Bio/digital computation and flucuations of form

by Jonah Max

Illustration by Katherine Sang

published February 16, 2018

I. Forest

The peat bogs and flooded fens of Northern Rhode Island are rich entanglements, marshy lands where matter collides with a vicious alacrity. Under our feet and along the moist banks of the lake, communities of testate amoebae, single-cell pseudopods, congregate and coalesce. Lapping in the folds of the wind-rippled water, these brainless organisms set themselves to the various tasks of their brief life—consuming, excreting, reproducing. And yet, amid these chores, the amoeba finds time for a single, microscopic flourish—constructing an elaborate geometrical shell which will drape around its translucent body. To accomplish this architectural feat, its porous body secretes pleats of silicon to which remnants of its own excrement, the bog’s micro-debris, and particles of dust attach themselves. In this way, the amoeba’s crown serves as a register of both its internal activities and the surrounding environs.

These shells, however, are not merely biological records, but richly textured adornments, replete with baroque curves and artful protrusions. The Nebela ansata often has a smoothed crown with spindly hooks extending from its long neck; whereas the Arcella’s bulbous shell will more likely have a studded perimeter and generous opening; and the Heleopera petricola, though similar to the Nebela ansata, chooses to top its shell with a few pointy shards from diatom shells. The complexity and variety of these structures have drawn the fascination of zoologists for decades. In a short paper from 1937, biologist H.S. Jennings gives a detailed account of the “fibrous-appearing seams” that form “a raised network on the inner surface of the shell and divide the shell into areas which resemble separate plates.” In Jennings’ description, as the smoothed outer casing breaks and fractures, we sense a creeping vertigo: the eye plunges through translucent accretions of silicon and filth, an embedded network of elaborate texture. Rather than tracing these folded layers, however, Jennings quickly turns to the more “clearly defined structures” of the shell’s “toothed opening”—finding these rigid peaks and valleys more appropriate material for scientific inquiry than the overlapping encasements above. 

This privileging of stable and linear structures (seen physically in the rigidity of the teeth and conceptually in the strictures of an invented lineage) that Jennings and his contemporaries fostered, as well as its ties to their study of eugenics, is in part responsible for the persistent taxonomic errors which have largely defined scientists’ interactions with the amoeba. That is, in an effort to order this field of seemingly endless diversity and complexity, Jennings and his cadre devised systems of inheritance that sought to bring a sort of artificial consistency and predictability to these manifold creatures. While this work, which centered around the inheritance of “teeth,” was at best inconclusive, it laid the groundwork for larger organizational systems (carried out through scientific papers, atlases, and committees) which ultimately folded the diverse polyphyletic amoebae into the single order, Arcellinda—a gesture which destabilized the taxonomy as a whole.
Forests, however, offer the possibility of a different sort of fold for the amoeba. Writing on her time hiking in the Santa Cruz greenbelt, Donna Haraway speaks of a desire to walk “where the clean lines between traditional and modern, organic and technological, human and nonhuman give way to the infoldings of the flesh that powerful figures such as the cyborgs and dogs [she knows] both signify and enact.” Though hardly considered exceptional, these “powerful figures” draw their strength from flouting precisely the sort of myopic taxonomies Jennings sought to impose, and also bring into question many of the foundational dualisms which these taxonomies rest upon—the organic and inorganic, the machinic and human.

On labyrinthine walks through the aspens of southern Colorado, my parents’ dog cannot be seen without her bone—a piece of treated, twisted rawhide upon which her saliva mixes with the compounds of almost-meat. And in rural Oregon my grandmother’s dog seems attached to her hip, which now houses a swiveling metallic ball and rod where bone and ligament once were. Much like the testate amoeba’s translucent shell, at once biotic and inorganic, these entangled beings complicate any notion of a “smooth outer casing,” an unalloyed substance in which to wrap oneself. Rather, they at once fluidly and chaotically extend beyond and contract within, to borrow a phrase from Haraway, “that mundane space we call our body.” As these familial creatures suggest, however, this radical potentiality of bodily form does not exclude the possibility of bodies being historical, raced, gendered, or organized. They do, nevertheless, call forth the need for new taxonomies that can both account for the complexity of matter and set soft boundaries on what could seem like a limitless capacity for extension. That is, a system that operates in a sort of middle ground, where formal differences of kind can still be established yet which remain faithful to the entanglements and intra-actions of matter.

Returning to the forest, Eduardo Kohn charts out a similar middle ground of form as existing between conceptual “pattern production” and explicitly material processes. For Kohn, form comes to the world as a tendency of matter emerging from its own complexity, rather than something imposed from without. This patterning and propagation of matter can operate in spaces and temporalities that do not lend themselves to human cognition. As an example, Kohn offers the whirlpools of the Amazonian headwaters, where vortices emerge and collapse faster than the human eye can capture them. All of this must feel close at hand for the amoebae as well, who spend their lives constructing their dazzling encasements without the cognitive ability to understand what they have done. Form is something indifferent.

While Jennings was writing his text on the amoebae’s teeth, another study was being conducted on the shell’s formation, ultimately finding that its form was governed by surface tension. Amoebae execute a molecular search to determine the thinnest layer of dust possible to drape around their bodies. 


II. Lab

The Prince Lab at Brown is bounded by anterooms and vestibules. Tucked away yet elevated on the second floor of the engineering building, it is accessible only through backdoors, winding staircases, or an exterior fire escape. Inside of the lab, its baroque, labyrinthine quality lingers, unwilling to let its occupants freely traverse the expansive floor. Makeshift walls of pinewood and plastic, buttressed by stubby metal beams, turn inward, guiding bodies and making alcoves of the lab’s workspaces. Even these curvilinear interior zones provide little sense of directionality—disused combustion engines rest alongside intelligent lathes, digital laser cutters share electrical outlets with rusty rotary grinders. This swirling supply of objects refutes any linear history, accreting circuitously, bifurcating at every turn. The whittling knives which were once used to scrape excess metal from bolts and cogs now find purpose detailing 3D prints, replacing the plastic X-ACTO blades which now rest in a steel cupboard. Outmoded woodworking vices serve to clench digital cables between their plates, preventing them from being carelessly yanked. 

Amid this encircling chaos, this swerving entropy of technics, I began sketching models of testate amoeba on the lab’s computer-aided design system, appropriately titled Blender. The structures, particularly in their digital incarnation, had captivated me with their smoothed walls, their minimalist sheen—biological creations of pure exteriority. In their simplicity, I hoped, I would capture a distillment of form, its most rudimentary articulation. To remain faithful to their origins, the sketches were aided both by historical lithographs and recent nanophotography of the shells which I had uploaded to the computer. These renderings stood semi-translucently behind my cursor, a ghostly frame upon which I could trace the curving appendages and delicate terminals of the corona. 

And yet, once I began to print the models, any scaffolding or structural support quickly dissipated. As the extruder frantically folded lines of plastic filament upon itself, the interiors and exteriors that I carefully calculated in the program began to blur. Even the filament itself—derived from an alloy of organic and inorganic material—appeared as a sort of blending. Occasionally, it would slightly droop over its own hardened sides; at other times it would cave in on itself—the extruder always oscillating rapidly to compensate for these ebbs and flows. 

In Robert Smithson’s Quick Millions he describes plastic itself as an oscillating material, existing between “a solid specific and a glittering generality,” both “real and/or unreal, according to your mood.” In a 3D printer, however, plastics fluctuate not just with mood, but with time and temperature—glossy strings of smoking fiber harden quite literally into a “solid specific” as molds cool and become real. The printer addresses this material change by internally issuing occasional delays, where the extruder either retracts or relocates itself temporarily, waiting for a particular portion to ossify before applying more filament.
Despite this capacity for change that both Smithson and my printer located within plastic, it may still seem more than a little ironic that the fixed model would strike one as somehow less formally coherent, less closed off than their digital doppelgängers. Computer systems have long been viewed as sites of radical mutability and boundless creativity. On my computer screen, I can scale, crop, and re-proportion the shells—possibilities that are more or less denied in its plastic incarnation. This irony, the openness of the specific and actual object, however, is something that Brian Massumi also locates in contrast to the digital. To Massumi, the digital is open only once it is no longer digital. Using the example of hypertext—which he sees as a more or less totalitarian regime, leading its user between two precisely predetermined locations—Massumi argues that it finds its détournement, its openness, once the link comes into contact with a human user, an analog meeting which creates possibilities unforeseen by any pre-programming done by the machine. 

Setting aside the rather generous reading of hypertext’s affective capacities here, Massumi’s argument fails to address the fact that these shells, even in their printed or “analog” form, feel unable to shake their explicitly digital nature, that their final form was designed, and thus necessarily pre-programmed. Drafted on a powerful desktop computer, the models were then compressed onto an external disk, only to be loaded and translated once again onto the printer’s chip, where they were read as mathematical relations dictated by a series of 0s and 1s. Even the physical extruder itself operates through binaries (EXTRUDE, DO-NOT-EXTRUDE) when releasing filament. More than their digital design and fabrication, however, the structures themselves felt eerily digital, as if they were native to the computer. This mark of the digital can be traced back even to the living amoebae, where the coronas were developed in utter thoughtlessness, a programmed response to specific properties (temperature, surface tension, presence of silicon, and concentration of biomaterial). That is, the amoebae, much like microscopic computers, design these structures in accordance to the binaries of their environment—their quivering bodies “read” their surroundings and “write” a proportional response. 

This thoughtless nature of the algorithmic, which could even be seen as the defining characteristic of the digital, is precisely the property I wanted to have structuring these amoeba shells. I had wanted to find some utterly pure calculation that would give rise to an equally pure form—something devoid of texture, edge, turbulence. And yet what emerged were muddled mounds, densely ribbed and visibly inconsistent. What these inconsistencies emerged from, however, was not simply—as Massumi sees it—the incapacity of the calculated or digital to give rise to form, but rather, as the printing process exposed, these differences or folds emerged from within the system of calculation itself. 

In a more cosmic tone, Chapter 5 of Gilles Deleuze’s Difference & Repetition opens with this remark: “God makes the world by calculating, but his calculations never work out exactly, and this inexactitude or injustice in the result, this irreducible inequality, forms the condition of the world. The world 'happens' while God calculates; if the calculation were exact, there would be no world. The world can be regarded as a 'remainder', and the real in the world understood in terms of fractional or even incommensurable numbers.” Floating point errors and imprecise measurements abound in computer systems yet are often covered up with temporary patches and persistent averaging. 3D printers, however, rely on such a vast quantity of calculations, which have to be dealt with in realtime, that they find themselves incapable of hiding their mistakes. Rather, filament pours out too fast or slow, end-lines are missed, and gaps emerge. Much like the God of Deleuze, 3D printer calculations never work out exactly, producing objects with disparate textures and qualities, even though they are drawn from precisely the same model and fabricated in precisely the same manner. It is this inexactitude, as Deleuze points out, that difference is established and “the given is given.”

Even the most precise computation is not immune to difference and individualization. Even the digital has a fold. 

JONAH MAX B’18 is in bad form