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‘Are human animals agency addicts? Couldn’t we just bee?’ [1]

Though rhetorical, this question posed by writer Larissa Lai seems to sit up on its hind legs and beg for a response. Couldn’t we just bee. Well, couldn’t we?

Let’s see. First we might have to consider what just bee-ing consists of; is this bee-ing at the level of an ‘individual’ organism, a worker drone, say, stoically accepting our lot in life according to the laws of behavioural ecology? Or perhaps we envisage ourselves as Queen Bee (which we can’t all be); or, if we scratch the unhelpful category of individual altogether, perhaps bee-ing means scaling up to a species-wide view, which allows threats—often imperceptible at the level of singular organisms—to come into focus: loss of habitat, climate breakdown, intensive farming methods and colony collapse disorder. Perhaps this scalability is what bee-ing looks like: keeping one eye on the domestic hive, and the other on looming, species-wide extinction.

For this season of reviews and features, artists, writers and thinkers were invited to consider notions of bee-ing: how might we be with animals, be animals, or be with the trouble that comes from using ‘animal’ as an organisational category in the first place? Inviting contributions for an ‘animal-themed’ season set the scene quickly enough, but also too easily skimmed over teeming, multi-specied worlds of questions. Which animals are we talking about, anyway? ‘Real’ animals, like the faithful domestic you know by name, or the abstract totality of a species? The city-hardened, chip-fattened birds I can see from my window as I type, or the irksomely resilient fungus gnat maggots brewing alongside microfauna in the soil of my houseplants? Mythical animals? Animals as symbols or signs, like Wittgenstein’s infamous duck-rabbit? Are human animals agency addicts?

Kaninchen Und Ente Enlarge
'Rabbit and Duck' from the 23 October 1892 issue of Fliegende Blätter

These questions tap into an all too familiar frustration, piercingly described by writer Kathleen Jamie in an essay titled ‘Pathologies’. Jamie recounts her irritation after attending a one-day conference about humanity’s relationship with other species, at which participants variously extolled the beauty of the natural world and prescribed vague and universalised calls to ‘reconnect with nature’:

‘… the foreshortened definition of ‘nature’ was troubling me. I’d come home grumpy, thinking, ‘It’s not all primroses and otters’. There’s our own intimate, inner natural world, the body’s weird shapes and forms, and sometimes they go awry. There are other species, not dolphins arching clear from the water, but the bacteria that can pull the rug from under us.’ [2]

While It’s not all primroses and otters might be an alternative title for this season, in a recent science fiction novel by Larissa Lai, it is a literal, viral rug that pulls humanity off-balance. The Tiger Flu imagines a future riddled with a toxic zoonotic disease that, in a twist of present-day vulnerabilities, primarily affects men and the wealthy classes. [3] The titular flu is developed by recovering DNA from an antique rug—the skin of an extinct tiger—in order to reanimate the species, and ferment their bones to produce the highly addictive, profitable (and later contagious) ‘tiger wine’. The terrible consequences of this reintroduction throw an interesting light on contemporary debates around rewilding and GMO, intervention and agency. The Tiger Flu figures as an oblique warning, not only against attitudes of extraction and profit from the nonhuman world, but perhaps also the ways (and whys) we seek to reanimate what is lost.

As Phoebe Blatton puts it in a forthcoming review of two exhibitions in Berlin, Donna Haraway appears time and again as ‘the go-to theorist for any artist “working with animals”.’ Despite her many illuminating treatises on critters, kin and companion species, it is Haraway’s early writing on immunity and biopolitics that has most influenced this season’s editorial direction, particularly the notion that ‘extraordinary variations are the critical means of maintaining individual bodily coherence.’ [4] In other words, it is flux and fluidity, not fixity, that sews us together. How can microbial and immunological discourses—which apprehend the body as already multiple, a borderland of exchangeable self and non-self parts—help us think better about animals and ‘nonhuman’ others? How much nonhuman life can we house in our own guts, for instance, before we become nonhuman too?

Accordingly, in the many parts that make up Couldn’t we just bee? iterations of ‘animal’ are wide-roaming and free-range, eschewing neat species boundaries. Agencies and scales collide: following a recent publishing trend of critical animal glossaries, GSA’s Art + Ecology collective offer a speculative bacterial A-Z; Che Gossett explores Black radicalism and animality; Daisy Hildyard and Tom Jeffreys correspond about Hildyard’s The Second Body, pronouns and parasites; new cetacean fiction from Camilla Grudova; plus other creaturely reviews and features from Scotland and further afield.

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This season also remembers two writers and thinkers whose thoughts around species, co-existence and liveliness made breathing room for others. In memory of American poet Mary Oliver (1935-2019) and Australian philosopher Deborah Bird Rose (1946-2018).

[1] Larissa Lai, ‘An Ontology and Practice for Incomplete Futures’, Toward. Some. Air. ed. Fred Wah & Amy De’Ath, Banff Centre Press, 2015.

[2] Kathleen Jamie, ‘Pathologies’, Sightlines, Sort Of Books, 2012.

[3] Larissa Lai, The Tiger Flu, Arsenal Pulp Press, 2018.

[4] Donna Haraway, ‘The Biopolitics of Postmodern Bodies: Constitutions of Self in Immune System Discourse’, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women, Free Association Books, 1991.

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Daisy Lafarge is reviews editor at MAP