"we are our viruses"

on lynn margulis and cecilia vicuña

Sometimes I remember, with a bit of a shock, that I started college as a bio major, which isn’t evidence of some latent fascination with science but instead betrays the fact that I had no idea what education beyond high school was actually for other than getting a job. My parents are both high school graduates with a smattering of completion certificates in computer courses to their names. Teachers knew I was curious and bright but met my restlessness with disappointment and often discipline. Parent’s night was torture, especially since I never developed the foresight to just stop being a shit. Mostly the education system tolerated my existence, disruptions included; other classmates were shown more punitive measures, disrupting their lives.

There was one teacher — second grade, can’t remember her name — who actually responded to my idleness. After interrupting silent reading, I was made to sit at my desk during recess with a (library) copy of The Secret Garden. It was probably intended as punishment to keep me inside and away from my friends, but I became absorbed. After tearing through the story in a couple of days, my parents bought me a copy from the mall bookstore. They also knew I was curious and bright, and trusted educators to guide me.

Floating through. That’s likely how I wound up starting university as a biology major. I’d done well enough in high school bio, chem, and calculus to get in to a program. (On the flip side, I almost failed 12th grade English off a suspected plagiarism accusation by a teacher whose name I’ll never forget — Mr. Simmonds. I couldn’t pronounce a word thought to be above reading comprehension for my age and the school’s demographic: children of immigrants who worked at the airport, as truckdrivers, and in the industrial belt that semi-circles metropolitan Toronto.) All of the adults around me were workers, which has remained in my politics. None of them knew I needed a guide.

All that to nervously say: right now I’m dusting off the cartridge in my brain that houses a year and a half of postsecondary biology coursework to try and simply explain a scientific concept. After failing ecology on purpose, in response to another disciplinary classroom humiliaion, I swapped programs for poli sci and there’s not much I remember other the names and processes I found strange — Golgi bodies and cytophagosis. I know I am not alone in having wanted to be more captivated by the classroom.

~

Endosymbiotic theory is the prevailing explanation for how eukaryotic cells, which contain an enclosed nucleus and comprise “living organisms” as we see them, descended from prokaryotes, which are typically single-celled entities like bacteria and amoeba with a free-floatin’ (or non-existent) nucleus. This is very important because it suggests that we didn’t merely evolve from being single-celled and loose to tightly organized systems, but that we require these interactions for evolution. A major proponent of this theory was the microbiologist Lynn Margulis, who died in 2011, and whose work built on decades (centuries, probably) of incremental scientific hypotheses about the origins of biodiversity. Wikipedia also notes that she was a 9/11 conspiracy theorist. I’m not trying to downplay her contributions with these asides, but instead counter my own tendency to lionize and also air out the complicated spaces out of which big ideas can arise.

Anyway, Margulis furthered the theory by positing that this ongoing symbiotic fusion, the exchange of nuclear information between eukaryotes and prokaryotes such as viruses/ bacteria, explains genetic variation. She summed this up in a 1998 text: “We are our viruses.”

Phew, the hard part is over. I only know this because earlier today I came across a video by an artist that I admire, Cecilia Vicuña, reciting a poem in response to both the Coronavirus and Lynn Margulis’s “We are our viruses.”

I admire Cecilia Vicuña for a long career devoted to “decolonizing” art, which she invokes as a process rather than an aesthetic or a riposte. Decolonization as creating and revising in response to the personal and political shifts and awakenings that take place across one’s life, in this time. (Kinda like Kanye, minus the dogged insistence on permanence.) Decolonization as a rhythm that urges unbecoming rather than becoming. Existence as a form of resistance, expressed simply through the passing of time and nothing else. Vicuña’s poem is an expression of curiosity, an invitation to feel something other than fear. It’s cool relief from the mawkish, misanthropic “we are the virus” memes that popped up when the pandemic kicked off. In the airless lunar valleys of Vicuña’s cadence I find a guide.


P.S. The podcast is back!!! Listen to new episodes of Burn Out featuring Sarah-Tai Black and Kris Harper of nêhiyawak.