The Beckoning Holobiont
Addressing the role of power in the scientific production of knowledge.
“I admit that it is a good thing to place different civilizations in contact with each other; that it is an excellent thing to blend different worlds; that whatever its own particular genius may be, a civilization that withdraws into itself atrophies; that for civilizations, exchange is oxygen; that the great good fortune of Europe is to have been a crossroads, and that because it was the locus of all ideas, the receptacle of all philosophies, the meeting place of all sentiments, it was the best center for the redistribution of energy. But then I ask the following question: has colonization really placed civilizations in contact? Or, if you prefer, of all the ways of establishing contact, was it the best?
I answer no.
In the 1950s, “the first white men in recorded history to eat the divine mushrooms” made their way to Oaxaca to learn about the psychedelic experience.
Their guide for this journey was Maria Sabina, an indigenous Mazatec healer and poet who only sung or spoke but never wrote. Her words emerged from psychedelic states, and the authorship of these poems belonged to the mushrooms. Sabina saw herself only as a conduit for what the fungi had to say.
Her guest, the white man, was R. Gordon Wasson, then Vice President of JP Morgan, on an adventure financed by CIA research into psychedelic experiences. There’s evidence Sabina was coerced into hosting him, and later regretted the interaction. Wasson had told her that his son was missing and he hoped to find him, which wasn’t true. The local magistrate applied pressure. She finally agreed on the condition that her village not be identified and her photo not shared; he named her and her village in his academic paper and published a photo in Life magazine.
Wasson follows a long line of “explorers” who “discovered” traditional knowledge, and became a widely cited expert in both mycology and psychedelics. Maria Sabina, on the other hand — the woman who provided him with that knowledge— was chastised for giving knowledge away, even though it was under duress, and her house was burned down by locals who resented the attention (and intrusions) that her expertise had created for their lives. She died in poverty in 1985. The Mycological Society of America named an award after Wasson in 2015 and his archive sits in a library at Harvard.
Western science is full of these stories of extraction and exploitation, and the myth of a populated world “discovered” by white Europeans is infused into our histories of exploration and colonization. Extracting information from nature will always bring to my mind the uncanny parallels to such colonial extractions of culture and knowledge. Even well-intentioned metaphors are complicated and problematic: humans are not mushrooms, but I can’t help but ask if I am drawing something out of them that does not belong to me.
Science can have a colonizing ideology, and colonizing ideologies often adopt the language of science. Could we somehow inoculate science against those shared practices and thought processes? They are often indistinguishable, especially when attempting to force nature against into its own logic. Science at its worst has served to justify forms of subjugation over people, knowledge, life, and land, framing itself above and distinct from the systems under its observation and experimentation.
I’m mindful not to place Sabina into the category of “nature” or Wasson’s “science” into the category of “people.” Rather, I’m cognizant of the imbalance of power we assert over others under the scientific banner of discovery. The difference is evident in the relationships each had with mushrooms: Sabina cited the mushrooms as her source, and Wasson cited himself.
The Science of No-Science
I’ve been reading Masanobu Fukuoka, a Japanese agricultural researcher who, in a bit of pre-war (1938) existential despair, surrendered the idea of the “usefulness” of science altogether. He was given a garden of Mikan trees (a citrus grove) and had this idea that doing nothing was probably the best way to grow it. It promptly died, and his efforts over years were nonetheless committed to this principle of doing nothing to nature.
What he realized was that before “doing nothing” to a farm, you first had to undo what had been done. Discovering this, he imagines a scientist spending years on research, up all night peering at books in the darkness until his eyes give out. His research? To come up with a solution for poor eyesight. Fukuoka saw the research of his day as an endless escalation of science creating new problems, which science could then be applauded for solving. But the problem was the methods of science itself:
“Modern research divides nature into tiny pieces and conducts tests that conform neither with natural law nor with practical experience. The results are arranged for the convenience of research, not according to the needs of the farmer. To think that these conclusions can be put to use with invariable success in the farmer’s field is a big mistake.”
It is this practice of dividing the world into territories, amplifying the output of those territories, and harvesting the results — while ignoring leakage, or damaging side effects to that beyond the “border” of study — that strikes me as colonization logic. Throughout Fukuoka’s book, I am reminded of additive vs subtractive science: a science that asserts itself as the source of a fundamental reordering of nature (Wasson), and a science that seeks to remove itself from intervention to preserve the order that nature has found for itself (Sabina).
Fukuoka’s farm began to thrive when he learned that agricultural practices created systems of false dependency upon the trees and soil.
“Before the end of the war, when I went up to the citrus orchard to practice what I then thought was natural farming, I did no pruning and left the orchard to itself. The branches became tangled, the trees were attacked by insects and almost two acres of trees died. From that time on the question, ‘What is the natural pattern?’ was always on my mind.”
The subtractive order of science is of interest to me. Fukuoka had to do the work of subtraction: to grow a farm, he first had to remove the obfuscation of agricultural methods he’d been taught at University. Without reflection, and even with it, a culture of science can carry forth an additive, unnecessarily complex order. Fukuoka asks of science: “How about not doing this? How about not doing that?”
My approach to music - whether it’s mushrooms and synthesizers, or eagles and satellites — is to first ask how to remove myself as much as an observer possibly can. I can then ask, how do I reintroduce myself into the space that gets filled in that absence? Where is the space for my relationship? What power relations are at work in what I do? It’s an admittedly imperfect practice, applied imperfectly by an imperfect actor to imperfect situations.
From Wind to Squirrel
I was heartened by the realization that the fruiting bodies of mushrooms are intended as a hand rising to greet us. Beneath the surface, mycelia does its own thing, finding the right space to send its feelers out into the world. The fruiting bodies we see (of oyster mushrooms, in particular) are meant as a form of engaging that world. The mushroom wants that fruit to be seen, even eaten, so that it may reproduce, or gather otherwise unobtainable information about its surroundings. As Merlin Sheldrake writes in Entangled Life:
“Mushrooms are a fungus’ way to entreat the more than fungal world, from wind to squirrel, to assist with the dispersal of spores (or prevent it from interfering with this process).”
The extraction of information from mushrooms is built on this communication: the mushroom’s pulses, rendered into music, is another form of relationship. The synthesizer is the other piece of that. While not living, it asserts a form of electrical intelligence that resists and cooperates with the electrical signal of the mushroom. Similar dynamics are at play within any ecosystem, particularly when we begin to imagine the impact of the non-living, such as stones or water.
Holobionts are the interrelated, intertwined collections of species that occupy shared space in precise assemblages. Such interdependence, writes Merlin Sheldrake, “is not a utopian concept. Collaboration is always a blend of competition and cooperation.” A synthesizer and a mushroom are fused together through voltage, but the synthesizer asserts some forms of control and the mushroom asserts others. Sometimes those interact, which we can hear when fragile shapes of electric sound are pushed into new patterns. A sine can become a square, changing response patterns from slow ebbs and crests into sharp, rhythmic pulses. The same sound moves from a drum beat to an organ. Or a sharp spike from the mushroom triggers a sound that the synthesizer is determined to fade, chopping out sections as one becomes a square pulse or fading in and out as the mushroom moves the knob to smooth curves.
The idea of a cybernetic forest as pure harmony is perhaps a dream. If it is rooted in the intrusion of nature, imagined as extractive digital machines regulating, rather than aiding, their surrounding environments, well, I would not be surprised. The history of science, fused with the colonizing logic of European discovery, pushes toward the additive. Such science asserts itself as a capable manager, centralizing control. A cybernetic forest imagined in this way would be a disaster.
Yet, perhaps idealistically, I view cybernetics as containing the possible antidote to that logic, even as it emerges from the same roots that got us to our contemporary mess. The relationships between systems expressed in cybernetics demands an acknowledgement of the observer and the observed, though it has been occasionally hijacked by imitators. To steer, you need to know how you got to the patch of water you’re floating in. It could be compatible with the rejection of extractive colonizing logics. It could make the competitive collaborative, embrace an exploration that meets instead of discovers, like hyphae moving outward into the world, or humming notes in the search for a melody.
Like the responsible steward of a mikan grove, we might look for the order of things, rather than imposing one. We might ask who a stable system benefits before we impose that stability. Until then, negative feedback loops and reinforcing feedback loops remain useful tools. The question is where we decide they apply.
Mushrooms and synthesizers aren’t going to reverse the worst forms of relational orders and hierarchies we’ve imposed on the world. We don’t hum to survive. But I find I can best explore and envision alternative arrangements for our relationships when competition is set in the circle of play, not war, and the stakes are the continuation of that play, not defeat of the other we’re intended to meet. We’re accountable for keeping the space of play open and flexible, to accommodate other cultures, obviously, but also to make space for other intelligences and forms of being. Increasingly, I wonder why this isn’t considered a more serious and practical way to live than the hierarchies imposed on ourselves and others today.
We do not “colonize” nature through science, in that colonization is a crime against people. But when the history of science is so full of crimes justified against colonized peoples in the name of science, discovery, and knowledge, it is essential to ask where those logics connect and reinforce, and how to disentangle them from the practice of research and exploration. Science must see itself as entangled with its entanglements, rather than offering detached explanations for the webs it weaves, imagining it was not trapped in them itself.
Things I’m Doing This Week
Last year I put out a record, and the label, Notype, offered to fund a music video. That video, directed by Guillaume Pelletier-Auger, is now an official selection of the Ottawa International Animation Festival!
Guillaume’s video is generative, following rules similar to the Game of Life. Each scene was constructed according to a set of rules. The pixels continue to follow that set of rules to guide their movement, turning images of structure into images of disorder. It echoes the spirit of the song perfectly: humans using computers to turn order into catastrophe.
As an official selection it will play in two theaters as part of the Canadian Panorama at the OIAF, if you can make it. It’s also embedded below, and you can buy the album (CD or digital download) on Bandcamp.
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