This is the accepted manuscript of a paper published in Technoetic Arts. The definitive, peer
reviewed and edited version of this article is published as:
Westermann, Claudia. 2020. “Poiesis, Ecology and Embodied Cognition.” Technoetic Arts: A
Journal of Speculative Research, 18 (1):19–29. doi:10.1386/tear_00023_1.
Accepted April 27, 2020.
Poiesis, Ecology, and Embodied Cognition
Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University
Since René Descartes famously separated the concepts of body and mind in the 17th century,
Western philosophy and theory have struggled to conceptualize the interconnectedness of
minds, bodies, environments, and cultures. While environmental psychology and the cognitive
sciences have shown that spatial perception is 'embodied' and depends on the aforementioned
concepts' interconnectedness, architectural design practice, for example, has rarely
incorporated these insights. The paper presents research on the epistemological foundations
that frame the communication between design theory and practice and juxtaposes it with
scientific research on embodied experience. It further suggests that Asian aesthetics, with its
long history in conceiving relations and art as interactive, could create a bridge between
recent scientific insights and design practice. The paper links Asian aesthetics to a discourse
on ecologies in the post-Anthropocene, in dialogue with contemporary conceptions of time. It
outlines an approach to the interconnectedness of minds, bodies, environments, the sciences,
and cultures, in favour of a future that is governed by creative wisdom rather than ‘smart’
Keywords: poetics, poiesis, ecology, embodied cognition, second-order cybernetics, China
At morning there are flowers to cut the heart,
And evening drives them on the eastward-flowing waters.
Petals are on the gone waters and on the going,
And on the back-swirling eddies,
But today's men are not the men of the old days,
Though they hang in the same way over the bridge-rail.1
(Li and Pound, 1915: 14)
Time has passed since Ezra Pound penned the lines above – more than a century. Even more
time has passed since the words were written in the original Chinese by Li Bai in the first half
of the 8th century, Tang dynasty. Still, flowers bloom, petals fall and decorate the waters here
and there. Are they the petals of the old days? Whose old days? Humans rarely hang over
bridge rails to watch the flow of time. Most petals pass unnoticed. Time is not nature's time
1 Excerpt from Poem by the Bridge at Ten-Shin by Li Bai (701–762) also known as Li Bo, Li Po and Rihaku, translated by Ezra
Pound and published in Cathey, 1915: 14. The poem is no. 18 in the Gu Feng (In the Old Manner) collection of poems by Li Bai.
Scholars have had difficulties to date the poems by Li Bai (see Watson, 1971: 144); thus no exact date for the poem can be given.
anymore – time of the old days and the sublime, distant but modest time.2 The time of the
Anthropocene is technology’s time.
In the 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, in one of the most memorable scenes of the film,
director Stanley Kubrick tells us that the dawn of man occurred with the discovery of tools
(Kubrick and Clarke, 1968). The capacity to think objects as tools, specifically to defend and
to attack, marks the beginning of technological invention and the transition from ape to
human – and it is, according to Kubrick, just one step away from deserting from Earth into
An image of harsh nature is presented to the audience. The landscape is desert-like. There is
sand, some rocks, only a few shrugs, a puddle of muddy water, a group of apes and some
tapirs. A leopard appears on the scene and kills an ape. None of the other apes interfere. They
run away. The apes fight with another group of apes over the water, and lose. This is the
struggle of daily life. Another day. The night has made an object emerge on the scene that is
perfect in its geometric form, extra-terrestrial in its appearance, a black monolith. It is not
clear what it is. On this very same day, one of the apes discovers that he could use the bone of
a tapir's carcass as a tool to attack and to destroy. On a subsequent day, these apes are able to
win the battle over the water against the other group of apes. They kill the leader of the other
group using bones as weapons. Time for celebration. A bone is thrown into the blue sky – cut
– a spaceship, black sky all around it, infinite space. We hear Johann Strauss’ waltz “The
The Dawn of Man scene reflects Darwinian theories of evolution. The focus on struggle,
competition, and death as part of evolution is in line with the emphasis made by Darwinists.
And yet, the scene does not simply present evolution as a biological process. The scene
suggests that evolution is a process, in which the socio-cultural is intertwined with the
biological. The scene does not claim to recount scientific or historical fact. It is decidedly
marked as myth. Only after the black monolith appeared on the scene, does one of the apes
discover the possibility to use the bone as a tool. Of course, this is a known pattern. The
interference of divine forces on Earth and the transference of knowledge and skills from
divine to human beings, assisting the latter with the control of their environment, is a
common theme in ancient myths. We find it in the writings of Homer, Hesiod and Ovid but
also in the ancient myths of China (Boardman, 1996; Birrell, 1999). The myth of the titan
Prometheus stealing fire from Zeus and passing it on to the humans living on the Earth is a
prominent – and much recited – example from the Western canon.
Unlike the beautiful, the sublime arouses sensations of awe and respect through an encounter with the uncontrollably vast and
Kant, 1987: 97-101; see Hegel, 1920: 85-86).!
3!Original title An der schönen blauen Donau, composed in 1866.!
Figure 01: Prometheus, who had been punished by Zeus, is freed by Heracles. Scene depicted on black-
figured cup made in Athens, ca. 500 BCE. Part of the collection of the Louvre. Image rights: public
Subsequently, living on Earth becomes a drama. Zeus does not only punish Prometheus but
the human population as well. Technological progress, the myth tells us, does not come
without cost. While there might have been earlier versions of the Prometheus myth, the
earliest version that has survived is in the writings of Hesiod. Hesiod lived most likely
between the end of the 8th and the middle of the 7th century BCE (Hesiod and Most, 2006).
In associating progress with violence, the Dawn of Man scene mirrors the view of the ancient
Prometheus myth. However, it goes beyond ancient myths by suggesting that technological
progress has an impact on the biology of living beings. As we see from Li Bai’s poem quoted
at the beginning of this paper, the question whether the men of today are still the same as
those of the old days has been lingering for some time. Whether Li Bai implied that biological
change had occurred in those 'men' is questionable. While we cannot know precisely what Li
Bai thought, we do know that ancient Chinese as well as pre-Socratic Western traditions saw
spirits and nature connected (Tucker, 2014; Heidel, 1910).
The first scientific investigations into an understanding of the inter-connectedness of nature,
society and culture were made by the biologist and zoologist Johann von Uexküll at the
beginning of the 20th century (Uexküll, 2014) (Uexküll, 1926). One of the founders of
ecology, von Uexküll's most notable contribution to the history of ideas is the concept of
Umwelt4. An environment receives living beings as objects. An Umwelt, in contrast, is
constructed by living beings. Influenced by the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, von Uexküll
transferred the insights on subjective perception into the world of non-human living beings. A
living creature is always also Umwelt. The limits of its Umwelt are not made by the limits of
the living creature’s surface (skin), but by its perception and its action, the latter of which is
defined by its movements in both time and space. According to von Uexküll, each living
creature has its own subjective time and space. In fact, von Uexküll suggests that the idea of
Contemporary literature in the English language tends to use the German
term Umwelt, in plural Umwelten, when speaking of
Uexküllian concrete living environments to avoid confusion. Specifically, Umwelt should not be confused with the term lifeworld
(Lebenswelt), which indicates a concept defined by Edmund Husserl. The two are distinctly different concepts.!
one objective world is pure fiction that is maintained because it comforts us in letting us
believe that the communication between human beings is a straight forward process that we
do not need to think about (Uexküll, 1956, p. 46, 167).
Johann von Uexküll is critical of Darwinism, less so of Darwin himself and his theory of
evolution, more so of the interpretations, emphases, and theories of the Darwinists that
succeeded Darwin. His crucial point of critique is philosophical. He considers Darwinism
materialism in disguise, a primarily mechanistic world view that strips living beings from
purposiveness (Uexküll, 1907, p. 643). Jakob von Uexküll – against Darwinism – highlights
that living beings cannot be conceptualized as disconnected from their concrete living
environments (Umwelten). He emphasises that every being is made by and makes its Umwelt.
The model is anti-mechanistic. It carries notions of circular causality. The function-circle
shown in figure 2 presents von Uexküll’s model of a living being interconnected with its
Umwelt in a simple diagram.
Figure 02: Johann von Uexküll’s Function-Circle. Simple diagram describing the interconnectedness of
a living creature and its Umwelt. From Theoretical Biology (Uexküll, 1926: 155). Image rights: public
As the diagram shows, the inner world is divided into two parts; one, which
receives the impressions, is turned towards the world-as-sensed, and the other,
which distributes the effects, is turned towards the world of action. Between
mark-organ and action-organ lies the watershed of the whole function-circle.
The mark-organ and the action-organ are each of them controlled by a rule; the
one arranges the impressions in the mark-organ, and so creates the indications.
(Uexküll, 1926, p. 155)
Figure 03: Johann von Uexküll’s Function-Circle. Diagram with inner circle describing the
interconnectedness of a living creature and its Umwelt. From Theoretical Biology (Uexküll, 1926:
157). Image rights: public domain.
A new circle is introduced within the animal’s own central organ, for the
support of the external function-circle, and this connects the action-organ with
the mark-organ. In this way, the animal’s own action-rule fits in with the
indications stimulated from without, and now serves the mark-rule as a skeleton
to which it may attach the external indications.
(Uexküll, 1926: 157)
Uexküll’s research became the basis for the work of Humberto Maturana on the Biology of
Cognition (Maturana, 1980), and subsequently for the research by Maturana and Varela,
conceptualising living beings as autopoietic systems, i.e., as autonomous, self-referring and
self- constructing systems, however always in exchange with their environments (Maturana
and Varela, 1980). Notably, von Uexküll’s ideas influenced not only biologists and
ecologists, but also philosophers with as diverse points of view as Martin Heidegger and
Gilles Deleuze, and significant poets, such as Rainer Maria Rilke. The Italian philosopher
Giorgio Agamben suggests that the Uexküllian investigations are commensurate with
contemporary quantum physics and the artistic avantgardes, setting the path for the
“unreserved abandonment of every anthropocentric perspective in the life sciences and the
radical de- humanization of the image of nature” (Agamben, 2004: 39).!
The question of a higher or lower degree of perfection in living beings can only
be asked if the researcher considers the world that surrounds him to be the
universe that surrounds all living beings like him and to which they are more or
less well adapted, as appearance teaches. From this point of view, the human
world is considered to be the only authoritative one and, consequently, the
blueprints of the lower animals appear inferior to the blueprints of the higher
animals and, in particular, of man⁵5.
(Uexküll, 2014: 22)
Nevertheless, the radicality of von Uexküll’s approach, his concerns and his critique of the
Darwinian shift towards a mechanistic understanding of life might be fully understood only
when re-visiting recent scientific and cultural developments.
5!Translation from German by the author.!
Figure 04: Blue Marble, photo of the Earth taken on December 7, 1972, by the crew of the Apollo 17
spacecraft en route to the Moon at a distance of about 29,000 kilometres (18,000 mi). Image credit:
NASA, public domain.
In 1969, one year after 2001: A Space Odyssey was released, the media-connected world
witnessed the first landing on the moon. Images of an alien – not particularly homely – world
reached the Earth’s population. The universe opened up with these images from the moon. A
new sense of power emerged. Yet, a photograph that was taken three years later, in 1972, on
the Apollo 17 flight had possibly an even higher impact on how people perceive life on the
Earth. On December 7, 1972, the astronauts of the Apollo 17 crew were able to take the first
picture of the planet Earth that showed it as a perfect globe, i.e., without shadow. The image
is entitled Blue Marble (Reinert, 2011).
With this image, which ranks highly among the photographs most often reproduced, a shift in
point of view is initiated. We look at the Earth!from space and from the distance see a perfect
sphere, the globe. The view from space is like the bird-eye view in design – one could also
speak of a god's view. It is, in any case, a view that is detached from the experience of
everyday life. It assists rationalisation but also radical simplification with the focus of
research shifting to the analysis of movement. Only two years after the Blue Marble image
was released, Stafford Beer in writing Designing Freedom wonders whether “the whole
apparatus of our civilization actually works any longer. Is it beginning to fail?” He further
points out that there is plentiful evidence fuelling the suspicious that it might not be the case.
I instance the decay of previously rich and healthy cities from the centre
outwards, creating ghettos and all the social frightfulness that goes with them,
stark inequalities, private penury, social squalor, a rise in crime, a rise in
violence. I instance pollution on a world-wide scale: the poisoning of the
atmosphere, of seas and lakes and rivers.
(Beer, 1974: 2)
Public consciousness of the problems that humanity had manoeuvred itself into was only
temporary, however, and was not met with broader action. Images, such as the Blue Marble
photograph of the Earth in infinite space, contributed to a sense of human omnipotence that
minimized the significance of experiential time. The image of the Blue Marble – in all its
beauty – is a perfect reflection of narcissist admiration, and as such the ideal image for the
contemporary Darwinist who still considers competition more important than mutual aid and
We know today that the activities of human beings have gradually grown “into a significant
geological, morphological force” (Crutzen and Stoermer, 2000: 17). As we have seen above,
the insight is not new. It had gained more extensive attention, however, only in the past
decade when popular media began to publicize the debate that had emerged among scientists
around the term Anthropocene and the related concept. It is an insight, of course, that would
fill the narcissist in us with pride if it were not at the same time so scary, as – all narcissism
aside – it seems it is more difficult to reach other planets than it appeared several decades ago.
In their influential article The “Anthropocene”, published in the IGBP Newsletter no. 41 in
May 2000, Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer suggested that there is sufficient scientific
evidence that human activities have so significantly altered planet Earth that one should
consider the changes within the context of a new epoch – the Anthropocene. It should be
mentioned, however, that there had been earlier publications seriously considering the impact
of human life on the planet Earth. Crutzen and Stoermer specifically highlighted the work by
Antonio Stoppani and by George Perkins Marsh from the second half of the 19th century
(Crutzen and Stoermer, 2000: 17). The term Anthropocene, it should also be mentioned, had
been used by Eugene F. Stoermer already in the 1980s but it did not gain more extensive
While the fact that the debate around the environmental issues, endangering life on Earth, has
recently regained significant attention might mark a new beginning, it should be taken into
account that the image that the debate revolves around is still the one from 50 years ago. It is
a narcissist's image that rejects the multiplicity of worlds and establishes coexistence from a
playmaker's point of view. The view of the analyst is from above. The focus of the analysis is
on dynamics that have at their basis a homogenous time that is not the time of experience -- it
is disembodied time, unlike Uexküllian time.
The ’globe’ view – as researchers, such as Donna Haraway, Anna Tsing and Kenneth Olwig,
have highlighted – is misleading (Haraway et al., 2016). Haraway’s statement on the
relevance of what the ideas are that you "think other ideas with" should be highlighted as well
in this context. It is relevant.
It matters what ideas you use to think other ideas with. It seems like a very
simple thing to say. It especially matters what-ideas-you-use-to-think-other-
ideas-with if one of them is not in control of the other, if they reach into and
interrupt each other, if the result of using ideas-to-do-ideas-with destabilizes
both in ways that change the name of the game for the possibility of
ongoingness, accountable to the power structures of the en- counters and the
(Haraway, 2013: n.pag.)
Ecology and Time
Ecological thinking, beyond the media mainstream, considers entities in their capacity to live
in environments, but it is not only concerned with biological life. It is concerned with
thinking oppressions, and exclusions, and likewise inclusions – in time and space. It
emphasises the thinking of relations. Ecological thinking is thus also concerned with the
survival of cultures, societies, communities, and places. Within this context, we can also
speak of ecologies of art or ecologies of design. If we do so, we indicate an emphasis on
relational thinking, but not necessarily a thematic focus on what is generally considered
natural, such as trees, or water. The common idea of ecology as restoration of the natural, as
Timothy Morton has also emphasised (Morton, 2007; Morton, 2010), is to be put aside. There
is no authentic or original nature to which we can return. If there were any such nature, it
would certainly not be able to sustain the living standards of today’s populations, nor could it
promise this living standard to any of those who do not yet live a life without hunger. Again,
we do not enter entirely new thinking. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead formulated
similar ideas already 100 years ago. In the book The Concept of Nature, first published in
1920, Whitehead writes:
For natural philosophy everything perceived is in nature. We may not pick and
choose. For us the red glow of the sunset should be as much part of nature as
are the molecules and electric waves by which men of science would explain
the phenomenon. It is for natural philosophy to analyse how these various
elements of nature are connected.
(Whitehead, 1920: 29)
Ecological thinking is not neutral. On the contrary, it encourages the debate of what kind of
world we would want to live in. Within this debate, art could play a pivotal role in making
potential connections and possible worlds present – worlds to be experienced and to interact
with. And while we might not want to return to a distant imaginative past of a natural nature,
we might want to orient ourselves. We could turn elsewhere to see whether there have been
other ways of thinking that managed to escape the pitfalls of Western categorization that
makes thinking in relations so difficult. Within Confucian and neo-Confucian thought, for
example, the macro- and micro-worlds have always been connected, constituting an
"anthropocosmic” rather than an anthropocentric worldview (Tucker, 2014: 143).
We could learn both from Asian philosophy and art. We could learn from the dynamics of
Chinese painting, its thinking of space and time as one, its knowledge of the “in between” as
mediator between opposites, and from its thinking in various distances rather than in linear
perspective (Westermann, 2019; Westermann, 2018; Jullien, 2018). The re-formulation of
conceptions of time is of fundamental importance in this context. The depth of time,
connected to a multiplicity of spaces, that has been oppressed by the ubiquitous pair of labour
and fun, needs to be recreated (see Han, 2017). At last, one could reiterate Roy Ascott’s hope
for a new art:
[W]e can hope for the emergence of a radically constructive art, moving from
the older frame of time and representation to the multiple and layered frames of
parallel time-worlds, creating the ceaselessly bifurcating semantic pathways of
virtuality and simulation.
(Ascott, 2003: 231)
The German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk recently highlighted the need for a new
anthropo-technology that uses the metaphor of “a dialogue with nature” as a guiding
principle – a technology that is “characterized by cooperation rather than by domination,
even in asymmetrical relationships” (Sloterdijk, 2014: 16).
Art and design would be meaningless if they did not accept the task of creating this
technology for which the precise term would be anthropo-cosmo-technology.
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Claudia Westermann (Ph.D.) is an artist and architect, licensed with the German Chamber of
Architects, and Senior Associate Professor in Architecture at Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool
University in Suzhou, China. She holds postgraduate degrees in Architecture and Media Art
and obtained a Ph.D. from CAiiA, Planetary Collegium, for her research on a poetics of
architecture entitled “An Experimental Research into Inhabitable Theories.” Her works have
been widely exhibited and presented, including at the Venice Biennale (Architecture), the
Moscow International Film Festival, ISEA Symposium for the Electronic Arts, the Center for
Art and Media (ZKM) in Karlsruhe, Germany, and most recently at the 2019 Yanping Art
Harvest in Fujian, China.
Contact: Department of Architecture, Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University,
111 Renai Road, Dushu Lake Higher Education Town, Suzhou Industrial Park,
Jiangsu Province, PR China 215123, China.
Web address: http://www.litra-design.com