Boundary Work

SF: string figures / speculative fabulation

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v. 1.2

The concept of string figures is introduced in: Donna Jeanne Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Experimental Futures: Technological Lives, Scientific Arts, Anthropological Voices (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016). If not mentioned otherwise, the references and quotes in this post are referencing above publication. Bold and italic font-styles in Quotes are added by the editor.

Entwurf – viele Behauptungen hier – oder viel SF – freue mich über Kommentare und Einwände (: Die Bilder sind wahrscheinlich ganz illegal?! E.
…to be continued and passed on

Instead of defining the concept of the string figure, after introducing it, the first thing Donna Haraway does, is to skillfully dissolve it again into an “ubiquitos figure” indicated by the initials SF. SF, she says, can stand for: science fiction, speculative feminism, science fantasy, speculative fabulation, science fact, string figure…

A strategy, that inspires, to start this post with a tag-cloud:

Ma’ii Ats’áá’ Yílwoí (Coyotes Running Opposite Ways).
Photograph by Donna Haraway.

As string figures are (metaphorically and literally) all about practice, you might want to refresh your spring figure skills and ther muscular memory connected to them here:

String figures, for Haraway, are about a “companion practice”. They can serve, to sketch an ethical system of epistemic consequences that is based on the ongoingnes of never-innocent relations.

It seems that this particular orientation forbids to simply “extract” a method from it, because it may banalize the concept if we subtract one of the three dimensions [practice|ethics|epistemology]?

Neither a return to a (pre- or posthistorical) imagined paradise, nor giving up in face of an overwhelmingly real and violent presence, are viable options. As we are always already entangled in, and made from the relations that sum up to be our existence in the world, there is neither a point of moral purity, nor an elevated, “objective”, (over)view available to us. Any “point of departure” for any endevour and every “solid ground” on which something can be constructed, must be thought as always already within a troubled world. Staying with the trouble and learn to be companions to each other, seems to be the ethical choice that is left in this situation.

“Relays, string figures, passing patterns back and forth, giving and receiving, patterning, holding the unasked-for pattern in one’s hands, response-ability; that is core to what I mean by staying with the trouble”

The event of receiving a unasked-for pattern presents the chance to (care to) become able to respond to it (response ability) – We will (and are asked to) keep trying to make this response meaningful, to “make sense” with(in) our interaction. A figuration that unveils the radical epistemological dimension of the string figure concept. It is not about deciphering the unreadable patterns into a universally translateable language of knowledge (compare: Haraway, „Situated Knowledges“, 1988), but about finding a way to respond to them from one’s own position in the world. That is the knowlege-practice (and knowledge-producing practice) apt to build a worldwide web of partial connections, of situated knowledges,

an earthwide network of connections, including the ability partially to translate knowledges among very different – and power-differentiated – communities


The ethical choice within this frame of possibilities is the one that lets the shared story continue and possibly leads to a recuperation of the companions that play the game together. In Haraway’s words:

I am not interested in reconciliation or restoration, but I am deeply committed to the more modest possibilities of partial recuperation and getting on together. Call that staying with the trouble.

These string figure-players will interact, but are they passing on figures? But that is probably not the point of the picture: “String figures can be played by many, on all sorts of limbs, as long as the rhythm of accepting and giving is sustained.”, Haraway gives an interpretation for the picture.
Multispecies Cat’s Cradle. Drawing by Nasser Mufti, 2011.

String Figures as a transdisciplinary Method?

As mentioned, above, it might banalize the concept of SF, if we try to condense it into a transdisciplinary method. The scope of transdisciplinarity in its most common meanings, is usually on actors as subjects-of-practices like work or research – specific goal oriented practices, that discipline their actors into specific modes of being. It seems that the scope of staying with the trouble entails many more dimensions of human and non-human interdependency and interwoven existence.

Maybe here lays a first hint for a method: To complicate the boundaries of projects, the process of recognizing relevant actors and agents. Asking what it means for each of them, to be in the radius of the project, being affected by it, both as embodied beings and as actors.

Ontologically heterogeneous partners become who and what they are in relational material-semiotic worlding. Natures, cultures, subjects, and objects do not preexist their intertwined worldings.

Hara trouble p13

If the subjects are emerging within their intertwined worldings, the way the colaborating parties come together becomes very important. Focus is shifted. Instead of a gathering of experts-of-their-fields that have a hard time understanding each other, we witness a process of ongoing intertwined worlding and we can build on the partial connections that start to grow within the practice of SF. We might want to shift our focus from the somewhat static idea of the riches in cultural capital that the participants own, to environmental aspects that are pivotal in making this riches meaningful, on the myzhelia that may allow meaningful connections between them and on its potential to grow. For sure, such a searching has to be power-sensitive if it wants to avoid a mainstreaming unification of knowledges. It might be closer to the image of a collective performance, then to that of a philosophical panel discussion.

What could that mean for our preconceived norms for collaborative processes?

Another starting point could be, to look for method like sequences within the text, assuming SF related methods present and at work within Haraways text. I try to collect a few of them here:

First, promiscuously plucking out fibers in clotted and dense events and practices, I try to follow the threads where they lead in order to track them and find their tangles and patterns crucial for staying with the trouble in real and particular places and times. In that sense, sf is a method of tracing, of following a thread in the dark, in a dangerous true tale of adventure, where who lives and who dies and how might become clearer for the cultivating of multispecies justice. Second, the string figure is not the tracking, but rather the actual thing, the pattern and assembly that solicits response, the thing that is not oneself but with which one must go on. Third, string figuring is passing on and receiving, making and unmaking, picking up threads and dropping them. sf is practice and process; it is becoming-with each other in surprising relays; it is a figure for ongoingness in the Chthulucene.

I look for real stories that are also speculative fabulations and speculative realisms. These are stories in which multispecies players, who are enmeshed in partial and flawed translations across difference, redo ways of living and dying attuned to still possible finite flourishing, still possible recuperation.

Fianlly we could use mimetic sensibilities and draw an analogy. We could turn around the analytic canvas and claim, that string figures and transdisciplinary processes are resembling each other all along. Both use patterns as entities with undefined ontological status and aspoints of reference, because in a transdisciplinary process, we can not nessecarily understand, what the object is for the other discipline. In this perspective, being open to receive patterns you have not asked for, renders into a vital quality for transdisciplinary colaboration, and the aspect of transformation of the pattern during the exchange, can be read as a description of a meaningful transdisciplinary process, where something new is developed, that could not have possibly be created within the boundaries of a discipline. It entails as well an emphasis on the performative aspects of the transdisciplinary project, hinting, that part of the acquired knowledge can not be described in an “objective” style but stays bound to the difference of experience of the actors within the process.

In this reading the string figure resembles Maassens “boundary object”, while the stance of being open to receive the un-asked for pattern may remind to Maassens fondnes for the figure of the Idiot. Or what do you think? And can somebody write a bridge to the “travelling concepts”?

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