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Its Own Metaphor: Ecological Calculus and the difference that makes a difference

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Existential Territories: The Chemical Sign
by RCA School of Architecture

Are alternative modes of existence possible?

What form will they take?

Every architectural proposition embodies a form of sociality. Architecture is nothing if not a set of proposals for organising human attention, habit and ritual. Far from being a mere response to pragmatic needs, architecture is – and perhaps has always been – a tool for the construction of subjectivity.

An architectural project implies a model of the human character, a specific distribution of the innate and the cultivated, the desirable and undesirable, the normal and the pathological. At the same time, the relationship between subjectification and architecture is neither straightforward nor mechanical. The future’s infrastructure is a site of political conflict between financial, legal and semiotic forces. Today, the attempt to secure the fruition and dominance of certain models of human character through disciplinary institutions – the school, the hospital, the asylum, the barracks – has been supplemented by diffuse systems of control that act at scales that we do not recognize as architecture. And yet, as many have argued, contemporary forms of power have never been more impersonal, infrastructural and architectural.

Existential Territories is a series of events that will explore architectures capacity to propose alternative forms of existence. Territory is a term that refers to the exercise of power over a defined space. The existential aspect refers to way that the abstraction of design enters into a relationship with affective micro-political investments and semiotic processes. An existential territory is what binds a power over territory to a power over the soul while also pointing to the excess of life that resides within and beyond any system of power.

If the emergence of capitalism has charged architecture with the task of naturalizing social asymmetries, the existential territories series sets out to challenge existing models of human character and sociality including the normativity of gender roles, class construction, and labour exploitation, and perhaps rethink our agency as writers and architects.

Our second Existential Territories symposium, the ‘chemical sign’, will explore the limits of the concept of subjectivity by examining the way that chemicals, pathogens and microbes influence and transform what we mean by ‘human’.

SCHEDULE

Welcome by Adrian Lahoud,
Dean of the School of Architecture at the Royal College of Art

Jon Goodbun (RCA),
Its Own Metaphor: Ecological Calculus and the difference that makes a difference

Hannah Landecker (UCLA),
The Food of Our Food: Medicated Feed and the Industrialization of Metabolism

Anna Tsing (UCSC),
Plantationocene: Life in Past and Coming Ruins

Alon Schwabe and Daniel Fernandez Pascual (Cooking Sections, RCA),
CLIMAVORE: On Tidal Zones

JON GOODBUN (RCA),

Its Own Metaphor: Ecological Calculus and the difference that makes a difference

‘…thinking in terms of stories does not isolate human beings as something separate from the starfish and the sea anemones, the coconut palms and the primroses. Rather, if the world be connected… then thinking in terms of stories must be shared by all mind or minds whether ours or those of redwood forests and sea anemones. Context and relevance must be characteristic not only of all so-called behavior (those stories which are projected out into ‘action’), but also of all those internal stories, the sequences of the building up of the sea anemone. Its embryology must be somehow made of the stuff of stories. And behind that, again, the evolutionary process through millions of generations whereby the sea anemone, like you and me, came to be – that process, too, must be of the stuff of stories.’ — Gregory Bateson (Mind and Nature, 1979) —

‘The atom… is nothing more than a relation’ — Frederick Engels (Dialectics of Nature notebooks, 1870s) —

Any attempt to think through the relationality of ‘The Chemical Sign’ begs a triad of questions: A sign of what? In relation to what? For what? In this paper I will sketch a series of attempts to approach these questions over the history of systems and process theoretic philosophy, and the critical significance of this question for an extended ecological politics today.

There have been a number of engagements with chemical and biological semiosis – Heinz von Foerster’s Biological Computing Lab at the University of Illinois which operated from 1958-1976, and contemporaneously Stafford Beer’s experiments with information processing in pond ecosystems, Gordon Pask’s work attempting to teach chemical systems how to learn in projects such as ‘How to evolve an ear’, and Humberto Maturana and Fransisco Varela’s recursive conception of cell autopoiesis. Earlier work, such as Alexandr Bogdanov’s tektology and experiments with blood transfusion, and Karl Marx and Frederick Engels’ speculations upon the meaning of metabolism in Moritz Traube’s protocell labours, also provide important insights. Most importantly, I will focus upon bio-anthropologist Gregory Bateson’s use of C. S. Peirce’s concept of abduction as the basis of an epistemology of pattern and perception.

Bateson first set out his conception of three ecologies in his 1968 position paper for a conference on ‘Human Adaptation’ which he had called through the Wenner-Gren anthropological foundation. Bringing together an small and unlikely mixture of biologists, anthropologists, Marxists and cyberneticians, Bateson wanted to test his thinking on the nature of the relation between informational-semiotic and material-energetic systems, a task which would consume his final decade in an attempt to propose a new kind of meta-science: a qualitative discipline organised around an ecological aesthetics. Bateson never completed this project, yet it remains a critical one for us today.

HANNAH LANDECKER (UCLA),

The Food of Our Food: Medicated Feed and the Industrialization of Metabolism

In 1934, nutrition scientist Clive McCay warned that children were being raised with an attitude to growth that he called “the butcher’s philosophy”: the desire to bring animals to market weight quickly and efficiently.

This talk excavates the butcher’s philosophy of the twentieth century and its consequences for the chemical landscapes of life in the twenty-first. While there has been some appreciation of the addition of antibiotics and hormones to feed as growth promoters, given worries about these as adulterations of the end-product that is milk and meat for human consumption, the systematic remaking of animal feed since the turn of the twentieth century has gone under-appreciated. This paper traces the science of the “animal as converter,” with metabolism and feed efficiency as work objects in the effort to make more with less. Vitamins, minerals, amino acids, fungal enzymes, short chain fatty acids, arsenical medicines, anti-oxidants, and many other substances are part of this story, many of which were also then used in human food fortification and engineering. As a result of the focus on feed efficiency in the science-industrial effort to promote growth, what we know about many of these elements is confined to how they affect growth, a positive knowledge that has obscured the many other questions one might ask about how these nutritional components affect animals, microbiota, environments, and humans.

This paper argues that a more systematic history of agricultural feeding points not toward the industrialization of discrete foodstuffs or activities (cows, farming), but toward the industrialization of metabolism: a major re-articulation of the metabolic interrelations of bacteria, fungi, plants, animals, and humans, in which flows of matter between organisms changed profoundly. The industrialization of metabolism has produced what we might call the anthropocene of, or in, the cell, a set of consequences that now register in terms of genome instability, physiology and metabolic dysregulation. Both philosophically and practically, this perspective allows us to ask what constitutes flourishing in the legacy chemical landscapes of growth, and to think through experimental and epidemiological approaches better equipped to take account of the historically-specific metabolic landscapes of human development and health.

ANNA TSING (UCSC),

Plantationocene: Life in Past and Coming Ruins

Landscape structure matters in constituting the Anthropocene.

This talk discusses the connections between the plantation form—a mode of modular simplification in which ecological complexity gives way to genetic homogeneity—and the “feral proliferation” of pests and pathogens. Modular simplification and feral proliferation work together, spreading the environmental dangers of the more-than-human Anthropocene. Attention to landscape morphology offers a necessary “horizontal” dimension to the discussion of “vertical” carbon circulations that have defined attention to our planet. Furthermore, the plantation form is not a matter of the amassment of individual human acts, the most common way of understanding environmental problems; instead, it directs us to infrastructures and assemblages. The plantation is both an allegorical form for reflection and a material structure that has reshaped our world. For those familiar with my earlier work: yes, there will be fungi. Pathogenic fungi, which gather, transform, and spread from plantations, form the heart of the descriptive material for this talk. Fungi are always good to think with.

ALON SCHWABE and DANIEL FERNANDEZ PASCUAL (Cooking Sections, RCA),

CLIMAVORE: On Tidal Zones

CLIMAVORE investigates how to eat as climate changes. In the case of tidal zones, the project has been specifically tackling the detrimental effects of salmon farm pollution in the Isle of Skye, Scotland. After two years of research and fieldwork, the project materialised first in a site-specific installation to gather cross-disciplinary knowledge and challenge the way in which corporate intensive farms ‘perform nature’. As a response, each day at high tide, the new structure works as an underwater oyster table to activate filter feeders in the polluted shores of the island. At low tide, the structure emerges above the sea and functions as a dining table for humans, with tastings of ingredients that clean the water by breathing: seaweeds like kelp or dulse, and bivalves like oysters, clams, scallops and mussels. Through a series of ongoing public workshops, it is activated in collaboration with local stakeholders, residents, schools, politicians and researchers. Aiming to divest away from salmon farming and develop a new cultural imaginary based on alternative aqua-cultures, a network of local restaurants has also been established as active agents in the process: each replaced farmed salmon with a CLIMAVORE dish. The long-term project aims to look at other understandings of ecology and water monitoring to consolidate human and other-than-human inhabitation on the liminal space of the coast. The tidal zone becomes then a space of opportunity for discussing the spatial construction of the ocean and its shores.

 

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Filed under: ecology, research

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