I was struck by the relatively sanguine attitude author Brian D. Earp had towards deliberatively subjecting bees to such high stress levels. It reminded me that, as Susan Hauri-Downing recently told me, ethics approvals are not required when researching with bees. Only creatures with a central nervous system (vertebrates), cephalopods such as octopus and squid, and adult decapod crustaceans (crabs, lobster and crayfish only) are included. So bees aren't currently recognised by ethics committees and so as Earp noted in his blog post, the idea that bees might have an inner emotional life could potentially ‘raise the morality alarm’. Given that our current project is focused around the idea of conversations, we wanted to share our conversation around this particular ‘moral alarm’.
First, Tim Collins suggested that a slightly different take on the life of bees, which we might want to explore, can be found in Mark Thompson’s work, an artist in Oakland CA who has been working with bees since the 1970s. Tim suggested that in contrast to the bee experiment discussed by Earp, Thompson provided an example of working with bees in a way that was built on intensive, immersive, conjoined actions across species. You can see more about this work here.
Johan Siebers was particularly struck by Earp’s statement in the blog that "human beings have a really handy self-report tool-language". He wrote:
I’m not sure which emoticon describes my all-shook up state after reading Earp’s, but I did display the same caution the manhandled bees exhibited towards their bittersweet treat.
I have been thinking in the context of our project about the question of why we find nothing more natural than to think of animals, and also plants, trees and even inanimate nature, as speaking. Are we trying to re-enchant the world and regain a sensibility that historically has been recorded in fables and myths? Do these stories tell us something about what we are looking for in our project? Or is the fable an attempt to colonise the alterity of non-human nature?
When we have a conversation, do we aim at a mutual coming-together, a consensus or a unification, or are conversations spaces in which an encounter with another as an other can take place? Two models of communication are at play here, one thinking in terms of communication as equalisation, the other in terms of communication as recognition of irreducible alterity.
What are the conditions for conversations in each of these cases? Which reflects more adequately what communication is? Is communication a disruptive and perhaps summoning encounter on the edge of untranslatability (I think Mark Thompson's bee film captures a lot of this) or the creation of a common world? Or is it the paradoxical dialectic between these poles? If so, what does that mean for conversations with more-than-human communities?
What happens, however, if we move away from the idea (assumed in Earp’s post) that a conversation presupposes language and that language in turn presupposes a shared social context - shared a 'form of life' (i.e. Wittgenstein’s famous line 'If a lion could speak, we could not understand him'). How do we avoid falling off the tight rope on the side of humanising the non-human or, alternatively, on the side of species-solipsism?
Maybe the fable promises more than we might think. The key term in the title of the oxford experiment could then turn out to be the word 'like': not 'what is it to be a bee?', but 'what is it like to be a bee'.
The 'like' points to the basic hermeneutical operation, for someone like Heidegger the basis of all significance, namely 'seeing something as something'. Maybe ‘likeness’ is a ontological feature that is more general, rather than only a linguistic operation. It pervades being as such.
Emotions could then perhaps also be understood in a different way from what the commentary on the experiment suggests. They are (again, Heidegger), Befindlichkeiten, ways of finding oneself. Emotions in this sense predate and presuppose the 'handy self-report tool' language, but they do exhibit the structure of 'like' in the sense that they require a distance, even if minimal, within the organism having the emotion in which it can have a relation to that emotion. This need not be conscious, but it is there as a gap in the occasion that the organism's present moment is. We have filled that gap with language - as we often do when there is a gap (language is a handy tool after all!). Maybe the bee is even wiser than that.
Heidegger would not agree that we can have a conversation with non-human organisms. Animals, for him, lack a world, because they lack language. But language is not our invention; it is certainly not a tool. Language allows the beings to come into the light of our recognition of them. For Heidegger we are the shepherds of all that is – he thus displays a fundamentally classical view of man as given over to the husbandry of the earth. We on the other hand are living with the aftermath of this classical view, in a culture that is drenched by the attempt to control nature, within and without us.
Our conversations with more than human communities would in my view first of all have to attempt to think 'conversing' as removed from the attempt to control or unify. In the rethinking of what emotions really are and that maybe we do share emotionality, not only with cats and dogs, but also with bees, and more, a possible avenue can be found.
But that would also commit us to a strong view of metaphysics, as revisionary: we have to rethink 'human', 'non-human', 'nature', 'emotion', 'language', 'conversation' in the light of a speculative philosophy about the nature of the real.
I wonder if 'thinking in terms of communication as equalisation' or 'recognition of irreducible alterity' doesn't ignore the potential for empathy to reshape the exchange? Language is like water it picks up bits and pieces, the flotsam and jetsom of ideas and vocalization from many cultures; can we rule out the potential for language to evolve beyond anthropocentric ideas that constrain communication to those that have the exact same combination of senses, memory, cognition and communication that we do?
The world is changing in lots of interesting ways. See below some notes on intelligence and awareness in plants from scientists which might be of interest.
Until recently modern mainstream science has been unwilling to consider ideas like sensory perception, communication, memory, agency and knowledge in plants. But there are some cracks in that armour. Prof Anthonty Trewavas has written a series of rigorous articles that explore ‘plant Intelligence’ (2003, arguing that plants are territorial and competitive; forever changing their ‘architecture, physiology and phenotype’ in the intelligent pursuit of resources for growth and reproduction. (Trewavas, 2005, p. 413). More recently Prof Daniel Chamovitz (2012) argues for awareness (rather than intelligence). Making a case at the bio-chemical level for specific sensory perceptions, that enables response to changes in the environment as well as memory and communication amongst plants. It is important to note that this work has vociferous critics, Richard Firn’s response to Trewavas’ 2003 paper, makes a point-by-point rebuttal before demanding limitation on anthropocentric description. (2004)