Diann Bauer, Scalar Oscillation, 2018. Photo Rob Battersby.

Xenofeminism: A Politics for Alienation (XF) is a text written in 2015 by the working group Laboria Cuboniks. It develops a feminism that embraces reason, technology and complexity, and claims alienation as a productive force and “an impetus” to generate new worlds. The original members of the group met in Berlin during a philosophy event held in the summer of 2014 at Haus der Kunturen der Welt called Emancipation as Navigation: From the Space of Reason to the Space of Freedoms. It was in this context that the manifesto was written with a view to better understand, articulate and shape a feminism commensurate to the early twenty-first century. Since it was first written, the text has been translated into thirteen languages globally.

The name Laboria Cuboniks is an anagram of Nicolas Bourbaki, which was the pseudonym for a group of mid-twentieth century mathematicians, whose aim was reformulating mathematics on an abstract and formal basis, focusing on set theory. The authors of the XF manifesto have differing specialisms and look at some of the content within the text from different angles. It is an anti-dogmatic project and is in part a practice of developing a force that is cohesive enough to hold together, and yet flexible enough to accommodate differences, evolution and revision. It is a project that embraces alienation as a productive force and as an essential tool for navigating the multiple futures that we now face. The manifesto states the following:

XF seizes alienation as an impetus to generate new worlds. We are all alienated—but have we ever been otherwise? It is through, and not despite, our alienated condition that we can free ourselves from the muck of immediacy. Freedom is not a given—and it is certainly not given by anything “natural.” The construction of freedom involves not less but more alienation; alienation is the labour of freedom’s construction.

What do we mean when we speak about alienation? It is not the estrangement of an individual subject from their community or society, nor do we use the term in a straightforwardly Marxist sense. Rather, for XF alienation is closer to an idea of mediation; from our perspective, it particularly bespeaks an estrangement between our sapience and our sentience. In an idea partly inspired by Ray Brassier, it refers to the capacity to form and be formed by concepts. Sapience is the human ability to use reason, to both reflect and consciously act on the world and by extension to construct it;  a sentient being, on the other hand, is one that has awareness of  its surroundings, but not necessarily the capacity to deliberately reflect and act on it as a result of that reflection.

To be clear, however, the distinction between sapience and sentience is not a binary split. Sapience is not an on-off condition, but is in a continuum with sentience. Humans did not leave behind non-conceptualized knowing developed over millennia, but rather we mix pre-linguistic knowing with the ability to comprehend abstract knowledge. An example of pre-linguistic knowing is provided by neuroscientist Dean Buonomano; a cat knows precisely when to jump to catch a bird. It knows that, to be successful, it needs to jump to the spot where the bird will be in the future, in just a fraction of a second. The cat does not think about this as a concept; it does not think about its capacity for predicting the future. However, the cat nonetheless has a kind of “knowing,” and it is a kind of knowing that remains an essential capacity for humans as well. Navigating through a moving crowd and not bumping into anyone or through moving traffic, for example, involves this kind of knowing. However, this embodied capacity to sense where something will be a short period of time into the future does not easily scale up.

If you want to get a satellite into precise orbit or if you want to get a craft to rendezvous with a comet or a planet, you need abstraction, you need concepts, you need calculus. In short, you need alienation, in the xenofeminist sense of the term. Humans have come to understand how to know where things will be in the future, at scales beyond the experiential. Humans can understand how time works, to some extent, outside of our experience of it; we understand what gravitation does to time on a planetary scale. GPS navigation provides an example. It would not be possible without an understanding of general relativity and quantum physics. GPS satellites need to be programmed for the discrepancy between the rate at which time flows on the surface of the earth and the rate at which it flows in the satellite’s orbit. This is because satellites “experience gravity that is four times weaker than that on the ground. Einstein’s general relativity theory says that gravity curves space and time, resulting in a tendency for the orbiting clocks to tick slightly faster” (C.M. Will). Of course, we have no perception of this difference in the rate of flow, not only because we are in one place relative to the source, but also because the discrepancy is too small to be noticed. However, the effects of this, if not programmed for, would make accurate GPS navigation impossible, which in turn effects a multitude of things, from individuals trying to navigate a city to the operation of global logistics. This is not based on our embodied experience of time’s flow, but it is done via our capacity for abstraction and our propensity for mediation.

It is this capacity for abstraction that enables us to measure, quantify and potentially change the massive effects that we are having on the planet. Benjamin Bratton describes an apparatus functioning at a global scale that is technical, social and political. His claim is that:

“This apparatus that we have built and is an accidental mega structure, (it) is the primary means by which we are able to identify, to measure, and to model climate change, (it) is also one of the primary causes of the climate change that it itself is modelling… the integral accident, the snake eating its own tail.”

A capacity for abstraction has created the conditions for catastrophe, but it is only through the exercise of this same capacity that we can maintain any hope of mitigating this disaster. The estrangement between embodied experience and abstract knowledge enables us to intervene on and navigate conditions at a level of complexity that we are completely immersed in as a species.

This is the alienation that is avowed in XF as necessary for gaining political traction now. It is necessary because of the systemic complexity that exists across multiple scales combined with an increasing level of contingency impacting those interconnected systems. This contingency is brought about by the Anthropocene, as well as by an acceleration of the developing technology and the questions AGI (Artificial General Intelligence) will raise. According to Suhail Malik (public talk during the Digital Earth Symposium at Ashkal Alwan, Beirut, 2019), this means we can no longer have directed presents and what the future will be like is more unpredictable than it used to be—in part because of the rate of change of the systems we have constructed. What we are left with, rather than the option of building master plans, is studying tendencies and risk management. Our capacity to plot as individuals seems inadequate to the job, because of the multiplicity of contingencies we are now facing.

Therefore, the leap that needs to be made now is not just in terms of scale or complexity per se, but the scale of complexity. If we look at something like the Anthropocene, our ability to predict what the future will be like has too many variables, too many interdependent processes to be able to use our sapient capacities in a definitive way. Unlike a predictable moving target, such as the movement of planets and the effects of gravity on satellites, we are dealing with a multitude of contingencies at multiple scales; however, our capacities for abstraction do still enable some deliberate navigation of these conditions, though this has to be agile and adaptable.

We are at a moment where species allegiance—perhaps a necessary means for survival—can only be established through commitments beyond our species using the capacities specific to our species. Humans appear to have a unique aptitude for abstraction, which in turn makes us uniquely placed to deal with problems at a planetary scale, even if they are problems of our own making. If we are committed to our own survival on this planet, we must use this aptitude to recognize that we are a node in an interdependent system that includes humans, other species, as well as ecosystems and complexities that cannot be dealt with as a series of isolated issues. Which is precisely where alienation as a tool can be productive.

At this point, we (the authors) must acknowledge our reliance upon the use of the word “we” throughout this short text. This “we” demands qualification, for of course not every human is equally culpable for ecological devastation, and nor is every human equally well placed to mitigate it. Agency is an unevenly distributed resource. Just as the effects of climate change will impact some more than others, so too must we recognize that both liability with regards to current circumstances and the possibility of taking meaningful ameliorative action are associated more with some humans than with others. This is reflected in ongoing debates about the term Anthropocene—a concept which has been criticized for apparently assigning blanket responsibility for the inauguration of a new geological epoch to the species in aggregate. (The variation Capitalocene, meanwhile, makes reference to a specific socioeconomic system developed to benefit only a privileged minority of humans, thereby allowing for the fact that “we” are not all equally liable).

In a recent article in the Angelaki Journal of the Theoretical Humanities, Helen formulates the idea of “sapience + care”. It interrogates ideas of agency, accountability, and anthropocentrism and attempts to think through both one’s status as an alienated being with the ability to reason, and the unique response-ability such an alienation bestows—using response-ability in the sense proposed by Donna Haraway as “the capacity to respond”: a simultaneous obligation and facility to take action.

Many of the abilities that such response-ability requires or implies are, at present, distinctively tied to the potentials of our species. Is it dangerous to say this? A lot of ink has been spilled in feminist post-humanist philosophy attempting to displace human exceptionalism and to resituate “us” back into a wider context to upend the species’ chauvinism characteristic of the age of the Anthropocene. One is thus urged to think about humanity as a single knot in a much wider net.

However, a tension emerges in such thinking between positioning homo sapiens as just one, non-hierarchized species among many and an acknowledgement of humanity’s genuinely exceptional role in the processes of ecological devastation. We may not be exceptional in terms of the circumstances of our creation, or in terms of our species’ intrinsic value or significance, but some of us have certainly proved ourselves exceptional in our ability to destroy ourselves—as well as each other and the various actors with which we share our worlds.

Does merely recognizing our own embeddedness in assemblages of loose, mutual reliance do anything to cultivate the conditions for collective response-ability? Is it sufficient in the face of the damage we have wrought? We would argue that practices of care must go beyond acknowledging the coincidence of coexistence if they hope to be politically meaningful.

After all, despite having little entitlement to mastery or stewardship over anything except our individual selves, our sapience lends us particular possibilities for collective action. We do have a remarkable ability to interpret, understand, and act, and this brings with it a particular kind of response-ability. As a species capable of achieving an abstract understanding of ecologies, and with an unsurpassed insight into complex and intersecting global systems (including environmental, economic, infrastructural, and socio-political networks) humans have a currently matchless capacity to attend to the environment beyond our local situations. Whilst sapience is not exclusive to homo sapiens, this is clearly one of the distinctive potentials of the species at present.

We have capacities that might enable us to understand and act upon the world beyond those sites that we can immediately perceive through our sense organs, which may help constitute what Bernard Stiegler calls “a new social rationality, productive of motivation, of reasons for living together, that is, of taking care of the world and of those living there.” As a result of a capacity for complex and distributed cognition, those emerging from within our species are likely to be best placed to mitigate the manifold negative effects wrought by homo sapiens (or rather, some homo sapiens).

The model of sapience plus care–of observant tending fuelled by reason and reflexivity—might be cultivated into an approach to ecology in which we collectively labour, each from our own specific coordinates and according to our own distinctive capacities, to mitigate some of the species’ negative effects upon the beings with which it coexists (and, indeed, upon itself). The insistence on thinking sapience with care—as an act of foregrounding too-often neglected responsibilities over too-often inflated entitlements—may help us to displace the “human-exceptionalist business-as-usual commitments of so much Anthropocene discourse” (D. Haraway, 2016). Although we may be more capable of understanding the abstract requirements of planetary care than we are at actually delivering it, either on the environmental or the individual scale, it is this that we can position at the heart of a xenofeminist notion of post-human feminism; the will to extend the human capacity for abstraction when applied to the demands of care for other actors and for our environments.

One can be on the side of humans without neglecting the assemblages of which we are all a part, as long as one conceives humanity in this manner—as a site of nascent potential for sapience plus care, alienated understanding of a complex world combined with the will to engage in the reparative processes of tending to it.

It is not possible to experience in a bodily way the complexities of the Anthropocene. One can be subjected to the effects of it, but we can only access its complexity, and in turn have any hope of mitigating its ill effects by using our capacity to think and to reason. It is a synthesizing of our aptitude to conceptualize and plot with our capacity to analyse and adapt that will enable a future that we would want to be part of.

This text has been adapted here for COMP(H)OST from a joint talk given by Diann Bauer and Helen Hester for TBA21 and Ocean Space in Venice, May 2019.