The normativity of an animal atmosphere

Chapter 10

The normativity of an animal atmosphere

Andreas Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos1

‘It is impossible to operate within the law in this job’2

The shepherd stands in the middle of his flock. It is a large flock that goes on for as long as the eye can see. One, even two thousand sheep flooding the narrow valley, moving slowly like a woolly glacier, a carpet spread over the surface of the earth. There is nothing outside the sheep. The earth is defined by their bodies. Amidst them a shepherd, immersed, in some ways powerless: a master mastered by only one law – hunger. As soon as hunger is sated, the flock moves on. Or at least, this is what seems to be happening. On closer inspection, the flock does not move. The flock is hunger. And just like hunger, the flock is always there, a static presence that hugs the earth. What moves instead is the earth underneath, a conveyor belt of new pastures with fresh grass sliding noiselessly underneath thousands upon thousands of legs. The flock stands still while the world slides underneath.

Shepherd and flock make up a space of stasis, namely pause and revolt at the same time. Inside, stasis pulsates with tension, conflict, catenation of moving and stopping, of sliding with and moving away from. Outside, well, there is no outside. Shepherd and flock are an assemblage of bodies, majestic in its immanent expanse, an immovable presence on the surface of the world, distilling and mapping the world according to its stasis, its pause and its revolt. Rather than resistance, stasis is a positive force that turns, physically and conceptually, against the flow of the world around it. Flock and shepherd stand counter to whatever movement might be imposed on them by turning their back to it and concentrating on the movement of the earth, itself following the elemental desire for food. Inside the space of stasis, there is no law but the law of hunger. The desire to be fed forces flock and shepherd against the world and outside the world’s law.

The world is the Northern Italian region of the Triveneto (comprising Veneto, Trentino and Friuli Venezia Giulia) with its overabundant regulatory regime about who moves, where, when and how on the patchwork of private and public property, environmental protection boundaries, political sensitivities, economic zones between industry, agriculture and pastures, trammelled by a net of roads, permits, exchanged favours and local connections. The desire is shared by thousands of sheep and hundreds of flocks, all standing along the province in the same silent, self-effacing way, pausing and revolting, revolting by pausing, avidly devouring the earth underneath. In their stasis, they embody a law away from lawful and unlawful, from property boundaries and political scripts.

I found myself standing fascinated alongside this static landscape as it unfolds in Valentina de Marchi’s text Hunger for Grass (‘Fame d’erba’),3 presently the definitive study on the Triveneto transhumance.4 In the autumn of 2008, de Marchi spent approximately five months with the shepherds, preceded and followed by shorter trips to the area. Her research is organised in themes of economic activity, family relations, territorial mapping, professional groupings and so on. What, however, comes through most clearly in her text is an unromanticised fascination for the nomad and in particular the nomad’s invisibility. The very first sentence of the book reads: ‘If one day, upon reading these pages, you feel the need to meet one of the shepherds and their flock I talk about here, remember that it won’t be easy to find them’.5 Invisibility, in the sense of intractability, is described in the book as a way of life dictated partly by the nomad’s choice (who often would give the wrong directions in order not to be found) and partly by the legal regime that obliges the nomad to remain outside. Instead, a legal space is carved by the nomad that operates according to a conscious but also passionate prioritisation: the desire of the animal to be fed reigns supreme. This determines an immanent regime of territorial presence that defies property lines while silently drawing its own lines of stasis, hushed flows of pause and revolt carved on the fabric of the earth. This law is intricately linked to its space of appearance to the extent that any differentiation between the two would be artificial.

This text is a diagrammatic reading of De Marchi’s Hunger for Grass in my attempt to bring forth some of the connections between the animal, the human and the legal. It quickly becomes obvious, however, that any understanding of animal law must be contextualised in the particular space in which it unfolds. This goes beyond the by now rather well rehearsed spatial turn of the law,6 which, although immensely important for a new, materially emplaced understanding of the law, it often has the tendency to fall back on some more or less standard structures of law and space. To mention a couple of examples, space is still defined, at least in some cases, as identity emplacement, namely a container of identity formation; territory is still attached to some sort of jurisdictional relic; and movement is structured on the dialectics of its being allowed/prohibited by the law.

In this text, I move away from the above, trying to rethink the way space, territory and movement are connected to law in the face of animality. Thus, while building on legal spatiality, and specifically its powerful import of materiality in the law, I attempt to populate the legal space with an animal materiality. The latter differs from human materiality in that its connection to the law is more visceral yet more disrupted. The kind of law I am trying to bring forth here is characterised by a distinct force that makes it imperative; and at the same time, it relies on its stance of withdrawal from the law as law, namely a law that oscillates between its smooth and striated articulation, as Deleuze and Guattari would have it.7 Animal law (as this chapter conceptualises it) neither idealises the smooth nomadic law, nor however embodies the logos of striation. Rather, it exceeds these two and their presupposed division without, however, constituting a space in-between. Animal law draws a space of its own excess that can be ‘affected’ rather than articulated. For this reason it is important to employ another concept, partly spatial partly corporeal, that will help elucidate the connection between animal and law: the concept of atmosphere. As it becomes clear below, the atmosphere of animality is a preconscious reciprocal embodiment of affect that builds routes of stasis in the sense of pause and revolt. This static atmosphere that emerges from animal normativity offers, I argue, a fresh perspective on the way the law operates spatially and broadly materially, thus recasting space as contingent and indifferent to identity; territory as a sliding beyond dichotomies; and movement as a self-drawn distinction that comes into full fruition in an elemental withdrawal where silence and dissimulation transform movement into stasis.

‘Transhumant means to be always able to find something ahead’8

Transhumant pastoralism is defined as nomadic pastoralism. The term comes from the Latin trans, cross or across, and humus, ground. Flock and shepherd move from one place to another in search of food for their flocks. This usually happens twice a year, summer and winter. The Veneto pastoralism, however, is unique in the world. The practice of transhumance takes place year-round, a moto perpetuo that embodies movement to the extent of annihilating it. The shepherds of the Veneto have no base, even semi-permanent. They capture movement in the space of and around the bodies of their sheep, forcing thus the earth to nourish them with its throb. Obligingly, the earth throws them high and lands them low like a trampoline: ‘transhumance is … a change in altitude’.9 And the ground moves precipitously, in circles that often exceed 400 km, offering to the sacrificial altar mountains and valleys, rivers and banks, open state property and private agricultural enclosures.

The transhumant body is determined by hunger. De Marchi’s choice of title Hunger for Grass (‘Fame d’erba’) abundantly shows that the desire to be fed is not something limited to the sheep. Hunger is the alchemy that fuses the assemblage shepherd-flock together in a continuous presence. Here, I will be talking about the hunger of the sheep, but there is another hunger, also felt across the assemblage, namely the hunger of the consumer to be fed with the meat of the sheep. What, however, stops these shepherds from becoming another case of exploitative humans that use animals as a resource, is the closeness between the shepherd and the animal that does not exhaust itself in the capitalist understanding of meat production but goes further and prior to the latter. As I show below, the process of rearing is personal, intimate, fused with the process of identity formation for the shepherd. This does not alter the end fact, which is the human consumption of meat. But it does qualify the connection between the human and the animal by allocating power radically differently than, say, in an industrial production unit. Here, the apexes of decision-making are spread across an immanent surface. The flock’s hunger is felt by the shepherd, thus removing the centre of decision-making from the consciousness of the shepherd’s mind and over to the space taken up by flock and shepherd. As Hayden Lorimer writes, ‘ultimate authority does not rest with [the] herder: Mikel’s insistence is that “Sarek [the chief animal of the herd] will decide” and all others follow.’10 As an affect, hunger is transmitted amongst the various bodies, fleshing out both their sociality and their corporeality. Teresa Brennan writes, ‘the term “transmission of affect” [is meant] to capture a process that is social in origin but biological and physical in effect.’11 While I would be reluctant to retain the above causal differentiation, it is important to take affect and its transmission in its multiple manifestations as biological, physical and social. This is perhaps the crux of Spinoza’s understanding of affect, namely that there is no difference between ‘passions’ such as emotional states of love, hate, anger, etc., and material properties, such as heat, cold, storm, thunder and so on. The materiality of hunger has an emotional purchase from which it cannot be meaningfully distinguished. Hunger as material passion pushes the body into actions. Thus, Spinoza’s by now famous definition of affect: ‘the affections of the body by which the body’s power of acting is increased or diminished, helped or hindered, and at the same time the idea of these affections.’12 It follows that an affect is idea and matter, thought and body, involving connections between bodies as well as ideas on such connections. Hunger as affect (its corporeal and emotional facet) makes the flock weaker or stronger, pushing it into encounters with other bodies, testing its power and increasing it or decreasing it accordingly. Genevieve Lloyd explains affect as ‘the passage from one state to another in the affected body – the increase or decrease in its powers of acting’.13 This definition captures the ‘movement’ of the affect, namely the passage from state to state within the body. The affective movement (that is, the various stages of affect experienced within the body) is immanent to the body and in that sense, it is static. The transmission of affect, therefore, does not necessarily involve a physical transmission but a reciprocal immanence between bodies, mirroring enclosures that throb on the same pulse.

The relation between the shepherd and his flock is built on precisely this. As the shepherds themselves call it, they suffer from ‘a malady of the sheep’ (la malattia delle pecore),14 a malady where species meet (to spatialise Haraway’s title15), the preposition ‘of’ that connects ambidirectionally shepherd and sheep denoting that one belongs to the other and there is no hierarchy of direction or consciousness in the phenomenological sense. As Deleuze writes, ‘relations are inseparable from the capacity to be affected’.16 And with Guattari, ‘the affect is … man’s nonhuman becoming’.17 Human affects exceed the body that embodies them in the direction of animality, yet remain materially embedded in it by triggering strength modifications. and determining how strongly a body enters an assemblage with another body. It is very important to note two things: first, that the Spinozian/Deleuzian affect crosses human/nonhuman lines. The crossing of the distinction, indeed the indifference of such distinctions, is what Deleuze and Guattari point at when they write ‘we make no distinction between man and nature: the human essence of nature and the natural essence of man become one within nature in the form of production of industry.’18 The various species, crossings within the assemblage shepherd/flock/space constitute the field of becomings. Affective abilities, rather than species, are the prime criterion for categorising bodies – namely whether and to what extent they can form new, transhuman assemblages that respond to environmental conditions in a way that result in affirmative self-preservation. For Deleuze ‘a body can be anything: it can be an animal, a body of sounds, a mind or idea; it can be a linguistic corpus, a social body, a collectivity.’19 Hunger is the principal affect of the transhumant body that pushes the latter into constantly new encounters with other transhumant or sedentary bodies, namely other flock-shepherd assemblages, local farmers and their properties, tourists and their routes, the police with its own pronounced set of normativities, and so on.

Second, an affect is both immanent in the reciprocity between bodies and space, and excessive in relation to them. Stasis is pulsing with movement. In What is Philosophy? Deleuze and Guattari write: ‘Affects … go beyond the strength of those who undergo them … Affects are beings whose validity lies in themselves and exceeds any lived’.20 The stasis of the assemblage flock-shepherd, its positioning on the fabric of the earth, static and revolting against the movement of the world, produces an affective excess that cannot be accommodated by the usual normative orders but only through an affective understanding of hunger. The continuous generation of affect through the techniques of stasis (immanence and excess) is how an atmosphere is produced. Each transhumant body generates its own atmosphere that engulfs bodies and space in the excess of affect. Atmosphere is a force of attraction embodied by each body yet exceeding the body because it cannot be isolated, spreading instead through and in between a multiplicity. Atmosphere is the excess of affect that keeps bodies together, and what emerges when bodies (in the Spinozian/Deleuzian sense above) are held together by, though and against each other. Atmosphere is air, breath, exhalation, ozone, earth. It is dung, wool, grass, fear, desire, death, sickness, loneliness, freedom, defiance. It is, perhaps most prominently, the smell of the carretto, the folding home of the human and the beast, the thing that most accurately represents the transhumant shepherd today as a symbol of this very transhumance21 and an echo of that briefest discussion on whether Palladio’s villas were made to accommodate humans and animals together.22 The atmosphere of the carretto is the atmosphere of becoming, the fold that folds into itself, a mobile home on two levels that the shepherd shares with the most vulnerable of the flock, the newly-born and the sick. Animals on the ground floor, humans on the upper floor, folded into each other in a contiguous continuity of nomadic monads.23 Noises circulate, smells percolate, movements shake the two levels of the human and the animal and the bed become grass, the grass becomes plate, the plate becomes door: ‘there is no space in which the limits between human–animal are rigid.’24 The ultimate limit also collapses and in the carretto, one becomes death: ‘there is no taboo towards dead animals. Animals and their death are experienced as continuous with the human world, the food or the inhabiting space; a continuity that the ones who are not shepherds find disconcerting.’25

An animal atmosphere departs radically from existing dealings with atmosphere found in philosophy and architecture.26 In the face of animality, the habitual phenomenological avenue has to be abandoned in order to capture what at least prima facie appears to be the preconscious. Ben Anderson’s suggestion of atmospheres as ‘a class of experience that occur before and alongside the formation of subjectivity, across human and non-human materialities, and in between subject and object distinctions’27

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