What I mean when I talk about more-than-human design

Posted on Feb 7, 2020 in Animals & Plants & Stuff, Everyday Life

I was recently asked a few questions and some of you might be interested in my answers  :-)

Curious brown tabby cat Enid Coleslaw perches on the wood fence in her first encounter with the sheep on the other side.

The More-Than-Human Lab arose from my life with nonhuman animals, alongside the work of multispecies ethnographers and cultural geographers grappling with what is at stake in more-than-human worlds.

I’m not trying to say that anyone is “more” or “less” (than) human, but explicitly recognising that the world has never been a place made only, or even primarily, of or for humans.

While this isn’t a radical notion for many researchers, I’m trying to teach design from an anthropological perspective and I like that it encourages me to poke at both anthropology and human-centred design and see what falls apart.

I found my way to design through my archaeological and anthropological experience with material, visual, and discursive culture, and the recognition that culture is actively created and recreated by persons in these more-than-human worlds. I’m not fond of professional design’s problem-solving imperative or reliance on technoindustrial metaphors, but I am utterly captivated by world-building and thing-making. 

My favourite design tool is speculation. It isn’t required for more-than-human design but I have a lifelong love of speculative fiction, and to design within that general framework appeals to me in many ways. Besides its obvious capacity to imagine different ways of being with others, I find it well-suited for intervening in difficult or messy relations between people and nonhuman animals.

Fiction affords people space to think or act differently without the terribly fraught ethics of designed — through expectation or force — behaviour change.

While I’ve spent the last five years doing ethnographic fieldwork and re-thinking human-livestock relations, the design courses I teach have moved further and further away from human-centred approaches. For example, last year I taught a course in multispecies design ethnography and although our “client” was Wellington Zoo, I stressed the importance of designing with the otters and for otter-human relations (and questioning what that actually means). In my speculative design course, students were tasked with re-imagining kinship in ways that explicitly include, and so ethically bind us to, nonhumans.

While some excellent design/researchers use the phrase “more than human” to refer to a range of technologies, my interests remain in the multispecies or environmental realm. This doesn’t mean that technology is irrelevant; it’s important for me to assess the political and ethical implications of any technology that attempts to mediate human relations with other forms of life. My research simply focusses on farmed animal life because I think that how we relate to, and with, these animals have an enormous impact on their well-being, human well-being, and the well-being of the Earth.

Agriculture is also one of humanity’s most heavily designed activities, which should remind us that it can be re-designed, and needs to be re-designed when it stops working for all of us. 

But I’m not a believer that technology under capitalism will be the planet’s salvation, and I tend to part ways with (commercial?) designers and technologists who aim to design more “precision” agriculture through “intelligent” machines, and I’m constantly watching for bad omens. The ethos of the More-Than-Human Lab draws on Donna Haraway’s “staying with the trouble” and tries to go beyond the design of human-nonhuman interactions to reimagine human-nonhuman relations. For me, this means not trying to “fix” the world, and resisting both purity and progress to live well together through uncertain and difficult circumstances.

The deep irony (?!) is that indigenous cultures all around the world and many non-Western religions have always understood that nature and culture aren’t separate, and that humans aren’t superior in our abilities or experiences. Western intellectual history and industrial capitalist societies have not allowed this kind of thinking to take hold except for amongst a fringe few, and I think this has played a pivotal role in the current climate crisis and the impoverished range of corrective measures on offer.

I’m inspired by anyone who is trying to figure out how more vital, embodied, and inter-dependent traditions can be brought into situated practice.

Right now I’m drawing sustenance from ecological and political theology, cosmopolitics and animism. When it comes to design, I’ve long admired the work of Superflux (amongst many others!) and I’ve most recently enjoyed Arturo Escobar’s Designs for the Pluriverse

Laura McLaughlan – in her paper at the most recent Australian Anthropological Society conference – said that “Ethnographers walk through landscapes both soft and hard.” I noted it because it struck me as both literally and metaphorically true. We do walk through a lot of landscapes, and both the going and the ground are often so much harder than expected. And yet along the way there are always spaces and moments of gentleness or softness that provide relief and comfort. I don’t know anyone who suggests that tenderness is our only viable option, but many of us refuse to hand it over to those who would render it weak.

I’m committed to using ethnography and everyday design to restore and support more situated, intimate, and vulnerable relations between humans and farmed animals. In a world dominated by the mass production and consumption of nonhuman animal life, these kinds of relations are often dismissed as sentimental or naïve. But in my experience they require a great deal of strength and a practical willingness to both hurt and be hurt. This is central to my personal committment to be with the world, instead of against it. 

I also believe that a full, rich experience of humanity in more-than-human worlds is already being lived by billions and I wish that even more could experience it. But please don’t mistake this for an attempt to convert you! In dire times it may be tempting to conjure all too familiar utopias and dystopias, but I’m interested in reconnecting with violence, suffering, decay and death as part of life, entangled with all the love, beauty, and wonder.

As humanity, and the planet, face the climate crisis I’m interested in protecting (and, if necessary, reclaiming) the kind of ethical relations with animals and lands that can take us down a different path. No one knows if this path will avoid the same end, but I’m hopeful. 

Our small farmstead is my living experiment in what kinds of relations are possible with the animals I care for, and sometimes eat. Watching a lamb take her first breath, and a year later holding her with love as I kill her has profoundly changed the way I see myself and the world around me—not to mention how others see me! 

The sheep have taught me to slow down, and to look and listen more carefully. They’ve taught me humility and patience and strength, both physical and emotional. That there is such a thing as caring too little, and too much. The sheep have taught me to fight more playfully, and to always choose kindness.

And I bring all of this experience to my understanding and practice of more-than-human design.

Many thanks to our cats Enid Coleslaw and Beatrix Lemonade, the sheep Ursula, Grace, Mercy, Emmaline, Victoria, Glory, Melvin & Mingus, Edith, Ulla & Ulrich, Gus, Max & Murray, Esther and Eddard (Ned), Maeve, Godric and Gregor Samsa, and to all the ducks and ducklings.