Tag Archives: biopolitics

Telling Tales in Troubled Times

The following is my review article on Donna J. Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Duke University Press, 2016), which has just been published in Humanimalia: a journal of human/animal interface studies 9:1 (Fall 2017), pp.186-198.

The pdf of the article is here: http://www.depauw.edu/humanimalia/issue%2017/pdfs/iveson-haraway.pdf

The full issue is available at: http://www.depauw.edu/site/humanimalia/issue%2017/index.html

 

The Trouble

More than anything else, a particularly keen generosity of practice runs throughout Donna Haraway’s latest book, titled Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (2016). In this, Haraway shares in the same ‘curious’ methodological practice that she attributes to philosopher and psychologist Vinciane Despret, one that ‘is not interested in thinking by discovering the stupidities of others, or by reducing the field of attention to prove a point’ (126). Rather, such practice constitutes a kind of thinking that ‘enlarges, even invents, the competencies of all the players, including [one]self, such that the domain of ways of being and knowing dilates, expands, adds both ontological and epistemological possibilities, proposes and enacts what was not there before’ (126-127). Only with such a change in kind, suggests Haraway, do we become capable of changing the story – aptly described here as ‘the prick tale of Humans in History’ – that has captivated, and kept us captive, for so long. Such curious and generous practice, she continues, loosens the grips of cynical defeatism, allowing us to think outside of the ‘abstract futurism’ that currently dominates thought and steeps us all in ‘its affects of sublime despair and its politics of sublime indifference’ (4).

For Haraway, the prick tale’s current iteration can be approached most clearly by way of the work performed by the conceptual frameworks known as ‘the Anthropocene’ and ‘the Capitalocene.’ More or less commonplace in academic discourse today, Haraway convincingly argues that such terms readily maintain the prick tale with their ‘self-certain and self-fulfilling predictions, like the “game over, too late” discourse’ (56). However, to accept such deadening abstract futurism and thus its championing of supremely indifferent despair is as equally senseless – and brings with it exactly the same potential for catastrophic futures – as it would be to deny absolutely the seriousness, urgency, and magnitude of the problems that confront us today.

Neither willful naivety nor perpetually despairing quietism, Haraway advocates instead staying with the trouble, which she describes as ‘redo[ing] ways of living and dying attuned to still possible finite flourishing, still possible recuperation’ (10). We all, she insists, ‘require each other in unexpected collaborations and combinations, in hot compost piles,’ a requirement that, in Staying with the Trouble, she aims to both argue and perform (4). In order to do this, she writes, we must first ‘look for real stories that are also speculative fabulations’ (10). A somewhat vague specification admittedly, this is quickly augmented by a list of ‘oddkin’ terms, all of which come under the order of the acronym SF: string figures, science fact, science fiction, speculative feminism, and so far. ‘Not in the world, but of the world,’ says Haraway, the ‘worlds of SF are not containers; they are patternings, risky comakings, speculative fabulations’ (14).

 

Initial troubles

Haraway’s narrative of composable and decomposable worldings brought forth through countless unaccountable multispecies players all ‘enmeshed in partial and flawed translations across difference’ is as compelling as it is necessary (10). Before we can address Staying with the Trouble in greater critical depth, however, we must first consider two troubling textual issues, the first aesthetic and economic, the second terminological.

1.The Market Demands of Celebrity. The influence of Donna Haraway’s work across an array of disciplines and inter-disciplines has long been undeniable. Indeed, she is one of very few thinkers working in English today whom one could legitimately – that is, in a positive, non-pejorative sense – describe as a ‘celebrity’ academic. Moreover, there are probably even fewer contemporary thinkers, in any language, who are as aesthetically and cognitively committed to design and pattern in the presentation of their work as Haraway. In the case of Staying with the Trouble, however, it seems that the demands of the latter have suffered somewhat at the hands of the former. Or, put in the language of political economy, we could say that the exchange value of ‘Haraway’ as the name of a commodity appears to have been privileged at the cost of the use value of Haraway as thinker.

Hence, what will likely strike the reader first of all about Staying with the Trouble is its obvious imbalance, with very nearly half of the total content being made up of largely extraneous material: namely, an incredible mass of end notes, an extended bibliography, and, lastly, a whopping – and largely redundant – 32 page index covering a main text that itself covers less than 170 pages and incorporates dozens of images along the way. The likely second thing to become all too frustratingly evident to the reader – after the first dozen or so pages – is that Haraway’s ‘new’ book is in fact a collection of six previously published stand-alone articles, and concluding with a hitherto unseen piece of fiction or ‘speculative fabulation’ entitled ‘The Camille Stories.’ All of this, in itself, is not necessarily a bad thing – extensive revision coupled with adroit use of differently focused draft versions, for example, can indeed transform a set of related yet independent articles into a dramatic and coherent monologue. Unfortunately, however, that has not been the case here.

Rather, a great deal of the same statements and descriptions are repeated again and again, over and over in every chapter, along with the same names and same references, the same intellectual debts and the same points of collaboration. Indeed, the amount of repetition found within Staying with the Trouble is largely the reason why the endnotes stretch out over sixty pages, all of which is a lot less interesting than the actual work of staying with the trouble that Haraway is committed to here. The trouble, one assumes, is the consequence of stand-alone journal articles being forced too violently into the generic framework of book chapters. There are times, however, when the sheer weight of reiteration comes to sound less like an acknowledgement of comrades banded in their shared struggle and more like a branding of kinship onto others, a marking of names aimed more toward ownership and legacy. But then again, and as is well known, reiteration tends toward odd, unpredictable doings when left unchecked for too long.

With respect to repetition, moreover, the same question can be asked on a more general level, as Haraway herself makes clear: ‘It is no longer news,’ she writes, ‘that corporations, farms, clinics, labs, homes, sciences, technologies, and multispecies lives are entangled in multiscalar, multitemporal, multimaterial worlding’ (115). Rather, she continues, it is the details that matter, as it is the details that ‘link actual beings to actual response-abilities’ (115). Indeed, but this once again begs the question as to why Haraway spends so much of her latest book reiterating the former at the expense of the latter.

2. Posthuman/ism. Reiterating the position put forward in When Species Meet, Haraway again places herself in opposition to both ‘the Posthuman’ and ‘posthumanism’ – two distinct notions that, more often than not, she condenses into the single term ‘posthuman(ism).’ She does this first by retroactively invoking ‘companion species’ as conceptually opposed to ‘posthuman(ism),’ and then with the introduction of a new term intended to signify, among other things, its antagonistic distance from all things posthuman: compost.

Critters are at stake in each other in every mixing and turning of the terran compost pile. We are compost, not posthuman; we inhabit the humusities, not the humanities. Philosophically and materially, I am a compostist, not a posthumanist. Critters – human and not – become-with each other, compose and decompose each other, in every scale and register of time and stuff in sympoietic tangling, in ecological evolutionary developmental earthy worlding and unworlding’ (97).

Here, the trouble centres on just what Haraway is referring to with the term ‘posthuman(ism).’ First of all, the conflation of ‘the posthuman’ (considered as either an entity or an event) and ‘posthumanism’ (understood as a position subsequent to the deconstruction of the traditional discourse of humanism) strongly suggests that, for Haraway, the two terms are synonymous, despite both terms having long served to mark sites of intense contestation across a wide variety of positions and disciplines.[i] While the term for the most part remains without gloss throughout Staying with the Trouble, in the manifesto-type section that opens the first chapter there are signs that, for Haraway, ‘posthumanism’ refers above all to Heideggerian existentialism (11).

Here, Haraway tells of being ‘finished’ with both ‘Kantian cosmopolitics’ and ‘grumpy human-exceptionalist Heideggerian worlding,’ further claiming to be without any relation whatsoever to the ‘existentialist and bond-less, lonely, Man-making gap theorized by Heidegger and his followers’ (11). In contrast to the ‘world-poor’ condition Heidegger infamously attributes to nonhuman animals, she continues, the worlding of ‘the SF web of always-too-much connection’ is rather ‘rich in world, inoculated against posthumanism but rich in com-post, inoculated against human exceptionalism but rich in humus, ripe for multispecies storytelling’ (11). On closer inspection, however, would do well to wonder just how anti-Heideggerian we really are here. First of all, the strain of existentialism that, at least from this very brief description, would seem to ineluctably stain every notion of the posthuman, sounds far more akin to Antoine Roquentin’s world of nauseous isolation as described by Jean-Paul Sartre than it does to anything put forward by Heidegger.[ii] Yes, ontological difference for Heidegger does indeed constitute and, in so doing, privilege the human as Dasein and, moreover, it does so at the cost of relegating every other living being to the vaguely articulated status of ‘poor-in-world.’ On the other side of the coin, however, is that with his rigorous articulation of radical new concepts such as the structure of significance, of being-open, and of a calling forth into being that is simultaneously a being-thrown, Heidegger dramatically informed and transformed our understanding of being-in-the-world. Moreover, he continues to do so, as is the case here when, writing of the capabilities of pigeons that so impress and surprise their human kin, Haraway notes that human beings

often forget how they themselves are rendered capable by and with both things and living beings. Shaping response-abilities, things and living beings can be inside and outside human and nonhuman bodies, at different scales of time and space. All together the players evoke, trigger, and call forth what – and who – exists (16).

‘I am a compostist, not a posthumanist,’ Haraway declares, ‘we are all compost, not posthuman’ (101-102). A better idea, I suggest, would be to stay with all the troubling humus and hubris of the posthuman, would be to continue taking the trouble with posthumanism for some while yet – com-post, that is to say, with-post. At the very least, this ‘having finished with’ Heidegger (and with Kant before him) suggests a symbolic setting-free that accords rather with something like a ‘near-utopianism’ that can be sensed throughout Staying with the Trouble, of which more later.[iii]

 

Three Tales of Trouble

The heart of Staying with the Trouble can be found at the various intersections and crossings-over of three different stories that speak themselves in three mostly distinct genres. First, now as then, is the prick tale of Humans in History. Second, comes the nested narrative – and sublime quietism – of the Anthropocene. And, third, stories that somehow narrate outside the first and somehow think beyond the helpless despair of the second – stories of a living future for living in the Chthulucene, and where, in the end, we will ultimately encounter Camille.

1. The prick tale. ‘Tool, weapon, word,’ writes Haraway, ‘that is the word made flesh in the image of the sky god; that is the Anthropos’ (39). Much of earth history, she writes, is a Man-made tragedy ‘told in the thrall of the fantasy of the first beautiful words and weapons, of the first beautiful weapons as words and vice versa’ (39). This is the prick tale, featuring but a single actor in the role of hero and world-maker engaged throughout in murderous conquest that allows of space for nothing else and nothing more: ‘All others in the prick tale are props, ground, plot space, or prey. They don’t matter; their job is to be in the way, to be overcome, to be the road, the conduit, but not the traveler, not the begetter’ (39). In Staying with the Trouble, Richard Dawkins’s ‘later sociobiological formulations within the Modern Synthesis, The Selfish Gene’ (62) serves as an exemplary moment in its ongoing action-movie plotline.

Working against this simplistic quest narrative, Haraway poses SF writer Ursula K. Le Guin’s ‘carrier bag theory of narrative’ and what she calls the ‘Gaia stories’ of prominent social theorist Bruno Latour. As regards the latter, however, Haraway is right to maintain her reservations with respect to Latour’s reliance on ‘the material-semiotic trope of trials of strength’ (42), not the least of which being its obvious availability for appropriation within the prick tale quest narrative, and within that of neo-Darwinist sociobiology in particular. At this point, Haraway displays her talent for close textual analysis – albeit a talent far more in evidence in her early works – in tracing back Latour’s structuring trope to its foundation in the work of political theorist Carl Schmitt. As Haraway astutely remarks, ‘Schmitt’s enemies do not allow the story to change in its marrow; the Earthbound need a more tentacular, less binary life story. Latour’s Gaia stories deserve better companions in storytelling than Schmitt. The question of whom to think-with is immensely material’ (43).[iv] Also interesting here is that, while Haraway reiterates this last sentence any number of times over the course of the Staying with the Trouble, only here does it take on weight and meaning as only here it is sufficiently contextualized and, as such, become something more than a simple slogan.

2. The Anthropocene. According to Haraway’s excellent analysis, ‘the Anthropocene’ understood in terms of an epochal period of time on earth is essentially a continuation of the prick tale of Humans in History by way of a nested millenarian narrative that lends itself all too readily ‘to cynicism, defeatism, and self-certain and self-fulfilling predictions, like the “game over, too late” discourse I hear all around me these days’ (56). For all of that however, continues Haraway, the idea of imminent catastrophe is hardly new – and this is a hugely important point: ‘disaster, indeed genocide and devastated home places, has already come, decades and centuries ago, and it has not stopped’ (86). That we ‘stay with’ such trouble is at the very center of Staying with the Trouble insofar as resurgence ‘is nurtured with ragged vitality in the teeth of such loss, mourning, memory, resilience, reinvention of what it means to be native, refusal to deny irreversible destruction, and refusal to disengage from living and dying well in presents and futures’ (86). Such are the stories of living and dying in what, as a far better alternative to the misplaced but by now entrenched terms Anthropocene and Capitalocene, Haraway gives the name ‘the Chthulucene’.

With this in mind, Haraway is right to foreground the need to think of the Anthropocene not as the name of an epoch, but rather as a boundary event akin to the K-Pg boundary between the Cretaceous and the Paleogene periods. ‘The Anthropocene,’ she insists, ‘marks severe discontinuities; what comes after will not be like what came before’ (100). Of particular interest for Haraway, however, is just why it should be that the epochal name of the Anthropocene imposed itself in the way it did at just the time ‘when human exceptionalism and the utilitarian individualism of classical political economics become unthinkable in the best sciences across the disciplines and interdisciplines’ (57). Could it … perhaps, just perhaps … be that the Anthropocene is not in fact a guarantor of the end of the world as a fait accompli but simply a last desperate fable along the prick tale of Humans in History, simply ‘the last gasps of the sky gods’ (57)? And again, what is simple sloganeering elsewhere here becomes a thing of weight and meaning: ‘It matters which thoughts think thoughts’ (57).

3. The Chthulucene. Despite Haraway’s claim that, as words go, the inelegant Chthulucene is in fact quite ‘simple’ (2), the term – all questions of pronunciation and catchiness aside – is not without its issues. As a term, ‘Chthulucene’ would seem to constitute a clear and obvious reference to the fiction of H. P. Lovecraft in general, and to his 1928 short horror classic, ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ in particular. However, at the very outset what for Haraway must be made absolutely clear is that ‘Lovecraft’s misogynist racial-nightmare monster Cthulhu’ has no role to play here whatsoever (101, 174n4). In other words, it is imperative for Haraway that, upon the introduction and every subsequent reiteration of the term ‘Chthulucene,’ we somehow not allow what is its sole, blaringly obvious reference to impact upon our relation to the word. In a move that can hardly be described as helpful, Haraway signals this utter absence of relation by way of an extremely subtle change in spelling (a difference so subtle, it should be noted, that we must be parenthetically reminded to take note of upon each appearance). Hence, Haraway’s entirely discrete conceptual beast is properly the Chthulucene, as opposed to that founded upon the Lovecraftian term ‘Cthulhu,’ which would have yielded instead the noun Cthulhucene. There, it’s just so obvious now, right? Problem solved. All facetiousness aside, however, I am baffled as to why Haraway would select for a central concept of the book – perhaps the central concept, and most certainly it’s unifying term – a term that refers uniquely and explicitly to the Lovecraftian oeuvre, only to then deny the sole significance it necessarily brings with it? Just what is going on here? Is the shift from ‘Cthulhu’ to ‘Chthulu’ at once magical spell and magical spelling by which the monstrous anxiety of influence can apparently be rendered inoperative, or at least inapparent? It is difficult to understand exactly what is at work here, and what is at play. What appears and what disappears, and what is being made to appear and what is being made to disappear?

The story as Haraway sees it is that she ‘rescues’ the Cthulhu from Lovecraft in order to make it available for other stories, and marks this liberation from Lovecraft’s patriarchal mode ‘with the more common spelling of chthonic ones’ (174n4). In this way, she argues, are unveiled diverse undulating and ongoing ‘tentacular powers and forces and collected things with names like Naga, Gaia, Tangaroa (burst from water-full Papa), Terra, Haniyasu-hine, Spider Woman, Pachamama, Oya, Gorgo, Raven, A’akuluujjusi, and many many more’ (101).

Sounding a little vague and somewhat utopian at first, Haraway begins to articulate the new contours of the Chthulucene by first making very clear just what it is that we must not be doing, or must not continue to do, if we are to have any hope of staying with the trouble: this is not an argument for cultural looting; it is not about raiding situated indigenous stories for their use as resources for harnessing the ‘woes’ of colonizing projects and peoples; and it is not ‘a way to finesse the Anthropocene with Native Climate Wisdom’ (87). From the other side, meanwhile, it is not the answer to anything and everything: it is not about playing games for ‘universal oneness,’ and it is not a ‘posthumanist solution to epistemological crises’ (87). Finally, it is not a general program that, if followed to the letter, promises a solution to any given particular: Staying with the Trouble, as is the case also for any one of its exemplary narratives, is not a general model for collaboration. It is not ‘a primer for the Chthulucene’ (87).

So, after learning of all that it is not, what exactly is going on here? How might we set out ‘to learn somehow to narrate – to think – outside the prick tale of Humans in History’ (40)? The answer, posits Haraway, is sympoiesis.

 

Staying with the Trouble: Sympoiesis

Demon Familiars. In a move that will be familiar to readers of her previous books, Haraway narrates the story of the Chthulucene by way of figures that are at once real and imagined: material-semiotic. Christened ‘demon familiars’ here, previous figures of Haraway have included a certain post-gender cyborg, a Harvard mouse with an activated oncogene and, more recently, a protozoan by the name of Mixotricha paradoxa. In Staying with the Trouble, however, the importance of such figures to the ongoing ebullience of worlding feels immeasurably greater, as too does the urgency with which they are required (the latter, no doubt, playing a major role in the former): ‘We need another figure,’ she writes, ‘a thousand names of something else, to erupt out of the Anthropocene into another, big-enough story’ (52).

Perhaps, then, Haraway can be forgiven for the somewhat obvious instrumentality in her use of another demon familiar and fellow North Central California resident – the spider Pimoa cthuluhu – as a stepping stone on the way to the latest figure of privilege: ‘Bitten in a California redwood forest by spidery Pimoa chthulhu [note spelling],[v] I want to propose snaky Medusa and the many unfinished worldings of her antecedents, affiliates, and descendants’ (52). From the Greek Μέδουσα, meaning ‘guardian’ or ‘protectress,’ Medusa is a powerful winged being with living snakes for hair and possessing a gaze with the power to turn its recipient to stone. Moreover, as the only mortal member of the race of Gorgons, Medusa is a chthonic being without proper genealogy, of ‘no settled lineage and no reliable kind (genre, gender)’ despite being ‘figured and storied as female’ and with a reach that is ‘lateral and tentacular’ (53-54). In this, Medusa is a figure and the figure here – one of a thousand names – of sympoiesis.

Perhaps, just perhaps, writes Haraway, Medusa might ‘heighten our chances for dashing the twenty-first century ships of the Heroes on a living coral reef instead of allowing them to suck the last drop of fossil flesh out of dead rock’ (52).

Sympoiesis. Haraway offers less a rigorous accounting of ‘sympoiesis’ as a concept, and more an exuberant surging and outpouring of synonyms, likenesses, kinships, and recursive patternings. We can, however, pick out three key aspects of sympoiesis. First, and most important, is an underlying relational ontology: entities are constituted by ‘an expandable number of quasi-collective/quasi-individual partners in constitutive relatings; these relationalities are the objects of study. The partners do not precede the relatings’ (64). Second, and following on from the first, any research that takes substance as prior to relation will necessarily fail in any attempt aimed at ‘studying webbed inter- and intra-actions of symbiosis and sympoiesis’ (64). And third, the generative nature of sympoiesis is made possible by its recursive structure – it is the passing of ‘relays again and again … that make up living and dying’ (33).

Familiarly Demonic. With all the talk of ‘abyssal and dreadful graspings, frayings, and weavings’ (33), of sympoiesis understood as ‘alignment’ and not inheritance, and of chthonic entities as beings lacking proper genealogy and settled lineage, one cannot help but wonder at the glaring absence of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari throughout Staying with the Trouble, and in particular their hugely influential notions of alliance, genealogy, becoming, demonic animals, and assemblage. Haraway, for example, proposes that we replace the term ‘beings’ with ‘holoents’ (or ‘holobionts’), meaning ‘symbiotic assemblages at whatever scale of space or time, which are more like knots of diverse inter-active relatings in dynamic complex systems’ (60). At this point, one can only assume that Deleuze and Guattari are still a little too demonic – or differently demonic – as yet for Haraway, given her brief but scathing dismissal in When Species Meet and elsewhere. That said, one hopes that Haraway’s renowned generosity of practice might well return her to Thousand Plateaus at some time in the future – a sympoietic engagement that would likely prove to be extremely productive indeed.

In the same vein, one might well wonder as to potential results of a closer engagement with both Nietzsche’s will to power and Spinoza’s conatus. In opening the chapter on ‘Sympoiesis’, for example, Haraway suggests that critters become-with each other perhaps ‘as sensual molecular curiosity and definitely as insatiable hunger, irresistible attraction toward enfolding each other is the vital motor of living and dying on earth’ (58). At present, the text is very unclear at to whether or not what is being described here is in fact a drive – especially given the use of terms such as ‘insatiable’ and ‘irresistible’ in this context, as this would seem to return us to the deeply problematic issue of the instinctive, the driven, and the mechanistic, of the vitalism of program and instinct and of the paradoxical entity that would be a ‘vital motor.’

Material Semiotics and Life at the Limit. This paradox of a ‘vital motor’ possibly plays an obscure role in Haraway’s extremely important notion of ‘material semiotics,’ insofar as the latter would seem to open up the idea of ‘living’ far beyond its traditional restriction to that of individual biological organisms. Material semiotics, she writes, ‘is exuberantly chemical; the roots of language across taxa, with all its understandings and misunderstandings, lie in such attachments’ (66). For Haraway, ‘critters’ are always dynamic multipartnered entities across every scale and time, and theoretically without privilege. Hence the need to ask how multicellular partners in the symbioses affect the microbial symbionts, and not just vice versa: ‘at whatever size, all the partners making up holobionts are symbionts to each other’ (67).

Despite this, however, it nonetheless remains unclear as to whether Haraway includes within her definition of critters – holobionts, holoents – such multipartnered relatings as would traditionally be defined as nonliving entities, that is, ‘simple’ material objects, mere ‘things.’ At times the answer appears to be yes: ‘Critters – human and not – become-with each other, compose and decompose each other, in every scale and register of time and stuff in sympoietic tangling, in ecological evolutionary developmental earthy worlding and unworlding’ (97). At other times, however, it would seem not to be the case: ‘Plants are consummate communicators in a vast terran array of modalities, making and exchanging meanings among and between an astonishing galaxy of associates across the taxa of living beings. Plants, along with bacteria and fungi, are also animals’ lifelines to communication with the abiotic world, from sun to gas to rock’ (122).

Blueprint for Global Change, Salve for the Suburbanite, Academic Ego-Aggrandizement. In the end, Staying with the Trouble offers its readers an almost endless series of fascinating, inter- and intra-linked stories – of the Crochet Coral Reef, of the Madagascar Ako Project, of the console game Never Alone, and of many more stories and of so many still to come. However, one question haunts every one of these stories: Can such necessarily local commemorations ever translate into global change? Take the tale of the Melbourne pigeon loft, for example: can and do such tales ever amount to more than self-serving narratives of middle-class philanthropy? Can and do they escape charges such as idealism and naivety given the notion of staying with the wider trouble, such as the fate of aborigines? Or are they only pocket utopias, mere academic compositions? It is a question, moreover, of which Haraway is fully aware: ‘the municipal pigeon tower certainly cannot undo unequal treaties, conquest, and wetlands destruction, but it is nonetheless a possible thread in a pattern for ongoing, noninnocent, interrogative, multispecies getting on together’ (29). Such a practice of ‘cultivating response-ability,’ she further argues, ‘is not a heroic practice … is not the Revolution … is not Thought. Opening up versions so stories can be ongoing is so mundane, so earth-bound. That is precisely the point’ (130).

Quite so. But this still does not answer our question: can such a resolutely mundane, so decisively earth-bound a practice, ever bring with it potential for change on a global scale? Or does it rather narrate the impossibility of any such practical potential? Responding to the question of a self-serving salve, Haraway claims instead that the processes of symbiogenesis or sympoiesis are necessarily infectious (64) – an infectiousness that therefore has the potential to be world-changing. But are they really, in fact, infectious, as Haraway claims: ‘Companion species infect each other all the time. Pigeons are world travelers, and such beings are vectors and carry many more, for good and for ill. Bodily ethical and political obligations are infectious, or they should be’ (29). They are infectious, or they ought to be infectious? To be, or to ought to be: that is indeed the question, but on this point, at this point, Haraway hesitates. Only at the very end, with the introduction of ‘The Camille Stories,’ does Haraway at last engage with this question of the relation, or otherwise, of local and global.

Camille began life at a writing workshop at a colloquium at Cerisy in 2013, in which participants were collectively asked ‘to fabulate a baby, and somehow to bring the infant through five human generations’ (134). The first iteration (‘Camille 1’) is born in 2025 and the last (‘Camille 5’) dies in 2425, during which time the global human population continues to increase to a high of ten billion in 2100, before then declining to a stable three billion by 2400. As one of the conditions for a sustainable global future, Haraway writes, this massive reduction in the overall number of human animals is initially made possible through a ‘new’ collective practice among small, close-knit communities of birthing babies bonded with animal symbionts. Camille 1 is one of the first of these, born in symbiosis with a Monarch butterfly and, at least in one of our futures, ushering in a new age of kinship, intimacy, and response-ability.

Ultimately, the potential for global change from local commemoration can be located here, in this speculative account of a future history. A ‘story, a speculative fabulation,’ and, according to Haraway, ‘a relay into uncertain futures’ (134), the stories of Camille offer an account of – and attempt to account for – a four-hundred-year period bearing witness both to the end of capitalism (and thus the Capitalocene) and the inauguration of the Chthulucene. Camille, writes Haraway, ‘is a keeper of memories in the flesh of worlds that may become habitable again. Camille is one of the children of compost who ripen in the earth to say no to the posthuman of every time’ (134). A story, then, a fabulation; but also manifesto and blueprint.

And so, in the end, it matters more how we might we read this new genre of manifesto – it matters, in Haraway’s words, which thoughts think thoughts and what stories we use to tell stories. Is this utopian SF? Does it bespeak of Idealism, of naivety and of the Ego? Do we see in Camille the vision of Haraway as New (Age) Earth Mother? And is this even fair criticism? Or else prick thinking? And can this even be answered in accordance with the framework that Haraway sets out – a kind of unfalsifiability that it itself denounces as irrelevant?

‘Tool, weapon, word,’ we recall, ‘that is the word made flesh in the image of the sky god; that is the Anthropos’ (39). And ‘Camille’ too is of course tool, weapon, and word, one purposefully aimed at crafting – at creating, speculating, constructing – a word and a world to be made flesh in the image of the chthonic god. But does Camille offer anything beyond a simple change of name alone? Is this perhaps a change of genre, but not of narrative structure? And how can we be sure that Haraway’s tentacular ‘Chthulu’ is not, in the end, Lovecraft’s deeply patriarchal prick? After all, the sky god too has a thousand names.

In the end, our question can be further concentrated: is it possible to propose – to speculate – a figure of sympoiesis? Or is it not rather the case that sympoiesis is the very impossibility of being named, of being figured (out) in advance?

   

 

 

Notes

[i] Oddly, elsewhere in Staying with the Trouble Haraway appears clearly cognizant of the need to differentiate between the two distinct concepts, noting that ‘posthumanists’ constitute ‘another gathering altogether’ than those of the ‘Posthumans’ (50). Just why Haraway should abruptly bestow capital letter status upon the latter term remains unclear.

[ii] See Jean-Paul Sartre Being and Nothingness [L’Être et le néant] (1943) and Nausea [La Nausée] (1938). Sartre’s telling philosophical tales is also germane to the issues in Haraway’s case of inheritance, alliance, alignment, and legacy.

[iii] The notion of ‘a near-utopianism’ in relation to Haraway’s oeuvre comes initially from Istvan Csicsery-Ronay’s review of When Species Meet entitled ‘After Species Meet’ in which he writes of ‘the erstwhile Human’ becoming for Haraway ‘a dynamic, tumbling network of living relationships’ that includes ‘a near-utopian web of scholars and fellow-teachers constantly supplying new energies to each other’ (n.p.). In Humanimalia: A Journal of Human-Animal Interface Studies, Vol.1, No.2 (2010).

[iv] In my book Zoogenesis: Thinking Encounter with Animals (London: Pavement Books, 2014), I argue that Schmitt’s Friend/Enemy dichotomy as and at the origin of the nation-state is nothing short of the political logic of genocide in its purest form, 220-230.

[v] And note the perceived need, on Haraway’s part, to note the spelling correction/impropriety.

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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.

Plato Between the Teeth of the Beast: full text of LSE public lecture

Plato between the Teeth of the Beast: Animals and Democracy in Tomorrow’s Europe

 

(This is the full text of a public lecture given at the LSE in February 2014; it offers an extended consideration of the issues explored in my earlier post ‘Cannibals and Apes: Revolution in the Republic’)

 

Introduction

The question I would like to consider today concerns the relation between nonhuman animals and the constitution of a democratic community, with “democracy” understood both as an ideal theoretical concept and as an ongoing social practice. Traditionally, both philosophy and politics have tended to exclude other animals, deeming them irrelevant to what are claimed to be entirely human affairs. Over the past few decades, however, philosophers have increasingly challenged this assumption, beginning with Peter Singer and Tom Regan in the 70s and 80s, and then, from within the Continental tradition, by Jacques Derrida, Giorgio Agamben, Andrew Benjamin, and David Wood, to name just a few.

It is with this in mind that I have chosen as the subject for this talk a passage from Book VIII of Plato’s Republic, which I will read in full in a moment. While the reasons for choosing such an ancient text may not appear immediately evident, not to mention the fact that Plato was particularly scathing in his dislike of democracy, this passage is nonetheless key to understanding the possible role of other animals to a transformed notion of democracy. Moreover, it will soon become clear just to what extent we are already living within Plato’s supposedly ideal polis, be that as either citizens or labourers. As such, this will force us to re-consider a basic question of our existence, that is, whether – in fact – we live in a democracy at all.

First of all, however, we must consider the traditional use of “republic” to translate the title of Plato’s dialogue. Plato’s original term is “politeia,” which is better understood as “constitution” or “government.” Plato’s dialogue, in other words, is concerned with the various possible ways of governing, that is, with various constitutions or constituencies. To this end, Plato, in addition to his own ideal aristocratic form (glossed by Plato as “government of the best” and which I will continue to call the Republic for the sake of simplicity), examines four other forms of governing: timocracy (government of honour or government by the warrior class), oligarchy (government by the rich), democracy, and, finally, tyranny. Importantly, all these five constitutions are said to take place on a continuum, that is, while the aristocratic Republic is the best possible government, it is also the case that timocracy “arises out of” aristocracy. Similarly, oligarchy, while completely different and “teeming with evils,” nonetheless “naturally follows” from timocracy, just as democracy too arises from oligarchy and, lastly, tyranny – “the worst disorder of the State” – leads on from democracy. In short, Plato begins with the best and ends with the worst, noting that each form of government arises out of the previous one and permitting any number of intermediate forms along the way. Regarding the transition from democracy to tyranny, however, Plato is emphatic: democracy inevitably leads to tyranny. The future of every democracy, in other words, is always that of the most extreme nonfreedom, a future of abject slavery labouring under a tyrannical dictatorship. Given this slippery slope from best to worst, we can also understand why Plato spends as much time on the question of how his ideal Republic might be conserved once it takes power, as he does outlining its specific constitution.

Here, I will consider Plato’s critique of democracy on the one hand and, on the other, his proposed techniques for conserving power on behalf of the aristocratic “best.” This in turn will allow us to address the following series of questions:

1. How might we understand the claim that the inclusion of other animals is in fact a prior condition of any fully democratic community?

2. What is the relation between nonhuman animals, today’s ever-expanding proletariat-precariat, and the founding of a truly democratic constitution in terms of (a) control understood as force-feeding and (b) freedom understood as shared nourishment?

3. What are we to make of the renewed concern with other animals in which concern is based neither on animal rights nor on neo-Kantian notions of pity or compassion? Can a “post-humanist” notion of co-constitutive entanglement nourish a democratic idea or ideal of the communal?

4. If so, what might this mean for our democratic, economic, and ethical relations with other human beings in the era of neoliberalism and beyond?

Plato argues that nonhuman animals share with humans a special relation to democracy. All animals, he writes, possess an “instinct” or an “urge” for freedom that is synonymous with an “instinct” or “urge” for democracy. Moreover, the repression of this urge from the social body is of the utmost importance for Plato, who fears above all else that an increased sensitivity towards just this shared possession inevitably risks igniting a revolution that will ultimately overthrow his ideal aristocracy. Clearly, then, the role of animals within democracy is far from that of mute, passive endurance. Instead, Plato acknowledges a revolutionary relation between the freedom of nonhuman animals, the uprising of the working classes, and the founding upon the ruins of oligarchy of a democratic city always plagued by the double threat of anarchy and tyranny.

Plato goes on to argue that humanity must, and for political rather than economic reasons, harden its heart to the ongoing exploitation and suffering of “other animals” (this latter forming a group that, in times of crisis, includes all those forced to exchange the labour of their bodies in order to survive). By contrast, I suggest that a rigorous understanding of democracy requires that we pay heed to this dangerous “instinct” for freedom revealed in the first instance by the intimacy of our animal relationships. Only then do we begin to gain a sense of an explicitly democratic inter- and intra-relation of human and nonhuman beings.

 

This will lead us to consider the role played by the mouth in the constitution of bothPlato’s Republic and the democratic city, as well as the institutional role of the Platonic “Guardians” put in place to protect and conserve what turns out to be perhaps the most cynical of oligarchies by ensuring the closed mouth of the worker, a corporeal suppression that philosopher Georges Bataille describes as “the narrow constipation of a strictly human attitude.” By contrast, only the wide open mouths of human and nonhuman animals alike permit the potential articulation of a fully democratic socius. Unwittingly no doubt, what Plato’s discourse on the ideal Republic lets slip is that sensitivity to the freedom of other animals is an essential first step in the constitution of a truly free society. Such is the sensitivity for shared nourishment, for eating well. Animal others, then, become fundamental to any understanding of community. Such a sensitivity forces the formerly closed mouth wide open, preparing to devour any social pact founded upon gross inequality, slavery and injustice.

 

 

Animals in democracy

Here is the passage from Book VIII of the Republic, which finds Socrates talking with Adeimantus. I will for the most part skip over Adeimantus’s replies insofar as they simply accede to the points expressed by Socrates:

Democratic freedom, says Socrates, makes its way into private households and in the end breeds anarchy even among the animals.

What do you mean? asks Adeimantus.

I mean that a father accustoms himself to behave like a child and fear his sons, while the son behaves like a father, feeling neither shame nor fear in front of his parents, in order to be free. A resident alien or a foreign visitor is made equal to a citizen, and he is their equal.

A teacher in such a community is afraid of his students and flatters them, while the students despise their teachers or tutors. And, in general, the young imitate their elders and compete with them in word and deed, while the old stoop to the level of the young and are full of play and pleasantry, imitating the young for fear of appearing disagreeable and authoritarian.

The utmost freedom for the majority is reached in such a [democratic] city when bought slaves, both male and female, are no less free than those who bought them. And I almost forgot to mention the extent of the legal equality of men and women and of the freedom in the relations between them.

At this point, Adeimantus asks Socrates about the animals such as are found in a democratic city.

No one, Socrates replies, who hasn’t experienced it would believe how much freer domestic animals are in a democratic city than anywhere else. As the proverb says, dogs become like their mistresses; horses and donkeys are accustomed to roam freely and proudly along the streets, bumping into anyone who doesn’t get out of their way; and all the rest are equally full of freedom.

To sum up: Do you notice how all these things together make the citizens’ soul so sensitive that, if anyone even puts upon himself the least degree of slavery, they become angry and cannot endure it. And in the end, as you know, they take no notice of the laws, whether written or unwritten, in order to avoid having any master at all.

This, then, is the fine and impetuous origin from which tyranny seems to me to evolve.

The same disease that developed in oligarchy and destroyed it also develops here, but it is more widespread and virulent because of the general permissiveness, and it eventually enslaves democracy. In fact, excessive action in one direction usually sets up a reaction in the opposite direction. This happens in seasons, in plants, in bodies, and, last but not least, in constitutions.

Extreme freedom can’t be expected to lead to anything but a change to extreme slavery, whether for a private individual or for a city.

Then I don’t suppose that tyranny evolves from any constitution other than democracy—the most severe and cruel slavery from the utmost freedom.

 

For Plato, then, democracy inevitably results in tyranny because the democratic citizen becomes so sensitized to anything even remotely resembling control or coercion that ultimately he refuses to abide by any and all laws, including those he imposes upon himself. Anarchy thus displaces democracy, leaving the way open for the tyrant to seize power and thereafter inflict upon the democratic citizen the most cruel and severe constraints. It is, suggests Plato, simple social physics: every action having an equal and opposite reaction.

As a result, a key concern in the formulation of Plato’s ideal constitution consists of its ability or otherwise to ensure that any hint of democracy is immediately stamped out, lest it fall victim to that hateful slide towards the “worst.” Thus, the rulers of the Republic must be permanently on the lookout for signs and symptoms that point to the emergence of anything even resembling a democratic sensitivity. Most telling and most dangerous in this regard, insists Plato, is sensitivity towards the enslavement and exploitation of other animals. Indeed, democracy and domestic animals would seem to arrive together, the latter only becoming visible, that is, recognized as material entities capable of willed physical encounters, when allowed the freedom of the democratic city. By contrast, Plato’s animals are invisible labourers employed in tasks that – while tedious, unpleasant and “lowering” – are nonetheless necessary to the conservation of the Republic and thus to preserve the benefits it allows for the privileged “free” – this latter synonymous for Plato with the “best.”

Animal freedom, therefore, is both a symptom of an emerging democratic “sensitization” within non-democratic constitutions, and a sign of the impending arrival of tyranny within democratic societies.

Plato also points out a clear link between the democratic freedoms of animals and those of slaves, women, and workers.Animal; slave; worker: put simply, these are the three – ideally invisible – groups that together constitute what is necessary for the Republic to function as the ideal dwelling of the best. Moreover, the boundaries between these three groups are extremely porous. Women, for example, belong to all three groups at different times and, during times of crisis spurred by the democratic urge for freedom, the three groups merge together, becoming an undifferentiated horde of wild animals – wildness being, for Plato, synonymous with the absence of justice.

Hence, essential to the conservation of the Republic, that is to say, as a technique to prevent such crises, is a continued “insensitivity” and thus “invisibility” towards all those who provide the labour necessary for its continuance. As such, and as an explicitly political imperative, Plato expressly maintains that the souls of men must therefore be hardened in its relationships with nonhuman animals, a hardening achieved by propagating callous indifference to their daily enslavement and exploitation. We can still witness this imperative functioning today with the continued mainstream dismissal of animal concern as something irrational and sentimental – terms all too often mere synonyms for womanly. Without this calculated insensitivity towards other animals, insists Plato, the masses will inevitably become sensitised to the democratic notion of possible freedom for all. Democracy, in other words, right at its origin, necessarily includes freedom for other animals. Indeed, animal concern can be considered a democratic imperative.

Crucial, then, for the survival of Plato’s Republic – and we will hear soon whether this Republic is in truth an aristocracy, a meritocracy, or rather something much closer to a human zoo – is some foolproof method that somehow ensures that the “necessary” 99% continue to invisibly serve and service the privileged 1%. To this end, Plato introduces into his polis the Guardian of the Law, a spectral being whom from birth and even before the 99% is forcibly given to swallow, coerced into accepting its body within their own – often to the point of being unable to distinguish between them. The role of the Guardian, moreover, is not to protect the general population; nor is its role even to control the Republic’s human inhabitants. Instead, the Guardian is expressly installed to tame animal behaviour, an installation that goes by way of the mouth. Along the way, Plato introduces into his Republic two entirely new beings: first, the worker-ape and, second, a psychoanalyst to ensure his continuing social fitness.

 

 

In another dialogue, Plato argues that the purpose of what he calls the human mouth’s “current arrangement” is to serve as “the entry passage for what is necessary, and as the exit for what is best.” Necessary in this respect refers to the nourishment required by the body in order to function – the intake of oxygen, food, and water, basically. Exiting from the body, the “best,” meanwhile,refers to what Plato describes as the “stream of speech that flows out through the mouth, that instrument of intelligence, [which] is the fairest and best of all streams.” Necessary material nourishment thus enters through the mouth, whereas the best exits the mouth in the form of spoken language. Key, here, is Plato’s description of the mouth in conjunction with language as an instrument of intelligence. It is, in other words, an instrument, a tool, to be employed in the constitution of what is intelligible.

The mouth, of course, does not have to function in this fashion – if it did, there would be no need for Plato to insist that it do so. Instead of a stream of speech exiting from the mouth, for example, we might experience instead a stream of vomit. Vomiting, often a necessary purging of the body, thus consists of a reversal of the mouth’s “proper” employment, an impropriety or a corruption as far as Plato is concerned.

At its most basic, then, a reversal ofthe directionsof what is necessary and what is best would represent the total corruption of the mouth’s proper purpose. What form of government might we find, then, in which the best enters through the mouth and the necessary exits? Plato’s answer, of course, is democracy, a world turned upside down insofar as, as we shall hear, in a democracy it is rather the necessary – that is, the body of that chimerical beast of worker-slave-animal – which enslaves the best, that is, the language of the masters. What is clear, however, is that the mouth, be it in the Republic or in the democratic city, is the instrument of enslavement. Plato’s claim, however, is that the rulers of the Republic enslave the necessary workers, slaves, and animals to a lesser degree than the free worker-ape enslaves the best under democracy.

As we have heard, for Plato, democracy, the urge or instinct for freedom, and the arrival of tyranny, are inseparable. Together they consist of a disease of the mouth, a disease which enslaves the very best instruments of Plato’s Republic.

The workers, the slaves, the animals, says Plato, are fit only to perform those invisible tasks necessary to the ongoing smooth running of the polis and, as such, are fit only to feed the body, that is, to materially consume. Those readers of Karl Marx will no doubt recognize this description only too well. The necessary 99% being fit only to exchange labour power for the means to subsist and thus be able to turn up for work the following day. The aristocratic 1%, meanwhile, are fit only for the task of the best, that is, fit only to reason and to teach, and who must not be distracted by the necessity of actually having to work for a living. Just in case we missed it, Plato spells it out for us: the “leonine spirit” that is the mark of the best is lacking in the labourer because the latter is forced to attend to the necessary appetites of his beastly body, becoming accustomed “from youth on to being insulted for the sake of the money” – the money needed to satisfy those appetites.

Diseases of the mouth are thus better understood as aberrations of consumption, that is, the result of not consuming “properly” according not to the dictates of the State but rather, as we shall discover, according to the dictates of the market. At the extremes of Plato’s Republic, then, we find at one pole the elite 1%, made up of esteemed, “purely” ascetic citizens such as Socrates and Plato who have eliminated entirely the desires of the body and whose mouth, unsullied by its necessities, thus serves purely as an exit for the best. At the other end of the spectrum, separated by all those whose bodily desires are weaker or stronger, are located those who have utterly abandoned themselves to the desires of the body, the mouth having become solely an orifice of immoderate entry. Standing at this latter pole, says Plato, we behold an odd, almost Kafkaesque creature – a hybrid that is instinctively despised by the good citizens of the Republic. This creature, declares Plato, is the worker-ape: why else, he asks, “is the condition of a manual worker so despised? Is it for any other reason than that, when the best part is naturally weak in someone, it can’t rule the beasts within him but can only serve them?” As we heard a moment ago, those who are compelled from youth onwards to undergo the insult of having to labour for money necessarily lose their lion-like spirit. Now, Plato makes the link explicit: it is the insultof having to labour for money that transforms the labourer into an ape instead of a lion, and it is precisely because of this transformation that the labourer is a being to be “despised” by the best.

This notion of a Platonic labour exchange shifts the would-be aristocratic hierarchy of the polis dramatically. Now the line is not between those whose natural disposition of the mouth is that of an exit for the best and those whose natural inclination is to abandon themselves to every shameless act of the body, but rather between those who need not concern themselves with the necessary satisfactions of the body, and those that must work to survive. The independently wealthy, therefore, are akin to private zookeepers, putting their ape colony to work in order to ensure their own leisurely comfort.

In the freedom to seek satisfaction for bodily desires, marked by the open, all-consuming entrance of the mouth, Plato thus equates the democratic urge with the “despised” character of the manual worker. Plato is, moreover, absolutely terrified by this chimaeric spectre he evokes – the very personification of a world turned upside down, the world of a revolution in which all that is good is stood on its head. The worker-ape, half-man half-beast, appears as the frightful figure of the masses. The personification, in short, of democracy.

Here, then, can we still claim with any certainty that we are, in fact, citizens of a democracy? Or are we rather part of the heart-hardened masses whose labour ensures an idyllic, republican existence for the lucky few?

As we know, tyranny for Plato is the consequence of democracy, in what is an unequivocal sequence of cause and effect. Moreover, democracy-tyranny is the perfect inversion of the perfect Republic, and is thus the natural – absolute, perfect – opposition of the incumbent government.This carefully constructed ideology of a monstrous democracy and of the democratic monster – and it is an ideology, nothing more, as Plato himself would probably agree – thus automatically casts the Government in the role of Guardian against tyranny, always on the lookout for even the merest stirrings of freedom, protecting its citizens from an insidious enemy that is all around us. The masked democrat, with her irrational empathy for other living creatures, could be anywhere – your neighbour, your teacher, your paperboy or -girl – ready to explode with her terrifying bodily desire for freedom. While apparently based upon sound philosophical logic and precise scientific method, this construction – the framework of which will no doubt be familiar to you all – is in fact a narrative of almost infinite self-legitimation. The agents of government must thus be permanently on the lookout for the emergence of democratic practices, constantly scanning the polis for signs and symptoms marking the origins of democracy. Most important for Plato, then, if this dangerous notion of democratic freedom is to be stamped out at its very source, is not to keep an eye on the attitude of the 99% towards the 1%, but rather to keep close tabs on the way in which the ordinary man or woman in the street engages with other animals, that is, how she shares her life. At the very grassroots of democracy, in other words, Plato locates an instinctual freedom of which each and every animal possesses an equal share.

 

 

There still remains for Plato the question of how, exactly, to repress this democratic urge or instinct from within the boundaries of the Republic. While the 1% is said to naturally exist within the moderating light of reason, the 99%, by contrast, are necessarily unreasonable beings inasmuch as they remain too strongly bound to their bodily desires – some of which, aligned with “unnecessary pleasures,” are considered by Plato to be “lawless” and that together make up, of course, the desire for democracy which, given its ultimate refusal of all laws, is indistinguishable from anarchy.

Even within the ideal Republic, however, Plato acknowledges that lawless desires – desires which are at once the desire for lawlessness – cannot be entirely suppressed, no matter how effective the Guardians turn out to be. Where, then, might such terrible, terrifying desires emerge? Nowhere other than in our dreams. Only then, says Plato, might the soul be caught napping, a nap the potential consequences of which are truly horrifying.

Fired up by its lawless dreams of freedom, of revolution, the body wakes abruptly to discover itself entirely under the sway of its “beastly and savage part,” casting off sleep and concerned only with finding “a way to gratify itself.” At such times, insists Plato – and here I quote directly from Book IX of the Republic – “there is nothing it won’t dare to do …, free of all control by shame or reason. It doesn’t shrink from trying to have sex with a mother, as it supposes, or with anyone else at all, whether man, god, or beast. It will commit any foul murder, and there is no food it refuses to eat. In a word, it omits no act of folly or shamelessness.” Hence, despite even the worker-ape’s own best intentions, beastly and savage libidinal desires will attack him when his defences are down. As such, one can never count on any of the 99% to remain within the Law, as the entire existence of the masses is marked, at the level of their very being, as prone to periodic explosions of terrifying democratic violence at any moment.

Interestingly, during this description of a mouth abruptly set free of all reasonable control, the male worker-ape abruptly ceases being a gendered being, the grammar of the passage shifting from a “he” to an “it.” It is a shift which offers itself to a specifically psychoanalytic reading, especially in the context of Plato’s remarks about repressed anti-social desires emerging through dreams. Sigmund Freud, as is well known, divides the psyche into three separate domains, the ego (which could be roughly described as “everyday consciousness”), the Super-ego or Ego-Ideal (as the authoritarian voice of social conscience), and finally the id (which consists of the seething mass of unconscious desires). In Freud’s original German, the Ego is the “I” (das Ich), and the “id” is “das Es,” that is, the “it.” Plato’s grammatical shift could thus be said mark the shift from the ego to the id, from the “I” to the “It”: the rampaging worker thus becomes a rampaging it, a seething mass of hitherto repressed desire. Moreover, reduced thus to an “it,” the worker-ape is rendered both inhuman and animal, that is, he has being dehumanised and animalised by Plato’s narrative. Simultaneously, the dominance of the mouth as entrance becomes absolute: every desirous act is mistakenly considered as “food” for the body: incest, bestiality, sex with gods; patricide, matricide, infanticide, regicide; cannibalism – no act, as Plato makes clear, can be omitted.

While the notion of a specifically psychoanalytic reading of Plato’s Republic will probablysound somewhat anachronistic, in fact in various places throughout the many dialogues Plato himself outlines something very close to a “new science” of psychoanalysis, with specific focus on the discipline of dream interpretation. In the Timaeus, for example, Plato suggeststhe need for external interpreters to pass judgement on the divinatory quality of dreams. Such judges, who are thus “expositors of utterances or visions communicated through riddles, must analyse any and all visions … to determine how and for whom they signify some future, past or present good or evil.” We should perhaps not be surprised, however, to discover that Plato ultimately proposes an inverted or reverse Freudianism.

Returning to the slumbering labourer within the Republic, we know her dreams are the province par excellence of the lawless desires of worker-apes. According to Plato, then, the dreams of the worker have the potential to reveal the future, a future both lawless and desired. Such, in short, are the dreams of revolution. Given the stakes, it comes as no surprise, then, that Plato wants exactly these dreams to be interpreted by “competent judges” – just one of the techniques Plato installs to protect the 1% from the desires of the remaining 99%. Techniques, moreover, which are explicitly psychoanalytic in practice.

As we know, the mouth remains central to the techniques of control. In this, the mouth is for Plato a pharmakon, that is, something that can serve as both remedy and poison at the same time. Hence, he argues, for all those apes in whom law and reason are either weak or absent, the danger of the animal mouth which poisons the Republic with its urge for freedom must be “cured” by the mouth as pure exit. The language of the rulers, in other words, must somehow function to place within the body of the worker “something similar to what rules the best.” Put simply, Plato suggests that, through the forced imposition of the language of reason andlaw, an external Guardian can therefore be installed directly within the worker – a highly-efficient Super-Ego expressly conceived so as to make of the latter an amenable slave.

Even more importantly, it is an enslaving of which the worker-ape knows nothing: “It is better for everyone,” Plato writes, “to be ruled by divine reason, preferably within himself and his own, otherwise imposed from without, so that as far as possible all will be alike and friends, governed by the same thing.” This, he continues, “is clearly the aim of the law, which is the ally of everyone. But it’s also our aim in ruling our children, we don’t allow them to be free until we establish a constitution in them, just as in a city, and—by fostering their best part with their own—equip them with a guardian and ruler similar to our own to take our place. Then, and only then, we set them free.” Given this explicit programme of taming – Plato’s word – one can only assume that, in contrast to its visceral democratic counterpart, Plato here uses the notion of “freedom” somewhat ironically.

Despite the installation of the Guardian within her own body, it is essential that the worker remain ignorant as to the existence of this intimate instrument of control. In order to understand this mechanism for taming the urge for freedom, we need to take on board two more important technical concepts from psychoanalysis: introjection and incorporation. While the roles and even the meanings of these terms varies significantly depending on which analyst one consults, most will nonetheless agree that they refer to specific ways of interacting with, indeed, of coming to terms with, the entities that are all around us. At its simplest, introjection and incorporation are the different ways in which the psyche takes something of the external world within itself and, in so doing, nourishes itself.

As the psychoanalyst Maria Torok makes clear, introjection always involves growth, a broadening of the ego by way of the mouth in which the external is assimilated with the internal, a process through which both beings, the internal and the external, are positively transformed along the way. Such an open, enhancing technique of engagement serves no purpose in the polis of Plato’s Republic. Indeed, in order for the Platonic Guardian of the Law to function, it cannot be introjected by the worker-ape, that is, it cannotbe worked-over by the worker, for the simple reason that the language of the rulers serves principally to conceal the desires of the workers from the workers themselves.

Instead, then, all those labourers necessary to the Republic must rather incorporate the Guardian of the Law. Incorporation, explains Torok, is “the first lie” and “the first instrument of deception” – a trick, in other words, which leads the ego to mistake its external enslavement for an introjection of its own making. As such, the incorporation of the Guardian overwrites the worker-ape’s inherent desire for freedom by splitting the ego of the worker-ape into subject and object, the Guardian having being forcibly consumed, devoured, and installed as an “other-in-me.” The instinct for equal freedoms is thus corralled by security guards within the animal body that is quite simply the imposition of language itself. The 99%, in short, are forced into articulating their existence through the language of the 1%.

All of this, insists Plato, is a matter of justice for everyone. The Republic is not tyrannical like a democracy, he says, but is rather a just city for all who dwell within its walls. However, in speaking of the labourer as someone to be despised simply because he or she has to suffer the insult of being forced to sell her labour in order to survive, Plato ultimately gives himself away. It is this very insult – the insult we know today as the ever-increasing exploitation that is the very raison d’être of global capitalism’s pursuit of surplus value – this very insult which necessarily shelters the dreams of revolution, that is to say, the dreams of democracy shared by every animal, human and nonhuman, who are exploited for their labour. This, in short, is Plato’s great fear, the great fear that is the secret motor of his – and of our – Republic. Plato thus speaks not from a position of justice for everyone, but rather seeks to impose upon the poor the rules of the rich. We must, he insists, be governed by the same Law – the Law that money is power. The Guardian incorporated within the body of the worker is, in simplest terms, an explicitly normalising discourse designed at the outset to protect the wealthy from the dreams and desires of those forced to live hand-to-mouth.

In this context, it is instructive to read the EU Directive appended to the extract from the Republic accompanying this talk. Attitudes towards animal concern, the directive acknowledges, vary from nation to nation throughout the European Union and, while the EU will set the minimum level this concern may take, it will nonetheless allow for a certain flexibility should a given nation wishes to insist on a greater care be taken of their nonhuman inhabitants. There is, however, an extremely important coda: any insistence on better care being taken must “not affect the functioning of the internal market.” Here, we find a clear example of the “language of the masters” serving to ensure that concerned relations with other animals are not allowed to interfere with the market. At the same time, it exemplifies too the ongoing depoliticisation of the sovereign nation, with the EU ensuring that national governments can blithely claim irresponsibility while the market ensures on its part that we continue to harden our hearts to the exploitation of our animal kin, or at least ensure that their horrifying labours remain invisible.

Meanwhile, in our respective Republics, ancient and modern, not a single worker-ape may be permitted to escape this normalising operation. To allow even one worker to articulate the unlawful desires of the masses could be catastrophic. To this end, incorporation in the psychoanalytic sense is in fact the only possible remedy, insofar as only incorporation forecloses even the possibility of articulation: the words of desire, of revolution, the articulation of the insult, literally cannot be voiced due to the presence of the incorporated Guardian. For Plato then, to “eat well” is cannibalistic through and through: in being prohibited from consummating the lawless democratic urge, the worker-ape must be forced to consume an effigy of the rich, to incorporate an external Guardian in a process of auto-cannibalism through which the worker ultimately consumes himself, burying his dreams and his desires deep within himself. Only in this way is the insult prevented from erupting into an instinct for freedom, into a revolutionary consciousness – the “cure” of incorporation being, according to Torok, precisely that which protects against the “painful process” of reorganisation, of introjection, of growth and transformation. Incorporation, she adds, implies a loss that occurred before the desires concerning the object might have been freed, whilst the very fact of having had a loss is simultaneously denied. This, writes Torok, “is an eminently illegal act,” creating or reinforcing “imaginal ties and hence dependency.”

Things, however, don’t end here. The incorporated object – here the Guardian of the law – installed in place of, and to guard against, the desires quelled by repression inevitably recall that something else was lost – the incorporated object itself helplessly marks and commemorates the site of repression. Moreover, and here Torok and Plato are in agreement, these dangerous libidinal desires, while foreclosed in the light of day, nonetheless return in the dead of night, coming closest to the surface in dreams. The “ghost of the crypt,” writes Torok, “comes back to haunt the cemetary guard,” subjecting him to “unexpected sensations.” For Plato, in dreams the purity of the world of Ideas is lost, replaced by bastard configurations that retain the potential to betray those terrifyingly lawless desires. As a result, says Plato, the Republic must, in order to ensure the conservation of its status quo, remain ever vigilant to the slumbering desires of its worker-apes. To do this, he even goes so far as to suggest that every sign and symptom betrayed by the actual dreams of workers should be analysed as a preventative measure in a kind of inverse Freudianism.

If we read Plato with Torok, we discover that the site of repressed desires, commemorated by the Guardian itself, is typically signalled by way of a fantasy of ingestion such as imagined by Plato. While there may be no food that the rampaging worker-ape – consumed by a wild democratic urge – will not eat, this will never sate the actual and persistently active hunger for introjection. The offer of food, as Torok notes, is only ever an attempt to deceive, an attempt to fill – and thus close – the mouth of the labourer with something, anything, else. It is not this rampage of consumption that Plato fears might erupt within his Republic. Rather, such a rampage is both symptom and substitution of the hunger for introjection, a mark of the existential need for progressive libidinal nourishment.

In a sense then, Plato’s fear of the rapacious starving worker is certainly justified, constituted as it is by the very mechanism of incorporation meant to suppress it. In this crisis of the polis, the mouth of the worker – empty, open, teeth bare – calls out in vain to be filled with a language that permits introjection, that permits the articulation of what has been suppressed.

In conclusion, then, we are left with two related questions: first, how might one introject that which has been suppressed by incorporation? Still reading Plato with Torok, this would amount to an ongoing process of growth and transformation by which the entire social terrain would be reorganised according to the libidinal relations of freedom characteristic of a genuine democracy to-come. Second, insofar as this question of freedom for all concerns, at its very origin, a sensitivity to the enslaving and exploitation of other animals, might one not say that a sensitivity to the consumption of animals – understood as a cannibalistic consumption of flesh – is a principal condition of any authentic democracy-to-come, as Plato indeed fears?

Ultimately, we are brought back to the question of instinct. Plato understands the potential abandonment of the labourer to the democratic instinct as an abandoning of the human self to the animal realm. He, of course, can see in this abandonment of the properly human only an illness, a madness of the body that is both consequence and cause of the disease that is democracy, requiring the vigilance of a power simultaneously diagnostic and repressive. The Platonic Guardian, in short, ensures the closed mouth of the worker.

For us, however, things are perhaps different. Contrary to the entire Western humanist tradition, what we are tracing here is an unlikely and unruly privileging of instinct. Rather than excluding other animals, instinct here is essential to the revolutionary articulation of a fully democratic socius that necessarily includes other animals. Philosopher Georges Bataille gives us a sense of this when he writes of how “terror and atrocious suffering turn the mouth into the organ of rending screams. … the overwhelmed individual throws back his head while frenetically stretching his neck in such a way that the mouth becomes, as much as possible, an extension of the spinal column, in other words, in the position it normally occupies in the constitution of animals. As if explosive impulses were to spurt directly out of the body through the mouth, in the form of screams.”

 

 


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


Plato between the Teeth of the Beast: Animals and Democracy at the LSE

Danielle Sands, on behalf of The Forum for European Philosophy (FEP), has very generously invited me to speak at the London School of Economics on the 11th February 2014 (6.30 – 8.00 pm) as part of a series entitled “European Provocations” (link here). Also podcast is here: http://www.lse.ac.uk/newsAndMedia/videoAndAudio/channels/publicLecturesAndEvents/player.aspx?id=2247

This will be my final paper in the UK for a while, as I’ll be shipping out to Australia the following day.

Below are the (short and long) abstracts for the lecture, which is free and open to the public, and which will continue and deepen the consideration of animals and democracy that began with my paper on Plato’s Republic and the cannibal animals for the London Conference in Critical Thought back in 2012 (which can be accessed on this blog). It would be great if I could see some of you there!

Plato between the Teeth of the Beast: 

Animals and Democracy in Tomorrow’s Europe

Short Abstract

How important are animals to the constitution of democracy? In constructing his famous Republic, Plato expressly warns of the dangerous link between the liberation of animals, the uprising of the proletariat, and the founding of democracy. Unwittingly, Plato also reveals that an increased “sensitivity” towards the fate of bonded animals marks an essential first step towards a truly free society. From this starting point, Richard Iveson will thus consider whether the egalitarian entanglement of humans and other animals in fact constitutes the prior condition of any democratic community.

Abstract:

Reading two short extracts from Plato’s dialogues, one from Timaeus and one from the Republic, alongside a number of articles taken from the recent EC Directive on the scientific “use” of nonhuman animals, “Plato between the Teeth of the Beast” considers the place and the relevance of nonhuman animals to the constitution and conservation of democracy. Here, we will consider what Plato, always scathing in his attacks upon democracy, believes to be the revolutionary relation between the freedom of nonhuman animals, the uprising of the working classes, and the founding of a democratic city plagued by the double threat of anarchy and tyranny. Plato argues that humanity must, and for political rather than economic reasons, harden its heart to the ongoing exploitation and suffering of “other animals” (this latter forming a group that, in times of crisis, includes all those forced to exchange the labour of their bodies in order to survive). By contrast, I suggest that a rigorous understanding of democracy requires that we pay heed to this dangerous “instinct” for freedom revealed in the first instance by the intimacy of our animal relationships. Only then do we begin to gain a sense of an explicitly democratic inter- and intra-relation of human and nonhuman beings.

No longer based upon anthropocentric notions of pity or compassion, this relation gains further clarity when considered in the light of Jacques Derrida’s often misunderstood notion of “eating well.” This will then lead to a consideration of the role played by the mouth in the constitution of both Plato’s Republic and the democratic city. According to Plato, the revolutionary animal body of the worker must first be “tamed” through the force-feeding of an institutional “Guardian.” The Platonic Guardian, in other words, ensures the closed mouth of the worker, a corporeal suppression that Georges Bataille describes as “the narrow constipation of a strictly human attitude.” By contrast, only the wide open mouths of human and nonhuman animals alike permit the potential articulation of a fully democratic socius. Unwittingly no doubt, what Plato’s discourse on the ideal Republic lets slip is that sensitivity to the freedom of other animals is an essential first step in the constitution of a truly free society. Such is the sensitivity for shared nourishment, for eating well. Animal others, then, become fundamental to any understanding of community, and hence to the success or otherwise of various anti-capitalist movements active throughout Europe and beyond. Such a sensitivity forces the formerly closed mouth wide open, preparing to devour any social pact founded upon gross inequality, slavery and injustice.


The need to take care with Bernard Stiegler

 

Here is the second of my review articles, this one on Bernard Stiegler’s Taking Care of Youth and the Generations (2010), which originally appeared as ‘Rewiring the Brain, Or, Why Our Children are not Human’ in Parallax 18:4 (2012), 121-125.

 

Introduction

A hugely prolific writer, for more than fifteen years philosopher Bernard Stiegler has been seeking both to articulate existence itself, and to ameliorate its contemporary woes. In what is a vast undertaking, Stiegler moves from the originary emergence of humanity to the safeguarding of its future by way of multi-volume analyses that range widely between and across technology, political economy, art, palaeontology, television, democracy, and industrial and hyperindustrial societies.1 Focussing on education and the changing role of the school in contemporary Western societies, Taking Care of Youth and the Generations continues this project, while at the same time going some way to explain the sense of urgency, which characterizes much of Stiegler’s previous writing.

According to Stiegler, we are forever engaged in a ‘battle of intelligence for maturity’, a battle ‘concomitant with the history of humanity’ (p.29). Today, however, this battle has been transformed into the life or death struggle of humanity itself. Unless things change rapidly, Stiegler insists, humanity as we know it will be destroyed, displaced by a dystopian posthuman future whose inhabitants would be incapable not only of heeding Stiegler’s warning, but of even reading it. Proclaiming himself thus a prophet of and from potentially the last generation of mature adults, Stiegler seeks to hastily recall us to rational critique before the new media has its way and irretrievably restructures the connections which constitute intelligence so as to render such constitution impossible (p.33).

To instaurate critique, however, is no easy matter. It is not simply a question of education reform, but of a revolution that impacts upon every level of society and beyond, intervening ceaselessly even at the neurological level. Moreover, a revolution by its very nature offers no guarantees. As Stiegler admits, the remedy he prescribes might also turn out to be the worst kind of poison. Indeed, one can all too easily envisage the appropriation of his discourse in the service of a right-wing defence of ‘family values’, and even in a renewed eugenicist discourse which (by way of A Clockwork Orange) deems synaptic rewiring a remedy for ‘delinquency’ within a regime of enforced ‘care’.

Throughout, Stiegler draws on three main philosophical supports in order to establish his notion of ‘rational critique as noopower’. First and foremost is Plato’s theory of anamnesis. A theory, which, according to Stiegler, constitutes ‘the basis of all instruction as the dialectic transmission of apodictic or formal knowledge’ insofar as it ‘requires a kind of attention the learner forms itself as a knowledge […] by individuating it’ (p.172). Secondly, rational critique requires the establishment of a ‘republic of letters’ such as formulated during the Aufklärung and by Kant in particular. Finally, Stiegler offers a sustained engagement with Michel Foucault, extending the latter’s notion of the ‘writing of the self’ while at the same time disputing Foucault’s earlier claim that the school is ‘only’ a prison of surveillance and control. Instead, through Plato, through Kant, Stiegler argues that the school in its broadest sense in fact constitutes the primary pharmacological site of the battle for intelligence. It is the school, in other words, which has the potential to produce both the curative individuation of rational critique (noopower) and the poisonous disindividuation of psychotechnologies in thrall to the market.

To understand this, however, it is first of all necessary to understand the specifically pharmacological nature of what Stiegler calls ‘tertiary retentions’, a nature, which makes of them always both poison and remedy at once (pharmaka). Social or cultural memories that have subsequently become materialized as memory supports (the book being the privileged example), tertiary retentions are for Stiegler the building blocks of the human world. During the process of instruction, these tertiary retentions must be re-internalized in order for knowledge to be individuated, as we saw with the Platonic dialectic. Such circulating intelligence is thus already collective at every level, forming an ‘organological milieu linking minors and adults, parents and children, ancestors and descendants’ (p.34). It is this which constitutes the ‘organological history’ of humanity. These same material supports, however, are also what allow for the destruction of intelligence. Thus it comes to pass that this history of humanity now finds itself increasingly under threat from the emergence of what Stiegler calls ‘grammatized media’, television and new media being his primary examples. These new symbolic media, he writes, constitute ‘a network of pharmaka that have become extremely toxic’ (p.85).

Stiegler, however, is by no means offering a simplistic rant against technology, nor a reactionary call to return to some mythic bygone era. While grammatized media – and their toxicity – are indeed unprecedented, they are, he insists, nevertheless the only ‘first-aid kit’ we possess with which to remedy the poison of their carelessness. In other words, insofar as they are necessarily pharmaka, the new grammatized media must therefore also constitute the condition for a new maturity, a new critique. It is here, Stiegler writes, that the contemporary battle for intelligence must begin, with a re-forming of ‘psychosocial attention in the face of these psychotechnologies of globalized psychopower’ (p.35). Such reformulations are what he calls nootechniques aimed at producing transindividual knowledge, as opposed to its short-circuiting in the fulfilment of base human drives under control of psychotechnologies.

 

TV is poisoning our minds

Psychotechnological systems, argues Stiegler, are the key technologies of hyperindustrial societies of control. Hence, whereas for Stiegler the key question centres upon education leading to maturity, the ‘media world’ by contrast is fixated upon gaining control of youth’s psychic and social apparatuses from the youngest age (p.132). Such systems of control serve only to short-circuit the psychic system, however, resulting in the explosion of attention-deficit disorder, infant hyperactivity, and cognitive-overflow-syndrome we see today. Ultimately, maintains Stiegler, desire itself collapses (p.42).

In this way, attention is reduced to retention, a regression of intelligence for which the programming industries and mass media are to blame. Television in particular, writes Stiegler, has ‘irresistibly’ ruined the public education systems instituted in the 1880s along Aufklärung ideals, to the extent that democracy in the West has now been subsumed by a telecracy, which, with the programming industries as its ‘armed wing’, seeks only to control social behaviour by adapting it to immediate market needs (p.58). Moreover, this process has been accelerated by the emergence of new media, leading to the ‘hypersolicitation of attention’ (p.94). This control process serves to remove individuals from participation in the critical process of collective intelligence, a removal characteristic of what Stiegler, after Marx, terms ‘proletarianization’.

Psychotechnologies, in other words, eliminate the very thing that defines the human, that of critical consciousness. As a result, the ‘new’ short-term state of ‘attention without consciousness’ they inaugurate necessarily constitutes an entirely different form of being. Stiegler refers to this as a state of ‘vigilance’, a form of being characteristic of wild animals (p.78). The programming industries, in short, rewire the human, purging it of its exceptional ‘cerebral plasticity’ so as to produce instead an animalistic nervous system ‘forever enclosed within strict neurological limits’ (pp.96-8). The post-human, therefore, is a (psycho)technologically produced animal, subject only to the short-term satisfaction of drives without desire. This, suggests Stiegler, is the future, and that future is (almost) now, consciousness having being reduced to a ‘grammatized stream’ by the ‘transformation of formalized machinic processes, as well as by devices recording and manipulating the information stream’ (p.147).

This ‘rewiring’, moreover, is no simple metaphor. Television and new media, Stiegler insists, irrevocably restructure the synaptogenetic circuits of children subjected to them at an early age. The evidence invoked to back up this claim is, however, very thin. Nevertheless, Stiegler takes it as proven that such rewiring inevitably results in an irreversible inability to attain maturity at the neurological level (pp.74-7). The ‘herd’ that is the next generation, in short, will thus be physiologically unable to heed Stiegler’s warning and to take responsibility. Rather, by the time today’s children grow up, it will already be too late.

For Stiegler, signs of this process are everywhere. In place of the social formation of intelligence, we find only ‘the most minimal human “subject”’, which increasingly ‘delegates its attention to automata that then become its captors, meters, gauges, warning signals, alarms, and so on’ (pp.100-1). While, on the one hand, we can no longer recall our own telephone numbers or how to do simple arithmetic, on the other we transfer control of all our financial, military and medical decisions to various software applications. As a result, there can be no singular internalization of the collective and social memories of humanity, and thus no possibility of creating new long circuits of transindividuation. Instead, machines calculate us: ‘attention engines’ take the place of attention itself, and thus substitute for the subject (p.100).

There is, however, something of a hysterical edge to Stiegler’s stricture regarding the toxicity of television and new media, which recalls similar apocalyptic warnings that have accompanied the emergence of every new media form, not excluding the printed book. It is an attack moreover, as John Hutnyk points out in a recent article ‘Proletarianization or Cretinization’, which depends upon a largely undifferentiated concept of the ‘long-circuit’, which takes no account of the specificities of place. Moreover, Stiegler appears not to consider the possibility that, what for him is only ever a delinquency of youth in need of correction, might instead constitute a basis for resistance and struggle against market controls. Thus, writes Hutnyk, whereas Stiegler’s diagnosis tends all too readily to render the masses a passive object of capture, perhaps instead ‘we need more delinquents, civil unrest, a revolutionary call to attention’ in the constitution of a dialectic in which the distraction of attention may actually be a refined and critical inattention’.2 Stupidity too, insists Hutnyk, can be pharmacological.

At the same time, in order to justify his distinction between the (good) psychotechnics which constitute humanity, and the (bad) psychotechnologies which reduce it to ‘mere’ animal vigilance, Stiegler’s position ultimately depends upon an extremely problematic human-animal dichotomy, one which conflates ‘the human’ with consciousness and ‘the animal’ with blind instinctual drives. As detailed in the first volume of Technics and Time, Stiegler insists upon the absolute exceptionalism of the human by virtue of a co-constitutive technicity (meaning that, according to Stiegler’s thesis, any nonhuman animal who manipulates a tool must therefore be a human). In Taking Care, however, Stiegler seems to suggest that a human can be somehow reduced to, or even returned to, an animal way of being. The question then, is how can grammatization – the putatively defining property of the human – effect what for Stiegler is an ontologically impossible reduction of the human to the animal?

It is in order to circumvent this question that Stiegler attempts to separate human vigilance from its animal counterpart by claiming they constitute two different ‘aspects’. Such a separation, however, cannot be maintained. Psychotechnologies, he suggests, eliminate human attention, whereas animal attention is always already captured (p.102). In other words, the human, defined futurally, must have attention and thus anticipation eliminated in order to then become a captured animal. The difference then, concerns only the process, rather than the resulting form of being, by which ‘the human’ becomes what ‘the animal’ always already is. Stiegler’s vigilant posthuman, in other words, is the regression of the (ontologically distinct) human to an animal he or she never was. Perhaps then, in this dystopian future controlled by autonomous psychotechnological forces, it will be Senegalese chimpanzees who, with their favourite tools for extracting termites and their carefully fashioned spears for hunting lemurs, will find themselves marked out as the ‘proper’ humans amongst all us (other) animals.

 

Re-schooling Foucault

Returning to Stiegler’s argument, the ‘great question’ of our times necessarily consists in finding a way to abandon the inhuman abandonment of the subject to machines, and to invent instead ‘new modalities of non-inhuman existence […] modalities that are less toxic, more useful to a non-inhumanity’ (p.183). This, in short, is our particular battle for intelligence: how do we reconfigure the current psychotechnologies so as to invent a new way of life, one that takes care ‘by inventing techniques, technologies, and social structures of attention formation corresponding to the organological specifities of our times’ (p.48). This will not come about by chance however. Rather, says Stiegler, humanity must be taught to cultivate care and attention by way of a reinvention of education that utilizes an industrial organization.

Here we reach the core of Stiegler’s text, which can be summarized as a series of interlinked prescriptions. First, the entire education community must be made aware of its hypomnesic basis within tertiary retentions through genealogical analyses of the grammatization process. In this way, teachers and students alike will thereafter understand the need to return to the ‘older’ form of attention construction as the formation of disciplinary transindividuation circuits. This then in turn requires the teaching of strategies for paying attention to psychotechniques of attention formation (p.70). Stiegler calls this an ‘organological rethinking of the education system’ (p.83) in which every retentional device is to be systematically analyzed for both its potentially curative and potentially poisonous effects. In this way, the various forms of attention brought about by both psychotechniques and psychotechnologies can be identified and the correct ones selected in the formation of a regime of care.

Arguing that the school, therefore, constitutes the primary pharmacological site of this battle for intelligence, Stiegler is thus compelled to engage with Foucault’s influential reading of the school as simply a prison of enforced discipline. This he does by suggesting Foucault in fact ‘misses’ the pharmacological aspect of tertiary retentions by virtue of a ‘skewed’ reading resulting from the historical contingency that Stiegler terms ‘post-1968 disappointment’. Similarly, writes Stiegler, insofar as Foucault roots his analyses within the nation-states of a long-gone Europe, his notion of biopower cannot account for our age of deterritorialized economic forces and their programming industries which inevitably construct entirely new apparatuses.

It is rather the case, Stiegler argues, that the school, in addition to being a Foucauldian apparatus of surveillance and control, is also an institutional mechanism through which knowledge is to be acquired, both through the ‘construction of a system of care regulating the connections of the individual to self and others, intergenerationally’, and by the ‘transindividuation of a transmissible knowledge to “ordinary scholars”, citizens with rights (Kant’s and Cordorcet’s subjects) who attain such knowledge in the form of a discipline formalizing consciousnesses, and that can be taught as such’ (p.146).

For this, Stiegler says, we must return to Kant’s ‘republic of letters’ as formulated in ‘What is Enlightenment?’ from 1784. Here, we discover that the corporeal discipline of the school is in fact a condition of a mature self-discipline and of the discipline of self (p.118). Foucault overlooks this fact, claims Stiegler, because he focuses on only one pole of the school’s inherent pharmacology, that of the disciplinary field of subjection, and completely ignores ‘the field of disciplines structuring knowledge – and as discursive relations based on techniques of the self’ (p.121).

Let us not be too hard on Foucault, however, insofar as he too was inevitably trapped within his own historically specific ‘regime of truth’ and thus condemned, as we all are, to operate within its diagrammatic statements. This limit, Stiegler suggests, was constructed in and by the ‘era of 1968’, during which all power was considered as synonymous with the repressive State apparatus. As a result, education in general, and the school in particular, necessarily came to be considered as part of the disciplinary control apparatus. However, subsequent to what Stiegler calls the ‘historicopolitical abortion called “1968”’ (p.119), the huge disappointment that followed – disappointment described by Stiegler as the mindset of ‘only’, in the sense of ‘school will have only been a disciplinary tool’ (p.120) – thereafter comes to define the thought of an entire generation of thinkers. While admittedly fertile, insists Stiegler, this mindset of ‘only’ is nonetheless only fruitful ‘on condition of its being critiqued – and the time of that critique has come’ (p.121).

Through just this critique, Stiegler thus attempts to move at once beyond the limits of the ‘1968-mindset’ in general, and the Foucauldian imbrication of power-knowledge in particular. By way of a genealogical understanding of the pharmacological nature of schooling, Stiegler claims in conclusion that it becomes possible to reinstitute ‘the school’ as an organization for the teaching of literacy as a formulator of rational, intergenerational relations and thus as a system of care on a ‘completely different plane from the biopolitics emerging as the administration of what Foucault describes as biopower’ (p.179). Insofar as it pays attention to its hypomnesic basis in conjunction with the employment of the ‘correct’ strategies of psychotechnics, the school is thus the key site in the reconfiguration of our current state of carelessness. We, writes Stiegler, the last generation of mature adults, must erect a politics of ‘care-through-instruction’, which is in practice a ‘metacare that, as it were, shapes care in modern society in the strongest sense – as the taking of noetic action that is politically and economically organized’ (p.179). Only in this way, he argues, might the youth of today still understand us tomorrow, only in this way might humanity have a future. Nevertheless, it is a tomorrow whose cure threatens much that might turn out to be more poisonous than the toxicity it promises to combat.

 

Notes

1 On technology, see, for example, the five volumes of Technics and Time (1996–); on political economy, see For a New Critique of Political Economy (2009); on art, see Mystagogies: De l’art contemporain (forthcoming); on television, see Echographies of Television with Jacques Derrida (1997) and La Télécratie contra la démocratie (2006); on democracy, see De la démocratie participative (2007), and on industrial and hyperindustrial societies, see the first volumes of Mécreance et discrédit (2004) and De la misère symbolique (2006) respectively.

2 John Hutnyk, ‘Proletarianization or Cretinization’, forthcoming in New Formations: a journal of culture/theory/politics.

 

 

 

Richard Iveson

Goldsmiths, University of London

 


Foucault in the Slaughterhouse

The following is the draft of a paper I gave at the recent ‘Radical Foucault’ conference at UEL.

The disciplinary underbelly in the margins of control

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I think it is fair to say that the importance accruing to the publication of Foucault’s lectures cannot be overstated. Three in particular, Society Must be Defended; Security, Territory, Population; and The Birth of Biopolitics, insofar as the content of these lectures did not directly result in works published during Foucault’s lifetime, necessitate a rigorous reappraisal of the ongoing relevance of his thought. In particular, they offer a detailed rejoinder to many subsequent critiques regarding the limitations of biopolitics when understood solely as an order of disciplinarity. Donna Haraway’s influential “Manifesto for Cyborgs” from 1985, in which she describes Foucault’s biopolitics as “a flaccid premonition of cyborg politics,” offers a good example of what will become a fairly standard criticism. [i] With the publication of the lectures, however, it becomes clear that, under the notions of “security” and “governmentality,” Foucault had already offered an in-depth engagement with what for Haraway characterises a more “erect,” post-Foucauldian informatics of domination, which she describes as being constituted and differentiated by control strategies which concentrate on rates of flow enabling an unlimited circulation, on reproductive capacities in terms of population control, and on the effective management of stress points or blockages; probabilistic and statistical, she continues, such control strategies are formulated in terms of the costs of constraints and degrees of freedom.

A few years later, Gilles Deleuze, despite having previously made the point that for Foucault there is no abrupt discontinuity between the various historical orderings of power, but rather an always uneven topography of transition with each new formation emerging “with gaps, traces and reactivations of former elements,”[ii] he will nevertheless suggest that, even while Foucault was writing, his time was in fact already past: “a disciplinary society,” writes Deleuze, “was what we already no longer were.”[iii] Again, however, the lectures make clear that not only was Foucault already aware that the disciplinary order had seceded its primacy to the generalised mechanisms of security, but also that fragmentary orderings of disciplinarity and sovereignty not only remain with us, but are vital to our understanding both of history and of practices of resistance. For example, in locating the invocation of right as “taking place on the front where the heterogeneous layers of discipline and sovereignty meet,” it becomes all too clear that not only can the contemporary reactivation of bourgeois right in no way limit the effects of disciplinary power, but also that an entirely new resistance politics is required once we begin to attend to the generalised order of security.[iv]

Taking the multiply-penetrated bodies of nonhuman animals as an example, I aim to suggest that a Foucauldian analysis remains essential if we are to understand the apparent conflict or conflation of orders which today both organises and produces nonhuman bodies, and at the same time to demonstrate some of the ways our society of security remains both supported and constrained by an increasingly marginalised disciplinary mode of production. This is because it is within the windowless walls of Western slaughter-factories that all those apparently outmoded forms of a capitalism of enclosure are perhaps most explicitly maintained right alongside, and meshing with, the most futural informatic and control networks, exemplified both by the working practices of agribusiness transnationals and by the genetically engineered animals of biotechnology, be they oversized blind hens or so-called “pharm” animals biologically modified so as to produce helpful pharmaceuticals along with their more usual bodily fluids. To understand the combined discipline and security of slaughter, however, requires that we follow Foucault and analyse how infinitesimal mechanisms of disciplinary power come to be invested, transformed, displaced, and re-used by the increasingly general mechanism of security in such a way as to disclose how, at this given moment and in this specific formation, such technologies of power become once again economically profitable and politically useful.[v]

In other words, it is only at the intersection of security’s reactivation of disciplinarity that it becomes possible to track the various transformations—of which I can obviously only offer a rough sketch here—which, since the decline of Western meat consumption as a result of increasing health concerns, have led both to the “immigrantisation” of meat production in the West and to the export of an apparently Western “life-style” of meat consumption by agribusiness giants like Smithfield and Tyson, aided and abetted by the World Bank, to various developing nations. This double shift has been achieved in part by way of framing notions of “progress” and “modernity” in conjunction with “status,” “virility” and, somewhat ironically, “health” on the one hand and, on the other, by the targeted construction of enormous institutions of disciplined death and disarticulation on the outskirts of Western towns already devastated by poverty and racial tensions: a geopolitical development which, as Foucault has already shown in his discussion of town-planning, “organizes elements that are justified by their poly-functionality.”[vi] In place of the nineteenth-century spectacle of disciplinary slaughter, however, today the blank walls and blank-faced guards defending the slaughter-factories of the ghettoised North serve in part to mark the fact that such a degree of concentrated, enclosed exploitation is no longer acceptable in the “clean” disembodied information age of postindustrial governmentality—at least, that is, for the “civilised” citizens of the North.

 

Another way to say this would be that, insofar as the marks of the colonial-imperial order are necessarily retained by the disciplinary apparatuses despite their reutilisation, they must therefore be hidden. As Foucault insists, the new technology of power emerging in the second half of the eighteenth century does not exclude disciplinary technologies, but rather dovetails into them, transforming their uses as it embeds itself within them.[vii] Thus disciplinary techniques are thereafter put to work instead upon material givens, upon natural processes and upon flows of people and resources, solely in order to maximise those elements which provide the best possible circulation whilst minimising the chances of blockage—blockages which include not only theft and illness, but also worker solidarity, empathy, unionising, capitalist-worker polarisation, and so on.[viii] In Foucault’s words, the essential function of security is to “respond to a reality in such a way that this response cancels out the reality to which it responds,” a function which makes use of instruments of discipline where necessary.[ix] Central to this process is that of ensuring that everything is constantly moving around, continually going from one point to another—a circulation which paradoxically cancels the very dangers of circulation.”[x] In this way, certain types of “risky” communities and shared knowledges are blocked, while other empty forms, such as those employed by agribusinesses based upon native-foreigner, legal-illegal, and men’s work-women’s work binaries, with all their concomitant animalisation, are naturalised through this constant movement, thus guaranteeing that nothing blocks the smooth functioning of the economic mechanism and ensuring therefore the security of processes intrinsic to production.[xi]

Here, we begin to perceive that, while the archetypal Taylorist and Fordist techniques of disciplinary control remain clearly visible within the slaughter-factory, a new order of power has nonetheless embedded itself within them. While the same unstoppable disassembly lines continue to neutralise the violence of killing and to transform tens of thousands of workers into animate organs of its machine, compelled by its relentless speed to cut out a set number of kidneys every minute, to slice off so many feet and empty out so many stomachs, a major and widespread mechanism of contemporary security is nonetheless explicitly revealed, one which displaces, extends, and works over the figures and spaces of colonialism by organising multiple so-called “natural” ethnic divisions among the workers as an element of control in the labour process. Hence the second reason for the institutionalised blinding of the slaughter-factory.

While Hardt and Negri have noted how transnationals now routinely address different ethnic groups with “different methods and different degrees of exploitation and repression so as to enhance profit and facilitate control,”[xii] it is Foucault, however, who demonstrates how the utilisation by security mechanisms of the same instruments of discipline serve no longer to ensure the artificial standardisation of the worker but rather only the naturalisation of the freedom of production. Such mechanisms, in short, are not strictly economic, but rather ensure the functioning of economic exchange.[xiii] Thus, as Foucault shows, security technologies operate instead upon legislation, upon structures and institutions of society, facilitating in this way population transfers and migration while organising enmities and privileges by placing restrictions on training, instigating national hatreds by modifying certain laws while conspicuously ignoring others, by articulating advantageous oppositions between the legal and the illegal, by imposing routine conditions on aid packages enabling a greater exploitation of foreign grazing lands, and so on and so on.

Furthermore, Foucault’s analysis of neoliberalism as both associative and dissociative enables a move beyond the simplistic notion of liberal individualism which even Deleuze occasionally falls back on, such as when he claims in his “Postscript on the Societies of Control” that transnationals protect themselves from mass resistance by “presenting the brashest rivalry as an excellent motivational force that opposes individuals against one another and runs through each, dividing each within.”[xiv] Against this myth of a capitalist “state of nature,” of a war of each against all, which in fact serves to naturalise neoliberal individualism, Foucault instead introduces the potential for a far more radical critique of neoliberal societies of control, one which focuses on the gap between the “non-local” bond between economic subjects and the localised bonds of sympathy and benevolence and of contempt and malice between some individuals in so-called “civil” society, insofar as it is this gap which enables the economic manipulation of social differences, and yet it is precisely these differences which formally serve as the “medium” of its manipulation. In this way, however, economic manipulation inevitably destroys the very medium of community it requires in order to function. This in turn points to the necessity of resistance networks which function outside of both the oppositions constituting local “civil” society, and the empty formalism of a global economic structure.[xv]

Another, more recent criticism levelled at Foucault is that his analysis of biopolitics cannot account for the extraordinary advances within biotechnology. Eugene Thacker, for example, has recently sought to move “beyond” Foucault by focussing on the biopolitics of biotechnologies defined “as the ongoing regulation of the bioinformatic inclusion of ‘life itself’ into the political domain.” Information in this “new” biopolitics, writes Thacker, accounts not only for the material and embodied, but also can produce the material and embodied, that is, it can produce “life itself,” while at the same time constituting the point of mediation which allows the continuous biopolitical regulation of “the relation between biology and informatics within the context of political and economic concerns” so as to reconfigure ““life itself” as open to intervention, control, and governance.” In short, “life itself” is now being produced as open to governmentality, alongside the various networks of uneven, asymmetrical production, distribution, and exchange. While this can perhaps be extrapolated from Foucault’s analyses, Thacker suggests, Foucault nonetheless leaves the relation between “biological ‘life itself’ and economics in the background,” with the latter being a mere “deviation of the aims of “governmentality.”[xvi] What Foucault’s lectures clearly demonstrate, however, is that governmentality in fact only functions so as to enable and to maintain this very illusion of “backgrounding.” While it is important to understand, as Thacker clearly does, that the way biopolitics manages the relation between “population” (as biological) and “statistics” (as informatics) is mediated by one or more systems of value, this is not, however, to move beyond the original purview of biopolitics as a result.

One can, for example, sketch out the rudiments of a Foucauldian analysis as regards the emergence of the “transgenic” sheep Polly and Dolly, themselves exemplary of the biotechnological revolution. Whereas the disciplinary order discretised time into minutes and seconds and disarticulated bodies into elemental gestures in the quest for a perfectly efficient worker-tool, the aim of our new postindustrial factories is to both employ and embody “life itself” by displacing the linear irreversibility of “natural” chronological time and instituting an undetermined network in its place. These “new” factories, also known as “bioreactors,” are the transgenic animals themselves: material givens which security mechanisms serve to open to undetermined circulation by the facilitation of apparently “natural” processes. It is no coincidence that the term “bioreactor” also names the machines which both culture cells and subject them to physical stimuli in order to incite nonspecific “protoforms” to self-assemble into specified morphologies. The aim, in short, is not to discipline, but only to facilitate an apparently natural economy of exchange. At the same time, as Sarah Franklin has shown, such facilitation requires that the scientific labourers voluntarily impose upon themselves various regimes of disciplinary technologies in order to protect the articifically enclosed space of their labs from natural processes of contamination.[xvii]

This reworked notion of the genetically-engineered animal-as-factory is symptomatic of the more general shift from life conceived metaphorically as information, to life understood practically as its literal actualisation which can be patented and thus commodified. Constituted as an accumulation of power-knowledges, such a body is thus re-constituted as a mediated and distributed materiality entirely suited to the highly mobile, geographically dispersed networks of postindustrial capital. In other words, as the nonhuman animal becomes at once informatic network, fleshly materiality and speculative capital, at the same time legislation, structures, and institutions play their part in securing control over the flows of a new form of techno-bio-logical reproduction, facilitating for example both the outsourcing of clinical trials from North to South and the unregulated global trade in unfertilised human eggs from South to North. Meanwhile, in the suburban ghettos of the North, the old disciplinary-model slaughterhouse remains, only it is has been deregulated and displaced into the margins, further faciliating the transfer of things and the migration of bodies by way of a continuous noxious counter-circulation from North to South and back again.

Finally then, by analysing the displacement and re-investment of disciplinary technologies within the order of security, it therefore becomes possible to disclose the two contradictory temporalities underpinning their interarticulation. On the one side, the North exports to the South an evolutionary narrative of “progress” and “modernity” as a rationale for market and geophysical coercion while, on the other, we find a second narrative in operation within the North itself, that of post-modernist reversibility, recapacitation, and immortality. This in turn serves to push the South ever further into the margins of “base” industrial production figured by a myth of redemptive temporality: the promise of a “modern” future for which the poor must sacrifice themselves today. At the same time, the poor and marginalised of the North are reduced to desolation on the basis of the capitalist promise of an incalculable future which nonetheless remains dependent upon the historical yet naturalised limits of capitalism, limits which inevitably impoverish—and excuse—the present. We can also better understand the promise performed so conspicuously by Dolly herself. A singular, nonsubstitutable materiality that is at once patentable and, more importantly, infinitely reproducible, she brings together in and as one body the promise of both the industrial and the postindustrial, both discipline and control, in a mutual articulation of informatics, biotechnology and immortality on the one hoof, and a global agribusiness dealing in biotechnologically-accelerated death on the other. She intersects too with the biopolitical pharmacology of health: life-enhancing pharmaceuticals crossing with death-accelerating antibiotics and growth hormones. For a few, Dolly represents the promise of a perpetually-extended human lifespan, while for a great many others she figures only the accelerated death of the slaughter-factory, the two extremes moving ever further apart.

History, in Foucault’s sense, is never the past. Rather it is that which constitutes “a knowledge of struggles that is deployed, and that functions within a field of struggles.”[xviii] This is at the core of all of Foucault’s writings, and I think it remains today a necessary starting point for a radical politics which seeks to struggle against those mechanisms which, all around us today, aim to secure as natural such extremes of control.


[i] Haraway “A Manifesto for Cyborgs” in The Haraway Reader 22

[ii] Deleuze Foucault (1986) 19

[iii] Deleuze “Postscript on the Societies of Control” 3

[iv] Foucault “Society Must Be Defended” 39. At the same time, the reactivation of bourgeois sovereign right—with, for example, the application of rights to nonhuman animals—becomes increasingly untenable as a challenge to disciplinary power. Indeed, Foucault was making this important point long before the publication of Tom Regan’s The Case for Animal Rights.

[v] Foucault “Society Must Be Defended” 30-3

[vi] Foucault Security, Territory, Population 19

[vii] Foucault “Society Must Be Defended” 242

[viii] Foucault Security, Territory, Population 19

[ix] Foucault Security, Territory, Population 47

[x] Foucault Security, Territory, Population 65

[xi] Foucault Security, Territory, Population 353

[xii] Hardt & Negri Empire 200

[xiii] Foucault The Birth of Biopolitics 140-141

[xiv] Deleuze “Postscript on the Societies of Control” 5

[xv] Foucault The Birth of Biopolitics 301-2

[xvi] Thacker The Global Genome: Biotechnology, Politics, and Culture (2005) 28-30

[xvii] Franklin “The Cyborg Embryo: Our Path to Transbiology” (2006) 174

[xviii] Foucault “Society Must Be Defended” 171


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