Critical Fabulations Beyond Design: On Being Informed by Saidiya Hartman

Whose stories underpin design? And what methods might be possible if designers tell those stories differently?

These are the questions I explore in Critical Fabulations, my book out with MIT press this week. Fabulation, or Latin fābulāt, meaning to “relate as a fable or myth,” comes from the participial stem of fābulārī, to speak. Foregrounding fabulation within design, I reflect on a practice of telling and retelling, listening and relistening, a mode of storytelling that helps expand the prevailing methods of making things, technology, and worlds. In this reworking, I trace some of the stories that have led me to explore the field’s silenced histories. I examine, for example, how design methods can help recover the feminized work of weaving that underpinned the Apollo Moon missions. The story complicates the too-easy separation between low-status needlecraft and the high-status work of engineering, repositioning engineering innovation as a form of craftwork. Here, design works as tool with which to “narrate a certain impossibility,” to borrow a phrase from feminist theorist Saidiya Hartman (Hartman and Wilderson 2003, p.184).

It is Hartman’s contribution I want to reflect on in this brief post. It has come to play an important role in my book despite encountering her work late in its production. Hartman, a scholar whose work has widely influenced the cultural paradigm of American historical studies, African and African American literature and history, remains relatively unknown to worlds of design. She coined the phrase critical fabulation to describe her method of writing against the archive (2008b). Weaving the personal, experiential, and archival, she depicts what she calls the “afterlife of slavery” (2008a), histories of slavery alive in the present in ways that continually configure black subjects as other. Her critical fabulations expose the traumas that exist in the cracks of liberal democracy in ways too deep to recount through words alone.

In appealing to her work, I expand what it means to critically examine the imagination within and through which the design field has developed. Beyond the cases described in my book, I seek the possibility of tracing productive overlaps and dialogues in still disconnected domains. I initially developed the concept critical fabulation through theorists of science and technology Donna Haraway and Vinciane Despret. These feminist figures, increasingly familiar to scholars of design, share Hartman’s interest in speculation, reading against the grain of prevailing knowledge systems. And yet such feminist science and technology scholars remain citationally unlinked from Hartman’s feminist inquiry. It’s curious to see how a term like fabulation can appear in projects so conceptually aligned but so programmatically apart.

Recognizing the long history of erasure within technology fields, I want to use Hartman’s concern for fabulatory critique to highlight those lives eclipsed within academia and the worlds beyond it. The fact that I came to her writing so late in part due to academic silos, even within feminist theory, points to important work left undone. “By throwing into crisis ‘what happened when’ and by exploiting the ‘transparency of sources’ as fictions of history,” Hartman (2008b, p.11) writes, “I wanted to make visible the production of disposable lives (in the Atlantic slave trade and, as well, in the discipline of history), to describe ‘the resistance of the object,’ if only by first imagining it, and to listen for the mutters and oaths and cries of the commodity.” I draw from this work a call for examining and calling out entrenched forms of racial inequality that structure the way we read, think, and produce knowledge — injustices that eliminate the potential for thinking and producing otherwise. I hope to take up this concern in my work through and in excess of design, keeping in tension the potential and the power of technology cultures.

With this lens, Critical Fabulations represents less of an ending than a beginning. A place to ask, “What else is there to know?” (ibid, p.2).

References

Hartman, Saidiya. Lose your mother: A journey along the Atlantic slave route. Macmillan (2008a).

Hartman, Saidiya. “Venus in two acts.” Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism 12, no. 2 (2008b): 1–14.

Hartman, Saidiya V., and Frank B. Wilderson. “The position of the unthought.” Qui Parle 13, no. 2 (2003): 183–201.