Conference: Emerging Activity. Relating Things 

16.02.2017 – 10:00 h to
17.02.2017 – 18:00 h
Interdisciplinary Laboratory Image Knowledge Gestaltung
Sophienstraße, 22a 10178 Berlin

For centuries, self-motion attracted curiosity. While modernity attributed self-motion primarily to living beings, depriving nonorganic matter of activity, today biological movement inspires development of new robotic technologies that mimic selfmovement in nature. At the same time, activity in matter as such has been discovered by new feminist materialism as a research
field in its own right, that challenges the modern dualism of active and passive that divide nature and genders. With this newly arisen interest in self-motion, debates once related to biological movement alone, reemerge and enter new fields in the sciences and humanities trying to tackle the phenomenon of self-motion.
The dichotomy between holistic and reductionist models, or top down and bottom up models using the terminology suggested by the historian of science Raphael Falk (2000), to explain movement in nature, is as old as the scientific study of organic movement itself. Current advances in the sciences and humanities demand a re-examination of this dichotomy. Increasingly powerful computer-based analyses of expanding data sets today enable us to produce more complex and dynamic descriptions of phenomena. The behaviors of complex systems on numerous levels, from composite materials through central nervous systems, to agglomerations of humans and the multiple potentialities of relations, become computable, thus ‘explicable’ from a reductionist perspective. On the other hand, statistical uncertainty and chaos theory became accepted doctrines in science with repercussions in humanities, fostering interest in complexity and emergence. The dichotomy between holistic models and reductionist ones to explain movement in nature currently
disintegrates – but what comes instead? What is the potential of heuristics that contend the capacity for movement as intrinsic to any object? Are descriptions justified according to which movement is rather an issue of more or less complex relations between things? And are there ways to integrate a top down and bottom up perspective?
As the different ways to approach activity and self-motion are of equal importance to diverse disciplines in the sciences and humanities struggling with the conflict of a search for complexity while being in need of practical models, this interdisciplinary conference discusses the emergence of movement in historically grounded and interdisciplinary perspective. The conference aims to spotlight advantages of either perspective and challenges the mutual exclusivity of a reductionist versus holistic approach. Focal points of interest in this context are ascriptions of activity and passivity concerning material, social, and symbolic levels.

Registration open until 31st of January via email to Julia Weitzel: julia.weitzel.1@hu-berlin.de


Conference Report 

The interest in self-motion has recently re-emerged and entered new fields in the sciences and the humanities. The topic now attracts curiosity from different fields within the biosciences as well as the humanities, from new robotic technologies that mimic self-motion in nature, to feminist materialisms that challenge the dualisms of activity/passivity or nature/culture ascribed to genders. With the conference >>Emerging Activity – Relating Things<< the projects Self-Moving Materials and Gender Rhizome offered the opportunity to present and summarize recent developments and to discuss this constellation from different disciplinary angles.

The conference opened with a keynote address by Myra Hird (Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada). Hird’s research topic is waste, which she understands as a >>signifier of humanity<< in the context of the Anthropocene. Hird defines waste as a multi-level network that entangles human consumerist activities with the activities of bacteria and chemicals. In her talk she emphasized how waste develops an agency of its own that connects human and nonhuman activities. Hird is particularly interested in landfills, the most common form of waste disposal in Canada, describing them as >>ontological provocations<< that lead to unknown outcomes; due to the rich bacterial life and bacteria’s quick evolution, we simply cannot know what is evolving in landfills, which reactions occur, and what the ecological consequences may be. Matthias Staudacher (Berlin) elaborated on the search in contemporary physics for a >>theory of everything<< that is mathematically consistent and experimentally testable, and would unify quantum field theory and general relativity. He highlighted the tendency of mathematicians to favor quantum field theory and its current superstring theory formulation for its >>beautiful mathematics<<, as well as theoretical physics’ current reliance on computer science for complex calculations. In his talk, Sebastian Schwesinger (Berlin) clarified that the theory of sound in the humanities needs to consider the materiality of sound as a complex and independent object of inquiry. He presented his research on the virtual acoustic reconstruction of the Roman Forum and considered the methodological challenges that ensue from this approach. Orr Ettlinger (Berlin) focused on the works of Christopher Alexander as a starting point for a phenomenology of places that >>make you feel more human than others<<, which Alexander relates to the >>wholeness<< of places that trigger a feeling of >>aliveness<<, which others lack. Ettlinger further elaborated on Alexander’s theory of geometrical order in nature and how this can help us to investigate the >>wholeness<< of a place. In her talk, Christina Vagt (Berlin) argued that the conceptualization of self-motion is historically linked to the media that make this observation possible and sketched a history that connects Leibniz’s formulations of life as an artificial automaton and Bergson’s remarks on cinematography as a metaphor for life, leading up to recent developments merging mathematical and material order. Lorenzo Guiducci presented his research on hydro actuation in biological materials as >>active matter<<, using the examples of the origami-like unfolding of the ice plant seed capsule or the snapping (elastic instability) of the carnivorous Venus flytrap, whose mechanical movements can be measured and potentially replicated by synthetic materials, thus conflating organic and inorganic activity. For the second keynote lecture, Ruth Hagengruber could not be present and excerpts from her lecture on Émilie du Châtelet’s work in mathematics were kindly given by Dieter Suisky (Potsdam). He painted a broad picture of the historical moment in which du Châtelet is situated, especially her contribution to the mathematical development of Leibniz’s theory of >>life force<< or vis viva, which at the time seemed to challenge Newtonian and Cartesian theories of conservation of momentum.

A keynote lecture by complex systems researcher Luis Rocha (Indiana) kicked off the second day of the conference. Rocha grounded his talk on the philosophical debate in cybernetics and computation science opposing two views on the nature of life and its development: on one side, the view of life as an organization of the whole organism with a closure (autonomy/self view), dealing with maintenance, regulation, production, and reproduction. On the other side, the view of life with an emphasis on evolutionary selection and genetic control, dealing with information (memory, Turing machine, openness) and a universal genetic code controlling regulation and production, making it a historical unit of selection. In her presentation, Janina Wellmann (Lüneburg) linked the emergence of motion as an object of study in biology to detection and visualization techniques that are governed by different visualization regimes. As an example, she described the work of biologist Ludwig Gräpers (1882-1937) on the growth of chick embryos, and how photography and cinematography made it possible to visualize and conceptualize biological cell movement. Biologist Regine Hengge (Berlin) focused on the topic of growth in biofilms or >>cities of microbes<<. Biofilms are bacterial societies of cells, with the bacteria producing an extracellular infrastructure made of amyloid, curli fibre, and/or cellulose. Hengge described these as hierarchically organized structures that can be controlled on the levels of gene expression, or as she put it by >>playing around with the environment<< of the cells. Michaela Eder (Berlin) focused on another biological model, the Banksia seed cone, to explain how the composition and structure of the material at various length scales comes together to form a protective seed capsule that cracks and opens to release the seeds only when exposed to high temperature. The sociologist and synthetic biology expert Jane Calvert (Edinburgh) introduced her research into the synthetic yeast project in which scientists try to re-engineer and synthesize yeast cells. She pointed out that humans and yeast are companion-species with a long history together, since yeast is a crucial ingredient for brewing and bread-baking, but also a >>workhorse<< in biological engineering. Calvert stressed that this project is an example of the endeavors of synthetic biology to engineer whole organisms and showed how the engineering ideals in this field are challenged in their practice by biological complexity and emergence. In the final talk, Khashayar Razghandi (Berlin) focused on his work to clarify some peculiarities regarding disputed concepts such as the active/passive duality and the significance of notions such as function and predictability in the active matter discourse. By borrowing the concept of >>stance<< from philosopher of mind Daniel Dennett, he used the specific example of cellular automata in Conway’s Game of Life to clarify the three kinds of stances: physical, design-related, and intentional. He emphasized how changing one’s stance brings about new ontologies and explanations of the phenomena at hand.

The conference successfully brought together the life and mathematical sciences with the social sciences and humanities, sparking lively debates that continued on both days during an informal Abendbrot light supper in the central laboratory. The conference clearly demonstrated that the emerging of activities necessitates complexity and that understanding and control require broader views combining levels/areas and transcending boundaries/scales (see Lorenzo Guidicci’s figure 1). It became obvious that in addition to the multiple relations and intricacies of objects, researchers must take into account their own entanglements with matter and technologies (see Jane Calvert’s slides, figure 2-4), alongside with the political implications of concepts, as well as their historicity and cultural specificity. Thus the conference as a whole recommended an explicit and conscious multi-level-approach that does not ignore the artificial nature of definitions in either bottom-up or top-town approaches.