Tuesday, November 16, 2004

The Tick

In order to explain this “knowing resolve” that characterizes spirit, Heidegger’s 1929-30 lectures, The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics, offer a contrast between this form of “spiritual life” and that of the animal, using the example of bees in particular. Heidegger draws on the ecological studies of Jakob von Uexküll to describe the animal in phenomenological terms. For Uexküll, the animal exists within an objective space that he calls the Umgebung, but it does not deal directly with this space. Instead, it is the “environing world” (Umwelt) in which the animal lives and acts, because the environing world is constituted by a set of “carriers of significance” (Bedeutungsträger) or “marks” (Merkmalträger) which give shape and meaning to the “world” of the animal. For the bee, these carriers of significance and marks include elements such as the hive and the sun.

Although Heidegger does not discuss it, Uexküll also describes the environing world of the Ixodes ricinus, commonly known as the tick, as containing three such carriers of significance. The tick, an eyeless and earless animal, uses its skin’s sensitivity to light to find its way to a perch suspended somewhere above the ground where it waits for the approach of a warm-blooded animal which it detects by the scent of butyric acid that all mammals emit. This odor is one Bedeutungsträger. After registering this carrier of significance, the tick drops from its perch to land on the hirsute surface of the mammal whereupon it navigates the terrain of hair and skin to locate a blood vessel. This typology of mammalian derma constitutes a second carrier of significance or mark in the tick’s environing world. Finally, the tick, an animal without sense of taste, draws out a liquid from the mammal that is approximately 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Uexküll reports laboratory experiments in which ticks would draw out and consume a number of different liquids, even poisonous ones, from artificial membranes so long as the liquid carried the appropriate significance, i.e., temperature, for it. For the tick in its proper Umwelt, this feeding represents its final act as it now falls to the ground to lay its eggs and “die.” The tick’s environing world is constituted by this sparse set of three elements (odor of butyric acid, typology of mammalian derma, and liquid of appropriate temperature) which nevertheless cultivate an intense relationship with the animal. As Agamben notes, “the tick is this relationship; she lives only in it and for it.”

In Heidegger’s terms, Uexküll’s carrier of significance becomes the “disinhibitor” (das Enthemmende), and the environing world becomes the “disinhibiting ring” (Enthemmungsring). Thus, the animal may exist within a world, but it lives and acts within a disinhibiting ring comprised of a more or less broad set of disinhibitors. While the animal exhibits purposiveness in attending to its disinhibitors and thus is not “worldless” in the sense that a stone or a mechanical process is, its experience is nevertheless “poor in world.” (In our discussion of cybernetics below, we will see whether mechanical processes can be dismissed so readily as “worldless.”)

Heidegger, then, describes the mode of being proper to the animal as “captivation” (Benommenheit), a term which indicates being stunned but also suggests being taken away. Deriving from the root nehmen meaning “to take,” Heidegger relates this term Benommenheit to the phenomenon of being taken in or absorbed (eingenommen) as well as to the behavior (Benehmen) of an animal in its disinhibiting ring. Such behavior is driven by instinct and therefore absorbed in the disinhibiting ring, whereas human activity—the activity of the spirit—entails a relation to beings that is “thoroughly governed by [a] letting be [Seinlassen] of something as a being.” Instead of the behavior of captivation that renders the animal or organism poor in world, this spiritual status of fully “having a world” entails activity that Heidegger calls “comportment” (Verhaltung). Comportment is “only possible in a certain restraint [Verhaltenheit] and comporting [Verhaltung], and a stance [Haltung] is only given where a being has the character of a self or, as we also say, of a person.” What constitutes this difference between behavior and comportment which characterizes the distinction between animality and humanity?


Post a Comment

<< Home