Saturday, December 04, 2010

Unknowing Animals




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

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

“When all creatures say ‘God’—then God comes to be.”
—Meister Eckhart, Sermon 56

The title of this paper is intended to name the product or intersection of its two-fold meaning, the potential identity of unknowing as a property of animal being and unknowing as an active epistemic relation to the animal. Does this make sense? Is there a real significance to the fusion of senses that this represents, namely, a space of non-difference between the adjectival and the gerundive meanings of unknowing as applied to animals? On the one hand, the meaning of this seems to require grasping the non-difference in the animal itself between being the subject and being the object of unknowing. On the other hand, just as the pun semantically requires a plural (unknowing animals), this meaning seems to be something namable only in plurality, a being-itself possible only in the mode of many, in the more-than-one.
We may begin to understand unknowing animals in this third or synthetic sense by tracing the ideas that traverse the node of its possibility, by thinking how unknowing animals (as being) pass into unknowing animals (as act) and vice-versa, how being and doing translate each other with respect to animal non-knowledge. The first movement is represented by animals who, having an unknowing nature, engage in unknowing animals. The second movement is represented by animals who, practicing the unknowing of animals, become unknowing animals. Encompassing the trajectories of instinct and habit, or first and second nature, respectively, these movements are both distinct and logically inseparable. Together they indicate the vague sense of an animal life for whom a form of apophasis is vital, a being who lives and moves and has its being in the elaboration of an essential epistemic negativity.
Of the various forms this idea may take, two interest me, one pertaining to life in general, the other to the particular form of life that this paper demonstrates: 1) The idea that all life takes place and becomes itself only on the basis of an essential questionability, a questionality or being-question that is latent within all being. The being for whom being is a question is not a singular kind, but every kind of being. Everything is a who?, a something that ex-ists precisely on the basis of not knowing itself. 2) The idea that animal theory is an essentially animal operation, an instinctive apophasis of life itself. Thinking the animal is not merely our hobby, but a behavior vital to the becoming of the human qua animal.
These ideas are less descriptions of easily demonstrable facts than compelling speculative possibilities, images in the mirror of thought whose reality must remain to be determined. Here I can only entertain them, specifically, by commenting on a conspicuous invocation of animal consciousness by the author of The Cloud of Unknowing, in which the human capacity for divine contemplation is illustrated by animal self-awareness. But before turning to this text, I will elaborate a little on these this twin thesis, in order to preemptively rescue it from the utopic abyss of anthropic intellectual consciousness, the critical theoretic space where everything is said and nothing happens. For it is precisely the integrity and autonomy of this space, in short, language’s putative princely relation to the universe, that these ideas unground. 

Being the Question of the Animal
A strong, identitarian ontology of the question is traditionally reserved for the human with regard to its rationality or spirituality (logos, soul), an essence that is paradoxically construed both as a form of belonging to something outside the human and as the natural, inherent property of human being-in-the-world. From Augustine’s quaestio mihi factus sum to Heidegger’s account of Dasein as an entity grounded in the question of its own being, human identity is granted the privilege, not only of possessing a superior essence, but of being transcendentally about itself. The human matters. It is the stuff that is fundamentally at stake, both for itself, and for the world at large. Of this mattering, of the human as the very transitivity of the world, there is no better monument than the doctrine of hell, which, recalling the repetition of Dante’s inscription over its entrance – “Per me si va . . . Per me si va . . . Per me si va” – eternally testifies to the human as that through which everything takes place. Only for the sake of human individuals is the all-loving, omnipotent absolute being willing to violate its own nature in the creation of a supplementary and inverted eternity, going so far, as Lactantius explains, to supply the rational animal with infinitely burnable flesh: “Because they contracted sin while in the body, they will again be endowed with flesh so that they can absolve their crime in the body. It will not be a flesh like the earthly one that God clothed man with, but it will be indestructible and eternal so that it can bear torments and perpetual fire” (Divine Institutes, 7.21). At the same time, the doctrine of hell definitively figures the essential eccentricity of the human, the possibility that anthropocentrism is not only inevitably vestibular but infernal. By contrast, entering paradise requires, following Dante, a new intelligence (intelligenza nova), a new logos signaled in the first neologism of Paradiso: trashumanar, to pass beyond the human. This new word, which may be compared to Meister Eckhart’s concept of the birth of the divine Word in the soul, participates in the Incarnation in reverse: flesh made Word. Experiencing the metamorphosis, Dante compares himself to the fisherman Glaucus: “Gazing upon her [nel suo aspetto] I became within me such as Glaucus became on tasting of the grass that made him sea-fellow [consorto in mar] of the other gods” (1.67-9). As Beatrice’s first appearance in the Vita Nuova promised a perfection of the aesthetic or animal spirit (lo spirito animale), which speaks to faculty of sight “Apparuit iam beatitudo vestra” (2:5), so Glaucus’s apotheosis or becoming-divine, which tellingly takes place on an unpeopled island, beautifully described by Ovid wholly in terms of its absence of domesticated animals, happens by eating grass and becoming animal:
“I know the tale I tell will seem untrue / (but what have I to gain by fooling you?) / no sooner had I spread my catch along / the grass, than all that crowd of fish began / to stir, to flop from side to side, and then / to move on land as if at sea. Amazed, / stopped cold, I stared as all those fished made / straight for the water; they deserted me— / they left their new lord, leaped into the sea. / I’m stunned and stilled; it takes me long before / I probe the cause of this. Was it the work / of some god, or the juice within the grass? / ‘But is there any herb that has such force?’ / I asked; and then plucked a tuft of grass, / and clutching it, I let my teeth sink in. / No sooner had my throat felt that strange sap, / then—suddenly—I felt my innards shake; / within my heart I felt a fierce desire / to live another life.” (Ovid, Metamorphoses, 12.935-46)
What if the most magical and important causal element in this resurrective transformation, which is as much a resurrection of the animal from the human, is not the hyperpotent herb but the profoundly hermeneutic situation in which it is eaten? What if the secret of life is not this grassy substance but the even more actual and factical historical present of Glaucus’s being-question? – dubitoque diu causamque requiro.
A question is not only an intellective act but a corporeal event born from the negativity of experience, “more a passion than an action” (Gadamer), flesh-becoming-word. The substantial capacity of the question as medium of a Glaucian, evolutionary expansion of life may be surmised in comparison to John Cowper Powys’s concept of de-carnation, a kind of psychic event illustrated, surprisingly, with the image of a fish exiting and re-entering the water:
What I mean by the “Ichthian act” is a swift lumping together of all the evils of your life—as if you turned them into one element that completely surrounds you—followed by a fierce leap up of your inmost identity, a leap that takes you, if only for a second, into the freer air . . . In no circumstance does [the] act of de-carnation help you more completely than when, confronted by some other person who is being a trial to you, you are tempted to pit your egoism, your desire for happiness at his or her expense, against the similar desire in this trying person. But when, hovering in the free air apart from both the self-asserting ones, you . . . are aloof from both, and, as it were, watching both from your airy vantage-ground [your] soul is still the centre of your awareness, but not longer the centre of your touchy animal identity. (Art of Happiness, I.24-6)
I imagine that similar forms of intelligent evasion of direct contest may be instrumental in the evolutionary becoming of homo sapiens. Elsewhere Powys likens this saltatory capacity for superior enjoyment to becoming “like a flock of birds, so that if some of them are killed the rest have a good chance of survival” (In Spite, 291) and identifies it with the spontaneity, the self-willing, of life itself: “the living, vital impulse and leap forward of the self towards what it is absorbing with all its senses, at any particular moment in the recession of time and any particular spot in the gulfs of space, represents the essential life-stream of the world, at once creative and destructive” (19-20). The deeper implication, then, is that the foundational medium of the stream of life, the place in which it flows—and I make no claim as to the location or nature of the difference between life and being—is a co-habited space of self-multiplying and self-suspending possibilities, that life takes place in the space of, or as the question, above all, the question of itself, of its being itself. Question is the essential domain of what Powys describes as “the moment of enjoyment itself, when all these selves are embracing and absorbing and tasting and devouring and ravishing the myriad objects of their hunger, thirst, lust, desire, interest, attraction, fascination, and inexhaustible wonder, such as is offered to all living sentiencies by the spectacle of the world into which they are born” (33).
            As Glaucus’s eating of the question-saturated grass liberates him from the unbearable self-enclosure of an innate speciesism, endlessly relieving his being from the ridiculous burden of having to be the shepherd of being, so might a really strong ontology of questioning thus lead, theoretically and practically, into the less terrestrial and more marine place where existence is an unfolding question. Where philosophy arrives at the threshold of this place, it generally does so by claiming what it finds there for the human, or more properly, for philosophy. Heidegger, the philosopher who gives more thought than any other to the existential ground of questioning, understood how our existence is structured as the question of being. “This entity which each of us is himself and which includes inquiring as one of the possibilities of its Being, we shall denote by the term ‘Dasein’ . . . Dasein is ontically distinctive in that it is ontological” (Being and Time §8-12). There seems to be no question of other kinds of entities experiencing or participating in this question. Yet what if this sort of shoring up of the power of the question around the human is preformed, not only out of sensible recognition of the conspicuous human power of questioning, but out of a more perverse and a-scientific desire to preserve human identity against the self-swallowing power of the question, to keep Glaucus, as it were, on the shore, to turn the fisherman into philosopher, one who thinks and talks about, but never eats the grass? This power of the question, specifically, the power of the question of being to intellectually and experientially suspend being, to really call into question how and what an entity is, is after all something Heidegger exposes again and again, the sense in which the question of being, precisely by virtue of being the most basic, concrete, and factical of questions, is also the most bottomless. Accordingly, Heidegger identified the experience of the truth of being with a form of positive confusion, calling “the fundamental experience of Being and Time” “an ever-increasing but perhaps also – in a few places – self-clarifying bewilderment in the face of” the fact that “the truth of Being as Being remains unthought” (Nietzsche, 3.189-90).
Examining the fundamental structure of questioning leads more and more into in- and transhuman zones where the question of what question is has already flown the cage of autonomous reflective consciousness. This is evident above all in the phenomenological institution of the ‘always already’, the being-there-before-it-is structure exemplified by questioning, according to which the question, in seeming violation of natural causality, is a procession of its answer, something mysteriously always already underway toward what it seeks—a fact Augustine volitionally traces to God. Heidegger identifies this elementality of the question by recognizing its latency, its pre-position in a primordially unknowing subject:
Inquiry, as a kind of seeking, must be guided beforehand by what is sought. So the meaning of Being must already be available to us in some way. . . . we always conduct our activities in an understanding of Being. Out of this understanding arise both the explicit question of the meaning of Being and the tendency that leads us towards its conception. We do not know what ‘Being’ means. . . . We do not even know the horizon in terms of which that meaning is to be grasped and fixed. But this vague average understanding of Being is still a Fact. (Being and Time §5)[1]
Yet we can also reverse the subject/predicate order and observe that the question itself, as an operative force, is in a real sense a Dasein, a self-interpreting being whose being is an issue for it. This would be the other side of (and necessary precondition for) the human ability to become a great question for oneself. “Factus eram ipse mihi magna quaestio” [I had become to myself a huge question] (Confessions 4.4). Thinking the question in this way, as ontically prior to, rather than a behavior of, Dasein, yields possibilities for understanding Dasein beyond the human, for perceiving the universality of hermeneutical being. And it is precisely this kind of possibility that is currently being investigated, from both theoretical and experimental perspectives in the nascent fields of object oriented ontology and biohermeneutics. In his Heideggerian study of the metaphysics of objects, Tool-Being, Graham Harman observes regarding Dasein’s putative priority over other entities that “the important point is not that humans pose the question of being. The crucial factor is not that ‘questioning’ is a people-centered lens that conditions Heidegger’s subject matter. The key is not the being of the question, but rather the being of the question” (40). Rendering the availability of the question to different forms of being more explicit, Tuomo Jämsä, in his work on evolutionary semiotics, traces Heidegger’s existentialiaIntroduction to Biosemiotics, 96). The principle of semiotic dissymmetry, according to which a pure dormancy of things is impossible, where everything is the site of, or is encoded with, an essential questionality, a tensioning or dissonance that calls for resolution, correlates as well with John Bruin’s intentional phenomenology of questioning, in which questioning arises within a possibilistic, “interesting ‘field of noise’” (Homo Interrogans to “the principle of dissymmetry in semiosis,” “a stable semiosic tension” across “the dividing line between object and representamen” that can be seen at every level, for example: the dissymmetry of animal forms, the chirality (or left- or right-handedness) of animo acids, the energy-matter dialectic. “Semiosis started with the Big Bang and bears since the primary specifications tied up with the circumstances of the cosmological dawn. Cardinal epistemic cuts originate from the very beginning” ( 23). The grassy field, we might say, from which the question one becomes is plucked.

Animal Mysticism
How might medieval mystical discourse illuminate animal theory? What does the ‘question of the animal’ look like in this luminous darkness? Two principles of mystical thought here seem particularly relevant: 1) theophanic logocentrism, according to which all creatures speak God; 2) the contemplative mysticism of the question, according to which union with God is achieved in the perfection of unknowing. The first is exemplified by Meister Eckhart’s observation, “All things speak God. What my mouth does in speaking and declaring God, is likewise done by the essence of a stone, and this is understood more by works than by words” (Sermon 22).[2] The second by Eckhart’s account of the way to God as an invisible intensification of the pure fact of God: “There must be a withdrawal from all things. God scorns to work through images. . . . This not-knowing makes her [the soul] wonder and leads her to eager pursuit, for she perceives clearly that it is, but does not know how or what it is” (Sermon 1). 
Both of these principles come into play in a passage from the Book of Privey Counsel in which the question of animal awareness is brought into question in order to demonstrate the radical availability of contemplation and the divine union produces, over and against the cultured stupidity of most persons who are “so bleendid in here coryous kunnyng of clergie and kynde” that they are no more able to understand “the trewe conceite of this light werk” than “a yong childe at his A.B.C.” can understand “the kunnyng of the grettest clerk.” The existentially aware animal is thus introduced as a kind of inoperative paradigm, a figure of what the human is, if only it were not so human, so waywardly rational:     
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. And thefore come doun into the lowest poynte of thi witte, the whiche sum man holdeth by verrey preof that it is the highest, and thenk on the lewedest maner, bot bi sum man the wisest, not what thiself is, bot that thiself is. . . . for to thenk that thou arte, mayst thou have of thi lewydnes and thi boistouste[3] withoutyn any grete kunning of clergie or of kynde. . . . It chargeth not now [nothing matters now] in thee bot that thi blynde beholdyng of thi naked being be gladli born up in listines of love, to be knitted and onid in grace and in spirit to the precious beyng of God in himself only as he is, withouten more.
Contrary to the general elision of the animal itself within mystical discourse, an elision marked by the animal’s being a word of God for the human, the Cloud-author gives animal consciousness the surprising task of exemplifying what he considers to be the essential faculty of contemplative work, the ability to experience, not only what, but that one is. The passage 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.” Does this mean that animals are mystics? No. But more importantly, it means that they are not not mystics.
While maintaining the official distinction between human and animal, terminologically registered in the non-repetition of think (thenk and fele . . . fele), the illustration performatively throws the animal/human boundary into a significant and profound confusion. It simultaneously definitively states and obfuscates the difference between human and animal, rendering it the object of an artificial apophasis, a true representation whose truth lies in its not being true. That which even the stupidest animal can feel is ironically 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. Even if there is no real question of some humans being actually unable to feel that they are, the counter-reality substantially contradicts this potentiality, a contradiction which hangs on the denaturing power of intellectual learning to render the human fatally stupider than it actually is. As it says in the Upanishads, “Those who worship ignorance enter into gloomy darkness, into still greater darkness go those who are devoted to knowledge.” 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.” Precisely by not saying so, this qualification has the wonderful effect of figuring the animal/human boundary as passing, not only within the human, but within this animal as the real existence of its own and the human's proper question, a being wondrously feeling what (the that) the human is made to contemplate and experience. From this delightfully confounded scenario I draw the following basic conclusions:

1)      That an animal instinctively feels what a human must think, its own that.
2)      That thinking the that means being the animal that the human already is.
3)      That the human becomes itself by sinking into the gravity of thinking (the lowest poynte of thi witte).
4)      That this gravity paradoxically elevates reason into a new intelligence of its own instinct, namely, intuition, the mode of spontaneous (as opposed to calculative) knowing that, resolving the difference between impulse and habit, creatively restores knowledge to an originary unknowing, knowing without knowledge.      
5)      That the negativity of that one is is the primordial and universal question, the pre-rational ground of logos, according to which it makes sense to say, as Ibn Arabi does, that “the whole world is living, intelligent, and speaking.”
6)      That the latency of essential unknowing in every entity means that each is, not metaphysical, but a metaphysics in the Aristotelian sense: an inquiry in which the subject and the object of study are identical.
7)      That mysticism is a pure science of the question, not irrational experience, but the superrational experience of experience, the conscious being of question itself, the question that one is.[4]          

For Heidegger, the what/that distinction constitutes the very openness of human being, the light whereby anything appears as being: “beings—wherever and however we approach them—already stand in the light of being. In the metaphysical sense, therefore, the distinction stands at the commencement of Dasein itself. . . . Man . . . always has the possibility of asking: What is that? And, Is it at all or is it not?” [5] I prefer to think of this distinction as a cardinal epistemic cut originating from the very beginning, a cut that has its own ending in mind. “In the Original Unity of the First Thing lies the Secondary Cause of All Things, with the Germ of their Inevitable Annihilation” (Edgar Allen Poe, Eureka). Toward this end, the unknowing animal points the way by embodying this distinction in extreme form. More precisely, the animal as animal, the animal split across the as structure appropriated by the human as its own domain, appears to be the very crisis of the what/that cut, a living fissure or wound in the fact of being.   As Agamben explains: “The animal is at once open and not open-or, better, it is neither one nor the other . . . Heidegger seems here to oscillate between two opposite poles, which in some ways recall the paradoxes of mystical knowledge—or, rather, nonknowledge. . . . 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). The weird, taskless task that animal theory may inherit from the Cloud-author is to see the human into being what Heidegger thought animals are.




[1] Cf. “For in all action what is principally intended by the agent, whether he acts by natural necessity or voluntarily, is the disclosure or manifestation of his own image. Whence it happens that every agent, insofar as he is such, takes delight. For, because everything that is desires its own being and in acting the being of an agent is in a certain way amplified, delight necessarily follows, since delight always attaches to something desired. Nothing acts, therefore, without being such as what is acted upon is supposed to become.” [Nam in omni actione principaliter intenditur ab agente, sive necessitate nature sive volontarie agat, propriam similitudinem explicare. Unde fit quod omne agens, in quantum huiusmodi, delectatur; quia, cum omne quod est appetat suum esse, ac in agendo agentis esse quodammodo amplietur, sequitur de necessitate delectatio, quia delectatio rei desiderate semper annexa est. Nichil igitur agit nisi tale existens quale patiens fieri debet] (Dante Alighieri, De monarchia, ed. Pier Giorgio Ricci [Verona: Mondadori, 1965], 1.13.2-3, my emphasis).
[2] To this may be compared Ibn Arabi’s more explicitly panpsychist observation that 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” (Meccan Revalations). As these examples show, the conceptual tendency of the recognition of an essential link between animals and God to elide the animal itself within its being a divine name for the human. Thus Pseudo-Dionysius writes in the Divine Names, “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.” So Augustine decisively separates the source and the agency of the theophanic animal word: “No part of your creation ever ceases to resound in praise of you. Man turns his lips to you in prayer and his spirit praises you. Animals too and lifeless things as well praise you through the lips of all who give them thought” (Confessions 5.1).
[3] Boistous, meaning crude, unlearned, simple, humble, unpretentious, strong, and crafty is applied to both animals and humans, and, strongly associated with voice and sound, carries the human within the aura of labor and positions its nature across the boundary between self and body. The word names the human, in all of its individuated, embodied, irreparable contingency, and at the same time recognizes its marvelous power to work, speak, and laugh within the absurd actuality of its existence.
[4] “There is nothing irrational in true mysticism when it is, as it should be, a vision of Reality. It is a form of perception which is absolutely unclouded, and so practical that it can be lived every moment of life and expressed in everyday duties. Its connection with experience is so deep that, in one sense, it is the final understanding of all experience” (Meher Baba, Discourses, revised 6th ed. [North Myrtle Beach, SC: Sheriar Foundation, 2007], I.7).
[5] Martin Heidegger, The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude, trans. William McNeill and Nicholas Walker (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995), 357.