Stuart Cooke

from 'Toward an Ethological Poetics: The Transgression of Genre and the Poetry of the Albert’s Lyrebird'

[Abstract. In an attempt to respond to the West’s general obliviousness to nonhuman semiosis, this article proposes a method for appreciating nonhuman poetics. By combining the critical tools of poetics and literary theory with insights from ethology and biosemiotics, Stuart Cooke outlines a method of criticism for nonhuman creative compositions. Drawing on the work of Gerald Bruns, Elizabeth Grosz, and Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Cooke begins by theorizing a poetics that attends to the ecology of forces that produce, and are produced by, a work rather than the intentions of a single artist. Cooke proposes that an ethological poetics emphasizes the expressive capacity of materials across a range of written, musical, visual, and performative structures. By studying these expressive forces, Cooke argues, we can extend our appreciation of art and poetics into multispecies domains. The challenge is not to focus on the “meaning” or intention of nonhuman artworks but to study their disruptive, and exciting, forces. The third part of the essay is a case study of an Australian songbird, the Albert’s lyrebird, whose remarkable performance Cooke reads in terms of an ethological poetics. Producing an operatic complex of song, instrumentation, dance, and stage design, the male lyrebird’s composition is thoroughly entangled with the flora and fauna of his umwelt. Resistant to categorization by any generic label, Cooke argues that the lyrebird’s composition is best approached in the terms of transgressive, avant-garde performative and sound poetics — although it escapes such terms, thinking about the bird’s composition in this way compels us into a relation with its territory.]


All genres are destroyed at last — Michael Farrell, “A Lyrebird”


A Poetics Prior to Form


In this essay I outline a path toward an ethological poetics, or the study of nonhuman creative forms.  An ethological poetics, I argue, shifts focus from the (human) subject who creates and/or perceives the work of art and decides, on this basis, whether or not it is art, to the object itself, and its capacity to generate sensation. As in much ethological study, the observation of such sensation, the notation of its affective powers, is also central to an ethological poetics. However, where a more properly scientific ethology would seek the regularities, predictabilities, and consistencies in an animal’s behavior, an ethological poetics is interested in the impact, or the capacity to catalyze relation, of the animal’s expression. “Art addresses not matter’s regular features as science does, but its expressive qualities, its ‘aesthetic’ resources,” writes Elizabeth Grosz. Art, as we will see, frames the earth in order to harness and release these resources; once released, the energies are freed of the species-specific categories that a scientific grid might otherwise impose on them. Thus, the territory of an artwork is not cleanly separated from others, but is a field full of affective, multispecies relations. Accordingly, an ethological poetics recognizes similarities of form across different scales and modes of existence. To human ears, bird and whale songs might appear to belong to completely different categories of expression, for example, but when their recordings are slowed down and sped up respectively, similar patterns of organization will often emerge. Unfortunately, however, much of human analytical practice is predicated on the discovery of difference, and on the ignoring of similarities, between individual units (be they poems, songs, or organisms). In response, an ethological poetics emphasizes synonymy and acknowledges that affect can cross species lines. As I argue in the third section of this essay, there is no better example of such synonymy than in the poetics of the Albert’s lyrebird.


Poetics is a multispecies affair. To talk of art in this context is not to talk about a single end point — be it a painting, a poem, or a recording — but rather to imagine a complex system in which, depending on the circumstances, different constellations might form at different times. The forces in such systems, therefore, rather than the categorical status of a material object, are key to this poetics, or the processes by which the art is made. In turn, the focus of analysis becomes the work’s affective capacity, or the study of those observable forces that the work releases. Such analysis parallels that of observational disciplines like anthropology. For Gerald Bruns, perhaps the most eminent anthropologist of poetics, even the most apparently unintelligible or nonsemantic poetry (such as sound poetry) will not remain so if approached “with the kind of openness and responsibility that anthropologists bring to the strangeness of alien cultures.” “Alien cultures,” however, need not only be human: anthropological poetics can also be ethological poetics.


If ethology involves the study of affects, or “the composition of relations or capacities between different things,” then a door into the worlds of nonhuman poetics can open. We can now turn, via Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, to the Australian bowerbird:


Every morning a bird of the Australian rainforests cuts leaves, makes them fall to the ground, and turns them over so that the paler, internal side contrasts with the earth. In this way it constructs a stage for itself like a ready-made; and directly above, on a creeper or a branch, while fluffing out the feathers beneath its beak to reveal their yellow roots, it sings a complex song made up from its own notes and, at intervals, those of other birds that it imitates: it is a complete artist. … Postures and colours are always being introduced into refrains: bowing low, straightening up, dancing in a circle and lines of colours.


Deleuze and Guattari’s bowerbird is “a complete artist,” whose works produce various sensations — of song, color, posture, design — that together “sketch out a total work of art.” The bowerbird’s composition can only be understood reductively if we insist on assigning it a generic category. Instead, such art is best theorized in terms of a poetics prior to form, or a process in which the artist “constructs a stage” with whatever materials are at hand or are of interest. As Vinciane Despret writes:


We are therefore dealing with a scene, a staging [mise en scène], and a truly multimodal artistic composition: a sophisticated architecture, an aesthetic balance, a creation of illusions designed to produce effects, and a choreography that concludes the work — in short … a poetry of movement.


For the purposes of this discussion, I will follow Grosz in referring to creative practices as methods of “enframing,” where the resultant, framed form is a “territory.” Here, the “frame” of a territory marks the ground on or within which the art work occurs. Drawing on Deleuze and Guattari, Grosz writes that the frame delineates a portion “of the chaos that is the earth” to create a territory.“With no frame or boundary there can be no territory,” therefore, “and without territory there may be objects or things but not qualities that can become expressive, that can intensify [into art].” The territory is the “language” of the artwork, being composed of various materials with which the work expresses its sensations; the territory “is an external synthesis, a bricolage,” writes Grosz, “of geographical elements, environmental characteristics, material features, shifted and reorganised fragments from a number of milieus.” In order to define itself from the region in which it is composed, a territory “breaks away” from its milieu(s) with a flourish of excessive expression. Crucially, as we see with the bowerbird, there is no universal technique for the production of territory, or territorialization: “Each form of life, and each cultural form, undertakes its own modes of organization, its own connections of body and earth.”  Just as important, artist and territory are bound in symbiotic cycles of instauration, in which, as Despret points out: “The artist is not the cause of the work and … the work alone is not its own cause.” Within these cycles, the artist has a particular responsibility, “the responsibility of one who hosts, who collects, who prepares, who explores the form of the work.” The artist’s responsibility is to attend to the materials of the frame.


As there are innumerable materials and methods for territorial production, so it is also the case that “every territory encompasses or cuts across the territories of other species.” Deleuze and Guattari articulate these territorial linkages as instances of counterpoint, or relationships between two or more independent things. The male bowerbird’s complex music, for example, has its own, internal relationships of harmonic counterpoint, which can also be found in the music of other birds (indeed, the bowerbird uses elements of their songs in his own compositions). Furthermore,


the spider’s web contains “a very subtle portrait of the fly,” which serves as its own counterpoint. On the death of the mollusk, the shell that serves as its house becomes the counterpoint of the hermit crab that turns it into its own habitat … The tick is organically constructed in such a way that it finds its counterpoint in any mammal whatever that passes below its branch, as oak leaves arranged in the form of tiles find their counterpoint in the raindrops that stream over them.


What the above examples illustrate for Deleuze and Guattari is “not a teleological conception” of nature but rather “a melodic one in which we no longer know what is art and what nature.” Nature, like art, is an ongoing combination and recombination of compounds, of de-/re-/territorialization, of “finite melodic compounds and the great infinite plane of composition, the small and large refrain.” In simpler terms, while the aesthetic territories of different species can no doubt be extremely different, it is also the case that the affective power of one creature’s particular mode of enframing can be experienced by many other forms of life, so much so that enframing might be fundamental to ecological function. David Rothenberg’s summation, from a different theoretical position but nevertheless in a similarly ethological context, is useful here:


Each living species is unique, but we are still all bound by the same cycles. Birth, experience, love, mating, travel, death. Each one of these phases can be expressed! Raw emotion leads to bird song and also to human art of all kinds. Something needs to be released, and what comes out is often wonderful.


However, despite my discussion of dissolved genre distinctions, I will keep referring to the concept of poetry in this essay. In conceptualizing “art” in its broadest possible sense, I prefer to speak of “poetry,” particularly in the case of the Albert’s lyrebird that follows, because, first, the term is slightly less abstract than “art” and, second, it implies a wider range of semantic and nonsemantic qualities than Western notions of painting or music do; poetry is “protosemantic,” to use a term of Bruns’s. Indeed, Bruns’s extended definition of poetry is especially helpful. First, he argues that “poetry is made of words but not of what we use words to produce.” Poems may indeed have meanings, propositions, narratives, and emotional resonance, but the poetry itself is in excess of these functional features. Poetry, then, is territory, or a synthesis of forces that causes it to break away from its milieu. Second, poetry “is not necessarily made of words but is rooted in … sounds produced by the human voice” (for the purposes of this essay a human to allow for all kinds of voices). Accordingly, poetry includes the domain of performance or body art, “where the body becomes the machine or vestibule of gratuitous expenditures of energy.” Finally, “poetry does not occupy a realm of its own,” but depends on a cultural and ontological “intimacy” with beings and things; it is by evoking these relations that poetry accrues its power. That power — that territorial affect — ensures that the poem “is as objective, and thus as resistant to interpretation, as any event of nature.” That the poem might not be readily transparent or intelligible is a crucial concept in theorizing a wholly unfamiliar poetics. The poem is an event; therefore, the main question to ask is not “‘What is it?’ or ‘What does it mean?’ but ‘How does it occur?’”


Consequently, in much contemporary poetry, particularly in those more performative and theatrical variations, distinctions between sound poetry and acoustical art, for example, or between concrete poetry and conceptual or abstract art, are hard to determine. Poetry “ceases to be a genre distinction” and instead denotes a reformulation of forces, of what we thought was possible: the poem is “an event that shuts down, or even breaks down, the cognitive mechanisms or defences by which we process or filter” music of ancient Greece or the Middle Ages; in the modern era, Ingold argues, Western music in its purest form came to be regarded “as song without words, ideally instrumental rather than vocal.”


Bruns’s explication of a philosophical poetics accords closely with Deleuze and Guattari’s nomadological metaphysics: “We know nothing about a body until we know what it can do. Here, what we might have thought of as central to poetry — the cognitive reception of semantic meaning — recedes to the background. Instead, we are defining a cluster of expressive tensions between elements in a field; we veer toward a sense of what the material of poetry does, rather than worrying only about what it might [not] mean, enabling “matter to become expressive … to resonate and become more than itself.” But the disruption of a reader’s cognition is not a simple dissolution into chaos. Rather, the poem, like any artwork, regulates and organizes its materials in unpredictable or incontrollable ways; art is only “the creation of forms through which these materials come to intensify and generate sensation” — forms are produced, in other words, but they need not be ours or for us. Crucially, sensations are more than semantic; indeed, they are more than human. What Bruns calls the poem’s “objectivity” is dependent on the intensity of these sensations; as Deleuze and Guattari write, sensations


are beings whose validity lies in themselves and exceeds any lived. They could be said to exist in the absence of man because man, as he is caught in stone, on the canvas, or by words, is himself a compound of percepts and affects. The work of art is a being of sensation and nothing else: it exists in itself.


The abundance of examples of art in the natural world — those myriad forms of song, performance, and inscription in avian, mammalian, and insect species — are examples of energetic excess, of sensation breaking free of a milieu and forming an affective territory. For Grosz, such territories produce surprise, encouraging engagement not in “a homeostatic relation of stabilization” but rather a “fundamentally dynamic, awkward, mal-adaptation that enables the production of the frivolous, the unnecessary, the pleasing.” It is in such a way that life elaborates on itself, by intensifying sensation into new, not necessarily necessary, forms. Art is an extension of nature’s “architectural imperative to organize the space of the earth”:


This roots art not in the creativity of mankind but rather in a superfluousness of nature, in the capacity of the earth to render the sensory superabundant, in the bird’s courtship song and dance, or in the field of lilies swaying in the breeze under a blue sky.


Indeed, form can emerge not only within human and nonhuman worlds, but also across these worlds, as Eduardo Kohn illustrates in a variety of “complex multispecies associations” in the Amazon. Invariably, an awareness of multispecies poetics prioritizes the iconicity of such forms over their meaning. An iconic reading will focus on the shapes, gestures, and possible movements of a language. In contrast, by looking “through words rather than at them,” alphabetic systems function as if language were invisible; the appalling consequence of such systems, of course, is that any language, human or otherwise, that cannot be seen “through” is rendered both invisible and silent.

To recover gestural qualities in human language, alphabetic systems of reading are read “through” so that words themselves can be looked “at.” Drawing on Francis Ponge, Bruns remarks:


Words are not the ideal objects they are said to be in logic, linguistics, and philosophy of language; they are things made of sounds, letters, and diacritical marks but also of bits and pieces of other words … that are embedded historically in heterogeneous contexts of usage. (my emphasis)


As boundaries between words are confused by this pastiche of historical exchange, any “meanings” we ascribe to them are also shared and complicated. So, “meanings are weights that time attaches to a word, which is irreducible to a concept or any sort of mental entity.” What is foremost in poetry, therefore, instead of clear meanings, is the material of language, that complex assemblage of entangled gestures and inscriptions. To highlight this material, Bruns draws on postulates from the North American objectivist tradition, where the poem is figured as a thing in itself rather than a vehicle for something (such as a “meaning”) that follows “behind.” Consequently, the “character” of the poet is no longer central to our analysis, because the poem is an object, in that it “takes its place side by side with the things that it employs for its material,” rather than being primarily a mirror of the poet’s self or experience. The poet is like a sculptor, then: his or her poetics is of materialization, of sculpture; words are the poet’s materials. Words do not provide an “ocularcentric” transparency through which things can be examined, but are themselves things: “Nature does not describe things or refer to them; it provides for their existence — and poems are among their number.” If we invoke a vast, multispecies field on which all manner of territories can be created, we approach something akin to Bruns’s “anarchic” poetics, where “anything goes” within limits imposed by historical conditions, which themselves are “undergoing continuous and unpredictable extension.” For Bruns (as for Grosz, and Deleuze and Guattari), poetic composition is limited only by the capacity of the earth to release and re-form sensation at any given moment. As critics and scholars, our task is to follow the lines that lead to the composition’s emergence.


[N.B. Cooke’s essay, in its entirety, can be found here.]