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Site – Speci­fici­ty for Inex­is­tent Worlds: On Post­Crit­i­cal Exap­ta­tion

“Familiarity has been breeding overtime in our mottoes, producing everything from contempt … to children …”[1]

This geocentric diagram (Encyclopædia Britannica, 1771) shows the location of the Earth, the Sun’s apparent annual orbit, the orbit of Mercury for 7 years, and the orbit of Venus for 8 years, after which Venus returns to almost the same apparent position in relation to the Earth and Sun.

Epistemologically speaking, it takes us humans a long time to adapt to concepts that fundamentally unsettle what we thought to be true, especially counter-intuitive ideas about reality that cannot be experienced. Despite the hindsight of historical narration where key moments of discovery index paradigm shifts, the actual incorporation of novel knowledge is more prone to conservatism than radical leaps. One need only look at how contorted the explanation of Ptolemaic epicycles and deferents had to be in the otherwise revolutionary discovery of orbital movement, in order to conserve a geocentric diagram of the cosmos.[2] Or how the initial 1909 discovery of rare soft-bodied animal fossils recording the Cambrian explosion some 570 million years ago at the Burgess Shale was interpretively forced into traditional, “progressivist” or “modern” taxonomies, scantly making a dent in evolutionary theory until a re-evaluation of these specimens some 50 years later revealed a reappraisal of the history of life that compels us to grapple with the fundamental contingency of our very existence as a species.[3] The initial inertia of novel knowledge points to the tendency to adapt it to familiar general frameworks of the “nature” of reality, rather than re-cognizing those underlying schemes.

Left: Opabinia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opabinia); centre: Anomalocaris (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anomalocaris); right: Hallucigenia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hallucigenia). Indexical specimens referenced by Stephen Jay Gould in Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History.

What these and countless other examples demonstrate are the normative dimensions of epistemology, namely the frameworks that encode informational discovery in a particular semantic way, such that the signification of said discovery can take on vastly different consequences despite drawing inferences from the same informational basis. Normative frameworks that structure epistemology, such as disciplines, privileged actors and “geographies of reason”,[4] sanctioned methodologies, taxonomies, modes of evaluation, not to mention the very notion of what it means to produce “objective” knowledge in the first instance,[5] not only establish the conditions for search and problem spaces, but institute a grammar of semantic organization upon the information accrued from such activities. More simply stated, normative frameworks induce a force of adaptation upon inference-making to fit existing frameworks, thereby confirming the veracity of a general world-view or valence of orientation. What makes a paradigm shift particularly interesting is less that it marks some triumphant leap from an erroneous world-view like in positivist historical accounts where knowledge proceeds in an ever-exacting, linear fashion,[6] but that our intangible normative frameworks structuring knowledge become intelligible as having been a model of reality all along, and not reality as such. What a paradigm shift ultimately implies is that despite the achievement of a normative framework to induce a particular line of epistemological inquiry and informational discovery, the semantic relevance of that discovery may undermine or overflow the constraints of the search space that enabled it. A paradigm shift is not the mere addition of new information indexable by existing structures of semantic encoding, but rather summons new sites through which to elaborate novel encodings of said information, instantiating transformed spaces of reason. A normative framework that may generate novel information may be structurally, that is to say grammatically, ill-equipped to thoroughly contend with the discovery it has brought about. It is at this point that we can specify how Euromodern knowledge practices may have been capable of constructing and recognizing a planetary condition, but the normative frameworks subtending this discovery have revealed themselves both insufficient and injurious to reasoning the consequences of this recognition and the novel semantic encodings required to justly narrate it. Despite the origins of planetary recognition emanating from the sciences, this normative and semantic problem includes, but is also in excess of said disciplinary confines: it is a problem that belongs to no discipline in particular, because it can be taken up by any discipline, including that of art.

“The price of metaphor is eternal vigilance.”[7]

While this problem of normative framework adaptation has been described within the epistemological register above, the ramifications of this tendency far exceed this domain and permeate the level of daily social organization, whether explicitly or implicitly. The narration of scientific bio-evolution trapped within a specific historical normative framework, not to mention the quest for understanding “human nature” via the sheer deciphering of our DNA as a basis upon which to justify our “third level” of existence,[8] namely our artificial or fictional socio-normative order, only emphasizes the long-standing propensity to draw normative meaning (oughts) from our discoveries in the natural world (what is), as Lorraine Daston has chronicled.[9] Furthermore, Sylvia Wynter has been instrumental in elaborating the imperial consequences of inflating a “genre of being human” to a world-view predicated on biological over-determinism, wherein “adaptive fitness” has been deployed as an excuse for racialized, gendered and classed violence, colonization, subordination as well as economic inequality.[10] It is also worth highlighting that transphobia from gender-critical advocates is also rooted in this legacy of erroneous and applied biological over-determinism to understand how active, in instrumental practice, this tendency continues to be. As noted genetic biologist Richard C. Lewontin wrote:

Theories of the physical body and the body politic come together in biological determinism, an ideology that both justifies current social arrangements and claims them to be the inevitable consequences of the facts of life. For sociobiologists and believers in natural meritocracies of class and sex, the properties of society are determined by the intrinsic properties of individual human beings, individuals are the expression of their genes, and genes are nothing but self-replicating molecules […] So politics becomes a branch of molecular biology, and our social and political institutions are as immutable as the chemicals of which we are made.[11]

In this example of the narrative adaptation of evolutionary theory, which is an otherwise significant epistemological accomplishment, to fit and justify normative social arrangements, there is an underlying disciplinary over-extension at work collapsing the social into the biological. While Lewis Gordon has helpfully sketched out the problem of “disciplinary decadence” where self-enclosed disciplines are more pre-occupied with conserving their rules, canons and methods than pursuing a better account of reality,[13] another instance of this decadence can be said to occur by over-reaching a domain of relevance by operating too generally in context insensitive ways. It’s because of this tendency to adapt discovery to existing normative frameworks, either by forcing it to fit and/or inflating its particular domain of relevance that we ought to be wary of shallow celebrations of human “adaptability”. Just as Frantz Fanon coined the concept of “sociogeny”[14] to contest the sphere of biological over-determination by emphasizing the existential effects of punitive (yet fictive because artificial) normative frameworks, here “adaptation” to given normative conditions is both psychologically and materially injurious. With this debilitating picture of “adaptation” in mind, the proliferation of its use within the scope of the polycrisis of this historical present ought to give us pause. Like its linguistic cousin “resilience”, initially imported from the physics of material science, later extended to the domain of psychology,[15] the transposition of “adaptation” from the bio-evolutionary domain carries some sobering metaphorical and historical baggage when naïvely applied (or worse, over-inflated) upon the domain of social organization. It is on this point where vigilance is required not only to more thoroughly nuance the metaphor of “adaptation” from a limited picture of merely “fitting successfully” to static environmental conditions, but also highlight the power and capacity for inadaptation from these normative frameworks because they are unnatural fictions, despite their manifestly real, structuring consequences upon forms of life.[16]

Given that […] ‘webs of significance’ are at the same time the indispensable condition of our being able to performatively enact ourselves as being human in the genre-specific terms of an I and its referent We, how can we then come to know our social reality outside the terms of the eusocializing mode of auto-institution in whose web-spinning field alone we are recursively enabled performatively to enact ourselves in the genre-specific terms of our fictive modes of kind?[17]

This demand for inadaptation is not a destination nor telos, since there is no absolute escape possible from normative frameworks, or what Wynter calls “webs of significance” that enable the auto-institution of human social organization. There’s no permanent state of inadaptation without a movement of adaptation elsewhere, and elsewhen. Like the way metaphors are necessary but never neutral similes for scientific explanation,[18] our inhabitable, concretely lived worlds are given semantic structure by models of those worlds establishing lawlike frameworks that are often conflated with unalterable law unto itself. While auto-institution is dependent on these lawlike model-worlds, the structuring and semantic interpretation of information they encode as a perspectival condition imposes an epistemological,[19] not to mention axiological obstacle, obstructing “both the process of understanding the physical world and of changing the social one”.[20] The problem of coming to “know our social reality outside the terms of the eusocializing mode of auto-institution” is a question of how to think from without the lawlike frameworks that encode sensation and perception in a certain way, especially sense-based perceptions that are apprehended as “immediate” or “direct”.[21] A procedural question emerges as an pan-disciplinary problem, that if this “outside” of which Wynter speaks is not a rehearsal of a detached Archimedean point of observation, nor an ineffable stroke of genius arriving from nowhere upon a select human mind, how can such thinking from outside take place? In other words, where and/or how is the site that can localize a heretofore unthought idea or ill-ramified concept?

From the Local to Localization

Since there is no thinkable thought without a world to localize the possibility of thinking that thought, the overcoming of epistemological and axiological obstacles is dependent on modeling inexistent worlds from which to enable the non-adaptive encoding of sensitivity for a speculative condition. Here, there is a great deal of potential for the domain of art since it is a field, unlike the sciences, with no disciplinary fidelity to explaining the “what is-ness” of reality. That said, capricious leaps of trivial speculation into the purely delirious realm offer only a cheap escape from the present, evacuating art of its political dimensions under the unconditional celebration of imagination. At the juncture between historical worlds, specifically the inherited conditions of Euromodernity that through its techno-historical path dependencies confronts us with inhabiting an environment in common for the first time in human history, and an as of yet unworlded planetary epoch, through what means can we sense and make-sense from such an entangled, multi-scalar reality that cannot be inductively accessed because it is without precedent? In a movement between the diagnostic recognition of conceptual-material what-is-ness of this world (the stuff at hand), and propositional experimentation with what could be otherwise realized, we may apply the idea of “situated speculation”. Situated speculation amounts to the need to locate non-adaptive encodings of inexistent worlds from within which to comparatively sense and perceive, yet this need to “locate” is not bound to a given location necessarily, but rather demands the invention of models to localize and offer semantic valences to ideas embodied by artifacts. This can be seen as a partial continuity of the genealogy of site-specificity in artistic production, which, broadly speaking, adopts a context-sensitive ethos, including the inseparability of the adjudication of an artwork from its material and discursive conditions of exposition. The position adopted here is to assert that this context-sensitivity and a “politics of location” emanating from the legacy of site-specific artistic practices does not necessarily limit us to given sites readily available in the here and now that can be experienced, but can also adopt an abductive, non-adaptive function when shifting the criteria of situational attachment from the place of location to procedures of localization. It is through procedures of localization that speculative thought can be situated in the “elsewhere” [22] of an inexistent world that is not readily given to conceptual and sensuous navigation, but demands modeling. This elsewhere is not an everywhere generality, since models of inexistent worlds are both domain and scale-specific. Inexistent worlds (and the models they are predicated upon to provide particular semantic encoding) bracket a locale by articulating an artificial cut in reality, amounting to the creation of a decisive site to embed objects, concepts and, most crucially, interactions. That a work of art may be conceived as a technē of such a “cut” serves as a meta-commentary upon the field of art itself, namely its purposefulness, as well as its relationship to the organization of knowledge. In such a proposition, there is a de-emphasizing of claims on sheer “knowledge production”, to experimentation as to how nontrivial and speculative ideas cleaved from given locales belonging to the here and now can be encountered and experienced at all, empirically and sensuously. At the heart of this situated speculation is a post-critical ethos that operates via the modeling of an elsewhere from normative, readily given “locations” at which to direct critique, to the localization of inexistent worlds from which to experience concrete possibility.

The Game of Mandating Fictional Truths

The normative frameworks giving semantic and organizational structure to a world are often discussed as “epistemes”, following Foucault. Less discussed, and of great relevance to us artists, are the corresponding “aesthetemes” that condition perceptibility to the encodings of a world and the way stimuli within them attain a certain semantic legibility.[23] We need only look to the co-emergence of the concept of Eurohumanist Enlightenment “Man” (episteme) and his particular Renaissance-era space of perspectival projection (aestheteme) to localize his novel self-conception (and ground his space of reasons) in order to understand that abstract concepts are nourished by artifactual externalization for perceptual uptake.[24] In other words, it’s not enough to produce an idea without a contextualizing milieu through which said idea gains shareable, participatory and interactive semantic mobility. The semantic encodings belonging to inexistent worlds take on ludic qualities, where the game of enabling sensitivity is driven by implicit or explicit rules orienting specific imaginings. An inexistent world comes into sensibility when and where “fictional truths” can be made intelligible, dependent on what Kendall Walton calls “principles of generation” that orient imagination in a particular way.[25] Less rigid than rules by decree, these principles are rendered “objective” and sensible by way of artifacts that endow a world with shareable referentiality (i.e. interpretants look at a common object, or discuss a common scene from a novel). These artifacts act as localizing mediators for access to the particular non-adaptive semantic encoding of inexistent worlds, coordinating sensitivity in this “as-if” world.[26]

Archaeopteryx, the earliest known bird likely capable of only the simplest feats of flight. Rendering from: https://www.zeit.de/wissen/geschichte/2018-10/palaeontologie-archaeopteryx-forscher-vorlaeufer-voegel.

As-If Empiricism and Exaptation

The as-if empiricism embodied by artifacts emanating from the encoding of inexistent worlds operates as both evidence and participatory invitation. In such an arrangement, speculative thought and situated perception are brought into dialogue—yoked and localized by an inhabitable model world to embed sensing interpretants. This schema posits that the agency of thought to unbind itself from familiar, given world semantic encodings is bound to the necessity of thought’s prosthetization, catalyzed by artifactual interaction, which is to say, catalyzed by externalities. The post-critical potential to experiment with the construction of such catalytic artifacts in an abductive fashion is premised on commitments to the possibility that because we can remodel our concepts, we can also remodel our worlds. Here, we may consider this activity of remodeling in the mode of conceptual exaptation. “Exaptation” was coined because a term was missing in the taxonomical conventions in evolutionary biology, its omission from the discourse a symptom of a certain ordering and prioritizing of ideas about the structure of reality, wherein taxonomies can be seen as linguistic fossils, indexing “substantial changes in human culture”.[27] Distinct from adaptation, which is often confusingly used the describe both a process and a state of being, exaptation accounts for the co-optation of existing structures, not intended for their current role as built by natural selection, like the feathers on a bird once adapted for the function of warmth that now have the exaptive effect of enabling it to take flight. Because we are conjoined to reality through the mediation of model-worlds, a suturing that manifests a semantic environment for inhabitation, our conceptual models take on trait-like features regardless of their exosomatic existence. Particularly as eusocial creatures (but by no means exclusive to us), we not only inherit what is internal to us, like our genes, but also the impersonal environments within which we transact with reality. It is precisely this co-constitutive exosomatic inheritance of a historically contingent environment that biological over-determination instrumentally neglects, encoding “fitness” at the level of the individual to adapt to a given, pre-existing niche-sites—as if said “niche” is a law by nature and not the in-part manifestation of our artifice. When “the planetary” is predicated on the recognition of an environment in common that is increasingly tipping towards conditions of inhabitability, inadapting to the model-worlds lubricating such inhospitality requires mobilizing the possibility for reorienting the exaptive effects of our adaptive functional traits. The capacity to remodel self-understanding from the perspective of a situated interpretant in an inexistent world enables us to perceive how the effects of that remodeling come to redefine and transform an environment in the process, embedding us in unfamiliar worlds commensurate with the demands of planetary dimensionality.

  • 1

    GOULD, Stephen Jay, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, New York: W.W. Norton Company, 1990, p. 27.

  • 2

    HOFFMEYER, Jesper, “The Semiotics of Nature: Code Duality”, in: FAVAREAU, Donald (ed.), Essential Readings in Biosemiotics, Springer: Dordrecht, 2010, p. 611.

  • 3

    GOULD, Wonderful Life, p. 13.

  • 5

    GORDON, Lewis R., “Shifting the Geography of Reason in an Age of Disciplinary Decadence”, in: Transmodernity, Fall 2011, pp. 95–103.

  • 6

    DASTON, Lorraine & GALISON, Peter, Objectivity, New York: Zone Books, 2007.

  • 7

    FEIGL, Herbert, “The ‘Orthodox’ View of Theories: Remarks in Defense as well as Critique”, in: RADNER, Michael & WINOKUR, Stephen (eds.), Analyses of Theories and Methods of Physics and Psychology, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1970.

  • 8

    Arturo Rosenblueth and Norbert Weiner as quoted in: LEWONTIN, Richard, “Foreword”, in: OYAMA, Susan, The Ontogeny of Information: Developmental Systems and Evolution, Durham: Duke University Press, 2000, p. xv.

  • 9

    WYNTER, Sylvia, “The Ceremony Found: Towards the Autopoetic Turn/Overturn, its Autonomy of Human Agency and Extraterritoriality of (Self-)Cognition”, in: AMBROISE, J. R. & BROECK, S., Black Knowledges/Black Struggles, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2015, p. 217.

  • 10

    DASTON, Lorraine, Against Nature, Cambridge: MIT Press, 2019.

  • 11

    WYNTER, Sylvia, “On How We Mistook the Map for the Territory”, in: GORDON, L. R. & GORDON, J. A. (eds.), Not Only the Master’s Tools: African American Studies in Theory and Practice, Boulder: Paradigm, 2006, pp. 107–169.

  • 12

    LEWONTIN, Richard C., “The Corpse in the Elevator”, in: The New York Review, 20/01/1983, https://www.nybooks.com/articles/1983/01/20/the-corpse-in-the-elevator/.

  • 13

    GORDON, “Shifting the Geography of Reason in an Age of Disciplinary Decadence”.

  • 14

    FANON Frantz, Black Skin, White Masks, (MARKMANN, C. L., trans.), London: Pluto Press, 1986, p. 13.

  • 15

    SAWARAGI, Tetsuo, “Design of Resilient Socio-technical Systems by Human-System Co-creation,” in: Artificial Life and Robotics, 25, 2020, pp. 219–232.

  • 16

    Sally Haslanger writes about “resisting reality”, which amounts to inadapting to the material manifestation of unjust social construction, such that “social construction” can no longer be pushed aside as a mere irreal idealism, but manifests as reality in structure, procedure (often legal), as well as infrastructures/technologies. See: HASLANGER, Sally, Resisting Reality: Social Construction and Social Critique, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

  • 17

    WYNTER, “The Ceremony Found”.

  • 18

    LEWONTIN, “Foreword”, p. xv.

  • 19

    BACHELARD, Gaston, The Formation of the Scientific Mind (MCALLESTER JONES, M., trans.), Manchester: Clinamen Press, 2002, p. 24.

  • 20

    LEWONTIN, “The Corpse in the Elevator”.

  • 21

    LUKÁCS, György, History and Class Consciousness (LIVINGSTONE, R., trans.), Cambridge: MIT Press, 1967, p. 156. Introduced by Ray Brassier in his “The Proletariat as Subject-Object: György Lukács” seminar at BICAR, Beirut, 27/06/2023.

  • 22

    WOODARD, Ben, “Loops of Augmentation: Bootstrapping, Time Travel, and Consequent Futures”, in PASQUINELLI, Matteo (ed.), Alleys of Your Mind: Augmented Intelligence and Its Traumas, Lüneburg: meson press, 2015, pp. 157–168.

  • 23

    The “aestheteme” is attributed to the field of archeology (a lost reference, as Silvia Wynter acknowledges), indicating the domain of “representational arts” belonging to and reinforcing a particular autopoietic human social system. See: WYNTER, “The Ceremony Found”.

  • 24

    REED, Patricia, “The Aesthetemes of Monohumanist Man: Lessons on the Relation between Sociogeny and Techne”, YouTube, 05/12/2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z4Y8dSLTkAU.

  • 25

    Ibid.

  • 26

    “As if” is used in deference to Hans Vaihinger, whose philosophical program recognized the constitutive role the “consciously false” plays in “science, world-philosophies, and life”. (VAIHINGER, Hans, The Philosophy of “As If” (OGDEN, C. K., trans.), London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, and Co., 1935)

  • 27

    GOULD, Stephen Jay & VRBA, Elisabeth S., “Exaptation-A Missing Term in the Science of Form”, in: Paleobiology, 8(1), 1982, pp. 4–15.

Patricia Reed

Patricia Reed is an artist, theorist and designer based in Berlin. She is currently Co-Head of the Critical Inquiry Lab at the Design Academy Eindhoven (NL). She is working on a monograph entitled Figuring Planetary Space, and an anthology of her writing will be released by Holobionte Ediciones (in Spanish), both in 2024. Her work is collected at aestheticmanagement.com.