Compounding Eyes in Naturecultures

In this interconnection of embodied being and environing world, what happens in the interface is what is important. —Don Ihde, Bodies in Technology

Fingery eyes literally plunge the viewer into materialized perceptions. —Eva Shawn Hayward, "Envisioning Invertebrates: Immersion, Inhabitation, and Intimacy as Modes of Encounter in Marine TechnoArt"

Anything can happen when an animal is your cameraman. —Crittercam advertisement


Don Ihde and I share a basic commitment. As Ihde puts it, "Insofar as I use or employ a technology, I am used by and employed by that technology as well. . . . We are bodies in technologies."1 Therefore, technologies are not mediations, something in between us and another bit of the world. Rather, technologies are organs, full partners, in what Merleau-Ponty called "infoldings of the flesh." I like the word infolding better than interface to suggest the dance of world-making encounters. What happens in the folds is what is important. Infoldings of the flesh are worldly embodiment. The word makes me see the highly magnified surfaces of cells shown by scanning electron microscopes. In those pictures, we experience in optic-haptic touch the high mountains and valleys, entwined organelles and visiting bacteria, and multiform interdigitations of surfaces we can never again imagine as smooth interfaces. Interfaces are made out of interacting grappling devices. Further, syntactically and materially, worldly embodiment is always a verb, or at least a gerund. Always in formation, embodiment is ongoing, dynamic, situated, and historical. No matter what the chemical score for the dance—carbon, silicon, or something else—the partners in infoldings of the flesh are heterogeneous. That is, the infolding of others to one another is what makes up the knots we call beings or, perhaps better, following Bruno Latour, things.2 Things are material, specific, non-self-identical, and semiotically active. In the realm of the living, critter is another name for thing. Critters are what this chapter is about.

Never purely themselves, things are compound; they are made up of combinations of other things coordinated to magnify power, to make something happen, to engage the world, to risk fleshly acts of interpretation. Technologies are always compound. They are composed of diverse agents of interpretation, agents of recording, and agents for directing and multiplying relational action. These agents can be human beings or parts of human beings, other organisms in part or whole, machines of many kinds, or other sorts of entrained things made to work in the technological compound of conjoined forces. Remember also, one of the meanings of compound is "an enclosure, within which there is a residence or a factory"—or, perhaps, a prison or temple. Finally, a compound animal in zoological terminology refers to a composite of individual organisms, an enclosure of zoons, a company of critters infolded into one. Connected by Crittercam's stolon—that is, the circulatory apparatus of its compounded visualizing practices—zoons are technologies, and technologies are zoons.

So, a compound is both a composite and an enclosure. In "Critter-cam: Compounding Eyes in Naturecultures," I am interested in querying both of these aspects of the early twenty-first-century composition made up of nonhuman marine animals, human marine scientists, a series of cameras, a motley of associated equipment, the National Geographic Society, a popular television nature show, its associated Web site, and sober publications in ocean science journals.

At first glance, strapped to the body of critters such as green turtles in Shark Bay, offWestern Australia, humpback whales in the waters off southeast Alaska, and emperor penguins in Antarctica, a nifty miniature video camera is the central protagonist. Since the first overwrought seventeenth-century European discussions about the camera lucida and camera obscura, within technoculture the camera (the technological eye)

seems to be the central object of both philosophical pretension and self-certainty, on the one hand, and cultural skepticism and the authenticity-destroying powers of the artificial, on the other hand. The camera—that vault or arched chamber, that judge's chamber—moved from elite Latin to the vulgar, democratic idiom in the nineteenth century only as a consequence of a new technology called photography, or "light-writing." A camera became a black box with which to register pictures of the outside world in a representational, mentalist, and sunny semiotic economy, an analogy to the seeing eye in brainy, knowing man, for whom body and mind are suspicious strangers, if also near neighbors in the head. Nonetheless, no matter how gussied up with digitalized optical powers, the camera has never lost its job to function as a judge's chamber, in camera, within which the facts of the world—indeed, the critters of the world—are assayed by the standard of the visually convincing and, at least as important, the visually new and exciting.

At second glance, however, Crittercam, the up-to-the minute photographic judge's chamber packed by the likes of dugongs and nurse sharks, entrains us, compounds us, within heterogeneous infoldings of the flesh that require a much more interesting dramaturgy than that possible for any self-reporting, central protagonist, no matter how visually well endowed. This second glance will occupy most of this chapter, but first we have to plough through some very predictable semiotic road blocks that try to limit us to a cartoonish epistemology about visual self-evidence and the lifeworlds of human-animal-technology compounds.

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