Monday, March 14, 2011

Animal Vegetable Mineral: 20 questions

by Jonathan Gil Harris

[The following remarks were delivered by J. Gil Harris at the conclusion of the AVMEO conference (3/11/2011, Washington DC). They are cross-posted from the GW MEMSI blog and are offered as a provocation to further discussion. Please add your answers, observations, and comments!]

Animal, Vegetable, Mineral.  If this conference’s theme sounds like a pre-modern version of the parlor game “Twenty Questions,” it is perhaps only appropriate that my response should also take the form of twenty questions.  The parlor game’s questions seek to arrive through processes of elimination and guesswork at a positive individual entity; but I hope my questions will do the opposite – that is, resist the allure of any singular or final answer to what constitutes the “Nonhuman Lives” of our conference.

So here goes.
  1. What do we mean by the “nonhuman” in medieval and early modern culture?

  1. Are we dealing (as the Animal Vegetable Mineral parlor game does) with taxonomies of the natural world that presume, as did Linnaeus in his Systema Naturae of 1735, the exteriority of the nonhuman to the human?

  1. Is the nonhuman itself subdivided according to this principle of absolute exteriority, which would make of animal, vegetable, and mineral entirely discrete entities?

  1. Or did medieval and early modern writers see the nonhuman as always already in the human – and, by logical extension, the mineral in the vegetable, the vegetable in the animal, and so on?

  1. What do we mean by the “life” of animals, vegetables, and minerals in the medieval and early modern worlds?

  1. As Laurie Shannon has noted, writers in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance tend not to speak of “life” but of “lives.”  This plural form certainly appeals to those of us who wish to resist making of “life” a universal abstract exchange value.  But what exactly do we pluralize when we speak of “lives” rather than “life” – singular living entities, individual conceptions of “life,” otherwise homogeneous taxonomic categories?

  1. How might the phrase “nonhuman lives” potentally reify even as it admirably pluralizes the “nonhuman”?

  1. What critical idiolects do we invoke when we refer to “nonhuman lives”?

  1. “Nonhuman lives” might tap into the language of biopolitics, famously codified by Xavier Bichat, who in 1800 characterized life as “a habitual succession of assimilation and excretion.”  Bichat’s conception of life draws loosely on Aristotle’s conception of nutritive life as diminished in relation to higher forms of animal and human life.  And this distinction itself resonates with the well-known Greek hierarchy of zoe – or bare life – and bios – or life proper to the polis, an ordering that Giorgio Agamben sees as crucial to the crypto-theological constitution of modernity.  How may “lives” in the plural implicitly presume a distinction between the meaningful and the negligible life?

  1. “Nonhuman lives” might also suggest Arjun Appadurai and Igor Kopytoff’s influential conceptions of object biographies as they move from one arena of valuation to another.  Are “lives,” then, diachronic extensions through space and time of individual entities – like Eleanor of Acquitaine’s vase and Emperor Frederick’s exotic animals (as discussed by Sharon Kinoshita) – or of entity-producing practices (as in Carla Nappi’s account of cotton-ification and China-fication?)

  1. “Nonhuman lives” might presume less diachronic extension through time than forms of agency.  Drawing on Jane Bennett’s accounts of vibrant matter and the hoard, we can think of nonhuman things as participants in the course of action waiting to be given a figuration, communicating with other actants.  Things, in Bennett’s words, call us.  But if things call, will we come?

  1. What do all these understandings of nonhuman lives do to our conceptions of time, chronology and period, including the very terms “medieval” and “early modern”?

  1. Diamonds are forever, the saying goes.  The geological time that compresses carbon into adamant and eventually a diamond crystal is almost inconceivably long; the millions of years that it takes to produce a diamond make our conception of period, or even Fernand Braudel’s longue duree, seem impossibly short.  As Manuel De Landa notes in his discussion of non-organic life in A Thousand Years of Non-Linear History, periods are simply local strata in larger “glacial” temporalities that include the flows of lava, biomass, genes, memes, norms.  And yet our restratifications of those flows do possess a historicity according to specific logics of production.  Diamonds are forever, but the social life of the blood diamond that comes from modern Sierra Leone differs from that of the bloody diamond that comes from Sir John Mandeville’s medieval India, retrieved by a swooping eagle from the bottom of a canyon on a slab of animal meat thrown by the eagle’s handler.  Each presumes different modes of supply, labor, exchange, and even imaginative possibility.  How, then, do nonhuman lives ask us both to dispense with human history and to recognize the impossibility of doing so?

  1. How do the terms “nonhuman” and “lives” invite us to think of their nominal opposites?

  1. Death may seem to be the opposite of, and excluded from, life.  Yet in medieval and early modern theology all living matter was potentially considered dead.  This wholesale mortification was resisted in various vitalist traditions, which understood seemingly dead matter as heterodox forms of sublunary life possessed of “virtue,” as Valerie Allen’s discussion of Albertus Magnus reminded us.  And, as Karl Steel pointed out, the phrase “dead matter” presumes that it must have once been alive for it to die.  How, then, should we understand death in relation to nonhuman lives?

  1. The nonhuman would seem to presume the human.  What is the status of the human once the nonhuman becomes an object of analysis?

  1. Thomas Nagel advocates that humans should imaginatively attempt to become the bat they cannot be; the Renaissance poet George Vaughan asks his readers to acknowledge the vital vegetal life that we all possess; Geoffrey Chaucer, as Kellie Robertson reminded us, imagined himself as iron between two magnets.  Are such imaginative acts of becoming-nonhuman antihumanist, posthumanist, neohumanist?

  1. Lupine/sylvan children (Karl Steel); petromorphic prosopopoeia (Kellie Robertson); anthropofloral hospitality (Peggy McCracken); co-implicated interdependence/astral projection (Eileen A. Joy); sheepish sidetracks (Julian Yates).  What are the ethics of such nonhuman becomings?

  1. Heinrich Nolle has suggested that “humans ape plants.”  More specifically, we have seen maidens ape flowers in Peggy McCracken’s paper.  What happens – as the syntax of Nolle’s phrase invites us to do – when we start thinking of humans and nonhumans in terms of networks (or meshes, to use Timothy Morton’s term) that conjoin multiple actants?

  1. Take the Bezoar stone.  Edmund Scott certainly did.  In his 1603 treatise An Exact Discourse … of the East Indians, Scott refers to the Bezoar stone as one of the most hotly coveted commodities in Java.  This seeming mineral was of unusual provenance: it was a carbuncle excised from the intestine of an animal, usually a goat, and was believed to be caused by eating too much persimmon fruit.  The Bezoar stone was believed also to possess miraculous medicinal powers: it was traditionally ingested by the European traveler to combat the noxious effects of the pathogenic vapors she inhaled in the hot and humid climate of Java. So what is the Bezoar stone, and what are its lives – Animal, Vegetable, Mineral …



Jonathan Gil said...

Because I wrote many of these questions on the fly at the conference other, perhaps more compelling, questions that have taken me a couple of days to formulate didn't get raised here.

I'm thinking in particular now about Jane Bennett's discussion of hoarded objects, and how these might have a unique power to call us. I'm seeing resonances between Jane's talk and Eileen's compelling vision of a universe in which nothing leaves, and therefore nothing is lost. This is, in effect, a cosmology of the universe as hoard. But I also wonder about how much the call of things in such a universe is really a prosopoeia born of our desire, like that of Kathy Bates's character in "Misery," not to let go, or, like that of Norman Bates in "Psycho," to speak for and as the dead. Is the universe as hoard a Bates-and-switch? What room does it leave for us to hear the call of things that haven't been captured or stilled - evanescent things, speeding things, exploding things, shifting techtonic plates and their radically deterritorializing assemblages, tsunamis - and things that move into non-transcendent places where they can no longer be found, known, remembered?

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

The most ambitious part of me wants to answer each of Gil's questions in order, but the exhausted other parts insist I refrain. For the time being I will mention that one question in particular seemed quietly to me to limn the conference: "How do the terms “nonhuman” and “lives” invite us to think of their nominal opposites?"

We all knew that there had been a catastrophic tsunami in Japan, that thousands had lost their lives, and many many more lost everything they own. When Eileen invoked the tsunami during her plenary, I asked how we properly mourn within a vibrant materialism, which tends toward the positive, aesthetically pleasing and affirmative (though not exclusively, as anyone who has read the "Life of Metals" chapter of Vibrant Matter knows). Eileen also invoked a sentence from Whitehead of which she is justifiably fond, a statement in which he builds upon Heraclitus's "everything flows" (ta panta rhei) as the fundamental metaphysical problem. Or as Whitehead also put it "the flux of things is one ultimate generalization around which we must weave our philosophical system." (Sorry Eileen I can't remember your exact quote.)

So what do we do when that flow is lethal? The internet is full of video of the tsunami (eg) in which human-made objects that used to seem substantial (cars, trucks, sailing vessels, houses, stores) are pushed along by the relentless black waters, perversely animated objects that are whirled and crushed by a deadly -- or, let's face it -- utterly indifferent flow. We can't think about these objects separately from the those who made them, those who dwelt within them (and drowned or were crushed when the waters overcame them), those whose livelihoods depended upon them.

I do believe that the aspiration of vital materialism and even actor network theory is a more just, more ethical world. What does thinking critically and communally about animals, vegetables and minerals have to offer when faced by catastrophe?

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Here is a better link to that video, embedded with two links to donation sites.

Karl Steel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Karl Steel said...

Lateral response to some of what JGH says:
"Eileen's vision of a universe in which nothing leaves, and therefore nothing is lost."
I heard this as paraphrase of the laws of conservation of matter and energy. We might also think of 'energy' as (matter) memory.

But contra conservation, and in re: 'nothing leaving': see hypotheses of multiverses and black holes as ejector sites for other universes, not all of which play by the same physical rules of our universe. The Platonic self-containing self-identical anal ball of the universe is a model that we should be prepared to abandon. Here as elsewhere math may know more than we do (Badiou).

Finally (and disjointedly), I think less about the worry of my not hearing and more about the wonder of an OOO world in which things call to each other all the time, each hearing what its unwelt allows, each being touched by what its umwelt allows (per Radiolab, again: "sound is touch at a distance," but per Harman or Morton, there is NO touch at a distance: all touch is immediate, or, if not immediate, then in the midst of a new object created by contact between a real and sensual object). Here the hoarder is the model of the OO philosopher, someone aware of the interactions (ANT) or inter-relations (OOO) of nonhuman others, someone wanting not to let these interactions or inter-relations slip from them, which is, I think, what Bennett was getting at.

Karl Steel said...

I do believe that the aspiration of vital materialism and even actor network theory is a more just, more ethical world. What does thinking critically and communally about animals, vegetables and minerals have to offer when faced by catastrophe?

And, as you know Jeffrey, what does VM, ANT, or OOO give us for any particular ethical concern. Why should I care in particular about these arrangements of stuff? If I see things at another speed (sped up or slowed down from my human time), then will any of what seems to be catastrophe even register? Are all ethical stances always necessarily parochial?

And here I obviously need to read Émilie Hache and Bruno Latour (warning PDF).

Jonathan Gil said...

(And because Karl has diligently reposted his excellent response to my post, I must repost my response to his response:)

Love it! Ejector black holes mean that excretory immanence = the new transcendence?

Jonathan Gil said...

I like the idea of the inescapable parochialism of catastrophe. At micro- and macro-levels that our ethical as much as physiological senses do not routinely grasp, catastrophes are always unfolding. Is there a (nonhuman) community of actants that sheds (nonhuman) tears every time the vast bacteria colonies on our elbows -- referenced by both Karl and Jane in their plenary talks -- get decimated by our morning showers?

Karl Steel said...

JGH: exactly.

In related news, see here

Eileen Joy said...

Gil asked us such a rich set of questions at the closing of the conference, and the commentary here is very rich. As Jeffrey noted, we're all likely too exhausted to go through ALL of Gil's questions [many books have already been written on some of them]. As to the question, implicit [I think] in several of Gil's question--

what do we mean by "life"?

--I think one [longer] response to that must be Eugene Thacker's recent book "After Life," where his project is partly to to raise the "challenge of thinking a concept of life that is foundationally, and not incidentally, a nonhuman or unhuman concept of life," and where he spends most of his time excavating philosophies of life from Aristotle to Aquinas to Kant to Deleuze to Bataille to Badiou [with many philosophical pit-stops in between]. Thacker is trying [I think] to make the argument that thinking upon "life" and the history of thought itself [at least, within a certain Western tradition] have historically been so inextricably entwined as to be difficult to think apart from each other, and therefore the idea of "life" itself has actually limited thinking itself [in different ways in different "eras" of thought]--amazing argument, actually. Can we think "life" outside a certain tradition of "thought"? would be another question, then, to add to Gil's other questions.

As to Karl's nods to theories about multi-verses and worlds being "ejected" from black holes [or in my example in DC, being "projected" out of them], I still maintain [I guess, following Timothy Morton, who does a lot of reading in physics, too] that there is only one "universe" whose totality is impossible to grasp. So, for me, black holes and whatever is *in* them or comes *out* of them, is still all folded together--if anything were truly "somewhere else" and completely non-contiguous with "here," then how would we think that? How do you get from "here" to "over there" [even mathematically]?

As to Gil's provocative comment here, too, about the tears possibly shed after each morning's shower for all of the lost microbes, as funny as that is, it does raise really interesting questions about the function of mourning/grief in human and nonhuman groups/worlds. Without going [maybe] to ridiculous lengths, I sometimes like to think of the humanities as a place that could help us to broaden the ranges of what would "count" as mournable subjects, while at the same time, that very same humanities would increase our capabilities to see the vast absurdities of this world, its innate humor, such that mourning would one day be completely unnecessary.