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This is How We Meet: Exploring the Method of Figuration in
Posthuman Feminist Theories and Mystical Objects

Feng-Yi Chu

Since the last century, feminist theorists have drawn upon concepts and methodologies from diverse disciplines to forge new approaches aimed at dismantling entrenched structures and challenging predetermined identities. For instance, drawing from the realm of science and technology, Donna Haraway's "Cyborg" emerged in the 1980s, catalyzing a reassessment of the human condition and advocating for the dissolution of binary gender systems in favor of embracing greater hybridity and diversity. Astrida Neimanis (2017) employs water as a metaphor to critique modern society's proclivity towards individualism, anthropocentrism, and phallocentrism, foregrounding qualities such as inclusivity, fluidity, and nurturance. Nigel Clark and Kathryn Yusoff (2018) utilize the imagery of fire to advance a vision of non-patriarchal and non-familial reproductive futurism. Karen Barad's (2012) application of quantum mechanics and theoretical physics disrupts conventional understandings of normality and nature, challenging the perceived abnormality of queerness. Additionally, theorists and curators like Merry Youle (2017) advocate for drawing insights from bacteriophages, while Yasmine Ostendorf (2017) extracts lessons from mycelium, offering alternative models of interaction and existence that extend beyond human-centric perspectives.

Mycelium, bacteriophage, queer fire, water, and cyborgs: These innovative, cross-species and cross-states theoretical concepts not only serve as the primary examples for constructing new posthuman critical theories, but also illuminate a distinct approach to theorization. This approach is grounded in matters, materiality, substance and species. It diverges from the analytical and logical reasoning traditionally relied upon in social sciences. Instead, it emphasizes associative thinking and symbolic representation.

In her book "When Species Meet" (2013), Haraway utilizes the term "figuration" to expound upon her methodology. The term encompasses nuanced meanings in everyday language usage. It can refer to the act of creating or presenting a “figure", while "figure" itself may denote a numerical symbol, a geometric shape, a bodily form, or even a person. "Figuration" is also associated with representation, resemblance, and the use of metaphorical expressions, particularly in the context of "figurative language." Considering that Haraway's discourse stems from linguistics and literary rhetoric, the significance of metaphorical expression and symbolic representation within "figurative language" is integral to her argument. Indeed, she notably prefers the 18th-century definition of "figuration" as "chimerical vision" — an imaginative, chimeric, and hybrid mental construct, if taken literally. 

However, the most crucial aspect is that, by employing the term "figurative" instead of "metaphorical" or "symbolic," Haraway underscores that figuration is not solely a product of mental construction. It possesses a significant material dimension. There must be an object, a tangible entity, for the process of “figuration” to occur. To Haraway, "figures are not mere representations or instructional illustrations, but rather material-semiotic nodes or knots wherein diverse bodies and meanings mutually shape each other.” Mycelium, bacteriophage, queer fire, water, and cyborgs are all considered 'figures.' They represent entities that exist within the realm of ordinary reality while also embodying entities of imagined possibility. This discursive act effectively dismantles the binary opposition between nature/material and culture/symbol. Within this framework, culture and symbols are understood as inherently material, while matter itself always carries symbolic and cultural significance. John Law (2019) extends the concept of  "material semiotics” and develop it as a set of sociological analytical methods, which explores the interconnections of various social practices within a web influenced by both materiality and symbolism, emphasizing that all relationships between humans, non-humans, technology, and nature, as well as the reciprocal influences within these relationships, must encompass both material and semiotic dimensions.

Haraway argues that "figures have always been where the biological and literary or artistic converge with the full force of lived reality" (2013: 4). Similarly, Astrida suggests that figuration is essential for "imagining and living otherwise" (2017: 8), signifying a space of innovation across viewpoints, theories, literature, and arts. It is an act based on materiality and thoroughly utilizing human mental functions to produce new insights. It is an endeavor rooted in materiality, leveraging human mental faculties to generate fresh insights. However, figuration cannot be arbitrary; it is invariably tied to specific contemporary concerns, whether social, political, or theoretical. As Haraway illustrates, "feminist theory proceeds by figuration at just those moments when its own historical narratives are in crisis" (1992: 86).

When Haraway posits that "figures have always been where the biological and literary or artistic converge with the full force of lived reality," what captivates me is the term "always." This implies that figuration is not merely a recent development but has deep roots in humanity's ancient, even mystical, capacity for symbolic articulation. For example, well before water acquired meanings of healing, nurturing, inclusivity, and cultivation within feminist material semiotics, it held connotations of purification, cleanliness, and as an interface between different dimensions in mystical practices of various civilizations. Similarly, prior to Clark and Yusoff associating fire with the emerging queer desire, it already bore meanings of creation and manifestation in diverse mystical traditions.

The mental process of "figuration" may even predate the development of logical reasoning in evolutionary terms. Consider alert colors as an illustrative example: when living beings evolved to utilize vibrant patterns on their bodies to communicate across species, informing or deceiving others with messages like "I am highly poisonous," it reflects a symbolic technique aimed at deterring or misleading potential predators. Such strategies likely emerged prior to the sophisticated evolution of analytical induction and deduction. 

If this premise holds true, it suggests that before humans acquired the mental capacity for logical reasoning, they already possessed an inherent ability to recognize symbols and images. Consequently, since the earliest Homo sapiens walked the earth, the objects and substances perceived by their minds and consciousness have never been purely objective; they have always been imbued with symbolic properties to some extent. Whenever an object is perceived by human consciousness and processed within the human mind, it inherently carries symbolic meaning. The history of "figure" is as ancient as the development of the human mind itself. Every object and phenomenon encountered is a material-semiotic node. This principle applies not only to natural objects but also extends to various technological artifacts produced throughout human civilization, as well as digital entities emerging in the computer age.

Linking "material semiotics" to ancient and primitive mental functions of human beings does not imply classifying it as superstition. Instead, it unveils fundamental principles governing the existence and functioning of materiality within the human mind and society. Additionally, it elucidates the essential method for transforming materials into conceptual power. Both associative thinking in figuration and analytical thinking in rational logic are indispensable modes of mental operation for humans. However, when it comes to the conceptual potency of materials, figuration plays a more pivotal role in facilitating the transition between materiality and conceptual/spiritual power.


The mysticism prevalent in human culture provides a compelling illustration. Nearly all divination methods across civilizations involve a distinct representational system. This system manifests in various forms, including the Greek and Roman mythologies underlying Western astrology, the archetype-characters depicted on medieval European Tarot cards, the narratives of The Investiture of the Gods in Ziwei-doushu, and the allegorical legends woven into the Chinese practice of drawing bamboo slips for fortune-telling. These mystical tools only function when material figures (such as stellar bodies, cards, and bamboo slips) are combined with symbolic figures (including mythologies, archetypes, stories, and legends).

Moreover, in Taiwanese folk belief, incense ash, embodying the spiritual authority of deities, holds paramount significance as a mystical object. Consequently, numerous religious intangible heritage practices and traditional rituals, such as fire rituals and incense offerings, have evolved around it. Currency serves as another pertinent example; its exchange value derives precisely from its symbolic representation of money. In essence, figuration possesses genuine creative potency; through its agency, we not only bridge the gap between myth and reality but also establish modern financial systems.

The emphasis on symbolism here isn't intended to undermine the significance of material objects. On the contrary, it's precisely due to the material nature of elements like water, fire, bacteriophages, and mushrooms—each with its distinct functions or modes of action—that they can symbolize certain values. This characteristic propels these phenomena and entities to the forefront of scholarly discourse. By analyzing and studying the symbolic operations inherent in "material semiotics," we can break down the artificial barrier between the material and immaterial/spiritual realms. In doing so, we unveil the mechanism of interaction and power exchange between these two domains.


  • Barad K. (2012). “Nature’s Queer Performativity (the authorized version).” Women, Gender and Research (Kvinder, Køn og Forskning) 1-2: 25-53.

  • Clark, N., & Yusoff, K. (2018). Queer Fire: Ecology, Combustion and Pyrosexual Desire. Feminist Review, 118(1), 7-24

  • Haraway, D. (2010). “A Cyborg Manifesto”(1985). Cultural Theory: An Anthology, 454.

  • Haraway, D. (2013). When Species Meet. U of Minnesota Press.

  • Law, J. (2019). Material Semiotics. < Law2019MaterialSemiotics.pdf>

  • Neimanis, A. (2017). Bodies of Water: Posthuman Feminist Phenomenology. Bloomsbury Academic.

  • Ostendorf, Y. (2017). Let’s Become Fungal! Mycelium Teachings and the Arts. Valiz

  • Youle, M. (2017). Thinking Like a Phage: The Genius of the Viruses That Infect Bacteria and Archaea. Wholon.

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