Episode 3. Extended cognition and the spider/web


As various theories of extended and enacted cognition gain traction, they beg a re-evaluation of the material thresholds of animal bodies—both human and nonhuman. From Andy Clark’s Extended Mind to Lambros Malafouris’ Blind Man’s Stick theory, these ideas challenge atomistic conceptions of animal bodies in favour of a more relational and entangled reading of animal life. How, then, might these ideas figure into our evaluation of animal remains, or the material and performative afterlives of animal bodies?

In this episode, we explore this tension in relation to the figure of the web-building spider. Spider webs are more than an external apparatus for capture of insect prey, but are deeply intertwined with the spider’s sensory apparatus. Web-building spiders are essentially blind, developing their image of the world from the vibrations travelling through the tensioned threads of the web. With its legs resting on these threads, the spider extends its senses through the web’s material body. The web itself has its own sensitivities – for instance, the cribellate silk threads that coil themselves mechanically around ensnared prey. In 2017, Hilton Japyassu and Kevin Laland took this entanglement of spider and web further, proposing that the web extends not only the spider’s senses, but it’s cognition: an attentional/memory system enacted in the web. A complex assemblage of proteins in silken and invertebrate forms, the spider-and-web is thus imagined as a distributed spider body. But what kind of animal record is the web?

A ‘living’ web is dynamic, continually tuned by the spider in response to its milieu. Only abandoned webs are static—but even then, they are not inert. From the webs that populate deserted homes in Chernobyl nuclear exclusion zones to the Riparian ‘sentinel’ webs used to detect atmospheric PCB contamination, the web is also an active archive: gathering up traces of the genetic material of each body that it touches, or chemical traces of pollutants in the surrounding milieu. As an archive or ‘fossil record’, the spider web thus offers a different image of animal bodies—as distributed, as ecological, as extended and enacted through dynamic relations. It also challenges the agential potential of ‘animal remains’, positing them not as historical artefacts, but as continually producing new dynamics of relation between body and environs.

Sonic Essay

(sound file available late 2019).

Texts for an expanded reading practice

👂🏽     Tomas Saraceno’s Arachnid Orchestra

📖     Japyassú, H. F., & Laland, K. N. (2017). Extended spider cognition. Animal Cognition, 20(3), 375–395.