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Creaturely Love

Symposium on Love

Today I would like to briefly talk about some of the ways I think that love makes us both more and less than human.

But first a nutshell version of my understanding of love.

Love is a technology (as I have argued in a book called Love and Other Technologies). Indeed, it is one of our most essential technologies. Love is both an operating system, for society at large, and a highly complex communication system. Love, after all, is something we make. The love poem and the seductive meal are inherently technological. Love has been described as “the codification of intimacy” (Luhmann), meaning that we could never fall in love, or express it to others, unless we shared the same protocols. Love is about sorting signals from noise. As with cybernetics, we crave the feedback loop of the beloved in many forms. This is why, from a certain perspective, all sex is cybersex. In Plato’s famous story of the divided hermaphrodites, it is Hephaestus, the god of technology, who fuses them back together with his prosthetic instruments. The German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, described modern technology as “an unreasonable demand of Nature,” which is also, I would submit, one of the best definitions available for modern love. He also argued that we only recognize a technology like the hammer as a being in its own right when it is broken. We might say the same for the heart. To this I would add that if love is blind, then sex is Braille. (Meaning, that it is fundamentally a matter of mediation.)

In my latest book, Creaturely Love, I argue that the language of desire serves as a kind of Voight-Kampf test (that is to say, the interrogation from the film Blade Runner). This test is designed to sort the human from the not.

Suppose we considered the love of Antony and Cleopatra, Romeo and Juliet, or Swann and Odette from the perspective of the popular media-friendly genre, “animals in love.” Here the lovers are not “people” per se, but merely two creatures enamored with each other, like the two otters holding hands while floating in the water, in the famous viral video. We might then treat a forbidden love between the Capulets and the Montagues like one of those novelty stories where an elephant is inseparable from a dog, or a pig from a hedgehog. While this comparison may appear willfully perverse or facetious, denigrating humanity’s most cherished state to something bestial, it has the benefit of jolting us out of certain lazy, even dangerous, habits of mind; specifically, those assumptions concerning ourselves and the exceptionalism of our capacity for affection and being affected.

The traditional distinction essentially boils down to this: animals experience attraction, by instinct, whereas humans experience love, which is instinct supplemented and complicated by cultural forces (law, art, language, custom, psychology, and so on). New approaches to “the animal question,” however, have troubled this simplistic and self-flattering distinction. Moreover, earlier depictions of passionate encounters, in contrast to the great anthropocentric engineering project of the three major monotheisms, approach any boundary between human and animal to be fluid, provisional, and easily erased (as we find in Ovid, amongst many others).

On the one hand, humans and animals at the very least potentially share many characteristics, from the biological to the phenomenological, including the capacity to love and be loved. There is an affective continuum linking humans and animals, manifest in all sorts of ways. On the other hand, it is delusional and ethically precarious to collapse all distinctions between species, and simply say, “animals are just like us” or “we are just like animals.” These are the Scylla and Charybdis any meditation on “the human” and its various creaturely others must navigate.

One way to do so — perhaps the only way — is to acknowledge that there is no metaphysical gulf separating so-called Man from dogs, monkeys, or starfish, but a long historical-technical distinction without essential or definitive implications. The human is then considered not an animal body blessed with a human soul — a kind of super-animal — but instead a bundle of physical, psychical, and sociological mechanisms, shot through with prehuman, inhuman, posthuman, and infrahuman tendencies and trajectories. From this perspective, animals are also bundles of potentialities, including, in some cases, for language, and other capacities we have traditionally classified as human. (As William Burroughs once said, “human” is an adjective, not a noun.) The challenge is to resist the old habit of “ontological apartheid”: equating species with specific bodies, and then quarantining them from each other. (For instance where humans have sapience, and animals merely sentience.)

Humans are emphatically not then some kind of Aristotelian augmented animal: a loving animal, as well as a political or rational one. Rather, they are — we are — a specific instance of life composed of different vectors (DNA, ethnic patterns, mediatic influences, etc.), which themselves co-compose other creatures in the current global ecology. (As Nabokov said of people, we could possibly say of all creatures: “We are all anagrams of each other.”) But again, the task is to resist collapsing all life on to one Great Plain — the flat ontology of much current Continental philosophy–while also avoiding a default relapse into familiar hierarchical positions: the Great Chain of Being. Love is thus the name we give to the pre-coded, even over-determined, attractions between not only “people” but also animals (and even, possibly, things). There is an elective affinity involved, of sympathies, inclinations, valences.

As humans, we like to think that we love the other for their unique humanness, whether we find this incarnate in a smile, a silhouette, or a soul. The beloved is always encountered in media res, embedded in a cultural context, from the clothes they wear, to the comportment of their body, to the words they are speaking, if only through their eyes. Animals enjoy none or little of this. But the present text works diagonally against this grain, acknowledging its truth — as far as it goes — but also arguing that what we love in the beloved precedes and exceeds that abstract element we call the human. Love thus makes us both more and less than human. Whether it is the texture of the beloved’s skin or hair, their singular scent, the way they drool in their sleep, the way they eat with their mouth open, or the way they are trapped within their own umwelt of semiotic disinhibitors: we love the creaturely in the other, as much as their humanity. In fact, we could go so far as to insist that love is not a human phenomenon at all, but an attempt to make the other admit, under a type of passionate interrogation, that they are not human; never were human; were trying to fool us with their distracting, sophisticated ways. Love would thus be the litmus test which we all fail; and in doing so, ironically succeed. For we all suspect, at various levels of consciousness, that we are not really human. Or not only human. And it is that twilight between love and lust known as desire that we unmask the pretension of species-being.

In Plato’s Symposium, the first Western attempt on record to account philosophically for love, several speakers venture competing theories for its origin and import. Speaking of the god of love, the poet Agathon asks, “Who will deny that the creation of the animals is his doing? Are they not all the works his wisdom, born and begotten of him?” Not long before this statement, the medical man Eryximachus, notes that his art instructs him that “love is to be found in all animals and plants, and I may say in all that is; and is not merely an affection of the soul of man towards the fair, or towards anything.” Eros, for these learned men, was considered a vital force, uniting all creatures — indeed, creation itself. The one woman to crash the party is via the ventriloquil memory of Socrates, who gives an account of his conversation with the wise woman and oracle, Diotima.

[O]n another occasion she said to me, “What is the reason, Socrates, of this love, and the attendant desire? See you not how all animals, birds as well as beasts, in their desire of procreation, are in agony when they take the infection of love; – this begins with the desire of union, to which is added the care of offspring, on behalf of whom the weakest are ready to battle against the strongest even to the uttermost, and to die for them, and will let themselves be tormented with hunger or suffer anything in order to maintain their offspring. Man may be supposed to do this from reason; but why should animals have these passionate feelings? Can you tell me why?” Again I replied, that I did not know. She said to me: “And do you expect ever to become a master in the art of love, if you do not know this?”

Diotima pointedly asks how we are to account for “the infection of love” if we consider it exclusively from the perspective of humanity; as if we emerged ex nihilo, in a different fashion to all other creatures? If we seek to understand the issue beyond the neat mono-theological axiom that we were indeed sculpted out of clay, by a divine hand, then we must heed the wise woman’s implication here, and approach the phenomenon as something that works not only within us, but also past us, towards something else: something, in fact, already present.

Creaturely love is thus pharmakon-fuel for what Giorgio Agamben has called “the anthropological machine”; lubricating its parts, while dissolving its integrity. As such, creaturely love is my term for the anthropocentric ambivalence — or rather, ambivalence about anthropocentrism — at the heart of the dominant discourse on desire. From one angle, “the image repertoire” relies on animal metaphors, allegories, and analogies to function at all: to create a sense of human intimacy. But from another, this same codified nexus tries to keep these animals at bay; to domesticate them, to use them only for instruction about decisive differences which cast us in a flattering light. “Creaturely love” is thus an oxymoron, since nonhumans do not love (at least, not as we do, symbolically or linguistically). At the same time, creaturely love troubles the chauvinistic confidence with which we make such claims. Differences are a matter not only of cultural perspective, but our perceptual umwelts. For the tick, for instance, all mammals are the same. Creaturely love thus reminds us that we are fauna too, with similar needs to others, albeit an extravagent way of signaling them. But if the exceptional sovereignty of homo zoon logon is found to be untenable — with our leaps and bounds in ethological understanding — then the confusions and complexities will only be compounded further. Biotic life itself may not only “read” and “write” the world semiotically, but may itself be inherently semiotic. The human sings, snarls, tweets, moans, screams, and whimpers along a continuum of zoological differences and ontological overlaps (and vice versa). In short, creaturely love reminds us anew that we are more and less than human. As are other creatures.

No doubt it is banal to emphasize or inventorize the moments in cultural texts where people are described as being somehow “like” an animal. Less facile are those occasions where the likeness threatens to turn into actuality, or indeed actually does so. This can happen within the fictional or mythical conceit, as it does in Ovid or Kafka. But it can happen also in our everyday experiences and exchanges, where the animal aspect of the lover or the beloved becomes manifest in a way that outshines the human mask or filter (the very same used to disavow the animal legacy and fate within us). It shines through a glassy eye: darkly. For a sensitive observer, like Jean-Christophe Bailly, we cannot — and should not — make a final blanket adjudication about otherness or identification, when it comes to animals. On the one hand, “we deduce ourselves from our unease or our hypocrisy in the face of these other living creatures,” from what Bailly calls “the percussive impact of difference.” Yet on the other, we are all “the children of phusis. We share our mutual alterity. (To poach a beautiful line from Bataille, talking of the vertigo of lovers, peering down into the existential abyss which separates them: “we share its dizziness together.”)

For Bailly then, “every animal is a beginning, an engagement, a point of animation and intensity, a resistance.” Were we to replace the word “animal” with “lover” here, the point still stands. The complicity is established. Those entities with eyes — eyes that look back — put us into a mutual auto-deictic spiral. They require us to return the gaze, even live up to the gaze, in an ethical sense; whether the creature looking back at us is called Albertine or Aibo. Creaturely love puts our own presumed dominion, as the cultural descendants of Adam, into question. It acts as a much-needed mnemonic for the fact that we are always already becoming-animal, since we never successfully become-human in the first place. As long as we are still fundamentally mammals, our love will be expressed in creaturely ways; mired in the organic.

In love, we pant like dogs. We scratch like cats. We howl like wolves. We bellow like oxen. We fight like stags. We scheme like foxes. We preen like monkeys. We sulk like donkeys. We coo like doves. We flirt like butterflies. We quiver like jellyfish. We dance like bees. We sing like nightingales. We thrill like dolphins. We wait like alligators. We watch like owls. We strike like snakes. We recoil like turtles. We brood like mares. We fret like penguins. We mourn like elephants. We coerce like water-striders. We endure like mollusks. We murmur like starlings. We lick each other into shape, like bears. We flee like jackalopes. And we blush like debutantes.

Pulsing beneath all of these modes of being — sustaining the affective current of living creatures — is blood. For blood is the vital fluid which enriches the bodies caught up in this frenetic activity; this complex erotic ecology. And from the perspective of these bodies, the refined and self-sustaining narratives of the mind are remote and immaterial. The precious stories we tell ourselves about why it is what we do, are forever beside the point.

After all, the bursting blood vessels which bloom on the skin do not care whether their crimson apocalypse was wrought by lover or leech.

Dominic Pettman is Professor of Culture & Media at Eugene Lang College and the New School for Social Research.

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