“The fundamental codes of a culture—those governing its language, its schemas of perception, its exchanges, its techniques, its values, the hierarchy of its practices—establish for every man, from the very first, the empirical orders with which he will be dealing and within which he will be at home.”1

The ‘home’ to which Foucault refers in The Order of Things from the epithet is a discursive one. It is an historical, or epochal home, yet is no less ‘domestic’ just because it is a deprivatized one. This historical-discursive home operates as a taming schematic for “the wild profusion of existing things”; it is the given space of order anterior to “words, perceptions, and gestures”, which are “more or less happy” expressions of that particular order; it is a space “more solid, more archaic, less dubious and always more ‘true’ than the theories that attempt to give those expressions explicit form.”2 The ‘home’ of which Foucault speaks is the a priori mode of being structuring the spontaneous cultural experience of the relations between things, the taxonomies for those relations (the organization of sameness and difference), and the principles by which these taxonomies must be considered.3 This ‘home’ is the naturalization of an order as a code governing how the world is navigated (as well as how it ought to be navigated with prescriptive, normative weighting), and the ways in which knowledge of those codes is arranged and invented. The term he attributes to such a periodic domus is the episteme — from the Greek word meaning “knowledge, acquaintance with (something), experience”, itself derived from the Ionic Greek epistasthai, epi (over) and histasthai (to stand or to place).

The episteme is less concerned with the history of knowledge, but rather with the field conditions that enable and shape knowledge in a specific way; as that which “determine[s] the rules of formation of concepts, theories, objects of study.”4 It is the site upon which knowledge is positively grounded, and one that lends underlying coherence to the identifiability of historical eras (like the Classical and Modern period).5 The ‘domesticity’ implied by the episteme is not the construction of a fixed enclosure, but is the foundational space undergirding the construction of certain structures of knowledge, determining what is possible and impossible to think, what is relevant and irrelevant to question. Although one can tinker with the arrangement of things within a given episteme and a degree of surface change can be experienced, paradigmatic transformation happens at the level of the site from which the construction of thought is primarily referenced. It is due to this critical influence of the site in ordering the conditions of possibility for knowledge that Foucault argues for an archaeological, or discursive, excavation to better fathom these root conditions of positivity. As the relationship between thought and culture, the episteme outlines an alternative genealogy that no longer foregrounds the linear progress of knowledge, but one that accounts for discontinuities, insofar as there are historical moments where it is simply no longer possible to think a certain thought, or engage in the practice of reasoning in the same way.6 Foucault asks why these possibilities and impossibilities come into being, by attempting to grasp “the implicit systems which determine our most familiar behaviour … to show their formation, the constraint they impose upon us”, and, in so doing, attempt to place oneself “at a distance” from them, “to show how one could escape.”7

Zach Blas. Facial Weaponization Communiqué: Fag Face, 2012. HD video, Courtesy of the Artist.

Sylvia Wynter notably extrapolated upon the episteme, tethering its principles to human-conception itself, drawing an important link between the ways the human has been culturally/historically understood and the creation of knowledge regimes that reflect the ‘nature’ of that self-conception. Because of this relation, Wynter stresses that any substantial social transformation necessarily requires a paradigm shift in the discursive, conceptual framework through which a certain concept of being human is devised and practiced.8 In what Wynter eloquently names as “genres of being human,” this idealized human figuration operates like a template for human forms and sets of ‘proper’ activities, an idealization whose modes of reproduction are bolstered by social organizational structures incentivizing adaptation to this idealized concept. This positive feedback loop, or what she (following Frantz Fanon) calls the sociogenic principle9, effectively naturalizes a particular model of human idealization, whilst othering all beings and entities not in conformance with its ontologizing and domesticating force. Just as the discursive ground of the episteme, this human idealization is assumed as an immutable given, a sacrosanct site of positivity for human self-reference weighting knowledge claims in accordance with the ‘natural fact’ of that human concept-template—a habit of thought she identifies as “genre-specific orders of truth.”10 Due to this adaptive, genre-conforming / genre-confirming ‘truth’ process, Wynter (self-)critically notes the role intellectuals play in replicating these genre-specific orders of truth (as opposed to the pursuit of truth in general). Most explicitly, this can be found in her open letter entitled “No Humans Involved,” where she recounts the complicity of academia in contributing to the corroboration of “inner-eyes” (given human-concept taxonomies) through which reality is not just seen, but evaluated, narrated, sorted, and framed, most often to the dismissal or blind ignorance of “liminal” beings (and entities) not fitting with, or performing within the template of the idealized human genre-concept.11 Whether the human genre-concept precedes the episteme, or the episteme engenders a human self-conception in its likeness, both are engines of socio-epistemic historical reproduction. Both are regionally specific and operationally pertain to every human culture, according to Wynter,12 functioning as a primary frame of reference for thinking the world, and deriving knowledge orders in their image that determine what is understood as legitimate, good, true, natural, relevant, or necessary.

Geopolitical domination is enacted through this self-reinforcing, reproductive mechanism when the regional-specificity of a particular episteme/human-concept is inflated and imposed extra-regionally, in material and conceptual ways—this is a succinct account of unilateral globalization.13 It is through the inflated expansion of a regionally-specific episteme where the human has been ontologized by an ever-persistent, subsuming 19th Century European human-concept (or Man2, in the parlance of Wynter), that this globalization implies such a liberal monohumanism, whose paradigmatic figure is the homo oeconomicus. Such an inflated genre of being human has generated “the lived and racialized categories of the rational and irrational [the gendered as well], the selected and the dysselected, the haves and the have-nots as asymmetrical naturalized racial-sexual human groupings that are … increasingly subordinated to a figure that thrives on accumulation.”14 Today this monohumanist-human figure domesticates at a total scale, placing non-conforming (or non-performing) bodies or entities, conceptually, politically, and socially, outside the enclosure of a referent ‘we’ of humanity—a particular ‘we’ in accordance with idealized human genre-concept that has become naturalized as a generic whole, when in practice, this ‘we’ is nothing more than the reinforcement of an adaptive truth in accordance with a particular genre of being human. The perilous blind spot is not simply that this ‘we’ is partial, but because that regionally specific, referent ‘we’ is treated as isomorphic with the entirety human species.15 Such is the a-historical monohumanist ‘we’ of the anthropos in the Anthropocene. Wynter notes that as post-nuclear creatures now faced with climate crisis, for the first time in history humankind is confronted with a common environment, even when in drastically different degrees of acuteness in crisis. It is a confrontation demanding the invention of new genres of being human, or modes of self-troping commensurate with it16—ones made to the measure of the planetary.17 The question is, how can genres of human self-troping made to the measure of the planetary not simply reiterate the inflationary template of the monohumanist-human, that catalytic idealization responsible for the very production of this now common environment?

Video still from cinema trailer for “1948 Unbound: Unleashing the Technical Present” event, organized by Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin 2017, by Patricia Reed and Harry Sanderson.

Constructing Historical Incompletion

To excavate the episteme (as well as its specific human-concept) is to understand the naturalization of thought’s possibility and the space of assumptions, in order to break with those (particular) constraining habits towards the construction of historical discontinuity. Engaging with the question of history, or more precisely “what it means to have a history” in the words of Reza Negarestani, is to labor for its detotalization, to labor against the perception of inevitability, to cognize its incompletion by liberating it from the mere acknowledgement of inventoried events (like monumentalization), and to repurpose it for pathways unseen by the past.18 Such repurposing of history is dependent on making it intelligible to cognition,19 especially those histories that have been deliberately excluded from even the most superficial nod of recognition. The intelligibility of history, that is, the experience of a “content-awareness of the activities, judgments, decisions, conflicts, values, and variables”20 that have led to a current world configuration, as Negarestani writes, require modes of representing a reconstruction of this history (an amalgam of “technoscience, economy, politics, ethics and social struggle”) to a cognizing agent.21 The activity of making this episteme intelligible is an essential procedure in perceiving contingency and actualizing possibility within a seemingly closed system of positivity constitutive of existing epistemic givenness. It is due to this necessary experience of historical reconstruction (to reiterate, not monumentalization), that a vigilance against a-historicity is required, both at the conceptual scale and through the very tools and techniques that are used to reason the world. A-historicizing tools for “seeing, naming and knowing” the world, exemplified by Nora Khan’s observation as to the emptying-out of human model-bodies in simulation spaces, reinforces a false neutrality across the spectrum of differential human experience.22 A perception of technologically-backed, detached neutrality and uniformity that only passes as ‘neutral’ because it is an adaptive truth expression of the episteme (and its ontologized human-genre) in which it is embedded.

To recall, for Foucault, the generalized site of historical conditioning serves as an anterior constraint for knowledge, where emancipation from its modes of determining possibility comes by way of placing oneself ‘at a distance’ in order to escape from its a priori domesticating constraints. To be clear, this is not to suggest an ambition for a constraint-free, anything-goes form of thought—in fact, the conflation of personal opinion as truth has become an adaptive expression of an episteme privileging individualism as such; it is a question, rather, of what configuration of constraints ought to be actualized. The dilemma is, how can this ‘necessary distance’ be achieved while being enmeshed, both materially and cognitively within a given episteme? How does the picture of the archaeologist who digs deep into a site, who is deeply situated, correlate with the ‘necessity of distancing’? Is this idea of ‘distancing’ (inherent to conventions of critique) a viable vehicle, and if not, by what procedures can the episteme be made intelligible and amenable to new historical weighting?

From the perspective of Donna Haraway’s situated knowledges, the very principle of seeking distance as a mode of objective knowing only plays into the ‘god’s eye’ myth, since it is figured as disembodied, without location, without a politics—a myth, she was keen to point out, that is only believed by “non-scientists and a few very trusting philosophers.”23 Hers, rather, is a conscious positioning of thought. Haraway’s situated knowledge is an embodied, feminist ethico-politico epistemology driven by an underlying premise that building better accounts of reality is bound to the conscious locatability of knowing agents, specifically, their particular material, social, and geo-historical circumstance shaping knowledge practices (in both propositional and tacit forms). These situated knowledge claims, as Haraway’s thesis goes, work reciprocally to engender a better accountability to and within reality (politics and ethics). Calling for a mode of ‘partial objectivity,’ situated knowledge lays the groundwork for an embodied/locatable objectivity that is simultaneously an account of the “radical historical contingency for all knowledge claims and knowing subjects … for recognizing our own ‘semiotic technologies’ for making meanings and a no-nonsense commitment to faithful accounts of a ‘real’ world.”24 Notable (and less discussed) in her essay, is the recuperation of the “maligned sensory system” of vision, urging for an embodied seeing against the “conquering gaze” from nowhere, the gaze that has the power to inscribe “marked bodies,” while making an “unmarked claim”; possessing the power to “represent while escaping representation.”25 Making claims on vision from a situated perspective, is required, according to Haraway, in order to become “answerable for what we learn how to see,” where the fight over what is even adjudicated as rational knowledge is equal to a struggle over “how to see.”26 It is crucial to highlight that partial objectivity is not an instance nor a plea for epistemic relativism, which she explicitly condemns as the “mirror twin” of totalized vision mythologies, since by claiming to be everywhere there is a disavowal of the “stakes in location, embodiment, and partial perspective” and, as a result, we make claims that can be located, specifically, nowhere.27 For Haraway there is no ambition to separate politics and ethics from epistemological endeavors—there is no detached innocence to be had—and that partial objectivity is where the “possibility of sustained, rational, objective inquiry rests” through the weaving together of particular, locatable knowledges, in “webs of connection called solidarity in politics and shared conversations in epistemology.”28

While there are several open questions that arise in Haraway’s proposition of partial objectivity demanding scrutiny, what is essential to uphold is threefold: 1) the grappling with knowledge claims as inseparable from their ramification in reality (the non-innocent materialization of knowledge in practice, in situ, both politically and ethically); 2) the inseparability between accounts of reality and accountability to it, that is, accountability to its possible (incomplete) histories; and 3) the insistence on ‘betterment’ (on change) for both accounts of, and accountability to reality. What is left unmodeled, however, by partial objectivity is how these webs of connection across situated knowledges cohere as a shared, and therefore generalized “faithful” account of reality towards betterment (demanding more rigor than a ‘shared conversation’). And reciprocally, how do those shared, generalized accounts of reality impact and affect the positioning of situatedness as such? If there is fidelity to the site from which partial knowledge claims are made, how does this not end up reproducing the epistemic constraints domesticating thought’s possibility? In other words, how are we to distinguish between adaptive truths in accordance with the discursive site of the episteme, versus truths in general?29 Lastly, and crucially, if partial objectivity is concerned with better accounts of the world in order to be better accountable to it, how can it think other, better worlds that are not locatable, nor actualized in the here and now, for which there is presumably no actualized site? How is a vision of them to be positioned as part of a reasoned struggle for new historical-discursive configurations?

Situational Relocation

Positioning, within situated knowledge, is not immobile. This point needs to be stressed if an elaboration of situatedness is not to fall into the facile trap of equating immediate experience with knowledge; of monumentalizing the site as permanent, nor of the mere reproduction of adaptive truths that reinforce historical-discursive closure. Situatedness does not denote a fixity of place, materially or cognitively. Through a Spinozist lens (notable because of its strong entanglements between rationality, affects, and ethics) committing to the mobility of positioning in an accountable way means that it is never “sufficient to rest any explanation of experience, knowledge or power on the sheer fact that it is given.”30 As Rocco Gangle writes, “[O]ne always begins with what is given, but … philosophy fails to think adequately if the given functions for it as an answer and not solely as a relative starting-point.”31 This is the unavoidable plight of all thought: that it begins from a given situation, that it must begin from some location, from some body or entity, even when, through thinking itself, positional relocation is enabled. While there is no desire to associate relativity with epistemology, the departure of thought is indissociable from a relative environmental departing situation. In arguing against unsituated thought, since reasoning can never be modeled as a perfectly smooth, disembodied, rational, rule-following system, Anil Bawa-Cavia writes that reason, rather, operates “as a plastic ensemble of self-referential representings, flawed and incomplete picturings of an environment put into ever-novel syntactic, semantic, and logical relations.”32 Bawa-Cavia’s framing of situatedness (one that pointedly critiques a humanist self-concept possessing a monopoly on intelligence) focuses less on the positioning question (as with Haraway, whose theory bends more towards the ethical than the epistemic), but highlights situatedness as an embodied opportunity for interaction, and thus as a model for learning. Due to the emergence of incalculable interactions among agents, including their compounded effects that feed back into the interactive dynamics of the situation over time, the situation, as it were, always contains the seeds of its own excess.33

Situatedness, in this view, is best described as an ongoing continuum of positioning and interaction, where the excessive possibility of a given site is rendered intelligible via interaction, creating an affordance for repositioning in excess of a given site. This positioning-interaction continuum allows for more accountability in both epistemic (reasoned cognitive mobility) and ethical terms (grappling with the ramifications of repositioning). In terms of the epistemic ‘site’ and the constraints endemic to it (as a broad historical situation), the possibility for its ‘escape,’ the possibility for its historical repurposing, is not contingent on the discovery of novelty wholly external or alien to it. The possibility of its escape, for the invention of historical discontinuity, in other words, a new site in excess of, and different to the existing one, can be cultivated at the level of situated interactions. The situation in excess of a given episteme, is equal to the construction of new grounds upon which to base the positivity of knowledge, but its novel construction of an elsewhere, of a ‘site’ unfamiliar to it, is a consequence of situated interaction that generates new positions from which to see.

Inviting Excess

It would be disingenuous to suggest that all modes of situated interaction are equally consequential. Through what tools and techniques can these situated interactions participate in the engineering of a site that is alien to its given situation? Such a problem belongs to the domain of counterfactuals, understood as “an invitation to consider what goes on in a selected ‘counterfactual situation’; which is to say, at some other possible world.”34 Counterfactuals raise at least two fundamental questions. On an epistemic level, how can experiences of the given here and now, that is, in a given actualized world, justify speculations on unactualized possibilities; and on a semantic level, how do we reason and discursively interact with these unactualized possibilities?35

Counterfactuals provide a cognitive play-space to engage with, and potentially navigate unknown worlds, where Ruth Byrne has argued that the imagination required for modelling these other worlds is rational, insofar as counterfactual alternatives are constructed by conceptually toying with or mentally adjusting facts or (perceived) given truths within a representational picture of reality.36 The proposition here is that catalyzing the rational imagination of other worlds, of inciting counterfactual invitations, comes by way of fiction, comes by way of falsity, comes by way of idealization. Fictions, falsity, and idealization are understood broadly, not as that belonging exclusively to the domain of literature or the arts in general, but also as necessary inventions within the sciences as well, in the way they operate as cognitive organons for modelling truths unbound by the inductive constraints of what is currently known (or what is thought to be known). David K. Lewis writes that “[i]dealizations are unactualized things to which it is useful to compare actual things,”37 and it is through counterfactual contemplation that such idealizations can be consequentially reasoned, where fictions can be imaginatively ramified. Because these fictions or idealizations are not constrained absolutely by the givenness of an actualized world, the imaginative truths they can generate, what they can help make intelligible, are unbound to merely adaptive, genre-conforming expressions of the world as it currently, historically, and empirically is. They are non-adaptive truths in excess of the given, actualized site of the episteme, ideal-truths that fold into the situated world of interactive, social thought as new referential pictures and novel vistas shaping not only what is seen, but how to see otherwise.

Ursula K. Le Guin’s hand-drawn map of Gethen, the planet that serves as the setting for her The Left Hand of Darkness. Copyright: Ursula K. Le Guin Literary Trust.

It is no coincidence that Foucault prefaced the episteme concept through a personal, anecdotal account of an encounter with fiction. Specifically, a Borgesian fable listing a taxonomy schematic for animals that was so hilariously bizarre to Foucault that it invited/incited him to consider what it was about the schematic, or that mode of ordering, that was impossible for him to think in the same way. The fictional invitation made the contingency of primary, discursive ordering schemes intelligible, creating an opening for archaeological scrutiny where before, this primary order was simply a silently given fact upon which knowledge must be based. It is equally of no coincidence that Wynter emphasizes the (sociogenic) force of idealization in the human self-concept and the urgency to make claims on the hybrid bio/mythical status of the human. For a genre of being human made to the measure of the planetary, she demands an intervention into the story that humans are purely biological creatures “motivated primarily by the imperative common to all organic species of securing the material basis of their existence; rather than by the imperative of securing the overall conditions of existence.”38 Without this epistemic fiction, without this conceptual self-storytelling there is simply no homo oeconomicus to be self-troped into actuality. For Foucault, fiction catalyzed a certain intelligibility of the given historical discursive schematic; for Wynter, it is the fiction of the human self-concept that ushers in, and produces the actuality of certain social configurations, ones that incentivize adaption to that idealized human genre-concept. Fictions and idealizations are not innocent, nor neutral operators—whether they are used as vehicles for making something intelligible, like infinite populations that make evolutionary processes more understandable, or as models that directly intervene in material reality, like a financial prototype. Fictions have consequences—materially, politically, ethically, and epistemically—which is precisely why the need for accountability to them is crucial. And yet because, when invented, they do not yet shape reality—perhaps they may not yet even pertain to reality, thinking through their ramifications can only be situated in a counterfactual world, that is, in an excessive site.

Hosting Unactuality

If there is to be an escape from the current episteme, a powerfully dominant and inflated historical-discursive ‘home,’ one that has constrained possibilities for thinking otherworldly configurations, it is indispensable but not sufficient to simply account for reality, to simply account for what is given. Being accountable to the crises of this historical present demands the intervening potency of fiction, of counterfactually situated and ramified fictions that can make the possibility for another history intelligible, fictions that reveal the incompletion of history. It is not enough to rearrange the furniture in this current historical discursive home; freedom from this given domestic situation and the modes of domestication that conform to its logic, is dependent on the freedom to construct comparative fictions that serve as tools for building a new home from the foundation up, for new sites of positivity upon which thought and activity are based. The desire for betterment is itself entangled with fiction; since the better is always unactualized in the here and now, the better is not empirically available to direct experience. Accounting only for the here and now of what is given to localized experience and thinkability is to foreclose on the imaginative possibility of situated betterment. Betterment always belongs to an otherworld, another site, another situation, and it is through fiction where a counterfactual imagination of that possible world is enabled. This fiction of betterment is inherently risky, as Negarestani writes, since its actualization entails a “homewrecking” operation.39 Yet this destructive implication is only one side of the equation, since the affirmation of this negation necessitates the reasoning of new pathways for ‘home’ invention, for world-building that become intelligible once the given historical site grounding the space of possibility is understood as incomplete, unfinished, and non-total. There is joy along these new pathways, as Alexander Grothendieck wrote, in the creation and giving shape to “tools, utensils, furniture and required instruments, not only for building the house from the foundation all the way up to the top, but also for copiously filling in future kitchens and future workshops, and furnishing the home to be able to live in it comfortably.”40 The fictions of betterment that can guide, shape, and weight co-existence for an otherworld, for an unactualized site, for the possibility of a new history are pressing, if there is to be an opportunity to co-exist well within a planetary-measured environment. When much of humanity, not to mention non-humanity today is under direct existential threat from the consequences of the inflated ‘home’ of this particular historical episteme—one that in practice leaves millions homeless, metaphorically, literally and socially—there is little hope in the reproductive quality of adaptive truths to answer to a catastrophe made in the name of its discursive constraints and resulting normative commitments. Accounting for unactualized historical-discursive sites requires freedom from such adaptive truths that not only reinforce existing frames of reference, but participate in the perception of their immutability. Accountability to such possible sites of epistemic enablement—ones in excess of what is situationally given or conceived of in the here and now, an always risky proposition—necessitate a conceptual play-space, an imaginative testing-ground contingent on the freedom to construct fictions as vehicles to interact with its otherworldly situation of historical enablement.