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Keywords:

  • laboratory studies;
  • anthropology of the senses;
  • animal studies;
  • coral

ABSTRACT

  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. IMPRESSIONS OF SCIENCE, SENSE, AND SPECIES AT LONG MARINE LAB
  4. ENCOUNTERING BALANOPHYLLIA ELEGANS
  5. OF SEX AND SPECIES
  6. INVERT, PERVERT
  7. SYNAESTHESIA AND THE SUBSTANCE OF SPECIES
  8. NOTES
  9. REFERENCES CITED

In When Species Meet (2008) Donna Haraway proposes that creatures’ identities and affinities emerge through their encounters, their relationships. Following Haraway's lead, I attend to how different species sense and apprehend one another, leaving impressions—concrescences of perceptual data, or texture. This essay reports on fieldwork alongside marine biologists and with a population of cup corals (B. elegans) housed at the Long Marine Laboratory, Santa Cruz, California. While I assisted researchers who were studying metabolic rates and reproductive strategies in coral communities, these cup corals simultaneously taught me that being and sensing are inextricably enfolded. We were variously situated—corals generating generations, me interpretations. We met through a material-semiotic apparatus I call “fingeryeyes.” As an act of sensuous manifesting, fingeryeyes offers a queer reading of how making sense and sensual meaning are produced through determinable and permeable species boundaries.

Balanophyllia elegans: gorgeous, tentacular corals: the tips of their knobbed (capitate) tentacles catch the light, making each polyp appear as a miniature display of fiber optics. They belong to phylum Cnidaria, class Anthozoa, order Scleractinia. Through photo/chemo receptive tissue these corals reach into nutrient rich currents with stinging cells (nematocysts) waiting to immobilize prey and pull it into their stomachs. Their forms tremble and deform in the movements of the water generated in a saltwater lab in Santa Cruz, California. My own experimenting fingers grope, manipulate, and reach. Cup corals seem full of touch, of sensing, or rather of being literally tact, touch; their tentacular sense—their fingeryeyes—respond to surface effects, caressing. Their totalizing hapticity evokes the kind of sensorial-ontology that Karen Barad has described in her accounts of brittlestars, unrelated organisms in phylum Echinodermata: “Brittlestars don't have eyes; they are eyes. That is, it is not merely the case that its visual system is embodied; its very being is a visualizing apparatus” (2008: 324). If Barad's brittlestars are “living breathing metamorphosing optical systems,” the very being of cup corals is a haptic-sensory apparatus. They “touch,” therefore they are. It is not the site of contact, of copresence and conflation, but rather the effects of passing excitation that produces this ontology.

The self-misrecognitions of marine invertebrates undergoing metamorphosis—as arrays of light-sensitive pigment spots and neural nets glimpse and process bodily reflections from the undersides of watery surfaces—could hardly engender foundational illusions of single, well-organized subjects. But the multiply diffracted and refracted rays of light coursing through salty oceans power the lively practices of connection and communicative commerce just as surely as the straight-arrow rays of extraterrestrial optics drive more single-minded projects of cosmic clarification.

—Donna Haraway (1995:xi)

IMPRESSIONS OF SCIENCE, SENSE, AND SPECIES AT LONG MARINE LAB

  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. IMPRESSIONS OF SCIENCE, SENSE, AND SPECIES AT LONG MARINE LAB
  4. ENCOUNTERING BALANOPHYLLIA ELEGANS
  5. OF SEX AND SPECIES
  6. INVERT, PERVERT
  7. SYNAESTHESIA AND THE SUBSTANCE OF SPECIES
  8. NOTES
  9. REFERENCES CITED

The Long Marine Laboratory is located on the outskirts of Santa Cruz, a beach town in California. Driving through the main gate, across a browning field, I approach the Pacific Ocean, at the edge of the Monterey Bay. The glare from the seawater on this September day in 2004 is blinding. I recall Gaston Bachelard'sWater and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Matter, in which he instructs readers to look beyond their own image reflected back to them, to begin to see the world gazing inward: “The world wants to see itself. … Water reveals. … Water is a large tranquil eye” (1983:15). For Bachelard, water is imagination made material. Through this medium, he seeks to show the thickness and thingyness of knowledge; it is not so much that water has intentionality, but that the effects of water can be felt everywhere. On the Northern California coast, the pulse of water is palpable.

Simple in architecture and color, the Long Marine Laboratory blends into its setting with large green sheds. From the lab the land rolls out flat, only to fall away at a high cliff that fronts onto the water. At the base, the ocean roars aloud its own wet substance, its own poetics, its own modes of contact: saturating, shimmering, sonic. Here, human perception is refracted, textured by the encounter of shoreline and ocean. At the mixing point of water–air–earth, the interface of sea sciences and ecosystems, and the nexus of ocean policy and materiality, the scene is both adamantine and fluid. Marine scientists and managers focus multiple optics, zooming in on tiny microorganisms or charting large-scale migration patterns of whales. Among the phenomena coming into view for scientists at the lab: the underwater falling of marine snow (detritus generated in the productive surface, the photic zone), the lives of elephant seal pups, environmental pressures on California squid, and massive blooms of Velella velella (By-the-Wind Sailor, a jellyfish-like siphonophore composed of masses of mobile hydroids that travel at the water's surface). Whether scientists focus near or far, marine organisms everywhere come to matter as actors in the multiple areas they inhabit. As Donna Haraway would have it, things are “Never purely themselves,” but are, rather, “compound … made up of combinations of other things coordinated to magnify power, to make something happen, to engage the world, to risk fleshly acts of interpretation” (2008:250). At Long Marine Laboratory, where compounded things are made concrete, I found myself entangled in “moist threads” (cf. Puig de la Bellacasa 2009). The lifeways and labors of marine animals are the coralline reefs of this lab; I helped build knowledge on their “zoontologies” (Wolfe 2003).

Over 130 UC Santa Cruz principal investigators, postdoctoral researchers, visiting scientists, graduate students, and undergraduate students use the facilities at Long Marine Laboratory each year. It is a well-established site for research in areas such as diving physiology, physiological ecology, bioacoustics, and cognition. Attention to senses and sensing for both humans and animals subtends these research activities. Some tanks have been designed to control noise, while others offer underwater viewing, providing researchers with aquatic vantage points that also enable marine mammals to look at their captors—much like the animals in Natalie Jeremijenko's Ooz art installation, in which zoo is spelled backward to frame an “architecture of reciprocity.”1

At first blush it seems that information at Long Marine Laboratory flows one way—to humans, to scientists. High-speed video cameras retool time, seizing on details of organismic life. Kreisel tanks create circular currents for pelagic forms like jellyfish medusae or ctenophores with diffracting cilia, making each of their drifter locomotions observable. Hydrophones transduce sound waves into stimuli for terrestrial eardrums. Compound microscopes protract eyes into the unseeable, while expanded frequency tape recorders hold marine sounds for further investigation. Oxygen and blood–gas analyzers give accounts of bodily labor, and specialized cages for transporting pinnipeds and cetaceans are but one way through which ocean creatures out there are forced to work, play, signify, and, most likely, die in here. Insides become outsides and exteriorities become interiorities; sensoria and sensations are made and unmade. The power of who observes and who is observed is tentacled through machines and expertise at ever-changing scales and grains of resolution.

But all these forces are quite literally impressed on organisms such that bodies (human, animal, machine) carry the markings, the fleshly and instrumental inscriptions, of the other. I am reminded of Sensory Exotica by Howard C. Hughes (1999). Working through the biomechanics of animal senses, Hughes maintains that technologies such as sonar and electroreception bespeak a human envy of nonhuman sensoria.2 At Long Marine Laboratory, the apprehension of the other reaches across a multispecies space of transit by way of somatic stimulus and material representation. The lively character of mediation is fashioned through the unmetabolized activities of animals such that “looking” is akin to brachiating from animal, machine, motive, and organ. These residues, condensations of zooey presences, which impress from within the “epistemological engines” (Ihde and Selinger 2004) of marine science, are at once the source and the objects of sense making.

Through what other lenses might these engagements between human intentionality and the agency of multiple species, land and sea, ethics and knowledge production, be apprehended? How, for example, is this intertidal zone an arena where species meet not just as different critters, but also as objects and subjects of different sight, sense, sensibility, and sensuality? This arena can be usefully registered through a haptic-optic I call “fingeryeyes.” I use fingeryeyes to explain the tentacular visuality of cross-species encounters and to name the synaesthetic quality of materialized sensation. Perceptions are moved (affected) by the movements and actions that they provoke in other organisms. Stirred by the ripples of investigation that emerge in the arrangement that we may touch, senses are amalgamated, superimposed, forging cross-species reticulations and sites of solid-arity. This kind of transversing is navigated by constantly accessing the medium of the meeting and the accompanying beings and things. From this point of view/touch of fingeryeyes, species are impressions, thresholds of emergence.3

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) tells us that an impression is “an idea, feeling, or opinion about something or someone; an effect produced on someone; a difference made by the action or presence of someone or something; a graphic or pictorial representation of someone or something; or, a mark impressed on a surface by something.” And species, the OED reminds us, has as one of its meanings “A mental impression; an idea.” Impressions, then, are about how “species of all kinds, living and not, are consequent on a subject- and object-shaping dance of encounters” (Haraway 2008:4). Attending to the interplay of vision and touch, I invoke fingeryeyes to articulate the in-between of encounter, a space of movement, of potential: this haptic-optic defines the overlay of sensoriums and the inter- and intrachange of sensations. Fingeryeyes, in this instance, is the transfer of intensity, of expressivity in the simultaneity of touching and feeling.

The ways species and their constituting senses are impressed should not be understood simply as offering a cozy closeness; impressions are also traces of indigestible beings that feed on signifying practices, populating meaning with multiple kinds of matter. If species are impressions, they are also mediations. Impression registers the reciprocal nature of being touched in the act of touching, as well as the double meaning—as in “having an impression of” or “making an impression on me”—of knowing and being. What sense, then, is generated in the sensuous, and often superintending, contact of laboratory animals? How do creatures, with all their perceptual grappling hooks, transplant rousing knowledge across species divides, and how are senses, then, indices of human-animal meetings?

ENCOUNTERING BALANOPHYLLIA ELEGANS

  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. IMPRESSIONS OF SCIENCE, SENSE, AND SPECIES AT LONG MARINE LAB
  4. ENCOUNTERING BALANOPHYLLIA ELEGANS
  5. OF SEX AND SPECIES
  6. INVERT, PERVERT
  7. SYNAESTHESIA AND THE SUBSTANCE OF SPECIES
  8. NOTES
  9. REFERENCES CITED

To get at these questions, I conducted a multispecies ethnography of Balanophyllia elegans (cup corals) at the Long Marine Laboratory.4 These corals—with their Latin species name meaning elegant, fine, handsome (derived from the earlier word eligere[pick out, or choose])—make an impression: aesthetically, haptically, ontologically, and, I find, sensually, sexually. Residents along the California coast, they are locals in the lab. Solitary and temperate, they inhabit low intertidal regions, gleaning, living, spawning, and metamorphosing in the surging waters. Batteries of nematocysts, stinging cells, guard their cup-shaped external skeleton, and organelles called spirocysts anchor them to ocean floors (Kozloff 1995). Waves and oscillations of seawater and flesh texture these life forms.

B. elegans have neither fingers nor eyes, not in the same way a human might, but through their sensing tentacles they and I, they and marine biologists, share sensorial resonance with different affects (responsiveness) and percepts. Through our mutual capacities to engage the other, we leave impressions as the residuum of our interactions. Fingeryeyes is about multispecies and multimedium sensing. And in the way that ethnomusicologist Steven Feld (1982; Feld and Basso 1996) invites us to privilege sound over sight for knowing culture or sounding-out specific locations, I suggest that an attention to texture as it is generated through the constitutive supplementarity of vision and touch can offer novel prehensions of the relationships between species.5

To see, to feel, to sense, and to touch—“fingeryeyes”—slide into each other, making new prepositions of observation: seeing with tact; touching by eye; feeling from vision.6 Fingeryeyes synaesthetically blur distinctions that Jennifer Fisher (1997), a scholar of hapticity, describes: “The haptic sense, comprising the tactile, kinæsthetic and proprioceptive senses, describes aspects of engagement that are qualitatively distinct from the capabilities of the visual sense … where the visual sense permits a transcendent, distant and arguably disconnected, point-of-view, the haptic sense functions by contiguity, contact and resonance.” Fingers register the optic, hovering not only between touch and sight but also between animal and human, incorporating these alterations into morphology and behavior. Sensing, as the coral teach me, is not so neat.

Fingers are of course not the only arbiters of the verb to touch; that is to say, our eyes are contiguous with—not divisible from—the body's sensorium. Embodied vision is necessarily accreted by the other senses and their amplification. In this way, sight is of the body, not just in the body, and this effects a distributed sensuousness. The kind of digit-sight vivification described here attempts to answer questions posed by Natasha Myers: “Can our visualization technologies be used to implicate our bodies, rather than alienate them? Can our bodies’ tacit knowledge be brought into play to add depth to biological strategies?” (2005:262). Crossing the animating impact of nerve organs, fingeryeyes diffract seeing through touching; optical groping, or tactful eyes, haptically and visually orient the sensual body across mediums.

In what follows, I look at various mediums—lab space, microscopes, seawater, and semiotics (cf. Helmreich 2009)—and at multiply mediated cross-species compositions.7 In the anarchic spirit of Paul Feyerabend's Against Method (1975) I do not offer a programmatic approach to multispecies ethnography, opting rather for something located between phenomenological traditions (particularly those from my training in film studies [Marks 2002; Sobchack 2004]) and feminist/queer theories of embodiment (Bartkowski 2008; Halberstam 2005). Attention to bodiliness defines the terrain of my questions, along with sensitivity to philology, to the effects of my language of description. Translating the quality of audiovisual experience into the register of words, Laura Marks argues that the critic must “make the dry words retain a trace of the wetness of encounter” (2002:x). Heeding Marks's call for “haptic criticism,” I often enunciate the feel of motley species affiliations through partial, speculative, and perversely physical word play—which works, I hope, in its way, against method but for encounter.8

Although concerned with the sensuous in all its forms, I stay equally fastened on shifting the accent onto the sensitivities of these corals. As I experienced epistemological revelry the corals remained objects of biological and ethnographic research; I do not intend to downplay this fact. Animals do suffer and die. They are induced and selected under the instrumental force of experimentation, which can result in becoming disembodied, even dismembered, bodies. Even so, as important as critiques of control and captivity are, we must also recognize how laboratory practice is never a totalizing production, but is also loamy with unexpected effects (cf. Haraway 2008). Responsiveness to the textural qualities of experimentation is part of any ethical account, any nonanthropocentric record, of what happens when species touch each other in fraught zones of intercourse.

Within Long Marine Laboratory, in the lab of Donald Potts, a marine ecologist, a host of non-mammalian, spineless, non-bilaterally symmetrical entities have been pulled out of the pelagic zone and into the sediment of University of California, Santa Cruz graduate student research where they will respire, be experimented on, and probably expire. Peoples, machines, and their shared activities seem to “mimic the complex communities of marine organisms, whose traffic in sustaining nutrients and meaningful signals tie dispersed members into unquiet webs of polyspecific living tissue” (Haraway 1995:xii). The water in the lab is bitingly cold, pumped in directly from the bay. The interior space is fairly low-tech; limited funding for research has turned dishwashing tubs, 10-gallon aquariums, and odd plastic pieces into saltwater tanks, flow systems, and “test populations.” Moon jellies (Aurelia aurita), opalescent nudibranchs (Hemissenda crassicornis), and orange cup corals (B. elegans) are caught up in the practices of egg releasing, laboratory chatting, population studying, larval feeding, microscopic looking, computer calculating, and animal dying.

All this layering, digesting, and registering solicits fingeryeyes and brings into focus Stefan Helmreich's reworking of Haraway's reef metaphor for collective forms of writing and speaking. Haraway compares “the layered conversations of patterned interviews among interlocutors who are distributed in time, space, linguistic commitments, and political yearnings” with lifeways of coral ecosystems (1995:xii). “Coral reefs,” proposes Helmreich, “can attune human visitors and inquisitors to empirical and epistemological questions of scale and context—where context, drawing upon a once-upon-a-time literal but now more figural meaning, refers us to a ‘weaving together’” (in press).

Such weaving together is why I entered the Potts lab as a research volunteer for (and ethnographer of) Cris Vaughan, a Ph.D. candidate in Marine Biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who has since finished her dissertation on the reproductive ecology of B. elegans (see Vaughan 2004; see also Gerrodette 1981). She is a fellow “easterner” (we share a distinctly New England diction) drawn to the Pacific, and she knows a great deal about genetics, conservation biology, and Star Trek (Cris deciphers the invertebrate-ness of ST extraterrestrials, showing me how inverts are already aliens among us). Unlike her, I was not a marine scientist in the making. At best, and this is what I said, “I am a student of film and photography and have an interest in how animals are studied in natural history and laboratory environments” (cf. Hayward 2005). I explained that my questions were about how representations shape the lives of animals, and about whether it is possible for these fleshy beings to intervene in their own representations (cf. Latour 2004). Rather than passive surfaces reflecting human intention, might animals act upon us in surprising and nuanced ways? I have some previous experience in biological laboratories too, which is perhaps why Cris welcomes me; during my studies at the College of the Atlantic (Bar Harbor, Maine) I worked with humpback whale conservation biologists at Allied Whale.9

My multispecies ethnography is only partially an ethnography of marine biologists. I found that just talking to cup coral experts—interviewing Cris and her labmates about their work—and being a participant-observer of routine laboratory tasks was not enough. I began developing my own practice—fingeryeyes—for knowing by percussing, touching, and tasting across species lines. My study of cross-species stimulations unfolded alongside Cris's own biological investigations: we engaged in different disciplinary projects in the same space. I did not come to know the corals the way she does though I did learn from this same population of corals through my own carnal knowledges. Cris's and my projects did not always inform one another but the laboratory was a zone of multispecies and multidisciplinary coherences. We cohered.

Cris taught me to know the milieu of corals, the way they generate their beingness in relation to other organisms and environments. Coral are a composition of faculties, a tuning with environment that can be described as inhabiting what Jakob von Uxeküll called an “Umwelt” (2000), a perceptual address.10 Early on, and I did not know how to say this to Cris, I was there to understand something about the modulations between species, the sense and sensibility of cross-species materiality. By materiality, I mean as Marshall McLuhan put it, that “the medium is the message,” such that matter is not only a dynamic becoming (Barad 2003) but is also a transmedium mediation—a mediation through which surfaces are not produced as refrains, but as lenses. Passing through creates remainders of filterings that result in texture. Boundaries remain refracted interfaces of passage, prepositional orientations. Texture is the unmetabolizable more of animate forces moving across bodies and objects.

OF SEX AND SPECIES

  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. IMPRESSIONS OF SCIENCE, SENSE, AND SPECIES AT LONG MARINE LAB
  4. ENCOUNTERING BALANOPHYLLIA ELEGANS
  5. OF SEX AND SPECIES
  6. INVERT, PERVERT
  7. SYNAESTHESIA AND THE SUBSTANCE OF SPECIES
  8. NOTES
  9. REFERENCES CITED

Cris and I commented on our different experiences with B. elegans. What attracts one to study corals? Why are corals compelling? What are the emotional, social, and visceral effects of working with corals for years? For Cris, these questions did not necessarily interfere in her scientific investigations, and she did find them interesting, too, an unexpected frame for stepping back from her daily routines in the laboratory. For me, this backgrounded dimension of affects gestured to a “contact zone” where intensities move between materialities (Haraway 2008). So when a coral's tentacles reached out to eat, and it “tasted” my fingers and retracted, a moment of sensitization, this was a provisional togetherness, a pulse of possession, an instance of fingeryeyes. We did not engulf or overcome each other in this act, but we pressed against the other. Cris, the corals, and I were there in this lab, responding through our different perceptual worlds, through percepts we improvised and entwined with each other, however temporarily, producing texture, a tissue of incitement that made us with and through the world.

While a large portion of Cris's work took place in the field, my work with her happened in a lab where she had already sex segregated 300 corals, to control their fertilization. My role was simple: I cleaned them, checked for eggs, and looked for sedentaries. In Cris's words, sedentaries are large, “internally brooded, lecithotrophic (yolk-feeding) planula larvae that are released during winter and early spring in an annual planulation cycle” (Vaughan 2004:80). (See Figure 2.)

image

Figure 2. Egg and Larva. Drawing by author, 2010.

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Cris's attention was on gametogenesis (the formation of sperm and eggs), on the release of larvae, and on growth in these solitary cup corals. Under various environmental and endogenous (originating from within an organism) conditions, she investigated these topics using three main approaches: (1) monitoring the release of larvae in two laboratory populations exposed to different photoperiods (periods of light–dark); (2) investigating the differences made by genetic difference and maternal feeding frequency on larval release, growth, and settlement success; and, (3) exploring possible effects of chemical cues and sperm on larval output and coral growth by manipulating indirect exposure to members of the same species. She has two working hypotheses: (1) corals compromise their immediate reproductive fitness to increase growth, which may provide enhanced fecundity in the future; (2) changes in seawater temperature (as seen in El Niño years) affects reproductive output. Her first hypothesis invites immediate questioning: how do corals feel their futures? With what ontoepistemological apparatus do the corals assess their own “reproductive fitness”? Both her queries are anchored, like much biological thinking on sex and reproduction, in questions about gametes.

Eggs and sperm become narrative elements that provide meaning to sex and species differences (cf. Martin 1991). Positioned as oppositional forms, egg and sperm are ordered as foundational units, anchoring the expressions of sexual and social selectivities to the ruling forces of natural selection. Perhaps because I write from a queer perspective, I worried (maybe defensively?) that Cris's experiments positioned cup coral reproduction as governed entirely by a functional selectivity, leaving little room for the random, the unpredictable, the expressive. Would it be possible to imagine a more dispersed or dynamic notion of sex? Might sex be also about behavior or life history, rather than just gametes (Roughgarden 2004)? I kept my eye on these questions as I did my work.

In the time I volunteered at the lab, Chris had moved from experiments on the effects time and temperature have on fecundity to investigating how environmental resources alter reproduction. In laboratory experiments, corals were fed at different intervals, which affected their individual growth and investment in fecundity (Vaughan 2004:x). The reduction in larval production, Cris thought, was probably caused by a limited number of sperm and a 3–4 month brooding period rather than reabsorption or storage of embryos, which contradicted the 15-month brooding period formerly proposed for this species. “Growth rate was negatively related to reproductive output among conspecific exposure treatments: corals exposed to males produced more larvae but grew less than corals isolated from males,” she wrote in her dissertation (2004:xi).

Cris collected corals from two geographically distinct populations: Breakwater Cove in Monterey, and the Hopkins Marine Life Refuge in Pacific Grove, California. She assigned corals from each population to two feeding-frequency treatments in the laboratory to assess “their relative fitness (based on settlement rate and size), and then analyzed the data for geographic, maternal, or direct nutritional effects that may be correlated with larval success” (2004:82). I groomed these corals when they arrived in the lab, removing all of the organisms encrusted on their skin. Attaching them to PVC with superglue, I gave them each a random number. We sexed all the corals before male spawning occurred, by “extracting gut contents with a Pasteur pipette and examining them for sperm under a compound microscope; corals without sperm were assumed to be female” (2004:83).

Attending to gametes (asking who produced sperm, and who larvae) permitted Cris to assume who was “female” and who “male”—even though some individuals remained in flux throughout the experiment, suggesting that these corals may have asexual (clonal) ways for generating generations, which would challenge the assumption that these corals reproduce sexually (cf. Fadlallah and Pearse 1982; Jackson 1986). Although asexuality might be a possibility for B. elegans, Cris felt certain that these corals relied mostly on sexual reproduction (see also Ayre and Resing 1986; Hellberg 1994; Hellberg and Taylor 2002), and that variation in access to populations of the “opposite” sex “appears to shift energy allocation towards growth rather than reproduction” (Vaughan 2004:180). Cup corals reproduce by releasing eggs into the parents’ gastrovascular cavity (see Figure 3) where they are fertilized and undergo development to the planula stage before release. Presumably, then, the isolated “females” in our lab would stop producing larvae. However, this assumption was not supported by the results—some of the indeterminate individuals in Cris's laboratory continued to produce larvae. Cris accounted for this as measured error, but in our discussions she considered the possibility that corals might adopt parthenogenetic (perhaps through an ability to store sperm) or even clonal modes of reproduction.

image

Figure 3. Polyp. Drawing by author, 2010.

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INVERT, PERVERT

  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. IMPRESSIONS OF SCIENCE, SENSE, AND SPECIES AT LONG MARINE LAB
  4. ENCOUNTERING BALANOPHYLLIA ELEGANS
  5. OF SEX AND SPECIES
  6. INVERT, PERVERT
  7. SYNAESTHESIA AND THE SUBSTANCE OF SPECIES
  8. NOTES
  9. REFERENCES CITED

While Cris's work opened up intriguing questions about coral ecology, what about “reproductive strategies” and their subtending functionalist assumptions regarding adaptation (cf. Haraway 1989)? How did sex-assumptions drawn from intuitions about human and mammalian reproduction possibly enriddle corals with anthropocentric and even Euro-American-centric intentionality? How was a self-contained teleology scripted into these projects? I responded with critical hives to the ontological substrate of these experiments (and it is not that Cris did not also have her own critical response but, rather, the forces of funding, institutions, verifiability, seniority, and support are unavoidable). “Sex,” as Monique Wittig has argued, refers to both bodily activity and identity, but under the sign of heteronormativity, has been conflated with reproductive activity, which has in turn led to the hypostatization of “sexes,” identities defined by their relation to this activity. Wittig points out that this metonymic making of sex—which takes parts for wholes—naturalizes sexual difference and normalizes heterosexuality. “Heterosexuality is a cultural construct designed to justify the whole system of social domination based on the obligatory reproductive function of women and the appropriation of that reproduction” (1979:119). My sensual, sexy, fingeryeye involvement with B. elegans led me phenomenologically, perversely, similarly to disarticulate sex, sexuality, and reproduction—to consider Vaughan's investigation of coral “reproductive strategies” as only one way to configure what it might mean to “sex” corals.11

All this critical thinking through sex and sexuality became explicit in my conversations with Cris one day when she remarked “Inverts are so cool!” In a wry-ironic tone, playing with the politics of identity, I say, “Yes, ‘my people’ are pretty fantastic.” Cris and I talked across disciplines, often with tricky mistranslations; here she used “inverts” to mean critters without backbones such as the invertebrates in our tanks, while my friends in queer theory speak about “inverts” who are neither temperate nor solitary! I cannot resist reading the etymological interlacing of “pervert” and “invert” (see Wilson 2002:284). Perverting meaning, inverting power, gendered perversions, coralline inversions: inverts and perverts ask us what the world could resemble if we saw the borders separating selves–others as receptive, magnetic to “those others whom we resemble though we may be inclined to insist that we do not recognize them as our coevals, our co-evils” (Bartowski 2008:3). Two parallel worlds that are not, in fact, incommunicable. Perhaps both species of “inverts,” the kind without backbones and the sort who transpose gender roles, interrupt heteronormativity, although not for the same reasons, but because of a shared activity of making bodies pliable, mobile, transposable. What does the “in” prefix mean in invertebrates and inverts? For invertebrates “in” would be from the OED's in- prefix 3, “to express negation or privation.” And for inverts that “in” would be from the OED's in- prefix 1, “to turn, change.” The “in” means different things in invertebrate and invert. The false cognate produces a pun, but puns are often potent precisely because of the way they misbehave etymologically, how they bring differences close.12

The linking of perverts and inverts—what Lindsay Kelley and I call “tranimals”13—is not a naturalizing move, nor a hostile conflation of queers and animals, but an attempt to trace sexualized alterities that rework “culture” and “nature.”14 Even the etymology of “inverts” (and the punning that it evokes) alludes to inclusions, hinges, dependencies. Different kinds of inverts are substantively related in practice and history, and are, to varying degrees, transumptions, tropes of a trope, in which differences are produced not through distinctions but through what Karen Barad (2008) might call “differential becoming.”

Cris responds to my anecdotes, saying, “After studying invertebrates, you have to believe that every animal tends toward some kind of polymorphous sexuality.” She tells me about species of starfish who reproduce themselves from a broken limb; about the range of simultaneous hermaphroditism and sex-changing in gastropods; and about the “inventive” reproductive practices of marine worms. Far from being “inherent” or “predetermined,” sexuality is more a matrix in what Judith Butler (1993:15) calls “a reiterative or rearticulatory practice, immanent to power,” of environmental and cultural forces that impress themselves into the build of flesh and bones. The relay of meaning between human–animal sexuality, particularly with regard to nonheteronormative modes—I think here of Elizabeth Wilson (2002) and Myra Hird's (2004) scholarship—should not be an essentializing move, as in “animals are queer so then queerness is natural,” but an opportunity to see the ways “natural perversity reorganize[s] our culture-centric theories of difference, embodiment and identity” (Wilson 2002:284).

Cris offers that animals exceed the illusionary absolutes of heteronormativity, monogamy, and sex. She explains that rather than make direct correlations between reproduction and sex, we could see that much of what sexual selection produces is excess, profusion, surplus. In the words of Richard Doyle“sexual selection excels at the momentary breakdown of inside/outside topologies” and thereby generates “not fitness but entanglement” (2007:80). Loosening the bond between sexuality and reproduction not only undoes an necessary functionalist argument but also performs a sort of surgical reorientation that allows for the bioaesthetic, the exaggerated and nonteleological.15

SYNAESTHESIA AND THE SUBSTANCE OF SPECIES

  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. IMPRESSIONS OF SCIENCE, SENSE, AND SPECIES AT LONG MARINE LAB
  4. ENCOUNTERING BALANOPHYLLIA ELEGANS
  5. OF SEX AND SPECIES
  6. INVERT, PERVERT
  7. SYNAESTHESIA AND THE SUBSTANCE OF SPECIES
  8. NOTES
  9. REFERENCES CITED

Flushing out cup coral gastrovascular cavities with a plastic dropper, I cleaned them of food debris (bits of brine shrimp), the particles that would usually be rinsed away in the water's rush. So much mud and muck! When they spawned, in a grouping of twenty individuals, I relocated them from their tubs to plastic cups for a short time. My fingers crossed the air–saltwater threshold. The overhead light was refracted, bending corals and human digits into different spatial registers. My fingeyeyes feel their orange bodies as firm, but spongy, their substance slick, but pebbly toward the bottom of their stock. They consist of skin with a single orifice that is simultaneously “mouth,”“anus,” and “vagina,” and, for males, a site for sperm production. (See Figure 4.)

image

Figure 4. Tentacle and nematocyst cells (released and unreleased). Drawing by author, 2010.

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Their tentacles reached out as my digits and tools reached toward them. The thickness of the skin on my hands protected me from their sting, but even still I felt a slight tingling at points of contact. For a moment, we, the corals and I, enfolded elements of each other within ourselves. With surprising speed, they retracted their fringes in response to my prodding. There is no question that they are responding to predator/prey impulses; the power is decidedly asymmetrical. Perhaps they do not suffer these handlings, if “suffer” is the right word, but it is clear that attempts to acquire knowledge is not without “response-ability” for both humans and corals (Haraway 2008).

Knowing that these inverts emerge from a “dynamic, environmentally dependent process that integrates ontogeny with habitat selection” (Bishop et al. 2006:662), I wonder how the generations in this lab are modifying their ontology to our work. I know that they don't have “eyes” or “fingers,” even if I must know them through my own fingeryeyes. Their sensory capacities are decidedly their own, with chemoreceptors (which transduce a chemical signal into potential action) and mechanoreceptors (which react to mechanical pressure or distortion) measuring the flow of water and the presence of prey or potential predators around them. It is tempting to translate their senses through my own—a “tasting touch” or a (c)orality—but what is at work in the intersections of species and senses might more approximate a synaesthetic multispecies reach, exchange, thrill, a transmission among sensing bodies.

David Howes, in the introduction of In The Empire of the Senses, offers the trope of “emplacement” as different to embodiment. He writes, “While the paradigm of ‘embodiment’ implies an integration of mind and body, the emergent paradigm of emplacement suggests the sensuous interrelationship of body-mind-environment” (2005:7). With fingeryeyes, we might boost emplacement with an attention to texture, animation, galvanizing drives, such that emplacing is defined by the quality of invigoration and its transfiguration of future emergings, of senses and species that may yet emerge. We are embodied in relation to the world, or better said, we are enfleshed through affections with an animating world. Steven Connor reminds us that, in French, “sens” means sense and direction; the senses are ways, corridors, venues through which we experience worldliness (2005b). Connor conjectures that “the body is the work of transforming mere sensitiveness into sense and sensibility both: the body is its work of transformation.” And indeed, “There is no chance of getting back to the body, since it is the nature of the human body to be self-organizing and therefore self-surpassing” (2005b:331). To qualify Connor's point: although we never get “back to the body,” we proliferate bodiliness rather than self-surpass our flesh. We deterritorialize the body through our “island of senses,” the conditions of corporeal enunciation.

The coralogical impressions of fingeryeyes that I have described cannot be agnostic about animal well-being because ontology is what is at stake. Cross-species sensations are always mediated by power that leaves impressions, which leaves bodies imprinted and furrowed with consequences. Animal bodies—the coral's and mine—carry forms of domination, communion, and activation into the folds of being. As we look for multispecies manifestations we must not ignore the repercussions that these unions have for all actors. In the effort to touch corals, to make sense of their biomechanics, I have also aided in the death of the corals I describe here; this species-sensing is not easily refused by the animals.

B. elegans, elegantly moving through tentacling senses, teaches me—just as I study them with my fingeryeyes—that the relationships between senses and species are unruly. They are in somatic cross-mutation. This is about how “species of all kinds, living and not, are consequent on a subject- and object-shaping dance of encounters” (Haraway 2008:4). Impressions. About this zoo-indexicality of perceptual instruments, Connor has written, “Increasingly, the animal realm has come to seem like a sensory resource, enabling us not just to hitchhike on the sensory capacities of other species, but also to develop new kinds of perception.” He goes on to say, “Even where the animal is not literally present, the mediation of the animal is retained, in idiom and metaphor, as well as in the subsidiary organs we develop to inform our sensory technologies” (2005a). In the case of B. elegans, the tentacularity of its own body informs—impresses upon me—the way I produce knowledge through my body, the way I know because of my fingeryeyes. The laboratory is a teeming site in which humans and animals live–die, touch–see, and know–be. Bodies are not only substantively solicited by the otherness of the world but are also invoked through this otherness.

Corals, here, are everywhere impressions in what at first appears to be purely anthropocentric effort. Texture and sensation are the energetic forces, coextensive overlappings, shared milieus that make species. Species are sensuous responses. The OED tells us that a species is an “emission or emanation from outward things.” Rather than bodies as direct products of environments, I suggest that an organism's responsiveness with an environment are the conditions of its emergence. The organism is a transitional response to its sensorial limits, which are always an incitement rather than a determinant; that is to say, through its corporeal and sensorial capacities it attempts to coordinate with its own specified environment. An organism is not a reaction to an environment, but rather through its senses it manifests with and of an environment as an improvisation. And in this saltwater lab, between the corals and me, our capacities become syncopated, we improvise (not necessarily a question of intentionality): I reattune my primate senses as they pass into water; the dissonance of scale refines my sense of vision with touch; my body builds out a sensory sphere that attempts to harmonize with the corals. As for corals, they too adjust to their environment: they feed differently in the nontidal zone of the laboratory; they respond to the segregation of sexes; their bodies strive varyingly in artificial darkness–lightness. So, species are not only relationships, nor are species ever directly in relationship with other species, we are resonances and dissonances of intensification, energetic cadences of one another. Even in the temporary space of the lab where primates and corals are more likely to “touch” than out in Monterey Bay, where corals grapple for food while humans reach for them with curiosity, where spawning is confined to sink trays rather than open water, there is expressive inter- and intra-change between us. We constitute a sensorial ensemble, becoming more than ourselves.

NOTES

  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. IMPRESSIONS OF SCIENCE, SENSE, AND SPECIES AT LONG MARINE LAB
  4. ENCOUNTERING BALANOPHYLLIA ELEGANS
  5. OF SEX AND SPECIES
  6. INVERT, PERVERT
  7. SYNAESTHESIA AND THE SUBSTANCE OF SPECIES
  8. NOTES
  9. REFERENCES CITED

Acknowledgments

Acknowledgments.  I am grateful for the editorial guidance that Stefan Helmreich and S. Eben Kirksey gave me through the writing of this article. Without their generosity and patience this essay would never have happened. I also thank Donna Haraway for commenting on early versions. I presented this material at two conferences, Animals: Past, Present, Future, Michigan State University, 2009, and 7th European Feminist Research Conference, Utrecht, 2009, and received many excellent questions that helped define my arguments.

1.  Jeremijenko's (2002)“amphibious architecture” offers an artistic critique of the species divide created by architectural forms. Exploiting the poetics of the water–air threshold, she suggests deployments of refractions and immersions to unsettle distinctions between humans and other species.

2. Bioenvy followed by biomimicry, has, according to Steven Connor, turned the compounding eye of flies into the figure of the lens; he writes, “Mechanisms of various kinds take over the role previously assigned to animals. The canary which detected dangerous levels of gas in mines is replaced by a chemically sensing device. The development of sonar equipment is made possible by the understanding of echo-location in bats and other creatures” (2005a). In Anthropological Futures, Michael M. J. Fischer suggests that transducing vision with the capacities of other species has made it possible to extend the placement of the human eye. “Drosophila genetics allow eyes to be multiplied or placed in novel positions … assemble multiple fragmented views” (2009:167).

3. In The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness, Haraway defines species as a resonance of “four tones”: 1, a biological category shaped by evolutionary forces; 2, a philosophical category used to connote difference; 3, an alternate representational unit that joins semiotics to materiality; and 4, “dubious etymologies” that link species to “filthy lucre, specie, gold, shit, filth, wealth” (2003:14–16).

4. S. Eben Kirksey and Stefan Helmreich employ “multispecies ethnography” to denote a mode of ethnographic investigation that “centers on how a multitude of organisms’ livelihoods shape and are shaped by political, economic, and cultural forces” (this issue). This approach isn't about “simply celebrating the fact of multispecies mingling” (this issue) but also, following Susan Leigh Star, attending to power, to who benefits (Star 1991).

5. Compare the work of Geerat Vermeij, a blind marine biologist at UC Davis who taxonomizes shellfish based on the feel of their shells (Costa and Cutkosky 1995).

6. Anyone who has attended a Donna Haraway talk, or sat in her classroom, or chatted with her, knows that signature finger wiggling of hers used to emphasize layered concatenations of actors, networks, and knowledges. My invention of “fingeryeyes” comes from an advisory meeting in which we discussed an essay that I had written about cephalopods and film (2005). In talking to me about research directions, she described a moment of watching cuttlefish tentacling, limbing, and illuminating in the throes of sexual display. She described, with her hands signaling intra- and interchange, her joy in watching them as “cuttlefish envy.”

7. This article was originally developed in dialogue with a panel held at the 2008 meetings of the American Anthropological Association in San Francisco. “Species at Sea: Aqueous Anthropologies of Nonhuman Strangers and Companions,” organized by Stefan Helmreich, asked participants to take the animal turn, underwater—as well as across phyla, kingdoms, and domains—entangling ethnological investigations with such beings as brittlestars, extremophilic marine microbes, sea cucumbers, cowries, and dinoflagellates. Differences between life and death, time and space, land and sea, individual and dividual are set in motion by heterogeneous collections of marine organisms, creatures united less by taxonomy than by their common medium, water.

8. In Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media, Marks defines “haptic criticism” as a methodology of interpreting images that is “mimetic … presses up to the object” creating a robust movement between “sensuous closeness and symbolic distance” (2002:xiii).

9. In another effort at writing multispecies ethnography, I discuss my experience of doing photo identification at Allied Whale, examining the phenomenology of photography and whale-human encounters in a forthcoming article, “Sounding Out the Light: Whale Migrations and Photographs” (Hayward in press).

10. The notion that an organism is a musical composition, an orchestration between itself, its “island of the senses” or Umwelt, and its environment is taken up by Jakob von Uexküll (2000). He uses music not as a metaphor for beings and living systems but, rather, as a vibrational accounting of becoming. Living things are symphonies of responses and responsiveness. To survive, an organism must harmonize to the tone or theme of its Umwelt, enabling it to exist within an environment.

11. For Wittig, sex is a knowledge regime that disallows multiple sexes, multiple genders. Wittig proposes a rival associative logic of sexual “near-nesses” and “same-nesses” rooted in political resistance that displaces the sexual frame of reference such that one of the central axes of humanism is disoriented. Kath Weston (2002) cautions that binary ontologies of sex–gender are not necessarily destabilized by the addition of a third—or even a fourth or fifth. The very enumeration of sexes or genders, the placing of them on a continuum-like number line can reinforce the ontologies feminist scholars seek to denaturalize. Myra Hird's argument, in The Origins of Sociable Life (2009) that “gender” should refer to “features that bring organisms together to share DNA and/or reproduce”—which leads her to such claims as “The mushroom Schizophyllum commune has 27,000 genders, encoded by ‘incompatability genes’ that come in many versions (alleles) on different chromosomes” (2009:100–101)—reifies both sex and gender.

12. I thank Stefan Helmreich for these etymological reminders.

13. I coorganized a panel on “tranimals” with Lindsay Kelley: TRANimalS: Theorizing The Trans- in Zoontology. 23rd SLSA, November 5–8, 2009, Atlanta, Georgia. Panelists: Prema Prabhakar, “Do Not Rest in Peace: The Obsessional Mediumship of Diamanda Galas”; Katie King, “Distributed Animality”; Mel Chen, “The Animacy of Toxins”; and Natalie Hansen, “Trans-Species Embodiment: Becoming Human with Horses.”

14. Tranimals, an enmeshment of “trans” and “animals,” is a synecdochically imagined correspondence written as a portmanteau word (a blending of sound and meaning) rather than a metonymically formed “transanimals” (as with “Japanimals”[see Pflugfleder and Walker 2005]). Hybrid forms and liminal states of tranimals represent subtle or even explosive changes in our understanding of bodily transformation. These are instances within which we can see more closely the appearing and disappearing boundaries between the human, the postanimal (human and non-human), the in–un–human, and the animal. This is not necessarily about cross-species identifications but is rather a somatic and semiotic synthesis that manifests synecdochically (an assembling relationship of connection such that elements “form an ensemble, a physical or metaphysical whole, the existence or idea of one being included in the existence or idea of another”[Ricoeur 1977:56]), rather than metaphorically.

15. If sexual differences and sexuality are exuberances (Bagemihl 1999), contingencies, then sex is a profusive happening, a view might swim against some biological species concepts—that, as Ernst Mayr (1942:86) had it, “species are groups of interbreeding natural populations that are reproductively isolated from other such groups.” That definition has “sex” as a stable entity, a kind of police force securing the boundaries of species. But for B. elegans the dynamism of coral (polyp) sociality—what Cris sees as the selective force in coral fecundity, the ability to read for conspecific inhabitants and other environmental presences—already layers sex with connectivities. For a continued discussion on deontologizing sex and species, see my essay “More Lessons from a Starfish” (2008).

REFERENCES CITED

  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. IMPRESSIONS OF SCIENCE, SENSE, AND SPECIES AT LONG MARINE LAB
  4. ENCOUNTERING BALANOPHYLLIA ELEGANS
  5. OF SEX AND SPECIES
  6. INVERT, PERVERT
  7. SYNAESTHESIA AND THE SUBSTANCE OF SPECIES
  8. NOTES
  9. REFERENCES CITED
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