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Emanuele Coccia, Robin Mackay

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Emanuele Coccia, Robin Mackay

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We are all fascinated by the mystery of metamorphosis – of the caterpillar that transforms itself into a butterfly. Their bodies have almost nothing in common. They don't share the same world: one crawls on the ground and the other flutters its wings in the air. And yet they are one and the same life.

Emanuele Coccia argues that metamorphosis – the phenomenon that allows the same life to subsist in disparate bodies – is the relationship that binds all species together and unites the living with the non-living. Bacteria, viruses, fungi, plants, animals: they are all one and the same life. Each species, including the human species, is the metamorphosis of all those that preceded it – the same life, cobbling together a new body and a new form in order to exist differently. And there is no opposition between the living and the non-living: life is always the reincarnation of the non-living, a carnival of the telluric substance of a planet – the Earth – that continually draws new faces and new ways of being out of even the smallest particle of its disparate body.

By highlighting what joins humans together with other forms of life, Coccia's brilliant reflection on metamorphosis encourages us to abandon our view of the human species as static and independent and to recognize instead that we are part of a much larger and interconnected form of life.

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Every Self is a Forgetting

Like everyone else, I have forgotten. The taste and smell of that moment, the people around me, the objects in the room. I don’t remember the day or the time, what my thoughts and emotions were, the intensity of the light in those very first moments. Perhaps I had to forget? Everything was appearing to me for the first time: too different, too new, too intense for me to take stock of it. I had to forget – forget everything. Become empty so as to make space for everything else: for what was yet to come, for what would soon be my past, for the whole world. I had to clear a space in order for any experience to be possible. I had to forget, and forget everything, to be able to perceive myself.
Birth is the absolute limit of recognition. It is the threshold where to say ‘I’ is to fuse with another. Impossible to say whether the breath that allows us to pronounce this syllable truly belongs to us or whether it is a continuation of our mother’s body; impossible to say whether this syllable names our body or the one from which we emerge. Birth is the force that allows us to say ‘I’ only if we negate all memory: we must forget where we come from, we must forget the other body that sheltered us for so long, we must de-identify ourselves from it.
Like everyone else, I have forgotten. I have forgotten myself, but above all I have forgotten everything that lived within me and continues to live within me. For instance, I have forgotten that for nine months I was inside my mother’s body. Not just inside her, I was her body, literally. I was a part of her womb, materially inseparable from it. Flesh of her flesh, life of her life. This forgetting is not accidental, it is the condition of possibility for beginning to see oneself differently. It is the cognitive counterpart of the act of becoming other than one’s mother, of continuing her life and her breath apart from her womb and her consciousness.
Like everyone else, I have forgotten that I was my father’s body. I was and still am; and not just from a material point of view. By birth, I carry within me the form of my father and the form of my mother: genetically, I am the improbable and noisy dialogue between their bodies and their forms. This forgetfulness that coincides with birth is the deepest part of memory. And of course my parents too are the fruit of the same oblivion and fusion. To have within me the body of my father and mother, to have their forms, their life, therefore means having within me the body and the life of an innumerable series of living beings, all born of other living beings, stretching out to the borders of humanity and beyond, to the frontiers of the living, and even further. Birth is not simply the emergence of the new, it is also the erratic wandering of the future through a limitless past.
Like everyone else, I have forgotten. I couldn’t have done otherwise. I had to forget everything in order to become what I am. Being born means forgetting that we were something before, forgetting that the other continues to live within us. We were there already, but in a different form: birth is not an absolute beginning. There was already something before us, we were already something before being born, there was something of me there before I existed. And this is what birth is: the impossibility of ever stepping outside the relation of continuity between our self and the self of others, between human and non-human life, between life and the matter that makes up the world.
I was born. I am always a vessel for something other than myself. The self is only a vehicle for foreign matter which comes from elsewhere and is destined to go on elsewhere without me, whether it’s words, smells, visions, or molecules.
I was born. There is nothing purely present in the matter of which I am made. I am a vehicle of the ancestral past, destined for an unimaginable future. I am a motley, irreconcilable temporality that cannot be pinned down to any epoch or moment. I am a reaction between many disparate moments on the surface of Gaia.
I was born – it’s almost a tautology. To become an ‘I’ is to be born, and being born is the dynamism that defines every I. Only beings that are born have an ‘I’ – or, conversely, the ‘I’ is only a vehicle: it always transports something other than itself.

One and the Same Life

We describe it as the process that connects parents with their children. We imagine that in this process bodies are ordered according to specific relationships, and describe the result as a succession of generations – from mothers and fathers to daughters and sons. We imagine it as something from which there sprouts a gigantic tree whose branches stretch out to take in cousins, uncles, aunts, grandparents, and those relatives for whom we have no names to define our degree of kinship but whom we loosely call our extended family. We speak of the bonds of flesh and blood. But we forget the strangest thing about birth: life is constituted in a way that is both far more outlandish and far more intimate than our makeshift concepts would have us believe.
Look at our children: a part of our body has become other. First of all, it joined with a foreign body and engendered another life, autonomous and separate from us. The same could be said of consciousness. A part of our ego escaped us and became other, disconnected from us. Our self now exists outside us, distinct from us, forever out of reach. This other life that was once ours says ‘I’ just as we do, and it is literally the same piece of mind and matter that was our own ‘I’ and that of our partner. And yet this life unfolds elsewhere, on, in, and through another body or, to put it another way, within our own body and mind become other.
Every child is an unrecognizable self. Every child is a body that has operated a metamorphosis on the matter from which it originated. The multiplication of bodies and selves – what we call being born – is first of all a process of the transformation of existing bodies. What we experience as forgetting, as an unsurpassable limit of recognition and memory, is a metamorphosis. By virtue of its birth every living body, regardless of its form, dimensions, and situation, but also regardless of the species and kingdom to which it belongs, is a metamorphosis: a transformation of previous bodies, a modification of a form that existed before it, a mutation of a way of looking at things that had already made a difference to the world.
If we are born, it is because each one of us, in body and soul alike, is only one part of the world. This is what being born comes down to: it is the proof that we are nothing more than a metamorphosis, a minute modification of an infinitesimal part of the flesh of the world. But the part of our mother’s body that we have incorporated into our own – as well as the seemingly smaller part of our father – is only one step in an endless chain of transformations and incorporations: before we became what we are, we were a part of their body, but also a part of what each of those two bodies was before we were conceived. We are connected to an ancestral past, making each of our bodies a limited and infinitesimal part of the history of Earth, the history of the planet, of its sun, of its matter.
All living creatures are, in a certain sense, the same body, the same life and the same self, continually passing from form to form, from subject to subject, from existence to existence. It is this same life that animates the planet, which itself was also born, escaping from a pre-existing body – the Sun – generated by the metamorphosis of its matter 4.5 billion years ago. We are all a piece of it, a spark of light. Energy, solar matter, attempting to live differently from how it lived in its innumerable previous existences. And yet this common origin – or, better, the fact that we are the flesh of the Earth and the light of the Sun discovering a new way of saying ‘I’ – does not entail that we are simply identical to them. On the contrary, it is because of this deeper and more intimate kinship (we are the Earth and the Sun, we are their body, their life) that we are destined to deny, at every moment, our nature and our identity, and forced to shape new ones. Difference is never a nature; it is a destiny and a task. We have no choice but to become different, we are obliged to metamorphose.

Birth and Nature

Birth is the most individual and individualizing process a living being can experience. Not only is it the threshold of the intimate, it is what makes intimacy possible and defines its boundaries. There is nothing more universal: not only were all women and men present, past, and future born, regardless of gender, class, culture, or orientation, so were all living beings, regardless of species, class, or kingdom. An oak tree, a cat, a fungus, and a bacterium are all beings defined by birth.
Birth is the first of all our experiences, and their transcendental form. But it is also the one we share with every being on this planet, the experience that makes our own self indiscernible from that of other living beings, regardless of their position in the great tree of evolution. It is not a common root, a distant origin that we share. On the contrary, it is the condition of possibility and the form of the continuity of all living beings, all living species, but also of life and its milieu. Birth is a corridor: a transformative channel that leads life from one form to another, from one species to another, from one kingdom to another.
It is in this corridor that individuals, species, and the planet are able to communicate and metamorphose into one other. Birth renders individuals of the same species indistinguishable, but also makes one species indistinguishable from another, and the totality of all living creatures from the Earth. Our genealogy is therefore always of a cosmic, not just a familial, order. The navel is the mark of our bond not just to our mother’s body, but to the Earth and to all living things.
It can happen, as we ourselves have experienced, in a mother’s womb. It can happen inside a sphere whose walls are made of calcium. It can take place in the open air or in the ocean, through the union of two unicellular bodies that share a genetic heritage. Or, as with viruses, it can take the form of an occupation and manipulation of the chemical essence of another’s body. But one is always born in another body: this is precisely what we call nature. More than just producing a blood tie with parents, to be born is to add a link in the chain of life’s transformation. To be born is therefore to be nature, and what is called nature is the mode of being of all that is born: everything that exists only through and by virtue of birth is natural. Nature is not synonymous with essence. We natural beings are those who came into the world through this slow process of the migration and appropriation of bodies.
To be born is to be nothing other than a reconfiguration, a metamorphosis, of something other. To be born – to be nature – means having to construct, to build one’s own body from the Earth, from all the matter available on this planet of which we are both the modification and the expression, both an articulation and a folding. To be born is to be made of the same material from which all things before us were made.
To be born, for every living being, is to experience being a part of the infinite matter of the world, which in us discovers another way of saying ‘I’. We need not study every part of the globe to sense the world, to see it, to experience it in all its infinity. All we need do is explore the material and spiritual memory of our own body. Each of us is the history of the Earth, or a version of it, a possible conclusion.
To be born, for every living being, means not being able to separate one’s own history from that of the world, not being able to distinguish between ...