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Panel III: More-than-human sensing

with Ally Bisshop, Elaine Gan, Deboleena Roy
by Kate Donovan, Christian Schwinghammer

The panel aims to extend the overall conference theme to questions of how more-than-human entities, processes and dimensions matter in the realm of aisthesis. How and to what extent can perspectives that underline human sensation as always already more-than-itself offer ways to understand 'other' dimensions, scales, times as questions of sensing and sensitive media? Can such questions of sensing be modelled as a provisional starting point for approaching relationalities and materialities to destabilise the predominance of the metaphysical paradigm of individualism and its exceptional positioning of Man as a distinct agent? And connected with this: How do 'new' sensibilities for the more-than-human intersect with the ethico-political task of changed self- and world understandings in times of climate change, cross-species crises in their unevenly distributed effects, as well as fine-tuned technological and techno-scientific applications and discoveries? With such lines of questioning, the panel aims not only to trace possibilities for practices of 'sensing-otherwise' in order to encounter and address the more-than-human beyond the new/old longing to appropriate, reduce and objectify what runs through the human radius of sensation and sense-making, but also to ask, what is 'other' to this realm, what might illude it or even remain in difference/indifferent to it.


More than human sensing as relational praxis: propositions for sensing-with, sensing otherwise

Ally Bisshop (Berlin-based writer and researcher)

This contribution frames the concept of ‘more-than-human sensing’ as a provocation that asks: what else is given in experience? Exploring the implication of this question opens up as a creative task of making and sensing relations across thresholds of difference: self/other, human/nonhuman. In turn, to think through a speculative praxis of more-than-human sensing begets the ethicopolitical question of: to what end? What are the ethical implications of sensing otherwise, sensing-with the other; or rather, what can more-than-human sensing do?

As an address to the texture of these questions, this contribution situates more-than-human sensing as a praxis of relation to an outside; to that which escapes or elides the reifying habits of human perceptual schema, to that which is felt as an interval of difference, a lure for the becomings-other of sense. This relational praxis also proposes a reworking of the thresholds of sense and self, troubling the edges of an abstract and unitary (human) subject as the site of sensation and of knowing, troubling the thresholds between subjects and worlds. A praxis of more-than-human sensing therefore requires techniques, strategies and tools for rupturing the sedimented habits of sense and self, techniques which also work to open us to our entanglements with insensible realms.

It is here, in the creation of techniques for sensing-with and sensing-otherwise, that I claim a critical role for artistic and speculative methods. Creative attempts at more-than-human sensing work in parallel with scholarship in the environmental and post– humanities to imagine new and sympoietic modes of ecological relation that engage difference as a generative proposition. More-than-human sensing is thus understood as a vital corrective to the ongoing violence of human exceptionalism, wherein the ‘insensibility’ of broader ecological phenomena reinforce the material and ethical abstraction of the human subject from the worlds in which it is enmeshed.[1]

[1] See: Neimanis, Astrida, Cecilia Åsberg, and Johan Hedrén. 2015. “Four Problems, Four Directions for Environmental Humanities.” Ethics & the Environment 20 (1): 67–97.

Sensing Chestnuts: Media for Ghosts, Monsters, and the Queen of Forests

Elaine Gan (artist-theorist, New York University)

This presentation follows the case of the American chestnut tree (Castanea dentata) in the Eastern United States, the beloved queen of forests until the nineteenth century and now functionally extinct. Billions of chestnut trees succumbed to blight disease when plant nurseries in New York began importing exotic ornamentals from Asia in the 1860s; inadvertently, the imports carried a ravenous hitchhiker, the bright orange fungus (Cryphonectria parasitica). The disappearance of chestnut trees (and their companion naturecultures) over the last two centuries has radically changed lives and landscapes. Today, geneticists are aiming to reintroduce a transgenic version of the American chestnut. How might transdisciplinary practices enable scholars, artists, and activists to engage with these complex and highly politicized ecologies? How might we craft media for sensing and rendering differential ontoepistemologies in ways that provide for more liveable more-than-human worlds?

Molecular Feminisms, Stolonic Strategies, and Microphysiologies of Desire

Deboleena Roy (Emory University)

The in vitro lab method known as splitting, subculturing, or passaging, allows the molecular biologist to keep cell lines alive for use in experimentation. However, unless one is willing and able to deal with an entire population of multiplying cells in culture, it also requires killing a vast number of these cells on a regular basis. As a molecular biologist, I have wondered about the life and death of in vitro cells and the complex sets of events and ontological queries that come forward during the otherwise mundane molecular biology lab practice of passaging cells. How do we learn to pause, reflect, and respond during these entanglements between humans, animals, cells, molecules, and more? This talk draws upon the work of the Bengali biophysicist J.C. Bose and his use of electrical activity as the measure of a physiological response in plants, metals, and animal tissue. His definition of the physiological properties of response and what constituted a “response” versus a simple “reaction” in nonhumans and nonorganic life were contested during his lifetime. More than a century later, however, scientists are returning to Bose’s research to reevaluate the categorical distinctions we have drawn between humans, nonhumans, organic and inorganic life. Bose was the first scientist who convincingly argued that plants not only have a nervous system of their own but that they also have the ability to feel pain. He demonstrated that the physiological ability to respond extends beyond the human to not only animals, plants, and microorganisms but even to rocks, metals, minerals, elements, and anything else capable of experiencing sensitivity to external stimuli. I am drawn to the ontology and ethics that Bose’s approach presents and wish to use his claim of a ‘physiology of response’ to reimagine our own feminist encounters with biology.