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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 The World of Animals and Men. In it, Uexkull develops a simple and poetic way of conceiving how humans can best understand the way that an animal perceives and interacts with its world. The subjective “soap bubble” world of an animal’s conscious or unconscious zone of interaction is what Uexkull calls the Umwelt. Critical theorist Giorgio Agamben describes Uexkull’s Umwelt as such:
Where classical science saw a single world that comprised within it all living species hierarchically ordered from the 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 perfect and 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 animal within this exterior world would only be another way of describing a human’s conception 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 the animal’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 our contemplation of it. We may say that the number of objects which an animal can distinguish in its own world equals 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. For orientation 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. Many anthropomorphic perils lie in the way of us honestly and accurately engaging an animal on its own terms. We cannot take even the most rudimentary aspects of our own world (depth or motor perception, for example) as fulfilling 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 philosopher Martin 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 objects which appear in an animal’s world is closely related to the range of functions that animal is able to perform (Uexkull 49). An animal which lacks a basic self-awareness (being unable to recognize its own reflection in a mirror, for example) thus also lacks the capacity to recognize the potential for selfhood in any of the objects which could drift into its Umwelt. Different animals only interact with each other through channels built to fulfill 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 in tune 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-- an inability 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-awareness animal perceives other objects in the world 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 caught between Umwelts. The investigating dog is both aware of a broader horizon beyond what he sees and is also still 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, the investigating 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 based on 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 general pretend not to understand, and to which the best answer they can give is: ‘If you haven’t enough to eat we’ll give 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, despite how much the investigating dog longs to see an answer in the eyes of his comrades, their response to his questions 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 is 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 had they vanished? Only a dog lay here helplessly snapping at the empty air, a dog who, though he still watered the ground with convulsive haste at short intervals and without being aware of it, could not remember even the shortest 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 know and what the dog can make of its world is necessarily limited by what it has the capacity to perceive.
I like to imagine the viewer of one of my own paintings as taking an “excursion into an unknowable world”, suspending whatever limitation there are for a brief moment and venturing into another animal’s perceived Umwelt (Agamben 41). Any subjects that materialize within this field of vision would then lack the sense of cohesion or definition that the human brain may ascribe it. Like the jackdaw and the bathing trunks, what matters in the eyes of an animal may not be the definition of another living being, but instead the impression of one. The formal pairing which was this essays point of departure-- a living presence alongside evident, material paint -- is compelling as a part of this framework because of the way that the former is drawn into question by the later. Unlike the results of our first inquiry in which the material mark and the illusion of presence were both defined by movement, material paint and the illusion of presence are in this case antagonistic. Evident paint obscures any attempt at definition and therefore relating to a unified subject within these paintings. The painted objects, both illusionistic and material, take on a hidden significance-- a meaning which can never be entirely known to us. It may instead only be available in fragments [Audio lecture summary] John D. Caputo: Agamben and the flesh These are my notes from an extremely informative lecture by Caputo on Agamben. He covers a lot of ground, including the books The Open and The Coming Community, while also referencing Heidegger, Deleuze, Merleau-Ponty, Sartre and a few random Scholastics, as part of a lecture series on ‘philosophies of the flesh’. This can be found HERE all Caputo’s lectures can be found on his website, which is HERE
Agamben sketches out a history of metaphysics according to the anthropological machine. This is the history of humanism defined as politics. Heidegger is seen as the last thinker of humanism (as Dasein is the possessor of superior essence) yet is also the great renouncer of humanism: as the ‘human’ doesn’t reach the real essence of humanity which is separated from animals by an abyss. Agamben’s notion of ‘the open’ is that which is a reconciliation of the human with its animality via an ‘attitude’ that opens the condition of salvation. This messianic moment of salvation is the post-historical end of the anthropological machine that produces exclusively human history.
The homo sapien was defines as that whose task was the Socratic imperative to ‘know thyself. Vico challenged this to say that man is the being who must invent himself in the mode of autopoiesis. Man has indefinite form and so cannot ever know himself. There is a link here between post-humanism and negative theology, as man is made in the image off God and as God is unfathomable so man must be also. The future of man and techne are thus open and not fixed with any destiny. What is certain, however, is that we have seen the animalization of man (by the Nazi’s to the Jews and the comatose who can be killed, sustained by a biopolitics of bare-life he calls zoe) and the difference needs to be explored fully.
Agamben deconstructs Heidegger’s reading of Jacob Von Uexkull’s biological writings on the ‘umwelt’ (lifeworld) of animals, first by reviewing Heidegger’s tripartite separation of the essences of beings as those who are world poor, world-less and with world: where the human has a life-world the animal doesn’t. For Uexkull, all animals have a life-world but there is no world of worlds – each world coverages with the next but not absolutely, they remain at their own specific differentiated level and can never know the mode of access to the world of other animals. Heidegger sees only Dasein as having a world.
Animals have a fixed being towards something. they do not see the thing as such in its being nor do they see the nothing. They do have a perceived horizon which is open but not openable to other possibilities. Heidegger equates this state to one of profound boredom, where there are no possibilities. Heidegger notes that Dasein also experiences profound boredom (or ontological boredom – bored with being as a totality, rather than with beings, which would be ontic boredom). In this profound boredom, Dasein’s world trembles, as all significance is lost and meaning slips away. What is revealed in this profound boredom, when Dasein has all her possibilities stripped away, is the originary mode of Dasein’s being-in-the-world of possibilities. When these possibilities are not there, one recognises that most of the time one has possibilities to be otherwise. Animals cannot experience anything other than what is possible to it and therefore, can never be bored. The animal is continually captivated by the world in this state of non-possibility and profound boredom.
Agamben says that Heidegger misses the main revelation in his thesis. . . that the animal and Dasein share a zone of continuity – the zone of profound boredom itself. The animal is the deep structure of Dasein’s own lifeworld. The important distinction now is that not only does Dasein get reduced to the animality of zoe, but animals themselves are reduced to zoe by the opaque logic of the slaughter house. Agamben doesn’t look at the question of animal ethics, but only examines the result of this reduction to bare-life within the world of political Dasein (where he sees things like the genome project, economic and human rights reducing Dasein to a humanist essence cloaked in ideology, what Agamben calls ‘bios’, the political life of man, which proves vacuous and contingent to the whims of the sovereign).
Agamben argues that this shared zoe is the open as alethia, where the reconciliation of man with is animality is possible. Agamben looks to the gnostic Marcion who condemns nature and thus man’s redemption comes from transcending it, whereas for Benjamin, nature is outside salvation and in no need of it – it is outside of history and destiny. This is the saved night or beatitudo, where there is no man or nature but simply the between as a zone of indifference where the anthropological machine is out out of play.
Beatitudo is the transvaluation and redemption of that which couldn’t be saved but given back to itself, a letting be of nature outside being. This is the messianic banquet of the Hebraic bible, where nature will be itself without the anthropological strife. Nature is redeemed to a state of non-saved, it is saved less. It is dismantling of the machine that create the state of exception, a redemption from not needing to be redeemed.
Caputo looks to the story of Adam and Eve and the fall to see that there was no fall at all, only the plane of immanence of their redemption. This Deleuzian point is that the world doesn’t need redemption as the transcendence of the world is the world. The community to come is not a community of the same essence but a belonging together of existents in a community of identity of singular essences: it is a politics of love that doesn’t subjugate humans to history but letting beings be in their own self creation (autopoeisis).
Agamben says that those of this community are the blessed. They each have a halo, a crown of glory, that grows with intensity the closer it is brought to perfection. There are three different glows but they can blend together. But the state cannot deal with these intensities, these ‘what evers’ (as any being of any essence) because of their peaceful being in common. the state reacts to these with violence, such as was seen at Tienanmen Square. Human rights are based upon a stratified essence of man and thus are vacuous as these essences can be denied, lost or abandoned. the rights of the existents within the community of love cannot be lost as their rights are connected to their essence as ‘what ever’ they are.
[side note by Caputo: without grace there is no sense of love, loss or punishment. That is why unbaptized babies to to limbo as they have no grace to allow their joining with God]
It is not how the world is but that it is, which is the mystical: here Wittgenstein echoes Heidegger (who he had apparently read). Transcendence is not beyond the world but is the plane of immanence. God means the chora taking place to and in the world.For Deleuze, immanence and transcendence are suspended as separate in becoming which is immanent in it’s transcendence and transcendent in it’s immanence. The statement ‘The good is that each thing is as it is’ leads to the death of God theology, as God is made flesh in and of the world. This is a revaluation not of the sacred but of the profane. The world is profane as God; the glorious body is the mortal body. ‘Amor fati’ is the infinite love of things as they are, where things could not have been otherwise, therefore they are a necessity as treated as such. Or is it that beings express a preference to be rather than not, and so is not a necessity but a preference?
Sartre’s essay The Transcendence of the ego explained that it was not the transcendental where the ego of the subject was formed. the ego is the constituted aspect of a pre-reflexive consciousness. The ego is what is actualized (to use Deleuzian terminology). For Merleau-Pionty, it is the flesh that is actualized. Yet for Deleuze, there is no subject or object at all on the annoyances plane of immanence where everything gets constituted, Immanence is a process of becoming without predicates. The plane of immanence is the life between the potential and the virtual (the part of life is not the man as actuality – the example Caputo uses is of the Rogue from a Dickens book who lays half dead on the ground surrounded by people who hate him, yet in this moment close to death they have empathy for his as something at all, something not actualized into the wretched man but between the potential and the virtual, he has the chance to be reborn. This place of un-actualized
becoming is zoe, the bare-life that isn’t political but impersonal, like the life of infants who have no ego, where the plane of immanence rushes through them. this is zoe as joy not as biopower, where life is not constituted into ego’s but to singular essences.
[Casua sui means without an external cause is the plane of immanence whose being is form by the its own momentum of subject and object. This plane of immanence is the connatus of life, the striving for life and the rejoicing in being. This is bliss, the blessed life, joy that a thing takes in its own life - the struggling to exist for life as life something unconceptualized and unwritten and unprediacted).]
Flesh doesn’t need to be for common phenomenological experience, for Deleuze and Agamben but it does for Merleau-Pionty, to remain locked with the field of consciousness. The Dickensian Rogue is “a flabby lump of mortality” who is not only a living flesh of intensities but the alive of de-subjectivized flesh of ecstasy, torture or ‘instasis’ (internal ecstasy). A corpse is the cessation of the flesh. For Deleuze, the body without flesh is the higher intellectual plateaux, whereas the flesh without body is the dying unconscious man.
Flesh is the ur-ethical, as it is life between the actual and the potential. There is a vulnerability to the flesh, a primordial exposure. Flesh is holy: the primal scene of Christianity is Jesus on the cross, yet the resurrection is not the resurrection of his body but the resurrection of the life of moral beings to become again and again. To be reborn one needs to be exposed to the plane of immanence (as they are over actualized egos that need deterritorialization and re-subjectification). Life in continually punctuated with reinventions, where there is joy in being ones own cause.
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