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(ILR) Chariklia Martalas: Diffractive Love Poems for Nonhumans

Updated: Jul 8

Case Study


The work responds to the call put forward by Francesca Ferrando (2023) in her Existential Posthumanism Manifesto, to have posthumanism practices become part of our day to day routines. To do this we need to go on a path of self-discovery to reach a full existential awareness of how we are embedded in a web of affective relations and entangled agencies with what is beyond us. Entrenched anthropocentrism has ensured that our awareness of our interrelatedness with nonhuman agencies and actors has been largely concealed to us in terms of our ordinary lives. Accordingly, any methodological collectivism has to address how we generally lack an understanding of how we are co-constituted by the agencies of nonhumans and so try resolve our existential isolation and epistemological blind spots, that result from this. Humanist frameworks being the default of current human behaviour commands that the battle against dualist, anthropocentric and hierarchical thinking has to be fought on the level of the personal as much as on the level of social systems and structures. The question then is — how do we move from the limited existential isolation of humanism to being able to embrace the nonhuman as co-creators of not only our world but ourselves? What is needed is the process of evolving our understanding of relationality and difference to extend ourselves towards the nonhuman. Here theme of the Intelligence, Love and Revolution can serve us well as the name for the three phases of evolution that occurs when attempting to move towards a full existential awareness.


Phase One: Intelligence As The Agency of Storied Matter

• All matter exists within interlocking processes of affective relations ensuring that all matters’ agency is emergent and distributed. What this means is that all matter can affect and be affected. Intelligence is the capacity to engage and respond to this.

• It is through this process of recognizing the distributive agency held between all those that share one’s spatiotemporal context that one can begin to see the intelligence within all matter, as well as the intelligence within the complexity of the web of affectivity itself. This is another way of saying that all matter is storied — every being meaningfully narrates the construction of our reality. The recognition of intelligence as being something not inherent in human nature but simply a result of matter’s interconnectivity not only dismantles anthropocentrism but also allows us to recognise the extent of how nonhumans influence our lives by mapping their responses to us and vice versa.

Phase Two: Diffractive Love

• This phase builds on the recognition of affective relations and distributive agency to recognize how this network of interconnectedness is what produces every being’s alterity.

• Effectively, the unique identity of the self is because of our relationality, our alterity is not formed in isolation. This is because we are embodied and embedded entities and so each of us exists at a specific point within the web of affective relations. Crucially, at this point one’s experiences of reality are unique to one’s specific position ensuring that alterity is a consequence of every entity always being at the junction point between self and other.

• That we all have our own alterity is essential to questions of love. In fact, relationality and alterity form two conditions for love to be possible.

1. Love requires an awareness and acceptance of another’s alterity. Love requires knowing an entity as being singular and accepting those those singularities.

2. Love requires an amplified awareness of the impact of one’s actions.

Phase Three: The Quiet Revolution

• The point of revealing our relationality so that we can recognize, understand and accept the alterity of all the intelligent storied matter beyond us, is in order to set us up for attentive action — a form of practicing love by attending to the complexity and intricacy of another’s alterity.

• What is maintained by the idea of attentive action is the most vital part of ethical love — the making sure one’s actions towards others always recognise their alterity and how one’s actions can affect them. This means that attentive action is inherently non- anthropocentric and so can be a foundation for our actions towards nonhumans.

• This phase is revolutionary because of its ethical demand — the consequence of our own alterity is that even though every entities relations are multi-directional, where one is within the network of entities could be the only right position to act best according to the alterity of another. To realise this is to remove the humanist binary distinction between individual and collective action. As much as we are embedded in a web of connected correspondencies, this does not mean we are absolved from doing the personal work of being ethically better. To recognize relationality, our affective impact and the alterity of others actually does the opposite of absolving us, it instead heightens our awareness of our ethical duties. This is revolutionary in the sense of being a quiet revolution — a revolution where the rupture to bring in change happens by unstitching established thought in one’s own personal capacity.


What must be acknowledged by the framework is that when it comes to nonhumans, because their alterity is more radical to us than the alterity of another human, our ability to recognize, understand and know their natures completely will always have its limitations. However, the desire not to anthropocentrically project must not be an excuse not to engage with the perspective of nonhumans at all. We are in an age of both the Anthropocene and exponential technological revolutions, it is unsustainable to not empathetically reach towards the nonhuman. To accommodate the worry of anthropocentric projection and the urgent need to empathise with nonhumans, every phase of the evolution to full existential awareness requires what I call Imaginative Empathy. Imaginative Empathy is a reflexive tool that holds that we can empathically construct ideas of nonhuman subjectivity while also understanding it is an act of imagination rather than an exact statement of nonhuman perspectives.

Conceptual framework


Post-human theories and literature ultimately provide a guiding framework. One of the key thinkers for relationality and alterity is Braidotti (2013). Post-human theories provides three main aims that guide the overall methodology and main theoretical movements of the work (Ferrando, 2019).

1. To be post-humanist and so to resist humanist onto-epistemological frameworks.

2. Second aim is to be non-dualist and so to resist any form of binaristic thinking.

3. The third aim is to be non-anthropocentric and so to actively deconstruct anthropocentric thinking and structures of being.

So Diffraction Love Poems for Nonhumans aims to realize this both in terms of its content and its means of expression.


Ideas surrounding diffraction owe a large debt to Karen Barad (2007). Barad uses diffraction as a metaphor to explore ideas surrounding relationality and the production of difference. For Barad, diffraction shows us how there is no absolute separateness between entities, nor is there any homogenous relationality. What we have, instead, is that through the activities of our intra-actions with what is beyond us, we come to define the boundaries of our identities. Barad argues that these intra-actions are temporal, agential cuts, that involve us being defined through the way we are co-constituted by others through being affectively impacted by them.

Barad in her text, Diffracting Diffraction, shows us that diffraction is also an epistemological methodology. In the text, she illustrates what diffraction is and what the metaphor of diffraction means through interlacing other feminist texts that examine the notion of difference within her text — ultimately opening up greater possibilities for meaning (2018).

Another key thinker is Kai Merten's introduction to diffractive reading (2021) Merton's key insight to diffraction theories is to interweave them with theories of biosemiotic theories. Biosemiotics is concerned with how organisms are entangled with their environment, such as Uxell's concept of umwelt. Umwelt is the concept that organisms create their own subjective world based on how the organism interacts with their environment.


As outlined by thinkers like Iovino and Opperman, and Wendy Wheeler, the concept of Material Eco-Criticism has two facets to it. The first is that all material phenomena, all entities of reality, are part of a material-semiotic network of agencies (2014). Agency is distributive, which means that it emerges through the interaction of entities within a material semiotic network (Bergthaller, 2014). Material Eco-criticism states that meaning is produced by all entities and these processes of interactions and interconnections ultimately create stories that can be read and interpreted. The idea, which is key in biosemiotics, is that what occurs between an organism and their environment always involves interpretations however minimal. Crucially, this means that the alterity of all entities due to relationality arises out of their agency as producers of meaning. This meaning importantly is not only expressed but can be read and interpreted (Iovino and Oppermann, 2014)

What is critical to note is that when material ecocriticism argues that matter produces meaning, it's not just organic matter, it is also the inanimate part of our material semiotic networks. What this means is that organic and inorganic non-humans both are agents. This means that natural and cultural entities exist on the same plane of existence and interact together. This cements Haraway's notion of naturecultures (ibid).


There is a lot of scepticism about whether we can empathise trans species. What is put up to question is that the familiarity bias means that we only really have the capacity to empathise with those that are of our immediate social group. The doubt about trans species empathy is further heightened by the worry of anthropocentric projection (Weik von Mossner, 2017). There are three theorists that are quite critical to an understanding of how we could construct imaginative empathy. The first is Aaltola’s idea of embodied empathy (2018). Embodied empathy is focused on experiencing the subjectivity of another through witnessing their emotions. Importantly, this does not involve us resonating with their emotions, instead our emotions are distinct as an affective response to the other person rather than a mirroring of the other person. This means that it is only through our interaction with another that we can have an empathic experience. Where embodied empathy acknowledgses the limitations of empathy both by saying that there needs to be a separation between the empathizer and the person being empathized with because due to projection, as well as acknowledging that there is no way to fully encapsulate another person's subjectivity within an empathetic act, there is always going to be something that is inaccessible.

Weik von Mossner and Gruen look at the idea of trans-species empathy, with Weik looking particularly how it works with narrative (Weik von Mossner, 2017; Gruen, 2015) For Weik, non-humans do not have to mirror humans' subjectivity to be empathised with by humans within a narrative. Weik argues that the conditions of empathy are instead grounded on how complex the non-human has been represented for us. This can be done by modelling a rich and complex account of the lived phenomenal world for a non-human. Gruen emphasises this in terms of what she calls entangled empathy, which is that when empathising with non-humans, the way we can empathise without projection is that we make sure that we're focusing on a specific non- human. If we generalise our empathy with non-humans, we will fail to be attentive to their alterity.

What is very important for this work is the idea of critical anthropomorphism (Weik von Mossner, 2017). This the idea that there is no way to be able to express the subjectivity of a non-human when it's created through a human mind. Non-humans will always be impenetrable in some sense. However, this doesn't mean that we cannot strategically use anthropomorphism as a means to create an as-if narrative that will get the reader as close as possible to the limits of human experience and closer to the non-human experience. Here, anthropomorphism is not allegory in the sense that the non-human is merely a token. Rather, anthropomorphism is just translating what could be non-human experience into human termsin order for greater understanding. Part of critical anthropomorphism is the acknowledgement that there is no clear way of being non-anthropomorphic when we empathize with non- humans, as Groen argues. Instead, it is about highlighting anthropomorphism in the narrative and making sure that it is noticed and reflected upon.


THE ARTWORK The Preface provides the theoretical framework of Diffractive Love Poems for Nonhuams— it is the ideal theory. The rest of the artwork allows for more ambiguity into the exploration of how to move towards a full existential awareness of our relations with nonhumans. The importance of having it as an artwork is that it allows not only for theory to be more accessible but also for the theory to open itself up to more avenues of knowledge production. This widens the possibilities of how ideas can communicated. Diffractive Love Poems for Nonhumans explores the ideal framework refracted through the case studies of different nonhumans. Inspired by how Karen Barad wrote about diffraction though the interweaving of quotes within her writing to illustrate diffraction as a method, Diffractive Love Poems for Nonhumans will interweave four different textual elements for each case study. These different textual elements look at human and nonhuman relationality from the same point but using different tools of expression and different points of orientation. The textual elements as follows: 1. The Diffractive Metaphor as a Diagram (inspired by UML and Category Theory) 2. The Love Poem as a Question 3. The Nonhuman Response as a Text and Collage Art Hybrid 4. The Writer’s Footnotes and Comments The not grouped together and laid out consecutively but are rather only connected together with hyperlinks. The desire is to give the reader more freedom to navigate the work and so to pull out threads and ideas that might not be as obvious if the work only moves in a singular linear direction. THE DIFFRACTIVE METAPHOR AS A DIAGRAM Diffraction is a quantum mechanics phenomenon. Effectively, diffraction is what happens when waves combine and they encounter obstructions to their movement which either spreads the waves or bends the waves. The first textual element uses the imagery of this phenomenon to imagine an encounter with a human and a nonhuman and how this encounter ripples through a relational web. It would have a UML-like design but keys specific to the idea of a wave bending, spreading and meeting an obstruction ( I define an obstruction as being an affective encounter between two entities that demands a response from both.) What is critical about the diffractive diagrams is that even if the case study involves technological nonhuman, the diagram will still contain non-technological entities it could be in relation to. This is to reiterate Haraway’s idea of naturecultures where technology is not treated as being on a separate plane of existence to nature. The diagrams are a way to show that the formation of our selves is always indebted to both nature and technology, ensuring that the human is both cyborg and chimera simultaneously (human and machine, human and organism). THE LOVE POEM AS A QUESTION The idea of the Love Poems is that they show how intricate our intimacies are with nonhumans (technological nonhumans, ecological nonhuman )The desire is to show that our experience of the nonhuman world as humans is profoundly personal and like any relationship is complex. The nonhuman subjectivity that comes through the Love Poems is found through remembering that in so many ways our existence is mediated through the nonhuman. The aim I then want to show how we are co-constituted by the nonhuman. The most important role of the Love Poems is to pose challenges to the ideal framework of the Preface. Effectively, the three stages of evolution to full existential awareness (Intelligence, Love and Revolution) are the testing ground with which the process unfolds. What comes with this is that each case study brings with it a question that challenges the ideal framework. These questions are to remind the reader that the work is not over yet for, as Ferrando argues, there are no absolute answers. Possible Case Studies 1. My iPhone and its question —how do we understand the alterity of what we deem expendable? 2. Johannesburg Busses — how does one know whether to accept harm? What happens if that harm is actually benefitting those in need? — such as those who cannot afford a car in a city unaccommodating to walking 3. A Virus — how can we love an entity that is openly hostile to us? The last case study is a Love Poem for future generations. THE NONHUMAN RESPONSE The Nonhuman Response is that each of the nonhumans in the case study responds to the poem. This is done in a graphic novel style with speech bubbles and a collage. The collage is is created to be a portrait of a nonhuman entity mostly with images that are public domain. The Nonhuman response is visually striking for two reasons — the first is that it stands apart from the human text and secondly, it wishes to communicate an important idea through the imagery of the collage portrait. The idea to be communicated is that the nonhumans of the case studies are characters and that even though imaginative empathy aims to construct ideas of their subjectivity as it is, these nonhuman characters are in fact hybrids — chimeras and cyborgs. There is no possible way to avoid anthropomorphism completely, especially when using language. However, there is a way to make sure that this anthropomorphism is a critical anthropomorphism. To ensure that the nonhuman response is not an anthropocentric projection, the work acknowledges the hybridity of the nonhuman characters. We may read their response as if it came exactly from their subjectivity, but the visual collage actually shows us that the nonhumans we are in relation to our co-constituted by us as much as are to them. THE WRITER'S FOOTNOTES The Writer’s Footnotes are primarily to weave in further theory into the Love Poem collection. This is to ensure that the theory/practice divide is broken not just by the creative practice expressing the primary theory but also as a way to have the work reflect back on itself. This includes its reflections on its methodologies, its conclusions, its forms of expression. The Writer’s Notes are essentially the work diffracting upon itself to see what ideas are formed at those agentially-cut moments. This criticality protects the work from romanticisation of our relations with nonhumans as well as emphasising other points of performance and pointing the text outwards to other possible ways of understanding and to follow. The most essential example of this would be the idea of Critical Anthropomorphism. What ultimately needs to be balanced is the meta-reflections that show that the work is constructed and that very construction needs to be thought about and questioned as well as an emphasis that the stories we tell ourselves do matter.

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