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Life-as-Meaning: Biopoetics as Paradigm for Living Relationships

...essay continued from Chapter 2.

Chapter 3.

More than a decade ago, writing in the journal Science, the molecular biologist Richard Strohmann foresaw a paradigm shift that he termed the “organic turn in biology” (1997).1 By 2013 many of his assumptions had been empirically confirmed. The theoretical foundations of the classical molecular-evolutionary model in biology have now been called into question. Biology today is undergoing a profound reassessment of its core premises.

The current dramatic changes in theoretical biology, however, are not yet culturally recognized. On the contrary, the dogma of bioeconomics, as described in the last section, has never been as influential as it is today. Mainstream biology, as it is taught in school and university classes, and as it is vulgarized in the mass media, continues to grip the popular imagination. But at the frontiers of original thinking in biological sciences, a lot of deep, conceptual change is going on. The Newtonian dogma of a genetic blueprint commanding a machine-like organic system while constantly striving for new efficiencies driven by the laws of natural selection, can no longer be confirmed in many areas of research. Rather, biologists are beginning to observe a living world consisting of interrelated subjects who are sentient and expressive of this sentience, which manifests itself in (inner) experiences and (external) behaviors.

Epigenetic regulation plays a much more important role than previously thought, which means that individual organisms can influence the fate of their own genes2. It is now well-established that parental experiences can be passed on genetically3 and even that cultural practices of child treatment may directly influence children’s genomes.4 The emerging, more holistic paradigm of biological regulation and identity now holds that the identity of biological subjects is often not that of one species alone: the majority of organisms must be viewed as “metabiomes” consisting of thousands of symbiotic, mostly bacterial species, according to recent research.5

We have become aware that an organism must be regarded as a kind of ecosystem – i.e., as a “super-organism” built from innumerable cellular “selves” – and that a given organism is not simply the result of a linear cascade of causes and subsequent effects. Current views in empirical biological research, particularly in developmental genetics, proteomics and systems biology, are beginning to appreciate self-production and autopoiesis as central features of living beings. (Autopoeiesis, literally “self-creation,“ is a term introduced by Chilean biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela to describe the capacity of an organism to continuously generate and specify its own organization autonomously.) Genetic coding, developmental and regulatory processes are increasingly discussed in terms of an organism’s capacity to interpret and experience biological meaning and subjectivity6.

The organism as an ecosystem. Photo credit: kadavoor / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA.

These findings not only challenge the standard empirical approach to organisms. They transform our underlying assumptions about what life is. Is an organism a machine, assembled from parts that have to be viewed as still smaller machines or sub-assemblies? Or is life a phenomenon in which subjectivity, interpretation and existential need are key forces that cannot be excluded from the picture without distorting our understanding of how an organism functions and without obstructing the path to further explanations?

In the emerging new picture, organisms are no longer viewed as genetic machines, but basically as materially embodied processes that bring forth themselves.7 Each single cell is a “process of creation of an identity”.8 The simplest organism must be understood as a material system displaying the intention to maintain itself intact, to grow, to unfold, and to make a fuller scope of life for itself. A cell is a process that produces the components necessary to produce these developments – while the materials, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, silicon flow through it.

The cell is not only a material unity, but a meaningful self that is producing itself. A cell is not a tiny machine that acts on genetic orders. Its basic activity rather consists in the ever-ongoing production of the components of itself. The strange force we can witness in lifeforms, and which we can recognize as also driving ourselves, is the drive to keep the process going and to preserve this specific identity.

This has one central consequence that makes the enlivened picture of biology so much different from its predecessors: A system that intends to keep itself intact automatically develops interests, a set of perspectives, one might say, and therefore a self. It becomes a subject with a body. If natural history is the unfolding of selves, it no longer makes sense to speak about organisms as agents without individual experiences and expressed interests, as it is customary in bioeconomics. Subjectivity is not an illusion that may help an organism maximize its evolutionary success, but rather the very force that makes biological existence possible in the first place.

Life: Empirical subjectivity

Let me sum up the traits of this new framework for conceptualizing what a living being is:

(1) It self-produces itself and thereby

(2) manifests its intentions to maintain itself and grow, evade disturbances and actively search for positive inputs such as food, shelter, and presence of mates.

(3) It shows behaviour that is constantly evaluating influences from the external (and also its own, internal), world.

Therefore, we can say

(4) That an organism acts out of concern and the experience of meaning.

(5) An organism is an agent or a subject with an intentional point of view. Or, to put it more generally: We can call this way of meaning-guided worldmaking “feeling”.

But this description is not enough. Any living being, any living subject, is also, always, materially embodied. Therefore:

(6) An organism shows or expresses the conditions under which the life process takes place. A living being transparently exhibits its conditions. We could call this basic condition of experience "conditio vitae“ – the condition of life.

(7) The “conditio vitae” is also the basic shared poetic condition, because it shows in a non-textual and non-algorithmical manner the principles of living creativity, the basic laws of agency and embodiment, which are also manifestly in ourselves as human beings. Every organism is an expression of the conditions of existence.

Tracing natural algorithms. Photo credit: jared / Foter / CC BY.

From these observations we can conclude:

(8) That every organism is to a certain degree autonomous. It creates its identity and uses matter for this creation. Living beings show a distinct autonomy concerning the necessities of metabolism and are not completely determined by external factors. Seen from this perspective, the history of nature is also the history of the evolution of “embodied freedom.”

What can we say about this understanding of the living world? How does it differ from the bioeconomic one described in the last section that still is the official version of reality guiding socio-cultural, economic, and political decisions? This new picture of life that is emerging from the latest scientific research obviously suggests that we need to revise the many economic and political policies that are based on the misleading NeoDarwinistic/neoliberal vision of life. But what salient features of this new paradigm might be identified to help us imagine and construct “policies of enlivenment”? What would a new set of principles possibly look like?

We do know that any new principles should be compatible with our new understanding of biological reality. Still, it is important that we not search for “laws” – universal, invariable rules that apply to everything, as the Enlightenment paradigm would insist – but rather that we search for general parameters, guidelines or attitudes that might foster an enlivening behavior. The idea of Enlivenment does not specify explicit outcomes or norms for how an enlivened society should be conceived. Rather, it is concerned with the overarching principles and attitudes that can foster the emergence of open, mutual, and cooperative processes. Some of these principles might be framed as follows:

  • Natural history should not longer be viewed as the unfolding of an organic machine, but rather as the natural history of freedom, autonomy and agency.
  • Reality is alive: It is full of subjective experience and feeling; subjective experience and feeling are the prerequisites of any rationality.
  • The biosphere consists of a material and meaningful interrelation of selves.
  • Embodied selves come to into being only through others: The biosphere critically depends on cooperation and “interbeing” – the idea that a self is not possible in isolation and frenetic struggle of all against all, but is from the very beginning dependent on the “other” – in the form of food, shelter, mates and parents, commiunication partners. Self is only self-through-other. In human development this is very clear, as the infant must be seen and positively valued by its caretakers to be able to grow a healthy self.
  • The biosphere is not cooperative in a simple, straight-forward way, but paradoxically cooperative: Symbiotic relationships emerge out of antagonistic, incompatible processes: matter/form, genetic code/soma, individual ego/other. Incompatibility is needed to achieve life in the first place, and therefore any living existence can only be precarious and preliminary – an improvised creative solution for the moment.9 Existence comes into being through transitory negotiations of several incompatible layers of life. In this sense, living systems are always a self-contradictory “meshwork of selfless selves”.10
  • The individual can only exist if the whole exists and the whole can only exist if individuals are allowed to exist.
  • The experience of being alive, of being in full life, of being joyful, is a fundamental component of reality: the desire for experience and to become one’s own full self is a general rule of “biological worldmaking,” which consists of both interior/experiential and exterior/material construction of a self.
  • Death is a reality. Death is inevitable and even necessary as the precondition for the individual’s striving to keep intact and to grow. Death is an integral component of life. (We should talk, rather, of Death/Life when referring to organic reality.) Against this background enlivenment is what an organism constantly does: every organic act is an act of creation, be it unequivocally productive or “stuck” as disease with its symptoms.
  • The living process is open. Although there are general rules for maintaining embodied identity in interbeing, its form and way is entirely subject to situational solutions. Also, in this respect the creative processes of the biosphere have creative and enlivening parallels in the arts.
  • There is no neutral, transhistorical information, no general “scientific” objectivity. There is only a common experiential level of understanding, interbeing and communion of a shared “conditio vitae”. New structures and levels of enlivenment can be made possible through enacted imagination.

From these observations it seems possible to complete the highly limited “mainstream” ecological worldview that now prevails (nature viewed as an exterior pool of resources) with an interior or intentional aspect. To the scientific third-person-perspective of "objective reality“ that now prevails, we can add a first-person ecology. Conversely, the empirical objectivity that is so familiar to contemporary science must be enlarged by an “empirical subjectivity” – a shared condition of feeling and experience among all living beings.

Mount Kilimanjaro viewed from space -- nature viewed from a distant perspective. Photo credit: NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center / Foter / CC BY-NC.

Objectivity in this view has a “poetic” aspect. This means that insights that have been excluded by the “objective-only” position – because they are not real in a material, physical sense – may be valid in a poetic interior sense. Gregory Bateson describes this when he compares classical (“objective”) logic with a logic that is embodied and subjective. The classical logical argument that Bateson gives is “1. Men are mortal, 2. Socrates is a man, hence 3. Socrates is mortal.” The “poetic argument” would resemble the following logic using the metaphor of grass, which, like humans, is also a living being: “1. Men are mortal, 2. Grass is mortal, hence 3. Men are grass.”11 This insight is of course not literally true, but it is true as an experiential, or poetic, insight. Insights of this kind can change our behaviour and in this sense are an influential element of our living reality.

The poetical dimension is the world of our feelings, of our social bonds and of everything else that we experience as significant and meaningful. The poetic is therefore part and parcel of our everyday world of social communication, exchanges, and interactions. It is the world of first-person-perspective, which is always there, and always felt and experienced. It is the world that we live in most intimately, and it is ultimately the world for which we conceive and make various policies. The world of economic exchange, which is a social exchange between living beings, takes place in this world as well.

Nature is inside and outside

The standpoint of poetic objectivity does not mean to propose an entirely individualistic or solipsistic worldview. Rather, I argue that the subjective perspective of embodied beings is a necessary complement of the prevailing objective approach. Here, too, we must come to terms with the reality of incompatibility – or paradox – in everyday life. As living organisms we have to learn to experience and to describe the world “from the inside” (emotionally, subjectively, socially) while also treat it as an external physical reality that exists “outside” of us. Bruno Latour has ingeniously explained that any procedure that attempts to "purify“ the biosphere by insisting upon its physical dimensions only – while denying that it is a sphere of meaning or “semiosphere” as well – will only generate even greater, albeit hidden, tensions. Psychological repression of inner antagonisms will only generate neurosis; they can only be overcome through living expression.12

Nature – its principles of contradictions, yielding meaningful experiences – is also “inside” ourselves. It is not too far-fetched to claim that to fully experience the symbolic and experiential side of our beings and to integrate them into our personalities, we are dependent on the presence of nature – forests, rivers, oceans, meadows, deserts, wild animals. In some respect, only the other – another living presence – can give life to the self. Nature acts like a twin that animates our symbolic selves. We gather food for our thoughts and mental concepts from the natural world. We transform plants and animals into intellectual symbols according to their real or presumed qualities. The snake, the rose and the tree are each examples of powerful organic images that speak to our human identity, which is why they recur so often throughout human history in our art, myths and other cultural forms.

This process works in a reverse direction as well. Nature embodies what we are, too. It is the living – and enlivening – counterpart of our emotions and our mental concepts. Only by being perceived and reflected by other life are we able to understand our own. Only in the eyes of another being can we ourselves become a living being. We need the regard of the most unknown. This manner of building up our identity is one of the most prominent cultural constants in human beings, from the use by indigenous peoples of animal symbols (e.g., in rock art) to the constant use of nature metaphors in contemporary poetry. Such practices can release those layers of feeling in ourselves that otherwise remain locked up. We need the experience of engaging with a “living inside” that stands in front of us, displaying itself as a fragile, mortal body. We need other organisms because they are in a very real sense what we ourselves are (biologically and psychically), but they give us access to those hidden parts of ourselves that we cannot see – precisely we cannot observe ourselves while observing. There is always a blind spot central to the establishment of our own identity. Seen from this point of view, other beings are the blind spot of our self-understanding.

1 Richard Strohmann (1997): “The coming Kuhnian revolution in biology”. Nature Biot. 15: 194-199.

2 Eva Jablonka, Marion Lamb (2005): Evolution in Four Dimensions. Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life. Cambridge, Mass. and London: MIT Press.

3 Joachim Bauer (2008): Das kooperative Gen. Hamburg: Hoffmann und Campe.

4 Don Powell (2009): “Treat a female rat like a male and its brain changes”. New Scientist, 2690, 8.

5Ruth E. Ley, Catherine A. Lozupone, Micah Hamady, Rob Knight, & Jeffrey I. Gordon (2008): “Worlds within worlds: evolution of the vertebrate gut microbiota”. Nature Reviews, 6, 776–788.

6 Marc W. Kirschner, & John C. Gerhart (2005): The Plausibility of Life. Recolving Darwin’s Dilemma. New Haven: Yale University Press.

7 For a detailed overview see Weber & Varela (2002), op. cit., Weber (2010), op. cit.

8 Francisco J. Varela (1997): “Patterns of Life: Intertwining Identity and Cognition”. Brain and Cognition 34: 72–87.

9 For the incompatibility argument see Kalevi Kull (2012): “Introduction”. In: Silver Rattasepp; Tyler Bennett, eds.: Gatherings in Biosemiotics. Tartu Semiotics Library 11. Tartu: University of Tartu Press .

10 Varela (1991), op. cit.

11 Gregory Bateson, Mary Catherine Bateson (2004): Angels Fear: Towards An Epistemology Of The Sacred. Hampton Press.

12 Bruno Latour (1993): We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP.

Next, Chapter 4>>


This essay, "Enlivenment: Towards a Fundamental Shift in the Concepts of Nature, Culture, and Politics,” by Andreas Weber was recently published by the Heinrich Boell Foundation. It is also available to read here on Shareable. Enjoy!

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