While visiting the exhibition by the artist Xadalu Tupã Jekupé at the Museum of Indigenous Cultures in São Paulo, one of the works caught my attention. It was a monitor on the floor. On the screen was a modification of the game Free Fire, where it was possible to follow a virtual killing taking place from the point of view of an indigenous character wearing a headdress. For a while I couldn’t look away. I remembered a conversation I had with Anthony, a Guaraní-Mbyá professor that works with the youth of his territory. At the time I was also a teacher, working with marginalized youth. I remember Anthony’s distressed words—he was concerned about the time and attention young people were putting into games like Free Fire, creating a situation very similar to the one I lived when I worked with teenagers in the outskirts of São Paulo.
It took a while for me to get rid of the profusion of shots, bodies, and feathers that were frantically intertwining in front of the monitor. I took a few steps away from the work when my partner, who was with me at the exhibition, called my name. “Did you see it?” he asked me, pointing at the monitor. “I saw the Free Fire….” Smiling from the corner of his mouth, he said, “No, you didn’t see it… it’s a trap!” I thought to myself, yes, I know, it’s a trap. It took me a few seconds to realize that the monitor was positioned inside a beautiful bamboo structure, a kind of hollow basket in the shape of a pyramid, resting on one of the edges on the floor, with the opposite edge suspended by an ingenious system of capture made of joined pieces of bamboo. It was an arapuca, a traditional trap set to capture those who let themselves be seduced by the offer placed inside. A trap that captured me without even having the opportunity to resist.
This text is an outline of a proposal for a feminist and decolonial strategy to be and remain working and producing techno-scientific knowledge within academic institutions. I present the trap as such a strategy, a kind of low-intensity guerrilla technique so that we, marked bodies, can establish alliances and move within structures that are essentially bourgeois, masculine, and Western. This strategy is especially important for those of us who research with other scientists, or who have science and technology as the main focus of our concerns. It allows us to experiment with ways of researching that are simultaneously capable of carrying out the necessary denouncements while also experimenting with possible ways of production of techno-scientific knowledge that interests us.
We are Here—But Should We?
In The Science Question in Feminism, Sandra Harding asks: “Is it possible to use for emancipatory ends sciences that are apparently so intimately involved in Western, bourgeois, and masculine projects?” (p. 9, 1986). In this way, Harding displaces the question of women in science from a concern with proportionality and representativeness and moves instead toward questioning the very structures of the production of techno-scientific knowledge. As a result of Harding’s provocations, Donna Haraway writes the article “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective” (1988), a classic of feminist studies of science and technology. Even today, a few decades after the article was first written, the questions raised serve as support for us to elaborate our thoughts in a scenario that is still structurally very similar to the one Harding described—bourgeois, masculine, western.
In the last two decades, the composition of the higher education body in Brazil has been changing through struggles that resulted in affirmative public policies, implemented by leftist governments from 2003 onwards. Some of these actions were: the construction of universities in peripheral regions of the country; the establishment of quotas in public university entrance exams for people coming from the public education system, black people, and indigenous people; and the funding of programs for people from the working classes to access private higher education. I myself am the result of this process, a worker daughter of workers. With this never-experienced-before entry into higher education by a greater diversity of people than ever before, the resumption and transmutation of the issues raised by Harding and Haraway is a necessary and effervescent movement, so that our occupation of these spaces does not end up swallowing ourselves in our differences. The institution is a machine for shaping bodies and homogenizing possibilities of futures.
Something we inevitably end up asking ourselves as marginalized people is whether we should occupy these spaces. Stengers (2015) addresses this issue, defending our permanence in spaces of contradiction, including the academy, as a way not to resolve this contradiction once and for all, but to at least get to know the terrain through which we are forced to walk—and, who knows, build new alliances capable of establishing other trails. If we want to remain researchers, teaching and working within universities, we need strategies to make our permanence viable. This obviously includes a constant struggle for better material conditions, but that goes hand-in-hand with the need to remain honest with our differences—which is only possible with a radical change in the way science is produced. It is necessary to cultivate techniques of insistence that, on the one hand, protect us and, on the other hand, allow us to continue walking and facing the overwhelming monster we are facing. Knowing how to produce traps can be one of these techniques.
What is a Trap?
“The nature of the trap is a function of the nature of the trapped.” It is in this way that Stafford Beer (1974) summarizes one of the most interesting attributes of the trap: the cybernetic character between the object, who designed it, and what it is intended to capture. These three nodes are entangled in a feedback system that works like a game of mirrors where, when we look at any of the nodes (capture-trap-captive), we will inevitably find the other nodes. In this game of mirrors, we can see not only the relationship of nodes with each other, but also with the environments they compose. The trap therefore participates in complex fields of interactions.
Anthropologist Alfred Gell (1996) sought in African traps a tool to think about the tension between the piece of art, specifically Western, and the artifact, arising from the so-called “exotic” cultures. Gell argues that the possible conciliation between these poles lies precisely in thinking of both as traps, in an exercise of horizontality that, in a single movement, empties Western arts of their specificity, filling them with ethnicity. The anthropologist makes an exquisite description of the conceptual modes of operation of a trap.
For Gell, the trap is the knowledge of oneself and the other turned into an object. The trap is a functional model of the one who created it, replacing the presence of the one through a “sensory transduction” (p. 27, 1996). The capturer’s senses are replaced by a set of “sensors” attached to the trap, such as a rope or a stick that can simultaneously sense and act as triggers. In this sense, the trap is an automaton. But, at the same time, it is a model of what one wants to capture, since in order to function it needs to emulate and incorporate behaviors, desires, tendencies, functioning as “lethal parodies of the umwelt” (own world) of the captive.
In addition to this spatial dimension, the trap also has a temporal dimension whose structure is based on waiting. In this way, the trap incorporates a scenario of a dramatic nexus between the capturer-captive poles. Gell describes this waiting as a tragic theater, where the trap places the captor and the captive in a hierarchy. The metaphor would be that who sets the trap is God, or fate, and who falls into the trap is the human being in his tragedy. The task of creating traps would therefore be to experiment with controlling fate. However, if we take into account Amerindian conceptions of the trap, such as the Guarani-Mbya practice/thought, this relationship becomes more complex, since a prey is only captured in the trap if there is consent from its owners, who are non-human entities responsible for the animals. Here, the attempt to control fate slips through the bamboo stakes—the tragedy is shared between captor and captive.
From an Amerindian perspective, in particular Guaraní, the trap can be understood as a “memory card” (Caceres and Sales, 2019) capable of storing information that accounts for a profusion of knowledge such as: the behavior of the prey in its environment, modes of production of traps, cosmopolitical relationships involved in hunting, etc. But this potential for keeping memory has been gaining other contours with the increasing destruction of nature and traditional ways of life. With indigenous peoples without possession of their territories and abandonment in the face of deforestation and land grabbing that agribusiness and mining advance, hunting is no longer a possible reality. The maintenance of traps in this scenario becomes a form of resistance, a way of safeguarding what is possible and transmitting that memory to those who are growing up and will soon be responsible for the struggle.
Returning to the idea of thinking about the trap as a strategy to be and remain producing techno-scientific knowledge within an academic context, I would like to list the following characteristics that may be useful to us:
- the ability to recognize and know the other and oneself: an essential ability to remain in spaces of power without giving up who we are, our differences. From this mutual (re)cognition, we can not only know where to walk safely, but also learn ways to open new trails.
- sensory transduction: the trap is made of seduction. By bringing into science the possibility of recognizing the senses in the production of our knowledge, we reactivate the dimension of sensuality extirpated from the productivist logic that prevails in current modes of production.
- perenniality: no trap is definitive. We can arm and disarm them, move them as and when necessary. They also break down over time. They are not definitive solutions, but contingent ones. This mobility is also interesting to us, as definitive solutions become dogmas—which closes possibilities for accommodating differences.
- the complexity: even though traps are perfectly designed, they still depend on factors that are beyond the complete control of the designer. The trap is not a sentence, nor a promise of complete salvation. It may or may not work. Complexity is the foundation of the trap. Aiming for the ability to better manage this complexity instead of eliminating it is interesting for our purpose.
- the impossibility of extermination: the trap, unlike firearms, does not foresee the extermination of the other. It is impossible to capture everything and everyone. The trap is not necessarily predatory: traditional Guaraní-Mbya usage provides, for example, that a person who has captured a large animal, such as a tapir, is ritually prohibited from setting new traps of this type. Our presence at the university should not be predatory either, on the contrary, we should always seek diversity.
- anthropophagy: the final objective of the trap is the transformation of what was captured. In the case of hunting, the prey will become food, that is, it will become part of the very flesh of the person who captured it. We recognize that this is the process we want to avoid—the transformation of our flesh into something alien to us. But it is also exactly this process that we seek—the transformation of those who operate the current structures of techno-scientific production.
Acquiring the necessary knowledge to build a trap also helps us to know how to identify one when we come across it on our walk. Stengers points out how a moment of relative success, when you move from a position of contestation to a position of an interested party, is also a dangerous moment. For many of us who insist on working at the university, coming from classes historically far from that space, life becomes restricted, in an eternal non-belonging. On the one hand, it shows the impossibility of “integration” into the ideal body of those who produce technoscience—we have no way of doing that. On the other hand, we are haunted by a constant (self-)accusation of betrayal, and in fact something is lost from our previous relationship with “our own.” Faced with this impasse, Stengers proposes that we be able to “foresee that there will be tension” (p. 89, 2015), that is, share common knowledge and experiences that help identify and avoid predictable traps.
Mapping the Terrain
Some traps of the scientific knowledge production system are quite obvious. We come across well-set traps that straddle the path as we advance along our academic careers. We see the trap and look around. The alternatives are to abandon the trail or to stay in the same place. Since the food is just inside the trap, standing still means starving, or at best surviving in starvation. If we want to insist on the journey, we must voluntarily surrender ourselves to the cruel trap placed in our path, in the hope that even captive, though well fed, we may be able to retort before being devoured.
The list of traps is long, but I want to describe a specific type that is prostrating itself in front of me at this point in my journey: the trap of publishing in international academic journals. In Brazil, a researcher and/or scientist who wants to pursue a career within universities will necessarily find a scoring logic that allows, or not, their permanence and advancement to more prominent and better paid positions. As in other national systems of science and technology, research funding is linked to a good score, mainly arising from productivity and measured through, for example, number of publications and citations. An important characteristic in the case of Brazil, which differs from countries like the USA, is that funding for scientific research is mostly public, organized through state funding agencies. For this reason, most Brazilian academic journals are free, both for publication and for circulation.
In recent times, the internationalization of research has been a requirement of Brazilian funding agencies. In this scenario, publication in high-impact international journals has become a necessity. In some science and technology systems in other Latin American countries, this requirement is even tougher, with the acceptance of only articles published in journals indexed in repositories such as Web of Science and Scopus, both maintained by private entities seeking profits. The overwhelming majority of journals indexed in such repositories charge a lot of money for publication and access to the article. The amounts that researchers must pay to have their articles published can reach around R$ 20,000. For comparison purposes, the value of the minimum wage in Brazil is R$ 1,320 (about 15x less than the publication cost of the article).
Although most of the time the money to pay for such publications comes from the institutions, not being paid directly by the researchers, the effects produced by this logic of professional permanence are cruel. At the national level, it intensifies competition between researchers and research centers, who need to outperform each other in order to obtain funding. Internationally, such logic keeps the knowledge produced by the poorest countries in the corner, unable to circulate in large centers. This trap works like colonial shackles to which we often have to submit.
But the traps that we will find in our paths are not always so brazen and so painful. In fact, the most dangerous traps are precisely those that we don’t immediately notice and that offer us pleasure. When we are finally able to recognize our status as prey, we are so committed that we try at all costs to convince ourselves that it is better to become captive than to give up the delicious offer they make us. What we are offered is a biochemical comfort well adjusted to the “pharmacopornographic era” of Preciado (2008), which for many of us means a substantial distance from situations of physical suffering and the most varied humiliations, especially intellectual humiliations. In a scenario of growing public attention regarding the degradation of working conditions that researchers are facing, made explicit for example in a vertiginous decline in the mental health of workers who occupy laboratories around the world, this “pleasant” counterpart of working producing technoscientific knowledge that I mention in the last paragraph can only be understood from a class point of view—academic/intellectual work is essentially different from the overwhelming majority of jobs available to workers.
Money, prizes, publications, and recognition are some of the achievements that academic work brings and that activate these biochemical pleasures. Academic work offers comforts that many of us would not have if we had chosen other paths. An example is the possibility of traveling internationally. All the international trips I took were for my academic work. On these trips, we have the possibility of getting in touch with a dimension of cultural capital that was previously inaccessible. When we make our way back to our homeland, we are already transformed. In this movement, it is important to always plant your foot on the ground, exercise your memory, recognize the terrain to know where you are stepping, and always take very small steps. After all, many of the traps are hidden in the ground.
Setting our Traps
It took me a long time to understand why Isabelle Stenger’s proposal (2000) of “not hurting established feelings” resonated so much with my colleagues as a strategy to create alliances with scientists and engineers. In my naive rebelliousness, that phrase sounded like a conformist attitude. I wondered if, in exchange for maintaining a “good” relationship, we wouldn’t be giving up the best of what we have as social scientists—our critical capacity. In my master’s degree fieldwork with biohacker scientists, I was surrounded by people who, from within their disciplines, sought to produce science in more open and democratic ways. Maybe that’s why it took me a while to realize that a posture based only on confronting and denouncing the ills of technoscience is fruitless, as it produces an alienating and perverse result: it hides from us, people who research from the human sciences, our responsibility as co-inhabitants of this same space where the scientists we are denouncing.
Complaints are important, yes, and we have lists of them on the tip of our tongues. But Stengers, Haraway, and so many other feminists concerned with technoscience point to the importance of not stopping there. Recognizing our responsibility as co-inhabitants of the scientific knowledge production system is also learning to establish and maintain dialogues, however difficult they may be. And they are. Difficult, tiring, and frustrating. However, the possibility of establishing alliances around common knowledge is also a strategy to keep producing science from joy, as proposed by Stengers (2015) when claiming that the taste for thinking is only possible through encounters capable of increasing our power of understanding, action, and thinking. The trap can also be a bridge to establish such alliances without, at first, hurting established feelings.
The first time that the trap was presented to me as a possible tool for thought-action was when I participated with a group of friends in the speculative anthropology project called FICT, at the University of Osaka. In the group were artists and people from letters, history, and anthropology. The objective was to produce “artifacts” from different timelines, different possibilities created from a fictitious past event: the Black Death had killed many more people, and the European colonial enterprise of the 16th century had failed. Thinking about it was not only challenging, but also quite painful. We were living a pandemic ourselves, with a denialist government, and many people close to us were suffering. But beyond that, the starting point of the project struck us as somewhat violent. By proposing a non-colonial reality, we were forced to think of a world without us, people whose full-life identity comes precisely from the fact that we are daughters and sons of colonial violence.
We refuse to think of a world where we do not exist. The story of how science was established in Brazil is precisely the story of how the dominant classes—politically, economically and culturally—tried to deal with the “problem” of miscegenation. Our first scientists were renowned eugenicists. Their busts still rest in white peace on university campuses, and their names baptize streets and buildings throughout Brazil. Our starting point in the project was a rebellion against the suggested starting point, in an affirmation of our uncomfortable existence. We are the incarnate memory of the violence against the land, against the original peoples of our lands and those who were uprooted from the continent of Africa. We are the incarnate memory of (scientific) racism. But how to exist within a project that predicts our non-existence? How to be there, keep occupying space and communicate to those who hope that we don’t exist that yes, despite everything we are here?
It was Joana Cabral, an anthropologist who works with the Amazonian Wajãpi people, who proposed the trap as a way of occupying the crossroads we were at. Our issue was a communication issue. We needed to communicate the existence of something that shouldn’t exist in the cosmopolitics we were in, but that did exist. Something present but invisible. I believe that this thought was the trigger for Joana to remember the Amerindian traps, especially the trap to “catch” the caipora, an entity from Tupi-Guarani mythology, inhabitant of the forest and owner of all hunt, with whom hunters must negotiate to catch their prey. Such traps were described by Joana as beautiful pieces braided in straw, positioned along the dense forest in the places where caipora usually frequent. The capture system is quite simple: enchanted by the beauty of the piece, the caipora’s attention turns completely to the moths, and their curiosity to learn more about the braid makes them stay there, undoing the braids. Thus, caipora “waste time” in the trap, while people gain time to move through the forest more safely.
At the same time that it holds the caipora’s attention, the trap also communicates its existence to those who walk unaware. We finally managed to make our artifact, a kind of dream diary where we report receiving dream knowledge about how to manage having a party where the most different people can be at. Thus, we seek to face colonialism not as a historical period, but as an entity, a drive from which we will not be able to get rid of—just as we exist, the colonial impetus also exists, persists, and is alive among us. The making of the trap revealed to us that in order to be able to capture, we ourselves need to become aware of our diverse prey conditions.
But the perception of our prey condition cannot be paralyzing. Our malice can certainly enable us to escape from some traps set for us—but not all, never. My proposal is that we cultivate the necessary calm and attention to walk in more or less safe territory, but, at the same time that we perceive ourselves captured and entangled, we are also capable of designing and setting our own traps to make the issues that we formulate capable of going through the academic toughness. Traps capable of opening and sustaining impossible dialogues. What I propose is an insurgent counterattack, or counterspell, to stay with Stengers. It’s a kind of low-intensity direct action, a guerrilla strategy to keep producing scientific knowledge. And so that we can protect our vulnerabilities, remain with joy in the process. It is important to repeat: the trap is not only something to be avoided, but also to be produced. We need to take ownership of capture technologies, collectivize them, and scale them up.
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___________. The Invention of Modern Sciences. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.