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Figure 4 – Dérive composite with some “ingredients” collected in April 2022. 
Figure 4 – Dérive composite with some “ingredients” collected in April 2022. 
Towards an Epistemological Shift: An attempt at a Compost Manifesto
Ester Toribio Roura
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Prologue: From Disabling Epistemologies to Composting-with-Care [1,2]

In George’s Orwell dystopia 1984, “Newspeak” is the “proper” means of communication for society. It is a reductionist language, characterised by the proliferation of binaries and technical concepts that eliminate ambiguity and nuance from communication, to the point of preventing people from thinking. The instrumentalisation of thought, and therefore the incapacity of thinking, is also the main argument of Arendt’s analysis of the Adolf Eichmann trial in Jerusalem and her insight on the banality of evil.[3,4] The same language logics that once justified crimes against humanity, today rationalises unsustainable anthropogenic activity and the persistence of human entitlement over all things living and otherwise.[5] 

The welfare state, heavily relying on the model of permanent growth linked to technoscientific progress, is drifting further and further away from the so-called material world. Current climate and societal crises impose a radical reconnection with the reality of the materiality of life in the biosphere on which we depend. A work-in-progress, this paper outlines an exploration of the possibilities of new languages and practices as alternatives to current disabling hegemonic architectures of knowledge production based in oversimplifications and black boxes.[6] It contends that when we alter human centrality and subvert the language of capitalist production logic that defines life in a closed, subservient way, a myriad of new possibilities of existence unfold. It speculates with the practice of composting-with-care, which reflects in the act of producing (knowledge; praxis) itself. This approach feeds from the scraps of hegemonic waste in an endless recycling action; giving new life, fertilising the ways in which we think and act as “bodies of knowledge”.[7]

The basis for this epistemological bifurcation can be found in transdisciplinary groundwork standing at the nexus between embodiment, the sciences and the arts; in particular, the crossovers between the work of Lynn Margulis on symbiogenesis, feminist critical posthumanism, ecofeminism, critical animal studies, and indigenous cosmologies. On the one hand, Margulis’ concept of symbiosis crucially destabilised the theory of evolution by unveiling the complex network of organisms (holobionts) forming any kind of life, including humans.[8] Margulis’ revelation puts a radical question mark on the principles of individuality and human exceptionalism. On the other, the feminist and indigenous critique of the centrality of the individual allows for an understanding of the human as placed among a consortium of techno-scientific-biological arrangements. Feminism has been fundamental in bringing situated knowledges to the fore, in making visible what Braidotti calls the missing people’s humanities (black, poor, women, queer, disabled, animals, the environment etc.),[9] echoing indigenous cosmologies such as Sumak Kawsay that reject hierarchies of relation between humans and others,[10] thus presenting suggestive alternatives to mainstream technoscientific anthropocentric frameworks. 

Figure 1 – Diagram of Buen Vivir / Sumak Kawsay. 

In this vision, the future(s) is possible through the ecological balance in which the human – including culture and technology – is part of a network of intra-actions and care.[11,12] There is a need to move towards a world in which the paradigm is symbiogenesis, as expressed by Lynn Margulis, with responsibility and collaboration that guarantees not growth but the permanence of life and the conditions of habitability in the planet.[13] This vision adheres to Donna Haraway’s proposal of a multispecies compost society in which she advocates for a sympoietic “becoming-with” of the world as her stand beyond posthumanism.[14] In Haraway’s figuration, life appears as a complex entanglement of more-than-human ecologies, which include culture and technology. She proposes speculative fabulation as a way of using storytelling to create alternative worlds (worlding). Since the stories we produce are already situated within structures of power such as knowledge systems, it matters what stories we use to tell stories of the future.[15] 

In this paper, compost is predicated upon the principle of symbiogenesis applied to epistemology, with the purpose of opening up the possibility of exploring the limits of human-centred knowledge, in a multi-species world and through the process of embodying symbiotic alliances with more-than-human knowledges, as curative steps towards overcoming these limitations.[16] For example, exploring the possibilities of mutualism and/or commensalism in relation to technology or shared habitats. In this context, compost is proposed as a generative tool for a curated (with care) epistemodiversity and ethical praxis. Compost is an inclusive speculative tool for imagining/designing-with-care alternative futures while imbuing them with the condition of possibility through processes of making-thinking.  

As Bruno Latour notes in his Compositionist Manifesto, “It is time to compose – in all the meanings of the word, including to compose with, that is to compromise, to care, to move slowly, with caution and precaution” and, still quoting Latour, “we might need to draw our attention […] toward the crucial difference between what is well done or badly composed”. As he stresses, “what is to be composed may, at any point, be decomposed”.[17] In terms of knowledge production, and following Latour’s suggestion, I draw my attention to how certain origin stories such as human centrality or its separation from nature define everyday life and threaten planetary viability.[18] In this analysis, questions of ethics and ecology are inescapable. 

Since the predictions in the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth have proven correct three decades later, if we are to continue with our current behaviours, it is not difficult to imagine that challenges in living conditions on Earth will only increase and manifest in large(r)-scale climatic events, uninhabitable areas, hydric stress and impoverishment of crops.[19] According to a 2019 ACNUR report,[20] more than 1 billion people live in regions with water difficulties and up to 3.5 billion will experience water scarcity by 2025. Consequences of this are an increase in disease, hunger, loss of biodiversity and social conflict (e.g. climate migrations).

Researchers, educators, policy makers and professionals designing systems for society (e.g. ideas, habitats, food production, transport and communications etc.) must take these issues into account in their work. What is badly composed must be decomposed and recomposed with quality ingredients to ensure the permanence of life on the planet. Like constant gardeners, we must integrate different knowledge communities, decomposing anthropocentric onto-epistemologies that define our present myths and methodologies and re-composing them into emancipatory stories of permanence.  

One of the possible applications of this approach is expressed in the hypothesis that the intersection between arts and humanities and engineering and design might allow for a questioning of designers’ visions and current design practices. This questioning process takes stock of the state and limits of knowledge within a given sector of activity and places value in a diversity of perspectives, giving access to new epistemic vocabularies and thus alternative ways of thinking and doing. For example, the paradigm of smart cities is predicated upon “speed” and “efficiency” but it could very well be predicated upon “tranquillity”, “sense of humour” or “aesthetic appreciation”. (In this scenario, an application which provides navigation guidance, for example, instead of indicating the quickest route to a point on a map, could show the safest or most pleasant one.) 

In another example, a disabling epistemological framework such as the persistence of the human/nature split can be counteracted by bringing in local knowledges. This is most evident in the Galapagos islands,[21] where the gazes of both tourist and scientist are crucial in the production and reproduction of signifiers that feed this separation. This dynamic allows the creation of imaginaries (e.g., pristine nature), resulting in the exploitation of the territory to fulfil the expectations that it creates. These imaginaries are currently being fed by sustainability discourses (green marketing), tying up nature with its “responsible exploitation-consumption”, which is an oxymoron. In contrast, some local grassroots initiatives (e.g. Geco Galapagos), call for an inclusive pedagogy of care for the islands promoted through emancipatory integrated action-research that brings together citizens, researchers and professionals to produce new knowledge about issues identified locally and without hierarchies of contribution. This is to say, producing knowledge in true horizontal processes of deliberation. It matters what matter thinks matters.[22]  

Figure 2 – Diagram of Compost composition. 

The Communities of Compost 

Proposing composting-with-care as a way of testing the limits of the concept of symbiogenesis as an epistemic practice is quite challenging. As opposed to constructing dichotomies between knowledges, the idea is to form dialectics bringing together different perspectives in a transdisciplinary exploration. However, the difficulty of advocating for symbiogenesis in epistemology is that it risks remaining in the abstract. In this sense, this section is conceived as an experiment on the constraints that this approach brings about. It is based on a “dérive” (drifting) experiment during a secondment in Paris for the Real Smart Cities project (February–April 2022), and predicated upon active observation and casual encounters with communities of composters in the city.

Figure 3 – Poster of “Tous au compost” initiative in Paris; compost pile with ‘serpentine’ instrument. 

I conceive research in a composting scenario as a (necessarily) nomadic practice. A form of becoming-with by co-creating knowledge in action. Nomadism is rhizomatic, since it invites multiple ways of experimenting with thought, thus allowing for “happenings” or previously unthought linkages. In this scenario, thinking amounts to experimenting.[23] In this vein, I considered rather than putting a question to the city, listening to what the city had to say. Thus, I began wandering about different districts, from Plaine Commune (one of our partners on the project) to the Centre Pompidou, where our other partners are based. I use here the word “wandering” with the full intention of avoiding the term flâneur, so tied to Paris, which I associate with the bourgeois habit of wandering the city without a purpose. The wanderer, unlike the flâneur, has a very definite purpose; in my case, it was to think of the city in another way, not as an object of study but as an embodied ally. As a wanderer, instead of imposing my criteria, I allowed myself to be surprised by what the city whispered to my ear, or simply threw at me without any kind of delicacy. I suppose I was aiming for the “punctum” of the city as expressed by Barthes.[24] In this scenario, a stroll becomes a nomadic transit through smooth space,[25] where the city is a patchwork. Both the flâneur and the wanderer are constantly crossing borders and transgressing space, resisting any static representation. To leave a place, you must create another one. In this flow, nothing is ever resolved; transgressions also take detours, and bifurcate. It is like a symmetry-breaking form of chaotic dynamics; entropy overtaking existence.  

This kind of urban experiment based on dérive can be traced back to the Situationist movement in the 1960s.[26] The Situationists promoted “drifting” as a form of creation of the city. Drifting challenges the rationality of urban planning and therefore opens spaces of possibility for new urban utopias. As a wanderer and composter, my transit through the Parisian smooth space went hand-in-hand with thoughtful and protracted observation. Breaking pre-traced routes, both physically (through the act of walking/doing) and onto-epistemologically (through the acts of thinking and feeling), enabled me to pay attention to other possibilities, other origin stories – like, for example, planetary viability in place of progress based on growth.  

The aim of this dérive was to “compost” an epistemodiverse glossary (still a work-in-progress), as the first practical step towards the longed-for epistemological shift. The compost glossary is not necessarily logocentric; in this sense, pictures, diagrams and even conversations with people (or cats) also have a place in it. 

Figure 4 – Dérive composite with some “ingredients” collected in April 2022. 
Figure 4 – Dérive composite with some “ingredients” collected in April 2022. 

This activity brought me to connect with several urban garden initiatives and their peoples (Tous-au-Compost, Le Paysan Urbain, Jardin Folies Titon and Nature Urbaine). I won’t recount the different experiences here since this work is part of a collaboration that is still ongoing and evolving; it would be premature to analyse its intricacies.[27] Nevertheless, I will discuss some initial insights and personal revelations. 

In Paris, composting is a thing. When the world is falling apart, people look for another way to live, and urban people in Paris looked for community and connection in the compost movement. After the hiatus in physical contact (both with humans and the world more broadly) brought about by COVID-19, neighbours craved intradependence, and the experience of working outside on small things while thinking of the big challenges of life. Like constant gardeners, they made compost with selected ingredients to build good soil and good relationships in the neighbourhood for a better future(s). Some transformed a barren plot into an ornamental garden; others, a wasteland into a thriving circular economy project. 

Since soil has the capacity for regeneration, humans – and more-than-human alliances/frictions – can contribute to creating the conditions for renewal. These conditions, rather than emerging from technosolutionism, are possible through processes of caring with and caring for what is already there. For this condition to take place, what is needed is appropriate technics and ethics. Tools such as the “serpentine” allow air to enter the compost mixture and manage toxic outcomes like in a pharmakon.[28] The equivalent of the serpentine in our broader manifesto is care. And thus, the glossary began to take shape, with every turn of the serpentine; the new and old, big and small, serious and playful, dead and alive were turned and returned. If anything, the renewed paradigm we crave is a thing of melting pots, dirty hands and compost bins.  

Communities of compost are particularly interesting from the perspective of care, as they are based on principles of the repair and maintenance of interdependent relations, in both the compost pile and in the neighbourhood where the composting activity takes place. In the process of caring, these communities learn to fine tune to the rhythms and needs of the environment, while the environment also “learns” and adapts to their human practices. This alters the human position as the centre and sole beneficiary of an objectified environment, since all (from human to orange peels, to gas to virus) participate in the life-death-decay cycle embodied in the compost pile. These symbiotic entanglements are not always mutually beneficial at an individual level. For example, predation or parasitism are also symbiotic associations. Rodents looking for heat inside the compost pile don’t necessarily contribute to the process, although they gain from it. The key element here is that all forms of life, whether carbon or silicon, exist in a web of intradependencies. 

In a thick version of care, composting-with-care is an everyday praxis rather than a performance. It is neither caring as a commodity nor care as a virtue stemming from empathy. It is far beyond that: this vision of care is a prerequisite for collective thinking and acting in interdependent worlds with interdependent epistemologies. This idea is connected to Donna Haraway’s concept of “tentacular thinking”, in which she stresses the sympoietic (making-with), intertwined quality of existence. As in Margulis, in Haraway the singular “I” cannot exist, since we are all thinking parts in a system.[29] Compost is a perspectivist, speculative approach to forms of thinking and praxis, articulated around the notion of care through concrete moves of making-thinking. As expressed by Maria Puig de la Bellacasa, it is a form of care work that is affirmative, situated and political.[30]  

Epilogue: The Cyclops and the Mantis[31]

“It matters what matters we use to think other matters with; it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with; it matters what knots knot knots, what thoughts think thoughts, what descriptions describe descriptions, what ties tie ties. It matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories”.[32] 

Donna Haraway imagined multispecies compost societies working together in political alliances to subvert both the technoapocalypses and technofixes of the Anthropocene. Like a symbiotic body politic, compost communities stay with the trouble. It is vital to have a complete appreciation for the profound interconnectedness of the elements in an ecosystem. This ecological thinking is at the basis of the composting-with-care scenario, in which knowledge, research and practices pay attention to other theorisations of the “postnatural” condition (understood as the critique of the artificial distinction between human and nature) as an experimental remedy.[33] In this approach, the critique of de-futuring epistemic habits (those that deprive us of alternative futures) becomes the “cure” that allows for the reconfiguration of cyclopic models of knowledge production.  

We can no longer afford the anthropocentric paradigm, and this necessarily connects with a nomadic vision of the world. This perspectivist proposal is rooted in feminism and earth-bound cosmologies to respond to the challenges posed by the Anthropocene. In this work, I have attempted an outline of a way of thinking capable of responding to the challenges of a posthuman era. This thinking doesn’t seek identity with what it is trying to understand, but rather coalition and affinity. Through the act of composting, it articulates an array of possible connections and bifurcations between entities and non-entities, therefore leading to new configurations and epistemic vocabularies in a perspectivist universe.  

Compost pleads for knowledge to be drawn from the careful “arrangement of correspondences” and “quality ingredients”, which results in a configuration emerging from the interlacing friction between materialities and perspectives – including those that are often undervalued (other-than-human, feminist, queer, indigenous) – and from the continuous re-examination of this state of affairs.[34,35] It is a speculative tool of ecological thinking that explores ways of activating discussions of care, both between humans, and between humans and other-than-humans. It questions how humans relate with the other-than-human and the ecologies we all co-form.  

Building a glossary while making compost places value in praxis, as well as in thinking in terms of theory. In the thinking and acting as compost, the materiality of living systems, of planetary alliances, of living bodies and otherwise is re-introduced as a valid form of knowledge, challenging and subverting the disciplinary languages of capitalism production logic, by making them relevant (e.g., de-territorialising “royal science”).[36] This is the world of the Mantis. A world of stories rooted in the revelations of science and technology, but unflattened into a multi-perspective worldview. Stories in which, just as with the compost ingredients, it matters what matters we use to tell stories. 


[1] This research is funded by the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Action (MSCA) RISE project Real Smart Cities (, funded through the European Union’s Horizon 2020 program, grant agreement No. 777707. 

[2] This title is a nod to Bruno Latour’s 2016 essay “An Attempt at a ‘Compositionist Manifesto’”. 

[3] In relation to his actions during the Third Reich. 

[4] H. Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: a Report on the Banality of Evil. (New York: Penguin Books, 1994). 

[5] Some humans. 

[6] Knowledge is produced when people make sense of their world. It is based on their experiences in everyday situations as they envision approaches, and construct methods and tools to face them. By “black boxes” I refer to the lack of transparency regarding how we have come to certain “truths” and assumptions deeply engrained in our culture(s) like, for example, that of human exceptionality. 

[7] Wordplay between “body” as a set of disciplines and “body” as the material structure of a person or animal. 

[8] L. Margulis (Sagan), “On the Origin of Mitosing Cells”, Journal of Theoretical Biology, 14, 3 (1967) 225–274 (online, accessed 22 April 2022), doi:10.1016/0022-5193(67)90079-3

[9] Ibid. 

[10] Originally from Ecuador and Bolivia, Sumak Kawsay defines how to live in harmony and balance with all forms of existence. It proposes a different kind of relationship between humans and other-than-human in which individuality must submit to a principle of social responsibility and ethical commitment, including nature as a fundamental part of human sociality. The Sumak Kawsay strategy is to cultivate a series of “saberes” (pieces of knowledge); for example, knowing how to eat, how to think, etc. In 2008, Ecuador’s transformation began, with the institution of a new constitution establishing the concept of Sumak Kawsay or Buen Vivir, which grants nature constitutional rights. 

[11] D. J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making kin in the Chthulucene (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016). 

[12] M. Puig de la Bellacasa, Matters of Care: Speculative Ethics in More than Human Worlds (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019). 

[13] L. Margulis (Sagan), “On the Origin of Mitosing Cells”, Journal of Theoretical Biology, 14, 3 (1967) 225–274 (online, accessed 22 April 2022), doi:10.1016/0022-5193(67)90079-3

[14] There are several definitions of posthumanism. In this instance I refer to the critique of anthropocentrism that extends subjectivities beyond the human species. 

[15] D. J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making kin in the Chthulucene (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016). 

[16] This possibility is currently being explored through a performative piece, Mantis, in collaboration with fellow artists and researchers Sinead McDonald, Jye O’Sullivan (Dublin), and Lucía Alvarez, La Piñona (Seville). The piece is a performance bringing together academic research, dance, and poetry in an attempt to explore the limits of human language. Mantis embodies what Donna Haraway has defined as tentacular thinking. Mantis is the many-eyed and the Were-Thing. The performance creates a relational space allowing the flow between multiple perspectives (human and other-than-human) and frameworks inviting novel epistemic vocabularies and practices.  

[17] B. Latour, “An Attempt at a ‘Compositionist Manifesto’”, New Literary History, 41, 3 (2010) 471-490, available at Project (accessed 3 May 2022). 

[18] By origin stories I refer here to the myths we live by that justify certain elements of the status quo (e.g., human superiority justifying its entitlement above all things).

[19] H. M. Donella et al, The Limits to Growth; a Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind (New York: Universe Books, 1972). 

[20] ACNUR, Comité Español, Escasez de Agua en el Mundo: Causas y Consecuencias, 2019, (accessed 27 May 2022). 

[21] I was on secondment in the Galapagos from February to May 2020, doing research on behalf of the Real Smart Cities project.  

[22] D. J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making kin in the Chthulucene (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016). 

[23] R. Braidotti, Writing as a Nomadic Subject. Comparative Critical Studies. 11.2, 3 (2014) 163-184 (accessed 16 August, 2022)

[24] The term “punctum”, defined by Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida (1980), refers to the sensory and deeply subjective “accident” that “moves” you in a picture. The poignancy of the picture. 

[25] A smooth space is fluid, open-ended, nonlinear, haptic and nomadic as opposed to the striated space which is linear, gridded, metric, optic, state space. In G. Deleuze & F. Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Squizofrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 479. 

[26] The Situationist International movement (SI) was a group of left-wing artists and activists whose practices were designed to disrupt the system of consumerist homogeneity characteristic of 20th century Western society. Dérive, or aimlessly walking the city, and cut-out maps facilitating wandering were reimagined as statements against the capitalist order and corresponded to real political and social action leading to the 1968 protests. SI has widely influenced Rave and Punk subcultures and in the 21st century “subvertising” approaches and movements such as Occupy and Extinction Rebellion. Source:    

[27] As part of the Mantis project, previously mentioned, and a joint secondment for the Real Smart Cities project with fellow researchers Sinead McDonald and Jye O’Sullivan (TU Dublin).  

[28] Plato deploys the concept of the “Pharmakon” in Phaedrus Dialogue as a technology which is the source of both good and ill and therefore introducing ambiguity into life. 

[29] D. J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making kin in the Chthulucene (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016). 

[30] M. Puig de la Bellacasa, Matters of Care: Speculative Ethics in More than Human Worlds (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019). 

[31] One-eyed cyclops, many-eyed Mantis shrimp. 

[32] D. J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making kin in the Chthulucene (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016). 

[33] By “postnatural”, I refer to the critique of the concept of nature as not an environment outside humans that must be either managed or adapted to but rather as a cultural construction. Recent developments, such as the constatation of the consequences of anthropic action, and the realisation of the loss of centrality of the human (e.g., through the COVID-19 pandemic), call for a re-examination and problematisation of nature in terms of aesthetics, ethics and politics. This is where the compost approach is useful from an onto-epistemological point of view, because it rejects both human exclusivity and human/nature separation. In this vision, the human is nature, the human “becomes-with” a symbiotic relationship with other-than-human entities (e.g. the human gut). This switch in perspective means re-situating the human within the environment and what is other-than-human within cultural, technical, political and ethical domains. 

[34] T. Ingold, The Life of Lines (London: Routledge, 2015). 

[35] J. M. Hamilton & A. Neimanis, “Composting Feminisms and Environmental Humanities”, Environmental Humanities, 10, 2 (November 2018) 501–527 (online, accessed 9 January 2022), doi:

[36] Reference to the distinction between nomadic embodied production of knowledge as “minor science” and the “royal science” of institutions and the state as expressed by Deleuze and Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus. Capitalism and Squizofrenia (1987, 361). While royal science aims for constants and laws, the model of minor science is fluid and thus experimental. 

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