Tuesday, June 16, 2020

New Viral Crossings and Old Academic Divisions

Bill Connolly
Aspirational Fascism (2017) and Climate machines, Fascist Drives, and Truth (2019)

One thing, among so many others, that the Trump deadly mishandling of Covid-19 may obscure, is what the event can teach academics in the humanities and social sciences about the hollowness of sociocentrism and human exceptionalism. Life is wondrous and multifarious. So are a host of nonliving planetary forces that sometimes shift rapidly. A lethal virus crossing can bring down a whole economy. Accelerated climate change can decimate entire civilizations. A massive volcano, (they are triggered more often during a time of rapid climate change) can reshape the world for a decade. The rapid emergence of the Holocene (without human help) created vast new opportunities for human population growth.
But, until very recently, traditions of humanist exceptionalism and sociocentrism embedded in Eurocentric thought led most humanists and social scientists to treat such events as rare externalities, unentangled with the very infrastructure of the institutions they study. Political scientists, economists, and sociologists have been among the worst offenders here, though a younger cohort now strives valiantly to break that mold.
   I have thought elsewhere about privileges, pressures and assumptions that help to engender this narrowness.[i] One item speaks to how disciplinary boundaries are sliced and diced in the academy . It is a factor inside the academy that helped to harden boundary separations between the hard sciences, social sciences, and humanities and soon encouraged neoliberal university regimes to locate the trio on a harsh hierarchy of relative importance.
If you, crudely, trace one vector from Descartes through Newton to Einstein, you arrive at a dogma in Einstein that either counsels physicists--"the queen of the sciences"--to ignore the humanities, social sciences and softer natural sciences or to subjugate them to its categories. The counsel revolves around assumptions about the relations between bodies, agency, and time. Descartes conceived agency within mind/body dualism, with agency bestowed upon humans and God alone; he defined time as a series of instants, instants held together only by the providence of an omnipotent God. Without God's constant attention and benevolence the duration of the world would fall apart.[ii]
In his 1922 debate with Henri Bergson Einstein contended that the Bergsonian story of delicate intersections between past and future in the creative protraction of the present--or "duration"--both gives undo creative agency to human beings and misreads the reality of time grounded in the constant rate of the speed of light. Light is composed of instants, 'particles". Not only does relativity show how the clock time of two travelers moving at extremely different speeds will vary, it also shows, in Einstein's words, how to "the believing physicist this division into past, present, and future has merely the standing of an obstinate illusion." [iii] The result is a species of eternalism, in which a multiverse collects every result somewhere now in space. The human experience of time is thus an illusion. So much the worse, too, for humanist philosophies of agency, in which judgments, choices, and creative adventures unfold through irreversible time.
    The rhetorical brilliance of Einstein found expression in his assertion that Bergson projected only "psychological time", while the scientist himself addressed "real time." I cannot rehearse the details of the debate here, my capacity to do so is indeed limited; but, as the superb book by Jimena Canales traces in The Physicist and the Philosopher, it has continued across several permutations for a century.
The key point for the moment, however, is that Bergson did not in fact confine his philosophy to human experiences of time and agency, let alone to a unique human illusion of time. And he saw how notions of time and agency are bound together. Einstein's metaphors nonetheless stuck: a rigorous theory grounded in the constancy of the speed of light combating an illusion grounded in fuzzy self-reports of human experience and action. Positivists such as Hans Reichenbach, Rudolf Carnap and Bertrand Russell sought to carry variants of the Einstein story into the middle of the human sciences; process theorists such as James, Whitehead, Mead, Latour, and Deleuze championed shifting variants of the Bergsonian image.
Most immediately pertinent is how complexity theorists in biology and ecology soon began to construe the diverse agencies and experiences of duration of, say, bees, crows, elephants, dogs, crocodiles, bacteria, and viruses in ways that buttress the Bergson theory taken broadly, contending that experiences of agency as striving and time as duration include and vastly exceed diverse human cultures. These latter experiences are thus construed to be neither illusions nor unique to humans. Such formulations download challenges to Einstein into the sciences of biology and ethology, that is, into nonhuman sciences.
Let's turn to a recent formulation by Stuart Kauffman, a complexity theorist in biology, about the temporality and agency of bacteria. A bacterium, he says, possesses some characteristics of agency as purposive striving. It pursues sugar as an end as it climbs the sugar gradient; it adjusts its behavior to attain the end during micro-moments of duration; and it feels satisfaction if it achieves its end. Thus, says, Kaufman: "Teleological language becomes important at some point in the tree of life. Let us stretch and say that it is appropriate to apply it to the bacterium. We may do so without attributing consciousness to the batcerium. My purpose...is to try to trace the origin of action, value, and meaning as close as I can to the meaning of life." (p.80) Drawing upon Kauffman, it becomes possible to appreciate complex human entanglements with multiple nonhuman agencies set on different scales of temporality and also to emphasize, with Whitehead, how complex micro-agencies within human beings also contribute to human modes of thought, mood, judgment and agency set in larger cultural contexts. Every action is marked by duration, however brief. Bonnie Bassler supplements Kauffman's account by exploring "quorum calls" of bacteria in the gut through which collective bacterial actions are undertaken. Others have identified the collective agency of crocodiles, an understanding Eurocentric adventurers missed at their own peril.
So resist the familiar ploy to relegate those who multiply sites of agency within and beyond the human to be merely theorists of individualism who forgo the study of larger structures. There are individual and collective agencies, set in relatively open systems. Indeed, the tired "individualist/collectivist/structuralist debate" in the human sciences is too often set in a larger frame of human exceptionalism and sociocentrism, though there are exceptions. The task now is to explore heterogeneous entanglements between in-dividuals, cultural systems, and various nonhuman processes set in diverse, periodically intersecting temporalities.
What about viruses, though? Virology is a young science by comparison to physics, which itself gained new solidity in the 16th and 17th centuries. The first virus was detected apparently in 1892. The first coronavirus in 1898. The first human virus in 1900. The measles virus in 1911. The electron microscope, which can view viruses directly, was invented in 1933. The first zoonotic virus--viruses like Covid-19 that spillover from one animal to another--was discovered in 1955. Ebola, HIV, SARs and other coronaviruses spilling over from other animals into humans, were identified later yet. Various viral vaccines trailed into the world after that, mostly after the nineteen fifties.[iv] Viral transmissions have also recently been identified as key agents in horizontal gene transfer, a second source of co-evolution that transfigures Darwin's old oak tree into a tangled bush, or even a rhizome.
Covid-19 is a coronavirus that leaped from bats to an intermediary (a snake, pig or pangolin), and then made a second crossing into humans. It is very impressive. It proliferates, after a crossing, most often through droplets inhaled from others or transmitted by touch and carried by hands to the mouth, nose or eyes. Covid-19 is apparently less lethal and more transmissible than several other coronaviruses--viruses with jagged crowns that become attached to human cells and proliferate rapidly.
Detection, attachment, virion movement during and after attachment, rapid evolution, stubborn persistence, resistance to antibodies. Are viruses alive? Do they participate in nano-strivings? The dominant view has been that, since they are immobile before attaching to host cells--they are not cells themselves--they do not meet the definition of life. They hover between life and non-life. But that judgment (and definition) is now contested by some virologists. Here is a sampling of what Patrick Forterre, a virologist, says:

"Viruses use the same ..nucleic acids and cellular organisims for the reproduction and expression of genetic information. This indicates that viruses and cells fit into the same historical process we call life;" (p. 100)

"...the viral genome remains inactive within a viral particle until it encounters a susceptible cell that can be infected;." (100, my emphasis)

"...most biologists profoundly underestimate viral 'creativity' (ie. the opportunity for emergence and selection of novel traits encoded by viral genomes). This is probably because viruses, confounded with their their virions, are assimilated to passive, inert objects." (101, my emphasis );

..."this implies that viruses actually originated before cells." (103)

"...viruses are thus living entities because they are both genetic and metabolic entities. (105)[v] 
The Forterre thesis, though supported by some other virologists, is highly controversial, as such a proposal for a paradigm shift in a science must be. As a rank amateur on this terrain myself, let me take a viral leap nonetheless and speculate that Forterre is on the right track. Why? Well, one reason is that his proposal takes another step toward resolving the persistent impasse between the natural sciences and humanities that continues to confound the academy.
    Neither mode of inquiry can render some aspects of the world intelligible as it stands, yet each needs sustenance from the other to do its work. Einsteinian scientists, for instance, ask whether an "anthropic exception" exempts them from a world otherwise constituted as timeless. The impasse, again, is that each needs the other to render intelligible processes pertinent to it, but each, at least in its majoritarian guise, advances themes that make it difficult to do so in intellectually tenable ways.[vi] Attention to the impasse may call into question the Einsteinian insistence to ground time itself only on the constancy of the speed of light. And it may encourage humanists to come to terms with how human cultures are profoundly and regularly entangled with a heterogeneous host of nonhuman cultures, cultures as diverse as viruses, bacteria, algae, plants, fungii, bats, birds, forests, pangolins, leopards, livestock, and pets. Cultures that also involve essential intersections between heterogeneous agents, such as the orchid and the wasp and bacteria and humans.
If you forge links between the Forterre account of viral life to studies of multi-species perspectivalism in several nonwestern cultures, and both to accounts by Lynn Margulis, Stuart Kauffman, and Terrence Deacon on how life may have emerged from chancy conjunctions between diverse, nonliving, complex molecules, you plant a seedbed that enables diverse disciplines to speak intelligibly to one another across disciplinary boundaries when an event requires it.
   Now Euro-dualism, reductionism and bracketing lose their standing as the only alternatives to choose between in a world composed of multiple, entangled systems. The story of multiple temporal trajectories, periodically crossing, encourages closer contact between anthropologists, nonwestern cosmologies, bacteriologists, virologists, global theorists, climatologists, and ecologists to study complex intersections of multiple sorts.
Biology, ethology, anthropology, and ecology, on this account, may now become something like lynchpin sciences, shuffling Einsteinian images of time to an outer edge to face questions from quantum theory, biological sciences of nonhuman life, and decolonial theories. These modes of inquiry drive a wedge into the "bifurcation of nature" (as Whitehead called it) within the sciences themselves, opening a door to yet new adventures.
    The new lynchpins do not promise a unified science, placing the old academic divisions under one tent. Rather, they provide clues to follow when those in the social and natural sciences need to draw resources from the other to explore a critical problem. Virologists, for instance, find that to trace a specific viral spillover into human cultures they need to do lab work, conceptual work, and field work simultaneously. They become amateur anthropologists in that task, as social scientists become amateur virologists at other times as we follow the complexities of a problem. We all become more problem oriented--appreciative of how new events of different sorts periodically interrupt field regularities to which we have become habituated--prepared to push against the boundaries of our field on occasion rather than huddling inside old cocoons.
   The discovery, for instance, of how one bat coronavirus, before Covid-19, spilled into humans after evolving sufficiently to make the leap, required investigators to study virus samples in the lab and to map in the field how large tree bats deposit excrement on a delicate fruit, the sap of which is drunk as a delicacy by locals. In different variations this example is repeated over and over in eco-virus studies, as David Quammen reviews so artfully in Spillover.
Another critical possbility may be amplified, too. Those in Euro-American settings who explore entanglements between diverse modes of human and nonhuman life may become better equipped than heretofore to engage rich traditions of cross-species perspectivalism advanced in several nonwestern regions as well as in indigenous traditions of peoples now partitioned by "reservations" in western "settler" societies.[vii] We may rise above a nature/culture bifurcation of our own making, pressing either to impose one side or the other of the European dualist/reductionist debate upon interpretations of nonwestern peoples or to "bracket" both Eurocentric conceptions in an artificial way. More reciprocal modes of dialogue now become more feasible between advocates of decolonialism located in different regions, not because of a change in this dimension alone, of course, but by linking it to studies that oppose imperial captures by capitalism and the nature/culture divisions bound to it. In fact, the latter dimension has played a role in all civilizations of productivity and abundance, not only in capitalism. Though capitalism leads the way today.
   Opportunities may now be augmented to learn from less-productivist oriented cultures how to promote resilence during an age of rapid climate change and periodic pandemics, so as to break the hegemony of private profit, stratification, economic growth and mastery over nature. Augmented but not launched. Numerous such dialogues have been underway for a while.


[i] One account is offered in The Fragility of Things: Self-Organizing Processes, Neoliberal Fantasies, and Democratic Activism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013).

[ii] Thus Descartes says, "For the whole duration of my life can be divided into an infinite number of parts, no one of which is dependent on the others, and so it does not follow from the fact that I have existed a short while before that I should exist now, unless at this moment some cause produces and creates me..." That is God, the eminent cause, which, of course, rules out emergent causation. Meditations, trans by Lawrence lafleur, New York: Library of Liberal Arts, 1952), p. 105.

[iii] Dean Buonomano, Your Brain is a Time Machine: The Neuroscience and Physics of Time (New York: Norton, 2018), p. 156. .

[iv] Michael Oldstone, Viruses, Plagues, History New York: Oxford University Press, 2010, pp. 19-40.

[v] Patrick Forterre, "To be or not to be alive: How recent discoveries challenge the traditional definitions of viruses and life", Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences ( vol. 59) 2016, 100-108.

[vi] I have focused in this piece on one strain in social/natural science engagements starting from what might be called the majoritarian drive in each. All along there have been challenges by an evolving minor tradition, exemplified here by Bergson and Kauffman. But it reaches back to at least Lucretius, and finds recent expression in Nietzsche, Kafka, Whitehead, Baldwin, Haraway, Bennett, and Deleuze.

[vii] For studies that do exactly that see Deborah Danowski and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, The Ends of the World, trans. by Rodrigo Nunes (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2017); and Anatoli Ignatov, "The Earth as Gift Giving Ancestor", Political Theory, 45 no 1, (2017), 52-57.


Post a Comment