Tag Archive: biology


I’d like to call a moratorium on the use of the word “constructivism” (or “constructionism”) to refer only to social constructivism.

(This post was prompted by Tim  Morton’s Object-Oriented Strategies for Ecological Art, but his point there is somewhat differently directed and mine addresses a more general issue that can still be found in a lot of writing in social and ecological theory, and which concerns what’s at stake when we speak of “constructivism.”)

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(On Kevin Kelly’s “The New Socialism,” Paul Ward’s Medea Hypothesis, Steven Shaviro’s “Against Self-Organization,” and more.)

Self-organizing adaptive systems and other networks are more than just the flavor of the philosophical month; they are a model increasingly used to make sense of the natural and cultural worlds. Generally it’s assumed that such distributed self-organization is a good thing and that our intelligence needs to mirror it as best as possible. This message is reiterated in books like Daniel Goleman’s Ecological Intelligence, a worthy recent entry onto the popular market by the psychologist who popularized the terms social intelligence and emotional intelligence. Summarizing the research of ecological economists and industrial ecologists, among others, Goleman argues that what we need is a “radical transparency” about the entire production and consumption cycle of the products we buy. I’ve only skimmed the book, but I imagine that this argument can be added to the social and emotional intelligence arguments he’s previously made, and perhaps to a “political intelligence” piece that may need to be better developed, so that what we’d get is a radical transparency about the ecological and social justice impacts of the things that make up our world.

Transparency and complexity would seem to go hand in hand, then: the more we are aware of the causal loops making up the increasingly complex systems of our uncertain world, the more capable we are of dealing with the results of those complex feedback loops. But there’s only so much knowing that can go around in a world that’s flooded with information, but in which that information comes primarily in the form of distraction. Both the distribution of knowledge and the economy of attention will be areas we’ll need to be concerned with more and more. On the latter, I highly recommend Sam Anderson’s New York Magazine piece “In Defense of Distraction,” an entertaining jaunt through the landscape of twenty-first century distraction, where attention is increasingly becoming a new currency, and attention aids, from neuroenhancement drugs to mindfulness training, will increasingly provide us with what we need to navigate the world (while remaining upwardly mobile).

To better map out the distributive politics of knowledge and of ecological (and other kinds of) intelligence, we may need to retrieve traditional ideological concepts like “socialism,” and also to examine our assumptions about the nature of the whole system (whether that be global capitalism, the biosphere, or the combination of the two). A couple of recent books and articles can help us think about the ethics and politics of globally distributed intelligence.

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Complexity theorist Stuart Kaufmann recently gave a talk here from his book Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion, which is getting more press these days than most books with a Spinozian/Whiteheadian take on the emergent nature of intelligence, complexity, spirituality, and all that. Talking to him afterwards, I was a bit disappointed to find out that he had never heard of Deleuze, had only just heard of Whitehead as someone he should look into, and knew probably a modicum about Spinoza (he cites him a few times in the book). Not that I should expect that kind of intellectual cross-fertilization to be the norm — it’s not, especially across the Continental-analytical divide (though Kauffman does have a background in philosophy; and it’s also possible that he was being humble). But there’s an obvious resonance and potential alliance to be built here. I’m starting to read Kauffman’s book to confirm or disconfirm Steven Shaviro’s critiques of it. Shaviro is a Deleuzian-Whiteheadian (post)poststructuralist whose excellent forthcoming book on Kant, Whitehead, and Deleuze can be previewed in snippets on his web site.

More “out there” among leading biologists who lean this way (toward emergence, immanence, self-organization, mind-body non-dualism, etc.) is Brian Goodwin, whose book Nature’s Due: Healing Our Fragmented Culture, is being touted as his “biological testament.” It seems unfortunate that he chose such a relatively unknown, or at least non-academic, press to publish it with (Floris Books in England; it’s distributed here by the Rudolf Steiner folks). I haven’t seen it yet, but Arturo Escobar’s review is enough to make me order and eagerly await its arrival. Escobar’s own Territories of Difference is, incidentally, one of those landmark books (a long time in the making) that I expect will redefine environmental scholarship in important ways. I’ll post more about it at some point.

Both Kauffman and Goodwin are profiled in John Brockman’s 1994 book The Third Culture, which can be read on-line. The book also includes chapters on Francesco Varela and Lynn Margulis, alongside the usual Darwinist and computationalist-cognitivist heavies like Dawkins, Pinker, Dennett, Minsky, et al., and the more likeable Gould and Eldridge types — the whole left, right, and center, if you will, of the then-current (circa early-1990s) scientific star circuit. Brockman’s profiles/interviews are a great way of getting some familiarity with these folks; they include them commenting on each other’s work and ideas, so you get a kind of three-dimensional mapping of who’s who in relation to who else. It could use some updating, though, which Brockman’s Edge.org does, in a dizzy, all-over-the-place kind of way…