Repairing the Attention to the Living World:
Following the Tracks of Nonhumans


Jeanne Degortes

#II. inside animals / animals inside

i. humans and nonhumans

spring, 2022


You are walking in a forest. It is still early in the morning. After a good night’s sleep, a warm cup of tea and a light breakfast, you have decided to take a walk in the forest near your home. Just to breathe fresh air before your day starts for real. So here you are now. Only surrounded by trees. You listen to the cracking of the dry leaves under each step, you enjoy the rays of sun that manage to pass through the dense branches high above your head, that warm you just enough for you not to think about it. Birds seem to celebrate by a sweet melody that you can catch from time to time. You continue your walk. The same path as usual. But you like it. It feels like it is never the same. The floor smells like mushrooms. It is a bit wet. Your eyes sometimes stop on small mounds looking suspiciously brown before realizing, inevitably, that you were tricked by a pack of leaves, as usual. But you like this game. You like this atmosphere, the fresh air, the green and brown and yellow colors. No gray, no road, no sign, no building. In this forest you feel free. Almost in a different world. You know you are lucky to live near such a peaceful place, and you are grateful for it. After some time you remember you should probably go to work. You turn around and take the same path in the other direction. It all seems faster. You reach the edge of the forest, and there you are, back to your busy life, ready for your day. 

You might perhaps relate to this kind of soothing insight in a forest, or any other kind of natural environment. But were you not struck by something? Or, rather, the absence of something? I give my answer: animals. Animals were not part of your experience of the forest. Of course, you heard the birds singing. But you only heard them. You did not listen. You couldn’t tell whether there were one, two or many birds calling to each other. You didn’t pay attention to a specific pattern in their songs, to what species it could have been. One could add that you did not see the trail that appeared between the shaken leaves in some places, and the bark of damaged tree trunks about a meter above the ground, which could have led you to guess the passage of a deer. Nor did you spot the rabbit droppings, a few steps away from your path. Not to mention the insects that swarmed on the ground, under the stones, on the trunks. So animals were not part of your experience of the forest. Yet they inhabit it, they shape it. How is it that you did not perceive their presence? You entered that forest with the desire to break from your habits and daily life, to encounter the natural world surrounding you, but, even though you were paying attention to some elements of that natural environment, some animals among them, in the end, these elements were part of the landscape. You did not interact with them. They were only part of the whole scenery you came for. 

untitled, Mark Peckmezian

This little thought experiment highlights several interesting points regarding the western  relation to the living world and to other animals. This article aims to illustrate the view of the French contemporary philosopher Baptiste Morizot, who teaches philosophy at Aix-Marseilles University. Morizot develops a reflection about the place non-human animals have in our life and our relationship to nature. The little story we started with can illustrate and help us follow his argumentation.  

But before going into a more detailed analysis of Morizot’s main concepts and arguments, it is important to have in mind Philippe Descola’s criticism of the western dualism between nature and culture (2005). Western cultures have separated the natural world from the human one, the human culture becoming a distinct space from natural ones. In our example, wanting to have a little walk in the forest before starting your day, wanting to be immersed into nature  before going back to your life, is a way of illustrating the strong demarcation we draw between a forest, its inhabitants and its dynamics, and a city, its rules and people. So, in this dualism, as Descola and Palsson (1996) explain, nature has taken a different place in respect to different paradigms. Some, for instance, have considered environmental constraints as what social institutions and culture had to adapt to in order to build themselves; others that the natural scientific discourse was what gave legitimacy to social actions. But in all cases, nature was something different than our human culture, and, in addition, little attention was given to non-western conceptions of nature, if such a concept makes sense elsewhere. 

From this analysis and from his anthropological fieldwork in non-western cultures, Descola draws four ontological categories that include non-western conceptions of nature, namely animism, totemism, analogism and naturalism (the western one). By this he aims to show that our western distinction between nature and culture is not the only conception possible, and that we should not take it for granted. In other words, he aims to debunk ethnocentrism. Descola’s criticism has been influential in the following works in social sciences and humanities. It has also influenced Baptiste Morizot’s reflection about our relationship to non-human animals.

Morizot’s analysis suggests another way to look at the other animals and to reconcile the “natural world” and the “cultural world”. First of all, he analyzes our current relationship to non-human animals as a “crisis of sensitivity”. Non-human animals indeed have a very specific status for us. Apart from the violence with which we treat those we breed in order to kill, we have made them a subject of interest only for children. To care about animals, to be interested in them, is not “serious”. Only sensitive people do. Therefore, our sensitivity to non-human animals has become illegitimate, as well as our perceptivity. This is a first aspect of the crisis of sensitivity he describes. But it mostly refers to a more general analysis: 

By ‘crisis of sensitivity’, I mean an impoverishment of what we can feel, perceive, understand, and weave as relationships towards the living. A reduction in the range of affects, perceptions, concepts and practices linking us to it. We have a multitude of words, types of relationships, types of affects to qualify the relationships between humans, between collectives, between institutions, with technical objects or with works of art, but much less for our relationships with the living. (Morizot, 2020: 17)

The crisis of sensitivity thus describes our weak ability to reach the living that surrounds us, to perceive it and to interact with it. We have unlearned to understand and see all the relations and issues that each living individual deals with every day, everywhere, at the very places we go to and live in. In the case of the walk in the forest, we saw that non-human animals were absent from your experience. You did not perceive all the signs that could have helped you understand the events happening in that place. And it was not because you were not attentive enough or because you are not a specialist in ecology or biology. It is because, according to Morizot, we do not live in a world that we think about as shared. He thus identifies the need to acquire a less anthropocentric representation of the world, open to otherness. 

To do so, Morizot mobilizes a specific methodology that also nourishes his philosophical works: the philosophical tracking (pistage philosophique), which takes for him a deep and specific meaning:

Trailing means deciphering and interpreting traces and footprints in order to reconstitute animal perspectives: investigating this world of clues that reveal the habits of the fauna, its way of living among us, intertwined with others. Our eye, used to unobstructed perspectives, to clear horizons, is initially only accustomed with difficulty to this shift of the landscape: from in front of us, it has moved under our feet. The ground is the new panorama rich in signs, the place that now calls our attention. To track, in this new sense, is also to investigate the art of living of the other living beings, the society, the plants, the cosmopolitan micro-fauna that makes the life of the grounds, and on their relations between them and with us: their conflicts and alliances with the human uses of the territories. To focus the attention not on the beings but on the relations. (Morizot, 2018: 21-22)

To Morizot, tracking thus means to change the focus of our attention, to be attentive to clues and signs that non-human animals leave behind us. It is, in fact, about adopting their perspective in their apprehension of their environment. Just as Descola went among non-western cultures to understand their relationship to what we call nature, to understand according to which categories they think and interact with plants, non-human animals, natural elements, spirits and, of course, each other, Morizot immerses himself into the perspective of the animals he tracks. He provides long stories of tracking wolves in the Alps, following their prints, hair, droppings, analyzing the direction of their movement, how they can leave only one trail of prints in the snow when they are a pack of up to ten individuals. He relates how he slept in a tent, at the top of a mountain, how the wolves noticed his presence, how they responded to his calls… By doing so, we understand their perspectives, their way of thinking, of moving and behaving, it feels like discovering the world all over again. Remember when the forest almost felt like a new world for you. 

But in your case this was a bit different. Indeed, you felt so because the forest belongs, according to our common categories, to the natural world. Thus, you had the perception that different dynamics than the ones we are familiar with in cities were shaping that place. It was, for you, another kind of place. But Morizot’s point is not to show how different each of our worlds are, how everyone lives in their own bubble and does not have access to the other ones. It is rather to show that we share the same world, the same kind of places. They can take different meanings for different cultures and different species, but this does not separate us. We only have to pay attention to the network of relations that constitutes a place to understand that we are only a part of that network. This is what was lacking in the walk in the forest. 

The acknowledgment of these relations provides a different perspective on what we consider as a natural place, and also on the categories in which we put animals. They become partners of interaction, which can even teach us other ways of considering and behaving with the living otherness: 

Animals are not more bestial than we are, nor are they more free. They do not embody an unbridled and ferocious savagery (this is a myth of domestication), nor a purer innocence (this is its reactive reverse). They are not superior to humans in authenticity or inferior in elevation: they embody above all other ways of being alive. (Morizot, 2020: 24, author’s emphasis). 

Paying more attention to the clues they leave in the world is a way for Morizot to debunk the categorization of animals, along with our insensitivity to their environmental relations.

In addition to all of that, you may have noticed that the notion of inhabiting a place is quite recurrent in Morizot. His analysis opens a reflection about sharing a common world with other species, respecting their dynamics, their needs and their representation. In other words: cohabitation. He points out a phenomenon that he calls “eco-fragmentation” and which is for him the spatial dimension of the crisis of sensitivity.  

[This fragmentation] originates first of all in our blindness to the fact that other living beings inhabit: the crisis of our way of inhabiting comes down to denying others the status of inhabitants. The stake is thus to repopulate, in the philosophical sense to make visible that the myriad of forms of life which constitute our donating environments are also, since always, not a decoration for our human tribulations, but the rightful inhabitants of the world. (Morizot, 2020: 29, author’s emphasis).

untitled, Mark Peckmezian

Having fragmented our environments, having delimited forests and cities – forests and home in our case –, is therefore a result of this blindness to the relations other living beings have with their environment. By not considering that they inhabit them, because they do it differently than we do, we have excluded them from the considerations of cohabitation. This issue at stake here is thus spatial. There is a strong spatial dimension in the reconnection to the living world and the interrelations that connects its members.  

All in all, through his analysis of the crisis of sensitivity, with its spatial dimension, and the philosophical trailing suggested to counter it, Morizot claims that a new form of relationship to the living otherness is necessary to recover a contact to the other species with whom we share this world, and to thus be able to share it better. In fact, according to Morizot, this reflection, and especially the crisis of sensitivity, is closely linked to the ecological crisis and the erosion of biodiversity that we are facing all around the world. Indeed, the ecological crisis leads to more destroyed places, more fragmentation, and also less opportunities to encounter other species, as they are decreasing. Non-human animals become de facto less present in our lives. The crisis of sensitivity could thus be thought of as a consequence of the ecological one. But it can also be thought of as its cause, since it may be because of the lack of sensitivity and perception that human activities have led to it. It is hard not to harm something or someone that you are not aware of. This is why recovering a form of sensitivity to non-human animals and their relationship to their environment (which we share with them) appears as the basis for a more general and global conception of the non-human living world as being an ethical subject, that could nourish the overall reflection of how to share this world together and live freely without harming the others. Paying better attention to the clues the living leaves in its environment is a way to do so. Morizot’s reflection may thus have global ethical consequences, because it is not about a reconciliation and acknowledgment of non-human animals, but about debunking our distinction between nature and culture, and rebuilding our relationship to otherness, to the world in general, and each of the elements that it is made of. Including us.


Bibliography

Descola, P., & Palsson, G. (Eds.). Nature and Society: Anthropological Perspectives (1st ed.). Routledge, 1996. 

Descola, P. (2005). Beyond nature and culture. University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Morizot, B. On the animal trail, Actes Sud, 2018. All translations mine. 

Morizot, B. Ways of being alive, Actes Sud, 2020. All translations mine.


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