What is a knot
A complex of touchings generated by the introduction of point to point on a line through a fold or bend, a knot is the bending of the linear, a disordering of order to curve things as they are back on themselves, juxtaposing that which would never in a linear world be in proximity, promoting touchings of things or not-things that do not, perhaps should not touch according to what Joan Retallack calls “official logics.” (Retallack, 2003)
It should also be said that a knot is a twist of twists of the twisted, the original and subsequent twistings making whole of part, introducing opposite force to hold the whole, all in the interest of making of use. There is friction in the tying, in the tightening, in the slippages line on line of the knot.
The fold is fundamentally erotic; it is enigma and intricacy; it complexifies, introducing detours, inflexions, and instabilities into systems. (McCaffery, 2001)
How can we sketch out a practice of proposing or constructing speculative frictions. Here, speculation is a détournement of the notion of investment toward what poet Joan Retallack refers to as placing a “poethical wager” on the “Experimental Feminine” or open-ended research as opposed to the hypothesis-driven traditional (masculine) research that stakes out its end position before it begins. This exploration, wonder, experiment, and prototyping is grounded in what Retallack calls a “feminine dyslogic,” and I will call extra-logic or “the need to operate outside official logics—[which] is essential because official logics exist to erase any need to operate outside official logics, i.e., the feminine.” (Retallack, 2003: 92) In the last decade I have pressed my Vulcan side to stand down to allow the Betazoid/Human side to ascend, to hold in suspension analytical judgment whose purpose is to slice and arrange and edit down and exclude and instead privilege for a more prolonged period a radical and combinatory openness that holds occasionally contradictory positions. I am making a sincere effort to embrace the illogical or extra-logical (which I could also call the irrational or extra-rational) as indicators, promises, glimpses of new logics to come.
Retallack imagines, “the experimental feminine shaping history conceived not as fateful adumbration, but as dynamic coastline where past and present meet in the transformative rim of our recombinatory poesis.… Experiments in every discipline are born out of the unanswered questions, the unfulfilled improbabilities of the past, but also out of the radically unintelligible nature of the contemporary.” (Retallack, 2003: 96)
Against the brutalities of the current socio-eco-political landscape and against the capitulations of accelerationist theoretical positions, this research insists on the possibility of speculating freely that many worlds are possible. It insists on the existence of and potential for discovery of backdoors, escape hatches, on the potential for hacks, for exploits, and on the material activation of the immaterial and vice versa. Operating in peripheries and in the cracks between, it prototypes futures in manners micro and macro, sci-fi and organic, practical and im-. After Hélène Cixous, it “un-thinks the unifying, regulating history that homogenizes and channels forces, herding contradictions into a single battlefield.” instead, “working in the ditches, beyond the hedge, in the side streets.” (Cixous, 1976)
With Ernst Bloch I embrace what he admits is a “paradoxical term”: “concrete utopia,” an “anticipatory utopia not at all identical with abstract utopian reverie.” I’ve tended to use the word eutopia instead or “good place” as opposed to the “no-place” of utopia. Bloch identifies the “utopian gaze” that “grasps the objectively real potentiality toward which the tendency [of reality] strives.” He likens this presentiment to animals’ activities such as nest building or migration that evince an awareness “carried out by instinct as if a precise ‘knowledge’ of the future existed.” Transcending without transcendence, the imagining of the concrete utopia is located in a process that “is expectant and has an objective presentiment of the not-yet-developed.” The “utopian function” of the generation of speculative frictions is among other things grounded in “the unimpared reason of a militant optimism.” (Bloch, 1988)
And the friction? Above all, it pushes up against the limit of impossibility. As Arthur C. Clarke writes, “the only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.” (Clarke, 1962: 39) When his book Profiles of the Future was translated into French, Clarke notes that he was surprised the translators called this Clarke’s Second Law. He offers a third, the oft quoted, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
In the sounding of the depths, to borrow their phrase, that is Capitalist Sorcery, Pignarre and Stegners examine the radically pragmatic practices of West Coast witches credited with what they call “reclaiming” traditions or more accurately, inventing spiritually fortifying and generative practices nearly from scratch and in a feminist tradition in the throes of anti-nuclear protests in the 1980s. They hold the witches up as examples of being uniquely resistant to submission, to capture. Magic, they note, is not a word that can be spoken by CEO’s.
Of the witches’ speculative practice, Pignarre and Stengers note, “What makes people uncomfortable, what is difficult to accept is that witches are pragmatic, radically pragmatic: truly experimental technicians, experimenting with effects and consequences. We have the habit of looking 'behind' the technique for what would justify it or provide a guarantee but a guarantee against what?” (Pignarre, Stegners, 2001: 138) An influential theorist of the reclaiming practice, Starhawk defines magic simply as the ability to change consciousness at will. And she is the first to note that it matters not the why (e.g. existence of any higher power) but the how and the efficacy of the method. (Starhawk, 1982)
Let's leave it to the worriers, to masculine anxiety and its obsession with how to dominate the way things work-knowing "how it works" in order to "make it work." For us the point is not to take possession in order to internalize or manipulate, but rather to dash through and to "fly." (Cixous, 1976)
It’s a radical proposition to set aside the why or the science behind what might “work” and what might not “work” and give some things a try. How did we discover that achillea millefolium when pressed against a wound halted bleeding more rapidly than any other foliage at hand? This is a practice of rapid prototyping born of necessity.
Speculations here include tools, propositions, situations, writing (and writing as in coding) the world(s), or wrighting in a way that leverages spaces to be found in the cracks in the continually reforming edifice of patriarchal capitalism. The research involves various forms and methods of research, from experiential, embodied, and materials-based, to deeply historical to lateral or improbable algorithm-generated juxtapositions of serendipitous search returns and adjacencies. This is a DIY, punk pragmatism that says yes, we take what we will from existing ways and means (to include deprecated), but also perhaps our way is as good as any.
I generally think of what I am doing as prototyping tools (some esoteric) and additionally: setting the conditions for. I’m distilling thousands of years of applied material folk knowledge (while simultaneously capitalizing on a decade or so of corporate development of internet search functions) as a basis for the construction of object analogs of songs and circles. This is a practice that involves time travel. Analysis lives in the past. Critique lives in the present. Speculation and hope share the future. I’m hip deep in all of these and sometimes force myself to step out and to the left, throw my head back and roll my eyes back in my head. This extra-logical pragmatism requires staying free.
At the horizons of my thinking, I am also interested in the mystic possibilities and impossibilities of a kind of techgnosis. The digital is a space of rapid prototyping of worlds and consciousnesses while also being a space of connection, transversing time and space. Digital spaces may be fruitful fields of operational practice as 21st century analogs of Giordano Bruno’s atria. Bruno’s research serves generally as an inspiration as an example of a self-invented system for an operative practice.
It happens there is a great deal of recent writing around speculative frictions, esoteric practices, their place in art practice and in the world from Federico Campagna’s Technic and Magic to David Burrows and Simon O'Sullivan’s Fictioning: The Myth-Functions of Contemporary Art and Philosophy.
A crucial aspect of how I do what I do is the notion that theory and practice march forward (or skid sideways) hand in hand. It is a practice of writing and wrighting in parallel where writing includes speculation, reflection, paratexts.
Recently, and some years after my ears crossed to produce the slippage that is speculative frictions, I saw Donna Haraway speaking about “SF,” which designates for her both “speculative fabulation” and “science fact.” I believe as she does that the two are not mutually exclusive, and I’d argue they can be mutually productive. She spoke of the need for “fabulation,” for the making of fable, the everyday storytellers. She speaks of speculative fabulation, the practice of the creation of worlds, as a “seed or point of eruption.” (Haraway, 2016)
Ursula K. LeGuin notes the value of story in how an individual might value herself, see her place in society as valuable. The role that cultural narrative plays in reinforcing power structures can not be underestimated. LeGuin writes about Elizabeth Fisher’s epiphany that the first “cultural device” was “probably a recipient” or what LeGuin calls a carrier bag. (Fisher, 1975) She argues with an unnamed Clarke about his speculation in 2001: Space Odyssey that the first tool was a bludgeon, setting the stage for the masculine power-over society when if Fisher and others are correct, as is more likely, that the first tool was a bag of some sort to transport harvests of root or berry, the stage is set for a care-based, i.e. feminine society. (LeGuin, 1989) Examples of innovations and functions around first technologies (e.g. a spindle) certainly inform my practice.
The victor writes the narrative of history, and male-privileging religions have been expert in reinforcing the edifices of their power through myth and story. Again and again, across traditions, formative myths feature male figures heroically defeating original female powers. I am inspired by alt-archeologies growing from among others, the Catal-Hayuk excavation, critical archeologies (written by women) that call into question the prevailing (male) reads of excavated artifact that situate them in a male dominated system. An aspiration to rewrite origin myths persists.
Poet first, my field of operations has long been one in which words are free to do what they are otherwise not permitted to do due to rules of grammar and expectations that they adhere to accepted definitions and connotations, that is to communicate properly, clearly, and accurately. Similarly, and in parallel with a writing practice, I’m interested in loosening object, form, and material from their moorings to allow for slippages in the knot.
In an essay that begins in ‘pataphysics and moves on through what he calls an “emergent poetics,” Steve McCaffery traces the lineage and application of the notion of the clinamen, a term first appearing in Lucretius’ De reram natura to refer to the “minimal” and chance “swerve of an atom from a laminar flow,” the first swerve or error that introduces randomness and differentiation into the universe. (McCaffery, 2001)
The clinamen is a chance occurrence, but I’m also interested in seeding an instance of it, generating speculative frictions by inversions and improper usages, incorporation of error, improbable juxtapositions of ideas, methods, materials, forms. Interruptions in the usual flows. And how does an embrace of chance not devolve into an “it’s all good” willy nilly free-for-all? The poet knows how to think as broken synthesiser. We know about willfully crossing our ears/brain to hear words and ideas differently or out of joint in a manner similar to letting your eyes relax and begin to cross, causing the crisp outlines of the world to drift out of focus. It’s here in the blur that practice finds its most generative moments.
At base, the research and experiments are grounded in the acknowledgement there are cracks in systems that can be exploited psychologically, intellectually, economically, spiritually, socially. Every mode or system of understanding was hacked together by human beings over time as a response to circumstances (just as every system of oppression was invented by and continues to be implemented by human beings). I too hack together tools and situations that simultaneously exploit openings and construct new understandings of not only the way things are but how they can be made and remade differently.
All systems of understanding are to be placed in question, and simultaneously, they are to be held upside down by their ankles and shaken for whatever of value they may have in their pockets. Thus and in parallel, recognizing that all systems of understanding practice syncretism, I am liberated to collage my own understandings or perhaps overstanding. The way we understand the world circumscribes the limits of what we believe to be possible and thus what is possible. We can say that there are structural limits that circumscribe our possible, but taking the multi-thousand year view, structures fail eventually.
In the construction of new tools, and as a basis for invention, I am invested in the unearthing and recuperation of deprecated knowledge bases, methodologies, and technologies...that which has been left for dead on the side of the road as modernity speeds into its future. At the same time, emerging technologies are begging to be turned to odd ends.
And finally, material empathy or, to be clear, empathy for materials and their qualities as well as collaboration with materials is also core, whether the materials are white oak or sound waves. David Bohm’s concept of the unfolding of implicate order has been crucial for the understanding of the fundamental interconnectedness of materials and beings and how this impacts the making of objects and situations.
The mathematics itself suggest a movement in which everything, in which any particular element of space may have a field which unfolds into the whole and the whole enfolds into it. So you have this movement, and I call this the implicate or enfolded order which unfolds into the explicate order where everything is separate. Now [in] the implicate order, everything is internally related to everything. Everything contains everything. David Bohm (1980)
Bohm, David. 1980 Wholeness and the Implicate Order. London: Routledge.
Bloch, Ernst. Mecklenburg, Frank and Zipes, Jack (trans.) 1988 The Utopian Function of Art and Literature. Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press.
Bruno, Giordan, Higgins, Dick (ed.) and Doria, Charles (trans.) 1991 On the Composition of Images, Signs and Ideas New York, NY: Willis Locker & Owens.
Burrows, David and O'Sullivan, Simon 2019 Fictioning: The Myth-Functions of Contemporary Art and Philosophy Edinburgh, United Kingdom: Edinburgh University Press.
Cixous, Hélène & Keith Cohen, Paula Cohen, “Laugh of the Medusa,” Signs, Vol. 1, No. 4 (Summer, 1976), Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, pp. 875-893.
Clarke, Arthur C. 1999 Profiles of the future : an inquiry into the limits of the possible. London: Gollancz
Campagna, Federico 2018 Technic and Magic: the reconstruction of reality. London: Bloomsbury Academic.
Fisher, Elizabeth 1975 Women’s Creation. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Haraway, Donna. 2016 Speculative Fabulation Material created for the film Donna Haraway: Story Telling for Earthly Survival Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zFGXTQnJETg [Last accessed 30 March 2019]
LeGuin, Ursula K. 1989 “The Carrier Bag of Fiction” in Dancing at the Edge of the World. New York, NY: Grove Press.
McCaffery, Steve 2001 Prior to Meaning: The Protosemantic and Poetics. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.
Pignarre, Philippe. and Stengers, Isabelle 2011 Capitalist sorcery : breaking the spell. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire ; New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Retallack, Joan 2003 The Poethical Wager. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Starhawk, 1982 Dreaming the Dark: Magic Sex & Politics Boston, MA: Beacon Press.