By Meredith Root-Bernstein, Musée de l’Homme, Paris, France; Center of Sustainability and Applied Ecology, Santiago, Chile; Institute of Ecology and Biodiversity, Santiago, Chile §
Just before coronavirus made intra-European travel impossible, I took the train to London where I met up with the artist Anna Ridler at a pub and later went to look at a project of hers that was showing at The Photographer’s Gallery. For this work, called “Laws of Ordered Form,” Ridler laboriously scanned images from old encyclopedias to produce a digital visual database. Creating her own datasets in this way is an essential part of her practice exploring artificial intelligence. The “colonial explorer” style and occasionally poor quality of the original photographs gives them an impenetrable, unsympathetic veneer. They seem strange, distant, trapped in a long-ago act of systematic alienation. Ridler decontextualizes the images from their colonialist and racist orderings of the world, and reclassifies them by their content, in the style and manner of a generative adversarial network (GAN, a species of artificial intelligence used to classify and generate images). In this way, she highlights the labor and the political choices that inevitably go into any way of sorting the world into forms of knowledge and understanding. Some of the photographs are available to download on the gallery website (https://thephotographersgallery.org.uk/whats-on/digital-project/anna-ridler-laws-ordered-form) so that the spectator or member of the public can also sort the photos in their own way. This became my confinement project.
Because I am not a bureaucrat, my approach to sorting is not to ask how I want to sort, but what the thing being sorted wants. My feeling was that the people, mountains, cattle and penguins in the encyclopedic dataset didn’t just want to be rearranged in their digital files. They wanted to be material objects, and they needed to be as three-dimensional as possible. Perhaps it is my background in biology that gave me this idea: to have and to act on desires, you need a body. I realized I needed to print them, cut them out with little flaps, and then bend them into upright figures. Fortunately, I had an instant-photo printer that I had bought for fieldwork.
I first cut out a penguin. I fell in love with the penguin.
The Inuit man or woman with their back to the camera, and the striding woman in a spotted robe with her face in shadow seemed to have new depths of character. Now they could tell me what they wanted more clearly, or perhaps even ignore me in their new 3D autonomy. As my capacity to communicate, to exercise agency, or to create new stories in my own life seemed to stall under shelter-in-place orders, it was reassuring to be able to at least create new stories about the past and future for these cut-out figures.
Our ideas about the future are shaken by coronavirus—will the socio-ecological reality stay mainly the same, re-accreted around the still-standing infrastructures that await our return? Or, will new modes of abstention and engagement, renunciation and immersion drive us into other trajectories? We might imagine confinement at home under shelter-in-place orders as a cutting of the world along the outlines of our house or apartment, alienated from the world outside. Walls become edges and boundaries more than ever before, as if the home were disconnected and floating in a non-space. This cutting-off and cutting-out reifies families and households as the units of society and economics; the individual as the locus of responsibility with the sole power to save or destroy the world; indoors as the proper space of humans and outdoors the proper space of all other species.
Seeking to understand the implications of these discontinuities, in this essay I will argue that there are in fact two kinds of cutting that might be going on under coronavirus. One is in the behavior of the world: break-points such as catastrophes and collapses. The other kind of cutting, the agential cut, determines how we understand the world’s behavior.
Catastrophes, Collapses, and the Agential Cut
One might assume that the epistemology of cutting is in conflict with the metaphysics of continuity and mixing. After all, cutting seems like a kind of alienation that undoes connection. However, a different way to understand cutting is as a necessary and inevitable act in comprehending our world. Karen Barad’s “agential cut” creates, from continuity, the separation of an object from an environment (Barad 2003). The agential cut allows for the recognition of agency, its formation as a social and psychological fact. Only by conceiving things as having distinct, identifiable regularities, behaviors and desires, can we act in and know the world. One agential cut does not prevent another. An object or another body can be at one moment separate from me, and at another moment integrated into me (Holmes & Spence 2006).
This constant and reversible integration along different agential cuts is also the basis of the metaphysics of mixture. For example, the oxygen, carbon, phosphorous and nitrogen cycles are inside us: they are in our lungs, our blood, our bones, our kidneys, but also constantly physically interconnecting our bodies to all other bodies, to the atmosphere, the oceans, the soil, and the rocks (Coccia 2016: 2020). Nutrient cycles are the constant metamorphoses of material, which happen through separation. For example, a carbon atom separates from one thing (a rock) to be integrated with another (the atmosphere) and then another (a plant) and another (my blood). The material continuity of the world takes the form of a series of material transformations—reproduction, metamorphosis, decomposition, fire (Coccia 2020).
The epistemology of cutting is related to the metaphysics of mixture and continuity because each of these transformations is the suggestion of a break-point, a fold-line, a cut. You can decide to attend to or ignore each of these possible articulations. These apparent cuts or possible articulations—like being isolated in our homes—can have two different possible relationships to the continuity of the world.
The first kind, the catastrophe, occurs in a system that doesn’t really change it’s functioning before and after the cut. Continuity is the underlying condition of catastrophes. This has been illustrated by the popularizer of catastrophe theory, Christopher Zeeman, with a toy model. As I will insist on the importance of its materiality, I suggest you look at the two first minutes of the video (https://vimeo.com/38108807). The toy model consists of a cardboard disc mounted with a pin on a cardboard backing. Two rubber bands are attached to the disc. One, which you pull on, is called the “cause,” and the other attaches the disc to the backing. The “effect” is an arrow on the disc, which points in different directions as the disc rotates, when you pull on the “cause.” Whilst the “cause” moves continuously, the nature of the geometry, mechanics and elasticity of the little cardboard disc-pin-and-rubber band system means that at certain points, the “effect” jumps rapidly from one position to another. The claim of catastrophe theory is that more-sophisticated, dematerialized mathematical models of this kind of phenomenon are good descriptions of natural systems, like the evolution of body shape, ecosystem change, or climate change. Catastrophe theory claims it can “separate off the geometrico-algebraic structure” and “construct an abstract, purely geometrical theory of morphogenesis” (cited in Petryna & Mitchell 2017: 360) of bodies, ecologies, and life in general.
I seriously doubt that this generalized predictive capacity is possible. There are limits to what catastrophe theory applies to (Petryna & Mitchell 2017). We can see this most easily by trying to remake Zeeman’s toy model with the wrong materials. If rather than elastic bands we used thread or wires, or instead of a pin-axis we used something sticky, or a gear that moves only discretely, we would not produce the same catastrophic behavior. The toy model would simply break. If the axis cannot move continuously at different rates, and if the cause-connectors (rubber bands) that move the cardboard disc are materially constrained in their “propensity to seek the least tension” (Petryna & Mitchell: 344) as well as their ability to accumulate and tolerate tension (i.e., by being elastic), the toy model falls apart. The model works because of its specific materialities.
We might assume that this “collapse” of the hypothetical toy model that breaks and falls apart has something in common with a catastrophe. They are both events that structure a before and an after (Zizek 2014). They are critically different, however. The catastrophe occurs when the underlying model—the structuring forces of the system—maintains its continuity, its self-similarity over time. When the toy model falls apart, it will not spontaneously reform. While the “before” of each toy model is similar, the “afters” consist of two different classes of rupture—a behavioral surprise vs. a systemic collapse.
It is due to a lack of attention to the materiality of the system being modelled that catastrophe theory is easily over-extended. Ecologists or evo-devo researchers using catastrophe theory talk about systems moving towards “attractors.” The system is “attracted” to conformations it desires. When talking about a model, this is a desire mediated by the mathematics of topology, in the same way that the disc-pin-and-rubber band model has desires mediated through the properties of pins and rubber bands. The talk of “attractors” to which a system tends is thus talk about what the model’s topology wants, not necessarily what the system being modelled wants.
The only way we can know if the world is structured differently from the model to begin with is if we attend to what the world wants, which agential cuts it suggests to us, and what happens if we adopt those.
If we look at the science of socio-ecological systems, we see how much difficulty scientists have attending to the world itself (e.g., the study of “degradation,” Bestelmeyer et al. 2015; Peters et al. 2015). The timescales of ecological change relative to human lives are long, so mismatches between model and system are often not noticed. Moreover, the fuzziness of ecological communities or ecosystems (their lack of clear boundaries and outlines) makes it relatively complex to assess what does and does not correspond to the model system. Consequently, most theoretical predictions cannot readily be tested or falsified. There is also a clear failure in ecology to distinguish between things falling apart, and catastrophes. This points to a lack of attention to what the constituents of ecological systems want, and why. Under what systemic architectures are they able resolve their desires in surprising ways (like rubber bands), and under what conditions do they fall apart (like threads or wires)?
Forecasting the Future and Perceiving the Present
When we base our knowledge of the world on models, and not on our experience of the materiality of a current situation or environment—its tendencies and desires—we think that we can predict the future (Petryna 2018). Our cultural obsession with the now and the future can be seen as an effort to radically disturb our ideas of the present sufficiently to provoke a new trajectory, and to expand our ideas of these futures to render them possible (Coccia 2020). Thus, all of our forecasts of the future are statements about the present. Consequently, such forecasts are forecasts of non-events. As Zizek puts it, “In an Event, things not only change, what changes is the very parameter by which we measure the facts of change, i.e., a turning point changes the entire field within which facts appear” (2014: 159). Where do these new parameters emerge from? New agential cuts, by dividing the world differently into facts and fields, objects and environments, imply and create new parameters by which to measure and observe. A collapse is always an event, since the system ceases to function, and cannot reform itself, and thus afterwards everything must be made new and will probably be cut along new lines. A catastrophe is different because it occurs in a system that maintains its continuity. A catastrophe that is not accompanied by a new set of agential cuts is not an event.
Confined to our houses, we are all forced to experience a gap between the immediacy of daily life and the inexorable life outside in hospitals and logistics centers. We are forced into the position of the contemporary, that discontinuity that allows us to examine the present (Agamben 2008). Agamben writes that the present is a kind of large mass of unexperienced things, inaccessible because it is what we are not living—although we usually fail to notice all of these non-experiences and naively believe ourselves to be in the present. Our physical cutting-off, in confinement, gives us the discontinuity necessary to observe the present, and arrive at the critical position that Agamben calls the contemporary. We are better able to perceive the world as different from our model of it, to attend to other possible configurations suggested by the world itself.
The position of the contemporary is thus an agential cut, one in a sense carried out by the world (especially in the current situation), that creates us as agents able to step back and have the critical perspective to make other agential cuts. Thus one set of discontinuities may allow the creations of others. The making of agential cuts in the world is a constant, reciprocal, but not necessarily mirror-image process. The mouse that jumped on me while I was working on this essay at my desk didn’t distinguish me from the environment of furniture, though I experienced her as a separate, agentive, object. Something about my body may have suggested that I was not another piece of furnishing, as she immediately jumped off again. Articulations in how we parse the world are inherently reversible. We are both part of the material behavior of the world, and agents of its reinterpretation, separate and yet connected, both observer and observed.
Let me give an example of how our attention to the world can be refocused from the position of the contemporary. As I was making my photographic cut-outs from the old encyclopedias, a problem quickly emerged. Cutting out the figures risked reifying the colonial explorers’ gaze, their judgement of what was a worthy subject, and what it was subject to. It also seemed to reify edges and boundaries, to suggest that the appropriate border of the anxious man in a white suit is the outside of his clothing—that in the ultimate account of himself, he is friendless, placeless and physiologically closed. I could not see, or cut out, things that had been kept out of the frame of the original photographs. Nor did I want to cut out shapes that randomly selected and fused together horse heads, women’s limbs, corners of trees, and shards of bowls—this disarticulation seemed violent and arbitrary. But I tried to redirect my gaze within the photographs, and to cut along lines of sympathy. I fell in love with a pile of potatoes, and with a table covered in loaves of bread. The tall grass with a man in it, and the two bunches of reeds and a hat, revealed friendships and symbioses.
With this example I hope to show that trapped as we are in the attitude of the contemporary, we can see more clearly how we cut before we sort, and what difference it makes to our understanding of the world. Decontextualization, reframing and resorting are all common artistic and critical moves today. Anna Ridler also cut out the photographs from their encyclopedic legends and texts when she scanned them. Her point was to cut and sort in the same manner as an AI model—a logic of cutting that we might want to reject. Today, we need especially to ask whether we are cutting according to what a model wants, or cutting according to what the world wants, or indeed what we want.
We might start by noting that among all the things currently cut along the outlines of apartment walls and houses, many things have also been cut along lines of sympathy and according to the leaps of desire. Inside my apartment is not just me, a socio-economic unit in charge of not spreading coronavirus—there are also three plants, approximately 600 books, a mouse (sometimes), a rising pizza dough, podcasts from far away, films from other times, the text messages and voices and tiny screen images of the people I care about—and 39 small photographic cut-out beings. Our houses are rich mini-cosmos of influence and animacy, references and prostheses. We should certainly not restrict ourselves to tidying and rearranging our households. Neither the responsible housekeepers, nor the decluttering experts of the world, the colonial bureaucrats or the AI algorithms should be our models for how to re-imagine the future. We can begin to cut and fold our homes along that lines that suit us, the lines with which we live intimately, or wish to: we can equip ourselves with a new set of facts and fields and parameters. What we newly see and understand when we emerge, but also what we newly refuse to see and refuse to understand, will form the new conditions of life.
Many thanks to Colin Hoag for the opportunity to write this and the perceptive editorial comments.
Agamben, G. 2008. Qu’est-ce que le contemporain? Paris: Rivages Poche.
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Hunding, A., Kepes, F., Lancet, D., Minsky, A., Norris, V., Raine, D., Sriram, K. & Root‐Bernstein, R. 2006. “Compositional Complementarity and Prebiotic Ecology in the Origin of Life.” Bioessays 28(4): 399-412.
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Petryna, A. 2018. “Wildfires at the Edges of Science: Horizoning Work Amid Runaway Change.” Cultural Anthropology 33(4): 570–595.
Petryna, A, & Mitchell. P.W. 2017. “On the Nature of Catastrophic Forms.” BioSocieties 12(3): 343–66.
Zizek, S. 2014. Event. New York: Melville House Publishing.
Meredith Root-Bernstein is a conservationist and ethnobiologist, and recently completed a diploma in “art research and experimentation”. She studies how humans, other animals and plants interact to form landscapes. She currently is a visiting researcher at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris. She is also affiliated with the Instituto de Ecologia y Biodiversidad and the Center of Applied Ecology and Sustainability, both in Santiago, Chile.
This post is part of our thematic series: The Event, the Horizon.