Friday, January 23, 2015
Testimony of a spore, or, Strathern beyond the human fence
"This essay offers a playful yet field-changing meditation on the thinking of Marilyn Strathern. It moves beyond Strathern’s imagined lifeworlds even as it engages in a Strathernian mode of analysis: reification for the work of comparison. Strathern has argued that reification to create comparisons is useful if it serves critical reflection. Strathernian reification must be both “serious” and “playful.” It must interrupt the mind- lulling presence of common sense. It must show off difference where we might otherwise see only connection. Comparison at its best, Strathern suggests, is an interruption, a refusal of connection to show the gaps through which we can rethink our categories. It creates “the hesitation that makes one pause (the thought that is already an act), in order to allow a second thought.”
I have the whole article as a pdf (and can pass along via email, let me know!) but am only pasting key excerpts here. The essay moves back and forth between the first person testimony of a Matsutake mushroom spore and an academic examining modes of analysis for the more than human. When I read the types of catalog entries this came to mind as news ticker, the kind of voice to used in a news ticker about - broadly - the anthropocene… not only human but our entanglements with other species and how we can listen to them, their journeys. A playful but provocative tool for imagining the nonhuman voice.
"I haven’t always had the pleasures of a flying spore, able to experience the world on the back of the wind. Before that I hung precariously in the gills of a mushroom, waiting for a breeze to lift me. What a sense of anticipation! What longing I felt to fly. But before that, I was the mushroom, or, at least, a part of it, feeling the tension and joy of our great expansion as we coiled together, filled out, and at last emerged from underground shelter to the bright world all sharp and vast. Spreading our parasol under the blinding daze, disconcerted by new smells—and the fresh wind—yes, I can remember; there were so many forms of excitement then. But before that, we were underground in the wonderfully mysterious dark, exploring finger-like to find new tastes among the soils and rocks, stretching in thin threads and looping in fat noodles, ever joining our friends, the roots of trees, in self-extending embrace, giving and receiving life’s sweet juices. That was bliss, the more than one and less than many.
People admire ducks for their abilities to swim, walk, and fly: three separate modes of experiencing the world. But I have already done as well. I have excelled in adventures underground; I have stood quietly on the surface, taking it in; and now I am lofted into the air.Do you know what a faint puff of air it takes to carry me? I am so light; I might go anywhere. I might be carried farther than any duck or goose, despite their famed migrations. Did you know the stratosphere is full of fungal spores, circling around the planet? I might go anywhere! They say my kind has only 26 days before I must either germinate or shrivel. There is a lot they don’t know, and I may outlive their expectations. And 26 days! That can be a gloriously long time to see the world. Who would despise such a weightless journey, the chance to contemplate and study and add to one’s experience. I will go everywhere and see everything. I might even tell you some.
Don’t be shocked that I feel joy. After all, I exist only as an awkward relation; an American human made me up. She reads Ursula Le Guin and science blogs such as “Not exactly rocket science” as well as Marilyn Strathern, and she wants to explain more- than-human sociality in a way that doesn’t just twist your mind around but offers you vivid images and stories. So she has made me a tinny but usable voice and reminded me that we all come into being as figures through unfaithful translation. It’s what all storytellers do, she says. Besides, there is no need to get hung up on problems of agency right away; there is more to sociality, human and otherwise, than that question, and besides we’ll get to that later. For the moment just consider that the “I” that tunnels, erupts, and flies is neither singular nor plural, so don’t assume you have my number.”