To think like the schemer or lisper

This weekend, I’ve been reading up on the Xenofeminism Manifesto by the collective Laboria Cuboniks (2015).

Injustice should not simply be accepted as “the way things are.” This is the starting point for The Xenofeminist Manifesto, a radical attempt to articulate a feminism fit for the twenty-first century.

Unafraid of exploring the potentials of technology, both its tyrannical and emancipatory possibilities, the manifesto seeks to uproot forces of repression that have come to seem inevitable—from the family, to the body, to the idea of gender itself.

If nature is unjust, change nature!

Verso Books

The XF manifesto itself is not long – its just over 4000 words – but the text is dense, layered, cryptic, and poetic.

Xenofeminism indexes the desire to construct an alien future with a triumphant X on a mobile map. This X does not mark a destination. It is the insertion of a topological-keyframe for the formation of a new logic. In affirming a future untethered to the repetition of the present, we militate for ampliative capacities, for spaces of freedom with a richer geometry than the aisle, the assembly line, and the feed. We need new affordances of perception and action unblinkered by naturalised identities. In the name of feminism, ‘Nature’ shall no longer be a refuge of injustice, or a basis for any political justification whatsoever!

If nature is unjust, change nature!

XF Manifesto

This kind of language is why I’m trying to spend time with the text as well as reading supplementary articles to help me tease out its meanings. I found the two episodes dedicated to the text from the podcast General Intellect Unit as being particularly helpful to grounding the work in context. Without them, I would not have been able to understand this particular passage from Overflow 0x19:

Is xenofeminism a programme? Not if this means anything so crude as a recipe, or a single-purpose tool by which a determinate problem is solved. We prefer to think like the schemer or lisper, who seeks to construct a new language in which the problem at hand is immersed, so that solutions for it, and for any number of related problems, might unfurl with ease.

XF Manifesto

When I first read the text over, I completely glossed over the fact that Lisp and Scheme are computing languages, and so when the question is asked, is xenofeminism a programme, the question also raised is, is xenofeminism a program? And — what does it mean to think like the schemer or lisper? At the 48 minute mark of General Intellect Unit’s episode 028 (Xenofeminism, Part 2) was the explanation I needed:

Now this is a reference to the Lisp family of programming languages of which Scheme is a member and that the gist of why that’s important is that, if you are a programmer and you are presented with a problem, like, I dunno, taking a bunch of .csv files and sending them where ever, if you are using a language like Python then you sort of sit down and write Python that solves the problem. with Lisp or Scheme or languages from this family, these languages are so flexible that what you end up actually doing is you create a sublanguage where you can express the problem, then you use that to solve the problem. So, it’s a kind of classic thing about Lispers is that they end up writing their own languages that fit the problem domain and then solve the problem using that second tool.

“To think like a schemer or lisper” is never going to be a metaphor that is going to be widely understood or adopted, but it’s a powerful concept nonetheless. And I think I found a great example of this approach.

Alexis Hope: Building Joyful Futures

At the re:publica 2019 conference, keynote Alexis Hope gave a talk called “Building Joyful Futures” (ht) “a reflection on intersectional design with “sharp edges,” on the Make The Breastpump Not Suck Hackathon, and on the upcoming menstrual health hackathon, There Will Be Blood.

How do we build joyful futures? Who gets to imagine and invent them? And what can hacking a Breast Pump teach us about designing for equity?

Many narratives about innovation and progress center the “lone genius” and his or her (usually his) ambitions to change the world with a singular, visionary idea. But this is not how radically better futures are imagined and created—instead, they are created in community, often unrecognized and unsupported by institutions that broadcast visions of the future. As a technology designer at the MIT Media Lab, I challenge my institution to consider: whose voices must be centered in our innovation spaces to imagine and build many possible utopias and preferable futures?

I will share what my team is doing to change how institutions like ours undertake “innovation work.” In particular, we reimagine the hackathon—a staple in technology design spaces—to center equity and inclusion, focus on marginalized and stigmatized topics, value non-technical skills, and ask technologists to contend with systemic and policy issues. I’ll share the work that goes into organizing large-scale, inclusive community innovation events, lessons learned from the ways that we messed up and changed course, and where we’re headed next.

It’s not enough to gather a diverse group of people, expecting them to magically arrive at a radically better future. In fact, doing so is likely to surface tensions. Bringing people together to design for equity requires cultivating a spirit of joy and play, which helps people and institutions build relationships across lines of difference. Approaching this work with a generative spirit, and prioritizing the comfort of people who have been made to feel unwelcome in innovation spaces, are key to both community-building and creative problem-solving. Joy and play act as strategies of resistance in toxic times — they help restore us so that we can do the difficult and creative work of tackling systemic problems, together.

Building Joyful Futures: Alexis Hope

In other words, Alexis and her team took the time to learn the full nature of a problem domain, built a community with those already in that space, and only then began to write the language of the program/programme to find the ways to address the problem.

I’m not sure Laboria Cuboniks would agree but this sounds XF to me.