Exhibition Essays

Spilled brains / synthetic circuits

December 2016

Do trees hold the un-sacred promise of revolution?

Amalia Louisson

Revolution must start with a shift to accept the messiness of our social and natural reality. This is a call for a world-view that takes ontology seriously. An approach that takes ontology seriously has to be prepared to open human patterning of the world to non-human input, which involves putting aside holistic control of cybernetic loops. Although we (humans) have endured a long history of seeking control over the natural world, we would benefit from opening ourselves to chaos.

Hannah Hallam-Eames, Spilled brains / synthetic circuits, 2016. Screenshot courtesy of the artist.

Hannah Hallam-Eames, Spilled brains / synthetic circuits, 2016. Screenshot courtesy of the artist.

A human patterning of the world

Humans, at least in Western nations, have an incessant desire for security, so much so that we have created a false veil of security and order—the symbolic order.1 This symbolic order seeks to render the world coherent. To exert a mask of predictability we categorise and order the world, asserting ownership and pretending to posses a sense of control. Our epistemic relationship to objects and nature has accordingly been one of representation, residing in the simple categorisation of distinct entities (i.e. tree, flower, plant, green) that neatly pull the natural world into the symbolic order.

Ontological theorist Eva Hayward argues that our attempts to categorise and control arrive from a deep terror of unpredictability and chaos-consequent death. We order trees because it humanises the forest, killing our fantasies of creatures lurking in the shadows, unnamed. In naming we aim to blindfold death. As Hayward puts it, without naming, we partake in an “uncanny confrontation with organisms that seemed to blend the boundaries between life and death, plant and animal, heaven and hell—truly denizens of the deep.”2

Humans have obsessively turned to cybernetic organisms—particularly to computers and other virtual spaces—in an attempt to make the world a more predictable and stable place, to exchange the chaos of the natural world with systematic order. While a cybernetic loop refers to any self-correcting, goal-orientated human system (including built and non-built systems, like human conversations, learning, adhering to social codes and so on), a cybernetic organism refers specifically to human-built cybernetic loops (for instance a computer, electrical networks, and virtual spaces). As a human-related system, a cybernetic loop acts as a self-regulating loop: it must have a goal in mind and be able to recognise the success or failure of its actions in relation to that goal, in order to re-steer its failures towards that objective. This self-regulating trait of cybernetic loops is the reason that cybernetic organisms are said to hold a degree of autonomy (although cybernetic organisms are usually intended to remain within a particular code/direction). A cybernetic circuit can also absorb new input/information/data into its loop. The cybernetic loop of a cybernetic organism itself isn’t supposed to buckle or fold under the continuous fresh content, but to absorb it into its system in a predicable manner so that although the content may change, the structure of the loop itself remains constant.3

The symbolic order has been characterised as a system of connecting epistemic cybernetic loops, where societal knowledge acts as a network of self-correcting systems, reaching towards a communal goal of predictability. However, as Jenny Edkins points out, this symbolic order is necessarily marked by lack—it is impossible to fully categorise our chaotic world.4 The potential thus exists for cybernetic loops and organisms to shift direction and code as a result of continuous fresh content. If arriving from a perspective that acknowledges the significant role of non-human entities, the circuit’s shift in direction makes sense—non-human entities hold influence over experiences, including cybernetic loops.

Edkins, the author of Trauma and the Memory of Politics (2013) explains that we have become psychologically inept for dealing with the excess and insecurity that breaks through the veil of the symbolic order, having spent a lifetime convincing ourselves of the validity of the predicable. Think of the last time that you experience an earthquake. Such “events produce a moment of openness”5 and pushes a radical rethinking of values (i.e. who cares about material value when friends and family may be in danger). Edkins claims that it is politically important to remain with the moments of chaotic openness because it creates a radical break in our everyday ordering that asks us to re-evaluate what we think we know. Hannah Hallam-Eames’s cybernetic organisms produce, and remain with, such moments of openness;

I was really interested in cybernetics because it was a multiple-way partnership to successfully control the out-of-control ‘Other’—bodies and nature and things that are needlessly quantified. I wanted to create loops in a more non-hierarchical way, and decentre capitalist and colonial structures of control to re-centre loops at a new point. I would usually start each machine with a mapped idea, and would follow these ingrained stages of transformation. But the map would quickly disintegrate and reshape during each new machine’s birth. The more that I tried to map it out, the more anxious I became, because each machine would fail to fulfil its intended purpose.

I decided, maybe out of anxiety or laziness, to let the loop take a more chaotic form, and embrace the failures of the machines. I still feel a sense of disappointment and dread each time a machine fails. Eventually I would reconcile with the fact that my loops were much more uncontrollable than usual loops, and become relaxed and interested in what the loops themselves had produced (out of my control).6

A non-human patterning of the world 

Botanist and academic theorist Michael Pollan discusses how plants also create their own ordering of the world that sits both in parallel and in contradiction to our own world ordering, presenting an example of how non-human patterning can unsettle and disturb our epistemic and cybernetic loops. Pollan traces the way in which plants have evolved in a manner that entices mobile species (bees, humans, elephants and so on) to transfer their seeds from place to place through providing those species with what they desire: “Through trial and error these plant species have found that the best way to induce animals—bees or people, it hardly matters—to spread their genes.”7 As humans have become such a pervasive force in evolution, plant fitness has become tied to how well animals and plants are able to play on/with that force: “The species that have spent the last ten thousand years figuring out how best to feel, heal, clothe, intoxicate and otherwise delight us have made themselves some of nature’s greatest success stories.”8 Pollan points to how apples, potatoes, cannabis, and wheat have succeeded in re-patterning: the apple entices us with sweetness, cannabis with intoxication, and so on. 

What’s significant about Pollan’s hypothesis is how he points to the potential alternate patterning that plants employ as distinct from human patterning. Plants pattern the world through desire, forming self-correcting loops that redirect in relation to that desire and are steered by chaos. Plant patterning thus breaks the perceived binary between order and chaos. Pollan’s Botany of Desire (2002) helps us imagine a plethora of non-human entities that pattern the world for their own needs, all potentially breaking down the distinction between order and chaos, security and vulnerability, prediction and death. The patterning of material and natural entities shape us as much as we aim to categorise them (the plant rendering humans as useful, but not as useful as the bee).

Ontic material patterning (plant or otherwise) seeps into our symbolic veil, unable to fit smoothly into simple categorisations. Due to our fixation on avoiding death and the unknown, we turn a blind eye to such alternative material patterning and demonise the natural world, rendering such leakages as aiming for the “potential dethronement of man.”9 The uncontrollable forces of the natural world label it “a cursed world… full of monsters lurking… ready to wreak mayhem.”10 The upshot of our suppressed paranoia of chaos, of our attempts to humanise the non-human world, is a warped perception of reality that sacredises the human and ignorantly ignores the material ‘Other.’

Offering valuable insight to the non-human patterning thesis, Levi Bryant’s Democracy of Objects (2011) sets out to illustrate that non-human entities hold as much influence over events as humans, calling for a rethinking our anthropocentric understanding of ‘autonomy’ that would act as a source for reordering our (non-human) political imagination.11 Anthropocentric understandings of autonomy require consciousness, perceiving humans as conscious and thus able to choose, and non-human entities as unconscious and detached from autonomy. However, Bryant points out that the influence of non-human entities over our social and natural worlds is so significant that it should be considered ‘autonomous’. For example, weather has a significant impact on all entities, regardless of consciousness (causing drought, floods, enabling crops to grow, plants to live, shifting moods, and so on).

Bryant thus calls for an ontological understanding of autonomy that perceives objects as existing in and of themselves, “each with their own specific powers and capacities,”12 and works against privileging one entity (like humans) as holding more dignity than another, including “entities as diverse as mind, language, cultural and social entities, and objects independent of humans such as galaxies, stones, quarks, tardigrades and so on.”13

Leaving from Bryant’s case that non-human entities hold significant influence over the patterning of the world, and from Pollan’s hypothesis of plant patterning, I suggest that we open our cybernetic loops to the input of non-human entities, including perhaps creating messy and inconsistent loops that are more open to developing new codes in confronting external information. To envision life past the symbolic veil, a fundamental rethinking of the relationship between subject, object and cybernetic loops is required, including disassembling the visions that hold human patterning as sacred over other material patterning. Revolutionaries who want to break cycles of predictability and order should thus open their political ideas and values to the influence of non-human entities.

Revolution 

Planned results are laced with inconsistencies because none of said machines prioritise instruction. The input of the macrocarpa would usually partially take over what I had initially intended of my cybernetic loops, at least to the point that it would shift past my goal towards its own. The insight from my machines prompted me to reflect upon my desire to commodify and quantify, not only other things but myself and my body—how I unconsciously formed personal cybernetic loops that self-regulated my actions in line with an idea of productivity and societal order. So I guess my machines taught me that such ordering loops could be loosened.14

A turn to ontically-open cybernetic loops involves subverting control to what we perceive to be the grotesque. The grotesque is where lies the revolution of trees and where we need to locate resistance; between the sacred air and the earthly nourishment of dirt. Mikhail Bakhtin speaks of the necessity of setting times aside to undermine hierarchy.15 Bakhtin pleas and pledges for the grotesque, of flipping what we traditionally hold as sacred—the air, the mind, spiritual, ideal and the abstract—for a grotesque sacred that cherishes the earth, the dirt, the genital organs and the belly. It is presented not in a private, egotistic form, severed from the other spheres of life, but as something wholly public.

Bakhtin reminds us of medieval medieval carnivals that were dedicated to flipping our sense of the world upside down. The carnival undermined hierarchy through replacing the King with the clown. The carnival cherished getting wasted in public in order to degrade your comrades. The grotesque focuses on continual degradation so as to bury the sacred in order to bring forth something new, continually regenerating the self as an unfinished body. In Bakhtin’s words, “one might say that carnival celebrated temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from the established order; it marked the suspension of all hierarchical rank… and prohibitions.”16 Everything was reborn from the “philosophical and utopian character of… laughter.”17

Today our carnival involves replacing order with chaos and consequent birth. We must return to our bellies, to the decaying earth and the non-human to enable the birth of a new era. We must set carnivalised time aside to privilege the order set by trees, holding sacred the line it breaks between order and chaos, letting the information of their loops spill and seep us into a new direction—a direction where we are less afraid of the unknown, of insecurity, of what is “unsettled and unsettling.”18 Perhaps then we can see who privileges from the idea of order.

Hallam-Eames’ transformation machines celebrate this carnival, straddling the well-worn line between human and nature, and chaos and order. Her machines represent a break from typical cybernetic organisms because they are open to a non-human input that shapes the direction of the loop alongside her. Hallam-Eames accepts the “errors” in her maps and machines, the disruption and re-patterning by external material forces—the wind, the wax, the macrocarpa, the ash. Hallam-Eames further opens herself and her body to this material input, learning to loosen her grip on self-control and partially relinquishing herself to material patterning. Like Hallam-Eames, post-order revolutionaries should also subject themselves to the carnival laughter of the trees that “asserts and denies, buries and revises,”19 finding an ambivalent utopia that is grounded in the dirt.

  • 1.

    Jenny Edkins, Trauma and the Memory of Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013); Jenny Edkins, “Security, Cosmology, Copenhagen” Contemporary politics 9 no. 4 (2003): 365-366.

  • 2.

    Eva Hayward, “Sensational Jellyfish: Aquarium Affects and the Matter of Immersion,” Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 23 no. 3 (2012): 166-7.

  • 3.

    Donna Haraway, Manifestly Haraway (Minneapolis: University of Minesota Press, 2016).

  • 4.

    Edkins “Security, Cosmology, Copenhagen,” 366.

  • 5.

    Jenny Edkins, “Ground Zero: Reflections on Trauma,” Journal for Cultural Research 8 no. 3 (2004): 253.

  • 6.

    Hannah Hallam-Eames, in discussion with the author, 1st November 2016.

  • 7.

    Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire, (Toronto: Random House, 2002): xv.

  • 8.

    Ibid., xvi.

  • 9.

    E. Ray Lancaster (1880) in Hayward “Sensational Jellyfish,” 166.

  • 10.

    Hayward “Sensational Jellyfish,” 165.

  • 11.

    Levi Bryant, The Democracy of Objects (Michigan: Open Humanities Press, 2011).

  • 12.

    Ibid., 20.

  • 13.

    Ibid., 18.

  • 14.

    Hannah Hallam-Eames, in discussion with the author, 1st November 2016.

  • 15.

    Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World (Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1984). (Rejected for publication in 1940).

  • 16.

    Ibid., 10.

  • 17.

    Ibid., 12.

  • 18.

    Gillian Rose, The Broken Middle: Out of our Ancient Society (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1992): 155

  • 19.

    Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, 12.