[-empyre-] the ethics of the semi-living

Richard Doyle mobius at psu.edu
Tue Sep 10 10:56:06 EST 2013

Lively soft_skinned friends,

Much obliged for the invitation to swap pixels concerning the semi living.
I haven't seen Oron for a while, maybe since Atlanta when I was a walking
talking BioArt exhibit consisting of the effects of driving non stop from
Pennsylvania, or in Hong Kong were I was engaged in first person research
concerning the texture of congee. So it is good to semi-dwell in this
common soft_skinned space.  Warm regards to my wetware friends.

Ever since my grad school days in the late 80s spent watching the Human
Genome Project unfold in unlikely ways, my research has sprouted almost
entirely out of a substrate of amazement.  I'll admit that I am still
 amazed that demographics exist where humans think life can be comprehended
by the mind - defined, categorized, ruled on in terms of propriety or
impropriety, rather than explored from the only space available:
subjectivity and the space of all possible lives lived within it.  It would
be cheap, easy, and economically philosophical to notice that to expect
"mind" to grok "life" is to commit a category error. It is vastly more
interesting and frequently illuminating to investigate the persistence of
this notion that life is grokable rather than liveable. Some of my writings
and talks and teachings these days explore this space between the thinkable
and the liveable, pointing to the first person investigation of the "I"
through psychonautics  and meditation as a research protocol for eyeballing
the vast ecologies out of which the teeny egoic mind manifests with great
self importance, claiming distinctions left and right,  and for dissolving
into the vast space of consciousness out of which the much vaunted material
realm can be observed to manifest. But by whom?!

This means that my amazement extends to the continued grip of materialism
on the academy, where "material" and "real" are frequently used as synonyms
by organisms who continually experience the subjective realm of
consciousness, and nothing but. I find the work of Franklin Merrell Wolff,
a mathematician from the early 20th century, to be intensely salutatory in
this regard, as he writes with the lucidity of a mathematician about what
he calls "consciousness-without-an-object." Much akin to FMW and of likely
interest to bioartistes is the Indian sage and philosopher Aurobindo, whose
encyclopedic investigations of the evolution of consciousness in *The Life
Divine* render a monistic and self aware cosmos wherein "semi" becomes a
non sequitur for "living". 'life", too, becomes a category error.  In
short, as I wrote from my very first book in the idiom of Dr. Seuss,let us
get *on beyond living*, as "life" may no longer be either necessary or
sufficient for denoting what it is remotely like to manifest as, to
paraphrase Carl Sagan, a way for cosmos to know itself.

More pixels, and soon. Tomorrow am I have an appointment with a pumpkin
blossom. Will send report.


On Mon, Sep 9, 2013 at 12:46 PM, Oron Catts <oron.catts at uwa.edu.au> wrote:

> ----------empyre- soft-skinned space----------------------
> Hi all
> Thanks Adam for inviting me to take part in this discussion and greetings
> from the very far north of Finland, where I'm doing research and preparing
> for the Finnish Society of Bioart's Field_Notes/Deep_Time week long lab.
> Continuing with the line of being slippery and hard to define, my research
> here involves taking soil samples from two very unlikely sites- a crashed
> 1942 German Junker 88 bomber and a 1916 exploded Russian ammunition depot.
> We will see how this week's develop and I might be able to string these
> stories into the narrative of the discussion as they deal with some
> unintended consequences of instrumentalizing living processes.
> But as Adam asked me to deal with the Ethics of the Semi-Living, I thought
> I should tell you the story of how Ionat Zurr and I came across for the
> first time with what we started to call the Semi-living.
> Back in 1996, Ionat and I started to question the possibility of using
> tissue engineering or tissue technologies as a medium for artistic
> expression. The first lab that we worked in was an eye research lab. The
> scientist that we worked with was trying to develop an artificial cornea.
> The first thing we saw when we entered the lab were half rabbit heads. The
> heads were delivered to the lab around lunchtime in a cardboard box, about
> twice a week. The rabbits were killed for food, and their heads would be
> sent to a brain research institute, the brain would be taken out, and we at
> the eye-research institute would get those half rabbit heads, from which we
> would then take the eyes out. The eyes were put inside vials, in an
> antibiotic solution, and into the fridge overnight. After 24 hours we would
> take a layer of skin form the eyes and culture the cells. Obviously,
> something was quite strange; for all intents and purposes we started with
> something which was dead meat (the half rabbit's heads) but the cells were
> alive, growing, proliferating and doing what cells do (in culture- outside
> the context of the original body of the rabbit).  Are these cells living in
> the same way that the dead rabbit was 24 hours earlier? We realized the
> even though tissue culture was going on for more than a hundred years, we
> had no cultural language to deal with this experience. And if we do not
> have that, can we have any ethical reference point to deal with these
> fragments of life?  If we name them semi-living would that change anything?
> We spend the last seventeen years trying to figure that out.
> Oron
> Oron Catts
> Director
> SymbioticA| The Centre of Excellence in Biological Arts | School of
> Anatomy, Physiology and Human Biology | The University of Western Australia
> www.symbiotica.uwa.edu.au | www.tcaproject.org
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Liberal Arts Research Professor
Penn State University
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