverable, a product or system that is based in the values of the world in play. One group produced energy fields they could conduct, like northern lights that dance for the pleasure of the creatures of the world below them. Another group came, in the role of their world's ambassadors, with offerings of plants, rituals, and care for poorer worlds that lacked (respect for) these fundamentals.

I work with other counterfactual scenarios as starting points for different nows. These may also offer the opportunity for renegotiating human relations with other life-forms (for instance, a scenario about rubber trees and the breaking of the Brazilian rubber monopoly), but it has been the first scenario that inspires the imagining of new relatings, so I mention it here: a glimpse of more-than-human connection and a utopian yearning for something beyond mere glimpses. (The rubber trees scenario produced new economic relations and the development of other materials, not a sense of joy, vulnerability, and loss; not ritual; and not different ontologies as such.)

The second example is a LARP (live-action role-play), known as The Treaty of Finsbury Park (https://treaty.finsburypark.live/), where people act out delegated roles as different life-forms caring for a park. People are invited to represent key park species: dog, squirrel, Canada goose, stag beetle, bee, grass, and London plane tree. The agenda is to go beyond social inequality to look at the fallout from humans' destructive patterns and what might be meaningful as rights for all park users: "After much unrest, it has been agreed that a treaty will be drawn up, designating these rights, but first, humans must learn to better relate to and understand non-humans so they can cooperate better together" [8]. Better cooperation is fostered by bringing the seven species together (without anyone in a human role) to decide on where an interspecies festival can take place. As with the first example, this is not run naively with the expectation that anyone in a role can imagine what it is to be a squirrel or a clod of grass. But, like the interspecies meditation that artist Ruth Catlow also runs, it is a way of raising issues of relationality by being playful and even surprising.

When a goose and a piece of grass converse, even across a videoconferencing tool (as happened because of the Covid-19 measures in place at the project's inception), there is a particular visceral sense to the exchange because geese eat grass. Even more than the exchanges between dog and tree, when some apology might be required from the dog for unseemly conduct at the tree's base, Gus the Goose and the grass had to find a language for incompatible needs. They turned to humor (as one might expect), not least because they were surrounded by other lives listening in, and normal human concerns, such as playing to the gallery and not being more embarrassed than necessary, fed into the game-play. Yet, within this environment, constrained both by technology and social conventions, the two players addressed profound existential and ecological concerns in their dialogue. Power relations are writ large when one creature's survival depends on eating another. It was stark and simplistic on one level. On another, there was an undercurrent of melancholy and wonder. The planet depends on this endless consumption and the sacrifice of some lives for others. It is a tension that, as humans, we often seek to manage away. Yet, conversations held as dinner and diner prefigure the maturity and emotional labor needed to address our complicity while acknowledging our interdependence. These experiences change us by giving a foretaste of what radical respect for life might be like.

This reflection seems a long way from traditional feminisms and, even with the addition of an ecological perspective, my observations may look fringe to HCI. What interests me is the experience of difference that can whet a person's appetite for more. I think this is a form of subversion—a destabilization of norms aligned with queer theory—and I suggest it is a pathway to redesigning (technology) design, as I often do (e.g., [9]).

Men used to dismiss women from the realms of cerebral life for having intellect little better than beasts. With the rise of early feminism, women flipped that nonsense and argued there is a superior connection between the feminine and nature. Contemporary feminisms question such boundaries altogether and demonstrate that human power relations affect all species and societies, introducing hierarchies that dictate who and/or what is allowed to have sentience and how we live with one another. Susan Griffin, in her book Woman and Nature, says, "I do not agree with the idea that women are closer to nature than men are…. Everything that exists on Earth, including rational thought, is part of nature…. What does seem very possible to me is that one gender may be more aware of being part of nature than another" [10].

Watching the Fridays for Future school strikes at the end of the past decade, I became aware of how many young women were protesting outside Westminster in London and how very few young men had joined these demonstrations. Perhaps it happened to be that kind of day when I went into town to see the demonstrations. Perhaps "industrial masculinity" informs all our interactions and not merely the extremes, such as climate change denial, of which Paul Pulé and Martin Hultman write [11].

Despite or because of feminisms, it cannot be that only some part of the human species wants to engage with "Mother" Earth. The relationship of taking without thought for the consequences resembles the one-way conduct of small children, sure of their parents and demanding sustenance and attention. It is time for everyone to grow up, feel the interdependencies, and start actively renegotiating relations in the systems we share and in those we build. A touch of affective prefiguration might help such dialogues along.

back to top  References

1. DiSalvo, C. Design and prefigurative politics. The Journal of Design Strategies 8, 1 (2016), 29–35.

2. Cooper, D. Everyday Utopias: The Conceptual Life of Promising Spaces. Duke Univ. Press, 2013.

3. Graeber, D. and Wengrow, D. The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. Allen Lane, 2012.

4. Permut, M. Psychological sense of community as an example of prefiguration among Occupy protesters. Journal of Social and Political Psychology 4, 1 (2016), 180–195; https://doi.org/10.5964/jspp.v4i1.533

5. Iqbal, N. A stitch in time: How craftivists found their radical voice. The Guardian. Jul. 28, 2019; www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jul/28/craftivism-protest-women-march-donald-trump

6. Berlant, L. Intimacy: A special issue. Critical Inquiry 24, 2 (1998), 281–288.

7. Light, A. Collaborative speculation: Anticipation, inclusion and designing counterfactual futures for appropriation. Futures 134 (2021); https://doi.org/10.1016/j.futures.2021.102855

8. Catlow, R. Introductory notes on Treaty. Furtherfield, 2021; https://www.furtherfield.org/the-treaty-of-finsbury-park-2025/

9. Light, A. HCI as heterodoxy: Technologies of identity and the queering of interaction with computers, Interacting with Computers 23, 5 (Sep. 2011).

10. Griffin, S. Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her. Second edition. Sierra Club Books, 2000.

11. Pulé, P. and Hultman, M. Industrial/breadwinner masculinities and climate 4 change: Understanding the 'white male effect' of climate change denial. In Climate Hazards, Disasters, and Gender Ramifications. C. Kinnvall and H. Rydstrom, eds. Routledge, 2019.

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Ann Light is a qualitative researcher and interaction theorist specializing in participatory design, human-computer interaction, and collaborative future-making. She recently led a research node for the European Union's Creative Practices for Transformational Futures project, which produced the Creatures Framework (creaturesframework.org/]. [email protected]

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