Lynn Margulis, the late evolutionary biologist, was misunderstood and ignored as a young woman. People in her field, and in areas of knowledge contiguous to it, were slow to take her seriously. Eventually, though, Margulis’s postulation—that cell organelles (you remember: the parts of the cell that do the work) arose from the “invasion” of the cell by irritating bacteria.
I witnessed last summer the dangers of extrapolating from biological sciences to social and cultural life in no less resonant a spot than a cafe on Unter den Linden, at the heart of Berlin. I’d been invited to have coffee with an art collector whose interests overlapped with my experiences in art and technology.
I told him about a class I’d been working on at MIT and we started talking about gardening, and somehow got onto the subject of invasive plants. As I blabbered on about matching the right plants to the right climate, the collector started probing. “So,” he remarked, “of course the plants themselves will be more comfortable in their native soil.” It took me a moment to catch on. He wasn’t talking about plants. He was talking about people. In Berlin. On Unter den Linden. (If you have any doubt at all about the historical significance and political consequence of having that conversation in that place, look it up.) I said something about the notion only applying to plants, and exited as quickly as I could, feeling like an idiot for letting him think for even a second that I believed his analogy was valid.
So, with trepidation, I’ll extend Lynn Margulis’s work in biology toward my work in art: If the truly original arises in irritations across differing entities, might art and science and technology all have something to gain from an irritating symbiosis? Might that help us to recognize the ruts in our habits of thought, and perhaps then to plough over, fill in, excavate, or re-shape them? And then, might that sort of mental terraforming help us to take a turn away from the troubles that we’re in right now?
What can artists, scientists, and engineers (and more) learn, and remember, from acknowledging humans’ embeddedness in “the natural world.” And what might arise when we learn to speak to each other across disciplines? Is it even possible? Here, a note from a “lazy farmer” who was also a microbiologist. He thought so:
Lately I have been thinking that the point must be reached when scientists, politicians, artists, philosophers, men of religion, and all those who work in the fields should gather here, gaze over these fields, and talk things over together. I think this is the kind of thing that must happen if people are to see beyond their specialities. - Masanobu Fukuoka, The One-Straw Revolution, 1975.
For this post, and for many months of thinking through associated issues, I am indebted to Lynn Margulis, who wrote generously for non-scientists, especially in her Symbiotic Planet: A New Look at Evolution, to thinkers Isabel Stengers and Catherine Malabou (read Malabou’s What Should We Do with our Brain? for a look at how our conceptual understanding of how the brain works is made visible in our economic and political lives), to curator and writer Lars Bang Larsen for turning me on to Stengers’ life-altering book Capitalist Sorcery, to Caroline A. Jones for introducing me to Donna Haraway’s writing, and to the incomparable Donna Haraway herself, whose recent motto I’ve adopted: Staying with the trouble.