Wednesday 16 July 2008

wac wac

for Alphonso Lingis

'The concept speaks the event, not the essence or the thing – pure Event, a hecceity, an entity: the event of the Other or of the face (when, in turn, the face is taken as concept). It is like the bird as event’ (Deleuze and Guattari 1994: 21).

An attentive listening to the animal life of texts can offer a means of tracking those animal others that pass through them and murmur within them, of reading (some of) the signs they leave and hearing (some of) what they may have to say. Such animal life often takes shape in the recurrence of particular species that coexist and interact to constitute a bestiary, and as Gary Genosko has suggested: ‘In general, one may say of any bestiary that it is a machine for theory-making’ (Genosko 2002: 48). Close scrutiny of the bestiaries that inhabit certain art and textual practices can amplify political and ethical narratives, positionalities, propositions, potentialities, and can enable a tentative mapping of implied relations between zoe (the simple fact of living, Giorgio Agamben’s ‘bare life’) and bios (the relational form of living, social and political life). 

Think of Deleuze and Guattari and their pack multiplicities - wolves, ticks, rats – and the theoretical work their swarmings and symbioses perform in destabilising the singular, essentialist subject of humanism. Think of Joseph Beuys and his European hare, American coyote, stag, horse, wolf, sheep, and sea birds, as well as the various animal by-products to which he returned repeatedly as material: fat, felt, honey, butter, blood. Think of Peter Greenaway and his archaeopteryx – the fossil remains of a transitional reptile bird – and those metamorphic Ovidian creatures that ghost so much of his work: sphinx, mermaid, centaur, chimera, gorgon, minotaur.

This text seeks to focus on animal life as articulated within certain of Alphonso Lingis’s writings, in particular on one of those animals whose recurrence seems to constitute a component of a performative bestiary, and its implications for thinking through ‘a phenomenology of sensibility’ (Lingis 1994a: 122) and the dynamic economies of the event of ethical inter-relatedness. In common with other research on animals and/in performance I have undertaken in recent years, what follows is informed by recurrent questions: How might one interact with another whose difference is recognised as an active event, rather than a failure of plenitude? What are the productive qualities of alterity? In what ways might one work (in) an existential in-between and perceive other-wise? How, in Jean-Luc Nancy’s terms, might one ‘think on the limit’ (Nancy 1997:70) and ex-pose oneself to the event/advent of meaning? In other words, if the ‘animal’ comprises a constitutive outside of the ‘human’, (how) can this limit-horizon be experienced as ‘not that at which something stops but [...] that from which something begins its presencing’ (Heidegger 1971:154)?

Birds in particular proliferate in Lingis’s writings: quetzal, bird of paradise, sage grouse, condor. Although I will focus primarily on just one of these, the quetzal, it is not only bird species that are at issue here. For the bestiarist, as Genosko points out, ‘animals tend to multiply’ (Genosko 2002: 48); and, before long, one finds oneself in the company of crocodile, conch, moth, sphinx …

The intruder

'The agency of welcome and summons could well be other animals’ (Lingis 1998: 44)

An animal other constitutes an alterity that arrests, contests, and commands the (im)possibility of understanding. It comes as an intruder and an authority, in excess of one’s own cognitive emprise. Rupturing the confines of one’s own practicable fields – one’s maps of ‘means, ends, paths, obstacles and goals’ (Lingis 2002) - it approaches as ‘the surface of another imperative’ (Lingis 1994a: 34). The otherness of an-other faces me and appeals to my ability to respond (response-ability): here I am. ‘What faces is what the meaning one might give to this surface cannot contain’ (ibid, 66). 

How to respond when confronted with this abrupt and singular apparition, this anomalous and exclamatory event of sensuous materiality, this inter-face, recognising without ego-logical reduction to the selfsame codings and categories? In Lingis’s terms, how to become the ‘sensuality accomplice’ of the ‘one that is one of its kind: quetzal bird, savage, aboriginal, guerrilla, nomad, Mongol, Aztec, sphinx’ (ibid, 67)? Lingis’s list unfolds associationally, spiralling out from a specific animal species to implicate some of those who, historically, have suffered the effects of bestialising discourses of animality: the oppressed, the dispossessed, the colonised, the outlaw, the political outsider, the ‘enemy’, the disappeared, the enigmatic. This elliptical and critical historiography of the imperialist world’s repressive constitution of homogenised, anonymous difference traces a cartography of the human (all too human) animal’s constitution of, and hypostatising relations with, its ‘animal others’.

Wac wac

Pharomachrus mocinno Trogonidae - QUETZAL 14 (add 24 for male’s tail plumes) ins. Neotropical: S Mexico to Costa Rica and Panama; resident rain forest of oaks, alders, laurels up to 9.000 ft in S, 7,000 ft in N of range. Male: upper parts, including head, narrow ridged crest, neck and upper breast intense irridescent green; lower breast, belly, under tail coverts crimson; golden green wing coverts hide black flight feathers; upper tail coverts golden green glossed blue or violet, two central feathers elongated to form train; outer tail feathers white; legs blackish, bills yellow, eyes black. Female: upper parts as male, but head smoky grey; breast and much of belly dark grey; lower belly and under tail coverts paler than male; longest upper tail coverts only slightly exceed tail; outer tail feathers narrowly barred black; bill, eyes black. Upright perching posture, fanning tail when alarmed; male drops backward off perch to save train. Undulating flight, calling wac wac; varied vocabulary of musical calls … (Campbell 1983: 313)

The quetzal was among the most sacred of creatures for the civilisations of Mesoamerica, the Mayans and Aztecs, for whom it represented freedom - a quetzal is reputed to die in captivity – and wealth. Its exquisite twin tail feathers were worn as part of ceremonial dress by Mayan nobles and priests, and traded as commodities more highly valued than gold. For the Mayans, the killing of a quetzal was a capital offence; feathers were harvested from birds that were then released back into the forest. Quetzal numbers diminished significantly with the arrival of the Spanish, who hunted the birds as trophies. In recent decades, the unregulated clearing of forests, in particular for coffee plantations, has generated an unprecedented drop in the numbers of countless species native to these ecologically sensitive environments, including the quetzal. At present, the ‘quetzal’ is the unit of Guatamalan currency, and a representation of a male quetzal adorns the Guatamalan flag.

Part of my own fascination with the quetzal relates to two curious instances of anomalous inversion or reversal, one structural, one behavioural-motoric. Firstly, unique amongst bird species and in common with other members of its taxonomic grouping the trogonidae, it is zygodactylous, with its inner second toe pointing backwards. Secondly, when a male quetzal flies from a tree it falls backwards off its perch, unfolding into the blindspot behind like a skindiver, to protect its resplendent tail feathers. Like Walter Benjamin’s angel of history, it moves backwards into the future (Benjamin 1970: 259-60).

But what is the one quetzal that is one of its kind? En route to a first meeting with Al Lingis at the Natural History Museum in London, passing the exhibition of ‘Dino-Birds: The Feathered Dinosaurs of China’, I looked for a quetzal out of a sentiment of respect for this mythical creature displaced from the elements of its cloud forest canopy. Just past the gift shop, in Gallery 40, a pair of quetzals is mounted immutably on perches in a crowded glass-fronted display case entitled “Birds of the South American rainforests”, alongside ‘specimens’ of toucans, macaws, cream-coloured woodpeckers, paradise jacamas, crested oropendula, plum-throated cotinga. The female quetzal stares forlornly into the top-left hand corner of the case, the male beside her with his back to onlookers, his tail feathers made available to the human gaze; beneath the tail hovers a tiny emerald Andean hummingbird. 

When confronted with the semiotic intensity and confusion of the taxidermist’s surreal mise en scène, where the animal dead are required to mimic the silenced silhouettes of the quick in a context in which history is replaced with serial classification, what is the nature of the bird-as-event that one is witness to, and how to map its gravity and the connectivities of its undulating lines of flight? Spatially we encounter a complex interplay of exposure and concealment, ordered collection and unpredictable recollection, fixity and things-in-motion, in an intersecting field of gazes and modalities of seeing. The glass of the display case is both transparent and reflective, bouncing our own faces back at us, showing us a picture of ourselves looking. In such a context what is the possibility of passibilité, Jean-Luc Nancy’s term for the transitivity of the inter-subjective? In other words, how to be actively receptive as witness, capable of being affected by the arrested irruptive life that ghosts these inanimate shadows of presence, and how to write these unstable signs of the past into the present?

I told Al about my visit, and described the birds’ faded chests and tail feathers, further subdued by the subaquatic gloom of this section of the museum display. He replied, oh are there some here, the quetzal is an endangered species, its habitat is being destroyed, I’ve never seen one in the wild. Neither have I. The one quetzal that is one of its kind is a figure of desire, a surface of vulnerability, a feathered intruder on the cusp of disappearance.

Feather (from Greek for ‘wing’):
• appendage, plumage, display, decoration, mark of honour, badge of fool, emblem of cowardice (a white feather in a game-bird’s tail is a mark of ‘inferior breeding’); commodity, ‘to feather one’s nest’; a tuft of hair on humans & horses

• a very small part of anything, almost weightless, of little strength or importance; lightness, discretion, secrecy, a trifle, flimsiness

• weaponry (arrows), ballistics: to pierce, wound (‘bury an arrow to the feather’)

• a blemish or flaw having a feather-like appearance (in an eye, or a precious stone)

• hunting: hound’s quivering movement of tail and body while searching for the trail

• related to health or weather (‘in fine/high feather’)

An-other history

‘Everything that is resounds’ (Lingis 1998: 99)

During the week in which a former body building champion and current Hollywood movie star was elected as the Republican governor of California, the very epicentre of the society of the spectacle, I remember a text by Lingis about the phantasmal bodies of body builders, in which he describes the emergence of performative body morphologies: 'without relevance for the practicable objectives of the world. They belong to another history, that of the enigmatic imperatives obeyed by the slow-creeping triton conch designing another coil of arabesques on its shell, the swallow-tailed moth fluttering forth from its cocoon that cannot feed itself and dies in a few days, the quetzal bird shimmering its filmy plumes fit for the Aztec gods’ (Lingis 1994b: 25)

The quetzal unwittingly enacts an anachronistic ritual art glorifying the beauty of the body’s surfaces and exposing them to view. With the slow unfolding rhythms of evolutionary expression, such animal bodies contrive to externalise organs-destined-to-be-apprehended, their anomalous forms only intelligible when related to the powers of the witnessing-organs for which they were designed. In Lingis’s quasi-sacred ethological narrative of non-utilitarian autopoiesis, identity is ephemeral aesthetic exposure, the decorated body as excessive display-to-be-seen by another of its (divine) kind in the biological imperative of generic attraction and genetic selection. Expression implies an ecological relation, rather than an egological subject. Flaring and sparking with ultraviolet signals imperceptible to human eyes, the intensive shimmer of the quetzal’s filmy plumes resounds within the elemental murmur of the world: 

‘To live is to echo the vibrancy of things. To be, for material things, is to resonate. There is sound in things like there is warmth and cold in things, and things resonate like they irradiate their warmth or their cold. The quail and the albatross, the crows and the hummingbirds, the coyotes and the seals, the schooling fish and the great whales, the crocodiles infrasonically and the praying mantises ultrasonically continue and reverberate the creaking of the branches, the fluttering of the leaves, the bubbling of the creeks, the hissing of the marsh grasses, the whirring of the winds, the shifting of the rocks, the grinding of the earth’s plates’ (Lingis 1994a: 96-7)

The thing with feathers

'What is retained or preserved, therefore created, what consists, is only that which increases the number of connections’ (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 508)

On spring mornings, my home on the edge of Dartmoor resonates with sound as migrant and indigenous birds arrive, seek mates, construct nests, articulate sonic territories: an expressive assemblage of refrains, semiotic and pragmatic. The roof of the porch of my house seems to offer a temporary refuge for certain birds, a stopping-point on a variety of intersecting flight paths. Every morning as I leave my home I encounter the traces of birds in passage, my appearance startling them into sudden flight, causing them to drop some of the materials they have gathered for their nests. Grasses, foliage, feathers, sheep’s wool and horse’s hair, as well as a variety of surprising objects of uncertain provenance: a bloodied plaster still in the shape of the finger it once wrapped, a shiny metal filter from an engine, and one bright morning shortly after the CIVICcentre events in London, a Christy Moore CD called Ride On with a visible beak-shaped indentation. I found the CD on the ground beside a sparrow hawk’s wing feather. 

Over the next few days, I wrote the following notes in a flurry of unresolved connective associations. The notes are included here to suggest a certain unfinishable momentum, a porosity and overflowing, an openness to unpredictable becomings in and beyond the paramaters of this textual mapping, an unravelling:

- Cixous: ‘vol’ – flight/theft – writing – bird & burglar: ‘hesheits pass, hesheits fly by, hesheits pleasure in scrambling spatial order, disorienting it, moving furniture, things, and values around, breaking in, emptying structures, turning the selfsame, the proper upside down’ (Cixous and Clément 1986: 96);

- Angela Carter’s Fevvers in Nights at the Circus, aerialist with eyes on her breasts;

- the fall of the Simorgh’s feather in China at the beginning of Attar’s Conference of the Birds, the trigger for the birds to go in search of him (a bird made up of many birds);

- ‘fall’, ornithologists’ term for the arrival on land of migrant birds. The ‘arrival’ of asylum seekers from Bahrain/Delhi in the wheelbase of international airliners, tipped out into the skies above West London on the approach to Heathrow. Cf. ‘sightfalling’ and ‘groundrush’ in skydiving. Cf. Greenaway’s film The Falls (the Violent Unknown Event), Ana Mendieta, Francesca Woodman;

- ‘the things that fall are what we treasure most: attendants in the house of gravity … nothing is ever solid in itself, and substance is another form of sleep, as feathers are …’ John Burnside, ‘Icarus/Of Gravity and Light’ (Burnside 2002: 35-6);

- ** Emily Dickinson, somewhere: ‘hope is the thing with feathers’ **

- Calvino’s ‘hidden city’ of Marozia in Invisible Cities, the rats’ becoming-swallow, deterritorialising lines of flight within the soldered structures of the selfsame – he ‘describes’ it, as one might say a jet describes an arc across the sky; constitutive critical fictions for rats (Calvino 1974: 154-5);

- ** Cornelia Parker’s defamiliarising photograms of displaced/nomadic feathers, collapsing the historiographic, the heroic, the talismanic/reliquary, the functional, the everyday – ‘Feather that went to the top of Everest (in the jacket of Rebecca Stevens, the first British woman to climb Mt Everest)’, ‘Feather that went to the South Pole (in the sleeping bag of explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes)’, ‘Feather from a wandering albatross’ (from the British Antarctic Survey, Cambridge), ‘Raven feather from the Tower of London’, ‘Feather from Benjamin Franklin’s attic’: display of the crumpled quill Dickens used to write his last novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. The ‘projection’ of a feather extracted from Freud’s couch …;

- Etienne-Jules Marey’s bird inscription machines and mechanical birds (ornithopters);

- Doreen’s final words in Caryl Churchill and David Lan’s A Mouthful of Birds: ‘I can find no rest. My head is filled with horrible images. I can’t say I actually see them, it’s more that I feel them. It seems that my mouth is full of birds which I crunch between my teeth. Their feathers, their blood and broken bones are choking me. I carry on my work as a secretary’ (Churchill and Lan 1986: 71);

- Bill Viola’s I do not know what it is I am like – ‘untimely’ encounter with an-other: Nietzsche’s lightning strike ‘event’; loving the elsewhere of the other;

- why do I collect feathers? what falls ‘outside’ history – the contingent, singular, transient, alterity; feathers as same-and-different, the ‘rhyme’ of form; ephemera, traces of undecidable passage elsew/here, unfinishability (the impossibility of closing such a collection in ‘totality’); metonymic objects, associational rhizome - falling and flying, loss and possibility, ‘the tears of things’. Calvino quoting Valéry: ‘One should be light like a bird, and not like a feather’ (Calvino 1988: 16). Cf. Walter Benjamin on collecting: ‘The true passion of the collector is always anarchistic, destructive. For this is its dialectic: by loyalty to the thing, the individual thing, salvaged by him, he evokes an obstinate, subversive protest against the typical, the classifiable’ (Benjamin quoted in Esther Leslie 1999);

- ** ‘the multiple must be made’ (Deleuze & Guattari 1987: 6): the pragmatics and connectivities of nomad thought, dérive as methodology (the drift is playful in a purposeful way: attend to the fiction of patterns appearing); a poethics of the dynamic relational axis entre l’une et l’autre … et … et …

Postscript: Maat

Just before leaving CIVICcentre, I left a card for Al Lingis with the following words from Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium, from the chapter on ‘Exactitude’: 'For the ancient Egyptians, exactitude was symbolized by a feather that served as a weight on scales used for the weighing of souls. This light feather was called Maat, goddess of the scales. The hieroglyph for Maat also stood for a unit of length – the 33 centimeters of the standard brick – and for the fundamental note of the flute’ (Calvino 1988: 55).

The connective nexus of music, architecture and mortality. A feather as the core unit of measure in harmonic scales, built environments and the active vanishings of death. The gravitied lightness of a musical note, a constructed space, a life lived. The sonic tone of a feather, and a house, and their ephemerality.

Everything that is resounds. Wac wac -

Agamben, Giorgio (1998). Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen), Stanford: Stanford University Press

Benjamin, Walter (1970). ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, in Illuminations, London: Jonathan Cape, 255-66

Burnside, John (2002). The Light Trap, London: Jonathan Cape

Calvino, Italo (1974). Invisible Cities, London and New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich

Calvino, Italo (1988). Six Memos for the Next Millennium, New York: Vintage Books

Campbell, Bruce (1983). The Dictionary of Birds, London: Peerage Books

Churchill, Caryl and David Lan (1986). A Mouthful of Birds, London: Methuen

Cixous, Hélène and Catherine Clément (1986). The Newly Born Woman, Manchester: Manchester University Press

Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Félix (1987). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Félix (1994). What is Philosophy? New York: Columbia University Press

Genosko, Gary (2002). ‘A bestiary of territoriality and expression: poster fish, bower birds, and spiny lobsters’, in Brian Massumi (ed.), A Shock to Thought: Expression after Deleuze and Guattari, London and New York: Routledge, 47-59

Greenaway, Peter (1992a). 100 Objects To Represent The World, Vienna: Hatje/Academy of Fine Arts

Greenaway, Peter (1992b). Prospero’s Books, London: Chatto & Windus

Heidegger, Martin (1971). Poetry, Language, Thought, New York: Harper and Row

Nancy, Jean-Luc (1997). The Gravity of Thought, New Jersey: Humanities Press

Leslie, Esther (1999). ‘Telescoping the Miscroscopic Object: Benjamin the Collector’, The Optic of Walter Benjamin, London: Black Dog Publishing (de-, dis-, ex- volume 3)

Lingis, Alphonso (1994a). The Community of Those With Nothing in Common, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press

Lingis, Alphonso (1994b). Foreign Bodies, London and New York: Routledge

Lingis, Alphonso (1998). The Imperative, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press

Lingis, Alphonso (2002). ‘The Dreadful Mystic Banquet’,

Lingis, Alphonso (2003). ‘Animal Body, Inhuman Face’, in Cary Wolfe (ed.), Zoontologies: The Question of the Animal, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 165-82

Stafford, Peter (1999). ‘Surface Noise/Silent Sea’, Performance Research 4:3 (‘On Silence’), Winter, 47-50

Originally published as ‘The thing with feathers’, in Performance Research 9:4 (‘On Civility’: ed. Alan Read), Winter 2004, pp. 59-65.
© PR/David Williams

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