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What does it mean to be human? Does ‘human’ exist? Is human hybrid? Is human fragment, part of a better functioning whole? This paper is my exploration into these relations. It takes as its focus the relations between various forms and bodies of matter and embraces a new understanding of being human that involves actively engaging with the ontologies that flow through us and alongside us.
Handicraft – more specifically crochet – has become increasingly important to my understanding of what ‘being human’ means. Crochet’s coding as an inherently feminine activity, combined with its inherited knowledge and frequently collective process, opens up being to an intrinsically feminist approach which lays the framework for developing an inclusive understanding of being human in an increasingly lively world. The herstory of craft is inextricably tangled with the herstory of women – but I have found crochet in particular knots these threads together most creatively. Unlike other forms of handicraft, such as weaving or embroidery, crochet has less of an obvious ‘front’ or ‘back’ once stitched, enabling it to be worked on from either side. It differs from knitting in that it is, by nature, far less uniform and for more open to new links and ties – and beginners. There is therefore something inherently inclusive about crochet. In part it is the mesh-like character of its patterns which seem to capture threads, fibres and dust floating in the air only to integrate them into its web of relations. The entities become one, their combination creating a composite that exists now but did not before, while the threads offer up opportunities for newly integrated multitudes, new points of intersection and connection. As such it is easier to think with and more accommodating to synthesis and additional threads. The understanding I have of its ability to encourage new means of conceptualising ‘being human’ developed not simply out of tangling myself in ever-multiplying numbers of books but also from diving into my herstory, sitting and learning from the women whose DNA is as stitched through me as the threads in our collective crochet. It was through gathering these strands, stitching these threads that I began to understand how important a handcraft-inspired feminist understanding of being could be.
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It is a tangled term, becoming. Deleuze and Guattari state unequivocally that becoming-animal never produces anything but itself; it is not becoming as ape-becomes-hominid, the becoming of evolution and ‘progress’. It is neither simple imitation, where one entity apes another, nor literal becoming, where an entity entering into becoming leaves no trace of itself behind. Becoming is linked to ‘involution’, an enfolding or entangling. ‘Becoming is involutionary, involution is creative.’
Becoming-animal is ‘not a relationship determined by evolutionary progression, but one determined by the shared matter, energy and forces of which all of these bodies partake in their in-betweens (my emphasis).’ To stitch with a term coined by Nancy Tuana, it is the innate viscous porosity of bodies which enables opportunities for becoming, and which also opens bodies to the risk Deleuze and Guattari warn of: annihilation. The singularity which results from becoming-animal requires a certain anchoring in form and function on all parts of the becoming, or the mixture risks annihilation. This could go some way to explaining why human beings, despite being so intimately intertwined with and dependent on microorganisms, have retained a relatively static form, recognised as the human body.
For our very human existence is tied tightly with other, non-human bodies in a number of different ways. For Astrida Neimanis, this is primarily through water; waters we share – moving sometimes seamlessly, other times chaotically between differing bodies – which are both of the individual and yet shared collectively. Our watery bodies (whether human, plant, fish, sea or other) tie us into a ‘radically embodied hydrocommons’ within which all entities hold the capacity to contaminate other bodies, but also to nourish. Neimanis’ ‘interbeing’ – the process of living with and through other bodies of water – sees bodies come into being through constant contact and exchange with one another, and it reiterates that no body is self-made.
Alongside these bodies of water which keep us afloat in the flowing pools and dripping waters of the hydrocommons, our human bodies are also knotted inextricably with a vast array of microorganisms which have become essential to human life. The bacteria we live alongside today are direct descendants from the first forms of life 4 billion years ago, but these more recent relations do not just inhabit the same environments we do, they also inhabit us. The human body is a fertile environment for a number of microorganisms, from bacteria and fungi to viruses; such a fertile environment, it transpires, that microbial cells outnumber animal cells ten to one. But this bacterial lineage, some claim, even lies within these animal cells.
Symbiogenesis offers an alternative to the theory of evolution by natural selection. It argues that the driving force behind large leaps in evolutionary history was not natural selection by a process of ‘survival of the fittest’ but rather a series of permanent symbioses between different cells and organisms. Symbiosis, ‘the living together of two or more differently named organisms for most of the life of at least one of the partners,’ and symbiogenesis, ‘the appearance of a new phenotype, trait, tissue, organelle, organ, or organism formed through a symbiotic relationship,’ offer a theory of evolution which champions cooperation over the competitive drive of natural selection, postulating human beings (along with all other life) are the result of an inherent collectivity.
This symbiosis between the human body and our microbial companions is an example of the intimate relations at a cellular level that help to ensure our continued existence. The human microbiome is an ever-changing collective of microorganisms. Although similar in make-up, the microbiome of each individual is unique to that organism (be it human, animal, or plant) and the exact quantities and types of bacteria present can differ hugely. While the demise of human beings would ultimately have very little effect on the planet’s microorganisms, life without microbes would be impossible for us; without them, we simply would not exist. Our very existence is dependent on a complex series of ongoing and shifting relations – we become human as a result of these interactions. Much like bodies share water, so too do microbes move from body to body, taking with them their genetic material and the collective knowledge which informs their new relations.
These complex networks of associations, created by the ability of microorganisms to link across bodies, negate the concept that entities are bounded and bodies therefore autonomous. Nancy Tuana speaks of our bodies constantly expanding outwards, making relations, yet her theory of innate viscous porosity also notes these entanglements are not the sole agency of humans, but that other entities can initiate intra-action too. These ‘assemblages’, which Jane Bennett describes as ‘ad hoc groupings of diverse elements,’ are open-ended collectives: their outcomes are not certain and their makeup is changeable. Much like the microbes which carry with them pastfutures, the elements of the assemblage (living/non-living, human/nonhuman) carry with them potentiality; the potential for new relations, and also the potential for inaction, for a state of inertia as much as the potential for change.
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Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizomatic model of thought, with no discernible centre, is integral to becoming. It is also integral to non-hierarchical ways of being, exemplified by bacteria, and non-hierarchical ways of approaching being, typified by crochet. Bodies are constantly extending, stitching outwards, whilst being constantly permeated by other entities, threads tangling in their mass. It is how boundaries are broken down, how becoming is possible.
The space between these boundaries is limitless in its creativity. Like Edward S. Casey, I am drawn to what it means ‘to be between edges – more to the point, in-between them?’ In my desire to re-explore what it means to be human when our ontologies are inextricably connected to and reliant on these micro-ontologies, I am curious as to the point at which to call something, someone, somegroup human. Are we human pre-microbe-human assemblage? Or only when our bodies are truly 100% animal cells? Or is ‘human’ the term for the jumbled collective of bodies and entities that make up my living, breathing, moving, functioning body – this symbiotic, interacting mass of messmates, this mound of microcellular relations? And not just in constant state of becoming with our microbiome, but with all the organic and nonorganic matter that surrounds us, permeates our everyday and pervades our porous bodies. Is being human being singular, or being multiplicity? Is being human what becomes, or what is becoming?
In fact, there is no point at which we are we truly, one hundred percent human. Even our time in the purportedly sterilised womb does not lack ontological interactions. Rather, we are never away from them. Baby-becoming-mother-becoming-environment, cells-becoming-blood-becoming-toxins; this tangled mess of cells is never anything but that – tangled. Our human cells enter into relations long before our birth, our very being a knotted mess of relations.
As a species we are determined to delineate, to define what is me and what is other, what constitutes my body and what constitutes the bodies of other entities, yet these boundaries are merely reductive, encouraging negative connotations of strictly patrolled borders where mixing is impossible, undesirable or to be avoided. But what if, rather than limiting, edges were approached as a way to ‘frame, shelter and support’? A frame, Casey states, ‘is a provisional structure that makes something else possible;’ rather than being closed off, opportunities are made possible by the framing presence of edges. For Casey, much in the same vein as Tuana, edges are porous, letting in as they simultaneously let out and taking in and simultaneously give out. If our bodily borders are permeable and we meet constantly with other bodies, becoming through these meetings, do we actually exist in the interstices between our (theoretical) autonomy and that of other entities?
For Neimanis this state of in-between-ness is exemplified by not belonging to either of the entities that mark its liminality; it is ‘not empty, but nor is it a stable entity in the way we are accustomed to thinking about ‘things’.’ In-between-ness therefore finds itself defined by the very ‘things’ it holds in relation, that which it is posited as external to. Similarly, the space between my body and that of the microbes in my microbiome, where meetings occur and relations bloom, belongs neither wholly to my body, nor wholly to the microbes making up my microbiome. This space of transformation, this in-between-ness, she claims, is a transient space of creativity. Much as crochet provides ample opportunity for thinking through assemblages, so too can crochet aide us in understanding the framing qualities of these edges.
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Sheila Pepe’s work is such an example. Installed at the Elaine L. Jacob Gallery at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, Pepe’s Drawing in Space (2008) is a net of yarn and shoe laces (Pepe’s materials of choice) crocheted around, among and in-between the architecture of the space. Pulling away from fixed points on the wall and ceiling, the crochet fills the room with its irregular, interconnecting threads and uneven knots. It loops around columns, entangling them in its web, playing with the space between these boundary points. A work like Drawing in Space requires some kind of edge or multiple edges to build from, to spill out from and in-between and while the crochet is not part of these boundaries, it is not separate from them either; it remains at the in-between, existing in the space of creativity and potential.
The short, stubby ends of threads hang down from thicker chains of stitches, alluding to this potentiality. It is a work that feels complete but not completed; there is a wholeness that still speaks of possibilities. Pepe regularly uses a mix of domestic and industrial materials, which meet in the gallery space in increasingly impressive sizes; domestic handicraft meets industrial scale. Hers is work that feels like a body whilst speaking to other bodies, reaching out to entangle us further in its messy mesh of stringiness and knotted relations.
Common Sense (2009-2012) is an installation-performance series consisting of a similar crocheted structure to Drawing in Space, which Pepe describes as large-scale crocheted drawings. First installed-performed in 2009 at testsite, a gallery/open studio/residency programme/private home in Austin, Texas, Common Sense has subsequently been installed-performed in gallery spaces across the world, from Tbilisi in the Republic of Georgia to Boston and Chicago (in the curator’s home-cum-gallery space) in the US and Biella in Italy. The work weaves through the space, looping down from the ceiling and criss-crossing over itself and back again, stitches tumbling over one another and loose strands hanging down, full of potential for further interaction. As with all of Pepe’s works, Common Sense has a wholeness without a sense of being completed. Co-curators Lydia Matthews and Laurie Lazer, who included Common Sense as part of their exhibition Chime In in Tbilisi, explain what happens after the work has been installed:
[a]s soon as Pepe realizes her installation and photographs it, the work is turned over to local participants to literally unravel. While
the artist lures her participants through her formal attention to colour, texture, and scale, they proceed to slowly consume the fibres
of Pepe’s aesthetic web by knitting or crocheting objects of their own choosing which they may take home, give away or even sell.
The fibrous threads of Pepe’s work, which suggest potential for new and further entanglements, meet with new relations in Common Sense. In-between the edges that help structure the work, the boundaries of the gallery space and the porous bodily borders of the participants, thread-becomes-human hand-becomes-microbe and all of the tangled assemblages in-between. Activity occurs, but it is a creativity that is open to all genders, races, ages. Neimanis states ‘[t]he in-between is teeming, and its ontological weight is in its capacity to do or to become, rather than in its claim to be (my emphasis).’ When Neimanis began her journey into the in-between, she had the sense of it as ‘a sort of no-place, a mere joint, hinge or pivot’ which kept together two, more important, set points, and prevented an understanding of the importance of this space.
What counts here is not the mapping of borderlines but those liminal zones where boundaries begin to slip, where skin becomes less
a passive covering than an active material–semiotic agent, and where other gestures, other voices, are finally understood as the
basic co-texts of an approaching future of companion species.
Perhaps we need to learn to be comfortable in-between borders, in the teeming spaces in-between boundaries where becoming occurs. Our microbiome can offer a way of conceptualising being in the world, beginning with our most intimate and immediate in-between and posing questions about the static understanding of being human we have sewn through our relations and interactions thus far. Perhaps being human is not the ontology we have conceptualised it as but instead something rather less solid and more interactive. Being human, it turns out, is far more like becoming human or being in-between than it is merely being, with all of the implied finality the term brings. As Neimanis concludes, ‘[w]e must learn to be at home in the quivering tension of the inbetween. No other home is available.’
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…life cannot be identified with an ‘occupied space’, which would bring it close to the notion of the thing or of the physical body; life
is rather the non occupied space between bodies or body parts.
For me, the meeting of human being, microbe and handicraft opens up new ways of understanding being in a world of constant becoming; a world where entities interact, intra-act, enter into processes of interbeing and exist within the in-between.
There has been much to take in during this meander into matter. Thinking with Barad, Bennett, Neimanis and Tuana has enabled me to rethink what I have always known and relearn being human. Who knew being so entangled could be so freeing. My hope is that the words knotted on these pages will leave loose strands of possibility that enable us to untangle the relations we are part of so that we may re-tangle ourselves all over again – this time with a greater knowledge of, and respect for, the stitches which run through us.
Microbes and our microbiome have remained my focus because the only way to truly rethink being on this planet is to start small (although certainly not insignificant), to start intimate and to move outwards. This is, I hope it would be clear by now, in no way to privilege the human, nor to posit human beings as the centre of this enmeshed and ever deepening web of relations. Instead this approach has enabled me to focus in on a point of intersection within the network, to work locally to that juncture and to enact a rather more overall effect. It is about ‘giving up control, letting the system govern itself as much as possible, letting it learn from the footprints.’ It is about making the adjustment from living in a world of solid limits to understanding the value of existing in the space in, between, and in-between boundaries ‘to create something greater than the sum of its part.’
For that is what we are. To be human is to already be something greater than the sum of its part, whilst simultaneously being part to another greater whole; just as it is to be plant, to be animal, or to be needle or thread. As Barad states, ‘to be a part is not to be absolutely apart but to be constituted and threaded through with the entanglements of part-ing’.
This is what crochet has taught me. It has taught me the importance of gathering up, of knotting, of looping together the different threads of different relations and of stitching with these threads. It has taught me that being does not have to equate to an ideal of progress; indeed, it has taught me that evolutionary progress in itself is a myth, for there is nothing final or finished about the human being. Each knot builds around those that occurred before it, and each relation is reliant on those already existing, but there is no ‘end goal’. For, when a new stitch can be looped onto any existing thread, how can anything ever really be final?
On these pages and through my hands the collective behaviour of bacteria and the inclusive, communal practice of crochet have commingled with the herstories of women, providing new threads for understanding non-hierarchical ontologies where the usual drives are forgotten. But rather than propagate a static-active binary, I see crochet as unstitching this dualism, replacing it with a creativity that is inclusive and communal; a creativity that can be beneficial or harmful, slow or quick, passive or active – and everything in-between. It crosses false separations between gender, race, age, sexuality. It embraces all and privileges none. By embracing the characteristics of both crochet and microbes we can move closer to what Jeanne Vacarro describes as ‘a landscape of feminist labour, collective process, and quotidian aesthetics.’
As I look to gather together the strands of this paper and find a point of comparative stability at which to rest, I am struck by how strange it seems to think of the human as not entirely human, or being human no longer a fixed ontology. For sometimes it seems as if this fixed thingness is all we have: how to live in this world without the ability to exert control over our own lives? Materialism teaches us about the interconnectedness of entities, it brings into focus the relations that cause action or change and which embody agency solely through their interrelation. It is a call for responsibility but also creativity. The space between entities, between beings, between groups of assemblages is an inherently creative space and perhaps we need to exercise that creativity. As Lynn Margulis suspects, perhaps ‘the near future of Homo Sapiens as a species requires our reorientation toward the fusions and mergers of the planetmates that have preceded us in the microcosm.’
In light of our anchoring to this world and the entities in it through these mergers, I am sceptical whether the term ‘human’ as it stands now (solitary, autonomous) fully encapsulates being human. One search of the term ‘human’ and the web-y-ness of the web directs you to ‘anthropo-‘, from the Greek anthrōpos. It is a term known in grammar as a combining form: ‘a linguistic element that occurs only as part of a compound word,’ in composition with another component – such as in anthropology or anthropomorphise. I am intrigued by the decision to linguistically cut all entities from their entanglements, to introduce ‘human’ to the English language rather than ‘human-‘. But then to use human- would be to put human beings at the start of all collectives, all compounds and networks, in a clear move of anthropocentrism. Rather, I would like to introduce being human as being –human–, where all parts of the entity are open to new mergers.
This being –human–, occurring as it does in-between human and other entity (be it microbiome or further afield), is inherently creative; perhaps continuing to be –human– requires a more inventive creativity than we are currently engaged in. If evolution is an unrolling then maybe we need to be prepared to unravel slightly more – and use those threads for more entangling.
Becoming with our Microbiome
by Nancy Cooper
Threads feed through my fingers clumsily as they flow over hers with ease. Her hands, so familiar with needle and thread, move quickly. They have become one – so well-acquainted that her eyes barely glance at what her hands are doing, where her fingers need to go next. I focus on my hands intently, brow furrowed in concentration on an act that seems so unfamiliar. I stitch chains, small links knotted together, looping the wool over itself, over the needle, over me. The knots are uneven but, guided by hers, my hands fall into a rhythm that brings each stitch into a more regular pattern. The threads between us, once clumsy, have become smoother too, the links stronger and tighter. The grief that first entangled us all those months ago, knots us slowly closer together. Our pastfutures, once so disjointed, stitch and twist together as the movement of our hands links us through time and space
1. Deleuze & Guattari, ‘1730: Becoming-Intense, Becoming-Animal, Becoming-Imperceptible…’, 238
2. Neimanis, ‘Becoming Grizzly: Bodily Molecularity and the Animal that Becomes’, 294
3. Hird, The Origins of Sociable Life: Evolution After Science Studies, 58
4. Bennett, Vibrant Matter, 23
5. Casey, ‘Edges and the In-Between’, 1
6. Ibid, 2
7. Neimanis, ‘Commuting Bodies Move, Creatively’, 138
8. Lazer & Matthews, ‘Chime In’, 140
9. Neimanis, ‘Commuting Bodies Move, Creatively’, 139
10. Kroker, Body Drift, 134
11. Neimanis, ‘Hydrofeminism: Or, On Becoming a Body of Water’, 108
12. Debaise, ‘A Philosophy of Interstices’, 102
13. Johnson, Emergence, 234
14. Ibid, 181
15. Barad, ‘Transmaterialities: Trans*/Matter/Realities and Queer Political Imaginings’, 406
16. Vaccaro, ‘Felt matters’, 255
17. Margulis, The Symbiotic Planet: A New Look At Evolution, 15
18. Collins English Dictionary