Using the slime mold Physarum polycephalum as a many-headed case in point, artist Jenna Sutela delves into the petri dish that is cognition. The microbial stew that has emerged to instrumentalize humans and their technology is unfolded through sound and text to explore an embodied cognitive process well beyond the reach of any single species.
“Since when was ‘human’ an all-inclusive category?” asks Rosi Braidotti in her lecture “Posthuman, All Too Human? “I rather run with the bacteria.” Braidotti unpacks the over-inflated image of human as the measure of all things, pointing out how even the concept of “posthuman” fails to stand for post-power, post-class, post-gender, or post-race. She calls into question how that which is human depends on a process of exclusion. “We were not all human to begin with.”
Literally speaking, no human is all-human but mostly bacteria. We developed to be houses for other organisms, and those organisms make us who we are. As Donna Haraway put it, “[t]o be a one at all, you must be a many, and that’s not a metaphor. […] Complexity is impossible without infection. From bacteria to viruses, mites to fungi, our bodies are riddled with life. It is confounding what you can grow in a petri dish if you stick your finger on one:
Yes, a person is alive, but so are the cells in his or her body. Isolated in a culture dish they can still move, metabolize, and divide independently. Digging deeper we find organelles such as mitochondria within each cell that again exhibit lifelike properties as long as they are in the protective environment of the cytoplasm. And if we accept that a mitochondrion is alive, how about viruses, which can be purified in bulk and even crystallized? Expose these inert chemical particles to a vulnerable cell and they ‘come alive,’ penetrate the membrane, move from place to place, propagate to form many copies, burst free like an alien
You are what you eat. Beyond cyborgs and pharmacopornographi subjects, we are super-organisms colonized by a variety of microbial life that regulates not only the course of our health and well-being but our thoughts and emotions, too. According to Benjamin Bratton, “[i]ntelligence is never disembodied. Thinking is a biochemical process, like a cake baking in the oven.
Physarum polycephalum, the single-celled yet “many-headed” slime mold, is often referred to as a biological computer. It has been popular in scientific experiments for it is able to navigate a maze using the shortest possible route to its food source and, for example, confirm or refute the efficiency of transportation networks. In the field of robotics, there have been attempts to use it as a control unit. This decentralized autonomous organism has appeared as a collaborator, or a co-performer, in many of my recent works. Sometimes I ingest it before a performative reading, imagining that its hive-like behavior is “programming” my own. Consider the speech act as a form of artificial intelligence: the slime serves as a paranoiac-critical agent, helping me make connections where none previously existed. Its movement takes me where I need to go.
The Physarum’s membrane rhythmically constricts and relaxes, keeping the cytoplasm within it flowing in the best possible direction for survival—towards bacteria to eat, or to a dark and damp living environment—without a single conscious thought. Brains are not a prerequisite for complex and interesting behavior. Dating to the Proterozoic eon, the slime mold might just be smarter than we are. Not in its representational cognitive abilities, but in its performative ability to “grow solutions to problems,” like biocomputing, in Stafford Beer’s terms For sure it must be doing something very right in order to still exist.
In comparison to slime mold cognition, for example, human cognition is not geologically speaking very old. However, like gut bacteria is related to soil bacteria, our intelligence is part of emergent material phenomena. “We are part of the same process, ultimately, as carbon based, silicon based synthetic intelligence is part of as well. In the psychedelic imaginary, humans have been seen as cogs in a planetary-scale computer:
I think the Earth invented human beings to build machines. And those machines will be the consciousness of the Earth. Have you not noticed that these machines are made of the Earth? They are made of gold and silver and arsenic and copper and iridium. They are the stuff of the Earth, organized by primate fingers into more complex arrangements than the Earth could achieve through geological folding, glaciation, volcanism, and what have you. We do the fine-tuning. But the Earth is beginning to think
No doubt, the ancient slime mold, along with some other microbes, will outlive us. Tolerating extreme conditions, such as heat or drought, many of them are fit to function even in outer space. Similarly, synthetic life-forms of our making might prove to be better equipped to make the next evolutionary steps than we are. If we are lucky, maybe they will carry something of the human as a parasite to the next emerging phase.
Let us focus on these more-than-human species, while working through our own instrumentality: “baby our intestinal flora with fermented and cultured foods, make the human body into a sanctuary for other, foreign bodies to thrive. The subjectivity of our microbial overlords emerges as they move through us, the landscape, and our infrastructures. This subjectivity, based on interactions rather than essences, serves as a useful example for reconceptualizing who we are and how we live with one another—seeing afresh what the possibilities of life have always been.