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Greater than the Sum of it's Parts
Transcript of Greater than the Sum of it's Parts
"Despite such pro-nature self-identifications, and perhaps even certain gestures that express concern for the natural world, the decision-maker[s] may nevertheless hold socially conditioned values of self-interest, self-gratification, personal status, individual needs, and personal good that dictate participation in a system that is ecologically destructive. The crucial problem is not that the agent overtly wills the domination of nature and affirms anthropocentric ideology, but rather that he or she abstracts an individual, egocentric conception of good from the larger system of social and ecological goods."
“The greatest respect we can pay to nature is not to trap it, but to acknowledge that it eludes us and that our own nature is also fluid, open, and conditional.”
Greater than the Sum of it's Parts
How can individuals envision a shift in how we approach our conception of 'nature'? How is this done without occupying pre-existing modes of thought that ignore their implicit involvement in the construction of a current environmental condition of crisis? How do these modes of thought inform how we proceed in developing 'green' initiatives and 'ecological' schemes?
To begin any change one must question the habits and conventions of our shared conceptual apparatuses. Embedded within these imposed structures of consciousness is a methodology of being; an ideological ontology which fabricates the capacity to negotiate our livelihood. It is my belief that the logic in which we fashion our metaphysical existence can be directly linked to our current environmental conflict; resource depletion, large-scale pollution, and the conciliation of 'natural' and 'urban' space, within the contemporary late-capitalist condition.
I am not alone in this belief, as this project will be an exploration of the many similar ideas of others, concerned with holistic and deeply ecological perspectives. I will be focusing on a few topics, namely:
The Phenomenon of Emergence
Consciousness of plant life
Actor Network Theory
Holism and Interconnectivity
Symbiosis, and Symbiogenesis
The activity of Fungi
Alterity, the 'Other', and Posthumanism
Nagarjuna, conventional reality,
and lived practice
Emergence and Consciousness
The notion of complexity and emergence was instrumental in challenging the limits of the Newtonian paradigm, a dominant formalism that dictated our perception of the mechanical nature of organic life. It is a continuous process that involves flourishing complexity and vast divergence. Not to be confused with the public imagination of 'chaos' theories (butterflies making tsunamis across the world, etc), emergent characteristics are highly organizational.
Examples of this phenomenon include the seemingly self-organizational biology of life, as atoms combine to create molecules, chains that fold to form proteins, then cells, tissue, organs, and so forth until their interaction and spatial conformation create the complex animal organisms which we are familiar with. Emergence is also commonly experienced in the fractal re-iterative characteristics of weather and plants. These natural systems produce emergent behaviour by means of exponential and actively aggregative patterns.
Examples of emergent behaviour and fractal growth.
(from top left to bottom right)
Ferns, Romanesco Brocolli, Snowflakes, Tree branches, Blood Vessels, Rivers, Atmospheric vortices, Flocking Birds, Conus shell, and a Termite mound.
The mind is arguably the ultimate
exemplar of emergence; the seemingly
simple function of our brains neurons,
relaying electrical messages between synapses,
One might recognize particular trends in these examples of emergence in 'nature', namely the descriptive qualities of organization, hierarchy, or 'natural' underlying laws that govern and enable complex processes. These categorical distinctions have a logical predisposition to favor descriptive homogeneity, insinuating that all biological life obeys the systematic structural qualities of human concepts. However, since we are, arguably, bound to the structure of communicative concepts, let us look at how we can utilize them to open our understanding outside of their parameters; namely to open ourselves to the notion of consciousness in plants.
In Leibniz's highly conceptual 'Monadology', a plant is said to have attributes of a 'shared consciousness'; everything in the world is said to be composed of an infinite number of 'monads', each of which has the quality of a subjective 'perception' that is common across all boundaries of living beings. Plants are discussed as a type of life form, that exhibit a perceptive ability that is shared among humans and animals. We can catch this in ourselves when we perceive things outside of the purview of our direct attention. Anything that is not at the fore of our consciousness is considered an unconscious thought, the quality of which is attributed to the perception of plants. However if we conceive of this without the hierarchical authority, or utilitarian purpose ascribed to the varying stratums of consciousness, then plants life can be said
to be equally as conscious to human animals; a consciousness
of a different 'comportment'. For Leibniz, all organic matter
is teeming with life, and there is no complete
absence of perception for any organism in the world.
Author Daniel Chamovitz also invites us to think of the conscious sensory world of plant life. Plants have unique perceptive qualities that interpret light, odour, sound, memory and tactility. For instance, the way plants interact with light is highly developed, naturally informing their self-sustaining behaviour of photosynthesis. Much of flora have sensitive photo-receptors that perceive wavelengths that humans cannot, including accurately discerning wavelength intensities and storing memory of the spatial and temporal characteristics of light.
Actor Network Theory
In Bruno Latour's work of Actor Network Theory, the author diverges from an anthropocentric lens to adopt a more versatile ontology that does not privilege the behaviours of social networks comprised of individual human actors. It suggest a semiotic-materialism, that is, a type of systems approach to both behavioural and material translations, denoting a continuous performative quality of any and all types of 'actors' involved. Latour reinvents spatial configurations that dissolve traditionally distinctive notions in an effort to circumvent the binaries of prior spatial metaphors. Our understanding of relationships is imagined as no longer a conflict between the micro and marco, distance and proximity, outside and inside, local and global, or society and nature. All actors in this network topology are necessarily actants, a semiotic definition with no sociocentric human agenda. Anything and everything, provided it is granted or is a source of action, is actant, and it is the whole entity itself that inscribes a process of 'being', not a modernist conception of fixed knowledge or inert matter in the hands of others. In this sense it is a methodology that does not discriminate along traditional network boundaries, for instance, a network of plants separate from a network of humans. In the words of Holmes Rolston,
a significant contributor to the work of environmental ethics: "the system is a web where loci of intrinsic value are meshed in a network of instrumental value" With this understanding we may begin to approach the complexities
of ecological systems, that are not isolated in the pathetic
fallacy that exhibits itself in both the criticism and
explication of processes of
holism and emergence.
Holism is a philosophy that requires natural systems to be viewed as a whole, where each individual part cannot be meaningfully isolated and examined separately. This runs contrary to a view of knowledge defined as atomism, which seeks to analyze solitary units and discuss their relationships to each other, independently. Similar to Spinoza's conception of the holistic substrate of nature, all organisms are entangled in a quantum co-productive dialogue with an unpredictable whole being. This notion is dramatically crucial in a historical moment where the objectification of flora positions human interest and consequence in segregation to the inter-relational aspects of all entities. Even the linguistic concept of 'flora' or 'nature' is itself a proponent of the cartesian project of examining and dividing the world into smaller categories of matter in the pursuit of knowledge.
Symbiogenesis is a response to the obviously prejudiced competitive, and predatory methodology of "othering" (informing early instantiations of capitalism), that instead suggests that evolution is largely a cooperative process, in which symbiosis instigates this fundamental change in all life on earth. Symbiogenesis is a mutualistic relationship between organisms - be it persistent, facultative, or temporary - where complexities and difference in evolutionary patterns develop. This, often long term, interaction between species or organisms, was first described in the late 19th century German mycologist Heinrich Aton de Bary. There are many types of symbiosis, two common examples of which are bacterial culture that aids animal/human digestion, and the mutualism of clown fish and sea anemones. This process can also be perceived in the interdependent co-evolution of all eukaryotes, as a result of symbiosis between varying bacterial organisms. Eukaryotes are single or multi-cellular organisms with DNA structured genetic material, in the form of chromosomes (nucleic acid, protein, and genetic information), that comprise a large spectrum of life including animals/humans, plants and fungi.
Symbiogenesis is an alternate theory to biological transformation that argues for evolutionary flourishing in conditions of biodiversity, where organisms display the adaptive ability to exist cooperatively in complex relationships. This challenges prior notions of competitive Darwinian evolutionary selection. The evolutionary model proposed by Charles Darwin was highly influenced by a plethora of cultural, economic, historical and class conditions. Science, as we know it, is after all an institution that creates knowledge and meaning, contingent upon many other social institutions. In many ways it embodies a socially sanctioned predisposition for unbiased objectivity, securing it's practice as a standard of truth. However, in the case of Darwinian evolution, it is critical to note that much of Darwin's ideas, natural selection/survival of the fittest in particular, echo the political and economic work of Thomas Malthus, a late 18th century clergyman and economist. Malthus proposed, in his 'Essay on Population', a strict control of the poor, suggesting that government see to it that they would not breed and create social unrest. This ideology of population management was adopted as a means to explicate the theory that the more powerful, efficient, superiorly designed organisms (the dominant class, of which Darwin was a part of) were better equipped to adapt to the struggle of evolution than the inferior organisms (the poor or lower class). Thus in the universal antagonism of evolution, where more organisms were born than could survive and reproduce, the 'fittest' were 'naturally selected' to leave behind more offspring.
Darwin and Ideology
Activity of Fungi
It is estimated that 80% of vascular plants form symbiotic
relationships with fungi, allowing certain plants and trees to move
resources (such as nitrogen and carbon) from the air into the soil, and
through the soil to other trees. This effectively allows plants and trees to
fertilize soil and conduct negotiations of light, nutrients, water and energy that support the survival and growth of smaller trees or plants. This cooperative behaviour of flora is largely assisted by the reciprocal aid of it's fungal allies. Fungi act as a facilitatory interface between the cells of different trees roots, providing fungal cells with nutrition which successively allow fungi to continue connecting other trees to it's web of communication.
Fungi enable the transference of carbon and nutrients (typically from old growth trees) through the respective trees root systems in order to aid a diversity of younger trees species to develop. As Suzanne Simard contends, these forest ecosystems are metaphysically related in their mutual communicative exchanges, building upon each and organizing multiplicity and diversification. This ecological variation is crucial to the resilience of any forest against natural disasters, in that it's biological scope of difference enhances the possibility of surviving species following an environmental trauma. British Columbian forestry initiatives ignores the ecological sustainability of old growth trees, by not accounting for the
process in which dying trees slowly move resources into younger
living trees before they collapse.
The western historical lineage of biological duality, from Aristotle's plant-animal distinction to the categorical development of the Kingdoms Plantae and Animalia, perpetuate the illusion that plant life and animal/human life are divisible and separate. The cooperative, jointly advantageous components to symbiosis and symbiogenesis will be further explored and interpreted through the relations between trees and fungi.
Alterity is a historical subjugation along colonial frontiers, a cultural construction superimposed by european philosophical demand. A history of modern thought instigated a theoretical dualism, a conceptual apparatus of oppositional indices that is largely responsible for the presiding methodology of acquiring knowledge about the world. It assumes the human intellect to be indicative of a self-contained subject, one which experiences the world as an arena of objective phenomenon that is separate from the perceiver. This distinctive pairing of subjects and objects perpetuates itself throughout this cultural discourse, structuring a logic of language and knowledge that polarizes 'us' and 'them', 'good' and 'evil/bad', 'man' and 'woman', 'society' and 'human' and 'non-human'.
What is problematic is the
hierarchical distinction inherent within
the dichotomy, due to the way in which one term
is always privileged over the other. This paradigmatic
societal practice creates an exclusion of that which it subordinates, by forming and sustaining boundaries through admittance and segregation. The 'Other' created is thus subjugated in a process that justifies domination, exploitation, and subordination to imperialist objectives, emphasizing the "Other's" weakness or need for intervention. What is 'othered' is conceived of as foreign, objectified, discrete and divorced from the I, us, or we. This "othering" extends throughout many conditions of livelihood, from human and human (race, class, gender, age, culture, etc.) to human and non-human interactions (species, nature, sentience, evolution, biology, etc.).
In terms of plant life, this conceptual polarity subjugates plants and ecology to the logic of the colonizer/colonized, to maximize exploitation, profit, and thus destruction of ecological
'resources', while justifying this domination by means of
distinguishing these organic beings
Mycelial channels link two trees,
facilitating a transference of nutrients.
Emergent properties or behaviours are perceived as a result of a collective operation of individual agents. Occasionally, qualities of emergence are predictable but they are often irreducibly complex and cannot be inferred from the behaviour or properties of the individual agents involved.
Alterity and the "Other"
A commodification of life, or biocapitalism,
is a systematic exploitation of humanity and nature,
with it's pinnacle in the transnational corporate capital,
mass-consumerism of and by nation states, and a globalized society of domination by political, economic, military, technological and ideological violence. Humans, non-human animals, plants and ecology are all discernibly interwoven and connected in the wake of it's 'othering' purge. For instance, human abuses and environmental destruction often go hand in hand as has been demonstrated by recent indigenous-led challenges to environmental crisis with respect to colonial genocide.
Posthumanism is a comprehensive and transformational praxis; one that
aims to be exhaustive in it's ontological inclusion of all perspectives. Much like the rhizomatic configuration, it is also decentralized, dynamic, and shifting; evading and critiquing fixed definitions, objective knowledge, and universal truths. Not to be confused with Transhumanism, which has a cultural tendency to favour literal machine-human hybrids, within the politically conservative context of technological mastery over nature (Giraud). Transhumanist discourse in inclined to suggest that technology can be framed solely by it's ability to enhance human capacity and existence, without consideration for a holistic responsibility that technology inevitably warrants. Due to an overlap in similar terminology, the Posthumanist dialogue is contentious and highly debated, as it is also recognized that despite it's theoretical desire to diverge from anthropocentrism it is still theorized by humans within it's respective human communicative constraints (Ferrando).
However, it is imperative to recognize that Posthumanism, in it's praxis, does not simply call upon the dismantlement and deconstruction of notional modern binaries but generates an opening in which even the fabricated chasm between theory and practice is questioned. Hence it's contingency and liminality within a multiplicity of discourses; a spectrum of processes, narratives and possibility where no 'species' has epistemological or ontological primacy. Posthumanism will challenge the integrity of said categorical distinctions, through a combination of theory and lived practice. This even involves confronting the notion and existence of the 'human', as it is
understood that no 'human' alone can account for the entirety
of 'human' experience.
Nagarjuna, Conventional reality and lived experience
There are many different schools of Buddhist philosophy, where elements of tradition and teaching are fashioned by their respective cultural developments. Appropriations of buddhist enlightenment, much like any narrative, have always been subject to societal norms and historical context; enduring thousands of years of interpretation. It was not long after the inscription of the Buddha's proclamations that buddhism began to take it's shape as an ascetic system of dogmatic formalism. As a response to this phenomenon a reformation ensued with the intent of de-reifying what was becoming the increasingly religious doctrine of Buddhism. This reconfiguration of tradition was generated through the critique of a 1st century Indian philosopher known as Nagarjuna. Notably the second most influential buddhist philosopher, Nagarjuna set out to deconstruct the conventions of buddhism through a methodology of negative dialectics and 'emptiness'. Through a rigorous process of negational 'tetrilemmas' (not X, not-not Y, not X and Y, not-neither X nor Y) one could uncover the chimera of 'conventional' truths; meaning the illusions of a permanent and unified self or substance based world. One central ramification of this process is the awareness of dependent/interdependent origination; conceptually understood as the relational existence of all things, lacking a singular origination or originator.
In the case of ecological and environmental issues, within the
context of impermanence, 'value' is irrelevant. This is not to suggest
that there is good reason to ignore abuse or to exploit the environment
for our own ends, but rather that there is a considerably greater appreciation
for all life that is not merely value based. This is intrinsically related to our conceptual habits of attempting to significantly isolate experiences within objective, value-based psychological, epistemological, historical and cultural constructions. Value must be judged in a hierarchy of "things" and according to Nagarjuna, "things" do not exist (or are 'empty') because they are not dissociative of our experience. A "thing" is of 'conventional' reality - only existing in our fabricated delusion, isolated in language and in thought - as no "thing" truly exists independent of a conditional flux. The idea of the emptiness of "things", and a dismissal of anthropomorphic value classification, can be severely misinterpreted, positing, for instance, that humans are part of the greater whole of 'nature' and thus their actions are 'natural'. In coalescence with the 'emptiness' of reality, this may also perpetuate an exploitative ethos that disrupts and destroys the global climate, ecosystems, and species; all the while "deferring our actions to our desires and taking no responsibility for them" (Sieg 14). This is a cardinal rift between Nagarjuna's reflections and the fallacious metaphysics of an ego-centric and logocentric fixation of the dominant western perspective. It prevents one's consciousness from an extension towards all ecological beings or communities and produces an inability to see that there are not simply ecological 'problems' but rather 'ontological conditions'. It is not uncommon for us to only look at the symptoms of environmental decay and degradation instead of reformulating the manner in which we conceptually create the 'world',
inevitably prioritizing acquisitive values over environmental
Nagarjuna's thought is necessarily concerned with the Earth and all it's beings. The fundamentally interconnected ontology of dependent origination necessarily includes an ethics, one devoid of westernized human privilege, as it does not imply an objective or objectifying means of knowledge. Everything is conditional, and both experience and entities lack 'substantiality', in the sense that what 'exists' cannot be pinned down, but is rather in a flux of continuously 'coming-into-existence'. This metaphysical approach is that which ultimately critiques what is described as 'conventional' reality; the shared delusion of categorical dichotomies (the difference between animals and humans, the civilized and nature, etc), substance based independent individualism, and the prominent self-entity. In avoiding the view of a permanent self one is compelled to also avoid notions of ownership, superiority/inferiority and anthropocentric 'value' theories.
The conceptual process of Nagarjuna's negative dialectics eradicates the reification and thus domination of life in all its
being, creating an absence where experience can be vulnerable to that which is experienced. The analogy of mistaking the abstract categorizations of 'conventional' reality for reality itself is illustrated in the Zen metaphor of mistaking a finger that points to the moon for the moon itself (Bai). The negative critique must also be involved in a praxis, that is to say a transformative power of engaged living practice which is not mired in the cynical egoism of abstract intellect. This lived practice is a method of embodying the relational reality of environmental ethics and philosophy, one which does not seek technical or political solutions and interventions so long as they are still participants within an ideological framework of absolutest value interest. In the negation of 'conventional' truths one is empowered in their acknowledgement of the impalpability and multiplicity of being, breaking the division between 'subject' and 'object', 'I' and 'Other' with undivided attention to the tremendous psychic energy of the world. All of the theory must be lived and experienced in it's animate vitality to sincerely know the error of "such pathological
behaviour … treating the world as if
it had no life of it's own"(Bai).
A diagrammatic example of evolutionary emergence within a 'Holon'. The term 'Holon', coined by Hungarian author Arthur Koestler, is the philosophical notion of a self-organizing, dissipative entity that exists simultaneously as a whole and a part; a living organism and a social organization. A 'Holarchy' is the structural that discloses the complimentary, concurrent and intrinsic value within
the holistic realms of living beings.
I would like to take this opportunity
to pivot off holistic notions that imply
an irreducible ontology of multiple forms of life without an anthropocentric, and in this sense homogenous, agenda. If one can break with the dualistic tendencies of descriptive analysis, a novel awareness of our relation with all of the natural world can be explored. It is my intent to foster a discourse of new perspectives in how we conceive of our relation to plant life, animal life, and ourselves; encouraging us to abandon what we believe is known, and consider instead both the realms of the unknown, and the “unknown known” (Zizek).
With respect to the UrbanForest project, it is my hope that my contribution encourages a space for discourse, to acknowledge the significance of biological diversity, to question our relation to the shared consciousness of plant life, to harbour an holistic environmental ethics, to eradicate oppressive and privileged binaries, and to be in consistent dialogue with the means in which we conceptually frame the world. For it is in this "repeated
consolidation in undoing" (Spivak 1123) and re-becoming where activity emerges. Interrelated behaviour which is unceasingly
greater than the sum of it's parts.
sources and relevant texts
What Rumsfeld Doesn't Know That He Knows About Abu Ghraib
. In These Times. May 21, 2004.
No Nature: New and Selected Poems.
New York: Pantheon Books. 1992. Print.
On Being None With Nature: Nagarjuna and the Ecology of Emptiness.
Capitalism Nature Socialism. Routledge. Vol. 19, Iss. 4, 2008.
Sieg, Petra (Tara).
Buddhism and the Earth: Environmental Thought in Early Buddhist Philosophy
. Ontario: Brock University. 2004.
Zen Aesthetics and Animated Perception: Excerpts from Bai, H Learning from Zen arts: A lesson in intrinsic valuation.
Journal of the Canadian Association for Curriculum Studies, 1(2), 1 - 14. 2003.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorti.
Who Claims Alterity.
1989. in Harrison, Charles, and Paul Wood. Art in Theory. Oxford: Blackwell, 1992. Print.
Lewontin, Richard C.
Biology as Ideology: The Doctrine of DNA.
Toronto: House of Anansi. 2011. Print.
Posthuman Politics Under Biocapitalism.
Interview by Samuel Grove. New Left Project. Web. 25 April 2013
Towards a Posthumanist Methodology. A Statement
. in Narrating Posthumanism. Frame, 25.1, Utrecht University. May 2012,
Edgar, Tricia. Talking Trees: Real Life Ents Cooperate with Each Other. Decoded Science. Web. 14 June 2011.
Prof. Suzanne Simard Talks about 'Mother Trees'
. Excerpt from UBC Reports. Vol 57. N. 7. UBC Faculty of Forestry. Vancouver. Web. 16 May 2011.
an integral interpretation of the scientific story of our origins.
SelectBooks, New York. 2012. Web. 2012.
On Actor Network Theory: A Few Clarifications.
Centre for Social Theory and Technology (CSTT), Keele University, UK. Web 1998.
Thinking the Form, Flesh, and Flow of the World : Ecoculture, Geophilosophy, Mediapolitics - blog.uvm.edu/aivakhiv
On Being None With Nature: Nagarjuna and the Ecology of Emptiness - www.cnsjournal.org/articles/Dec%202008/Clark.19.4.Dec.08.doc
IDLENOMORE: Worldwide grassroots, indigenous, solidarity advocacy group, opposing unilateral & colonial legislation - idlenomore.ca
And finally, the emergent property that
is central to this section, Consciousness.
exemplifies a physical and procedural behavior from which consciousness is associated. Even without the somewhat reductive material analogy of the mind as emergent of the brain, all organisms with the capacity for sociability (even at the cellular level) are living assemblages of 'simpler' activity, involved in a process of creating representations of their domain/conditions that enable themselves (and the systems that arise therefrom) to globally react to a respective environment; of which
we may often ignore.
Classical Tibetan: "for whom emptiness is possible"
Classical Tibetan: "for those everything is possible"
The emergence of consciousness.