Entangling Art & Biology: Knot One – Identifying the Haraway Therapeutics: Donna, György, and Me

Charissa N. Terranova is a writer and educator. She is author of ‘Art as Organism: Biology and the Evolution of the Digital Image’ (2016) and ‘Automotive Prosthetic: Technological Mediation and the Car in Conceptual Art’ (2014), and co-editor with Meredith Tromble of ‘The Routledge Companion to Biology in Art and Architecture’ (2016). As Associate Professor of Aesthetic Studies, she lectures and teaches seminars at the University of Texas at Dallas on modern and contemporary art and architectural history and theory, the history of biology in art and architecture, and media and new media art and theory.

This essay is not scientific but about a feminist scientist. It analyzes the use of science in cultural criticism as a means to invent, open minds, make art, bring justice, and feel better. More precisely, this essay broaches the question of how bibliotherapy via the oeuvre of scientist-literata Donna Haraway makes for wellness, good health, and a generalized welcoming of the world within oneself by way of ecological relations outside of oneself. Haraway’s unique combination of invention and fact, creativity and data, art and science is a lifebuoy for those in need of solace and a sense of belonging. Home and rightness coalesce, in this instance, through immersion in Haraway’s fearless polymathy and robust in-betweenness. Her writings about cyborgs, feminist science, interspecies communication, and various and sundry hybrid worldings are forces for a singular combination of stillness and becoming: reading Haraway’s manyness brings comfort in the flux. Geneticist and epigeneticist C.H. Waddington called this balance in becoming “homeorhesis.”[i]

This essay combines the autobiographical and studious in one voice to elaborate “the Haraway therapeutics.” I weave these strands in the spirit of willfully crafted disparate bindings; my favorite example is Haraway’s use of science fiction to shape academic scholarship.[ii] There are many core constituent qualities of this therapeutics: Haraway’s permutations on organicist and holistic biology that launched her career, her clever use of science fiction to meld and mold history and theory, her open and generous ontological webbing and deference to manifold species, her guiding pronouncement that we might “stay with the trouble” by nurturing earth rather than leaving her behind, and her concept of visual prosthetics, or the extension of human senses by various technological means. Because of limited space, I devote my attention to the last of these: ocular prosthetics. Like the other constituent forces of the Haraway therapeutics, prosthetics in the very general sense shape our ecological connectedness in the world. Prosthetics exteriorize “being” and “self” revealing and fortifying our fundamentally environmental and epigenetic existence. Our intimate relationship with prosthetic devices reminds us that machines are evolutionary forces. For good and for bad, they make our environment; we learn from and know through machines. Of the many and rich possible therapeutic strands to describe, I choose Haraway’s insightful take on vision and visual prosthetics for two reasons. First, because the timing of her pronouncement on vision makes it a role model of rhetorical countenance. She enunciated her stance, the idea that vision must not be thrown away, when it was the least popular thing to do, at the height of postmodernism in 1988 when criticisms of vision and visual metaphors, from Plato’s cave to the spectacle, were standard measure of one’s allegiance to the cause. Like Donna did then, we should when necessary push up against established dogmas, even those beloved ones that start as novel trends. Second, and far more personal and self-serving, Haraway’s rectification of vision similarly rectifies the role of vision within modern ideas about art-and-science, many of which are at the wellspring of my research.  Her cri de coeur on the importance of vision, natural and prosthetic, marks a need to reevaluate, for example, Hungarian-American artist György Kepes’s concentration on vision within art-and-science holism during the mid-twentieth century.

At its heart this essay is about how I, a historian, have used theory, the work of Haraway, to create a praxis – to produce knowledge. Bearing on autobiographical elements, learning from Haraway brings a lesson on the liveliness of knowledge, revealing that ideas over one’s lifetime contract and expand, recede and advance, rotate and skirmish, and reliably and rhythmically shed and grow skin. Ideas live: they take on different appearances as one evolves. My time with Haraway, regularly reading her texts, has borne a related process of temporal looping around mutable dynamic centers. The phrase “temporal looping” describes the way in which Haraway’s texts provide context for the mid twentieth-century artist György Kepes, the heir and propagator of Bauhaus art-and-science hybridity in the twentieth century. Imagine a diagram in which Haraway and I move in tandem at opposite ends of ever-shifting ellipses.

Diagram of Looping Time and Orbits of Ideas, by Trent Straughan

I read her words and they set in relief the moving, overlapping, and shifting orbits which shape the rich and hybrid art-sci culture in which Kepes, the kinetic dot at the center of the moving loops, acted and interacted.

György Kepes’s Ear: Visual Prosthesis, Polymorphic Sensuality, and the Haraway Therapeutics

György Kepes, “Ear (AN 514),” 1939-41, photograph, gelatin silver print on paper, Tate Collection

The photograph of Kepes’s ear signals a lively if not perverse entrée into a discussion of visual prosthetics, an idea that preoccupied Kepes throughout his life and was the noyau of Haraway’s seminal 1988 essay “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” Kepes made the black-and-white photograph between 1939 and 1941. During this time, he was living in Chicago, working with and under the aegis of László Moholy-Nagy, the Director of the New Bauhaus, later named the Institute of Design. Kepes there developed curricula for and taught the Light and Color course until 1944, and then took on brief stints teaching at North Texas State University (today University of North Texas) and Brooklyn College. He is most famous for his magnanimous vision, art practice, and work as curator and educator of art-and-science integration that were part of an illustrious thirty-year career starting in 1947 at MIT. There, Kepes founded the Center for Advanced Visual Studies in 1967. For an artist who edited nine anthologies on the theme of “vision,” Kepes’s photograph of an ear is telling. Because of the age of the model, we can be assured it is not Kepes’s own ear. Born in 1906, Kepes would have been between 33 and 35 years old at the time, and unlike his sitter, without so much registered time (grey hair and wrinkles). That Kepes made a photograph of an ear, we can nonetheless understand that Kepes’s ideas about the role of vision in human social and environmental connection were lively with vibrant overlappings and sensual integration. Vision for Kepes was fundamentally polymorphically perverse – attuned to the entire body and literally in touch with the other senses. Though given primacy, vision was never to be considered in isolation, extracted from the unity of five senses working together in everyday homeorhesis. Together, sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch constituted the fleshy and extra-fleshy battery by which humans interfaced with the world. Fellow Hungarian, friend, and mentor Moholy-Nagy elaborated on this array in many ways, describing it in terms of the “enteroceptive,” the crossing point between inner and outer worlds, and “proprioceptive,” the senses working in conjunction with muscles.[iii] Extension, exteriority, and prosthesis were implicit in both figures’ art processes.

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