Category Archives: Flusser

Toward an Imaginary Animal Studies

Coming very soon:  a critical engagement with Boria Sax’s latest book (entitled ‘Imaginary Animals: The Monstrous, the Wondrous, and the Human’) (London: Reaktion Books, 2013) – to appear in  Humanimalia 6:2 (Spring 2015).

Better very late than not at all – here it is.

First published in Humanimalia: a journal of human/animal interface studies 6:2 (Spring 2015), 166-177

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Introduction

In common with both its subject and the sub-discipline of animal studies generally, Boria Sax’s latest book, Imaginary Animals: The Monstrous, the Wondrous, and the Human, cannot be easily assigned a suitable pigeonhole within the traditional segregation of genre and discipline. Sax, meanwhile, is very clear as to his aim: the founding of a brand new sub-field of study organized along the lines of animal studies but dealing solely with the realm of imaginary animals (25). While the success or otherwise of Sax’s project remains to be determined, at the very least Imaginary Animals is an exhaustive but in no way exhausting scholarly account of fantastic creatures and wondrous hybrids that are as diverse as the cultures within which they emerged.

Populated throughout with beautifully reproduced illustrations, Imaginary Animals is clearly aimed at both academic and popular readerships. Such a dual focus is always incredibly difficult to achieve, however, and results here in a text that is itself something of a hybrid, composed as it is of two distinct parts. The first six chapters plus the brief conclusion make up one part (pp.7-130, pp.249-254), with the second part consisting of chapters seven through twelve (pp.131-248). Whereas the second part tends largely toward an exercise in cataloguing, the first will undoubtedly appeal more to both academic and general reader insofar as it is by far the more exegetical and critical, and yet without ever becoming dense or difficult in the least. This is not, however, to take anything away from the sheer breadth of research and scholarship that is, if anything, even more in evidence throughout the later chapters. Nonetheless, I will consider this second part first, before engaging in more depth with the theoretical sections of part one, sections that make Imaginary Animals much more than simply an encyclopedic listing of fantastic beings.

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First, the Second Part

In the later chapters, various ‘imaginary animals’ are collated according to six basic classifications: wonders; creatures of water; of earth; of fire and air; shape-shifters; and mechanical animals. Here, one finds any number of fascinating stories ranging from Yahweh’s relationship with the Leviathan to the rise of the mermaid as a major modern mythic figure. At the same time, however, one must also undergo the chore of wading through lists that, because of their comparative nature, are at times somewhat repetitive. Moreover, and unlike in the first part, these lists are seldom relieved by provocative passages of analysis and speculation. That said, Sax does manage now and again to slip in some very interesting claims, such as, for example, that insofar as moral consideration in traditional Indian culture ‘is not greatly contingent on human form,’ the treatment of other animals is thus ‘generally better than it is in Western countries, but the treatment of people with low status is worse’ (143). On the basis of such a claim, the potential for rigorously contextualized accounts of a given culture’s mythology – including our own – to challenge ingrained and seemingly immutable habits of thinking about other animals would seem very great. While Sax does not pursue this argument here, such potential is clearly indicated in the strong sense of estrangement produced by the hugely diverse accounts of what ‘counts’ as human across various cultural traditions.

Two related issues are, however, considered in some detail in this part, namely those of plants and of consciousness – issues that, given their importance within animal studies and beyond, demonstrate a clear understanding of the larger stakes in play. Anyone working in the field of animal studies will doubtless have faced the following question in one form or another (and most likely in tones of mock incredulity): ‘So, if we must extend the ethical realm to include other living beings, are you suggesting that we should include plants as well!?’1 As Sax argues, such questions in fact depend upon a baseless yet powerfully normative assumption that human consciousness is ontologically distinct and superior. Such is the apparently self-evident ‘fact’ one finds throughout the West today that ‘animals have some sort of incipient consciousness, while plants do not’ (211; my emphasis). One can thus see how potentially important ethical debates around the issue of caring or otherwise for plants are blocked in forever being reduced to a question of consciousness that appears long since resolved. Similarly, the apparently absurd question of ‘plant ethics’ can be seen as raising the possibility of breaking down just such normative and reductive assumptions that so often organize our thinking.

To this end, Sax begins by demonstrating why the notion of consciousness in plants is anything but absurd. Viewed over an appropriate timescale, he writes, plants can be seen to act ‘with an apparent deliberation that rivals that of any mammal’ (211). Plants, he continues, explore territories, battle competitors, and surmount barriers between them and the sunlight that sustains them; they ‘recruit’ various other animals through bribery, coercion, deceit, and self-sacrifice, and some even launch deadly preemptive attacks against other plants (211). Even the slowness of response thought to characterize plant life can no longer be considered certain: leaves and stems, writes Sax, ‘may immediately emit poisons or even alter their chemistry when insects lay eggs on their leaves’ (213).

Shifting to focus more generally on the often vexed – and just as often irrelevant – question of consciousness and its attribution or otherwise to another, Sax argues that it is primarily a question of dominance. Given that there are quite simply no conditions or criteria by which consciousness can in fact be either awarded or withheld, he writes, the human’s justification for domination is rather an illusion based principally upon ‘a trick of perspective’ (247). Hence, we need only shift that perspective just a little in order to disclose its fundamental bias. Consider, writes Sax, the crows of Sendai, who place walnuts under the wheels of cars stopped at traffic lights, nuts which are then cracked open as the cars move forward on green. ‘Quite possibly,’ he continues, ‘these crows believe that cars and trucks exist for the express purpose of crushing shells’ (247). Among other things, displacing the anthropocentric bias in this manner opens the way to a far more nuanced understanding of the various ways in which human and nonhuman beings co-exist and co-evolve within symbiotic relationships, and not as a result of domestication (from the Latin dominus) conceived as synonymous with domination.

That said, writes Sax, it is in fact technology, rather than other animals, which today more than ever is rendering the illusion of human dominance impossible to maintain. Indeed, he argues, an alien newly-arrived on Earth ‘might well think that computers were the dominant form of life, with human beings only present to build and service them’ (248). And how, the alien may well ask herself, might these human animals have come to be so utterly dominated in this fashion? Well, suggests Sax, the alien might very well conclude that humans must simply have been programmed that way, most likely set in motion by a series of automatic triggers of the most basic stimulus-response type (248).

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Second, the First Part

While retaining both brevity and simplicity of telling, the first part of Imaginary Animals concerns itself with the rather different task of responding in depth to a number of provocations that give each chapter its heading: namely, ‘Animal Encounters’; ‘What is an “Imaginary Animal”?’; ‘Every Real Animal is Imaginary’; ‘Every Imaginary Animal is Real’; and ‘Monsters.’

Focusing in the first chapter on the paradoxical figure of the ‘true unicorn,’ Sax clearly demonstrates why, should unicorns be discovered, no captured unicorn could ever be judged ‘authentic’ according to her species classification. From this, we can infer the impossibility of ever adequately defining and delimiting any species insofar as, if no newly emerging species can be defined, ergo neither can any existing or now-extinct species, including human beings. Sax dwells in some detail on this latter point and, while parts of the argument regarding human beings are interesting, some are nonetheless very problematic. He begins by arguing that to produce an adequate definition of the human species is, and always will be, impossible, simply because ‘the boundaries of what is considered human vary enormously by culture, by historical era and even in the course of an individual’s day-to-day experience’ (23). Thus, a bear in one place and time is thought capable of coupling with a human to produce a child while, in another, apes are assumed to be human while certain of tribespeople are not, or again, in another place and time, that the large cassowary bird is a human being is a fact blindingly obvious to all concerned. By any account, this is an important point to make.

However, writing now of the innumerable doomed attempts to define the human on the basis of an apparently unique property, be it tools, language, consciousness, death, etc., Sax seems to locate in this lack of a uniquely definitive property the very property it claims that humans lack. Human animals, in short, are ‘uniquely elusive’ insofar as they lack any uniquely human characteristic, but rather are always ‘disguised, airbrushed, rethought, hidden, exaggerated or otherwise altered’ (24). Given the inference that no species can ever be adequately defined and delimited, this is an extremely puzzling move indeed. Human animals, insists Sax, are unique because they elude definition, while at the same time insisting that unicorns, for example, also elude definition. Moreover, Sax’s definition of the properly human is almost as old as time, having been reiterated over and over again in myth and fable, most notably for us perhaps in the Greek myth of Epimetheus. Indeed, Western philosophy has depended for millennia upon just this notion of constitutive lack as proper to the human, before finally being taken to task by poststructuralist philosophy.

Immediately after making his claim for a properly human lack, Sax then states his desire to extend ‘the academic area called “anthrozoology” or “animal studies” … to the imagination, to myth and legend’ – a realm which, according to Sax at least, ‘has seldom been very anthropocentric’ (25). He attempts this, he writes, in order to ‘finally reveal our human claims to dominance to be illusory’ (25). That said, the claim that myth and legend are largely non-anthropocentric seems to me quite extraordinary, and the suggestion that in ‘folktales throughout the world, all forms of life, from human beings to foxes and trees, interact with something close to equality’ (25) would seem to fall prey both to a universalization of myth (which Sax rightly argues strenuously against throughout) and to a forgetting of that trick of perspectival bias that ultimately sustains an illusory belief in a global human dominance. Moreover, just such an anthropocentrism, precisely because it remains invisible and thus unquestioned, threatens to stall Sax’s project before it can even begin insofar as it potentially risks the silent extension of anthropocentrism – in the guise of its very expulsion – throughout the realm of animal studies. Instead, I would argue, it is necessary to engage adequately and repeatedly with anthropocentrism at every level, simply because it is something that can never be expelled, but only ignored.

Despite elsewhere acknowledging the importance of replacing dominance with symbiotic co-evolution, equally problematic here is a nostalgic regression of other animals to an illusory ‘primordial’ realm of ‘nonhuman cyclic time’ that, in typically Hegelian fashion, is imagined to predate the human world of names, categories, and concepts (31-32). Indeed, readers of animal studies will doubtless be familiar with this argument. Philosophical as much as physical engagements, however, have long shown the necessity of understanding the various controversies concerning temporality that, at the very least, mark it as a hugely complex and profoundly nuanced area of study. By contrast, such a simplistic opposition that pits an unexplored conception of linear time understood as properly human, against some equally unspecified kind of cyclic time said to universally characterize the massively divergent ways of being of all other animals, quite simply offers nothing; serving only to effectively obscure questions of temporality, the answers to which will inevitably bear heavily on the future directions of animal studies, be it an imaginary variant or not.

Here, one might well object to the reading being made here, pointing out that Sax is not, nor does he claim to be, a philosopher, and as such it is clearly unfair to reproach his work for its lack of philosophical rigor. In response, however, we should not forget that Sax’s explicitly stated aim with this book is to construct, or perhaps extend, animal studies so as to include imaginary animals of myth and fable within its remit. If we are to reasonably judge the possible success or otherwise of this endeavor – and, indeed, whether such an endeavor is necessary or even advisable – it is therefore necessary to engage with the work on the ground of contemporary animal studies, an area in which, in my opinion, rigorous philosophical and theoretical critique constitutes the primary component. Moreover, in this first part Sax himself explicitly intervenes in a number of philosophical controversies currently prominent within animal studies, an engagement which makes this part by far the more interesting of the two.

It is in this vein that Sax evokes the famous bathroom encounter between Jacques Derrida and his ‘little cat’ as related by Derrida in The Animal That Therefore I Am (2006) – a passage that, having being read both intensively and extensively, has rapidly established itself as a theoretical touchstone within animal studies. Indeed, Sax’s own reading would have doubtlessly benefitted from being clearly situated within this broader context. Lacking this wider engagement, however, what appears as an initially promising reading ends up veering off dramatically, ultimately losing itself insofar as Sax completely misreads Derrida’s analysis of the shared gaze. Entirely against Derrida’s account, Sax concludes by misinterpreting the encounter with the alien gaze of an (other) animal as being simply ‘an experience that takes us back to something pre-cultural’ and which thus awakens ‘primal responses’ that serve to remind those exceptional beings that are human of the arbitrariness of ‘civilization’ in which such pride is taken. It perhaps goes without saying that Sax’s Christianized conception of Nature – as a previously Edenic realm from which all other animals were subsequently expelled as a consequence of the Fall announced by the arrival of the time-bound and thus historical human – represents a complete anathema to Derrida’s thought. Indeed, in positing the existence of a mythic and timeless animal realm, particularly one that reserves for human animals alone the possibility of experiencing an authentic ‘primordial response,’ Sax seems to be suggesting that the primary function of “Nature” is in fact to humble a self-aggrandizing humanity that would otherwise be consumed by arrogance and hubris.2

At this point, Sax cites Donna Haraway’s equally well-known critique of the Derrida passage, in which she justifiably takes Derrida to task for failing to consider the actuality of the cat – that is, her singular, nonsubstitutable existence and specific ways of being – as being relevant to the encounter. Building on this, Sax argues that, by the end of his lecture, Derrida ultimately reduces his ‘actual’ cat to a mere philosophical cipher, further suggesting that, regarding the bathroom scene at least, Derrida had perhaps ‘been writing as a poet when he suddenly remembered that he was really a philosopher’ (35). Again, however, the opposition of poet and philosopher put forward by Sax sounds a very odd note, particularly given its application to Derrida, who must take a large part of the credit for the thoroughgoing deconstruction of just this pairing. Despite this, Sax finds in Derrida’s lecture the constant battle of poet and philosopher, with the former demonstrating a longing for transcendence in his repeated attempt to reach out toward the cat’s ‘alien presence’ while, with at least an equal persistence, the latter insists upon an understanding that transcendence remains forever impossible (35). Moreover, writes Sax, this internal conflict between can be discerned by way of the ‘simple contradiction’ to which Derrida is said to fall prey. This contradiction is, continues Sax, rather an obvious one, wherein Derrida insists that this being who gazes upon him ‘cannot be classified or named’ while at the same time continuing ‘to call it [sic] a “cat”’ (35). Once again, however, Sax’s would-be coup reveals only a lack of any serious engagement with Derrida’s philosophy, particularly as regards the notion of the trace and its implication for traditional conceptions of language.

Indeed, this absence of engagement is further highlighted by Sax’s suggestion that Derrida could in fact have very easily avoided the contradictory application of the concept ‘cat’ to a being who refuses conceptualization by way of a simple expedient, namely that, instead of employing the word ‘cat,’ he could simply draw a picture of the inconceivable cat. Somewhat worrying here, is that Sax does not appear to grasp that pictures too take place only as a result of habitually acquired and unthinkingly deployed concepts, with drawings of cats serving just as well as labels and names as might those attributed in word form or that of a poetic fragment or algebraic equation. To imagine otherwise would be to assume that pictograms are wholly idiomatic, and thus immune to the delays and difference that condition every making of sense or production of meaning.

In concluding his reading, Sax argues that philosopher-Derrida ultimately silences poet-Derrida by forcing him to read ‘a huge book’ (35). At the last second, however, poet-Derrida is said to force out a last gasp claim that ‘an animal transcends all attempts at conceptualization, even by learned academics’ (35). Sax, it should be noted, is not claiming a direct citation. Nonetheless, this apparently objective summation in fact constitutes a further serious misreading. Derrida’s actual statement reads: ‘Nothing can ever take away from me the certainty that what we have here [in reference to the specific little cat gazing upon his nakedness] is an existence that refuses to be conceptualized’ (9). Clearly, one finds nothing here in support of Sax’s reading according to which any given nonhuman animal necessarily transcends conceptualization, as what appears to be both consequence and property of a common animality from which humanity is excluded. Indeed, to say that a given existence refuses conceptualization is very different from saying that that same existence transcends conceptualization. In one case, such an existence refuses absolutely to be subjugated by the shackles of conceptual control, instead forever exceeding externally imposed boundaries and, in so doing, disrupting every attempt to impose upon it a dominate univocal sense. In the other, however, every organism currently contained within the commonly-accepted concept of ‘animal’ always already transcends not just this very conceptualization by which such transcendental beings are identified, but every such conceptualization insofar as actual nonhuman animals therefore exist upon some plane of being both higher and superior than that upon which humans, as sole possessors of language and thus concepts, are thus condemned to remain.

Moving on to a consideration of the obscure ontological status of ‘Imaginary Animals’ in the next chapter, Sax refers to recent research in a number of fields, including cognitive psychology, in order to demonstrate that, in our ‘postmodern era,’ experience and imagination can no longer be considered opposites. This, he writes, is because perception is never immediate, but is rather a largely imaginative process of construction, at once biological and cultural, built upon ‘conceptual frameworks, visual stimuli, sounds, memories, and so on’ (40). Perception, in other words, is always already apperception, from which Sax concludes that experience therefore ‘does much to determine what stimuli we notice, and prior beliefs affect how we implicitly classify and interpret them’ (40-41). Such a conclusion, however, simply does not go far enough, even despite the important critiques of Eurocentrism and anthropocentrism that follow it, insofar as it leaves itself open to a reinscription of the humanist Kantian subject – a reinscription this reconfiguration of perception as mediated process renders impossible.

That aside for a moment, Sax makes the point here that the experience of perceiving another animal is always in large part the process of constructing an imaginary animal.3 Furthermore, he writes,

animals are the major templates used in the construction of human identity, whether universal, tribal or individual. Imaginary ones in particular are a record of the changes in humankind, as we absorb, lay claim or try to disown features that we discover in other creatures. And because people constantly not only appropriate aspects of the appearance, habits and abilities of other animals but draw on their identities as well, in ways that are almost as various as the animals themselves, there is a great diversity among human cultures and individuals (46).

Clearly, Sax is making a big claim here: namely, that cultural difference – and thus culture ‘itself’ – is either, largely or entirely, reducible to the result and record of the humanity’s arrogation of the appearance, habits, abilities, and even identities of other animals.

This, however, raises a whole series of questions, not least of which being that, if the construction of ‘culture’ and thus ‘human identity’ (or vice versa) depends upon the appropriation of (other) animals, then is culture- and identity-construction an entirely human province? If so, then the animal ‘identities’ thus arrogated must be entirely imaginary and, if not, other animals must thus also take part in culture- and identity-construction. Here, however, Sax seems at no point to entertain the notion that nonhuman animals also possess culture, despite empirical evidence to the contrary. Rather, it seems as if human metaphoricity at this point overwhelms and erases the existential specificity common to every animal, human and nonhuman, reinstating the privileged liberal Kantian subject as it goes. Only humans, in other words, are both biological and cultural, in contrast to all other, ‘merely’ biological animals. But what happens in that case to perception-as-apperception? The simplest perception, we recall, is a largely imaginative process of construction that is at once biological and cultural. What, then, becomes of nonhuman perception? It hardly seems likely that Sax would suggest that all other animals are incapable of experiencing their environment through their senses. This problem, I would argue, is a result of not working through further implications of the ‘postmodern’ understanding of perception, in particular as regards the possibility or otherwise of traditional biology-culture and nature-culture dualisms.

This too marks a concern I have with the notion of an imaginary Animal Studies such as Sax articulates here: namely, that it risks detracting from actual animals. No doubt, Sax himself would abhor such an outcome and, indeed, such an outcome is in no way necessary. What is perhaps necessary, however, is a reconsideration of the notion of the ‘imaginary animal’ which, according to Sax,

is a creature that seems to belong to a realm fundamentally different from, yet somehow allied with, our own … An imaginary animal is a sort of “second self” for an individual human being, an association of people or even the entire human race – something we might have been, might become, fear turning into or aspire to (47).

This is not to say, however, that such an argument is without merit. Indeed, in terms of a proposed new area of study, Sax could easily have strengthened his argument by paying attention to the specific construction of contemporary monsters beyond that of Sasquatch and the occasional brief reference to biotechnology. As it stands in its’ admittedly speculative and provisional form, however, it remains difficult for me to see how such a conception answers to anything other than a desire to find an academic home for the collection and collation of whatever might constitute the postmodern equivalent of the mediaeval bestiary. Of course, this is not to say that such an equivalent would therefore be without interest – on the contrary, a postmodern bestiary would doubtless prove fascinating. My point is simply that, if the remit of Imaginary Animal Studies is to be something other than this, as Sax himself clearly imagines, then it must seek its grounding elsewhere than in the hubris of the Kantian subject.

No doubt, part of the problem here results from the constraints imposed by an attempt to appeal to academic and popular readerships simultaneously. Even with these constraints, Sax nonetheless still manages on occasion to display his undeniable critical acumen to devastating effect, most notably in his rebuttal of both the humanism and universality of Steven Mithen’s theory of cognitive fluidity, and again during his engagement with Paul A. Trout’s argument that the fear of being consumed by predators constitutes the foundation of religious awe and thus worship.

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Conclusion: The Last Part

In the short conclusion, Sax returns to the limits of human concepts, and particularly in relation to what this means for rights discourse in the case of other animals. All animals, he reiterates, are ‘probably impossible’ to fit neatly within the categories of human thought. While this might seem rather banal at first glance, this is in fact an absolutely crucial point that so many concerned with other animals could do well to heed. For example, asks Sax, are other animals moral? Well, he answers himself, ‘which morality did you have in mind? … A Mafia don, a Viking warrior or a Confucian scholar?’ (251). What about a sense of time? Do other animals have that? Again, Sax answers himself, which time did you have in mind, linear time or cyclic time, time as conceived ‘by Buddha, Newton or Einstein?’ (251). After dealing in similar fashion with a sense of self, of consciousness, and of death, Sax makes the central point that most research inquiring into such questions ‘is not only anthropocentric but extremely ethnocentric as well,’ and constitutes an obstacle that is ‘true of all of … approaches to animal rights’ which seek to extend contemporary human concepts to other forms of life (252). As Sax notes, such approaches may – at best – afford some small protection to a very small number of other animals whom humans perceive as sufficiently similar to themselves. At worst, i.e., when elevated to a universal principle, the only possible result is that of an oppressive imposition of concepts serving only to deny ‘distinctness and autonomy’ (253). Instead of attempting to impose our world, writes Sax, we should rather try to enter theirs.

All of this, I believe, remains timely and important. I am, however, less convinced by the specifics of the alternative proposed by Sax, who maintains that to effect such an entry one needs only a heightened sensitivity and imagination whilst at the same time placing an increased trust upon our ‘poetic imaginations’ (253). Regardless of the degree of imaginative sensitivity, such encounters will always depend upon established patterns of human thought, and as such this would seem to amount to little more than the somewhat trivial suggestion that we humans be more open to other animals. What makes Sax’s approach different from so many others, however, is the priority he gives to imaginary animals (in the narrow sense of the word). Such animals are, he writes, ‘based on real ones,’ albeit with their common kinship and strangeness intensified to an uncommon degree and, as such, they constitute a human ‘mirror test’ (253). It is this, continues Sax, which makes them both good to think and good to dream. They remind us, he writes, of all which we do not know, and thus they warn against arrogance; in Gothic churches, they ‘caution against fanaticism’; in palaces, they recall us to the temporary limits of power; and in libraries, they provide ‘a check on both pride and cynicism’ (253). Because of all of this, he concludes, imaginary animals promise transcendence: ‘Fantastic animals direct us to, and then beyond, the limitations of normal routines, social conventions, religious dogma and perhaps even cosmic law’ (253-254). Perhaps. But perhaps such fantastic human constructions are themselves already mere instances of normal routine and social convention. Moreover, if transcendence is indeed at stake, one cannot help but question where, exactly, other animals are in all this and, indeed, how this alone might offer more than even the limited potential afforded by contemporary rights discourse.

Unfortunately, perhaps, Sax’s latest book is inevitably caught in a double bind, opening itself to criticism precisely in the moment that it dares to go beyond a straightforward cross-referenced encyclopedia to become something different and considerably more interesting. In this sense, a critical response such as this one proves above all that this work does not concern itself with interminable collection collated into terminable lists, but rather reaches toward something entirely other. In this sense at least, Imaginary Animals is indeed exemplary of the field of animal studies at its best.

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Notes

  1. The answer, by the way, is yes, of course we should. And considerably further too.
  2. As such, it is useful here to counterpoint Sax’s exegesis with a brief summary of the text it claims to elucidate. Thus, Derrida seeks to take account of a thoroughly disarming encounter with the ‘bottomless gaze’ of a feline companion whilst standing naked in his bathroom one morning. As both border-crossing and absolute limit, Derrida describes the encounter as ‘an instant of extreme passion’ that constructs a vantage from which man might, at long last, finally dare to announce himself to himself. Further, he continues, to encounter the gaze of the absolutely other is to lose one’s self in the apocalyptic event of absolute potentiality that, in the very same instant a vantage becomes finally attainable, announces nothing other than the ends of man.
  3. Here we discover a particularly interesting overlap of Sax’s major concerns with those worked through by Tom Tyler in his CIFERAE: A Bestiary in Five Fingers, published by the University of Minnesota Press in the same year as part of their influential ‘Posthumanities’ series.
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The Protagorean Presumption and the Posthuman (Part Two)

Okay, so here is the promised second part of the long draft of my paper dealing with Tom Tyler’s CIFERAE and Vilem Flusser & Louis Bec’s Vampyroteuthis Infernalis.

 

Part Two: The posthuman future: Eating Well

 

Belly Out! The movement of mouth and anus

As with Kant and his imaginary Venusians, Flusser must first of all separate the vampyroteuthis from “mere” animals and, moreover, must do so without contradicting his ideology of evolutionary teleology which preserves the pinnacle of creation for humanity alone. Hence, Flusser notes right at the start that the skull capacity of the vampyroteuthis “exceeds our own” (5). In what is a dogmatic first move of human exceptionalism, this pseudo-scientific wielding of “skull capacity” already ensures that neither humans nor vampyroteuthis’ might be mistaken for a mere animal.

Unlike Kant’s Venusian, however, the vampyroteuthis is not unknowable. Indeed, for Flusser, if his analysis is to avoid the transcendental delusion and thus remain “in” the world of a “co-being,” the vampyroteuthis cannot be “entirely alien to us” (5). A large part of this familiarity, it should be noted, concerns the construction and legitimation of the vampyroteuthis as a suitably “proper” (that is, non-animal) model of the human. Hence, the abyss between the vampyroteuthis and the human is “incomparably smaller than that which separates us from extraterrestrial life” (5). As the distance between the human and itself, this abyss is incomparably smaller, too, than that which for Flusser divides “we (humans)” from “we (animals).”

Nevertheless, if we are to remain within the world, the vampyroteuthis must evolve.

Sharing a common ancestor and thus a number of “deeply ingrained memories,” “we” belong to the “same game” of life (6). Furthermore, their subsequent paths of evolution, in mirroring each other perfectly, thus constitute, supposedly each for the other, a compressed record of evolutionary suppression and sociopolitical repression. Here, then, the contours of “the human” are seen to emerge in contrast to an “outside,” the construction of which presupposes the very knowledge of the human that it then claims to reveal. Put simply, despite plumbing the blackest ocean depths with its bone-crushing pressure, the vampyroteuthis – this “animal” who is not an animal – begins and ends with the (same) human.

Putting this aside for the moment, Flusser’s tale of reflected evolution nonetheless offers a number of provocative observations ranging across a variety of disciplines. Firstly, in being composed entirely of superimposed suppressions, every “organism” is therefore an event of stratified memory. As such, and not a little paradoxically, “human personality” – for Flusser the experience common to the tēlos of creation itself – finds itself reduced to “muscle cramping and individual posture” (28).

This mirroring of stratified suppressions is no mere trope. Rather, the human and the vampyroteuthis have literally turned their faces away from each other. Arbitrarily taking as a starting point the horizontal axis of the cipherous “four-footed” animal, Flusser describes how the cephalopod turns ninety degrees clockwise, her face curling downwards, towards the anus. The human, by contrast, turns ninety degrees anticlockwise, her face moving upwards, away from the anus, until, ultimately, she stands erect, liberating her hands.

These mirrored trajectories reflect an evolutionary “choice” between mouth and anus, that is, between digestive system and nervous system – the proto-human “chose” the former, the proto-vampyroteuthis the latter. Later, the path of the vampyroteuthis diverges once again, refusing a potential future of exoskeletons, antennae, and multiple legs in favour of a downwards “migration” – towards the anus – of the sensory and tactile organs. “Cephalopods are, then, our antipodes: elevated intelligent abdomens, unelevated brains” (18).

Precisely because she is the antipode of the human, however, the vampyroteuthis must be similarly exceptional. Hence, in order to establish an abyssal distance between her and other, mere “animal” mollusks, Flusser writes how, in a way analogous but opposite to human beings, the vampyroteuthis “unwound its mollusk coil into a perpendicular line” (23). In other words, the vampyroteuthis has, like the human, “straightened up.” Tellingly, for straightening in this way, Flusser awards the vampyroteuthis a hand or, at least, part of one: uncoiling, she becomes “an open palm, touching and absorbing the world to fill its elevated stomach” (23). Hence, with this movement hand and mouth become one. With these analogous hands, the one grasping and the other absorbing, both humans and vampyroteuthis’ have, writes Flusser, surmounted their animality, estranged from earth and sky respectively (23).

Here, then, both the human and the vampyroteuthis have transcended evolution. At the same time, however, both are also the result of “the blind chance of the ‘game of life’” (25). As “analogously alienated” from the animal realm, how might we understand this? Why the insistence upon a biological understanding of “analogy,” when what defines the human and the vampyroteuthis is the fact they alone are “superbiological” beings? Despite their place at the summit of evolution, Flusser argues that humans and vampyroteuthis’ are both “poorly programmed” beings whose analogy is entirely coincidental, that is, the utterly arbitrary result of blind chance (25).

Paradoxically, Flusser is thus attempting – somewhat desperately – to hold on to a reductive sociobiological “explanation” of “life” whilst simultaneously positing the human as an exceptional supra-biological being who has in some way transcended the “game of life.” Moreover, it is precisely this alienation from “much of [biological] life’s domain” that authorises its reflection in the figure of the vampyroteuthis – a figure similarly definable, in contrast to other animals, by its banishment from life. Both human and vampyroteuthis are, in other words, somehow the result of “life’s” programming and thoroughly unnatural beings defined by lack, that is, by their shared lack of life. Here, then, we disclose once more that age-old schema, that of the “original sin of human genesis, the difference that marks its manifest destiny” (Kirby “Human Exceptionalism on the Line”).

Returning to consider their reflexive relations, Flusser follows Wilhelm Reich in arguing that there are in fact only two fundamental attitudes toward life, love, and war, attitudes dependent upon the mouth-anus relation. On one side, in bending backwards to distance mouth from anus, the human adopts a militant “chest out!” position, a position with a tendency towards rigor mortis and the armoured status of insects.  On the other side, in bending forwards to bring mouth and anus closer together, the vampyroteuthis adopts the “belly out” position of the Buddha, a position tending towards love and selflessness and softness. The human, then, is militant and moribund, associated with death (thanatos), while the mollusk is libidinous, generous and soft-bodied, associated with love (eros).

At this point, however, Flusser takes Reich to task for failing to predict the emergence of the vampyroteuthis, understood as a further, “post-animal” stage of development. For Reich, the vampyroteuthis should represent the ultimate triumph of love over death. However, in taking a further step, the vampyroteuthis rejects the dialectical synthesis of mouth-anus and so, unfurling its palm in an explosive release of bioenergetic force, rejects “a state of total love in the direction of total death” and is thus a being that, “despite devouring its own anus, is the most bellicose of all living creatures” (29).

 

Eating Well: Shock and doubt

The body of the vampyroteuthis, we thus discover, is an open palm tending in the direction of total death. As the antipode of the bipedal human, it remains for Flusser to ask, given that a negative model (total death beyond total love) now exists, what does this “mean” for “our” (human) world? Ultimately, as we shall see, it opens up a vision of the human utopia as permanent orgasm. Flusser begins, however, by posing the question in specifically Heideggerian terms. Two models of Dasein, he claims, “extrapolated from the ‘same’ environment, have come crashing together: paradise and hell,” and it is this which “provides the groundwork for a dialogue” (35). The point of contact of this dialogue, if that is indeed what it is, is between the hand and the tentacle; an analogy that in turn produces a whole slew of analogous pairings.[i] Flusser embarks upon this dialogue by outlining what can be best described as an imaginary phenomenology of tentacular engagement.

First of all, the vampyroteuthic world is neither visible nor apparent; rather, it is rendered so by the vampyroteuthis’ own lights. Consequently, the two worlds – the light and the dark, air and water – are perceived through entirely different methods. While the human world is firm, requiring that human animals “have to ‘undergo’ it – perambulate it – in order to grasp it,” the world of the vampyroteuthis is fluid, requiring the vampyroteuthis to “take hold” of the world as it flows past (38). Hence, humans actively comprehend their world as static and established, while vampyroteuthic comprehension is at once passive and impassioned. The vampyroteuthis, in other words, comprehends what “happens upon it” as opposed to what one happens upon, with the result that humans have problems, while vampyroteuthis’ have impressions (39).

These analogous phenomenologies serve to define their respective cultures. Objects, as problems, must be moved out of the way. Hence, human culture is “an activity aimed against stationary objects, a deliverance from established things (from natural laws)” (39). By contrast, objects perceived as free-floating entities that one “happens-upon” results in a culture of incorporation understood in both its simple and psychoanalytic senses. Vampyroteuthic culture, that is to say, is “an act of discriminating between digestible and indigestible entities” (39). In other words, “culture” for the vampyroteuthis is always a question – both literal and symbolic – of eating well.

The external world, writes Flusser, as a reflection of sunlight off of things, only ever appears to human beings and, as such, it can deceive us. Human beings, he continues, imagine they must penetrate this “veil of light” in order to disclose the eternal truths that only ever appear improperly in the “things” of our world (39).[ii] Hence, writes Flusser, human animals are “born Platonists” who only belatedly become Kantian and so escape the delusions of realism. More precisely, as we shall see in a moment, Flusser’s born Platonists are in fact born into the Republic.

The vampyroteuthis, by contrast, “irradiates” a world of perfect darkness with her own point of view. Phenomena, in other words, are engendered by her bioluminescent organs, resulting in an external world that “cannot deceive because it is a self-generated deception (39, emphasis added). The vampyroteuthis, that is, is never duped into seeking eternal truths hiding behind appearances. Never the dupe of realism, the vampyroteuthis is rather “a born Kantian” for whom Plato comes later.

In addition, the hand-tentacle and handle-suck analogy reveals further philosophical alignments. Insofar as human sexual organs are only indirectly connected to the hands and eyes, the human brain often receives contradictory sensory information that must be resolved into “empirical experiences” (40). As such, the human brain doubts, the human world is dubious, and thus the human animal is a doubting Cartesian. The sexual organs of the vampyroteuthis, meanwhile, are “partially located” on the tentacles and are, like her eyes, “directly connected to its brain” (40). Flusser does not, however, explain just how such a contact might be “direct” insofar as any such connection is necessarily a mediated relation. Instead, for Flusser any such contact simply “ought” to be immediate, that is, according to pre-existing framework that already presupposes an oppositional relation; in this instance, the opposite of human indirection. For the vampyroteuthis, then, all phenomenological impressions – understood as simultaneously tentacular, optic, and sexual – are said to arrive already processed and thus unified, making contradiction impossible. As a result, writes Flusser, the world of the vampyroteuthis “is not doubtful but surprising … an unbroken stream of Aristotelian shock” (40).

For the surprised Aristotelian vampyroteuthis, then, the information flow is explicitly and directly libidinal, whereas for the Cartesian human this same information flow is habitually shrouded by conceptual distance. The human animal encounters the world indirectly, by handling it; the vampyroteuthis encounters the world directly, through sex. Passivity, as the world rushes past, is in this way transformed into passion (41).

 

Conceptual orgasm and sexual syllogism

Such an unceasing and direct stream of creative Aristotelian shock is necessarily identical with the vampyroteuthic body, which thus exists in a state Flusser describes as both “artistic ejaculation” and “permanent orgasm.” Here, however, several problems with Flusser’s account quickly become visible, all of which are related to vampyroteuthic time or, rather, to the absence of any engagement regarding questions of vampyroteuthic temporality. Indeed, Flusser a priori analogical schema here clearly displays its limitations. While the opposite of (human) time according to such a schema can only be (nonhuman) nontime, this would inevitably make of the vampyroteuthis an in-finite being existing outside of the temporal universe – thus causing Flusser to fall prey to the very “transcendental delusion” he seeks to guard against.

Returning to the twin questions of orgasm and time, Flusser begins with artistic ejaculation, stating that the unbroken stream of shocked surprise “overwhelms” the vampyroteuthis, he writes, causing chromatophores in the skin “to contract and emit coloured secretions” (64). This moment of clenched emission is, he continues, “an artistic orgasm during which its [sic] colourful ejaculations are encrypted into vampyroteuthic code (64, emphasis added). The question, then, is how might an unceasing and unbroken stream of impression(s) that is identical with embodiment give rise to an ejaculatory moment of orgasm?

How, in other words, given the unending nature of creative vampyroteuthic shock, can the event of orgasm be delimited? In later deeming this unceasing stream to be that of “permanent orgasm,” Flusser only further highlights the problem: how, in the midst of orgasm, can one experience – that is, punctuate a (singular) orgasm, artistic or otherwise? Does vampyroteuthic Dasein consist of one long orgasm, or an infinite series of overlapping orgasms? Moreover, if one’s entire existence is orgasm, might one not also say that such an existence is, by definition, never to experience an orgasm? Here, the organisational priority of Flusser’s reflexive schema not only creates these problems, but also requires that Flusser shy away from producing a vampyroteuthic Being and Time.

Interestingly, the text’s status as a fable carries with it a tendency to invalidate necessary questions such as these. Fables, after all, are not supposed to be “realistic,” and yet, the possibility or otherwise of an existence indistinguishable from orgasm is the very question this “fable” sets out in all seriousness to explore. Indeed, its centrality becomes obvious once we consider that the human analogue of the vampyroteuthic orgasm is the concept. We also begin to perceive a certain Nietzschean inter-text or hypertext that haunts Flusser’s fable.

First of all, the concept-orgasm opposition implies an equivalent vampyroteuthic temporality: according to Flusser, the movement of the syllogism constitutes the “time” of the concept, a temporal movement that finds its analogue in vampyroteuthic copulation. For the human, in other words, the syllogistic process forms – or ejaculates – a concept, whereas for the vampyroteuthis copulation ejaculates – or forms – a colour-coded orgasm. Moreover, given that vampyroteuthic Dasein “is” orgasm, do human animals therefore exist only “in” concept? In other words, are humans only insofar as they are conceptual? And is this one continuous conceptualisation, or its opposite? Are concepts, in opposition to orgasms, punctual, overlapping or identical? Finally, in opposition to the flow of Aristotelian shock and artistic ejaculation, is the conceptual Dasein of the human therefore necessarily inartistic?

With unwitting irony, according to Flusser the libidinal durée of the vampyroteuthic Dasein represents nothing less than a critique of the limits of reflection, and thus of a certain kind of conceptual objectivity. In contrast to the human who always perceives, and thus conceives, of the world within her own reflection, the vampyroteuthis, insofar as she emits light, thus “delineates the darkness into rations before they are conceived,” therefore marking out her reason as preconceptual (47). She thus perceives things rationally first, in order to subsequently comprehend with her tentacles what the “light-reason has already rationalized” (47). Moreover, insofar as the sexual organs of the vampyroteuthis simultaneously function as organs of sense, any concept abstracted from the “illuminated cones” of preconceptual reason is thus already sexualised and gendered (47).

Such a movement of vampyroteuthic comprehension, however, clearly requires some form of spacing or discretisation – and thus distancing – to serve as the a priori condition for any perception of time. Such a discretisation, moreover, instead of making every contradiction disappear, rather guarantees the impossibility of any such perfect immunity from potential contradiction. At the very least, the temporality of vampyroteuthic comprehension seriously undermines Flusser’s claim that the vampyroteuthis experiences the unceasing libidinal flow of information immediately, that is, in a perfectly transparent form which, in being identical with her very existence, can never take flight in unexpected directions nor drift into alien contexts and registers.[iii] Take, for example, the argument that every vampyroteuthic concept is gendered a priori. Even before being abstracted, writes Flusser, every proto-concept has already been moulded into its particular shape by the sociopolitical crucible that engenders it. As such, Flusser’s preconceptual conceptual gendering can in fact only emerge from within an enormous network of deeply enmeshed relationships. Abstracted from out of this endless, orgasmic durée of experience, the vampyroteuthic concept thus necessitates a leap into what can only be an utterly discontinuous domain. Indeed, enlarging the notion of language in “On Truth and Lie” to include the tropological functioning of any and all perception and affection, that is, of any filtering of information whatsoever, Nietzsche shows that each and every such leap – every production of sense of whatever stripe or species – is necessarily a translation [übertragung].

Leaving aside this hugely problematic notion of unmediated perception for a moment, might anything be salvaged from the notion of a prior “gendering” of concepts? Firstly, it is clear that, for Flusser, gender is reducible to a simple either-or: either male or female, with no thought for bisexed, intersexed, or multiply-sexed bodyings. According to Flusser, this pre-gendering of concepts equates to a philosophy of physicality, that is, a dialectic of bodies with copulation as initial contradiction and orgasm as its sublation – such sublations-copulationsthereafter serving as models for perceiving phenomena. For the vampyroteuthis, then, philosophy is copulation while, for Flusser, philosophy is the Hegelian dialectic. Moreover, while humankind in general negotiates contradiction with “cold logic” and syllogisms, for the vampyroteuthis negotiation is coitus, with orgasm as its successful resolution (42). Unsurprisingly, however, in once again starting from an unthought – and thus dogmatic – opposition (male-female), Flusser is constrained to “disclose” nothing but one more simplistic mirror-image: the libidinal “first” philosophy of the vampyroteuthis presupposes its mirror in human psychoanalysis, just as human philosophy presupposes its reverse in a vampyroteuthic history that begins with Freud and ends with Pythagoras.

In a sense, then, Flusser follows Nietzsche in arguing that concepts are just “empty husks,” preliminary to all thinking. The huge difference, however, concerns the fact that, for Nietzsche, the formation of such concepts is definitive of life in general, whereas for Flusser it is the defining factor guaranteeing human exceptionalism. This difference is, once again, the difference between reflection and diffraction: the difference between gender as an either-or and gender as the production of singular bodyings. Only with the latter, I would suggest, might the production-undergoing of conceptual relating take on something of the orgasmic. Without it, conceptual gender difference never moves beyond a simplistic recognition of the fact that gender impacts upon the received sense of concepts. First, though, we must reflect on this psychoanalytic mirror which, according to Flusser, reveals the importance of vampyroteuthic reflection.

 

Republic of squid: democracy and cannibalistic animality

The vampyroteuthis, argues Flusser, can tell “us humans” something very important about ourselves and our history, namely that human animals have suppressed the sexual in favour of the digestive. The specifically human way of handling objects, he suggests, is exemplary in its privileging of the digestive, while human sex finds itself reproduced as both “animalistic and ahistorical” (49). Furthermore, writes Flusser, the suppression of sexuality originates in the male fear of female rebellion. Hence, to disclose the secret libidinal history of humanity, to sexualise the entirety of perception and affection, is at once to challenge institutional patriarchy, to disclose masculine insecurity at the base of societal order, and to open the space for a specifically feminine deposition. This notion of the “feminine” is, I would suggest, best understood through Nietzsche’s engagement with Ariadne, and especially by way of the readings offered by Derrida in Éperons and “Otobiographies.”

Staying with Flusser, ahistorical conceptual arrestation gives way to an historical suppression of the female by the male who, having initially relied upon greater physical strength, thereafter institutionalises this suppression by posting border guards at the body’s various orifices, with the mouth occupying the prime position. Interestingly, within the mouth of the vampyroteuthis one finds a gland that, secreting “a paralyzing poison,” arrests the flow of incoming information, a spacing that produces intelligible forms to be communicated later (51). The delineation and arrestation of form is, in other words, a poison that passes by way of the mouth. Such, then, is the question of eating well. Central in this regard are the key psychoanalytic concepts of incorporation, introjection, and ingestion.

The vampyroteuthis, writes Flusser, absorbs the world, that is, she incorporates it. Humans, by contrast, contemplatethe world. Whereas the vampyroteuthis hates the world, the human loves it, an opposition that manifests itself in the desire of the human animal to experience the vampyroteuthis, and the desire of the vampyroteuthis to swallow the human. It is not by chance, then, that for Flusser the analogue of human reason is the vampyroteuthic dream, and that the critique of pure reason is analogous to vampyroteuthic psychoanalysis. To bring all these factors together, we must go all the way back to the beginning of human history (and therefore into the future of the vampyroteuthis). We must, in other words, return to (or ultimately arrive at) the ideal Republic of Plato. Therein, we find an intensely dramatic portrayal that begins with the male fear of female rebellion and, through the digestive repression of sexuality moving by way of the mouth, ends with the institutional posting of orificial guards. Further, we begin to get a sense of the political implications of Dasein experienced as permanent orgasm.

Of course, whatever the particular form of political utopia to which the vampyroteuthis may aspire, it will necessarily represent an anti-Republic insofar as it is libidinal through and through and, as such, is in a strict, human sense unthinkable. It is perhaps this same unthinkability that compels Flusser, as a “born Platonist” (and thus coupled with some form of bizarre genetic determinism), to restage the ancient Republic whilst claiming for it a radical act of “unshrouding.” As we shall see later, however, what these Emperor’s New Clothes ultimately reveal are simply the limits of a reflexive methodology.

According to Plato, if the Republic is to endure then creaturely desire must be suppressed at its root. Such desire is for Plato characteristic of the labouring animal body – a lowly group which, in times of crisis, comprises nonhuman animals (who either labour with their bodies or labour through their bodies), women (whose labour is all too literal), and male slaves (waged or otherwise). Bereft of the salve of reason, the members of these groups are unable to control what is both the beast of the body and the body of the beast, thus wallowing shamelessly in incest, bestiality, and cannibalism. Not by chance, this figure of the beast rampaging through the domestic arena follows on directly from Plato’s claim that the “equal freedoms” characteristic of democracy, in being shared also by women and by domestic animals, constitutes both origin and symptom of imminent tyranny. Hence, insists Plato, the labouring animal body must be a priori “tamed” through the force-feeding of an institutional “Guardian.” Indeed, for Plato creaturely desire overlaps largely – and is at time identical with – the “urge” or “instinct” for democracy.[iv]

Moreover, should just one labouring, desiring body – whether for corporeal pleasure or for democratic order – be left free, the rulers of the Republic risk letting loose a cannibalistic animality. For Plato both the labouring body and the democratic instinct must be enslaved beneath the “best,” the proper instrument of which is, quite simply, the mouth, described by Plato as that through which the necessary enters and the best exits. The best thus exits but never enters the mouth, is never ingested or digested, but rather, in being installed through other orifices, penetrates and places within the body an external guardian of the Law to take the place of sleeping reason. The feminine labouring body, in short, must incorporate the Law as both foreign and determining, “set free” only once the cannibalistic instinct that is revolution is imprisoned within a further crypt. Without this enforced incorporation, the feminine gives rise to an orgasmic rebellion pursued through a newly-libidinal animal body utterly consumed by desire.

In Flusser’s account, meanwhile, we discover that the female vampyroteuthis is physically larger than the male (thus inverting the human “might is right” origin of our patriarchal socius) and, as a species, possesses a “somewhat unnerving” reproductive system, its libidinal saturation demonstrated by sheer number of penises, “clitorises,” and secondary orifices (20). Moreover, and far from coincidentally, political freedom for the vampyroteuthis is cannibalism. Ultimately, the promise underpinning the detailed reconstruction of vampyroteuthic society, history, and culture is located here, as the libidinal mirror-image of the Republic and thus the negation to be negated.

What “shape,” therefore, does an encounter with the vampyroteuthis promise? Transferred to the abyss, the human plane becomes a vampyroteuthic volume, with space replaced by a realm of coiled tension (42), and the eternal, geometric Platonic forms replaced by Nietzschean mutability and revaluation, that is, by an ever surprising (Aristotelian) plasticity of impression. As we have seen, humans “desire” an experience of the vampyroteuthis, whereas the vampyroteuthis desires to swallow humanity. Nevertheless, it is just such a contact that underpins Flusser’s utopian project: it is precisely on the surface, that is, where sea meets sky, that the bland, veneered, Apollonian human world must encounter the energy-laden, brutal, orgiastic and Dionysian world of the vampyroteuthis.

Here, then, vampyroteuthic “culture” becomes a posthuman Birth of Tragedy, and the vampyroteuthis a posthuman figure. On the one side, we find Captain Picard’s (imperialist, rationalistic) quest for experience, his “hands-on” approach (“all hands on deck”), compared to the vampyroteuthis-Borg’s quest for incorporation (i.e., swallowing, assimilation). Such is a specifically Nietzschean Borg, divested of its (Platonic) geometric rigour (of its cube ship), her sepia ink-sculptures always already fluid. The “hive-mind,” we recall, is the highest evolutionary form, yet here its eternal fixed geometry is replaced by an orgiastic fluidity of form experienced as passion, as an explosive uncoiling releasing vast amounts of repressed sexual energy.

Lastly, with Flusser’s final “analogy” of truth and lie, Nietzsche’s own “On Truth and Lie” is revealed as the secret text of the “orgasmic, orphic, and artistic” vampyroteuthis (53). For this, however, we must first understand the peculiarly glandular forms of historicity and communication characteristic of the vampyroteuthis.

 

Historicity, Language, and Short Circuiting Artefacts

Here, the vampyroteuthis shares much with Bernard Stiegler, arguing that humanity rests far too heavily upon its inanimate mnemonic crutches. As a result of this “blunder,” human history can never be “genuine” insofar as it can never be “properly intersubjective” (50). However, whereas Stiegler argues that the danger concerning the transfer of human knowledge onto “psychotechnologies” is the defining characteristic of our current information age, Flusser, by contrast, suggests that all of human history is a failure, presumably because human history has always contained this tendency for exporting information onto mnemonic aids. While this is indeed the case (and not only for human animals), what Flusser regards as a “properly” intersubjective and thus genuine history sounds suspiciously like a romantic return to some mythical notion of “oral history.”

That aside, the intersubjectivity of the vampyroteuthis is particularly interesting insofar as the media of transmission are the glands, making vampyroteuthic history “a glandular history, a history of secretions” (50-51). This glandular historicity, moreover, in being opposed to human historiology, represents a constitutive difference, thus allowing Flusser to (apparently) maintain a traditional human exceptionalism based upon possession of second-order language. I parenthetically mark this “difference” as mere appearance, as Flusser himself insists that vampyroteuthic displays of colour in fact constitute a chromatic language that is intraspecific, one that gives “outward expression to the inner thoughts” (51). It remains to ask, of course, not only how such a language is not a “language,” but also as to how such “inner thoughts” might themselves be formulated if the vampyroteuthis lacks a “proper” language and, indeed, how one could ever tell a “proper” language from an “improper” one. Once again, Nietzsche’s notion of translation offers a timely corrective on this point.

The issue of vampyroteuthic language is further complicated by the introduction of further “communication” glands. A second gland, for example, renders the sender of a given message transparent and thus invisible to its recipient(s). This form of transmission, suggests Flusser, inevitably reminds us of certain ideologically-overdetermined “aspects of our current media” such as radio and television (21). Moreover, writes Flusser, both of these ways of communicating, the chromatic and the ideological, constitute a cognitive rape – a claim with clear implications for our own technocratic media society. The importance Flusser gives to, and immediately distances himself from, this overtly masculinist claim is marked by the fact that it is on this subject alone that the vampyroteuthis is given its critical voice directly in the first-person singular (albeit in italics), simultaneously raising the question of whether she speaks as a critic or as a normalizer.

As a species, and having first checked any unit of received information against the species’ existing information pool, the vampyroteuthis then widely disseminates this new information, which in turn is stored in the memories of other vampyroteuthis’ (52). This, argues Flusser, is vampyroteuthis history: a continuous dialogue ensuring “that the sum of available information will only and ever increase” (52). Once again, the question of memory is at the centre. As well as being “the central problem” of historical evolution, memory, writes Flusser, is “also the central problem of art, which is essentially a method of fabricating artificial memories” (61). In his own voice this time, Flusser again parodies the human tendency to transfer its memories to impermanent “cultural” artefacts, which thereafter come to shape human experience and thought in its entirety (62). It is, in the end, the very materiality of such artefactual objects that constitutes the downfall of human (art) history: objects resist being transformed into memories, a resistance which, in an ever-expanding feedback loop, comes to be recorded in other artificial memories. This feedback loop, suggests Flusser, is “art history” (63). In a startling, indeed uncanny, presentiment of Stiegler’s argument (and somewhat contradicting Flusser’s earlier claim to an ahistorical tendency), Flusser describes present-day humans as having come to “live as functions of their objects,” forgetting that such artefactual objects are supposed to function only to record and share acquired information (a sharing Stiegler terms a “long circuit”) (63). Instead, continues Flusser, humans become absorbed by the objects themselves, allowing these objects to “absorb their existential interests” (63) (a reversal that for Stiegler constitutes a literally brain-numbing “short circuit”). As a result, artefactual objects cease being communicative media and become their opposite, “namely, barriers that restrict human communication” (63).

Finally, there is a fourth method of glandular communication: the sculpting of ink to produce sepia self-portraits in addition to “countless other forms that are indecipherable to us” (52). Despite this indecipherability resulting from an inevitable formal species barrier, argues Flusser, we must nevertheless assume that the vampyroteuthis broadcasts information through these sepia clouds. This, I would say, is equally inevitable. Flusser, however, is quick to reject any comparison with human-produced artworks for two reasons: first, there is the ephemerality of the cloud; and, second, because the “information communicated with these clouds is exclusively intended to mislead its receiver” (52). These reasons, however, simply cannot be maintained. First, a large number of human-produced artworks are at least as “ephemeral” as a dissipating sculptural form (indeed, it can be argued that the very notion of art’s work is that of a singular, ungraspable event). Second, given the indecipherability of the information communicated as a result of the species barrier, how is it possible to judge the exclusivity of the attempt to mislead? Further, is it even possible to guarantee that every receiver of a form will be deceived?

Leaving this aside, this ink-producing gland (the “diverticum”), in common with all the others, explicitly “facilitates lying” (52). Put simply, the history – both historicity and historiology – of the vampyroteuthis is an (art) history of deceit. Further, deceit and memory are the key terms of a vampyroteuthic critique. Whereas falsehood is the opposite of human truth, for the vampyroteuthis “truth” is already a lie, and hence its opposite is rather dishonesty (53). Flusser is here making an extremely important point: vampyroteuthic culture, as “deceit, pretense, and falsehood,” is necessarily “a culture of art” (53) – a point that clearly reveals their Nietzschean chromatics. Such a Nietzschean, vampyroteuthic thinker thus philosophises not in order to proceed from falsehood to truth, but “in order to lie ever more completely” (53).

In this inverse world, the entirety of cultural artefacts, of history and philosophy, thus constitute “a peculiar type of cryptography that is not meant to be decrypted” (52). Instead of our peculiarly human culture of “truths,” in the world of the vampyroteuthis decryption only ever yield further deceptive encryptions that, at its most elemental level, “mask the demonic predator’s will to power” (53, my emphasis). Along with reading Being and Time as the point of origin and departure of the Dasein), we could thus profitably consider Nietzsche’s “On Truth and Lie” as the secret text of its decryption-encryption – a decryption that only ever encrypts and deceives.

Deceit, together with memory, thus forms the key terms of a vampyroteuthic critique. It is a critique, however, which only goes so far. To begin with, rather than challenging the most traditional of humanisms, Flusser simply extends – albeit in a restricted form – the “superbiological” exceptionality of humankind to the fabulous vampyroteuthis. Further, this extension is no extension at all: as the negative model of the human, that is, as that which the human has repressed in becoming human, we never leave the human for even a moment. In this way, Flusser in fact reiterates the most basic of humanisms, relegating all nonhuman and nonfabulous animals to the Heideggerian realm of “merely biological” automatons, that is, of genetically determined machines. Such a move, as is increasingly being recognised, brings with it a variety of particularly noxious consequences – consequences that Tyler’s focus on pragmatism ultimately renders meaningless.

Before returning to Tyler, however, let us first consider the specifically vampyroteuthic solution to the “laughable” error that is human art and history. Firstly, we recall, the vampyroteuthis represents a code for deciphering our posthuman future, although such a claim is nullified somewhat by her indecipherable and deceptive encryption. Secondly, on the meta-level, the production of such beasts – not, in other words, that of sepia sculptures but rather that of the species itself – represents a methodology “superior” to that currently practised within the hard sciences insofar as it allows for an otherwise shrouded humanity to “recognize an art of a different sort” (63). What, then, is revealed regarding this new, “post-scientific” art form?

Vampyroteuthic art, writes Flusser, is “not burdened by the resistance of objects … but is rather intersubjective and immaterial” (63). We thus understand the refusal of the status of “artwork” to vampyroteuthic sculpture: rather than producing artworks, which are, by definition, mediated, the vampyroteuthis instead imparts data immediately into the brain of its auditor. The human, in short, struggles against the stubbornness of materials, whereas the vampyroteuthis struggles against the stubbornness of her fellow vampyroteuthis’. However, the very notion of transmission necessitates a material substrate. For something to be sensed, in other words, there must be a physical manifestation for perception, as mediated, to take place; a mediation which can always be misinterpreted, distorted, and even forgotten. Unfortunately, then, Flusser’s “new” art depends upon an impossible idealism of intersubjectivity. If the human wholly loses herself in material objects, then so too is the vampyroteuthis precisely because she is wholly concerned with the sharing and transfer of knowledge.

Curiously, the “immateriality” of vampyroteuthic idealism is described in the most material of terms: upon experiencing the Aristotelian “creative shock” of something new, the vampyroteuthis is forced to reorganize her memory, a reorganisation that permeates her entire body, causing her to orgasm and her chromatophores to emit coloured ejaculatory secretions. Here, then, the definitive im-mediate and non-material transmission is a display that takes place across and through the animal’s entire body in a frenetically coloured expression of orgasm. An orgasm, moreover, which, across distance and time, attracts a mate into an orgiastic coupling that is at once dialogue and transfer of information. Significant too in this context is Flusser admission that he is unsure as to how this new information “infiltrates” – a term already suggesting contamination – the “common vampyroteuthis conversation” (64).

Flusser is clear, however, as to the mode of this infiltration: rape. Irrespective of gender, the penetrating vampyroteuthis forces her auditor to store immaterial information. Here, the human-vampyroteuthis opposition turns full circle: tired of objects, humans too have “created media that have enabled us to rape human brains … have built chromatophores of our own – televisions, videos, and computer monitors that display synthetic images – with whose help broadcasters of information can mendaciously seduce their audiences” (67). Ultimately, then, Flusser’s “superior methodology” – consisting of the “invention” of a mirror-image human in symbolic animal form – very much holds to the generic tradition of the fable: we end, as we begin, with the human. Despite appearing to be what Eduardo Kac on the back cover describes as “a pioneering exploration of uncharted territory in the realm of animal cognition, philosophy, and art,” as claims on the back cover, we discover instead that the distance travelled by Vampyroteuthic Infernalis is very small indeed.

 

The Lessons of Anthropomorphism

This enclosure of and within the traditional genre of the fable inevitably re-raises the vexed question of anthropomorphism. Flusser, we recall, regards the ever-more-subtle categorising of biological entities as being merely a vulgar anthropomorphism, one that reflects only the spatial hierarchy of a specifically human disgust. Anthropomorphism, as Tyler tells us, presupposes knowledge of a uniquely human trait, as Flusser’s charge clearly shows. This presupposition, however, raises two problems. First, it presumes we know what it is to be human when we don’t and, second, it infers that any such trait is uniquely human when in fact any number of extraterrestrial visitors, for example, may arrive tomorrow to disqualify each and every such inference.

More importantly, the charge of anthropomorphism is at once a charge of narcissism and, as such, is always an accusation. As Tyler argues, however, it is an accusation that, at the very moment of its utterance, inevitably turns an about-face. In what is a bravura display, Tyler shows us that, rather than belonging to those who “yield to the appeal of anthropomorphism” (63), narcissism in fact belongs to those who believe in the existence of anthropomorphism, thus wielding it always with an implicit accusation. Regardless of whether one condemns or commends anthropomorphism, in other words, to wield such a charge requires that one already accepts the possibility of a uniquely human trait. Without this belief, the charge of anthropomorphism simply refuses to make sense.

How then, as she returns our gaze, do we stare Flusser and Bec’s infernal squid in the face, as if from a mirror? Unsurprisingly, we find ourselves caught within its infinite regress: to condemn Flusser’s vampyroteuthis as an example of anthropomorphism in the hugely problematic form of a generic fable of moral education, to decry her exemplary exploitation as a reductive, cipherous product of anthropocentric hubris, is to accept the very possibility of human exceptionalism such a charge aims to disrupt. And, of course, the sheer complexity of the world of the vampyroteuthis is unique in the annals of Western philosophy. Perhaps, then, the truth of Flusser’s short, fabulous text is that of an important and timely warning: one cannot cease polishing the mirror so easily. Inventive figures of posthumanism and radical posthuman figures can never emerge on the heels of accusations and dismissals.

So, then, what of the distance traversed by the Vampyroteuthic Infernalis? Precisely because of the reflective way of proceeding, Flusser presupposes and (thus) inevitably “reveals” a fixed human position. This does not, however, deny the possibility of tracing a diffractive movement through the text. To this end, Karen Barad suggests that we need a method “attuned to the entanglement of the apparatuses of production, one that enables genealogical analyses of how boundaries are produced rather than presuming sets of well-worn binaries in advance” (29-30). As beings of perception and affection, we are, and will forever remain, prone to the specifics of narcissistic blinding, and none more, or less, than Louis Bec’s SQuID.

 

Typewriters, Technozoosemiotics, and Superconducting Quantum Interference Devices

Such questions, as we have seen, a priori concern language, writing, and the plastic art of creation. In a later paper, Louis Bec makes the interesting claim that the vampyroteuthis is in fact a writing set: enclosing “a transparent pen and a sac of sepia ink; its body is the case” (Bec “Squids, Elements of Technozoosemiotics,” n.p.). The vampyroteuthis is, in other words, a machine for writing (literally, une machine à écrire – a typewriter). A machine, moreover, for writing extremes and for writing in extremis in that the vampyroteuthis is also an extremophile. Extremophiles are microorganisms who thrive in environments previously thought impossible to support any life – environments without oxygen and light, for example. Here, while the vampyroteuthis remains a reflection of the human, she is no longer an image of universal humanity. Instead, she diffracts light onto specific human animals who have been transformed into prototypical extremophiles – not yet properly “other,” but never or no longer human either.

The vampyroteuthis, then, is an extremophile insofar as she survives in the immense pressures of the ocean depths. Specific humans, too, are extremophiles insofar as they survive under immense pressures elsewhere. For example, writes Bec,

take the thousands of women and children in Mailuu-Suu searching for welded nickel in light-bulb shells in dumps of a factory located on terrain where uranium was previously mined – there are prototypical extremophiles among us, trying to survive in a maximally toxic and radioactive environment where the atmosphere is laden with a surplus of glass powder, to boot (n.p.)

Clearly, the notion of “exception” reflected by the vampyroteuthis-as-extremophile has changed. No longer mirroring the universal exceptionalism of the (allegedly) superior human species, the vampyroteuthis now shows us an image of a certain human animal who is exceptional only by virtue of the extreme conditions imposed upon her survival. Admittedly, this is to move beyond the questions specific to Vampyroteuthis Infernalis. Nonetheless, Flusser’s text is, as any text outlining a methodology must be, explicitly preliminary, that is to say, it attempts to open new directions for thought that go beyond itself. As such, to do it justice is to ask what, if anything, does the fabulous analysis of vampyroteuthic society offer for those animals forced into extremophiliac survival? An extreme politics, or a politics of the extreme? We shall return to this in the next section.

In addition to being a squid, a writing set, an extremophile, and a typewriter, the fabrication of the vampyroteuthis is also an attempt at evolutiontoward a more integrated, perhaps even vampish, posthuman future. Such a squid, writes Bec in the later text, is a SQuID: a Superconducting Quantum Interference Device. Focusing on this occasion on the Loligo vulgaris mollusk, Bec suggests that the mollusk’s “chromatophoric and bioluminescent communication codes” renders her “simultaneously a semaphoric and a techno-cephalopodic object” (n.p.). Here, Bec takes an important step forward, one that moves beyond the earlier text co-authored with Flusser: he digitizes these cutaneous codes with “the aim of setting up a ‘dialogue’ … by using an artificial skin to manipulate the chromatic and formal parameters involved” (n.p. check all Bec quotations). Once again, we find the appeal to “dialogue,” but things are very different now, the focus being not on the fable but on the fabulous: any attempt at genuine dialogue depends a priori upon specificities, that is, the diffracted materialities that are specific “worlded” configurations of matter, energy, and information.

In a positive coda to the vampyroteuthis of Flusser, Bec thus embarks upon the fascinating project of “technozoosemiotics,” aiming at the creation of digital interfaces of transduction and transcoding areas between kinaesthetic and paralinguistic systems, and of strings of signs that might possibly be intelligible between different living and artificial species. The notion of transduction is absolutely central: by way of Gilbert Simondon, the term refers to the emergence of entirely new beings. A transductive being, in other words, is one in which the “elements” of her/his/its unheard-of combination do not precede their relating, but rather can only be discerned retrospectively. The terms constituting the relation, in other words, do not exist prior to their relation.

Ultimately, argues Bec, the project of technozoosemiotics aims at “laying the basis for a communication continuum for the alive.” All of this is extremely interesting although it is difficult to understand, given this description, why, at the very last minute, Bec restricts his “continuum” to that of the alive. Unless, that is, Bec intends a complete transformation of the very notion of “alive-ness” – a transformation that is, I would argue, both timely and urgent.[v] To this end, writes Bec, the “alive no longer appears as a material, autarkic unity, but as part of a network in which it forms an integration point for energy and above all for information” (n.p.).

Why the vampyroteuthis? Why the squid? As “surplus information interfaces,” writes Bec, squids “provide the means of approaching the ‘why’ of ecosystemic information surplus processing, as well as the methodological and instrumental ‘how’” (n.p.). Put another way, the squid socius bears with it the potential for transductive creation, “located at the intersection of multiple exchanges which link it to all the components of its biomass and of the natural and technological environment it constructs by producing a heterogeneous information surplus” (n.p.). However, insists Bec, this surplus “must be processed by devices, by constellations of a syntactic and semantic nature that are irrevocably linked to the world of species itself” (n.p.). It is here, with such alien yet resolutely material constellations, that a dialogue may finally emerge.

 

Politics, Freedom, and the Posthuman: Utopias

Returning to Flusser’s book, we recall our earlier question as to what, if anything, the analysis of vampyroteuthic society offers those animals forced into the extremities of, and by, global capital. Once again, Flusser is careful to exempt the human-vampyroteuthis from the animal realm, this time on the old Aristotelian basis of politics. According to Flusser, the “superorganism” that is an ant society, for example, is composed of biological, rather than social, agents; each specific ant functioning merely as a cell functions in an organic body. This relation of ant and cell is, of course, an analogical relation, ensuring that ant society as a whole operates according to biological and not political rules. Ultimately, however, the analogy does not convince: a group of ants do not compose, from birth to death, a bounded organ only released upon literal decomposition, but are rather a number of individual entities capable of joining or leaving this or that group for a limited time span. Far more accurate would be to say that ant society is a networked society.

Flusser, however, requires this notion of a bounded organ in order to reserve politics – and thus freedom – for humans and vampyroteuthis’ alone: to “speak of politics,” he writes, “is to speak of freedom” (56), and most immediately of freedom from biological constraints. By contrast, ants, like cells, have “sacrificed their freedom” in becoming a superorganism and an organ respectively (56). Unwittingly, no doubt, Flusser is thus suggesting that explicitly political ant societies necessarily existed at an earlier stage on their evolution. Ignoring these political proto-ants, Flusser instead stages yet another form of analogy, that of isomorphism. As a consequence of sacrificing freedom in becoming a superorganism, a new freedom is created, “namely, that of the superorganism and the organism” (56).[vi] The emergence of the superorganism, in other words, brings with it a specific form of (dialectical) freedom.

Nonetheless, the unacknowledged politics of the proto-ant offers a disquieting interpretation of freedom. Freedom, we have seen, exists only insofar as biology has not yet fully encroached upon life. Hence, freedom “is a provisional stage in the tendency of evolution toward socialization and death” (56). One is here reminded of Freud’s death drive, forever seeking a “return” to a primordial, inorganic stasis. Properly provisional – perhaps proto-beings on evolutionary par with the individual ant – humans and vampyroteuthis’ are, for now, “free individuals” (56). It is a freedom, however, which is increasingly under attack by society as a whole, insofar as such societies “are becoming ever better organized and thus ever more conscious of biological regulations” (56). Here, we begin to perceive the direction of Flusser’s critique, one that treads a well-worn path indeed: humans, along with their oceanic dark half, are “in danger of becoming … like ants or bees” (57). Global capitalism, it would seem, ultimately serves evolution by way of the biologization of the social, disposing of individuals as it replaces them with mere cells. This is, of course, a huge oversimplification – an oversimplification aided above all by its unthinking recourse to ciphers in the guise of other animals.

Between biological society and the free individual, however, stands the family, and it is this “central social phenomenon” that the vampyroteuthis can, claims Flusser (and by way of analogy, ofcourse) help us to understand. An understanding, moreover, which will in turn shed light on the differences between, and certain implications of, equality and fraternity as organising principles. Every vampyroteuthis, first of all, is a twin, one of a pair of simultaneously hatched individuals that are “interrelated according to a genetically predetermined hierarchy” (57). Human siblings, meanwhile, are also hierarchized, but this hierarchy, writes Flusser, is largely culturally determined. As such, for humans to advocate for equality over fraternity, or vice versa, would be to agitate “for or against historical contingencies” (57). The vampyroteuthis, by contrast, has no such freedom as if she “should take the side of equality over fraternity, it [sic] would be agitating against its own biological condition” (57). Fraternity, in other words, is, for the vampyroteuthis, synonymous with society, and thus to favour equality would be at once antibiological and antisocial.

Hence, continues Flusser, if we take “political activity” to mean any attempt at changing a given societal structure, then vampyroteuthic politics is necessarily “synonymous with anarchy” insofar as it “would represent the attempt to abolish, outright, its [sic] iniquitous social structure” (57-58). Such a social struggle is, however, impossible, simply because there is no society, but only ever biology: being genetically determined, there can be no change in social structure but rather only the unattainable vampyroteuthic ideal of anarchic, fraternal strife. Here, a number of unanswered questions impose themselves: Given a rigid and complete genetic determination, how might such an ideal arise? And how does the biologized vampyroteuthis – the water-borne reflection of the narcissistic human – thus differ from ant society? Or from the coup de grâce of global capitalism?

At this point, Flusser attributes to vampyroteuthic twins an older/younger fraternal hierarchy, and yet, given they are said to hatch simultaneously, on what basis can such a hierarchy be determined – whether than determination is genetic or social? This is especially problematic, insofar as it is precisely in terms of brotherhood that Flusser claims the human is able to “relate” to the vampyroteuthis, that is, “at least since Freud … or, perhaps, ever since there have been Big Brothers” (??). In itself, this is a somewhat odd reference to call in support of an older-younger hierarchy – in addition to the totalitarian subtext (and in the absence of the more obvious reference to the French Revolution), Freud (and the French Revolution) in fact posits fraternal strife over equality rather than in response to a (biologically or culturally) imposed hierarchy.

Things get even more confusing once the familiar oppositional analogy cranks up. Less familiar, however, is the opposition Flusser poses between equality and fraternity. Comparing vampyroteuthis politics to our own, he argues that “all of our political activity is likewise directed against our biological condition, against biologically predetermined inequalities” (58). But what are these apparently “natural” (i.e., genetically determined) inequalities? The answer is unclear – differences in physical strength perhaps? While this would accord with a patriarchal culture based upon a fear of female rebellion, it is nonetheless an extremely reductive definition of political activity. Ultimately, how such inequalities resulting from the scarcity of resources, or from the inability to control the means of production, or simply from the exploitation of labour-power that is the motor of capitalism, how these are at base “biological” is unclear, although to suggest such would be to suggest that starvation as a result of resource scarcity or economic downturn is, at base, both “natural” and inevitable. While Flusser is quick to note that, unlike the vampyroteuthis, “our biologically predetermined inequalities also have a large and overlying cultural component” (58), this in fact changes nothing. Indeed, the problem comes down to the unthinking opposition between determined-nature and undetermined-culture – a binary opposition that simply cannot be maintained.

Specific to human politics, then (a redundancy insofar as, for Flusser, politics is always and only human), is the striving to change the “cultural superstructure” (58). Such a “freedom” means that human animals are equipped with the ability to imagine Utopias “in which even our biological constraints are done away with” (58). However, by suggesting that all political activity is a deluded attempt to change the superstructure – the ideology – that necessarily leaves intact a (here biologically-determined!) economic infrastructure, we thus take a huge step backwards into the vulgar materialism of certain early Marxist theory. Indeed, such activity aimed at an epiphenomenal superstructure is simply a limited version of, in grand terms, the posing of an (by definition impossible and equally epiphenomenal) ideological Utopia. What, also, can one make of the fact that Flusser is himself proposing an explicitly utopian solution, albeit by way of analogical methodology? Such a mirror as the vampyroteuthis provides, rather than meeting at the surface of sea and sky, falls instead into infinite regress.

As vampyroteuthis society is a “datum” rather than a “factum,” that is, a given and not a product, the vampyroteuthis is incapable of comprehending a Utopian imaginary (58). Vampyroteuthic politics, if there could be such a thing, is necessarily a violent act against her own biological “nature.” But then, asks Flusser in a further dizzying twist, does this not also describe human politics: “Are not those who defend nature – those who defend such natural “realities” as race, the dominion of mankind, even ecological balance – somehow betrayers of the human Geist?” (58). Indeed, but why, if inequalities are biologically determined, are “realities” placed in scare quotes? And, if political activity is a deluded attack on the superstructure, how can this equate to the human spirit or Geist? There are numerous, proliferating confusions here which, it becomes clear, are simply placed so as to allow Flusser to propose his own Utopia as a “third way” between human and vampyroteuthis.

Human political activity, writes Flusser, is freedom as an – as yet unresolved – dialectic, with the self-assertion of the individual on one hand, and the needs of society on the other. For the vampyroteuthis, however, there is no dialectic of political freedom insofar as he (seeing as we are talking always about fraternity and never about sorority) is “biologically necessitated to recognize the hierarchical rank of its [sic] brother” (58). How this “rank” is established is, as we have seen, unclear – it would seem to suppose that both vampyroteuthis twins are in a position of a lower rank toward each other and thus the very undoing of both hierarchy and equality. Nonetheless, Flusser states that for a vampyroteuthis to become free, the only option is to dispose of biological necessity by disposing of his twin. Vampyroteuthic freedom, then, is fratricidal cannibalism: “the right to devour its [sic] kin” (58-59). Interestingly, Flusser notes the parallels between the vampyroteuthic and the liberal conceptions of freedom, but only so far as to point out their analogy: phylogenetically threatened much more by the anthill, that is, “by absolute socialization,” vampyroteuthic politics is as a result “far more antisocialist than ours” (58). Instead of a Utopian Imaginary, vampyroteuthic liberalism is “the denial of its biological condition” (59).

We remain, nonetheless, in the realm of opposites: vampyroteuthis cannibalistic antisocialism constitutes a “hate movement,” whereas “our hymenopteric socialism represents a ‘love movement’” (59). Vampyroteuthic liberation arrives as “brotherly hatred,” human liberation as “a sacrifice of individual freedom to our beloved brother – an anthropomorphizing error on its part, a myrmecomorphizing error on ours” (59). This is not, however, to suggest that human society is thus loving and lovable. Indeed, the opposite is the case: vampyroteuthis behaviour reveals “a lovable and loving being” while human behaviour “is defined by universal hatred, by the universal struggle for survival – one against all” (59). Given the organizing nature-culture dichotomy, we should not be surprised by this recourse to the bellum omni contra omnes [war of each against all], the “naturalistic fallacy” which Donna Haraway acutely describes as “the mirror-image misstep to transcendental humanism” (When Species Meet 79). In Flusser’s version of the traditional paired human-animal and culture-nature binaries, “love, the recognition of others, and orgasm” (59) constitutes the “natural state” of vampyroteuthic Dasein who, only in overcoming her animality in order to become a cultural being, thus learns to hate. The human, by contrast, only learns to love by overcoming her animality (59).

Clearly, then, Flusser is simply reiterating the age-old nonsense of a mythical state of nature, of the war of one against all, that has so often been employed to mark a humanist, or at least anthropocentric, vulgate. Indeed, Flusser then makes the all too common, all too humanly exceptional further move of naming this “overcoming” of “animality” as nothing less than Geist or “spirit” in a clearly Christic move which, just in case we missed it, Flusser highlights by noting that in “Judeo-Christian terms, vampyroteuthis behaviour might be said to approximate ‘sins against the spirit’” (59). Here, then, we further experience the inherent limits of analogical methodology.

Flusser, as a dialectic human, reaches his prearranged or, at least, presupposed goal, that is, the possibility of positing a Utopia which, thanks to reflection, has of course been there all along. We must not forget, he writes, “that the vampyroteuthis stands on its head [a phrase inevitably replete with Marxian resonances]: its hell is our heaven, its heaven our hell” (59). While the fratricidal, cannibalistic anarchy of the vampyroteuthis is nothing less than a vision of hell for the human animal, such anarchy nonetheless “represents an inaccessible heaven of freedom” (59). By contrast, the inaccessible human heaven of a loving socialist utopia is for the vampyroteuthis “a hellish anthill” (60). Here, at last, we reach our own analogical, dialectical heaven-to-come. “Is there not a third possibility, a middle road, a tertius gaudens?” (60).

Indeed there is, writes Flusser, and, moreover, “it is not difficult to find” (60). It is, quite simply, the heaven of the dialectic: “a Geist that is both human and vampyroteuthis” (60). Of course, such a Geist is for Flusser always that of the human, insofar as the vampyroteuthis is nothing more than an inverted human, a human stood on its head, and thus the dialectical utopia is nothing more than resolving the “good” and the “bad” sides that already exists in humanity alone. As Flusser says, we are already vampyroteuthis, otherwise we could never recognize “aspects of its heaven and hell” (60). The vampyroteuthis and the human are the absolute – and thus inaccessible given our human-vampyroteuthis impurity – poles of humanity and, if “we could encounter both sides simultaneously, the question of heaven and hell, of good and evil, would be no more” (60). In fact, Flusser continues, this would be the end of all questions, and thus of Geist: such is the risk we take to encounter our hellish side, to “face the vampyroteuthis eye to eye” and thus “behold … our own reflection, above all the reflection of our grotesque political folly” (60). Vampyroteuthic entanglement, in short, is the condition of our very exceptionalism.

Ultimately, however, the “grand risk” that is run by encountering the vampyroteuthis is no risk at all. Flusser’s utopian “third way” simply reiterates a fable of Kantian tolerance – humans, we recall, are “born-Platonists” who must learn to become Kantian, the third way being simply the forever-deferred sublation of the individual-social dialectic understood as a Regulative Idea. This is, in short, a disappointingly inevitable conclusion – especially given its professed utopian aim of permanent orgasm, earlier described as explosive release – to a text that, producing such a fabulous other animal, promises so much more. How different things might have been, however, should Flusser have chosen not reflection, but diffraction? And more, such a diffraction through such fabulous other animals would have no need of fabled invention, as such animals already impact upon our every move.

 

Our Posthuman Future

As we have seen, contact underpins Flusser’s utopian project of the third way: the meeting of the bland, veneered, Apollonian human world with and the energy-laden, brutal, orgiastic and Dionysian world of the vampyroteuthis. Here, in an echo of Heidegger, Flusser spells out the anthropocentrism organising his entire project. All roads, he writes, inevitably lead only to the human: “the specific point of departure”–be it genetics, biology, psychology, cultural studies–is “more or less irrelevant,” as “each of these differently equipped vehicles will begin to encounter one another soon after they have submerged below the surface” (69). Ultimately, any separation of “depths” into oceanic and psychic is ultimately superficial, as they “are one and the same abyss” (70). The depths of the sea and the depths of the (human) ego will encounter one another, “as though in a mirror” (70).

Such is the promised utopia of reflection, the paradoxical paradise of the mirror and its sublation. Despite all the talk of abysmal depths, Flusser requires only a mirrored surface – such is the (simplified) promise of the dialectic. Thus, we need not submerge in order to provoke the vampyroteuthis’ emergence, as the vampyroteuthis in turn emerges “to lure our submergence” (70). Moreover, depth itself must be annulled: the vampyroteuthis has already emerged, sending out expeditions of her own “in the exploits of Nazism, in cybernetic thinking, in works of logical analysis, and in certain theological texts” (70). In every case, however, insofar as she exists amid immense pressures, when she reaches the surface she emerges “with the effect of a bomb” (70). Hence, it is not the vampyroteuthis who “annihilates our surroundings but rather the sudden release of the pressure that confines it [sic]” (71). As a result, the vampyroteuthis should only be allowed to surface with caution, raised “slowly and carefully” in order “initiate a dialogue with it [sic] in the clear light of day” (71). Since the Enlightenment onwards, however, “[u]nilateral efforts to ‘depressurize’ and humanize others” have repeatedly failed (71, my emphasis). Perhaps such failures are guaranteed by the very light of day – with everything already so weighted toward the human, should we not rather be snorkelling?

 

Utopia Dreaming

The vampyroteuthis, writes Flusser, emerges as a composite figure “from aquaria (roughly), from tales of sea monsters (mythologically), from our nightmares (psychoanalytically), and from the events of recent history (ideologically)” (74). She has also emerged “from our Utopian conceptions of a “New Man” (vom Neuen Menschen) – as hatred become love, as permanent orgasm [my emphasis], as the realization of Dasein, as selflessness toward others” (74-75??). While I would suggest that the dangers of such a project is precisely that of falling ineffectually into infinite regress, for Flusser, unsurprisingly, the dangers we must look out for en route are rather twin, that is, “two opposed dangers, each reflecting the other” (72): “the Scylla of anthropocentric arrogance” that might condescend to “save” the vampyroteuthis on one hand, and on the other “the Charybdis of nostalgie de la boue, that is, the ingenuous willingness to reconcile with it” (72). These twin figures are all too familiar, however, redolent of utopian projects already a century old, requiring as they do “simply” the maintenance of a “precarious balance” between that ancient couple: the rational and the instinctual. A balance maintained by an “open human engagement” willing to expose the “whole of our humanity” (72, emphasis added).

To this end, and despite the earlier refusal of all disciplinary boundaries residing just below the surface, science as “currently practiced,” that is, as the rational par excellence, is therefore ruled out straight away on the basis that scientific “objectivity” fails to take into account “the great complexities of humanity” (72, emphasis added). Interesting in the light of what has been said here about Flusser’s analogical method and the limits of reflection, Flusser argues that anything science – biologists and “mythologists” in particular – “can tell us about the vampyroteuthis will necessarily resemble an autopsy of a lifeless body” (73). By contrast, what Flusser offers is only ever a reflection – a reasoning and instinctive intuiting – of the human as already produced.

Science is not entirely discounted, however. Remembering the necessity of precarious balance, Flusser turns to fables which, “like the one in hand,” must inevitably rely on the products of science, as only then can we “hope to orient ourselves in the darkness of the abyss” (73). Science and fable must thus form a dialectical pairing to be sublated in future texts (texts such as Vampyroteuthis Infernalis, presumably). Here, the specific task of science is to “allure[e] the vampyroteuthis to emerge without, at the same time, allowing it to swallow us whole” (73). Here, Flusser’s project comes very close, albeit indirectly, to that of Tyler’s, while remaining nonetheless a typical object of the latter’s critique (in a brief parenthesis, briefer even than this, Flusser notes how he is “leaving aside, for now, the tenable assertion that the sciences produce nothing but fables” (73)).

Despite an apparent and specific dismissal, Flusser almost immediately rehabilitates biology as being of an unmatched importance in the creation of the New Man. This importance is because it “provides us with an almost mythical model of life’s unrealized possibilities,” one that enables us to perceive “a share of the universal potential that has lain dormant within us” (73). At the same time, of course (always remembering the “precarious balance” of deferred sublation), “the same biology … cannot be allowed to run rampant” (74). Perhaps biology generally, and genetic manipulation specifically, is so important because only biology bears the promise of explosive, artistic release understood (somehow) as permanent orgasm. Meanwhile, this same threat of explosive orgasm perhaps explains why biology must be simultaneously discounted as unimportant. As such, let us, in conclusion, return, with Flusser, to Tyler and the becoming-feral of the animal cipher by way of a reworking of the evolutionary meme.

 

Animals, Analogy and Pragmatism

Language, as Tyler makes clear, cannot be reduced to the word. This is a point that cannot be made often and strongly enough when it comes to engaging rigorously with other animals. In the context of a program of radical pragmatism, Tyler returns to the important notion of the meme, as originally proposed by Richard Dawkins first in The Selfish Gene (1976), and then again in The Extended Phenotype (1982). Memes, suggests Dawkins, are the replicators of cultural transmission. Ranging from hand gestures and catchphrases to clothing fashions and the manipulation of pottery, memes function on the cultural level in the same way as genes constitute the replicators of genetic transmission. Such memes, Dawkins writes, spread from “brain to brain” in “just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell” (cit. Tyler 186). A meme is, in short, “a kind of cultural virus that is passed, often unwittingly, from one individual to another” (186).

As with genes, argues Dawkins, the “fitness” of any given meme depends upon three things: longevity, fecundity, and copying fidelity. First, for as long as a particular cultural artifact is both used and recognized, it will endure. Second, if it is to endure, that is, to be repeatedly replicated, a given meme must not only be recognized upon reception, but it must also be readily duplicated. It must, in short, be iterable. Lastly, upon iteration a meme must repeatedly produce (largely) faithful duplications – a hand gesture, to take Tyler’s excellent example, should it “diverge too far from the norm is in danger of becoming no more than an ostentatious scratching” (187).

Being displaced in space and time, every replication – or reiteration – of a given meme is, however, necessarily imperfect, and it is these imperfect imitations, or mutations, that account for the cultural evolution of memes.[vii] However, as Dawkins notes, the question remains as to who, exactly, benefits from any given mutation, since there must be some sort of beneficiary if we are to account for the replication of a “mutated” meme in terms of “fitness” – which is not, as Dawkins is quick to point out, to suggest an identity of a mutated meme with a mutated gene in bestowing “some kind of survival advantage on their carriers” (188). Rather, a successful mutilated meme is one that is, quite simply, “good at replicating”–an ability that is absolutely indifferent to any benefit or risk that might accrue to its host (188). This, moreover, leads Dawkins to suggest that a “successful meme evolves as it does because it is advantageous to itself” (188). Of course, Dawkins is by no means attributing consciousness to memes but, rather, is reiterating at the cultural level his now well-known theory of the selfish gene such as it functions at the genetic level. Hence, “just like genes, memes can be considered ‘selfish’ replicators in the sense that they compete ‘ruthlessly’ with one another in the ‘meme pool’ that is their environment” (188). With this, however, we abruptly find ourselves once again dependent upon a “natural” genetic model based upon the myth of a universal struggle for survival – of the one against the all – which, as we have seen, has all too often been employed to mark out the human animal as an ontological exception.

This should not surprise us, however, given that, as Tyler notes, the relation of gene to meme is therefore that of analogy – a methodology which, as we have seen, is fraught with problems of unthought presumption. Indeed, in Dawkins’ later Platonic formulation, the difficulty of reflection becomes plain to see: the meme, argues Dawkins, is ontologically divided between its Idea, on the one hand, and its imperfect empirical instances on the other. The meme, in other words, is divided into quasi-immortal genotype and potentially infinite individual phenotypic effects, that is, between immortal germline and mortal cells or between perfect suprasensory form and imperfect material copies. With this, Dawkins ultimately de-claws his earlier, potentially radical theory. As Tyler points out, we are now no longer considering the actual trait or artifact, but rather a meme-infected (human) individual who then “manifests in a mode of behaviour or the production of a concrete object” (189). The meme, in short, is no longer a question for the pragmatist, but is now a matter of reflection: the memetic artifact now reflects (human) knowledge or competence, rather than being itself a performative practice.

Through a reading of Derek Gatherer’s critique of Dawkins, Tyler thus seeks to rescue memetic theory from the liberalism of its founder and so restore to it its innovative potential. Following Gatherer, Tyler argues that what for Dawkins are merely “phenotypic effects” are in fact the memes themselves. The practice, in short, is the meme. Such concrete practices or functions, “subject to a wide range of mechanisms of replication, mutating, sifting, and selection,” evolve as the world worlds – “immersive activities, developing and transforming within particular environments” (190). Such is indeed, as Tyler contends, “a supremely practical, pragmatically cogent understanding of the meme” (190). Moreover, it offers a great deal in terms of a specifically Nietzschean practice, this despite Nietzsche’s own – admittedly misplaced – hostility towards Darwin’s evolutionary theory.

In a superb move, Tyler then takes the survival and success of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection as a “matchless example” of the practice of memetic evolution (191). Here, we should recall too that, for Flusser, the “unmatched importance” of biology resides in its providing of an “almost mythical model of life’s unrealized possibilities” (73). Darwin undoubtedly offered a significant contribution to this “almost mythical” model, not only regarding the transmutation of species, but also insofar as he “contributed to a transmutation of the very concept of species too” (202). As such, argues Tyler acutely, the concept of “species” is itself part of the pragmatic “meme complex” of evolutionary theory in the sense given to the term by Gatherer, that is, as “composed of cultural events, behaviours, and artifacts” (202). The success Darwin’s evolutionary theory, in other words, “has depended on its utility, ease of replication, and of course on the selection pressures of its environment” (202). As a meme, however, and this is Tyler’s point, “Darwin’s theory did not need to be true; it simply needed to replicate”– with the example of Darwin’s finches, bloodsucking or otherwise, demonstrating precisely this point.[viii]

Most important, however, is that the pragmatic emphasis on knowledge conceived as a practice offers an alternative not only to realism and relativism, but also to the positing of reflection in that, as practice, it already demands a diffractive methodology, inherent in the notion of perspectivism. Consequently, knowledge as practice necessarily becomes open-ended.

While the question of what, or rather who, might have emerged differently in Flusser’s molluscular genealogy is of course moot, such a diffractive memetic thinking nonetheless offers a great deal to a rethinking of “life” and, in particular, of its conceptual limits. Hence, whereas Dawkins claims that memes are “by and large” the province of humans alone, Tyler shows that Dawkins’ own work in fact “concede[s] the existence of nonhuman memetic practices,” most notably in birdsong (206). It is here that the value of pragmatism generally, and of the meme in particular, manifests itself most clearly. With representationalism, for example, questions aimed at a dismissal of the nonhuman inevitably arise: do birds know something when they sing, or is it simply a mindless parroting? Here, one sees all too clearly how certain methodological frameworks serve to foreclose entire realms of potential discussion. As Tyler writes, the impulse to enquire after knowledge that makes a certain practice possible is a purely “representationalist inclination” (208). It is, in other words, an urge, often deeply ingrained but entirely contingent, to view knowledge as a reflection of the world; an urge that defines Flusser’s entire project.

In his vampyroteuthic genealogy, and despite avowing its impossibility (an impossibility itself providing the impetus behind the “new” genre of biological fable), Flusser remains intent on “polishing the mirror” in the hope of revealing – or constructing – an ever-more-accurate representation of the human Dasein. For the realist, writes Tyler, “knowledge tells us about the world, the object of knowledge, while for the relativist it tells us about the worldview of the knower” (208). Vampyroteuthis Infernalis, by virtue of its Heideggerian anthropocentrism, is an attempt both realist and relativist. In this resides its contradiction, the consequence of analogical method and a priori representationalism.

Pragmatism, by contrast, has no need of knowledge understood as “an entity distinct from the world it represents” (208). Knowledge is of the world, taking its shape “under the pressure of external stimuli” and as “an immediate, immanent element of the environment itself” (208). Taking the example of memetic birdsong above, eminently pragmatic questions concern themselves not with metaphysical exclusion, nor with imaginary oppositions such as “nature” and “culture,” but rather with various modes of activity, that is, of practises or ways of being together within the world.

Ultimately, and this is precisely the value of Tyler’s text, pragmatic epistemology does away with the noxious productions of humanism and of all the various anthropocentric denials. It does this, quite simply, by rendering such claims irrelevant. No polemic is required, no statements of ideology need be professed, and no utopian predictions are necessary. Rather, the world is that within which beings of all size, scope and scale interact insofar as they do, and no further arguments are necessary other than those concerning how we act, that is, what we do, when it comes to our nonhuman and human others. Nor is it enough simply to extend – whether to a greater or lesser extent – the number of species who “count.” Rather, for the pragmatic memeticist, the evaluative anthropocentrism underlying such extensions is not only unnecessary but, more importantly, it is simply bad philosophy or, put another way, bad practice.

Notes


[i] These include activity-experience (41); day-night (41); reason-dreams (41); conceptual-orgasmic (41); pure science-pure sex (48); plane-volume; contemplative-orgasmic; Platonic forms-Nietzschean mutability (42); Apollonian-Dionysian; love-hate (43); critique of pure reason – psychoanalysis (41 & 48); truth opposed by lie – truth (as lie) opposed by dishonesty (53); Darwin-Schopenhauer (53)

[ii] Here Flusser follows Heidegger in equating “truth” with “unveiling” as aletheia.

[iii] In a further, ironic twist, Flusser’s very notion of “preconceptual reason” depends entirely upon the unremarked shift from one sense of the term “ratio” to another (initially defined as reason, this is silently supplanted by the sense of ratio as ration).

[iv] This reading focuses on a section from the Republic and also, regarding the mouth, on the Timaeus. Also, see my papers “Cannibals and Apes” and “Plato Between the Teeth of the Beast,” first presented at the London Conference for Critical Thought in 2012 and, in a greatly extended version, at the London School of Economics on 11th February 2014. Both papers can be accessed at www.zoogenesis.wordpress.com

[v] See my own work at CCCS, at Derrida Today, etc.

[vi] Flusser does, however, acknowledge the possibility of politics between individual anthills.

[vii] On the deferring and differing that is inherent to every iteration, see Derrida’s Limited Inc.

[viii] And, notes Tyler acutely, at the expense of Darwin’s painstaking work with domestic pigeons in what is yet one more example of both the impossibility of, and the ideological commitments to, maintaining a wild-tame distinction