Why pity inanimate objects? Posthumanism, people and pebbledash.


“…No choice for sugar
But what choice could there be?
But to drown in coffee or to drown in tea
The frustrations of being inanimate
Maybe its better that way
The fewer the moving parts
The less there is to go wrong
I wonder about these things
I pity inanimate objects…”

 Godley & Creme (1979) I Pity Inanimate Objects’

Maybe it’s an autumn thing, but each year around this time I seem to find myself having the urge to write about inanimate objects. Previous autumn blog posts have ruminated upon the inner lives of smoke detectors, telephones and the death of a sofa. I sense that urge is rising again, so here I’m going to say a little about a book chapter that I’ve previously written in an attempt to do something academic with these urges, in order to quell these urges by reminding myself of the awkwardness of doing so.

I was invited to write an essay for a collection on posthuman research methods back in early 2014 by a colleague who knew of my 2013 flurry of writings about inanimate objects. I was flattered to be invited and eagerly signed up to the project, but then the publisher changed the book title and I suddenly found myself to be a contributor for a book now explicitly focussed towards posthuman research methods in education. I soldiered on through 2014, writing and re-writing the essay, trying to align it to the book’s disciplinary focus, and trying to work out whether I even still was, or indeed had ever been a posthumanist. I checked the proof of my chapter last week – and looking back through what I’d written it all felt very long ago. Academic books take ages – about two or three years – to travel from conception to publication. I can be a very strange experience revisiting a text every six months or so, and each time trying to connect back into your lines of thought.

The question troubling me when I was writing my contribution for the book was that posthumanism exhorts us to pay more attention to nonhuman things, but can we actually engage any more ‘deeply’ with non-sentient objects than we do already for our pragmatic everyday human-centred purposes? And the answer seemed to be even clearer ‘no’ once the educational focus was added to the project. How could education research be posthuman if it still (presumably) was committed to making humans the best that they can be? And if that teleological commitment was junked, then could what was left be meaningfully called education? In short, how could educational investigations detach investigations from human concerns and positionality, and how would doing so assist education’s mission?

As I wrestled with this question, I found out that many of my co-contributors were working through similar dilemmas (although perhaps finding them less fundamentally troubling for, writing within the education discipline, they were positioning posthumanism as a corrective to a longstanding dominance of a discourse fixated social constructionism within their discipline: in short, they knew what they were rebelling against). They – from a variety of processual and neo-materialist feminist standpoints – seemed to be fairly comfortably embracing a soft posthumanism, one that very much left the human present as part of the picture, but which urged embrace of a holism which they felt that 25 years of social constructionism had suppressed. For social constructionists all phenomena are constructs of language and culture, and nothing socially meaningful exists beyond us or acts back upon us in an uncovenanted way. So, what was emerging amongst the authors as a workable prescription for a posthuman turn in education research was an avowed commitment to (to coin a phrase – and in doing so to reintroduce and accept that linguistic formulations and the images and ideas that they create are also important) studying the baby and the bathwater (rather than throwing out the baby and gazing at the bathwater alone).

And so, as this all swirled around, I had to work out what my chapter was going to say. I’d come up with the title ‘Thinking like a brick’, the moment I was invited aboard – but I now had to work out what I meant by it. The paper went through a couple of almost total rewrites as I wrestled with my ambivalent views about posthumanism within education. Eventually I came up with a plan, wrote it  up and the editors and reviewers approved it, under the revised, provocatively prosaic title “Thinking like a brick – posthumanism and building materials”.

I teach in a multidisciplinary department focussed upon training construction and property managers. Most of my colleagues know a brick when they see one (and could tell you far more about its essential qualities than I ever could). The ontology of bricks is not a matter of concern for them. So, in my essay I’ve done my best to destabilise how and what we know of bricks, but also to celebrate the fact that those who need to do so for their projects, find ways to form sophisticated relationships with such dumb brute materials. In doing so I’ve tried to reconcile my position with a soft posthumanism – that we need humans left in the equation, that if we are striving to know more of the brickness of bricks it is for us (and our purposes) rather than for the sake of brick-liberation. I realise this takes me very closely back towards what Quentin Meillassoux has dismissed as ‘correlationism’ (that we claim only to be able to know things for ourselves, rather than for themselves), and that this soft posthumanism will for some not be posthuman at all.

But interrogating ‘dumb-brute’ non-human items has this effect, and perhaps helpfully so. Much of posthuman writing and research thus far has been focused on animals or advanced technology, and thus upon their non-human sentience, or at least of an animation (or ‘vitality’ to adopt Jane Bennett’s phrase) produced by their life-like complexity and autonomy.  Accordingly, being posthuman about microbes and microprocessors is relatively easy, so instead we should take some time to contemplate the posthuman realm of the non-sentient: things that are truly inert, and which cannot speak, move or die: and my chapter attempts this in relation to construction materials. As Bjørnar Olsen (2013) notes, this classically ‘dumb brute’ matter makes up the built environment, it is all around us, it creates the very conditions by which modern life and social systems are sustained and yet these things rarely get noticed.

So, in my chapter I subject brick, concrete and rock to a questioning stare and try to remember to think about education along the way. I end up critiquing apocalypse posthumanism along the way (and its yearning for a ‘world without us’) and then I point to examples of our intertwined, and sophisticated relationships with construction materials and how our use of (and accommodation to) these materials helps to situate us very much within the world.

Posthuman Research Practices in Education (ed. Carol A. Taylor & Christina Hughes) will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in March 2016. There’s a preview of the publication here, including a chapter list. As the editors’ summary states, the contributors position posthumanism as operationalisable (as a social science research methodology), progressive and aligned to a ‘world with us’ holism:

“How do we include and develop understandings of those beyond-the-human aspects of the world in social research? Through fifteen contributions from leading international thinkers, this text provides original approaches to posthumanist research practices in education. Contributors respond to the following questions: What do empirically grounded explorations of posthumanism look like in practice? How can they be designed? What sorts of ‘data’ are produced and how might they be analysed? And, importantly, what are the social, cultural and educational impacts of empirically driven posthuman research?

The contributors to this text change the parameters of research through thinking relationally with other beings/matter and recognizing their vitality and agency. Methodologically the contributors operationalize the unself, give focus to shadow stories and the entanglement of the researcher and research apparatus. They provide analytic tools such as rhizomatic readings and cartography mapping, edu-crafting, diffraction, Indigenous storywork, intra-action and affective pedagogy and rework and transform known methodologies, such as participatory research, qualitative approaches and photo-voice.”

Image: Carl Andre (1966) ‘Equivalent VIII’ via http://fourcolorsfourwords.blogspot.co.uk/2009_07_01_archive.html