The Speciousness of Origin: Notes from Palermo
by Dominic Pettman
I’m standing face-to-face with an adolescent chimp. It is raised on its hind legs, right arm extended to clutch a branch, mouth twisted in a silent screech, the glass between us all but invisible. For a moment we are both frozen in space as much as time, engaged in a metaphysical standoff. But I am the one to blink first. Indeed, I am the only one to move. The chimp is long dead. Now stuffed, and put on display. A jagged line of stitches from crotch to chin is vivid evidence of the lack of artistry practiced on whichever taxidermy table this poor creature came to rest. He or she – the amateur eye has little evidence to go on – also bears ten-inch stitches along each wrist, as if this particular simian was compulsively suicidal when alive. The skin has desiccated and bleached yellowish over time, the procedures carried out for mummification perfunctory and utilitarian. The expression is of mid-shriek, witnessing some unknown outrage whose echo has now been stretched into perpetuity: a fading three-dimensional photograph, clipped from the pages of last century’s National Geographic. The creature looks, quite literally, mortified. Body hair has also shed over the decades that this once wild animal has held on to this same branch; an aesthetic concession to the fact that he or she once enjoyed the vigor of life, and a habitus to go with it. That is to say, an environment less claustrophobic than this one (one would hope).
I am standing in Palermo’s Museum of Zoology – a one room, split-level Victorian holdover that has crammed over one thousand species into glass cabinets, arranged from the planet’s earliest vertebrates, sharks, to more recent examples, such as the forest dwellers. Hundreds of eyes – some as glassy as marbles, others as opaque as cobalt buttons – watch me wander from display to display, a sense of unease growing with each exhibit. If eyes are windows to the soul, then I wonder what I can see through these abandoned organic apertures, left open for the morbidly curious to peer into. There are only two other patrons, who leave within minutes, leaving me alone to ponder the meaning of life after life. Not only are stuffed specimens on offer, but pickled anatomical details, such as stomachs, intestines, livers, wombs, egg-sacks, and bone structures lined with spiny fur, sprung direct from the cyst-infested unconscious of H.R. Geiger. The skeletons of Manta Rays are particularly striking, splayed on the vertical axis in exquisitely aerodynamic geometry, like a kite assembled especially for the delight of the children of the Grim Reaper himself. Similarly, the wings of dehydrated bats are beginning to perforate like forgotten letters abandoned in desert climes. Despite the crush of bodies, this is a place of respite from the heat and city traffic outside. Were these animals still vital, the din would be horrific in both scope and scale: a gothic short-story come to life.
But as it is, the place is quite silent: a private menagerie suspended in pre-reanimation, prompting the intruder, burdened with life, to hold his breath in existential empathy. Flat fish with their eyes on one side – as if fashioned by Picasso himself – observe what they can from their waterless aquarium in unseeing double-vision. Owls and eagles maintain their enigmatic dignity, long after their souls have flown over the horizon. The impressive beaks of pelicans wrinkle like vintage leather luggage, while once-pink flamingos stand as elegant sentinels, charged with watching the luminescent color drain from their own feathers, decade after decade. Not to mention any of the woodland creatures – bears, porcupines, boar, deer, hyenas, and many others besides – which all share the same expression: an expression fusing both surprise and resignation, which bespeaks the dubious honor of being selected to stay on this earth much longer than expected, suspended between the great Before and After. These hapless individuals have been wrenched from the biological continuum and suspended in the inadequate Lucite of fluorescent air-conditioning. Limbo. Purgatory.
Georges Bataille argued that the passion of sex comes down to an attempt to harness the death-drive in order to gallop back towards a state of unconscious “continuity” with the cosmos. (“Eroticism is in time what the tiger is in space.”) That is to say, being alive is to be wrenched from the unthinking flux of all things. And mental awareness is an extra-curse since it makes us dwell on this very alienating fact. Freud said as much during one of his many gloomy moods, that deep down in our dark hearts, humans yearn to get back to “dead matter.” Staring at this kaleidoscope of strange, extruded, hollowed-out, and refilled bodies, it is indeed difficult not to think some karmic crime has taken place, denying these individuals the relief of jumping back into the torrent of death-as-ceaselessly-emerging-life. But then that would be to think in terms of reincarnation or transmigration; something I haven’t been trained to do. Even this charmingly disconcerting educational freak show is an environment of sorts, testing the notion of both the natural and the artificial.
The exhibit is punctilious about noting both the Italian and Latinate names of each species. And yet each specimen represents a concept which many scientists – including Darwin himself, according to some heterodox readers – recognize as a convenient fiction: that is, the concept of species itself. For while no-one of Enlightenment training and sound mind would say that a grass-hopper is the same as a crocodile, many would indeed argue that there is no hard-and-fast line between one species and the next. The names we give different animals are as permeable as the skins in which they crawl, hop, lope, fly, or swim. Life is comprised of “biological exuberance,” which overflows the neat categories of Linnaeus: the father of modern taxonomy. “Life itself” – a category which has confounded scientists as much as philosophers since we first managed to arrange our thoughts – is notoriously difficult to define in any tangible, positive sense. (Bichat, the 18th-century French anatomist, ventured that life is nothing other than “the set of functions that resist death.”) Entities like the virus, a microscopic organism existing on the other side of the cusp of life, can lie dormant for thousands of years, before springing into action, complicating any firm borderline between the quick and the dead. As do computer viruses and artificial intelligence; new entities that the first evolutionaries could not have anticipated, and yet could have conceivably absorbed into their early, flexible systems.
Standing here in Palermo’s Museo di Zoologia, I have the feeling that existence is a giant river, of which we can say the same now clichéd observation as Heraclitus. And yet this very room represents a kind of attempt to dam the powerful current of existence, in order to control the flux for the purposes of ultimately understanding our own relationship to it. Panta rhei, noted the ancient thinker, “everything flows.” Except when it doesn’t. So I begin to wonder if a small zoo comprised of dead creatures counts as “standing reserve”; especially while the city outside pulses with the pungent effects of the aforementioned biological exuberance.
Thus far, during my short stay in the Sicilian capital, I have already been threatened by a feral young boy wielding a spear in the backstreets of the old town. I have seen a homeless Chinese man living inside the burnt out husk of an abandoned car. I have watched my wife feed Michelin-starred fish to one of the many stray cats that prowl the sun-blasted cobblestones. I have seen two teenage girls, of possibly Phoenician stock, try to order an Indian boy off the bus (their racist pantomime, encouraged by Berlusconi’s sanction of vigilante mobs targeting illegal immigrants, making it clear to everyone on board that this citizens’ order is due to the poor lad’s body odor – a no doubt confronting smell, which inevitably comes from trying to sell cheap trinkets to privileged beach-goers all day under the blazing sky).
I have seen a lot of culture, in other words: that unnatural aspect of human life (but not only human life), that we like to suspend through regular jaunts into safely manicured and maintained pockets of Nature. Like the Museum of Zoology, Palermo’s famous Botanical Gardens provide just such an illusion of escape from our own excesses and obsessions. This genteel park dedicated to the world’s plant-life features the Moreton Bay Fig tree, which sustains itself via aerial roots, some as thick as trunks. It also boasts an avenue of Kapok trees which swell at the base, as if pregnant, covered with thousands of thorns to protects against climbers of all stripes (whether these vicious spikes were integral or a symbiotic parasite, I could not discover). There were cacti of every persuasion, some perfect embodiments of fuzzy fractals, others like a nest of vipers poised ready to slither across the dust. Inside one of the grand old buildings there was a photographic exhibit featuring the families of employees of yester-century, enjoying picnics amongst the same bamboo I heard clicking restfully in the warm breeze. And underneath a domed cloister there was even a statue of Linnaeus himself.
If it weren’t for a small poster, somewhat begrudgingly thumb-tacked near the ticket booth of the Orto Botanico, I would not have known about the Zoological Museum. When I asked the ticket seller what kind of exhibit I would find there, and how far it was from our present location, I had the distinct impression that a rivalry existed between the two attractions – as if a line of identification could confidently be drawn between flora and fauna, between the vegetal and animal kingdoms, as some are want to do between species of plant or animal. Further research revealed these two institutions to be connected to the same host; that is, the University of Palermo, specifically as public extensions of their respective departments, zoology and botany. This, I felt, explained the rather cagey response, incongruously following a brief but genial conversation about the layout of the gardens. The narcissism of minor differences, indeed!
Some experts insist that we should not view animals as discrete creatures emerging from a vaguely green background, but that we should view life as part of “the mesh.” One such expert is Timothy Morton, an expert in “ambient poetics” who goes so far as to call “animal” a disastrous word, making us see being where there is only becoming. “The mesh,” Morton writes, is “a multitude of entangled strange strangers” (his preferred term for life hosted in other forms than ourselves). Morton encourages us to think past Nature towards a less Romantic and less naïve type of “ecology”: an understanding of the planet unsullied by this other convenient fiction; this shadow-part of so-called civilization. “In Nature,” Morton writes, the moderns “saw the reflected, inverted image of their own age – and the grass is always greener on the other side.” Hence his counter-intuitive project: ecology without nature. Especially since, “Ecology equals living minus Nature, plus consciousness.”
Morton’s notion of the mesh troubles all the neat labels that I see affixed to sub-species of animals and plants in the Museum of Zoology and the Botanic Gardens. These spaces of order – somewhat anachronistic temples of confident classification – embody the modern faith that there is a place for everything and everything should be in its place. The postmodern world has slowly begun to grapple with the realization that there is in fact “no metaposition,” no Archimedean point, on which to enjoy the insights of ultimate objectivity. The mesh describes the interconnectedness of not only living things, but also non-living things, deconstructing the crucial, ultimately political, distinction between inside and outside. “We drive around using crushed dinosaur parts,” Morton writes. “Iron is mostly a by-product of bacterial metabolism. So is oxygen.” And so on. Further examples of “co-existentialism” multiply before our eyes: an uncanny, rather gothic experience of the sheer closeness of alien life on every scale, from the cockroach in the cupboard to the televisual tentacles that tickle our eyeballs. Our epoch is suddenly dealing with the “radical intimacy” imposed by the phenotypical extensions of our bizarre, fascinating, frightening neighbors. All creatures great, small, and overlapping. “That’s the disturbing thing about ‘animals,’” notes Morton, “at bottom they are vegetables.” Cellular automata. When the molecular scale reveals itself as more telling than the “molar” view of the world that we have grown used to (or rather, insisted upon), the warp in perspective leaves us with a profound sense of vertigo. “Je suis un autre,” wrote Rimbaud. No doubt when he wrote these words he was not thinking about the fact that the majority of cells which make up our bodies are external elements, just hitching a ride, but he captures the situation nevertheless.
Darwin himself was careful to emphasize the fact that species are actually only “well-marked and permanent varieties” – a far less rigid term, and one less available for moralistic, even fascistic, appropriation. Indeed, in a sentence that would still count as blasphemy for many people today, Darwin notes, “In a series of forms graduating insensibly from some ape-like creature to man as he now exists, it would be impossible to fix on any definite point when the term ‘man’ ought to be used.” In other words, life is time-lapse. And any one given species is a series of photographs summoned into continuity like those old animation flip-books. Returning to the metaphor of the river, Morton insists that “Like a dam, Nature contained thinking for a while, but in the current historical situation, thinking is about to spill over the edge.”
In terms of this ego-bruising paradigm shift for humanity, the botanists and zoologists have been far ahead of the philosophers, the historians, the anthropologists, the sociologists, and the poets. Colleagues in the humanities, myself included, seem to be falling over themselves to leave “the human” back in the twentieth century where “he” belongs (the gendered pronoun explained by the reified and historical character of the concept). Accusing someone of “anthropocentrism” is the put down du jour, as feared today in conference circles as the charge of logcentrism, phallocentrism, or ethnocentrism used to be. Since Nietzsche encouraged das Man to reconnect with the animal nature from which he has long been estranged, there has been a slow burn in the social sciences to look past our own reflections, and displace ourselves from the center of the world-picture.
Roger Caillois looked to the insect world. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari valorized the vegetal and rhizomatic. Today, Manuel de Landa explores the geological, Keith Ansell-Pearson deploys the viral, while McKenzie Wark leap-frogs ahead to those spectacular chemical traces we will leave in our wake. For his part, Bruno Latour attempts to fashion a “democracy of actors” from carbon-based and silicone-based objects alike. The new “speculative realism” cult treat human beings in the same breath, and within the same frameworks, as “grass, gates, gravestones, radios, classmates, and courts of law” (not to mention “Hamlet, Popeye, phlogiston, subway trains, the Dutch East India Company, the Easter Bunny, and the Holy Spirit”). Contemporary theory can sometimes look like a high-brow version of those edutainment cable TV shows like Life After Humans.
In contrast, Alain Badiou, the newly hailed hero of classical Continental philosophy, stubbornly insists that there is something exceptional about human beings, albeit glimpsed deep within its animalistic milieu. For him, Man (and being an old French fellow, Badiou still relies on this most baggage-laden of weary avatars) “distinguishes himself within the varied and rapacious flux of life.” In other words, there is nothing essential within human beings, such as a soul, which place them on top of the great chain of Being, but rather a (learned?) capacity to be immortal. That is, to be “something other than a mortal being,” destined for pointless extinction, untouched by the urgent event of Truth. Beyond this potential to recognize and act upon the Truth, Badiou writes, “there is only a biological species, a ‘biped without feathers,’ whose charms are not obvious.”
Standing in front of these threadbare critters, feeling like a ghoulish window shopper, I feel as self-conscious as a biped without feathers. Suddenly I am seized by an irresistable desire to rush back out into the street: out into the toxic river of Palermo’s traffic “system,” and into the clamor of life, no matter how garish, obnoxious, or indifferent. To be wrenched from the continuum is, of course, both blessing and curse – one of those impossible distinctions, like life and death, on a grander scale. When all is said and done, when all is eviscerated and stuffed, we borrow our bodies from the cosmos, and before we even get used to them, it is time to give them back. For when viewed in geological time, what may at first seem like an unnatural presumption – to keep the body of an anonymous creature from returning to the earth – becomes just a barely perceptible extension of Darwin’s flipbook.* * * *
The following day finds me supine on the sands of Mondello beach, a half-hour sardine-can ride from the center of Palermo. The water here is an obscenely seductive and limpid azzurro. But in my psyche, as much as into the Mexican Gulf itself, oil is gushing from a wound punctured deep below the ocean, staining everything a sumpish black. Yet another afterlife of sorts. An unplanned – and for many unwelcome – immortality for all the dead creatures of which our most elemental energy is composed. The plane which brought me to this garbage-strewn paradise, powered by zombie fuel.
Removing the bookmark from my novel, To Each His Own, Leonardo Sciasca’s deceptively poetic tale of life on an island strangled for centuries in the octopus grip of the Mafia, the page begins:
That evening, the notary was not at the club, and therefore the young man launched his humorous conundrum about what animal keeps its pecker underground. Those most familiar with the animal world – the hunters, that is – proposed the woodcock and the anteater; the least informed lapsed into the exotic, suggesting the crane, the stork, ostrich, and condor. Young Pecorilla let them simmer a bit, then triumphantly announced, “A widow!”
At that point my attention to the book is disturbed by the plaintive cry of the roaming coconut vender, sounding for all the world like some desperate cuckoo bird – “co-co, co-co.” The second syllable breaks to an almost unbearable hoarseness, creating a surreal Doppler effect which seems to somehow capture the exhausted, relentless will-to-live, upon which the current global economy depends.
I keep reading, brushing away the thought that I often find it easier to live amongst specimens of any species when they are mediated by words. That is to say, when they are embalmed through the alphabet, so that they are robbed of actual eyes. Eyes which burn into the back of the head. Eyes which reflect that most forsaken of populations: the not-yet-dead.
Dominic Pettman teaches in the Culture & Media Department, Eugene Lang College, New School. He is the author of several books exploring key connections between libidinal, symbolic, political, and technical economies. His latest book, Human Error: Species-Being and Media-Machines (Posthumanities Series, University of Minnesota Press) details the ways in which technology is used as a vanity mirror for Homo Sapiens.