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The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2020

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JUL-AUG 2020 Issue
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Symbiontics: a view of present conditions from a place of entanglement

The specifics demanded of pandemical philosophy call up the paradox of connection at a distance. Connection forged by the act of communication across a few feet of air, that can nonetheless vector thousands of virions, expelled from the breath of a single speaker.1 (These are the unwitting microbial aggressions that connect us as linked vectors of a pathogen.) Connection across antagonistic lines, as bodies classed and raced by governmentality are literally (op)pressed by other bodies deposed to govern them with intimate, grinding, daily violence. (These are the witting macro- and micro-aggressions that connect us via the flexible ligaments of divisive racism.) Connection, even for those attempting to break connections and isolate, or connect in anti-racism, in our humming social media.

These are new positions for many, if familiar to some—displaced, out of place, replaced. By shifting orientations—intentionally deforming the “straight” lines bodies are supposed to take, analyzing the places we are now meant to stay in (our) place. It requires a detouring from the normativizing socius, a standing with—connecting by turning away (to form a newer kind of together). Sara Ahmed is a superlative guide to these necessary displacements. The aim is to yield a new philosophy of connection and orientation that opens onto the “difficulty” of difference (and, I will argue here, the symbiosis of our with-living). Ahmed starts with phenomenology:

I start here because phenomenology makes “orientation” central in the very argument that consciousness is always directed “toward” an object, and given its emphasis on the lived experience of inhabiting a body, or what Edmund Husserl calls the “living body” (Leib). […] The attribution of feeling toward an object (I feel afraid because you are fearsome) moves the subject away from the object, creating distance through the registering of proximity as a threat.2

Recognizing fear as a spatial affect (proximity as threat), Ahmed’s queer phenomenology is a precious resource for those of us who work in culture, or teach in architecture schools, or feel afraid. In the time of the novel coronavirus, the threat posed by proximity takes on multiple meanings, since the pandemic amplifies every privilege and every inequity a hundred-fold. This amplification, an effect of the multiplied crises produced by bad government, brings biological systems and political philosophies much closer together. This becomes another turning, connecting across disciplinary distance as well as among micro- macro-scales. Useful here is the renegade second-order cybernetics of Heinz von Foerster (the physicist and philosopher who found useful the precepts of “Uncle Ludwig” Wittgenstein, who also got the heck out of Vienna during the rise of fascism).3

Von Foerster played a major role in what Margaret Mead called the “cybernetics of cybernetics”—the move in systems theory to begin to understand how the observer’s having a systems theory would demand that the observer would now have to become a feature in their own analysis of whatever system they observed. This crucial move jibed both with theories of the smallest scale (quantum entanglement), and observations of the largest.4 In sum, von Foerster contributed theoretically to the understanding that there are always nested systems, all the way down and all the way up, confounding the “black box” of engineering with a new science of complexity. These neo-cybernetic concepts also fed the growing realization that the earth’s atmosphere was being maintained in its homeostasis (oxygen / carbon dioxide / nitrogen) by the life forms it harbored. The lowliest cyanobacteria had evolved to produce oxygen, which, in “poisoning” the atmosphere, pushed anaerobic entities into safer spaces and drove the evolution of oxygenating and respirating life forms with their novel reproductive modes (plants and animals).5 Since this Great Oxygenation Event and its impact on evolution, life itself has maintained the system’s balance of carbon and oxygen, with the happenstance of a planetary magnetic core holding radiation at bay and gravity keeping that atmosphere around.

Thinking of earth-systems and microbial-systems at the same time required a more-than-human phenomenology that extended, in von Foerster’s thinking, from the basic apprehension of a world to the way its information might be organized against entropy. “We can understand things only by handling them, by moving them, by moving our own body…” yet if our very understanding happens phenomenologically, in that Leib or living body, we can nonetheless extend our haptic way of knowing inductively to conceptualize all the systems in which we are nested. In this, von Foerster applied Wittgenstein’s logic of induction, seeing ways in which that dry mathematization could inform the burgeoning cybernetic discourse around life systems. These were in the process of being galvanized in the late ’50s by theories of “self-organizing systems,” which would be dubbed, by Latin American biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, autopoiesis (“poiesis” added to “auto” or self, for self-creating systems). So even if “you need the motorium to understand the sensorium,” von Foerster showed how we can use logic to think through the organizing complexity of the universe and the negentropic life that manifestly blooms within it.6

On the one hand, von Foerster wanted to resist the suddenly hip terminology of “self-organizing systems,” as this implied closed autonomous entities (perhaps with neither “motorium” or “sensorium”) that would directly confound the second law of thermodynamics. (Any closed system, he argued, is subject to grinding entropy.)7 On the other, his philosophical inclinations wanted to bring life into these cybernetic loops—already hinted by his courtship of phenomenology (Husserl’s Leib). In a crucial paper “On Self-Organizing Systems and Their Environments” from 1959, he solves the dilemma, pointing out the illogic of “self-organizing” with a deft application of Uncle Ludwig’s Tractatus proposition 6.31,8 but then finding a way to save the phenomenon of poiesis by insisting on one system nesting within another:

I propose to continue the use of the term “self-organizing system,” whilst being aware of the fact that this term becomes meaningless, unless the system is in close contact with an environment, which possesses available energy and order, and with which our system is in a state of perpetual interaction, such that it somehow manages to “live” on the expenses of this environment. 9

We now come to the neologism of my title, which requires me to break down for digestion that wet-but-crunchy term symbiontics. 10 The “ontic” ending takes a term from technical philosophy, a tiny seme at the heart of the vast project of “ontology”—the study of what is. Symbiontics embeds that notion of “what is,” the ontic, with symbiosis, the condition of “with-living” that biologists began to identify under that word in the late 19th century.11 Symbiontics asks that we retool phenomenology to move outside the limiting philosophy of the “individual,” to capture the ever-expanding scales of our sym-poietic (not just autopoietic) systems.12

This is, as Ahmed recommends, a marked detouring or queering of the conventional obsession (conveyed by Western-style philosophy) with that singular construct we call an “individual,” packaged within an envelope of skin or a brain-filled cranial cavity. Given what we now know about the gut brain and its dependence on cultivated xenobacteria, or the plasma-based immune brain with its primordial system of chemical defenders and epigenetic recruitments for molecular learning (as from vaccines), it is clear that humans are never independent of the systems of matter and life on this planet—we are utterly entangled with them. In Karen Barad’s compelling philosophy drawn from quantum theory, this point becomes characteristic of all observations, and all knowledge: we and our apparatuses are woven into how, and what, we know.13

This was the point of Heinz von Foerster’s beautiful neo-cybernetic conundrum. We can fantasize the “self-organizing system” of the self, as long as we maintain its status as both environmentally open and operationally closed.14 Thus we want the effect of clarifying wonder—experienced as miraculous in the glimmerings of understanding of true complexity—rather than the fetish magic of concealment that would give the embodied attribute of intelligence to our machines.15 Pandemical philosophy demands symbiontics, a phenomenological grappling with entangled symbiosis and eco-logics, where connecting across distance is where we are, and what we do.


1. Caroline A. Jones, “Virions: Thinking through the Scale of Aggregation,” Artforum 58:9 (May / June 2020): 98-101, 196.

2. Sara Ahmed, “Introduction,” Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2006): 2.

3. My account of Heinz von Foerster is deeply indebted to Bruce Clarke’s exegesis of his ideas. See Clarke and Mark B. N. Hansen, eds., Emergence and Embodiment: New Essays on Second-Order Systems Theory (Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2009).

4. As a basic example: by setting up a mountain top observatory that runs on energy generated by coal from miles away, one that produces noise in the grinding of its gears, we must feature these facts of the apparatus in parsing the data: emissions change the atmosphere through which we are attempting to observe the distant universe, and sonic vibrations can deform the data we seek.

5. Lynn Sagan, “On the origins of Mitosing Cells,” Journal of Theoretical Biology 14 (1967): 225-74. After her divorce from Carl Sagan, Lynn (née Alexander , became Margulis) made common cause with James Lovelock in launching the Gaia theory, for which see James E. Lovelock and Lynn Margulis, “Atmospheric Homeostasis by and for the Biosphere: The Gaia Hypothesis,” Tellus 26:1–2 (1974): 1–10. For a recent compelling take, we await the forthcoming essay by Leah Aronowsky, “Gas Guzzling Gaia, Or: A Prehistory of Climate Change Denialism,” Critical Inquiry (slated for 2021).

6. Heinz von Foerster, in Clarke and Hansen (2009): 31.

7. For a view on the cultural impact of entropy see Jones, “Entropies,” in Douglas Kahn, ed., Energies in the Arts (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2019): 263-307.

8. Ludwig Wittgenstain, Tractatus Logico-Philisophicus (1922) translated by Charles Kay Ogden and online at . Accessed June 4, 2020, proposition 6.31: “The so-called law of induction cannot in any case be a logical law, for it is obviously a significant proposition.—And therefore it cannot be a law a priori either.” This follows the trenchant precept “Outside logic all is accident.”

9. Heinz von Foerster, “On Self-Organizing Systems and Their Environments,” adaptation of an address given at The Interdisciplinary Symposium on Self-Organizing Systems, on May 5, 1959, in Chicago, Illinois and first published in Self-Organizing Systems, M.C. Yovits and S. Cameron, eds., (London: Pergamon Press, 1960): 31–50. The edition quoted here has been anthologized in Foerster, Understanding Understanding: Essays on Cybernetics and Cognition (New York, NY: Springer, 2003): 1-19; quote from p. 3.

10. So far, the sites in which “Symbiontics” has been seeded include Olafur Eliasson, Symbiotic Seeing, Kunsthalle Zurich (2020); Jenna Sutela, NO|NSE|NSE, Trondheim Norway (2020), “Virions” op. cit. supra, Agnieszka Kurant, Collective Intelligence (forthcoming, Sternberg Press), and various online forums. My polemic deeply respects and joins forces with Haraway’s “sympoiesis” and Gilbert’s “symbiopoiesis” (see below) but wants to lodge itself directly inside ontology, rather than theoretical biology. What I am after is a widespread change in cultural beliefs, not disciplinary understandings of evolution—and I take philosophy to be the driver of that change. Many thanks to my colleague Stefan Helmreich for crucial feedback on these ideas and their broader hermeneutic context.

11. Jan Sapp, “On Symbiosis, Microbes, Kingdoms, and Domains,” in Bruce Clarke 105-126; see also Jan Sapp, Evolution by Association: A History of Symbiosis (Oxford UK: Oxford University Press, 1994). As Sapp clarifies, the term “symbiosis” was nearly simultaneously introduced by German botanist Albert Frank in 1877 (as “Symbiotismus”) and by Frenchman Anton de Bary in 1878 as symbiosis. Not surprisingly, both were specialists in lichens, which combine algae and fungus in a single, evolutionarily stable mutualist entity.

12. Donna Haraway argues for “sympoiesis” not “autopoiesis” in many publications, most recently in Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2016). Her concept builds on biologist Scott Gilbert, who has made deep contributions to the scientific understanding of the evolutionary role of symbiosis, a role he and his co-authors recently name “symbiopoiesis—the codevelopment of the holobiont” over evolutionary and planetary time. See Scott F. Gilbert, Emily McDonald, Nicole Boyle, Nicholas Buttino, Lin Gyi, Mark Mai, Neelakantan Prakash and James Robinson, “Symbiosis as a source of selectable epigenetic variation: taking the heat for the big guy,” Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B (2010) 365, 671–678. doi:10.1098/rstb.2009.0245.

13. Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2007).

14. I adapt this definition from the important Introduction by Bruce Clarke and Mark Hansen (2009), notably pp. 9-12. They emphasize the paradox of Varela’s thinking, that “the operational closure of autopoiesis demands that the organism be an open system.” The phrasing is by Evan Thompson, cited in Clarke and Hansen (10).

15. “The interesting thing is that the magician is doing just the opposite of what most people think—hiding something. No, the magician is making things so clear that everybody can see what is going on. And that is the miracle. You must let them see the miracle, making it so convincing that absolutely nothing is hidden, nothing is under the table, everything is on the table, and that makes the whole thing very magical.” Heinz von Foerster, interviewed by Bruce Clarke, in Clarke and Hansen (2009): 32.


Caroline A. Jones

teaches in the Department of Architecture at M.I.T., where she is also Associate Dean in the School of Architecture and Planning. Her current research into art collaborating with biotic materials will inform a fall 2022 exhibition, Symbionts, at the MIT List Visual Art Center.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2020

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