But not all bodily matter is tight packed by nature’s law, for there’s a void in things. Were there no void, they would not only lack this restlessness of motion altogether, but more than that– they never could have been quickened to life from that tight-packed quiescence. (Humphries translation, 29 – 30)
By “body” I just mean any thing or entity that exists. Here are some examples of bodies: an atom of iron, a tardigrade, a neutrino, a bonobo monkey or any hominid, Greenpeace, a hurricane, a tornado, Collin College, a cheese sandwich. “Body” refers indiscriminately to any entity that exists. Thus, while there are many differences among bodies, and while bodies have very different powers and capacities, any entity that is a unit from the smallest to the largest is a body regardless of scale. Moreover, it’s clear that bodies contain other bodies and that the activities of the smaller bodies contained within a larger body can be very different than those of the larger bodies. My genes might have “aims” very different than I as a hominid have. Likewise, a cell in my body might have different “aims” than both my genes and my body. And again, it is said that 90% of the cells that compose our bodies are not “ours” at all, but are in fact composed of microorganisms. We could not live without this biological flora that composes us (each and every one of us is really a jungle ecosystem), but this is quite different than suggesting that these microrganisms dwell in us for our sake or share our aims. At any rate, as Badiou might put it, every body is a “multiplicity of multiplicities”. Every body is a heterogeneous and complex network of entities that is itself an entity or unit.
The claim that all bodies are porous is the claim that bodies are permeable. Far from being impenetrable castles with well defined boundaries defining what is inside and what is outside, bodies are permeable down to their most intimate recesses. Bodies are more like sponges than marbles. Even marbles are a sort of sponge. As quantum physicists have taught us, even atoms are mostly composed of void or space. This is all the more true of larger scale entities like antelope or Occupy Wall Street activist groups. All entities or bodies are characterized by a porosity that allows the outer world to flow through them. Snow falls to the ground in Antarctica and carries with it traces of all the gases, dust, and pollutants that are in the atmosphere. It is because of the porosity of ice crystals that we can know when a volcanic eruption or large asteroid hit the earth in our hominid pre-history. An it is because bodies are characterized by this porosity that intimacy is an intimacy with a world beyond the boundaries of their membranes; or, as Michael of Archive Fire likes to say, entities are characterized by ontological intimacy with a host of other entities in the world. Entities flow through each other, influencing and modifying each other in all sorts of ways.
Elsewhere, in chapter 4 of The Democracy of Objects, I have argued that all bodies are systems. These systems come in one of two flavors (with all sorts of gradations in between): allopoietic systems and autopoietic systems. The former are systems that don’t regenerate their parts or strive to maintain their organization, whereas the latter regenerate their parts and strive to maintain their organization across time. A rock that is chipped doesn’t regenerate the part that has been lost. A salamander that loses its tail grows it back. Yet a system is not simply a network of relations among parts that maintain some sort of organization– whether through simple forces in the case of allopoietic objects or through operations in the case of autopoietic objects –rather, systems in the traditions of autopoietic theory and developmental systems theory are interfaces with other entities through a membrane of some sort. Here I hasten to add that the concept of “membrane” need not imply something as literal as a “skin”. Only some entities have membranes composed of a skin. Greenpeace, for example, has no skin, but nonetheless has a membrane. Rather, the membrane of Greenpeace is composed of a set of operations or protocols that define how it interfaces with flows of matter-energy and information from the world around it. It is these operations that constitute its membrane.
A body or a system as a porous body is an interface with other entities in the world, and these interfaces are always selective. To be a body or a system– especially in the case of autopoietic entities –is to live from the world. These systems can only sustain themselves through flows of matter-energy through them. They both draw matter-energy from the world about them and release it into the world. It is for this reason that they are dissipative systems. Bodies like a city, for example, need all sorts of flows passing through them to continue existing. They need flows of hominids, various foods (which is why Deleuze and Guattari and Raymond Williams argue that the cities constitute the countryside), they need some sort of energy flowing through them whether in the form of wood, coal, electricity or a combination of all of the above, they need water, they need flows of information, and many other flows besides. Likewise, hurricanes need flows of heat and moisture to sustain themselves, which is why they die as they begin to pass over land. Without these flows autopoietic bodies can’t sustain themselves. It is these flows that allow “multiples of multiples” to stave off entropy and constitute themselves as units or beings. Without this porosity they would evaporate into a multitude of discrete entities.
But it’s not simply that the flows pass through the bodies. As flows of matter-energy and information pass through these bodies, they are transformed by the machine of the body into parts composing the entity. My body transforms food and drinks into my flesh. A city transforms the hominids that come to dwell in it into workers, people of particular classes, politicians, the homeless, and so on. The city transforms the energy that passes through it into lighted billboards– energy becoming information –lights, the movement of trams and subways, heating for homes. Materials like wood, stone, concrete, tar, gravel, and marble become buildings and roads. In interfacing with other entities, these entities are transformed as they pass through the body becoming something else and taking on a new organization.
Yet that is not all. The material that passes through a body also transforms that body. In Spinoza and the Politics of Renaturalization, Hasana Sharp reminds us that every encounter between bodies modifies the bodies that encounter one another, such that their affects– their capacities for acting and being acted upon –gain or lose power. In eating barbecue, for example, my power of perceiving and thinking is diminished. Here my capacity to be affected is temporarily diminished. My perception becomes fuzzy, I am no longer as attentive to the world, because as the fat from the food circulates about my body and the blood rushes from my brain to my stomach, my interface with the external world is diminished. In a similar respect, my active affects or capacities to act– in this case, the active affect of thinking –is diminished for similar reason. After the decadent meal of barbecue it proves difficult for me to coherently think. All I want to do is slumber. This shift in the power of my affects is largely temporary, yet, no doubt, barbecue affects me in more profound ways over time. My cholesterol rises and my arteries become choked. Eventually, perhaps, I have a heart attack. The point is that the matter that passes through a body is not simply a passive stuff awaiting inscription or structuration from bodies. It also modifies bodies as it passes through them, leaving a trace of itself, and either enhancing or diminishing that bodies power of acting.
In Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self, Stacy Alaimo refers to the way in which bodies interface with other bodies as “trans-corporeality”. On the one hand, Alaimo worries about a Cartesian conception of persons and bodies where there are firmly defined boundaries between inside and outside. This, for example, would be a major difference between my onticology and Harman’s object-oriented philosophy. Where my bodies are interfaces with a broader world, Harman’s objects are defined by strict boundaries and are entirely withdrawn from other entities. My objects are indeed “operationally closed“, yet all this means is that they integrate flows of matter-energy and information from other entities in their own unique ways. It does not mean that they don’t relate. On the other hand, Alaimo worries about a conception of nature– one that I’ve also critiqued under the title of “Wilderness Ontology” (free download at Punctum Books here) –as a place that culture is outside of that we might go to, but where culture is beyond this nature. As I’ve recently tried to argue, nature should be seen as a general term for being embodying all things, including the city.
The worries in each case are similar. In the case of Cartesian bodies with well defined boundaries, the problem is that we come to see ourselves as separate from the broader world and thus fail to discern how we affect and are affected by this world. In failing to recognize that we are interfaces with a broader world we also fail to recognize the ecological dimension of our being. Recently, I proposed that we begin talking about “hominid ecologies” rather than “society” to avoid precisely this problem. Someone wondered why I use the term “hominid” rather than “human” for this ecology, pointing out that there are other hominids besides humans, and also wondered why I would use the term “ecology” rather than “society”. But this is the point: The advantage of talking about hominid ecologies is that it reminds us that we are organisms among other organisms, rather than a special class of being rather than all other animals. The advantage of speaking about ecologies rather than societies is that it reminds us how our societies are intertwined with a broader natural world that they draw on to sustain themselves, that they are affected by, and that they affect. In other words, shifting from the term “society” to the term “ecology” helps us to undo the erasure of nature and materiality endemic to the humanities. Referring to “hominids” rather than “humans” helps us to move beyond the anthropocentric privilege of humanism and helps to remind us that we too are animals embedded in a world that isn’t entirely of our own making. As Alaimo remarks at the beginning of Bodily Natures, there’s a tendency in the humanities to see matter as a blank slate contributing nothing of its own, but simply serving as a screen upon which humans project meanings, significations, and that humans transform into their technologies. We desperately need to move beyond this model of matter as blank screen– what, in The Democracy of Objects, I call “Malchovichism” –if we’re to think ecologically.
The problem with thinking of nature as elsewhere, of thinking of culture as outside of nature, is that it cultivates a way of thinking that makes ecological issues seem like the peculiar concern of people who like spotted owls and beautiful canyons. In other words, ecological issues come to seem like issues that are only of interest to people who have a particular aesthetic taste. Meanwhile, the person who thinks of nature as an “elsewhere” to which you go to camp, says “look, I like camping and spotted owls as much as the next person, but these things don’t effect my real life where I have to make money to live. These issues are just of no importance to those necessities!” As Alaimo writes,
At this point in time, with global climate change proceeding even more rapidly than was projected, we hardly have the luxury of imagining any expanse of land or sea as beyond the reach of humanly-induced harm. matters of environmental concern and wonder are always “here,” as well as “there,” simultaneously local and global, personal and political, practical and philosophical. (15)
The problem with the Modernist divide between nature and culture is that it leads to a conception of nature where nature is always over there, outside of our social dealings. It leads to a blindness of the fact that nature is right here even when we’re in the Louvre in Paris. This is one reason that it’s so important to replace the concept of “society” with “ecology”. A society is just another type of ecosystem like a coral reef or wetlands produced by beavers; and it is an ecosystem that opens on to the broader natural ecosystem. Cultures, as I like to say, are of the wilderness.
It is this move that Alaimo’s concept of trans-corporeality accomplishes so nicely. As Alaimo writes,
Imagining human corporeality [and I would argue, all corporeality] as trans-corporeality, in which the human is always intermeshed with the more-than-human world, underlines the extent to which the substance of the human is ultimately inseparable from “the environment.” It makes it difficult to pose nature as mere background, as Val Plumwood would put it, for the exploits of the human since “nature” is always as close as one’s own skin– perhaps even closer. Indeed, thinking across bodies may catalyze the recognition that the environment, which is too often imagined as inert, empty space or as a resource for human use, is, in fact, a world of fleshy beings with their own needs, claims, and actions. By emphasizing the movement across bodies, trans-corporeality reveals the interchanges and interconnections between various bodily natures. But by underscoring that trans indicates movement across different sites, trans-corporeality also opens up a mobile space that acknowledges the often unpredictable and unwanted actions of human bodies, nonhuman creatures, ecological systems, chemical agents, and other actors. (2)
Recognition of the trans-corporeality of bodies cultivates a sensibility that both unites the local and the global, and that undermines my ability to see nature as just something “over there”. It shows how the ecological is an issue that pertains to the most intimate recesses of my sponge-like being. Alaimo gives the example of participating in a Greenpeace study where she sent some of her hair off to be tested for mercury where she found that her body contains x amount of mercury. “When I received my results, I imagined various routes that mercury may have taken to my body (tuna sandwiches in childhood? Dallas air pollution?)…” (19 – 20). In this little experience she encountered how her body is trans-corporeal, how the very fabric of her body is, in an important sense, “the environment”, and how mercury levels are not simply an issue for fish but for us as well. Likewise, the Big Mac that we eat is not simply an isolated thing of society and culture that, at most, affects our weight, mood, and cholesterol. No, that Big Mac belongs to a network involved in cow flatulence that contributes to rising greenhouse gases, the clearing of forests for grazing (especially rain forests), shipping from point A to point B, preparation, and all sorts of waste that accompanies these things. There is no “over here” that’s isolated from over there. Not only are our bodies trans-corporeally constituted by all these things, but there’s an entire network of interactions and events taking place that affect the entire planet.
To think trans-corporeally is to think the manner in which the local is the global and the global is the local, but also to see how we are constituted by the world around us. It opens us on to what I have called “the commons” following, following Negri and Hardt, and thereby challenges that ethics and politics based on the idea of the private and private property that we can do with as we like because it “remains here”. It also allows us to see how these issues are not simply issues of people who have a particular aesthetic appreciation of “nature”, but rather how they are issues of the very fabric of our bodies and minds or what we are.