Four years ago I decided to wear one and the same dress for a whole year.
The goals was to decrease my environmental imprint, to become less geeky about fashion and to raise awareness for the consequences of the fast fashion industry.
It worked. From my perspective I reached all three goals. And along the way came a few copycats and many who changed their shopping habits, minimised their wardrobe and began to question the fast fashion industry.
In fact, it worked so well, that I decided I’ll do it for the rest of my life: I will wear one dress for the rest of my life.
Unfortunately. That didn’t work.
Instead of inspiring others, people were weirded out. Instead of feeling liberated by having a limited wardrobe, I felt limited. Instead of becoming less geeky, I became more geeky. People started to call me radical.
Well, it turned out that I had no fucking clue how the world works.
When I made the fully formed, rational decisions to wear one dress for the rest of my life, I dismissed that the world might have a say about the whole thing, too.
My perception that the dress itself and everything it brings with it has agency is not intuitive to me. It’s neither tangible nor measurable.
Which doesn’t say that it isn’t there.
You can’t control the outcome
When taking actions towards sustainability, we seek to control and manage it. The basic idea is that we are rational agents who can make rational decisions and go through with it.
Let’s stick with the one-dress example. In my mind, the most rational decision I could take was to wear the same dress for the rest of my life. It’s easy for me eases the pressure on the environment, and might even have a small – or let’s say marginal – impact on the fashion industry. Yet an impact.
I took myself to be an individual agent, with no strings attached.
According to the philosopher Donna Haraway though, strings are always attached. We become-with.
To become-with means that we are not pre-given, autonomous individuals who can act upon the fashion industry. Instead, we act and emerge with it. Our own agency emerges through the intra-action with whatever we are dealing with. In my case, I intra-acted with the dress, the cultural norms about fashion, the stores, the designers, etc.
Intra-action is similar to interaction but different. Interaction sees agencies, subjects, objects and knowledges as closed, static entities that exist autonomously in the world prior to engaging with others. Intra-action recognizes that agencies, subjects, objects, and knowledges are unpredictable, contingent, dynamic, open-ended phenomena that emerge through relationship.
Nothing exists outside of or prior to its relations with others.
The fashion industry and humans co-emerge through intra-action. The boundaries between them change constantly. They are mutually effected.
Humans impact fashion. And fashion impacts humans. They are not parallel processes. They are enmeshed processes. One wouldn’t exist in the form it exists without the other. Subjectivities, knowledge and agency emerge in complex, more-than-human entanglements.
Because we are always acting-with the world, we can’t predetermine what the outcome of our actions might be. And therefore we need to be open to creating unanticipated actions.
At its best, life is completely unpredictable.Christopher Walken
It’s hard to wrap your head around.
Which doesn’t mean you can’t.
If processes are entangled, the boundaries between them blur. It’s difficult to locate responsibility and difficult to locate action. What’s interesting to look at then is where the processes interfere to take response-ability.
Three understandings help with this:
Reason #1: You are more like a wave, not like a particle
Intra-action understands phenomena in the world as waves, not as particles. The fashion industry, my dress, me wearing the dress daily, are all phenomena that are waves. This understanding draws on quantum physics, in which particles are waves and waves are particles.
Particles are distinct, separate entities in a specific time and space. Waves are energies that unfold in spacetime. They can overlap and interfere with one another. One wave entangles with another wave. This entanglement is called superposition.
Superpositions are impossible to determine. They have multiple potentialities, meaning they can turn into one thing or the other or yet another.
These superpositions are both: they are situated and dynamic.
When we understand each person as intrasectionally composed superpositionalities, we understand ourselves and our actions as waves of possibilities.
Reason #2: You can’t escape the world.
A cardinal principle … is that all parties that have a stake in a system should be represented in its management.Malcolm Knowles
We are not the lone actor. We are always acting-with. With other people as well as the non-human world, as well as with the material world.
Despite my best efforts, I wasn’t able to control my own effects on other people by wearing one and the same dress. The whole endeavor was an acting-with, not acting upon.
Through acting-with the fashion industry, my superpositionality changed: I became a fashion radical. Fashion is a set of relationships. My relations to it made a change in fashion (even if this change is insignificant on a global scale). And, the boundaries between me and fashion changed. Fashion was no longer solely an external, global phenomenon, but was now embodied in my own life.
Reason #3: Change happens no matter what you want.
Goals might not be as feasible, as we have taken them to be. Given that we are always acting-with, the idea that we can act in a certain way and reach a certain goal needs to be reconsidered.
The wave patterns change when they intra-act. This is called diffraction.
Although we might start with certain goals and a certain direction, diffractions make us open to how the rest of the world might bump into us. Disrupting. Reinforcing. Resisting. But also bringing the possibility of novelty, innovation, and creativity.
Becoming a fashion radical was not one of the goals I had for myself. It was an unanticipated, novel, different kind of outcome than what I had intended.
The mystery of life isn’t a problem to solve, but a reality to experience.Frank Herbert
I usually ignore the effects of intra-action and blame it on myself not being able to control myself. I had always assumed a narrow view of sustainability. I saw my own actions towards a sustainable lifestyle as separate from the rest. However, I now realize that sustainability is an issue that is embedded in all aspects of my life. I begin to understand possible challenges and barriers to lifestyle changes that might prohibit me from taking steps towards sustainability. Humans and non-humans are always interrupting and colliding with my goals. This contributes to an ongoing, dynamic, reconfiguration of myself.
Understanding intra-action showed me that it’s not me who gets to decide. There are waves around me, that have a say in this, too. It has enabled me to better attune to the nuance and complexity of the world. This doesn’t mean that we should stop putting effort into a direction we want to move to. But rather, it’s learning, to stay responsive. If I had been more open to the outcome and actually been able to take response-ability, I might have used that momentum of being a radical. And it might have turned it into something constructive and interesting. Sometimes it doesn’t go your way and it has little to do with you.
My dress for life project failed. I ended up reducing my wardrobe to 33 pieces. Right now though, I am sitting on my windowsill, wearing THE dress and I wonder if I’ll ever take it off.