Birds of a Feather Assemble Together

By John (JP) Miller-Purrenhage

Contemplating the assemblages on the Kalamazoo College campus, I am drawn to memories of walking on the quad as a class; walking together in an attempt to mimic birds as they flock. Perhaps ‘mimic’ is the wrong word in this case- as I participated in this act my intent was not to ‘do what sparrows do when they flock’ but rather to feel with my fellow humans what sparrows feel between each other that allows them to flock. As we separated and converged we largely ignored the fabricated paths of sidewalks and stairs in favor of whatever path seemed natural in our ‘flock,’ and we drew the attention of passerby. Certainly what we did could be described as ‘unusual’ and I’m sure that to those who observed us we must have appeared so. In our specific endeavor to create our own assemblage as a class, I believe we acted in a way that disrupted the human element in some of the campus’s existing assemblages. Even in a constantly changing universe, we were able to use our agency on the quad to modify the existing assemblage to bring forth a brief and unique one between the class, the observers, the plants and animals on the quad and the human-made buildings and infrastructure.

Ingold explains in his article “Anthropology Beyond Humanity” that one way to understand the distinction between humans and other animals is our ability to define a third party and build relationships based on externalities; he notes that

Where nothing is fixed and everything to play for, life can be exceedingly complex, as indeed it is among the baboons. The more, however, that relations are grounded in externalities, the more they can be factored out and their aspects disaggregated. You can focus on one thing at a time without going adrift. While this considerably simplifies the tasks of social life, it also makes it possible to assemble simple, clear-cut operations into immensely complicated structures. The overall trend in social evolution, then, involves a trade-off between complexity and complication, in which the latter rises as the former falls (Ingold, “Anthropology Beyond Humanity,” 10).

I think it is probably not unreasonable for me to suggest that most human lives (and certainly the human lives at Kalamazoo College) are driven by our relationships to externalities (grades, money, current events, etc.). The systems of meaning in our languages, traditions and social norms are rooted in consistency; even when they change somewhat, there are always vestiges of what came before. When we walked across the quad as a group our most conspicuous behavior, I believe, was the way our movement and proximity seemed to subvert the normal way that humans move in groups. While we clearly were all ‘together,’ we were not huddled together in a clump nor did we form a line or a circle; we meandered and flowed in the same general direction with no ‘leader’ and no clear destination. Perhaps in our efforts to emulate flocking birds we were able to shed some of the ‘complications’ that usually drive our relationships and relearn our ability to interact with complexity.

The empathy and complexity that we used to interact with each other on the quad stood out as unusual despite the fact that we were merely humans interacting with humans; the stranger and more difficult task for us as students was to become more conscious of our relationship to the natural world on the quad. When Nikki visited our class, she explained how people practicing older traditions of agriculture can interact with the soil itself in a manner that to this day is unexplainable by western science. The closest explanation we have involves kinesthesiology, and as Nikki described the way that a human’s body can unconsciously perceive and relate to the universe I was reminded of words from our first day of class: “our bodies are mostly non-human.” I took off my shoes when we wandered on the quad, hoping I would be able to feel the universe through my feet, even if I didn’t have the first clue what it was telling me.

Looking around, I saw that each of us was trying to communicate with the plants or the animals on the quad in some way or another; even as I hopefully fumbled for a connection I could feel, I couldn’t help but cynically wonder: how many of us successfully communed with the earth? In Vibrant Matter, Bennett explains that “while the smallest or simplest body or bit may indeed express a vital impetus, conatus or clinamen, an actant never really acts alone” (Bennett, Vibrant Matter, 21). Why, then, is it so easy to feel alone? Why is the notion that we exist in a series of assemblages a novel idea?

The divide between humans may be due to the trade-off between complexity and complication, but I believe the divide between humans and nature is more imperialistic. The binary thinking that I have criticized throughout this quarter is, as Canguilhem explains, an “attitude typical of Western thought. On the theoretical level, the mechanization of life only considers animals to the extent that they serve mans’ technological ends. Man can only make himself the master and proprietor of nature if he denies any natural finality or purpose; and he must consider the whole of nature, including all life forms other than himself, as solely a means to serve his purposes” (Canguilhem, “Machine and Organism,” 52). Just as humans gained the ability to create lasting inventions at the cost of intricate relationships, we claimed mastery over the planet by sacrificing our unity with it; our ability to dominate is dependent on our capacity to separate ourselves from the other- to be alone.

The western method of creating binaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is an artificial system of meaning, of course, and as such it can be subverted by a change in perspective or a new discourse; this is the entire objective of Bennett’s book. As passerby looked at us with polite confusion and my cynical side wondered if what little connection I felt was contrived, I remembered Bennett asking herself similar questions when observing trash in the street: “was the real agent of my temporary immobilization on the street that day humanity, that is, the cultural meanings of ‘rat,’ ‘plastic,’ and ‘wood’ in conjunction with my own idiosyncratic biography? It could be. But what if the swarming activity inside my head was itself an instance of the vital materiality that also constituted the trash?” (Bennett, Vibrant Matter, 10). Asking the kind of ‘what if’ questions that Bennett poses here can help us become more receptive to the world around us, and in time we may be more receptive to the unspeakable messages we receive from the constantly shifting assemblages that we participate in.

At first glance, using Bennett’s discourse to improve our connection to nature is a paradox, since such a discourse is only possible with the human languages and conventions that render us distinct from nature in the first place; Haraway’s cyborg writing and Canguilhem’s argument for the organic machine, however, suggest that human inventions are the best and only way for humans to humble themselves to nature. The exercise of creating a flock and looking at the quad with new eyes is, of course, an act that was synthesized and carried out by humans with a specific motivation, but that by no means makes it any less valuable.

The human use of technology, whether it be scientific technology or social technology, is typically seen as somehow separate from nature. Canguilhem disagrees with this assumption, stating, “misled by the ambiguities of their view of mechanics, they (engineers) saw machines only as theorems in concrete forms… what I want to show is that the construction of machines can indeed be understood by virtue of certain truly biological principles, without having at the same time to examine how technology relates to science” (Canguilhem, “Machine and Organism,” 47). The notion that machines (and other human inventions) are only theorems in concrete forms places emphasis on human agency for creating theorems, as theorems do not exist in the natural world.

Tools, technology and even machines exist beyond human theory, however; birds of prey using fire as a hunting tool serves as a rather dramatic example of how technology is not exclusively used by humans. Further, the use of technology such as the wheel or the spear was developed long before any theory of mathematics or natural science. Ultimately Canguilhem suggests that just as it is natural for humans and animals alike to use tools, it is natural for humans to use machines as well. Using the machine as an example of humanity surpassing nature merely furthers the imperialistic notion of binaries to subjugate non-humans. As such, conceptualizing new discourses or practicing learning exercises in a class are both natural actions for humans, as well as the trade-off between complexity and complications.

Creating a flock to better experience the feeling of being in an assemblage isn’t just a natural act however, nor is it an experience derived purely from the human technology of ‘educational exercises;’ it is a cyborg act.

In Haraway’s sense of the word, cyborgs blur the lines between socially constructed binaries and notions of purity until no notion of purity, nor misplaced nostalgia for purity can remain. As Haraway explains, “a cyborg world might be about lived social and bodily realities in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints” (Haraway, The Cyborg Manifesto, 15). Flocking on the quad was, in many ways, an attempt to facilitate our understanding of our kinship with both the natural world of the quad with its plants and animals, but the mechanical world of the quad as well, becoming more cognizant of the placement of walls and sidewalks, choosing to adhere to them or ignore them. The combination of humanity, nature and technology that shared the quad when our class flocked like birds served as the kind of cyborg assemblage that can teach us that to be human is not to be superior–to be human is not to be alone.

flock 2

flock 1.jpg

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