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28 November 2022
Holobionts, Cyborgs, Critters and Other Oddities

Helen Torres

Not all theory is history and not all history is theory,
but the interface between the two is dense and leafy.
Donna Haraway[1]HARAWAY, D. (2017). Holobiont Society. Documentary by Dominique Koch.

For some years, there has been a debate in biology and philosophy about the possibility of considering the holobiont as a unit of selection, that is, as a biological entity subject to natural selection. For Darwin and much of evolutionary theory, the unit of selection would be the organism. However, since the late 20th century, thanks in part to genomics and DNA technology, new research is exploring the possibility that “some multispecies consortia of organisms may be considered carriers of traits amenable to evolution by natural selection.”[2]SUÁREZ, J. (2021). “The holobiont/hologenome as a level of selection: an approach to the evolution of multiple species consortia.”Theoria, 36(1), 81-112.  These consortia are the holobionts.

A holobiont is a biotic community and it refers to a plant or an animal with all its microbiota, that is, all its associated microorganisms. Etymologically, holo– means complete, total, safe and sound, so holobiont would be “whole beings.”

The first time I came across this concept was while reading Staying with the Trouble by Donna Haraway. The decision on how to translate the name of the book into Spanish was difficult, but translating holobiont took no more than adding one letter. However, getting closer to the concept and its possible implications took me many hours of reading and conversations, for despite the fact that we know that the sciences feed and complement each other, their discourses and debates are very specific. As Haraway says in Staying with the Problem:

That is decidedly not the same thing as One and Individual. Rather, in polytemporal, polyspatial knottings, holobionts hold together contingently and dynamically, engaging other holobionts in complex patternings. Critters do not precede their relatings; they make each other through semiotic material involution, out of the beings of previous such entanglements.[3]HARAWAY, D. (2019). Seguir con el problema. Consonni, pp. 98-99..

From this definition, the affirmation that we were never autonomous individuals is not an opinion but rather a biological reality. We are symbiotic assemblages: neither host nor parasite, intertwined symbionts that make up complex dynamic systems which in turn assemble with other holobionts. The gaze thus focuses on relationships, on contact zones, and not on individual autonomous entities. Entities do not precede their relationships but are instead configured in the relationship.

The temptation to embrace these concepts and to use them to replace the old assumptions of the life sciences and thought is irresistible. Yesterday we were all cyborgs, today we are all holobionts.

But no single concept will save us. Concepts are not heroes or heroines, they barely manage to be boats or at times lighthouses. It takes something more to mount a revolt in politics, the arts, and the sciences. “Changing one concept for another doesn’t change anything,” says Haraway in Dominique Koch’s documentary Holobiont Society. “Hegemony and exploitation also exist in the holobiont. There is no purity in the holobiont. But the revitalization, the regeneration, the reanimation of resistance in the holobiome is very powerful.”

If thinking of ourselves as the kings of creation who thanks to our intelligence crown the hierarchy of species, as eternal warriors who must compete, battle and kill to ensure the continuity of our lineage, has led us to the accelerated destruction of ecosystems, thinking of ourselves as symbiotic beings also changes the question to whom we are responsible. We could surrender ourselves to the idea that it is impossible to escape human exceptionalism, but thinking in functional rather than taxonomic terms, emphasizing relationality, contingency, contamination and the need for constant negotiation, can make a difference.

Humusities instead of humanities, says Haraway. Situated, localized thought, not universal language able to translate reality into a problem of encoding and decoding. To think with shapes instead of applying models.

Models can become fetishes, substitutes for reality. Fetishes obscure the constitutive tropical nature of themselves and the worlds. Fetishes literalize, thereby inducing elementary material and cognitive error. Fetishes make things seem clear and in control.[4]HARAWAY, D. (2004). Testigo_Modest@Segundo_Milenio.HombreHembra_conoce_Oncoratón. UOC, p. 162.

The holobiont deepens the work of the cyborg, a bastard critter that emerged from the implosion of subject and object, human and machine, technology and organism, nature and culture, and all the categories that divided the World into two irreducible opposites that invited war. The coherent self cannot read the languages ​​of the AI, it limits itself to reproducing hierarchical categories that transform all technology into a tool of social control. There perhaps lie the possibilities of the holobiont as a figure for the generation of worlds: communities of organisms activate more interesting questions, in its etymological sense: inter-, between, –esse, to be, that which is between beings, the spaces of union.

Inspired by the holobiont, artist Maja Smrekar carried out a series of investigations and performances titled K-9_topology, in which she experiments with co-parenting and co-domestication between humans and animals. In mOther(ness), one of the projects in this series, she prepares her body to nurse a puppy, which she finally does in a performance called Hybrid Family. Becoming-with, co-constitution, motherhood as nutrition and care of the other, not as reproduction of the identical. Maja Smrekar challenges the borders between humans and animals, between nature and culture, between civilization and barbarism, based on the question of motherhood in the context of the accelerated destruction of ways of living and dying. Make kin, not babies!

Although my artistic practice is almost always guided by intuition, I start from the premise that we are colonized by bacteria and viruses. In the same way that humans colonize houses, cities, and environments, we also play host to ideologies, technologies, and media.[5]SMREKAR, M. (2021). mOther(ness). Draft, in glossary of common knowledge. .

In the holobiont, everyone is a symbiont of each other, which does not mean that relationships are without conflict. Relationships have reciprocal advantages and disadvantages, “symbiosis is not synonymous with mutually beneficial.“[6]HARAWAY, D. (2019). Op. Cit. p. 99.. For this reason, many names are needed to designate the wealth of knots and networks, of entities and alliances, which are situated, dynamic, contingent.

Cyborgs, Chthulucean beings, semiotic-material actors, network nodes, inappropriate/inappropriable others, critters in multiple polyspatial and polytemporal entanglements.




(Front images: Dominique Koch, Holobiont Society, 2017. Video, sound and spatial instalation. Photo from

1 HARAWAY, D. (2017). Holobiont Society. Documentary by Dominique Koch.
2 SUÁREZ, J. (2021). “The holobiont/hologenome as a level of selection: an approach to the evolution of multiple species consortia.”Theoria, 36(1), 81-112. 
3 HARAWAY, D. (2019). Seguir con el problema. Consonni, pp. 98-99.
4 HARAWAY, D. (2004). Testigo_Modest@Segundo_Milenio.HombreHembra_conoce_Oncoratón. UOC, p. 162.
5 SMREKAR, M. (2021). mOther(ness). Draft, in glossary of common knowledge.
6 HARAWAY, D. (2019). Op. Cit. p. 99.

Sociologist, translator and educator, Helen Torres (1967, Colonia, Uruguay) has published the novel Autopsia de una langosta (Melusina, 2009), the anthology Relatos Marranos (Pol-len, 2014) and the chronicle Ciutat Morta. Crónica del Caso 4F (Huidobro, 2016). She has specialised in the thought of Donna Haraway, by whom she has translated Testigo_Modesto@Segundo_Milenio. HombreHembra_Conoce_OncoRatón (UOC, 2004), Manifiesto Chthuluceno desde Santa Cruz (Laboratory Planet, 2016) and Seguir con el problema (consonni, 2019). She has also translated Marge Piercy’s science fiction novel Woman on the Edge of Time (consonni, 2020).She has developed geo-localised sound interventions and narratives.
She currently coordinates speculative fabulation workshops and is translating Donna Haraway’s Simians, Cyborgs and Women for Alianza Editorial.


28 November 2022

Holobionts, Cyborgs, Critters and Other Oddities

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