Slides & Handout

SLIDE ONE: title

I love how being at SLSA always entails moving among knowledge worlds. SLSA mixes practices, people, and careabouts. (Stafford 2001) It’s an interactive demonstration of what just might be meant by posthumanities. I come here from women’s studies bringing its transdisciplinary aspirations for feminist projects. I remember how this last summer, hanging out at a Bateson cybernetics conference with folks who care about ecological issues from many systems points of view, we found it all difficultly various in ways none of us could quite anticipate! (King 2012) Today’s SLSA panel also takes cybernetics as a platform of sorts, yet performs its interests and uses among variant versions of posthumanities and posthuman. Trancontextual tangles are properly all over the place, and, as Bruno Latour says, “clarity here would be misleading.” (Latour 2004:209)

Bateson cared about learning, and by learning he meant something that was not just carried on by people, by humans. Learning was about transactive changes at different ranges of system, in examples today we might refer to by terms like emergence or self-organization. I’ve become very interested in what we could call social media learning: a way of attending to a current political economy of cognitions and apparatus we necessarily use working together in enveloped realities we only partially grasp, indeed as bits ourselves in systems that exceed human perceptual and cognitive capacities, or desires for understanding.



Bateson famously said, in “the pronoun we, I of course included the starfish and the redwood forest, the segmenting egg, and the Senate of the United States.” (Bateson 1979:4) It is here in this we that I look for caring with and as non human.

At the Bateson conference the transdisciplinary tangles were only too obtrusive: ecologists who felt humans were not paying enough attention to effects on worldly systems such as climate change, wanted, they said, to put humans at the center of ecological understandings. But organizational systems folks engaging with ecologies of change and social action were worried that these were all too full of putting human interests first, and not working on larger scales. A founder of Greenpeace lamented that we just don’t know how to persuade human publics that long term environmental changes can happen faster than one’s personal human life time might suggest. A member of a research collective tried to explain how it is possible for the human coordination of large scale systems to start off well, but be damped down as other worldly processes chaotically repattern multiple interactions: effectively demonstrating that being human doesn’t prevent you from also enacting as non human too.

Bateson was known for recognizing that the apparatus humans use to think and to persuade each other must not be assumed to actually model worldly processes too, although he worked hard to imagine in what ways these might overlap, implicate each other, be better coordinated, or otherwise become mutually wiser. Humans may affect or even set into motion processes such as climate change or financial crises, but varieties of agencies involved don’t map well with how humanly we experience making things happen, at what scales, in what dynamics, as what bodies or collectivities, or across what sets of regulated, chaotic, emergent, or dynamic systems.

 SLIDE THREE: television 

We think with things, with and as humans and non humans, amid “tools, bodies, networks, animals, climate, media” and “biomes.” Television offers a demonstration I share with you today. Implicated in social media learning now, since the nineties television provides stories transdisciplinary knowledges tell, of mutually restructuring economies of entertainment, knowledge work, and global academies, the very material circumstances in which we necessarily have to think with and about worldly processes today. 

Television helps us recognize our distributed human being, as it works as both metaphor and reality for how stories and actions are partially human and non human. 

An attention to TV idiom (Hopkins 1999) properly and AFFECTively requires us to experience, to reexperience, being inside of and moved around literally by the very material and conceptual structures one thinks with, about, and through…. In a set of participations that the MacArthur digital youth project (conducted at the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Southern California) calls “hanging out, messing around, and geeking out,” (Ito 2010) we participate simultaneously in various human and non human collectivities, engaging in social media learning at ranges of system that are not simply inside of or actions of people.


In the nineties, in a far from voluntary partnership with the web, television began not only to show, but also to tell, interactive stories across platforms, constituencies, funding sources, audiences, technologies, knowledge worlds. TV idiom recalls the academic capitalisms of, say, Henry Louis Gates, who coined the term “intellectual entrepreneur” in order to appeal to publics for whom the intellectual and the entertaining are entangled. His TV experiments in communicating attempted to jump the very double bind in which, in the restructuring nineties, the kind of control of audience and message that "authorship" seems to promise became clearly more illusory for a range of actors in knowledge worlds. A series of science-styled TV documentaries partnered with the web in varying divisions of intellectual labor, creating or sharing or opening up websites in efforts to communicate complex technical knowledges to widely differing local audiences. (King 2011)

SLIDE FIVE: clarity 

Inadvertently but necessarily these partnerships themselves ended up demonstrating how tricky the mapping of messages onto audiences has become and how partial or rather, highly distributed, anything approximating authorial control – or let’s call it “agency” –

is affectively experienced as
is cognitively partially grasped as
is entangled among 
worldly processes. 

Bateson loved to joke around and also to work with the many varieties of relationships among so-called “maps” and “territories”: as parts and wholes, as blackboxes, as different possibilities for coding, as metaphors and sacraments, as menus and meals. 

Between each not quite the other, was a relationship to be experienced as that noise from which new patterns emerge. A noisy entanglement to hang around in, to mess around with, to geek out at grains of detail usually blackboxed. 

Opening the blackboxes, working at geeky grains of detail, or messing around at odd mappings and differentially transferring knowledges from one world to another… all these, call clarity out. 

SLIDE SIX: transcontextual

Moving among knowledge worlds is full of seeming clarities: the smaller the knowledge world the easier it is to geek out at pleasurably intensive grains of detail ensured by common objects of reference and shared priorities of value. Large transdisciplinary projects require scaling out extensively to shift perspective and encounter contradictions, objects appearing to be common but actively coming to diverge in meaning and use. Hanging out and messing around are ways to learn and unlearn what you’ve geeked out about elsewhere.

Leigh Star was inspired by Bateson’s insights about transcontextual tangles and double binds to notice how all sorts of objects: humans, tools, concepts, devices, constituencies: think together non consciously, and work among the edges of their many knowledge worlds, playing with and among

SLIDE SEVEN: boundary

what she (with others) called boundary objects. Such boundary objects permit non conscious transdisciplinary movements among knowledge worlds, offering opportunities to hang out with others in collaborations without consensus, permitting various ranges of messing around in newly drawn communities of practice, and allowing those geeking out at close grains of detail to intensely create expertise together. When intensely-managed boundary objects are extensively-examined instead, they are revealed as rife with contradiction, with uncoordinated grains of detail, with multiple audiences and diverse intentions. The clarity that intense interaction appears to promise, is continually called out as scale and perspective enlarge and standardization is revealed as newly inadequate.

SLIDE EIGHT: feminisms

Among feminisms boundary objects such as “new materialisms” or “intersectionality” attempt to manage transdisciplinary movement, social justice priorities, and shifts in cognitive sensoria. Temporalities, scale, disciplinary action, priorities, genealogies, and membership are uncomfortably experienced as contradictory, inaccurate, or inexpert. (Of course feminisms are hardly alone here.)

SLIDE NINE: tangles

Double, triple, and other “takes” that pressure denials and other non conscious actions, that overvalue coherence or coordination, or value it differentially, all these discomforts – and sometimes energetic enthusiasms – motivate both scaling in to share with geeking out others, or scoping out to get big pictures always still only too partial, even when offering new friends to mess around with.

SLIDE TEN: sort of

Boundary objects call out relationalities in dynamic movement: one element in what some have thought of as the critique of representation, or, as Bateson worked on it, a relationality of “sort of”: one that refuses an overvalued clarity among metaphors, models, metonymies, binaries, the misplaced concreteness of essentialisms, instead to ebb and flow amid (non) human, and non (human) and human [the human-non human, and the non human human, as well as human under erasure], far from always assigned, and also gathering among the we. Bateson worked on this as something not quite rationalized, using as a placeholder the term “sacrament.” I call bits of it “cognitive sensation.”

SLIDE ELEVEN: cognitive sensation

In the nineties –

as something called the market becomes an entanglement among metaphors and realities of knowledge restructuring,

from the triple helix of government-industry-academy relations (Etzkowitz & Leydesdorff 1995), to neo-conservative funded regimes of assessment, justification, accreditation of public universities (Ravitch 2012), to the essentialization of new media learning as if only that properly debunked for-profit credit-driven education, to legislation to enable universities to engage in technology transfer and knowledge transfer with fantasmatic goals of being market players (Schwartzman et al. 2012) –

scholars find themselves required to practice an intellectual entrepreneurship

that travels among contexts, that feels out gaps between the technologies of persuasion as logic and reason, and the worldly processes they attempt to describe or affect.

A posthumanities becomes a political economy of cognitions, affects; recasting human and non human as entanglements across deep time and quick time, complexity and elegance, double binds and so-called innovation.



Cognitive sensation today indexes much that doesn’t feel remotely sacramental to me, but does still require a sort of play in which essentializing critique is only one possibility among the urgent ethical battlements that make clarity so imminent.

What sorts of persuasion can work out amid sets of we? that can organize action without overvaluing a clarity that just feels wrong, and to which then constituencies find themselves in unconscious resistance, even when consciously in allegiance? How to get out of a double bind in which experiences among human and non human that call out clarity, somehow reinstate it? Bateson and Star continue to prod me to keep working on such double and triple “takes” – as has TV idiom’s demonstration that, as Latour forecast in the early nineties, “Reason today has more in common with a cable television network than with Platonic ideas.” (Latour 1993:119)  


*handout12 SLSA