Ceiling of the Westin Peachtree Plaza's lobby in Atlanta, Georgia

SLSA2016 – Creativity and Scale + The [occasionally Facist] Politics of Biocentrism

On Tuesday, Nov 1st, I started a PhD at the IT University of Copenhagen in the Robotics, Evolution, and Art Lab working with Laura Beloff and Kasper Stoy (co-supervisor). I’m going to be working on a project involving robotics at the intersections of ecosystems and food production, but more on that in a later post.

My first action as a newly minted PhD student was to attend the 2016 Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts conference in Atlanta, Georgia. I want to take this post to outline two of the panels that were held there. The first, Creativity to the Nth, was the panel that I was a part of and was chaired by Meredith Tromble. The second, The Politics of Biocentrism, was chaired by Oliver Botar and provided a fascinating window into development of biocentrism and systems theory, and its unfortunate connections to interwar Germany and, eventually, the racist and facist politics of the Nazi regime.

Creativity to the Nth: Scalar Dimensions across the Biological, Social, and Planetary

In this panel, I presented my thoughts on the relationships between scale and creativity alongside Meredith Tromble. For my presentation, I used the Inorganisms project as a reference point and discussed the links between emergence and the agent-structure relationship across scales, as well as the effects of diversity at micro scale and the resulting creative outputs at macro scale. The full presentation (with presentation notes) is available on ResearchGate.

Meredith spoke next on the idea of emergence as seen through the eyes of four authors from different fields. What resulted was an interesting look at the concept of emergence in general. It lead to a discussion, after the talk, about the the way in which emergence is often given a sort of Utopian driving instict and that, the possibilities of negative patterns emerging is often ignored.

We see this in the examples of emergent systems in the biological world that we use to describe emergence. The emergence of complex structures in ant colonies and complex patterns in swallow flocking are regarded as beautiful, aesthetic formations. This ignores the reality that emergence is a process and that the abject and ugly can also emerge in a complex system. Emergence as the result of a process does not necessarily tend towards good or bad, positive or negative. It merely tends toward pattern.

Books from Meredith’s talk

Sawyer, R. K. (Robert K. (2005). Social emergence : societies as complex systems. Cambridge University Press.

Sassen, S. (2014). Expulsions : brutality and complexity in the global economy.

De Landa, M. (1997). A thousand years of nonlinear history. Zone Books.

Galanter, P. (2016). An introduction to complexism. Technoetic Arts, 14(1), 9–31. https://doi.org/10.1386/tear.14.1-2.9_1

The Politics of Biocentrism: How Creativity Masks, Transforms, or Enhances the Politics of the Ecological Movement

The Politics of Biocentrism featured Oliver Botar, Charissa Terranova, and Flint Collins. The panel formed coherent whole with Oliver speaking from a historical perspective on Raoul Francé, Charissa mixing the art historical and theoretical on Ludwig von Bertalanffy’s work on Systems Theory, and Flint tackling the art theoretical implications of Hans Haacke’s Der Bevölkerung.

What was astounding to me about the panel is that it seemingly managed to hit on many important highlights of my identity and current research.  Oliver spoke first and introduced me to a figure that I had previously known nothing about. Francé was a Hungarian biologist, chemist, and natural philosopher that contributed to early developments in microbiology and plant ecology. His major works include an eight volume work called The Life of Plants (1906-1910), Life in the Soil (1922), and the journal Mikrokosmos.

Francé’s contributions on this front are complicated by his eventual association with the Nazi party (though Oliver pointed out that he likely pursued membership in order to be allowed to continue publishing as opposed to an ideological affinity with Facism, as being a party member was a necessary requirement for publishing scientific works under the regime). Francé’s legacy is further complicated by his interactions and apparent embrace of Jewish figures and culture through much of his life. Some of his major works were published in Yiddish and Hebrew, his wife and partner (in life and science) Annie Francé-Harrar was half Jewish, and his writings tended to reveal very positive attitude towards Jewish people in general despite the attractiveness of some of his philosophical writings to Nazi party members.

Charissa’s talk focused on the work of Ludwig von Bertalanffy, another biologist who is strongly associated with the formation of General Systems Theory. Together with Paul Weiss, von Bertalanffy developed a conception of the world as a series of interconnected systems. Von Bertalanffy wrote about this in his book General System Theory: Foundations, Development, Applications (1968). That particular work is considered seminal and part of the foundation of fields ranging from cybernetics to complex adaptive systems studies.

However, it is long to this work that von Bertalanffy engaged in dubious behaviour. After a failed attempt to remain in the US following the Nazi annexation of Austria in 1938, he reluctantly returned home to Vienna. In order to take a position at the University of Vienna, he reluctantly joined the Nazi Party (a requirement at the time). However, his apparent distaste for Nazi ideology seemed to dissipate by the time the Second World War was underway, and his writings from the time closely link his biological theories with Nazi philosophy. It was this period that (rightfully, I would argue) lead to much of the academic community ostracizing von Bertalanffy after the War and to his exclusion from many off the seminal conferences and meetings on Systems Theory, despite his important contributions to the field.

I find the struggle to come to terms with these figures interesting. On the one hand, it is tempting to relegate them to the dustbin of history and find recent, more palatable figures to serve as the standard-bearers for our fields of interest. I’ve certainly taken that approach myself. There are places in my MFA Thesis where I could have easily cited Heidegger in discussions of experience and phenomenology and I simply decided to cite other who didn’t have connections to genocidal regimes. At the same time, to ignore these sources is to deny the history of the field, robbing it of its own complex past. Perhaps the more appropriate avenue is to continually expose the origins of the field as a reminder of the dangers of embracing an ideology for pragmatic reasons as opposed to ethical ones, especially in the current political climate.

It is perhaps fitting a discussion of systems and complexity to return to von Bertalanffy’s upbringing to finish off this post. Von Bertalanffy’s introduction to biology and ecology came at the hands of his family friend and neighbour, Paul Kammerer. Kammerer was a researcher at the Prater Vivarium, a research station that was designed as a interdisciplinary research space to tackle important questions in biology using long-term experiments. As such, it is credited with findings that lead to the eventual development of the field of systems biology. The institute was founded by zoologist Hans Leo Przibram and botanist Leopold von Portheim, and it was Przibram who hired and mentored Kammerer (Bertalanffy’s eventual mentor). In 1938, after the Nazi annexation of Austria, Przibram, who was Jewish, was fired from his post as the Director of the Vivarium. Przibram was murdered by the Nazis in Theresienstadt on May 20, 1944.