Language, Instinct, Ecology (Metro Dogs)

by Christine Skolnik

Here’s a sketch of an emerging thesis inspired by recent reading, particularly Christian Kerslake’s Deleuze and the Unconscious.[1]  Though conceived before the recent Nonhuman conference in Milwaukee, the thesis is influenced by that conversation.[2]  I begin with communication between individuals within the context of object oriented ontology (OOO) and move to the relationship of the unconscious to ecological being.  (See Rick Elmore’s Environmental Critique post explaining object oriented ontology.

In what sense is language between individuals communication?  We have no reason to assume a direct transfer of meaning through one-on-one communication.  Individual feelings and meanings do not become words, and words do not become feelings and meanings (internal realities or “qualia”).  We might believe that this is so, but we have no empirical evidence of such a transfer—after centuries of speculation and decades of research into the brain.  Like any other objects within an OOO paradigm, individuals withdraw from one another, and their meanings also withdraw.  And meanings withdraw from language.  Individuals may come into contact with one another, they may even listen to one another, but they do not transform one another in discrete speech acts.  Rather an illusion of understanding and sympathy comes from an ongoing process of recognizing already shared meanings and experiences.

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See here 

It is self evident that meaning is not synonymous with the written or spoken word, and that understanding rests on shared history.  This is most obvious when we look at foreign language texts and listen to foreign language speech, but is also apparent in reading highly specialized discourse from “foreign” fields—academic philosophy, say, or neuroscience.  Comprehension depends on shared experience; however, even shared experience does not guarantee understanding.  It only indicates shared experience.  Shared experience can elicit a kind of sympathy—things to talk about, shared values, an ease of communication.   Through language we discover what we have in common—this is a form of intimacy—but it is not a direct comprehension of another.  The other continually recedes as is clear even in close, long-term relationships.

This is not to say that communication does not change our brains.  Repeated orientation to specific objects creates associations, which are neural connections, which become brains.  Similarly trauma (a certain intensity) can create neural connections and change our brains. [3] Interpersonal brain sculpting can occur through this logic.[4]  And brain sculpting through long-term relationships may contribute to meaning-making as a complex process that occurs over time.  But such long-term processes cannot be controlled.  They are necessarily complex, messy, and noisy.  There is a receding horizon—a continual retreat.  While meanings are being made in intimate configurations there is constant interference from various external and internal sources—a necessary degree of incoherence or de-coherence.  In the time that it takes to produce meaning within an intimate group, the individual brain is subject to innumerable complementary, unrelated, and conflicting external and internal messages.  Meaning exceeds one-on-one communication.  It evolves within complex social and ecological systems, and it is also modulated by complex internal experiences.

How does this thesis relate to ecology?  On one hand this aporia in human communication would seem to bode ill for interspecies communication and understanding (Aporia II video by Steven “sAb” Anthony:.  How can we achieve an understanding or sympathy with nonhumans in our ecosystems if we can’t even communicate with other humans in discrete moments?  On the other hand, this problem may point to alternative modes of communication common to all animals, including humans.

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Aporia III

Certainly we cannot really communicate with other species through language.  Though we can begin to understand the symbolic systems of another species on some level, and other species have come to understand our symbolic systems, discrete interactions do not transfer meanings across species in an ecosystem any more that one-on-one human interactions.  Human beings must immerse themselves in the world of animals through long-term observation and references to other behaviors to understand nonhuman modes of communication.  Understanding must emerge from complexity   Similarly, animals must be immersed in our language system and a complex system of behavior modification to begin to understand our language.[5]  This “training” does not have to be intentional however.  Stray dogs inMoscow, for example, have learned to navigate the subway system, ride trains, and discern which human beings to approach for food (http://io9.com/5514775/10-weirdest-urban-ecosystems-on-earth).

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It is a truism that an animal can smell fear in a human being.  We also know that animals respond to human affect in general.  This form of communication is instinctive, at least in the sense that it is not symbolic.  Similarly, human beings might be able to understand other animals instinctively.  Acclaimed nature writer Richard Louv, who visited DePaul last month, shared findings that human beings have perceptual abilities usually associated with animals: the ability to navigate through echolocation, for example, and track by smell.  The ability to track by smell, predictably, is superior in individuals who spend a lot of time in nature and who are more dependent on nature for survival.[6]  This sharing of perceptual technologies with animals suggests that human and animal capacities for perception are linked through our common evolutionary past.  It might also suggest that a larger suite of common perceptual abilities could extend to all livings things, and that we may share some form of “prehension” with abiotic matter.

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Such forms of communication may be unconscious.[7]  Understanding the natural world may be dependent on cultivating unconscious modes of perception through mediation, contemplation, being in nature, and through the arts.   “Listening” to instinct may mean entering a nonlinear way of being, or allowing a nonlinear way of being to enter us.  As Brian Massumi suggested last week, the individual does not have an intuition—intuition has an individual.  Thus we might consider the process of becoming ecological as allowing instinct to flow through us, or attuning to instinctive ways of knowing that we already share with nonhuman beings.


[1] Kerslake, Christian. Deleuze and the Unconscious. London: Continuum, 2007.

[3] Kandel, Eric, R.  In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind.New York:

W.W. Norton, 2006.

[4]  Cozolino, Louis J. The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy. New York: W.W. Norton, 2002 and The

Neuroscience of Human Relationships.  New York:  W.W. Norton, 2006.

[6] Louv, Richard. The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age. Chapel Hill:

Algonquin Books, 2012.

[7]  . . . and/or it might be related to “primary consciousness”  (http://www.uboeschenstein.ch/sal/awtexte/edelmann102.html)

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