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Me/We (or) ‘An Investigation into the Agency of the Nonhuman’

Part 2 Dissertation 2012
Joseph Deane
Royal College of Art, UK
Humans are used to working on matter. But do we ever pause to consider whether matter, weathers, artefacts, micro-organisms work on, or through, us? Is it possible that the nonhuman bodies that we are so used to considering inanimate or mechanical might actually be capable of subverting our will, or inverting our temperament, for instance? Likewise we are used to exerting our creative agency or intentionality upon nonhuman bodies, but to what extent do such bodies exercise their own creative intents independent of human intervention? Seldom do we ask these fundamental questions, and yet their implications are critical to our practice.

Architectural manifestos such as Le Corbusier’s When the Cathedrals were White, and Georg Simmel’s Die Ruine exemplify the underlying desire of humans to see themselves and their material ‘creations’ as isolated from the spatio-temporal effects of Nature. Moreover, they spoke of an on-going tendency in artistic discourse to undermine the life of materials beyond human intentionality. Such observations led me to pursue these ideas further, and seemed to reveal a persistent historic trend in occidental philosophy to place the human, (as considered the superlative agent), above the mechanistic structures of nature; an anthropocentric ontology which proliferates contemporary cultural discourse. As Richard Tarnas identifies, ‘the modern condition begins as a Promethean movement toward human freedom, toward autonomy from the encompassing matrix of nature, toward individuation from the collective, yet gradually and ineluctably the Cartesian-Kantian condition evolves into a Kafka-Beckett-like state of existential isolation and absurdity- an intolerable double bind leading to a kind of deconstructive frenzy’. Thus the anthropocentric ontology that has asserted itself as the basis of Western thought has led in many ways to an alienating ontological condition; what we might better refer to as the ‘distancing’ between human and nonhumans. However, the mechanistic physics of Descartes and Newton from which such historic divisions emerged have been out-dated for more than one hundred years, and yet our philosophical understanding of matter is yet to be appropriately reviewed. As such to question the agency of nonhuman bodies is to reconsider the normative presumptions under which we, as designers, operate.

Joseph Deane

Dr Sarah Teasley
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