6. Time And Autopoiesis: The Organism has No Future
There was a critical scene that was narrated frequently in the theory-frenzied years of the 1980s, operating as an often-invoked tableau that would awaken us from our literalist slumbers. The child faces the mirror, jubilantly rejoicing in the image of his unity :
This scene captured the predicament of misrecognition: the self is not the naturally bounded organism (a thing within the world), but a site of desires, relations, drives, fantasies and projections that cannot possess the coherence of a body. There is a radical disjunction between the subject, who is nothing more than an effect of its relation to an other whom it cannot read, and the self, ego or individual that we imagine ourselves to be. It is the body as bounded organism, centred on a looking face whose gaze can be returned by the mirror, that not only represses the chaotically dispersed and relational manner of our existence; it also operates as a figure of reading. We read other bodies as though they harboured a sense or interior meaning that might be disclosed through communication, and we read texts as though they operated like bodies—as well-formed wholes possessing a systemic logic, the sense of which might become apparent (Felman 1987). In this respect the Lacanian notion of Imaginary meconnaissance—where we live the decentred and dispersed incoherence of the symbolic order as some illusory whole—repeats a criticism of the organism that goes back as far (at least) as Husserlian phenomenology. For Husserl it was quite natural to regard oneself as a thing among things, but that ‘natural attitude’ concealed the true nature of the subject: a subject who is not a thing but the condition through which things are given (Husserl 1965). Husserl, here, radicalized Kant’s distinction between subject and body. For Kant, I know and experience myself as a body within the world, but I can only do so only because of the transcendental subjectivity that is not itself spatial or temporal. Kantian ethics, and the liberal tradition that follows from it, relies on this distinction between the natural self, that may be an object of calculation and science, and the subject that can neither be known nor predicated. In the absence of any knowledge or experience of the subject, selves can be given only through the procedures and decisions that they inaugurate. For Husserl, Kant did not go far enough in his distinction between subject and body, for it is not only the case that the subject in itself cannot be known or experienced as a thing within this world; the subject is the very origin of the world (Fink 1970). There can be no sense, givenness, time or being outside the event of transcendental synthesis. Although Heidegger would place more emphasis on Being’s disclosure, regarding the subject as a clearing for the event of revealing, he also was highly critical of mistaking Dasein (a disclosing relation) for das Man (a psycho-physical body) (Heidegger 1996). This, indeed, was Heidegger’s criticism of humanism. In a typically Heideggerian manner, Heidegger locates a moment of philosophical opacity and forgetting in a transition from Greek to Latin, from legein and logos or ‘speaking about’ to logic, or some preceding system through which the world would be ordered. Since the Roman understanding of humanitas, man has been understood as an organism with an additional capacity of reason (Heidegger 1998). The problem with humanism, for Heidegger, is not that it defines ‘man’ as a special or privileged being, but that it still defines man as a being. Man is not a being or thing, and he is certainly not a foundational being that would enable us to explain all other beings. A phenomenology of ‘social construction’ would, from a Heidegerian point of view at least, not be phenomenology at all; for it would merely have placed one more being—man—as the ground of all other beings, without asking how man himself appears. Taking up phenomenology in France, Sartre insisted on the radical transcendence of the ego: there is being on the one hand, which simply is ‘in itself’, and then the relation of difference to that being which can never (authentically) be experienced or lived other than as nothingness, as the negation of what simply is (Sartre 1957). Bergson, despite his difference from phenomenology, also criticised the ways in which the efficient intellect would reduce all its complex experiences into stable objects; this reifying process was perfectly appropriate for non-living beings but a disaster when turned back upon the human knower himself who then experienced himself as just one more thing among things (Bergson 1931).
Whereas Husserl, Bergson, Sartre and Heidegger lamented (and aimed to correct) a history of philosophy that had mistaken the subject who was not a thing for the human body, psychoanalysis acknowledged that the condition of misrecognition is irreducible. There is a tendency towards ‘organic thinking’ captured in Lacan’s notion of the Imaginary; we are Oedipal insofar as we consider ourselves as self-bounded bodies lamentably subjected to condition of difference. We imagine a form of bodily integrity that has been subjected to some prohibiting system or law; what we fail to recognise is that the bounded unity of the body is a figural lure that precludes us from recognizing that we are nothing more than an ongoing, dispersed and ex-centric condition of speaking being that can neither be localized nor experienced beyond law and language. (Deleuze and Guattari will not challenge Lacan’s reading of the tendency of the human organism towards privatization, or to regarding the world of difference and relations as a nightmarish beyond. They will however write a genealogy of that lure of the bounded body, arguing that what Lacan deems to be transcendental is a historically specific condition of the modern speaking ‘subject.’) For Lacan, the yearning to retrieve the lost child who was once complete (before its submission to unreadable relations) follows from our organic dependence. The child appears to himself, in the mirror, as a unified whole—an identity. What that delightful recognition of one’s bodily integrity covers over is the condition of subjection: that we speak and are, not through being our own self, but as always situated within a system of symbolic relations of which we are only ever effects. These effects are never given as such, but always relayed through relations of enigma, misrecognition, anticipation, projection and unattainable desire (Butler 1997; Butler 2004; Butler 2005; Laplanche 1999; Mitchell 1975; Wright 1984). In the beginning is the bodily image as lure or alibi that covers over temporal dispersion; from that initial imaginary unity we imagine that there must have been some other who robbed us of our pure plenitude, unboundedness and connectedness; we read this other as holding the key or power to our enjoyment.
This notion of the subject as formed through relation to an unreadable other has been reinforced recently by Judith Butler who has placed less emphasis on her earlier notion of the self as effected through performance of social norms, and has turned instead towards Laplanche and his insistence that our ex-trinsic condition of existence is one in which we are always placed in a relation of reading an other who is essentially unreadable (Butler 2005). The reasons for returning to, while adapting, Lacan are manifold. The Lacanian ego is at once formed through body image, even though the imagined body does not exhaust the subject’s being; subjectivity is always other than itself, always split between the speaking/seeing self and the self spoken and viewed. Perhaps the most difficult aspect of this intertwining of subject and ego was the emphasis Lacan placed on the phallus, the body part that is not a body part. For Lacan it is the condition of subjection, prohibition and loss (the condition of speaking through a system that is not one’s own) that creates the fantasy that there must once have been, or will be, mastery. There must be a phallic power of possession, even if it is one that I as a speaking (subjected) being do not have. Laplanche was explicitly critical of Lacan’s centering of the Oedipal predicament on the phallus: yes, we are all constituted through a reading of the other, but we do not read that other as the one or other who possesses the phallic law, the power of castration. This liberation of the imaginary from the phallus would, at first glance, be an improvement: why should a body part be privileged when we think about the ways in which we fantasise our existence? For Laplanche there is a structural truth to the Oedipal complex, for every child lives its own world and history as if there had once been an integral unity that was then displaced by submission to an other, as though we were once perfectly bounded organisms who underwent subjection to an alien order. Whereas Lacan figured alienation in linguistic-phallic terms, with the imposition of speech being fantasized as submission to the law of the father who holds the phallus, Laplanche’s ‘enigmatic signifier’ was not language in the symbolic sense but the look or gesture of the other who forces us to read their desire.
Now it might seem, today, that it is Laplanche’s emphasis on the look of the other and each specific body’s relation to the law that might be a more fruitful understanding of our body’s relation to language and that this would accord, too, with Deleuze and Guattari’s criticism of the tyranny of Oedipus and the ‘despotism’ of the signifier. But this is not so: for Deleuze and Guattari write a genealogy and diagnosis of the Oedipus complex and the privileging of the phallus. The virtue of the Lacanian critique is its ideality and inhumanity: before there is a human-human look or relation, something like the human organism has to be formed as an image. The body and its organs are historical and political phenomena. The modern man of capital does indeed live the relation among his body parts as Oedipalized: he is the man of speech who must articulate his desires through language as a symbolic order, and who will also live in fear of the loss of that order. In Anti-Oedipus Deleuze and Guattari maintain the importance of the virtual body part (Deleuze and Guattari 1977). The body has been increasingly ‘privatized:’ no longer living its forces collectively or intensively. Instead of the phallus being a collective totem, capable of generating the powerful spectacle of a tribal body moving in rhythmic pulsations, ears all responding to the beating tempo, eyes all feeling the intensity of the common spectacle, flinching as knife meets skin in rituals of castration, the body has become folded in on itself. Modern man is a speaking animal, subject to no law other than that of articulating his desires in speech. The organs are now private: the eyes that look out on a world as so much calculable matter to be mastered by the hand that will labour to transform the world into exchangeable commodities. This privatisation of the organs means that desire can only be experienced as secret and personal, lost in its passage through collective speech, and never capable of reaching that full masterful voice of the phallic master.
Thinking about Deleuze’s philosophy in relation to the body requires stepping back from a too easy dismissal of Lacan and the virtual body part. A social machine occurs when flows of desire are given relative stability: all the dancing bodies of the tribe gazing wondrously on the phallic symbol that allows for the creation of a territory. Body parts are always virtual before they are actual; the organized organism—where the eyes sees the same world heard by the ear and narrated by the voice—is the result of a history of co-ordinations and stabilized relations. Lacan was aware that the gaze of the infant was never a virgin glance: to look at a world of speaking subjects was to take on the history of the organism. For Deleuze and Guattari politics could only begin with this organized and Oedipal body, a body centred on the speaking voice submitted to the law of the signifier, always articulating a desire for a mastery and phallic dominance that is possessed by no-one.
Only if one acknowledges the crucial role of the body in politics can one begin to think the body without organs. In this respect if one thinks of the body as, say, gendered, then one buys into the phallic order. If we see bodies as receiving their identity through the imposition of social norms, then we assume a body as a whole that is then given identity and selfhood through normativity. Deleuze and Guattari take up the Lacanian challenge and ask how this dispersed collection of organs—the eye, ear, voice, brain, skin—comes to be organized as a speaking animal. Should we not ask how bodies that once existed through collectively intense organs—all eyes gazing on the cut into flesh, all ears feeling the stamping of feet, all voices screaming with the cry of a totem animal—became this point in space submitted to the laws of normativity? This means stepping back from the body to think the composition of organic powers, powers of organs rather than parts of the organism. Is not this what philosophy aims to do: to free the brain from the sensory motor apparatus of survival (Deleuze and Guattari 1994)? And is this not what visual arts aim to do: freeing the eye from reading, coding and recognition (Deleuze 2004)?
Let us pause, then, and look back to the theorizations of ‘the body’ that reinforce our sense, today, that we have overcome 80s textualism and theory and no longer assume the primacy of language. Judith Butler’s Bodies That Matter of 1993, Elizabeth Grosz’s Volatile Bodies in 1994 and then a series of ‘body’ readers and critical guides were not simple returns to the organism before language, so much as a recognition that the linguistic paradigm itself entailed at least some minimal image of embodiment. To say that the ‘I’ is an effect of language, an effect of the act or performance of speech, implies that one will at least imagine or construct some image or figure of the speaking body. Even if the subject is deemed to be effected through language, language can still create a body as constructed through a series of norms and figures. It was the status of the body as image that perhaps allowed for a confidence that one was no longer dealing with a literal pre-critical body; one could write about embodiment without appearing to be a vulgar materialist. Both in feminist criticism, and beyond, the body was primarily a literary and rhetorical problem. Although a great deal of literary and cultural criticism turned to ‘the body’, this was always a consideration of how the body had been written, figured, problematized or constructed through various discourses (Kirby 1997; Wilson 1998). Even fiction (such as Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body of 1993) responded to this trend of coupling writing and the body: to write or speak is to imagine oneself as a subject, but that imagined subject is always embodied, and the body is always constituted through tropes. (This idea of the body as being a ‘lived schema’ through which the world is mediated is sustained today across a range of disciplines including neuropsychology, linguistics and political theory [Gallagher 2005; Gibbs 2006]).
However, it was just this sophisticated post-Butler attitude of thinking of the body as other than representation and yet constituted through representation that precluded one from really thinking what the body might do. Butler published Bodies That Matter at least partly in response to the putative linguisticism of Gender Trouble. If we accept the argument of the massively influential Gender Trouble that the ‘sex’ that would supposedly be represented, mediated or imagined through cultural figures of gender is actually always figured as other than gender, then we also acknowledge that any appeal to ‘the’ body is a negative critical manoeuvre against received images and figures but is enabled only in its distance and difference from those figures. The body that matters, then, is not some brute ‘in itself’ that would precede cultural imagination, with cultural imagination in turn being some system that adds itself to a passive matter; for matter is just that which appears in the splitting of a seemingly prior ‘before’ from a no less illusory after:
To ‘concede’ the undeniability of ‘sex’ or its ‘materiality’ is always to concede some version of ‘sex,’ some formation of ‘materiality.’ Is the discourse in and through which that concession occurs—and, yes, that concession invariably does occur—not itself formative of the very phenomenon that it concedes?
[…] to refer naively or directly to such an extra-discursive object will always require the prior delimitation of the extra-discursive. (Butler 1993, 10-11)
There ‘is’ no matter as such, no body as such, only a body that matters—a body known only insofar as it is recognised—and only a matter that is given as there for this body in its potentiality. Matter is given only as lost, as having been there for the work of culture and speech. Temporality is at once that which gives matter; for matter is that which must have been. At the same time, temporality is that which is the other of matter: we live and endure as the same bodies through time only in the re-iteration of an identity; this iteration that produces the subject as the same through time is also that which, through failure, can disturb and disrupt identity. There is always, in the subjection to identity, that which remains other than the normative matrix that recognizes identity. Matter in itself would be imagined, mourned or figured as that strange non-identity beyond all relations of inside and outside, before and after.
Grosz’s Volatile Bodies was avowedly less linguistically or—if we are not to have a narrow view of language—less performatively oriented. Butler took up the notion of the performative as the linguistic act that constitutes its referent. But this is an act that is not grounded upon a static body: quoting Nietzsche, Butler insists that there is ‘no doer behind the deed.’ One should not imagine that there are speaking subjects who then come to make statements about material bodies. On the contrary, there is the act or event of speaking from which one is effected as a subject who speaks. The performative is an act that relies on and maintains relations among bodies, granting and sustaining each body in its force. I can be a body that matters, a body who matters, only if ‘I’ act in such a way that something like an ‘I’ can be recognised. For Grosz, in contrast with Butler and a series of other approaches to embodiment that were even more constructivist than Butler’s careful negotiation of performance, the body was not achieved through the act of performance, even if that act was taken to be that which effected the ‘I’, rather than being the act of some ‘I.’ Nor was Grosz simply turning back to the motility of the phenomenological ‘lived’ body. (Recently there has been a widespread return and resurgence of interest in the lived body of phenomenology against the theories of language and cognition that paid too little attention to the organism’s relation to the world. Such a return is premised upon correcting a supposedly disembodied subject that underpins Western reason and cognition [Thompson 2007]. Grosz’s corporeality is neither the lived nor the constructed body; in fact, her body is closer to something like an inhuman embodiment that gives itself through humans, but is also expressed in animal bodies, and the bodies of things.) Recognizing that the very notion of the act, force, performance or utterance would require some minimal relation, Grosz’s volatile bodies were poised membranes or borders, ongoing productions of an interior in relation to an exterior. Drawing on (but also surpassing) the lived body of phenomenology—insisting that one could only act or orient oneself in a world if there were some space that would always be the space for this body with its potentialities—Grosz also noted that this underlying lived body that enabled spatiality would in turn have its prior and not necessarily bodily (and certainly not organic) conditions. These conditions were explained by Grosz through the frequently used example of a moebius band: the relation between interior and exterior, the establishment of a bounded body from which potentiality and motility might be thought, could not be taken for granted and was itself effected from a whole series of relations.
The most important relation, both for Grosz at this stage and for many writers working on embodiment, was the image. It is with the look towards another bounded body, taken as the sign of an impossible interior, that I might also live my own skin and physique as similarly blessed with its interiority. To live my physical being and its potentialities both as mine, and as the ongoing subject of action, requires the experience of interior and exterior, the production of a bordered limit that would also be vulnerable to infraction and traumatic intrusion. What it means to be a self has therefore always been intertwined with what it means to be a body, and both these terms—self and body—have, in turn, been defined through a capacity of trauma, where trauma is imagined as the rupture of a border. What I want to do in the pages that follow is consider a series of possibilities: is it possible to think beyond that image of the bounded body? Such a possibility would be salutary today precisely because all those seeming gains in theoretical maturity that were won by posing the question of the body after the linguistic turn appear to be threatened, and threatened precisely because we can only imagine threat, trauma and non-life as other than the bounded body. That is, once it was accepted that bodies were not passive matters to be inscribed by culture, it was also acknowledged that the body’s borders were the result of relations, encounters and—as Grosz so aptly demonstrated—morphologies: one can be a bounded body only with a sense, figure or image of one’s limits. But this raises a problem: is life necessarily bounded and embodied life, a body of inside and outside? If we accept systems theory, body theory and the once-dominant idea of the self as constituted in relation to an other, then the answer is ‘yes.’
There are, though, other forms of life beyond that of the organism, and beyond that of the autonomous living being. (Such a consideration can be read in Grosz’s more recent work on Darwin concerning itself with a force of sexual selection that cannot be grounded in a body’s or gene’s survival: although sexual selection has a visual field and power as its milieu, it is no longer a visuality of the bounded image of recognition [Grosz 2011].) The departure from the lived body would need to be at least twofold, considering life beyond bodies and bodies beyond life. First, one might question the decision to consider viruses as other than life, a decision that is based on the virus as parasitic and non-self-maintaining (Ansell-Pearson 1997). Second, one might question the exclusion of techne from life: if one were to distinguish between life and techne, then a living organism would be bounded and self-maintaining and distinct from various inorganic or created supplements. But life presents us with a series of movements and mutations, such as computer viruses, technical evolutionary imperatives and the ways in which organs develop in response to machines that behove us to consider the imbrication of bodies and technology. Third, one might ask whether it is fruitful at this point in human history to consider life primarily from the point of view of the organism: are we not being forced to encounter the ruptures of organic timelines as we become aware of the depletion of the cosmos and the decay of our milieu, even if such erosions are never experienced or lived as localizable events?
Before moving on I would like to look back at the classic meditation on the image of the bounded body, Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle, where Freud posits that pleasure—the maintenance of a constant energy or equilibrium—may have some ‘beyond’ that would take the form of a dissipation of all energy (Freud 1975). The first principle of equilibrium and pleasure is still recognisable today in a series of post-Freudian observations regarding an organism’s relation to life. A completely closed body that had no world would be deprived of the means of ongoing life; an absolutely open body without borders would not be a body at all, would have no ongoing identity. What is required then is a border or membrane that enables communion with an outside, but an outside that is always an outside for this bounded body, and that is managed so as to produce only the alteration or perturbation required for ongoing self-maintenance. The now widely cited and philosophically consecrated systems theory of Maturana and Varela (1987) deploys a series of terms to describe this necessity: coupling (where a body’s autonomous or self-maintaining movements are established in relation to outside variables); autopoeisis (where the body does not interact mechanically with its outside but does so in a way to maintain its own balance and sameness); relative closure (so that a body at once maintains itself but also adapts to changing external perturbations); and meaning (for the outside of a body is always its own outside or world, experienced or lived in terms of a range of possible responses rather than an objective representation).
The ideal body must therefore balance two contrary requirements: completeness and self-sufficiency. A body detached from all that was other than itself would be hopelessly incomplete, divorced from the means of its own sustainability. A body must complete itself in order to maintain itself; it must not remain as some detached fragment but must be united or coupled with a world, open to what is not merely itself. (This requirement, as described by Freud, exposed the organism to contingency and the risk of loss and could lead to a destructive attack on the desired object to which the organism is subjected [Freud 1961]. The erotic drive to connection and completion, depicted by Freud’s as two halves of a body seeking to be re-united, harboured an aggressive potential [Freud 1975]. The organism desires a plenitude or non-separation that requires it to go beyond itself, abandoning its original and mythic self-enclosure of primary narcissism; but it is just this overcoming of the violent self-containment of original closure that may in turn lead to a destructive drive to destroy the object that lures the organism from its quiescence. That destruction could even be turned back upon the self, after losing the object, if mourning is not completed in a life-serving manner).
Many writing after Freud have not regarded the organism’s condition of coupling as anything other than benign, insisting on the originally world-oriented, meaning-making and other-directed dynamics of bodily life. The very logic of today’s insistence on the ‘embodied mind,’ the ‘extended mind,’ the ‘synaptic self,’ the ‘global brain’ and even the ‘mind in life’ blithely sail over the deep and essential contradiction of the living body (Varela, Thompson and Rosch 1991; LeDoux 2002; Bloom 2000; Clark 2008). All the criticisms of the detached and disembodied Cartesian subject that insist upon the self’s primary and dynamic connectedness ignore what Freud and Lacan recognized as the imaginary lure of the body: for all the self’s world-orientation and openness there is also a primary blindness and enclosure that is necessary for the very experience of oneself as embodied, bounded and located in a milieu. As alive the body must be oriented or related to what is not itself, must desire a completion. However, because such completion is always sought on the organism’s own terms, always for the sake of the organism, a body is necessarily blind to those forces that lie beyond its range. The very desire for completeness that drives the organism to couple with its world will also preclude it from seeing the world in any terms other than its own.
Whereas philosophers have happily celebrated this necessity of the world always being meaningful, or the world always being a world for me, we might suggest that such blissful enclosure in meaning precludes the very striving for completeness it is supposed to serve. The desire for completeness comes into conflict with self-sufficiency or the desire not to be exposed to contingency, risk or an influx of otherness so great that it would destroy all border and limit (and this would count as trauma). One might say then that pleasure—today’s celebrated processes of equilibrium, homeostasis and autopoeisis, or processes deemed to be synonymous with the life of the organism—are necessarily destructive of life that cannot be experienced in terms of the bounded body. Freud’s second principle of a ‘beyond’ to pleasure or self-maintenance would not be in opposition to life; it would not simply be the death of the organism. Nor would it be a force regarded as traumatic, as that which is initially unassimilable but that could, through working and representation, be brought to coherence and sense. A genuine beyond of pleasure and a genuine beyond of the organism and its closed world of meaning would also be beyond trauma, for it could not be regarded as an infraction of the body from outside. This is precisely why Deleuze and Guattari suggest that one moves beyond death as a model—death as defined in relation to the bounded organism—to the experience of death.
Such an experience would shatter the bounded body, and occur not as the body’s other or limit but as a pure predicate, potentiality or intensity taken away from the coordinates of the organism. If we do not begin the question of life from the point of view of the bounded organism and its world, then we are compelled to think life beyond the opposition between pleasure and trauma, between boundary and infraction. Instead, one would note a necessarily self-destroying or suicidal trajectory immanent in life. Is this not what timelines of the inhuman now compel us to note, if not comprehend? A species can only survive by mutation and by not being itself; any species also—through that very survival—takes a toll on its milieu that might lead (as in the case of man) to the destruction of life in general. How could one define this dissolution as tragic or traumatic or, more simply, undesirable if one were not to assume already the primacy of bounded self-maintaining life?
This raises two questions for the future of this body we recognise as human, a body that is facing—today—two possible traumas. Has this body so oriented itself to its own sustainability—seeing the world clearly only in terms of its own perturbation—that it has no sense of the distinct perceptions and souls that are destroying it from within, and no perception of the folds and series that are traumatising the milieu itself? Is it possible to speak of, or object to, the dissolution of the organism that we know as human?
How might we use these two notions of life—one that is bounded, embodied and open to trauma, and another that is post-traumatic—to assess what we mean by theory and thinking today? I would suggest that a certain notion of the theoretical, where theory is the look that we direct to our own acts of perception, has always been intertwined with a vital and normative account of life, and that it would be worthwhile to consider a theory that might entertain a thought of viral or radically malevolent life. In order to pursue this counter-possibility of a life that is not defined in relation to trauma, I want to conclude by looking at the ways in which a certain image of the body has underpinned theory and its temporality.
Consider a certain diagnosis of disembodied life that is dominant, possibly necessary, in contemporary thought. In a series of disciplines, ranging from neuroscience, cognitive science, philosophy, evolutionary psychology, sociology, future studies and cultural studies, it is now common to begin with the criticism of the Cartesian intellect. (The historical thesis is that there was, once upon a time, a unified human existence, where the self was defined socially and collectively, and where nature was not yet disenchanted or seen to be brute matter opposed to mind.) Various disciplines have taken up distinct criticisms of the Cartesian concept of ‘mind.’ I will take these criticisms in turn, and look at the ways in which a certain idea and ideal of the body-as-organism is posited as the remedy for the fall into the abstractions of Cartesian intellectualism. In contrast with a disembodied mind, and a matter deemed to be passive, mindless, inert and without relation, theories of living systems have sought to see any supposedly distinct beings as emerging from relations. The words ‘autopoiesis,’ along with ‘homeostasis’ and ‘equilibrium,’ operate across all these disciplines with their inter-related diagnoses of the present inertia of thinking life.
First, neuroscience: this mode of enquiry has benefited greatly from the decade of the brain declared by President Bush in 1990, and from the accompanying technological developments enabling new means of imaging. Although neuroscience is a diverse field, its very potentiality is marked by a single critical shift; the neuroscientist is not concerned with finding the ‘bit’ of the brain responsible for a certain thought or idea, but can now look at systems of relations. A perception does not occur in some simple one-to-one correspondence between object in the world and picture in the brain, but through complex and distributed patterns of relation. We respond to the world, not as blank slates being imprinted with data, but as dynamic and self-regulating systems. Life strives to maintain itself, and does so not by ‘picturing’ an outside world, but through an ongoing, interactive, and non-linear system of responses and adjustments. The non-linearity is crucial, even in the most simple of perceptions. There is not a self who captures the image of an object, but a body orienting itself toward (and anticipating) the world that is always given in a certain way. This dynamic engagement will enable the synthesis and relation to data, which in turn produces certain bodily relations, and these in turn allow further interaction with the world. If we want to understand thinking, according to Antonio Damasio, then we should not begin with cognition or representation—some mind housed in a body—but begin with the body as a self-regulating system, a system that does all it can to maintain its own state of equilibrium, and that will ultimately experience any bodily emotions or ongoing adjustments as ‘the feeling of what happens.’ More importantly, that process of interaction can only be between organism and world if there is some boundary that distinguishes between surviving life and milieu:
the urge to stay alive is not a modern development. It is not a property of humans alone. In some fashion or other, from simple to complex, most living organisms exhibit it. What does vary is the degree to which organisms know about that urge. Few do. But the urge is still there whether organisms know of it or not. Thanks to consciousness, humans are keenly aware of it.
Life is carried out inside a boundary that defines a body. Life and the life urge exist inside a boundary, the selectively permeable wall that separates the internal environment from the external environment. The idea of the organism revolves around the existence of that boundary. (Damasio 137)
What we must remove is ‘Descartes’s error,’ or the idea of mind as something distinct from life, for life just is an ongoing dynamic process of response, interaction, adjustment, orientation and—most importantly—sense. There is no possibility of a brute event, a body encountering a force that is not always already meaningful.
This insistence on meaning need not be an anthropomorphic notion. And to see this we can turn to the broader and highly influential theory of life as necessarily autopoetic, particularly as adopted by the cognitive science of Maturana and Varela. One of the crucial features of Maturana and Varela’s work is their definition of life that requires some form of boundary or membrane. Their definition allows, then, for autopoesis and meaning. Life is autopoetic because a living being maintains its own internal relations; a living system must be able—through interaction with its milieu—to sustain itself. Living systems are coupled to environments that are always defined as being what they are for that specific system; and this is how autopoiesis is tied to meaning. The environment of an organism is constituted in terms of that body’s possible responses:
Further, life—unlike other living systems—has a certain self-productivity that is crucially defined in relation to that system’s border. If a cell can live on, and even reproduce, simply by existing in its milieu then we can call that cell a living system. Its living-on requires no intervention of any process or force other than relation to milieu. A clear contrast, of course, would be a machine or mechanism; a typewriter can produce text if connected to a human body, an ink ribbon and paper, but a typewriter placed in its milieu—sitting on a desk among papers—does nothing more than decay through time (even if that decay is considerably slow). Maturana and Varela, tellingly, draw upon the philosophical tradition of phenomenology and its criticism of Cartesian notions of disengaged mind. As long as we define mind as a closed being that may or may not encounter some external world, and as long as we see that world as being encountered through knowledge, or perception as a mode of ‘picturing,’ then we will never understand the life of thought.
This brings us to the next discipline that draws on notions of distributed and embodied cognition, linear systems and self-production: artificial intelligence. There had been a criticism, early in the rapprochement between philosophy and artificial intelligence, that had insisted that—following Heidegger—it was the very embodied, active, worldly and practical nature of thinking life that precluded anything like an ‘intelligence’ that might be replicated in a computer (Dreyfus, Dreyfus and Athanasiou 1986). But those very Heideggerian insights regarding the necessarily embodied and temporally complex nature of thinking have now enabled new developments in artificial intelligence. If we want to create thinking we should abandon the Cartesian model of an information centre that would direct parts of a body-machine; instead we should begin with the response. In the beginning is the action in relation to an environment, and this action always occurs in an ongoing process of adjustments and responses. Creating a robot could be successful, not by building an information-loaded brain-like centre, but by creating parts that were capable of adjusting and allowing feedback responses with an encountered environment. At the simplest level, for example, we would have more success in creating a walking machine if we were to begin with leg-like parts that could roll and re-balance in response to surfaces. This in turn might tell us something about human embodied cognition; we are not computing or representing minds who happen to be placed in bodies that then have to encounter some world. On the contrary, we are originally responsive and action-oriented and also—more importantly—naturally prosthetic, taking whatever we can from the world as an extension of our already world-oriented and can-do openness to life:
We therefore need to rid ourselves of the idea of a mind that would be pure and would then use its body or supplement its body with alien materials. For matter, like the body, is always already familiar, already potentially available for the extension of our being as we make our way through life. In the ongoing striving to maintain ourselves all that we encounter may be incorporated, taken up as part of our ever-extending and constantly relational being:
Evolutionary psychology has also, in a number of different projects, taken its inquiry into the emergence of mind away from attention to cognition, grammar and formal systems, and instead considered bodies in relations that are always already affective, sensually attuned, emotionally responsive and autopoetic or homeostatic (on an individual and on a ‘social’ level). Steven Mithen has argued that before we have language as some system for conveying information, or before we have a grammar that would synthesize and organize a perceived world, there is an originally and communally-affective enjoyment of sound, that both gives each body a sense of its self in relation, and produces the social system of constitutive relations (Mithen 2006). Robin Dunbar has argued for the originality of gossip (Dunbar 1996). Against the idea that language begins as one body relaying content to another, Dunbar suggests that sound begins as a purely relational and communal phenomenon, allowing bodies to exist in community, through the feeling of sound and responsiveness.
These developments in the sciences and social sciences have led to the emergence of a narrative regarding theory and the time of theory. There was a time when, suffering from the disease of intellectualism or mind-centered (or simply centered) approaches, we examined social systems in terms of conscious agents. In so doing we adopted linear notions of causality, rather than looking at the complex, dynamic, interactive and materially distributed systems that contribute to any event (De Landa 2006). We also, no less disastrously, suffered from the linguistic paradigm, where ‘a’ system was seen as the ground through which we might interpret the world, when in fact the world is a dynamic network of interacting, affectively-attuned, responsive and self-maintaining bodies. Often this diagnosis of our misguided commitment to Cartesian notions of disembodied mind has been coupled with a moral program for cultural reinvention. Recent work in philosophy has suggested that if we turn to non-Western understandings of ‘mindfulness,’ where selves are not command centers but properly attuned to the world, existing as nothing more than a series of ongoing adjustments and mutual encounters, then we will be able to think more ecologically, less instrumentally and—most importantly—with far greater managerial success (Flanagan 2007).
The three concepts of autopoeisis, equilibrium and homeostasis function in all these domains, of neuroscience, cognitive science, philosophy of mind, social theory and future studies. These concepts all presuppose a certain understanding of time, and indicate that the organism has no future. The world of the organism is always the organism’s own, unfolded from its own responses and potentialities; any properly futural future would be a break with the self-constitution of the organism’s always immanent time, and yet all theories of relational organic life posit that without some departure from its sphere of ownnness the organism would have no life. In itself, or if it remains in itself, the organism has no future. There can only be a time to come if we open out from our embodied, relational, world-attuned being. The world within which we are situated—if we accept that ‘we’ are nothing other than the situated and responsive beings that we are—is always a world encountered in terms of possible responses. We exist in meaningful milieus. Our condition as embodied, as relating to the world as the beings that we are, is that the world is given as this world for us. To a certain extent, then, we are proto-ecological, originally attuned to our milieu. If we have a future, so it is argued, it cannot be one of calculation, instrumental reason and the mere continuance or ourselves in isolation. Our future could occur only if we remind ourselves of embodiment, if we recall what we really are and once again live our attunement to our milieu not as accidental but as intrinsic to our very being.
But there is another sense in which the organism has no future, and it is here that I want to turn back to the exclusion of non-bounded life from the definition of life in general. As long as we think of life as autopoietic, as that which strives to maintain itself, and as that which is necessarily attuned to a milieu, we will regard disembodied life as that which ought not to have occurred, or as a simple error: a certain living being—man—mistook himself for mind, but can always correct that error and recognize himself as properly embodied. In defining Cartesian ‘mind’ as nothing more than a falsehood we will fail to account for its force, its persistence and the possible futures it presents to the organism that can only have a world of its own. Consider what needs to be excluded as long as we insist on life as that which is defined by self-maintenance: the virus, malevolent thinking, and inhuman futures. I want to conclude by placing these three excluded lives in contrast with three too-frequently cited normative bodies: the child, the Buddhist and the animal. In the current literature the Cartesian horror of the disembodied intellect—that is, the power of thinking that would not already be attuned to the world, that would not be affectively-oriented via a permeable border—is frequently cured by reference to animal, infant or non-Western life. The animal is nothing more than orientation or potential action for the sake of ongoing life, not yet burdened by the life-stultifying questions of the intellect. Animals also provide the norm for an originally affective and praxis-oriented language; birds and monkeys use sounds as ways of creating bonds or affective relations, not as the representation of some idea in general. The same applies to infants, whose perceptions are originally less cognitive than affective—seeing the world in terms of what enhances or harms the self, and experiencing sound as a sonorous caress (not as the vehicle of information). Finally, the Buddhist: if we suffer in the West from centered, disembodied, linear and instrumental notions of mind, then we would do well to pay attention to the eastern tradition of mindfulness. Stephen Mithen has appealed to both infants and animals as indicating an origin of speech in non-semantic but embodied-relational modes of sound, while a series of texts on mindfulness, including the work of Owen Flanagan, has criticized Western instrumental consciousness and appealed to the more attuned modes of Buddhist awareness (Mithen 2006; Flanagan 2007).
As I have already suggested, these ideals of a body that is at once identifiable through time yet also nothing other than its ongoing attuned responses must exclude other lines of life and time that are defined less through the maintenance of a border in relation, and more in a form of rampant and unbounded mutation. A virus cannot be defined as a form of life on the Maturana and Varela model; its lack of a border or membrane means that it cannot be considered in relation to its milieu. It does not maintain itself, and is not a living system precisely because it is only in its parasitic capacity to open other life forms to variations that would not be definitive of an autopoetic relation. What might the future or temporality of viral life be? It could not suffer trauma, could not be subject to an excess of influx that would destroy its living balance precisely because a virus is nothing other than a process of invasion, influx and (to a great extent) non-relation. A virus does not have a world: it is not defined according to its potential responses that would enable its ongoing being. In one respect then, it is only viral life that has a future: both in the sense of being able to live on (or more accurately mutate beyond itself) without its own world, and in the sense that ‘our’ future, our world in all its bounded and delicate attunement, is not really a future so much as the maintenance of the same through the constant warding off of a future that would be other than our own.
This brings me to the next non-bounded life, malevolence. If we are autopoeietic, embodied, attuned, responsive, dynamic and system-dependent beings, how is it that we have acted in such a way that we have created a future that will no longer be a milieu for the organisms that we are? If humans are so organically attached to a world that is itself a living self-maintaining and organic whole, how did the destruction of this symbiotic domain of life take hold? Can we say that the Cartesian figure of disembodied life as really a mistake, or is it not a more accurate picture of ‘man’ in the anthropocene era? This, I think, suggests that we need to consider the future that this non-organic, non-relational, rigidly disembodied life has allowed to occur. If life in its bounded form is relational, mindful, attuned, responsive and dynamic (and if this life has no future that is not always already its own) then what of the life that did not act to maintain itself, that did not respond to its milieu, that did not live with the sense of its trauma-sensitive membrane? As long as we fail to consider this life we fail to address the future. In recent attempts to deal with our future, and the malevolent damage or willful destruction we have enacted upon ourselves, it is often implied that once we recognize our truly relational and embodied condition we will indeed have a future. If we could only see that we are not Cartesian minds contingently placed in a world that is of no concern to us, then we will recognize our originally ecological condition and once again live with a sense of the world (where sense is mindful orientation).
One concrete example of an ethic of the future, based on a recognition of our proper embodiment, is the turn to mindfulness. From philosophy to business management, it is argued that if we recall to ourselves our intrinsically embodied and in-the-world being, then we will act with respect and care (rather than destructive dominance) to what is not the self (but yet is always already constitutive of the self). Do we not, with this faith in the malleability, adaptability and possible future of this human body that could overcome its Western violence and rigidity, simply repress and belie that other viral tendency in life? That other tendency would not be self-maintaining and autopoetically relational, but blindly active and mutational. What any ethic of mindful responsiveness must do is dismiss as non-existent, or non-living, those forces of viral malevolence which have, until now, quite happily proceeded to make their way through the world without a thought of sustainability, and without a sense of the human as necessarily relational, embodied and affectively sensitive. How might we act if we acknowledged or even entertained the possibility of this viral and malevolent life, and if we considered the human not as a body coupled to a milieu, but as a series of potentialities that could branch out into territories beyond its own self-maintenance. How would we act if we recognized that insofar as the organism’s future is always the organism’s own then the organism has no future? Its time will always be determined in advance as the time of its own relations; and without the recognition of that other life that destroys such relations the organism’s time will come to an end.
A molecular or viral politics that did not assume the benevolence or trauma-resisting membranes of a self-defining body would have the following features. First, an attention to mindlessness: how do unbounded, non-self-maintaining processes—processes with no sense of relation—create a political territory that is not that of the polis or mutually recognizing bodies? And how do those bodies that we are, with only a sense of processes in relation to our own living systems—resist all recognition and interaction with the mindless? Why do we not have the strength or force to think of a world that is not our milieu? Second, a politics of viral futures: if we accept life-potentials that are not self-maintaining but that operate as nothing more than mutant encounters, then we move beyond a politics of negotiation among bodies to a politics devoid of survival. Perhaps it is only in our abandonment of ownness, meaning, mindfulness and the world of the body that life, for whatever it is worth, has a chance. This, indeed, is the direction offered by Deleuze and Deleuze and Guattari’s thought: a capacity to take intuition beyond the organism’s own duration to imagine qualities as such, a desire to overcome the brain of the organized body and approach thought as such opening to the eternal, and a relation between art and philosophy that does not assimilate sensation (the sensible) to what can be thought (the sensed) but approaches their warring disjunction (Deleuze and Guattari 1994). Finally, the move beyond ‘man’ as isolated thinker will not be back towards the body, but forward to the ‘superman’—to the inorganic potentialities that exist now only in confused and all too human composites (Deleuze 1988B).