April 26, 2013
In this twenty-first century, many of the most intriguing deconstructions of human/animal dualism occur in an apartment in the East Village. Here, one half of the infamous radio duo Busso and the Wombat shares meanings, interests and affects (as a friend of ours likes to put it) as part of an experimental multispecies community (comprising, specifically, Homo sapiens and Felis catus). Now, as the internet has taught us, cats are the beginning and end of all things, and they occupy much of the middle space, too. At the Center for Feline Studies of the Avenue B Multi-Studies Center, Busso’s ailourographic investigations chronicle this immanent medium of human-cat interactions with phenomenological mindfulness and Chicago School rigour.
Of course, their resistance to performance is demonstrative in itself.
December 25, 2012
My sainted middle-namesake continued his undeserved generosity to my book-cravings, this time with a complete series of symposia on the history of zoological knowledge. Ancients, medievals, moderns; domesticates and exotics; science and rhetoric; Babylon and Mesopotamia; Aristotle and Hildegard; dis- and re-appearances; zoo-archaeology and -ethnology. Next year I will write him a letter asking for time to read them.
December 10, 2012
Today, a CyberChimp interpellated me into new familial, perceptual and behavioural collectivities.
I’ll be sore tomorrow.
November 20, 2012
Issue 76 of New Formations is now out, a themed issue on “The Animals Turn” edited by Wendy Wheeler and Linda Williams.
Among work on life and love, ethics and practice, the Renaissance and modernity, Darwin, Derrida, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, it contains my essay “Animals in Biopolitical Theory: Between Agamben and Negri.”
November 15, 2012
Last night we launched the inaugural issue of Environmental Humanities, a new international, interdisciplinary, open-access journal. Its editors are Deborah Rose, vivifier of morals, and Thom van Dooren, avian entangler. I help make the coffee (and drink the wine). This first issue has essays on Oedipus, agriculture, parasites, burrs, management, seasons, flus, books, and mushrooms.
The website also features two series of interviews with editorial board members. I conducted the first lot about the anthropocene, decentring, and interdisciplinarity. Take a look; things get feisty.
“Once you have started on this binge, fables have a way of dogging your steps—you see the beast in every human, yourself included, and wonder whom you prefer.”
July 30, 2012
Thusly does Fritz Eichenberg introduce his collection of “Fables with a Twist”, the text and intricate woodcuts of which the zoöeschatological disputants pore over with rapt imagination. In the titular tale a meeting of the animals fumes over human oppression and envisions the placement of Homo sapiens on their coat-of-arms. The fall is rewitnessed, the Ark is regretted, power plays out, man is mourned, apocalypses are left behind, the peaceable kingdom is yearned for and mocked, and olden fables are given modern twists which don’t avoid but intensify their morals. “Headlines proclaim: Exploded populations—oceans polluted—wars and genocide—animal kingdom threatened with extinction. … The Lord made a mistake!” (Endangered Species, p. 96) Let us rehabilitate the fabular.
December 26, 2011
“worse than I could even imagine. … it’s a tragedy for the animal world is what it is. But it could have been a bigger tragedy for the human world. … The most magnificent creature in the entire world, the tiger is. … But if you had 18 Bengal tigers and everyone running around these neighborhoods, you folks wouldn’t want to have seen what would have happened.”
Thusly did a suicidal Ohioan amateur zookeeper recently loose his exotic animals on a public media-primed for panic, as if to fulfil the therological dreams of riot observers, and worse, the predictions of overzealous policemen. A tanned man in khaki leapt before the cameras to hyperbolise the threat. An impressive inventory of such beasts as provoke an “Oh my!” became an impressive kill-list and cameos in deputy’s anecdotes. The message is as clear as ever: leave the menageries to the professionals.
The disputants remark how quickly impotent welfare concern becomes shoot-to-kill tyranny when the beasts’ sovereign owner self-sacrifices and wildness is uncaged. Some propose the ironic reading of a passage from Jungle Jack’s autobiography, but the learned gathering declines so as to slow Hediger’s grave-spin. One notes that a viral monkey escaped. They nod and murmur; they have heard that one before.
December 5, 2011
Last weekend I convened a second workshop on the history, philosophy and future of ethology. The first day’s programme weaved anthropology, ecology, ethology, geography, and filmmaking, and culminated with a performance by Undine Sellbach, philosopher and author of the enchanted The Floating Islands, of “A Whirlwind of Insects: Mistress O and the Bees.”
October 9, 2011
Is it normal to have tiny bugs living in my laptop? They emerge whenever I open it and occasionally wander the screen and keys as if looking for the ESC button. I thought of training them to edit my work but more likely they spend their time in the bowels of the machine redacting files and moulding my manuscripts to sinister ends. Still, I can’t bring myself to have at them. Our ecology seems stable enough for now.
August 28, 2011
“the tableau of a world after animality, after a sort of holocaust, a world from which animality, at first present to man, would have one day disappeared: destroyed or annihilated by man …” Thus does Derrida diagnose being without the animal as the deathly real production of a Cartesian methodological fiction. The great zoöeschatological disputation pauses in sombre silence.
June 29, 2011
My report on the Tartu zoosemiotics conference can be found in the latest AASG News Bulletin (pp. 15-16). Previous issues have included reports on Marc Bekoff’s visit (10-11), on my workshop on The History, Philosophy and Future of Ethology (5-7), and on my self (25).
May 19, 2011
Unloved Others has been published as issue 50 of Australian Humanities Review. Edited by leading ecological humanities and extinction studies scholars Deborah Bird Rose and Thom van Dooren, and subtitled Death of the Disregarded in the Time of Extinctions, the collection explores and prompts our responses to marginalised creatures. It contains essays by Anna Tsing, Mick Smith, James Hatley, Kate Rigby, Donna Haraway, Freya Mathews, as well as the editors and myself. My essay is on “The Biopolitics of Endangered Species Preservation”. Pdfs will soon be available, as well as the option of a hard copy volume.
May 10, 2011
March 5, 2011
The Spring 2011 issue of Humanimalia is now online, including my essay “Reversing Extinction: Restoration and Resurrection in the Pleistocene Rewilding Projects” [pdf]. It’s about what happens when you situate wilderness at the threshold of, not European colonisation, but the arrival of Homo sapiens. For example, you attempt to recreate the mammoth steppe ecosystem. If you are a resourceful and inimitable Russian scientist, lack of mammoths isn’t necessarily a problem. Thanks again to Laurel McFadden for allowing the use of her photographs.
February 16, 2011
“I once caught a robin in a room, which fainted so completely, that for a time I thought it dead.”
December 23, 2010
Trembling bodies populate the documentary Kuru: The Science and the Sorcery (dir. Robert Bygott) that screened on SBS on Sunday night. Kuru is a famously mysterious brain disease afflicting the Fore people of the eastern New Guinea highlands, its victims suffering tremors and dementia before inevitable death. Its explanation as a spontaneous, transmissible and long-incubating disease similar to Creutzfeldt-Jakob was one of twentieth-century medicine’s most hunted quarries, and its connections to bovine spongiform encephalopathy (“mad cow”) remain central anxieties of twenty-first-century biopolitics. Thought to be a psychosomatic response to the trauma of colonial contact, an infection, a genetic disorder, dubbed the “laughing death” by media, called a “slow” or “unconventional virus” by science before its agent was controversially given the name of “prion,” and its mode of transmission was identified as cannibalism, this epidemic was a cultural tragedy and the site of fraught exchanges at the frontiers of colonialism and biomedicine.
The documentary prioritises as its central thread the role of Australian doctor Michael Alpers, backgrounding somewhat the pioneering research of Carleton Gajdusek, the conflict of this fascinating American with the Australian administration and scientists, and his subsequent rivalry with the biochemist Stanley Prusiner, both of whom went on to win Nobel Prizes for their discoveries. Their squabbling after fame is contrasted to Alpers’ humility and loyalty to the Fore. If at first Alpers’ original frisson at exotic contact is disclosed, in the end he is accepted as family and devotedly remains with their still declining bodies to see out the waning epidemic.
As often, cannibalism here is a site of border marking and exchange between the human and the nonhuman, the supposedly civilised and primitive, and a powerful metaphor for colonial and capitalist knowledge-practices such as anthropology and medical science. For all that the film empathises with the PNG locals and their banned mortuary rituals, and attempts to undermine western pretensions to superiority, it makes use of a primitivist lure in the cannibalistic practices (“Human flesh tastes very sweet”) and sorcery beliefs (“I can make you shake”) of the Fore. Yet amid interviews and archival footage that entice with these scandals to morality and science, as well as depictions of autopsies and experiments, remote trecks and charts, biological graphics and close-ups on scientific papers, the most striking images are the succession of shaking, laughing kuru victims presented for the doctors and their cameras, touching their noses and attempting to stand, their relatives assisting them and later recollecting the pain of that period. We viewers are screened by our televisions from this troubling spectacle; but we are yet unable to truly immunise our modern lives against contamination by the primitive and the material.
If at first these afflicted natives are distressing yet distant, they are soon joined by less remote similars. We witness the animals who mediate the risk of human prion disease: the veterinary analogies of scrapie sheep, the potential food hazards of staggering cows on farms, and the scientific sacrifices of shaking chimpanzees in laboratories. This procession of fragile bodies culminates with white vCJD patients in urban and clinical settings losing their balance and undergoing coordination and reflex tests just like the exotic natives. It is in the intertwining of these suffering, contaminable persons that the “bond of common humanity” the film urges is most potently forged, even if this common bond and risk is still striated by numerous relentlessly policed boundaries.
As if to provide reality’s endorsement of western taboos and colonial control, it was found that the Fore’s mourning practice of funerary endocannibalism had spread the disease after its single spontaneous origin. As if a prophetic warning against interfering in nature, the mad cows and the humans who ate them were afflicted via the enforced cannibalism of the rationalised meat industry and its recycling of rendered remains. As the documentary’s images progress through suffering creatures—dark-skinned, wooled, mottled, dark-coated, white-skinned—the group of neurological diseases becomes increasingly known but simultaneously more threatening as our food sources are contaminated by intraspecies consumption and an outbreak erupts not at the remote frontier but this time in the centre of civilisation. If the Fore would sometimes respond to kuru attacks with revenge killings of suspected sorcerers, our own reaction to this toxicity in our midst was much more harsh and merciless, as the end of the century saw the large-scale rationalised destruction of millions of only potentially infected cattle.
Yet even as we fiercely protect ourselves against the biomedical peril of vCJD, can we immunise against the symbolic threat of our own cannibalistic behaviour? The documentary closes with mention of recent genetic studies that suggest that “we were cannibals ourselves” in the ancient human past. Yet however salacious, this universalisation of cannibalism as original sin can be easily endured in its temporal distance that once more relegates the Fore to prehistory. As much as it taints our ancestry it affirms our advancement. We must instead tie this inner threat to the exocannibalism of colonial culture and economy and the tautological capitalist biopolitics of rendering. The film shows the desire of Alpers and the Fore, as much as they are still dealing with kuru, to get on with the task of living in common. Our own globalised, postcolonial condition is such that our insulated lives are ever more threatened with the recycling of misfolded proteins and with intercorporeal leaking in general. Against this contagion we wield all our habitual sorceries.
December 7, 2010
The Fioretti tells of how St Francis becalmed a wolf that had terrorised the townsfolk of Gubbio. He braved wild territory and commanded the beast’s jaws close: “Having listened to these words, the wolf bowed his head, and, by the movements of his body, his tail, and his eyes, made signs that he agreed to what St Francis said.” Today’s most renowned interpreter of such signs is cognitive ethologist Marc Bekoff. In lieu of the saintly boldness that made animals so immediately transparent and amenable to his Assisian precursor, he has spent decades analysing and unraveling the alien yet explicable intricacies of their behaviour, cognition and emotion. We were blessed to have Marc launch our Animals and Society research group on Friday with a casual lunch, an intense masterclass, and a impassioned if near-fatigued lecture. A couple of people remarked on the auratic charisma of his performance. In his late career activist role, he cheerfully wanders the world, preaching the news of interspecies connectivity and the ethical consequences that follow. A symposium in Zygon has explored areas of overlap with animism and theology; but a spirituality infuses not only his ideas but his character and example as well. His powerpoint full of friendly and wary encounters with wild beasts resembled nothing so much as a medieval saintly life. His humble demeanour demonstrated the empathy he insists is necessary to truthful experimental observation of the ensouled sentience of our nonhuman kin. A scientific fabulist, he shamed human failings with lively examples of animal cleverness and sociability. He believes wholeheartedly in creaturely goodness, and works tirelessly towards a peaceable kingdom where we no longer take part in cruelty between species. While not so quick as his forebear to demonise predation, he is a similar peacemaker between humans, their domesticated canids, and the latter’s wild cousins, a leading exemplar and enricher of secular Franciscan virtue.
November 2, 2010
“The most common manifestation of sexual desire among birds takes the form of strange posturings which are, in some species, enormously exaggerated by the display of vividly coloured frills, tufts, or other conspicuous modifications of the normal plumage.” (W. P. Pycraft, The Courtship of Animals, p. 95)
Ignore the profiglate gambling, the venerated pedigrees, the frenzied whipping of the galloping beasts – horse racing is all about the fascinators.
One might be inclined to suggest that I’m fascinating enough without having to resort to such garish ornament. I’m flattered. But let us be careful not to succumb to the common iconoclastic morality that would condemn such displays of artifice, or confine them only to the feminine sex (at least among Men, uniquely against Nature). Let it not be said that I possess some natural quality it would be deceitful to envelop. Had I the opportunity, my head would be likewise adorned with exquisite fabrication – like so, perhaps:
Modest and elegant, wouldn’t you say? Of course, our flighty superiors perfected such ceremony long ago.
“If we find animals appealing and seductive, it is because they remind us of this ritual arrangement. They do not evoke a nostalgia for the savage state, but a feline, theatrical nostalgia for finery, for the seduction and strategy of ritual forms which transcend all sociality and which, thereby, still enchant us.” (Jean Baudrillard, Seduction, p. 90)