Sylvia Nagl and Sally Jane Norman: Raranga Tangata: The Weaving Together of People

This is available in printed form as part of the Conference Proceedings Book at Lulu.

Streaming audio for this panel is available here

Collaboration favoured by twenty-first century information and communications tools is still largely subservient to and inhibited by behavioural patterns carried over from last century. Entrenched specialist enclaves remain deaf to the multiple voices and translational dynamics resonating at interdisciplinary crossroads. Jealously maintained territorial walls remain blind to the cognitive windows opened up by new kinds of exchange. Shifting bodies of collectively shaped, constantly emerging and evolving knowledge loom like uneasy shadows over those who stubbornly wield bygone forms of authority as exclusive and unchallengeable. To speed us beyond such inertia, we need to create inspiring models of encounter that are tuned to the sociality offered by todays technologies. These models must foreground rather than merely tolerate polyphony, difference, ambivalence, and contradiction, in order to build fittingly humanised information agoras.

We propose an experimental model which aims to explore the rich diversity of mappings and readings that surround embodiment. As paired cross-disciplinary presenters, our starting point is at least twofold: genetics and bioinformatics is one of our main strands, art and creative visions of the body is another. Yet these specialisations are in turn woven into willfully interdisciplinary fabrics of thought and a shared sense of urgency to develop singular forms of embodied knowledge.

Raranga Tangata: the weaving together of people. This Polynesian expression, used to designate the Internet, is one of many powerful poetic testimonies to the living culture of the Maori people of Aotearoa New Zealand, a culture deeply meaningful to both presenters. Polynesian cosmogony vividly shows how a collectively shaped and transmitted narrative can offer cognitive handles to those seeking meaning amidst the chaos of complex worlds. The Maori creation myth revolves around the concept of whakapapa, or genealogical layering, to expound the series of events whereby humans first emerged, whereby the first bodies were born and made through three states of evolution: Te Kore; energy, potential, the void, nothingness; Te Po; form, the dark, the night; Te Ao-marama; emergence, light and reality, dwelling place of humans. Polynesian culture is deeply embodied and anthropomorphised, from its narratives of primal surroundings to those that describe human development and evolution. It offers viscerally recognisable readings of complex processes, through the creation story from Te Kore to stories of kinship (iwi, hapu and whanau) then individuals. Prkau (mythological traditions) are statements about the nature of the world which echo the creation story, so that the world is ritually recreated whenever creation whakapapa (genealogies) and krero (stories) are recounted. The Maori stand amongst the worlds finest navigators, and their mapping and steering skills are as marvellously reflected in the meaning-making weave of their stories, as in their path-finding journeys across the Pacific Ocean.

In contrast with the thousands of years of cosmological and physical mapping that are hallmarks of Maori culture, complex systems of a new kind have been the object of a steadily growing field of research over the past decades. Complexity unites the grand challenges humanity faces at the beginning of this new century. From climate change to food security, the global economy, global politics and conflict resolution, ICT networks reaching across the planet, emerging epidemics and health - these examples span hugely disparate scales, but all of them are manifestations of complex systems, and the enormity of the challenges is unprecedented in human history. The cognitive resources and investigative practices which have successfully informed human agency in the past are greatly unequal to the realities of the 21st century. This problem is exacerbated by the persistence of local knowledge systems insulated from each other to a greater or lesser extent - for example, science, humanities, arts, technology, as well as, very importantly, knowledge held in different cultures.

Consequently, what is urgently needed is massively intensified exchange and integration across all disciplines and across cultures with diverse worldviews and richly diverse cognitive, material and social resources for addressing the challenges arising from our embeddedness within complex systems and our own embodied nature as complex systems. A paradigm of complexity is paving the way for narratives which integrate concepts and metaphors including system, holism, inter-connectedness, multiplicity, interaction, network, dynamic change and emergence.

Emergence is a particularly potent concept as it opens up alternative, and potentially revolutionary, perspectives on embeddedness and embodiment. It defies traditional epistemologies of causality, assertions of single causes and privileged loci of control, including any assumed primacy of the genome as a blueprint or a program. Emergence re-focuses our gaze from the fragmented body to the whole, from the reduced and uni-dimensional to distributed, complex, local-global unity; emergence in the body seems machine-like and organic at once. Like the creation whakapapa, it evokes the coming-into-being of a coherent, self-organising, self-sustaining system with complex structure and behaviours, thanks to multiple, parallel interactions between entities. In the dimension of space, an emergent system is seen as made up of hierarchical layers of increasing complexity, from molecules to cells, organs and the body, and in the dimension of time, it undergoes state changes at local and global scales.

So how might advanced mathematical models and computer simulated processes of emergence be wrought into meaningful visions spanning the sciences, the humanities and the arts? How might multimodal and immersive technologies enhance cognitive fluidity and enable engagement with intellectual, cultural and artistic complexity in thinkable, tangible, visualisable ways?

Complexity/emergence interfaces with evolution, development, technologies of information and the human genome, mythological creation stories, artistic and cultural readings of embodiment. These interfaces can be sealed or permeable, they can be fault lines of tension and struggle or places of exchange and shared creativity, they can offer openings for exploration of a rich diversity of mappings and readings that relate to embodiment. Assertively poetic, productively ambivalent narratives can inspire us to explore our newly created electronic territories of collaborative social encounter. Navigational tools creatively fleshed out with embodied knowledge to prioritise sensory and experiential integrity in these times of discretely disincarnated media may provide invaluably effective and affective inroads into our info-rich world. Artistic endeavour fundamentally addresses the need for diversified worldviews and materials, since art uniquely enfolds multiple layers and sometimes fertilely contradictory voices, lending itself to and building upon difference. Like mythological systems, art works are openly interpretable and uniquely holistic in their crafting of poetic experience, yielding readily grasped idiosyncratic perspectives.

We propose risking a moment of uninhibited creative conjecture, an attempt to flesh out an interdisciplinary story of embodiment drawing on two strands of thinking: genomics and complexity science, and artistic narratives. These strands weave a poetic narrative, a fabric to grace the shimmering, changeling contours of our electronic techtonic world. Raranga tangata.


The authors are grateful to Charlie Tawhiao for having communicated and

defined this term: I prefer the metaphor approach, so I consider a network of people such as that presented by the internet to be a weaving together of people similar to how a mat is woven: raranga or whiriwhiri refers to the weaving of a whariki (mat) or kete (basket). The internet community could therefore be described as raranga tangata or similar to describe the weaving together of people. Personal correspondence, CT SJN.