The dissapearence of the bees, or the singularity of the Animal

Srećko Horvat

A woman reading on a bench in Central Park takes her silver chopstick-style hair pin out of her hair and stabs herself in the neck with it. Meanwhile on a building site, workers on the ground are chatting when all of a sudden a body falls. Thinking the worker just fell off the roof by mistake, they rush over to his dead body, but then another worker falls down, then the third, and yet another and another. As in the famous Magritte’s painting “Golconde”, where identical men dressed in dark overcoats and bowler hats against a backdrop of buildings and blue sky fall down like drops of heavy rain, this scene is catapulting us into the universe of the surreal paranoid science-fiction thriller “The Happening”, directed in 2008 by M. Night Shyamalan. At the same time, a school teacher, still not aware the disaster is already happening, explains how Albert Einstein once said that without honeybees mankind wouldn’t survive more than five years.

The dissapearence of the honeybees is no news anymore. As we all know by now, it all started in 2006 when the United States were hit by an abrupt dissapearance of whole bee colonies. Since then, it is happening in all parts of Europe, from Italy, Spain, Greece, Belgium to Germany, France, Portugal, Netherlands, etc. Many theories and wide range of possible causes have been presented, including pesticides, parasites, viruses, environmental changes, and even radiation from cell phone towers. It seems there is still no common agreement among biologists or scientific confirmation what is the real cause for the now called “Colony Collapse Disorder”. But it seems that everyone by now agrees with the prophetic Einstein warning that mankind will not survive honeybees’ disappearance. Why? Because one third of food we eat comes as the result of bees as the most important pollinators of our fruits, vegetables, flowers and crops.

To fully understand the problem of the extinction of any animal species, including the bees, we should turn to Jacques Derrida and his understanding of the Animal. In his address “The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow)” at the third Cerisy-la-Salle conference devoted to his work in July 1997, Derrida says he would like to have the plural of animals heard in the singular and even goes so far to call every act of categorization that posits the Animal in plural, as “animals”, nothing more than – violence. “Among nonhumans and separate from nonhumans there is an immense multiplicity of other living things that cannot in a way be homogenized, except by means of violence and willful ignorance, within the category of what is called the animal or animality in general”.

In other words, what for Derrida is of upmost importance is to avoid speaking generally about animals. For him, there are no “animals”. When one says “animals”, one has already started to not understand anything, and started to enclose the animal into a cage. Why? Because there are considerable differences between different types of animals.

Derrida returned to this question just two years before his death, in the documentary film directed by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering in 2002: “There is no reason one should group into one and the same category monkeys, bees, snakes, dogs, horses, anthropods and microbes. These are radically different organisms of life, and to say ‘animal’ and put them all into one category – both the monkey and the ant – is a very violent gesture. To put all living things that aren’t human into one category is, first of all, a stupid gesture – theoretically ridiculous and partakes in the very real violence that humans exercise towards animals. That leads to slaughterhouses, their industrial treatment, their consumption. All this violence towards animals is engendered in this conceptual simplification which allows one to say ‘animals’ in general”.

Violence begins not with the slaughterhouse, but with categorization. Each time I try to classify, I already determine. Each time I determine, I assume I know a particular nature – although the opposite is the case: I define and classify according to my own nature. How can a monkey and a bee fit into one and the same category called “animals”? How can a whale be comparable to a fly?

The best – at first glance completely absurd – answer is given by the fictious taxonomy of animals described by Jorge Luis Borges in his famous tale “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins”. The alternative taxonomy of “animals”, taken from an ancient Chinese encyclopaedia (“Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge”), divides all animals into one of 14 categories:

  • Those that belong to the emperor
  • Embalmed ones
  • Those that are trained
  • Suckling pigs
  • Mermaids (or Sirens)
  • Fabulous ones
  • Stray dogs
  • Those that are included in this classification
  • Those that tremble as if they were mad
  • Innumerable ones
  • Those drawn with a very fine camel hair brush
  • Et cetera
  • Those that have just broken the flower vase
  • Those that, at a distance, resemble flies

What Borges succeeded to show more than any other critique of classification, is the arbitrariness of any attempt to categorize the world. Why would the fictious taxonomy where animals can be “those that belong to the emperor” or “those that, at a distance, resemble flies” be more fictional than, for instance, Aristotle’s animal classification or Linnaean taxonomy?

It is not by chance that Michel Foucault used Borges’ celestial taxonomy in his preface to “The Order of Things”, admiting how he was amused yet also shaken by it. “In the wonderment of this taxonomy”, he says, “the thing we apprehend in one great leap, the thing that, by means of the able, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own”.

This is the paradox we have to face: it is in the very moment of creation that we limit our own system of thought. “So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals. But for Adam no suitable helper was found” (Genesis 2:20) Genesis tells us that Adam named the animals even before Eve was created. Before the “animals”, there was already language. The Bible classifies the animals into four classes, according to four different modes of locomotion: walking, flying, swimming, crawling. On the one hand, the naming of animals is an act of authority and domination, on the other – it again proves a limitation of our world.

We could give a detailed overview of the evolution of classification – from the religious texts, to ancient philosophy including Plato and Aristotle, to Linnaean taxonomy. And no matter how advanced and sophisticated a new classification might be, Borges’ fictional classification would not disappear before our eyes. To really understand the “Animal” it is not enough to name, classify or define it. To understand the “Animal” we should be able to understand its suffering.

And this brings us, inevitably, to one of the most famous episodes from the history of Western philosophy, which is not only marked but determined by the figure of the Animal. It is, of course, Friedrich Nietzsche’s mental breakdown in Turin on 3 January 1889. There are many interpretations of the well-known story of Nietzsche lying unconscious on the pavement of Piazza Carlo Alberto. The most famous says he witnessed how a cab driver was having trouble with his horse and began to whip the poor animal. Nietzsche was so immensely shocked by the scene that he ran to the horse, throwed his arms around its neck to protect it, and then collapsed.  

Are his short writings known as Wahnbriefe really a manifestation of “madness” or are they a product of the unbearable scene of the suffering animal? Was the suffering horse really just a trigger, as most of the interpretations claim, or was it the case that Nietzsche was able to hear the plural of animals in the singular? As long as we conceive the “animals” in the plural, it is impossible to hear their suffering. Once we are able to understand the singularity of an animal – the world it carries, the world that is opened by its very existence and the world that is closed by its death – it is impossible not to become silent and even mad like Nietzsche. That is the reason why most of us are still “sane” and living as if the animals around us are not suffering.

Paradoxically, the very attempt to find the singular in the plurality of “animals”, namely classification, was the first step towards the elimination of the singularity of every Animal. Instead of abstract “animals” (“walking”, “flying”, “swimming,” “crawling” animals, as in the Bible), now we have precise classifications but at the same time we are even more distant from animals than before. Classification served the purpose of rationalization, and rationalization served the purpose of mass-murder.

Is there a better proof than the following one? In his biography My life and Work from 1922, Henry Ford reveals that his inspiration for the production on an assembly line came when he, as a young man, visited a slaughterhouse in Chicago. Slaughtered animals, hanging down from a moving chain or ribbon went from employee to employee and each has performed a particular procedure in the entire process. This introduced a radical novelty in our modern industrialized civilization – for the first time neutralization of killing and a new level of disengagement was introduced. For the first time machines were used to accelerate the progress of mass slaughter.

On the one hand, it was the slaughterhouse that brought to the development of capitalism of the assembly line, with numerous consequences that we still feel and live today. On the other hand, it is no wonder that Adolf Hitler held a life-size portrait of Ford next to his desk in the office of the Nazi Party headquarters in Munich. When in 1931 he was asked by a journalist of Detroit News what does Ford’s portrait on the wall mean, Hitler replied: “I perceive Henry Ford as my inspiration”. Ford soon became the first foreigner who received The Order of the German Eagle and Hitler soon transformed his inspiration into reality. Where else could the rationalization of killing, characteristic of slaughterhouses using assembly lines, be better used then in concentration camps?

Not only that Jews were transported to concentration camps in cattle wagons, but the guards at the camps were coming directly from the meat industry. As Charles Patterson showed in his book Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust it might be just a coincidence but Rudolf Höss, the commander of Auschwitz owned a butcher shop; Kurt Franz, the last commader at Treblinka, was a butcher; Karl Frenzel, who fueled the ovens first at Hadamar and then at Sobibor, was a butcher and last but not least, Heinrich Himmler, conducted eugenic testing on his chicken farm. And Hitler’s personal bodyguard also was a butcher…

Apart from these historical curiosities and potential contingencies, much more important is the argument drawn by Patterson: the domestification and subjugation of animals was the model that served as the inspiration for converting people into slaves and the cultivation of domesticated animals has led to eugenic measures such as forced sterilization, euthanasia, and, ultimately, genocide. Although Patterson’s book raises many new questions, it shows how the industrialized slaughter of cattle cleared the way, at least indirectly, to the final solution. Just as the assembly lines for the slaughter of animals or the production of Henry Ford’s cars, served the basic principles of effectiveness and efficiency, so did the assembly lines of Treblinka serve the same purpose. Just as the assembly line in slaughterhouses created a more efficient way of killing, that was less stressful for the murderers, because from now on everyone was just doing their own job, so did the “humane killing” create a new layer of officers such as Adolf Eichman. Killing was now institutionalized and objectivized.

Only when the Jews were started to be treated as animals, when a group of people instead of being treated as singular were treated as a “plurality” that in its very plurality was transformed into a false singularity (“the Jew”), it was possible to organize the “final solution”. But it should be noted that comparing Jews with animals certainly was not a Nazi invention. For instance, it was Martin Luther who already compared the Jews to “mad dogs” and “pigs”, and it was Hegel who believed that Jews can not be assimilated into German culture because they lived an “animal existence”. And there is no need to go back in history if our present is full of similar examples. After his visit to the Gaza Strip, former U.S. president Jimmy Carter said in 2009 that Palestinians in the Gaza Strip are being “treated more like animals than human beings” and in 2014, just after the new “ground invasion” of Gaza started, a Norwegian doctor treating wounded Palestinian children, Mads Gilbert, said the Palestinians are “once more treated like the animals”. So, if a whole population is being treated “less than human”, how could we expect human will treat animals differently? If humans are still not capable of treating other humans as humans, should we really wonder nobody is speaking about a genocide of animals?

Of course, we should neither abuse the figure of genocide nor consider it explained away, but as Derrida shows in his address “The Animal That Therefore I am (More to Follow)” things get more complicated here: “The annihilation of certain species is indeed in process, but is occuring through the organization and exploitation of an artificial, infernal, virtually interminable survival, in conditions that previous generations would have judged monstrous, outside of every supposed norm of a life proper to animals that are thus exterminated by means of their continued existence or even their overpopulation. As if, for example, instead of throwing people into ovens or gas chambers (let’s say Nazi) doctors and geneticists had decided to organize the overproduction and overgeneration of Jews, gypsies and homosexuals by means of artificial insemination, so that, being more numerous and better fed, they could be destined in always increasing numbers for the same hell, that of the imposition of genetic experimentation or extermination by gas or by fire.”

What we face today is a step further from the traditional assembly line. Our classification of animals didn’t only create the preconditions for their annihilation. It lead to a nightmare already present in Derrida’s prediction of artificial survival. Let us take a recent two-minutes Greenpeace activist fiction film which is presenting a near future where bees have gone extinct completely. No reason to worry. Fields that were a barren wasteland are recovering again. Because bees are back. You might think these are ordinary bees, but these little marvels of advanced robotics are second generation NewBees. Far superior to their nature counterparts, they have been successfully implemented all over the world. Completely solar powered, a NewBee requiers very little downtime to recharge. Using realtime triangulation technology, each NewBee knows which part of the field has been polinated, maximising efficiency and yield. Unlike standard bees, NewBees are fully equipped to fight their natural enemies. As soon as a predator approaches, the NewBees are alerted and release a fast-acting insecticide, neutralising the threat in a second. Nothing can harm them. NewBees do not tire, require minimum maintenance, and are produced for a fraction of the upkeep cost of normal bees. They are easily recycled, replaced, and activated. NewBees blend in perfectly with nature, and are programmed not harm us…

Luckily, this is – so far – only science-fiction. The idea is based on artitificial pollination. However, fiction can soon turn into reality. A research robotics team, specialised in micro-robotics, at Harvard University is already developing so called “RoboBees”. The “RoboBee” project, launched in 2009 to investigate what it would take to create a robotic bee colony, already succeeded in creating artificial muscles capable of beating the wings 120 times per second and scientists are now figuring out how to get power supply and decision making functions. During the summer of 2012, the researchers solved key technical challenges allowing the “RoboBee” to take its first controlled flight.

Although it seems we are at least 20 years away from the possibility of artificial pollination, we should pose the following question: if robotic bees really succeed to pollinate fields and keep our ecosystem in balance, what will it mean for humanity? OK, we might survive bees extinction despite Einstein’s prophecy, but what does the dissapearence of the Animal mean for humanity as such? What does the death of one animal mean and what does it mean when a whole species goes extinct? 

Some scientists estimate that up to half of presently existing plant and animal species may become extinct by 2100. Yes, we could of course be cynical and ask what is the human-caused extinction compared to at least five mass extinctions in the history of life on earth? For example, what is the current Holocene extinction compared to the “Permian-Triassic extinction event” about 250 million years ago, which is estimated to have killed 90% of species then existing? Can we even imagine what sort of life existed in that period and how insignificant our own existence might appear from that perspective? Technically speaking, there is life after people, or as Alan Weisman put it in his non-fiction book about what would happen to the natural and built environment if humans suddenly disappeared – there is a “World without us”. In this case, even we, the human, are a species that could easily disappear and already after 500 or thousand years there would be a small number of evidence (radioactive materials, bronze statues or ceramics) or none at all that we ever existed.

When it comes to our current relation towards Nature it is ambivalent. On the one hand, we really do live in the so called “Anthropocene”, a period in which human activities have significant global impact on the Earth’s ecosystem. Our influence on the behaviour of bees is the best illustration of this. And maybe we need to go even a step further from the thesis of the “Anthropocene” and take into consideration what Timothy Morton called “Ecology without Nature”. According to Morton, the chief stumbling block to environmental thinking is the idea of nature itself and we need to accept this denaturalized character of nature itself. It is not so much that the humans put nature out of joint, nature itself is not in balance. Or in other words, it is exactly this chaotic character of nature itself – huge catastrophies, storms, floods, etc – that is natural. (Of course, the consequences of “natural disasters” are not natural but are already marked by human interventions – there is no such thing as a “natural disaster”!)

And here we come to the other side of this coin. Nature is not always already an innocent victim and it is not only the human influence that changes Nature. “Eyjafjallajökull”, no matter how many times we heard this strange name, is still not easy to pronounce. Neverthelless, this volcano from Iceland completely disrupted human “business as usual”. As a consequence of its eruption, the European airlines were paralyzed almost for a week, with more than 64 thousand flights delayed or cancelled, affecting millions of travellers. So, what to us human looks like a catasrophy, nature out of balance, is precisely the opposite – it is “Eyjafjallajökull” and not our ecological struggle that succeded in lessening the airlines’ carbon footprint by an amount equal to the annual output of several smaller states combined.

This two sides of the coin open up an unexptected reversal. It is not only the animal, but the very human species that could dissapear soon. Whatever the reason for the disappearance of bees might be, it seems that the official tagline of Shyamalan’s “The Happening” perfectly describes the matter: “We’ve sensed it. We’ve seen the signs. Now… it’s happening”. What is happening in “The Happening” is a cataclysmic disaster, people around major cities on the east coast of Unites States begin to die mysteriously and it seems the cause is Nature. Soon it turns out that plants, trying to defend themselves from threats, began to release a cryptic neurotoxin that causes anyone exposed to it to commit suicide.

The dissapearance of humans would, everyone (at least who is human) would agree, be the dissapearance of a world. It would still be a “world without us”, but it wouldn’t be the same world. Let us now imagine the “animals” watching at the dying human species, perceiving us only as a plurality (“the humans”). If the dissapearance of one human is the dissapearance of a whole world (just take the very last speakers of some rare human languages as an example), why is the suffering of one animal not perceived as suffering or dissapearance of a singularity, not only the death of an animal but the dissapearance of a world? Maybe the time has come to turn the usual thesis around: “animals” may not be so dependent on us (because they would probably continue to exist even if we would have disappeared as a species), how much we depend on them, their very singularity. Just think about that next time you encounter a bee.

Srećko Horvat

born in Osijek, Yugoslavia in 1983, spent the first seven years of his life living in exile in Germany. The philosopher and writer Horvat is regarded as a central figure of Croatia’s and the Balkan’s new Leftist party. In 2008, Horvat co-founded the annual Subversive Festival in Zagreb. His most recent books published in German, include “Nach dem Ende der Geschichte” (After the End of History) and “Was will Europa? – Rettet uns vor den Rettern” (What does Europe want? The Union and its Discontents) with Slavoj Žižek, both published by the Laika-Verlag, Hamburg in 2013.

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