Rot and decay and compost bring us back to the beginning of living things through the end of living things (and to fungus too). The continuity of nature again isn’t harmonious and large chunks of nature (like the fungal) were long treated as not worthy of study or care.

Merlin Sheldrake’s new book goes into this in quite some detail as does other texts by figures such as Anna Tsing and Nicholas Money. Bergson notably called mushrooms the aborted children of the plant world. As agents of rot mushroom are of course weirdly more recognized by their above ground protrusions (sexual organs) and less acknowledged as massively distributive systems (connecting other species and making soil out of more solid inorganic material and decomposing organics).

In part because fungus lives beneath the earth and just above it they have particularly complex relationships with insects in particular – and there is the prevailing theory that hallucinogens in fungus evolved to deter insects from eating them. Though some mycologists like Sheldrake say this is not too convincing as it does not appear to work so well though many species of fungus evolved it independently.

Continue reading ‘Dispatches to Massia – This Compost’

Moynihan’s book sets out to be a hypergeneaology. Classical genealogy questions the fundamental structures of human history that claim to be the result of rational arguments – ‘capitalism is widespread and robust because it works so well’ (Marx says no) – ‘western civilization is so advanced because we have mastered our own minds (Freud says no) – ‘everyone has a stable sexual identity’ (Foucault says hold on a sec). In general genealogy is about see what is taken to be reasonable, good, or dominant as being the result of contingent history – as also with Nietzsche Christian morality is not necessarily better than other forms its just worked really well for justifying the domination of others but it pretends to be more advanced or more reasonable.

While classical geneaology then sets up a counter narrative using different reasons and vaules to show the historical contingency of the dominant structures of human life, Moynihan’s hypergeneaology is an almost paranoid extension of this – rather than looking for better explanations it is just a wild version of always looking deeper for stranger and stranger causes in place of reasons – the deeper rather than the better.

Continue reading ‘Dispatches to Massia – Cervical Prospectus’

There’s a particularly weird but important episode in the history of biology which involves the picture above. If I could have been in massia in person the idea would have been to do some paper crafts to try and make this comparison (between a vertebrate and an invertebrate easily to visualize). In 1830, spurred on by a paper by some younger biologists, the anatomist Geofrroy St Hilare suggested that there was a one body plan for all animals, there was a limited number of parts that were simply rearranged to make each animal. Geoffroy argued that this ‘unity of plan’ meant that there were no extreme differences between the so-called kingdoms of animals, the divisions between mammals and reptiles or vertebrates and invertebrates (spined and spineless) were not ‘real’, they were just our way of classifying the arrangements of parts.

Continue reading ‘Dispatches to Massia – Tentacular Life’

Why dimensionality of nature?

Nature (in my head anyways) is a continuous field of forces (gravitational, chemical, biological, electrical etc). In spirit, this is not so far off from the over used hippy/ecological mantra – ‘everything is connected.’ But the difference is the emphasis on the word ‘thing.’ I think there are limits to thinking nature or ecology in terms of things or as relations or connections between things.

This is mostly because things (whether stones or butterflies or plutonium dust) are the result of a combination of forces. This could be seen as reductive – that to say a squirrel is a chemical reaction with a tail is mean or denies its interior experience or its actions and reactions in the world. But this is only reductive if you saw an organism as only that or if that explanation is seen as a formal classification made by rationally privileged humans. One seems trapped between saying humans are too powerful (reducing a living thing to this or that force) or are delusional and are merely sticking labels on things without any real consequence.

Part of why I like talking about nature in terms of dimensionality (as not only the shape of a thing but the shape of how it moves and lives) is that it emphasizes the forces at work not only in a thing, and in the act of thinking it, but also points to how even what we talk to be formal (measuring, labeling, classifying) is itself grounded in and soaked in the processes and forces of nature. Or in other words using dimensionality is an attempt to split the difference between reduction and description.

Continue reading ‘Dispatch to Massia – Intro’

There was a wonderful moment where the astronomer Carl Sagan said “if you wish to make an apple pie from scratch you must first invent the universe.” The joke of course being that nothing made from scratch (made without assistance) is really made from nothing, but that all forms of making (or baking) involve stuff that already exists.

Of course we normally understand that ‘from scratch’ does not mean making something out of literally nothing but making something without prepared ingredients or without ready at hand materials. Making something ‘from scratch’ can remind us of the processes involved in creating something that are often forgotten (because it’s prepackaged or because someone else did it for us). But this sets up a very familiar and comfortable relationship between nature and culture – it makes it easy to see nature as raw material that only comes into our view when we need it for our own ends (goals, desires, etc).

We are far from knowing the universe in detail and even further from creating one, but culture is a way of bracketing that problem. Culture is a human-centered universe that allows us to pat ourselves on the back for everything we create in our own little cosmos: we can say we became historical-cultural-technology all at once in a speculative past.

Another way to think ‘making things from scratch’ is the distinction between prehistory and history – a distinction that often utilizes the birth of culture (maybe marked by the appearance of cave art or the invention of writing) as the starting point of history ‘proper.’ Advocates of deep history have been pushing against this division for some time – insisting that biology, geology, environment have to be seen as historical actors.

Continue reading ‘Dispatches to Massia – Deboleena Roy’

invasion-of-the-body-snatchers-the-township-chase1

In the last post I ended with the problem that biopolitics has to acknowledge a constructive aspect of public health that is not merely control of a vital impulse nor a collapse of the science of biology and the control technologies of governments. One concept that is important in this tension is that of population. (I am setting aside the economic-demographic notion though not completely).

Population in biology has a complicated history but now tends to mean a spatial cluster of a particular species. This then begs the question of how does one define species as there is not an adequate definition though a group of individuals that can breed (which is Ernst Mayr’s definition) is quite common. Though as Godfrey-Smith and others have pointed out this is not uncomplicated.

Continue reading ‘What’s the Bio- in Biopolitics? (pt 3)’


p086bx5w

So last time I set up this progression:

1-Teleological (Kant, Blumenbach)

2-Functional (Cuvier, Bernard)

3-Organizational (Schelling, Herder)

4-Morphological (Goethe, Oken, St-Hilaire)

The bio-political (in the negative sense) of these could be:

1-Anthropological Racism (Races or Cultures are seen as more or less advanced)

2-Physiologies of Health (Disciplined body as ‘healthy’ productive body)

3-National Organicism (Healthy society is harmonious and homogeneous)

4-Monsters and Mistakes (Outsiders and mutations are an ‘error’ to be corrected)

As I wrote here, these clusters compact and rearrange themselves through the 19th century.

The constructive aspects of these clusters in a bio-political sense seems to be:

1-Life is goal oriented in a regional sense (Korsgaard)

2-Health is internal to the organism, not mapable onto an ideal form (Canguilhem)

3-Nature is self-organizational but across all layers (organic, inorganic, etc) (Schelling, Simondon, Ruyer)

4-Structure is contingent but directs contingency unexpectedly as it accumulates (Thom, Waddington)

I think we can look at the last two clusters in relation to Covid-19 in the following way. 

1-The virus is Chinese and/or a Chinese bio-weapon

2-The virus is from poor hygiene and ‘strange’ eating habits

3-The virus is nature’s revenge

4-The virus is a temporary bad flu

Continue reading ‘What’s the Bio- in Biopolitics (pt 2)’


377001_1_En_3_Fig2_HTML

Given Agamben’s recent gaff and some of the responses to it, it seems important to ask what is the bio- in biopolitics (as I ended the last post)? The problem is not only that certain trends in contemporary biology have dominated the popular perception of it (internal and external to the discipline itself) but also that biopolitics often has tighter alliances to lebensphilosophie or 20th century vitalism than to actual biology.

It also has become apparent that biopolitics was, at least in the ill-defined west, only a thin veneer on marketization of life. Data that could be used for public health was mostly just used to sell and advertise. Full-fledged biopolitics was thus too expensive and was just window dressing on already-existing ideologies (a means to control immigration, politicization of non-normative bodies etc).

Again as I already wrote about the fact that eugenics balked at the difficulty of actually tracking the traits they wished to promote meant that they used biological rhetoric but far less modern and pseudo-scientific concepts. The fact that the nazis embraced and then abandoned Darwinism for using blood as a marker of purity is one of the most clear cases of this.

Continue reading ‘What’s the Bio- in Biopolitics? (pt 1)’


Flattened Herds

16Mar20

Flattening the curve and herd immunity are terms that are being thrown around quite a bit during the last few days. The former refers to getting the number of cases down so that they do not overwhelm the carrying capacity of a given countries’ health care system while the latter refers to the notion that enough immune individuals protect the vulnerable through sheer numbers. As pointed out here the first makes dubious assumptions about what carrying capacity means as it is limited as much or more by objects (beds and ventilators) than by a general notion of how many patients can be treated by hospitals.

The notion of herd immunity has been trotted out by UK officials as a strategy to basically accept most people will get infected and that this will lead to a faster herd immunity. Of course, as many others have pointed out, this means risking the lives of all of those more susceptible until immunity occurs (and no one seems to be able to say how long that takes though adaptive immunity can occur in weeks). The phrase herd immunity usually refers to a population’s collective immunity post-vaccine not acquired by immune systems alone. In addition, viruses mutate faster then immune systems adapt (hence why flu shots have to be consistently re-engineered).

Obviously these dovetail in the event that you need humans to adjust and expand the carrying capacity of hospitals and produce and distribute the devices required (Germany for instance is utilizing the military to gather and distribute ventilators). And if you let 60-70% of a population get sick who is going to be able to isolate and protect the elderly, immuno-deficient etc.?

Continue reading ‘Flattened Herds’


F3.large

Reading through science studies, sts, history of science, and philosophy of science it is easy to lose all sense of what science is to the fields that attempt to study it. The multiplication of philosophy of fields of science (such as philosophy of chemistry or philosophy of biology) also begs the question of what is philosophy of science in a general form…does it make any sense to take about philosophy of science other than as a collection of types of theory applied to specific sciences?

Furthermore, the type of philosophy applied to any given science puts the field into narrower and narrower spaces as philosophy of science tends to mean analytic philosophy of science while continental philosophy of science is usually viewed as science and technology studies or sociology of science. The French tradition of continental philosophy of science is a partial exception (Koyre, Bachelard, Canguilhem etc) but it is more and more treated as a bygone form of post-war philosophy that transformed into a type of social constructivism (a la Latour).

If there was a general philosophy of science it would seem pulled between a general epistemology and a general metaphysics. But then immediately we can ask is this any different from epistemology and metaphysics as such? In the analytic context it would seem that the answer is ‘no’ but for the continental tradition it is ‘yes.’ Yet how this question can be answered in this split fashion relies upon a very different attitude towards the history of science and the conceptual consequences of that history vis a vis the disciplinary divide of philosophy from science.

Continue reading ‘Conceptual History of Biology (pt2)’




Categories