Decentre: Designing for coexistence in a time of crisis
2020, what a year…
A spotlight on systemic racial inequality and violence, catastrophic bushfires, zoonotic pandemics, mass extinction, global heating, mass migration, geopolitical unrest.
The immensity of these events presented an enveloping imperative for our thematic framing of Kerb 28. The Anthopocene operates to decentre modernity’s self-awareness by forcing us to consider deep geological timescales and our codependence and entanglement with nonhumans.1 In this issue of Kerb, we engage this challenge, which is well articulated in Anna Tsing, Feifei Zhou and Lili Carr’s article describing their Feral Atlas project. The Anthropocene also presents us with a crisis of agency;2 just as we realise the immense scale of human agency, as shown in Edward Burtynsky’s confounding photographs, we seem powerless to stop it. They are our means of response, such as capital, that are problematized as causative and so require our attention. We must reflect upon and assess those modes of agency in the first instance, lest we go any further down the same path.3
Where landscape architecture is engaged with this occasion, we must interrogate its particular design agency to consider the ways it is embroiled and whether it might be differently conceived and employed. As Dan Hill points out, we need to consider this occasion critically and reflectively, in order to arrive at a point of engagement that is upstream, rather than downstream. Similarly, Claire Martin highlights that a world-stopping pandemic requires us to shift our attention outwards toward environmental and trans-species health factors. In this issue of Kerb we are concerned with the foundational structures and ideas that link and propagate these events. How can they be mapped and engaged in and through the mode of landscape? In this endeavour, we might follow Hannah Hopewell and retrace critiques of landscape as a problematic way of seeing4 and frame for thinking that is intimately entwined with imperialism,5 colonialism, eurocentrism and anthropocentrism.
By posing this as a time of crisis in the singular, our ambition is to trace connectivity between these events. We have wondered why mainstream commentary (noting its vested interests) was unable or unwilling to connect the dots. The links between anthropogenic global heating, longer hotter summers and catastrophic bushfires, as articulated by Penelope Allan and James Melsom. The links between the narrow imperatives of capitalism, biodiversity loss, ecosystem destruction and the proliferation of zoonotic viruses and disease that Nina Lykke and Camila Marambio describe. The links between coloniality, ecological degradation, social inequality and systemic racially-based violence. It is as though the aperture through which modernity sees is just a keyhole; a keyhole that obscures our attentiveness to these links. It is now long past the time we opened the door.
We might consider this restrictive keyhole as the epistemological paradigm of modernity. Its western and settler-colonial way of knowing and responding to what is occurring to Earth is now decentred and called into question as a causative factor that has prevented us from seeing the connectivity and so realising what should be done. In the context of this shifted world and the desire for a return to normal, it is vital we reconsider the supposed normality6 of earth-scale socio-ecological violence driven by late-capitalist societal institutions. We contend that it is the narrow temporal aperture of capitalism (always centred on the present) that conceals socio-ecological violence across deep timescales. As deployed within the institutions of modernity, we encounter design as deeply entwined with this epistemological paradigm, industrially oriented around capitalism and its according violence. However, we might also understand design as offering an agential mode that can depart, displace and adapt this paradigm. Any pursuit of this opportunity must necessarily consider the current institutional and ideological affiliations of design agency to ensure it is responsive and not party to the structural foundations of socio-ecological violence.
In this issue of Kerb we contend that the possibility of designing for coexistence by engaging the foundations of violence, requires that we decentre and instead listen to other voices, other perspectives, and other modes of knowing and acting. We hold that this act must follow from an understanding that it is the predominant settler-colonial power structures and epistemologies that are responsible for this crisis of coexistence. We recognise that alternate modes of knowing earth cannot be simply accessed or adopted and that practices of decolonization are a precursor to receiving different perspectives on this occasion. By both hearing other perspectives and critically interrogating and decentring the dominant perspectives that have delivered this occasion, we might begin to convene a renewed possibility for coexistence.
Ethnocentrism, Eurocentrism, Anthropocentrism, Androcentrism, Heterocentrism, etc
All the entwined events of socio-ecological violence can be located in one or multiple of these categories, which are themselves all related by the foundational structure that we will refer to as centrism. Centrism establishes hierarchy through the distance from centre to a periphery, between a subject and an object, or between presence and absence. It can be projected geographically onto the landscape as in Canberra and the remote ‘outback’, between Britain and its colonies, or between the west and the orient. It can also be mapped onto the social by whoever is empowered to determine what ‘normal’ is, as critiques of medical models of disability demonstrate. In this context the call to decentre is posed as an active attempt to disrupt hierarchical logics and their production of violence. It is our site of engagement toward designing for coexistence.
This structure of centrism might also be read in the notion that we should save Earth, or a particular non-human species, because we value it more than driving cars and chopping down forests. This is the dilemma of what we might call ethical centrism. Self-interest theories of agency are subject-centred and hold that we should act because we value things, in order to maintain say, ‘ecological services’ etc. In the Anthropocene though, we have to critically reconsider these self-interest based, subject-centred modes of agency as they cannot be extended out far enough along the deep time scales with which we are concerned.7 Instead, we look towards practices of care and maintenance such as those described by Michael Geffel and Maria Puig De la Bellacasa.8 Care offers us an opportunity to act without a because, it is a subject-decentred approach to agency in the Anthropocene. In this issue of Kerb, artists Athena Ulysse, Mette Ingvartsen and Janet Laurence, engage with this necessity to decentre the self, and consider our common socio-ecological entanglement.
Fortunately, we know this structure of centrism is not universal. In locating the historical emergence of centrism, we might look toward Nelson Maldonado Torres, who traces the continuity between René Descarte’s ego cogito and the earlier Manichean ego conquiro.9 Or further back, in Genesis 1:26 wherein ‘God gave man dominion over animals’. Other authors, such as Timothy Morton, trace the origin of anthropocentrism and speciesism to the trauma of domestication,10 contending that the reduction of other beings to instruments of human use requires the institution of a primary difference from the animal. As Terike Haapoja articulates, this speciesism is also foundational to colonialism and these must be addressed simultaneously.
Peter Connolly and Shaun Rosier’s article surveys responses to this idea of correlationism, a philosophical preoccupation with the terms of the human-world relation. They articulate how in response, some posthumanist scholarship argues for shifting to systems of relations, assemblages or networks, wherein the differences between the centre and periphery are dissolved and we recognise our co-constitution with non-humans. 11 Other approaches have extended the condition of correlation to all objects and argue instead for flat ontologies.12 Both approaches develop a push toward decentring the human subject and diluting human specialness. What is vitally important to recognise in an engagement with these strands of thinking is that they have been developed in correspondence with indigenous epistemologies of long lineage.13 There are then risks of coloniality in any contention of decentring humans, that doesn’t actively recognise and foreground this contemporaneous provenance.
Coloniality is an encompassing and multifaceted system of socio-ecological violence. It is borne of a particular onto-epistemological regime that must be dismantled in our engagement with the occasion of. the Anthropocene. As Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni and Eric Nyembezi Makoni articulate: ‘Decentring aims at making it possible for a pluriverse to emerge, a world in which many worlds coexist.’ This is a task where we (settlers) move to decentre ourselves, our holds on power, our ways of knowing, and instead enter into more equitable forms of engagement such as Greg Grabasch’s, Barbara Bynder’s metalogue, and Jock Gilbert and Sophia Pearce’s article describe. Decentring is in part about dominant power structures relinquishing their epistemological surety through active practices of deep-listening, truth-telling and repatriation. In entering into an exchange that might offer different perspectives, we must also move to confront, depart and redress the continuing violence wrought by those dominant institutions of power, and ways of thinking, knowing and acting to which we are subscribed.
In this issue of Kerb we have developed a broad framework to capture the diverse works of our contributors engaging the above interlinked centrisms. We consider three orientations within which you will find different designed approaches toward the project of decentring.
Works of critique, articulation, description and theorisation of the structures of various entwined centrisms.
Works describing and theorising practices and processes of decentring.
Practices of decentring, wherein the piece itself operates to decentre the reader or author.
Many of the pieces are hybrid and blend these approaches. All of these approaches begin the work of designing for coexistence by engaging with the terms of centrism and moving to decentre.
- For a defence of the various critiques of this term see Timothy Morton’s article, How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Anthropocene, Cambridge University Press, 2014.↩
- R Tyszcuk, Architecture of the Anthropocene: The Crisis of Agency, University of Sheffield, 2014.↩
- B Szerszynski, ‘Getting Hitched and Unhitched with Ecomodernism’, Environmental Humanities, vol. 7, 2015, pp. 239-244↩
- D Cosgrove, Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape, University of Wisconsin Press, 1998.↩
- WJT Mitchell, Landscape and Power, 2nd ed, University of Chicago Press, 2002.↩
- As in the fight to return to normal in the wake of COVID-19.↩
- See Timothy Morton’s article.↩
- M Puig de la Belacasa, Matters of Care, University of Minnesota Press, 2017.↩
- N Maldonado-Torres, ‘On the Coloniality of Being: Contributions to the Development of a Concept,’ Cultural Studies, vol. 21, no. 2-3, 2007, pp. 240-70.↩
- T Morton, Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Coexistence, Columbia University Press, 2016.↩
- See Donna Haraway’s and Bruno Latour’s work and Actor Network Theory.↩
- Such as Object-Oriented Ontology.↩
- V Watts, ‘Indigenous Place-Thought and Agency Amongst Humans and Non-humans (First Woman and Sky Woman Go on a European World Tour!),’ Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, vol. 2, no. 1, pp. 20–34.↩