The Guest Essays series is back every Monday and today is the turn of Carla Leitão, co-founder with Ed Keller of aum Studio, professor at Pratt Institute, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and writer of a monthly architectural chronic for the Huffington Post. The introductory picture as much as the title of her essay, Pet Architecture: Human’s Best Friend might surprise more than one reader; however her discourse along with several science-fiction narratives is speculative of the future of the living and by extension of design.
Let’s start with the notion of pet that Carla chose as subject of her essay. In fact, as archaic as it is, we tend to miss what this notion really implies, a transgenerational biological modification of animals triggered by humans in order to use the living output for their purposes. For example, I often wonder how we managed to “transform” a wolf into an Upper East Side yorksher!
Carla, following, to some extents, the path of Catherine Ingraham‘s research that she quotes in her text, therefore undertakes to associate the notions of living and design in a materialist interpretation of the world. As Edouard Glissant puts it, “Rien n’est vrai, tout est vivant” (Nothing is true, all is living/alive), indeed everything can be seen as part of the living, continuously engaged in relations, composing and decomposing bodies. The following essay concludes with one page of the graphic novel Animal’z by Enki Bilal that, in few words, magnificently expresses this materialist vision of the living and I can’t help to translate it here:
Seawater’s salt burns everything on its way.
It penetrates and paralyzes all tissues and organs from everywhere, including the brain.
In fact, Carla finishes her text by offering a glimpse at what could be the philosophical concept of the leash. The leash is indeed the paradigmatic symbol of the pet, sign of the human power in a contract rarely signed by both parties as she points out. The leash is what prevents humans to fully takes its place in the realms of the living, and one can speculate on a future in which this contract between humans and animals/living/architecture could belong more to the domain of Leopold Van Sacher Masoch and his creative agreements rather than the powerful domination introduced in the work of le Marquis de Sade.
Another vision would consist in affirming that the human species is doomed and that, as Clifford Simak imagines, in a far future, dogs will recounts and invent myths of a ancient time, a strange animal was dominating the living…
Characters like Animal from the Muppet show [a creation by Jim Henson] are often illustrations through which we can talk about the quality of the wild, the feral and the natural, by contrast to that which is artificial or built, man-made. This article, however, would like to focus on the chain.
‘Animal’ – the character – offers the comic emerging out of the usual play between sophistication and calling as that which can define the figure of the invited wild. The sophistication of the chained animal [who is a great musician] plays with the figure of drummers and their often cliched position in a band – there are jokes in the music world that refer to the drummer as that member which can have less ‘musical education’ than other instrument players (unfair, surely). Obsession with playing often puts Animal in trances that ultimately reveal all dimensions at once, including narratives that are confusing about their real species – it is quite often that Animal’s solos end up with two mental health nurses catching him with a butterfly net to take him off stage, and suggestively, to some kind of ‘other place’. Animal however is glad to be in its chain and this way be able to play the drums in the companion of the other ‘more human’ animals. The unused chain, surely, contains a wilder Animal than his behavior can ever become.
A few years ago in a couple of lectures [“Companion Species Manifesto” and “Cyborgs, Dogs and Companion Species”] at the European Graduate School, Donna Haraway introduced her delivery with a cartoon involving a supposed American Association of Lapdogs looking nervously at a slideshow pointing at their imminent enemy: the Laptop.
Furthermore, in a brief investigation into a rough description of a pet’s (condition of) unconditional love, Ms. Haraway recalled the descriptions made exemplarily by an anonymous pet owner, and in contrast to the owner’s description, classified them as ‘gestures of submission’ and briefly remarked upon the fact that these have a problematic relationship with the ambiguous figure of belonging, often present in what we vaguely call love.
The vast contribution made by Ms. Haraway to various fields and to theories of cognition has opened perspectives on the relationships between species.
Deeply influenced by and influencing cybernetic theory, Ms. Haraway’s insights are especially provoking in the places where difficult questions of ownership arise – the ways in which animals have co-evolved with humans by becoming pets. Haraway uses the term ‘companion species’, which alludes to the multiple dimensionality of ownership, and refers to the ways in which these companions have often enacted extensions of the human body itself, through their roles in space exploration or medical investigation.
Let’s examine stories by several authors who have explored pet characters and their varying degrees of dependency, submission and utilitarianism. Some of the most extreme examples belong to the domain of sci-fi or certain types of magical realism.
In “Cães Marinheiros” by Herberto Helder, we are presented a scenario where a couple of dogs own a sailor, and where the latter, obviously, can’t stand to live far away from the sea.
Regardless of the care and cherishing by the dogs for their sailor, they cannot avoid its ‘dogly’ sickness (in this case a melancholia, an obsession and longing for the sea which manifests as ‘dog distemper’), which ultimately kills him. Here, the sea provides resistance, the calling, which confers on the sailor his (fatal) quota of wilderness, to his tamed persona.
Back in 1965, Frank Herbert (author of the famous Dune) published a series of short stories which are clear precedents of Pet Architecture. The chairdogs in “The Tactful Saboteur” and “Whipping Star” are the pinnacle of ergonomic seating: a chair that truly fits to the user. The use of this chair implies a taming or petting by the user for adjustment, while the semi-sentient animality of the furniture senses moods and more subtle triggers that allow final accommodation to (literally) take place.
Oftentimes, these chairdogs would take a more forceful attitude – as if real friends or neighborly spas – through recourse to small tricks to slowly massage a stubborn owner-user into relax mode.
In WE3, a graphic novel by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, the future of military weaponry includes the cybernetic extension of highly submissive animals. Three pets – a dog, a cat and a rabbit – constitute a sole task force which combines overdoses of the forces of heavy artillery and military perceptive apparatus with the force of submissive bonding. In WE3, the ’Three musketeers’ type unity between pets – of different species that would otherwise be confrontational – is only surpassed by its markers of companionship to humans – their initial tamed resistance to hurting humans in general and their unshaken nostalgia for home and their owner (a military lab technician).
Animal’z by Enki Bilal
In Animal’z by Enki Bilal, (not-so-sure-anymore-they-are-)humans co-opt discardable animal personas to better navigate the leftover environments and characters of a (by now familiar) post-and-enduring-climatic catastrophe – navigated by disarrayed, disorganized humans searching for potable water across pirated and unreliable transportation networks. And there is good news for fanboiz: Bilal’s fantastic tale and imagery does not refuse descent into the occasional ‘scientist-with-the-fantastic-high-tech weapon/artifact/serum/box’ narrative, with vampire-type underground societies and rituals.
Alongside Animal’z‘ high-tech insect and lobster companions, humans oscillate more than metaphorically between their frail, limited and degrading human bodies, and the environmental and navigational adequacies of their synthesized or artificial animal bodies – into and out of which they can slip, as garments. The alternation between the two bodies in Animal’z is not clear-cut, becoming more of a progressive merging into one of the species, which ultimately renders immortality as a irreversible fusion or submission with the (advanced) wild (speciation).
The hilarious short-story “Rogue Farm” by Charles Stross brings up a 2060s scenario where self-growing farms wander around, squatting other pieces of land while growing to become their own, on their way to achieving extra-planetary expansion, rejected by lingering humans as if stray dogs, including by their (humans) authentic-but-by-now-speaking companion dogs.
In “The Wind-up Girl” by Paolo Bacigalupi, ‘New People’ are advanced robotic gear, bred in Japan, who have been developed with special ‘dog-like’ gene enhancement and rigorous training, to be destined to please and find pleasure on obeying….
In the last few years, we have seen not only an exploration and inquiry into biological behavior in the art and design disciplines, but infiltrations into pet territory are popping up.
In the Animal Architecture Competition Awards the tamed animal is easily taken for granted in projects which revere the productive//production character of farms and take it to the next level of safe robotics – tamed not to harm – or the expected subservience of reward training in our dealings with other species. Some examples of premiated projects include the restoration of bee colonies via large apiaries cross-programmed with educational elements ; or new scaled up robotic chickens and bulls (‘Animal Farmatures’) in new hyper-fake compounds that bump Farmland World to the next level of possible mixes between agro-tourism-spa for distressed urban dwellers. The different entries to this provocative competition show a consistent drive toward enough measures of control- present in taming practices and tested design strategies- which would allow multiple species to exist in a forged, new-found ecological encounter.
The optimism emerging out of the integrated non-collage character of many of the [competition] renderings is beyond ironic – it swims easily in the sea of behavior driven happiness. The biological-computational, confused by the distinction between analogical model and matter-itself, does not account for error but focuses on the intersection possibilities, on the clean section provided by years now of consistent training of agent-based design in design disciplines, and its search for richer micro-scalar possibilities in the formulation of matter and form. Design practice, by frequently dealing with so-called ‘stupid’ agents in computational models that render biological behavior and intelligence as a scale transition problem between units and populations, has highlighted two different attitudes that reflect the still prevalent incomprehensibility and incommunicability across species. On the one hand, the focus on the potential of micro-processes (rather than the large bodies we can recall as ‘animals’ or ‘plants’, etc.) produces the study of behaviors disentangled from the unknown of faults and creases in the real – whether living or inert. This produces a model for operation without models, which is largely uninterested in the actualized bodies of the present, insofar as it relates to them on a sub-level. Whatever the consequences of this may be.
On the other hand, the incomprehensibility of matter’s ways produces ‘tip-toe’ or ‘walking-on-egg-shell’ approaches: the merging of urbanity between human and animal swarms often is dealt with by prototypical solutions of safe modes of encounter and keeping-at-a-distance, with a healthy dose of optimistic thinking. Ecological theory is strongly based on its understanding of comfort niches for and across species, and aware of how much less predictable things are when real adaptation has to occur at faster speeds. It is no surprise therefore that desires for a ‘sustainable’ mixing of urban humans with other species counterparts deals with a great number of already tested solutions and prototypical units, distance security ratios, and ‘hide-and-seek’ distribution typologies. These allow co-presence but not cohabitation to rule the ‘merging process’.
Manuel Delanda’s “Building with Bone and Muscle” [from the series “Matter Matters” in Domus magazine] distinguishes Biomimicry from the interaction with biological systems as construction materials. In this text, Delanda articulates differences between thought processes that require particular scientific and language operators, versus only abstract operators. By studying biological processes’ sub-level operators, abstract operations can be described in an analogical fashion. This model becomes accessible to designers across many disciplines – by studying vertebrates as load-bearing structures, for example. When, however, biological systems are directly engaged, specific language and equipment need to be tackled suggesting that interdisciplinary effort might be at stake – such as the example of the coupling of spider silk and goat milk to produce an extremely strong material, potentially rival to steel. As well, an ethical dimension is more clearly manifest in the second example than in the first – though this might be just a question of time.
Karl Steel, in his article “How to Make a Human” (published in Exemplaria vol. 20), articulates Derrida’s investigations on the animal and the way in which the subjugation of the animal has played a role in human self-conception, in particular under the influence of the Christian Middle Ages. The assertion of human category seems to have often grounded itself in the domination of the animal including the implicit (and more powerful, perhaps) acknowledgement of the ‘animal within’.
In a recent chat with Karl Steel, he called my attention to Derrida’s interest in the expression ‘l’animot’ (the true form of which is l’animaux’) in comparison to Animal’z of Enki Bilal. Derrida reminds his audience of the paradoxical phonetic voicing of a word in the plural (animaux/animals). While starting with the real grammatical form of the singular (l’) it is therefore able to with one word (l’animaux, which sounds like l’animot, which means ‘animals-word’) to set all animals in the other side of the divide – as ‘a betise’ or stupidity.
Katherine Hayles, in “How we Became Post-Human”, proposes thinking of cyborgs in the context of a reflection on our several technological extensions and projections, ways in which information and communication technologies as well as medical and perception devices, among others, have extended our virtual spheres well beyond our bodies. Katherine Hayles focuses on the potential qualifiers of this condition – by pinning down information and its embodiment and the outcomes of the disembodiment of information. More over it is argued here that when information is disembodied and circulates across different material forms, the world (or cosmos) becomes no more characterized by that which is or isn’t (presence and absence) but through the feedback loops between pattern and randomness, and other figures of information and communication theory, such as channels and signal/noise. This in its turn can potentially produce an altogether, perhaps new, kind of subjectivity. Subjectivity is at the core of all discussions on the constitution of self and by correlation discussions of intelligence as well as conscience.
Questions of submission always concern Design – and in particular Architecture. We remember them quite well: material submitting to form, form rarely submitting to concept but being dominated by desire, everything submitting to real program [but often not the named one] and real program challenged only by true change.
A common expectation in the future of technology is the progressive incorporation of mechanisms of independence in the structure of mechanic or artificial structures. Independence substitutes the automatic in that it supposedly recreates some level of intelligence that keeps the automatic running without controlling it – a notch up in the ‘hands-off’ loved by real control freaks which, superseding human error, aims at being increasingly nearer to the real feedback loop which happens outside… in the ‘real world’.
The soft contradiction between this desire and the supposed harmony of the real is the reality of the most cherished absent component in feedback loops’: the chain – or the leash.
Catherine Ingraham’s “Architecture, Animal, Human: the Asymmetrical Condition” highlights the difficulty of designing architecture with and/or from a perspective which truly includes the biological in an intelligent manner, by providing an historical perspective of the discipline and its attempts to entangle animal subjectivity and architecture. As well, the inquiry assesses several contemporary tendencies in architecture design, including initial investigations in the 90’s into a potential liveliness of form and referring to the more contemporary ones, from the last decade, those that come from a renewed interest in the digital processes of form generation informed by computational biology theories and their interest in new forms of ‘intelligence’.
However, it is the first distinction made by Ingraham that we might start reconsidering – the distinction of living and non-living matter and their main morphological differences, presented by their molecular crystal types (symmetrical or asymmetrical).
It might be productive as a thought-experiment to entertain that this might be perhaps the place where we all sustain a ‘stone’ (pun intended) in our way to thinking about these relationships – a possibly reductive attitude on our part in even excluding inanimate matter from the discussion of animality or the ethical dimensions associated with it – however, I stay clear from shinto practices while considering here that we do design differently when taking into account water’s truly aggregate form and force when accounting for its mobilizing (and immobilizing) capacity.
And even the Stoics softly declared that even in animals there are souls, and death is to be seen as no more than a continuation of the processes of nature…
It might be that a shifting vision centered on ecological figures and our increasing capacity to see into ‘black boxes’ and unpack their processes might provide a new set of lenses for understanding the presence and role of bodies we usually do not see as such, and which are might be as well the object and subject of ‘animate’ consideration.
Ethics and aesthetics are indeed disciplines in need of some reshaping for their role in the potential of abstract thought-processes.
Some of the possible futures we can imagine in the agenda of developable technologies are indeed increasing liveliness of the fabrics we deal with as the envelopes and supports for our actions. All that is now conventionally inert – building materials and structures, garments, gadgets,… – is prey (or perhaps ‘leashable’) to the desire for increasing optimization and, potentially as consequence, graspable companionship – a property that can be discovered, co-opted, or manufactured. When Media enters or co-opts Material or Matter, we might find new filters around ‘seeing’ which emerge from the definition of liveliness – and with that of the tamable.
Some of the most intense criticism of the future of nanotechnology comes from abstract thought-experiments around the premise of replication of new intelligences. The investigations and proposals in nanotechnology by Dr. K. Eric Drexler focus on the process of building materials at a molecular level, which implies concepts of self-replication, or growth, needed to create reasonable speeds of development (given the small scale).
The discussion around mechanical and non-mechanical paradigms for reproduction of materials not only is at center of discussions of feasibility but also raises several red flags around the problem of control and ‘grey-goo’/’Earth-self-consumption’ scenarios. Arguably, control can be established by assembly of ‘lock’ and ‘matching key’ typologies, which is designed to stall growth in specific directions or drive growth away from them. However, what we know better about nature are the modes through which adaptation is still a process of which our knowledge still has great gaps. (For more on this subject read “Evolvable Materials” in the “Matter Matters” series in DOMUS magazine by Manuel Delanda).
As a consequence, the ‘end-statement’ in programming closes the edges of error and the self-looping crash, but is increasingly less desirable in hardware co-opted projective realities that attempt to deal with increasingly more variables as we include larger scale awareness and smaller scale connectivity.
Open-source is not anymore a figure of freedom across software platforms and knowledge distribution, it is an ethical stance on the connectivity between platforms and entities.
The problematic is no longer the naming of a body but a philosophical and ethical one of domination and submission of the difficult balance between the free reign of potentiality, and reality’s self-destruction.
But how deep lies our relationship with the concept of ‘pet’?
Slavoj Zizek, in the “The Antinomy of Cyberspace Reason” [from On Belief] describes gameplay with ‘tamagotchi’, claiming that its uncanny quality arises from “… the fact that we treat a virtual nonentity as an entity”. Zizek proposes that perhaps the play is indicative of this question: “if there is effectively no one out there, behind the screen, what if the same goes for myself? What if the ‘I’, my self-awareness, is also merely a superficial ‘screen’ behind which there is only a ‘blind’ complex neuronal circuit?”. And Zizek asks whether this is perhaps because of the uncanny character (fear?) of the common term “‘intellectual intuition’, the closure of the gap that separates (passive) intuition and (active) production, i.e. the intuition which immediately generates the object it perceives – the capacity hitherto reserved for the infinite divine mind.”
The more we as designers look into biological processes, the more we stare into the abyss of cybernetics, while seated comfortably on the back of a tamed and leashed dragon.
The leash is a contract rarely signed by both parties – and extends into the realm of the arbitrariness of social conventions, and the violence of educational endeavors. As well, across history, it has bound members within same species – including our own.
The heart of the matter is that cybernetics has an implicit interest in those mechanisms which create/develop/evolve intelligence while not providing a teleological narrative of where that intelligence can or cannot go. The design disciplines are often concerned with protocol – making sure behavior happens, and sometimes this means avoiding certain emergent intelligences.
Gregory Bateson’s example of a man cutting a tree with an axe proposes that a unit of information exists only as the “difference that makes a difference” – the degree of difference registered within and between entities. The components and edges or boundaries of the system – retina of the man, face of the tree, neural messages, face of the axe, velocity of the axe – are not as important as the slight changes they obtain based on the actuating relationship they are engaged in – such as slight changes produced in the axe direction or its the sharpness of its blade – and how these produced a circuit. To understand what is happening, Bateson says, one has to understand the “completed circuit of information flows” as an “elementary cybernetic thought”. This is the “transform of differences traveling in a circuit”, implying a “total information-processing, trial-and-error completing unit.”
The difference between PRACTICE and PROTOCOL is that the first (practice) values the incorporation of knowledge with a necessary simultaneous calibration and dramatic change of behavior. And an open-ended result.
Protocol is often an overseeing force that stands as a virtual link between a body and its available future – a leash that firmly grounds the future on a recent past. Scale matters much in this discussion: the lower the level protocol gets set in, the nearer you are to the concept of practice, as it happens in what we know of the small scales of biology. But it is a game of infinite nearness. The protocol of random variation present in nature seems to play ‘rounds’(pun intended) out of this scale possibility.
An example of global collective fear regarding the absence of a leash is of course the common fear of nuclear energy: the potency brought by real feedback loops, the designing of which contains an unleashing.
The real practice of practice would mean the active (again, practice) reincorporation – and embodiment – of information. And it would mean leaving open the matter within which it manifests its fluctuating corporeality.
Is it perhaps time to start studying the mechanisms of a desirable submission?
Let’s stop here.
The Muppetshow (several), Director: Jim Henson
Donna Haraway, (Lecture) “Cyborgs, Dogs and Companion Species”
Animal Architecture Competition Awards
Manuel Delanda, “Matter Matters” (Article series in DOMUS magazine)
Karl Steel, “How to Make a Human” in Exemplaria vol. 20 (book release with title same name)
Fernando Pessoa, “Ode Triunfal”
Herberto Helder, “Cães Marinheiros” in “Os Passos em Volta”
Frank Herbert, “The Tactful Saboteur” and “Whipping Star” in “The Worlds of Frank Herbert”
Donna Haraway, “When Species Meet”
Catherine Ingraham, Architecture, Animal, Human: The Asymmetrical Condition”
Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, “WE3”
Enki Bilal, “Animal’z”
Charles Stross, “Rogue Farm” in “Wireless”
Paolo Bacigalupi, “The Wind-Up Girl”
Katherine Hayles, “How we Became Post-Human”
Slavoj Zizek, “On Belief”
Gregory Bateson, “Steps Towards an Ecology of the Mind”