BY RON BROGLIO
Assistant professor of English and senior scholar of the Global Institute of Sustainability at Arizona State University
I sat down to write this blog entry but the day got away from me. The morning began with me discussing the death of a beached whale with an artist working on the grammars of touch around this displaced, alien, corporeal mass of a body. Later in the day I find out my copy editor’s father is having heart surgery. In the evening, I find out a colleague is in the hospital. The day is unique only in its being typical—which is to say, we are situated in a world of vulnerability. Vulnerability is in the very comportment of our worlding.
These are hard realities, made harder because, as Cora Diamond notes, language and philosophy often deflect from the “difficulty of reality.” In other words, the mastery displayed in language and in philosophy seems to dissolve the rawness and vulnerability of being in the world. In writing and reading others’ works, language facilitates mastery of the task at hand. An apt description put succinctly in words seems to rise to the occasion and orient us to states of affairs. We feel better reading the liner notes, the artist statement, the critic’s review. These words are designed to illuminate, to make sense of the difficulty of reality.
However, vulnerability and the difficulty of reality are not sensible. To make sense of them is to misrepresent the strange intensity of events and the very disorientations that they bring into our worlds. Death and pain and the difficulty of reality cannot be written off, as it were, and to do so is only to do further violence to the event by covering it over in a veil of language (or as Cary Wolfe says, leveraging Jacques Derrida, a technicity of language).
I’ve been asked to blog about animals and art following the recent publication of my book Surface Encounters; in fact, this has been and remains a central problem in my writing: how can we come to terms with that which cannot be articulated in human concepts and language?
Specifically in this book I ask: What is an animal phenomenology?
Writing about animals is a tricky task for me as a humanimal. In writing about the radically other I fear that my frame is always from a human understanding which writes out, places out of bounds and in remainder, anything I can not subsume under the guise of human thought and language. The problem is further complicated in this particular book by writing about artists’ projects. So, there is the problem of how the artists successfully avoid using the animal to human ends and then my avoiding using the artists and the animals for my own ends. How can one respect and do justice to the another?
For me, writing in relation to the other, alongside another, is a question of style. How can I write in a way that does not co-opt the other into my project and that does justice to a complexity beyond my grasp? There are several tools of critical theory I put to service for this task. Primarily, I try to recognize at the outset the fragility of the project. That is to say, the project and its accompanying questions are without stable foundations. To ask “what is an animal phenomenology?” is to pose a question which from the outset is impossible to answer. As Thomas Nagel famously noted: I would have to be a bat to know what it is like to be a bat. Despite this impossibility, there are ways into the problem. Finding paths allows for developing tentative descriptions which are never answers that fulfill the demands of the question.
Another element of style is that of the bricoleur, one who cobbles things together from whatever materials are at hand and handy for the project. Cobbling can be opposed to crafting which invokes professional standards for measuring competencies and results which invoke teleological ends. Unlike craftsmanship, the cobbler’s work is what will do for the time being and whose project is never secure in itself. Such writing reveals its own seams and fabrication so as not to try to produce an illusion of mastery. The scaffolding for description and response to concepts points not to the certainty of the author(ity) but the utility and possibilities of the animals and the art about which I am writing. Cobbling together new relations among objects and ideas is not always successful but in at least some combinations produces useful results.
Style in writing becomes a mode of being open to the foreign, the alien, the animal other. It means staying exposed and vulnerable to ways of thinking that do not always neatly fit the categorical strictures of academic writing. Many of the animal artists featured in Surface Encounters show an ability to adapt to imperatives placed upon them by the animals and the materials of the art works. I have tried to learn from their art how to fashion a writing that keeps a space for that which is not mine, for the imperative of the animals.
Ron Broglio is author of Surface Encounters: Thinking with Animals and Art and assistant professor of English at Arizona State University.