DHASA2017 – Abstract

The rioting writer: understanding fees must fall as design within Transhumanist South African Academia

Maritz, Lindi Helene
Greenside Design Center, College of Design

The dream of transcending human limitations is not a new desire neither is the call for innovation within academia and scholarly activities. With ever expanding technologies, digital approaches and design(ed) methodologies the fruition of these desires has never been closer. Yet, we cannot proceed blindly towards this promise of progress.

It seems impossible to imagine that any factuality of academia in South Africa has remained untouched by the effects of the Fees Must Fall (FMF) demonstrations. The student led protest began as a reaction towards the increase in fees by South African Universities in 2015. Even though there were no fee increases in 2016 the protest started again when the Minister of Higher Education announced a maximum of 8% increase for 2017. South African education is fused with the actualities of power struggles and FMF eerily echoes the events of the June 16 (1976) Soweto uprising. FMF once more highlighted the agency and insight of South African youth. However the project of FMF seems to have progressed beyond achievable education for all towards an uncertain outcome.

The terms trans-humanism and post-humanism are regularly used interchangeably, however the ethos and outcomes are vastly different. Transhumanism can be defined as a cultural movement that affirms the desirable possibility of improving the human condition through applied reason and explicate technologies. This upgrade does not only concern the human body but also mental capacities (Bostorm, 1999). This advancement is there for a project of overcoming the body as a defective and the enhancement of the physiological as desirable, or in other words a call for reason. Post- humanism refers to the conception of human transcended from traditional boundaries through technological augmentation. However, post-humanism questions whether we are already post-human. The notion that we became (Hayles 1999) post-human is due to the impossible imaging of human without technology or clear demarcation of human and species or nature. The commonalities between post-humanism and trans-humanism pertain to three seminal concepts; human (mind), technology and nature (body). Post-humanism sees these concepts as points in a system. Transhumanism distinguishes the body as nature and technology as a means to enhance the mind. Post-humanism proposes a flatting of binaries within a triad, but in no way does this flattening propose a harmonious co-existence.

It is important to note that trans- and post-humanism’s preoccupation with technology does not always acknowledge or address the ‘not yet technological liberal societies’ and that qualities identified for improvement are under written by imperialist and western ideals. Furthermore, trans- and post-humanism raises issues of body politics as well as Cartesian subject hood. As such, this research proposes that the ‘second wave’ (2017) of FMF is a violent regurgitation of Eurocentric, trans-humanists project of enlightenment and progress.

The research positions the activities of (digital) design not as instrumental or as neutral mediation, much like technology, between client and audience. The practice of design is rather an act of critical and reflective writing. Post-human other Hayles (1999) states that the practices of reading and writing within the digital media environment and digital technology

have created new conditions for concepts of identity and subjectivity It can be said that both writing and designing requires research, creative and critical thinking on the subject and execution of several drafts that are refined as the conceptual focus evolves. Thus, by interpreting subjects a designer must consider multiple view points and the role of representation considering “life-centred” ideas (Mc Carthy 2002/11). By connecting pictorial, verbal as embodied and digital languages through mass communication channels, such as computer mediated communication technology, requires the designer to critically examine the social and cultural role of themselves within a larger systems. Therefor digital design considers specific productions and performances and matches them to different methods in a way that pushes publics to re-examine alternatives. It is through this lens that the research is unpacked.

At the 2016 triennial conference of UNISA’s school of Arts; Professor Pumla Gqola stated in her key note address that we can no longer distinguish between the writer and the rioter as we re-map, re-think and re-imagine Africa. She also states that in an African locale the exclusive perception that the act of writing as safe and the act of rioting as dangerous is a fiction. In doing so the conflict between the students and the education system is re-structure and agency is dispersed. Students are reassembled as educators and educators as students. This also corresponds to the awareness that the educator does not stand outside the praxis of design, but is a designer themselves. The divide between writer and rioter, design and user, student and educator becomes ambiguous.

The research aims to explore the precepts of trans-humanism and its relation to the post-humanism to understand the social, economic and political implications of FMF. The research also questions whether the relation between the online hashtag activism of #FeesMustFall and the offline protest of FMF, specifically in 2016, is a manifestation of the digital divide within developing and third world countries? Lastly the research aims to analyses literature against the complex and possible contradicting priorities of the subject matters within this research. The intention of the research is not to resolve issues within the FMF movement in a manner that echoes Eurocentric trans-human liberal enlightenment. Neither is it to resign with ambiguity, which is often related to the conclusions of post-humanism dialog. But rather to critically engage with the shifting paradigms with in digital design, education and humanities in South Africa, Africa and the global village at large.