Tuesday 5 July 2022

Cells and Sociomateriality

The sociomaterial gaze looks upon the world as a set of interconnections. Running through the "wires" of this web is the agency of individual entities - humans (obviously) and (more controversially) objects and technologies constituting organisational structures, power relations, roles, etc. To deal with the complexity of this presentation of the world, sociomaterialists evoke ideas from quantum mechanics like "entanglement" and (occasionally) "superposition" to explain the complex interactions between the components, looking to science (as represented, for example, by the interpretation of Bohr by Karen Barad) to supply sufficient doubt over the ability to be more precise about what is actually going on. If I was being unkind, I would say the end result has been a lot of academic papers with long words which mystify more than they enlighten. Even critiquing it seems to invoke complex vocabulary: "heterogeneous dimensions are homogenized in a pan-semiosis" (Hagendijk, 1996 - see https://www.leydesdorff.net/mjohnson.htm) - well, yes. 

Gazing at the world's complexity and trying to explain it by purely focusing of manifest phenomena is like trying to explain the universe but ignoring its expansion. The synchronic (structural) dimension alone will not suffice. History - the diachronic dimension - is critical to get a perspective which is more scientifically defensible. It is a profound change in perspective: the diachronic dimension enables us to see the world in 3D. This means that we have to draw away from looking at the relation between objects/technologies and people (for example), and instead focus on life itself  - to understand not only life's characteristics, but the mechanisms behind its creation of the material environment with which sociomateriality is so fascinated. This is a project connecting Lamarck, Bateson, Schrodinger and Bohm with recent work ranging from astrobiology, cellular evolution and epigenetics. 

I want to explain why this diachronic perspective is a much more powerful way of looking at education, technology and human life.   

Every one of my cells has a history. Not just the history of where it began in me - which was in one of the three "germ layers" of the zygote that eventually grew into baby me - but a deeper history of how each of the (roughly) 200 different cells types emerging from the zygote acquired their individual structures and properties. Each of them has a history much older than me. Each of them acquired different components (organelles) which we now see as a process of absorption of externally existing components in the environment: endosymbiosis. Cellular endosymbiosis occurred in response to environmental stress. Early cells had to reorganise their structures and functions in order to maintain: 

  • homeostasis within the cell boundary
  • balance with the external environment
  • energy acquisition from the environment 
Through endosymbiosis, each of my cells carries a historical record of its own evolution. For example, the movement of animals from water to land is carried in the development of lung cells, which evolved from the cells of the swim bladders of fish. Since we are all made of the same cells, this historical record within our constitution unites not only common members of a species (all of us), but all cellular life.

To what extent might we "know" this? To what extent does our physiological knowledge play out when we sit at our computers or stare at our phones? Moreover, if we do intuitively sense our deep interconnections with nature, by what mechanism of nature do we behave as if we deny this completely?

This is to turn the fundamental questions of ecology (and particularly, cybernetic ecology - Bateson, etc) upside down. It is not to ask how we are connected, but how human relations have evolved to be disconnected. Is there a logic here? Our scientific problem is that if we look for the logic of human behaviour taking the unit of analysis as human relations (or worse, the individual), we will come to the conclusion that only specific kinds of relation "go wrong". Some relations may appear to "go wrong" more than others, but in a deep sense, we all suffer from bad relations. 

This question of the "evolution of disconnection" cannot be addressed unless we consider the cellular origins of life which connect us all, together with the ways in which the evolutionary history of cells is programmed into us. Human disconnection may be the activation of older mechanisms in cellular development which, at the scale of cells or small organisms, may not have been as devastating as we now make them. 

Our social engagement in the context of a technological environment is not "entangled" (whatever that means), it is an "evolved disconnection" from nature. We communicate - make common - our sense of being human - of having this collection of cells, which we understand to be common. That is how the empathy, love, and the expression of doubt work. In the context of that communication, we also communicate our physiological reaction to the material artefacts around us, which are in turn the results of historical communications. In that historical communication, there are the seeds of our current evolved disconnection which may be sometimes be felt as alienation or frustration, and (sometimes) as energy, excitement and flow. At the root of that evolved disconnection are deeper natural processes of cellular evolution. The better we can understand those, the better equipped we will be to steer our way through our current (and dangerous) state of evolved disconnection. 

This is not to invite further metaphysical speculations. It is to invite something more practical. Our disconnection from nature is now throwing up tremendous turbulence in our existence. Like a plane flying through turbulence, the challenge is steering, and the tapping in to the deep knowledge to do that steering well. I have been wondering recently if cellular evolutionary history is the hidden mechanism of biological steering - a kind of "trimtab" as Buckminster Fuller described. If that is the case, if we can grasp it, we can reconnect our steering with the natural world. Might we have technologies to help us?

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