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Reading Mutualism: A contemplation after Medium Design

Keller Easterling, author of Medium Design, surveys the thinkers, ideas and books that have influenced her most recent work, a radical reimagining of what the politics of design can be, and how we can use it.

Verso Books19 January 2021

Reading Mutualism: A contemplation after Medium Design

Keller Easterling’s new book Medium Design: Knowing How to Work on the World speaks to anyone looking for alternative approaches to the world’s unresponsive or intractable dilemmas—from climate cataclysm to inequality to concentrations of authoritarian power. Medium Design joins many disciplines in considering not only separate objects, ideas and events but also the space between them. 

Here, Easterling selects some of the books and ideas that shaped her thinking.


At the end of 2020, the reading lists that had been an almost pathological obsession during the year began to swell with titles related to the mutualism. COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter protests galvanized activist thought around mutual aid, care, repair, reparations, kinship, and social reproduction—sentiments that have long been at the heart of abolitionist thinking.

Medium Design: Knowing How to Work on the World considers the potentials of mutualism as embodied in spatial arrangements. Focusing not only on objects in urban space but also the matrix of relationships that connects them, it offers ways for countering solutionist thinking, gaining scale, outwitting the powers that be, and dulling the political binaries that threaten any efforts for change. And it stands in admiration of and kinship with a bevy of works.

As the book attempts to expose the myth of solutions, it learns from James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. Scott argues that “imperialist” high modernist planning schemes around the world—from those of Le Corbusier to Vladimir Lenin—failed in part because they did not incorporate mêtis, the practical flexible systems of knowledge that stand in contrast to “formal deductive, epistemic” knowledge. Scott endorses “mutualism” as expressed by anarchist writers like Peter Kropotkin, Mikhail Bakunin, Errico Malatesta, and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon.[1] Kropotkin’s essay of 1902 and book of 1914, both titled Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, studied forms of cooperation and reciprocity among communities of humans and animals—from tribes, clans, guilds and unions to elephant societies and swarming bees or butterflies. 

Maybe Medium Design should have taken the opportunity to imagine an alternative history in which the temperament of Mutual Aid was more influential than the organizations and temperaments of political moves on both sides of the political spectrum—movements often squaring off in a competitive binary of enemies and innocents that is doomed to reproduce the worst and most violent defaults of the modern Enlightenment mind. (Try gently suggesting this possibility to any ultra-orthodox political thinker. Their response will help to make the point.)

A touchstone in the contemporary bibliography of mutualism, Karen Barad’s Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning, supports speculations in Medium Design on the flip side of that modern Enlightenment mind. The physicist and feminist thinker describes a physical world of “intra-action” and entanglement rather than segregation and elementary particles. In Medium Design, designing is not solving but further entangling. Extending the assertion that solutions are weak positions, needs and problems are not things to be eliminated but rather potentials to be recombined. All the material of urban space, even when damaged, failed and discarded from the dominant markets of capital is a resource for exchanges. Design orchestrates a matchmaking between needs. Medium Design looks at many tangible examples from around the world where needs and problems are even a kind of nourishing currency of mutual benefit.

Medium Design creates a relay between still more alternative (maybe even unexpected) thinkers like Gilbert Ryle, Michael Polanyi, Gregory Bateson, Jane Bennet, John Durham Peters and others who lead away to yet more inversions. Some editors of articles that rehearsed the material of the book occasionally even thought that some of these must be mistakes. How could design be indeterminate in order to be practical? How could an innovation be, not a new technology, but a more sophisticated relationship or protocol between incumbent and emergent technologies? How could a political position exist on a left-right political spectrum as well as a spectrum of political temperament?

At the end of a book project, maybe many authors wish to have had the benefit of some emerging books or the foresight to have researched several more avenues before completing a manuscript. This past fall, Verso published two books in their pamphlet series about mutualism. Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity in this Crisis (and the Next) by Dean Spade, and The Care Manifesto: The Politics of Interdependence by The Care Collective are written in the spirit of a manifesto or a how-to workbook for organizers of alternative economies. In this way they are something like Mariame Kaba and Shira Hassan’s Fumbling Towards Repair: A Workbook for Community Accountability and Facilitators or J.K. Gibson-Graham’s, Take Back the Economy: An Ethical Guide for Transforming Our Communities. Gibson-Graham (the pen name for the feminist economic geographers Katherine Gibson and Julie Graham) argues that there are many other markets or “community economies” besides the dominant capitalist market. They go around the world giving examples of practical cooperative forms that organizations can adopt.

Similarly Katherine Franke’s Repair: Redeeming the Promise of Abolition references legal structures for creating cooperative land trusts and commons—lessons learned from the formerly enslaved that may gain traction against gentrification and begin to aggregate the material of reparations for Black and Indigenous people. There is a similar spirit of resourcefulness in Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s thinking. This past summer, in an Intercept podcast—Ruth Wilson Gilmore Makes the Case for Abolition—she  previewed her forthcoming book Change Everything: Racial Capitalism and the Case for Abolition.

While Medium Design might not have had the benefit of some interlocutors, the call for spatial examples in all of these books makes it an allied cousin. It is a book that is not using examples as a means to a more complete survey of techniques, but rather as a means to exercise a synthetic design imagination moving between many species of artifact and expertise. And while some alternative economies may remain marginal to remain pure, Medium Design also rehearses an impure engagement that without compromise attempts to take hold of and reverse engineer some dominant and abusive superbugs of power—from the powers of real estate and fossil fuels to free trade and political conflict. To borrow from Isabel Stengers, how do you convert capital’s “chains of dependence” back to “relationships of interdependence?” [2] 

Medium Design offers space as a broad mixing chamber for the material of many disciplines. As this bibliography of mutualism swelled over the past year, it was clear even to a broader culture that physical space was consequential—as an instrument of violence, injustice, lethality, repair, innovation and even survival.

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[1] James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 6, 7, 315, 340.

[2] Isabel Stengers, “We are Divided,” e-flux, Journal #114, December 2020.

Medium Design
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