The Unknown

By Paloma B. Campillo

This essay will act as a catch-all for all those actors in our assemblage that have escaped the reaches of language. Language is the practice of codifying knowledge, sensations, perceptions, and, ideally, all that is human and non-human. However, it would be incredibly presumptuous to assume that humans understand, let alone have words, for all those things within and outside of themselves. Initially, Bennett looks at the unknown within ourselves, approaching the question of the soul and vying, instead, for the secular reconfigurations of Kant, Driesch, etc. Bennett’s ambiguous, but not ethereal, vital force “is born in the negative spaces of the machine model of nature, in the ‘gaps’ in the ‘chain of strictly physico-chemical or mechanical events” (Bennett 2010, 70). Although not any sort of almighty gift, there is some vitality that exists in the cracks, outside of any physical perception or mechanistic explanation, and thus the “soul”, for lack of a better word, animates, creates agency, and requires ethical protection.

First, I must admit that I am not satisfied in the secular reconstruction of the soul; even in removing religiosity, one cannot remove faith from the discussion of the soul, because, as it exists, privately and internally, there is no means of empirically studying or understanding it. In even taking the soul/consciousness/entelechy/what have you as a given, one is making an act of faith. In starting from the soul, any chance of a purely secular argument is already gone. Thus, ignoring the religious connotations, I will continue to use the term soul, if only for the aesthetic value it holds. The soul exists always in obscurity; the language surrounding such is slippery, full of faith and marked by insecurity. The souls, the vitality and selfhood of humans and non-humans exist in the space where language ends. Intangible as it may be, the distinctly human selfhood encased in, or perhaps flowing throughout, the bodies of each person plays a critical role in the assemblage of this class, making it possible for even these insufficient words to exist. Almost paradoxically, our souls are the conduit through which we make sense of ourselves and the world we are a part of, however, it can never make perfect sense of itself.

Donna Haraway sees knowledge production as existing differently, although not in a hierarchy, from population to population, a term here I do not limit to humans. Moreover, she attempts to pinpoint a meaningful and non-violent relationship between subscribers of different knowledge practices. Here, she introduces the language of emergent ontologies and significant otherness; using examples from cross-cultural ethnographers, she makes the argument that being is active and ontologies are continuously created through interactions with human and non-human others. In this way, history, knowledge, and truth are produced socially, interculturally and in an interspecies way. As well, she introduces the notion of “partial connections” where “the players are neither wholes nor parts” (Haraway 2003, 8), and out of these come “significant otherness”; thus, the tentative interrelating of beings, in themselves neither completely a part of something larger, or fully whole and independent, is conducted necessarily for the cultivation of the future.

In that existence is the ever changing product of connections, it is essential to note all those interpersonal and interspecies connections, between all the humans and non-humans including, within, and external to ourselves. An assemblage is not only made up of human actors, but so too ought to incorporate non-humans, both those traditionally considered sentient and those not. Accordingly, Haraway goes on to focus upon the non-human other, using dogs as the subject. In her work, dogs have their own knowledge, history, interests, and agency that we can only understand from an outsider’s perspective. However, the project of Haraway’s work is more so to consider an ethical relationship between humans and dogs, and, more generally, with the other, than to fully understand that non-human other. On the other hand, Anna Tsing rises to the challenge of centering a story around non-human agents.

In her book, Tsing attempts to understand landscapes, trees, mushrooms, insects–that is, both humans and non-humans, as subjects with unique agency. However, in so doing, the agency of non-human subjects becomes shallow and rigid. This may simply be because, continuing Bennett’s discussion of entelechy/soul/etc., our language is hardly sufficient to fully translate into cohesive thoughts what it is to live with our own agency, let alone portray that of those whose experience of selfhood we will never know. For example, her discussion of inter-tree colonization comes across almost Hobbesian: different species of trees seek out as much territory as they can cover and compete for the land, with some species blocking out sunlight and killing off saplings of other species (Tsing 2015, 169). Non-humans are shown as simple and logical, having a self-interest and pursuing it. This trend follows in most attempts at relaying non-human agency and vital materialism, and is resultant of the anthropocentric nature of language.

In that knowledge production is relative from population to population, it follows that human knowledge is heavily anchored in humanity, universalizing human propensities and characteristics and understanding the rest of the world in relation to, if not in reflection of, the human. Our knowledge has not yet incorporated and our language does not have the capacity to communicate the nuances that exist within non-human others’ experience of being. We hardly have adequate words to do the same for ourselves. Thus, in discussions of non-human actors, one will likely either follow in Tsing’s oversimplified example, or possibly overestimate the capacity of language and, in so doing, produce an anthropomorphized caricature like Bennett. While Bennett argues for the merit in anthropomorphism in its ability to engender empathy for non-humans, the potential of such is limited. Primarily, this is because empathy contingent upon anthropomorphism reproduces the notion that empathy ought to be reserved for humans and contributes to understandings of humans as hierarchically superior to non-humans.

Ultimately, the parts of our assemblage that can be easily translated are not the only, nor the most important. Instead, there are countless factors at play that we might never understand well enough to put words to, but, nonetheless, contribute necessarily to the workings of the assemblage as a whole. Here exist the souls of humans and non-humans, the partial connections, changing states of being, the knowledge of non-humans, the connections between non-humans, the connections within, with, and outside of ourselves, and all those things that can’t be fully understood and that transcend any mechanistic model of being. Within the classroom, confusion and unknowing came to be normal components in discussion, an output of this assemblage; in thinking, reading, discussing, not knowing was to be expected. However, within the physical space of the classroom, within the bodies of all those therein, in between each actor, the realm of the unknown expands from the intellectual to a relatively more concrete role as an actor in the production of our collective present and interdependent future.

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