Monday, September 06, 2010

Unknowing Animals (abstract)

(submitted for: Animals and Humans in the Culture of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, The Twenty-Second Barnard Medieval and Renaissance Conference, December 4, 2010, Barnard College, NYC)

“Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is”
—Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

“The concept of Life . . . has the structure of negative theology”
—Eugene Thacker, After Life

In the Book of Privy Counsel, a work of contemplative instruction by the author of the Cloud of Unknowing, animal consciousness performs the somewhat surprising task of exemplifying the essential, factical faculty of mystical work, the ability to experience, not only what, but that one is: “For I holde him to lewyd and to boistous that kan not thenk and fele that himself is, not what himself is bot that hymself is. For this is pleynli proprid to the lewdist kow or to the moste unresonable beest (yif it might be seide, as it may not, that one were lewder or more unresonable then another) for to fele the owne propre beyng. Moche more than it is proprid to man, the whiche is singulerly endowid whith reson aboven alle other beestes, for to thenk and for to fele his owne propre being.” The example is all the more striking given the Cloud-author’s explicit understanding of this contemplative capacity as definitive of the very process, the ontic task of specifically human being: “For this is the werk . . . in the whiche man schuld have contynowed yif he never had synned, and to the whiche worching man was maad, and alle thing for man, to help him and forther him therto, and by the whiche a man schal be reparailed agein.” While maintaining an official distinction between human and animal, the example performatively throws the animal/human boundary into a significant, profound, and I think very purposive confusion, rendering the difference between human and animal an object of apophatic unknowing. That which all animals can feel is termed as unavailable to the ‘lewd’ humans who are implicitly ranked at once below and within a category of the animal that excludes them by not admitting of difference. This problematizing of the animal/human boundary is registered at the rhetorical level, wherein speaking of the animal necessitates a conspicuously literal instance of what Michael Sells, in characterizing apophatic discourse, calls the language of unsaying: “yif It might be seide, as it may not . . .”
I propose to take the Cloud-author’s significant aside about animal consciousness as an index of deeper affiliations between animals and apophasis, affiliations that are traceable across several points of medieval culture and contemporary discourse: Augustine’s understanding of animals as site of theological wonder, Pseudo-Dionysius’s concept of superlative life,[1] neoplatonic panpsychism and Ibn Arabi’s theory of bewilderment (hayra),[2] Giorgio Agamben’s explication of the mystical structure of Heidegger’s definition of the animal as poor in world,[3] David Williams’s reading of medieval monstrosity as a deformed discourse that apophatically kept open the “question of the adequacy of the intellectual concept of the thing in relation to its ontological reality,” Bataille’s definition of animality as “immediacy or immanence,” on which Jill Marsden comments: “This animality, of which we are a part yet from which we strive to distinguish ourselves, hovers at the edge of consciousness, extending its glimmer into a night of unknowing”—to name a few. In pursuing what might thus be called the apophatic animals of medieval and modern texts, I am above all interested in the interplay and phenomenal intersections between, on the one hand, the human experience of the animal as site and object for its own unknowing, and on the other, human openness towards understanding animal being and consciousness as itself grounded in unknowing. Understanding this interplay will entail analyzing the relationship between the various modes and moods of unknowing (questioning, wonder, aporia, abandonment, etc) and the what/that distinction so fundamental to ontology. In addition to explicating the conceptual function of the animal within the Cloud-author’s work, and the tradition of negative theology more generally, I hope my paper will also contribute towards understanding unknowing as an essential category for thinking life across all forms of being, as well as articulating the function of the animal as apophatic object, the deus absconditus of contemporary critical discourse.[4]       

[1] “The transcendentally originating Life is the cause of all life, produces it, brings it to completion, gives it specific form. When we speak in praise of it our words must be drawn from all of life, for we have to remember that it teems with every kind of life. It may be contemplated and praised amid every manifestation of life, for it lacks nothing, or, rather, it is overflowing with life” (Pseudo-Dionysius, Divine Names).
[2] “The whole world is intelligent, living, and speaking—in respect of the unveiling that breaks the customary views of people. . . . They stop with what their eyesight gives to them, while we consider the situation differently” (Ibn Arabi, Meccan Revalations).
[3] “The animal is at once open and not open-or, better, it is neither one nor the other: it is open in a nondisconcealment that, on the one hand, captivates and dislocates it in its disinhibitor with unmatched vehemence, and, on the other, does not in any way disconceal as a being that thing that holds it so taken and absorbed. Heidegger seems here to oscillate between two opposite poles, which in some ways recall the paradoxes of mystical knowledge-or, rather, nonknowledge. On the one hand, captivation is a more spellbinding and intense openness than any kind of human knowledge; on the other, insofar as it is not capable of disconcealing its own disinhibitor, it is closed in a total opacity. Animal captivation and the openness of the world thus seem related to one another as are negative and positive theology, and their relationship is as ambiguous as the one which simultaneously opposes and binds in a secret complicity the dark night of the mystic and the clarity of rational knowledge” (Giorgio Agamben, The Open.)
[4] This paper will build upon some current and recent work: an article and book-in-progress on the Cloud of Unknowing, “The Sorrow of Being,” Qui Parle 19 (2010), and “Labor, Language, and Laughter: Aesop and the Apophatic Human” in Fragments for a History of a Vanishing Humanism, eds. Eileen A. Joy, Betsy McCormick, and Myra J. Seaman (Ohio University Press, forthcoming 2010).


matthewchrulew said...

Intriguing abstract and interesting conference. I'm reminded also of Nietzsche's little fable at the start of his essay on the uses of history, where he contrasts forgetful animals to humans who struggle to forget: "Then the man says 'I remember' and envies the animal, who at once forgets and for whom every moment really dies, sinks back into night and fog and is extinguished for ever." Not explicitly mystical, but not far off, either; he's certainly playing with the same family of anthropological philosophemes.

Nicola Masciandaro said...

Thanks for recalling that passage! It makes me wonder how the that/what distinction the Cloud author is so interested in relates to memory, and where that relation might be discussed in medieval discourse. Typical memories seem to straddle both aspects, but obviously there are more liminal forms of memory that are on one side or the other when memory gets reflected on itself, like remembering *that* you have forgotten something, or remembering something (a what) without knowing whether that it was. Augustine deals with that sort of thing in Confessions, remembering what never happened etc.

And there are also similarities between how N. and the Cloud author are using the animal to assert a vision of suprahuman consciousness, a procedure where the animal figures the unrealized potential of the human in a negative or plain form. I.e. the point is not to arrive at a being-in-the-present that obliviates past and future (bestial present), but at the meta-present of eternal recurrence that includes and transcends both.



Nicola Masciandaro said...

This is interesting, from Aquinas's commentary on De Anima, especially the tension between instinctive animal recognition of individuals vs. non-individualized knowing:

§ 396. But, speaking precisely, this is not in the fullest sense an incidental sense-object; it is incidental to the sense of sight, but it is essentially sensible. Now what is not perceived by any special sense is known by the intellect, if it be a universal; yet not anything knowable by intellect in sensible matter should be called a sense-object incidentally, but only what is at once intellectually apprehended as soon as a sense-experience occurs. Thus, as soon as I see anyone talking or moving himself my intellect tells me that he is alive; and I can say that I see him live. But if this apprehension is of something individual, as when, seeing this particular coloured thing, I perceive this particular man or beast, then the cogitative faculty (in the case of man at least) is at work, the power which is also called the ‘particular reason’ because it correlates individualised notions, just as the ‘universal reason’ correlates universal ideas.

§ 397. Nevertheless, this faculty belongs to sensitivity; for the sensitive power at its highest—in man, in whom sensitivity is joined to intelligence—has some share in the life of intellect. But the lower animals’ awareness of individualised notions is called natural instinct, which comes into play when a sheep, e.g., recognises its offipring by sight, or sound, or something of that sort.

§ 398. Note, however, that the cogitative faculty differs from natural instinct. The former apprehends the individual thing as existing in a common nature, and this because it is united to intellect in one and the same subject. Hence it is aware of a man as this man, and this tree as this tree; whereas instinct is not aware of an individual thing as in a common nature, but only in so far as this individual thing is the term or principle of some action or passion. Thus a sheep knows this particular lamb, not as this lamb, but simply as something to be suckled; and it knows this grass just in so far as this grass is its food. Hence, other individual things which have no relation to its own actions or passions it does not apprehend at all by natural instinct. For the purpose of natural instinct in animals is to direct them in their actions and passions, so as to seek and avoid things according to the requirements of their nature.

Nicola Masciandaro said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
matthewchrulew said...

Possibly worth relating to Heidegger on boredom/captivation, too - I see you've quoted Agamben on this. I'll have to leave the scouring of the medieval archive to you for now! Thanks for the Aquinas quotes. It's interesting how clearly a familiar and dogmatic human/animal distinction is perpetuated there - e.g. "Hence it is aware of a man as this man, and this tree as this tree; whereas instinct is not aware" - that could have come straight out of Heidegger on the "as" of Dasein. I forget if Derrida mentions Aquinas in his talk; he could easily have. What's interesting to me though is the theriophilic tradition that D neglects a little. E.g. Nietzsche - though he too insists on typical species differences (as he also can't avoid doing anthropology; and Bataille seems to be following N here too), he often wants to undermine them and affirm animal life.

I wonder too if there's useful parallels to your reflections on animalistic contemplation in ethology and other scientific work on animal consciousness - will keep an eye out.

Timothy Morton said...

[...This is why we need speculative realist rhetorical theories and why Masciandaro's material on apophasis is very encouraging...]

Ecology without Nature