Staying with the Trouble: Notes on Chapter 3

This week I asked you to read Chapter 3 pp 59-76. This section deals heavily with biology. Next week we will read the end of the chapter, which applies the theoretical insights drawn from biology to four art/science collaborations.

As usual I am responding to sections that most students wanted explained, am working through the chapter chronologically, and putting names of students next to sections they asked about. Although I have added a few links, following them is strictly optional.

Autopoiesis, Sympoiesis, and Holobiont – students including John K, Nazifa, Anthony, Yufan, Liam W. John G., Malcolm A, Roman E.

  • Autopoeisis – is a term “introduced in 1972 by Chilean biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela to define the self-maintaining chemistry of living cells.” (wikipedia). Maturana and Varela were trying to capture the systemic complexity of something that can reproduce itself i.e. life.

Sympoiesis is a simple word; it means “making-with.” Nothing makes itself; nothing is really autopoietic or self-organizing.” p 58

  • Haraway wants to introduce the term sympoiesis to extend the idea of self-making to include the symbiotic processes that helped life evolve and continue to sustain life.
  • Haraway includes this brief history of the term sympoiesis:

In 1998, a Canadian environmental studies graduate student named M. Beth Dempster suggested the term sympoiesis for “collectively-producing systems that do not have self-defined spatial or temporal boundaries. Information and control are distributed among components. The systems are evolutionary and have the potential for surprising change.” By contrast, autopoietic systems are “self-producing” autonomous units “with self defined spatial or temporal boundaries that tend to be centrally controlled, homeostatic, and predictable.” p 61

  • If we use this description a cell seems autopoietic, it has a clear boundary or cell wall, and reproduces itself. But something like coral seems sympoietic because it is a collective system and depends on the exchanges between its various parts.
  • An entity like a mouse or a human could also be described as autopoietic – it has a skin or boundary, and reproduces. But in this chapter Haraway wants to argue that that these kind of boundaries demarking individuals are not nearly as clear as we tend to think.
  • Using the term, sympoietic, and delving into the biology behind it, is part of Haraway’s critique of the notion of “bounded individualism.”
  • Haraway notes that Lyn Margulis used the term autopoietic when she was describing the symbiotic processes she researched – but suggests that this might be because the term sympoietic had not yet been coined.

As long as autopoiesis does not mean self-sufficient “self making,” autopoiesis and sympoiesis, foregrounding and backgrounding different aspects of systemic complexity, are in generative friction, or generative enfolding, rather than opposition.” Page 61.

  • Next Haraway suggests that both terms can be useful to think with.
  • The two terms don’t have to be mutually exclusive if we understand autopoeisis to focus on the complexity inside the cell membrane, and sympoiesis to focus on the complexity of flows through the membrane and the context of each cell in a larger system.

Another word for these sympoietic entities is holobionts or etymologically “entire beings” or “safe and sound beings“. p 60 “That is decidedly not the same thing as One and Individual. Rather, in polytemporal, polyspatial knottings, holobionts hold together contingently and dynamically, engaging other holobionts in complex patternings. Critters do not precede their relatings; they make each other through semiotic material involution, out of the beings of previous such entanglements.”(Pg. 60)

  • Here “entire being” does not mean an individual – but the entire complex of a being in space and time.
  • In time, none of us are separate but we all come from a biological antecedent.
  • In space, we are all losing and gaining parts of ourselves all the time.
  • Holobionts are contingent and dynamic – they depend on a certain set of circumstances to come into being and change all the time.
  • Haraway reiterates the point that nothing makes itself, but it is dependent on the web of relationships that were there before is came into existence.

Modern Synthesis – students including Maddy, Qing, Natt, Allison

By the Modern Synthesis Haraway means the understanding of biological evolutionary theory based on Darwinism and later the discovery of DNA. This leads to mind frames that assume competitive cause and effect relationships are fundamental, and to the idea that life can be understood as a (computer) code.

However, bonded units (code fragments, genes, cells, populations, ecosystems) and relations described mathematically in competition equations are virtually the only actors and story formats for the Modern Synthesis.” p 62

  • Haraway argues that the mind frames (units, individuals, competition) that supported the development of the very important discoveries that form the Modern Synthesis are now limiting our ability to think.
  • In this chapter Haraway brings theories and examples that explain biological systems in ways that stress connections, systems, symbiosis and flows rather than individual competitive units.
  • By analogy she wants to employ such theories to understand social and political systems and appreciate and build art projects.

Even as these sciences lay the groundwork for scientific conceptualization of the Anthropocene, they are undone in the very thinking of Anthropocene systems that require enfolded autopoietic and sympoietic analysis.” p62

  • Biological and evolutionary scientific discoveries of the 19th and 20th centuries allowed us to understand that human-kind is radically effecting ecology.
  • But the complexity and interconnection of current troubles reveals the limitations of these older scientific methods and mind frames.

Rooted in units and relations, especially competitive relations, the sciences of the Modern Synthesis, for example, population genetics, have a hard time with four key biological domains: embryology and development, symbiosis and collaborative entanglements of holobionts and holobiomes, the vast worldings of microbes, and exuberant critter biobehavioral inter- and intra-actions.” p 62 – 63

  • Haraway reiterates the two main limiting mind frames of the Modern Synthesis – thinking in terms of units (individuals) and competition.
  • She lists four areas of biological discovery which these ways of thinking cannot adequately deal with.
    • embryology and development – it has become increasingly clear that the idea that DNA is an instruction code/the building block for life is a simplication. (see for example this article on epigenetics.)
    • symbiosis and collaborative entanglements … – for example those mentioned on this week’s web-pages: gut micro-flora, healthy soil.
    • worldings of microbes and exuberant critter … – see examples in the chapter and footnotes 10 and 11 in text.

Model – students including Justin Seale, Marissa Tripoli, Alex Zheng, Isaac.

A model is a work object; a model is not the same kind of thing as a metaphor or analogy. A model is worked, and it does work. A model is like a miniature cosmos, in which a biologically curious Alice in Wonderland can have tea with the Red Queen and ask how this world works, even as she is worked by the complex-enough, simple-enough world.” p63

  • In week 4 in the context of Gaia and earth system science, we talked about climate models and earth system models – these are the kind of models, Haraway refers to here.
  • Models are always simplified abstractions, but neverless they may be useful in helping us understand crucial relationships and interconnections.
  • Haraway uses the book Alice in Wonderland as an analogy to suggest that the models we decide to use have an effect on the kind of experiments we can make and on our ability to think. It matters which models we make models with …
  • Bringing in the book also suggests that cultural productions might be models. In the webpage I asked if the movie Nausicaa could be a model: a place to work out possibilities and speculations.

Haraway then discusses biological models: species which are considered in some way typical and therefore useful for experiments that may generalize over other species. She argues that historically models have been chosen because they are good examples of autopoietic individuals. She makes the case for a new set of biological models, that will be more help in making sympoietic discoveries.

Squid-bacterial symbiosis – students including Andre J., Noah M , Ethan Murray, Eric, Mike M.

“The question here is not how animals hold themselves together at all, but rather, how they craft developmental patternings that take them through time in astonishing morphogeneses.” p66

  • One of her alternative model species is a squid-bacterial symbiosis.
  • What she wants to amaze us with is not the development of an individual, but the way intricate symbiosis can be necessary for the spatial organization of cells during development.

The sympoietic collaborations of squid and bacteria are matched by the sympoietic string figures across disciplines and methodologies, including genome sequencing, myriad imaging technologies, functional genomics, and field biology, which make symbiogenesis such a powerful framework for twenty first century biology.” p 66

  • She draws a connection between her complicated biological models and the need for complicated scientific collaborations.
  • She lists a number of scientific specialities which are needed to properly understand such symbioses.
  • symbiogenesis – is the work of symbiosis in the birth (genesis) of any species.
  • It’s a powerful framework because it specifically acknowledges symbiotic processes in the making of anthing from biological theory to political action to art.

‘”Rather, the orchid and its bee-pollinators are mutually constituted through a reciprocal capture from which neither plant nor insect can be disentangled . . . It is in encounters among orchids, insects, and scientists that we find openings for an ecology of interspecies intimacies and subtle propositions.“‘ Note this is quoted by Haraway on p 68 from Hustak and Myers, “Involutionary Momentum.” differences 23, no 3 (2012).

  • One more example of a symbiogenesis – the orchids and bees cannot reproduce/live without each other.
  • This kind of example suggests a new way of thinking about ecology which emphasizes complex relationships rather than simple explanations focusing on competition.
  • Contrast the way Haraway frames the orchid/bee relationship with this article on orchids as world-class liars.