We take it as given, that there is a relation between biological and plant organisms and its environment. This counts as much for plants, as it does for animals and for humans. But how is this relation formed? What is the nature of this relation and what are the type of connections that allow this relation to emerge?
Ecology and Po(i)etics
Prof. Dr. Reinhold Görling, Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf
No matter how we want to describe this relation, we must think of it as something that creates connections, as an agencement as Gilles Deleuze calls it, often translated as assemblage into English. But maybe we can also think of it as a system. And if we do think of it as a system, it must be one that is open, or perhaps even half closed since it would not make sense to think of it as a completely closed one. Now how does such a connection come into being? We certainly should not separate the answer to this question from the concrete ecology that has been evolved. But on a more general level, I would like to suggest calling this process poiesis.
The choice of this term has much to do with the fact that what is formed here cannot be understood as some kind of product or object. It must have its very own quality, a metastability in which it holds relations. It has to be something that has a lot to do with unconscious or implicit relationships, with atmospheres and metabolisms. It is something that is in exchange with something, at least when we are talking about living creatures. It is something that interacts, that brings completely different things into relation and that is familiar to something like a balance or a metastabilility, or at least a reversibility. It must be somehow able to relate to itself, be it for the advantage of two entities. But for this, it needs to have some kind of a memory.
There are two different models that don’t necessarily have to contradict another. The one model is rather spatial, the other temporal. Although both models have a temporal and spatial dimension. The differentiation usually has to do with the idea of identifying who or what is the active agent. It is very interesting to see how each dimension depends on the other.
Spatial models tend to function through a central agent. This agent makes the distinctions of what belongs to its environment and what doesn’t, of what is good and what is bad for it. When there are more agents, then they negotiate their relations with and among each other. Or at least, their relation is mutually beneficial or conductive (zuträglich”, as Immanuel Kant writes in his Third Critique, the Critique of Judgement (§63). But we still have to somehow explain how these agents come about. And for that, we need to consider a temporal element that is able to explain their emergence and continuity. If we think of agents as systems, then the origin can be thought as a self-creation, as autopoietic. If we think of agents as identities, we would have to look for an origin, a cut, a distinction made by someone we would have to be able to identify. But this someone cannot yet exist. And this is why, we have to understand the autopoietic process also as an allopoietic one. That means it is something composed of other things and it also creates something new that has not yet existed before. Here we can make use of the concept of emergence. In this allo/autopoetical process something emerges that always has to be thought together with its environment: it cannot be thought without it nor can it be thought as something closed. Nothing can be entirely sealed by distinctions and each distinction can only be maintained by being continually renewed and also by being exceeded so that the distinction can be re-made again. In Production de l'Espace, Henri Lefebvre developed such a theory of space. There is something like a continuous movement of the distinction. And this distinction is always the invention of an environment. Environment, however, is not fixed nor is it ever static: it is metastable.
In discussions about the relationship between the self and the other, it has often been said that the other always comes before, it is always prior to the self. Emmanuel Lévinas, for example, described this most clearly in his theory of alterity. If you read Lévinas or Jacques Derrida’s texts on Lévinas, you will learn that the other must be thought as both neighbour and total other. Thus, even God would be an “other” – and we will never know if the neighbour is this total other. ("Tout l'autre est tout l'autre", as Derrida expresses it.) This was written in the attempt of eagerly looking for the possibility of ethics after the event of Shoah. But with this ethic, at least in the way it is formulated by Lévinas, it is very difficult to involve other creatures, or even plants, or anything else we call nature. Derrida, for example, has clearly questioned the possibility to ethically keep on with differences like these. But what if the other has no such thing as an identity? What if the other is something metastable like the environment? Where does that what we call an ethical relation begin? Is there a limit or a boundary that we can determine here? Animals that are similar to us? Animals we live with? Animals we hardly have a relationship with? Animals that threaten us? Plants we cultivate? Earth, stone, water, atmosphere, landscape, the ecology of the sea? Do these categories of the self and the other actually make sense for an ecology at all? It is clear, that we cannot really question it in this manner. Our relations are always at the same time unlimited and unique, and not only to the species. (Spiecies are indeed our inventions; by now, in the field of biology there has been a clear criticism of such a categorisation.) What appears here as a responsibility can only manifest itself as a concern, which relates to the now, to what I am in relation with. But what is that? What can it be other than my environment, my ecology?
We have said: spatial models of an ecology work through a distinction. This distinction needs to be understood as a continuous movement towards an outer. Whatever creates itself, it manages this creation out of all that what it wasn’t before. Therefore, a continuous distinction of that what belongs to its environment and what doesn’t, seems to be necessary. In every moment, our bodies decide which bacteria is good or bad and which ones then need to be exuded or excreted. But presumably, also that what is excreted is part of the ecology and used, for example, to separate even smaller organisms. Our psyche does something very similar: at every instant it distinguishes which sense-impression is important and which one isn’t. For instance, which of the sensations are absorbed by our psyche as an assurance for its hold in the world? The light, the smell, the warmth, all of that that our outer senses can perceive, or the things and the people, which the psyche gains through the inner senses, the memories? Which impressions are so negative and threatening that they should better be isolated, incommunicado? Which impression should become conscious? Neuroscientists have shown that within the work our psyche is constantly doing, becoming conscious of something is only a very small part of the mind’s activity. Mostly that doesn’t occur and our psyche mostly works toward a continuous creation of an environment, of which we are barely aware. It is constantly being re-formed; this is a poietic process, which not only has something to do with aisthesis in the sense of mere perception, but also with aesthetics and poetics in the sense of the production of a sensual-mental connection. This is why there is a fundamental relationship between poetics and ecology. Because we are incessantly creating something like a metastable structure, a life-world / environment / ecology, whatever we may call it.
We don’t just do it because we are human beings. All life does this. But human beings have a greater scope of indeterminacy than some other living beings. In the terms of system-theoretical approaches, a differentiation is quite helpful here. This one goes back to Fritz Heider and was taken up by Niklas Luhmann: the distinction between thing and medium. For many living beings a distinction between thing and medium is hardly possible. For instance, for the tick, which is a particularly strong example of a relationship between a living creature and its environment: Even though this is certainly very reduced, what we can observe from their behaviour is that it seems that in the poieses of their environment, they are strongly limited to perceiving the approach of a warm-blooded animal, and then fall upon it. Thing and medium concur so much that one can hardly speak of a medium. But, as I said, this is probably far too simple and will no longer be applicable to complex and socially organised living beings.
So for human beings, there is a difference between thing and medium from birth on. A new-born hears a voice, and very soon knows how to distinguish familiar and unknown voices. Babies are able to distinguish the affects that are expressed and communicated through the voice. The same applies to the face. What we describe with Sigmund Freud, Donald W. Winnicott and others as a play with objects in a transitional space, is then the medium drifting away from the thing, because the transitional object can always be both thing and medium. Therefore, speech can emerge and, with it, the difference between a thing (voice, object, letter) and a meaning. This makes two things possible, which are certainly not limited to human beings, but which are particularly available for humans (in good or bad ways): there is a chance and a need to create this environment continuously and there arises something which can be called the possibility of fiction.
Fiction, too, is first created through and within the play. Perhaps there needs to also be an interpersonal experience, that is, the experience of communicating with someone else in a pretend mode and thereby sharing a fictional world that is different from the normal environment. (Peter Fonagy, for example, represents this thesis.) Perhaps, the experience of being held in different worlds suffices to play with differences. In any case, environment and fiction are both constructs of poiesis: the environment that creates a life and by which environment creates itself, and, let us say, the novel. Both constructs are metastable, except that the normal environment is borne by everyday actions, whereas the ecology of a novel is borne by a specific affective intensity caused by the particular metastability of fiction. In Modes de existence, Bruno Latour calls this metastability N-1.
To put it bluntly: The poietics of the environment and the poietics of a novel differ mainly from the fact that the first poietics has to prove itself in everyday actions and the second poietics in that it has something that strives to be shared”, as Kant says in the “Critique of Judgment” (§19). Unlike for the environment, we do not forget the metastability of the novel. There may perhaps even be something active coming from this metastability, a force that emerges because it has to hold itself, as it were, always in the act of appearing, it does not stand still. Such an activity can, of course, also come from a picture or a poem or music. It is, as though that which shows its ability to create itself as agencement, awakens a solidarity in us or even concern, a compassion which applies to the appearance itself, not to the appeared. Maybe we even feel this in moments of perceiving a landscape, a flower, the movement of an animal, all of which is part of natural beauty.
When this happens to us, we feel the sensation of seeing, hearing or experiencing something beautiful, regardless of whether it is something cheerful or something sad, whether it is something light or hard, whether the colours are light or dark, whether it is something concrete or something abstract. Sometimes it frightens us when we realise that something sad can be very beautiful, for example, when it happens to us that we are standing in front of a picture and can’t help but cry. Surely, there can be something like a death wish. But the real power, which we call the beautiful, proceeds from this emergence, from this N-1, which, if we allow it, awakens our solidarity and anxiety, our tenderness and our hope.
Can these thoughts be reverted to the everyday life of the environment? Is it perhaps that we are connected to our environment in a similar way, but that we do not realise it, because our everyday life is always the metastability in which we live in? A metastability that we create just as much as it creates us. It consists of spaces and colours, of things and relationships, of rhythms and movements, of gestures of thought and gestures of the body, which are all in a kind of tension between map and territory.
And if we take it seriously that subject and world mutually produce one another, that the subject does not exist beyond the agencement, then it might be possible to abandon the old opposition of subject and object that dominates European thought and instead talk of the subject as an ecology of practices (Isabelle Stengers), which in turn is embedded or grounded in further ecologies of practices. Then, the subject is not standing towards the world, but to an ecology that always includes an environment or an everyday life and other ecologies. And this raises the question of whether it is possible to leave our own ecology so that a new way of embedding can result, as percept or perception and, finally, as practic. And if you can think it, then how can it actually happen? In other words, can we perceive a world / environment / ecology without being already anchored in it?
Does experiencing art make this possible? Is it because it brings us into solidarity with the emerging? This would need to be described in more detail though. And if this is affirmed, the question still remains whether it is also possible to experience other, non-human ecologies. The question is all the more urgent, the more we realise that we are destroying other ecologies – ecologies that are environments of our ecologies.