Sympoiesis

 

Each Hath One

“Each Hath One,” June Wayne, 1958

It was in reading around in MIT’s Journal of Design and Science — specifically in Neri Oxman’s piece, The Age of Entanglement, that led me to revisit a poem by the 17th-century poet, John Donne that I hadn’t read in more than 25 years.

In the middle of Donne’s 1633 poem, “The Good-Morrow,” in which he reflects on love both sensual and spiritual, he chides exploration as work for others, while he and his lover are satisfied with the love they share:

Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,
Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown,
Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one.

Oxman’s invocation of the last of these lines in an essay on entanglement is pretty on point, and it’s not hard to see the appeal of a “one world” perspective — particularly when considering the manifold ways in which media of all kinds shapes us and our relationship to the world. To paraphrase Kevin Slavin from the same issue — we are not in the system; we are the system.

Sometimes it seems like all things trend toward a common thesis, and this is without a doubt one of those times. . . . The philosopher Richard Rorty writes, “it is best to think of moral progress as a matter of increasing sensitivity, increasing responsiveness to the needs of a larger and larger variety of people and things.” In his refining of pragmatism in the context of morality and human rights, Rorty points out that rationality and intellect are not necessarily the epitome of social mores and that indeed compassion and sensitivity and a diminishing ego-centrism are far more essential parts of a moral society.

Elsewhere, the artist Sarah Brady recently reflected on her time at the Djerassi retreat and thought about the importance of lichens (as I have elsewhere on this blog):

Lichens require sympoiesis, or making-with, rather than autopoiesis, or self-making. We must follow patterns where humans and non-humans are inextricably linked. Combining past and present technologies, Human and Nonhuman, hybrids reveal their agents in co-evolution within global networks for survival. The future is combining Human/Animal, Life/Nonlife, Ancient/Modern, and Biological/Technological. Our ability to coevolve and think outside ourselves will benefit us when we reorient outwards.

I’ve been teaching an evolving sequence of senior seminars in environmental philosophy over the past several years, and am launching a new course this fall that ties engagement with the entangled domains of self, society, and ecology with the creative application of meaningful and accessible works through an ArtScience lens.

My goal is to engage the students in thinking beyond the self — beyond the dualities of passion/intellect or creativity/empiricism and human/non-human — to touch the world with all their senses and share something of what they find.

It is in the turning from self to world, as Thomas Merton has invited us, “to forget ourselves on purpose, cast our awful solemnity to the winds and join in the general dance” — a shift from autopoietic to sympoietic perspective — that I hope my students will see new ways to bring us all closer to holding space for our complex, entangled, and messy “one world.”

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