With their cephalopodic kin who also emerge from the darkest depths, words are annihilated. In lieu, our hero shares a langue of asignifying amour and an abundant propagation of tentaculapathic touch.
“I don’t know” sings the chorus in response as Madison Bycroft rallies off quip after quip the characteristics of a mollusc life-world while occupying a mollusc-like dress at the back of the mollusc-like stage. What this lecture-performance Soft Bodies (2017) addresses is a problem that faces much of the arts and humanities in the twenty-first century: a grappling with the ontological becomings and tentacular thinking, of those things that are and are not us. As science continues to illuminate the molecules and viruses that make up our bodies, we are plunged into a world where ideas about what distinguishes us as humans (and our understanding of what a human is) have become increasingly vague. As environmental philosopher Timothy Morton avows in solidarity, we are more non‑human than we are human. So what happens when boundaries that previously demarcated one thing from another disintegrate? And what do molluscs have to do with it?
Over ninety-five per cent of animal species are invertebrates, among them approximately 85,000 molluscs. There are two primary types of mollusc: cephalopods (such as squid, octopus, and cuttlefish) and gastropods (snails and slugs). Bycroft’s affection and empathy for cephalopods runs deep. Her parents met in Whyalla, South Australia, the town closest to the stretch of ocean where every winter, cuttlefish meet to mate in a colourful and blurry display of reproductive action. For the last five years or so, Bycroft has been using the world of the mollusc as a lens to explore ideas about the nature of identity, gender performativity and popular culture. In this way Soft Bodies is as informative as it is performative, often breaking into detailed description of how mate selection is affected by a performance‑based gender fluidity. Beyond this Bycroft also draws our attention to the fact that we know certain things about cuttlefish, but we are incapable of knowing what it is like to be a cuttlefish.
It is by extending what I consider to be an epistemological generosity toward cephalopods that Bycroft encourages us to come to terms with certain characteristics of mollusc worlds that might extend our capacities as humans to reach a little further beyond the binaries that enlightenment thought currently has us trapped within (such as the harmful divisions between nature/culture, private/public, and inside/outside). Cultivating this kind of epistemological generosity is cultivating ambivalence and encouraging multiplicities where there is no one answer to certain questions, and no dominant linear narrative to our lives. In this way Bycroft opens up room for discussions about the dissolving of dominant forms of knowledge accumulation and dissemination, or what Dominic Boyer recently called a “crisis of expert authority,” that place humans at the centre of all life on Earth.
Human exceptionalism is broadly speaking a way of figuring how humans have, from as far back as 10,000 years ago (it is impossible to find a definitive origin), assumed a disposition predicated on speciesism, where humans are in a position to control and are therefore superior to all other creatures. These histories are routed in patterns of domestication, colonisation, commodification and displacement. A most valuable lesson, as Anna Tsing points out, is that “thinking with species limits the stories we can tell about kinds.” Taking this lesson on board, I like to think that what Bycroft’s work draws attention to isn’t so much the unequal patterns of distribution of human dominance over the planet, but rather it encourages engagement with the variety of ways that we as humans can learn from other kinds of beings, particularly ones as drastically different from us as molluscs, just by being in their presence. In other words, and to paraphrase anthropologist Stephen Helmreich, molluscs are good to queer with.
In Soft Bodies Bycroft places us in the world of the cephalopod for forty minutes. Normative ways of categorising things into genders, species, and linear narratives all go out the window, replaced by playful explorations of constant movement, colour and confusion that are simultaneously familiar yet strange. The performance becomes enchanting through its unconventional plunge into uncertainty. Costumes are left on stage, the media which engages the audience changes in a matter of seconds from lecture‑poetry to improvised dance party. The fluidity of the performance breeds doubt and wonder, which together are characteristic of enchantment. To be enchanted by something is to be “struck and shaken by the extraordinary that lives amid the familiar and the everyday.” This is a corollary to Morton’s figure of the strange stranger occupying the uncanny valley, where things gain an uncanny quality as they become almost human but not quite, or as humans become a little less human.
These characteristics are indicative of Bycroft’s broader catalogue. In Entitled/Untitled (2014) Bycroft performs what I consider to be a kind of inter-species, non-symbolic eulogy. A moment of shared suffering and connection; of loss and gratitude across species. It is an empathic searching for something that cannot be found (and does not need to be found but should continue to be searched for nonetheless). These acts, or performances, gain even more valence when we take them to be a manifestation of a politics that decentres not only the human, but normative modes of Western human thought. It is in this way that Bycroft embodies Donna Haraway’s mandate that “decisions must take place somehow in the presence of those who will bear their consequences,” to cultivate an epistemological generosity that moves toward a collaborative and transcendental truth making with others.
- ^ See Donna Haraway, “Tentacular Thinking: Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene,” in e‑flux, no. 75, 2016: http://www.e‑flux.com/journal/75/67125/tentacular-thinking-anthropocene-capitalocene-chthulucene__
- ^ Timothy Morton, Human‑kind: Solidarity with Non‑Human People, Verso, London, 2017__
- ^ Dominic Boyer, Cultures of Energy Podcast, Episode 105, 2017: http://culturesofenergy.com/105-sheila-jasanoff__
- ^ Anna Tsing, A (2016, 232) The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016, p. 232__
- ^ Helmreich, S (2016, 56) Sounding the Limits of Life: Essays in the Anthropology of Biology and Beyond, Princeton University Press, Princeton__
- ^ Jane Bennet, The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings and Ethics, Princeton University Press, Princeton__
- ^ Timothy Morton, The Ecological Thought, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010__
- ^ Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Durham: Duke University Press, 2016, p. 12
Matt Barlow is a musician, arts writer and PhD candidate in Anthropology at the University of Adelaide. He is currently researching the everyday impacts of sanitation infrastructures in urbanising South Asia.
Card image: Madison Bycroft, Mollusc Theory: Soft Bodies, 2017, still from the documentation of performance, Centrale Fies, Trento, Italy. Photo: Alessandro Sala