Thursday, March 07, 2013

Tom Tyler's Ciferae and the Coming of Homo nocturnus


What students know reviewers know too: no book is harder to read than the one you've been assigned. Lifetimes ago--though not my own, not yet--I agreed to review Tom Tyler's Ciferae: A Bestiary in Five Fingers. Best intentions and all that, but I've just now finished reading it, and I'm going to rough out bits of my review here, for you.

Tyler builds his title from "cipher," a code or a zero, which derives from from the medieval Latin cifra. Signs are what animals have tended to be for philosophy; they're brought in as examples, to point, and then, like any code, to be forgotten. To give way. To become zero. But Tyler insists on animal signs that won't yield, which distort our plural cifrae with an extra, stuttering, wild syllable so that -frae becomes ferae (41-45).

An Octopus and a Snake
Tyler gives us an exact count of these interrupting animals: .CI. FERAE. Whenever Tyler or one of the thinkers he takes in hand speaks of an animal, Tyler bolds it, and gives space in the margins for a picture and a bit of associated text to let the octopus or the snake or the whatever do its thing. He does this 101 times. The associated text--maybe an old encyclopedia entry, modern natural history, a bit of poetry--may relate directly to the main line of discussion; mostly, however, it doesn't, deliberately so. And if animals play in the body text, they do so not cipherously but indexically, in which their particular beings mean and matter irreducibly (32-33, 67-68). There's a life outside the sign that Tyler doesn't presume to exhaust. Bravo! It makes for a generous and beautiful book. Make sure to get your own original copy in meatspace.

Very briefly, Tyler explores three epistemologies: realism, relativism, and pragmatism. For each, he asks whether we're doomed, whatever our approach, to give the same answer Oedipus gave the Sphinx (165). Will these three epistemologies always lead us back to "man"? In parallel, Tyler considers what animals have been made to do by epistemologicians and their various anthropocentrisms, and he frees more than a few from faulty lineages and bad reading: Buridan's ass, never mentioned by Buridan, 25; Darwin's finches, far less important to Darwin than his domestic pigeons (199); and Clever Hans, not a fraud at all but rather a brilliant reader of "the attitudes and behaviors of those around him" (56).

Over the course of the book, we encounter the similar assertions of Heidegger and Bataille that nonhumans cannot have knowledge of the world's distinctiveness and (paradoxically?) that nonhuman worlds remain completely inaccessible to us. We have Kant's epistemological relativism, certain of the existence of stuff out there (134), but also that all we have access to are our representations of it; and we have the more radical relativism of Whorf, for whom language makes all concepts, space and time included (152). Though he finds fault with each, as is the habit of critical animal theorists (me included), Tyler finally finds room for a nonanthropocentric form of each epistemology. His great ally, frequently called upon, is Nietzsche.

In the last chapters, Tyler finally aims at something beyond relativism, and, more so, beyond representationalism. He pragmatically follows a truth as a practice (202, 209), no longer worried with defending the human particularity of "knowledge" (208) or the necessity or impossibility of the fit between knowledge and the world. We follow the later Nietzsche's call for multiplying perspectives to find a way towards better survival, a more homely, lively, and attainable goal than that old fraud, truth (168); Foucault in making a new we by making new questions (214, via "Who Are You, Professor Foucault?", and 260); and Derrida by calling for a new, non-anthropocentric self-image, what I've called a "more expansive narcissism"; and Protagoras's "pragmatic perspectivism" in which anything, man included, might be the measure of all things, and each thing--"horses, oxen, dogs, and even trees" (264)--might have its own particular good. Manumitted (264-65) from mere humanity, here is one of Tyler's last roosts, where he rests, freed of the jesses that tether him to lonely humanity and human mastery.

A sample of where Tyler takes us:
The politics of adjectives and articles requires that the being inclined to see itself as human pay due care and attention to the parts of speech employed in claims to self-identity. Whereas the substantive is liable to define and delimit, the adjective permits a more inclusive multiplicity of relations. One might choose, then, to acknowledge one's animal being rather than to be an animal, to see oneself as mammalian rather than as a mammal, to prefer ein äffisches Leben (an apish life) or Affentum (ape existence) to "a life as ape," and perhaps, even, to be human rather than a human being. Whereas the substantive tends to domesticate and foreclose, the adjective leaves open the possibilities both of an itinerant meander down the unbroken lineage of an evolutionary past and of an unruly roam, a wandering hither and thither, across a heteroclite expanse of untamed identities. (258)
"Fuck! This is good!"
Here, then, is visual evidence of my love for this book. And here, too, a proposal for an alternate ending, offered as a fan and, I suspect, with Tyler's invitation to keep adding to his catalog of 101.

( (And here my confession that I haven't yet found words for Tyler's five-chapter dance across our 4 fingers to the thumb, the hand of the hand. His sixth, very short chapter is, of course, a CODA, a tail.))

Tyler's thumb chapter dissolves what Richard Dawkins decried as "the discontinuous mind," certain of the gaps or even abyssal differences between categories, most notably, between humans and nonhumans, particularly humans and apes. Here Tyler points to Linnaeus's dubious and embarrassed efforts "to distinguish between Man and Ape" (qtd 251), and to the varieties of homo in the 10th edition of Linnaeus's Systema Naturae (1758). One is Homo nocturnus:
Corpus album, incessu erectum, nostra dimidio minus, Pili albi, contortuplicati. Oculi orbiculati: iridi pupillaque aurea. Palpebrae antice incumbentes cum Membrana nictitante. Visus lateralis, nocturnus. Aetas XXV annorum. Die caecutit, latet; Noctu videt, exit, furatur. Loquitur sibilo; Cogitat, credit sui causa factam tellurem, se aliquando iterum fore imperantem, si fides peregrinatoribus. (24; and tell me about that handwritten note in that scan -- is that Swedish? Could that be Linnaeus's own handwriting?)
Body white, walks erect, less than half our size. Hair white, frizzled. Eyes orbicular: iris and pupils golden. Eyelids lying before a film that covers the eye. Vision lateral, nocturnal. Lifespan 25 years. By day blind, and hides; by night, it sees, goes out, forages. Speaks in a hiss. Thinks, believes that the earth was made for it, and that sometime it will be master again, if we may believe the travelers. (translation qtd. by Tyler, 251, from Morris and Morris, Men and Apes, 134-35, here completed and slightly corrected--I hope accurately--by me)
Lord Monboddo saved us the trouble of wallowing deeper into debates about how Linnaeus got orangutans so wrong. (edit: or whatever this is! I love the mystery) I'm more interested to imagine what it would mean to yield to Homo nocturnus, to await the arrival of their simia quondam futurusque, and to let this place be the planet of (some other) apes, or something else altogether, small, pale, and hissing, a creature of the night we abhor, rightly certain they belong here as much as we do. I for one welcome our new feral overlords. What a monster! What strange eyes! What would happen if I allowed myself a home in my homo for it?

Once again, I'm lingering in my antisocial critical animal theory, trying to see where we might go or be taken with something between human persistence and extinction (does the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement autocomplete in your browser?), and something other than a just getting along with. And once again, I'm playing around with what it means to call on humans to give up so much of what they've been defending for so long. Apart from writing books, what do we critical animal theorists want?


Kári said...

I initially posted this comment on facebook, but Karl asked me to post it here instead, so here it is:
The handwritten note is about orangoutangs. It is indeed in Swedish, might be a translation of what's underneath, or a commentary.

Apologies in advance for errors in transcription and/or translation. I'm not a paleographer and I don't (really) speak Swedish, so caveat lector.


Simia Satyrus, Jocks et Pongo Bugon tros wara densamme som Troglodytes eller Orang-Outang
Till Europa förde Orang-Outangs, hafwa alla warit unga och förmodeligen Satyri barn, warit ganska läragtige men Melancholiske och dödt innom året, ehura människolike, hafwad ock ei lärdt tala, Tyson och Cowper hafwa examinerat dem ut- och inwärtes på det nogste.
Kallas Pongo I Africa och berättas 3 a 3½ aln höga och starka I proportion, bortföra flick-or åt skogen, fördrifwa med påkar Elephanterne från sina Samhällen, gå raka på 2 fötter.

Rough translation:

Simia Satyrus, Jocks[?] et Pongo Bugon[?] thought to be the same as Troglodytes or Orang-Outang.
Orang-Outangs that have been brought to Europe have all been young and presumably Satyri children, quite docile but melancholic and died within a year, uncannily man-like, nor have they learnt to speak, Tyson and Cowper have examined them internally and externally in great detail.
Called Pongo in Africa and said to be 3 to 3½ cubits tall and strong in proportion, to abduct girls into the woods, drive away elephants from their societies with drums, walk upright on 2 feet.

Karl Steel said...

Thanks Kári! Brilliant help here.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks for this, Karl. I haven't read Ciferae yet because I am afraid of losing a week of my life to it once I open the book. In fact I haven't even purchased it yet, knowing that I will some day, and that when I do I won;t have the self control to leave it long unopened.

Can you say something about the subtitle? I glean that hands and handedness mean something essential about POV (even as the coda will leave that figure behind); and am also guessing that manumission ("sending forth from the hand") is going to figure importantly, as you say, as a going forth from humanity. But how? Something I think about sometimes, in fact whenever I glimpse a starfish: a starfish is the five pointed human figure, and a hand is a starfish as well, so maybe even the hand is the human is small but the animal in shared form. Opposable thumbs are supposed to make all the difference but what happens when we think of the hand as transporting aquatic modes of dwelling to land, or the hand as a smaller animal extended from the larger composite?