The Myth of the Gilded Researcher. A Thesis of Posthumanist Inquiry for Ecoversities in the ‘Anthropocene’

Bayo Akomolafe

A Story 

From where I come, somewhere in the midwestern region of Nigeria in West Africa, where Yoruba people have made their home for generations, there is an instructive story about Ìjàpá, the tortoise, who is also a trickster in Yoruba folktales – one that sheds some light on a different ontology of inquiry. In this story, Ìjàpá acquires a dried calabash gourd famous for its bottleneck and good for storing palm wine. He ties a string to the gourd neck and hangs the contraption around his own, and then sets out on a quest to know everything there is to know about everything. 

He goes to the eagle and learns the power of flight; to the bonfire to discern the secrets of heat; to the wistful clouds to understand how raindrops form; and, to the man-village to figure out why the bipeds are so restless and impatient. Every time he acquires new knowledge, he scoops it up like one would do a morsel of pounded yam, and then he squeezes this knowledge into his hanging gourd. 

Soon the gourd is full, and Ìjàpá assures himself that he is now the wisest of all beings. Perhaps wiser than the gods. He hoards his stash of knowledge to himself for days before deciding it might be better to hide his precious cargo in a different place. And so he sneaks into the forest to find the tallest tree – none taller than the mighty Iroko tree. In the dead of night, away from prying eyes, he makes his first attempt to climb the tree. But as you may know, the tortoise is not very good at climbing trees. His limbs are not nimble or long enough to wrap themselves around the voluptuous body of the tree. Moreover, with the added weight of the stuffed calabash, scaling the tall tree in one piece is a taller order.

Just as he prepares to give up, the tortoise hears some shuffling sound in the grass not too far away from him. Out jumps the grasshopper who has, as he tells Ìjàpá, been observing tortoise’s comedic act all night. “That made me laugh,” the grasshopper chuckles to Ìjàpá’s chagrin. “But seriously,” the dumb insect continues, “you could hang whatever it is you are carrying in that calabash on your back instead of on your belly. See if that doesn’t work out for you.” And without much ado, the insect jumps away. 

Tortoise reconsiders his strategy, makes the climb, and pauses at the very top of the tree to process what has just happened. He realizes his folly. “I am not the wisest,” he confesses to himself. “Gathering knowledge is not how one becomes wise.” He lifts the calabash to the sky and releases its contents back to the world whence it came. 

Tortoise’s folly: meeting a world that spills  

As a child growing up in Nigeria, I was told the story of the tortoise as a child. I read it in books, and heard it on television. I have since forgotten the lessons I was supposed to learn from hearing and reading about the tortoise. They probably had a lot to do with humility, obeying our parents, and remembering the privilege of community. 

Eventually, I left those stories behind as childish things that didn’t have anything to do with the adult world I was going to have to live in: the world of isms and degrees and panels and African intellectuals who handed us the 18th century musings of moustachioed white men who knew better

For most of my academic life, I was told knowledge was a fixed thing, already nailed down in deterministic packages of cause-and-effect relationships. The world was fundamentally meaningful, always open to rational analysis, eventually discoverable in its entirety (a theory of everything, people!), and definitely mute and dead when juxtaposed with the intelligence and agency of the ‘human’.

Such a world, shaved of mystery and enchantment, fully described by the white propertied male, started to seem problematic and suspiciously one-sided to me. I began to investigate the effects of colonization on the ways we framed knowledge, healing, wellbeing, the economy, politics and hope. A few figures like Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Walter Rodney, and Jorge Ferrer set me upon a decolonial path – not of realignment with a “original” past some hoped to reclaim, but of fugitivity in which I was increasingly accountable to the manifold hidden underneath the canopy of the universal. 

I began to speak and write about other worlds, about elsewheres and the racialized figure of the ‘human’. The Anthropocene was already becoming a catchphrase for a planetary ethic that sought to reconcile humans together. To help me meet the duplicity of these Eurocentric contributions, I turned to feminist theories, material ecocriticisms and new materialist thinking, all of which were already dyed in struggles to denaturalize the efforts of Enlightenment science to produce knowledges that were supposed to be “a done deal – once and for all.” For me, the struggle was to disturb the one-world colonial thesis and its claims to exclusivity. These concepts, none of which are revelatory truths or to be taken as divine and “new”, helped me make sense of the colonial university and my place in it. 

And then, I stumbled upon a tortoise once again. I didn’t expect childhood stories would mean much to my vocation of decoloniality, but in re-reading the texts about tortoise and his adventures, about Esu the trickster god who travelled westward with the Yoruba slaves from my ancestry, I was struck by their previously unheralded power: they spoke of a fluid world in which knowledge was “impossible” – at least the kind of knowing that gestures towards absolute closure. Long before Donna Haraway wrote about situated and embodied knowledges, these stories intuited what Yoruba people intuited: that to know the world is to mark it and be marked in return. That there is no external knowledge that does not implicate the knower in the material act of knowing. That research and the researcher are co-produced in the act of making knowledge – a notion that decentralizes the “knower”.

What Ìjàpá’s story points at is the materiality of knowing. It unsettles the foundationalism of knowledge and calls upon the knower to revisit his claims to knowledge. What the story stresses, echoing insights that have become familiar to students of ‘new materialism’ (1), is ably cradled in the Igbo proverb: “the world is a dancing masquerade; if one wants to understand it, one cannot remain in the same place.” The idea of a world that resists the stabilization of the expert gaze, that slips away from the control dynamics of the laboratory, that wanders and instigates and mocks human attempts at finality, and that makes humans move and dance in order to come to terms with its canny promiscuities, is what is signalled by this proverb. 

For the Igbo people of Nigeria, knowledge (as well as ethics) is kinetic: to know the world is to alter what one knows and be altered in the materiality of knowing. To navigate the world is to make certain kinds of knowings possible and to exclude other manners of knowing ‘it’. 

In a very tactile sense then, to know the world, to know anything at all, is to perform and enact the world – and to be performed in the selfsame moment. For instance, to know how to fix computers is to have one’s body marked and shaped by such a discipline; to spend time doing one’s work in a cubicle (2) is to become a creature of the cubicle. And to make measurements is to create the phenomenon of interest at the same time. 

We do not inhabit an observation-independent universe where the gist of knowledge is to ably capture or represent ‘natural’ phenomena like bones, bacteria and black holes. Instead we intervene so intimately with ‘nature’, respond to it, fundamentally altering it just by interacting with it, even just by describing it, that we and “nature” (as if the two could be pried apart) are transformed in the moment.

To know is to enact the world; to know is to alter the supposed object of our cognitive reach. To observe is to make alterations to that which we observe. We have greater chances trying to surprise our reflections in our mirrors than we have trying to understand the world as a container of intelligibly discrete objects with fixed properties awaiting accurate measurements. 

We like to imagine thought as something entirely spectral, non-material, transcendent and otherworldly – and the vocation of knowledge-making an external recording of the otherwise invariable and determinable codes of the material world. Such an imagination positions us ‘humans’, as has already been implied, outside the world and centralizes our activities on the planet. 

What tortoise’s story and the Igbo proverb, re-read through new materialistic insights today, share with us is that thought, or thinking, is material movement, bodies (and not necessarily human or even animate bodies) dancing with one another. A performative revitalization of thinking as the rhizomatic tentacles that thread bodies into an ever-changing matrixial web of becoming. How we cognate is a matter of the movements we make. We don’t reflect upon the world, we enact it. And to research the world is not to index it into consumable bits of data, but to touch it and gasp and be touched by it in orgasmic return, secreting fairly stable ‘examples’ (instead of categories or prototypes, fixed for all time). Giving attention to the world is reframed as making art/tension with the world; and, witnessing our environments fall into disrepair becomes with-nessing our collective demise.  

Such a vision of knowing is invited especially in these times known to many as the Anthropocene – a controversial term submitted in the year 2000 by Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer that assigns a new geological name to the post-Holocene epoch we are supposedly living in today. This name stresses the untoward effects of anthropogenic activity and the toxic traces of industrialization left in the geo-stratigraphic record. The controversy of the term lies in its dearth of hesitation at lumping all human communities together as if all have been equally complicit in ‘knowing’ the world in the ways that are now recognized to be unsustainable. What is important to note is that the term finds some of its usefulness in summoning a conversation (however lopsided and amnesiac that conversation has proven to be) around an insurgency of once invisible bodies: it is as if the nonhuman world and the ecologies that have long subsidized our claims to centrality and superiority are rebelling, withdrawing their endorsements, and crashing in through the studiously consecrated civilization walls we have built since the end of the Ice Age. The world shrugs, and in its torrential critique of modern settlements it is calling into question the ways of knowing that have made ‘us’ such troublesome dwellers.  

To really contrast these accounts of knowledge, navigating between a relational/ecological/non-dual notion of knowing and a dualistic one at the risk of repeating myself, let me say more about the latter. 

One account of modern frames of knowing – what one may call the myth of the gilded researcher – cuts the knower away from the world, remaking them into separate binary categories. The knower is a subject imbued with pre-relational capacities to represent the world as it is. The known sits in passive exteriority awaiting the deployment of the appropriate tools and measurements to disclose its hidden dimensions. 

In this Eurocentric cosmology of representation and heavy descriptions, the world awaits disclosure. Man is supreme in this vocation. To be educated is to have the right power tools to short-circuit the savagery of nature, to excavate its resources. The heavy extractivist and colonial undertones are no accident: representationalism, a performance of knowing that is committed to the preservation of the human subject as the gilded knower, obscures the role of the environment in producing not just knowledge but ‘the one who pretends to know.’ It is Subject vs Object, Knower vs Known. This optical dynamic, which premises proper knowing as a flipped reflection of the image of the knower, is at the heart of the modern Enlightenment project and the colonial university. Inquiry is based on control, prediction, description and instrumentalization. Of course, this epistemology has long favoured white men and objectified black bodies and women. 

As has been hinted at above, modernity yearns for stability and sameness. ‘It’ wants to index the world, categorize it, stabilize it, and render it useful for our (read ‘our’ as ‘white modern’) goals. The advent of big data and the ongoing Google-ization of the world are just tiny examples of how the modern world constructs knowing. However, like the tortoise in the Yoruba story, modernity encounters something scandalous in the Anthropocene: events in the past few decades have disturbed this story of knowing. We are witnessing a world that spills, a world that deviates from its assigned categories, a world that exceeds our practices of representation. 

The embarrassing excessiveness of the world calls into question that our colonizing centrality, forcing us (3) to notice the world we reduced to an image of ourselves.  

Re/turning to ‘nature’

Predating the introduction of the term, the Anthropocene, feminist movements in the so-called ‘global North and South’, fought to give women power in a male-dominated system, and have in more recent times noticed how the environment also falls under the fist of white patriarchy. Ecofeminisms, new materialisms and critical posthumanisms have sprouted from this energetic engagement with questions around the vitality of ecologies, the influence of land on thought, and the interdependence of humans. These new disciplines are signalling a ‘turn’ to nature – not nature as resource, but nature as agency, as a vital ongoingness that resists final articulation.

Many indigenous non-western wisdoms predate these new academic fields. They have for ages spoken of an earth alive, an animated world that simply doesn’t patronize our anxious desires for intelligibility. The Yoruba people, for instance, speak of ‘Awon Iya Wa’ or ‘Our Mothers’ as a mysterious earth-based force and secret source of power that enlists, and is embodied most majestically in, the bodies of elders/mothers. These ennobled ones are called ‘Aje’, which became ‘Witch’ within colonial conceptual containers. The Yoruba concepts of ‘aje’ and ‘ase’ are similar to the mysterious force ‘Manitou’ known to Algonquian peoples. Indigenous researcher Vanessa Watts speaks of “place-thought”, a concept that de-sacralizes humans and situates personhood as a relationship proceeding from the land. Even western researcher N. Katherine Hayles writes about non-conscious cognitive networks, demonstrating that the ‘mind’ and its presumed properties are not hidden within the human skull. Instead we are performative extensions of the environments we inhabit. 

In short, these fields flag a different ontology of inquiry and call into question Eurocentric habits of re/presentation and observation. Again, to know the world is not to attain a position of exteriority; to know is to reconfigure what is known and be reconfigured as well. There is an intimate reciprocity that binds ‘subject’ and ‘object’ in relations of entanglement. 

The call of the Ecoversity

The promise of ecoversities, I feel, lies in the disruption of the human as a category unto itself or the world as a stable thing to be known or researched, in the passive sense of the word. Today’s ecoversities can collectively help disturb the ‘humanist’ forms of inquiry we’ve adopted, which have helped engender an indifference to the more-than-human agency that shapes us. They can help signal an end to the project of enlightenment and the gilded human subject and researcher. 

The ecoversity is the milieu of the posthumanist researcher. By ‘posthumanist researcher’, I do not mean the philosopher trained in the art of thinking about the porosity of the human figure or the posthuman. And by ‘researcher’, I do not privilege the human gaze. By posthuman researcher, I refer to the crossroads of yet-to-be-named subject-objects; I mean to say that the world is so rich, so abundant, that to suppose we are the only ones entranced by this wonder is to perpetuate a kind of blindness that is especially problematic today; I mean to draw attention to wider and wilder coalitions we have always been a part of; I mean to say trees, cetaceans, and bacterial communities living as immigrant ecosystems in human guts are conducting research of their own; I mean to nod in the direction of ancestors lingering in the hauntological sites of our furniture and exotic/monstrous bodies that disturb the fixity of what it means to be human; I mean to sing to a world that is more-than-world, more-than-knowing, more-than-being, always-becoming. 

The ecoversity necessarily resists final mappings, final articulations, because it is an invitation to a troubling alterity and an embrace of other spaces of power outside (and perhaps dwelling as trojan stowaways within) the ivory tower and its liberal humanism. The ecoversity is an apophatic ‘un-saying’ of things, a refusal to be so sure about what a leaf is, a refusal to instrumentalize the world so confidently that it stops being so wondrous. The ecoversity is a posture of humility in a universe that exceeds and chides the gilded human knower – a gathering in the cracks of asphalt and an acknowledgement that non-knowing is no less precious than the skills and gestures we reify as knowing, if only for the moment. The ecoversity is what we might do if we suddenly found ourselves on an alien planet, steeped in the queerness of a world that doesn’t respond to our usual nudging and jabbing and ethical posturing and puritan rationalizations, and realizing we are in way over our heads.   


Touching the world and being touched in return

The Black Studies writer and professor, Fred Moten, speaks of study as exceeding the containers we have incarcerated it within. Just like music does not begin when the conductor enters the room and takes up the baton, but happens in the anticipation and preparation before this event, permeates the enjoyment of the performance during the event, and lingers in the afterlife of the event, threading through the conversations outside the halls of music production, study is wilder than we think. This applies to research as well. 

What would research look like if we imagined that it happened beyond papers and labs and peer review practices? What if roots conduct research into the soil, and what if virtual particles are right now researching the world into being-becoming? What if researching the world is worlding the world? To imagine that would be to decenter the human (especially the white propertied male figure) from the algorithms of research, as I have already indicated above. Seemingly insignificant moments, incidental and mostly invisible, would be noticed as forms of doing research. 

Grandmothers telling their children bedtime stories would be a form of doing research. Sharing feelings of jealousy in a circle of friends and strangers would be a form of conducting research into the ontology of jealousy – not to find out what jealousy ‘is’ in some reductionistic way, but to feel how it is showing up, to sense the inappropriateness of naming the moment, and to be open to what other matters might be available for processing. Yes, even to feel might then be considered a worlding of the world – a participation with/in a tapestry of affect that stretches beyond our atomistic impressions of our individuated selves and enlists ancestral bodies, secrets, rituals, powers and prophecies in its excessiveness. 

In short, the ecoversity blasts research out of jail, almost in the same way the tortoise releases the contents of his calabash back into the world. 

It would be far beyond this essay’s objectives to outline all the possible approaches, methodologies and instances of ‘fugitive study’ that – in my estimation – reify the ecoversity project as a vital site for production of new kinds of bodies. Such an exercise would call for a mapping endeavour that seeks to contact the multitudinous approaches, cosmologies and engagements that are afoot in these times. This mapping would be an ongoing thing, never to be conflated with the kind of indexing work that colonization is enabled by. A sharing of recipes, not prototypes. A living collection of examples, not static documents. A compass of questions, not a biblical calabashing of final answers. 

While a list of practices is too much for the space and time given to this essay, we can at least offer some examples and then contextualize them within our troubled milieu – demonstrating why we need to approach the world in markedly different ways than the classical world of universities allows us to do. 

In fact, the ecoversity is a response to the urgency of slowing down. The Anthropocene in its alien-like strangeness introduces a pervasive sense of homelessness and fugitivity to modern settlements: the world we once shut out is crashing in, muddying the equations and algorithms we are used to. Climate change, a euphemism for the Anthropocene, stresses us, tugging at the sleeves. A recurrent response of nation-states, institutions, and even climate justice movements has been to try to stop the phenomenon, to ask what kinds of technological solutions we can deploy to suck away carbon from the atmosphere, and to seek ways of forcing new legislation that enacts limitations on emissions. While this line of inquiry is important, it occludes other forms of listening, sense-making and knowing. It cancels out the kinds of questions a post-humanist (that is, a metaphysics that rejects the centrality of humans, and thinks of environments as alive and agential in the worlding of the world) sensitivity might allow us ask. 

Posthumanist (4), post-qualitative research methodologies are ways of conducting inquiry and asking questions, which privilege the nonhuman and account for the ways the inclusion of the nonhuman in the assemblage of research reconfigures the research. The rush to solutions gives way to a staying with the trouble, a slowing down, which acknowledges that the ‘world’ is shrewder than our efforts at instrumentalization can or want to affirm. 

Posthumanist methodologies are diffractive approaches – that is, they look for interferences, instead of reflections of previous positions. One method, the Trail of Enlivenment, which I have been developing and deploying in collective intelligence creation circles, invites participants to ask questions they feel are important to them, and then to meet and interact with the ‘objects’ in their environment in a ‘new’ way – approaching them not as items to be studied but as kin and potential allies (or even disruptors) of one’s quest. The participants are then invited to keep returning to their initial questions and editing them, even if they feel the progressively newer iterations do not make any sense or more sense than the original questions. The process is designed for ontological expansion – to shake the researcher loose from the security of his or her imaginings. 

In creative writing practices, the usual instruction emphasizes the role of self-reflexivity in the life of the writer. By going within, the writer can mine gems of insights about subjective functioning that can then serve transformational learning purposes. However, as some researchers are noticing, this ‘going within’ presupposes that the self and its archive of experiences possess an absolute interiority that makes invisible the contributions of the world around us to our becoming. Kay Are, a researcher at the University of Melbourne, echoes biologist Donna Haraway in saying objects around us are “frozen stories”, and that in coming to ‘touch’ the world, we perform a diffractive attentiveness that breaks the insularity of the gilded self-reflexive researcher (5). The “hazards of self-reflexivity” are that it risks perpetuating the familiar, reinforcing the rational, and stabilizing problematic dynamics of power. We need knowing approaches that bring us to the discipline of the monstrous other, the world that disciplines us. 

There are other forms of research and ritual and “compost technologies” that may find a home in the ecoversity. For instance, the work of “making sanctuaries”, where a sanctuary is not a place of safety (as in, refuge) but a site of falling apart, a co-sensing into the more-than-human. I have also dedicated a significant portion of my energies into thinking about the forms of organization or assemblages we might assume in a time of climate collapse. My thesis of the sanctuary, repurposed from the medieval practices of rehabilitating the fugitive for exile, privileges the figure of the monster/gargoyle as a shape-making agent of change. Meeting this monster, coming to places where we have a shared commitment to our discombobulation, where we have a heightened awareness of our troubling tentacularity (that corrodes identity categories), and where we hope to be met by a world larger than us, is the invitation of sanctuary. I have written elsewhere that: “The invitation of sanctuary is not to regain mastery over the elements, not to assert our dominance, not to propose control, not to defeat oppressive systems by launching critique and resistance, not to become holier and good citizens, not to become enlightened, and not to attach itself too tightly to any climate solution.  There is a not-knowing that stirs at the heart of this proposed enterprise, one which is echoed in Paul’s letter to the Romans: We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. This intercessory, inter/carnational groaning of sanctuary is a site of fragile inquiry, of festive celebration, of rigorous study, and of keen attention to what wants to be known.” 

Whether within the organization of a “sanctuary”, in the awe-inducing embrace of a grandmother’s stories, or in the psychedelic grip of plant medicine, ‘study’ (in the Fred Moten sense) can demonstrate that we ‘humans’ are not the only one capable of producing knowledge. Ultimately, the ecoversity movement can find a vocation in alchemizing methods, mapping strategies, conducting listening tours, and sharing together in rich spaces of collective non-knowing – as it already seems to be doing. Networking these nomadic onto-epistemologies and nomadic subjectivities can help produce potentially wiser worlds, wiser economies, wiser politics, and wiser technologies. They can help develop approaches, sensitivities, questions, recipes that are otherwise not available to other western-inspired epistemologies. They can help hone our senses to how we are becoming different through inquiry. It is not enough to merely agree that the world is alive – we must put that assertion to work. Not doing so risks deploying the usual epistemic imperatives of the enlightenment gaze and re-inscribing the spectator dynamics that leave us untouched. 


An aftermath that is a middle

I have often wondered what became of tortoise after he released his treasure into the world, now suddenly impoverished with nothing to his name save a hollow calabash. Perhaps he climbed down the tree despondent; perhaps he walked ponderously through the fields, alive to nothing, dead to everything. Aftermaths and endings are never fitting narrative strategies where a trickster figure like tortoise is concerned. The trickster needs to live on, to continue foiling the efforts at stabilization and convenient arrivals, and to disturb the architecture that privileges the storyteller over and above the story-listener. To ask about what happens afterwards is to return to the middle of the tale. 

With the ecoversity, the end is indeterminable, the beginning is inconsolable. All we have are these thick middles. These posthuman moments. These invitations to awe and wonder. These ways of knowing that have no qualms with leaving us trembling with ecstasy and grief and confusion. This re-entering a world we never really left behind. This coming down to earth.

Let’s meet there. In the middle.    


(1) New materialism is the interdisciplinary field of critical studies and wonder that brings together theoretical approaches to rethinking the material world as agential, vital, alive and intelligent – rejecting the historical emphasis on the human figure as the sole container or emitter of these attributes. 

(2) A remarkable project team built a life-sized doll named “Emma” to depict what our bodies might look like if we didn’t make changes to the way office spaces and workplace environments are composed. Emma has puffy legs, varicose veins, a hunch, reddened eyes from staring too long at a computer screen, excess weight, and stress-related eczema. To know the office space is to be known by the office space. 

(3)  Who is ‘us’? I certainly do not intend to repeat or perpetuate the generalizations of the term, Anthropocene, or to hide away the legacies of extractivist, imperialistic, continent-claiming colonizations that are in part the story of the Anthropocene. But something more than complicity and blameworthiness may be inferred from employing the term, Anthropocene. We may imply entanglement. The term may be read as suggesting how troubling independence is, how already troubled ethical purity is, and how intra-connected both colonizer and colonized are. 

(4) Posthumanism has many strands and resists a singular definition. But the rich field is a repudiation of dualism. A refusal to re-privilege and centralze humans as the source of agency or as the drivers of change. The literature is replete with examples of terms like the more-than-human, the not-quite-human, the com-post-human, and what Yoruba people call “aye”. I choose to use these terms in my work to signal a world of differences without collapsing an understanding of entanglement to that colloquial notion where “everything is connected” and undifferentiated. I also – with humility – write as a hybrid creature of my own Yoruba indigenous people and Euro-American scholarship. These theoretical positions are fragile, modest offerings that do not (and cannot) speak to the particularities of all contexts.

(5)  See Are’s work in ‘Touching stories: Objects, writing, diffraction and the ethical hazard of self-reflexivity’ (TEXT Special Issue 51: Climates of Change, October 2018). 

A note from editors:  This essay is a cross-cutting of bodies. I hope it is diffractive and goes beyond telling people what to do. I hope it helps loosen the binds that tether people who read it to the ethical, material, epistemological frameworks of the modern”  extract from a conversation with the editors during editorial process. 

bayo akomolafe

Bayo Akomolafe is an author, speaker, and ‘walkout’ academic, globally recognized for his poetic, unconventional, counterintuitive take on global crises, civic action and social change.  Bayo hopes to help pioneer expeditions to the frontiers, where inter-species and inter-cultural dialogue can happen. Where we meet ‘earth others’ halfway. His passion is to evoke an ethics of the otherwise – one that recognizes that the way we respond to crisis is part of the crisis. His greatest work is however learning to orbit his life-force, Ej, and their children, Alethea-Aanya and Kyah Jayden.

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