Tag Archives: posthumanism

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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Matthew Calarco ‘Life and Relation Beyond Animalization.’ A Review of Zoogenesis: Thinking Encounter with Animals

The following article ‘Life and Relation Beyond Animalization’ by Matthew Calarco is a review of my book Zoogenesis: Thinking Encounter with Animals (2014) recently published in the open access journal Humanimalia 9:1 (Fall 2017), pp.152-159.

I would like to sincerely thank Professor Calarco for taking such time and effort in order to produce such an insightful, in-depth and generous essay.

It can be accessed here (HTML):

http://www.depauw.edu/humani…/issue%2017/calarco-iveson.html

Or here (PDF):

http://www.depauw.edu/…/issue%2…/pdfs/calarco-iveson-pdf.pdf

 

‘Life and Relation Beyond Animalization’ by Matthew Calarco

The growth of animal studies from an emergent field of inquiry into a mature set of discourses and practices over the past several years has been marked by two particularly welcome developments. First, concerns and questions about the status and nature of animals and animality have penetrated ever deeper into the core of disciplines across the humanities, social sciences, and physical sciences. This trend has helped to call into question some of the most stubborn dogmas in these disciplines and to provide the space for important intellectual and theoretical transformations. Second, extant approaches and frameworks among animal activists have increasingly come to inform the work being done in animal studies, enriching its ethico-political sensibilities and providing practical support for its enrichment and evolution. What has perhaps gotten lost in the rapid growth of animal studies, however, are deeper questions about what is ultimately at stake in the field. Although the multiplication of disciplinary perspectives on animals and animality is no doubt important, we might ask ourselves: Are some frameworks  more critically insightful than others in terms of trying to discern violence and disrespect aimed toward animals and animalized others? Similarly, we might also wonder: Which perspectives are most fecund for transforming those relations and ultimately arriving at alternative forms of life?

Richard Iveson’s book, Zoogenesis: Thinking Encounter with Animals, seeks to frame and address these important questions. With this ambitious, wide-ranging, and erudite book, Iveson hopes to provide nothing less than new critical and affirmative groundings for future work in animal studies. On Iveson’s account, unless we understand the deep sources of violence toward animals, we will never arrive at a place from which we might begin to contest those sources and eventually reconstitute more respectful relations with animals. In this review, I will track some of the basic elements of Iveson’s fascinating and powerful argument before closing with some questions about some of its possible limitations.

Rejecting the Institutionalized Genocide of Animals. Iveson’s overall project begins from the premise that animals matter for themselves — which is to say, in and of themselves — and not simply in view of how they might shed light on certain questions concerning human nature or human sociality. That the study of animals and animality might illuminate certain aspects of how power circulates among human beings is, to be sure, something worthy of our attention for Iveson; but his primary emphasis is placed on ensuring that animals are seen as beings who have value beyond their instrumental usefulness to human beings. As he writes in the introduction, to accept the chief premise animating his work is

to accept that humans do not have the right to do whatever they like with other animals. It is to accept that our given state of affairs is unacceptable and must be radically transformed. Put simply, it is to no longer accept the economy of genocide into which we have all been thrown. (25)

The overarching aim of his project, then, is to find ways to allow animal lives to matter, that is, to count and become salient in those disciplines, institutions, and practices that have traditionally excluded animals from the circle of concern. Given Iveson’s philosophical background, the natural place to look for allies for such a project is the analytic philosophical tradition, populated by luminaries such as Peter Singer, Tom Regan, and Paola Cavalieri. The standard gesture in this discourse is to extend ethical consideration to animals by way of analogical reasoning, demonstrating that animals are sufficiently similar to human beings as moral patients so as to warrant similar moral standing and consideration. Iveson, though, takes a critical stance toward this tradition, as it tends to gloss over the radical singularity and alterity of animals and to neutralize human-animal differences by way of conceptual and practical schemas. In so doing, he joins philosophers and theorists in the pro-animal feminist care tradition, who seek to ground animal ethics in caring relations between and among human beings and animals. And yet, despite Iveson’s proximity to this tradition, his deeper philosophical commitments derive from the Continental tradition, with Jacques Derrida and Friedrich Nietzsche being among the primary sources of inspiration. From Nietzsche and Derrida, Iveson borrows the notion that the denial of animal finitude and singularity lies at the very heart of the current crisis in human-animal relations. As such, the task of Zoogenesis can perhaps best be read as a meditation on the sources of that denial as well as what it would take to acknowledge and affirm animal finitude and singularity. The latter, affirmative task would not be so much a matter of granting animals their uniqueness and relation to death but of discovering and encountering it in various ways in the shared spaces in which human-animal relations emerge and are sustained. I will track the main thread of this critical and affirmative analysis in Iveson’s work by examining some of the key themes in each of the five main parts of the work.

From Animalization to Zoogenesis. The bulk of Iveson’s book provides a condensed but rigorous reading of the history of philosophy and theory in view of animals and animality. In Part One, he argues that the guiding thread linking together thinkers as diverse as Plato, Martin Heidegger, and Maurice Blanchot is a denigration of animality (both human and nonhuman forms) and a denial of death to animals themselves. In a close reading of Plato’s Meno, Iveson shows how Platonic dualism (the reigning metaphysical system in much of intellectual and Western culture for over two millennia) teaches us to seek the highest truth, beauty, and the Good by leaving behind the sensible world and preparing for a disembodied life beyond death. Although this non-finite mode of human existence is disavowed by post-metaphysical thinkers such as Blanchot and Heidegger, both of whom return the human to its irreducibly mortal mode of existence, such mortality is not understood to be shared between and among human beings and other animals. Instead, mortality and the “capacity” for dying one’s own death come to be seen as  something proper only to human beings. As such, Iveson notes, the post-metaphysical decentering of the human subject that throws the subject outside of itself and toward its singular being-toward-death is insufficient to displace the anthropocentrism at the heart of the philosophical tradition. In order to accomplish this latter goal and to continue the post-metaphysical task of thought require giving finitude back to animals, or rather catching sight of the shared mortality at the heart of all human and animal life.

Failure to recognize the finitude and singularity of all living beings creates the conditions for what Iveson calls animalization. Lives that are animalized are lives that do not matter; such lives are reduced to deathless objects to be annihilated and consumed with impunity. In view of this reduction, Iveson argues that it is

imperative to disclose another way to give death, and to the giving of dying, to animals. To give death to other animals: the gift of and the giving that is the shared finitude of living beings. Only then will the monstrous hubris of an unthinking utilization and consumption of fetishized corpses itself become unthinkable. (94)

If we are to acknowledge the death of animals, Iveson suggests we must begin with the recognition that all singular animal life (whether human and nonhuman) emerges in a process he names zoogenesis.  Zoogenetic relations emerge from a shared, ex-propriated site of encounter. In Part Two, Iveson tracks such animal encounters in literary form with Kafka (“Investigations of a Dog”), in ethico-poetic form with Derrida (in his much-discussed naked encounter with a cat in The Animal That Therefore I Am), and in ontological form with Nietzsche (with the theme of a form of life beyond nihilism). The key to Iveson’s notion of encounter is that it does not ultimately stem from an act of ethical will (which is to say, conscious responsibility for another animal) or a desire for spiritual perfection (understood as seeking out animal encounters as a way of improving oneself and expanding one’s consciousness). Rather, on Iveson’s reading, these thinkers and writers all point toward animal encounters as events, that is, as something that one undergoes — beyond full understanding, presence, and mastery. Thus, animal encounters testify to the ways in which animals are more than a given subject can think. Animal encounters are ways of naming the manner in which animals announce themselves in their singularity and finitude, beyond the strictures of traditional philosophical and theoretical discourses that would seek to strip them of their radical alterity. For Iveson, such unpredictable and astonishing encounters speak to a way of life beyond the nihilism of life-denying transcendence and the incomplete nihilism of the “last man,” a relational encounter with a world that Nietzsche describes in The Gay Science as “over-rich” in all that is “beautiful, strange, questionable, terrible, and divine.”

In Part Three, Iveson explores how such encounters cannot be delimited either to the realm of the inter-human or to one’s preferred forms of animality and nonhuman otherness. As for the former delimitation, he argues that this sort of restriction of the ethics of encounter is at work in Judith Butler’s writings on the recognition and mattering of vulnerability. As with Heidegger and Blanchot, Iveson suggests that Butler’s post-humanist ethics fails to go far enough to displace anthropocentrism. Conversely, he argues that Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s notion of becoming-animal, while radically non-anthropocentric, re-establishes its own zoogenetic limit in the manner in which it configures the outside of the human as populated only by pack-like, feral, and untamed animals and forms of life. In configuring the outside of the human in this manner, Deleuze and Guattari run the risk of missing precisely the kinds of encounters with animal singularities that Kafka and Derrida track and ending up in a kind of undifferentiated, deep ecological holism. While Iveson’s reading of Deleuze and Guattari will be somewhat contentious for some readers, there is certainly merit to this concern with their work and with the manner in which their notion of becoming-animal has sometimes been put to work in pro-animal and ecological discourses.

In Part Four, Iveson tracks this same failure to think zoogenetically at the level of the socius, a restriction that has led to an anthropocentric delimitation of the boundaries of community and the political. Through an analysis of a host of political thinkers, Iveson convincingly demonstrates that no politics based on humanism — no matter how widely or generously the concept of the human is defined — will suffice to constitute a genuinely post-anthropocentric sense of community. Rather than being a neutral designation, on this analysis “the human” nearly always functions in the dominant culture of the West in a performative manner to circumscribe a group of beings considered to be properly human and properly part of the society over and against those who are sub- or non-human. Commenting on this anthropocentric logic in the humanism of Susan Buck-Morss, Iveson explains:

Buck-Morss misunderstands that humanism is only insofar as it sets up a limit between the human and the animal. Such is the demand for line-drawing which humanism can never avoid, and which ever again founds that animalization of the other which is the very condition for those political collectives she imagines her humanism will overcome. (244)

For Iveson, it is only with the more radical Nietzschean and Derridean affirmation of more-than-human life that we can arrive at a conception of community and being-with that overcomes this humanist closure and violence. To say yes to life (and to the finitude at the heart of life) is to affirm that one is always already encountered by singularities that are shared in and with others, that communities and relations pre-exist our encounters, and that community with animals only happens in the midst of these ongoing relations. In Iveson’s words, a community beyond the human is a

“community without limit” … an infinite commonality of singularities which shares and in which is shared all finite living beings. (258)

It is important to note that community and relation, if they are understood in terms of Derridean différance and Nietzschean will to power (as Iveson’s account is), will not issue in a hands-off, rights-based, non-interference ethics and politics but will instead entail considerable transformation among and between those beings called animal and human. Such transformations might even involve a fundamental transformation in the species heritages of human and animal beings, whether through biotechnological transformation or other similar kinds of interventions. In the final section of the book, Iveson explores the question of how his ethics, politics, and ontology both feed into and challenge certain animal biotechnological research. Here, in a complex reading of Bernard Stiegler and related thinkers, Iveson acknowledges that animals and relations can and will change over time and that biotechnological interventions cannot be ruled out a priori; the question is rather one of which relations and transformations to undertake. Iveson suggests that the key limitation with the transhumanist technological project is that it is based on an attempt to master animal life and finitude more generally, seeking to guide zoogenetic becomings along a single dimension or axis (largely structured by the demands of capital). By contrast, Iveson outlines a notion of technicity that is open to becomings that unfold in a variety of un-master-able and unpredictable directions.

On the Scope and Limits of Zoogenesis. The potted overview I have offered here of Iveson’s book fails to do justice to the complexity and intricacy of his arguments as well as the charitable and thoughtful engagement he offers with each of the major figures he analyzes. His book is to be highly recommended for any reader who hopes to gain a deeper understanding of how a critical animal studies perspective might thread its way through the hegemonic history of the West as well as the contemporary theoretical scene. In this closing section of the review, I want simply to pose a couple of questions in view of Iveson’s project for those of us who might take up portions of it in various ways.

Given Iveson’s attempt to think relation and singularity zoogenetically, one wonders about the broader scope of his project. How does the path of thought outlined in the book help to negotiate relations and singularities with non-living beings, systems, and so on? Here the question is not so much one of how mortality and finitude figure in the constitution of living human-animal singularities, but rather one of whether ethics and politics might be extended beyond this particular set of relations. In other words, how should we read Iveson’s call for a “community without limit”? The only example of an ethic of non-animal others discussed in Iveson’s work is deep ecological holism, which is rejected precisely because of its tendency to override singularity in favor of relational wholes. But what if one sought to construct an ethic that recognizes a wider range of singularities, both living and non-living? In other words, how might Iveson’s zoocentrism either be supplemented by or be in opposition to phytocentric, biocentric, or multi-centric environmental ethics? Likewise, how might his project be situated in view of an ethics of the more-than-human world that aims to displace any and all centers in favor of a form of life lived in view of “all our relations”? With Iveson’s close relation to both Derrida and Nietzsche in mind, one can see how such questions and possible tensions might arise. Derrida does not rule out the possibility of thinking through the ethics and politics of such a broad set of relations, but his overwhelming focus is on how différance constitutes the matrix through which living singularities emerge and maintain some semblance of sameness. Nietzsche’s thinking, by contrast, casts a much wider ontological and relational net. He thinks will to power as properly cosmic, insists that the Apollonian and Dionysian agon emerges primordially from nonhuman nature itself, and teaches us to be wary of thinking that life is anything but an exception in the planetary and cosmic order of things.

Such questions arise not simply because of the zoocentric nature of Iveson’s project; this delimitation is entirely understandable given the need to work carefully through the human-animal boundary in particular and the unique forms of violence and becoming that occur along this axis. Rather, what prompts one to consider the scope of Iveson’s framework is his tendency to present zoogenesis as the intractable, sole (“only” is a frequent word deployed by Iveson when considering the necessity of a zoogenetic thinking) site from which to contest the established anthropocentric order and constitute an alternative socius. Were zoogenesis understood as a partial but important aspect of a form of life beyond animalization, there would be no need to pit zoogenesis against ecological or planetary holism. Rather, the latter ethical and political frameworks might come to be seen as supplementary forms of normative consideration, which would themselves be nested inside a host of micro- and macro- singularities and relations that exceed the economy of the living. Of course, to do justice to such a wide variety of singularities and relations, one would have to do away with the desire to privilege any single ontological or normative framework and allow thought to enter into a realm in which plural ontologies (which are rather different from a single pluralist ontology) proliferate in view of doing justice to all our relations. Such questions hover on the edges of Iveson’s project, and it will be of considerable interest to see how Iveson’s forthcoming work on posthumanism and the path of thought he has opened up for his readers will unfold in view of these additional ontological and normative considerations.


“Whether There is Life or Not”: Triangulating Matter with Derrida, Meillassoux, and DeLanda

 

The following is a copy of the paper I presented at the Derrida Today conference in New York last month.

 

In its starkest formulation, for Derrida there is no being as such without a living being. From the first, Derrida installs an abyss between the living and the nonliving when, in Of Grammatology, he posits the emergence of the trace – as the new structure of nonpresence that is the unity of the double movement of protention and retention – as synonymous with the emergence of life. This, for Derrida, is the denaturalizing movement oflife, the originary technicity of living being, its structural unity accounting for the originary synthesis that is the becoming-time of space or the becoming-space of time. Put simply, in order for an entity to endure in time and thus appear on the scene of presence, this very appearing necessarily recalls the trace of both past and future elements, and as such depends a priori upon its relation “to what it absolutely is not,” in that, as Derrida writes, an interval or spacing “must separate the present from what it is not in order for the present to be itself.”[i]

This formulation of the trace, as the bedrock of deconstruction as practice, remains central to the important and ongoing deconstruction of the human-animal dichotomy. Indeed, Derrida’s insistence throughout his work that the structure of the trace is constitutive of all living beings is itself reason enough for any rigorous thinking with animals to continually return to the “quasi-concept” of the trace. However, it is just such a rigorous engagement that compels a further question: if the trace is the constitutive condition of everything temporal, that is, of everything that endures, then why, exactly, does Derrida equate the trace with “life in general” while innumerable finite entities continue to endure without the “genetic description” supposedly regulative of life? Why, in other words, does Derrida set limits on the trace when, in so doing, he simultaneously imposes limits on the living?

In the posthumously published The Animal That Therefore I Am, Derrida argues that the long history of Western philosophy has been dominated by the recurrence of an invariable schema, one in which everything deemed the exclusive property of “Man” derives from an originary fault or lack that constitutes “the imperative necessity that finds in it its development and resilience.”[ii] This schematic default, in short, bestows upon the human its exceptional ontological status, ring-fencing everything from technology, language, and time, to society, politics, and law, while at the same time continuing to ensure the human’s “subjugating superiority over the animal.”[iii] Is it possible, then, that Derrida himself remains blind to, and thus complicit with, an even more basic philosophical schema, that of a dominant zoo-centrism that bestows exceptional ontological status upon the living,a dogmatic dominant that Manuel DeLanda calls “organic chauvinism”?[iv]

Our question, then, concerns Derrida’s desire to put an end to life, that is, to place limits on “the living” through the reiterated construction of an abyssal border separating living “beings” from nonliving “things.” Such a question moves Derrida’s thought beyond his own examples of amoeba and annelid to such complex beings as viruses, Martian microbes, quanta and silicate crystals and beyond, to every potential material existent. Perhaps, then, it is not by chance that, in his final seminar, Derrida finds himself haunted by the figure of the zombie, that fearful thing-being hesitating between life and death. More importantly, it is only by refusing to impose contingent limits upon “life” that a materialist and posthumanist praxis becomes possible, one that affirms the potential of “bodyings” that are truly radical.

Returning to the schematic domination of Western philosophy, irrespective of whether they concern human hubris or organic chauvinism, the questions such schema are constructed to counter are basically the same. Today’s humanist descendents of Darwin, for example, lacking the fall-back position of a divine Creator, must nonetheless be able to account for the emergence of the human as both coming from the animal and yet no longer being animal. Perhaps surprisingly, Derrida’s organic chauvinismis staged to counter this very same problem, albeit with a shifting of terms that is essentially superficial. Thus, Derrida, similarly lacking a divine fall-back position, must also be able to account for the emergence of the living as both emerging from the inanimate and yet no longer being inanimate. He must, in other words, address the precise historical moment in which the living presumably “emerges” from the nonliving. This problem, for the secular humanist as for the organic chauvinist, is, in short, that of creation ex nihilo. Ultimately, such dominant – nearly but not quite invariable – historical schema are not constructed to solve but rather to dissolve such problems, that is, to obviate the question.

Derrida, as we know, refers to the movement of the trace as “an emergence.” Okay, but as an emergence from what, exactly? Presumably (Derrida himself does not say), the trace, as a “new structure of nonpresence” synonymous with “life,” could only emerge from and within a world composed entirely of inorganic, inanimate entities – beings that nonetheless somehow endure. This has serious consequences, as not only does this contradict the logical structure of the trace, but it also opens deconstruction as a whole to the negative charge of “correlationism” as defined by Quentin Meillassoux in After Finitude.

According to Meillassoux, the problem of correlationism can be seen at its clearest when considering ‘ancestral statements,’ that is, statements made about reality anterior to the emergence of ‘life.’ Such statements, Meillassoux argues, are impossible for the correlationist philosopher for whom being is co-extensive with manifestation, in that the past events to which ancestral statements refer could not, by definition, be manifest to anyone. As such, ‘what is preceded in time the manifestation of what is,’ meaning that manifestation is not the givenness of a world, but is instead an intra-worldly occurrence that can in fact be dated. In other words, to make the emergence of life synonymous with the worlding of world is to evoke the emergence of manifestation amidst a world that pre-existed it. Hence, insofar as Derrida makes the emergence of the trace synonymous with the emergence of living beings, deconstruction too, as Meillassoux clearly implies, has no answer to the challenge the ancestral poses to correlationism – namely, ‘how to conceive of a time in which the given as such passes from non-being into being?’ This challenge concerns not the empirical problem of the birth of living organisms, but the ontological problem of the coming into being of givenness as such.

If, as Derrida maintains, the trace is the constitutive condition of existence itself, then how can the double movement of the trace emerge from out of anything? Rather, only the nothingness of the endless void could possibly precede its “emergence” insofar as its apparently “new structure of nonpresence” at the same time constitutes the condition for the appearing or enduring of any entity whatsoever. Hence, “life” as synonymous with the trace ultimately results in a return to the theological, demanding as it does creation ex nihilo.

Things are very different, however, once one extends the logic of the trace beyond its zoocentric privilege. As Martin Hägglund states with admirable clarity: “Everything that is subjected to succession is subjected to the trace, whether it is alive or not.”[v] With this deceptively simple sentence, Hägglund launches – at least potentially – a radical and far-reaching critique. While I will consider what I see as the major difficulty with Hägglund’s position shortly, it is useful first of all to briefly consider possible reasons as to why Derrida sought to put an end to life. Returning to Of Grammatology, we find Derrida pointing to the “essential impossibility” of avoiding “mechanist, technicist and teleological language at the very moment when it is precisely a question of retrieving the origin and the possibility of movement, of the machine.”[vi] Remembering that this is his first major work, I think that, above all else, Derrida wants to avoid exactly those accusations: namely that, underneath it all, he is in fact positing a rigid, mechanistic universe. To this end, however, he succeeds only in offering a late form of vitalism in its stead, that is, a form that rigidly separates the worlds of organic life and human consciousness, where innovation is possible, from the realm of the merely material, where repetition of the same is the rule.[vii]

Further, Derrida may well have imposed these restrictions upon the trace as a result of concerns related to any would-be “retrieval of the origin,” concerns reflected in the fact that Derrida here offers nothing whatsoever in regards to the utterly extraordinary – but still presumably historical – event of the trace’s emergence. More important, however, is the fact that the structure of the trace, in accordance with its own logic, could quite simply never have been “new.” This obscure “locating” of the origin of “life in general” is both odd and paradoxical, an oddness that only increases in that, while Derrida refuses to engage with some of the more radical implications of his own thought, these same implications are nonetheless perfectly consistent with contemporary interpretations provided by both neo-Darwinists and synthetic biologists as to how nonlife “invents” life and how the inorganic “creates” the organic. Moreover, what in their turn all these latter interpretations lack is precisely that which deconstruction provides, and which renders eliminative materialism impossible.

Beginning with a very simple example of the “ancestral,” long before bacteria first “appeared” there existed on Earth large, relatively simple crystals, described by neo-Darwinist Daniel Dennett as virus-like beings who or which, while lacking a host, are nonetheless capable of self-replication. These ancient crystals thus depend on repetition for their very survival, that is, upon an ongoing reiteration that, if successful, brings about accelerating feedback loops and, if not, results in their decomposition.

In order to understand this notion of accelerating feedback loops, it remains to briefly introduce DeLanda’s notion of nonlinearity.While Derrida insists that without life there can be neither affect nor event,[viii] DeLanda argues that affect and event are part of the space of the structure of possibilities of every entity. The being of a given entity, he argues, can never be separated from its future possibilities, and thus must be considered in terms of its properties, capacities, and tendencies. Taking “knife” as an example, its properties – such as sharpness and solidity – exist independently of its relation with other entities. Capacities, meanwhile, consist of an entity’s potential affect, the knife, for example, has the capacity to cut, a capacity that is always double insofar as it requires a relation, that is, requires other entities capable of being affected in their turn. Thus, a knife’s capacity “to cut” is always the mark of a relation: to-cut – to-be-cut. Moreover, capacities are potentially infinite insofar as they depend on affective combinations with other entities, combinations that are theoretically without limit. Finally, every entity possesses certain tendencies understood as possible states of stability toward which it tends. Hence, while our knife tends to be solid, given different conditions it could equally tend to be liquid or even gaseous, with every such transition being actualized as an event.

As such, potential affective combinations characterize the being of every entity – an affectivity that ensures the nonlinearity of history understood in its broadest sense. For DeLanda, innovation, and thus nonlinearity, occurs in any system “in which there are strong mutual interactions (or feedback) between components.”[ix] Moreover, when it comes to the nonlinear, it is entirely irrelevant whether the system in question is composed of molecules or of living creatures or refers to “pre-cellular” or “post-cellular” evolution, since both “will exhibit endogenously generated stable states, as well as sharp transitions between states, as long as there is feedback and an intense flow of energy coursing through the system.”[x] Dynamic, nonlinear phenomena thus fracture Darwin’s original strictly linear conception of evolution, presupposing instead only what DeLanda terms “gradients of fitness,” wherein a gradient functions only so long as there are differences of fitness to fuel a selection process favoring the replication of one kind over another.[xi] Gradients, once again, apply as much to “molecular replicators and their different capacities to produce copies of themselves” as they do to “the differential reproductive success of embodied organisms.”[xii]

Important here is the fact that both nonlinearity and neo-Darwinism presuppose with every replication the structural logic of iterability and, as such, the movement of the trace. For Derrida, we recall, iterability is the very possibility of repetition, while simultaneously determining that every reproduction is necessarily subject to variation or mutation – what Derrida calls dissemination or “destinerrance.” It is right here that deconstruction must shed its “late-stage vitalism” in order to reconstitute itself as a fully materialist practice. Indeed, Derrida is in full agreement with DeLanda as to the importance of history in this respect, describing iterability as “historical through and through” insofar as it allows both contextual elements of great stability and the possibility of transformation, which is to say history, for better or for worse.”[xiii]

Once one understands that the trace functions whether there is life or not, a suitably revised notion of iterability thus has the potential to radically transform the practice of deconstruction. Not the least of which concerns the impact that a deconstruction of the living-nonliving division would have on a number of related pairings, namely, animal-human, instinct-intelligence, and reaction-response.

However, simply to extend the trace in this way by no means guarantees a productive mutation, as we can see with Hägglund’s “radical atheism.” Regardless of how important his critique of Derrida undoubtedly is, its radical potential is quickly muffled insofar as Hägglund almost immediately reinstates what is perhaps the most traditional of all metaphysical oppositions. Arguing for a continuity between living and nonliving beings in terms of the trace,[xiv] Hägglund begins by proposing survival as the condition of every finite entity who or which endures in timespace. Survival is, in short, synonymous with being. All well and good, except that Hägglund immediately follows this with a rhetorical question: “What difference is at stake, then,” he asks, “in the difference between the living and the nonliving?”[xv] His answer is simple: while nonliving beings like Meillassoux’s radioactive isotope survive insofar as they endure and disintegrate over time, they are nonetheless “not alive” because they are “indifferent” to their own survival.[xvi] For Hägglund, then, to be alive is to be concerned with one’s ongoing survival. However, such an ontologically definitive “concern” would seem to imply, at the very least, some minimal form of consciousness or degree of intentionality. As such, a host of beings once again join the (very long) queue for judgment: are ants concerned with survival? Are microbes or extremophiles? What of antibodies? Artificial Intelligence? What of viruses? Indeed, what of urine? Is urine a “living” or a “nonliving” material? Is it, in other words, concerned or unconcerned about survival?[xvii]

By once again defining the living over and against the nonliving, Hägglund not only neutralizes his crucial point concerning the trace, but also in fact reintroduces the well-worn metaphysical opposition between the mindful (i.e. concerned with survival) and the mindless (and thus unconcerned about anything). For Hägglund, only the living constitute an open and closed system, but with no explanation as to why entities deemed nonliving do not also constitute an open-closed system that is in some sense concerned with survival understood as enduring. Indeed, as Derrida himself writes, the iterability of the trace ensures that nothing can remain absolutely stable. No system, in other words, can be absolutely closed, as this would imply full presence.[xviii] It is somewhat ironic, therefore, that the most radical deconstruction of the limits imposed upon life by Derrida should itself end up reiterating a metaphysical distinction between response and reaction.

Until we insist on including everything that endures as subject to the logical structure of the trace, we find ourselves not on Crusoe’s island, but on Derrida’s,[xix] with access to the latter depending upon the apparently simple criterion of suffering which Derrida, following Bentham, argues should stand as the foundation of a newly inclusive ethics. As such, any claim for citizenship would seem to depend upon the possession or otherwise of a central nervous system at least comparable to that of the human.

To limit the world to the human, writes Derrida, is to forever remain with Crusoe, helpless but to interpret everything “in proportion to the insularity of his interest or his need.”[xx] Such limits placed upon the world, he continues, are “the very thing that one must try to cross in order to think.”[xxi] To follow Derrida then, means trying to cross the very limits that Derrida imposes upon the world, insofar as such limits once more make over the world as an island. In this sense, Derrida’s island is poor-in-world indeed and, it would seem, incapable of supporting either an ethics or a politics insofar as Derrida himself maintains that any “principle of ethics or more radically of justice … is perhaps the obligation that engages my responsibility with respect to the most dissimilar, the entirely other, precisely, the monstrously other, the unrecognizable other.”[xxii]

At issue here is not the living and the nonliving, but rather the necessary consequences of the trace as the unity of protention and retention – one such consequence being that the living-nonliving opposition must be broken down, and a differential relation installed in its place. Tables as much as tigers become living-nonliving entities insofar as the coherence and persistence of both depend upon matter, energy and differential gradients. In other words, if “life” consists of varying combinations of forces, then a table is alive: stabile yet finite and subject to abrupt phase transitions as a result of its being subject to the logic of the trace. Similarly, if a single RNA microbe is not qualified as “living,” then neither is a tiger, whose finite existence too is composed of stable combinations of forces whilst remaining subject to critical phase transitions.

None of this, however, implies some variant of vitalism or even animism. Nonetheless, only by engaging with the issues of vitalism and determinism in relation to an expanded notion of the trace does it become possible to conceive of a “mechanistic materialism” that in no way presupposes a reductionist view of life. And, once again, it is Derrida who provides the necessary theoretical tool with his notion of spectrality.

According to Derrida, the trace is entrusted to a survival wherein the opposition of the living and the dead loses and must lose all pertinence[xxiii] – to the domain, in short, of the specter. It is this trace-as-specter, as a surviving for whom life or nonlife is neither here nor there, which ensures that deconstruction can never be reduced to an eliminative materialism for the simple reason that, in Derrida’s words, “I don’t know” is “the very modality of the experience of the spectral, and of the surviving trace in general.”[xxiv]

Following our argument here, the spectral modality of “I don’t know” must therefore be extended to all entities. As a consequence of the structure of the trace, in other words, the spectral modality of “I don’t know” presupposes a position between the two extremes of eliminative materialism on the one side, and complete indeterminism in which causality and historicity play no role on the other – what DeLanda calls an “intermediate determinism.”[xxv]

Here, then, is a materialism that nonetheless has “I don’t know” as its way of being, a modality that, instead of reducing life to clockwork cause and effect, instead ensures the emergence of a nonlinear history in which every existent is subject to abrupt phase transitions at critical points, and without a transcendental factor in sight. At last, then, we humans can and must take our place within worlds that are fully-populated, worlds within which Martian hyperthermophiles and the image they evoke find their rightful place alongside the eon-long compression of volcanic rock and the blinding flash of lightning – such placings and spacings that, for as long as they endure, take place in accordance with the nonlinear modality of “I don’t know.”

 

 

 

[i] Derrida “Différance” (above, n. vii), p. 13.

[ii] Derrida, The Animal (above, n. i), p. 45.

[iii] Derrida, The Animal (above, n. i), p. 45.

[iv]Manuel DeLanda “The Machinic Phylum,”TechnoMorphica 1998, no pagination, available at: http://www.egs.edu/faculty/manuel-de-landa/articles/the-machinic-phylum/

[v]Hägglund“Radical Atheist Materialism” (above, n. vi), p.119.

[vi]Derrida Of Grammatology(above, n. v), pp. 84-85.

[vii] DeLanda “The Machinic Phylum” (above, n. iv).

[viii] Jacques Derrida The Beast and the Sovereign Volume 2 trans. Geoffrey Benning­ton (Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 2011), p. 149 (emphasis added).

[ix]Manuel DeLanda A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History (New York: Swerve Editions, 1997),p. 14.

[x]DeLanda A Thousand Years(above, n. xxix), p. 14.

[xi] Manuel DeLanda Philosophy and Simulation: The Emergence of Synthetic Reason (London & New York: Continuum, 2011), p. 48.

[xii] DeLanda Philosophy and Simulation(above, n. xxxii), p. 48.

[xiii]Jacques Derrida “‘This Strange Institution Called Literature’: An Interview with Jacques Derrida” trans. Geoffrey Bennington & Rachel Bowlby in Acts of Lit­erature, ed. Derek Attridge (New York & London: Routledge, 1992), pp. 33-75 (pp. 63-4).

[xiv]Hägglund“Radical Atheist Materialism” (above, n. vi), p. 123(emphasis added).

[xv]Hägglund“Radical Atheist Materialism” (above, n. vi), p. 123.

[xvi]Hägglund“Radical Atheist Materialism” (above, n. vi), p. 123 (emphasis in original).

[xvii] Urea was in fact the first “organic” compound to be synthesized from an “inorganic” substance (ammonium cyanate), way back in 1828.

[xviii] Jacques Derrida “‘Eating Well,’ or the Calculation of the Subject” trans. Peter Connor & Avital Ronell in Points … Interviews 1974 – 1994 (Stanford: Stanford Uni­versity Press, 1995), pp. 255-287 (p. 270).

[xix] For Derrida’s discussion of Robinson Crusoe, in which Crusoe’s island isolation serves as a particularly fertile figure of human exceptionalism, see The Beast and the Sovereign 2(above, n. xxv), passim.

[xx] Derrida The Beast and the Sovereign 2(above, n. xxv), p. 199.

[xxi] Derrida The Beast and the Sovereign 2(above, n. xxv), p. 198 (emphasis in original).

[xxii] Derrida The Beast and the Sovereign Volume 1trans. Geoffrey Benning­ton (Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 2009), p. 108.

[xxiii] Derrida The Beast and the Sovereign 2(above, n. xxv), p. 130.

[xxiv] Derrida The Beast and the Sovereign 2(above, n. xxv), p. 137.

[xxv] DeLanda “The Machinic Phylum” (above, n. iv).

 

 


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


The Protagorean Presumption and the Posthuman: Ceci n’est pas un calmar (Part One)

The following is the un-cut draft of the first half of my (long-overdue) paper engaging with Tom Tyler’s CIFERAE and Vilem Flusser & Louis Bec’s Vampyroteuthis Infernalis (both published as part of the U of Minnesota’s Posthumanities series). The second un-cut half will follow shortly (the final paper will actually be about half the total length).

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Introduction: Trajectories, a Question of Method

The posthuman emerges as a necessarily paradoxical figure – even the definite article cannot be simply assumed. How, then, might one address that which is posthuman? Two recent texts, published as part of the influential “Posthumanities” series, consider just this question, albeit employing vastly different approaches. Here, among other things, we find explorations of method, of trajectories that, from the most dogmatic of realisms to the most cynical of relativisms, collide over issues of scientific objectivity at the crossroads of pragmatism and representationalism and of diffraction and reflection. Moreover, and however paradoxical it may seem, such questions and collisions of objectivity directly concern the definition of the fable. Last but not least, both mark important contributions to an impossible pedagogic bestiary, and to the notion of eating well.

In Vampyroteuthis Infernalis: A Treatise, Czech philosopher Vilém Flusser and artist Louis Bec invite us to “harrow the hell” (43) that is the genealogy, world, culture, and emergence of a species of giant squid, alleged to have been recently caught in the Pacific Ocean. In CIFERAE: A Bestiary in Five Fingers, philosopher Tom Tyler argues for a rewriting of the notion of “we.” For this, he suggests, we must first “enquire whether the assertions that humanity cannot know the world except by means of human aptitudes and abilities, that human beings will, inescapably, unavoidably be the measure of all things, are intrinsic, incidental, or entirely extraneous to a diverse range of epistemological outlooks” (209).

 

Part One: The Protagorean Presumption

Ceci n’est pas un calmar

It soon becomes clear that Flusser’s subject is not the vampyroteuthis, who is rather an heuristic fabrication geared toward helping us humans to “make sense of our current cultural revolution” (65). Indeed, the vampyroteuthic hell on offer here constitutes a grotesque glimpse of one possible future toward which our Information Age is already tending – no doubt the “soft” of software, Flusser jokes, alludes to mollusks (ancestor to the vampyroteuthis) as “soft animals” (67). The vampyroteuthis, in short, comes forth from the depths of the ocean as a device for deciphering possible posthuman futures; and the choice, it would seem, is between utopia and technocratic dictatorship,

To understand this, however, it is necessary to enter into a game built from funhouse mirrors. Certain aspects of the basic structure of human Dasein, writes Flusser, are evident in the basic structure of vampyroteuthic Dasein, while certain others appear in it “utterly distorted” (9). According to Flusser, such a “reflective game” – at once a reflection of the “game of life” (25) – avoids falling prey to the transcendental delusion that characterises scientific objectivity, as it offers an analysis of humanity strictly from the perspective of a co-being, in this case that of a highly-evolved mollusc. In this way, Flusser presents something that hesitates between ethnological treatise, philosophical study, and fabulous narrative.

At its most straightforward, Flusser suggests that we simply exchange the vampyroteuthis’ molluscular point of view for our own (35). In one sense, this is all Flusser does: an economy of method. Such an exchange, suggests Flusser, serves as a deep sea dive into the uncustomary, an estranging procedure enabling us to apprehend anew the human condition that would otherwise remain concealed behind the “shroud” of habit. The vampyroteuthis, in other words, is constructed as the opposite of the shrouded, habitual human. While partly a literary device, this approach also takes as its “conversational impulse” Heidegger’s existential analytic in general, and its famous tool analysis in particular. For Heidegger, the materiality of a tool remains invisible to its user only as long as it functions as it should (that is, ready-to-hand). Should the tool break, however, and its obstinate materiality pushes itself to the fore (present-at-hand). For Flusser, while the inverted world of the vampyroteuthis serves as a “repugnant model” for humanity, it simultaneously provides a vampyroteuthic perspective on the human world, a perspective that inevitably reveals the human to be “a model that is broken” (30, my emphasis).

Central to Flusser’s project, therefore, is the relation of the human and the vampyroteuthis. They are, he claims on numerous occasions, mirrors of each other. Hence, the relation is explicitly that of reflection. This reflexive structure, however, follows an evolutionary trajectory that guarantees the exceptional status of these mirrored worlds, key to which is Geist, understood variously as both “spirit” and “mind.” To begin with, however, Geist is always and only spirit insofar as it “belongs to the agenda of life; it has manifested itself from the time of protozoa, and it does so in humans and the vampyroteuthis in a converging manner, analogously” (24, emphasis added).

This notion of analogy functions as organising principle in both theory and practice, and thus needs to be considered in detail. Given the context, it is clear that analogue must be understood in at least two ways, both as a literary trope and as a precise term from evolutionary biology. Tom Tyler offers a clear description of the latter: analogues, he writes, “are those parts [of differing organisms] that have the same function, though they need not be the same organs” (234). Homologues, by contrast, are “the same organs, though they need not have the same function” (234). Hence, continues Tyler, an elephant’s trunk is in certain respects analogous to the human hand, but it is in no sense a homologue as it has a different phylogenetic origin. Analogy as a narrative trope, by contrast, centres in this case upon the genre of the fable. In this way, the vampyroteuthis represents both an analogy of the human through the latter’s negation and a moral mirror.

Flusser’s methodology, like his text, is thus at once analogical and fabulous, scientific and literary, the reasons for which will become clear. Returning to the human-vampyroteuthic analogous convergence, Flusser traces the evolution of the vampyroteuthis by constructing a negative version of the human at each stage of the latter’s evolution until we reach the present day and the alleged “discovery” of the vampyroteuthis in the abyssal depths of the Pacific, suitably armed with a barrage of analogous pairings that would seem to reflect the human from any number of angles. Of these, the binaries light-dark, active-passive, and problematic-impressionistic, are key to the value of the vampyroteuthis as a negative model, insofar as together they not only offer a critique of objectivity in general and “scientific objectivity” in particular, but also point toward a solution of sorts. In this, Flusser’s text is vertiginously reflexive: the model is a production of the text and the text is a production of the model. Indeed, this for Flusser is precisely the value of such a fable, that is, as a code for deciphering our posthuman future. Indeed, the production of such beasts as the vampyroteuthis is explicitly presented as a methodology superior to that currently found in the sciences. “By observing the vampyroteuthis,” he writes, “we are able to recognize an art of a different sort” (63).

However interesting this may prove to be, the analogical methodology presents some major difficulties – difficulties the overcoming of which Tyler’s book provides an excellent resource. Put simply, in starting with the human as the positive against which a negative model can be constructed, as in a mirror, we clearly do not in fact arrive at an analogical relation in the sense of having a different phylogenetic root but only a narcissistic image. For Flusser, “the reflective nature of the world–its ‘yes/no’ structure–is irrefutable” (70). Dominant, yes; habitual, yes. Irrefutable? By no means. In fact, reflection is inherently reductive: an anthropocentric optics that cuts itself off from the infinite realm of mutual and nonmutual entanglements at and between every scale of being. As Donna Haraway notes, ““[reflexivity or reflection] invites the illusion of essential, fixed position” offering diffraction as a counterpoint to reflexivity, which she sees as being played out as a methodology. As Karen Barad writes, “both are optical phenomena, but whereas reflection is about mirroring and sameness, diffraction attends to patterns of difference” (29).

Interestingly, and with a reflexivity that quickly becomes dizzying, Flusser himself argues that “reflection,” as the uniquely human methodology of philosophising, is limited, restrictive and leads toward stasis (46). As with Nietzsche, Flusser argues that concepts are mere “empty husks” that are preliminary to thinking and which prevent us from discerning “any phenomena for which we have not already established a model” (47). Moreover, this is a result of the hand, and particularly the fingers which trace “along the dissected rations of phenomena in order to comprehend and define their contours” (47). By contrast (naturally), the vampyroteuthis is pre-human–and thus posthuman–insofar as she is pre-conceptual and thus, as possessors of both tentacles and preconceptual reason, are able to teach us humans a thing or two about escaping from such an all too human methodology. In the midst of this funhouse of mirrors, it becomes easy to lose one’s footing, as well as one’s grip, as we shall see. Nonetheless such a gait and grip is unique: only because humans walk erect, insists Flusser, do they have hands, and only because they possess the hand do they conceptually reflect. This problematic human exceptionalism raises further methodological issues concerning pragmatism and representationalism on one hand, and of the human and the posthuman on the other. Ultimately, it will become necessary to ask not only if an unquestioned exceptionalism is necessary in order to engage the world of another, but also if it in fact prohibits such an encounter from ever taking place.

Flusser’s “squid,” then, is not (simply) a squid – she may in fact be a Guardian of the Platonic Republic, or even a Superconducting Quantum Interference Device (SQuID), but more of that later. First things first, though, we must consider, with Tyler, whether the fabulous figure of the Vampyroteuthis Infernalis can be reduced to an example of anthropomorphism in its most problematic form, that of the moral fable. Is not the exploitation of her exemplary status simply anthropocentric hubris which presumes the possible reduction of animal figures to the simple, remainderless anthropomorphisms of moral education, albeit here dressed up in the colours of posthumanism (after all, the notion of “dressing” certain forms of marine life, especially but not only crustaceans, for profitable human consumption is a common and habitually shrouded practice)? In short, can we ever be sure that the vampyroteuthis is not simply a cipher, one more to add to that immense list of safely muzzled animals who litter the philosophical canon, ancient and modern?

 

Pointing the finger: deciphering anthropocentrism

All of these questions and problems lead us directly to CIFERAE, in which Tyler sets out to identify and, if not necessarily rescue, then at least recognise and perhaps release the feral potential of just this litter of cipherous animals, beasts declawed and detoothed as a condition of their placement within the Western tradition. In Tyler’s five-fingered bestiary it is no coincidence that the index finger points squarely to a critique of anthropocentrism, insofar as it is precisely the indexical, the indice, which opposes such unthinking ciphers.

Cipherous animals, writes Tyler, can take one or more of three different forms: (1) nonspecific placeholders; (2) codes awaiting interpretation; and (3) symbolic characters in animal form. As an example of all three forms, Tyler recalls the paradox of Buridan’s ass, a paradox that has “recurred within philosophical circles for donkey’s years” (25). The story goes as follows: a hungry ass stands exactly equidistant from two identical bales of hay and thus, unable to find a reason to choose between the two, consequently starves to death. The first sense of the cipher is easy to understand, the ass is a mere placeholder insofar as it is not necessary that the poor animal be an ass – any animal would do. Indeed, it need not even be a nonhuman animal – numerous versions appear with the role of the cipher filled variously “by the place of the earth in the heavens, … a student between two books, a man between two knives, a courtier between two ladies” and so on (26). The two remaining forms, the code and the symbol, are a little harder to differentiate. As a code in a didactic fable, Buridan’s ass awaits interpretation insofar as she has been “employed ‘in other than the usual sense’” (28). Her position, in short, requires a decipherment that has no need of any recourse to the specifics of her existence. Finally, the ass is a cipher in the sense of being a symbolic character in animal form insofar as she is utilised as a “hieroglyph” to “convey esoteric, philosophical arguments that are intelligible to the initiated” (28). As symbols, in short, animals refer only to exemplary epistemological problems or metaphysical speculations.

Tyler’s first point, then, is that in all three forms of the cipher, nonhuman animals are not actually there as a particular animal in his or her own right. Rather, the cipherous animal “derives its meaning from its application or reference to some entirely unrelated endeavour” (28), with the result that actually existing animals are transformed into “invisible, figurative phantoms” (28). Cipherous animals appear – or, rather, appear to appear – without number throughout the history of philosophy. Indeed, the cipherous animal could be said to reach its apotheosis in the phenomenology of Heidegger, who argues that all individual nonhuman beings are in reality merely phantom individuations constituted as beings only in the polished mirror of the human Dasein.[ii]

More than this, however, pointing out these instrumental “uses” of other animals is also to point to its possible overcoming. We must, in other words, not only stop treating other animals as ciphers, but also de-cipher the cipherous animals of philosophy so as to disclose the ferae, that is, the animal in all her indexical specificity. Further, argues Tyler, to release the feral animal from her cipherous shroud – the cipherae or ciferae – is to disrupt the complacency of habitual philosophical practice. To this end, he continues, it is thus necessary to recreate the pedagogic bestiary.

Already then, we begin to perceive a significant overlap in the methodological aims of both Tyler and Flusser, despite their widely differing approaches. As regards the infernal vampyroteuthis, however, we must now consider her position in respect of Tyler’s. Can we point to her as a mere cipher, or does she emerge, in her own light, as an individual, nonsubstitutable entity? We have already noted the influence of Heideggerian philosophy and so, more specifically, the question concerns whether Flusser’s giant squid manages to escape from Heidegger’s anthropocentric circle, irrespective of Flusser’s double claim both to overcome anthropocentrism and to reclaim “objectivity.”[iii]

First of all, as regards any simple division between a cipher and an index, things rapidly become obscure, as if submerged within a cloud of sepia ink. Certainly, the vampyroteuthis is no mere placeholder: Flusser’s analysis is both complex and detailed, focusing explicitly upon the plane of the particular and complete with several pages of anatomical diagrams. As regards the second form, Vampyroteuthis Infernalis is indeed explicitly posed as a didactic fable and thus, as noted above, as a code for deciphering the (post)human future. However, it is more difficult, if not impossible, to say whether the vampyroteuthis is being employed “in other than the usual sense.” Similarly, insofar as it is the human Dasein that Flusser ultimately aims to disclose, she indeed represents a code that demands to be deciphered, however one cannot say that this decipherment has no need of recourse to the specifics of vampyroteuthic “existence,” given that the Dasein of the vampyroteuthis provides the contours of the analysis. And yet, Vampyroteuthis Infernalis is also a fable in its most traditional sense, in that its reader is expressly instructed to put her- or himself in the place of the vampyroteuthis and, in so doing, identify with an animal in order to follow the course of its normative moral lesson.

Finally, is the vampyroteuthis a philosophical hieroglyph, that is, a symbolic character in animal form? Well, she certainly figures exemplary epistemological problems but, given that she is an imaginary Borgesian beast, can one say that any actual nonhuman animals have thus become instrumentalised phantoms? And if not, is the vampyroteuthis therefore indexical? Clearly then, the cipher-index pairing cannot be considered as a simple opposition, as Tyler himself is quick to point out.

As such, we must turn instead to the two traditional modes of anthropocentrism – the evaluative and spatial on the one hand, and the epistemological and temporal on the other – in order to clarify vampyroteuthic practice. In the evaluative-spatial mode, writes Tyler, there is the “bald belief or supposition” that the human species is of a greater value than all of the others (20). Here, then, anthropocentrism is spatial insofar as humanity is placed “centre stage,” and evaluative insofar as it is “judgmental and disparaging” (21). By contrast, epistemological-temporal anthropocentrism – exemplified by Protagoras’s famous contention that “man is the measure of all things” and posed most influentially by Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason [iv] – presupposes that “any attempt to explain experience, understanding, or knowledge – of the world, of Being, of others – must inevitably start from a human perspective” (21). Here, anthropocentrism is temporal insofar as the human “arrives or appears before all else,” and epistemological insofar as “all knowledge will inevitably be determined by the human nature of the knower” (21). Following Tyler’s example, I will refer to this latter mode by the shorthand phrase “human first and foremost.”

Given Flusser’s claim to have liberated the vampyroteuthis from traditional anthropic constraints, we must in the first instance locate her vis-à-vis both evaluative and epistemological anthropocentrism.

 

Saint Francis and the anthropocentrism of disgust

To begin with, Flusser charges evaluative-spatial anthropocentrism as falling prey to vulgar anthropomorphism, the basis of which is disgust. It is disgust, rather than ontogeny, that recapitulates phylogeny. First of all, claims Flusser, there is something like a vertebraic prejudice: “We feel a connection with life-forms supported by bones, while other forms of life disgust us” (11). From this initial prejudice, Flusser then suggests that the greater the distance from the humans on the phylogenetic tree, the more disgusting humans will find them. So, while reptiles are less disgusting than frogs, they are more disgusting than mammals, and so on. Hence, most disgusting of all are mollusks, that is, “soft worms” (11). Moreover, in a kind of Ballardian species-specific collective unconsciousness this hierarchy of disgust alleged to “reflect a biological hierarchy” (11?), a mirroring that results in a species-specific conception of “life” as a slimy stream that leads unfailingly to its ultimate tēlos: the human.[v] The hierarchy of disgust, while half-serious and half-parody, nonetheless discloses for Flusser both the cause and the emptiness of evaluative-spatial anthropocentrism. Humans rationalize this unconscious “feeling” into categories that “allow us to classify living beings, namely, into those that approximate us (‘incomplete humans’) and into those that depart from us (‘degenerate humans’)” (12). As such, our biological criteria are entirely anthropomorphic, “based on a hollow and unanalytic attitude toward life” (12).

For Flusser, “unanalytic” reflection, a rationalization of the irrational that is synonymous with narcissism, reaches its apotheosis in the systematization of Charles Darwin who therefore “must, in political terms, be placed on the right” (12). By contrast, the refusal of evaluative anthropocentrism belongs to the political left, and is exemplified for Flusser by Saint Francis insofar as he “does not speak to lizards, our ‘ancestors,’ but rather to birds, to ‘degenerate animals.’” (12). By speaking with an highly-evolved mollusk, and more specifically by contrasting “our human Darwin with a vampyroteuthic one” (12), Flusser could thus be said to place himself on the “ultra-left.” This comparison of course demands a coda: St. Francis’ birds were actually existing creatures, whereas the ontological category of the vampyroteuthis is rather more slippery. Nonetheless, Flusser claims to follow the leftist Saint Francis in escaping the constraints of our collective unconscious, an escape which he defines precisely as “freedom of spirit (Geist)” (12). Freedom, in this sense, is at once to escape the constraints of evaluative spatial anthropocentrism, and to break free of an unanalytic methodology based upon narcissistic reflection. Perhaps unsurprisingly, here too we find an interesting overlap with Tyler who, in place of an analogically-reflexive Darwin, seeks instead a pragmatic, memetic Darwin, as we shall see.

Turning to epistemological-temporal anthropocentrism, Flusser, like Tyler, focuses on the problem of objectivity given the inescapability of human perspective, an “epistemological problem of the highest order” (16). Nonetheless, claims Flusser, it is a problem that can largely be solved by distance. Objectivity, he argues, can in fact be salvaged insofar as the “further removed a phenomenon is from its describer, the more objectively describable it is. … Objectivity is therefore quantifiable, and a hierarchy of objectivity can be established” (16-17). Astronomy, therefore, is “very objective,” whilst psychology is “less objective” (17). However, cautions Flusser, there is a catch: “the farther away something is, the less interesting it is” and thus, “bearing in mind the taxonomy of disgust,” the more disgusting (17). By interesting ourselves in the vampyroteuthis, we therefore take up a position balanced between interest and disgust and, as such, need not disclaim “objective” knowledge entirely, although the transcendence of a “pure” scientific objectivity remains forever impossible. Here, (at least) two problems are immediately apparent. Firstly, Flusser claims to “solve” the temporalising hurdle of “first and foremost” anthropocentrism by organising the external world according to a spatial model, i.e., of proximity to the human. This, however, changes nothing as regards the possibility or otherwise of knowledge, but only further highlights the problem. Secondly, Flusser equates disinterest with objectivity, while admitting that nothing objective can be entirely disinterested, as then the object would never have even been discerned. For this is make sense, however, would require that humanity be entirely dissolved within its species-being, while nonetheless allowing for some kind of simultaneous transcendental Heideggerian boredom at the level of the entire species. And, even then, Flusser’s human species remains unable to affect an escape from what Tyler calls the “Protagorean presumption” (74). Flusser, however, has not yet done with his escape attempt.

 

Handling humans

In their respective discussions of the hand as something traditionally imagined to be uniquely human, both Flusser and Tyler have recourse to Heidegger’s famous analysis of tool use in Being and Time, as briefly referred to above. Thus Tyler notes that for Heidegger it is only in its use, that is, in its being ready-to-hand, that a tool authentically discloses itself in its specific “manipulability” (Tyler 226). Moreover, for Tyler, it is the notion of the hand, rather than “handiness,” which is “crucial” even at this stage of Heidegger’s philosophy, arguing that “it is only those beings who have hands, those beings for whom equipment manifests itself as ready to hand, who can enter into this concernful relationship to things” (226). From there, Tyler takes the necessary step of deflating such misplaced anthropocentric pride, noting how the hand, rather than “being a specialized highpoint of the evolutionary process, is in fact a rather archaic appendage” insofar as “increasing specialization … manifests as a diminution in the number of digits” (231, 233). Moreover, rather than being unique to Man, these archaic instruments are possessed by large number of diverse creatures, including pandas, frogs, and chameleons.

Flusser, meanwhile, similarly recalling Heidegger’s distinction between the ready-to-hand and the present-at-hand, moves along a very different track. According to Flusser, “the structure of the world turns out to be a function of liberated hands” insofar as the present-at-hand are “the future (of the hands): ‘nature,’” in contrast to the readyto-hand as “the past (of the hands), handled things: ‘culture’” (36-37). Hands, in short, guarantee for humanity alone the possibility of culture, of becoming “superbiological” beings. This in turn would seem to stymie from the start his stated aim articulating vampyroteuthic culture, given that the latter possess mere tentacles. We must, however, hold fire on this point. Returning to his reading of Heidegger, Flusser suggests that the difference between the present-at-hand and the ready-to-hand can be judged entirely according to an evolutionary schema: the present-at-hand “can come to be known, ‘grasped,’ in order to be handled; this is the purpose of the ‘natural’ sciences” (36-7). “Natural” science, in other words, propels humanity into its future through an ever-wider “grasp” of external reality, this all despite Heidegger’s insistence that the present-at-hand and ready-to-hand are always necessarily bound up together.[vi]

In an uncanny presque-vu of the first volume of Bernard Stiegler’s Technics and Time, for Flusser everything begins with the hand. It is in order to free the hands, he writes, that the proto-human first begins to walk upright, and from this all further evolutionary steps quite literally follow: the distancing of the head from the ground “dislodged” the “bony labyrinth” within the inner ear, with the consequence that space “became three-dimensional to us in a specific, Cartesian sense” (37). Moreover, this elevation of the head enables neocortical development which, as “the centre of all higher mental functions, including language,” thereafter allows the world to “become meaningful” (37).

Here, then, we are following an evolutionary trajectory that moves from the development of the hand, to walking upright, to spatiality, to language, to meaning, and thence, to time. It is in regards to the latter that Flusser offers a somewhat idiosyncratic reading of Heidegger’s tool analysis. A further consequence of walking upright, he argues, “was the division of time into three regions: the present (that which we are bumping into as we walk), the past (that which we have already passed by and experienced, and the future (that which we long for and desire, that is, where we are going)” (37-8). One can understand this in one sense as a literal rendering of the Heideggerian “way,” but Flusser offers little in the way of clarification. Why, exactly, does an upright carriage cause (or create) both temporal perception and a perception of temporality and, further, why should this temporal discrimination be restricted to the human animal alone?

The answer, I suggest, concerns an “unanalytic” – that is, at once narcissistic and reflective – conception of language. Flusser, in short, seems utterly incapable of conceiving of “language” as anything other than the narrow sense of human verbal languages, and particularly in the sense of Greco-Latin written language, which in their horizontal structure reflect the division of time. However, insofar as Flusser also attributes chromatophoric and bioluminescent languages to the vampyroteuthis, thus would seem to suggest an odd, contradictory blindness as far as nonhuman animals are concerned. What must be remembered, however, is the “invented” nature of the vampyroteuthis: the vampyroteuthis is a human creation, not only as a figure in a book, but also as its reverse image, that is, as a being constructed in the mirror of the human which, as the “original” figure, necessarily both precedes and entirely delimits the “emergence” of the vampyroteuthis who, as a consequence of this economy, inevitably takes on a complementary exceptionalism.

Put simply, Flusser’s analysis starts from, and requires, the human Dasein – a vicious anthropocentric circle that is as much Kantian as it is Heideggerian. “World,” insists Flusser, is “simply a pole of human Dasein” (38). The vampyroteuthis – along with everything else – occurs only in the human world: “It exists in the world – indeed – but only in relation to me” (38). Despite paying lip-service to the limits of anthropocentrism, then, it is clear that Flusser in fact makes no move toward an exit from “first and foremost” humanism. Equally clearly, however, Tom Tyler demonstrates that such anthropocentrism is in no way necessary to such a philosophical position. It is, rather, nothing more than a bad habit.

First, let us recap Flusser’s claim to have rehabilitated objectivity on behalf of philosophy, which in turn will bring Tyler’s resolute move beyond anthropocentric habit into sharper focus. As humans, writes Flusser, we inevitably encounter the vampyroteuthis as an object. Despite this, and despite the unconsidered complications raised by the “disgust-interest continuum” as well as the “quantification” of objectivity, we are nonetheless, insists Flusser, capable of recognising in this object “something of our own Dasein” and, “[i]nsofar as we recognize ourselves,” we can “therefore also [recognise] what is not ourselves as such” (38). In this reflection of light and dark areas, he continues, resides the possibility of reconstructing vampyroteuthic Dasein and to “begin to see with its [sic] eyes and grasp with its [sic] tentacles,” thus crossing the surface of the mirror metaphorically, but not transcendentally, in that we are not seeking to place ourselves outside the world but “relocate” ourselves in another’s (38). It is precisely this, claims Flusser, which makes of his text a fable rather than a theory, and thus, in an explicit allusion to, and apparent move beyond, Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols, we leave “the real world for a fabulous one” (38).[vii]

Objectivity, then, would seem to demand that we move out of the real world and into a fabulous one, a movement of exchange requiring a metaphorical vehicle that nonetheless holds fast to its worldly tenor. If nothing else, such a demand bears heavily on questions of realism and representationalism, for which we must first properly articulate the question. To this end, let us turn to Tyler.

 

Realism, representationalism, and the convenience of aliens

As we know, Tyler’s initial objective is to establish the theoretical necessity or otherwise of an anthropocentric standpoint. His starting point, in short, is to ask if man is necessarily the measure of all things according to the very philosophical positions that claim it to be so. Ultimately, Tyler reveals in no uncertain terms that not one of these epistemological outlooks – realism, relativism, and, as we shall see, pragmatism – actually requires a first-and-foremost epistemological anthropocentrism; its widespread prejudice being nothing other than a contingent habit that must be broken.

Tyler begins by examining the realist position. A realist, he writes, holds that “a reality exists independently of the beliefs and ideas of those who come into contact with it and that true knowledge consists in the correspondence of one’s beliefs and ideas with that independent reality” (82). Hence, a realist epistemology requires three basic properties: first, belief in the possibility of truth; second, that knowledge is characterized as representation; and third, that knowledge constitutes an explanatory power. Knowledge, in short, “attempts to provide a representation of reality that is true and that will therefore explain things to us” (89). In order to highlight the problems of this position, Tyler turns to the almost infinite resource that is Nietzsche’s early essay “On Truth and Lie in the Extra-Moral Sense” from 1873.[viii] This is of particular interest for us here, insofar as Nietzsche’s paper is, I will argue, the hidden – that is, encrypted – text of Flusser’s oceanic depths, a text written by the vampyroteuthis in the silence of shifting colours.

Nietzsche’s critique of realism begins with a scathing attack – in the form of a fable – on anthropocentric hubris and the delusions of human exceptionalism, arguing instead that even the smallest gnat likewise “feels the flying centre of the universe within himself” (??). Fundamental here is Nietzsche’s claim that the representation of reality is by no means limited to human animals alone, but must rather be extended to all living beings, albeit necessarily skewed by the ways of perceiving specific to each species. Somewhat paradoxically, while Nietzsche’s gnat is clearly a cipher in that she holds a place that can be taken equally well by any number of other animals, this cipherous status is itself indexical, and thus feral, insofar as this very substitutability makes the specific point that every living being, squid or gnat, human or chimp, is equally privileged and, as such, equally not-privileged.

Nietzsche’s critique goes much further, however. Insofar as the species-specific perceptions of every living being institute “metaphorical” representations of reality, none of these representations therefore represent reality truthfully. Moreover, no one representation can be considered closer to the “truth” than any other as, not only is truth unavailable, but so too is any criterion by which such proximity might be measured.

With this reference to species-specific perception, Nietzsche makes clear a second target of his paper, that of Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1781). As is well known, Kant posits the existence of space and time as transcendental forms of (human) sensibility, that is, as a priori presentations that are the condition of every perception and affection. Thus establishing the Transcendental Aesthetic, Kant ushers in his famous “Copernican Revolution” of philosophical thinking. As a critique of dogmatic realism’s notion of correspondence between subject and object, between idea and thing, what “the Copernican Revolution teaches us is that it is we who are giving the orders … we are the legislators of Nature” (Deleuze Kant’s Critical Philosophy 11); this “we,” of course, referring strictly to “we humans” alone.

Taking up this exclusive and excluding notion of the “we,” Tyler points out that, in fact, the real Kantian-Copernican shift of significance lies elsewhere – indeed, within the heads of aliens. It must be remembered, continues Tyler, that Copernicus, in direct contrast to Kant, shifts humanity away from its illusory central position and into the cosmological periphery. In another sense, however, Kant does precisely this when he allows for the possibility – indeed necessity – of superior alien intelligence. This introduction of alien beings turns out to be essential to the coherence of Kant’s philosophy as, writes Tyler, “[w]ithout concrete knowledge of extraterrestrial rational beings, we cannot understand the nature of terrestrial rational beings” (138). Aliens, in other words, provide for Kant the criterion for rational judgment that is otherwise lacking – a criterion that, as we have seen, Nietzsche correctly argues is unavailable, aliens or no (and, in so doing, thus brings other animals back into the world). Of course, it is interesting in itself that a philosopher of Kant’s stature and rigour will admit the possibility of intelligent life on Venus and Saturn far more readily than they will allow for intelligent nonhuman life on Earth. Indeed, what makes this interesting is the very nature of an “outside” constructed so as to “frame” both life and thought, with all the violence its divisive gesture entails and, potentially, sets in motion.

Returning to the Transcendental Aesthetic, Tyler succinctly refutes the Kantian position by showing that space and time are not in fact a priori and thus unchangeable Ur-forms of sensibility. Through a reading of Benjamin Whorf, he does this by highlighting how the predominance of spatial metaphors in English, French and German, for example, inevitably results in the objectification of time, whereas other tense forms, such as the Hopi, produce instead a very different sense of reality (150). In this way, Tyler rejoins Nietzsche in arguing for the necessity of both the diversity of perspectives and the specificity of creaturely embodiment; two sides of the same coin that together create the “corporeal nature of perception” (170).

In this way, Tyler’s analysis enables us to recognise both the huge potential, and the entirely unnecessary anthropocentrism that ultimately serves only to nullify that potential, of Flusser’s explicitly phenomenological inquiry into an oceanic world such as perceived through the fabulous tentacles of the vampyroteuthis. While this feral potential, along with its habitual yet contingent domestic confinement, will form the subject of the second half of this paper, before then we must, with Tyler, briefly consider the other two fundamental philosophical positions addressed in CIFERAE, namely relativism and pragmatism.

As Tyler points out, and despite general consensus to the contrary, Nietzsche’s antirealist perspectivism is by no means equivalent to relativism. In fact, relativism, figured by the cynical “last man,” is for Nietzsche one of the two major forms of nihilism that must be overcome (the other being the nihilism of the suprasensory ideal). According to the relativist, not only is every standpoint necessarily a partial perspective, but also, insofar as there can be no external criteria to serve as the basis for sound judgment, that all perspectives are thus of equal value. As such, standpoints exist only to be manipulated – exchanged –within a global economy geared toward the cynical accumulation of surplus value. By contrast, in rejecting the duality of representationalism in favour of embodied perception, Nietzsche shows instead that “all creatures’ perspectives will be determined by their interests and values. Any and every understanding of the world will be evaluative” (170). Consequently, Nietzsche’s transcendental species-specific aesthetic shows that all things are, only insofar they “are” mutually-affective relations, and it is the relative value of these relationships that result in a growth or a degeneration of the will to power.[ix]

Untypically, Tyler’s argument is somewhat obscure here, insofar as he claims that, for Nietzsche, only some perspectives should be overcome (171). Against this, I would argue that all value, in the strict sense, is precisely the value of revaluation, that is, of a constantly reiterated overcoming, and thus of a practice of constant openness to overcoming – the revaluation of all values, as the projected title of Nietzsche unwritten magnum opus insists. It is precisely this, as we shall see in the next part, which enables us to disclose the radical potential inhering in the practice of shedding one’s skin that Flusser names permanent orgasm and Nietzsche calls eternal recurrence.

Such practice does not involve a representation of the world. Instead, it is a mode of activity in the world and thus, as Tyler contends, an issue for pragmatism understood as an antirepresentationalist epistemology wherein knowledge does not depict the world, but rather makes possible precisely such modes of activity (209). For pragmatism, and in contrast to relativism, perspectives or “truths” must be evaluated solely in terms of their practical “explanatory power” (180); with knowledge itself understood “as an immediate, immanent element of the environment itself” (208). In this way, pragmatism shares with realism an acceptance of the utility of knowledge, albeit with a focus on the practicality of its explanatory power.

Is pragmatism necessarily anthropocentric? As with realism and relativism, Tyler once again demonstrates in no uncertain terms that the answer is no. Moreover, the pragmatic view that knowledge is practice further serves to short-circuit the representationalist impulse to enquire after the knowledge supposedly behind a given practice. Instead, to remain rigorously pragmatic is, as Tyler argues, to accept – on equal terms – the practical knowledge of myriad other creatures. The duality of representationalism, by contrast, leaves the realist forever “polishing the mirror[x] in the quest for ever-more-accurate depictions.

For us here, this telling phrase leads us back to Flusser and Bec’s Vampyroteuthis Infernalis. Do they in any sense engage this fabulous creature on the rigorously democratic terrain of practical knowledge in the hope of gaining some sense of her alien, tentacular phenomenology? Or, polishing the mirror, do they remain utterly captivated? In this respect, the epigraph constitutes another telling phrase: Nil humani mihi alienum puto – “Let nothing human be alien.” As a starting point, I would suggest, it is imperative that we turn things around: Let nothing alien be human. For Flusser, however, the alienness of the vampyroteuthis is directly “analogous” to the “alienation” of the human Dasein (23). In practice, this “funhouse image” is reducible to Kant’s extraterrestrial, in that this reflected vampyroteuthic “outside” both circumscribes “the human” and serves as the (impossible) criterion for doing so.

Reading CIFERAE, however, is to learn not only that things do not have to be this way but also, and more importantly, that they should not be this way.

 

Coming soon: Part Two: The posthuman future: Eating Well, beginning with Belly Out! The movement of mouth and anus

 


[ii]  See my “Animals in Looking-Glass World”

[iii] Regarding Heidegger’s hermeneutic circle, cf Being and Time.

[iv] Even this frequent citation is a “mis-measure,” as careful readers of Plato will already be aware and as Tyler makes explicit in his final “Coda”: “Rejecting the absolute assurances of realism, Protagoras subscribed to a contextual relativism or, perhaps more accurately, to an evaluative, pragmatic perspectivism. For Protagoras, then, apes and other creatures do not aspire to be like Man, and each is its own measure of all things” (264); a reading and an approach which finds its echo in Nietzsche.

[v] For the clearest example of J. G. Ballard’s articulation of the collective human unconscious, see his first novel The Drowned World (1962).

[vi] See Being and Time section 16, especially “The modes of conspicuousness, obtrusiveness, and obstinacy all have the function of bringing to the fore the characteristic of presence-at-hand in what is ready-to-hand. But the ready-to-hand is not thereby just observed and stared at as something present-at-hand; the presence-at-hand which makes itself known is still bound up in the readiness-to-hand of equipment. … the ready-to-hand shows itself as still ready-to-hand in its unswerving presence-at-hand” (104/74).

[vii] See the section “How the ‘Real World’ at last Became a Fable,” in which Nietzsche plots a potted philosophical “history of an error” which variously divides the “authentic” thing-in-itself from an “inauthentic” epiphenomenal appearance, that is, the “real” (suprasensible) world from the “apparent” (empirical) world. Whereas Nietzsche ends in the midday moment, the “zenith of mankind,” in which the abolishment of the real world necessarily entails the abolishment of the apparent world, Flusser instead returns to the fable as a way of accessing the “objective” real, at least to a degree.

[viii] I also have explored this text in depth in my long article “Animals in Looking-Glass World.”

[ix] On the ontological priority of mutually-constitutive relation (or, more precisely, of transductive relations), see my “Animals in Looking-Glass World.” The somewhat ironic notion of a Nietzschean “Transcendental Aesthetic” must thus understand “transcendental” in the specifically Kantian sense of denoting the a priori presentations specific to each species that constitute the condition of possibility for each and every perception and affection. As to the possibility – or otherwise – of defining and thus delimiting any given “species,” this will be considered in detail in the next part.

[x] In a footnote, Tyler traces this “suggestive phrase” (209n164) back to Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature.


Persephone Calls: Power and the Inability to Die in Plato and Blanchot

 

Abstract

In exploring the philosophical foundations of the space of noncriminal murder, this paper sketches a trajectory and exchange between Plato’s immortal soul and the decentred subjectivity theorised by Maurice Blanchot. Here, the double negation of “the animal” which links Blanchot with Plato renders explicit not only the general homogeneity of the philosophical treatment of the animal, but also how the ideologically undying animal serves to reproduce the machinery of Western patriarchy founded upon the illusion of a freely willing human subject. While Blanchot’s radical decentring of the subject sets the stage for much of poststructuralism to follow, I argue that it nonetheless remains wedded to the maintenance of this murderous old machine. Further, Blanchot’s philosophy is doubly relevant insofar as its double displacement of the animal mirrors the revelatory practice of the Eleusinian Mysteries which Plato compares to the practice of the Socratic dialectic. While for Blanchot this rather offers access to the inessential, we nevertheless discover only another Mystery, one which, following Socrates, calls again upon the myth of Persephone to preserve the mastery of the human.

 

*     *     *

 

Calling Persephone

Let us begin, as is only fitting in considering the domination of the human-animal dichotomy throughout the Western tradition, with an ancient myth.

One fine day, while collecting Spring flowers, Persephone is spied by Hades who, inflamed with love and desire, kidnaps her and carries her off to his underworld kingdom. Demeter, Persephone’s mother and mother to the earth, is inconsolable, searching the earth and heavens for her daughter. Eventually, she encounters a river nymph who, for fear of Hades, suggests only that Persephone has been taken inside the earth itself. Enraged, Demeter inflicts a devastating infertility upon the land. A second nymph, however, tells Demeter not to punish the earth, for she has seen Persephone with Hades in the Underworld. Deeply shocked, Demeter begs Zeus to arrange the return of her daughter to the upper world. Zeus agrees, with but a single condition: her daughter must have eaten nothing whilst in the Underworld. Persephone, however, has already partaken of a single suck of pomegranate pulp, and so a compromise is offered: Persephone must spend half of every year in the Underworld until Spring arrives and restores her to her mother for the remaining months. Somewhat pacified, Demeter thereafter returns fertility to the earth.

So goes the myth of Persephone, an allegory of rebirth, of the eternal movement of the seasons, and of the casting of the seed inside the earth. It is a myth too, both of feminized Nature as reproduction, subject to the desires of men, and of the promise of resurrection, Persephone’s fate offering consolation to anyone anxious about the afterlife. Put simply, it tells tales of transcendental return. It is in this sense, as we shall see, that Socrates, in dialogue with Meno, evokes the name of Persephone in support of his claim that the soul of man is immortal.

The tale of Persephone’s return, however, is also marked by a prior detour through the earth, shifting briefly from the eternal concerns of gods to the finite world of men. Exhausted from her search, a disguised Demeter is forced to rest upon a stone for nine days and nights. On the tenth day, an old man happens by and offers Demeter compassion and hospitality. Upon reaching his home, however, Demeter discovers the man’s son Triptolemus is desperately ill, and thus proceeds to heal him. When she places the boy in the fire, however, his mother snatches him away, unwittingly preventing his transformation into an immortal. As a consolation, a newly-revealed Demeter promises instead to teach the boy the hitherto unknown art of agriculture, a knowledge which he in turn will impart across the earth. For this act of original pedagogy, Triptolemus later founds the worship of Demeter, erecting a temple in the city of Eleusis on the site of the stone upon which she sat, and staging there the famous purification rituals known as the Eleusinian Mysteries.

This is a less well-known part of the myth of Persephone, telling of the singular gift of the art or technique of agriculture. Here, rather than a Socratic recollection as the proof of transcendental reason and thus of the immortal soul, we find instead an original act of learning. An act, moreover, directly linked to the Mysteries, the very same rites which Meno is unable to attend, and which Socrates evokes in the Meno in order to suggest an analogous relation between the revelatory initiation into divine secrets such as those experienced by Triptolemus and during the Mysteries, and the equally revelatory initiation into philosophical truths offered by Socrates himself. It is this, however, which is impossible, insofar as it is the former which puts the latter into question.

For Plato, as we shall see, the name of Persephone authorizes the transport of transcendental return, and yet, as the price of divine consolation, she thus becomes a figure of all too human disavowal. While the revelatory initiation into divine secrets undoes the Socratic return of immortal truths, this is not, however, to suggest that the rites practiced at Eleusis might somehow partake of the divine. Rather, I will argue, these rites are the obverse of this human disavowal insofar as they too, in their own way, seek to purify the human of its animal baseness. Whether Meno chooses to be initiated into the teachings of Socrates or into the Mysteries of Eleusis, either way his initiation will come at the expense of other animals.

Here, I will argue, philosopher Maurice Blanchot too calls on the name of Persephone, not with Socrates on behalf of transcendental reason, but rather in articulating his own variant of the initiation rituals of the Mysteries. For Blanchot as for the Eleusinian initiates, the animal is ritually sacrificed twice over, firstly as the human, and then again in the name of man. More precisely, the myth of Persephone figures the anthropogenetic movement of double death we find in Blanchot: a redoubled death first of the external animal which marks the becoming man of man, and then of a second, exclusively human death that is the act of mastery that condemns all other animals to the hecatomb.

It is with these twinned offerings, these Persephone calls, that Plato’s inaugural disavowal of the nonhuman animal is drawn out across millennia of Christianized humanism in a line which, ever renewed, ties the Platonic dialogues to the “posthumanist” discourse of Blanchot. With these two purifications, the natural and the supernatural, the empirical and the transcendental, I aim to render explicit the constitution of those exclusively human properties – soul, reason and language – which have, since the “beginning” of philosophy, served to exclude other animals as beings without memory, without trace, and without death. Along the way, I will introduce Derrida’s “quasi-concept” of iterability which, in deconstructing exactly these apparently exclusive human properties, is of central importance to my argument.

 

First movement

Before Plato, the idea of an essential immortal soul existing independently of its corporeal incarnation was not generally a part of Greek thought.[v] Facing a variant of the “trick argument” in the Meno (80e), however, Socrates finds himself obliged, in order to save philosophy from sophistry, to have recourse to just such an idea if he is to prove that adequate knowledge can indeed be achieved. Meno’s “trick argument,” as summarized by Socrates, runs as follows: man can never discover what he knows because either, (a) he already knows and thus has no need to discover it, or else (b) he does not already know and hence cannot even know what to look for or, indeed, if he has found it.

Before he can stage his reasoned defense of philosophical knowledge, however, and immediately prior to the famous geometrical demonstration of transcendental reason, Socrates is compelled to set the scene by calling upon two nonphilosophical substantiating sources. First of all, he recalls the discourse of “priests and priestesses,” and then, by way of Pindar’s “divine inspiration,” invokes the goddess Persephone to his cause (81b-c). Both, suggests Socrates, say that the soul of man is immortal, forever reborn within new corporeal incarnations.

One quickly understands the need for such a theological authorization, insofar as it immediately transpires that for Socrates it can only be on the basis of corporeal reincarnation that knowledge and truth can be recollected, that is, recovered or reborn. At this point, however, the soul or spirit has not yet left the body: “the soul, since it is immortal and has been born many times, and has seen all things both here and in the other world, has learned everything that is” (81c). As a result, Socrates argues, a man can indeed recover, rather than discover, full knowledge insofar as, once he “has recalled a single piece of knowledge – learned it, in ordinary language – there is no reason why he should not find out all the rest” (81d). It is this which Socrates sets out to prove by engaging a slave boy in a discussion of geometry. Here, knowledge available for recollection has been learned through prior experience over a great extension of time and number of incarnations, and it is not the case that the soul always already possesses full knowledge.

The problem then arises that, if future knowledge is necessarily the re-collection of previous experience, how will one have first learned that of which knowledge is necessarily a recollection? The demonstration of the slave boy’s recollected knowledge only serves to highlight this aporia: the boy can recollect geometry only because he has already learned it, so how will one have first come to learn that geometry that all men can subsequently recall? At this point, Socrates appears to hesitate. It is a hesitancy, an uncertainty, that finds its fore-echo when earlier he talks of reincarnation only as a clerical and mythical “they-say” (81a-b).[vi] Indeed, throughout this earlier part of the dialogue, and in contrast with the certain movement of the later demonstration, there is no knowledge, but only an uncertain reiteration of hearsay and opinion. At times, it even seems to take on the ironic tone characteristic of the Socratic style in which a thesis is apparently affirmed only then to be taken apart, stingray fashion. However, the leading of the witness to confess the collapse of common opinion, of the “they say,” never materializes. Rather, as we shall see, there is only an absent question, a passing over in silence. Despite this, following the slave-boy’s performance this uncertain hypothesis, that of a redoubled knowledge learned both here and there over multiple incarnations, becomes instead a certainty which, in so doing, departs from the body to become a supernatural apparition, evoked from out of this world.

Having drawn a number of transcendent geometrical truths from the mouth of the slave boy, Socrates then presses Meno:

Either then [the boy] has at some time acquired the knowledge which he now has, or he has always possessed it. If he always possessed it, he must always have known; if on the other hand he acquired it at some previous time, it cannot have been in this life … if he did not acquire them in this life, isn’t it immediately clear that he possessed and had learned them during some other period? (85d-86a).

There is, in this suspension, an obscurity hidden within its clarity – “isn’t it immediately clear that he possessed and had learned them?” –, the moment which marks in silence the shift from knowledge as empirically learned to knowledge as essential possession. When Meno concedes that the slave-boy must indeed have “possessed and learned” the recollected knowledge during another period, Socrates then insists, “When he was not in human shape?” to which Meno simply replies “Yes” (86). Whereas earlier, calling upon Persephone and the priests, Socrates suggests that knowledge is acquired “both here and in the other world,” he thus now insists upon such a possession as only being inhuman and supernatural. There is, however, no explanation as to why the slave-boy could not have learned geometry throughout his having been born many times and thus having seen all things. Meno, as is so often the case with Socrates’ interlocutors, merely affirms this without question.

This disavowal of the corporeal, of the material, in seeking to efface the problem of the recollection of learned knowledge, concerns, as we have seen, the problem of the Origin and of hypomnēsis. It concerns, in other words, the first learning which makes possible the revelation (alētheia) that is recollection (anamnēsis), that is, which makes a discontinuous past available for return in the future. At this point, and still attempting to extricate philosophy from the Sophist aporia, Socrates can thus only side with knowledge as an essential possession proper to man. That is, he is compelled to do so if he is to avoid becoming ensnared in a second aporia – that of an originary site and citing of knowledge. Hence, Socrates continues to press Meno:

If then there are going to exist in him, both while he is and while he is not a man, true opinions which can be aroused by questioning and turned into knowledge, may we say that his soul has been forever in a state of knowledge? (86a).

Knowledge, in a move that Nietzsche much later terms nihilistic, is thus shifted beyond and before the sensible, constituted as an essence that always precedes corporeal being, and opposed therefore to being encoded in the language of its institution (i.e., hypomnēmata).

Here though, Persephone eternally returns to haunt Socrates, in that the myth not only offers the consolation of supernatural rebirth, but also recounts the pedagogy of Demeter, who imparts to man a knowledge of nature and its cultivation that is at once original and empirical. Where these two aspects cross, however, is with the notion of an infinite natural reproduction, that is to say, in the “immortality” of its cycles.

 

Absolute animals

As we have seen, in order to avoid becoming ensnared within twin aporia, Socrates is compelled to remove knowledge from the sensible world. Knowledge, the mark of an immortal human soul, cannot henceforth be learned (and thus taught), but is rather an essential property of the ensouled that is always available for reactivation. What is of particular interest here, is that in this calculated and arbitrary staging it is nonhuman animals – indeed, all other living beings – who find themselves sacrificed to knowledge in this unquestioned elision of the corporeal and empirical. That nonhuman beings might employ reason does not, according to Socrates, mark the possession of a soul and thus knowledge but rather, as a result of this decision on behalf of philosophy, only the paradox of a learned nonknowledge. Animal “reasoning,” in other words, comes to mark instead an unknowing, that of an automatic response. Indeed, by the time of the Phaedrus, it even becomes its fabulous figure.

Thus, in his speech to Phaedrus on Love, Socrates insists that a man who surrenders to the sensible and the corporeal is “like a four-footed beast” and thus “unnatural” (250e-251a). At the same time, the essential state of the soul in knowledge is no longer a hesitant hypothesis, but has been transformed into simple dogma: “It is impossible for a soul that has never seen the truth to enter into our human shape; it takes a man to understand by the use of universals, and to collect out of the multiplicity of sense-impressions a unity arrived at by a process of reason” (249b-c). Truth, therefore, is the a priori condition for the soul which, in order to become, must first see Truth and then enter a human body. No soul, Socrates says earlier, can be born into a wild animal in its first incarnation (248d). As subsequent to Ideas but prior to corporeal existence, the soul thus functions as the intermediary between essence and existence, between Ideas and their recollection in being.

In this, the soul functions much as the khōra in Plato’s Timaeus, that is, as the nonplace which is the condition of place or, rather, the taking place of place which must withdraw in its having taken place, and therefore in the appearance of being through which the truth is empirically regained, and thus of temporality and historicity. Along the way, the distinction between the sensible (aisthēton) and the intelligible (noēton), which subsequently grounds the sacrifice of the animal to reason, has replaced the tragic composition of anamnēsis as hypomnēsis.

Put simply, insofar as the soul’s archiving of truth is the taking place of man proved via transcendental reason, it necessarily follows that truth, soul, space and time are denied to all other animals. The soul, for Plato, can only be born into a man, although man can subsequently be reincarnated in animal form,[vii] because it is only man and all men, from slave-boy to philosopher-patriarch, who can recollect knowledge. By contrast, nonhuman animals are, as Elisabeth de Fontenay writes, both “absolute animals” and “dead souls” (Le silence 71). Moreover, in this patriarchal gendering of knowledge, women are thus, in the same movement, implicitly aligned with the soulless irrationality of animals.[viii]

Every other living being, every single nonhuman animal of whatever stripe – and, perhaps, every woman, a “perhaps” which marks the opening movement of the machinery of animalization –, thus finds herself a priori excluded from transcendental knowledge. Consequently, she is also denied access to its two correlates: virtue and memory (Meno 87b).[ix] “The animal,” this putatively homogeneous category of everything that is not man, thus lacks not only a soul, but also the taking place of place – that of “being” itself. She can be neither virtuous nor noble, nor can she recall anything, and thus her being-in-the-world lacks even the trace of existence.

One can better understand this nonrelation of virtue and nonhuman animals when, in the Meno, Socrates employs the bee as an example of essential being (ousia) in order to clarify the distinction between the essential being of virtue and its various worldly modalities (72a). This analogical ontological-ontical structure suggests that the ousia of “the bee” as eidos shares a common structural discontinuity from the manifold ways of being-bee as that of Virtue from virtues. However, only man has the capacity to recollect the eidos of the bee (or the dog, or the monkey, etc.) whereas a bee (or a dog or a monkey or, indeed, even an anthropomorphized virtue) cannot recall its own essential form against which finite existence is measured. Hence when, in introducing the myth of the charioteer with two horses in the Phaedrus, Socrates speaks of how “we must try to tell how it is that we speak of both mortal and immortal living beings” (246b), he is referring not to soulless animals and ensouled humans, but rather to finite human bodies in possession of an infinite soul. As the trace of existence, the soul is necessarily the condition of finitude. Ultimately then, nonhuman beings are neither mortal nor immortal, being unable, in truth, to die.

Hence, from the Meno to the Phaedrus, Plato sets upon the stage of tragedy, first through the myth of Persephone and then through the charioteer allegory, a new foundation which, in placing both reason and soul superior and anterior to being, sacrifices nonhuman animals to the certainty of a metaphysics saved from sophistry. The soul, before and beyond its manifest withdrawal in and as a finite body, “is” infinite wisdom, that is, full knowledge without boundaries. This limitless knowledge, however, remains forever beyond the grasp of every finite incarnation. In his mortal incarnation therefore, man in his turn constitutes an imperfect copy of an incorporeal, immortal, and infinite wisdom. In this, with a call to Persephone and with the help of the polis priests, Plato thus pre-figures two millennia of Christianized thought that will only essentially come into question with Nietzsche.

 

Iterability and the phantasm of Return

Despite, and indeed because of, having condemned “the animal” to an irrational, mute and deathless nonexistence, Socrates’ difficulties with the Sophists are far from over. The ground now shifts again, this time with regard to anamnēsis. Whereas knowledge was initially re-collected by accessing the temporal storehouse of reincarnated reason (the hypomnēmata), now anamnēsis refers instead to the revelation (alētheia) of prior atemporal knowledge. As a result, the transcendental Idea – the essence or truth of the thing – must necessarily be always superior and anterior to its manifold appearance in existence, which in turn can only ever be “like” or “as,” but never identical with, its origin. Socratic recollection then, anamnēsia as alētheia (and seeking to evade hypomnēsia), is thus structured as a trope, that is, as a vehicle seeking to faithfully re-present the anterior tenor. Indeed, this is not simply a trope, but in fact the trope of metaphysics: the metaphor of transcendental Return, as figured by the goddess Persephone. As a metaphor, however, this notion of Return is deeply problematic, as Jacques Derrida demonstrates in “White Mythology” (1971).

Insofar as metaphor “organizes its divisions within syntax,” writes Derrida, it necessarily “gets carried away with itself, [it] cannot be what it is except in erasing itself, indefinitely constructing its destruction” (268). This self-destruction, moreover, follows one of two courses which, while different, nevertheless mime one another relentlessly.

The first is the metaphorical movement of the Socratic vehicle, one that claims to fully penetrate the tenor and thus, as Derrida writes, “finish by rediscovering the origin of its truth … without loss of meaning, without irreversible expenditure” (268). This is, in short, constitutes “the metaphysical relève of metaphor in the proper meaning of Being” (268) – a specular circularity of philosophical discourse, of loss without loss, which describes, as Derrida writes with reference to Hegel, “a metaphor which is displaced and reabsorbed between two suns” (268). Things are not so simple, however, insofar as the spreading of the metaphorical in syntax inevitably “carries within itself an irreducible loss of meaning” (268). Indeed, to rely on an imitation to “reveal” the plenitude of its origin is necessarily paradoxical. Given the temporal discontinuity – its abyss of puckish irony – between the two realms, the revealed “original meaning” can only ever be an effect solely of the copy. In other words, instead of revealing its origin, the trope of transcendental Return only ever produces an endless dissemination. To be otherwise requires that the mimeme exist in two temporal realms simultaneously: both completely inside (plenitude of origin, sunrise) and completely outside (imitation, sunset).

Against and within this first aufhebung of Return, the second self-obliterative recourse is to that of senseless metaphorical suicide. While similar in appearance to the metaphysical metaphor, the suicidal trope instead disrupts the philosophical hierarchy, wresting away its “borders of propriety” that subordinate the syntactic to the semantic and unfolding in its place a notion that, in its dissemination, is explicitly without limit (268). In its passage through the “supplement of syntactic resistance,” the “reassuring relationship” of the metaphoric and the (return of the) proper thus explodes, resulting in the suicide of unisemic sense.

The metaphor therefore always carries its own death. Moreover, the “difference” between its two deaths, the apparent choice between “good” and “bad,” between transparency and undecidability, is in fact no choice at all. By definition, metaphor already supplements an anoriginal absence, and is thus always syntactic and already carried away. Rewriting this in the terms of our discussion, in its withdrawal in and as the appearing of the mortal being, the immortal Socratic soul thus marks a lack to be supplemented in addition to its absolute plenitude. Put another way, both to be an essence and to be represented, an essence must be able to properly repeat itself, and yet in repetition an essence necessarily ceases to be proper. As Derrida says elsewhere, “the presence of what is gets lost, disperses itself, multiplies itself through mimemes, icons, phantasms, simulacra, etc.” (“Plato’s Pharmacy” 166). No return without loss, the sun, infinitely exposed, shatters upon the sea.

The translative movement in and as language, understood in its broadest sense of making sense, is necessarily governed by the temporal structure of the act of interpretation, and thus discontinuous with truth. In summary, the tropological structure which organizes the Platonic Idea must already bring into play, through the similarity of recollection, the paradoxical play of mimēsis. That is, the doubling of the recollection must be faithful and true (i.e., identical), and yet, in that its duplication within existence manifests a necessarily inferior copy, it therefore already divides its indivisible essence. In short, the existential recollection of the essential Idea is already interrupted by what Derrida calls iterability, with the result that the proposed cure for hypomnēsis turns out to be the poison of hypomnēsis.

Inscribed as the structural characteristic of every mark, every grapheme, it is iterability which determines that language can never be meaningful, insofar as a given word or phrase can always be detached from its anterior temporal position and reiterated in another context, a reiteration whose sense inevitably differs from its previous articulation. Repetition, in short, alters. At the same time, however, it is this same possibility of repetition, as the necessary condition for any mark to function ritualistically as language, which constrains language to always return and yet always begin anew. Alteration, in short, identifies. In this way, iterability marks the similarity of recollection as necessarily fantastic. Indeed, according to Plato the fantastic refers precisely to a trope which pretends to simulate faithfully, and thus deceives with a simulacrum – a (false) copy of the (true) copy – that is, with a phantasm.[x] Put simply, the fantastic or phantasmic trope is a deceptive transport by which one is persuaded to mistake interpretation for truth – what Maurice Blanchot describes as mistaking the labor of truth for truth itself.

 

The deadly labor of truth

This dangerous fantasticity from which a truly faithful copy can never save us is nothing less than the existence of every so-called “living being.” It is, in other words, the translative movement of be-ing. At the moment, the point here is to signal the originary interrelation of two apparently unrelated concerns. At its advent, the valorizing of essence and intelligibility (noēton) over and against existence and sensibility (aisthēton) thus articulates a founding disavowal of other animals together with an attempt to efface the monstrous phantasm of the fantastic.

I began by arguing that “man” can exist “properly” only by externalizing and excluding the improper animal upon which it depends, and here, in this same moment and movement, we thus discover that mimēsis too, can properly be only by externalizing and excluding the impropriety upon which it depends. These twinned movements, the closure of the circle of Return (the organizing trope of metaphysics) and the exclusion of the animal in and as the constitution of this closure (the proper delimitation of the human), are indissociable.[xi] Moreover, beyond our three Platonic binaries, we discover a further duality that sets the entire machinery in motion: that of the proper and the improper.

The inextricability of these twin exclusions ultimately returns us to Persephone. On the one hand, her consoling return figures not only the transcendence of the human, but also of the eternal return of the sun and thus of a fruitful earth forever offering itself for man’s harvest. On the other, however, this myth simultaneously names the phantasm of an all too human disavowal, insofar as the name of Persephone is called upon – and not only by Socrates – to authorize an access to the essential that is restricted to man alone.

Meno, we are informed, must unfortunately leave Athens prior to the celebration of the rites of the Eleusinian Mysteries dedicated to Persephone’s mother Demeter – rites which seek a divine revelation that Socrates, in a seemingly curious move, compares to the revelation of philosophical truths (Meno 76e). Here, Meno’s future absence marks the dialogue, an absence that is at once the removal from knowledge. In Ancient Greece, those initiated into the Mysteries perform the following ritual: first, initiates undergo a ceremonial purification in the sea while holding in their submerged arms a sacrificial piglet. They then walk in silence to Eleusis whereupon they fast and, still in silence, sacrifice their domestic animals in their own stead. Finally, after a ritual handling of objects, a dramatic performance is staged, very possibly the myth of Persephone itself.

In this ritual based on the return of Persephone to the sun, the animal is thus doubly sacrificed. First, a piglet – in one sense property but nevertheless not yet fully domesticated, not yet proper – is sacrificed in order to purify man, to rid man of his own untamed bestiality. Second, as dispensable representatives and imperfect copies of man, any number of domesticated – that is, completely dominated – animals are sacrificed in order for man to live on, to survive beyond the constraints of finitude and existential appearance. In short, the animal within is first of all externalized, after which it must then take on the death of man in order that man can live forever. Here then, we can understand better why Socrates affirms an analogical relation between divine revelation of the Mysteries and the revelation of “proper” knowledge: any number of imperfect, improper animal copies are sacrificed in order to install in man alone an immortal soul which accedes to the essential.

What remains as doubly foreclosed, therefore, is the impropriety of the animal, a foreclosure that seeks to guard against the potential interruption of an improper animal relation which is nonetheless ontologically prior to the exclusion upon which the delimitation of the human depends. Here then, a preliminary hypothesis irresistibly suggests itself: given that the proper appearance of “the human” depends upon the exclusion of both “the animal” and “the improper,” a potential disruption of humanist metaphysics would therefore seem to reside within an animal encounter marked by an improper relation. It requires, in short, that animal and man, metaphor and concept, and instinct and knowledge be folded together in a risky new articulation.

 

Double movement

The metaphysical metaphor of closure and return has enjoyed a long and various career, as we shall see in turning now to consider the function of “the animal” within the “posthumanist” philosophy of Maurice Blanchot. Here, I will argue, the myth of Persephone, with its relation to both finitude and nonhuman being as well as the ritual double death enacted in Eleusis, calls to the notions of essential solitude and inessential existence as articulated by Blanchot in his struggle to move beyond Hegel. Indeed, that Hegel should appear at this point is far from incidental, insofar as it is with Hegel, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, that the movement of transcendental Return receives its most compelling example. In the East, he writes, “rises the outward physical [i.e. sensory] Sun, and in the West it sinks down: here consentaneously rises the Sun of self-consciousness, which diffuses a nobler brilliance.”[xii] It is the repressive, irrepressible romantic yearning to master dissemination that is here taken up again by the tēlos of Hegel’s Spirit, understood as that which reveals as it regains and retains the plenum (the essence of man) at last illuminated by the “true light” of the Western sun.

While Socrates places man above the nonhuman animal by virtue of the capacity to transcend the sensible in the unity of useful universals, Blanchot follows Hegel in arguing instead that it is the articulation of death, that is, the act of making mortal, which founds “the human” and at once marks out “the animal.” Indeed, Blanchot more than once cites Hegel in this context: “the life of the mind begins with death.”

The importance of the reiterated reference to Hegel becomes evident once we understand of what this founding act consists. In an important yet complex passage in The Space of Literature (1955), Blanchot writes:

Can I die? Have I the power to die? This question has no force except when all the escape routes have been rejected. It is when he concentrates exclusively upon himself in the certainty of his mortal condition that man’s concern is to make death possible. It does not suffice for him that he is mortal; he understands that he has to become mortal, that he must be mortal twice over: sovereignly, extremely mortal. That is his human vocation. Death, in the human perspective, is not a given, it must be achieved. It is a task, one which we take up actively, one which becomes the source of our activity and mastery. Man dies, that is nothing. But man is, starting from his death. He ties himself tight to his death with a tie of which he is the judge. He makes his death; he makes himself mortal and in this way gives himself the power of a maker and gives to what he makes its meaning and its truth. The decision to be without being is possibility itself: the possibility of death (96).

While the density of this passage may appear daunting at first, things will nonetheless become clear so long as we take it slowly. Firstly, Blanchot suggests that to be human requires that one not only be mortal, but also that one become mortal. Whereas all other animals, insofar as they are blind to even a simple sense of their mortality, merely “perish,” the vocation that gives to humanity its unique perspective is this doubling of mortality. Here then, the human is distinguished from the animal by virtue of a founding reciprocity: whereas every living being perishes (which, as we shall see all too clearly, “is nothing”), only a human animal, insofar as she perceives her own mortality, must thus simultaneously become mortal and, in so doing, become human.

Man thus achieves death, and at once himself (that is, the human perspective), through the doubled articulation of mortality: being-mortal and becoming-mortal. How might we understand these two movements? Being-mortal is, firstly, the meaningful articulation of mortality as the possibility of our future not-being-in-the-world. Moreover, only now can the possibility of dying can be comprehended, insofar as such an understanding could not exist prior to the “as” of the originary articulation of mortality by which the human alone gives itself and the world meaning. The human, first and foremost, is the being who experiences itself as mortal, a cognition that necessarily takes place of and in language. The act that founds the human is thus at once the first human act: the taking place of language as the originary experience of being-mortal as mortal. Hence, that I can still die is, as Blanchot writes in The Infinite Conversation, “our sign as man” (42).

For Blanchot, being human as being-mortal is thus to be thrown into the inessential world of language, inessentiality being the very condition of possibility of language, as we shall see. Meanwhile language, for its part, is both a recognition and a representation of mortality, insofar as “death alone … exists in words as the only way that they can have meaning” (Blanchot “Literature,” 324).

Ignoring for the moment Blanchot’s reduction of language to words alone, in this founding of and as the human, we necessarily discover in this difference of itself from itself the mark of an iteration which corrupts any unity of origin. To be able not to be is at once to be able to be born: we die, and at the same time are born, in and as language. Put simply, as the moment in which a body conceives of its possible nonbeing, and thus possibility in general, the human comes into being and at the same time is thrown from the realm of essential being and into the inessential world of language. Here, we find our first point of contact between Blanchot and Plato: excluded by definition from this movement of anthropogenesis, nonhuman animals are thus once more excluded from the taking place of place, and thus from language and the “there” of being.

Moreover, insofar as other animals are excluded from the ability not to be, and thus from possibility in general, not only can they never become mortal, in fact they can never be mortal and nor, in truth, can they be born. Every nonhuman being, in other words, is denied the possibility of having her own singular death, is refused the possibility of ever dying this death. And yet, as we shall see in considering the complementary movement of becoming-mortal in the next part, for Blanchot the exceptional positing power of the human nevertheless depends upon the singular violent death of a nonhuman animal who, somewhat paradoxically, essentially cannot die.

 

The memory of death

Having made a preliminary comparison with the Platonic exclusion of the animal, we can now, by way of a detour through Hegel, begin to approach Blanchot’s own peculiar version of the Eleusinian Mysteries. Having constituted itself in its capacity not to be, it is through this originary power to negate that the human thereafter avails itself of the power of the negative. Man, we recall, must be mortal twice over, must both be and become mortal, just as death must both be and be achieved. Hence, writes Blanchot, it is necessary that death be “seized again as a power, as the beginning of the mind” (“Literature” 324, my emphasis). This, he continues, “is at the centre of the universe where truth is the labor of truth” (ibid.). Becoming-mortal, in other words, is the appropriation of negation that gives to man the power of a maker and is the source of his activity and mastery. Death, in short, is the condition of possibility itself. The question thus arises as to how, exactly, this appropriation of death’s power might take place.

As we have seen, the moment must concern the seizing again of death that is the emergence of negation as possibility, and which is at once the taking place of language as that which, at the founding of the human, grounds the emergence of meaning and truth. If we are to understand this strange movement from a being who is able not to be (being-mortal) to that of a maker laboring in the inessential world of truths (becoming-mortal), we need to heed Blanchot’s repeated enjoinders in this context to “remember the earliest Hegel” and, more specifically, the Hegel of the Jena System of 1803-4. Hardly fortuitously, Hegel argues therein that it is the seizing of an animal’s death in a movement of negation that, in its appropriation as the word, not only reserves and preserves the animal’s absence, but also the possibility of truth itself.

According to Hegel, the extended vowel of pain that marks the dying of an animal is at once the founding act of the human. This vowel of sensuous animality, he suggests, transcends its singular violent death in its universal expression: “Every animal finds its voice in violent death; it expresses itself as a removed [aufgehobnes] self. … In the voice, meaning turns back into itself; it is negative self, desire. It is lack, absence of substance in itself.”[xiii] In this, Hegel argues, is given the pure sound of the voice, a pure sounding interrupted by the silence of death, the latter constituting a mute consonant that is “the true and proper arrestation of mere resonation” through which “every sound has a meaning for itself.”[xiv] It is as a result of this “fact,” claims Hegel, that language becomes the voice of consciousness. In other words, the “mere” vowel of animal noise is pure syntax that is negated not by the breath, but by the death of the animal. In the dialectical negation of the negation, this death is thereafter preserved as it is raised up (aufhebung) into a universal expression that finds its meaning only with the founding of man. The nonhuman animal, however, as prior to the advent of this death-word is thus excluded from the possibility of both consciousness and meaning. In his fine reading, Giorgio Agamben summarizes this movement:

“Voice (and memory) of death” means: the voice is death, which preserves and recalls the living as dead, and it is, at the same time, an immediate trace and memory of death, pure negativity. Only because the animal voice is not truly “empty” …, but contains the death of the animal, can human language, articulating and arresting the pure sound of this voice (the vowel) – that is to say, articulating and retaining the voice of death – become the voice of consciousness, meaningful language (Language and Death 45).

In other words, it is because, in dying, a nonhuman animal expresses her absence (death arresting the vowel of pain) that language thus takes on the power of death. Returning to Blanchot, it is in the precise moment when an animal voices her absence in death – an articulation that is no longer animal “noise” but not yet verbal language – that the originary being-mortal of man is expressed in the taking place of language. Before this can be fully understood, however, it is necessary that the human become-mortal, as we shall see now.

First of all, it is clear that there can be such a thing as world for the human only insofar as the existence of the animal is suspended through negativity. There is world, Blanchot writes simply, only “because we can destroy things and suspend their existence” (“Literature” 336). The human, in other words, is that being who, insofar as it arrives only through the taking place of language, comes to itself as already thrown into a world of meaning and truth. Only with the word is death is seized once again, and thus only with the word does man become mortal. In this doubling of death, the animal is negated twice over: its particularity is negated first in universal expression, and then again in the word or name which rather marks “the absence of that being, its nothingness, what is left of it when it has lost being – the very fact that it does not exist” (322).

From this, it becomes possible to pinpoint the very moment of anthropogenesis, as related by Hegel and repeated by Blanchot, in which the power of death is seized again as language and thus becomes the source of activity and mastery: “Adam’s first act, which made him master of the animals, was to give them names, that is, he denied them as independent beings and he transformed them into ideals.”[xv] Here, in this “second” movement, language has already taken place. The human is, in other words, only on the condition of first negating the particularity of animal death (the taking place of language) and then by annihilating her independent existence (language having taken place). The human, in short, is the exceptional animal that twice over denies being to every other animal.

According to Blanchot therefore, the seizing-again or re-cognition of mortality is both a human production and the production of the human. Without this recognition, existence remains dissolved in its “original depths,” and yet with this recognition existence is simultaneously negated: The “existent,” writes Blanchot, “was called out of its existence by the word, and it became being.” However, in thus summoning forth the “dark, cadaverous reality from its primordial depths,” the word gave it in exchange “only the life of the mind” (“Literature” 326). Beyond and before the word, existence consists in “the intimacy of the unrevealed,” an intimacy that is necessarily lost once beings are recognized as beings: Thus, Blanchot continues, “[t]he torment of language is what it lacks because of the necessity that it be the lack of precisely this. It cannot even name it” (326-7). This “lack” is what Derrida describes as “the wound without a name: that of having been given a name” (Animal 19).

 

The work of death

Lastly, before we can fully disclose the “place” and the function of nonhuman animals within this schema, as well as how their double disavowal reiterates the practice of Eleusinian sacrifice offered up to Demeter, it remains for us only to consider the labor of the negative as it informs Blanchot’s notion of essential solitude.

To begin with, insofar as it is the event of both anthropogenesis and worlding, the appearance of the word in the seizing-again of death has thus already taken place. As such, it is necessarily “an unsituated, unsituatable event which, lest we become mute in very speech, we entrust to the work of the concept (negativity)” (Blanchot The Writing of the Disaster, 67). Here, we must understand that the negating word or name through which death works is already in the strict sense a concept, that is, it conceives of an existent. Indeed, it is precisely this conceptual power which simultaneously constitutes the human and withdraws it from unmediated existence. Hence, the articulation of the concept, its work of negativity, is the decisive event – decisive, that is, as regards the anthropogenetic and the anthropological – that plunges all of creation into a total sea, the event Blanchot calls the “immense hecatomb.”[xvi]

Things don’t end here, however, as a further twist of negativity awaits the concept. In being posited as an ideal, that is, as having exchanged primordial reality for “the life of the mind,” this nonexistence that is the word- or name-concept is thereafter taken to be the essence of the thing. This metaleptic reversal marks, in Blanchot’s terms, the “forgetting of forgetting” through which value is created. The thing, in other words, is forgotten first of all in being exchanged for an empty concept, and thereafter this forgetting is itself forgotten in the subsequent taking of this empty concept for an ideal value. As such, in the culmination of the “life-giving” negation of language, the image becomes the object’s “aftermath” in which the object itself is withdrawn from understanding in such a way as to allow “us to have the object at our command when there is nothing left of it” (Space of Literature 260).

Language can now be understood as the work of death in the world, that which drives –

the inhuman, indeterminate side of things back into nothingness …. But at the same time, after having denied things in their existence, it preserves them in their being; it causes things to have meaning, and the negation which is death at work is also the advent of meaning, the activity of comprehension (“Literature” 338).

We are now in a position to summarize the movement of anthropogenesis in Blanchot’s philosophy. First of all, the death of the animal constitutes the human as a mortal being, that is, as having the possibility not to be. Simultaneously, this singular nonhuman death realizes the power of negativity which, in being seized again as activity and mastery, marks the becoming-mortal of the human. This latter inheres in the act of naming which constitutes the power of a maker, giving to what she or he makes its meaning and its truth.

The animal, in short, ends where the human begins: in language. Indeed, in its double appropriation of death the human “is” the unsituated and unsituatable event of language itself, of its taking place that has already taken place. Hence, for Blanchot the articulating and preserving of the voice of death as both memory and absence, that is, as the trace of withdrawal, constitutes the taking place of language. At the same time, this taking of place is the opening of the space of recognition and thus of the name, that is, of language having taken place. On the one hand then, death, doubled and divided, simultaneously constitutes, in addition to the human, both the world and its representation. On the other, being-mortal and becoming-mortal are nothing but tropes, anthropomorphized figures of language itself.

How then, might we define the exceptional beast that is the human? According to Blanchot, quite simply as the non-animal for whom, insofar as he or she takes place of and in language, the essential is a priori withdrawn and replaced by empty ideals. At best, the immediacy of existence may be approached in a work of art, but even then its hovering appearance has necessarily escaped. Admittedly, this doesn’t sound like much – presumably existing intimately within the real, animals, we might think, are the lucky ones. However, if philosophy teaches us anything, it is that we should reserve judgment on this for the moment. Existence “is,” in short, “the side of the day that day has rejected in order to become light” (“Literature” 328). Only in the obliterating clarity of a meaningful humanity, in other words, can the work of death be found. Immediate existence, by contrast, is necessarily deathless, wordless, meaningless, and inhuman – the primordial realm, in Blanchot’s words, of “essential solitude.” Condemned to exist only as an undifferentiated part of this underworld machinery with neither beginning nor end – “death as the impossibility of dying” (328) – other living beings, it seems, are not so lucky after all.

 

An initiation into the new Eleusinian Mysteries

Clearly, it is only the human who, coming to be upon the death of a deathless animal, can give meaning to nonhuman existence. Only “man” stands in the light of the negative, only the human animal is enlightened. This, I will argue, turns us back across millennia to the myth of Persephone’s return to the light and, in particular, to Demeter’s place of rest and worship in Eleusis. As we have seen, to be initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries an appellant must first sacrifice a piglet, followed by any number of domestic animals. We have seen too, how this relates to the Platonic exclusion of “the animal” from “the human,” and how, having first being externalized, the animal is thereafter forced to bear the death of man in order that man might live forever. With Blanchot, however, we now discover the mirror-image of this all too human movement. In place of the “birth” of an immortal human soul, we find instead the annihilating genesis of the human at the origin of the world. In place of the double sacrifice that installs in man alone an access to the essential, we find the double sacrifice that installs in man alone an access to the inessential.

In Ancient Greece, we recall, the initial sacrifice involving the death of a single nonhuman animal served to purify the human of its bestiality. In other words, by way of this first death the human ceases to be an animal. It is in this same moment therefore, that the human equips itself with the capacity to master nature, to dominate, domesticate and exploit other “merely” living beings. Such mastery, however, requires a second sacrifice, a second death. Indeed, the fact of being domesticated alone condemns the other animals to annihilation, to a hecatomb that serves only to vouchsafe the mastery of the human. This, as should be clear, equally describes the double sacrifice that underpins Blanchot’s own metaphysical anthropocentrism: “the animal” is ritually sacrificed twice over, firstly as the human, and then again in the name of the human.

 

Doubly deceased: the mute deposition of nonhuman animals

The question now arises, as to how might the taking place, or otherwise, of nonhuman animals arrive to potentially interrupt these sacrificial schemas imposed upon them from without for millennia. As suggested earlier, this potential disruption would seem to reside in an animal encounter marked by an improper relation. To this we can now add that such an encounter appears equally to require the reinscription of death within nonhuman ways of being. Indeed, by further considering the placeless place of the animal in Blanchot’s philosophy in these final sections, we begin to open the space for just such an animal encounter to come.

Blanchot’s animal is, as we have seen, doubly deceased, that is, doubly depositioned and decomposed. Nevertheless, nonhuman animals continue to keep getting in the way, an uncanny obtrusion which brings into the open the implicit humanism of Blanchot’s discourse.[xvii] As being-in-the-world and yet deprived of the deluge of language that “is” death and vice versa, an animal “is” therefore mortal without recognizing it (and thus not, in truth, mortal). Moreover, as that which does not have her (own) death, she “is” necessarily senseless and meaningless being. In other words, insofar as she is excluded from the “unsituated, unsituatable event” that is language’s having already taken place, and thus from finitude that is its condition, the nonhuman animal necessarily exists before the annihilation of Adam’s positing power. At the same time, however, she nonetheless remains, indeed co-exists, after the world thus posited – a world, therefore, of cohabitation. At the very least then, she exists in some strange sense that “is” at once both before and after the Fall.

Without language, and therefore prior to being as such, nonhuman animals are thus allotted only some uncanny kind of not yet-world world, that is, a “world” with neither possibility nor resemblance. At the same time, however, there can be nothing beyond or before being as such either, that is, beyond or before what Blanchot terms essential solitude. This paradoxical equation of being as such with essential solitude, however, requires further clarification, serving as it does to ultimately exclude nonhuman living beings even from the primordial realm of the real. Essential solitude is, for Blanchot, simply immediate existence that is withdrawn in and as the taking place of the human. As such, essential solitude can only ever “take place” as that which remarks the hiddenness of existence by the disappearance, the hecatomb, of everything that is. Hence, put simply, essential solitude marks the originary withdrawal of being, a withdrawal that becomes meaningful in being marked as such. Indeed, it is only insofar as essential solitude constitutes the originary taking place of meaning in this way that a work of art may thus approach its unsituated, unsituatable event but, in having necessarily taken place, can never actually reach it.

Here, then, it is already possible to perceive the paradox under which the Blanchovian animal labors. As we have seen, there can be no hiddenness of existence – no essential solitude and no primordial reality – for nonhuman animals, which thus leaves only the nonbeing that “is” inessential being-in-the-world. However, insofar as there can be no nonhuman “as,” and thus no articulation or image, neither can animals exist within the inessential “world” that would be the mark of this nonbeing. In short, nonhuman animals neither are nor are not, neither being nor nonbeing, but something absolutely other. They “are,” in other words, both within and outside the world at the same time as they are neither within nor outside the world: animal spirits or ghosts of nonhumanity.

 

Specters of Heidegger

This spectrality of the philosophical animal points to an initial point of both proximity and distance between Blanchot and Martin Heidegger. In Heidegger’s Being and Time (1927), the animal is similarly (non)placed in negativity: neither present-at-hand [Vorhandensein], nor ready-at-hand [Zuhandensein], nor the Dasein who, as something other and more than a living being, is abysmally distanced from the nonhuman animal who “merely” has life and can only ever “perish” [verenden]. Indeed, Blanchot employs a very similar vocabulary in order to get his own metaphysics up on its rear legs and running. Men and only men, he writes, “are infinitely mortal, a little more than mortal. Everything is perishable, but we [humans] are the most perishable” (Space of Literature 140). As with Heidegger then, the exceptional supra-mortality of the human-Dasein, in refusing death to other animals, simply leaves them to “perish” in the manner of used-up or useless objects, like worn-out tires or unused condoms. As “a power that humanizes nature, raises existence to being, and … is within each one of us as our most human quality” (Blanchot “Literature” 337), death now becomes the exclusive property of man, appearing –

between me, as I speak [emphasis added], and the being I address: it is there between us as the distance that separates us, but this distance is also what prevents us from being separated, because it contains the condition for all understanding. … Without death, everything would sink into absurdity and nothingness (324).

By contrast, in being essentially deprived of death’s power that makes of man a mortal being, nonhuman animals therefore exist as absurdity and nothingness. Existence, in other words, that is not being (and thus nothingness) and is not nonbeing (and thus an absurdity). At the same time, in being excluded from meaning, that is, from becoming mortal, the hugely divergent ways of being animal are reduced to an undifferentiated existence which at once lacks that which prevents absolute separation from one another.[xviii] Here, with the further discovery of a dizzying proximal distancing that posits nonhuman animals as those who are cast off but who cannot be separated, who are excluded but cannot be excluded, the inconsistencies surrounding Blanchot’s fundamental exclusion of “the animal” are clearly proliferating beyond all control. Indeed, such a proliferation inevitably infects every attempt to erect a secure humanist foundation.

In concluding this sketch of the mirroring of ancient and modern philosophical constructions of the undying animal, however, it should be noted that a further, profound difference separates Blanchot’s formulation from that of Plato, insofar as Blanchot employs one of the traditional Christianized forms of the human-animal relationship. These dominant later forms, as philosopher Andrew Benjamin has shown, are configured by two different determinations.[xix] In the first configuration, the emergence of the human is predicated on the death or nonexistence of the animal, whereas in the second the human remains in a constant struggle with his or her own animality, an animality which must be repeatedly overcome in being human. Fallaciously defined by what he or she lacks within a teleological dialectic, the nonhuman animal is therefore figured as both incomplete and subhuman. Here, the corresponding movement within Blanchot’s “posthumanism” should by now be clear. Constituted in absolute lack – of death, of existence, of meaning, of separation, of community and of communication – the animal necessarily precedes the human, which founds its being on the negation of the animal. In elaborating what is a very traditional humanist dialectical teleology, Blanchot is thus ultimately unable to break free from Hegel.[xx]

More than this, however, it is an example of a philosophy of decentred subjectivity which nonetheless reproduces the dominant humanist forms of the human-animal relation – hence its exemplary position here. Indeed, Blanchot’s philosophy is doubly apposite in this regard, insofar as the production of the human is here predicated on both the death and the nonexistence of the animal in its double dis-position. Its modern initiation, however, simply offers another Mystery, that of the uncanny placeless place of “the animal” that calls again upon Persephone and the myth of undying Nature – that is, upon a theology and a teleology – in order to preserve for “the human” alone both privilege and mastery within an otherwise soulless world.

 

 

Works Cited

Adams, Carol J. Neither Man nor Beast: Feminism and the Defense of Animals (New York: Continuum, 1995).

Agamben, Giorgio Language and Death: The Place of Negativity trans. Karen E. Pinkus (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991).

Benjamin, Andrew “Particularity and Exceptions: On Jews and Animals” in South Atlantic Quarterly 107:1 (2008), 71-87.

Benjamin, Andrew “Another Naming, a Living Animal: Blanchot’s Community” in SubStance #117, 37:3 (2008), 207-227.

Benjamin, Andrew “Indefinite Play and ‘The Name of Man’” in Derrida Today 1:1 (2008) 1-18.

Blanchot, Maurice The Space of Literature trans. Ann Smock (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989).

Blanchot, Maurice The Infinite Conversation trans. Susan Hanson (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993).

Blanchot, Maurice The Writing of the Disaster trans. Ann Smock (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995).

Blanchot, Maurice “Literature and the Right to Death” in The Work of Fire trans. Charlotte Mandell (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995).

de Fontenay, Elisabeth Le silence des bêtes: La philosophie à l’épreuve de l’animalité (Paris: Fayard, 1998).

Derrida, Jacques “White Mythology” in Margins of Philosophy trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 207-271.

Derrida, Jacques “Plato’s Pharmacy” in Dissemination trans. Barbara Johnson (London & New York: Continuum, 2004), 67-186.

Derrida, Jacques “‘Eating Well,’ or the Calculation of the Subject” trans. Peter Connor & Avital Ronell in Points… Interviews 1974-1994 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995), 255-287.

Derrida, Jacques The Animal That Therefore I Am trans. David Wills (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008).

Despret, Vinciane Penser comme un rat (Versailles: Éditions Quæ, 2009).

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Lectures on the Philosophy of History trans. John Sibree (Charleston: BiblioBazaar, 2010).

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Jenenser Realphilosophie I, Die Vorlesungen von 1803-1804 ed. J. Hoffmeister, Leipzig, 1932).

Heidegger, Martin Being and Time trans. John Macquarrie & Edward Robinson (Malden, MA & Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1962).

Iveson, Richard “Animals in Looking-Glass World: Überhumanism and Posthumanism in Heidegger and Nietzsche” in Humanimalia 1:2 (2010), 46-85.

Plato Protagoras and Meno trans. W. K. C. Guthrie (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1956).

Plato Phaedrus and Letters VII and VII trans. Walter Hamilton (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1973).

Plato Phaedo in The Last Days of Socrates trans Hugh Tredennick (London: Penguin Books, 2003), 97-199.

Plato Sophist trans. Nicholas P. White in Complete Works ed. John M. Cooper (Indianapolis & Cambridge: Hackett, 1997), 235-293.

Plato Timaeus trans. Donald J. Zeyl in Complete Works ed. John M. Cooper (Indianapolis & Cambridge: Hackett, 1997), 1224-1291.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present (Cambridge, MA & London: Harvard University Press, 1999).

Stiegler, Bernard Technics and Time, 1: The Fault of Epimetheus trans. Richard Beardsworth & George Collins (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998).

 

Notes

[v] The reading of the Meno which follows is indebted to Bernard Stiegler who, in a lecture at Goldsmiths in February 2009, spoke briefly about the Meno and the Phaedrus. See also Stiegler Technics and Time, 1: The Fault of Epimetheus, 97-100.

[vi] This position is taken up again and explored more fully by Plato in the Phaedo, beginning with the Argument from Opposites and its less than convincing “leap” to its conclusion (70b–72e).

[vii] It should be noted that the possibility of the ensouled human being reincarnated as an animal would seem, in a variant of the incest prohibition, to thus prohibit the eating of other animals. This question of consuming “animals-with-souls” remains a problem until, with the specific aim of allaying fears of postmortem vengeance, Saint Augustine disavows its possibility absolutely.

[viii] While for the moment at least the male slave stands within the enclosure of man, he is nevertheless – in that a soul can be reincarnated, but never originate, in the form of an animal – held out to a future in reserve and reverse, so to speak. One in which the slave, as a soulless animal reincarnated in human form, finds himself (or herself) penned outside with the animals.

[ix] Throughout this text I follow the example of Carol Adams and use “she” to refer to any animal, alive or dead, whose sex is unknown. I will, however, retain “it” both when citing or paraphrasing another if appropriate (marked by sic where necessary) and when referring to a generic concept rather than to specific human or nonhuman animals.

[x] Plato The Sophist 234b-235a. See also Derrida “Plato’s Pharmacy,” 286-288 note 14.

[xi] On this, see Andrew Benjamin “Indefinite Play and ‘The Name of Man’” (Derrida Today 1:1 (2008), 1-18). Benjamin too refers to the Socratic bee in the context of virtue (4).

[xii] Hegel Lectures on the Philosophy of History, cit. Derrida “White Mythology,” 269n84.

[xiii] Jenenser Realphilosophie I; reproduced in Agamben Language and Death, 45.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] The German original reads: “Der erste Akt, wodurch Adam Seine herrschaft über die Tiere kinstituiert hat, ist, das ser ihnen Namen gab, d.h. sie als Seiende vernichtete und sie zu für sich Ideellen machte” (Hegel Jenenser Realphilosophie, repr. in Agamben Language and Death, 43). Blanchot cites this passage in “Literature and the Right to Death,” the last phrase of which Charlotte Mandell, in order to remain faithful to Blanchot’s text, translates as “he annihilated them in their existence (as existing creatures) [dans leur existence (en tant qu’existants)]” (cit. 323).

[xvi] The use of the word “hecatomb” is interesting in this context, referring as it does to the ritual sacrifice of one hundred “cattle.”

[xvii] While Blanchot indirectly addresses “actual” nonhuman animals in relation to Rilke (Space of Literature 135), their position nonetheless remains obscure.

[xviii] And all this, it should be noted, without either communication or community, both of which, according to Blanchot, have death as their condition. On this, see Andrew Benjamin “‘Another Naming, a Living Animal: Blanchot’s Community” SubStance #117, 37:3 (2008), 207-227.

[xix] Andrew Benjamin ‘Particularity and Exceptions: On Jews and Animals’ in South Atlantic Quarterly, 107:1 (Winter 2008), pp71-87 (p76).

[xx] Along with the animal, ‘primitive’ man, for whom ‘the name has not emerged from the thing’ (‘Literature and the Right to Death,’ p322), also finds himself uneasily displaced according to this dialectical movement. In this context, see Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s reading of Hegel and the native informant in A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present, Cambridge, MA & London: Harvard University Press, 1999, pp37-67.


Admitting the Indifference of Dogs

 

Here is the third of my Parallax review articles, this one on Andrew Benjamin’s important book Of Jews and Animals (Edinburgh University Press, 2010). It was first published as “Negotiating Without Relation” in Parallax, 17:3 (2011), pp.105-108)

Also, previous readers of this blog will have noticed the format change – I received several emails mentioning the difficulty of cutting-and-pasting because of the white-on-black layout, hence the change to black-on-white text (although I’m not sure about the change as yet …)

 

 

Dogs run throughout Andrew Benjamin’s new book, both as figures and in their particularity. While Heidegger faces his dog facing him in the silence of indifference, another dog insists upon his or her presence before Goya. A third dog, meanwhile, forever awaiting a drowned human companion in a Turner watercolour, constitutes at once an icon of devotion and the moment of a “founding tear” – a rupture which opens the work to an unthought modality of friendship. Finally, in a doubling and displacing of the Heideggerian absence of relation, the indifference of the dogs of Piero di Cosimo announces a transformative co-presence which, incapable of being determined in advance, can thus only be lived. It is in running together, in this movement from indifferent silence to the in-difference of an undetermined co-presence which, Benjamin will argue, inaugurates not simply an importantly different philosophical project, but rather “a transformation of the philosophical itself” (p.19). In this, Benjamin’s latest work remains resolutely preliminary, in the sense of the tracing of a limit which marks both a closure of potential and the possibility of a radical new beginning and which, in the process, makes explicit the importance of the so-called “question of the animal” to the overlapping domains of philosophy, ethics, and politics. As a result, Of Jews and Animals is set to become a key text, alongside such works as Elisabeth de Fontenay’s Le silence des bêtes (1998) and Jacques Derrida’s The Animal That Therefore I Am (2006), in constituting a further and necessary move beyond the utilitarianism and neo-Kantianism within which “animal philosophy” has for so long remained mired.

Central to the book is how the “work of figures” institutes what Benjamin terms the “without relation.” Exemplary in this regard is the positing of the figure of “the animal” in a singular relation to “the human,” a positing which, unifying both elements in their absence of relation, serves to efface both the enormous diversity of species and the already existing complex of relations in the construction of an identity whose function is “predominantly external to the concerns of the identity itself” (p.4). Against this, not only does Benjamin disclose the insistent and originary presence of the animal with the human, but also the interarticulation of such figures which externally impose normative identities which then have to be lived out. It is this mutually-articulating “work” which both underpins the conjunction of Jews and animals in the title (an entitling which fully acknowledges the attendant risk which might appear at first glance to equate the one with the other) and at once serves to efface the working of this very conjunction.

By way of the naturalising construction of the other as “the enemy” within Plato’s Republic, Benjamin argues that, through the working of such figures, the threat of particularity comes to be excluded in the name of the universal; an exclusion, moreover, which, in its continuous reiteration, sustains that same universality. Hence, if this machinery is to be stalled, it thus becomes necessary to think a certain way of being just to particularity. One will recognise here, and in addition to the overlapping nexus of concerns with Derrida’s later work, the relation between Benjamin’s transformative project and that of deconstruction, a relation directly explored by Benjamin in this book both through Derrida’s notion of “play” [“jeu”] and through a critique of Derrida’s reading of Pascal in which, Benjamin suggests, Derrida fails to take account both of the doubling of “force” and of the link between justice and the figure of “the Jew,” both of which are integral to Benjamin’s own position. While never failing to acknowledge this indebtedness, Benjamin contends however that his argument for “a differential or relational ontology” necessarily leads in “another direction” (p.128). Indeed, by way of the notion of the “anoriginal” (which receives perhaps its most rigorous formulation in The Plural Event (1993)), Benjamin has been pursuing this project for many years. While the question remains as to whether the positing of a differential ontology can be so easily directed away from the founding gesture of deconstruction – a gesture which affirms the impossibility of a “finite living being, human or nonhuman, that wouldn’t be structured by [a] differential of forces”1 –, Benjamin’s new book, in seeking to systemically mark and in so doing move beyond the work of dualisms, nonetheless constitutes a highly original and provocative opening, the implications of which for the ecological and the aesthetic, as well as the philosophical and the political, cannot be overstated.

Beginning with the production of the absence of relation between the human and the animal, and by way of two fifteenth century paintings of St Michael’s slaying of the Devil, Benjamin marks an important distinction between the two determinations which figure the two dominant forms of the human-animal relation. In the first, the production of the human is predicated on the death or nonexistence of the animal, whereas in the second, the human remains in a constant struggle with his or her own animality, an animality which must be repeatedly overcome in being-human. These twin metaphysical configurations, one or other of which underwrites the great majority of contemporary Continental philosophy, work to continually reiterate the without relation, both fallaciously defining the nonhuman animal by what he or she lacks within a humanist teleological dialectic in such a way as to mark every nonhuman animal as therefore incomplete, as sub-human. As de Fontenay has argued, “this continuity and this fracture, always at work, this veritable obsession with the mending and correction of the animal by the human” can only function at the expense of the status of the animal.2

In the positing of a singular relation “without relation,” difference remains unthought insofar as “the ground of difference is itself internal to the definitions that establish it” (p.84). The work of figures, in other words, produces as absent a founding relationality – described by Benjamin both as combat and negotiation – which serves therefore to exclude any possibility of negotiation in the future, and in this way all too often succeeds in determining the mode of life in question. In contrast, were difference to be thought – a thinking which defines the important difference of Benjamin’s philosophical project – then “a relation would have to be introduced” (p.85).

To be just to particularity, however, does not mean that all such a counter requires is the introduction of a “with” in place of the “without.” Rather, what is needed is the forcing of a thinking outside of simple opposition, that is, neither negation nor supplement. In other words, the affirmative transformation of the philosophical cannot simply oppose its negation, nor simply add to it, without remaining caught within its opposition (the “simple extension” of (human) rights to animals, for example, only succeeds in further effacing difference whilst resituating the founding “without relation”). By contrast, another thinking demands instead the radical transformation of what exists already. It requires, therefore, an inventive rewriting or re-placing – by way of thinking the difference of difference – of the originary “with” marked and subsequently effaced in the positing of the without relation. In this way, argues Benjamin, “admitting” the animal into the philosophical, insofar as it reintroduces “an element whose exclusion was often taken to be foundational” (p.19), necessarily transforms the philosophical. Such a transformation, in other words, takes place in placing in abeyance the work of such sites of closure in attending instead to the originary presence of an insistent particularity which opens up to forms of relationality no longer constituted by the work of figures.

Here we begin to understand the centrality of the conjunction of “the animal” and “the Jew,” not only within this project, but also to a thinking which seeks to transform normative configurations of race, gender and sexuality more generally. Just as thinking the differences of singular difference insists that we do not remain unaware as to “the role of the animal within the history of philosophy and the positioning of the animal within a relation between universal and particular that resulted in the animal being essentialised […] and excluded in the name of human being” (p.10), the injunction of this thinking follows for every such essentialising exclusion, for all such work of figures. Hence, Benjamin affirms, such a reintroduction of relationality, which thus transforms the concepts and categories of philosophy itself, “can be reiterated in terms that would give a role of comparable significance to the logic of the synagogue” (p.185). This logic, explored throughout the second half of the book, refers to the figuring of the “Old Testament” (and thus the Jew) as blind to the truth it carries, a truth which only the “New Testament” can instantiate. As a result, “the exclusion of the Jews is fundamental to the operation of the very Christianity that they are taken to have enabled” (p.140). “The Jew,” like “the animal,” thus has to be included in order to be excluded. More than this, however, these two figures actually “work in tandem” (p.187), articulating each other insofar as they are both figures of that which is excluded but retained in the positing of a singular relation which effaces the pre-existing complex of relations.

Hence, what Benjamin seeks is a way of thinking relationality which would be just to particularity, with the latter understood as that which exists already but which “cannot be assimilated to a generalised and abstract sense of alterity” (p.191). Always more than the other to the Same – whether that Other be “the animal” or “the Jew” – particularity is that which exceeds every positing of the without relation. Outside of its opposition therefore, particularity introduces “a further determination of alterity […] characterised as existing without relation to the process of universality (and yet necessitated in order that there be universality)” (p.144).

To demonstrate this “outside” of alterity, Benjamin turns to the figure of the Jew as it functions firstly in the texts of Hegel, and then in an overlooked pairing of fragments – a pairing overlooked by Derrida above all – from Pascal’s Pensées. For Hegel, Benjamin writes, totality requires the elimination of the aberrant particular, figured by “the Jew” as a disease which must be effaced in being incorporated within the universalising conception of human being, and yet which, as “the mark of an insistent particularity” (p.105), nonetheless remains inassimilable – the nonhuman within the body of the State. In this way, “the Jew” thus comes to be doubled, split between the “good” assimilable and the “bad” inassimilable or, in Pascal’s words, between those who have “Christian feelings” and those others who possess “pagan feelings” (cit. p.143).

Nevertheless, it is this doubling of alterity which opens to the doubling of force. A doubling which, in its relation to actuality, potentiality, and justice – alluded to previously by way of canine indifference –, is central to Benjamin’s philosophical intervention. There is, on the one hand, the immediacy of force demanded by the presence of an aberrant – “inassimilable” – particularity and, on the other, force as the capacity to act justly, a force which, insofar as it remains always independent of its actualisation, therefore inscribes potentiality within justice itself. While it is impossible here to reproduce the intricacy of Benjamin’s argument, one which aligns the place of judgement with the force of potentiality, one can, in a very schematic fashion, say that the undetermined force of justice must displace the violence of an unthinking immediacy, a displacement which thus reintroduces “time, place and space within the relation between justice and force” (p.144). In this way, the “timing of judgment” thus continually holds opens the space and place of justice, so as to maintain – at the levels of both the philosophical and the sociopolitical – particularities “as sites of conflict and thus within terms they set and create to hold to the necessity that particularities have their own sense of self-transformation” (p.146).

In so doing, argues Benjamin, one is being just to particularity, and he offers as an example of such a holding open of justice nothing less than a new practice of portraiture. Having located the Christian/pagan doubling of the Jew in paintings by both Albrecht Dürer and the School of van Eyck, Benjamin makes clear the contrast between, on the one hand, the faces of those Jews who figure, in their generalised alterity, the logic of the synogogue and, on the other, the “other’s face” of the inassimilable, and thus aberrant and untouchable Jew. Distorted and deformed, it is this “other’s face” which – “unable to be assimilated and thus […] positioned beyond conversion” (p.161) – opens up the potential of a new portraiture which seeks to affirm, rather than to recover, such sites. As such, this affirmation of sites marked by what Benjamin terms an “original tear” would in turn “yield a site where the tear was an opening to questions, both ethical and political, that the work staged” (p.172).

In order to maintain such sites of combat, it is first of all necessary, Benjamin says, to trace the ways that the imposition of singular identity via the work of figures, despite being external to the beings so identified, nonetheless constrains both the life and the identity of that group. Secondly, it is equally important to identify the failure of certain philosophical positions to engage with the figure, precisely as a result of an inability to think “an inaugurating sense of particularity” (p.185). In this latter category, for example, Benjamin offers an important critique of the undifferentiated ontology presupposed by Giorgio Agamben’s notion of “bare life,” a notion which in fact erases the specific functioning of power by refusing “a relation of porosity and negotiation defining self/other and animal/human relations” (p.125).

Furthermore, this double critique in turn discloses a politics. In deconstructing the external imposition of the without relation, one opens instead the space of negotiation that is rather an internal conflict over identity. As one possible combative strategy, Benjamin thus proposes a potentially transformative “micro-essentialism” which, rather than posing modes of equivalence, posits instead multiple determinations which serve to extend relationality. While such micro-positions generally attempt to pose a univocal conception of identity, they nevertheless contrast with the essentialism of the work of figures insofar as they take place as part of an internal (re)negotiation of identity.

Equally important, is that such a politics can no longer be preserved as the proper of the human. Returning to the figures and the particulars of those dogs with which we began, the timely radicality of Benjamin’s gesture resides above all within the “founding tear” announcing a co-presence which opens a space of negotiation between the human and the animal. Benjamin locates this particular justice in the relay between the dogs of Turner and di Cosimo. In the former, a “tear” interrupts the otherwise unthought figure of the iconographic “loyal animal,” announcing itself in the latter as a co-presence which necessarily exceeds the figure: “The complementarity between the two emerges because this co-presence is there in the continuity of a coming into relation, a process that had been occasioned by the tear” (p.183). Turner’s watercolour, in other words, stages an already existent relation that suggests “a form of finitude” which both occasions, and is continuous with, the staging by di Cosimo of the absence of existing relation, gesturing therefore towards relations “understood purely in terms of potentiality” (p.184).

The consequences of all this cannot be exaggerated. Given the primordial relatedness of Benjamin’s differential ontology, not only are identities after-effects, but so too is particularity insofar as it is has as its condition an informal network of relations. Hence, “integral to human being [is] the continuity of living with an unending and self-constituting relation to an affective quality that can only ever be a site of negotiation rather than a site of exclusion” (p.107). As a result, what the suspension of the site of exclusion – of the without relation – gives is a relationality which necessarily extends beyond those which obtain solely between human animals. Beyond the without relation, there are instead relations of dependence between and within species which, insofar as all living beings are defined as networks of relations, thus offers neither essence nor primacy to the human. Instead, being just to particularities necessarily involves “the recognition that the interplay between human being, human animality and non-human animals involves divisions that are both porous and infinitely negotiable” (p.188). Indeed, although Benjamin does not say so explicitly (and which thus marks a direction which remains to be explored), nor can this stop at nonhuman animals, requiring instead the further exploration of such deformed and aberrant particularities as those which inevitably exceed, for example, the singular oppositional relations of “life” and “dead matter” and of the organic and the inorganic. Here, moreover, the ecological aspect of Benjamin’s philosophy – ecology being understood as a “network of non-intentional but nonetheless interdependent relations” (p.188) – comes more radically to the fore. In suspending the exclusive working of figures, the opening of negotiation marks nothing less than potentiality itself.

 

1. Jacques Derrida, “The Transcendental ‘Stupidity’ (‘Bêtise’) of Man and the Becoming-Animal According to Deleuze” in Derrida, Deleuze, Psychoanalysis, ed. Gabriele Schwab (NY: Columbia University Press, 2007), pp.35-60 (p.59).

2. Elisabeth de Fontenay, Le silence des bêtes: La philosophie à l’épreuve de l’animalité (Paris: Fayard, 1998), p.525.

 


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