What is Transmaterial Worlding and Why Pay Attention? - Gail Simon, Ph.D. and Leah Salter, Ph.D.

What is Transmaterial Worlding and Why Pay Attention? – Gail Simon, Ph.D. and Leah Salter, Ph.D.

Transmaterial worlding invites us to acknowledge that we are merely co-inhabitors of this planet. This provokes us to pay attention and accept that we are making our co-inhabitation or breaking it with each breath we take, each word we utter, and with our each and every action. The human species as all powerful and in control is a socio-cultural construct. We are becoming increasingly awakened to listen to what different parts of the world are communicating. Is humankind really in control of the world? What else does it take to value ALL matter to co-create a more just and equitable world for humans, and for other animate and inanimate matter?

Season 5 is a Collaboration with the Taos Institute

This season of the Positivity Strategist podcast is a collaboration with the Taos Institute. We’re focusing on the topic of Constructionist Practices as Social Innovation. My guests in this season are Taos Institute Associates who’ve contributed to The Sage Handbook of Social Constructionist Practice. [Links are below.]

Authors’ Bios and Chapter Title

Gail Simon, Ph.D. co-author of The Sage Handbook of Social Constructionist Practice

Gail Simon, Ph.D. is editor of Murmurations: Journal of Transformative Systemic Practice which encourages innovative writing about systemic social constructionist practice. She leads a professional doctorate in practitioner research at the University of Bedfordshire, UK. As an academic research practitioner, Gail is interested in how to co-create community resilience in public and private spaces, how to generate transdisciplinary know-how, and how to work alongside others for a more equitable world.

Leah Salter
Leah Salter, Ph.D. co-author of The Sage Handbook of Social Constructionist Practice

Leah Salter, Ph.D. is a systemic psychotherapist and supervisor working in the National Health Service (NHS) Wales. Leah is a doctoral supervisor and visiting lecturer at the University of Bedfordshire, UK. She is a Director for The Centre for Systemic Studies in Wales, UK and also teaches with The Family Institute Wales. Her main areas of experience in both practice and research are women’s mental health and wellbeing, sexual violence and childhood sexual abuse. Leah’s research interests include research as activism, storytelling for health, practice-based research, and solidarity practices. She is on the Editorial board for Murmurations: Journal of Transformative Systemic Practice.

Chapter Title: Transmaterial Worlding as Inquiry

Human Influence Over Time

People rushing at station -
Photographer: Martin Adams | Source: Unsplash

To appreciate the actuality of transmaterial worlding, (the term first coined by Karen Barad in 2007) we start by acknowledging that human activity has been influencing the planet and all its co-inhabitants and systems in some form or another going back more than two millions years. We have been not just living on the planet, but also we have have been changing it and shaping it. When we take the perspective of social construction, we recognize the relational aspects of our co-existence offers us meaning and appreciation of the interconnectedness and the wholeness of all that exists.

Gail and Leah challenge us to change our way of categorizing the world. Their area of research and practice helps us to see parts of our planet as alive in ways that perhaps we have not even thought about. This systemic approach is a plea to embrace the entire system; to be mindful that each element is part of the here and now; to honor the vastness and chronology of our ecology that includes rocks, mountains and trees, all of which are living and changing with time. From this systemic, relational perspective, we might ask:

  • How do we listen to all there is with open mind and heart?
  • Who do we invite to the table to have a voice and be heard?

When we choose to pay attention and seek to understand, how do we allow ourselves to acknowledge and react to the responses that come back to us from matter that is not us?

Transmaterial worlding evokes more than an ecological and contextual curiosity. It invites questions that pay attention to relational affect, involving more than human relations and more than local focus. It is a way of being and doing. As the authors succinctly state:

Transmaterial worlding takes systemic social construction further with questions that acknowledge and reframe the animate and inanimate worlds we co-inhabit.

Responding to newest global afflictions

Many young people are experiencing eco-anxiety. They are acutely aware of the world's complexities and challenges from environmental devastation to social injustice, economic inequalities, pandemics, their own potentialities, or lack thereof, and more. Many are in pain and crave deep systemic changes. They want this pain and grief to be recognized and not dismissed. They want the “grown ups” to pay attention. They do not want to this pain to be pathologized or be treated as a mental illness. They protest for deep systemic changes.

Beyond Human Systems To the Material World

Uluru, Australia - Transmaterial Worlding
Image of Uluru in Northern Territory, Australia by ernieski

Gail and Leah offer that transmaterial worlding is a development in the field of social construction. A seminal paper on social construction, Human Systems as Linguistic Systems: Preliminary and Evolving Ideas about the Implications for Clinical Theory, emphasizes the foundational idea that we create the world with each other through language. How we say things, how we use words, who gets to speak and who doesn’t is a social-cultural construct that can construct, deconstruct and reconstruct our social systems and power dynamics.

And, while we live in a web of human relationships through language, we also live in a material world, a world of fabric with many living creatures and entities that are not human systems.

We reframe “social” not only to include humans but also non-humans, creatures, flora/fauna, and also things considered dead such as rocks. They cannot be considered dead as they have been formed year by year, century by century, into what they are now.

Extending beyond language, transmaterial worlding takes social construction to the next level to include questions such as:

  • What is communication?
  • Who and what has a story to tell?
  • What about the voices that are present and not yet heard?
  • What about the voices that have never had the chance to be heard and are now extinct?

Moving beyond human language to include the stories of other entities and materials are equally useful in giving us a sense of who we are collectively at this point in history. Furthermore, it informs us that if we keep going this way, we get a sense who we might become.

As a striking example of giving voice to non-humans, consider:

What might the melting glaciers have to say, and the dying coral reefs, and the burning land masses, and the starving animals and their destroyed habitats? What stories do they tell that humans need to pay attention to?

Transmaterial Worlding as a Form of Inquiry

melting glaciers - transmaterial worlding
Photographer: Jennifer Latuperisa-Andresen | Source: Unsplash

As systemic research practitioners focussed on transmaterial worlding, a first consideration is to pay attention to what the context is and consider who and what should be involved in the inquiry. Researchers are one part of the research inquiry together with all the other participants who have a stake in the context and, of course, the context itself.

Being research activists goes far beyond the gathering of knowledge and experience as in the classical approach to research. For instance, take an “as if…” activity in which we position ourselves as if we were someone, or something else. “As if …” exercises help to challenge our preconceived comfort zones. We enter a different kind of space. In the context of research, this exercise helps expand the kind of questions asked. By inviting people to put themselves in a different pair of shoes or plod of earth, it’s possible to gain different perspectives. For example, in a bush scene, we might act or speak as if we were a tree and decide what might we say from the tree’s perspective.

Prompting different perspectives, transmaterial worlding begs the question: is there such a thing as the natural world? Gail and Leah offer that the natural world is a forced distinction. From the perspective of transmaterial worlding, we need to stop seeing humans and nature as separate worlds. This relationship we have with the natural world and all matter in general alerts us to the language trap. It is less about what the world is trying to say and more about whether we are going to listen.

Hope and Responsibility

Transmaterial worlding embracing the social constructionist perspective transcends and includes questions for both human and non-humans: Who is involved in this conversation? What else needs to be incorporated ? Who am I overlooking? What am I overlooking? What knowledge is and isn’t useful? What do I need to do to change my ways of listening? What do I need to find out to help resolve the everyday difficulties or long term struggles that exist on the planet and its transmaterial inhabitants?

Transmaterial worlding is a practice of hope and a message of collective responsibility and accountability. To help address the frightful state the world is right now, we have capacity and capability to reexamine the role humans have constructed for their own survival and reconstruct our ways of speaking and acting to include materials beyond ourselves.

Connect to Gail and Leah

Books – A Sampling

Papers – A Sampling