Posthuman Education

Imagining a Posthuman Education with Dr. Nathalie Sinclair & Dr. Petra Mikulan

January 16, 2020

By Samuel Chen

It was wonderful to see such a diverse mix of faculty, students and SFU community gathered at the Research Hub for the 6th session for the Possible’s Slow Fuse with Dr. Nathalie Sinclair and Dr. Petra Mikulan

The room was packed with over thirty people to discuss Posthumanism and applications for pedagogy. Dr. Nathalie Sinclair opened the session with a photo of a mysterious geometric pattern under water and asked the audience to guess what it was.  Having watched too much of Blue Planet when it was released in the early 2000’s, I immediately heard David Attenborough narrating the mystery of the Japanese puffer fish making his love nest.  Dr. Sinclair then asked a speculative question about whether we thought the puffer fish could do math or knew geometry?

She used this an entry point to discuss abstractions at work. Shen then provided an overview of posthumanism and explained how posthumanism has emerged out of various strands, including for example:

  • Feminist theorists like Donna Haraway, Rosi Braidotti and Karen Barad who were looking for categories of “human” beyond male, white and abled
  • Animal studies scholars who were ways to think about humans beyond “not animal”
  • Process philosophers who were looking at ways to proceed without the basic object-subject split; who were looking at ways of looking at life beyond static and concrete. Examples would include A.N. Whitehead, Gilles Deleuze and Tim Ingold

Dr. Sinclair went on to explain that the main point of posthumanism is to de-centre humans from learning.  For example, Barad focuses on ontological quantum abstractions using how light can behave as a particle or wave depending on interference.  The tool or material interaction does not only mediate understanding for human interpretation but also has agency in and of itself, a key premise of new materiality. Put another way, matter is indeterminate, and it is not possible to separate what matter is and how it is measured.

There was an interesting discussion around how we understood posthuman and there was lively discussion around whether there was a difference between pre and posthumanism.  The irony was that even some of the posthuman approach are still human-centric. Dr. Mikulan also brought up the ontology of the impossible and referenced how Battaille wrote that the possible and impossible are both in the world and that the impossible is often a human construct. 

At this point, a member from the audience raised the point about whether posthumanism was really any different than post-modernism a la Foucault. The discussion shifted quickly into a deep philosophical debate around how we know what we know and what really constitutes a new theory versus a broad concept or theory and which of these posthumanism fits under. 

One of the participants made a good point about posthumanism as a Western way of understanding relationality.  Coming full circle back to the puffer fish, the discussion shifted towards knowledge not being dependent on just the human-world relationship but broader relationships between all creatures, both animate and inanimate and the act of extending agency to all life allowing us to imagine other modes of literacy.

At this point, another audience member began to share an indigenous perspective of the puffer fish having knowledge in its ecology and place and that knowledge cannot be rendered separately.  The puffer fish was actualizing literacy within the ecology of the sand, water and waves to which it belonged.  The participant shared that if we wanted to learn more about this indigenous paradigm, that we should read some of Dan Longboat & Joe Sheridan’s writing.    

At the end of the session, I realized I was left with more questions than answers and that I really wanted to learn more about posthumanism and new materiality.  One of my colleagues reminded me that this was precisely the purpose of the Reading | Thinking | Doing Club that met every third Wednesday at the Research Hub and that I should consider joining the mailing list (rtd-club) for rich discussions on posthumanism and new materiality.   But perhaps the lasting question for me is why the puffer fish is able to make such amazing geometric patterns in its ecology without any practice.  What I wanted to know is the reasons and potential benefits of how we learn and develop expertise through practice and whether there really is a page that we can take out of how animals behave in informing how we can learn.  I guess this will be something I bring up at the next RTD club meeting.