An essential part of the history of symbiosis will be to formulate germs not simply as “disease-causing” but as “life-giving” entities.
— Keith Ansell Pearson, Viroid Life, 134
There are diseases hidden in ice, and they are waking up. As global temperatures rise, even the deeply frozen soil beyond the arctic circle begins to melt. The disappearance of permafrost thousands of years old does not only accelerate the seething global warming feedback loop — it awakens long-dormant agents from the depths of time. The freshly exposed geological strata are cryogenic chambers cradling ancient viruses and bacteria that have been in stasis for ages. Frozen bacteria can remain alive up to millions of years,1 so we might soon face a menace far beyond the scale of our imagination.
Not only are our bodies unprepared for this deep time attack, it also challenges the very temporal and spatial limits of our thought. We have unwillingly unleashed something both too tiny and too vast for our mind and body to comprehend. As a shard of a different reality, its threat creeps over the human world and the illusory stable order it has established. In light of these facts, the contemporary COVID-19 pandemic offers a glimpse into an uncertain future-world of non-human planetarily distributed powers: Emerging from melting ice and disbalanced forest ecosystems, they infiltrate our bodies, social structures, information systems and capital flows. There’s nothing to grasp. The world becomes increasingly unthinkable.
Planetary disasters are specters of extinction. Eugene Thacker writes that it is exactly in the face of climate-change caused catastrophes or global pandemics, when the world reminds us it doesn’t exist for us only. In such extreme moments, we encounter the ghostly figure of the “world-without-us,” a gloomy shadow of the possible end of the human species.
With the awakening of deeply frozen bacteria, we are dealing with something that exceeds our existence by millions of years, showing us thereby not only a possible future of the world-without-us, but also a very certain past reaching far before we ever existed to attempt to think the world as “ours” in the first place. It is a living “ancestral statement”2 of the independence of (the nonhuman) world from our thoughts, wishes or clamorous claims. We shall disappear and we will not be mourned.
But this apocalyptic imagery also hides an important opportunity: Through the very confrontation of our (in)ability to understand the world, we can perhaps begin to realise how much we have been forcing it to conform to all-too-human categories and exploiting it to our own ends. This grey zone of doubt is therefore also a “flickering void of possibility”3 forcing us to drastically reconsider how we think and act upon the world, as well as to re-evaluate the place and nature of our own species within it.
Many contemporary catastrophes are flagrant holes in the long worn-out image of the world at human hands prevailing in (western) philosophy up until recently, shedding light on its shortsightedness and egoism. Born in the enlightenment era, the ideal of “Man” as a rational universal subject co-constituted our overall attitude towards non-human beings and the “outer” world. A relatively young invention of the “(hu)man” as a separate chosen entity free to fulfil its goals came hand in hand with the subjugation of natural and social Others. But the “outside” seems to bite us back more and more often, reminding us we have never been that unique, nor independent.
From Nietzsche on, the anti-humanist tendencies showed us that a fixed human subject is a social delusion that needs to be dissolved. This necessary “death of man” was among others endorsed by Michel Foucault, who famously proposed that “man would be erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea”.4 Paradoxically, today we begin to see that this metaphorical death is perhaps the only way out of literal human extinction. The former ideal of Man is indefensible and needs to be redefined fundamentally. It takes killing the Man to save humanity.
Events such as global pandemics and “natural” disasters uncloak the hypocrisy of man’s steadfast domination over the planet, but they also reveal the composite nature of our very existence. More than ever, we are entangled in a series of nets of inherently global “phenomena”5 that cannot be reduced to single actions or agents of neither solely human, nor natural or technical “origin”. Is COVID-19 a natural event? Is it societal, technical, economical, financial or environmental? Perhaps all of them and none at the same time.
Pandemics are exceptionally clear examples of our “posthuman condition”: They are both micro and macro, outside and inside, dead and alive. They live inside us and from us, but also exist as a planetary-scale growing organism(s). In Cronenbergian imagery: “They came from within”6, but they are also “out there”. Inhuman forces tied to human bodies, making us alien to our very selves. As such, they radically challenge our conceptions of “what exactly is the basic unit of common reference for our species.”7 We can no longer divide the world between “us” and “them”, because there never was any genuine “us” in the first place. Recent discoveries showed that our gut contains up to 1.5 kg8 of microbiome bacteria, outnumbering human cells by a ratio of 10:19. They are not really part of our body’s anatomy, yet they are incorporated in the functioning of human “remembering, feeling and thinking”10 more than we have ever imagined. The “bacterial cogito” is the final nail in the coffin of the remnants of Cartesian mind-body dualism — there never was an isolated supreme human mind untouched by “outer” conditions, insides and outsides are arbitrary and we cannot be sure it’s even us who is doing all the thinking.
We are living in radically posthuman times of planetarily distributed networks of ever-fleeting flows of contacts, exchanges, transfers, infections and information. “Boundaries do not sit still” 11 here. A human being is a nexus of “intra-actions”12 emerging from territorial and discursive configurations. No-one is an island, but — as Gilbert Simondon already observed13 — always in the networks of mutual co-shaping and meaning-making. The self-centred humanist illusion of the universal subject must therefore be replaced with a conception of subjectivity that would take into account “the relational dependence on multiple non-humans and the planetary dimension as a whole”.14
“Who shall say that a man does see or hear? He is such a hive and swarm of parasites that it is doubtful whether his body is not more theirs than his, and whether he is anything but another kind of ant-heap after all. May not man himself become a sort of parasite upon the machines? An affectionate machine-tickling aphid?”
— Samuel Butler, Erewhon
Viruses and bacteria operate in systems reaching across bodies and environments. As Deleuze and Guattari have it, “we form a rhizome with our viruses, or rather our viruses cause us to form a rhizome with other animals.”15 Moods, thoughts and diseases flow through supposedly stable barriers, carried by germs in ever-changing large-scale patterns. Even our genetic information can be altered by their transfers: We die but also evolve from “polymorphous and rhizomatic flus”16 and their neverending exchanges.
It was already Spinoza who observed that an individual (body) is a composition of relations, 17 stretched across many scales down to the smallest particles of the molecular level. And nowadays more than ever, the human body strikes as an obsolescent concept, “old-fashioned anthropomorphic engine, not quite suited to contain the fast-moving intelligence of our technologies”.18 To keep up, we have to open certain idea of subjectivity to correspond to the complexity of agency in the world interwoven with biological and digital viruses. Existence doesn’t belong to “man” only. But isn’t he dead anyway?
We are part of constant multiple symbioses, something else always co-shaping what we might (not) evolve into. “The crucial question is one of becoming: what are [we] changing into, what is growing out of [us]?” 19 We are always evolving along and through non-human agents whether we like it or not. It is an unstoppable “a-parallel evolution” — Deleuze and Guattari’s wasp and orchid mutually infecting each other. Bernard Stiegler argues that there was never anything as a genuine “human” in the first place: the evolution of wo/men itself being inseparably interlinked with the evolution of technical beings. We might think of mechanical “tools” as of “noble fruits of our thought”, but according to anthropologist André Leroi-Gourhan, human evolution may have not even started with intelligence.20 Following Gourhan, Stiegler claims that our very cognitive capacities were, and still are, enabled only through the usage of technological artefacts with whom we are entangled in a co-evolutionary process of mutual “transindividuation”. Even our memory is layered in technological “organs”, “retentional devices” always already co-constituting human thinking. As Donna Haraway remarked: “We have never been human.” 21 There is no “natural” consciousness untouched by technologies — Both human and technical beings are seen as parts of an exchange process between technical and biological organs in an entangled circulation of influences and information. One huge biomechanical body stretched in time and space.
Human organisms and “their” artificial prostheses have a transductive relationship which makes it impossible to say whether humans invented technological artefacts or whether they are themselves inventions of artificial organisms: “[T]he what invents the who just as much as it is invented by it.”22 Tied in the co-evolutionary process of exteriorisation and interiorisation, we are probably not masters of tools any less than of animals or stones. Or, as Sadie Plant asks: “[Are] we their parasites? [Are] they ours?” 23 We can never know. Simondon emphasized that technical beings possess an agency going against their too frequent conceptualisation as mere tools seen, following Heidegger’s classical concept of Zuhandenheit, as something ready-at-(human)hand, existing only for us to achieve our goals. Technics have their evolution too and it is in our best interest to recognize it, if we don’t want to be left behind. Because, in Anne Alombert’s words — we might in the end be nothing more than a “secretion of artificial organs”.24
The same as an individual never exists independently from its network of relations, neither do humans evolve apart from technical (but in the same sense also many other types of) beings. What if tools reproduce as orchids do? To let them into the culture of “Man” is therefore to acknowledge the composite nature of human beings themselves and to be conscious of human interdependence on other processes that might often be distributed in time and space beyond human life-span or imagination, but which condition the very existence of “human” culture as such.
To grasp this posthuman mode of existence we can’t focus on fixed subjects, but on complex active “intra-actions” between micro and macro levels of individuals in their inseparable relations. Because we are all always already infiltrated. And if there is no genuine “human”, perhaps what we need is a philosophy for bacteria.
“To be one is always to become with many.”
— Donna Haraway, When Species Meet
If contemporary “viroid life” teaches us something, it is therefore that we all inhabit a radically shared “milieu”. That is true not only about human culture as a set of modes and habits of human beings (as in Simondon’s usage), but also about culture in the sense of art. Because if there is no purely human culture, there is also no human-only art. As Rosi Braidotti argues, “art becomes necessarily inhuman in the sense of nonhuman in that it connects to the animal, the vegetable, earthy and planetary forces that surround us.”25 As any other practice on this fragile planet, it involves intensive dealings with influences, encounters and (modes of) beings, who can’t be reduced to simple tools we “use” and throw away. We might carve them, but they shape us back. “The things we make, make us.” 26 Nothing can be explained alone.
“A tool or a machine is an organ, and organs are tools or machines,”27 wrote Georges Canguilhem. In our inherently bio-mechanical existence in this “posthuman digital universe”,28 there is no way of telling the “master” and the “tool”. Everything is subjected to a “widespread practice of mutual contamination between organic matter — anthropomorphic or not — and electronic circuitry.”29 It is a symbiosis in which viruses travel between flesh and machine and which calls for a conception of subjectivity that would correspond to this “complex mess of being alive”.30 And art practice can perhaps be a vessel to navigate in these unclear waters, exactly because it involves strong interaction between human agents and biological and technological organisms. But for it to fulfil this function, it must understand them not as tools-instruments, but as tools-collaborators, tools-co-creators, tools-companions on a shared journey.
Art is very often straddling the borderline of what we can attempt to name or imagine. As a sort of speculative or “experimental cartography”,31 it always steps into the dark of unknowing, touching the shady shapes beyond the reach of sight with its fragile curious fingertips. Following Deleuze and Guattari, Braidotti notes that on its rambles in the unthinkable, art often reaches the limits of life and “confronts the horizon of death”.32 As such it might have a crucial power to look upon the face of that which we cannot name or see — be it the world before or after human species or “just” a hyperobject of a global pandemic too vast for us to understand.
If we want art to help us sail the stormy sea of any of the present posthuman crises, we have to understand its composite nature and pay attention to other-than-human agents co-constituting its nets. Then we can perhaps get closer to what Eugene Thacker calls the greatest challenge philosophy faces today: “Comprehending the world in which we live as both a human and a non-human world and of comprehending this politically.”33 This comprehension can often lie beyond simple explanations or sudden argumentational twists, but grows slowly out of everyday care and practice (not only but also) in art.
Because in order to maintain the necessary exchanges, the ties between hyper-connected organs of our psycho-socio-technical34 body must be nurtured. Bernard Stiegler emphasizes the importance of the sense of collectivity, (knowledge-)sharing and responsibility that are necessary for the human society to further evolve along other beings. Because as we again find already in Spinoza, we never become truly autonomous by solitariness but always through the complexity of relations we engage in.35 And these relations go deep down, far below the molar human-societal level to the scale of the bacteria, the viruses, the molecules ….
In this light, Stiegler’s proposition that organology should be at the same time also pharmacology36 strikes us as even more interesting and urgent. But the care we should all take part in to heal our wounds cannot be reduced to a medical prescription or a set of rules to obey — it is a mindset that can be realized in every spectrum of human life, art practice included. Art could help us to open the dusty philosophical concepts of “subjectivity” and “the individual” to the complexity of actual mode(s) and scales of existence in the posthuman world of planetary transfers of people, goods, elements, data and diseases. It can bring attention to where it is momentarily needed, and, as Stiegler also notes: To pay attention is to take care. 37
It is exactly when we give our care and attention to other beings and objects, when art exceeds the logic of reproductive mirroring of the old world and engages in production of the new ones. Art practice becomes transformative (“What if one became animal or plant through literature?”)38, pharmaceutical/pharmacological and healing when it allows us to shed stiff categories and sets us on a path of mutual transformation of the environment we inhabit and concepts we create as well as our very subjectivity. In this sense, art is not a molar societal set of products and activities, but a general ethical aesthetical mode of existence within the world inhabited by active agents including tools-partners, tools-organs. If we want them to contribute to the much needed (re)definition of the “posthuman subjectivity”39 and to render us “responseable”40 to all crises to come, we must produce-with and become-with them rather than use them to reproduce the image of the world as it is. Because, as Deleuze and Guattari observed, reproduction is always hierarchical, which is why we do not need more frozen images of the world, but a resilient map that would allow us to change scales from the planetary to the bacterial and back. Art is often involved in exactly this kind of experimental exploration, providing us with a map on and with which we can perhaps produce images-organs that break binaries and wor(l)ds that might open portals to other than gloomy futures. Perhaps there is much more to be awakened than diseases.
by Noemi Purkrábková and Jiří Širůček