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Lessons, UMWELTS

Lessons, UMWELTS

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Published by: Cesarullo de Cesaris on Aug 01, 2012
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THURSDAY, JANUARY 21, 2010THESIS PART 2: UMWELTSThis is the second part of my thesis. To read the first part, keep scrolling down.********2. Umwelts
Shed Your Husk (2009) watercolor on paper, 12”x 7”
 In 1934, the writer and biologist Jacob Von Uexkull wrote a small monograph entitled A Stroll Through TheWorld of Animals and Men. In it, Uexkull develops a simple and poetic way of conceiving how humans can bestunderstand the way that an animal perceives and interacts with its world. The subjecti
ve “soap bubble” worldof an animal’s conscious or unconscious zone of interaction is what Uexkull calls the Umwelt. Critical theoristGiorgio Agamben describes Uexkull’s Umwelt as such:
 Where classical science saw a single world that comprised within it all living species hierarchically ordered fromthe most elementary forms up to the higher organisms, Uexkull instead supposes an infinite variety of perceptual worlds that, though they are uncommunicating and reciprocally exclusive, are all equally perfectand linked together as if in a gigantic musical score. (Agamben 40)
The Umwelt cannot be synonymous with the animal’s life in an exterior environment. Conceiving of the animalwithin this exterior world would only be another way of describing a human’s c
onception of an animal within a
human’s conception of the animal’s place. Uexkull’s Umwelt is different from this in that the way that theanimal’s world looks is determined by the limits of the animal’s perceptions and range of action in response to
it. Uexkull writes:The Umwelt only acquires its admirable surety for animals if we include the functional tones in ourcontemplation of it. We may say that the number of objects which an animal can distinguish in its own worldequals the number of functions it can carry out. If, along with few functions, it possesses few functional images,
its world, too, will consist of few objects. As a result its world is indeed poorer, but all the more secure. Fororientation is much easier among few objects than among many
.” (49)
There is no objective reality in Uexkull’s science. We can draw conclusions regarding the borders of an animal’s
Umwelt by analyzing how an animal is physiologically adapted or built to receive and respond to stimuli. Manyanthropomorphic perils lie in the way of us honestly and accurately engaging an animal on its own terms. Wecannot take even the most rudimentary aspects of our own world (depth or motor perception, for example) asfulfilling the same exact purpose within an animal who may see things very differently.Jacob Von Uexkull (Belgian), two illustrations for A Stroll Through The Worlds of Animals and Men (58)One of the most compelling questions which pops up in the study of the animal Umwelt is the relationship of an animal to other
beings. In The Open, Giorgio Agamben relates Uexkull’s Umwelt to existentialist philosopherMartin Heidegger’s concept of “poverty in world.” “Poverty in world” refers to an animal’s inability to conceive
of other beings due to a complete captivation by its set of relations (Agamben 52). In trying to understand this
concept, we should remember Uexkull’s description of the boundaries of an Umwelt, the number of objectswhich appear in an animal’s world is closely related to the range of functions that anima
l is able to perform(Uexkull 49). An animal which lacks a basic self-awareness (being unable to recognize its own reflection in amirror, for example) thus also lacks the capacity to recognize the potential for selfhood in any of the objectswhich could drift into its Umwelt. Different animals only interact with each other through channels built tofulfill certain selfish needs for the individual animal. Agamben describes it in this fashion:The two perceptual worlds of the fly and the spider are absolutely uncommunicating, and yet so perfectly intune that we might say that the original score of the fly, which we can also call its original image or archetype,acts on that of the spider in such a way that the web the spider weaves can be described as fly-like. (42)
With similar implications, Heidegger describes “poverty in world” as a kind of captivation or enthrallment
-- aninability to conceive of an object as something beyond the need or needs it may fulfill. He writes, for example,
that, “It is
precisely being taken by its food that prevents the animal from taking up a position over and against
this food” (Agamben 53). It is then perhaps, in considering both Uexkull and Heidegger, that the self 
-awarenessanimal perceives other objects in the worl
d as subjects in and of themselves. “Investigations of a dog”, a short
story by early 20th century German author Franz Kafka could be read as a story in which the primary conflict
pivots around the main character’s “poverty in world”. Though conveyed with
the voice of a human man, Kafka
strains to tell the story of a hybrid being-- one who, for our purposes could be describes as being caughtbetween Umwelts. The investigating dog is both aware of a broader horizon beyond what he sees and is alsostill very
much ensnared by it. The protagonist becomes unsatisfied with his ‘dogness’ after witnessing an
inexplicable event which the reader could only surmise to be a performance of circus dogs. Afterwards, theinvestigating dog tries to find meaning in the select stimuli that come to make up its environment. Unaware of the existence of humans, the investigator tries to gain understanding through a science that is very much basedon a world defined by function. Kafka writes,My personal observation tells me that the earth, when it is watered and scratched according to the rules of science, extrudes nourishment, and moreover in such quality, in such abundance, in such ways, in such places,at such hours as the laws partially or completely established by science demand. I accept all this; my question,
however, is the following: ’Whence does the earth procure this food?’ A question which people in generalpretend not to understand, and to which the best answer they can give is: ‘If you haven’t enough to eat we’ll
you some of ours’.” (288)
 In both the science which the investigating dog accepts and the way his question is received, the limitations of 
the dog’s Umwelt become painfully clear. “Dog science” is not based on objective, observable phenomena.
Rather, it focuses on the development of a more efficient satisfaction of the need for food. Similarly, despitehow much the investigating dog longs to see an answer in the eyes of his comrades, their response to hisquestions are either inconceivable or ludicrous. The culminating scientific trial, which the investigating dog uses
to test the limitations of his worldview, is a hunger strike. The dog says that, “The highest, if it is attainable, is
attainable only by the highest effort, and the highest effort among us i
s voluntary fasting” (Kafka 309). This
trial, though, does not result in a widening of the horizon, or any kind of eureka moment of understanding.
Instead, it reveals the investigating dog’s inability to transcend its Umwelt. Kafka writes,
 Here and now was the hour of deadly earnest, here my inquiries should have shown their value, but where hadthey vanished? Only a dog lay here helplessly snapping at the empty air, a dog who, though he still watered theground with convulsive haste at short intervals and without being aware of it, could not remember even theshortest of the countless incantations stored in his memory. ( 31)Ultimately, the dog fails in his mission to transcend his own limited perceptual state. What the dog can knowand what the dog can make of its world is necessarily limited by what it has the capacity to perceive.*******

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