edited and published by THE ΤΕΛΟΣ SOCIETY
Whenever I share the bed with a human, I hear a gurgling sound coming from my guts.I remember this happening since I moved to Athens for my studies, eight years ago. It occurs only with humans, no matter if we are friends or sexual partners. This airy - more likely eerie - sound of fluids circulating inside my empty bowels keeps me from falling asleep for an hour or so. A feather of trust giggles my intestines and, sometimes, my sleepmate’s too. It feels uncomfortable at first, but it gets us out of the observer’s quasi-individual, quasi-whole being and into perceptions of intimate livings. The producers of the monotonous sound coming from my woofer meet another set of multiplayers and form a symphony of experimental noise music. It’s an egalitarian sign, and we laugh hearing it. The gut microbiota within us activate their dynamic functions as they try to push the boundaries. We don’t become One, we don’t wish to anyway. It’s the binding of our in between openness that becomes sound before we fall asleep.
Maybe the gut microbiota are in slow pace when I share the bed with animals because my observer’s protective shield is already off. I'm not afraid to be silly and play in a childish, non-adult manner. The need for this dimension of games feels unsurpassable for reaffirming trust and intimacy. It's just that with humans it feels like being among strangers, in the adult manner we're playing - with words -, whereas with animals play is among companions. Trusting takes the image of a continuous, fluid-like unstable, quasi-floating circuit. Except for recharging it with energy that keeps all the mates within the tracks, there is no other end-point than dying together with intimate companions and strangers.
This is a story about embodied knowledges, entanglements, guts and the microbiota who live there. “Live there” might stick a bit anthropomorphised as an expression. A better term to describe it is in use in evolutionary biology. Symbiosis, coming from the greek verb συμβιώνω [symviόno], means ‘living together’. Symbionts are those who live together: lichens and trees, insects, animals - including humans - and bacteria, friends and strangers. Same and different species that have physical interaction, even for a limited time of their life, are symbionts.
A debate between auto- and sym
Bacteria, like the ones found in guts and in most unimaginable places and times are the motors of life on earth. Symbionts themselves in dynamic relatings of intra-actions, they expanded their boundaries by partially assimilating, partially digesting each other and by this process they invented the nucleated cell - otherwise known as eukaryotic cell. The bedrock of evolution for all animals, plants, fungi and protoctists.1 Bacteria were the loves of life of Lynn Margulis who disclosed that long-lasting physical association between strangers and the fusion of genomes are, primarily, the originating processes of viable, stable, complex systems of organisms. She gave microbiological evidence and substantiated this bacterial process that invented the nucleus cell, which she named symbiogenesis, or else known as endosymbiosis, in her paper On the Origin of Mitosing Cells. 2 The paper was rejected by fifteen journals before being accepted and published in 1967.3 Her concept was mostly considered far-fetched and it was faced with hostility by the biologists majority of that time. Themselves neo-Darwinians, they had a “survival of the fittest” approach to evolutionary biology, that favors some species over others by natural selection and claims genetic mutation, therefore inheritance denial, of the favorable species. These approaches make the image of a higher-order-evolution species that are always accelerating at the expense of lower-order species. Lynn Margulis, having her eyes fixed on the inside of things, and not on the heavens, was an ardent critic of neo-Darwinism: “the view of evolution as chronic bloody competition…dissolves before a new view of continual cooperation, strong interaction, and mutual dependence among life forms. Life did not take over the globe by combat, but by networking.”4
She was the first to define the concept of holobionts. Holobionts are symbiotic assemblages that form ecological units and are composed of different species inside them, on them and around them. All of the members contribute in some way to the function of the ecological unit. Animals, their tissues, organs, cells and microbial symbionts are holobionts. So are bees, wasps and flowers. Coral reefs are of the most enigmatic holobionts and major literary work has been, and continues to be, conducted on their symbiotic relatings and the contributions of each symbiont. Holobionts are dynamic, complex, contingent assemblages that insist on staying open to involution with other species and other, already complex enough, holobionts. “They make each other through semiotic-material involution, out of the beings of previous such entanglements.”5
There persists, however, a lot of controversy around perceptions of the holobiont. Contrary to its involutionary inception, it is also theorised as a single, well-defined, bounded unit whose maintenance is arranged by the autopoietic (self-regulatory) principles of its entity as a whole. The debate derives, among other maladaptations, from a misconstruction of the autopoietic concept employed by Margulis. She incorporated the concept when she was collaborating with James Lovelock on the Gaia theory. Even though she writes that “Gaia...is an emergent property of interaction among organisms, the spherical planet on which they reside, and an energy source, the sun,”6 she defines Gaia as autopoietic and self-regulatory. Here, the symbiogenetic inventions of bacteria make a concrete analogy for the origin of Gaia. This could show that autopoiesis merely applied the universalising glue in the construction of a theory about global systems. An extra mechanism that simplified a synecdoche of her work with the complex doings of bacteria. I find this sudden jump she attempted the reason why she had so much pain shaping a Gaia theory. During her lifework she gave substantial energy in scrutinizing the veracity of autopoiesis. Knowing where she would get real responses, she gradually drew her appraisal from bacteria.
It is relevant that, like everyone else in the scientific community, she was introduced to autopoiesis by the biological research of Varela, Maturana and Uribe. In 1974 they published Autopoiesis: the organization of living systems, its characterization and a model, 7 in which they investigated the model of the nucleus cell. Biology works with and is worked by model systems, whatever responses we extract from them “become the center for both scientific and political discussions in contemporary developmental biology.”8 Their article defined the nucleus cell as self-productive and able to proliferate all alone; subsequently, this property was implied for all living organisms. Margulis, on the other hand, developed further the concept and made clear that every entity is primarily autopoietic in order to stay alive. “An organism constantly exchanges its parts, replacing its component chemicals without ever losing its identity… All cells react to external perturbations in order to preserve key aspects of their identity within their boundaries.”9 Without this primary regulating process they would not survive to perform reproduction. Therefore, autopoiesis could be replaced by homeostasis and metabolism without any consequences for the continuation of life.
But the term and framework keeps recurring, this time with an approach of community ecology. Continuing to work with the eukaryotic cells she gave a view of intertwined symbionts whose relatings compose regulation, maintenance and reproduction. In Origin of Sex, co-authored with her son Dorian Sagan, they proposed to dismiss the concept of the “eukaryotic individual” in favor of the “component-autopoietic” intra-actions of the ancestral bacteria contained within the plasma membrane of the cell. “All eukaryotic individuals must reserve, in a form capable of continued reproduction, their genetic components, the remnant bacteria in the combined form of the nucleocytoplasmic, mitochondrial, plastid, and undulipodial genomes. If we accept the cell as a microbial community, the germ plasm is equivalent to component autopoiesis: a complete set of heterologous genomes and their protein synthetic systems contained within a membranous package—not the nuclear membrane but the plasma membrane.”10 They continue that, “We can apply the principles of community ecology directly to the development of the individual.”11 The two sides, bacteria and holobionts - or even maybe Gaia theory -, meet right here in the reaffirmation of the crucial role that inter- and intra-actions among components have. Both for homeostasis and metabolism, and for the “drive of necessarily higher-order forms of community self-production and self-maintenance.”12 This outcome justifies Haraway in her not-so-elaborative replacement of autopoiesis by sympoiesis. It matters what concepts think of concepts. And even though Margulis was sure to include every part and insist on their non-expandable performances, the concept of autopoiesis and its misinterpretations could not but fall in the individualistic pattern that gives more chances for survival and evolution to higher-order forms, claiming them to be biologically autonomous. The controversy and the debates are still around the topic thirty-four years after the substantialization of the sympoietic properties life’s bedrock has.
A mundane act for the un-rest of holobionts
The problem with autopoiesis, concretely, emerges when the entity it characterizes is perceived as a host and all the involved participants are reducted to being depending on it. But, no matter how contingently organized, beings do not precede their relatings. Nothing that has come to exist as a unit can seal off its arrangements and proceed happily to eternal, unmodified, proliferation. That’s a lesson bacteria have taught us. When your existence is at stake, play brings new parties to the meetings. “Auto” combined with “poietic”, when it’s attributed to higher-order forms of organization, is a pure indication of reduction of all the involutions and it presumes immense power for stabilization that, conversely and consequentially, leaves all the participants innocents and without responsibility for any damaging action they might commit.
The feminist point of view and framework in technoscience knowledge productions is generally, even today, characterized as ideologized and biased. The irony of receiving a rejection like this from a science worlding that is almost religious to properties of individuality, hierarchy of species, and anthropogenic mutilation is really funny. Except from passive aggressive, an equally intended position stating that all science and technology is ideologized and biased is the absolutist version of relativism. A zero-sum game in both cases.
A model is a work object - either sex, fungi, or poetry - it requires response-ability. One has to be faithfully intimate with this stranger and be able to embody its view with loving care in order to be response-able. I cannot recite its doings and use it for my purposes without being curious and open-hearted towards its reality. Objective knowledge is situated knowledge according to Donna Haraway. The closest we can get to real knowledge is by getting entangled with. One cannot claim to be something other than her boundaries allow, but boundaries get pushed outwards with inter- and intra-actions. String figures engage us in becomings-with others. Moreover, one should take care of the alterations of the prosthetic embodiments of vision s/he renders in his or her work. “One cannot be either a cell or molecule - or a woman, colonized person, laborer, and so on - if one intends to see and see from these positions critically… Also one cannot relocate in any possible vantage point without being accountable for that movement.”13
After dismissing the idea of single, bounded units, holobionts will maybe get a postmodern look; ready to adhere to other holobionts of their choice and transform altogether. This is more appropriation, than it is ‘natural selection’. The work of the god-eye, the suprematist observer that exacerbates authority over others by assumedly holding a higher positioning. Watching everything from above, the self-divinated observer claims authorship over the beautiful and useful ones. It takes credits for inventing their charismatic capabilities and potentialities. It rashes the ugly and useless ones to the found and lost section and it incubates the rest that it, now, possesses. The god-eye, says Haraway, seems “to have put the myth into ordinary practice. And like the god trick, this eye fucks the world to make techno-monsters.”14 Right away, she cites Zoe Sofoulis who calls this “the cannibaleye of masculinist extra-terrestrial projects for excremental second birthing.”15
This is hardly the case in the end, simply because holobionts rarely have the option of selection. Like bacteria showed us, the fusion of genomes in symbioses is the primary evolutionary motor, followed then by natural selection - with a very modest role kept for mutation which denials genetic inheritance. Holobionts interpenetrate, split, reform and rejoin through partially assimilating, partially indigesting and digesting. They build a diverse monstrous model of viewpoint and practice in place of the individual, masculinist, white, whole, human theories.
Unlike the techno-monsters that assimilate only after a selection of the hypnotizing, addictive, power-inficting, remorse-inducing properties; the female monstrous gaze and living produced by feminist knowledge is a trope for appearances. Multiple partial embodiments, intersections and entanglements make one appear as a monster when she or he renders them tactile. It’s the space of a body, of a writing piece, of an engaged community that embodies diverse prosthetic vision mechanisms. Many different parts comprise these bodies. They invent new kinds of entities in synergy. Monstrous under the male gaze. A mundane act for the un-rest of holobionts.
Showcase of monsters
The monstrous inception and feminist knowledge production of intertwined relatings that affect the livings and dyings of multi-species are a core enitity in the work of Daniela and Linda Dostálková. Linda is a graphic designer and Daniela is a professional photographer specialising in photo-documentation. Together they form a duo of artists, curators, co-authors and commissioners. Since 2016 they are providing services to cultural institutions, and individuals, through Institutional Homeopathy©, an international hybrid social art agency. Their aesthetics and representational strategies slide a gloss of consumerist pleasure on the surface of their work. But then again, from the point of an immersed gaze, this seeming reconciliation with commercial mechanisms is being reversed. The represented agents reveal threatening implications and threatened entanglements that lure one into a critique of the commercial techniques, which build long-lasting structures of gender identity, fetishization of some species and utilization of others. The concept turns into a submerged, but forward, attack towards the consumerist capitalist mechanisms that construct some “charismatic” behaviors and “cute” appearances over the suppression of everything else that they, perpetually, exclude.
Women and animals are the two core agents of the sisters’ work. They exaggeratedly play the roles that appropriation imposes on both of them, while, in an upside-down dimension, they reinforce and demonstrate their in between solidarity. They are moved by the same mundane feelings and desires for coexistence. Prosthetic embodiments are, primarily, prostheses of corporeal sensoriums that get conceptualized through the desire to transmit reasons. Reasons that move response-able actions between intimate companions and strangers, a horizontal affectioning. Gazing from below, while understanding that you are being watched from above, has this very specific string sensation. This ‘above’ is positioned far off from christianity, as the ‘below’ has nothing to do with ethics of contractual reciprocity.
Dostálková sisters work with figures that aren’t shy, they don’t hide in their vulnerability. They expose both a cold, distant immiseration, showcased as a trophy of the subjugating rhetoric; and the monstrous figure of feminist rhetoric along with all its nodes of partial embodiments. In their project Campaigne - exhibited at the Cursor Gallery in Prague, and curated by Edith Jeřábková - the artists along with the help of the third party monster reaffirm the interconnections among women and “uncharismatic” species, wherein they show the consequences that humane hierarchization bears. One implication of the consequences lies in that the monstrous woman trope had emerged even before the inception of feminism; as their interview with Jeřábková reads:
The close associations between women, animals and monstrosity are often linked to romantic ideas and provide a very vital investigative resource of our communication. The stories recounted in novels contribute to the creation of a gender ideology that in our opinion is justified in the case of the protection of animal rights. Generally speaking, women are either marginalised or placed in a subsidiary role, whereas monstrous women in reality occupy the central position in their own stories. We avail ourselves of these positions even though the novel qua genre came into being primarily in order to promote the knightly virtues.16
Daniela and Linda Dostálková spent many years exploring the strategies pursued by animal rights groups in their attempt to inform the general public about the practices of factory farming. “These strategies, however well intended, themselves create monsters because we remain unwilling to face up to reality as such.”17 The livings and dyings of animals in factory farmings are some of the techno-monsters of the cannibaleye. The sight of this extreme utilization is so repelling that a heavy emotional burden is, instantaneously, charged. We grasp feelings of compassion, commiseration and we may engage with substantially critical thoughts. But for how long? As long as it takes to cease definitely the factory farming of mass production? “One of the key characteristics of a monster is its ability to attract and repel.”18 An activist campaign’s sharp-content image that shows the shame, the perpetual mutilation, the long-lasting deanimalisation of farmed animals’ reality, has the same effect. Like being for a while in the naked reality of The Matrix, the shock of mechanization and ultimate immiseration will likely facilitate the retraction to ourselves. Urge us to close our vision so as not to feel pain anymore, nor concern ourselves with response-able thoughts. Safety has been, doomingly, related with individuality and independence. Close within a bounded flatness. Keep mute all the hurting ideas. Another one of the cannibaleye’s techno-monsters emerges right there. We need to un-educate and re-educate ourselves, for we cannot afford any more excremental techno-monster parties.
In their search for alternative, more effervescent, gassy campaigne strategies, Daniela and Linda Dostalkova superimpose the monster of feminist rhetoric upon the techno-monsters of mechanization and fearful individualisation. Two photographs of monster women embody prosthetic parts and visions; creating, thus, a holobionts gaze. These figures demand the space that has been refused to them, along with the acknowledgment of their intrarelatings. But then again, they display an acceptance of their given roles: care and concern. Immersed, as they are, in plant lives of absorption from anywhere; soil, sun, water, even pesticides and hormones, they meddle with whatever the “uncharismatic” species are also meddling with. The female monster could be thought of as too friendly. That’s not undermining. It was friendly already from its inception. What matters is friends with whom? Trusting, long-lasting friendships are complex bonds of a rare kin that work their becomings through semiotic material involution. Things don't appear as sterile and innocent anymore. As the sisters say: “During a crisis, many species that are customarily portrayed as monsters appear in a new light, one that lies outside the notional hermeneutic circle.”19 That's how getting in the muddle looks and feels like. Who could manage to keep clear from the muddle, when it’s found to be bigger and more mortal than we thought; filled with polystyrene, polyvinyl chloride, bisphenol A, uranium, premarin, pesticides and a load of toxic multi-species exchanges?
Even the loves of Lynn Margulis cannot deal with these syntheses. The bacteria in the guts of mealworms and superworms are shown to biodegrade polystyrene, but it’s more likely a fail than a success. Some of the polystyrene gets out of their system as carbon dioxide, while more than half breaks into nano- and micro-plastics 20 which are even more precarious for aquatic and marine environments. Moreover, in this process polystyrene goes under depolymerization which leaves its monomer, styrene, super destabilized. Not able to hold on to the micro- and nano-particles, it sticks to living organisms. 21 Styrene and the rest of toxics, cannot integrate in living systems. Teratogeneses, endocrine disruptions, and reproductive disabilities, among others, are ahead of us. 22 Toxicological managements should try and do more than feed superworms and mealworms, fed with plastic, to factory farming animals and call it zero waste. The coda is that the ones immersed in monstrous appearances, we’ll be there when the future parties arrive; to welcome them and become intimate with them.
1 Along with bacteria (prokaryotes), these are the five kingdoms. Protoctists are “A kingdom of eukaryotes incorporating the algae and the protozoans that comprise the presumed ancestral stocks of the fungi, plant, and animal kingdoms; they lack the developmental pattern stemming from a blastula, typical of animals, the pattern of embryo development typical of plants, and development from spores as in the fungi. Included in Protoctista are the nucleated algae and seaweeds, the flagellated water molds, slime molds, and slime nets, and the protozoa; unicellular, colonial, and multicellular organisms are included, but the complex development of tissues and organs of plants and animals is absent. The term Protoctista replaces the term Protista, which connotes single-celled or acellular organisms, whereas the basal preplant (Protophyta) and preanimal (Protozoa) assemblages incorporated in Protoctista include many multicellular forms, because multicellularity appears to have evolved independently a number of times within these primitive groups.” Farlex Partner Medical Dictionary. S.v. "protoctists." Retrieved October 10 2020 from https://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/protoctists. See Margulis and Schwartz, Five Kingdoms: An Illustrated Guide to the Phyla of Life on Earth (San Francisco: W. H. Freeman and Company, 1982).
2 Lynn Sagan, “On the Origin of Mitosing Cells,” in Journal of Theoretical Biology 14, no. 3 (March 1967), pp. 225-274 (Sagan was the former last name of Margulis, from her ex-husband Carl Sagan).
3 Lynn Margulis “Gaia Is a Tough Bitch,” Chapter 7 in John Brockman, The Third Culture: Beyond the Scientific Revolution (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), pp. 129-151.
4 Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan, Microcosmos: Four Billion Years of Evolution from Our Microbial Ancestors (New York: Summit Books, 1986), pp.14-15.
5 Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2016), p. 60.
6 Lynn Margulis, Symbiotic Planet: A New Look at Evolution (New York: Basic Books, 1998), p. 119.
7 F.G.Varela,H.R.Maturana, R. Uribe, “Autopoiesis: the organization of living systems, its characterization and a model,” in Biosystems 5, no. 4 (May 1974), pp. 187-196.
8 Scott F. Gilbert, “The Adequacy of Model Systems for Evo-Devo: Modeling the Formation of Organisms/ Modeling the Formation of Society,” in Barberousse A., Morange M., Pradeu T. (eds) Mapping the Future of Biology: Evolving Concepts and Theories, vol 266 (Dordrecht: Springer, 2009), p. 57.
9 Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan, Microcosmos, p. 56.
10 Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan, Origins of Sex: Three Billion Years of Genetic Recombination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), pp. 175-6.
11 Ibid, p. 176.
12 Bruce Clarke, “Margulis, Autopoiesis, Gaia,” electronic book review, last modified July 7, 2019, https://electronicbookreview.com/essay/margulis-autopoiesis-gaia/. This essay is drawn from a preliminary version of several sections from Clarke’s book entitled Gaian Systems: Lynn Margulis, Neocybernetics, and the End of the Anthropocene (Minnesota: Minnesota University Press, September 2020).
13 Donna Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Prespective” in Feminist Studies 14, no. 3 (Fall 1988), p. 585.
14 Ibid, p. 581.
15 Zoe Sofoulis, Through the Lumen: Frankenstein and the Optics of Re-origination (Ph.D. diss. University of California at Santa Cruz, 1988).
16 Daniela and Linda Dostalkova, “An Interview with Daniela and Linda Dostalkova,” interview by Edith Jeřábková, Center for Contemporary Arts Prague, May 2019, https://cca.fcca.cz/en/galleries/cursor-gallery/2/linda-daniela-dostalkova-campaign/.
20 Yu Yang, Jun Yang, Wei-Min Wu, Jiao Zhao, Yiling Song, Longcheng Gao, Ruifu Yang, and Lei Jiang, “Biodegradation and Mineralization of Polystyrene by Plastic-Eating Mealworms: Part 2. Role of Gut Microorganisms,” in Environmental Science & Technology 49 (20), 2015, pp. 12087-12093.
21 Albert A. Koelmans, “Modeling the Role of Microplastics in Bioaccumulation of Organic Chemicals to Marine Aquatic Organisms. A Critical Review,” in Melanie Bergmann et al. (eds.), Marine Anthropogenic Litter (Switzerland: Springer International Publishing, 2015), pp. 309-324.
22 Tamara S. Galloway, “Micro- and nano- plastic in Human Health,” in ibid, pp. 343-366.