Now We’re Thinking with Webs: Spider Cognition and Political Work


A recent article in Quanta magazine discussed some fascinating new findings about spiders. At least part of their cognitive capacity, that is, their ability to process information, is embedded not in their brains per se but in their webs. This is sometimes called “extended cognition,” with the web acting as an external “organ” that can store information and help the spider interpret the environment. The part of the article on which I want to focus right now is this bit right here:

Whether this kind of engineered information-processing happens elsewhere in nature is likewise unclear. Laland is a high-profile advocate for the idea of niche construction, a term from evolutionary theory that encompasses burrows, beaver dams and nests of birds and termites.

Proponents argue that when animals build these artificial structures, natural selection starts to modify the structure and the animal in a reciprocal loop. For example: A beaver builds a dam, which changes the environment. The changes in the environment in turn affect which animals survive. And then the surviving animals further change the environment. Under this rubric, Japyassú thinks, this back-and-forth action makes all niche constructors at least candidates to outsource some of their problem solving to the structures they build, and thus possible practitioners of extended cognition

Even if webs don’t fit a strict definition of a cognitive organ, as some of the opponents of “extended cognition” argue, I appreciate this insight into how various nonhuman animals interact with their environments. Deleuze and Guattari, for one (or two, or many), have asserted that human beings are integrated into machines just as machines require human intervention to operate. Inorganic and organic assemble together and knowledge that was produced in brains from generations ago remains somehow embedded in the built environment for generations afterward. Just as the spider “thinks” with its webs, using its structures to “read” the environment, human beings have built up our many niches, tools, and symbolic forms of communication allow us to offload cognitive functions like memory and vision to artifacts outside ourselves.

Though the article, and the scientists, want to avoid drawing out too many philosophical conclusions from these spider studies, I think thinking about extended cognition, niches, and the natural/artificial divide can help us ask better questions about ourselves and our place in both physical and social spheres. Our cities, art, and language are all ways in which we embed ourselves in niches within the natural world–and these niches shape not only how we can work and move, but how we think and feel as well. Every city is a way of dealing with nature, of trying to make our part of the world more hospitable for human beings (and some select animal friends), just as much as other human structures attempt to order nature in certain ways. So there is feedback between how we build our niches, how we think, and how we reorder and continue to build further.

This is why we, as individuals who are always embedded in webs of cognition and activity with others and with our environments, have to remake our built environment if we are going to establish a better society. It’s not just the social relations in which we are embedded, but the physical spaces themselves that create and concentrate misery and alienation for some and opulence for a few others. For human life to flourish, we need a comprehensive approach to revolution, changing how we think, how we build, and how we think through our machines and niches.

Out Like a Lamb: Day 16: Pink, Blue, Black, and Red

OUT Like a Lamb banner

As we draw close to the end of Out Like a Lamb, my thoughts turn to some more urgent and serious matters. I am talking, of course, about revolutionary left politics. By its nature, these politics have a universal scope within my life. I would be a fundamentally different person without my commitment to revolutionary politics.

Despite how obscure and general that sounds, I want to make sure that I communicate exactly how immediate these politics are. Ultimately, as arcane and contested anti-capitalist politics can appear, they emerge from the most elemental parts of life. This post will address where my revolutionary politics intersect with trans and queer issues, so it won’t cover anything. But, well, we have to start somewhere.

At its most basic level, communism is about removing every barrier between people and the resources they need to thrive. Capitalism is one system that acts as a barrier, since it bars people from accessing the goods they need if they don’t fit a very narrow profile of a “productive citizen.” It drains all the joy from work since it coerces people into jobs. It also treats people as mere factors in a machine, as a means to an end. States, as guarantors of private property and the locus of violence and conformity, enable capitalism to function while also disciplining those who are deemed, for any reason, socially undesirable. Whatever rights people have under a state are conditional and subject to being revoked at any time the state finds convenient. Fundamentally, people should be really enabled to make their own choices, to associate with whomever they choose, and to make collective decisions about issues they are concerned with.

This is why commitments to autonomy/anarchy and communism are mutually beneficial to each other. This is especially true, I think, for me as a trans and queer person. Under the current Canadian capitalist state, my right to express the way I want to, to do the work I want to without fear of exclusion and personal injury, are all at the mercy of the state. Political parties use us as a tool to gain leverage over people and to promote imperialist politics (save the gays by invading x country!) and promote tourism (especially in my home city).

Ultimately, trans people under capitalism are at the whims of doctors and a profit-gouging pharmaceutical industry who, again, don’t see us as fully human but rather as means to an end. Consumer products for trans people specifically are often expensive or inaccessible, and if they were made accessible under the current system they would continue to be used to forge a false trans “community.” In this case, it would be a community of consumers. But our worth as people, as ecological, physical beings in relation to each other, is not in our usefulness to one person or another but rather is intrinsic to us, just as it is for all other living things.

Cover of a great zine  I can recommend heartily about this issue.

Revolution does not imply the ultimate resolution of all these problems, but rather a commitment in a particular direction. It is a method of looking at the world and a means to realize a more desirable, better world. It is necessary, unfortunately, because reforms are always recaptured by the system, as necessary as they might be. We can’t just get by surviving on scraps that other people give us forever. If trans people want to see a world where we can have a more fulfilling and less anxious life, with much less possibility of losing all of our gains, social and political revolution are what we need. Revolution is food, it’s hormones, it’s clothing we enjoy and want, its a beginning to healing rifts in our communities, and, perhaps most importantly, it’s creating a more healthful way for human beings to act within nature.

These are the ifs and needs that animate me when I think about revolution. Capitalism is a major support for transphobia, underwriting the sense that we are unnatural, that we cannot form “real” families, that we are useless to society, a “drain.” It’s far from the only barrier to our self-liberation as individuals and groups, but it forms the basic logic within which other oppressions weave and strike. Without capital, with our own autonomy, it becomes possible to build the worlds of solidarity and happiness we imagine.

Next three posts will be:

March 28: A post about femme things! Femme is a curious form of identifying yourself, and, I would say, not all that well understood. Bit of a history lesson before moving onto my own personal business.

March 29: About body image issues and ways that I try to sculpt the way I look for other people.

March 30: About my body itself, its permeability, the way I inhabit my environment, all that good stuff.