What three (or more) quotes capture the critical import of the text?


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Gergely Mohacsi's picture
September 5, 2019

[One of the plant scientists] tells me how her lab is trying to bring this sunflower experiment indoors, into controlled conditions. “We can do this in a growth chamber too. So we’ve got LED lights turned on sequentially to mimic the sun moving. And we have a camera that can monitor the plant, and then infrared lights so we can take pictures even in the dark. And you can see that ... Even during the dark period, the plant is reorienting. So that is nice. It is that anticipation again. And that works nicely when the light/dark cycle is 24 hours. But we know for plants and animals that our clocks can’t be entrained to non 24-hour cycles. Or they are very different ... So we did this to our plants. We ran the experiment on a 32-hour cycle, which is very nonnatural. But now you can see that at night it just sits there. It doesn’t do anything. But that same plant, when we reprogram the lights ... it spends a couple days, I would say learning, being entrained by the new cycle, but then you see that anticipation again. So. Yeah. I think it is a really interesting question. Is it learning? I mean it doesn’t have a brain, obviously. I don’t think it is thinking about anything.” (…) it could be said that she is ‘vegetalizing’ the concepts of memory, anticipation, and learning. I can’t help but wonder: What might happen if we were to germinate and grow these concepts from studies of plant sensing? What difference might a vegetal epistemology make to these otherwise human terms?  (pp.61-62)

Gergely Mohacsi's picture
September 4, 2019

In her recent book Natural Reflections (Smith 2010: 2–5), B. H. Smith explains how, in the early 1950s, Marion Keech, resident of a town in the U.S. Midwest, called on newspapers to let them know of a coming flood. It was going to be the first in a series of catastrophic events, leading to eventual worldwide cataclysm. Keech had been told about these forthcoming occurrences by aliens through the medium of automated writing. Along with a small set of devotees, she prepared herself in the countryside of Minnesota. Now, shortly after having made her knowledge public, Keech got five additional followers. At least this was what they claimed to be. Who were these newcomers? Neither anthropologists, nor secret agents, they were a group of psychologists. Alerted to the existence of the millenarians through newspaper reports, they had decided to conduct a “field test”, a natural experiment to test their psychological theory. This theory had to do with the tendency of people to remain convinced of their prior beliefs in spite of disconfirming evidence. When the flood failed to materialize, the psychologists did indeed get their hands on a body of evidence that bore on the matter. 

Conceived as a field test, the set-up I have just described was clearly etic. The purpose was to apply an outsider’s neutral perspective. It was to conduct a naturalistic study of an empirical phenomenon about which psychologists had so far only been able to obtain archival evidence. Although they went to live with the millenarians, the psychologists were not at all into understanding the meanings or social contexts. At the same time, however, the actual form of engagement can be characterized as a kind of covert ‘participant observation’. Thus, although the psychologists’ ambition was etic, their mode of operation defied the traditional requirements of detached objectivity. Indeed, they attempted to establish detachment by pretending to go native. 

From the present vantage point, we are of course likely to view the procedure as ethically problematic. More importantly for our purposes, however, methodological difficulties also ensued, since the psychologists’ method was precisely neither outsider nor insider. Instead it thoroughly mixed up etic and emic “genres” of inquiry. And indeed this mixture created the specific opportunities and problems for their research into the psychological make-up—the humanity—of their subjects. 

This methodological mixture was not due to any deep reflexive consideration. Indeed, it happened quite in spite of the etic–objectivist ambition of the psychologists. The contrast to contemporary STS and social anthropology is thus striking, since these fields have paid sustained and explicit attention to their respective processes of making knowledge. In STS, a particularly important methodological reorientation goes under the name of symmetry (Bloor 1976; Latour 1993). In its basic form symmetry means that the same form of explanatory causes should be adopted to account for both what is viewed as rational and irrational behavior, the same type of general explanation, that is, for both millenarian “irrationality” and scientific “rationality.”

August 29, 2019

"What if the analysis of near-future VR SF pieces focused not on the technology but rather on the social worlds they imagine? The works of Marge Piercy, Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia Butler, Margaret Atwood, and N.K. Jemisin are often analyzed as experiments in social relations because they focus more on the lives of characters than the technologies they live with (Pandian 2018; Penley et al. 1991; Womack 2013). Following suit, feminist STS scholarship has also taken a speculative turn to explore sociotechnical future-making, most prominently in the work of Donna Haraway (2013) and her methodology of speculative fabulation. " (4)

"Both authors have done fieldwork in Los Angeles’s VR industry, part of the city’s growing tech scene otherwise known as Silicon Beach. Brandt (2013, 2016) focused on VR-augmented therapy, conducting research before the current VR boom when most VR innovation had retreated to military-funded university laboratories. In this period (2010-2011) when VR was still expensive, clunky, and difficult to develop, clinical VR was seen by many as not only benevolent but perhaps the only worthwhile use of the technology. Though VR was largely out of the entertainment media spotlight, hundreds of news stories hailed its potential to help care for traumatized war veterans. Messeri conducted fieldwork in 2018 with people producing VR content for both entertainment and workforce training. During this period of affordable hardware and accessible tools for creating VR experiences, the community embraced a narrative of VR being an inclusive industry; a counternarrative to the tech and entertainment industries that are traditionally male, white, and deeply hierarchical (Messeri 2018). In both periods, we found VR entangled in issues of gender and diversity as the industry reimagined itself as a site of care and inclusion. " (5)

"The work of care is the central drama of these SF imaginaries. While care work has historically been feminized and devalued (Martin, Myers & Viseu 2015), the counternarratives explored here elevate the status of this affective labor to heroic labor. Staged in the context of VR SF, practices of empathetic communication become a form of “tech work,” in which VR is a tool to understand, interpret, and/or intervene in the pain of others. These women are not heroic fans and gamers, but rather heroic caregivers: not the soldiers of the virtual world, but the nurses who remedy and sustain its occupants." (12)

"Home operates differently across these three SF worlds. Each piece suggests a different attitude toward the healing potential of VR." (20)

"In this analysis, we recast current VR SF as “hyping” innovative social configurations rather than tech devices. Much is at stake in these portrayals. They may help to reorient how the VR industry imagines itself, how it imagines its own purpose and labor in building worlds for others to inhabit, and how it imagines who can participate in building and occupying these worlds. It seems important that these stories do not simply gender-swap female characters into masculine hero journeys. Though they toe the line of gender essentialism, the stories we have examined nevertheless carve out spaces where women may be seen as heroes because they never lose sight of the human(ity) in technology. With these fictional images in place, the actual VR industry faces the challenge of bringing forth the worlds it is now evidently capable of imagining." (22)

August 17, 2019

"Le Guin’s likening of science fiction to lying is, of course, a provocation aimed at challenging what we think of as empirical. It encourages us to broaden our understanding of the relationship between (science) fiction and reality as a means of gaining insight into our current condition." (51)

"For Deleuze and Guattari, the zone of indiscernibility describes an abstract process whereby new concepts are engendered through the intermixing of components from existing concepts. But in their discussion of “becoming animal” in A Thousand Plateaus the zone of indiscernibility takes on a more tangible, physical sense as it is used to characterize a process of mutual informing between humans and animals, whereby (sub)qualities pass between the two to produce an effect beyond comparison or mimesis (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, 274). As Erinn Gilson (2007) notes, becoming animal is about a becoming with in which something new emerges. In this sense, it is helpful to think of the zone of indiscernibility in terms of what Gilbert Simondon (2017) calls the space of “associated milieu,” which is a site of provisional structuring of an emergent functional coherence across entities of different orders of magnitude. Importantly, a zone of indiscernibility does not link categories of being but rather processes of becoming to elicit novel, unanticipated becomings. " (51)

"Tchaikovsky’s novel is an epic, multi-generational, and multispecies tale that I read as forging a conceptual zone of indiscernibility between science fiction and multispecies anthropology in a way that advances the political stakes of the latter. Specifically, I argue that it challenges received notions of human and nature in Western political theory while working to imagine a culture and politics adequate to a technologically forged multispecies society. At the same time, I suggest that Tchaikovsky asks us to imagine a zone of indiscernibility in tangible terms as a space multispecies alliance." (52)

"Multispecies ethnography, like much science fiction, also experiments with different modes of storytelling as it explores “how “the human” has been formed and transformed amid encounters with multiple species of plants, animals, fungi, and microbes” (Kirksey et al. 2014). In so doing, it seeks to redefine what the human is, putting emphasis on the idea of the human as co-constituted in a web of organic and technological relations, in order to understand what the “human is becoming.” For both post-apocalyptic science fiction and multispecies ethnography then, nature is neither a given nor constant. It is, rather, a force of ontological indeterminacy and potential that is inseparable from the industrial processes that have remade the planet over the past centuries." (52–53)

"When the political scientist Bruce Jennings (2016) revisits these texts to develop a political theory for ecological governance adequate to crises of the Anthropocene, one of his central concerns is reinterpreting the state of nature in social contract theory. Jennings argues that, for the authors mentioned above, nature is a “philosophical device” used to establish the necessity and justification for a social order, and should not be confused with an empirical argument concerning the natural world as such. It is a way of conjuring a pre-social condition, prior to the influence of social conventions so as to enable a claim about an underlying human nature that necessitates the formation of society (Hobbes [1651] 1968), establishes an inalienable right to property (Locke [1689] 1980), or provides the spirit for the general will of popular sovereignty (Rousseau [1762] 2012). Not surprisingly, since the attention in these arguments is on the human condition and human nature, everything non-human gets short shrift." (53)

"Working from the premise that the state of nature in social contract theory provides the philosophical underpinnings for contemporary liberal capitalist society, Jennings argues that any ecological fix to our current conditions requires rethinking its assumptions. We need to debug our philosophical OS, or operating system, as it were. Specifically, Jennings views our current environmental crisis as an effect of our hyper-individualistic interpretation of the essential human rights of life, liberty, and happiness stipulated in social contract theory. The result, he argues, is a “social contract of consumption” (19) under which citizens have exchanged active citizenship and freedom of sovereignty for the promise of material affluence at the expense of the environment. In his attempt to remediate this reading, Jennings reinterprets the advent of society not as an exit from a state of nature and correlate emergence of a binary nature-culture schema but rather as the establishment of a “cocreative dialectical interplay” (54) between nature and culture." (54)

"The question is: how will the spiders deal with a potentially ruthless and efficient force with whom it is unable even to communicate? Clearly, we (human readers) think, the ant and spider confrontation will become a total war, the only possible outcome of which will be the annihilation of one side or the other. Indeed, this is also how the struggle initially unfolds, with the spiders seemingly destined to lose an epic battle and face extinction. Tchaikovsky surprises us, however, by mobilizing the theme of interconnection toward an unanticipated resolution of the conflict. We are led to understand that the spiders perceive the ant problem not as humans would, that is, as involving a lesser being and enemy that must be destroyed for self-preservation. Rather, the spiders see the ants as a species from which they can learn and benefit. Accordingly, they approach the ants as a challenge of communicating across species. Ultimately, the spiders are able to interpret and intervene in the ant communication system. This allows them to reprogram the ant colony, diverting it from mindless conquering to functions that become integral and beneficial for the spider civilization. The term Tchaikovsky employs here is “use” but he qualifies the meaning so as to relieve it of any exploitative connotations. Use is better understood as opening something up to a crosspollinating relationship of mutual becoming within a zone of indiscernibility. Such a zone sets up a field of resonance across difference in which difference is maintained as a generative potential. " (62)

"Whereas the humans impulsively turn to genocide, the spiders overcome their unease toward the humans and envision the possibility of a human/spider multispecies society. They seek an alliance founded not on the art of reason but on the empathy of kinship, expansively defined, to reach across species and recognize “likeness” at a microbiological level. " (64)

"Jennings’ commitment to thinking from a human perspective while maintaining a nature-culture division for the sake of its dialectic brings him to stop short of extending pity to the general will of a multispecies sociality and ecological governance. By contrast, Tchaikovsky asks us to imagine the possibility of ontological movement outside a nature-culture/technology dialectic. Both the spiders and the humans in the story blur the boundaries between nature and technology. " (66)

August 17, 2019
In response to:

"The speakers in the endnotes are two time-travelling scholars writing from an unspecified far future, at a time when other beings rule the planet. They are using references from STS scholarship and SF that are more familiar, from our own time, in order to speak to us, even if the necessity to traverse multiple temporalities through simple language to express the Ant Network Theory (ANT) on occasion produces spatiotemporal anomalies." (25)

"Appendix XII: The ANT manifesto

The following are the recovered principles of ANT

1. That there is no Nature-Culture (NC) divide

a. C exists as a system of interpretations of N

b. The technological is simultaneously N and C

i. We have always been cyborg

ii. We have always been many

c. Assisted Evolution is not a movement from N->C, but N->N

2. All evolution is assisted evolution

a. Evolution is not internal to the organism itself, but is a planetary phenomenon

b. Evolution is hybridization consisting of the differentiation and production of networks

3. Hybridity is central in the understanding of networks

a. A multispecies approach is step 1 in the understanding of hybridity

b. A network approach is step 1 in the understanding of distributed collective intelligence

4. Distributed Collective Intelligence is the Ant Network

a. The Ant Network provides the basis for planetarity

b. Since we are planetary the rights of the non-living must be considered

c. Traces of the non-living and the not-yet-living are the pheromone trail for Ant Network Theory" (34–35)

"In our story, an Advaita-inspired thought experiment, we work with the coevolution of multiple species but also technological forms, trying to imagine co-futurity rather than single evolutions of any species such as Transhumanism tries to do, such that any vestige of dualist thought (being-non-being, human-nonhuman, life-non-life, nature-culture) can be discarded. (36)

"There is some debate over what this period was labeled. Traces remain of three different words, anthraxocene, antopocene, and anthropocene. Trail-keepers such as Intominne feel certain that this time period was called “antopocene,” given that this was the time when ants took over the planet and engaged in numerous geoengineering projects. Other hybrids, such as the Sritees, prefer anthraxocene, because geospheric records show the widespread use of coal in the same period. The third is generally considered a typo. However, those less concerned with the recovery of traces call the obsession with these traces “obscene,” which has become the generally accepted name." (43)

"What would be planetary thought? In Death of a Discipline, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (2003) coins the term “planetarity” to refer to a new kind of relationship to the planet. In this relationship, the planet is something that both houses us and exceeds our control. Planetarity thus invokes the problem of scale in our relationship to the planet: we live on the planet but the planet does not belong to us. This is opposed to the Enlightenment rationale behind globalization, where the globe belongs to us and is subject to our control as rational agents. Planetarity has been evoked in other discussions, including of the Anthropocene and climate change, where such a new relationship is being registered and conceptualized." (45)

"Our planet itself is constantly being “terraformed” in order to support its processes. Terraforming is what all life does from archaea onwards but we tend to see the lithosphere as relatively constant, not created. Except when we have the hubris to say humans alone can do it, a common human exceptionalism designated by terms such as the Anthropocene." (46)

August 8, 2019

"I am definitely in favor of pragmatic, impure forms of experimentation when it comes to survival by way of getting ourselves into a sustainable balance with our planet. And yes, I don’t like people proclaiming too vigorously their purity. That plays into a model of pure/impure that leads to sacred/profane, or simply good/bad, that I don’t think matches the biophysical realities of our position as living creatures on a planet, as a species trying to get along with other species. Most of the various “pure” positions are too self-righteous for me, too non-scientific. So I think a program of “bold and persistent experimentation” as Franklin D. Roosevelt put it once, is a good process for getting along and trying to improve the situation and avoid a mass extinction event, which we are now perilously close to causing. Market fundamentalism is a pure idea that has failed badly but still controls far too much of our work and thinking, for instance. So I often find myself telling stories about this kind of conflict between pure and pragmatic, and about the need for open-minded approaches to our problems." (5–6)

"As a science fiction writer, it’s always seemed to me that a potential weakness of the genre is its abstract quality, the way it can come mostly out of theory and out of previous books, rather than from experience. I felt I could counteract that potential weakness by writing out of my experience as much as I could manage, given that I was always working under a compulsion to put my stories in the future." (9)

"But then we’re in a historical moment where the excesses of capitalism, and also, to a certain extent, the successes of applied science (public health, medicine, engineering), have combined to create an unsustainable relationship between our species and our planet. Capitalism doesn’t care—it has only one directive, which is to maximize profit and shareholder value and thus increase the power of capital and capitalists. It’s a too-simple algorithm, which is now driving us all into a mass extinction event; it’s yet another example of monocausotaxophilia, the love of single causes that explain everything." (12)

"To me it’s best always to call it science fiction, and thus include that whole tradition, with its immense power and also its outlaw status as pop lowlife entertainment. That split into high art and low trash has long since been shattered in the postmodern turn, but insecure people still hold firm to itthere is a desperate middlebrow culture that is still clutching at the highbrow-lowbrow split, you might say, in order to be able to make distinctions easily, and feel accomplished and superior. But science fiction has always transcended that split, and now it’s the realism of our time, the genre that matches our historical moment, in the way that the epic fit classical times, and the stage play Elizabethan England." (18)

"Because the novel is a heteroglossia, a polyvocal exercise in which the novelist choreographs things that everyone is already feeling, the power of any novel is limited—it has to fit the zeitgeist somehow to be read at all, and then it exists as part of a complex feedback loop, and may not so much make change as express it." (21)

August 7, 2019

"when I depict postpluralism as a specific ethos, I am not suggesting that postpluralism ‘goes beyond’ modern pluralism in an epochal and/or structural sense. 2 This disposition contrasts with pluralism, yet, it is still dependent on it. It is this complicated relationship that I aim to capture with the conceptual constellation of the ‘postplural attitude’: I argue that the concept ‘postplural’ highlights a controversy with and a dependency on pluralism. Simultaneously, the concept ‘attitude’ indicates an awareness of being a specific and situated ethos. In this sense a postplural attitude both suggests an affinity for a certain mode of being and offers an intellectual challenge in the Foucauldian sense." (51)

"The idea that a constant exists in the relation between subjectivity and ontology can be seen as an important historical source for the development of modern pluralism—via perspectivism. Perspectivism is basically the idea that different viewpoints afford certain visions of the world, or even that they constitute the realities they envision. In this sense any ‘perspective on reality’ exists ‘on a par’ with other perspectives. Accordingly, any particular world-view is exactly one out of many, a plurality of possible views. This point is of cardinal importance for pluralism. Either perspectives act as constants in relation to a variable world, or the world is constant in relation to variable perspectives. In either case, different world-views are constructed that can then be compared to other word-views. Thus, perspectivism diversifies and pluralizes the world. As such, it is based on the idea of the existence of constants: distinguishable perspectives, or an objective reality. Thus, the idea that something basic or solid constitutes our ontologies and conceptualisations of the self does not oppose pluralism. Rather, this idea is one of its important sources.

Postplurality challenges exactly this idea of constancy, inherent in perspectivism and pluralism. The idea of ‘perspectives’ as such is problematized and fragmented. Another characteristic of the postplural attitude is that it ceases to imagine a universal constant in the relation between subjectivity and ontology." (52–53)

"This interdependence, in my view, is related to the infeasibility of moving entirely beyond important modern conceptualizations. At the very least, it is very hard to imagine that they will stop impacting how we think. Thus, adopting a postplural attitude is not a call for radical transgression, nor is the aim to dissolve a modern attitude. Rather, it is a call for experimentation involving the displacement of modern demarcations, a matter of rethinking dominant conceptualizations." (72)

July 30, 2019

P. 43 "Plants in these stories appear to be more than mechanical bodies reacting automatically to external stimuli. These scientists described the vegetal sensorium as open, responsive, excitable, and attuned to a world full of other interested bodies. These conversations taught me new things about the phenomena of sense, sensation, and sentience."

P.48 "What I have been learning is that in spite of great effort, mechanism and mechanical analogies have failed to fully disenchant the life sciences. All kinds of enchantments, from animisms to anthropomorphisms, keep bubbling up (see Myers 2014 a; 2015).  Indeed, life scientists in the fields of molecular biology and protein modeling have taught me how to see processes of signal transduction, the very molecular phenomena Melissa and I were discussing, not just as the traffic of information from the environment into a cell, but as a complex contact-dance between molecules propagating energies and intensities within and among cells (see Myers 2015). What if signal transduction is not merely a way of transferring ‘information’ from the environment into the cell, but is also a way of ‘transducing’ affects and energies through a body’s excitable cells and tissues?"

P.58-59 " Molecular phenomena set their bodies into motion and, in the process, they became proxies for their molecules. Indeed, I explained, protein modelers not only anthropomorphized their molecules, they also got ‘molecularized’ in the process (see Myers 2015). Melissa was thrilled, ‘The people have been molecularized, Ah! Right’. And I elaborated, ‘These researchers have been so transformed in their intimate encounters with molecules. They learn to move their bodies around like molecules...And so perhaps there is also a kind of “plantification” of the human scientist going on in the plant labs’. "

July 18, 2019
In response to:

P. 4 "Thus, my intention is not so much to consider actions such as crafting, making, or doing as categories that would encompass a set of dissimilar practices (for example, synthetic biology and crocheting with coral and wool yarn (Roosth 2013)). To the contrary, it seems richer to start from the principle that making refers to a plurality of activities, each one having its own specific traits and shedding light on different aspects of life. The goal of this article is to offer a first look at this diversity by recalling that the notion of technique, which is quite vast, refers to a set of practices that are highly diverse and sometimes complementary but never reducible to one another. Techniques of the body, cognitive techniques, craftwork, construction, manufacturing, production, engineering, technology, artistic techniques, and bricolage are all activities that allow humans to intervene in the world, sometimes in order to modify their relations to other living beings using specific modalities."

P. 8 " My goal, rather, is to examine how conceptions of life orient concrete practices. The technicist metaphor does not only provide plausible scenarios to explain the apparition of phenomena linked to life: it is also very actively applied to act on living beings. Thus, the connection between conceptions of life and technical activities works in both ways. If vital processes can be treated as analogous to technical processes, in return, technical processes are mobilized in order to act on living beings."

P. 31 "My goal in this article has been to begin to explore the diversity of techniques that humans have developed to act on the living, as well as to understand the specific characteristics of the vital processes associated with this diversity. The domains of crafting, modes of (re)production, selective breeding, technology, engineering, tinkering, and art all represent agentive configurations that involve specific relations to the living. In truth, this is above all a heuristic and methodological distinction. In fact, it seems that these domains themselves refer to very heterogeneous techniques, while similar techniques are sometimes used in very different projects. In any case, certain techniques—cognitive techniques, techniques of the body—seem to be present in all these domains. "

July 18, 2019

P. 61 "However, when the human body is used in a new way in a partial condition, it also acquires new connectivities to other bodies, institutions, and individuals. It creates new connections beyond previous conditions, and this process of reassembling the body can be involved in the reorganization of social relationships. Relationships inside and outside the body are becoming increasingly complicated, so it is important to face the fact that technological interventions in the body raise, not only moral questions, but also questions of a new social order that can never be properly comprehended as long as it is based on mechanical or natural metaphors of the body."

P. 68 "Seen in this light, a body can have multiple personalities, and then personality is a concept that is defined according to the practices and experiences after organ transplantation. Therefore, it is supposed that the organ and the body itself have an undifferentiated state before they are actualized as individual matter—a ‘pre-personalized state’ of the body. This state of the body as multiplicity, and materiality as well, can never be reduced to a specific social category. The gift relationship is experienced at this moment when the actors experience their bodies in their own ways, whether imaginary or material. The state of the body is not given in advance but emerges through the practices after transplantation."

P. 71 "The organ itself is multiple: it can be considered as a self, an other, or as something anonymous and abstract. There is no place for such experiences if we think of organ transplantation in the light of the individualistic ways of understanding body and person that widely pervade the modern medical system. Without these apparently irrational experiences, there remains only a generalized exchange model of organs. And that model can never explain the way both donor families and recipients gather at the events and the reason why such events continue to be organized."