I’m going to speak about some ideas informing my current eco-sci-fi project in development, alien holobiontology, and some of the recent projects it develops out of, in a nonlinear way.
This is research in progress, I’m still thinking it through. This is a collection of thoughts about and reflections in response to Bubandt’s Future Ghosts, through the lenses of [cultural] Biosemiotics and Bakhtin’s Literary Criticism concept of the Chronotope, or fictional space-time, put together as a kind of narrative, in relation to my current and future practice.
“the study of signs, of communication and of information in living organisms. Its main challenge is to naturalize biological meaning and information by building on the belief that signs are fundamental, constitutive components of the living world.” Journal of Biosemiotics
Biosemiotics are like signs between organisms (literally, communication); but also signs encoded in DNA and activated through interactions in environments, eg. the fact we develop legs before we need them indicates we, mostly, intend to / will walk; more abstractly, things like the rate at which different species perceive time is a form of biological information.
From a Biosemiotic perspective, human cultural production is also a form of biosemiotics; it encodes signs, communication and information, and is an expression of relationships. This works the other way too, cultural production as biosemiotics affect our perceptions of the world, and what we give attention to.
Cultural Biosemiotician Wendy Wheeler proposes that the essence or ‘soul’ of individuals is produced through a biosemiotic history that is “both a memory in the service of the present, and also, like evolutionary history, an open process” combining habit, adaptation and “creative responses to chance… the future is semiotically open and we must be careful how we act.” (Wheeler, 2016, p.214)
I’m thinking about how to make what I call mytho-biosemiotic readings of, and interventions into, the future, science-fictionally.
[Sci-fi happens in the future, out of the present.]
For me, Anthropologist Eduardo Kohn’s How Forests Think embodies a form of mytho-biosemiotics, or a biosemiotic imaginary.
Kohn shows the complexity and unconventionality of actually lived semiotic relations via an ethnographic text about relationships between humans and nonhumans in Ecuador. Kohn wants to complicate, complexify, expand semiotics, to show it in all the nuance of its lived interspecies experiences, rather than thinking it as it is when flattened into a theory, a set of rules. But we don’t have to go all the way to the Upper Amazon to think about the complexity of human-nonhuman relationships.
We communicate with animals all the time in complicated ways – we negotiate with spiders, bees, butterflies, moths, squirrels; we communicate with our pet dogs, rabbits, gerbils, snakes, via what Kohn calls ‘trans-species pidgin’. Kohn suggests relationships based not on difference or similarity, but on productive in-difference or confusion (p100).
“An anthropology beyond the human is in large part about learning to appreciate how the human is also a product of that which lies beyond human contexts.” (p15)
How do forests think? In Kohn, they think mytho-biosemiotically, through the employment of multispecies enchantment and animism. As he says:
“the kind of thinking that thinks its way through the lives of people… who engage intimately with the forest’s living beings in ways that amplify life’s distinctive logics. Those living beings enchant and animate the forest.” (p224)
He doesn’t attempt to access to the actual thoughts of the forest, but to think the ways it affects, impacts, transforms the thoughts of those living in and passing through it.
One of my first experiments with mytho-biosemiotics is my @alien_ontology avatar, on Instagram and Twitter – hybrid beings, part human, part freshwater pearl mussel, part digital-technological. My definition of ‘alien’ come from Ian Bogost’s alien phenomenology: very simply, as “anything, and everything, to everything else”.
I use information gathered from scientific papers about the sensory perceptions, behaviours and environments of freshwater pearl mussels. I substitute ‘entity’ for ‘freshwater pearl mussel’ in the text: on Instagram this is hashtags, on Twitter full sentences. I abstract images through photoshop filters. Abstraction preserves the alienness, the sense of a perspective onto something unknowable, while attempting to reveal a sense of entities and represent their biosemiotic relationships.
Nils Bubandt’s Alien geologist from the future finds evidence of humans long after they’re extinct. For him, the present proceeds from the future, because of the dependence of co-species’ survival on what we do now. (Bubandt, p135)
This question about the dependence of co-species’ survival on what we do now is crucial. For me, this is contingent on our capacity to see beyond human perspectives. On the other side of Bubandt’s ghosts of the present from the future, what about apparitions of the future in the now? And what would a co-species future look like? Or what could it look like, science-fictionally?
We can read the future, or a range of potential futures, through the Earth’s past and present, in the landscape, in Geological time. I’m thinking this as a non-Geologist, from literary, anthropological and artistic perspectives. As a way to think about nonhuman time, or what von Uexkull calls the perception time of different species in his influential book, A Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans, from a bioscientific and biosemiotic viewpoint (Uexkull, 2010). Geological time and biosemiotic time is long durational time, evolutionary time; it can make jumps or leaps abductively.
Geological time, as in Claude Levi-Strauss, is stratified and nonlinear, with different times all existing in the same place, contiguously. This is analogous to a biosemiotics of perception time, where the different perception times of various organisms sharing the same environment overlap with each other, in connecting or disconnected experience worlds occupying the same space but at different speeds.
Geological strata and landscapes are texts; landscapes are stories that we have largely forgotten how to read, living in cities. Or that we read differently, depending on our perspectives.
“signs are not mere objects of thought or language, but rather are vital entities comprising a web of signification that is continuous from outcrops to reasoning about outcrops. Such an action of signs constitutes a geosemiosis that leads geological investigators on a fruitful course of hypothesis generation.” (Baker, 1999)
Geosemiotics is usually defined as placement of signs and discourses and actions in the material world (Scollon & Scollon, 2003, Discourses in Place: Language in the Material World); ‘geosemiotics’ combines geography with semiotics, after Scollon & Scollon 2003. But I am taking this from an earlier coinage of the term for Geology, by Geologist Prof. Victor Baker, in his 1999 paper Geosemiosis.
Back Loops and Panarchy
As Bubandt says, Anthropocene landscapes of death and extinction are, however, also inhabited by emergent and unexpected constellations of life, nonlife, and afterlife. (p137)
This connects to Stephanie Wakefield’s writing around resilience infrastructures in Miami [elevated roadways and water pumps] and New York: “resiliency designs work by managing and adapting to changing conditions of catastrophe… Rather than promising the future, these resilience measures function to ward the future off”
She discusses the reinvention of what it means to be human and to live, dwell, on the Earth; the climate and conditions of living are irrevocably changing, as things always change, and it is a case of adaptation and transition; slow but fast – too slow to see it changing but also potentially fast, and, more importantly, changing at irregular pace – in “nonlinear and erratic pulses” that are unpredictable and not evenly distributed around the planet. The interactions between melting glaciers, sea level rise, mass extinction, biodiversity loss, ocean acidification, and rising levels of CO2 concentration in the atmosphere.
She describes ways in which species are adapting to new conditions, with rising temperatures enabling the spread of mangrove trees further north, alligators in Florida’s residential areas and waterways, and pythons (ex-pets) thriving in the Everglades: “Nature is experimenting too, and we create our worlds in the worlds it creates, and vice versa.”
Wakefield discusses this in the context of C.S. Holling’s back loop – part of the adaptive cycle resilience ecologists use to describe the four phases of life of all natural systems. This consists of “a “front loop” of early rapid “growth,” leading to a “persistence” or “stability” phase dominated by a few species and characterized by rigidity and the capture of earlier energies. Those “stable” states are not permanent. Gradual or sharp disturbance can cause systems to slip into a “back loop,” marked by a “release” phase where energies and elements previously captured in conservation phases are set free, unexpected new combinations emerge, and wild, exuberant experimentation becomes the modus operandi. … the back loop is the phase of life in which individual organisms or small groups of individual organisms interact across previously unbridgeable divides and in doing create something fundamentally original. In contrast to life in the regimes we are leaving behind, where innovation was stifled and influence limited to a few actors with the greatest power—the stability “trap”—in the back loop beings and things are released and open to new potentials.”
My Skullcracker Suite SF ballet responds to this, in a science-fictionalised version of a research project that took place between Oxfordshire and British Columbia, imagining it happening in a future where many of the places I visited were now underwater and people had been genetically modified with genes and microorganisms of other species to give them some shared characteristics – hugely influenced also by Donna Haraway’s Children of Compost.
I’m interested in extending this, using sci-fi’s speculative modeling approach to imaginatively inhabit interspecies perception and the ways their experience-worlds, or umwelts, overlap and change and impact each other, considering the bigger picture, as in C. S. Holling’s Panarchy theory.
Panarchy is a conceptual model that describes the ways in which complex systems of people and nature are dynamically organized and structured across scales of space and time. It describes nested adaptive cycles. “A panarchy is a nested set of adaptive cycles operating at discrete ranges of scale…” This means that there are discontinuities between, and therefore compartmentalisations of effects, across scales; although also, cross-scale linkages exist (eg. Related to [body] mass or population variability of smaller-scale species)
Resilience theories such as C. S. Hollings’ are often used in terms of managing eco-systems, from an anthropocentric perspective, to “create and maintain prosperous social, economic, and ecological systems”, and discussions of “free ecosystem services such as clean water and air, food production, fuel” – although this is possibly to do with audiences and paper purposes, and may be the most effective way to push for change (but also points towards charging for the clean-up of those ‘services’ in future). But we have an opportunity to change things, to change the ways we think and live, to change our future, rather than continuing with a dysfunctional green capitalism.
Wendy Wheeler’s cultural biosemiotic text Expecting the Earth looks at teleological causes in biosemiotics, and their future orientation. She looks at time biosemiotically: pasts proceed from the future
These teleological causes, or the biological teleological imperative – [teleology as in purpose, or ends] that is, living things have purpose built into them. Biologically, arguably, we do not only inhabit the present or only remember the past. We develop legs before we need to use them, or understand what they are.
When Bubandt talks about the sci-fi-ness of the Anthropocene, it is science-fictional because it deals with an idea of future history – a layer of future geological history we are creating, and a retrospective reading of the present in which humans have become geological sediments or ghosts…
Science fiction is a genre situated in the future. The SF novum, after Ernst Bloch’s novum, is “formed not by the past but by the future”; for Darko Suvin, the sf novum should form the central imaginary novelty, and “must be immanent, scientifically apprehendable, and validated by cognitive logic” (Csicsery-Ronay, p47); it is totalizing, for the text, and structured as a thought experiment: “imaginary models of radical transformations… [are] initiated by ‘fictive novums’
Teleological purpose “belongs to the system of forms in environments of which human animals are historical manifestations… Thus are habits set… by time and place. They are an effect of constraints which evolutionary time, and all its manifestations as place or umwelt, have placed upon all the semiotic possibilities.” (Wheeler, p209)
Narrative is a human cultural form that often relies on teleological purposes and causes, in its narrative drive; wanting to get to the end, the denouement or revelation. Working out the answer, the use of abductive reasoning or ‘intuition’, and the enduring attraction of detective novels.
Wheeler describes metaphor as an ‘imaginative leap’, in the same way as semiotician Peirce’s abduction; she discusses Philosopher Paul Ricoeur’s definition of metaphor (in The Metaphorical Process) which “involves a processual movement… from feeling to meaning.” (p230) After Ricoeur, Wheeler sees metaphor as possessing a “holistic grasp on some inadequacy in normal meaning (or function… biosemiotically) which it creatively repairs, or shifts, so that new meanings (functions) also then become adjacently possible”
Human cultural activities seem to abstract and intensify biosemiotic forms, in a kind of biosemiotic reflexivity or meta-biosemiotics. Pierce calls semiotics ‘habits about habits’, and there is a sort of danger in this level of abstraction from reality. As Wheeler says, “Extremely rigid habits are… what we call addictions, while Gregory Bateson repeatedly argues that addiction to behaviours and meanings that have failed, is not a good sign as far as evolutionary longevity is concerned.”
How to tell a nonhuman story? How to produce sci-fi by animals?
What might be communicated to us, biosemiotically, by future ghosts?
I am working on producing a mythobiosemiotic text, using writing, AR / VR, coding, and algorithms. Alien Holobiontology is an experimental eco-sci-fi digital novel that explores the use of technologies for imaginatively inhabiting other species’ sensory perceptions, and ways in which digital platforms may be repurposed for these ends; or, conversely, how platforms can be inhabited and repurposed for post-anthropocentric activism by multispecies algorithmic hybrids.
Holobionts are assemblages of symbiotic, multispecies entities (Haraway, 2016; Margulis & Fester, 1991). I want the novel to be structured as a networked holobiont, each species as chapters of sorts, inhabiting interlinked experience-worlds.
The first potential chapter is an interspecies Twitter bot, using what we are calling Independent Ontological Research software developed with Etic Lab. It’s live but still in development, using scientific research in trying to become (currently) a bat. It researches for the larger PhD project.
Next steps may include using these avatars to comment on Brexit and immigration debates, to participate in newspaper comments feeds and attempt to gain access to justice through emerging e-justice platforms.
Alien Holobiontology is being collaboratively produced with Etic Lab, a socially engaged research partnership of scientists, technologists and artists; it also aims to collaborate with multiple species of organisms and microorganisms, ecologists and, speculatively, Marine Biologists.
The project aims to imaginatively inhabit multiple species’ perceptions and biosemiotic relationships, their subjective realities, and to reimagine ecosystems through fictions created in text and coding, and as algorithmic, animated and augmented reality entities. It is working very broadly with the form of the SF novel, and speculative fiction.
Which brings us to the Chronotope, or the space-time of novels.
The chronotope is defined by Russian Literary critic and semiotician Mikhail Bakhtin as “the intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships that are artistically expressed in literature.” He emphasizes time over space (because of the novels he is analyzing, which tend to privilege events in time over space). He mentions different kinds of psycho-social times.
As Bakhtin says, temporal relationships have largely been studied “in isolation from the spatial relationships indissolubly tied up with them.” (p258)
Chronotope literally means “time space”, referencing Einstein’s space-time, in his Theory of Relativity, although used “almost as a metaphor” for literary criticism.
For Bakhtin, the Chronotope is genre-defining, and time is primary.
For Kant, space and time are transcendental, but for Bakhtin, following Einstein’s theory of relativity, they are immanent, and literarily constitutive.
Relativity of Time
Einstein’s theory of relativity, dislodging Newtonian absolute time: “time only existed when a measurement was being made, and those measurements varied according to the relative motion of the two objects involved.
“With the special theory of relativity of 1905 Einstein calculated how time in one reference system moving away at a constant velocity appears to slow down when viewed from another system at rest relative to it, and in his general theory of relativity of 1916 he extended the theory to that of the time change of accelerated bodies. Since every bit of matter in the universe generates a gravitational force and since gravity is equivalent to acceleration, he concluded that ‘every reference body has its own particular time.’ From Culture of Time and Space, p19
[if you had tiny [quantum] clocks on your eyelids and your toes, they would record tinily different time]
Bakhtin’s Adventure-time occurs in abstract expanse of space, in an ‘abstract-alien world’; distance and proximity (meetings, partings, pursuit, guarding, searching, abduction) within generic backdrop spaces (seascapes, cities, countries) – action of the novel is not in any way connected with the specificity of the place.
Much popular contemporary narrative, from mainstream film to collective social media narratives, take place in adventure-time: globalized, homogenous; place as a backdrop for our individualized stories.
The disconnect of metropolitan living often views landscapes as generic empty background spaces, where any action that takes place is that of human agents, and all time is human time.
Novels present specific umwelts, or experience-worlds, and access to different perceptions, but these are usually only human ones. [there are exceptions, eg. Stapledon’s Sirius].
As Wendy Wheeler says, “If expectation involves the expectation of living relation, with all that implies of reaching out towards understanding, of thoughtful reading, and of the time of interpretation, then we humans, ourselves, have ceased to adapt well to these other and antecedent things which we no longer read sufficiently thoroughly or abide with.” (Wheeler, p219)
How to begin to inhabit other species’ experience-worlds?
Uexkull calls the rate at which different species experience time perception time. Humans perceive time at one-eighteenth of a second. things that happen too quickly or slowly for human perception can be captured and seen by us through slow motion of time-lapse cinematography respectively, extending or compressing time.
Nonhuman time could occupy Science-fiction’s future-oriented chronotope, in place of its tropes of future history and time travel; as the space-time of an alternate universe alternative [perception] time
“[for] fish, which live on fast-moving prey, all processes of motion appear more slowly in their environment, as in slow motion.” “the fighting fish does not recognize its own image when it is shown to him eighteen times a second; it must be shown at least thirty times a second.” (p71)
[Fish perceive at around one thirtieth of a second]
Similarly, but inversely, “the perception time of a snail takes place at a speed of between three and four moments a second… processes of motion take place much more quickly in a snail’s world than they do in our own. Even the snail’s movements do not seem slower to it than ours do to us.” (p72)
Trees don’t need to move – they are part of a massive communications systems; things come to them; experience the world in completely different perception space-time. Maybe like the super-intelligent uploaded minds in Charles Stross’s Accelerando – no interest in moving around. Accessing complex information systems via roots and branches, leaves.
“Bats determine the size, location, density, and movement of prey such as fruit flies 100 feet away in a pitch-black cave by use of sonar, emitting through their mouths and nostrils ultrasound vibrating at frequencies of some 100,000 cycles per second, about five times what we can hear.” (p23)
“Dolphins echolocate in the water by making click sounds, and humpback whales sing to each other… [Blue whales’] communications are time-delayed because of water… They may experience time in an extended way compared to our sense of time, even as their native ocean-imaging abilities likely far surpass our own.” (p23-24)
A ritual to summon a future being, a community to come. Channeling future ghosts as symbiont or interspecies avatars, using algorithmically-generated scripts for crow and (partially) octoGANN, to try and bypass our incapacity to imagine beyond human perspectives.
I’m thinking about a future-oriented chapter for the Holobiontology project, and how that might work. Assemblage-times are something I’d like to develop with this – different times for different beings. And thinking about DNA expression models, both hypothetical and using real expression data from single cells. Future ghosts exist in the present biosemiotically like DNA:
“DNA is not a blueprint for a whole organism; it is something more like a set of possibilities that are also biological and psychical ‘expectations’ in the form of potential affordances.” (Wheeler, p209)
So, to sum up. I’m developing frameworks for modeling possible futures and responses to ecological crisis, from more than human perspectives. There is an opportunity to change the way we live and act in the world. If we are imaginatively unprepared, or can’t think beyond managing ecosystems to continue our access to the ‘services’ they provide us, the future of our relationships to ecosystems and resources are much more likely to become corporately managed and owned ones that are destructive to anything that doesn’t advance corporate interests. I’m working on developing speculative, mytho-biosemiotic fictions that imagine future ghosts as multispecies ones. I want to infuse narratives with the sense of the richness of biodiversity and of the deep, geological time of the worlds through which they pass, expanding on the multispecies’ environmental-psychological spaces in which time happens, differently.