The Concordia Undergraduate Journal of Philosophy is a chance for students at Concordia to showcase the best Concordia philosophy students have to offer. In past years, the Academic Accessibility Representative would choose editors from the undergraduate student population to read and determine the best essay, submitted by one of the undergraduates. These works are unpublished and are meant as an opportunity for talented individuals to share their hard work. While this project has gone somewhat stale, it has been revived in an alternate form via The Sophia Review. The following essay was chosen in 2015/16, in keeping with the original format of the journal.
Leonidas Anthony Alnakidis (Major Philosophy)
Olivier Crête-Pinheiro (Honours Philosophy)
Perry Perdue (Academic Accessibility Representative, Honours Philosophy)
The Concordia Undergraduate Journal of Philosophy 2015-2016
We would like to thank everyone who submitted this year to the Concordia Undergraduate Journal of Philosophy. There were some serious arguments over each and every paper and it was, in the end, very difficult to settle on which paper we would like to see included here in our humble journal.
We feel it is important to recognize and promote excellence in our department in every way possible. We are privileged to have worked with so many talented individuals and to have read such excellent essays. Especially noteworthy were the final two papers, which required a rigorous deliberation on the part of the editors. Therefore, we would like to recognize Alex Suthern as this year’s runner-up for her paper on Levinas and fecundity, “A Compassionate Account of Fecundity Beyond the Biological.”
Finally, congratulations to this year’s official selection:
Listening to Disruption with Michel Serres and Jane Bennett
by Hanako Hoshimi-Caines
In this essay I would like to propose an understanding of human agency that is removed from the idea of an autonomous human subject as master over his/her environment. I believe that, as Jane Bennett says in the opening of her book Vibrant Matter, “The philosophical project of naming where subjectivity begins and ends is too often bound up with fantasies of a human uniqueness in the eyes of god, of escape from materiality, or of mastery of nature…” (17). By favoring illusions of dominance and separateness, this fantasy of human uniqueness is a salient factor in the current environmental crisis inasmuch as what is dominated, or acted on as opposed to acted with, is the environment and the world of things around us. My goal in this essay is to initiate the question of agency from something quite small: from a hum, a click, or static over the radio. I would like to sit with the question of agency by looking at the generative disruption caused by the parasitic noise in Michel Serres’ The Parasite. From this noise, I will show that:
1) The disruption from the interruption of a noise is constitutive of a system of relations and always potentially there if we listen.
2) How, by disrupting the logic of a system of relations, noise, in Serres, gives nonhumans an influential and constitutive role as players within a system of relations.
In the first part of this essay I will focus on the interruption of the noise in Serres and, in the second part, I will turn to Jane Bennett’s theory of a vibrant materialism in order to push further the nonhuman agency that is brought to the forefront if we “listen” to Serres’ noise/parasite. I would then like to propose that this listening has ethical implications: how the notion of listening can lead not only to a theoretical understanding of the interdependence of human and nonhuman agency, but to a sensuous experience of it with the potential of deflating damaging human exceptionalism and blurring the strict division between humans and nonhumans.
Changing places: guest/host/interrupter
“We parasite each other and live amidst parasites. Which is more or less a way of saying that they constitute our environment” (Serres, 10)
In The Parasite, Michel Serres proposes the parasitic relation as the fundamental model of relations. This model consists of a host, a guest and an interrupter. The term “parasite” circulates among the three positions and has two meanings: the one who eats next to (para/sitos) and noise. The titles are slippery: parasite, guest, host and noise slide into each other only to bifurcate out into new positions with a little jump of surprise (“What is this sudden dangerous noise at the door that prevents me from finishing and leads me to other action?”) (8). Not only is it never a stable relation of giving and taking between a host and a guest, turning each one into a parasite (“The parasited one parasites the parasite”), but the guest and host can become the interrupter: “The country rat becomes the interrupter, like the noise” (13; 52). The elements at play here are the parasitic host/guest relation and the disruption from the noise of the interrupter/parasite.
Noise and new logics
Who or what makes this noise?” (Serres, 11)
Noise operates in two ways in the Parasite: as a noticeable signal that interrupts and as backdrop of “white noise” or interference that is always there. The noticeable signal is the noise that interrupts the seamless flow of communication of a relation. Significantly, this type of noise as interrupter can be anything: a person leaving the table, a creaky floor or the rain interrupting a picnic. Noise, as noticeable signal, is then not only something audible: “The country rat becomes the interrupter, like the noise” (52—my emphasis). Like a stone thrown into the lake, the noise as noticeable signal, disrupts the smooth and continuous surface of the water into ripples and waves. Secondly, noise is also the static interference that is the necessary background to all communication, all relations. Serres refers to this noise as “white noise” (52). This white noise is a “white space” that is the condition from which anything can become manifest (Ibid). It is the condition for all interruption by noticeable noise. Noise over noise; even if the interruptive noise, as audible signal, dies away in order to be heard again, it emerges from a base of noise. What this indicates is that silence always holds noise, a signal or call that disrupts. “That shows at least that the parasites are always there, even in the absence of a signal” (52).
“What really is this system which collapses at the slightest noise?” (Serres, 11)
The interruption/disruption of a noise is constitutive of a new system: “Theorem: noise gives rise to a new system, an order that is more complex than a simple chain. This parasite interrupts at first glance, consolidates when you look again” (14). “System” for Serres encompasses “beings”, “relations” and the spaces of transformation that are possible because of the creaks and cracks of noise in the flow of communications. Significantly, this system of relations encompasses much more than human relations. He refers interchangeably to “points”, “stations” and “beings” as they refer to every type of materiality and force: be it a noise, a satyr, the player or the ball. Significantly, the condition of a system of relations is the disruption of a message between two beings. This disruption allows for change or evolution: “Since [the parasite] does not eat like everyone else, he builds a new logic. He crosses the exchange, makes it into a diagonal” (35). (The “diagonal” here represents the movement of a surprising evolutionary direction toward a different system of relations.) It follows that since there is always parasitic noise, the system is always being reconfigured. The disruption is constitutive of the system and, the always-present noise, the necessary ingredient: “The town makes the noise and the noise makes the town.” (14)
Understanding “noise” as noticeable signal and white noise allows us to view the parasitic interrupter as always present, even in the quietest moments, and that this always-possible interruption/disruption is constitutive of any system of relations. This interruption is always already happening, there is always a noise that is calling on you and that switches your position or, perhaps more aptly, that is calling on you to notice that your position has been switched and will continue to do so. Agency, or the possibility to act, is constituted by your position in the parasitic chain and is complicated by the noises that incite you to act, either deliberately (the country rat deciding to go back to the country) or in a knee–jerk reaction (the jump from a surprising noise).
Relinquishing hubris with the help of a quasi-object
Serres opens the chapter titled the “theory of a quasi–object” (224) with a question: What is the collective? It might seem like this question does not contribute to the project of understanding the disruptive noise in Serres, but it is part of the equation of problematizing agency. Although no direct link is made between noise and the quasi–object, the quasi–object is a configuration of human and nonhuman into a system where subject and object are not cut along clean lines of active and passive. Serres uses the example of a ball to clarify the theory of the quasi-object: The ball becomes what a ball is only when a subject puts it to use by playing the game with other players. The pertinent aspect of the quasi-object as ball is that, not only does it become a ball only when put to use by a subject, but the subject becomes a subject by putting the ball to use – it is at the service of the ball that “asks” that the player do certain things, move in a certain way, make certain choices, in and around the possibilities of the ball. Elements such as body parts, forces, roundness and bounciness converge into a game where one can call something a “player” and something a “ball”. In this critical move, Serres reverses the intuitive, or western common sense understanding of subject/object directionality: that a subject acts on an object. It is really “the body that is object of the ball” and not the ball that serves the player (226). For the time of a game, forces, capabilities and materialities conjoin from the quasi-object of a ball to do something to the body. In other words, the quasi-object operates with and on a body as the body operates upon it.
The implications for rethinking agency are as follows: if we frame our capacity for action in light of this co-constitutiveness of object and subject we are asked to consider the agency of nonhuman actors. If we continue with the example of the ball, mastery is a kind of “listening” to the ball: “Skill with the ball is recognized in the player who follows the ball and serves it instead of making it follow him and using it.” (226) What this entails is an opening of possibility: mastery means not knowing what he/she will do when interacting with the ball, but instead skillfully responding to practiced “listening” to what the ball can do. Instead of acting on the ball, we will say that the player’s actions arise from a complex play of call and response with the ball. In this sense, I would call the ball a type of noise (or “like a noise” as the country rat is) that interrupts the idea of independent agency. This notion of mastery is very much in contrast with the standard domination- oriented notion of mastery: where an understanding of the constitutive contribution and vitality of things, organic and inorganic, to human agency is overlooked to the point of being obliterated.
Materiality of a noise
“Bodies enhance their power in or as a heterogeneous assemblage. What this suggests for the concept of agency is that the efficacy or effectivity to which that term has traditionally referred becomes distributed across an ontologically diverse field.” (Bennett, 23)
What are the implications of listening to these noises that make us look up, jump, or play— or that destroy and reform the delicate balance of a system? Here I would like to turn to Jane Bennett’s theory of vibrant materiality to propose a way of developing the nonhuman agency that emerges if we “listen” to Serres’ noise/parasite. Bennett uses the concept of assemblage, understood through Deleuze and Guattari as “ad hoc groupings of diverse elements, of vibrant material of all sorts” (Bennett, 23), to advocate for an agency entangled in pulsing and shifting groupings, or networks of inanimate and animate elements, acting in and on the world. When viewed through this notion of assemblage, agency becomes removed from any single doer and is situated between an “interactive interference of many bodies and forces” (21). Bennett describes a major power grid blackout that can be explained only through the confluence of many factors such as the electron flow, greed, consumption and energy policy to highlight the acting potential of vast networks of heterogeneous elements. Bennett calls this type of agency distributive agency, where there is no single agent acting on a field of inert objects. The world is reframed as a vibrant and active composition of human and nonhuman assemblages that act and reform each other continuously: “Humanity and nonhumanity have always performed an intricate dance with each other. There was never a time when human agency was anything other than an interfolding network of humanity and nonhumanity” (31). The “affective assemblages” in Bennett’s vibrant materiality echo the continual reconfiguration of systems in Serres’ parasitic interruption of noises.
Central to Bennett’s theory of vibrant materialism, and an essential feature of an assemblage, is a Spinozist notion of affect, which she describes as “the capacity of any body for activity and responsiveness” (preface xii). In a vital materialism this affective power is not inter– subjective but impersonal, an affect intrinsic to forms that cannot be understood only as persons. Here I would like to connect the notion of affect to the listening, or responsiveness, to a noise in Serres: to respond to a noise, like Serres’ interrupter, is an impersonal affective response that includes, but goes beyond, “inter-subjective” affective possibility. In this sense, the jump of Serres’ rats at the dinner table from a noise, and the very possibility of responding at all to an interrupter or noise, is linked to this notion of affect. Response to disruption, be it as big as an earthquake, or as small as the vibrations of cellular reconfiguration, depend on the capacity of a body to be affected. It is significant that affect goes (at least) both ways between a subject and an object: “the power of a body to affect other bodies includes a “corresponding and inseparable” capacity to be affected; “there are two equally actual powers, that of acting and that of suffering action”. (21) This quote brings us back to Serres’ quasi–object and the relation of the ball and the player as it speaks to the capacity of human bodies to “suffer the action” of nonhumans and thus problematizes the uniqueness and separateness of human agency. What I would like to restate then, for the purposes of clarity, is that 1) affect is multi-directional (not a one agent affecting but all affecting all) and 2) always operating. And as I have attempted to point out, the affective response to noise, as signal or base, is also always happening if we tune in and listen: assemblages are always being “interrupted” into and out of vibrant systems of relations.
Improvisation: surprise and responsibility
The distributive agency that Bennett advocates, and that can be sourced from Serres, leads to a humility that counters the hubris of modern subjectivity: by understanding agency through assemblage and disruption there is necessarily a kind of relinquishing of the idea of a sole instigator of action. This is seen in Serres’ example of the ball as quasi–object as well as the incalculable interruption of a noise in all its forms. This relinquishing of sole instigator undermines the possibility of total control by one actor and opens us to an interesting zone of unpredictability, incalculability and unknown. Bennett relays this state of affairs in a quote from Bruno Latour (281): “I never act; I am always slightly surprised by what I do. That which acts through me is also surprised by what I do, by chance to mutate, to change, and to bifurcate.” (103) Why is the field of action as not quite calculable (the “slightly” in the Latour quote makes it a soft incalculability and not a total loss of control) important in this discussion of agency? I propose that it is a salient point because it reframes how an actor will proceed in a given situation: the kind of listening to other factors and objects that will “bifurcate” a preconceived path of action into something that was not initially intended. Bennett illustrates this through the findings of Darwin on the behavior of worms:
The worms make “decisions based on the available materials” and “do not act in the same unvarying manner in all cases”. Bennett calls these “intelligent improvisations” taking into account, for example, the availability of leaves and the moisture of the ground (96). The worms “pay attention” and “respond appropriately to unprecedented situations” (97). Their actions are bifurcated or disrupted by their environment, not preprogrammed by “unvarying inherited impulse” (96). This illustrates what an improvisational field of action asks of us: not a total relinquishing of agency as capacity to make and carry out decisions, but agency as linked to a responsibility to a space and time of action with specific characteristics. Agency becomes a subtle dance of giving and taking, leading and following, affecting and being affected: a combination of surprise and responsibility.
Ethics of enchantment through listening
“And how would an understanding of human and nonhuman agency as a confederation of human and nonhuman elements alter established notions of moral responsibility”? (21)
Bennett believes this perception of matter, including us, as lively and affective can lead to a “sensuous enchantment”, a combination of “delight and disturbance” (preface xi), with the everyday world including nature and things. I propose that listening to Serres’ interrupter/noise/parasite has the potential to kindle this sensuous enchantment. It is first a gesture of acknowledgement toward this vibrant everyday world of things and the honing of a sensory skill needed to better respond to its call. Serres says: “I would like to think that this noise that I constantly hear at the door is produced by a being whom I would like to know.” (224) That we might like to know, and so care in some way, for the being making the noise has an ethical ring to it. This brings Serres in to the fold of Bennett’s ethical project: to rethink human agency as intertwined with an animated and influential nonhuman world leads to an understanding of ethics that goes beyond a humanist ethics. The environmental crisis we are faced with is a clear sign that an ethics that encompasses more than human concerns must be cultivated. In a question that so fittingly brings Serres and Bennett together in this task, she asks: “how can humans learn to hear (my emphasis) or enhance our receptivity for “propositions” (a notion developed by Latour) not expressed in words?” (104).
Serres presents a theory of deep interconnectedness (something akin to distributive agency without calling it so explicitly) but does not address directly the question of how to better hear the noise in The Parasite. I would like to propose that the question (and so perhaps the answer) to this enhanced receptivity must be posited in our own materiality, in our body as material that responds, jumps and inclines towards and with a diverse and heterogeneous world. In order to understand our constitutive interdependence with a vibrant materiality, we must sense it and interact with it as affective materiality ourselves. It must be experienced, or in other words, practiced. As Serres says: “I learn more on the subject of the subject by playing ball than in Descartes little room.” (227)
Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.
Darwin, Charles. The Formation of Vegetables Mould, through the Actions of Worms, with Observations on Their Habits. London: John Murray, 1881.
Latour, Bruno. Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies. Cambridge: Havard University Press, 1999.
—Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy. Trans. Catherine Porter. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004.
Serres, Michel. The Parasite. Trans. Lawrence R. Schehr. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007.