By LOUISE BEC
We are all extremophiles. (1)
Life is undergoing tension.
Life is undergoing pressure.
Life is undergoing depression.
Life is undergoing transgression.
The biomass is being shaken, destabilised…
How shall we respond to the urgent questions regarding survival and meaningfulness…
How shall we elaborate new strategies for inventive adaptation in order to persist, faced as we are with the degradation of the conditions of life and our environments, which are becoming progressively more toxic – and sometimes even deadly.
We are all extremophiles who possess the memory of the origin of life.
Life developed in an unwelcoming world, bringing with it a long-lasting transformation of the environment through the creation of an atmosphere. (2)
Life has invented various strategies in order to leave the oceans and occupy the ensemble of ecosystems and the greatest possible number of ecological niches.
We are therefore accountable for this ‘living whole’ – not only because we are part of it, but because of our growing awareness that it is becoming fragile, falling apart and undergoing dramatic amputations as a result of the planet’s ‘ecosystemic turbulences’.
We are extremophiles immersed in a labyrinth of prejudicial aggressions.
The multiple forms of pollution, starting with global warming, are gradually destabilising our environments in which we have engaged in the ensemble of humanising processes by profoundly modifying them and thus arriving at our present civilisations and ‘highly evolved’ cultures. We are conscious of the impact they have had and will continue to have in the future on the distribution of wealth, on the growth of sanitary inequality, on the inevitable energy crisis and on the proliferation of humanitarian catastrophes. (3)
As extremophiles, we know how to calculate the dangers of convergent migratory flows towards opulent substrata, provoking conflictive attitudes, uncontrollable repressive countermeasures, instances of extermination and even genocide as a result of disaffection.
Gilles Clément, (4) the author of ‘Planetary Garden’ (5) analyses the causes of this situation and comes to his own objective conclusions. In his ‘Third Landscape Manifesto’, he advances the idea that the present-day practices of planetary exploitation correspond on a massive scale to a liberal-style market economy with immediate profit motives. The risks are great and evident: environmental worries addressed in the end through fear, marketing or different forms of profit inspired either by politics or commerce.
We are predatory extremophiles.
We acquire, in an imperialist way, territories, riches, cultures, energies and vital raw materials to satisfy our own needs.
Most often, every time we try to colonise inhabited areas ‘pacifically’, we unleash hostility in those milieux and bring systematic ruin to the natural, cultural and patrimonial environment ‘through collateral damage’.
Moreover – to take the example of the thousands of women and children in Mailuu-Suu searching for welded nickel in light-bulb shells in dumps of a factory located on terrain where uranium was previously mined – there are prototypical extremophiles among us, trying to survive in a maximally toxic and radioactive environment where the atmosphere is laden with a surplus of glass powder, to boot.
Are we unaware to that extent of the new larval slavery we are provoking and the resulting silent degradation of the planet’s biodiversity?
But we are also creative extremophiles.
We obey behavioural attitudes which are proper to the specific characteristics of living species. We are obsessed with discovering and surveying unknown environments, with the vertigo produced by limitless expanses, willing to explore outer space and ready to set out and conquer infinitesimal nanometric worlds.
We are haunted by exploratory tropisms, by the irresistible attraction for aggressive biomes, for vague and dangerous zones.
We are inhabited by the inclination to exceed or overturn ‘taboos’, limits and frontiers. We thus shamelessly undermine the very logic of life by installing factories for producing organisms by means of biotechnology and transgenetics, expecting to improve our adaptive capabilities and prolong our life expectancy.
We are also being tormented by the bulimic greed for immoderately accumulating knowledge.
We are determined to take up all challenges with a blind faith in our overpowering technology, which ‘humanises’ us every day.
We are collectively bewitched by the quest for constraints, for obstacles to be surmounted, by a provocative syndrome which presses towards systematic experimentation.
We are also obsessed with a curious idiosyncrasy – ‘that of creating utopian worlds’ /6/ by the proliferation and variety of scientific activities and artistic and technological forms of expression. Having been freed from the caves, we must go beyond the limits of imaginary and symbolic universes to construct our ‘cultural’ and fantastical ‘reservation’.
As a result of a long heritage of neural evolution, we are thinking extremophiles.
We have equipped ourselves with an efficient cognitive tool which has evolved and become more and more complex with the millennia – to the point that the brain itself has become not only a new space to explore, in all its strangeness, with all its unfathomable potential the concomitant responsibility, but also the guarantee of our survival and of that of the planet, which depends in a fundamental way on the better cognitive and predictive understanding of a future which appears uncertain.
Cognition has become an extreme milieu which we have been exploring since the night of time, of animal and artificial intelligence. Thinking with the brain about the brain is an incredible recursive feat which requires sophisticated digital methods for image exploration that might allow us to see ourselves thinking.
For many, scientific progress and technological advances have become suspicious and combine to amplify the breathless phantasmagoria, showing all the signs of a latent catastrophe which the industries of ‘the imagination’ speculate with and amplify in the media, vulgarising heroic conduct by feeding gregarious fears.
We are extremophiles who share neither the pessimism of those who find themselves overwhelmed and resigned, nor the blind optimism of those who believe scientific and technological devices will overcome the ensemble of problems we are confronted with.
We are conscious and engaged extremophiles; we are working towards the emergence of a cultural and anthropological paradigm. Even if the scheme presented above and our ill-adapted mentalities prevent us from understanding the vast scale of the phenomena we are faced with today and the exact degree of the seriousness of their impact and their interdependence.
The symptoms of this paradigm are also expressed through the growing role being played by the transgressions and mutations they generate.
The transgressions systematically impose control measures and prohibitions, favouring an authoritarian hardening of liberties, basing itself on notions of equilibrium and principles of long-term ‘responsibilities’, (7) because it is convenient to anticipate the eventually destructive consequences of the ensemble of our activities in order to bequeath a still inhabitable world to future generations.
New ethical questions are arising at the core of our societies.
But if this is the case, what kind of ethics are we dealing with? It will probably be necessary to go beyond previous Biblical and philosophical moralities, which no longer seem operable. It will be necessary to explore new types of evolutionary ethics more in tune with the ‘nature itself’ of the problems to be resolved.
If moral systems /8/ are, in fact, the result of natural selection aiming at the improvement of the aptitudes and descendants of both individuals and groups and at evolving in unstable and alterable environments, new concepts, new activities and new practices must clearly be called upon.
What are the limits to where we might go to defend the rights of future generations without, at the same time, putting democracy in danger?
What place shall be reserved for the counterbalances of information and artistic expressions?
The conference titled ‘Mutamorphosis’ is part of a general event whose objective is to question the major mutations that weigh on the future of our word, on the evolution of humankind and of societies and consequently on its modes of scientific and technological knowledge, its artistic expressions and its forms of communication.
In this sense, it must set itself apart from the objectives pursued by the run of conferences devoted to the relationships between the Arts and the Sciences where sterile and ‘mundane’ repetitions content themselves with a fuzzy interdisciplinarity.
‘Mutamorphosis’ should make it possible to install new configurations throughout the close link between ethical, epistemological, aesthetic and ecosystemic conditions.
It should base itself on the presence of two important phenomena that have spanned the last few decades: the acknowledgement of dangers and risks and the fundamental need to put in place methods for predictability by modelling phenomena associated with the handling of their global and local effects.
It should show proof that the necessary plurality of scientific, technological and artistic disciplines may combine effectively through their specific interactions; that this transdisciplinarity represents a real, feasible opportunity with political consequences; that it can participate in the inevitable geo-cultural, geo-political, economic and social reconfigurations to come.
The resulting studies will provide the ‘operators’ for deciphering our world. They will enable us to describe, analyse and model it with predictive aims in mind.
The task of the inventive experimentation, visionary and anticipatory and symbolic activities involved will be to enrich the force of the future symbolic and fantastical dimensions of the 21st century.
They will contribute to the advent of a real cultural policy – that of a new equilibrium between life, humankind, the different fields of knowledge, modes of expression and technological developments we have mastered.
We must properly weight the shifts that will take place. Thus, with regard to artistic practices, it will be necessary to abandon the present wanderings arising from market forces and ‘star’ production in order to elaborate cognitive tools and contribute to the emergence of aesthetic epistemologies.
By thus confronting the issues that are of essence, ‘Mutamorphosis’ situates itself at the heart of the concerns of our time, as both observer and actor in a real paradigmatic shift.
‘Mutamorphosis’ will constitute an X-ray of the situation resulting from the multiplication of viewpoints, of the quality and the diversity of the participants – specialists, researchers, artists, philosophers and engineers – as well as the relevance of the themes that will be dealt with.
If ecologists have built their project on a morality of repair work, the moment has come to build a project based on a dynamic of transformation, giving the floor to all the agents of the imagination – scientists, creators, artists, etc. – as the true advocates of a planetary mobilisation.
We extremophiles are profoundly happy to be in Prague. Franz Kafka (9) is at our side. Vilém Flusser (10) is not far.
Prague is the city where the author of The Metamorphosis showed that the exploration of hostile environments was possible only at the cost of undergoing a profound physiological and behavioural mutation.
The ethological study of the behaviour of Gregor Samsa, transformed into a ‘monstrous insect’ reveals to us to what extent ‘man/insect’ hybridisations are complex and entangled.
Kafka’s vision of the evolution of societies and the critical positions he advanced as a precursor of contemporary dystopias show us that normative forcings and conditionings always aberrant engender morphogenetic leaps and deviant metamorphoses.
Kafka raised this inevitable issue, which opens onto a new order of relationships between humans and their environment and is relevant to our future: the ‘animal metamorphosis’ going the contrary direction, the eternal return to animal nature.
Vilém Flusser was forced into exile in Sao Paolo for 33 years. He was forced to flee from Nazism, ‘the still fertile womb which produced the foul beast’. (11)
When he returned to Europe, he settled in France. Several years later, he imagined an epistemological and satirical evolutionary future in the form of a cephalopod called Vampyrotheutis Infernalis which lived in the extreme environment of the ocean depths. He was particularly interested in a curious adaptive capacity manifested by the organism: it was able to think of the events that take place in the world using its own intestines. (12)
We extremophiles continue to pursue these permanent exploration processes which have been taking place for three billion years, based on the principles of the permanence of life, through its robust character and is proliferation.
(1) An organism is said to be extremophile when its normal living conditions are lethal for most other organisms: temperatures approaching or above 100° C (hyperthermophiles) or below 0 °C (psychrophiles), extreme pressures (the ocean depths), environments heavily laden with salt halophiles, acidic or alkaline environments, radioactive environments and environments lacking in oxygen … Many extremophiles belong to the taxon of the Archaea or of Bacteria, although there are also single-celled Eukaryote and Metazoan extremophiles (insects, crustaceans, fish …). The term is reserved, however, for single-celled organisms.
Extremophile organisms can be found around hot sulphur springs, underwater hydrothermal vents, sediments, in the Antarctic ice, in salt-saturated water (the Dead Sea), in oil deposits…
Some living beings, called polyextremophiles, even combine several resistances (for example Deinococcus radiodurans, Kineococcus radiotolerans , or Sulpholobus acidocaldarius).
Though they are perfectly adapted to very special conditions, extremophiles are rare under more ordinary conditions. In fact, even when they are able to withstand such conditions (because in certain cases their metabolism requires extreme conditions), they are ill-suited to deal with the competition of commonplace organisms. One may distinguish between extremophilia and extremotolerance, depending on whether an organism requires exceptional conditions or tolerates them but is found under more ordinary conditions.
We must distinguish between extremophiles, who normally live under extreme conditions, and organisms capable of taking on forms that are resistant to unfavourable conditions (by suspending their vital functions or by creating protective cysts or spores).
(2) In the primordial atmosphere, oxygen did not exist in the pure state. It was bound to hydrogen in the water molecule (H2O). Only a strong chemical reaction could separate them. Three billion years ago, a miniscule blue algae capable of photosynthesis appeared. The proliferation of the algae set free enormous quantities of oxygen (O2), which oxidised all the toxic substances within reach before accumulating in the atmosphere. Higher still, it was able to take on another atom by reacting with ultraviolet rays (O3). Thus the ozone layer was formed, and life was able to leave the oceans.
(3) Darfur: The bloody war that has afflicted the three states of Darfur in western Sudan since 2003 has provoked one of the most serious humanitarian catastrophes of the new century: 110,000 refugees in Chad, 700,000 people displaced in the interior of the country and more than 10,000 deaths. Witnesses all recount the same scenes of desolation and plundering: attacks at dawn, burnt villages, roads made impassable, stolen herds of livestock and districts rendered off limits to humanitarian organisations and foreigners. In a matter of months, the tribal conflicts that governed life in Darfur for twenty years were transformed into a bloody civil war.
(4) Gilles Clément ‘Manifeste du tiers paysage’ (Third Landscape Manifesto) An horticultural engineer by profession and a teacher at the École nationale du paysage de Versailles (Versailles National School of Landscape Architecture), he developed the ‘planetary garden’ theory and the concept of the garden in motion. The practice is based on the observation that a landscape is not fixed. Instead of confining plants in a particular spot in order to organise a project, the planting ‘redraws’ the garden constantly in such a way that the garden today will not be the same, in that same place the next flowering period. It is thus favourable to the interbreeding of species, recalling the cross-fertilisation which has taken place over the centuries. Wherefore the idea of cultivating planetary gardens and forests as a protector, considering both the wild grasses which try to grow through the sterile paving stones of cities and the rarest of tree species planted in prestigious parts with the same benevolence. It integrates the globalisation of the world today by means of its ‘planetarisation’ as a garden – that is, as a place for life: ‘I would like to showcase the extremely broad diversity of what exists on the planet.’
He has recently announced the cancellation of ‘the totality of his engagements with public and private services on French territory, with the exception of official or non-official cases where the establishment of resistance is confirmed’. The gardener-writer explains himself in his last book, titled Une écologie humaniste (A Humanist Ecology).
(5) To mark the year 2000, the Parc de la Villette explored one of the major issues of the end of the century: the relationships between men and those between man and his environment. The theme of the Planetary Garden, its form and its scale – the nave of the Grande Halle (Large Hall) being transformed into 3,500 m2 of garden – give it an exceptional character, in keeping with the tradition of great exhibitions at La Villette.
(6) In Ways of Worldmaking, Nelson Goodman questions the common belief that the resources available to the artist are more varied and impressive than those available to the scientist. The artist has access to modes of reference – literal and non-literal, linguistic and non-linguistic, denotational and non-denotational – in a variety of media. The scientist must take a strictly linguistic, literal and denotational approach. This is to ignore, for example, that science uses analogical instruments, uses metaphors in the case of measurement by example or yet again that in contemporary physics and astronomy it speaks of charm, strangeness and black holes. Even if the ultimate product of science, in contrast with that of art, is a literal verbal or mathematical theory, science and art proceed in the same fashion in their research and their construction.
(7) Hans Jonas (1903-1993) The Imperative of Responsibility was published in 1979. He expressed his hopes for a radical change in the roles science and technology play in our society.
(8) The Adapted Mind Jerome H. Barkow – ‘Moralité et evolution humaine’ (Morality and Human Evolution). Jean Pierre Changeux, Odile Jacob 1993.
(9) Franz Kafka was born in Prague on 3 July 1883 and died in Kierling, near Vienna, on 3 June 1924. Born to a German-speaking Jewish family, he was one of the greatest Western writers of the 20th century.
(10) Vilém Flusser (12 May 1920 – 27 November 1991) was a Czechoslovakian-born Jewish philosopher. Often considered to be a German philosopher, due to the fact that the majority of his publications are in German, he lived for a long period in Brazil and later in France, and his works were written in several different languages.
(11) Berthold Brecht : (Eugen Berthold Friedrich Brecht), was a German poet, theatrical director and playwright who was born on 10 February 1898 in Augsburg (in Bavaria), and died in Berlin on 14 August 1956.: Vampyroteuthis infernalis mit Louis Bec, Göttingen 1989 ed. Immatrix
(12) J Stephen Gould. Stephen Jay Gould (10 September 1941 – 20 May 2002) was an American palaeontologist, evolutionary biologist, and historian of science. He was also one of the most influential and widely-read writers of popular science of his generation, leading many commentators to call him ‘America’s unofficial evolutionist laureate’. Gould spent most of his career teaching at Harvard University and working at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.