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Informing Life

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Organizer: Armando Mastrogiovanni

Co-Organizer: Deborah Goldgaber

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This seminar was organized by Adam Rosenthal, Deborah Goldgaber, and Armando Mastrogiovanni.

Since the birth of modern molecular biology and genetics in the middle of the last century, the life sciences have been dominated by the concept of information. After James Watson and Francis Crick announced their discovery of the molecular structure of DNA, the study of life became inextricably bound to a set of concepts imported from cybernetics: program, code, and text. This epistemic transformation seemed to herald a new phase in the history of biology. François Jacob declared that biology had finally assumed its place alongside physics and chemistry as a mature science. By defining life in terms of  information, biology could finally free itself from the metaphysical baggage inherent in the concept of life.  But Jacob’s triumphalism (shared and variously expressed by his contemporaries) concealed another question: what is information? Information is sually thought in terms of disembodied abstraction. How can it be thought not as what Malabou calls a “transcendental instance”—imposing form from the outside—but as originating in and out of the organization of matter? If life were essentially information, what is the relation between matter and that which is said to inform it? What is the informational body or organism? 

Today, scientists are confronting these questions directly. Researchers working at the boundary of biology, chemistry, and physics are seeking new, non-reductive approaches to the link between information and matter. The theoretical physicists Paul Davies, Sara Walker, and Chiara Marletto are seeking new scientific theories that look to account for the “becoming informational” of matter: from self-replicating molecules and organisms to planetary biospheres and a universe which permits the emergence of “abstractions” that, as Walker argues, possess “causal power.” In this way, they attempt to understand how dead chemicals begin to signal and mean, and how the origin of information relates to the origin of life.

These approaches in the physical sciences exhibit a striking affinity with recent work in the humanities. From the new materialisms and speculative realism to object oriented ontology, psychoanalysis, and deconstruction, the materiality of life and the life of matter have become inextricably linked to problems of sense and signification. This seminar seeks to place the informational turn of the sciences into dialogue with the material turn of the humanities. It invites papers with diverse approaches to thinking about the relationship between life, matter, form, and information, that are interested in exploring methodological cross-pollination, deconstructive reading, and critique. 

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