The nature of humanity in the twenty-first century is, according to sociologist Steve Fuller, a ‘bipolar disorder’ beset with dualisms of identification such as divine/animal, mind/body, nature/artifice and individual/social. He notes that they have challenged our collective sense of identity as ‘human’, particularly though the operationalization of the mind/body question in new material configurations of metallic or silicon bodies .
In short, we are ‘becoming’ machines. Inventor Ray Kurzweil and performance artist Marcel Li Antunez Roca both explore this notion in their projections about the future of the human body. Yet ‘emergentist’ philosophers and scientists have challenged the mechanistic model of matter since the late 18th and early 19th century. They propose another way of understanding the organization of matter , without resorting to the customary mechanist  – vitalist  dichotomy . Observations from the biological and chemical sciences demonstrate that substances frequently do not behave in a manner that can be explained as the simply ‘sum’ of their components. For example, the addition of an acid and an alkali creates salt and water, while the fusion of an ovum and spermatozoon produces a conceptus. These are transformational rather than additional processes, which resist simple, mechanical interpretations.
Charlie Dunbar Broad first characterized these ‘emergent laws’, which underpin our current understanding of complex systems . Recently, Jane Bennett has reflected on the human body through a political discourse that is imagined through complex systems . She argues that the active participation of human and non-human forces in events creates a new political theory of ‘vibrant materialism’ . Using Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of ‘assemblages’  as framework through which materials and people can meaningfully interact, Bennett extends the realms of the ‘human’ into an ecological context. This changes the ordering of the body from being a mechanical system composed of discreet, uniformly ‘human’ parts, into a messy grouping of different bodies and actants. These can act as a unifying whole while coherently changing their composition by assimilating new actants, or re-ordering their composition, as ecosystems do. When human bodies are read through this political framework of ‘vibrant materiality’ they are not absolute structures, but dynamic ecologies that are arguably more fluid and shape-shifting than Donna Haraway’s ‘cyborg’ .
A. Hans Scheirl’s animated film ‘Dandy Dust’ encapsulates the new kind of human body that Bennett implies. The main character is split in two individual selves – ‘Dandy’ and ‘Dust’ – that exist between multiple worlds and genders. As the film progresses the narrative is further complicated by the emergence of other characters that bizarrely arise from different aspects of the protagonist. Artist Shinito also explores the idea of shifting human/non-human bodies through a character that becomes infected and symbiotically transformed by a colony of slime mould, which integrates his body with an extended, living ecology.
Another artist, Jae Rhim Lee, proposes to complete the cycle of human ecologies in her ‘Infinity Burial Project’. She suggests that a unique strain of edible mushroom would be suitable to decompose the postmortem human body, and remediate the toxins that have accumulated in the individual’s tissue, taking them out of the food chain. Her work explores the best way to achieve this through the development of a decomposition ‘kit’ and a membership society devoted to the cultivation of decomposing organisms. Bennett uses real-world, physiological examples to embody the politics of ‘vibrant materiality’. For example, she describes the act of eating to explain how the human body is not a unitary entity but a group of participating systems. When these cooperate they result in transformation, which produces a greater effect than the sum of the individual performance of its actants.
Specifically, our food is transformed into active chemistry through the collaboration of our gut flora with secretions from our bodies. Digested chemicals then pass into our blood stream and create changes in our behaviour as different tissues assimilate them for example, by altering our mood, or even the way we smell. When undigested food residue passes through our bodies we can choose whether or not we continue to nurture an intimate relationship with it. We might decide to recycle the expelled residue and bacteria as compost, or to find use for it, perhaps as ‘wattle & daub’ for building material. Today the convention is to use modern sewage systems that prevent our bodily waste from re-entering our local ecologies.
Although ‘vibrant materiality’ may initially appear to have unlimited connectivity, it is actually constrained and edited by individual choices. People may alter the composition of their bodies by changing the ‘actants’ that constitute their unique human ecology by, for example, choosing to eat different foodstuffs that make them smarter, or happier. They may even nurture unique ecologies that confer an evolutionary advantage such as incorporating telecommunications devices into their living spaces that increase behavioural effectiveness. People may even decide just how far (through the agency of their associated ‘actants’) they can directly influence the ecology of the entire planet by recycling material, using renewable energy or growing food locally. In this context next nature may serve as a framework that enables people to use culture and technology to replace our current mechanical practices with ecological ones.
1. Fuller, S. (2011) Humanity 2.0. What it means to be human past, present and future. Palgrave Macmillan, ISBN 9–780230–233430, p 5.
2. The nature of matter is relevant to the understanding of ‘human’ bodies as it is the shared substance of Nature from which all life arises.
3. The mechanistic view of the world was a consequence of Rene Descartes notion that the body was separate from the mind being comprised of a finite, material substance whose essence could be reduced into expression of solid geometry. Rene Descartes (1639) Meditations V, Oeuvres De Descartes, 11 vols., edited by Charles Adam and Paul Tannery, Paris: Librairie Philosophique J. Vrin, 1983.
4. Vitalists believe that living organisms are fundamentally different from non-living entities because they contain some non-physical element or are governed by different principles than are inanimate things. This is usually an ephemeral force such as, a fluid or ‘spirit’. The modern day equivalent to vitalism is intelligent design in which ‘design’ is the equivalent to an ephemeral substance.
5. James Shapiro calls the modern version of these oppositional, irresolvable positions which typically occurs between ‘creationists’ (vitalists) and ‘evolutionists’ (mechanists) a ‘dialogue of the deaf’.
6. A system comprised of a (usually large) number of (usually strongly) interacting entities, processes, or agents, the understanding of which requires the development, or the use of, new scientific tools, nonlinear models, out-of equilibrium descriptions and computer simulations.” Richards, D., B.D. McKay, and W.A. Richards .”Collective choice and mutual knowledge structures.” Advances in Complex Systems. Vol. 1, pp. 221-236.
7. Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Durham 2010.
8. ‘Vital materialism’ is distinct from ‘vitalism’ in that recognises the agency of matter without recourse to an ephemeral force.
9. Assemblages are informal groupings of diverse ‘actants’, a term used by Bruno Latour to describe a source of action that can be human or non-human, that create their effects through collaboration and emergence. Latour, B (1996) On Actor Network Theory: A Few Clarifications, Soziale Welt47,4, 369-81.
10. ‘A cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction.’ Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century”. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women. New York: Routledge, 1991. p.149.
Rachel Armstrong is a TEDGlobal Fellow, and a Teaching Fellow at at The Bartlett School of Architecture, in England.
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