Synthetic Becoming: Life in the Molecular Commons
Published 1 March 2023 by Vit Bohal
What does life re-assembled by hormonally active substances look and feel like? Who are we becoming with them? What are their effects on our bodies, how do they impact sexual development, and how can we live well with them despite their potential for harm?
These are some of the questions explored in the essay collection Synthetic Becoming, published in 2022 in collaboration between the Berlin-based K. Verlag and the Faculty of Arts at the Brno Technical University. The book explores the new molecular commons, in which myriad vectors connect our bodies with human industry, the consumer habits of other people and the material state of our lived environment.
Bringing together theorists, makers and artists (including Eva Hayward, Malin Ah-King, Annabel Guérédrat and Rian Ciela Hammond), the monograph questions the boundaries of our bodies and the environments within which they are enmeshed. The collection brings together 14 diverse textual and graphic projects; despite their diversity in genre and style, the featured works manage to weave together a coherent tapestry addressing the molecular politics we are currently negotiating around the planet. The pieces range from a personal diary of phytotherapeutic herb picking (Mariana Rios Sandoval and Rosæ Canine Collective) to a “Partial Inventory” of endocrine disruptors and their pharmacologically ambivalent effects (Franziska Klaas and Susanne Bauer). The contributions tease out some of the implications of a recent moment of realisation that we have indeed been living in a new normal – the effect of anthropogenic toxins on bodies has been known at least since the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, a book that helped to phase out DDT, one of the most toxic industrially used endocrine disruptors.
The collection’s editor Lenka Veselá writes in the introduction that “the guiding idea of this book is that we are synthetic”, where synthesis means “place[d] together with”. I contend here that the synthetics of “synthetic becoming” can be read in three ways: on the one hand, it is a classically philosophical operation that resolves the conflict between thesis and antithesis. But with the discovery of the deep time of planetarity and the realisation of the magnitude our present choices bear on the deep future, this particular metaphysical reading of “synthetic” can be considered least relevant for what is discussed in the collection, except perhaps as a solutionist call to arms. The second understanding of “synthetic” is more relevant here: it is the instrumental meaning of “artificial” or “fabricated”, i.e. joining and modifying in order to synthesise new forms, as we, for example, see indexed in the budding field of synthetic biology.
Works such as this one (we can also mention the Prague-based project Multilogues on the Now) have shown us that our biology has always been synthetic to a degree, and opened a space for political engagement structured beyond the binary of pure vs. profane. The third meaning of “synthetic” is that of being-with: learning to live well together with all the contingencies loosened and solidified by modernity and its industrial modes of production, distribution and consumption. On a political level, the entire collection attempts, in this sense, to frame an antidote to what the xenofeminists have called “the infection of purity” and question the conditions and pragmatics of contemporary bio-chemical existence.
The featured pieces address the synthetic as a fundamentally social construct, insofar as they assert that we are all “placed together with” each other – we become together, locked in complex, non-trivial relations constructed within a cascading temporality, always negotiating between present lived conditions and a contingent future. In this way, Synthetic Becoming speaks from the position of a particular planetary politics that takes stock of a new, molecular commonality, and radically engages with the multiplicity of voices that speak through post-colonial, ecological and social critique.
The book itself is constructed as a particular material artefact printed on recycled paper in order to mitigate its carbon footprint; but such paper is at the same time “weaker, less reliable, and potentially toxic” due to the higher retention of toxins and bacteria in recycled paper generally. Its reading thus constitutes a material “commitment” on the part of the reader – “a material choice to acknowledge dependencies, vulnerabilities, and sensitivities of contemporary life extending beyond our individual selves.” For better or for worse, within this new molecular commons we never stand alone.
Synthetic Becoming (K. Verlag and FFA BUT, 2022), featuring Malin Ah-King & Eva Hayward, Aliens in Green (Léonore Bonaccini, Ewen Chardronnet, Xavier Fourt, Špela Petrič, Mary Tsang), Adham Faramawy, Feminist Technoscience Governance Collaboratory (Jacquelyne Luce, Vrisha Ahmad, April Albrecht, Sarah Hyde, Amanda Kearney, Lainie LaRonde, Alek Meyer, Cassie Pawlikowski, Karisa Poedjirahardjo, Emily Pollack, Anjali Rao-Herel, Ella Sevier), Annabel Guérédrat, Rian Ciela Hammond & Krystal Tsosie, Franziska Klaas & Susanne Bauer, Marne Lucas, Mary Maggic, OBOT (Maddalena Fragnito & Zoe Romano), Byron Rich, Mariana Rios Sandoval & Rosæ Canine Collective (Bethsabée Elharar-Lemberg, Maïwenn Le Roux, Elena Souvannavong), Lenka Veselá and Ker Wallwork. Design by Day Shift Office (Bára Růžičková & Terezie Štindlová).
First published at 34.sk. Republished with permission from the author and 34.sk