A pair of pigeons deterritorialized my deck last spring. I discovered their nest when I was attempting to move a large, wicker deck-chair that I had decided to put into storage. As I lifted it, two eggs and a clump of twigs tumbled out from some hidden spot within its inner framework. Alarmed at what I had done, I pushed the chair back into its original position, but the nest had become dislodged, and there was no way to return the eggs to safety.
That night, as the temperature dropped, I watched anxiously for the appearance of whatever bird the eggs belonged to, but I didn’t want to risk scaring it away for good. Periodically, I would scrunch down in front of the sliding glass door to peer out at the eggs in an effort to assess their status (at which point my cat would inevitably join the vigil).
When I awoke the next morning, the male pigeon had already begun the painstaking process of carrying up additional twigs, one at a time in his beak, while the female pigeon rearranged them around herself and the eggs.
II: Subject, Object, Assemblage
Pigeons have been condemned as pests and carriers of disease. However, I learned that such risks are easy to avoid, thanks to a helpful pigeon fancier I’ve gotten into the habit of calling my “pigeon contact.” Interestingly, he not only took classes from but also adopted many of the birds that had belonged to the late Nebraska poet Don Welch, who raised homing pigeons. A connotation of pigeons with poetry seems somehow fitting. There is an affective, rhythmic intensity in their flights, and there has been a sort of affective exchange in our encounters. They eye me intently, and based on their movements, I feel out how close I can come without startling them. They no longer fly away when I step out to refill the birdbath or their dish of birdseed. Our interactions seem to me to resonate more with the Deleuzean concept of encounters between assemblages of intensities and multiplicities than with the narrative that pigeons are pests warranting eradication.
Sometimes one of them will perch on the railing and peer in, head cocked, through the sliding glass door. More often, though, they’ve been the objects of my gaze—a non-desiring gaze, certainly, but a gaze nonetheless. It has been captivating to watch them. I've seen chicks take their "first steps"—repetitions of awkward squats, heads wobbling atop oversized bellies, grown round with "baby fat" from so much nourishment and so little movement. One day, I caught a juvenile pigeon practice-flying by standing in place and flapping her wings, until she flapped them so enthusiastically that she had to take a step back to maintain her balance. Yet even as I describe my wonder or characterize the pigeons with positive connotations, the fact remains that it is the human who describes and connotes.
III: The Animal is a Word
For Jacques Derrida, the otherness that separates the human from the animal is “immense” and “abyssal” (95), recalling the image of the abyss comprising Jean-Francois Lyotard’s differend. What seems most significant is the linguistic articulation of this otherness. “The animal is a word,” Derrida writes. “It is an appellation that men have instituted, a name they have given themselves the right and the authority to give to the living other” (23, 32).
Because we have constructed the identity of the human and then defined the animal by its difference from us, we make the animal what Jacques Rancière would term “the part of no part”; animals have “no part in anything” (23). Rancière uses as an example of “the part of no part” the plebians who demonstrated their personhood as “speaking beings” by “executing speech acts that mimic those of the patricians.” Through speech, they proved themselves “capable of enunciating what is just,” as opposed to merely vocalizing pleasure or pain, as animals are said to do (24). Reflecting on this narrative, it seems that the very concept of political power has been based on its inaccessibility to the animal, even referred to as a place-holder for the voiceless.
Power's relationship to otherness has been problematic. As Rancière points out, even when a group arrives at a consensus in the making of a political decision, there is a remainder left over, a “part of no part” that has simply been concealed. For Plato, the simulacrum’s difference from the original marks it as inferior and false. And for Hegel, the triad of identity, difference, and identity-in-difference positions difference as a failure of identity which must be erased through the assimilating forces of sublation and synthesis. It seems that as long as identity precedes difference, otherness will be articulated as a difference from the dominant, majoritarian identity and therefore secondary to it.
In The Animal that Therefore I am, Derrida addresses this dialectic of identity and difference, which can also be expressed as self and other or human and nonhuman, through the identification of otherness within the self. Yet even if we identify a form of animal otherness within ourselves, the identities of the “human” and the “animal” seem ultimately impenetrable (37). In terms of how we should, then, approach such difference, Derrida proposes an “absolute hospitality,” to dictate the human's treatment of the nonhuman. However, in the context of human life and language, this appears likely to collapse into the human's domestication of the animal (96), a movement toward another Hegelian sublation, or assimilation.
Language adopts the guise of transparency, while mediating our relationship to otherness. Trapped behind the linguistic signifiers that uphold stable identities and the power relations between them, the pigeons are defined by us and by their difference from us. Derrida describes this delineation of the animal by the human in terms of moving toward a sort of “becoming-subject” (45). The human subject remains the majoritarian identity, casting the nonhuman in terms of its failure to be human, a failure that a synthesizing assimilation must rectify. Is there a way to encounter difference without making it secondary, without defining it by what it is not?
IV: Difference in Itself
At one point, it became necessary to temporarily move the nest and its contents—a pair of freshly hatched chicks—into a cardboard box, so that my deck could undergo maintenance. With a feeling of guilt I couldn't quite shake, I sneaked out onto the deck while "Mama" and "Papa" Pigeon were away. After tearing a page out of an old newspaper and rearranging the twigs inside the box, I picked up each chick, one by one, to place them inside. Feeling their wings flap against my hands and their bodies straining to nestle back together, I sensed their vulnerability and our vast difference in a way I couldn't really put it into words.
The sense of unutterability that accompanies such encounters makes me think that affect theory might help us reimagine difference. Sometimes used interchangeably with “feeling” or “emotion,” affect is a “non-conscious experience of intensity” (Shouse). Affect is experienced physiologically, with immediacy; an example of this would be the realization that you’re nervous because your hands are shaking. Gilles Deleuze describes affect in terms of “man’s nonhuman becoming.” For Deleuze, becoming can never enact a "becoming-subject." It is always a becoming-minor—in this case, a becoming-pigeon. It enacts a change, not just sympathizing: “Becoming is neither an imitation nor an experienced sympathy, nor even an imaginary identification” (Plateaus 173).
Becoming occurs through the passage of time, but for Deleuze, the way in which time unfolds is significant. In Difference and Repetition, Deleuze contends that time doesn't pass linearly, in a series of moments, as we tend to conceptualize it. It unfolds as the actual, containing events lived in the present, flows back into the virtual, a plane containing the multiplicities and intensities of the past. The virtual is not simply another way of describing the possible or the fake; it is real, even to us in the present and even though it is not actual. The past belongs to the living present. What's more, because it is part of the virtual and the virtual is real, it is repeated in the present, but with a difference.
If I move toward becoming-nonhuman, does my past continue to repeat, differently, in my present interactions with the pigeons? Memories surface in the form of gerunds, -ings without a subject. I think of trudging through the snow with my mother on cold winter nights to feed the litter of kittens in our barn. The awfulness of hitting a baby bunny on the road. Would this include loathing Dances with Wolves for humanity's betrayal of the wolf? Perhaps ostensibly unrelated memories swirling in the virtual repeat in ways I don't recognize—memories of playing the piano, swimming in the rain in Québec, seeing the Sistine Chapel, losing my umbrella. Conversely, I wonder how the flow from the actual into the virtual transforms the past, or rather, my relationship to it. An encounter in the actual,in the present, could set into motion a becoming that would transform the virtual. Likewise, by way of the virtual, memories and their affective intensities create multiplicities in the actual; a moment might contain multiple repetitions with differences.
The primary aim of Difference and Repetition is to construct a new concept of difference, an otherness that wouldn't take its identity based on its "not-sameness" to some dominant identity. The animal wouldn't be defined by its own nonhumanity. Deleuze is attempting to think difference in itself instead of difference from. The "from" suggests that it is an opposition to be resolved, as in a Hegelian synthesis (31). Putting this in terms of Plato's narrative of the cave—a narrative conveying the inaccessibility of a transcendent reality that is superior to false copies of it, or put another way, to repetitions with differences—Deleuze writes, “Difference must leave its [Platonic] cave and cease to be a monster” (29).
If we can conceptualize difference in itself, perhaps we can conceptualize identities that don't precede it. The concept of identity would be destabilized, no longer fixed as a point to measure difference from. New, changing, fluid identities would be created out of difference, through the linkages of concepts. For Deleuze, concepts are “self-referential,” having “no reference” (22). They are not part of a Platonic mythos of a transcendental reality that is mediated by linguistic signifiers or false copies. Affect, too, is a concept, "insofar as it is nonrepresentational."
Incidentally, Deleuze uses a bird to illustrate the function of a "concept," which according to this schema, seems to emerge as difference: “The concept of a bird is found not in its genus or species but in the composition of its postures, colors, and songs: something indiscernible that is not so much synesthetic as syneidetic” (22). In other words, concepts are formed by linkages—recalling the schizophrenic "and's" of Anti-Oedipus—rather than by synthesis. Perhaps the definition of "pigeon" through the oppositional dialectics of ["difference from"] language could give way to unmediated encounters of difference. This is difficult to put into practice, though; even in this blog post, I've resorted to parsing out "differences from" in my effort to pursue this "line of flight." But if difference in itself can emerge through becomings-minor, affective and conceptual, which unfold in time through repetitions with differences, then, as in Nietzsche’s concept of the eternal return, “it is not the same which returns” (301).
The pigeons no longer inhabit my deck, although they still come by to partake in the birdseed and wade in the birdbath, as do their offspring. I’m not sure why they left. I'm still captivated by them, as I am by the other varieties of birds that have begun to visit now that doing so no longer means facing a multiplicity of pigeons in a territorial dispute. So far, I have seen a pair of blue jays, a cardinal, and even a little squirrel—whom I initially ran off, instinctively viewing him as a threat until I remembered there's no longer a nest on the deck to feel protective of. Perhaps this wasn’t his first time on the deck; perhaps he'd been there before, and that was why the pigeons left. In their return visits, one or two pigeons will still sometimes take a moment to peer in at me, head tilted, as I gaze back through the glass of the sliding door that separates us.
Deleuze, Gilles. Difference and Repetition. Trans. Paul Patton, Columbia UP, 1994.
---. “Spinoza.” Les cours de Gilles Deleuze, webdeleuze.com. Trans. Timothy S. Murphy, 1978.
---. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Brian Massumi, U of Minnesota P, 1987.
---. What is Philosophy? Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell, Columbia UP, 1991.
Derrida. The Animal that Therefore I Am. Trans. David Wills, Fordham UP, 2008.
Rancière, Jacques. Dis-agreement. Trans. Julie Rose, U of Minneapolis P, 1999.
Shouse, Eric. “Feeling, Emotion, Affect.” M/C Journal: A Journal of Media and Culture, vol. 8, no. 6.