In a keynote address to the Canadian Communication Association, Dr. Jack Halberstam (Professor of Gender Studies and English, Columbia University) gave a detailed examination of the concept of ‘unworlding.’ Halberstam considered the Congress 2022 theme of Transitions as it relates to the experiences of trans bodies, the built environment, and their interaction, drawing upon tools from science fiction, philosophy, artwork, and architecture.
What does Halberstam mean by ‘unworlding’? It is a way of thinking about how to un-make the mess that we’ve constructed. The world we are living in is messy and difficult, as we try to navigate quasi-post-pandemic interactions, political precarity, and the climate crisis. This world we’ve created, where crises exacerbate pre-existing inequalities, needs to come undone.
Halberstam drew on many examples to illustrate this idea of ‘unworlding,’ the first being N.K. Jemisin’s science fiction novel, The Fifth Season. This series takes place in a world that is incredibly unstable, constantly shaking or quaking and swallowing up humans. In this tumultuous world, a species of people evolved with special powers to still the earth, but they are enslaved and managed by a small group of powerful elites. A dying teacher figure imparts final wisdom to a student gifted with these powers: “I don’t want you to fix [the world]... I want you to make it worse.”
We live in a difficult world where the presumption is that repairing things will make the world right. But when things are wrong, they need to break so that something new can emerge, Halberstam asserted. The world in Jemisin’s novel is not one to repair; it is one to push to the brink of collapse.
A second example comes from the works of Dr. Denise Ferreira da Silva (Professor, University of British Columbia and a featured speaker in the Congress 2022 Big Thinking series). Da Silva has read against the tradition of Western philosophy to dismantle the ideological frame that makes it impossible to think differently. Key is Da Silva’s concept of ‘unpayable debt.’ This is an idea that we live in a system that passes on debt to people who have not incurred it, but now must repay it. This leaves people stranded in a deficit mode, as the system constantly extracts benefit from them for a small, exclusive group.
Halberstam then turned to examples of ‘unworlding’ in architecture and art. In these fields, only when we take things apart, dismantle, pull down, or demolish do new ways become visible. ‘Anarchitecture’ (anarchy + architecture) is a concept to rethink the ways in which architecture has become central to capitalism with urbanization, and to push back against gentrification, the global economy, and the commodification of shelter. These ideas are central to the works of Gordon Matta Clark, Beverly Buchanan, and Alvin Baltrop.
Gordon Matta Clark, “Splitting” 1974 (Source: MoMA).