sympoiesis in man met bril koffie

Set up in a cosy Rotterdam café with a pretty good review on beanhunter (have we actually become those australians? yes but not really?) for my morning write. And I meditated for a full 30min while Liam edited a paper, so I’m off to a pretty good start on my list of ambitions for the year.

I got in a little Haraway reading in this morning’s jetlag wake-windows. Some reflections on ch 3 (Sympoiesis: Symbiogenesis and the Lively Arts of Staying with the Trouble) follow. Most links are to Wikipedia for definitions and information on cited individuals. No page numbers, because I’m citing off the kindle version I have with me – I’ll have to add them in later.

Endiosymbiosis: Homage to Lynn Margulis, Shoshanah Dubiner, 2012.

Sympoiesis is a simple word; it means “making-with.” Nothing makes itself; nothing is really autopoietic or self-organizing . . . earthlings are never alone. That is the radical implication of sympoiesis. Sympoiesis is a word proper to complex, dynamic, responsive, situated, historical systems. It is a word for worlding-with, in company. Sympoiesis enfolds autopoiesis and generatively unfurls and extends it.

Improvising with others (making-with) is, for me, so much more fruitful than improvising alone – this has a caveat: so long as the others are also making-with. I have played with others who are deep in their own autopoiesis, this can lead me to fall into my own autopoietic thinking: what can I contribute? where is there space for me? how do I create space for me? should I use such-and-such effect? Without everyone truly entering into the mindset of sympoiesis, of making-with, the improvisation can quickly move away from something truly creative, generative, responsive, and into duller, more stagnant zones of self-obsession, practiced rifs and ideas, safety. Improvisatory sympoiesis is risky and rewarding.

[I]n polytemporal, polyspatial knottings, holobionts hold together contingently and dynamically, engaging other holobionts in complex patternings. Critters do not precede their relatings; they make each other through semiotic material involution, out of the beings of previous such entanglements. Lynn Margulis knew a great deal about “the intimacy of strangers,” a phrase she proposed to describe the most fundamental practices of critters becoming-with each other at every node of intraaction in earth history.

The core of Margulis’s view of life was that new kinds of cells, tissues, organs, and species evolve primarily through the long-lasting intimacy of strangers. The fusion of genomes in symbioses, followed by natural selection—with a very modest role for mutation as a motor of system level change—leads to increasingly complex levels of goodenough quasi-individuality to get through the day, or the aeon. Margulis called this basic and mortal life-making process symbiogenesis.

The idea of the musician-critter not preceding their relatings with co-players links nicely to my use of Jack Halberstam‘s work on forgetting – we’re not coming to each jam as clean slates so much as deconstructed entities, ready to rebuild ourselves according to our companions “out of the beings of previous such entanglements”. We must come to each other as strangers each and every time to achieve this intimacy. This becomes more difficult during intensive periods of working together, like the week I spend with Rogue Three playing and recording and performing. It will be something I need to practice when working together with Liam in Madeira and after.

“[I]nvolution” powers the “evolution” of living and dying on earth. Rolling inward enables rolling outward; the shape of life’s motion traces a hyperbolic space, swooping and fluting like the folds of a frilled lettuce, coral reef, or a bit of crocheting. Like the biologists of the previous section, Hustak and Myers argue that a zero-sum game based on competing methodological individualists is a caricature of the sensuous, juicy, chemical, biological, material-semiotic, and science-making world. Counting “articulate plants and other loquacious organisms” among their number, living critters love the floridly repetitive mathematics of the pushes and pulls of hyperbolic geometry, not the accountant’s hell of a zero-sum game.

“What is at stake in this involutionary approach is a theory of ecological relationality that takes seriously organisms’ practices, their inventions, and experiments crafting interspecies lives and worlds. This is an ecology inspired by a feminist ethic of “response-ability” . . . in which questions of species difference are always conjugated with attentions to affect, entanglement, and rupture; an affective ecology in which creativity and curiosity characterize the experimental forms of life of all kinds of practitioners, not only the humans.” —Hustak and Myers, in Haraway.

What does it mean to have an “involutionary” approach to improvisatory making-with, as opposed to an “evolutionary” one? Turning inwards and taking inwards that which the others have contributed/are contributing, folding in and out of one-another to the point that individual soundings matter only in their relations with other soundings, communal sense-making and instrument-making. There is a great sense of getting under one-another’s skin, and definitely an intimacy of strangers.

Here we are using science to think the metaphors of a particular kind of human relating, but I can’t help but wonder at the contribution of the bacteria in my gut and brain… This is obviously not something I’m going to be able to explore in a great deal of detail in this PhD project, although maybe it’s something I can recognise with just a little more reading on the potential influence of my co-inhabitants?

Soooooooo these last thoughts are particularly underdeveloped but the café is filling up and we ought to clear out, so I’ll leave them to think on more next time… A start on thoughts to send to Hanna for our Orpheus proposal, at any rate!

An appendix: some additional notes from my conversation with Liam after writing this post – a few extra ideas and questions and points to follow up on in future writings.

  • Why is keeping it strange, uncomfortable, new so important? Because it is a vital component of free improvisation, and true present-moment composition.
  • When improvising “solo” (earthlings are never alone) your co-creators become the space, the audience, the instrument and its failings (this one is quite interesting to me), your body (and its co-inhabitants) and its failings.
  • Louise (my supervisor) has spoken about audiation in jazz improvisation – being able to sonically image what you will play ahead of executing it, basically a very sped up compositional process. I feel like free improvisation is mostly antagonistic to this process. For me, if there is any imaging-ahead it is more to do with an action than a result – the sounding result then asks a response-ability of you, dealing with the strange and the unexpected (i.e. instrument or bodily ‘failure’). This isn’t a value judgement: audiation is of course a completely valid improvisatory practice, but at least for me it is somehow less ‘free’. It is a skill that can be mastered, and I’d like to find a way to be in opposition to mastery and virtuosity (but not difficulty and complexity), without simply celebrating amateurism. This requires further investigation and some citations.

Not related to my discussion with Liam, but I also realised that Orpheus event is more to do with computational “network theory” than biological/ecological networking, so we’ll have to find a way to make our presentation tie into that tangentially. Easily doable, but may require a bit of extra reading.


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