Open Concept :: Ecology

Eco/ontologies:  Machinic Intimacies in the Making of Bodies and Worlds

By Carla Hustak

While ecology is generally understood as intimate environmental relations between entities, I want to disturb this idea by insisting that ecology is also about the making of the nonhuman and human bodies through those relations.  In other words, I offer to the salon the provocation of thinking ecologies and ontologies together.  For this reason, I have entitled my talk, Eco/ontologies:  Machinic Intimacies in the Making of Bodies and Worlds.  In keeping with the spirit of the salon’s intellectual play, I want to begin by suggesting that ecology as a concept offers us a unique opportunity to reflect on past salons.  We could think of our work here as an ecology of concepts such as experiment, forgiveness, and propagation which have generated questions of the entangled makings of bodies and worlds.  I suggest that ecology lends itself to rethinking experiment as the novel mixtures of human and nonhuman actors which test their relatedness with unexpected and surprising results.  In our session on forgiveness, we looked at responsiveness and questions of response-ability between actors.  This highlights a specific dynamic of ecological relatedness tied to our own concerns over our ethical response-abilities to nonhumans.  And, as I will show in my talk, I think of ecology in very close relation to how we played with the concept of propagation.   In Natalie Loveless’s talk on propagation, her reference to Isabelle Stengers’ “ecology of practices” hints at this very close connection between propagation and ecology.  This is a connection that I want to take the opportunity to further explore in opening up the concept of ecology as a tool to think with.

My use of the phrase eco/ontologies comes from the fifth chapter of my dissertation which explored the connections between early twentieth century sex reform, conservation and preservation movements, and the development of ecology as a discipline.  In that chapter, I asked the question of what it meant for ecology to develop in the context of the reproductive politics of sex reform, birth control, and eugenics.  My chapter introduced the concept of eco/ontologies to highlight how ecology and reproductive politics informed and shaped one another.   As ecology developed, it emerged as a promiscuous discipline, emerging out of an array of sciences such as botany, biology, palaeontology, embryology, biogeography, and zoology.  In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, agricultural science gained considerable prominence in the rise of agricultural experiment stations.  These stations were concerned about both environmental factors in the production of crops and the biological, genetic, and engineering of the reproduction of perfect specimens of fruits, vegetables, and flowers.  Moreover, these experimental stations such as the Maine Agricultural Experiment Station joined human and nonhuman bodies in their investigations of strategies for reproducing fitter bodies.  There were departments in botany, entomology, zoology, and even home economics.  In both eugenic and birth control campaigns, reformers and scientists drew on evolutionary discourses to assess whom should mate with whom which cut across similar questions in plant and animal breeding experiments.  In this sense, scientists and popular intellectuals invoked racial, class, sexual, and gender hierarchies of power across analyses of the potentialities of human, animal, and plant bodies.  The questions of environmental conditions and heredity were entangled in ways that brought together reproductive politics and environmental sciences.

Here, I want to build on this understanding of eco/ontologies to suggest that we can think of ecology as not simply relations between actors but channels of incorporation.  I urge that we pay precise attention to the bodies that are made and unmade, attached and unattached, assembled and reassembled as they join and break from networks or communities.  As a history of early twentieth century sex reform, my dissertation attended to sex as one such channel of incorporation.  More recently, I have turned attention to other channels of incorporation such as digestion and other forms of embodied perception.  There are three registers for rethinking ecology in this way; namely, the spatial, temporal, and ontological.  Firstly, eco/ontologies challenges our conventional understanding of space by rethinking topographies, strata, maps, proximities, and coordinates as not only the movements of bodies through space but their formation, transformation, and gestation through their movements.  Secondly, eco/ontologies also raise questions of temporality in terms of the speeds and intensities through which bodies relate to one another and travel in historical, present, and anticipated future time. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, eco/ontologies is a question of how human and nonhuman bodies are inter-implicated in the becomings of bodies and worlds.

Luciana Parisi’s views of “technoecologies of sensation” presents an important lens for exploring how ecological sensibility is also about the kinds of bodies we become.  Parisi’s essay which appears in Deleuze/Guattari/Ecology argues that our present is shaped by informational technologies which are re-crafting sensory regimes.  In doing so, Parisi insists that our technoscientific present is marked by modes of gathering information such as digitalization, media technologies, and DNA sequencing which are redefining bodily experience.  Beginning her essay with Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s concept of involution, Parisi draws attention to information gathering as open-ended, transformative, fluid, and unstable relations among diverse bodies.   Parisi indicates that this ecology can encompass human flesh, bacteria, silicon, neural connections, and equations.   To think with Parisi about ecology is to think machinically. According to Parisi, “to think machinically is to engage with technical machines in terms of semi-concatenations of partial objects running through strata.” (Parisi, 183)  Parisi suggests that ecological relations are formed between bodies that are always fragmented, unfinished, and only temporarily defined by their momentary attachment to a particular community, network, or relationship.   Using the geological metaphor of strata, Parisi disturbs a concept of ‘nature’ and invokes a ‘machinism of nature’ as the crossing and promiscuous intermixing of seemingly separate levels of ontology.  Parisi draws on a view of strata that is inspired by Deleuze and Guattari’s “Geology of Morals” where strata are temporary thresholds or plateaus held in suspended animation.   What is important to grasp here is that ontology and ecology are critically joined as the shaky, unstable grounds of the ‘natural’ body and ‘natural’ space.

While Parisi helps us to broaden our perspective on ecology to encompass metal and bacteria as much as plants, animals, and humans, her “technoecologies of sensations” can also help us rethink much of what we take for granted as an abstractness of information.  Instead, Parisi suggests that we look at digitalization, DNA calculations, logarithms, and velocities as embodied information.  She, in fact, simultaneously joins bodies and information as information sensing, specifically denoted by her terms “bio-logic” and “bio-informatics.”  Parisi’s technoecologies of sensation are worlds of the blending and motions of human bodies, nonhuman bodies, and information.  In doing so, Parisi emphasizes the interpenetration of bodies and information in these mediatic, sensory, fleshy and mathematically calculated environments, Parisi states that there is “a whole ecology of machines traversing substantial scales:  mental, natural, social, technical dimensions ceaselessly code, drift, side-communicate across space and time.” (Parisi, 183)  These drifts are also ontological drifts highlighted by Parisi’s examples of bionic retinas, DNA biochips, and corporeal prosthetics where sensation is not simply extended by machines but transformed into machinic sensing.  Moreover, Parisi indicates that in our technoscientific present these machinic intimacies are not one way.  According to Parisi,  machines also carry sensory capacities which we can see in measuring respiration, cameras that see us, and the tactile detection of bodies.  In other words, Parisi’s view of the ‘bio-logical’ and ‘bio-informatics’ implicates the seemingly abstract worlds of concepts, mathematics, and information in the messy, fleshy, and earthy worlds of human and nonhuman (re)productions.

In addition to helping us rethink spatiality and information, Parisi’s “technoecologies of sensation” also help us re-conceptualize the body.  Parisi moves us to a vision of the body itself as a technoecology of sensation with interpenetrating stratas of touch, sight, taste, sound, and smell and nodes of communication such as skin and guts that register intimacies with the world beyond the body.  What Parisi calls symbiosensation identifies the body as a complex interactive regime with multiple levels and parts that open the body to networks beyond itself.  According to Parisi, symbiosensation is the “kinesthetic sensibility feels the movements of the body as if in strict resonance with the velocities of information sensing captured by the skin and guts.” (Parisi, 191)  This, I argue, is a clear example of channels of incorporation where information is not only registered on the skin and in the guts but evokes the body’s process of becoming with the world.  Parisi further elucidates symbiosensation as the “in-depth sensibility proper to involutionary infoldings of matter: a proto-feeling preceding and exceeding the organization of information sensing into neurosensorial channels.”(Parisi, 195)   If we take Parisi’s symbiosensation seriously, environmental politics can be joined to the sexual and racial politics of redefining bodies as agentic, intelligent, and machinic which reclaim materiality as a promising zone of transformable possibilities.

As a historian, I find Parisi’s “technoecologies of sensation” a useful tool for thinking about the historicity of feeling.  Parisi’s work gestures toward thinking of temporal shifts in sensory experience by making the claim that we are witnessing profound transformations in our sensory regimes. This raises the possibility for considering the historical specificity of sensory experience.  However, at the same time, Parisi’s emphasis on technoecologies as a current phenomenon also undercuts the possibilities for considering the applicability of the concept technoecologies of sensation to other historical periods.  I would suggest that this move also has the effect of suggesting that nature was somehow less machinic in the past.  Instead, I would argue that Parisi’s “technoecologies of sensation” could be seen as applicable to the very moment of ecology’s inception as a discipline, albeit with different concepts, different materials, different bodies, and certainly different political and ethical agendas.