Mathias Poulsen

Play Activist & Researcher @ Designskolen Kolding

Escaping Western Modernity

A PhD project is an unruly beast, twisting and turning, taking the novice scholar in many surprising directions (especially, perhaps, if the novice scholar prefers all the twisting and turning over the linear path).

As my project has evolved, a suspicion has been growing, making me equal parts uneasy and intrigued. While my design experiments (/fieldwork) have taken place in Denmark with mostly white participants, I have come to believe I cannot understand those experiments only through the prism of Western modernity. That is, the kind of knowledge we have successfully claimed to hold some universal truth everyone everywhere should adhere to; ““Modernity,” in other words, is not the natural unfolding of world history, but the regional narrative of the Eurocentric worldview.” (Mignolo, 2008)

It makes me uneasy, because, as Escobar states, “for moderns, actively facing the ontological challenges posed by the idea of the end of modernity—of a world significantly or radically different from the current one—is not easy; it induces a type of fright that is deeply unsettling”.

At the same time, it is intriguing, because I feel a growing sense of liberation sprouting from the idea that maybe other worlds, other epistemologies, other ways of knowing and being, radically different from Neoliberal Modernity, are indeed possible.

I could probably have gotten away with ignoring this issue altogether, pretending, as we generally still tend to do, that the epistemologies of Western modernity, of the Global North, are still adequate, sufficient, superior. I have, however, followed this particular path for as long as I can, and, looking at the state of the world, it feels like a dead end at this point, and maybe in more than a metaphorical sense.

Regardless of the uncertain and as-of-yet unknown results from this endeavor, there are numerous risks involved. I am bound to demonstrate my whiteness, my maleness, middleclassness, my privilege. Chances are, I will be like an elephant in the china shop, but I want to try. I have to try.

Like bell hooks stated when she forcefully argued that that men are as much suffering from patriarchy as woman, “we must all change”.

We must all change.

To begin with, it is important, no, more than that, it is imperative, that I make my position clear.

I am a white man, born and raised in Denmark, one of the wealthiest countries in the world. I am the epitome of privilege, and I have benefited massively from the oppression suffered by non-white people around the world.

However, I do not feel threatened by feminism, or postcolonialism or any other critical -ism (another luxury of being a white man from the middle class, feeling safe is my default mode of being). When I read the works of feminist scholars, of post- or decolonialist scholars, or of feminist decolonialist scholars, I feel joy, first, and gratitude. Immense gratitude. “We need this” – I think to myself. Then admiration, because for them, as opposed to me, such writing always comes with a risk. Something more is at stake for them (if you don’t believe me, I have years of anecdotal evidence from being a male feminist on social media; I can write anything with no consequence whatsoever, but if a woman, or a woman of color, should muster the courage to write anything remotely similar, she will receive infinite harassment). Joy, gratitude, admiration and, crucially, hope, that is what I feel.

Reading those works, addressing multiple interrelated forms of struggle and oppression, is not merely an intellectual exercise or a cognitive experience, and its effects does not stay in my head. It has affects as much as effects. In other words, the act of reading here must also be understood as a deeply affective experience. As an example, I was just reading the opening of Elizabeth Tunstall’s recent book, “Decolonizing Design“, sharing her personal stories, her struggles and achievements, and no less, her dedication towards “decolonizing design” :

“My aspiration is that Decolonizing Design will show you the current and future possibilities of design. It approaches design from a much broader perspective than the making of objects, graphics, environments, and interactions, because decolonizing design requires that we break down our basic assumptions of what design is and what it has been, and then rebuild anew with a more inclusive understanding of its theories and practices” (Tunstall, 2023, 10-11)

On an intellectual level, I am intrigued by this proposition and it resonates with my own aspirations. Before I even manage to fully process the complexity of her ideas, however, my body reacts in affect. Goosebumps. My breath quickens. My eyes well up, making my sight blurry for a moment. I feel those words in my body as much as I understand them cognitively.

Maybe even acknowledging this is a small, but important step towards loosening the grip of Western Modernity’s obsessive claim to a certain kind of rationality? Maybe if we dare to let go of the idea that we are first and foremost to be cool-headed individuals, always so bloody rational and in full control of our inferior bodies, mind over matter and all that, then, maybe, other futures are possible after all?


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