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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Instructional Design

There is a deep resonance between architecture, design and thinking about structures and systems of social, pedagogical, and institutional relationships. In my role at Sterling College, I often think in systems and complex relationships across a gradient of different scales of institution, program, course, class, and individual student/faculty interaction. When Neri Oxman last Thursday at UVM talked about the need for more multiscale systems that are interdisciplinary in their nature and structure, I could think of few better examples than the development of a resilient, adaptive, and multiscale curriculum.

spiral rubricI recently introduced students to the concept of an open rubric, which, for most of them, represented a far more open approach to goal development and self-assessment that they had experienced. The very question, ‘what do you want to learn?’ is enough to catch students off guard, and sometimes requires some processing of what that really means, and that, yes, I’m quite serious that they have to co-design their own learning experience.

The larger piece, less easily explained in the context of an assignment overview, is this approach nests into a organic and open curricular system.

Another part of Neri Oxman’s work in which I found a profound corollary with this level of systems thinking is the concept of a single material “catering to multifunctionality”:

The ability to design, analyze and fabricate using a single material unit implies unity of physical and digital matter, enabling nearly seamless mappings between environmental constraints, fabrication methods and material expression. Such unity – like that found in natural bone, a bird’s nest, a typical African hut and a woven basket – might promote a truly ecological design paradigm, facilitating formal expression constrained by, and supportive of, its hosting environment. (Material Ecology)

When a relationship between students, teachers, and experience is co-creative, the strength of that foundation of learning can yield rich, self-organizing, and interconnected pedagogy that is finely attuned, flexible, and resilient in the face of students’ learning goals and aspirations.

In an environment that emphasizes scalability, variability of form, and provides space for organic development, the boundaries between the facilitated learning experience and the larger systems of which college education is a part begin to dissolve and learning and its application begin to coalesce.