Broken Orbits and Forgotten Hymns
September 15, 2011
“And when I came out of my solitude and crossed over this bridge for the first time I did not trust my eyes and looked and looked again, and said at last, ‘An ear! An ear as big as a man!’” (Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra).
Galileo’s cosmology was heresy for its time: are there today musics that propose or profess new cosmologies deemed heretical? Non-human or post-human musicologies tread and navigate these sonar waters. Although the title of Gregory Lenczycki’s piece suggests an interstellar milieu—perhaps the dislodging of a lunar body or GPS satellite from its revolution around a planet by the energetic tail of a comet intruding upon our solar system—or a scene of crime passionnel—perhaps the eerie abandoning of a string of assaulted lovers with facial injuries—listening to Broken Orbits and Forgotten Hymns might also evoke the micorcosmic or nanoscale soundscape of a pupa awakening to life. This sound of emergence, the event of a clinamenic swerve in a cosmos, whether micro or macro, is both biological and technologic, rendering this pupa as both insect and electric puppet (puppet: from the Latin pupa, for girl or doll, and the pupil of an eye is so-called because of the tiny image reflected in the eye of the other).
It is perhaps not by accident that early inventors of automata such as Jaquet-Droz often had their contraptions play musical instruments: both automata and musical instruments share an inherent mechanicity, one that Descartes also applied to animals, which he considered as mere bêtes-machines [In Edison’s Eve, Gabie Wood writes, “Descartes…likened the flow of animal spirits to that of a wind passing through the body—as it does through the Flute Player automaton” (24). For Aristotle, a living being is one that breathes (anima) and a musical instrument is also often an organon, a strange breathing mechanical contraption. Sleeping Beauty. Here we might say that the philosophical concept precedes the technological contraption, yet Descartes was inspired by automata of his time, and there is an old fish tale that says he tried to make one himself, calling it Francine after his dead daughter].
Jaquet-Droz’s singing bird automaton and flute-playing automaton showed the 18th century that even the most inhuman, mechanical instruments were able to create the most sublime music, as if the difference between the animate and the inanimate was irrelevant. This indistinction is in keeping with a Shinto cosmology that deems all beings—living or not—share the same potentiality. J-D’s automata draw a dog, write a letter, and play the harpsichord, endlessly and without fail: we see the mechanical digital in action, the robotic hand sketching and typing and strumming, all the most important human gestures, the ones that constitute our humanity. The automaton pipe player could play faster than a human being, suggesting that Kant’s notion of human perfectibility would be better understood as technical and prosthetic. Rather than setting the human being apart from machines, these automata haunt us with the specter of our own mechanicity and our own infinite reproducibility: contra Descartes, human beings share an affinity with the bête-machine. Human being is, perhaps, more akin to automaton rather than zoon and this is why, says Freud, that “waxwork figures, ingeniously constructed dolls, and automata” engender the feeling of the uncanny. We shouldn’t forget that as the creator of the 18th century writing automaton, Jaquet-Droz, was subject to punishment from the Spanish Inquisition for exhibiting his non-living writing machine: it is just as heretical to say that man is a robot as it is to say that god is a man. Yet there is another threat here: automata, in contrast to their perpetual motion, remind us of our finitude: “our mechanisms defy time,” says the writing automaton of J-D. Rather than zoon politikon, human being is automaton politikon: memento mori in a danse macabre.
It’s interesting that a clock-maker would become the father of the automaton: not only is the mechanicity essential here, but also the sense of temporality: the machine is in motion, the clock is in motion, and its movements count out time, and time, as Heidegger tells us, is essential to the question of being. Time is also essential for music. Not just minutes and hours, but the entire calendar of days and months and years and the orbital cycle of the planets show us that music and time itself belong to a cosmological arrangement: the microcosm of the clock speaks of the macrocosm of the solar system. It is interesting that the microcosmic clock engenders the automaton, as if there is a new machine genesis and birth of a world and a people with the clock craftsman’s work (which might indicate that experimental electronic music comes from an interest in automata and the mechanical dimension of the human experience). So too is the musical instrument a microcosm—a system that sounds out time through mechanical movements and arrangement. We see the relation between clocks and boites-musiques: not only do they share the same intricate design and craftsmanship, but they also point to the musicology of the cosmos, whether micro or macro. One wonders what Heidegger thought about the cuckoo clock and its Black Forest, yet mechanical, temporality…
Experimental sound techniques attempt to awaken the temporalities of experimental cosmologies: digital delay processes, for instance, make audible non-human time-space potentialities, and digital rhythms pulse-out non-human temporalities. The sounds emanating from the microcosm of the insect share a material affinity with the electronic cosmos. Chirp, click, buzz, hiss, hum, drone, saw: these are the canonical sounds of the insect but also electronic music, suggesting that they share a common morphogenesis. In company with such digital biosonic artworks as the nanoscale music of Blue Morph, Lenczycki’s composition Broken Orbits and Forgotten Hymns takes us further into this affinity between the electronic and the entomological.
Although peculiar fossil remnants might make us wonder about early hominids’ auditory capacity, today’s biotechnology might make us wonder about the auditory capacities of future transgenic human beings and androids. The geometry of the ear, with its morphological computation, can process sensory data non-cognitively: filtering and processing occur without neural involvement, without neural cognition. Morphological computation challenges craniocentrism (internalism) and supports hypotheses about embodied cognition, sensory systems outside the body (as with bats, electric fish, and other creatures with electrolocation systems), ecological perception, and mechanical ecology.
Digital technology creates a sound bestiary otherwise inaccessible. Although insect musicologies perhaps in reality do not issue from the perceptual life-worlds (Lebenswelten) of insects but our own, they might nevertheless open up the becoming-animal potentiality of our sonic environment. Lenczycki’s soundscape is, like the one in Wordsworth’s “Boy of Winander,” a cosmic mimic hooting to silent owls, who “shout/Across the watery vale, and shout again,/Responsive to his call…”. The mechanical and instrumental (and, in this case, electronic) calling to the animate, to the zoon, seeks a response. Concerning the call-structure of the primary rhetorical figure of address, Barbara Johnson writes: “apostrophe can be a mere sound, amplified by the laws of sound waves” (Persons and Things 9). The ability to call also constitutes the caller as one who has a living voice. Although there is no human person, no subject, no citizen in Lennczycki’s sonic cosmos, because of the mere facticity of sound, there is voice. Anthropocentrism cannot be kept at bay even with the most inhuman of posthuman sounds.
Developments in posthuman technology bring new understandings for perception: technology creates a new perception apparatus that awakens human perception to phenomena beyond its “natural” capacities. For instance, the beating of a bee’s or a hummingbird’s wings are too fast for the human eye, yet slow motion photography brings the movement of the wings to the human eye’s field of vision. The sound that insect wings emit, which is a feature of the speed of the movement of their wings, joins insect sounds with other technics of speed: high velocities are a function of industrial technology. The sonic trace, or acoustic trace, is an indicator of wing speed: we all know that buzz and drone, though applied to insects, could very well be applied to the sound of power tools, implements of dentistry, or…experimental electronic music. Industrial noise has a non-human, often insect-like, quality issuing from its robotic factory production and techno-labor. Furthermore, human technologies are themselves already often inspired by animal intensities and potentialities (the hummingbird and the helicopter, the spider web and the telegraph). In Insect Media, Jussi Parikka writes, “It is as if insects were a microcosmic doubling of other animals, a kind of intensification of potentials of life” (Insect Media 4). In the sonic realm, insects perform a microcosmic mimicry of their Umwelt. Insects are in themselves media or virtualities of cosmic elements: they mimic everything else in nature, so they indicate the manner in which we can make artificial entities. Writes Parikka, “there is a cosmology of media technologies that spans much more of time than the human historical approach suggests” (xiv). An Uillean pipe player, for instance, looks like a grasshopper: player and pipe form a single new organon, which emerges and dissolves with the performance. Emergent performative entities are a specialty of the insect world with its morphogenic hive, colony, and swarm. Different animals inspire different perceptual technologies and media. More often than not, however, the sounds of techno-industrial society are disturbing, alienating, or just weird: think here of David Lynch’s Eraserhead in which the mutant bio-products of industrial urbanism generate the most unappealing soundscapes imaginable. Yet the disturbing electro-insect-like noises emanating from Lynch's cinemascapes might be announcing a new sonic literature or audio-texture. Like the sound of a typewriter deep within a tympanum, noise can be a disturbing factor that interrupts the work-world efficiency of information; for this reason, William R. Paulsen likens literature and the literary to a kind of cultural noise that disrupts and disturbs the calculable flows of the information age. In Noise of a Culture: Literary Texts in a World of Information, he asserts, “first, that literature is a noisy transmission channel that assumes its noise so as to become something other than a transmission channel, and second, that literature, so constituted, functions as the noise of culture, as a perturbation or source of variety in the circulation and production of discourses and ideas.” In their Textbook of Office Management, Leffingwell and Robinson likewise identify what disrupts the management of the bureau: “Disturbing factors must be known and guarded against. A very common one is noise, not the noise of a boiler shop, but the constant sound of batteries of typewriters, adding machines, the babel of loud talking, and so forth, noises that would not be noticeable on a busy street but may become distracting in an otherwise quiet office.” This bureaucratic insight might also suggest that noise not only disrupts the work-world of the information age, but information machines—typewriters, adding machine, the buzz of Gerede, and might we add the computer itself—also produces its own kind of noise, its own kind of literariness. Sometimes a malfunctioning hair dryer or a department store vacuum cleaner provides the same sonic experience as experimental electronic music.
With digital technology, it doesn’t matter if one is working in sound or image: data can generate either one. Recording information digitally enables the imaging-forth of visual entities and the sounding-forth of aural ones. Digital technology also enables the gathering and recording of information at nanoscales and megascales. Empiricism, with its emphasis on sensory perception and the rejection of innate ideas, was the philosophy that set the terms for our contemporary digital media theory. In his 1757 A Philosophical Enquiry into Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Edmund Burke tells us that the sublime of sound, like the spatial-visual sublime, concerns scale: a sound too big for the human or too small opens up the experience of the aural sublime. Burke is following in the footsteps of Locke, who already in the 1690 An Essay Concerning Human Understanding discussed the prosthetic extension of the senses and perception by telescopic and microscopic technology(“Of Perception,” “Of Discerning”). Nanotechnology makes the “silence” audible: a sublime feat, especially if we recall that the silence of Ajax was the paradigmatic example of the sublime style in Longinus’s Peri Hypsos. Digital sound technology might now make audible what was formerly beyond audibility in Ajax’s response to the death of his friend.
The Blue Morph project by Victoria Vesna is a nice example of nanoscale digital music and bioart. Using nanoscale recordings from the sounds derived from the Blue Morpho butterfly, the human ear is now able to listen to the cellular transformations involved in the metamorphosis of Blue Morpho from caterpillar to butterfly. Nanoscale oscillations of microorganisms at the cellular level produce sounds for the human ear when amplified, a new sound phenomenon called sonocytology. James Gimzewski used the Atomic Force Microscope (AFM) almost like a nano-musical instrument to gather sound for the Blue Morph project.
There is no arhythmia in the insect world, but hyper-rhythmia: constant pattern and repetition. The micro-temporalities of metamorphosis in Blue Morph bring attention to the nano-rhythmics of living beings and the continuities and discontinuities of their biochemical structures, their material rhythm. The algorithmics of experimental electronic music, however, need not meter out repetitions.
In Broken Orbits and Forgotten Hymns, the rhythms of Lenczycki’s cosmos generate a non-human temporality, if we can speak of temporality at all outside of the human framework (Kant). Giorgio Agamben, suggests that for insects such as a tick in hibernation, there is no time. Nevertheless, rhythm relates insects to their organization structures, to their hive, to their source of pollen, to the temperature of their surroundings: sound is environmental for the insect, but it is also a technics of its own body, which mediates the creature’s relation to its environment, or Umwelt. Environmental factors regulate insect pulsations, the sonic cosmos of insects. The rhythm of living beings orders their relation to their cosmos. Music is the ordering of sound chaos into cosmos. Longinus and Kant, among others, mobilized the trope of the musical score and attunement in their discussions of the sublime over the question of an empirically and conceptually inarticulable mode of relation in hypsos and aesthetic reflective judgment. With the experience of the sublime, there is an alternating attraction-repulsion that sets up a particular rhythm. The insect body of sound belongs not only to insects, but also to all vibrational sound bodies.
The micro-order of the insect environment (Umwelt) follows, according to zoologist Jakob von Uexküll, musicological principles. The Greek word kosmein means “to order and arrange,” originally troops, for instance, yet we can also think kosmein here as arrangement in the musical sense. The aesthetic dimension of this ordering or arranging expresses itself in the secondary sense of kosmein as “to deck, adorn, equip, dress” and is illustrated, for example, in the term kosmokomes, which means “dressing the hair.” There is an aesthetic or cosmetic dimension to cosmologies that can be traced in insect microcosms, which vibrate with their own musicologies, reverberating back and forth the reaches, not of a Welt, but an Umwelt. For Uexküll, the insect is entirely constituted by its biosemiotic relation with its environment (Umwelt); the insect is in itself an instance of these relations. Yet, the environment of a specific insect has no relation to any other animal environment that does not constitute its specific insect being. Uexküll tells us that animal being is entirely relational—its relations constitute its being—and each specific animal has no access to an objective world. Although each creature strictly inhabits its own environment and knows not of the others, living in entirely separate and subjective Umwelten, each species relates to one another as do notes and instruments in a musical score: this composition constitutes the cosmos of creaturely beings. Uexküll theorizes a musicological arrangement of the living cosmos. One might ask here, for whose ears (and what kind of ear could they be?) does this music resound?
Uexküll’s musicology of the cosmos is not composed of living organisms per se, but the biosemiosis of perceptual marks and the receptors of these marks. Uexküll considered all ecological beings as Bedeutungsträger and Merkmalträger—carriers of significance and marks—whose organs (Merkorgan) are designed to read marks. In “Jakob von Uexküll—Theoretical Biology, Biocybernetics and Biosemiotics,” Torsten Rütting writes, “Uexküll already at the beginning of the 20th century had recognized that the fascinating abilities and behavior of animals are based on sign processes—perception and transmission of signs to which meaning is marked on according to their significance. He had therefore introduced terms like Merkzeichen, Wirkzeichen, Lokalzeichen, Momentzeichen“ (2). Although Heidegger notoriously asserted that animals are poor in world (Welt) because they don’t have “the word,” Uexküll, from whom Heidegger borrowed the term Umwelt (environment), theorized that the animal environment was nothing but a linguistic system. Writes Rütting, “Uexküll’s son Thure von Uexküll stated that ‘one can truly understand his (Jakob’s) terms only if one sees them on the background of a theory of sign-processes and makes clear to oneself that Umweltlehre is a science of signs sent and received by living beings’ (Uexküll 1980: 292). The recognition of the semiotic character of Uexküll’s approach implies the fact that a biologist, who was not familiar with linguistics, Peircean, Saussurian or any other semiotic approach, was able to develop an elaborated terminology and conception for studying sign systems in the animal world. The historical perspective considers that Uexküll developed his approach as an alternative to the mechanistic and reductionistic trends in biology at the beginning of the 20th century (Uexküll 1913)” (8).
Although only those elements that are relevant to a species have meaning for a species, rendering the Umwelt of each species untranslatable for all others, nevertheless, all species relate to one another as do elements in a musical score. Writes Giorgio Agamben in his “Tick” chapter from The Open: Man and Animal: “Where classical science saw a single world that comprised within it all living species hierarchically ordered from the most elementary forms up to the higher organism, Uexküll instead supposes an infinite variety of perceptual worlds that, though they are uncommunicating and reciprocally exclusive, are all perfect and linked together as if in a gigantic musical score” (40). The concept of “musical score” solves the aporia between an infinite number of subjective Umwelten of living beings that nevertheless must share, perhaps not an objective world, but a commonality that is figured through the harmonics, melodics, and rhythmics of musical composition as an emergent network of inter-relationality.
Concerning Uexküll and his critique of the possibility of an objective time-space world for all living beings, Agamben continues: “Too often, he affirms, we imagine that the relations a certain animal subject has to the things in its environment take place in the same space and in the same time as those which bind us to the objects in our human world. This illusion rests on the belief in a single world in which all living beings are situated. Uexküll shows that such a unitary world does not exist, just as a space and time that are equal for all living things do not exist. The fly, the dragonfly, and the bee that we observe flying next to us on a sunny day do not move in the same world as the one in which we observe them, nor do they share with us—or with each other—the same time and the same space.
Uexküll begins by carefully distinguishing the Umgebung, the objective space in which we see a living being moving, from the Umwelt, the environment-world that is constituted by a more or less broad series of elements that he calls “carriers of significance” (Bedeutungsträger) or of “marks” (Merkmalsträger), which are the only things that interest the animal. In reality, the Umgebung is our own Umwelt, to which Uexküll does not attribute any particular privilege” (40). Just as the various subjective Umwelten of the various species are entirely closed off, yet are also in relation with each other as separate notes and instruments are in a musical score, so too does each species interact in its own Umwelt according to musicological principles. Writes Agamben, “Everything happens as if the external carrier of significance and its receiver in the animal body constituted two elements in a single musical score, almost like two notes of the ‘keyboard on which nature performs the supratemporal and extraspatial symphony of signification”” (41).
A Theory of Meaning (appended to A Foray Into the Worlds of Animals and Humans) is the text that most fully develops not only UexkÜll’s theory of the biosemiosis of living beings with their environment, but a rhetoric of musical metaphors that illustrate the manner in which animals musically relate to their environments, or Umwelten. The biosemiosis of perception markers, carriers of meaning, and the environmental organs that register meaning follow musical principles. Rather than employing linguistic terms like “code,” as in genetic code, to describe the developmental plan of living beings, Uexküll prefers musical ones: there is, for instance, “a primal score for the fly just as there is one for the spider” (160). Uexküll speaks of the growth melody of self-tones (151), the melody of the buds (154), the previously established melody (156), and the idea that the sequence of formal development has a formal score (159). The relation between the environment, sensory organs, and the brain are understood as a musical system: “a perception cell in the brain lets a certain perception sign sound owing to the cell’s self-tone. Each of these living bells is then connected to the outer front through a nervous bell cord, and here it is decided which outer stimuli are allowed to ring the bell and which are not. The self-tones of the living cellular bells are connected with each other through rhythms and melodies, and these are what allowed them to sound in the environment” (166). Uexküll understands sensory perception as a living bell tower, or carillon, ringing sometimes in harmony, jumbling sometimes in cacophony. Increasing levels of complexity in the forms of life parallel increasing levels of musical complexity: “All organ subjects with their organ melodies join together to form the symphony of the organism…The process of heightened subjectification of cell tone to organ melody to organism symphony” (171). What Uexküll is writing here is a compositional theory of nature, and says as much: “Musical composition theory can serve as a model here…” (172). Uexküll’s theory of nature is less of a biosemiotics and more of a bio-musicology: the creature and the environment form point and counterpoint composing a kind of “duet” or “harmony.” Uexküll also lets slip a kind of natural theology with this musicology of nature when he refers to “the composer of these environmental compositions” (181). Longinus and Kant, among others, also mobilized the trope of the musical score and attunement in their discussions of the sublime over the question of an empirically and conceptually inarticulable mode of relation in hypsos and aesthetic reflective judgment.
Uexküll likens species to musical instruments (organon) in a cosmic composition or a “Klaviatur des Lebens” (keyboard of life) (207). He writes, “Like every instrument, every animal harbors a certain number of tones, which enter into contrapuntal relationships to the tones of other animals” (187). Although, for instance, the bat and the moth have separate environments—neither does the bat inhabit the moth environment nor does the moth inhabit the bat environment—the two species nevertheless relate as point and counterpoint as when “the fly-likeness of the spider means that it has taken up certain motifs of the fly melody in its bodily composition” as with “the bat motif in the configuration of the hearing organ of the moth” (191).
A human being might ask: how does sound function in the insect’s environment? Why do some insects make sounds, yet don’t have ears? Uexküll’s example of the bat’s hearing apparatus, paired with the sound of the moth, illustrates the sonar relations that bind bat and moth, one to the other, point and counterpoint. The perception mark of the enemy (bat-predator) structures the body and function of another organism (moth-prey) and vice-versa. The enemy—through the evolutionary process—designs the prey-organism. Not only does each species have its ecological or environment enemy, but also that enemy, through reciprocity, has constituted the other creature’s body. The creature’s enemy constitutes the very organs of the creature: “the artful microscopic structure of the moth’s hearing organ exists solely for the single high-pitched tone emitted by the bat. These moths are totally deaf to all else” (87). To be more precise, it is not the creature’s enemy, but the perception mark of the enemy that constitutes the organs of perception of the creature. The bat-tone and the moth hearing-organ have a relation of reciprocity. Each creature has the capacity to notice (merken) the perception mark of the enemy. If we follow Carl Schmitt with his formulation that the political is constituted by the friend/enemy distinction, then we see that perception, even animal perception, is not only musicological, but also inherently “political” if we can still use this term for animals other than human beings, i.e. other than zoon politikon. The enemy is an intimately subjective reality for the subject, who lives in an environment of entirely subjective realities.
That there is no consensus around the concept of “world” should come as no surprise if we agree with Uexküll that all ecological beings have entirely “subjective” spatio-temporal worlds or environments (Umwelten), and each being—each jellyfish, cat, blind tick, black crow, and sea worm—perceives its subjective Umwelt as an objective Umwelt. In “Welt und Umwelt,” however, philosopher Josef Pieper argues that while plants and animals live in an Umwelt, reason enables the human being to live in a “Welt.” That only the human being has a world is something that philosopher Martin Heidegger also argues when he insists that the animal is poor in world and that the stone has no world at all. Yet in Heidegger’s existential analytic, it is not reason that constitutes world for human Dasein; rather, it is language, which is consistent with Uexküll, who considers all living beings as Bedeutungsträger and Merkmalträger—carriers of significance and marks—whose organs (Merkorgan) are designed to read marks: the surrounding world of the living being is constituted by a biosemiotics. Heidegger would qualify this, however, by insisting that Leben—even plant and animal life—must be thought, not in terms of biological science, but in terms of our fore-understanding of human Dasein, which is not determined by simply adding language to the “living being.”
Heidegger would say that for animals, as opposed to human Dasein, “’life’ itself as a kind of Being does not become ontologically a problem” (Being and Time 72). Only human Dasein is the being for which Being is an issue or a concern. For Heidegger, Aristotle does not go far enough even when he says that man is zoon logon ekhon (the speaking animal or the rational animal). Heidegger notes that for Aristotle, “the kind of Being which belongs to a zoon is understood in the sense of occurring and Being-present-at-hand. The logos is some superior endowment; the kind of Being which belongs to it, however, remains quite as obscure as that of the entire entity thus composed” (72). Heidegger notoriously gives human Dasein a kind of ontological priority in terms of understanding other forms of life. He writes: “Life, in its own right, is a kind of Being; but essentially it is accessible only in Dasein. The ontology of life is accomplished by way of a privative Interpretation; it determines what must be the case if there can be anything like mere-aliveness [Nur-noch-leben]. Life is not a mere Being-present-at-hand, nor is it Dasein. In turn, Dasein is never to be defined ontologically by regarding it as life (in an ontologically indefinite manner) plus something else” (73). In other words, mere life never gives us access to Dasein’s mode of Being, but Dasein gives access to understanding mere life. And what is Dasein? It is an “entity which, in its very Being, comports itself understandingly toward that Being” (78). This comportment toward being is called being-in-the-world, which is a relation to the world, the possibility of having a relation to the world (which the stone, for instance, doesn’t have). Modern technology, and in particular digital informatic technology, would pose a challenge to human Dasein for Heidegger. The world is reduced to mere reportage, to mere information, to representation—we no longer have world, but world-picture (Weltbild), world taken as picture. In our era of digital media and network society, networked Dasein would indeed be a system of relations, but there would be no being-in-the-world, only a being-in-the-world-picture. This is why technology must take a new turn and become performative and embodied. Or alternately, it must abandon Dasein and the Welt and take up, perhaps, animal being and the Umwelt.
Cybernetic zoology foregrounds the interaction with environmental factors and downplays the idea of the organism as a discrete separate entity. In a manner that resembles Uexküll, philosopher John Haugeland writes: “it is not the animal’s brain that organized its world, but the evolutionary ecology of the animal that organizes its brain” (“Mind Embodied and Embedded” 219). For Uexküll, animals are entirely constituted by a semiotic relationship with their Umwelt, or environment. He considers animals as semiotic ecological beings, as Bedeutungsträger and Merkmalträger—carriers of significance and mark—whose organs (Merkorgan) are designed to read marks in the environment. Basically, the animal is formed so that it perceives and responds only to those carriers of significance, which constitute its environment. The animal is its relationship with its environment. For Heidegger, this means that the animal is captured by its environment—entirely captivated by its environment—and so cannot have an authentic relation to any elements of its environment: it not capable of “relation” at all. The animal cannot comport itself toward being-as-such. It cannot apprehend something as something, but only as an affordance or interest of its own constitution. Another thing, a relation to another thing as a thing, is not given as such. Nothing is revealed as a being for the animal.
Uexküll’s zoosemiotic understanding of the Umwelt is especially symptomatic for our digital media world, which is highly networked and interactive. Even if, as Heidegger says, stones are worldless, animals are poor in world, and only humans are world-building, the digital-world addresses all beings—whether inanimate or animate—as technological beings interfacing with a technological apparatus and inhabiting a technological framework. Digital technologies create an immanent monism, a continuity between mind and matter, language and living organisms. From this perspective, we might try to retrieve a mode of material perception that does not belong to human subjectivity (reflexivity), but belongs to the technological “perception” of digital media (just as the camera offered a mechanical optics on the world). Technological media suggest that even inanimate things have a material “perception,” or point of view, not otherwise accessible to animate beings. The word media means “in the middle” or in-between, and I would like to suggest that even if inanimate entities are entirely without world (Welt), as Heidegger insists, technological media are in-between worlds, or Zwischenwelt, as painter Paul Klee used to say of art (i.e., that art was a between world, a transmission of something that is incommunicable). If “media” comes from the Latin medius, meaning the middle, media are the means, the intervening relation. By nature, media constitute a relation between things; hence, if our digital network or ecology is a system of relations, it is essentially a kind of media. And if, as Jussi Parikka argues, insect forms of organization are essentially relational, it is no wonder that they serve as a paradigmatic form of media. Media technology and insects, then, share the medius, the principle of means or middle. Network culture is an insect media.
Uexküll emphasized the relationality of organisms, especially to their environment or Umwelt. If a certain kind of network of relations characterizes the cosmos of living organisms, philosopher Heidegger insists that human Dasein is also, in a different manner, relational: Dasein is constituted by its relation to the world or Welt. Characterized by an ontology of relations, Dasein is the comportment toward beings as such. For Heidegger, modern technology, and in particular digital informatic technology, would pose a challenge to human Dasein. The world is reduced to mere reportage, to mere information, to representation—we no longer have world, but world-picture (Weltbild), world taken as picture. Networked Dasein would indeed be a system of relations, but there would be no being-in-the-world, only a being-in-the-world-picture. This is why technology must take a new turn and become performative and embodied. Computer networks can be likened to superorganisms, such as swarms or ant colonies, which are constituted by emergent relations. Networks are characterized by an openness toward emergence and relationality. Networks are, in a sense, a non-human form of organization; hence, we should not be surprised if non-human animal organization like insect swarms offers a model for the emergent relational organization of the network.
In “Politics of Swarms,” Jussi Parikka notes that as an emergent entity, the superorganism, the swarm might be better termed an event. Describing a full range of interactions, he writes, “These various cases present such structural couplings where a new entity, an event, seems to arise from the specific and very singular interactions taking place on the interface of various individuals and their vectors” (120). The swarm is an event, an event of relationality and interaction. The event of the swarm comes and goes, and this event seems to have an “intelligence” all its own, yet this intelligence belongs to no enduring entity, only the temporariness of the event. And although the temporality and speed of emergence is quick, a sudden change, the event-character of the swarm does not preclude a certain materializing or crystallizing of the event. Discussing myrmecologist William Wheeler’s interest in ant architecture, Parikka writes: “the organizational event of swarms feeds back with architecture. Organizational patterns and architectures are not conceptualized merely as stable structures of hierarchy that upkeep the social organization of, for example, a hive as rigid and non-changing. The architecture becomes living in itself and space is temporalized as a variating, metamorphosing topology that cannot be considered without its inhabitants. Here swarms and insect architecture are systems of living, not as structures, but as events irreducible to an individual…” (121). The temporality of the swarm is what is emphasized here: even the swarm’s architecture is emergent and it continues to be so in its relation to the swarm, which is itself the event of an inter-relation. This emphasis on time instead of space (as with Heidegger’s existential analytic) makes the swarm and swarm architecture akin to the temporal technics of music.
For media theorists like Alexander Galloway and Eugene Thacker, or more lately Jussi Parikka, the non-human cosmology of digital networks finds its model in the insect swarm, and I propose that contemporary experimental electronic sound-art is also instructed by a certain swarm or “insect musicology.” Although insect swarms are often analyzed as architectural, spatial, or visual formations, they can also be analyzed as an emergent temporal, rhythmic, and sound formation that serves as a model for an emergent “insect musicology.” Just as Kraftwerk announced in 1978 that “wir sind die roboter”, we might now have to say “Insects R Us.”
One of the reasons why the concept of “swarm” is a useful mediator for listening to Lenczycki’s piece Broken Orbits and Forgotten Hymns is that an amorphous and emergent sound formation and rhythm unfolds: repetition and pattern do not rule here. The swarm, above all, is a temporal assembly of relations that is non-hierarchical, emergent, and amorphous, which suggest that it would inspire a new cosmos that is neither order nor chaos. Out of a new network of sound relations, a new cosmos emerges. The swarm is not chaos, yet it is not a hierarchical, centralized, rational order either: it is a temporal assemblage that is akin to cosmic music. Parikka writes that the affect that triggers the swarm is a “murmur, whisper, and a refrain that even the bees might not hear but sense in some uncanny way” (Insect Media 118). For us, one of the striking features of the swarm, for instance a swarm of bees, is its sound: unlike the focused and crowning roar of a ferocious predator, the wavering buzz and sweeping drone of a vast multitude signal an imminent and uncontrollable final take-over, generating an amorphous and multi-directional anxiety. Sound, by definition, seems to resist specific embodiment; instead, there is an immersion in a sonic-cosmos that is more akin to a swarming network of relations rather than a particular reified body. The music of the hive, the swarm, the colony, and the mound interfaces with digital technology, generating an interspecies sonic arrangement (kosmos).
David Kristian’s Micornymph vs. Macronymph overtly performs the affinity between the electro-mechanical patterns of insects and experimental digital music. As with Kristian’s work, digitality is the mediating substrate of Gregory Lenczycki’s cosmic interspecies composition, yet there is less he-grizzly bullwacking here. Instead, Broken Orbits and Forgotten Hymns explores the gentler aspects of electronic swarming and flight: there’s a lot of levitating lift-off, a wavering in the levitation, a wobbling, but then a stabilizing. We might hear the allusion to some sitar inspired levitation, but an electronic cello grounds this flight in stability. These are some very deep and serious insects: perhaps meditating in a cave, like Johnny Cash, facing the cave’s wall of rock, and love’s ring of fire, trying to understand how their poverty in world differs from the stone’s total lack of world.