Gary over at The Ontological Boy objects to my reference to the mythological matrix from which philosophy emerges. In comment to that post, Gary had connected my etymology for "argument" (from I.E. *arg, "to shine, be white, bright, clear") to the Thracian argilos, ("[white] mouse," tentatively), to which I replied:
Whenever animals move by, we are close to the mythological matrix out of which philosophy defines itself.I've referred before to David Abram, whose remix of the phenomenological tradition is, with Harman's, the contemporary engagement with Husserl I find most fascinating. Abram's recent book Becoming Animal is just what I am talking about here. In the introduction to this work, Abram asks a crucial question:
Surely to speak, or to think in words, is necessarily to step back from the world's presence into a purely human sphere of reflection? Such, precisely, has been our civilized assumption. But what if meaningful speech is not an exclusively human possession? What if the very language we now speak arose first in response to an animate expressive world--as a stuttering reply not just to others of our species but to an enigmatic cosmos that already spoke to us in a myriad of tongues?Because Abram is asking about different ways we as human beings might engage the world, he is vulnerable to being thought interested exclusively in the encounter between the world and the human being--of still being in thrall to the "philosophy of access" Harman wants to critique. Too strong a reading along these lines would miss the point of what Abram intends. Abram is doing (I say) in epistemology what Harman is suggesting in ontology. This is not to say that I think their two projects are fundamentally "the same" or would not need some considerable work to harmonize them. But the question Abram asks--what if human language is a response to a language that pre-exists it?--does not presuppose that human beings are the primary objects of that address.
It's fair to ask: O.K., but what kind of "language" are we talking about, and can this be anything more than metaphorical? I'll just point you to Abram's book here, but I want to underscore that this is a re-framing of the so-called linguistic turn that moves the whole thing around 180 degrees. If instead of asking whether we can know anything outside of language, we ask whether language can transpire outside of our relations with the world, we re-cast the question: one might call it now a matter of universalizing epistemology.
This is perilously close, some will say, to the way Meillassoux's "strong correlationism," as he calls it, radicalizes the correlation between human being and world. But in fact both Meillassoux and Harman do some radicalizing of their own, driving correlationism even further. Meillassoux, following Badiou, wants to radicalize strong correlationism--this is why he makes the in-itself nothing but the mathematical, or rather the mathematizable (this is an ambiguity--either in Meillassoux or--more likely--in my reading of him). Harman on the other hand wants to radicalize weak correlationism, (i.e., Kantianism)--for him there is an in-itself, strictly unknowable--in a sense it is far deeper than the mathematical and strictly unknowable, but this does not prevent us from alluding to it. I won't bother to defend these two caricatures, which leave every subtlety out. My only point here is that to radicalize meaning, as Abram does in making human language just one mode of an infinite range of manners of address, is not to reduce it to the old chestnut of anthropomorphism.
Most [Continental] philosophers know how Heidegger drew on Jacob von Uexküll's work-- the latter's A Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans has recently been translated--famously drawing out a number of theses in The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics to the effect that "the stone is worldless; the animal is 'poor in world;' man is world-forming." Now leaving aside whether or no the tick has an umwelt that reduces to the scent of butyric acid, the hairiness of mammals, and the temperature of mammalian blood (~37 degrees celsius), it clearly won't do to play a one-up game of worlds here. One can multiply worlds ad infinitum; the question is not whether there is a world for a Cadillac or a chihuahua or a con-artist, but whether and how fully one can represent them, enter them, move through them. And it goes without saying that one of the most effective ways, I might even say the only real way (and it is certainly not a safe way), is to listen to the one whose world it is.
I think it does not need demonstration that animals are ubiquitous in myth. I take it that even in the late and literary records we possess (e.g. Ovid), myth preserves a recollection of our relationship (and often of our attempts to reject this relationship) with the animal world. Of course, this begs the question: what, exactly, was that relationship? And, assuming (for the sake of argument) that it was one thing, why should we care; why should we hope to recapture this in philosophy?
I don't claim that our relationships with animals was of any one flavor, ever; but I do think it was once considerably more complicated; as complicated as our relationships with each other. This is just the point; when animals are experienced as just our neighbors, beings who have a right to be here, we have a far different encounter with them than when they are either pets, or rare sights in a zoo (or on T.V.).
Of course, we may repeat all sorts of misconstruing gossip about our neighbors. To take the mouse: Homer calls Apollo Smintheus, mouse, and Strabo tells us that there were several shrines that addressed Apollo with this epithet. Speculation on the origin of this name runs that a god originally blamed for bringing a plague eventually merged with the healer of it. Herodotus has an account of a king of Egypt who had formerly been a priest of Ptah (presumably; Herodotus has "Hephaestus"). Having ascended from the ranks of the priests, he disdained the soldier classes, and thus found himself abandoned by them on the eve of being attacked by Sennacherib. Going into the temple that night, he dreamed that the god told him to take heart. The next day he took with him such an army as he had been able to muster from the people, and routed the enemy, because the Assyrians' bowstrings and shield-straps had been gnawed by a host of field-mice. A similar story is found in Strabo, where the "attack" of the mice is taken as the sign that a migration is to cease; and also in a Chinese legend.
The book of Judges recounts that the Phillistines, having stolen the Ark of the Covenant, were afflicted by mice and by boils, and had to fashion golden effigies of both to appease the God of Israel (as well as returning the Ark). The Vedic god Ganesh is shown riding on a mouse. In the Taoist and Buddhist parable of the man, the tigers, the vine and the strawberries, two mice--one black, one white--stand for day and night, nibbling away at the vine on which we hang suspended. St. Gertrude often has them running up her staff or her cloak (because, say the commentators, mice stood for the souls in Purgatory, for whose welfare she had a special concern); but I have also read this symbol interpreted as "a temptation of the devil." In France, pieces of paper smeared with butter used to (may still, for all I know) be put into rat- and mouse-holes, with writing on them saying "Rats male & female, you who have eaten the heart of St. Gertrude, I conjure you in her name to go to the plain of Rocroi." Hmm.
Now if you've followed my pied-piper flute this long, you know I must be leading somewhere. But where?
Just here. The mouse has a dozen mythical associations, and more. None of them are right, and the mythological mind would not have thought of them as either competing nor as being right or wrong.
These connections don't just dead-end in a mouse-hole. They lead hook-&-eye fashion on to cats and elephants, to Apollo and the charms of music, to Aesop's fables on the strength of the small; to the brevity of life and the penances of purgatory. And if we take another step back, to "the animal" in general, we back right into von Uexküll, Heidegger, and Agamben. The question of what it is like to be a flitter-mouse.
But there is a further step. The literary remnants we have of these myths are all very late fragments of a ritual worldview in which the community between world and human was simply a lived reality. We can get some sense of the difference by comparing Pindar or Pausanius to the stories of Australian or Amerindian myth. In our Greek heritage, animals tend to be helpers, or monsters, or incidentals--a golden ram carries away Phrixus & Helle; Pasiphae becomes enamoured of a white bull & conceives the minotaur. But the coyotes and ravens, the lizards and emus and spiders, of Africa or Australia or the Americas, are themselves the actors of their stories. They have not yet been forced off-stage to make way for the heroes of the bronze age.
This forcible eviction was really the beginning of the ascent of anthropomorphism, and the universalization of epistemology I referred to above can only be the first step in correcting for it; for epistemology itself only arises in the foundering of participation. To universalize epistemology is only to make ubiquitous the unanswerable skeptical conundrum which epistemology is. What really needs universalizing is ethics.
In his A Language Older Than Words, which despite all my many difficulties with it is still written the way I believe philosophy ought to be written (with urgency and beauty), Derrick Jensen quotes Jeannette Armstrong, poet, teacher and activist from the Okanagan tribes. As I re-read this post, I saw that Armstrong provides a blunt response to the question I asked--"what kind of language are we talking about here, and can this be anything more than metaphorical?" and she does so in expressly philosophical terms. For now I am going to let her have the last word on the dispute between Gary and me:
Attitudes about interspecies communication are the primary difference between western and indigenous philosophies. Even the most progressive western philosophers still generally believe that listening to the land is a metaphor. It's not a metaphor. It's how the world is.