S1E2 Marilyn Stendera: Transcript

In this episode I speak with Dr Marilyn Stendera. We discuss the relationship between transhumanism and enactivism, ranging across organisational integrity, embodiment, and precarity.

Dr Marilyn Stendera’s work focuses mainly on the phenomenological tradition, especially its intersections with philosophy of cognition and mind. She is particularly interested in time, including its role in cognition, its relationship to power, and how it has been conceptualised in different philosophical traditions. She also likes thinking about biology, death, gender, horror and metaphilosophy.

Dr Marilyn Stendera, thank you for joining Concept : Art.

Thank you so much for having me, Pat. I’m thrilled to be here.

Can you begin by telling us a little about yourself and how you came to be doing your academic work?

Yeah, absolutely. So, I got into philosophy weirdly early. I was a kid who grew up in a household that was always full of books, and I was always kind of encouraged to explore lots of different perspectives. And yeah, when I was about I think eleven or twelve or so, I stumbled upon a book about [Søren] Kierkegaard, the Danish existentialist philosopher, and I was kind of really struck by what I was reading about. And, this this idea of you know these– This grand struggle with meaning and kind of really resonated with me and, yeah, there is those encounters and those questions and concerns have kind of always interested me and have continued to interest me.

No one in my family had actually gone to university. No one in my family had gone to school past Year 10 and yeah, so kind of transitioning to university was a, a big move into an area I didn’t know much about, but, I did my undergrad at the University of Melbourne where I was very lucky to be exposed to some wonderful folks who were, working in pretty much exactly those areas and who were able to really introduce me to a way of reading those questions in a deeper, more structured, more informed way, especially, of course, the late Dr Marion Tapper who passed away recently. Her lectures on existentialism were pretty much like what made me go this is what I want to do and yeah, I did my Honours and my PhD at the University of Melbourne as well. My PhD was on phenomenology and time. So Heidegger’s model of phenomenology as kind of a radically temporal phenomenology, in looking at how that speaks to contemporary embodied approaches to cognition.

I asked myself a while ago why I’m actually interested in these topics: radical transformation and the, the limits of the human, the relationship between the human and the non-human, time, and I’ve realised that, yeah, I’ve kind of always been interested in art that explores those themes, right? So in, in television and movies, I watched horror movies and, and science fiction shows at far too young an age, probably.

The first time I ever saw a television set turned on was when it was playing Star Trek: The Next Generation. And I was also very privileged to live in a household that even though we were very poor, we always kind of, you know, we’d go to art galleries and we’d go to free exhibitions of visual art and plastic art sculptures. So that was, that’s kind of always been in the background. I don’t even know if I’d be doing philosophy at all. If it hadn’t been for seeing those kinds of themes explored in different artistic media, and I certainly, I don’t think I’d be interested in these kinds of themes.

You mentioned there a few different ways that art has been related to your academic work. Do you think it’s been an influence or inspiration, or has it been a way of— An entry point into understanding, or sparking your interest, or a combination of all of those different things?

Yeah, that’s a wonderful question. So I think to me it’s been a combination of all of those different things. I’ve come to believe more strongly over the past few years, especially through some of the wonderful folks I’ve been able to work with, that art can do philosophy in ways that standard ways of doing philosophy can’t. That art isn’t just about philosophical themes; it’s not just, you know, something that sparks conversation. It can, actually, yeah, it can enact; it can practise philosophy. I’m really interested in the art that surrounds me; the art that has kind of shaped me. It’s enacted for me a way of doing philosophy that in many ways I try to emulate, or at least I try to bear in mind in my own work. So my own work is— It tries not to adhere to, you know, restrictive boundaries between particular types of discourses; I work across so-called analytic and so-called continental philosophy. I try to do empirically informed work.

I try to look at different discourses from different times, different places. This idea of enacting philosophy in ways that exceed traditional boundaries of discourse, where it’s about the lived experience of encountering these ideas as well, not just, you know, arguing and talking about but living these ideas. I think, yeah, that’s kind of one way that really permeates how I approach philosophy.

One of the people that you’ve worked on, whose thought you’ve worked on, Simone de Beauvoir, of course, for a long time was not really regarded as a philosopher, was more of a writer, because so much of her work was in forms like novels which were clearly philosophical, and I daresay some of that appraisal was on the basis of her gender rather than the content of, or even the form of her thought, especially given that Sartre got plenty of credit for his philosophical novels and plays. But yeah, I think it’s, it’s always a point worth making that you know art can do philosophy, or at least that there’s no obvious separation between the two.

Yeah, yeah, absolutely. And I think it’s a really great point bringing up Simone de Beauvoir. And again, I think that’s something that’s particularly attractive about that phenomenological tradition, right? The way that it engages with art, either by enacting those ideas in art itself or, you know, kind of embracing that radical potential of art to do philosophy. I’m thinking here of [Maurice] Merleau-Ponty’s essays on, you know, on Cezanne and this idea that paintings, for example, Cezanne’s paintings, were doing phenomenology, were actually enacting phenomenology, were investigating and revealing the structures of perception and cognition in ways that, for example, traditional textual philosophy would, you know, would not be able to capture all those nuances. So yeah, I think that’s there, especially in in that, in the phenomenological tradition.

In general, phenomenology has not been great at engaging with the empirical and natural sciences. Enactivism is a bit of a different kettle of fish. Could you just give us a sense of what you mean by enactivism, which is one of your, kind of, main areas of interest?

Yeah, yeah, absolutely. And so just to preface this, I think you’re absolutely right that phenomenology is, kind of— You know it’s, it’s at this, this weird juncture, there’s almost this, this perverse tension, where on the one hand, it’s particularly well placed to engage with empirical, natural, scientific work. But then on the other hand, there is this anti-scientific attitude.

This, you know, this concern, this worry. And yeah, there’s this kind of very limited view of what the natural sciences actually involve. And so, a lot of my work tries to push back against that and tries to argue that even the most extreme examples of that kind of opposition to the natural sciences – the work of, especially the early work, of [Martin] Heidegger – there is still not just a potential, but an urgent need for real dialogue with the empirical sciences.

And so, the main theoretical components of enactivism were originally formulated in the philosophy of biology and trying to define life applied to single cells. And there’s almost this idea that, you know, even a single cell is kind of constantly going through an existential crisis in a sense, because that’s what life is.

Generally when I think of enactivism I think of being defined as a system that maintains itself, that produces itself as a self-identity, in a relation – in constant relation – to an environment. And so enactivism, the enaction of, of the title, umm, of the name of this approach comes from this idea that a system in cooperation, in collaboration with its environment enacts meaning, enacts a world, produces, brings forth a world, in the words of, of some classic texts of that tradition, and so there’s almost already kind of this idea of artistic production, in a sense.

You bring this philosophical framework which you’ve already identified as both robustly empirical and scientific and artistic, to bear on transhumanism. You’ve got a paper called “Beyond Disintegration: Transhumanism and Enactivism”. And when I was reading that, I was struck by— Takeaway concerns that I saw were organisational integrity, precarity and embodiment. And I wondered if we might just use those as jumping off points for our conversation.

What do you mean by organisational integrity?

Yes. So organisational integrity in this case refers to this tension, essentially, that a living, cognising system finds itself in, where it needs to change enough in order to be able to respond effectively to what’s happening in its environment, needs to be flexible. It also needs to be open, right? So it can never have completely closed boundaries and there always – at the very, you know, basic metabolic level – there always needs to be some sort of exchange.

But, you know, even at the kind of the more, the level of more complex systems, there always needs to be this fundamental openness to what’s outside of the system. But at the same time in order to remain itself, there have to be limits to how much that system can change. There are limits.

And so that’s in a sense, that’s what the title of that paper refers to. This kind of constant threat of disintegration: changing just enough in order to stave off disintegration, but also maintaining enough consistency in order to, again, stave off disintegration.

So there’s this worry that both having too rigid closed boundaries, but also changing too much: both of those can lead to annihilation through disintegration.

Is there any art that has influenced your thinking or helped you grasp or present these ideas of disintegration?

The obvious place to look is science fiction, and that has certainly shaped how I approach this, but over the past, well, I guess over the past decade or so, which is roughly how long I’ve been working on all of this, I’ve become much more interested in how visual arts, plastic arts, installation art, conceptual art can also, you know, dramatise and explore these themes in particular.

So in terms of specific artists and art forms that have kind of really influenced my thinking, a big influence there is Australian-based artist Simon Finn who actually works explicitly with disintegration as a concept in his installation art and in the kind of the visual arts he produces, the artefacts, the sculptures, the videos he makes.

And so I was very lucky enough to be approached by Simon – he’d actually attended one of my courses on phenomenology and time – and we got to talking about our shared interests. And so he invited me to write the catalogue essay for one of his most recent exhibitions, which was a really great experience of actually, kind of, philosophy and art coming together.

And just to kind of give an example of the kind of work that he does. So every stage of the artistic process is part of the exhibition for Simon. So everything from, you know, the very initial sketches, the initial research, planning out where this will happen, what materials will be, then what Simon did for this exhibition in particular was constructing artefacts that he would then film kind of being disintegrated in the waves of the ocean. So, off the Victorian coastline, and I believe potentially off the Tasmanian coastline as well – I’ve forgotten some of the details. But yeah, so you have these very striking video art images and footage of, yeah, these artefacts, kind of, being subjected to the kinds of forces that, you know, for example, enactivists talk about, right? It’s like living out this idea of the constant threat of the environment pushing you around and trying to maintain yourself in the face of that. And ultimately every single one of these objects was, you know, inevitably destroyed or disappeared.

You know, I still think about Simon’s work a lot, and especially also the, the relation of disintegration to time, right? So there’s the fact of, you know, that, that fundamental tension between too much change and not enough change lying at the heart of what makes us living creatures, what makes us cognisers, what lets us have a world, think, experience. That means that time is built into our DNA.

It’s literally built into ourselves because change, maintaining yourself through time, staving off disintegration, annihilation: those are intrinsically temporal concepts and Simon’s art was this wonderful way of playing around with time, especially through the video format.

In terms of time and temporality specifically, I am especially interested in how different forms of music can use time itself. I’m especially interested in a particular sub-genre of metal that’s known as doom metal. So, doom is characterised by being particularly slow. Not all forms of doom, some, kind of, more explicitly take their cues from Black Sabbath and aim for that kind of, you know, 70s psychedelic sound. But I especially, I love something called funeral doom which you know can have songs of over an hour. One of my favourite bands recently released an album that had an 80 minute song.

And there it’s very much about time being another instrument and it’s interesting what it does to you as you listen to these very long songs— That, kind of, that immersive, embodied experience; of feeling your existence in time; being alerted to it, reflecting on it, but also at the same time, kind of, losing yourself in in these in these structures and so—

Disintegrating in these structures, one might say?

Exactly. Yeah, yeah, disintegrating. And there’s this very interesting, generally, kind of, discussion, of course, in lots of areas of music but especially in metal of, you know, where is the, what’s the amount of organisational integrity, so to speak, that something needs in order to still count as music, in order to still count as a particular type or genre of music, in order to still count as a song? Is, you know, something that’s playing out over 80 minutes with various gaps and instrumentations in between really still one song?

What you’re saying there about disintegration, what you’ve been saying about organisational integrity, it’s all predicated on integrity relating to some form of embodiment: that cognition needs to be embodied. So I guess that’s the second, sort of, headline I took from your paper about transhumanism and enactivism is that embodiment is key.

Is that sort of what you mean by it? Is it just this kind of underlying premise that embodiment is important in order to have cognition?

Yeah, yeah, absolutely. And so it’s this insistence on, yeah, the kind of the lived materiality of cognition. So that, you know, there is— Disembodied cognition is it’s a paradox: it’s: it’s something that can’t exist.

If you think of the kind of traditional transhumanist tropes, I guess, of, you know, uploading our consciousness or, you know, replacing our body parts with parts made out of completely different kind of matter: for enactivists, at least, there would be a concern there that you can’t actually transfer yourself into a system comprised of completely different matter and remain yourself.

Because firstly what is the “you” that’s being transferred? There is no, you know, no you separate to the body, but also that the actual type of matter that makes up our bodies matters. You know there is no, like, special internal essence that’s somehow separable from the body that can be transferred, but also these flaws, these limitations, the ways our bodies let us down, their expiration date: that’s what makes us what we are, that’s what, you know, enables us to live and experience and cognise in the way that we do, so that these limits are not, they’re not obstacles to be overcome, they’re enablers of possibility. They’re, kind of, they structure the field of possibilities that we have. So I try to argue in this paper: it’s a more positive view of embodiment where even the limits of the body are not negative things that have to somehow be overcome.

The artistic touchstones for transhumanism are pretty clear in terms of getting bodies enhanced. Is there an artistic counterpoint to thinking about, you know, some of the threats that might occasion our changes in materiality?

One thing that has really influenced how I see that is, you know— I love science fiction, but the science fiction that I’ve always been drawn more to, as well, has been the darker elements and generally speaking, beyond science fiction too, I think horror, especially as a medium is a particularly useful way, not just for, you know, conceptualising some of the potential transformations and consequences but also articulating and bringing to light how we feel about, you know, that radical transformation. And so I’ve been a lifelong fan of horror in, you know, in lots of different media but especially, of course, horror movies. And I found that the kind of horror films that attract me particularly are ones that, kind of, deal very explicitly with the horror of embodied transformation.

And so I’m thinking here of, you know, of course—I love [David] Cronenberg. I love body horror. I love, you know, everything from, from, yeah, Videodrome to The Brood, to all of those wonderful classics. But you know, things like The Fly, which are, kind of— Very explicitly explore as well, like kind of the hubris of, you know, transformation.

But beyond body horror itself, I think I’m especially interested in art that kind of shows us the paradox at the core of that, the possibility of those transformations, where on the one hand, you know, protagonists will undergo transformations that stretch what it means to be human, that ultimately really take them beyond and out of what it means to be human. But on the other hand, that kind of really radically confront them with the flesh, the horror of the flesh. And so I’m just, I’m going to just rattle off a bunch of my favourites. But you know, movies ranging from Event Horizon to Annihilation to Antichrist to Martyrs. I have to admit I do quite— I like the gorier stuff. Movies like Inside and yeah, just movies that really play with those and articulate those fears and the significance that we accord materiality that transhumanism kind of overlooks.

I think horror is a really great way of reminding ourselves both of our, kind of, our own transformative potential, but also the realisation that these transformations aren’t always positive or always negative. But they are significant. Whatever changes we make to our embodiment are going to radically affect how we see ourselves and how we move through the world.

And, yeah, these aren’t just things that we can brush over. Horror kind of really anchors us in the weight of what it means to be alive. The flesh that’s kind of both vulnerable and fragile and open to transformation. But at the same time, it’s recalcitrant. It resists, it pushes back. It— You know, it does unpleasant, unpredictable things when subjected to stress. It’s not just something that you can ignore; it’s messy. And that messiness again, I think that messiness of life and embodiment is really central to discourses like enactivism and like phenomenology. That messiness sometimes is something that I feel like transhumanism tries to evade or ignore or occlude.

The third headline concern that comes from this paper, which is precarity or precariousness.

And time and temporarily have been so central to your work. You’ve got papers on reductive temporality and Frantz Fanon and Simone de Beauvoir, and you’ve got a paper on temporality of love, which I found fascinating.

And in fact, I first met you when I was a student and you were teaching a course on Heidegger’s Alternative History of Time with your colleague Emily Hughes.

Heidegger, of course, famously emphasises that death is central to existence. And I’m wondering: what do you see as this relationship between death and existence and is this, sort of, what you’re getting at when you’re talking about precariousness and precarity?

Yeah, I love that. Thank you, Pat. That’s a wonderful question. And so, I have— Death and existence is all about the interrelation of precariousness and vulnerability, right?

So, the fact that, yeah, as we’ve touched on, that the most basic level a living, cognising system is only what it is because it could not be; is only what it is because there is the possibility of things being otherwise; of it disintegrating, and that this means that especially at the level of, you know, organisms that are capable of feeling pain, of having a particular type of embodiment – and also this is somewhat something where you know Simone de Beauvoir comes in radically for me, this idea that I can only conceptualise my own death through the eyes of others.

The foundation of ethics, the foundation of discourse, the foundation of thinking, is our shared vulnerability. Our, you know—The inescapability of the fact that we need each other because we can be hurt. Vulnerability is, is at the core of, of what it means to be human and to be alive. And this is so valuable because we share it with each other and with all other living systems.

Yes, so for me precariousness and vulnerability. Yes, they’re, you know, they’re terrifying possibilities: they have to be. But they’re also at the same time, profoundly liberating, and they’re the foundation of solidarity.

And so to me that’s also where then a lot of these discourses scale up to the political. And so as you’ve mentioned, I’ve got work on, for example, reductive temporalities. I’ve got work on— Yeah, on how that shared vulnerability is something that can be covered over and can be kind of reduced and positioned in particular ways, but that it also forms the basis of resistance and of connection.

And so to me, when I when I talk about precarity too, I also think it’s a good entry point for critique for looking at, you know, the politics and the hierarchies, the power systems that are involved in all of these aspects, and so in terms of, of art, just because I, I did want to mention too some of the other kind of visual and plastic art that I find especially illuminating when it comes to thinking about basically all of these things together the, you know, the threat of disintegration, the importance of specific materiality and then also the critique of how that is lived out in ways that either emphasises or cuts off solidarity.

And so the street art by DALeast, a Chinese-born South African-based artist, who works mostly with large murals and large installations that, kind of, look at, you know, realising human bodies, the bodies of non-human animals in ways that are really dynamic but that also don’t stick to the, kind of, you know, the human form; that kind of radically open up the human form and the sculptures of Deok Young Seo whose sculptures, again, they realise the human body, kind of, in different stages of torment, mostly using the medium of, you know, very heavy chains and kind of industrial materials. And this is kind of implicit critique of the way that our materiality is, kind of, also transformed and positioned in, kind of, industrial modernity. And so yeah, this idea of opening up, challenging, critiquing the different ways that that shared solidarity based in precariousness and vulnerability; the way that these bigger systems that we navigate try to occlude that, try to channel that in particular ways, so that it’s valuable, I think, especially through art, to remind ourselves of those kind of underlying connections.

And, yeah, and this idea of, of a kind of more positive way of conceptualising precariousness and the relationship between death and existence is also again, that’s something that particularly interests me when it comes to art.

So I’m interested in art that explores death in unusual ways. Especially in, kind of, ways that don’t necessarily focus too much on the horror as on the potential for, I guess, for growth and the potential for, as I mentioned, solidarity and connection. And so there’s a painting by a 19th century artist, Hugo Simberg, called The Garden of Death which is, you know, this quite lovely, placid little scene of, you know, a whole bunch of Grim Reapers essentially doing a little bit of gardening; a bunch of skeletons just kind of tending plants.

And Simberg’s own explanation for this, his fairly kind of brief interpretation of this painting, is what I have to admit that, you know, I’m not too fond of. So for him, it’s just kind of this vision of the afterlife where, you know, in the next life we’re all, you know, we’re still engaged in, in caring and maintaining. But for me it’s, you know, all of these discourses that we’ve talked about today are very much about this life and so something that’s always struck me when I’ve looked at that work and that, you know, I keep bringing to mind as I every time I look at it – which is probably at least once a week –is this idea of death as, as the gardener of mortality; reminders of precariousness and vulnerability as enabling lives, enabling growth, I guess enabling the kind of change that doesn’t lead to disintegration but leads to greater integration, to growth, to interconnection.

Well, thanks so much, Marilyn. What are you currently working on?

Yeah, so what am I currently working on? I am currently working on a project about the phenomenon of synaesthesia. And so I have synesthesia myself, and it’s a particularly interesting phenomenon for philosophers of mind and phenomenologists to grapple with. It’s probably also one of the projects where I have the opportunity to talk about art a bit more explicitly.

And of course, listeners can find links to Dr Stendera’s work and some of the art we’ve discussed today in the show notes and on the Concept : Art website.

Dr Marilyn Stendera, thank you for joining Concept : Art.

Also thank you so much Pat, it’s been an absolute pleasure.

Concept : Art is produced on muwinina Country, lutruwita Tasmania.

Always was, always will be, Aboriginal land.


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