Re-membering the Posthuman Within/Across Sustainability Paths

Anita Girvan

[1] I would like to begin this paper unconventionally by briefly describing two recent experiential vignettes. I hope the reader will indulge this as not a departure from the point, but as a point of departure, to situate the themes that follow.

Vignette One: "Wii" Boxing

Recently at a friend's house, my family had our first encounter with Wii (notably pronounced "we"), Nintendo's home game console. After the kids had finished a game of 'tennis', one of the hosts enjoined my partner and me to 'box' each other. Hesitantly, we agreed and were given the handheld devices that detect motion in three dimensions. This was a far cry from the Pacman and Donkey Kong of my day which required the mastering of a joystick-button combination. All my partner and I had to do was to stand side by side (not facing each other as in traditional boxing) facing the TV, and box in the air. We began swinging and ducking furiously trying to make each of our little animated girl characters (the avatars of the host kids) knock the other one out. Curiously, after one of the avatars had been knocked out, we did not know which one of us had been victorious, since we were not sure to which avatar our remote controller corresponded, but this was actually, dare I say, fun in some strange way! After our match ended, and still being a little unsure of who had won, we noticed that we were both quite warm - it actually had felt like we had exercised. This was yet another difference from Pacman and Donkey Kong. We mused at how great it was that kids could be in front of the TV and get exercise. We also noted how strange it was that our kids were 'playing' baseball inside in front of a TV instead of outside. The usual trite comments/ evaluations beginning "In my day..." emerged. I began reflecting more on the particular case of virtual boxing with/against/beside my partner. The inevitable evaluative parental questions emerged followed by a questioning of the reductive tendencies of such evaluations and a feeling of the inadequacy of certain frames of thought: Should I be doing this (in front of my kids)? Is this act endorsing some kind of domestic violence? We would surely not let the kids do it – is this not promoting violence in children? What are the implications of this simulated violence? What is this act enabling or foreclosing? Is it easy to render a decision about what this act is at all? Is Baudrillard's explication of the contemporary historical moment as 'simulation and simulacra' sufficient to explain all of these conflicting thoughts and sensations, or do we need some other terms and concepts to describe these liminal encounters?

Vignette Two: Walking a path of Sustainability

In walking between classes one day on my university campus, I made a diagonal cut across the quadrangle of green space in front of the library. As I stepped from the unyielding pavement onto the turf of spongy grass, I immediately felt 'different' and a number of conflicting thoughts/feelings arose. Firstly, the softness of the surface beneath my feet made me want to remove my shoes and socks in order to more proximally feel this sponginess. Then, I remembered the university's sustainability poster that lists ways in which members of the university community can ensure a sustainable campus. This poster stipulated that we must stay on the marked (human) paths to protect plants, etc. The patterns of human movement in/around this grassy, treed area were particularly interesting to observe. As 'good' eco-citizens, we (though not I in that moment) were sticking to the paths of concrete on campus. On the one hand, I felt these efforts toward sustainability were commendable, but on the other hand, I was deeply troubled in that moment by walking on this particular (concrete) path to sustainability. What does it mean to insist that humans stay only on concrete where animals and plants are (generally) not?

[2] The above 2 vignettes may seem unrelated; however, they share certain characteristics that enable a line of thought that framed these two moments as the conjoined twins of a contemporary network of problematics characterized by code, liminality and complexity. Although some may think these 'straw cases', I will take license from recent theories of affect that suggest apprehending the world involves not only the traditionally conceived cognition of a singular human subject, but the complex interaction of bodies- feelings-thoughts (Brennan, 2004; Ahmed, 2004; Woodward, 2009). The dynamic surfaces of interaction within both experiences outlined above, led me to think about how the code - of the computer, and of the human path – in each instance was creating certain liminal encounters. These liminal encounters at/across the boundaries of 'human-human', 'human-nature', and 'human-computer' presented ontological quandaries and even greater epistemological conundrums. There are no easy ways to account for these en-coded liminal experiences let alone make a simple judgment or think through what was at stake. Perhaps attempting to think through these digital and ecological surfaces may help to de-code or at least, more accurately, flesh out the complexity of the experience.

How digitality and informatics can inform ecological thought

[3] This paper will focus primarily on the second vignette as an example of the liminal encounters en-coded within sustainability practice; however, some of the foundational theory I present emerges from scholars working in digital theory. Rather than positing a reductively-conceived 'technology' as the hubristically human-made enemy of sustainability as does some ecological thought (Zerzan, 2005), I would like to follow up on insights from these liminal experiences which suggest that thinking ecology and digitality in tandem may enable productive critical thought. Rubbing these two seemingly disparate theoretical pursuits together in what Slavov Žižek calls a "short circuit" could produce a generative shift from a purely ecological perspective (2006). This move, however, is more than simply rhetorical; attention to contemporary biopolitical networks reveals that digitality/informatics and ecology/biology are already highly entwined. Eugene Thacker's The Global Genome highlights the "intersection of biology and informatics" within biotechnology:

If biology is really just pattern code and sequence, then how does this fact change the conventional property relations surrounding biological materiality? How has our understanding of the relationship between organism and environment changed in light of recent networked forms of information? (2005, p. xvi)

Although Thacker's focus is on genomics, these questions also resonate within ecological thought. Given that our very conceptions of organism and environment have changed in light of informatics, how can theories of digitality enter into productive dialogue with ecological thought? This paper will work through the question within the themes of liminality, code and complexity through the work of Katherine Hayles and Donna Haraway. In exploring these themes through particular biopolitical (Foucault, 1978) encodifications within practices of sustainability, we can critically attend to the complex mediations that matter. Finally, I will propose the work of Deleuze and Guattari and others who engage with their geophilosophical cartography as the source of an alternative perspective through which to theorize and practice dynamic, complex assemblages that go beyond the nature/culture divide.

Liminal encounters of the posthuman kind(s): digital and ecological

[4] Katherine Hayles begins exploring notions of liminality and embodiment in her book, How We Became Posthuman (1999). She describes the origins of the notion, posthuman, within the Macy Conferences on Cybernetics in the U.S. in the 1940s and 1950s. The kinds of technologies developed and imagined by Norbert Wiener and his colleagues created some fundamental shifts in perspectives on what constitutes human: "cybernetics intimates that body boundaries are up for grabs" (p. 85). Hayles notes that there has been a tendency to abandon the body altogether within some visions of the digital posthuman, which involve an uploading of consciousness in a quest for individual immortality; however, she offers a more hopeful and inclusive perspective in the concluding chapter of her book:

Although some current versions of posthuman point toward the antihuman and the apocalyptic, we can craft others that will be conducive to the long-range survival of humans and of the other life forms, biological and artificial, with whom we share the planet and ourselves. (p. 291)

Although Hayles does not develop this perspective outlined in the last paragraph of her book, she clearly gestures toward the relevance of the notion within ecological thought. She also leaves raw potential by suggesting in her concluding remarks that "we have always been posthuman" (p. 291). Embedded within this concept of posthuman is the recognition that the category 'human' and the biological entity to which it refers have always been constituted by transcutaneous mergings of an extra-human order. Whether we consider the extension of a stone-age human's appendage through the grasp of a hunting tool; the mobile entity constituted by a bipedal organism mounted on a quadripedal organism; the ocular-solar/celestial interaction of Earthly human navigation, or the human ingestion of other species of plants and animals for sustenance – the inscription of 'human' has always been marked by liminal encounters. Clearly, within the last century, the speed and kinds of cross-boundaried experiences present novelty; this 'quickening' has enabled a critical engagement with the monadic categories of the human species and of the individual human (subject) that appear problematic not only within digitality and informatics, but also within ecological thought.

[5] Donna Haraway's work attends to the material and semiotic en-codifications of nature within the situated knowledge of science. She highlights the ways in which "nature's discursive constitution as 'other'" (2004 p. 64) has produced narratives of reification and possession. For Haraway, the concept of nature suggests "something we cannot do without, but can never 'have'" (p 64). Attention to the fallacy of the human/nature binary seems so trite that it need not be mentioned yet again; however, despite a general feeling of the inappropriateness of this binary, it persists in unexpected places (contingently in this paper). Even within the discourse of sustainability which disavows the notion that 'human' is outside of 'nature', there is still an effort to keep the 'human' outside within practices of sustainability. "Perhaps to give confidence in its essential reality, immense resources have been expended to stabilize and materialize nature, to police its/her boundaries" (Haraway, 200 p. 64). Instead of proposing an outright dismissal of the ever-present binary, perhaps we should first attend to how this binary is constituted and how it functions as an executable code in ecological and digital instances.

[6] While the biopolitics of ecological science as practice have received critical attention within the past decade (Darier, 1999; Rutherford, 1999; Smith, 2009), many institutional practices of sustainability still seem to constitute the authority of ecological science and create the conditions for docile bodies that adhere to the navigational paths ascribed to them. Ecosystem theory does aim to account for complex interactions within a given biome; however, certain Linnaean and Darwinian foundational concepts yet limit this science to the study of bounded organisms constituted through somewhat stable taxonomies. This system has an incredible explanatory power and allows for certain remarkable understandings of 'life'; however, when given univocal authority in practice, ecological science involves the disciplining of life in both an epistemological and a regulatory sense.

[7] Using a Foucauldian perspective to examine ecology and governmentality, Paul Rutherford critically examines how "modern thinking about the natural environment is characterized by the belief that nature can be managed or governed through the application of the scientific principles of ecology" (1999, p.37). Indeed as Foucault's notion of biopower suggests, the scientific principles of ecology constitute the very 'life' that requires and enables management and administration (Foucault, 1978) Such administration of life is evident not only on campuses with sustainability objectives, but also within managed forest parks that are newly deemed to have value through the practices of protective demarcations. One has only to walk through dedicated 'park' spaces within the Pacific Northwest region of North America to embody an ontological divide between human and old growth tree. While two decades ago, a 'human' could walk up to and touch these trees, within the park spaces, most trees are now off limits. This practice registers the entry of life into history of these trees; as populations to be administered, they are now protected by /from 'humans' through the restriction of humans to marked paths. The institutionalized management practices informed by ecological science seem to require this further reduction of complexity; the resulting effect is an inscription of the very binary code that ecological thought expressly challenges. Another by-product of these particular management practices, is the configuration of what Haraway identifies as a kind of "museumification of nature" (2004). Like exhibits in the museums of natural history described by Haraway, these encodifications of ecosystems begin to enact an outdoor diorama for the gaze of 'human' visitors to an increasingly alienated and alienating 'nature'. This may be deemed necessary, but the implications of these increasing material-semiotic inscriptions of a binary code need critical attention. Not only do these inscriptions constitute troubling exclusionary future trajectories of separation, they are enabled by a past constitutive exclusion. As Haraway reminds us:

Efforts to preserve "nature" in parks remain fatally troubled by the ineradicable mark of the founding expulsion of those who used to live there, not as innocents in a garden, but as people for whom the categories of nature and culture were not the salient ones. (p. 64)

Many recent studies have demonstrated how this 'founding expulsion" is often iteratively re-enacted in present eco-system preservation practices through the subjugation of traditional ecological knowledge to the power of ecological science (Shaw, 2004; Magnusson & Shaw, 2003; Nadasdy, 2003).

Code: Computational and Ecological Matters

[8] In My Mother was a Computer (2005), Hayles extends the notion of posthuman by accounting for the contemporary epoch as the Regime of Computation: "Computation does not merely simulate the behavior of complex systems; computation is envisioned as the process that actually generates behavior in everything from biological organisms to human social systems" (p. 19). For Hayles, this regime, the "context in which code takes shape within the worldview of computation" (p. 30) describes an historical moment that is the successor to postmodernism. Two particular traits of the digital code differentiate this system/ worldview from the worldviews of both speech and writing in Hayles' theory. The first trait is the (in)tolerance of ambiguity and the second is executability.

[9] Hayles first highlights that all three worldviews – speech, writing and code – make meaning through differential relations; however, within the first two worldviews, meaning is often generated in ambiguous and indeterminate ways. In a digital code-centric worldview, difference generates meaning at the level of binary code of zeros and ones. At the binary level "the system can tolerate little if any ambiguity" (p. 45). Hayles goes on to admit that slight ambiguity exists within "noise" produced in the voltage trail off- errors; however, these are "rectified into unambiguous signals of one and zero before they enter the bit stream ... no matter how sophisticated the program ... all commands must be parsed as binary code to be intelligible to the machine" (p. 45).

[10] The other trait that differentiates code from speech and writing pertains to executability. In some instances, language has a degree of performativity, but not to the same extent as computer code:

Code that runs on a machine is performative in a much stronger sense than that attributed to language. When language is said to be performative, the kinds of actions it "performs" happen in the minds of humans, as when someone says "I declare this legislative session open"...Granted, these changes in minds can and do result in behavioral changes, but the performative force of language is nonetheless tied to the external changes through complex chains of mediation. By contrast, code running in a digital computer causes changes in machine behavior... (p. 50)

Unlike other language, computer code is always "executable language" that causes immediate changes in the behavior of a machine.

[11] For the purposes of critical reflexivity, I would like to suggest the inscription of the human/nature bounded sustainability path as 'code'. While many obvious differences remain between these two forms of code, three key similarities emerge. Firstly, as previously mentioned, the binary code of zeros and ones of the computer system is suggestive of the binary code of humans and natures within the navigational system of a marked path. Secondly, because of this system of binary intelligibility, there is little tolerance of ambiguity. The stakes are not the same for a computer system and for a concrete path, and one can still be read as 'human' even if one steps off of the path; however, diverging from the path marks a systemic transgression of the code. This transgression is not tolerated at least at the level of norms and discourse of sustainability, if not yet policed by juridico-political mechanisms. Lastly, this path can be equated with 'code' through a form of executability. Like the computer system in which code executes behavioral changes in the computer system, so does a navigational path produce behavioral changes. I do not mean to reductively insinuate that there is never room for "desire paths" - the paths named by French architect Gaston Bachelard referring to the shortest lines from 'point A to point B' eroded by human navigation practices; however, observation of human navigational behavior and the lack of desire paths in this instance on campus reveals that humans are generally executing the binary code within a computational regime of sustainability. As Hayles suggests, in the regime of computation, 'code' can be understood not simply as a computer language or a metaphorical extension of that language, but additionally, as the very site of life-making in the digitally and analogically entangled world. "In the worldview of code, materiality matters" (2005, p. 43).

Intermediation, Complexity and Embodied Emergence

[12] Hayles offers the term intermediation as a way of describing the "complex and entangled interactions" of the worldviews of code, speech and writing (2005, p. 31). Although her research focuses on the dynamics of narratives in literature, and digitality and the materializing effects of the intermediation of code, speech and writing, the notion of intermediation appropriately describes liminal encounters of the ecological kind as well:

An important aspect of intermediation is the recursivity implicit in the coproduction and coevolution of multiple causalities. Complex feedback loops connect humans and machines, old technologies and new, language and code, analog processes and digital fragmentations. Although these feedback loops evolve over time and thus have a historical trajectory that arcs from one point to another, it is important not to make the mistake of privileging any one point as the primary locus of attention, which can easily result in flattening complex interactions back into linear causal chains. (p. 31)

Fundamental to this understanding of intermediation is the recognition of the constitutive complexity within entangled systems and networks. As earlier noted, Hayles highlights the propensity within cybernetics to focus on information at the expense of the body. In attending to the intermediation within complex networks, she returns to the importance of embodiment. The particular configurations and material properties of liminal encounters – their embodiments – have a recursive impact and world-making potential.

[13] Haraway similarly draws attention to embodiments as sites of intermediation and complexity within biological frames. She highlights the mediating effects of the social and political aspects of embodiments as well as the biological:

Organisms are biological embodiments ...[that] emerge from a discursive process... Always radically historically specific, always lively, bodies have a different kind of specificity and effectivity; and so invite a different kind of engagement and intervention. (p. 67)

Haraway's work reveals the locus of intervention in material-semiotic relations. Her theoretical attention to material-semiotic figurations is co-productive with Hayles' account of the intermediation within dynamic relations of information and embodiment where the semiotic maps onto information and meaning and the material maps onto embodiment. Both theorists attempt to recover complexity by emphasizing dynamic relations and emergence.

[14] With her focus on digital systems, Hayles has a keen interest in how emergence characterizes complex systems. In systems theory, emergence describes the appearance of behaviors within the system that arise not from elements of the system, but from the intermediation of those elements in unpredictable ways. Hayles also describes 'second-order' emergence which "arises when a system develops a behavior that enhances its ability to develop adaptive behaviors – that is, when it evolves the capacity to evolve" (p. 198). Hayles' recent research suggests this second order emergence at work within the regime of computation. She highlights evidence among recent generations who have grown up 'plugged in' digitally, that latent brain capacities are being awakened and developed. Those who were formed partly within the silicon schools of the computer game-world may especially have greater capacities in the area of spatial awareness (Hayles, 2008). This change has marked an unprecedented kind of accelerated biophysical adaptation to/within digital environments. If this digital code is having such an unanticipated material-biological impact, then we must take seriously the implications within the complex digital-social-ecological entanglements that will materialize the world from iterative feedback loops. Recombinant digital-ecological regimes enact changing virtualities.

Biopolitical encodifications: why they matter

[15] With sustainability encodifications in mind, I would like to interrogate the potential implications of emergent properties arising through interactions within an eco-digital regime of computation. If, through second-order emergence, we (not a universal we, but perhaps more accurately the increasingly populous Wii who regularly engage in computer games) are developing the capacity to evolve in ways that are sympathetic (as in reciprocal impact, or fellow-feeling) with digital systems, what happens with the ecological aspect of posthuman? What if through unintentional inscriptions of the binary code within sustainability practice itself, ecological posthumanity becomes endangered? Perhaps this line of questioning is taking the material effects of the regime of computation too far, but if nothing else, at least the metaphorical role of this regime can trouble the notions inscribed within this figuration of sustainability.

[16] Speaking of the differences between traditional codex versions of books and their digital (non)equivalents, Hayles suggests "changing the navigational apparatus of a work changes the work" (2005, p.90). Revising Hayles' insight for this context, I would like to suggest that changing the navigational apparatus of a nature-culture, changes the nature-culture. The fundamental creation of discontinuity between 'humans' and 'nature' within this discourse of sustainability actually matters. Well-intentioned 'world-making' sustainability practices may easily create the conditions of possibility for emergent properties that are at odds with the goals conceived at the outset. Are there ways to allow for and encourage liminal encounters that yet preserve the concept of sustainability? Or is the practice of sustainability commensurate with the museumification of 'nature'?

[17] I do not wish to diminish the significant achievements of award-winning sustainability practices on my own campus and others like it. Hopeful loci of cross-species interaction can be found within community gardens and roof-top plantings on many campuses. Such places gesture toward potentially meaningful interaction and an interruption of the binary code of humans and natures; unfortunately, the marginality (both prioritary and geo-physical) of these places permits little interaction for few people. The concrete paths remain the dominant, yet ironic paths to sustainability on campus.

Acts of re-membrance: posthuman praxis

[18] In order to trouble a binary digital paradigm that informs patterns and assemblages within sustainability I will turn now to a form of critical posthumanism envisioned through the work of Deleuze and Guattari. Thus far, I have attempted to rhetorically 'toggle' between concepts of digitality and ecology in order to critically interrogate dominant sustainability practices; it may be argued that my own argument imposes a binary theoretical construction that must be overcome. I contend, however that a critical reflexivity regarding the operational practices of the management of nature needs firstly to engage this binary. Deleuze and Guattari themselves talk of the political relevance of "overcoding" found within segmentary lines that could describe the bounded institutional practices of sustainability (1987). What they resist, however, is the tendency to view these segmentary lines as politically and ontologically determining. Their refusal allows for a key intervention in ecological (and digital) thinking:

Thinking the environment with a Deleuze/Guattarian ecology/ basically a call to think complexity, and to complex thinking, a way to think the environment as a negotiation of dynamic arrangements of human and nonhuman stressors, both of which are informed and "intelligent". (Herzogenrath, 2009, p 4)

Deleuze and Guattari's conceptual vocabulary itself deliberately toggles between cybernetic and ecological inflections. Their ontology of becoming highlights principles of "connection and heterogeneity" (1987, p 7) rather than stable, reified beings. The becomings of their ontology are alternately called "rhizomes", "bodies without organs", and "machinic assemblages"; each of these concepts may carry its own conceptual baggage, but when taken together as conceptual rhizomes, these becomings enact the principles of theoretical complexity. As May suggests, theirs is "an ontology where what is there is not the same old things but a process of continual creation, an ontology that does not seek to reduce being to the knowable but instead seeks to widen thought to palpate the unknowable" (2005, p. 171). Beyond the well-intentioned but faulty (in a dual sense of the word) ontology of ecological science, Deleuze and Guattari's work offers "an ontology and politics for enhancing creative terrestrial life" (Chisholm, 2007). Informed by their insights, a relevant question to ask of sustainability or forestry management practices is: "what virtualities and biopolitics are becoming through the chances and necessities afforded by management practices?" This line of thinking offers no easy answers to questions of biodiversity and sustainability, it is "not simply a matter of accounting for what is there, for what there is" (May, p.170). The quandary remains however, that we are within an epoch of rapid earthly change that seems to beg a form of management; the question, "what is to be done?" haunts contemporary thought at every turn. Attending to becoming, however, offers a different taking account of virtuality. Firstly, these principles trouble the view that 'humans' are meant/able to stabilize 'nature' as the homeostatic context to earthly life; our rhizomatic encounters with dinosaur bones reveal just how episodic homeostasis is as a planetary condition. I do not mean to suggest that there is nothing to be done about biospheric degradation; on the contrary, I contend that our assumptions about the normative condition of species homeostasis and the Earth's ability to self-metabolize have largely contributed to degradation. I argue, however, that a dominant tendency to find solutions in simple human/nature demarcations ignores virtual trajectories.

[19] Perhaps, if we attend to the intelligence that emerges not simply from binary codings of human/nature, but act in conjunctive intelligence, different questions and virtualities will appear. The intelligence I propose here extends beyond distributed traditionally-conceived 'cognition'; informed by both the 'affective' assemblage of my feet and the moss, and the digital body-avatar rhizome of Wii boxing, the kind of intelligence I/we/Wii offer brings feeling to the fore in attempts to palpate the unknowable. A Deleuze/Guattarian attention to becoming can thus be supplemented with Raymond Williams attention to feeling: "not feeling against thought, but thought as felt and feeling as thought: practical consciousness of a present [and virtual, my addition] kind, in a living and interrelating continuity" (1977, pp 132-33).

[20] This paper presents a kind of theoretical critique as a first, but necessarily incomplete step within a larger project. As William Leiss suggests in his rather prophetic (1972) intervention in ecological thought, The Domination of Nature:

By isolating aspects of the complex practical activity of everyday life, we may be able, by theoretical reflection, to bare its hidden structural pattern; at the same time, the necessarily abstract character of such work cannot do justice to the rich diversity and sensuous modes of this activity...Within these limitations, however, theoretical reflection has an important part to play. By casting the features of these structural patterns into sharp relief, it calls attention to those contradictory elements in human behavior that prevent [us] from achieving [our] common hopes. (p. ix)

I would like to suggest that an act of re-membrance may enable a step beyond theory towards a praxis of sustainability. The kind of re-membering within this vision is not to be found in a romantic nostalgia for the past. Rather, I would like to advocate firstly, re-membering as an act of nuanced appreciation of 'becoming' that owes to a past and to a future planetary existence; and secondly, re-membering as a generative theoretical and practical process of accounting for/enabling liminal encounters that facilitate long-range livable biospheric networks of life. Far from suggesting a specific answer to the question "what is to be done", I propose a new set of questions as a starting point for praxis: What kinds of rhizomes/assemblages/virtual trajectories are 'becoming' through urban sustainability/ecosystem management practices? In what ways do impermeable boundaries enable some assemblages and foreclose upon others? What kinds of intelligent-affective interactions are facilitated or disabled through the ordering of sustain-able life? What/who disciplines these choices? How can the understandings of the emergent neuro-biological impacts of growing up 'plugged in' digitally inform an understanding of the impacts of attempts to un-plug 'humans' from 'natures'? Can we re-member posthuman encounters in a way that will enable the on-going negotiation of our life on Earth? Rather than ending on the hopefully affirmative, but naively troubled "Yes we can!" of the moment, I would like to offer the (equally hopeful) generative question "How can we/Wii?"


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