Saturday, April 2, 2016

New Materialism: A very Quick Exploration

My e-textiles project: a soft reading light. 

This week was not the first time I created an electronic textile project. I made the project above out of four felt pieces, conductive thread, an LED and a battery pack. To avoid the thread from showing on the felted material, I sew it slightly under the surface of the yellow material. As the material was not very thick, it was still possible to see the dark silver colored thread beneath the surface, which created an interesting but unwanted visual. So, instead of sewing the purple felted piece on the other side of the project, to create a pocket, I added the rose colored felt circle on top of the yellow piece. While I initially intended to cut out a few additional circles to add more color to the project, I was charmed by the character that emerged out of the simple two-color combination. – I left the piece as is. 

Inspired by Taylor and Ivinson (2013) call for a focus on human and non-human bodies within education, this weeks' class was all about New Materialism. New Materialism is a theory and philosophy that rejects the subject/object split and suggests that matter is entangled and “conditioned by culture, history, and place” (Taylor and Ivinson, 2013).  In all of this entanglement of matter, knowledge is considered meaning-making within matter and cannot be separated from it (a key to accepting this is the fact that everyone and everything has a body. 

This introduces the curious idea about agency, which, contrary to a humanist perspective that ascribes agency to people, is not owned by anyone or anything. In New Materialism, agency comes about in uncertain ways through the way in which matter intra-acts (again action within). Here, it seems helpful to imagine the tiny weeny particles we are all made up of and when zooming in closely it is really hard to see where one matter ends and another begins. So New Materialism suggests that there are no definite boundaries between human and non-human, or human and human, or non-human and non-human matter. The boundaries are made are being made all the time as action unfolds. 

This is exactly why Taylor and Ivinson (2013) want us to question "which matter matters in educational situations". When we realize and remember that boundaries (and materials that catch norms and objective them, i.e., making it as if they are not to be questioned matter of facts) are created, we not only get a whole new meaning of what objectivity is, but we can also start asking how the boundaries are being created and how conditions that are called for by matter around us can be broken out of. This is huge and really productive for education and especially for maker education, because it means that (a) we can empower children by letting them explore and discover how they can make and un-make the matter around them (e.g., through toy-hacking, electronic take-apart tables, digital remixing, 3D printing camps, laser-cutter workshops), and (b) we can make better choices about how to design equitable, just, and ethical learning environments. 

One really neat example of a powerful design for learning that can bring about new ways for making and unmaking identities and agency in STEM fields are e-textiles, electronic toolkits that make use of needle and conductive thread to create soft electronic circuits that could be sewn into any fabric-based material. In fact, Buchholz, Shively, Pappler, & Wohlwend (2014) found that use of e-textiles materials “ruptured traditional gender scripts around electronics and computing”. The authors explain that the term gendered scripts refers to the uses with and access to materials that call for conducting recognizable and socialized gendered practice (e.g., in dyads of one boy and one girl, girls performed hands-on leadership roles in the e-textiles project). Buchholz et al. (2014) call to take on responsibility for the created gendered scripts/histories of materials, and suggest that introducing changes to materials can increase leadership opportunities for women in STEM. They warn against “cultural deficit model”, and call for educational STEM materials that allow performance of electronics practices and leadership roles in many ways.

As for my e-textiles project, these ideas were not as powerful. However, there are two simple intra-actions that seem worth pointing out. The most obvious of them is perhaps the way the idea of a soft reading light came about. When getting the project ready to photograph for this blog post, the kitchen table was cluttered with books, papers, and a broken night-stand lamp that I have been meaning to repair. When resting the piece on a book, I noticed that it illuminated the letters, and I thought that it was nice to frame the piece through this "useful" angle. The broken lamp in the periphery seemed to have added the theme of reading in the dark. Another intra-action that seems interesting to point out is the way the thread, the felt, and my wish to hide the thread lead to placing the rose colored piece of felt on-top of the yellow piece. This lead to reimagining the character of the project and reassessing the direction the project would take. 

Thinking with New Materialism as compass for design opens up new ways of thinking with matter around us, and perhaps new understanding of what it means to be a learner. I think that this theory can be a productive way to reclaiming power over one's own actions and making much more informed decisions in terms of the actions opened up or denied to youth. 

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