Souls, Cyborgs and Symbiotes

I’ve been reading Donna Haraway again and that leads to certain reflections.
The three terms – ‘souls’, ‘cyborgs’ and ‘symbiotes’ seem to summarise different approaches towards the body and the world, and I suggest that the idea of ‘symbiotes’ suggests a fruitful way of acting towards the ourselves and the world, which could provide a better framework for problem solving and general understanding.
‘Soul’, as the term is usually used, implies that everything important (or eternal) about the human is separated from, and independent of, the material world. Usually with this theory the world and the body are obstacles to the perfection of the soul, distractions at best, to be dominated or despised in any case. The body and nature tend to be seen in terms of ‘their’ unholy demands and needs, even as inherently hostile. They must be shut up, shut down or disciplined. Death opens the way to freedom, as the world is a prison and punishment.
In this theory, the soul seems usually to be assumed to be what I’ll call ‘the ego’, clear conscious thought untroubled by the world, independent of all physics. The “I am”. Things that disrupt the imagined perfection and singularity of the soul are usually held to stem from the flesh… sex, hunger, pain, disease and so on.
Oddly, there is plenty of Christian theology which suggests that humans are trinities (soul, spirit and flesh) not binaries. However these variants easily get lost despite the importance of their writers (St Paul, Augustine etc). Furthermore, the idea of the resurrection of the dead implies that the Christian God wants us to be a body, so bodies could be holy. Other religions are equally flesh despising: some forms of Hinduism and Buddhism for example. Christianity is not altogether to blame for this situation.
Some post Jungians (Hillman, Moore etc) use the term ‘soul’ to emphasise the mystery of the psyche, its messiness, and the importance of image and feeling; but it is probably never a good idea to use a familiar term for an unfamiliar meaning, as the old meanings can come through implicitly. I’d prefer to stay with Jung’s ‘psyche’, as that is much now a rarer word and can be given precisely these connotations and does not have to make claims to immortality or purity of some sort or other.
The cyborg idea seems to derive from soul tradition. In it, the human, is independent of any particular body. It can be downloaded into machinic immortality. The body becomes a tool to be engineered or altered to have new capacities, subject to the demands of the ego. Nature has no independent rights. “Pave the earth” seems a cyborg slogan.
Cyborg theory like soul theory, implies that intelligence can be disembodied (‘light’) or unaffected by embodiment. Yet, it seems reasonably obvious (assuming evolutionary theory) that all intelligence must have developed to deal with ‘real world situations’, and these include the exploratory capacities of bodies, interaction between bodies, and the range of sensory inputs available.
This does not mean that intelligence is transparent and accurately perceives the world, just that it has been good enough to solve the problems of previous evolutionary paths (not necessarily the problems of future or current paths).
Haraway, as I’ve argued elsewhere, used the cyborg manifesto to argue against a ‘goddess feminism’ that stripped women of technology and idealised nature, but she got caught in the soul trap of cyborgism. She has over the last 10 or so years, revised her metaphor to talk of companion species, or of symbiotes.
Her point is, that in a ‘natural’ world people depend on other creatures and ecologies, they exist along with other beings/events. We have relationships with pets and other animals. Sometimes deep relationships, relationships of unknown complexity and mutuality, even with predators. Bodily, we are composed of cellular and sub cellular life forms existing in colonies. Our mind is multiple, composed of many functions acting together and apart. There is no clear point of ego; mind exists in the circumstances, or contexts, of its existence; it is not separate but dependent. We are part of greater social intelligences as well. Everything is diffuse with strange boundaries. This does not mean that we, and others, cannot try and enforce boundaries to protect ourselves, that too is natural, but it is hard, sometimes self-destructive, and not always necessary.
This realisation is important for the way we relate to our bodies and nature. In soul theory bodies are slaves, obstructions, or illusions. The normal mode of response in this framework, is to despise them, and drive them to labour under the dominance of someone’s ego.
In cyborg theory, nature, the self and the body is a tool to be exploited, and abandoned when it fails the utilitarian demands of the ego – again labour is the metaphor and relationship.
In symbiote theory, we depend on our body and the world. That body and world has its own multiple intelligences and imperatives. It does not always do what we want (what we want may be incorrect, we may need to talk with and learn from our obstacles. ‘The body’ may have its own paths to healing, it may rebel intelligently against our slave-driving or our enforced refusal of relationship).
At worst our body is like a pet; we can love it and pet it, relate to it, look after it (as it looks after us). We can treat it with respect as a symbiote, a fellow creature, and we open ourselves to relationships of many kinds, not just labour.
Most pet owners will probably treat their pets better than they treat their bodies. Perhaps they should extend that affection, love and care to ‘their’ bodies and the world, and see what happens?
It will be hard and will take time, but this might be an idea which transforms everything.

The Outback’s global significance as we move into the Anthropocene

The recent Pew Charitable Trust’s report – The Modern Outback: nature, people and the future of remote Australia – documents the huge diversity and value of this part of the world. It is one of only a handful of large natural areas remaining on Earth including the rapidly diminishing wildlands of the Amazon basin; the boreal forests and tundra of Canada, Alaska and Siberia and the Sahara.

In our “age of humans”, where the world populations are such as to have irrevocably reduced the natural world, we face a future of increased urbanisation.

The move to cities will increase as the degradation and loss of productivity of lands increases. Clearly, we need people to live well in what many find as hostile environments. Aboriginal custodians have a long history of creating abundance in the natural world and are those most likely to want to be there. They need to be supported to stay.

Evidence for the sustainability of Aboriginal settlements on their lands exists where Aboriginal people are moving increasingly into collaborations with scientists and other researchers to maintain the viability of fragile ecosystems on their lands.

  Photo: Rusty Stewart

Their role in mapping biodiversity, crucial to maintaining sustainable country in remote places, is unique and without parallel. This activity has important spin-offs in education and employment.

Maintaining populations in remote Australia will involve increasing investments in renewable energy, water and food supplies, including wild foods. This will have short and long term economic and educational benefits for all of us as we move further into the Anthropocene.

These benefits are beginning to be obvious from the innovations that are already occurring in remote Australia. One good example is the renewable energy initiatives of the Centre for Appropriate Technology (CAT) in the Desert Peoples Precinct in Alice Springs. Projects include the solar-powered Bushlight that is now being exported to villages in India, and renewable energy projects in Australia and the Pacific.

Perhaps the most important argument for supporting Aboriginal people to live on their own lands in remote Australia is that their capacity to survive over many thousands of years in changing environments demonstrates resilience. It is this quality that we will need in bucket loads in the future.

What we now urgently need is a government with the vision and the acumen to put in place policies that match the demands of our future in this country and on this planet – policies that meaningfully include Aboriginal people in ways forward, as part of the solution, not the problem.

So what of eco-mutuality?

It’s not just that the concept of sustainability has been co-opted as a corporate greenwashing tool. Nor that its meaning has become so diluted and oxymoronic that its usefulness is problematic. My problem is that sustainability is in its essence an anthropocentric concept.

The focus of sustainability is on how humans can satisfy the present demands of a swarming and rapacious population “without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (Brundtland 1987). But what of the ecosystems we have laid waste to, the species our predations have driven to or over the edge of extinction? Surely the concept of sustainability at best ignores and at worst reinforces the very essence of the problems we have created by acting as though the rest of life on Earth exists primarily to serve our needs and satisfactions.

This is the hubris that drives the existential crisis we have created for ourselves in the Anthropocene—and for the many other species we are driving before us. Life on Earth will survive our marauding self-interest, but it will be many thousands of years before the biosphere finds a new stability conducive to life’s flowering on the planet.

Take climate change for example. Scientist tell us that even if we were to cease all greenhouse gas emissions tomorrow the Earth system will take hundreds of millennia to reabsorb the excess carbon we have pumped into the atmosphere and the oceans since the start of the industrial revolution (Archer 2009). In the Anthropocene we must accept responsibility for the consequences of our collective actions in deep time, when our custom is to think only within a timeframe of multiple human lifetimes.

To me it seems self-evident that we need a much more robust and inclusive term to encompass a fundamentally different relationship between our species and the rest of the community of life on Earth if we are to survive the Anthropocene. Sustainability simply doesn’t cut it.

This is not just semantics. Our categories of thought and discourse prescribe our actions and condition our ethics.

So what of eco-mutuality? To me the term denotes an ethos of partnership or, in Thomas Berry’s words, “a mutually enhancing relationship between humans and the Earth and all its living creatures” (1988). It implies a retreat from hubris to humility, from predation to co-existence.

I’d be interested to know what connotations the term eco-mutuality has for others. What specifically are the values that seem to you to be explicit or implicit in the term? What resonances does it have for you?

Can we try a thought experiment to flesh out some of the meanings and implications of eco-mutuality and how they might translate into practical ethics?


Our Common Future, Report of the UN World Commission on Environment and Development (known as the Brundtland report), Oxford, 1987.
David Archer, The Long Thaw: How Humans Are Changing the Next 100,000 Years of Earth’s Climate, Princeton, 2009.
Thomas Berry, The Dream of the Earth, Sierra Club Books, 1988.

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From sustainability to eco-mutuality?

Sustainability is a contemporary story that inspires many deeply committed people to worthwhile action. But it is a story being steadily leeched of useful meaning. Even fossil fuel corporations and their political camp followers can proclaim their own version of the sustainability narrative, apparently without a skerrick of irony.

Within the sustainability community there is a perennial debate about the relative merits of ‘weak’ sustainability, which aims to balance the needs of society, the economy, and the environment using tools such as triple bottom line accounting; or ‘strong’ sustainability which maintains the primacy of environmental imperatives over the demands of both society and economy.

The most widely accepted definition of sustainability is from the Brundtland Report (1987): “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. This is fundamentally an anthropocentric or human-centred approach. By making human needs the basis for judgement and action it reproduces the very problem that has brought us to the brink of catastrophe.

Focusing on sustainability within the cultural and political envelope of the status quo, means we maintain the convenient illusion that ‘we’ (who?) are in control and can manage the transition to a viable planetary future by economic, technical and lifestyle tinkering.

It’s not that honest efforts to advance sustainability are pointless. Many significant incremental gains can and must be achieved. It’s just that we’re attempting ad hoc workarounds when the problem is with the operating system — the dominant cultural values that define what is possible and desirable and, over time, shape the forms and functions of key social institutions.

How apt is Einstein’s oft cited warning about the futility of attempting to solve complex problems using the modes of thinking that created them. This is precisely what we are doing in response to the systemic issues of our times.

Instead of sustainability we need a fresh mode of thinking about our place in the world. The term eco-mutuality may offer an opening into such a new worldview. Its meaning is immediately apparent — the goal of, in Thomas Berry’s words, “a mutually enhancing relationship between humans and the Earth and all its living creatures”.

So let’s try a thought experiment…

If eco-mutuality was to be the ethical core of a renewed human culture, what would be some of its defining characteristics? What, in practice would distinguish it from sustainability?

Any other questions?

Please share your thoughts.