Monday, April 8, 2013

Ecologies of the Inhuman: The Fallacious Individual

Allow me to pose a question: What is it?

It doesn't matter what the "it" is - a thought, a rock, a tomato, a suspension bridge. Think of something and define it in the simplest terms possible.

Did you think of what it isn't? If I asked you to define a tomato, would your answer be "a tomato is not an apple"? Probably not. Yet that is exactly what we do every time we think of ourselves or other entities as "individuals."

Individual. It's a word that we use to express an idea of singular existence - especially in regards to a particular person. From the medieval Latin in dividere, "not divided." Not only is this a definition by negative, which is a particularly terrible way to express something, but according to one of the running themes at "The Ecologies of the Inhuman" symposium, it's also patently false. We are, as I will term it, "relationals." The essence of our existence is relative to something else, no matter how much we try to define it away. I am a father, a teacher, a student, a swordsman, and any of a myriad of other definable terms; but only because of my relationship to the other side of those terms, regardless of physical proximity. I am a father because I have that relationship to a child, whether she is with me or not. I am a swordsman even when not physically fencing. I am a student even when not in the classroom.

Alfred Siewers would have us "let trees be trees," as they are both transcendent and immanent. Valerie Allen notes that "matter has sufficiency." Alan Montroso asserts the agency of the inhuman - that use defines a perspective of relationship. Yet taken together, we must realize that these arguments form a holistic ontology wherein if everything has its own perspective, and that perspective is relative to another entity's agency or existence  then nothing is truly individual. "Letting trees be trees" intimates that humans have some power to affect the trees that changes them fundamentally; which we can't possibly do, because what a tree truly is is a matter of perspective and relationship both from the vantage of the tree, and the things it interacts with. Because all matter has both sufficiency and agency, then differentiation can only happen through interaction; the illusion of individuality relies on the perspective of the relational.

This is the miasma that we exist in - James Smith's "Fluid" as well as Steve Mentz's "Shipwreck." We are fundamentally interconnected, existing in a constant state of flux, where agency itself may be completely irrelevant, as the intentional (or even unintentional) results of the actions and movement of everything change constantly.

A bird nests in a tree in my backyard. I enjoy its song. A worm lives in the ground. The bird sings, trying to attract a mate, the worm digs its tunnel, and I decide to build a bird feeder. The worm changes the fabric of the ground, making it easier to be found and eaten by the bird. I cut a limb from the tree to make a bird feeder, scaring the bird into hunting elsewhere. The tree seals the wound I made and traps more water in the ground, making it easier for the worm to dig, and easier for me to hammer a post in the ground. My hammering collapses part of the tunnel the worm made, disturbing it. The bird feeder then attracts more birds, who not only don't hunt the worm, but congregate and find mates. The worm lives to continue to fertilize the ground for the tree, which grows stronger and now supports more birds. At some point during this entire exercise, the intentions of each participant were disturbed, changing the agency of each entity as they both affected and were affected by the situation. I am still me, yet now I am a bird watcher. The bird is now a mate as well as a bird. The worm is still alive, oblivious as I am to the fact that I saved its life, and the tree is now physically different;both wounded and stronger, yet still a tree. My car now has a LOT more bird dirt on it that I have to wash. We are all the centers of our own perspective, but none of us are the center of agency for the state of things as they now are. We have each played a part in redefining each other.

This, I believe, is the essence of an object oriented ontology, beautifully realized not in any one of the papers of the "Ecologies" symposium, but (intentionally or not) illustrated by the relationships of the papers to each other. As are we all, because only the universe we live in can truly to be seen as "individual," "in dividere." Our existence, our very essence, is fundamentally relational.

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