This is PENTACLE’s first English post and here we proudly present an interview with Evelien Geerts. Türkçe versiyonu için tıklayınız.
First of all, a few words on Evelien: Evelien Geerts is a multidisciplinary philosopher and Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham. She holds a Ph.D. in Feminist Studies and History of Consciousness from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and (research) M.A. degrees in Philosophy and Gender & Ethnicity Studies. Her research interests include new materialisms & Deleuzoguattarian philosophy, critical epistemologies, and political philosophical questions of identity, difference, and violence. She previously has published in Philosophy Today, Women’s Studies International Forum, and Rhizomes: Cultural Studies in Emerging Knowledge—publications that can be found at www.eveliengeerts.com—and is a Posthumanities Hub & PhEMaterialisms member, of which I am a member too.
B.A.: Thank you, Evelien, for accepting our invitation and meeting the PENTACLE audience.
E.G.: Thanks for inviting me.
B.A.: Let me just dive into my questions. In your digital cartography of new materialisms, you bring together an assemblage of scholars who have had a significant impact on the development of new materialist theory as well as your own work. Now, I know that this is a very difficult question because it reverts back to our linear thinking processes rather than what posthumanist thought foregrounds, but among all these nodes and linkages, if you were to pick three scholars and three concepts that you consider the most important, what would they be, and why?
E.G.: My dissertation project, Materialist Philosophies Grounded in the Here and Now: Critical New Materialist Constellations & Interventions in Times of Terror(ism) (UC Santa Cruz, 2019), combined various post-philosophical approaches and methodologies, such as Deleuzoguattarian cartographical thinking with a Braidottian feminist twist, Harawayan-Baradian diffractive theorizing, affective theoretical explorations, and materialist philosophizing ‘from the ground up’, which all, in one way or the other, perform rhizomatic meanderings and more-than-human ways of thinking and doing.
The digital cartography of new materialisms that you are referring to here – the pedagogical component of the said project – puts the Harawayan-Baradian idea of diffraction (read: difference-producing diffractive patterns and a more critical consciousness or critical way of approaching the world, including the production of theory; also see Haraway 1997, Barad 2007, and Geerts & van der Tuin 2021) into concrete practice. Let me expand on this for a second, before selecting three scholars and concepts.
My project at the time was propelled forward by three lines of inquiry that still represent the kind of critical scholarship I am invested in today. Having been generously mentored and inspired by critical theorists, such as Bettina Aptheker and Carla Freccero at UC Santa Cruz, and Iris van der Tuin and Rosi Braidotti at Utrecht University, that are also invested in feminist pedagogies, I knew that my dissertation needed a strong critical pedagogical line of inquiry. Doctoral dissertations of course tend to be rather traditional in nature, given that there are academic requirements that have to be met. This means that dissertations often replicate exactly what critical pedagogical scholarship is going up against, namely: the one-directional unpacking and spoon-feeding of theories, concepts, and ideas. As a political philosopher driven by critical epistemologies and situated ways of thinking and theorizing, I felt like I had to add an explicit critical pedagogical dimension to said project. This came in the form of a self-explorable digital cartography that would reinforce the agential power of those engaging with my work to navigate various entangled constellations of contemporary new materialist thought, enabling them to then potentially build their own situated maps.
Constructing such a digital cartography was easier said than done, however: It wasn’t only an immense challenge to figure out how to collect the ‘raw’ data needed for said cartography but deciding how to for instance visualize the intricate differences between various strands of thought gave me many sleepless nights! I moreover became haunted by what Mirka Koro-Ljungberg and others refer to as “the ontological status of data” (2018: 462), and, more particularly, the uncontestable fact that data never really come to us as ‘untouched’ and thus ‘untainted’. I in the end decided to use a simple Excel sheet, selecting the most interesting new materialist or related thinkers – working with my own biases and situated positionality – and that either on the basis of how many times these thinkers were mentioned in the dissertation or because I had discovered that their work had either a lot or almost nothing in common with other theorists that were going to be included in the mapping project.
I thus intentionally looked for the more provocative thinkers and did so from within my situated interpretation and framing of contemporary new materialist thought, plus all of its subsets and interlinked assemblages, such as critical new materialisms, speculative realisms, object-oriented ontologies (or OOOs), … and affect theoretical and posthumanist thought.
The selection of the concepts, by the way, took way longer than expected: I decided to select and use a lot of the concepts highlighted in the dissertation, but also went through various book indexes to track down thought-provoking concepts. I initially had expected to come up with a simple list of authors, concepts, and specific values attributed to these concepts (i.e., a number between 1-5, with 1 denoting ‘little to no relevance’ and 5 ‘high relevance’, which, again, were decisions based on my personal situated interpretation and translate to smaller or bigger nodes on the map) after having sketched out the new materialist assemblages.
What in the end, with the help of Utrecht University’s Digital Humanities Lab and the data visualization program Gephi, unfolded itself, turned out to be a way less linear process and clear-cut end result: I actually went back to my dissertation’s text to rewrite and edit it numerous times alongside the selecting of said data and designing of the map, as unexpected linkages between constellations kept arising. This digital critical cartographical mapping process could therefore be seen as the embodiment of the idea of diffraction, or, as Karen Barad (2007: 72) has put it, “patterns of difference that make a difference […] [and that are] the fundamental constituents that make up the world”. By attuning myself to the data found, the apparatuses (i.e., the software program; the team of developers; the cartography-in-becoming; …), and the new materialist methodologies used, the project transcended a more reflective mindset that would have merely focused on the one-sided reproduction of data instead of granting these data assemblages and the various apparatuses involved their own agential powers.
Now, as far as the selection of three authors and concepts goes, well, that’s a tricky question! I would actually go for Luce Irigaray (1985), Denise Ferreira da Silva (2007), and Melinda Cooper (2008). These three thinkers probably do not automatically come to mind when thinking about new materialist thought, but they are, in my opinion, crucial for projects that revalue matter and materiality as such and engage in a posthumanist decentering of the canonical subject ‘Man’. Irigaray, as an écriture féminine thinker, for example, paved the way for Deleuzoguattarian new materialists such as Rosi Braidotti (2013) and Elizabeth Grosz (2017), and that by focusing on the erasure of sexual difference and the prevalent existence of somatophobia in modern Western philosophy. Da Silva equally focuses on materiality but does so by addressing an analytics of race and the importance of unpacking extractive capitalism as a colonial, heavily racialized project. And Cooper brings in an astounding bio-/necropolitical critique of today’s destructive neoliberal extractive capitalist system.
These three thinkers demonstrate the importance of ‘re-grounding’ new materialist thought in the materialisms that have preceded them, and they also immediately highlight several concepts that I think are crucial when talking about new materialist and posthumanist theory: “Bio-/necropolitics” being probably one of the most important concepts – as the vastly unequally-experienced COVID-19 pandemic has shown us. We are in dire need of theories that are able to capture today’s bio-/necropolitical Zeitgeist, and how easily certain lived beings’ lives are being prioritized over those that are deemed less than human or are being completely robbed of any humanity; reduced to disposable chunks of raw matter…
“Micropolitics” is another one of those crucial concepts: Although the macropolitical remains important – just think about the sovereign power many Continental nation-states re-asserted during the pandemic – focusing on the micropolitical flows, affects, and “irruptions” or affect-laden disruptions that “exemplify and question linearity and normativity” (Koro-Ljungberg 2015: xvii) that take place in encounters between phenomena, pushes our philosophical analyses even further. A micropolitics-focused analysis could help us understand the affect-inducing fascist messages of memes, for instance, and the political drive they sometimes engender. And memes definitely have the capacity to mobilize the masses, as we saw earlier this year in the case of Trumpian post-truth politics and the US Capitol Insurrection, or, closer to home and in time, the Flemish alt-right and extreme right’s meme-based attacks on Belgium’s scientific pandemic experts.
Speaking of the political: The idea of a “flat ‘powerless’ ontology” should probably be included as well here, as this notion separates various strands of new materialist thought. As is also argued by Alaimo (2014), for instance, many OOO thinkers seem to assume a flat ontology in which the world basically consists of equally footed objects, whereas various new materialist thinkers, often driven by feminist, queer, and critical race studies, argue against this ontological leveling, while investing in analyses that do take power differentials between differently embodied beings into account.
B.A.: How can someone who has just started learning about posthumanism in its new materialist vein benefit from your map? Can it be employed as a learning tool?
E.G.: The digital cartography of new materialisms was actually designed with multiple critical pedagogical ideas in mind, and not just because of my own academic training, as referred to in the foregoing question! My dissertation project on critical new materialisms and terrorism also demanded it: I did not only want to focus on thinking terrorism as an ever-haunting material-discursive-affective phenomenon anew through what I call ‘critical’ or power relations-focused new materialist perspectives, but also really wished to highlight the pedagogical essence and transformation-engendering potential of critical theory as such.
One important note before I delve into the links between materialisms, new materialisms, and critical pedagogies: The cartography definitely includes various posthumanist theorists and concepts, but it was mainly designed to underline the differences between what I see as power analytics-focused – and therefore critical – new materialisms, and various other strands of new materialist thought, such as OOOs, actor-network theories (ANTs), and so forth. The map below – a simplified, less ‘intra-active’ version of my digital critical cartography – demonstrates the differences and interlinkages between the various constellations quite well.
Now, to come back to the ‘critical’ aspect of it all: Many critical new materialist philosophies – such as those of Donna Haraway (1997), Jasbir Puar (2007), Braidotti (2013), Alexis Shotwell (2016), Zakiyyah Jackson (2020), and others – are philosophically rooted in the Frankfurt School’s materialist take on critical theory. Thinkers such as Adorno, Benjamin, and Max Horkheimer promoted “an emancipation and at an alteration of society as a whole” (Horkheimer 2002: 208), and that through a transdisciplinary critique of the function of society, thought, and the constant interaction between society and thought.
Historical materialism and new materialisms in that sense have a lot in common: Both are invested in critically analyzing the world to transform it for the better, and critical pedagogies are a part of that process of transformation. The dialogue between critical pedagogues, higher education practitioners, and posthumanist, affect theoretical, and new materialist thinkers has clearly been fruitful: Various edited volumes (see e.g., Hickey-Moody & Page 2016; Snaza et al. 2016; and Braidotti et al. 2018) have come out recently, and they all, in their own way, address the importance of status quo-critical pedagogies that, for instance, take the teaching process’ affective, micropolitical layers and our more-than-human classroom environments into account. Delphi Carstens and I (2021) recently tried to build on this rich tradition by curating a special issue on wild pedagogies, Deleuzoguattarian thought, and new materialisms for Matter: Journal of New Materialist Research, which touches upon a lot of the exchanges between the aforementioned fields, and that in times of pandemic crisis.
The digital critical cartography in this renewed critical pedagogical sense is a learning tool, but – and this is quite important to emphasize – it isn’t meant to be an exhaustive map. That would only stifle the learning process that it is hoping to stimulate. It is rather meant to be a perspectivist map, built on the principles of situated knowledges (Haraway 1988) and the embodied politics of location (Rich 1986); therefore, locatable in space and time, and also necessarily limited qua outlook.
The Braidottian (2011: 4) take on Deleuzoguattarian critical cartography already highlights this situatedness of the map and cartographer in question. Such a cartography – which is the methodological framework operating behind this digital map – is designed to primarily provide “a theoretically based and politically informed reading of the present”, depending on the perspective of the mapmaker. This moreover implies a reckoning with the mapmaker’s own geopolitical situatedness, as I have also explained elsewhere (see e.g., Geerts & Carstens 2019 and Geerts 2021): Maps in the end are always knowledge-laden and power-heavy, seen through this perspective. They have furthermore also been used to assert territorial ownership in the advantage of various Western colonial regimes (see e.g., Smith 1999) and thus engage in both the making and destroying of worlds. The cartography presented is thus limited in nature, and not at all ‘untainted’, or, to put it in Baradian (2007: 185) agential realist terms, the map here expresses the materialist motto of “knowing in being”. This boils down to the idea that materialist theorizing and mapmaking always happen from within the world, and therefore are automatically driven by accountability and responsible for one’s knowledge claims about the world.
Taking all of the foregoing in mind, folks that want to explore the digital critical cartography accompanying this interview, hopefully realize that this map exists as an ever-evolving assemblage of data, apparatuses, and more-than-human relationalities to engage-with, feel-with, and think-with. Instead of taking the contours and constellations of said map for granted, it would be great – and also completely in line with the tradition of consciousness-raising critical pedagogy – if the readers of this interview could add on to this open-ended cartography or even come up with a map of their own, based on their situated perspectives and positionalities!
B.A.: You have collaborated with Iris van der Tuin in penning “Diffraction & Reading Diffractively” (see Geerts & van der Tuin 2021). Now that diffraction, as a methodology, breaks the so-called objective barriers between the observer and the observed, it requires the analyst to bring their own perspective in reading the material at hand, making it difficult for the people with a positivist mindset to understand how to acquire, understand, and/or produce knowledge. Can you elaborate on the idea of diffraction in your own sense? How much of your own diffraction do you borrow from Haraway or Barad? Is there a way of producing “the best practice” in diffracting?
E.G.: Diffraction and diffractive theorizing for me really are embedded in the tradition of feminist science studies, and the oeuvres of Haraway and Barad in particular, as Iris van der Tuin and I also stipulate in the aforementioned article.
Diffraction, as physical phenomenon, takes place when waves encounter a material object, obstacle, or opening, forcing them to bend and causing diffraction patterns to emerge. When sunrays hit a CD-ROM’s surface, for instance, colorful intertwined diffraction patterns are produced. Contemporary, quantum physics-based experimental analyses reveal that all matter is inherently capable of engendering these playful, overlapping diffraction patterns. In contemporary feminist philosophy and theory, however, the optical phenomenon of diffraction is used more metaphorically, pointing toward alternative, often anti-phallogocentric, and surprisingly new ways of thinking.
This has become most clear in the oeuvres of Haraway and Barad. Both are known as feminist science studies scholars that are critical of representationalism and ways of thinking and doing that emulate what Haraway (1988: 581) calls “the god trick of seeing everything from nowhere”. To produce accountable knowledge and work towards a more just science, thinkers and practitioners are asked to acknowledge their situated positionalities, how these positionalities impact the apparatuses and data produced and used, and think about the knowledge claims they make. Diffraction therefore could be best seen as “an optical metaphor” (Haraway 1997: 16), troubling reflection and (self-)reflexivity. Or as Haraway put it so well in Modest_Witness:
[R]eflexivity, like reflection, only displaces the same elsewhere, setting up the worries about copy and original and the search for the authentic and really real. […] What we need is to make a difference in material-semiotic apparatuses, to diffract the rays of technoscience so that we get more promising interference patterns on the recording films of our lives and bodies. (1997: 16)
Echoing the Deleuzoguattarian (2005) critique of a tree logic that is focused on reproduction, reflection and reflexivity must be problematized as scientific and academic praxes, as they each uphold representationalism, solipsistic, and reductionist thinking patterns, and (re)create dichotomized binaries. Self-reflexivity already gets us a bit closer to diffractive thinking – as both are about processes of consciousness-raising – but it still remains trapped in a monologue-based solipsism. Diffraction, contrastingly, makes space for the Other-as-Other; for the existence of patterns of difference, and the acknowledgement of differently marked embodied subjects.
I have mostly used diffraction in the sense of materialist, worldly theorizing, or what Barad (2007: 55) sees as a “material engagement with the world” from within (and not floating above) said world. Connecting diffractive theorizing back to critical cartography – which, like diffractive theorizing, is a posthumanist new materialist methodology, I would say that both the critical mapmaker and diffractive thinker have a lot in common: They continuously demonstrate their attempts to be in tune with the world, and with the phenomena surrounding them, as they are thinking ‘from the ground up’ and entangled with what matters. These two methodologies moreover entail a corporeal co-engendering: Thinking becomes a process of mutual co-constitution, in which the researcher in all of their being is completely enmeshed in the phenomena researched.
This thorough reshuffling of the regular onto-epistemological subject/object structure (i.e., the knower/object-researched/knowledge obtained) has an important implication that demonstrates the importance of thinking the ontological, the epistemological, and the ethico-political – something that is central to many critical new materialisms and Barad’s work in particular – together. Both methodologies actually sidestep epistemological individualism – which is more or less standard in reflective and (self-)reflexive models: While there are of course subjects-as-researchers at work behind critical cartography and diffraction, it is their entanglement with their social milieu, in addition to their geopolitical situated awareness that really counts and is being accentuated.
B.A.: You have also employed new materialist theories and methodologies to analyze more political phenomena, such as identity and the contemporary – often quite heated – debate on identity politics. Could you tell us a bit more about that?
E.G.: As a queer feminist philosopher, I have always been interested in questions of identity, difference, and violence: Which bodies are allowed to come to ‘matter’ in today’s neoliberal extractive capitalist world, and why? And can we philosophically ‘capture’ these processes in concepts and theories that do justice to people’s actual lived experiences? These are the questions that are currently haunting me as a Research Fellow, part of the Urban Terrorism in Europe (2004-19): Remembering, Imagining, and Anticipating Violence project at the University of Birmingham. Apart from for instance exploring the (non-)labeling processes of extremists and terrorists in certain socio-political contexts, I am intrigued by how new materialist concepts, such as diffractive patterns and the micropolitical, could assist us with better understanding anything identity-related.
As noted earlier, new materialist thought – specifically the more Deleuzoguattarian strand that emphasizes non-essentialist, more fluid takes on difference-as-differing and identity-as-becoming – comes in handy when confronted with phenomena that transcend the macropolitical. Trinh Minh-ha – who clearly inspired Haraway as a proto-diffractive thinker – actually already explained this more fluid, relational take on identity and self/Other relations quite well:
From one category, one label to another, the only way to survive is to refuse. Refuse to become an Integra table element. Refuse to allow names arrived at transitionally to become stabilized. In other words, refuse to take for granted the naming process. (1996: 48)
Minh-ha refuses labels rooted in polarizing dualisms, arguing instead for a relational philosophy of difference in which social identity categories, markers, and labels are allowed to interfere with, and co-construct, one another while always being in flux and in becoming. This greatly resembles the Deleuzoguattarian (2005) take on identity and difference, and many of the new materialist thinkers that have followed in their footsteps, such as Braidotti and Grosz.
Together with Iris van der Tuin (see Geerts & van der Tuin 2013), I developed a more or less diffractive patterns-based – or interferential – model that, in dialogue with the more macropolitical paradigm of intersectionality, hopes to offer the reader a more relational, non-essentialist conceptualization of difference and identity. This new materialisms-embedded interferential model furthermore enables us to zoom in on encounters between subjects; encounters happening on a micropolitical level, packed with various affect-laden events, clashes, unforeseen entanglements, and even micro-aggressions. In a forthcoming piece, I have delved deeper into these day-to-day encounters, and, by using the foregoing model, intervened in the polarized identity politics debate by unpacking identity as a complex, always-shifting, transversal myriad of the discursive-material-affective.
B.A.: Thank you, Evelien, for this fruitful and enjoyable interview.
E.G.: It really was fun. Thank you for having me.
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