This is the first of my blog posts from the Nonhuman Turn conference. These will be uploaded as they come over the next two and a half days. Special thanks to the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee for making this as easy as it is, and to Mary Mullen for making sure it is that way.
I arrived at the conference site not a moment too soon: the nonhuman rain (“like a monsoon,” someone just said) began pouring down almost as I stepped into the building. Milwaukee looked lovely through the window of the cab from the airport: all green and breathy with that pre-rain anticipation. I used to visit it a lot when I lived and taught in Oshkosh (ten years ago), but I don’t remember it being as green as this or having so many beaches up the lake.
We’re starting a few minutes late, with a capacity crowd in this auditorium (about 75 people, I’d say, though I expect others will come later and it may become standing-room only). Exciting for a gathering of philosophers, cultural theorists, eco-theorists, and animal studies folks.
Installation art and ambient sounds and images surround us.
Richard Grusin (Director, Center for 21st Century Studies) is offering welcoming and comments and thanks to the people who have brought this thing together.
Here goes… All errors are my own; all brilliant ideas are someone else’s. Double-check everything with the authors/speakers if you care to make use of these ideas for your own thinking (and to credit them appropriately).
Brian Massumi, “Animality and Abstraction”
Bergson: “Instinct is sympathy. If this sympathy could extend… it would give us the key to vital principles…”?
Raymond Ruyer (philosopher of science, regular reference in this talk): Primary consciousness is one with life, but at a level prior to the emergence of discrete objects. This talk will be about the prior synthesis of the object, the pre-objective level.
The consciousness that is one with life is morphogenesis (cf. Deleuze & Guattari). Morphogenesis, in relation to the animal, is about evolution, which in neo-Darwinian terms is about external pressures of selection, “instinct” as an autonomism.
Ethologist Nike Tinbergen noticed that all was not right with this “autonomism” of instinct. Built decoy gull beaks to study triggers of “instinctive” behaviors. Found (to his own dismay and against expectations) that the decoy didn’t do much, so he designed decoys that didn’t look like herring gull beaks at all. Tinbergen recognized that instinct snubs good form in the direction of “supernormal stimuli.” E.g., high-contrast red worked best as a signal, but wasn’t essential. An “intensification effect” was key.
“Supernormal” connotes the plasticity of natural limits, disrespect of “good form,” a transformational movement pushing animal experience to exceed its normal bounds. “Supernormal dynamism” is better term. “Trigger” should also be questioned; it’s not something external, but an immanent experiential excess by which variation surpasses itself. What’s at stake is not resemblance to a specific schema (an isolatable stimulus corresponding to a model); rather, red as stimulus is bound to contrast. Plasticity of the situation is bound to complexity; collective co-variation; no reliable background any more than there is a fixed figure standing out against it. “Such relational/configurational stimuli seem to be the rule rather than the exception,” Tinberger wrote.
Co-variant linkage between qualities in immediate experiential neighborhood. At most we can discern passages toward plastic limits, consistency (processual self-consistency) rather than gestalt or perceptual form. Ruyer: “auto-conduction.” Unpredictability of instinct. “Hallucinatory” spontaneity (Ruyer); induced improvisation. The stimulus irritates, provokes, stirs; the animal is correlated with accident-rich environment and own internal variation. Environment/milieu imposes external restraints, but instinct responds with improvisation.
Adaptation concerns external relations between animal & environment; improvisation concerns internal relations, co-varying experiential qualities. For D&G and Buyer and Bergson, there is a positive principle of form-generating selection, an immanent power of supernormal invention. Environment preys, animal plays. Instinct is played more than represented (Bergson). Instinctual behavior is “ringed (?) by a fortuitous fringe of improvisation” (Ruyer).
Tendency toward the supernormal is a vector, a positive force, an attractive force that pulls forward from ahead, a force of affective propulsion, not compulsion or impulsion; e.g. cuckoo that feeds the invader. D&G’s ‘desire’ as a force of linkage with transformational tendency.
Creative life of instinct; vital art: a force of mutual instinct is a force of composition. Evolution played upon by creative involution. The human has the same self-animating tendency to supernormality, though we tend to call it “culture” rather than “nature.” We are in a zone of indiscernibility with the animal. When a human assumes its immanent animality, it becomes more itself.
How can instinct effectively contribute to morphogenesis? D&G mince no words: becoming requires “the abolition of metaphor,” creative involution is fully real. Bergson’s qualitative multiplicities: a note of music is perceived in a succession and its belonging to the succession is perceived in it, a relation of mutual inclusion in a neighborhood of immediate processual proximity, mutual inclusion of multiplicity of potential unfoldments. In improvisation the end is not only to be reached, but to be made. D&G’s plane of consistency.
What does a note do when it sounds? It cuts in with advancing determination; … This momentary variation is eliminative, excluding alternative variations, but at each step the plane of consistency is divided until the final note reaching the theme’s terminus. This theme remains as a memic (memory) trace, but other co-potential variants continue to echo. The full multiplicity of the plane of consistency silently reaffirms itself, exerting a quiet force of thematic attraction for musical events to come.
The many become one and are increased by one (Whitehead). The quantum of quality is a particle of becoming (D&G).
Sum up: qualitative logic, principle of movement in the creation of form comes from qualitative side (plane of consistency), and quantitative side which is the plane of organization, the marking of a territory. The becoming of one, the individual, can only be thought as trans-individuality; an infinity of variants and variations acting out gesturally. Instinctive act (and artistic act), the living thing indexes itself to a trans-individual flow of becoming. Von Uexkull’s point-counterpoint (spider web virtually includes the potential of a fly in its form).
Instinct comes back to sympathy; the animal, for Ruyer, is sympathy. Intuition and sympathy are the warp and woof of the animal, to be extended into the depths of matter itself.
Q & A:
Bateson’s essay on play and fantasy is the best thing I (BM) have read on play. Territoriality and play work together: play sets in place a frame with functions, takes advantage of that frame and suspends it; e.g. animal that changes stylistically to comment on its own activity, “I’m biting you (denoting biting) but this is not a bite.” = the motor of evolution, which in the human animal will become language. So language should be talked about in terms of instinct and animality.
Q. about attractors and phase space: how do these phase spaces arise, evolve, dissipate? BM: I like complexity theory, phase space, etc., but if it’s only in energetic terms, the philosophical movement is cut short. Ref. to Simondon, autopoiesis.
Q. about Tinbergen and ontological uses of metaphor: could the beak replica that least resembled the original beak might be a more effective metaphor for the original beak than the ones that resembled it more? BM: hypothetically it’s plausible, but in practice evolutionary sequences are topological transformations. The actual and virtual come together in events; the metaphor hypothesis extracts the virtual to an ideal realm, gives form in advance. The Q for the thinkers I’m interest in is how form emerges, the genesis of form. I’m interested in operational theories that work with the genesis of form without presupposing form. Metaphor implicitly seems to reinstate a subject-subject (?) separation. The herring gull is taking possession of its own potential: the gull isn’t having an intuition, it is being had by animal intuition. Emergence.
Q. about Ruyer’s/D&G’s “absolute-survey” (overflight). A: it’s a directly relational perception: you’re in it.
Q (R. Grusin): grosbeaks, hermit thrush, et al. coming to the same feeder every year: how do they know? Maybe we should think about migration as happening through the birds. A: yes…
Q about language, abstraction… A: an act is a gesture that brings to expression life living itself. Language indexes all those prior levels (instinct, gesture, territory, etc.)
Q about psychoanalysis… A: The “fortuitous fringe” echoes off into non-consciousness. Lacan’s objec petit a (but his emphasis on absence doesn’t please me, because I’m interested in nature as a plenum). BwO is the death drive, the fullness of virtuality too full of potential that would tear your body apart.