So, the compound eyes of the colonial organism called Crittercam are full of articulated lenses from many kinds of coordinated, agential zoons— that is, the machinic, human, and animal beings whose historically situated infoldings are the flesh of contemporary naturecultures. Fugal accompaniment is the theme, not humans abstemiously staying away to let the animals tell an unmediated truth by making pictures of themselves. That much seems clear. But something is missing from my story so far, something we need to be at home in the hermeneutic web that is Critter-cam. The question I have been deferring is simple to ask and the devil to answer: What is the semiotic agency of the animals in the hermeneutic labor of Crittercam?
Are they just objects for the data-gathering subjects called people and (by delegation) machines, just "resistance" or "raw material" to the potency and action of intentional others? Well, it shouldn't take recounting twenty-five years of feminist theory and science studies to determine the answer there: no. Okay, but are the animals then completely symmetrical actors whose agency and intentionality are just cosmetically morphed variants of the unmarked kind called human? The same twenty-five years of feminist theory and science studies shout the same reply: no.
It's easy to pile on the negatives. In the Crittercam assemblage, the hermeneutic agency of the animals is not voluntary, not that of the firstperson cameraman, not intentional, not like that of coworking or companion animals (my border collie analogy notwithstanding), not a weaker version of the always strong human hermeneutic game. It's harder to specify the positive content of the animals' hermeneutic labor in Crittercam's particular naturalcultural encounter.
But it is not impossible to get started. First, there is no way even to think about the issue outside the relentlessly fleshly entanglements of this particular techno-organic world. There is no general answer to the question of animals' agential engagement in meanings, any more than there is a general account of human meaning making. Don Ihde insisted that in the human-technology hermeneutic relation, the technology adapts to the humans and vice versa. Human bodies and technologies cohabit each other in relation to particular projects or lifeworlds. "In so far as I use a technology, I am also used by a technology."12
Surely the same insight applies to the animal-human-technology hermeneutic relation. Hermeneutic potency is a relational matter; it's not about who "has" hermeneutic agency, as if it were a nominal substance instead of a verbal infolding. Insofar as I (and my machines) use an animal, I am used by an animal (with its attached machine). I must adapt to the specific animals even as I work for years to learn to induce them to adapt to me and my artifacts in particular kinds of knowledge projects. Specific sorts of animals in specific ecologies and histories make me adapt to them even as their life doings become the meaning-making generator of my work. If those animals are wearing something of my making, our mutual but unidentical coadaptation will be different. The animals, humans, and machines are all enmeshed in hermeneutic labor
(and play) by the material-semiotic requirements of getting on together in specific lifeworlds. They touch; therefore they are. It's about the action in contact zones.
That's the kind of insight that makes us know that situated human beings have epistemological-ethical obligations to the animals. Specifically, we have to learn who they are in all their nonunitary otherness in order to have a conversation on the basis of carefully constructed, multisensory, compounded languages. The animals make demands on the humans and their technologies to precisely the same degree that the humans make demands on the animals. Otherwise, the cameras fall off and other bad things happen to waste everybody's time and resources. That part is "symmetrical," but the contents of the demands are not symmetrical at all. That asymmetry matters a great deal. Nothing is passive to the action of another, but all the infoldings can occur only in the fleshly detail of situated, material-semiotic beings. The privilege of people accompanying animals depends on getting these asymmetrical relationships right.13 Compound eyes use different refractive indices, different materials, different fluids, to get something in focus. There is no better place to learn such things than in the immersive depths of the earth's oceans.
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