Rosalyn Tureck plays Bach,
and continues playing the first of the Goldberg Variations
that I listen to on repeat without getting tired of it
While she plays, I try to remember
The journey that brought me here
They say maps are made for getting lost
But who gets lost?
It seems to me that the first time Olive Bieringa and Otto Ramstad told me about their embryology project was at Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen’s seminar in Berkeley in August 2018. Or maybe it was at Mad Brook Farm, Vermont, a few weeks earlier, dinner guests at Lisa Nelson and Steve Paxton’s. Names as geographical coordinates. That evening, in my memory, we – each in our own way – told Lisa what (we) needed embryology for.
I don’t remember what it was for me at the time and what topics I used. I think I already had a kind of awkwardness, I don’t know what to call it, an awkwardness. I wasn’t sure about anything. When I had begun to study embryology, this I remember, the deepest and most lasting emotion had come from the discovery that I could contain, and dance, all these other unfinished bodies. Literally with embryology we could make ourselves a “body without organs,” a heart that begins from the outside, a fold of folds, hoses, circulating fluids, breath flows, a face “that hasn’t decided yet”.
This not yet, that’s what embryology has been for me. A passion of the unfinished, the not yet born. Infinity of unborn forms.
Dance thirsts for these unfinished forms. It repeats them, reads them like diagrams: and movement gives a body to gesture, as one of my teachers, Hubert Godard, would say.
Somewhere between making body, and losing it, dubbing life, counter-actualising it.
Not because of any pretense of reading my story – as for reading time into space. What is so easily called “embodiment”, in the practice of Body-Mind Centering and other related methods in the vast field of somatics, is really a word full of pitfalls.
But tracing the multiplicity of forces behind and within forms, from the finite to the infinite, or to the unborn.
Embryology then, for me at the time, not so much as a personal memory, but the history of what that could be: perhaps other worlds.
There is a word for this: the virtual. Which is not opposed to the real, but to the actual, to the realized. Virtuals are forms of minor existences. And is “the” real, sometimes – never as in this moment -, that begs to become virtual, so as to unrealize itself.
I was happy when I could dance the multitude of the lesser existences of my arms, before they were arms or even mine; the multitude of breaths, before they made their entrance into what the Chinese call the inner sea of Chi. Or dance the peripheral gaze, when the eyes have not yet made the turn that leads them to frontalize: side eyes, carp’s eyes, other fishes’ eyes.
It is true that in Body-Mind Centering for years the scandalous mistake of the recapitulation theory remained, the fault of lack of scientific updates. But for dance this was not relevant, on the contrary. That one could dream, at times, of the metamorphoses of the amphioxus or of the echinoderms, and share, if not the destiny, at least the perspective. To see the world from these other life situations.
Embryology as a fantastical bestiary.
There, I went through that, as did everyone, I think.
I was always amazed and filled with wonder, when I would listen, in the speaking circle at the end of some “explorations”, as we call the exercise of our movement imaginations, to someone in the group reporting that they had emerged, after the embryological journey, with a prenatal memory. Like a fisherman of pearls.
Whose imaginations lie on the seabed, corals and other marine species?
Now I’m quite certain that this great work of somatic imagination, what we do with all in all rudimentary means – a drawing: a map – only serves to “make bodies”. There is a phrase by Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, a Brazilian anthropologist, that I carry engraved in my mind like an amulet. It says more or less this: that between the biological materiality of organisms and the immaterial substance of souls, there is this central plane of bodies, bundles of affects, habits and perspectives. An ethogram, he says. I think that’s what we do with our practices. A central fold, a way of bending, inflecting, repeating and varying. A semi-form. A meta-form. A metamorphosis. The origin of a perspective: and here, origin is to be understood, topographically more than chronologically, as a position from which to see or to become voyant, to feel and perhaps find a new gesture.
And so I have a relationship with biology that is at the same time one of great, inexhaustible curiosity and profound circumspection.
Circumspection has increased in recent years. To put it briefly, it’s that I can’t understand how biology calls itself the “science of life” when it can’t say what it is about life that it is the science of.
I have read that historically biology made its appearance as a discipline in the nineteenth century in correspondence with the birth of other sciences of man: the French philosopher Michel Foucault writes that the appearance of “life” in the lexicon of modern sciences marks the disappearance of the cosmos. The animated cosmos that, in pre-modern systems of knowledge, was represented as the big picture of being, where species and genera followed one another in a continuous concatenation of identities and differences, in the nineteenth century begins to tear and fragment into individual organisms, in which life wraps and hides internally.
It is therefore the epistemic series individual-life-society-environment that marks modernity and its infinite crises.
And perhaps it is not so much the environment whose devastation and plunder we mourn today, but the cosmos that we have really lost.
The first time I read an article by Scott Gilbert, it was not in a textbook on embryology or developmental biology, of which he is one of the most famous scholars.
It was in a text edited by Alfred Tauber, an American philosopher, in 1991, which bore the title Organism and the Origins of Self.
I had come to this in my reading research on the topic of immunology, this even more obscure science, and so much in the limelight in the recent years of the Covid spread.
Gilbert’s text had touched me deeply, for a phrase that has continued for years to run through my memory, almost a haiku: “To have an embryonic stage, it means to have mortality”.
For the first time, I realized that death was not opposed to life, but if anything, to birth. Why wasn’t it opposed? Because, curiously enough, it was a double property: almost a syllogism. Instead of saying: one lives, and one dies, the sentence reads: one is born, and one dies.
In the sense that there are other living beings – and apparently, more and more, because we have begun to give this honorary title, it seems, even to forms of uncertain status – that do not die, simply because they multiply through separation, splitting, doubling…
And so, to have an embryonic stage, is to have a certain form of birth, or to have a form tout court. Is this the individual?
I wonder today, thirty years after that article, what would Scott Gilbert say, who already wrote in 2012, together with Tauber and Sapp a text whose title, provocatively, reads: “A symbiotic view of Life: we have never been individuals”.
The title refers to a famous book by Bruno Latour We have never been modern.
And I can feel, maybe it’s just my inexhaustible thirst, that in that statement there is both a statement of fact and an invocation. We have never been modern, we have never been individuals.
What would we look like today?
Without agency, without the execrable autonomy that makes us our own entrepreneurs, with this paranoia of health, because at the slightest creak in this building constructed as an immune fortress, the danger is that we will end up in one of the reserves for the unfit, the non-autonomous, the non-productive, the non-socializable, the not-quite-individuals…
How much pain did this fiction cost?
And it certainly won’t be the environment, neither caring for the environment, that will solve the dualism of our science and technology. The question is how to bring back the cosmos. Beginning, perhaps, with dreaming about it.
In a beautiful text from a few years ago, the Invisible Committee wrote:
“We do not suffer as individuals, we suffer by dint of trying to be individuals.”
And further on, in the same book, there is this passage that I re-transcribe in full:
“That what appears from the outside as a person is nothing more, in truth, than a complex of heterogeneous forces, is not a new idea. The Tzeltal Indians of Chiapas have a theory of the person in which one’s feelings, emotions, dreams, health and temperament are governed by the adventures and misadventures of a whole bunch of spirits that dwell simultaneously in our hearts and inside the mountains, and walk about. We are not beautiful egotic totals, well-unified egos: we are made of fragments, teeming with lesser lives. The word “life”, in Hebrew, is a plural like the word “face”. For in a life, there are many lives, and in a face, many faces. The bonds between beings are not established from entity to entity. Each bond goes from fragment of being to fragment of being, from fragment of being to fragment of world, from fragment of world to fragment of world. It establishes itself on this side and beyond the individual scale. It immediately links together portions of being that suddenly discover themselves at the same level, prove themselves as continuous. This continuity between fragments is what is felt as “community”. A concatenation. It is what we experience in every true encounter. Every encounter carves out in ourselves a field in which elements of the world, of the other and of the self are indistinctly mixed.”
We are situated with our bodies, and with our souls: in a certain region of the cosmos, in one of the multiple worlds.
Today, biology would call it Holobiont. We are, in essence, symbionts.
Here, this navigation that began on an August day in 2018 with Olive and Otto, ends – ends? Or just stops – in the anatomical gallery of a Museum of Medicine, in Oslo. Otto and Olive present their “Collection of Fluid Spaces”, a reminder (also) that we have been, and still are, water that invented how to walk on mainland, a Terra Firma not even so still. The idea of walking water was, by the way, a nice joke by another visionary explorer of the worlds of breath and fluids: Emilie Conrad, inventor of a somatic practice called, with good reason, “Continuum”.
Homage therefore also to her on this nautical map.
And now I must return to a place on the map: in the same 1991 publication edited by Alfred Tauber, Scott Gilbert’s article (“The Role of Embryonic Induction in Creating Self”) is curiously – and appropriately, we would say – followed by a text signed four hands by Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan, the famous evolutionary biologist and her son, a writer.
“Epilogue: The Uncut Self”, that’s the title, opens in the middle of a sentence with no beginning. It is only on the final page that we discover that the last sentence, left suspended in the middle, is actually the missing beginning.
Without head or tail, the text describes the design of a Moebius tape, as it reads: “Topologically the self has no homuncular inner self but comes full circle, not based on the rectilinear frame or reference of a painting, mirror, house, or book, and with neither “inside” nor “outside”, but according to the single surface of a Moebius strip”.
Philosopher and psychoanalyst Suely Rolnik has also turned her attention to the Moebius strip, in the course of a long investigation on the work of the Brazilian artist Lygia Clark, in particular “Caminhando” (Walking, 1963). This work functioned as a proposition that needed to be experienced through direct action: the cutting of a Moebius strip with a scissors.
The re-enactement is quite simple: to make a Moebius strip it is enough to take a tape of paper and glue together the two ends, after having impressed a half-twist on one of the two short sides. The Moebius’s surface is said to be non-ordinary because, although it has two sides – conventionally an inner and an outer, or a lower and an upper – they are arranged without solution of continuity.
The action of “Caminhando” consists then, instead of continuously circulating from one side of the ribbon to the other, in making a cut in the longitudinal direction, parallel to the edge. The width of Moebius’ ribbon becomes narrower as the scissors cut its length, and the initial figure grows. The work ends, so to speak, when the space is exhausted, that is, when the cutting tool can no longer divide it. An Apelle cut, virtually infinite, but empirically subject to the finitude of the instrument, and/or of the “object”. We could also say a finite-illimited.
And it is indeed a curious experiment in which Foucault’s analytics of finitude is echoed, when, reenacting the artist’s gesture, Suely Rolnik enters the tape and realizes that there is a critique and clinic of the cut itself.
That is, of different ways of cutting. Of living?
For Rolnik, the Moebius is the figure of our subjective experience of the world: one face registers the forms by means of perception and feeling, and it’s bound to recognize the permanence of reality in its familiar and habitual representation; the other face, so to say, is open to the unfamiliar surge of affects and forces: the strange.
“These forces, Rolnik argues, traverse all the bodies that compose the world, making them one sole body in continuous variation, whether or not we are conscious of it. We can designate these effects as affects. It is an experience that is extrapersonal (since there is no personal contour, since we are the variable effects of the forces of the world, which compose and recompose our bodies), extrasensory (since it happens via affect, distinct from perception), and extra-sentimental (since it happens via vital emotion, distinct from psychological emotion). We usually call “intuition” the extra-cognitive mode of decoding that is proper to affect’s power of assessment (…), that I propose to replace with “body-knowing” or “life-knowing”, an eco-ethological knowing”.
If, in fact, each time the scissors returns to the point of origin of the initial cut, the angle of the incision is slightly varied, the repetition-and-difference will move towards increasingly evanescent and inconsistent forms, but will perhaps discover the forces underlying them. Or perhaps force is the name of the evanescent? Of a relation to the infinitesimal, a relation that continues when the terms have disappeared?
In this paradox of Moebius, in fact, we no longer know where to place and distinguish forms and forces, there is an absolute immanence in the cut. But also, what I feel pulsing in this figure is the “falling together” or, literally, the “co-incidence” – of a long onto-epistemological, western iteration of dualities: mind and matter, form and matter, body and soul, one and many.
The cartographer sketch ends here, or better stops, at a recent work by the philosopher Emanuele Dattilo, which examines and traces the history of a thought long removed from the canon of Western philosophy: pantheism.
Could pantheism, the theory that “everything is in everything,” be the oldest and most enduring shadow of what we now call the Holobiont?
Carla Bottiglieri, Oslo, 16/04/2022
Comité Invisible [The Invisible Committee], Now, trans. by Robert Hurley, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, Semiotext(e) 2017
Consigliere, Stefania, Favole del reincanto. Molteplicità, immaginario, rivoluzione, DerivApprodi, Roma 2020
Dattilo, Emanuele, Il dio sensibile. Saggio sul panteismo, Neri Pozza, Vicenza 2021
Gilbert, Scott, “The Role of Embryonic Induction in Creating Self”, in Alfred Tauber et al., Organism and the Origins of Self, Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht, Neterlands1991
Gilbert, Scott, Sapp, Jan, Tauber, Alfred, “A symbiotic view of life: we have never been individuals”, in The Quarterly Review of Biology, Volume 87, No. 4, The University of Chicago Press, December 2012
Gilbert, Scott, “Metaphors for a New Body Politic: Gaia as Holobiont”, in Bruno Latour et al., A Book of the Body Politic Connecting Biology, Politics and Social Theory, Fondazione Cini, Venezia 2020
Godani, Paolo, Il corpo e cosmo. Per una archeologia della persona, Neri Pozza, Vicenza 2021
Lapoujade, David, The Lesser Existences. Étienne Souriau, an Aesthetics for the Virtual, Univocal/ University of Minnesota Press 2021
Margulis, Lynn, Sagan, Dorion, “Epilogue : The Uncut Self”, in A. Tauber et al., 1991,
Rolnik, Suely, Esferas da Insurreição. Notas para uma vida não cafetinada, N-1, Sao Paulo 2018
Rolnik, Suely, Spheres of Insurrection. Suggestions for combating the pimping of life, published in E-Flux Journal, “Strange Universalism”, Issue #86, November 2017:
Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo, Cannibal Metaphysics: For a Post-Structural Anthropology, trans. Peter Skafish, Univocal, Minneapolis 2014