Week 20 — better questions

Hello hello,

A few new faces. I always hope people read some past notes before signing up so you know what you’re in for.

Last week was more questions than answers. This week is accepting that there are no answers, but maybe (hopefully) better questions.

The Becomings of Subjectivity in Animal Worlds
by Vinciane Despret

From lions to parrots to cows to refugees, Despret outlines the problematic ‘representative animal’, that is, the animal that ‘speaks for’ animals. A parrot might be capable of talking, but that does not mean all parrots can talk. She extends subjectivity to the animal.

It’s interesting looking over my notes because if you remove the animal and just think about the researcher and the subject, it is still very applicable to that ‘user-centred design’ thing we do.

Anonymity, this unquestioned condition of most research investigations, is not simply a characteristic of the research process. From the outset it translates a certain type of relationship and a certain manner of defining those whom one addresses. In other words, it suggests a very specific kind of subjectivation. ... it is by erasing one’s name that one becomes the ‘‘subject’’ of an investigation.

The subject is summonsed by a problem that he or she often has nothing to do with, or in any case has nothing to do with the manner in which the problem is defined, just as the researcher isn’t usually preoccupied by the manner in which his problem may or may not be a problem for whoever it summons. And most of the time the subject mobilized in this way will agree to respond to questions without calling into question their interest, their appropriateness or even their politeness, as, evidently, the scientist ‘‘knows better’’.

Emoji summary: 🦁 🐮 🦜

Measuring Ephemera
by Maisie Tomlinson

This article investigates a very specific methodology in animal welfare science called Qualitative Behavioural Assessment (QBA). It’s super interesting in the way it uses qualitative, “emotionally resonant” language in a scientific framework.

The qualitative language of QBA is designed to render animals’ bodies inseparable from minds in an ontological and observational move, which integrates behaviours into a “whole animal” approach capable of opening up “another level of description and analysis” as described above. It thus re-frames human-animal interactions as between embodied, affected and affecting subjects.

It goes over methodology quite a lot, both the methodology it’s studying (QBA) and the methodology used to study it. Quite nice to read something so precise and grounded.

Emoji summary: 🐭 👩‍🔬 🔎

The Speaking Animal
by Alison Suen

Given it’s not very long and I read 2 chapters already (wk 17 and 19), I decided to finish this book.

Ch 2 looks at Freud. I found it a bit difficult. Freud is so weird. Suen takes a very deep reading of Freud’s work on Da Vinci and the ‘kissing vulture’ and argues that Freud’s take is informed by “his patriarchal thinking”.

Ch 3 takes on Heidegger. Good grief. Imagine reading this guy and being like ‘yeah, I’ll have some more of that’? Anyway, we’re back on the human/animal linguistic divide, and Heidegger’s take that both animals and humans can ‘communicate’ but the notion of (human) language is relational.

…for Heidegger what is refused to the animal is the capacity to make propositional statements. Notably, this capacity to make propositional statements involves the ability to relate.

It goes on a bit about relations, which was super interesting in the context of a conversation we had in the seminar on Friday about evolution not favouring species but rather relations (human/dog or human/bacteria).

There is also an interesting section on Rousseau’s origin of language, which ties in

While Heidegger speaks of “being-with-others” and Rousseau talks about “passion,” for both of them sociality is at the heart of language.

Something denied to animals. Wrongly so, imo

Ch 4 is about identity. Who counts as an animal? A more complicated question than you would expect. It also deals with the animal rights bind of advocating for certain animals based on characteristics, such as similarity to us and/or being “photogenic”. Moves through identity politics and essentialism, familiar discourses in feminist theory, but certainly fresh when you think about animals.

Emoji summary: 🗣 💭 🐨

What Would Animals Say If We Asked the Right Questions?
by Vinciane Despret

I loved reading this book so much, it was a genuine delight. I started it one night when I was super tired, thinking I’d just read one chapter. An hour later, it was like ‘oh shit I need to sleep’. It’s that good.

It’s an abecedary, and each chapter is filled with wonderful stories about animals combined with serious scholarship. Not in that laborious, this-is-hard-to-read way, but from someone who obviously knows their shit. Despret is the dame of ethology.

I’ve ordered it from my local bookshop because I want to be able to come back to it. Happy to loan to my London pals, as it’s a bit pricy.

Emoji summary: ❓🔠 🐋

Human-Computer Insurrection: Notes on an Anarchist HCI
by Os Keyes, Josephine Hoy and Margaret Drouhard

The anarchist bit of the title made me a little hesitant, but I so enjoyed Os Keyes’ article from last week so I read it. And I’m very glad I did, not least because now I have 4 books and 18 pdfs from the bibliography for further research.

I had quite a very narrow view of anarchists, which was along the lines of what this article describes as “individualist anarchism”. The authors come from a “social anarchism” perspective. I’m still a little uncomfortable by the libertarian threads, but I do find value in critiques of power and the focus on

community-appropriate and community-determined approaches to change and governance.

A lot of their points are familiar if you come from post- or decolonial studies, anti-racism, feminist theory, etc. I find I can leave the ‘anarchist’ to one side and focus on its proposals. One very practical one I would love to see is the call for more transparency and accountability in systems and infrastructure (digital, tech).

… anarchist HCI demands a robust and critical accounting of how we and our work relate to any power structures that oppress people or deprive them of agency. This might manifest as comprehensive, publicly accessible documentation of requirements, intentions, and methods for novel designs ...

and a reminder we can’t have enough of

designers and technologists are no longer gatekeepers of knowledge or production; we are potential (rather than necessary) collaborators.

I’m not sure we were ever important enough to be gatekeepers but we are potential collaborators, not necessary.

Emoji summary: 📊 🙅‍♀ 🌐

Who cares? by Frank Chimero and Design systems roundup by Jeremy Keith

Two parts in a series of back and forth blogposts about design systems by various ‘known’ design/internet people. An interesting discussion that I haven’t heard much of in the design system chatter that’s been going around for the last few years.

From Jeremy:

The reasons for creating a design system matter. Those reasons will probably reflect the values of the company creating the system. … This is why I’m so wary of selling the benefits of design systems in terms of consistency and efficiency. Those are obviously tempting money-saving benefits, but followed to their conclusion, they lead down the dark path of enforced compliance and eventually, automation.

But if the reason you create a design system is to empower people to be more creative, then say that loud and proud! I know that creativity, autonomy and empowerment is a tougher package to sell than consistency and efficiency, but I think it’s a battle worth fighting.

There were quite a few posts, though I haven’t read them all. However, it did strike me how all of them (in Jeremy’s roundup anyway) were written by men. I think Jeremy is quite conscious of gender inequality in tech, so I suspect it might be because they are the only ones talking about it online, in writing. Why do you think that is?

Emoji summary: 🖍 💻 🧩

The Pitfalls and the Potential of the New Minimalism
by Jia Tolentino

Ngl, I totally got into that Marie Kondo stuff. I still maintain it and people always remark that my flat has ‘nothing in it’ (except books and plants, sorry to be basic but I couldn’t get rid of my books).

Tolentino is a very gifted writer, and this article covers a lot of different angles while being a joy to read. I will leave you with the closing paragraph, but it’s a good one for you to clickity click.

Several years ago, Duane Elgin, who has become an author and an activist focussed on sustainability, published a paper arguing that either we can “continue along our current path of denial and bargaining” until we drain our natural resources and our capacity to relate to one another as humans or we can “awaken ourselves from the dream of limitless material growth and actively invent new ways to live within the material limits of the Earth.” This is, in the end, the most convincing argument for minimalism: with less noise in our heads, we might hear the emergency sirens more clearly. If we put down some baggage, we might move more swiftly. We might address the frantic, frightening, intensifying conditions that have prompted us to think of minimalism as an attractive escape.

Emoji summary: 🇯🇵 🔲 💸


Unfinished Business by Thomas Beller. A book review that really makes one want to read the book. Do you have 4Columns on your radar? It’s quite nice.

I Don’t Want to Be the Strong Female Lead by Brit Marling. How to be a woman in this trashfire world is not an easy task.

I Hated Bernie Bros Until I Loved and Lost One by Kate Willett. It feels like the Dem primaries will never end.

Going to close on this video, which in twitter time is very old but it’s good.


Emoji summary is 100% nicked off my favourite art critics The White Pube. They said they don’t mind.