Bacterial Poetics: The Role of Influence in the Ecology of Artistic Reproduction

by on Jul.01, 2011

In the opening of her post on influence as a deformation zone, Joyelle expresses her discomfort with the traditional model of literary influence:

For me this notion of influence, regardless of the gender of the participants, is too close to patrilineage, which bothers me for three reasons: its method of conserving property and wealth, ownership of originality; its copying over of heterosexist, male dominated bloodlines and the reproductive futurism that goes with it; and its commitment to linear notions of temporality—that what comes before causes what comes after, and that the most important thing is to move forward in time.

Joyelle assaults the patriarchal model of influence with an alternative view steeped in an extended metaphor of infection and a concept of “viral Art.”

Bloodlines, infection, viral Art – as we can see, biological tropes abound in Joyelle’s description. In an age when genetics is (drag) king and biological determinism is back in vogue (striking all kinds of seductive poses), we shouldn’t take this line of reasoning lightly. What might be the result of using biology to describe traditionally cultural phenomena like language and art?

In his book The Ecology of Language Evolution, Salikoko Mufwene posits that the model of gene in biology can be roughly applied to any unit of language (phonetic, morphological, syntactic, semantic, pragmatic) that can be transmitted from one speaker or group of speakers to another. Although Mufwene speaks about languages, I believe we can successfully apply his observations to art, which mutates and propagates much like languages do. If we follow Mufwene’s model of using population genetics to describe language change, art emerges as a species closely resembling bacteria, albeit with notable differences. Like bacteria, it is parasitic, fast-mutating, and capable of absorbing acquired traits into its genetic makeup. Like the human species, art is capable of passing on traits from parent to child; like bacteria, it’s also able to exchange traits horizontally, among peers; unlike either, it’s further capable of inheriting traits bidirectionally, from descendant to ancestor and back. Unlike any biological species we know, art can accommodate competing features within its makeup, and its mutations can be influenced by the will of the host organism.

Now that’s we’ve laid down the foundation, let’s move on to some key terms in the ecology of artistic reproduction.

1. Art is an airborne type of infection (although transmission via fluids has also been observed) and is present in all humans in small to moderate amounts. Individual colonies, also known as genii (from the Latin gignere, ‘to beget’), are capable of exchanging genetic material in the myriad ways described above. The passing of a gene from one genius to another is known as influence. The absorption of influence occurs through the process of inspiration (from the Latin inspirare, ‘to breathe into’). It’s something we inhale.

2. A human infected with an excess of art becomes an author (from the Latin augere, ‘to increase’).

3. Large colonies of art produce capsules called texts (from the Latin textus, ‘tissue’), which enable them to survive long periods of time without a host organism.

4. The formation of a text results in the death of an author. This event can occur multiple times during a host’s lifetime.

5. Art, from the Latin ars, related (through that subfield of etymology called homophony) to the English arse: erotic object and toxic discharge.

What do we make of this? Science is routinely used to normalize patriarchy, but the data here points to a different outcome.

3 comments for this entry:
  1. Danielle Pafunda

    Ooh, Josef, I’ve been thinking lots about art (poetry specifically) as autoimmune disorder in relation to the infection metaphor–this is really good juice!

  2. adam strauss

    Poetry as AIDs? I guess I’m too much a “literalist of the imagination” (in my imagination thats w stevens but cld be making the ” ” up). Oh maybe its m moore! Perhaps if poetry is extended to mean c bok bacterial “writing” this makes a touch of sense. What would deadly poetry look like? I think unless we’re talkin’ bioterrorism it’d need accesorizing: every butterfly has its attendant blade etc. I don’t mean deadly dissemination. Bacteria stained stanzas perhaps. A poem written in aids imbbued blood might be amazing tho unless it’s fresh i guess it’s not toxic–or is that untrue? Surely that exists already tho! At-least in America i guess poems are a bit like aids bodies as most seem to not want to touch either; this is an utterly insensitive comparison of course.

  3. adam strauss

    Are there any knownish poets with aids as opposed to being hiv positive?