Complexity, Contradiction and the Symbiocene

Shane Finan is a visual artist from Ireland who works with mixed media installation to create places. Through his art he tries to unthread some of the complexities and contradictions inherent in ‘networks’. Here he discusses these ideas in relation to ‘The Symbiocene’ – a world in which humans live mutualistically with the natural world.

A computer generated image of lines randomly spreading out from a central point, like branches or routes, or maps in an unplanned city
Image credit: Shane Finan

 “Infinity and nothingness are infinitely threaded through one another so that every infinitesimal bit of one always already contains the other.”

(Barad, 2012, p. 17)

The global, the local, the branches, the roots, the city, the rural, the home.

1.    Complexity

In the 19th Century, people did not believe that extinction was possible. The complex idea of a species disappearing contradicted the popular belief that God would not allow a creature to die out. Thomas Jefferson believed he would one day astound the European continent by finding a living mastodon. The complex idea (extinction) contradicted the dominant belief (religious consistency) making it difficult for people to resolve.

Now, in the 21st Century, any five-year-old can explain extinction. This is an example of complexity, contradiction, and eventual resolution.

Any dynamic idea is complex, and art is great at untangling complex ideas. The literature of Beckett, Kafka or Lispector unpicked the complex ideas of existentialism. The music of John Cage untangled the roots and branches of forests and fungi.

A photograph of a cluster of many sulphur tuft mushrooms growing on dead, mossy wood in a forest surrounding
The network in forests sustains itself through complex networks. The sulphur tuft mushroom thrives on dead wood, living off death, to feed other forms of life. Image credit: Shane Finan

In my art, I have looked at complex contradictions over the past twelve years. My focus is on the idea of ‘place’, and how perceptions of place differ from one person to another. The aspects that make up a place include history, communication, ecology and environment. No ‘place’ is a unique entity: it is part of a global whole. A wind will not stop at the edge of a field because the land beyond belongs to a different person: identity is more than borders.

I am working on unthreading the complex ideas of ‘networks’: of people, and of plants (see ongoing videos from this project here).

2.    Contradiction

Thinking about complexity often requires believing in ideas that are contradictory. A strong example that is common throughout the western world is the paradoxical belief that Jesus Christ was simultaneously god and man (Visser, 2015). This apparent contradiction formed the basis of one of the most widespread religions in the world and is widely accepted among Christians.

To understand two contrasting topics simultaneously, scepticism and curiosity are needed in equal measure. The Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico specialises in complexity, using areas as diverse as art, experiential philosophy and data analysis to understand complex aspects of our world. This combination of apparently disparate ideas leads to unusual or unexpected discoveries and is arguably the easiest way to overcome issues of prejudice or bias. By retaining complex thinking, the assumption is that a subject can be viewed from many angles: social, scientific, political, philosophical, historical, contemporary, artistic.

The multi-disciplinary application of different schools of thought applied to an individual subject creates an opportunity for questioning the subject in-depth, through its complexity. Further to this, collaboration between disciplines opens new possibilities of understanding.

3.    The ‘Symbiocene’

Philosopher Glenn Albrecht believes that after the Anthropocene (the period where humans are having an unprecedented effect on the geology of our planet), we need to move into a way of living mutualistically with one another and with the natural world around us. He coined the term symbiocene to describe this idea of mutualism. Albrecht sees this as an activity across disciplines. It requires a major paradigm shift from the dominant belief system (competitive expansionism) to another (mutual collaboration).

To move out of a dominant belief system, it is important to first identify and challenge that system. The grave danger in prejudice is the ‘locking in’ of prejudiced ideas. For example, cognitive capitalism encourages the idea of constant growth through the extraction of natural materials, exploitation of human work and amalgamation of data. This dominant ideology argues, from a position of power, that economic capital leads to better societies. This may be true, but without a competing ideology, it is impossible to test and verify.

Other philosophers, including Rosi Braidotti and Judith Butler, highlight this need for a mutual approach across different areas, from science to technology, from sociology to environment. Butler has lamented that this view is often seen as naïve, but points out that the naivety is suggested by those in the same dominant belief system (Butler, 2020).

A photograph of New York City taken from a high building, lit up at night showing large skyscrapers with illuminated windows, out to distant suburbs and lower lying housing
The city is a human network of infrastructures, that is dependent on complex natural and artificial processes. Image credit: Shane Finan

4.    Networks

The overall goal of my research into networks is to point to how ideas and practices can be brought together. Part of the aim of this work is to offer a different perspective on the world. For example, one view of nature is that all species are in competition, pushing for survival of the fittest. In this view, flowers evolve to control insects and make them transfer their pollen. An alternate view is that nature is collaborative: flowers offer food to insects, who in turn transfer pollen.

A belief in a mutualistic worldview requires this paradigm shift in thinking about how the world works. This is complexity and contradiction. My artworks are built to encourage this mutualism, by encouraging a new type of network between people and people, and between people and other organisms. This would be a small step in moving toward a symbiocene.

The universal.

All images are copyright of Shane Finan


Barad, K. (2012). What Is the Measure of Nothingness? Infinity, Virtuality, Justice. 100 Notes–100 Thoughts. dOCUMENTA (13). In: Hantje Cantz Verlag.

Butler, J. (2020). The Force of Nonviolence: The Ethical in the Political: Verso Books.

Visser, M. (2015). The geometry of love: Space, time, mystery, and meaning in an ordinary church: Open Road Media.

Sociology meets chicken processing in County Durham

Jake Pointer is a first year Sociology PhD student studying the lives of workers in the meat processing industry. Here he shares some thoughts on his recent trip to a chicken processing plant in County Durham.

Photo credit: Nick Bondarev

In late February, I had the chance to visit a chicken processing plant in County Durham on a university trip organised by the Centre for Rural Economy. As my research concerns those working in the meat sector, it was an excellent chance to have my first glance into the working lives within such a facility. I went into this with mixed feelings: my vegan beliefs are naturally against any meat-orientated food producers, but my scholarly mind was telling me to put my biases aside and go in as objectively as possible. In this context, and as I’m quickly learning is the case for all my research, the scholarly mind was certainly the appropriate one to tap into for this visit (although this is sometimes challenging).

On arrival to the plant, the first thing I noticed was the smell of (perhaps not surprisingly) chicken. As we walked through the large gates and into the reception the smell only grew stronger until, for me at least, it was almost overpowering. After a brief talk from one of the managers about the plant we were split into groups and were given a tour. Before entering the processing areas we had to gear up with protective clothing and hairnets as well as wash our hands thoroughly. It seemed to me health and safety was of high importance here.

Inside the working areas were large machines, which, in various ways, processed the chicken. Slicing, freezing, cooking, bagging, skinning; there was a machine for everything. Many of the workers engaged in these machines had seemingly monotonous tasks, often involving repetitive motions such as continuously unloading a box of chicken pieces into a machine. Within the arrival area it was very cold as this is also where the chicken carcasses enter the plant and so they need to be kept fresh before being processed. This also means that plenty of workers operate in a cold environment. It was also quite loud in the factory, with various machines working away as well as speakers playing music here and there. Having worked in a warehouse some years ago myself, I can appreciate the effect music has on making an otherwise monotonous and often boring task more tolerable.

Whilst the tour was focused on the chicken, I was almost always looking at the workers, trying to use my sociological imagination and see if I could notice anything of interest. Some of the safety signs I noticed were in Polish next to their English counterparts, an indicator of the presence of non-British workers. I felt translating these signs was good work practice as safety should, in my opinion, be the priority in a potentially dangerous job such as this. The work-ethic seemed very high, with the workers seemingly never stopping whatever they were occupied with for even a second. I would not say they looked happy, but rather indifferent to their tasks, almost robotic as ever more chicken came through ready to be loaded into this machine or that. Few were talking at all, with most applying their attention only to their task. I would say that all the jobs required focus as the machines operated at high speed and a lapse of concentration would hinder this, and as a result, production. Many of the jobs also looked very physically demanding, often involving the lifting of large boxes or pulling huge pallets stuffed with chickens.

After the tour, we were led to the small conference room for a short Q and A session with the director of the company. The majority of questions were about the chicken itself; the quality, the manufacturers supplied and so on which the director and his mangers were happy to answer. It was clear they were proud of their work there, supplying high-quality, British ‘protein products’. I inquired about the workforce, in relation to the Polish signs I saw, and was told that around 30% of the employees were Polish. In addition, I was interested to see if they ever have injuries and if so, what the common ones were. The Director seemed a little surprised at my question. The Operations Manager told me the majority are made up of cuts, slips or back problems. I was surprised by how open they were about this. These answers raised more questions in my mind, why so many Polish workers? How are the injuries dealt with? but as I was there as part of a group, I did not want to dominate the session. A question was also posed about the vegan food factory which was operating just up the road. The director was very open to the changing food market and told us it was the company’s responsibility to adapt accordingly. He made a point that the businesses that do not adapt are the ones that close down.

I went away from this trip with mixed feelings. The scholarly side of me was happy with such an opportunity and experience, and I found observing the working environment fascinating. Worker safety did seem a high priority, which I was pleased to see. However, I would have been intrigued to hear from the employees themselves; their thoughts on the job, if they enjoyed working there, job prospects, what they thought of the management, whether the non-British workers integrated well and whether anyone ever thinks of the chickens at all and how they fit in with the process?  These questions I will have to save for another day; with a bit of luck, my research will help answer these and other questions in the future.  

Landscape: By whom, for whom?

Adrienne Attorp is a second year PhD student at Newcastle University, studying agriculture policy and land use in Ireland.  Here she writes about some of the challenges inherent in researching landscape.  

Who possesses this landscape? –
The man who bought it or
I who am possessed by it?

Norman MacCraig, from “A Man In Assynt (extract)”

Landscape. What does the word mean to you? When you think of the landscape most familiar to you, whether it be urban, rural, or something in between, what images, smells, feelings, memories are conjured up? Maybe you feel strongly attached to a certain place, or perhaps you have moved around a great deal without really putting down roots. But the fact is, sooner or later, most people do start to feel strongly about the place or places they call home.

Landscapes mean different things to different people. For example, the rolling hills and green fields of the United Kingdom form a significant part of British and Irish social and cultural identity. After nearly a decade spent living in England, I, too, have grown very fond of its countryside. However, the landscape that most stirs my soul is that of Canada’s west coast. The journey home to Vancouver Island (for it is still “home” to me) is always an emotional one; the first sight of mist shrouded forests meeting the ocean, coupled with the scent of cedar and fir carried on the salty Pacific air, never fails to overwhelm me.

But people do not need to be from opposite sides of the world to feel differently about a landscape. There can be considerable differences in opinion about what landscape means, or what a particular landscape should be “for”, within a country, within a region, or even within a neighbourhood. And when it comes to managing or responding to changes in landscape, resolving those differences of opinion can be significant challenge.

Landscapes undergo a continual process of change, evolving through time as a result of interaction with both humans and natural forces. However, at certain points in time, this process may appear to be more rapid than others. When change is noticeable, people often struggle to come to terms with it, and that increases the potential for conflict.  Brexit may usher in one such period of rapid landscape change (and potential conflict) since changes in policies related to agriculture, the environment, rural development and trade could have significant implications for how the UK’s countryside is managed. We are also entering what is almost certainly going to be a period of rapid environmental change as the effects of climate change become increasingly apparent and write themselves on our currently familiar landscapes.

How successfully we respond to these changes as a society depends to a large degree on how successful we are at working together. In terms of Brexit, for example, can new policies be developed that effectively take into account the opinions and needs of all stakeholders (which includes just about everyone)? In terms of responding to climate change, can the interests of all those affected (again, everyone, not just those profiting from polluting industries) be taken into consideration?

This is not just about “listening” to everyone’s voices, and paying lip service to having done so. It is about undertaking the difficult process of giving value and importance to everyone’s needs and desires, and figuring out how to meet them, as far as possible.  This task is challenging for various reasons. First, people need and/or want different things, and assessing what these needs and wants are is not as simple as asking people for their opinion. Both can change over time, and are influenced by a great many external factors. Secondly, it is difficult, if not impossible, to determine if all voices should be given equal weight, or if some are more important than others.

Great bodies of research have been devoted to both these challenges, and there is no clear consensus. But perhaps that is the point: society is dynamic, just like the landscape, and working together must be an ongoing process rather than a one-off consultation. We as social researchers can contribute to this process by helping to develop a deeper understanding of how to assess opinion, bring everyone’s interests to the table when important issues are discussed, and ensure those interests are not ignored when policy decisions are made.