I'm at the Open Center in New York City participating in a workshop and conference about participatory democracy for non-human and non-living others. This is my live blog of the opening session of talks from this morning...
Tehseen Noorani introduces the conference. It is a collaboration between Plymouth University and the Authority Research Network and the Public Science Project at CUNY.This is a first in the set of projects that are going on. This is a methods-focused day to bring people together and figure out how to do this kind of work. He introduces Jules who will introduce the Authority Research Network.
Jules says this has emerged through the organizers' work as PhD students together where they got interested in embodied forms of power. Authority is associated with top-down hierarchies but we were interested in pluralizing forms of authority, thinking about how marginalized groups make claims on authority. They clustered together around theoretical interests with a core interest in creative and embodied forms of power. This project emerged from a project they did several years ago which was a book where they drew out the relation between authority, participation and democracy. The book is for a general audience and is a series of essays.
As a group they work through slow thinking and "theory retreats" which last a week where they hole up free from distraction and thoroughly go through academic ideas, cook together and live together. They found this incredibly productive for creating new ideas. One of the most important problems facing communities are environmental and ecological. Democracy needs to take the non-human seriously in all its different registers. The non-human is not a monolithic category. It can include things, objects, public things, animals, unborn future generations. Here we want to find out what is going on in this area.
Rachel Liebert leads an activity where everyone briefly introduces themselves and talks about their relationship to a magazine photo they selected when they walked in. Participants are activists, students, and academics. People are from the fields of Cultural Geography, Science and Technology Studies, Anthropology, Writing, Art, Community Theater.
Anatoli Ignatov describes his research in Ghana. He tells a Ghanaian tale called "When the Hunter and the Warrior met the Land" about Abongo earth god and the African rock python and a hunter. The earth priests are the custodians of the sacred sites like Abongo which help people to have good harvests and avert disaster. The snake is the totem animal. It's considered the great-grandfather. You may not harm, kill or eat pythons. When people swear, they swear oaths to the pythons.
Depending on the version of the story, the tingaanes (priests) have more claims to the land. They still invoke this right to the land in land claims today. If a member of the royal clan tells the story often the focus is on the assistant of the warriors. Recently, chiefs have been claiming land rights and had authority to settle land disputes.
These stories are important in Ghana because they serve as an oral land registry. Only 5% of land in W. Africa is titled in some kind of "official" state registers. The rest of the land is managed through land claims that are enshrined in competing stories. It is constantly negotiated and renegotiated. Many academics have focused on studying these kind of oral land registries. But his focus is to think beyond this area of focus. He wants to think about the multiple dimensions of actors and things that escape social science vocabularies. He thinks about these stories in relation to "orature" - this is a term coined by African writers like Pitika Ntuli and Ngugi wa Thiong'o that means an oral system of aesthetic expression that does not need or use the colonizing influences of written language. Anatoli likens orature to "minor literature", a term coined by Deleuze and Guattari - a way of appropriating language that gives voice to minorities. It's linked not to a subject (an orator) but to collective enunciation (speech which produces a people to come). When Anatoli collected stories in his field research, people always brought in the chiefs to add details or to correct details to the story. There were always children nearby listening and learning to the different versions of the stories.
But what Deleuze and Guattari don't think about is who constitutes the collectivity. It could also be constituted by the pythons. Stories related to orature are a product of the land itself. The land is an orator. What kinds of methodologies allow us to register the expressivity of the land?
A dominant theme in the oral registry literature is to claim that rights are enshrined in such stories. Many social """scientists""" adopt the language of property and resources to try to show that these oral cultures do have the same authority as Western notions of land ownership. Anatoli thinks this is helpful for land claims but serves to eclipse the important role of spiritual practices and other practices which escape these Western notions of relating to land. He describes how humans are just a node in a field of apprehension and transformation of landscapes. The repository of ownership remains in the land, not in a person.
In conventional social science vocabularies, politics is separate from ritual. When people describe West African practices of government they often relegate the tindaana priests to the realm of religion and the chiefs to the political realm and secular affairs. These binaries obscure forms of political authority.
He has been trying to think of other concepts that do not obscure these relationships. One idea is "ecological sovereignty" - thinking of people as political subjects of the land. How do non-living things like nature, the dead, figure in political conversations?
He uses ethnography as a methodology to register the land itself as a narrator of history. Embodied, non-narrative, spatial practices with elders helped them to co-produce an archive. The 1975 constitution of Ghana returns the land to the "it belongs to the skin and the stool". The stool refers to the chiefs in the South. In the North, the skins could mean to the chiefs or to the tindaana. He references the more colonial anthropology work of Rattray. The tindaanas are now referencing his work and trying to use it to advocate their political case.
More-than-Human Participatory Research? Dr Michelle Bastian
How could we think about including non-humans (animals, plants, things) in participatory research? The project finished in January and they had a year to explore this.
The interest in more than human methods comes from several fields as outlined in "Animal Geographies II: Methods" by H. Buller (2014):
- actor-network theory
- multi-species ethnography
- non-representational approaches
- phenomenological approaches
- entwined embodied biographies
She slows a slide with the text "Description/Participation?" This is interesting coming from participatory geography which is a very well-developed field. Why aren't human geographers talking to participatory geographers? She quotes Mike Kesby responding to the Tyranny of Participation:
"Participatory approaches aspire to reduce and to circumvent the power relations normally involved in research and development and to take the notion of giving the marginalized a voice to new levels by facilitating their involvement in the design, implementation and outcomes of programs." (Michael Kresby, 2005) in Hypatia.
The funding for her project came from the Connected Communities program in the UK which funds many codesign projects.
Their idea was to stage four conversations. They had four workshops where they tried different participatory research methods in each in order to codesign and do participatory research with dogs, trees, bees and water. Trying to simply design the workshop was fascinating. They went to beekeepers and told them they wanted to talk to the bees and find out what they wanted to research. While they might have seen them as crazy, people did open up and think about how to do this.
For the dogs workshop, they worked with dogs for the disabled. They did some design and then tried to think about how the dogs could evaluate the prototypes.
She quickly passes through the other workshops with trees, bees and water. In the water workshop they explored the river from the source to the sea. They swam in order to get an immersive experience.
For each one, it was mostly about trying to try to do participatory research with non-human entities. They created standard outlines of what each method was. They listed questions that arose. They speculated about how the research might be disseminated.
They did this with the best intentions. But they have criticisms of their own work.
1) Participation as a rational response?
In the Tyranny of Participation - in the development context participation is seen as a rational response - like people should always WANT to participate and if they don't there is something wrong with them. How might we be just assuming that non-human entities would want to participate with the humans? How much choice did the dogs have to attend their workshop? Participation can be a way of solidifying existing hierarchies.
2) Including marginalised communities?
When they were trying to understand what water wanted, they worked with a human steward of the river.
3) At what scale?
You might have a microlevel of participation that looks good on paper but how does that lead to more macrolevel consideration of inequalities? For example in the case of dogs - they find doors very difficult to open because of the range of handles. They thought maybe there is a way to make the doors easier to open for the dogs. But by focusing on this question they ignored other questions such as the system of labor in which the dogs are enmeshed, their puppies get taken from them at birth, and so on.
4) Rational dialogue?
One of the things that was interesting in the literature is the question of speech. How do we listen to animals? How do we codesign with water? Especially in the human context where there is so much emphasis on rational dialogue and how that constitutes political speech. Much of the research in participatory research doesn't gel with this kind of practice. Additionally, our assumptions about individuals as well. For example, we think about privacy and autonomy for individuals but what about those things for water? Are individuals rational, autonomous actors? Language doesn't work for many of these situations. She shows a slide where they tried to talk with trees by massaging them and said that "this felt really wrong".
Animal Publics: Political Subjectivity After the Human Subject Gwendolyn Blue, Dept of Geography at the University of Calgary
Gwen is doing a project called Animal Publics that takes into account the active role that animal publics play in the formation of the public. In the highly technological, industrialized context this is an opportunity for reworlding (in the words of Donna Haraway).
There is something interesting about the word "public" - we tend to assume publics are human. We also assume that publics emerge as part of the human capacity for language and the ability to create symbolic representations. Somehow the public persistently remains anthropocentric.
Where she is from, grizzlies and large mammals are part of their communities. She was biking to work one day and saw a grizzly bear. That changed her. When she traveled, she felt lonely when she was not in the presence of non-domesticated carnivores. Yet, there is a problem when you try to invite them to the table because they might eat you. So how do you do research with them?
"Confront the assumption, deeply rooted in liberal democracy, that the political subject is a self-authenticating individual who arrives, fully formed, into a public sphere of discourse" (Wolfe, 2009)
Her research question is "What does it mean to consider nonhuman animals as part of a public?"
This project is at the intersection of STS and Animal Studies. Follows the work of Elisabeth Grosz and Jane Bennett. She departs from the work of Habermas to the work of N. Marres (2005) "Issues spark a public into being."
Dewey focuses on publics being sparked but remains in the human because he centers on visibility and discourse because he was a humanist. If we push him further, this could be not just a human-centered act.
The Bear 71 interactive documentary
She shows the documentary Bear 71 which was produced by the National Film Board of Canada. Bear 71 lived in the Rockies. She was captured when 3 years old and monitored thereafter. She died when she was hit by a train. The creators had access to many hours of wildlife camera footage. The doc is told from the standpoint of the bear. The narrator is positioned as all-knowing "voice of god" but it's the Bear 71 that knows everything. She makes no claims to objectivity - she is decidedly situated in the events.
She screens several clips from Bear 71 and then discusses issues of surveillance and publicness, the direct analogy of ourselves to Bear 71, the narrator of the documentary. The other theme Gwen pulls out is around remediation. Immediacy logic - the webcams that take us there, but we are not. It gives us the sense that we are in the presence of the thing we are observing and we forget that we are mediated. This is only possible because of the hypermediated nature of the experience. The documentary draws us in but makes us aware of the hypermediated nature.
She wants us to not lose site of the profound mediations that we make in this realm. She leaves us with words from Bear 71: "It's hard to say where the wired world ends and the wild one begins."
Q & A
Audience member: Question for Michelle - applying these methods in non-Western context like Bangladesh. I'm interested to hear more about Tyranny of Participation. When you are asking questions about "choice" for dogs, that's imposing a human frame. There is a whole literature on domestication that says that dogs domesticated humans. How might you imagine more doggy ways of understanding the political and not just imposing the humanist frame and projection of human anxieties onto the participation in the process?
Michelle: You have to be careful about projecting but we have to be careful about minimizing our shared world. Perhaps there are more similarities than we might think. When the dogs came in we were acting differently. We rolled on the floor with them. Our faces were different. How do you think about participation that is not based on models of individual rights but about complicated interrelationalities?
Same Audience Member: What about the importance of play in this work? Like being in the water?
Michelle: Yes, it was funny that we felt guilty about swimming and not theorizing on the shore. But why can't our research take place in the water? Play and embodied experience was very important for the project.
Another audience member: I was struck by your question to take it seriously to think outside the anthropocentric lens. What are your responses - how would we change our behavior?
Michelle: I have no idea really what it would look like. It was impossible to imagine it. It feels impossible to talk to the river and ask it what it wants. It has to be asked and explored further because of this impossibility.
Gwen: I think it's happening. It's just that the challenge is that we have to reform ourselves. Knowledge formation is happening at the non-human level but we are slow to catch up to it.
Antoni: Maybe one problem is the tendency to theorize too much. In my research, I started questioning non-anthro frames in environmental research which sometimes figure non-humans as passive receptors of human desires. We are already communicating and participating with non-humans. My research is about this and how land and animals have responded already. Sometimes we just have filters that prevent us from registering. Whether or not you think that hurricanes speak, they ARE already speaking. In my research, the people are not interested in characterizations of their ancestors as trees but they are interested in what they can do for the tree and what the tree can do for them. I had to learn at some point to stop asking "what are the spirits" and to go along with a different starting point which was "what can the spirits do for us."
Gwen: Bears often rub against trees. The rubbing trees are communication devices for lots of animals. Now those trees are communication devices for this researcher. They are billboards and helped her navigate. So it might be about who we associate with - when you associate with different critters then you think differently.
Michelle: We noticed this with the beekeepers. They wouldn't drink alcohol the night before they handled bees because they said the bees don't like it and wouldn't come to them the next day.
Final Recap Notes, Thoughts and Questions at the end of the day
First by Jane Bennett
Relate this back to the New Left out of the 60s and 70s. This was characterized by several things:
- Posited communitarianism as its goal - a "oneness" - this was linked to the voice of the people. Today's model is more something like a fractious pluralism. But in the new model, what takes the place of the "voice of the people"?
- Playfulness, foolhardiness, experimentalism - this is also seen in the projects from today
- Certain turning to the natural world as a guide of some sort - this seems to be at work in today's workshop as well though the model of what nature is is now different.
What are our tasks? Some methodological concerns:
- How to translate between different bodies, species, differently shaped and differently equipped bodies with different capabilities?
- How does one as a researcher tap into one's non-human or more-than-human-ness? We are non-human too.
- How would you acknowledge the multispecies coproduction of the life you are living and the research you are doing? Back to Anatoly's point about hurricanes who are already speaking. There is always co-production. Maybe about giving credit to the non-human where it is due.
One key thing is experience and embodiment - how do we tune our senses and our aesthetic registers to things that are outside of us? In one of my sessions it was about artistic engagement with the non-human. Misinterpretation. Misinterpretation can sometimes be a strength. You can perhaps never have an authentic participatory democracy - how can we use misinterpretation as a strength? To take it back to the theme of authority - we can't wish authority away. Nothing is entirely horizontal. If we take misinterpretation seriously as a force, how do we speak with and for the non-human in a way that it has legitimacy and can speak with authority.
All these experiments, artistic collaborations - how do we make these sensory achievements sharable and public? Can we scale them up? Test them?
Final remarks by Maria:
- Everyone here has good shoes
- My own work is deeply "peopled" so this day has been great to challenge the ways this might be useful to me.
Interesting to think about the role of theory in this and it's helpful but I wonder where it gets in the way. That also speaks about the play, fiction and fantasy that has been referenced today.
Final remarks by Rachel:
To define non-human then we need to define human. Think about the broader things that go along with being human - imperialism, colonialism. These are underpinning this work. Reflexivity is a good thing - decentering our assumptions and engagements. Not to get to some kind of authentic truth. La mestiza consciousness and borderlands from Anzal Dua is something to tap into. I haven't heard much of a nod to the mystical today and is an important aspect of this.
Sam: Problematics of community. The importance of thinking community beyond identity.
Jane: The discussion of emergent publics. The paper on Animal Publics.
Jane: This used to be talked about as "collective will-formation" - how do you create collective will to make collective action happen? If you are adding more than human I think that language has to shift.
Jane: What are the non-humans we are talking about? spirits, God, future and past generations, elements - water fire land, animals, legal systems. These are quite different.
Someone: These things are in the realm of the shaman. They traverse these different worlds. Communicate with animals.
Michelle: We had that on our list to try.
Someone: Crossing barriers - involves a different mood or mode. It involves experiential shifts to talk to water.
Jane: What about pharmaceuticals? Capsaicin? Food. These are non-human.
Someone: Death. It shouldn't be completely taken off the table here. Sloughing off cells and transformation.
Leila: Something about the sorts of cultural resources and imaginaries we are using the non-human. For example in Bear 71 - it has a near-future dystopian science fiction aesthetic used to be communicating something about surveillance. Here we are evoking shamans and figures that we feel try to do what we hope to do. Why are we drawing on those figures and what do they mean for our unconscious?
Anatoli: On a more serious note, even in writing. There are shamans who specialize in these forms of communication. Such shamans produce ways non-humans see us. Different strategies that shamans adopt. Sonic perspectivism. Songs mobilized in order to trick animals into thinking that shaman is one of them. Maybe the next workshop could share these methods and insights. In Eastern Europe where I am from many people go consult mediums. Sometimes it's hard to take seriously the idea that the dead are alive and co-present with us.
Someone: What if we think about the large-scale self-organizing systems in relation to non-humans? Like climate and the ocean conveyer system and rogue planets. To me that's the part of the whole thing to pay attention to large-scale. That brings us back to what Claire was touching on - what are the possible modes of relation to the cosmos today? With radical awareness of climate? It doesn't seem like classical notions of belonging work well. Notions of detached mastery don't work well. That's kind of an existential issue that is sitting there waiting. What are the possibilities?
Someone else: Thinking about comparing participatory democracy of 60s and 70s to today. Perhaps what has changed from the common voice is this fractious pluralism. How do we think about this concept of structures of domination? Even Legal structures. Is there a way that we are collapsing so many different scales simultaneously that we lose any sense of specificity?
Paddy: What comes to my head is capitalism. If this is what the discussion is about - how we can relate to the non-human differently and produce different trajectories into the future. This is not neutral. There are concrete material structures that determine how we relate to the non-human. We need to challenge as well as produce alternatives. I'm commited to a type of politics that is multiple and diverse. But we have to recognize that there is a common enemy - it's not just about how we relate differently but what are the things hindering us from relating. These alternatives can emerge through opposition.