Eastern APA 2017: Biological Complexity and Race in Pop Culture

By Nathan Eckstrand

This is the last post about the 2017 Eastern APA for the Blog.  While thus far the posts have either just covered one speech or unified several presentations thematically, there is no easy way of doing that for the coverage of these last two panels.  So, this post will simply focus on describing what was said without developing a narrative that pulls them together.  The two panels with which I will be concluding the Blog’s coverage are the invited symposiums on “Biological Complexity” and “Race and Aesthetics.”

Beginning with biological complexity, the presenters were interested in showing how complexity affects epistemological and ontological approaches to studying the world.  The first presenter, Sandra Mitchell, emphasized that when we acknowledge complexity, we must forego the idea that there is one simple explanation for how things work.  Indeed, there is no possibility of developing one model for everything, as complexity is nonlinear, context sensitive, and exists on multiple levels.  What this means is that because complexity is so widespread, and can be found everywhere from society to bodily organs to the cell, it is impossible to model every level in all systems at all times.  The epistemological tools to do this do not exist, and perhaps never will.  As a result, every system is partial, and a rigorous understanding of something requires multiple models that cover different aspects of the thing being studied.  Similarly, when one is studying one facet of a thing (for example, thermodynamics), they are not studying other facets of it (for example, what’s happening at the atomic level).  It is an ongoing question—and one that cannot be easily modeled—of how different models interact.  While some argue that models can be reduced to one another, and others that all models are inconsistent, Mitchell argued that models can be integrated, but only when needed for a specific purpose.  Models don’t reduce to one another, but they can intersect when necessary to study something.  Mitchell concluded by saying that models are like maps and sensory perception.  Just as a topographical map of the US does not reduce to a road map, and vision does not reduce to smell, models are different perspectives of the same thing.  Both can be accurate without one reducing to the other.

The second presenter was William Bechtel, who wanted to resist the way much of 20th century molecular biology focused on mechanistic explanations.  While this approach may have helped in the past, new discoveries call for a different means for explaining how things work.  Specifically, what needs to be done is to, first, develop and integrate massive amounts of data about how systems work.  Second, that data must be collected in databases and stored in a way that allows for it to be accessed using bioinformatics tools.  Ultimately, the goal of systems biology is not to show the interconnectivity of systems—this is well known—but to make sense of this massive amount of data to reveal patterns and mechanisms for how things work.  Thus, instead of looking for mechanistic explanations, we should look for patterns and non-determinate ways in which biological systems operate.  As an example, Bechtel mentioned gene ontology.  An older, more mechanistic way of thinking about genes looked at what each gene codes for.  However, recent studies in gene ontology show that many genes organize themselves into clusters.  These gene clusters function in different ways depending on other genetic and biological processes.  These relationships and pathways the gene clusters form do not cause, but rather temporarily alter, how an organism functions.  Mechanisms on the molecular level are not predetermined and functional.  They are metastable, and can come together and dissipate.

The final paper focused on cells and the different ways of modeling them.  Author Robert Richardson described two ways of modeling systems: the top down and bottom up methods.  The top down method tends to start with a vision of how things work, and then fills in the details by applying it to the data one has.  The bottom up method uses detailed structural and kinetic data to develop an understanding of how things work.  Richardson found problems with both these approaches.  The problem with the top down approach is that if one begins with an image of how things should work, one ignores data and evidence that doesn’t fit into one’s assumptions about the purpose of a system.  The problem with bottom up is that things are so complex that one must know a lot before one can set up a good model.  Without a sense of what you are looking for, you are never going to be able to identify and study the processes that are most relevant to your experiment.  Ultimately, the problem lies with how systems are so thoroughly affected by other things.  When studying a cell, one cannot study it just by itself, as it is conditioned by many things outside of it.  Neither the top down nor the bottom up method accounts for all the incoming feedback that a cell must incorporate.  Similarly, systems are nonlinear, and so it is difficult to get the right data if one starts either with a firm sense of what the system does or by gathering data indiscriminately.  Richardson concluded by saying that we may need to combine the top down and bottom up methods.

The Race and Aesthetics panel focused on the tactics used by black female artists to convey their identity, and in particular to confront notions of “post-femininity.”  The idea of post-femininity is that equality between men and women has been accomplished, and that now feminism is something that is to be “obligatorily” embraced.  Author Robin James argued that post-femininity was not actually liberatory, but reengineers the white and patriarchal supremacy of the past to appear as liberatory.  In other words, people voice affinity for feminism, while at the same time many processes of oppression go unnoticed.

James argued that black female artists are on tricky ground.  They must reveal their sexuality to be “feminist,” but black women who’ve done this in the past have been punished.  So the role set out for them is to seem liberated and feminist, while at the same time not questioning the hetero-normativity, cisnormativity, and white supremacy that continues in society.  Black female artists have tried to walk this line while also subverting it, and James says this is often done through nonverbal sounds which are used to voice bodily pleasure.  The sounds themselves do not carry meaning as words do, but nevertheless convey messages of enjoying one’s body.  Black female artists (Rihanna and Beyoncé were mentioned, among others) have become adept at using noises which indicate they are connected to their physical body, and enjoying it, while at the same time not making the message explicit through lyrics.  Similarly, the performances of black female artists carry out the same message.  Numerous music videos and public performances have the artists doing things that supposedly liberated neoliberal women are not supposed to do (James gives the example of the Rihanna song “Bitch Better Have My Money,” which shows the main character acting aggressively towards—i.e. mocking and torturing—a white woman who owes her money).  While again the message is not conveyed explicitly through lyrics, the performances question traditional gender and racial narratives (note: the paper James presented can be found here).

The commentator on this panel, Harvey Cormier, emphasized the analysis of nonverbal sounds James gave, saying that it is a powerful way of distorting issues of selfhood which allows women to exercise feminism beyond the “respectable agency” of post-feminism.  He agreed with James that post-feminism needs to be resisted, and that the goal is true liberation for women and men, not the facile version proposed by post-feminism.

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