On Borders and the Labor of Knowing the World
On Borders and the Labor of Knowing the World
“Habet speculum philosophus! Possidet speculum philosophus!“
–Sicinius Pudens after Apuleius, Apologia (13.5)
–Sicinius Pudens after Apuleius, Apologia (13.5)
I begin, as we all do, after Derrida. In L'Animal que donc je suis, Jacques Derrida writes repeatedly of a crossing of borders between human and animal, between zoē and bios, between life and death, between life and technology. Because it was not his concern in the talks, it is not mentioned, but I cannot help but think of how much work border crossings require. For some of us, depending on which side of what border we are seeking passage towards, it is a lot of paper work, work done by papers like passports or the Schengen treaty, or work done filling out papers like visa applications. For others, it is the work required to survive beyond the pollice verso that permits or prohibits a crossing, sometimes at the cost of life. For some of those who paid this cost already and whose bodies are held hostage behind alien borders by such necropolitical machines, it is the work required to re-enter the land of life where they can be mourned by those still alive. And for those still alive under an interminating and murderous siege, it is simply the stubborn work of life. What work does it take to cross the borders Derrida spoke and wrote about? Which bureaucrats and what police will see whether our papers are in order?
In the following, I will attempt to address the border tensions between animals, technology and humans. In doing so, I will end up reaffirming a diagnosis of our state of affairs that has already been pronounced by many: the diagnosis that this triadic border, though it never was quite stable and its very existence is suspect, is in upheaval; that the human is gradually being displaced outside of its position at the center of culture. This conclusion is both vague and long-established, being, as it is, both premise and outcome of fields like animal studies and anthropozoology, and of the sundry schools of thought called posthumanism, actor-network theory, speculative realism, immanent naturalism and so on. But the path I choose to arrive to this conclusion, I believe, still possesses some explanatory power. This is because the animal’s ascent is in more ways than one premised on portable photographic media, an intimate entanglement whose implications have not yet been exhausted.
In their analysis, Lynda Birke, Tora Holmberg, and Kirilly Thompson consider human and animal passports as technologies of identification, belonging and biosecurity (of movement, meat and disease). Passports are just one among many portable media, one among many clues to the transforming position of ‘the animal’1 in the hierarchy of life. ‘GPS tags reveal the secret life of urban seagulls,’ heralds a recent article in The Guardian, reporting on a study of four urban-dwelling herring gulls in Cornwall. ‘This study demonstrates that gulls behave as individuals and there can be no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to managing their populations.’2 The study and responses to it seem to almost inaugurate a hitherto unknown category of being whose secretive life as an urban citoyen is not, as the headline implies, simply discovered as if it had always been there, but only first produced through GPS monitoring. It is very telling that the seagull’s emancipation into personhood – which begins with the recognition that the birds have individually characteristic and varying behaviors – is thinkable only if it is articulated in the same sentence as the need to control biopolitically the population it constitutes. Where animals cross paths with technology, new mechanisms of power and new forms of labor and cultural practice take shape. The photographic regime of our world (by which I mean a world in which the transmission, recording and manipulation of visible light and other parts of the electromagnetic spectrum are paramount to the operation of political, economic, scientific and cultural structures) serves not merely as an evidentiary or representing power in their emergence, but is rather their condition of possibility.
Two critical technological developments of the last three decades have opened a field of possibility in which assemblages of animal and inanimate capacities can be made to perform new labor for humans. First, the miniaturization of photo, video and radio recorders and transmitters, and second, their energy-efficiency. GPS, GLS and cellular surveillance (or what is more commonly addressed with the benign term telemetry when it concerns nonhumans) are some of the technics that seem eerily suited to interface with animals. An exemplary international project is ICARUS, which, beginning in July 2018, will continuously monitor tens of thousands of insects, birds, bats and fish from the International Space Station using extremely lightweight radio equipment. The data is distributed via the free Movebank database. ‘Once we put together all the information on mobile animals,’ ICARUS project head and ornithologist Martin Wikelski reports in a promotional video, ‘then we have a completely different, new understanding of life on Earth.’ ICARUS merely extends to a planetary scale what is already commonplace locally. Gulls with GPS are used to discover illegal waste dump sites in Spain, and vultures additionally equipped with GoPro cameras do the same in Peru. Wireless ‘Marine Skins’ are being developed for oceanic animals to log environmental data, and stray dogs wearing ‘smart vests’ patrol neighborhoods in Bangkok. The vests are equipped with bark-activated cameras, delegating the autonomy for initiating the recording (and thus responsibility for data management) to the dogs. In another example that went viral some months ago, Dutch police recently began training eagles to hunt another flighted surveillance species: illegal drones. Meanwhile, police drones in California are treated ‘like a canine unit.’ As an ‘Internet of Animals’ wants to connect lost pets and simultaneously analyze their emotions and health data,3 old Aibo robot dogs receive Buddhist funerals in Japan, and a company in the US uses radio transmitters glued to cows’ bodies to monitor their estrus cycles and algorithmically analyze details of their mounting activities in order to ‘[save] time, labor, semen, and money.’
These examples are revealing of the complex, reticulate and rarely unambiguous borders between living and inanimate, human and nonhuman matter(s). With remarkable mutual transitivity, mobile photographic devices and animals co-emerge as technologies of surveillance, governance, policing, reproduction and mourning. The newfound interest in the animal also informs the popularity of documentary films and television series in the tradition of the BBC Natural History Unit and steers the development of photographic technology. The desire to enter and know the animal’s purportedly secretive world encourages further miniaturization, more precise remote control, more convincing clandestine cameras that take (away) the animal’s form in order to observe and monitor it. As if in hostile territory, the ‘spy cameras’ made by teams around zoologist and photographer John Downer impersonate the animal so well that their appearance and behaviors are increasingly indistinguishable from their living template.
Marek Janovic: Spy Creatures
These devices of technical clairvoyance (as John Berger once called them) are far from passive. They are animated with an intense carnality by the animals whose terrains they infiltrate; they are played with, smelled, licked, mimicked, attacked, courted, mounted, urinated on, destroyed, even mourned. The animal and the machine are interlocked components of each other. This truth resonates nowhere more loudly than in the aural archive of natural heritage built by superb lyrebirds, whose mating calls famously include the noise of portable media like camera shutters.
Often, this interpenetration takes on an even more extreme hue. To inhibit the skyrocketing poaching of rhinoceros in South Africa, reserves have started drilling holes into the animals’ horns and fitting them with cameras and GPS devices. Exacerbating ‘the implicit connections between looking and extinction’(Pick 2015, 108), portable media are literally embedded and embodied in the animal – a bizarre twist on Cartesian animality, in which the rhinoceros, a living recording apparatus, occupies the perverse task of livestreaming its own extinction as a last resort to prevent it.
None of this is, in a purely chronological sense, new. Portable photographic machines and animals have been, in various arrangements with each other, used as media of data collection, transmission, warfare and surveillance for centuries: from photographer René Dagron who attached his microfilm compression technology to carrier pigeons to establish communication channels during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, or Julius Neubronner whose pigeons with time-delayed cameras commenced aerial photography at the very beginning of the 20th century, to B. F. Skinner’s pigeon-controlled bomb experiments from World War II.4 What is genuinely new, however, is the systematicity and pervasiveness of animals’ functioning as critical nodes in a comprehensive, distributed and global electronic lattice. If animals were always performing labor for humans locally, now they are a bio-techno-logical swarm that senses, produces and predicts knowledge about the entire world.
Film and literature scholar Anat Pick rearticulates the ‘human desire to make animals unconditionally visible’5 as an ethical problem operating on the level of animal privacy, and thus dignity. This important point is not diminished but rather accentuated by how extremely tenuous privacy has become also for humans.6 In fact, one might convincingly make the case that the animal observing network is contiguous with the profoundly creepy photographic complex that spans from satellites orbiting our planet to the devices we keep in closest proximity to our bodies; a network that also habitually records and taxidermizes human faces, voices, retinas and the topography of our skin. But while not-looking has been proposed by Randy Malamud, Anat Pick and others as a potentially constructive way of relating to animals, it is also true – and I mean this is as an observation, not a justification – that we need the animal epistemic machine in order to understand an increasingly inscrutable world. In contrast to the turn-of-the-century world of Dagron and Neubronner, the knowledge produced by animals is now a non-negotiable precondition of our survival, and our imperative to action. Even as the Earth drowns in human-made noise, animals create signal. Without it, we cannot understand the chaotically drifting climatic borders, the changing chemical composition of the environment, the patterns of self-defensive migration or the progressing health crises and evolving survival strategies. This is, as Bogna Konior recently put it, ‘life [knowing] life through itself’ (2017, 118).
Performing these strange kinds of labor, animals compel us to acknowledge them as a new class of worker who produces images and data, a type of labor we commonly attribute to ‘cognitive workers’ when it is done by humans. This work can be added to the many categories of productive nonhuman activity that have been recognized of late.7 Among them are the surprisingly late realization that nonhumans have excellent affective labor skills (as therapy animals/therapy chatbots or commercialized as healing services in form of cat and owl cafés8), in addition to other kinds of work done by animals in law enforcement, warfare, research and in medicine, where nonhumans (both electronic and organic) outperform human physicians in the diagnosis of some diseases. Moreover, and this is crucial, it is the animals themselves – their species-specific technics and proclivities like scavenging, their unique sensory aptitudes and capacities for action – who begin to offer viable technological solutions to political, social, and ecological problems in human society, including the catastrophic environmental crises of our own making.
The human/nonhuman dialectic is often mistakenly phrased on the level of speech, intelligence, empathy or aesthetic discernment. In reality, it is an optical problem. Derrida – like John Berger before him, and many others – recognized this. When Derrida makes himself fathomable to himself as human in the gaze of the cat, he is following a venerable ritual that uses animals as specular objects. The animal in Western philosophy and literature of the modern era traditionally serves to provide a mirror-like surface; that is, the animal’s usefulness lies in how it reveals something about who we are. It does that for as long as it looks at us, as long as Rilke or Baudelaire recognize their gaze in the cat’s eye. Until (roughly) the end of the 19th century, the animal is commensurable with the optical properties of a mirror: a mirror as such does not initiate a gaze, it can only return one.9 John Berger encapsulated this when he wrote, ‘[human observation] of animals is an index of our power, and thus an index of what separates us from them’ (Berger 1980, 14).
With the emergence of photography – particularly once photographic equipment becomes fast and portable – a number of fissures become apparent in this opto-ocular configuration. The possibility for the animal to look and to look away, of its own accord, creeps in.
In his book Bilder aus Versehen, Peter Geimer notes that the authorship and the views contained in Julius Neubronner’s carrier pigeon photographs are both always indeterminate: with the pigeons carrying the cameras on their breast and the cameras firing automatically, there is no authorial intervention nor a corporeal act of sight that corresponds to anything seen by a living spectator at the moment of exposure.10 Whatever is at play in the resulting photographs originates from a machine and an animal in collaboration; a look not contained by traditional anthropic notions of the photographic gaze. Projects like the University of Georgia’s Kitty Cams (which monitors outdoor activities of cats through video and radio tracking) or SheepView360° (which promises to ‘[e]xplore the Faroe Islands as an Animal’) of course fail their promise to make us see the world through animals’ eyes. The recordings, after all, are made by machines from a vantage point external to the animal’s body and adjusted to photograph the world in ways that remain legible to humans. Anat Pick maintains that such approximations sustain a deep anthropocentrism,11 but I would counter that the Kitty Cams and SheepViews are nevertheless valuable in recognizing, at the very least, the presence of an alternate view of the world, a point of view not occupied by a human.12 Occasionally, this posthuman gaze is, as it should be, bewildering.
Google’s Dog View project is a special subsection of Street View which maps some areas around the city of Ōdate, Japan ‘from the perspective’ of an Akita dog. The dog-mapped areas are irritatingly glitchy and discontinuous. Unlike Street View cars, the cameras mounted on dogs’ backs follow the swiveling movements of the canines, resulting in erratic perspectives and responding in puzzling ways to commands one would normally use to traverse Street View spaces. This – to recontextualize Sara Ahmed – ‘disorientation of encountering the world differently’(Ahmed 2006, 20) is typical of animal recordings and resonates with the spectacular whirls, jerky motion, volatile framing, thuds, pops, cracks and other visual and aural cues common in videos made by animals. In failing the interface design mantras of seamless user experience and frictionless interaction, Dog View navigates almost like a contemporary net art piece, for a brief moment calling into question even the human-oriented designation of Google’s services.13
Even now, of course, there is no resolution to the tensions at this fuzzy optical border. One of the more memorable and bizarre viral photographs of recent years was the ’selfie’ of a crested macaque whose copyright was claimed by wildlife photographer David Slater, who was later sued for it by PETA. Although the parties settled last year, the appellate court refused to dismiss the case. Instead, in a scathing decision against PETA, it ruled a few weeks ago that the organization cannot litigate on behalf of animals and reaffirmed that animals have no entitlement to copyright.
It is baffling why instead of envisioning new and sustainable forms of protection for animal labor and collaborative interspecies labor, PETA believes it is desirable to wrest nonhuman creations into the logic of copyright restrictions – the very same genus of monopolistic, private and monetizable property ‘rights’ that create the ideal economic incentives for the destruction of animal (including human) habitats. Instead of wondering whether the image is copyrightable and by whom, perhaps the question we should really be asking is: when the animal takes a picture of itself looking directly at a camera, which wall is being broken, what border is being crossed, and by whom? Why do we carelessly call these photographic objects ‘animal selfies’ as if the human narrative of the self wasn’t utterly inapplicable to the circumstances of their creation?
The copyright controversy lays bare how central media labor is to the conception of subjecthood in the 21st century. When animals grasp and operate cameras and other technology, no matter if this interaction is staged or anticipated by humans, the animal crosses a border. It apprehends the device in a phenomenological sense – it turns from object to subject of media, subjected to media. This is especially obvious in the recent, remarkably mundane and pervasive and yet strangely eerie family of objects called ‘videos for cats’ or ‘videos for pets.’ Just by naming their own audience – videos for cats – they plunge all received theories of photographic and filmic spectatorship into disarray. After all, being a spectator, as a specific historical mode of subjectivity, also always used to imply being a human. Even more importantly, videos for cats, dogs and other pets – and recordings of cats, dogs and other pets watching them – unambiguously answer Derrida’s primordial question: of course animals respond.
Marek Janovic: Animal Media
Thanks to the burgeoning of animal studies and a growing number of artists, it is no longer controversial to acknowledge that many species develop and perform aesthetic activities and that animals can be both producers and recipients of art.14 But the unspoken assumption, it seems to me, that the more mundane domain of media, in a sense, belongs to humans still remains scarcely contested. Important efforts have been made to think animals as/and media along posthumanist lines (Parikka 2010), to consider the co-constitutive role of the animal and of sound and image recording media in shaping the contours of modernity (Lippit 2008) and to establish a field of critical animal medial studies (Almiron, Cole, and Freeman 2016). But a majority of recent literature remains committed to questions of representation rather than media practice. YouTube alone is an inexhaustible museum of animal observation of, play with, and affective response to audiovisual media. I argue that our culture’s fascination for recording and watching animals interacting with screens speaks to the subtle unease this interaction evokes in us. Quite unlike what Berger suggested in his essay, it seems that many animals acquire media habits that do not differ much from those of humans: they play games (occasionally intended for other species, like the Magellanic penguins at the aquarium in Long Beach who are obsessed with an iPad game for cats), they have favorite movies, they get upset by watching horror films, they enjoy seeing other animals (including animated ones) on TV. If spectatorship can cross ‘the confines of man’ (Derrida 2008, 3), if animals can have an autonomous gaze and occupy subjectivities previously reserved for humans, then we are no longer ourselves and the animal is no longer the silent mirror that makes us us.
Videos for cats or iPad games for dogs emit a latent, low-frequency anxiety about who the rightful addressees of media ought to be. The technological history of photographic media – tri-color emulsion, Chroma subsampling, Bayer interpolation, DCT compression and so on – unfolds on the epistemic vivisection of the human body; photography and moving images are possible because they exploit our inbuilt sensory deficiencies and idiosyncrasies. When the animal starts becoming a viewing and listening subject of media, the primacy of the human body in the history of imaging technology becomes unsustainable. In order for videos for cats to truly become enjoyable to cats, they will require new recording equipment, new compression codecs, higher frame rates, expanded sampling frequencies, new post-production workflows and playback hardware optimized for the feline sensory system. This will lead to a better understanding of the capabilities that we have denied animals for so long – at least the passported and inedible ones we tend to keep as companions. But the ferocious appetite of late capitalism for consuming consumers also inevitably means ‘a kind of trans-species commodification’ Duncan Forbes (2015, 23) already warned us about: the re-capture of pets – in addition to their guardians and other animals – as ‘target audiences’ whose cognitive labor can be exploited, whose behaviors tracked and monetized and whose time spent interacting with devices can be mined for data.
CatVR might have been a joke for now, but only just barely so. The fact that it appears both utterly laughable and borderline plausible that it might be an actual product makes me think that it soon will be. ‘[W]e may be witnessing a sort of animal liberation in the photographic image,’ writes Forbes (2015, 13). This liberation does not have an origin. One might place pigeon-aided military communication of the 1870s at its beginning, or aerial photography of the 1910s as I have done. Or, as Forbes does, the Russian Revolution. Or, as Derrida does, the new forms of biological and genetic knowledge that emerged about two centuries ago. Or one might begin narrating it with the simultaneous birth of posthumanist thinking and animal-involved art in the 1960s, or with the recent mutation of our conception of kinship to include domesticated animals as family,15 or with the even more recent pet passport. But does the animal liberation in the photographic image necessarily translate outside of it?
I wonder if now, a few decades later, John Berger would have maintained that ‘[a]nimals and populace are becoming synonymous, which is to say the animals are fading away’ (Berger 1980, 17)? I partially agree with the first clause and disagree with the second. We have our passports ready when we approach the border. Pet passports, global telemetry and biosensing and nonhuman media seem to indicate that that is precisely where the animal prowls, at minimal distance from the border. All the while we – humans, that is – languish in a decade in which the eradication of our species seems so inescapable and our faith in humanity so provisional that it can be depleted and restored in seconds by a Buzzfeed article.
In such an eschatological economy, being an animal begins to appear not just desirable but preferable to continuing to exist as a human. This fragility is what drives the work of contemporary artists like Oleg Kulik or people like Thomas Thwaites who made headlines when he lived as a goat, a commitment that extended all the way to eating grass via an artificial rumen. It is the reason for the increasing prominence of animal reaction memes and videos for pets, of anthropomorphizing cultural phenomena like animal shaming, and of zoomorphic fandoms and fetishes like furries and puppy play. A disavowal of all that is human seems to offer a retreat into the comfort of the scopic anonymity of beasthood – an anonymity not too long ago promised, then squandered by decentralized computer networks. An anonymity that belongs to a time before biometrics, before facial recognition, before identity, before Snapchat filters worked on cats. A time both pre- and posthuman, a time back when we inhabited a habitable world. It recalls a time (probably more imagined than historical) when animals, including humans, roamed the world without a photograph in their passport and thus, at least in this limited sense, with greater freedom. A photograph – like the one that identifies me in my passport and the one that doesn’t identify my cat in its – which ‘many of us fail (or refuse!) to identify ourselves in,’ as Birke, Holmberg and Thompson remark (2013, n.p.).
In the end, passport or not, whether fleeing from a hypoxic ocean, from deadly heat events, from the zones of violence radiating outward from the Tropic of Cancer, or just fleeing from (being) human, all flee to remain on this side of the border between life and death. Surely, one might find more elegant and intricate explanations for the germinating anthropogenic obsolescence of the anthropic. But existential dread is as good a reason as any. As animals and machines fray from both sides on the enclave of the human estate, our standing in it is precarious, our passport near expiry, and our future uncertain.
- With all abstracted multiplicities and antagonisms that this term contains. ↑
- Ornithologist Viola Ross-Smith quoted in Morris 2016.↑
- On the related issue of webcam-mediated species companionship and observation of animals, see also Kamphof 2013.↑
- The post-World War II history of telemetry and wildlife conservation is documented in Benson 2010. ↑
- Pick 2015, 108 ↑
- On the issue of human biometric readability and visibility, see especially Dodge and Kitchin 2005. ↑
- See in particular Coulter 2016. ↑
- See e.g. Plourde 2014. ↑
- Note also the contemporary use of the mirror test as a metric of animal self-awareness. ↑
- Geimer 2010. Also Lippit 2008, 177. ↑
- Pick 2015, 114 ↑
- A similar point is made by Kamphof 2013, 93f. ↑
- Dog View thus perhaps accidentally follows in the tracks of ongoing photographic projects like Jon Rafman’s series Nine Eyes of Google Street View or Clement Valla’s The Universal Texture, which excavate Street View looking for traces of the extraordinary. ↑
- No listing of names will do this exciting field justice, but I nevertheless want to mention at least Jessica Ullrich, Dario Martinelli, Lars Chittka, Julian Walkers, Mary Kosut, Lisa Jean Moore, Walter Putnam among the many others who have recently considered questions of animal art from their respective fields.↑
- See e.g. (Charles and Davies 2008; Irvine and Cilia 2017 ↑