Nature, Art, Technology
An interview with Emanuele Coccia
In the context of the “N-US Nature-Us”, the workshop organized by Ashtart and dedicated to five university students, a project which addresses the relationship between nature, art, and technology, we had the pleasure to meet Emanuele Coccia, Italian philosopher and Associate Professor at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) of Paris.*
Q: In your latest book Métamorphoses, you express the concept that the true subject of any metamorphosis is our own planet, where all living beings are nothing but a continuous recycling of changing bodies. How did you come up with this idea behind your book?
A: The book was born out of my own fascination for insects and for the metamorphosis of insects that, I believe, is part of every child’s imagination, which I have always found particularly interesting.
This is especially true if we consider that caterpillars and butterflies — from an anatomical point of view- are two completely different bodies, just as they are from an ethological, environmentally, and ecologically point of view.
This aspect is impressive from a speculative point of view because it means that there is the same “I” who has two different and totally incompatible bodies, two different ethos, who live in two different worlds.
This makes us understand that life can never be traced back to the same anatomical and moral identity, and that, therefore, we are not our form of life nor the world.
Life is what lies between different worlds, between different ethos, between different bodies; it is what allows us to pass from one body to another, from one form of life to another.
This has been my original intuition — the bond of continuity that exists beyond any morphological, moral, cosmic discrepancies, is actually a bond that unites all living beings. The metamorphosis of insects is only the most striking case of a reality that is, perhaps, what we call life.
Q: Technology is also included in this great and incessant metamorphic process. Can you tell us more about your understanding and conception of technology? And, how do you understand its role in the contemporary?
A: Technology is actually another name for metamorphosis, because, when we think about it, in order to metamorphose from caterpillar into butterfly, the caterpillar must first build the cocoon. This is only made possible through a highly technical process of self-destruction. From a biological and hormonal point of view, it is as if insects are able to build their new post-natal state. The origin of technique is precisely this.
Metamorphosis is always a technical process and what we call technique is above all this ability to transform oneself. So, I would say that there is no life outside of technique. The big issue is to mistakenly think of technology as something purely human and that it is something that goes, let’s say, against nature.
This is a theological idea because, first of all, we know that all animals make use of technique and that there is no technique without life: the technique is an outer projection of a living body.
Q: Let’s talk about your previous book: The Life of Plants: A Metaphysic of Mixture. In the chapter “In Open Air: Ontology of the Atmosphere”, you focus especially on the atmosphere that surrounds us and on the radical transformations that it has undergone in conjunction with the installation of living beings on earth.
You write, in particular, that the photosynthesis process of plants represents the movement by which the world breathes. In light of these reflections, how do you think that we should imagine the cities of the future and the urban spaces? What is the role of design, considering that you define “existence itself […] an act of design”?
A: I believe, as I wrote, that life is always an act of design. What I also think, however, is that we need to rethink cities in a multi-specific key, or to recognize that the existence of cities is based on a tacit contract that establishes the entry and exit of different living beings.
Design can help ecology to overcome the schizophrenia it is affected by. This happens because ecology very often tends to conceptualize the relationship of other species with the territory in a very patrimonial way, generating dangerous dialectics between native and non-native species.
In truth, the city is the space we occupy but it was not a space naturally used to welcome humans (only). We had to perform a kind of monstrous genocide and we continue to do so in order to be able to live where and as we live. The space we occupy does not belong to us; we have stolen it from other species. This aspect must undoubtedly be rethought, and Architecture, such as Art, and Design, can help us through this process.
As a proof of that, there are already some illustrious examples. For instance, Stefano Boeri’s Bosco Verticale is interesting from a theoretical point of view under many aspects. Let us remember that the modern urban space was formed according to a clear opposition between the urban space and the forest.
Boeri took the symbol of modernity, that is, the skyscraper and transformed it into a forest. The implicit statement is: “we must not reject modernity but it is modernity that takes us towards the forest, it is modernity that becomes a forest itself”.
The interesting thing is, therefore, that the city must not be thought of as the space of humans that repels other living beings, but rather must in itself constitute a kind of matryoshka in which each species is the ecosystem of another species.
And so the tower is the home of humans, and becomes the home of trees, trees become the home of birds, and so on. Design, Art, Architecture can transform the city from a space of exclusion of other species to a space in which each species becomes the habitat of another species.
Q: The last section of The life of plants, the one entitled “On Speculative Autotrophy”, launches a provocation upon academic specialism, criticizing, in short, its rigidity and even its closure.
As a philosopher who has been able to demonstrate how the dissemination of knowledge, conducted through different media, does not necessarily lead to a simplification and an impoverishment of knowledge, we ask you: what is, in your opinion, the responsibility of philosophy in the contemporary age?
A: I honestly don’t believe in philosophy as a discipline. If you look at what we recognize as a philosophical canon, you immediately realize that it is a collection of texts that have nothing to do with each other from a stylistic point of view, of object, of discipline — think of Plato, Nietzsche, Marx. So, in reality, philosophy strictly understood is a bit of a scam, starting with the name, which was used ironically against the Sophists.
Philosophy is actually the idea that, in actual fact, the most precious knowledge is that which is sustained and generated by an inordinate desire. Andrea Cappellano’s immoderate cogitatio is perhaps the most beautiful definition that can be given to philosophy.
Under these conditions, a thought becomes philosophical, and for this reason philosophy can do everything as a regime of desire; therefore, considering it from a specialist point of view is undoubtedly limiting, and if not impoverishing. The role of the contemporary is undoubtedly to rethink philosophy in these terms, freeing it from specialisms.
Emanuele Coccia is an Italian philosopher. Specialist in medieval philosophy and Averroè, he has been teaching at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS, Paris) since 2011. Among his several publications, we shall mention: La vita sensibile (Il Mulino, 2011), Il bene nelle cose. La pubblicità come discorso morale (Il Mulino, 2014). He also published La vita delle piante. Metafisica della mescolanza (Il Mulino, 2017) and Métamorphoses (Bibliothèque Rivages, 2020)