The following piece is a contribution by Michael Lundblad, Professor of Literature in English at the University of Oslo.
Perhaps we need new ways of writing about animals and inter-species interactions.
One way to start is by listening (maybe to the sounds of a humpback whale in Maui?).
You can also find out how David Rothenberg has written about and played music with various kinds of whales. Let it play while you keep reading?
Perhaps we can be more critically aware of the possibilities of linking, tracing, webbing various threads together online. The goal of what I want to call “webtracing” would not be to catch the “reality” of an animal in a visual or aural representation. Rather, we can call attention to the way we are constructing these webs, following these traces, tracking these encounters, in order to explore other ways of being in the world. The “question of the animal” (as Derrida has formulated it) helps us to think about non-hierarchical difference, about opening ourselves to different kinds of difference, to taking nonhuman animals seriously, to resisting the anthropocentrism that ranks human cognition and perception somehow highest. But how can taking these questions seriously change the way we actually write (and see and hear) various human and nonhuman others?
If we—as human beings—tend to prioritize the visual over all other senses, should we abandon the visual if we want to be more responsive to nonhuman animality of various kinds? Should we—as academics—write scholarly articles that describe other senses (while still working within the visual field of printed text) or perhaps develop forms of scholarly presentation in which audiences could smell or feel or taste animal traces? I wonder if a more productive response could be found in an entirely different direction, in attempts to embrace—rather than reject—the power of the visual and the aural. The web offers many powerful ways of encouraging companion species interactions and interweavings, without requiring a naive or simplistic understanding of representation as an unmediated form of access to “real” animals. We need to be more aware, in other words, of the ways that any attempt to represent any animal through any sensory mode is always already constructed—webbed, I want to say—by who and when and where “we” are.
Webtracing is a form of tracking not just animals but also ideas, figures, data, events, webs, and websites. At its core is webbing as simulacra, rather than representation: attempts to weave together traces of nonhuman animals into webs that bring the webbed lives of others into, yes, focus. Perhaps this kind of methodology is still too anthropocentric, if it seems to prioritize the human too much over all other forms of life. But I believe it can lead to more creative ways of taking nonhuman animals seriously. If I am not posthumanist enough in this sense, then maybe we should question the posthumanist quest as the most important or primary task for the study of animalities
What might webtracing look like?
- Incorporating pictures, videos, audio clips, Skype sessions with animals, not just as “evidence” of animal behaviors, but also as an opportunity to reflect upon how the inclusion of these elements can help us to imagine non-visual ways of being in the world.
How about dogs dubbed with human speech? What makes this kind of anthropomorphism problematic? How can we more productively imagine the “voice” of other beings? What if we acknowledge that other species are not necessarily just like us, but then we try to imagine ways of being in the world that might not be so different across species boundaries?
How does «surfing» feel for a goose?
- Providing access to new texts, such as one’s own web searches, or online comments on articles or websites, or YouTube videos, or film clips, or photo galleries, or full-text short stories, with an opportunity to annotate the process of following and constructing these traces.
What kinds of animals live in online webs?
How can a “nonanimal” challenge the way we think about animality?
How can webtracing be tracked—or policed—by “malicious” entities including, perhaps, the government?
How can visual and aural webs help us understand the way ants communicate or penguins move?
- Challenging academics in various disciplines to explore the possibilities of online webtracing. What could be different about articles in literary and cultural studies, for example, when they force their authors—or spiders—to learn how to incorporate new technologies, new ways of webbing their work in relation to networks of power, politics, and critical and theoretical debates? Perhaps the learning curve of using new technologies can mirror the attempt to imagine nonhuman ways of being in the world. Rather than rejecting the technological in favor of the “natural,” perhaps human animals can embrace the cyborgian nature of interspecies webbing, and recognize that what is “natural” is already, in this sense, online.
Skyping with Your Dog
Here’s another example: my very good friend Cooper, who happened to be a dog, did not come with us when I was a visiting researcher in Sweden several years ago. He stayed in our house in Colorado with a graduate-student friend, who helped him Skype with us.
Photo: Michael Lundblad
Being in touch with Cooper that way reminded me how much he would explore with his tongue: one of the ways he sensed the world, without always needing the tongue to actually touch anything. He would also lizardly lick the air, even idly, if you kept him at bay, as I usually did. But across an ocean, and eight hours apart, I wondered if he would try to lick the computer screen. He seemed to listen to our voices but never quite looked at the screen. I wondered how he sensed this strange technology. I did not try to touch his image. But I wanted to reach through, somehow, to touch him, to explain through touch, that we would be coming back. Eventually. That he need not worry. That this pixelated and mediated touch need not be only lacking.
Photo by Michael Lundblad
I’m reminded of Jack London’s racist description of “savages” unable to understand how a phonograph works, running around to the room behind, expecting to see the person making the sounds. (I’ve written a bit elsewhere on London’s thinking about both “savages” and animals.) His Master’s Voice. Or animals looking behind a mirror for the other animal they see in the reflection, supposedly. What do we do when we confront the unknown? How long does it take to learn something new? We do not need to assume that it can never be learned by those not as “human” as we might like to think we are…
Cooper did not look for me behind the computer screen. Perhaps he remembered how often I sat on that couch with him with the computer on my lap. Obviously I was not on that couch, perhaps, so why look there? How else to explain what was going on? The audio seemed real to him. I don’t think it’s too much anthropomorphism to think that he sensed we were not really there, even if he considered the possibility that we could be there in a way that would not allow him to see for himself with his tongue.
Eva Hayward, in a different register, writes about cup corals and fingeryeyes:
By Alexander Vasenin – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32363870
“Cup corals seem full of touch, of sensing, or rather of being literally tact, touch; their tentacular sense—their fingeryeyes—respond to surface effects, caressing. . . . They ‘touch,’ therefore they are” (“FINGERYEYES: Impressions of Cup Corals,” Cultural Anthropology 25.4 : 577).
For Hayward, «impressions» can go both ways when species meet, through various forms of contact and touch: “seeing with tact; touching by eye; feeling from vision” (582). But she pulls back: “There is no question that they are responding to predator/prey impulses. . . . I know that they don’t have ‘eyes’ or ‘fingers,’ even if I must know them through my own fingeryeyes” (591).
I want to go further. I know that cup corals are not dogs. But I think we need to consider ways of sensing and being in the world that resist evolutionary terms as the best or first way to describe them, even if we can’t understand those other ways of being, and can’t have unmediated access to them.
I can “feel” Cooper’s tongue through Skype. I can consider the possibility that he tastes the sound of my voice. Even though he was not sleeping in my bed at that time, I could sense his body language of light sleeping. And I would wake up in the middle of the night to roll over.