What Is It Like to Be a Fungus?
If art is ever a matter of outwards projection, from beyond the silo of the self, Entangled Life: Worldbuilders prompts audiences to commingle with two functional superspreaders: the mycelial and technological imaginaries.
In 1974, the philosopher Thomas Nagel published “What Is It Like To Be a Bat?”, a critique of theories of the mind that has since become a classic paper in the study of consciousness. In 2020, almost half a century later—by which time reflection around bats had taken on less philosophic connotations—British mycologist Merlin Sheldrake published Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape our Futures, an astounding exploration of a cryptic taxonomic kingdom that defies description and challenges perception, even as it is embedded in the very fabric of existence as we know it.
It is perhaps no coincidence then, that, in the ambitious spirit of Nagel’s inquiry, the first chapter of Sheldrake’s book is titled “What Is It Like to Be a Fungus?”. Throughout the text, Sheldrake pursues this question of identification, and of consciousness especially, to the very edge of language, . The many metaphors and anecdotes by way of which Sheldrake approaches his subject only serve to underscore its elusive power, reminding us that certain matters benefit from being addressed through a methodical apophatism, in the shadows of negative space.
In this sense, although Sheldrake is a consummate scientist, his experiment is not entirely unlike the 12th century Liber XXIV philosophorum, which gathers 24 scholarly approximations to the nature of God, including the illustrious one about God being an “infinite sphere, whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” While some of the Liber’s maxims hint at something edging on divine decentralised ubiquity, others point towards a simultaneous indivisible universality. All of these asymptotes, in any case, are not to be understood as contradictory but complementary (any resemblance to mycelium, or the blockchain, is intentional).
An unexpected refutation of Nagel, who concluded we would not be able to know what it is like to be a bat without actually being bats, is we may be closer to knowing what it is like to be fungi through participation in the involutions of web3. (This is curious, as the distance separating us from fungi is both greater and much smaller than that separating us from bats.) While this angle has been explored by Brandon Quittem in his four-chapter series comparing mycelium to Bitcoin, which you can read here, Sheldrake’s book—precisely on account of not having mycelium-as-blockchain as its leading metaphor—sheds light in places Quittem cannot reach; the most notable being the fundamental mystery of information. (The author is, after all, the son of Rupert Sheldrake, whose controversial research into formative causation should not be classed as pseudoscience but planted firmly in the field of cybernetics.)
Given this context, the role that information plays—and what it is—in the decentralised mycelial network becomes essential, as it grounds not only the relationship between a lifeform and its environment, but of environment as lifeform; taking the biosemiotic turn first charted by von Uexküll into startling and disquieting new inroads.
Sheldrake’s foray is into a world that is neither animal nor human—it is not even vegetable—but that may well be the connective tissue of the noösphere. It is heady stuff, which he approaches in the way that heady stuff should be: through τέχνη and ποίησις, craft and creation, action and innovation, science and a surpassing literary sensibility.
In this sense, Sheldrake’s collaboration with Accursed Share may be read as an appendix to Entangled Life. It will invite the exploration of what fungi can present and re-present to human consciousness on the brink of a technological upheaval that may permanently alter it and our experience of what it’s like to be (a) human. In this brave and unavoidable new world, Sheldrake’s study of mycelium may serve as a sort of Ariadne’s thread through which to parse—even if we can no longer escape—the metaversal labyrinth growing implacably through and around us.