Abnormal Responses: Coaxing Animal Being into a Clearing

Life cannot be contained. 
Life breaks free.
Life… finds a way.[i]

How, through an exploration of encountered animality in my own life-world, might I gain a greater appreciation of being-animal as both the everyday course of my being-in-the-world as well as a normal encounter with the abnormal? 

Colleagues in environmental philosophy have often engaged me in philosophizing animals as entities with whom we co-exist and as an aspect of our own being. A key proposition in this rests on how humans put a great deal of thinking into the meaning of our being-human—how, why, what, who we are—while our fellows in the journey of being animals get very little attention. This is the normal. Of course, there are the many scientific examinations, beginning with Aristotle and Theophrastus on up to today with the thousands of studies done in the life science fields. Moreover, after the advent of environmental justice ethics as well as animal rights movements, there are no shortage of folks working to right wrongs done to animals and to establish protections for all sentient life. This is an attempt to correct for the normalization of animals as undeserving of our full respect. 

From a phenomenological perspective versus a metaphysical one, how do I chase after disclosing a meaning for animal?

In so far as we are animals ourselves, it seems that a crucial aspect of contemporary studies centers on remaining mindful of our fellow travelers on the animal journey while re-minding ourselves of how often we slip into thinking of animals not merely as other forms of life but as wholly distant other kinds of being: Not simply abnormal but mere props in a world existing solely for humankind. 

Honestly, all of this leaves me quite stumped after two decades. Not because it is difficult to do but because the academic discussions I have witnessed themselves kept shipwrecking on the very ground that makes for the disconnection. Usually, it is in our conversations about personal experience with animals—be it foxes, squirrels, quails, dogs, cats, etc et al—that thinkers appeared to come closest to our siblings within the animal kingdom. But turning to the papers produced to render a survey of the established thinking, quickly researchers begin quibbling over this distinction or that one, only to lose sight of animality.[ii]

And this even though humans are ourselves animals.

I’m not quite sure why we forget that. We interact enough with diverse sorts of creatures to witness the similarities between us and not fall prey to believing them mere automatons while we stand-out as fully autonomous beings. At least, one would think it seems obvious. For some reason, because we cannot fully communicate with these others—talk to them with language or by signs to ask what they are experiencing—there are those who see animals as wholly else-wise.[iii] Nonetheless, can anyone make a demonstrable claim that there is absolutely no exchange whatsoever between us and these others? 

We can say that connecting with any animal, even a pet, is only successful as a type of irregular back-and-forth. Edmund Husserl describes animals as “abnormal” and this encompasses our attempts to communicate with them (Ciocan 2017: 1). Crucially, he says the same of human newborns and those of us who become mentally ill (Ciorcan 2017: 1, 2, 7-8). The abnormal in this sense does not mean how the term often is pejoratively used to disapprove of “imperfections” or “deviancies” (Ciocan 2017: 2). Husserl establishes the abnormal as a constituted aspect of the life-world in his treatment of “Objective Nature” in the “Fifth Meditation” of Cartesian Meditations (1960: 123-25). There is that which is shared between my own I and the alter-I who co-inhabits the world alongside me. In so far as we experience noematic variations of the same things—encountering each one from our particular perspective—we constitute a base normality from which an “abnormality” might arise through the variability and/or degeneration of sense experience (1960: 124f).

In this way, any living entity with whom I come into proximate contact shares at least the bare givenness of the life-world as normal. But changes in the sensory core mean changes in the apprehension and the constitution of something as “abnormal” even when it is alongside me in my everyday world. 

I type in a Starbucks on the outskirts of Abilene, Texas; a visitor interrupts my line of thinkering…

A moth flutters across my view toward the window on my side of the glass. Does it seek real sun as opposed to the lights inside the coffee shop? It bumps a few times against the window until it settles on a chrome ledge, maybe assessing how best to take another turn at the hardened air that lends it no quarter to get out into the open daylight. 

The memory of a monarch butterfly with a broken wing alights in my mind. I’d been in my first grade school year for a few weeks in Waxahachie when I found the injured insect. Beautiful yellow orange wings trimmed in thick black outlines with bright white spots toward the top, a curious curling probiscus, delicate flicking antennae… she lived for a week in a little box with a small dish of sugar water my mom provided. The wing never got better—she crawled around in the box trying to flap, failing. I talked to her everyday before and after school until I came home one afternoon and she was completely still. I buried the butterfly with no small solemnity beneath the rose bush that climbed up the trellis of our front porch. 

There is a first-timeness recalled by memories of that injured monarch. I remember quite clearly having long conversations as that little boy with Madame Butterfly—what was their name? Talking to them seemed the most natural of things; yet now, should I turn to the moth and begin a conversation here in the middle of a coffee shop, I’m not sure the folks sitting near me would find it so cute for very long.  It would disturb on a number of levels. 

I know that butterflies and moths are different kinds of fluttering insects. But they are connected in my mind via lines that are not so exacting as scientific taxonomy. They are naturally cousins by a resemblance. I remember chasing butterflies, moths, lightning bugs, and a host of other six legged entities. And I had certainly swatted at flies, gnats and other pests. So the first-timeness of Mme. Butterfly must be the depth at which I made the attempt to communicate with them. 

It is normal for a child (to attempt) to communicate with almost everything. Probably because children across cultures so often demonstrate this facility to hold conversations with material objects as much as with imaginary friends, pets, and family members, we often think of animism as a “childish stage” in the development of cultures. Yet there is something in the openness of a child (not to mention their wonder) which captures the full breadth of intersubjective engagement.

Phenomenologically, every encounter between subject and object through an act within a horizon of meaning must be understood as inter-subjective. As time goes by, as we grow and lose a bit of openness, we begin to recognize that it is our own imagination providing the responses for chairs and walls and tables with which we “converse.”

But surely animals must be held in a difference from non-living objects.

We cannot expect from an animal a full expression of their point-of-view in human language, but there are indicators of response arising from shared sensory inputs. A moth and a butterfly, being insects, might have a certain degree of uncanniness from the perspective of my being mammal; however, they are very close to me in their mobility, their having sensory apparatuses, and their ability to combine this in a fashion to will themselves from this place to that place for food or water or shelter. They repeat, in a sense, what I repeat:

The experienced animate organism of another[iv] continues to prove itself as actually an animate organism[v], solely in its changing but incessantly harmonious ‘behavior’. Such harmonious behavior (as having a physical side that indicates something psychic appresentatively) must present itself fulfillingly in original experience, and do so throughout the continuous change in behavior from phase to phase. (Husserl 1960: 114)

Although not my own original experience, it is analogous enough that I can witness more going on there than mere mechanics. For Husserl, this expands my own singular experience by the inclusion of that other life as a body-having-experiences (1960: 115). Moreover, in bringing the butterfly back through my own experience even as I capture both moth and butterfly on these pages, I recreate an opportunity to not only recall the happening in myself but to pass along the exchange to others.

There is more in this ability than just telling-stories. It constitutes a broader world of exchange. 

The moth flutters up from the ledge, backward a foot or so, hovering in front of my computer before rising up to come around and hit my screen. I shew it away; it returns to battling the window that seems to promise the clearest opening to the sun. [At least I think that is it.] Drawing from Husserl’s description above of the ordinary normal experience of animated bodies, for a moth, this seems a normal, “harmonious behavior” (1960: 114). 

Outside the window, beyond where the moth rests on the ledge, a small lizard on landscaped rocks collects what heat there is to be grabbed from a bright winter sun in West Texas,. It sits placidly next to the drive thru lane where folks roll through to grab their hot milk flavored with coffee before zipping off to their workaday lives. 

Being in Abilene—the city where I spent almost all my summers growing up—my mind recalls hunting horn toads as a child in Aunt Dorothea’s backyard or on the lot behind Grandpa Golleher’s house, where he kept the different piles of gravel he hauled to lay out in other folks driveways. I say hunt—really it was a conservative expedition with my cousins; our intent was always track-down, take-hold, play-with, and let-go.[vi] One time, we played a bit too rough, and the poor horn toad—turned-loose—does not scuttle back into the sparse grass. He sits. He dies. My youngest cousin begins crying.

Is there a first-timeness recollected in this connection? Maybe of a kind of courage in seeking after the “beast”. To my small child’s hands, the horn toad looked pretty big.  They felt cold and rough. Also, horn-toads have the rather odd defense mechanism of squirting blood from sinus sacks near their eyes if they feel threatened. I remember my oldest cousin saying that’s when we know we’re doing it wrong. In this way, the normal reaction of the lizard communicates how they finds us a danger by enacting their abnormal ability (to us). Yet it also shows how we—the Brown/Golleher family cousins—acted in unison for a collective purpose. We hunted. We established a common world. We thought from the perspective of the horn toad to think where they might be. 

Was the horn toad better able to communicate their fear than the monarch butterfly? I imagine that the insect, even with a sugar water bowl, was terrified any time I started to blather at them or, worse, “pet” them. I cannot pinpoint if I was, in either case, being cruel or merely crude.[vii]

I recognize that all around as well as within this Starbucks, life is thriving to the degree it can. Not just busy students hunched over computers studying for finals and writing papers that might never be read by any other than busy professors. No… plants, insects, birds, reptiles, probably some field mice as there is still a great deal of open red dirt prairie on this side of Abilene. Each contributes to a life-world although I’m sure the area is not as biologically diverse as it used to be before the settling down of ranchers, the discovery of oil, and the building of manufacturing plants. The lizard watching the drive-thru line scurries down the rock out of view. The driver at the service window became impatient and began to honk his horn. 

It is some days since I started this article. I am finishing up in Houston where I have travelled with my spouse and my friend so they can attend a musical festival. I’ve taken a break to get a salad at an outdoor spot called the Burger Joint. Big, fat grackles hop around the tables and in the bushes nearby. They seek among the fallen leaves and dust for dropped food. Maybe they would prefer to find a lively insect rather than a bit of hamburger or crouton or tortilla. But I don’t want to presume their desires. 

I recall watching a scissor tailed swallow that nested outside my window on the farm in Forreston one spring when I was about 9. She and her mate would harass squirrels and my dogs whenever they got close to the large cedar tree. My dad said she probably had some eggs. The mother-bird was more active in being at the nest; I would watch both of them, wondering if their tails could cut me—snip snip. Just before summer break, a lightning strike from a huge thunderstorm hit the tree, knocking it over. I found the nest among the branches, slightly singed, small bits of eggshell nearby.  No scissor tails. 

For the monarch butterfly, I recall a kind of friendly interest, a small world of me focused upon her “hospital box.” With the horny toad, there was that cautious curiosity, a shared experience of hunting, understanding a different delicacy of life, and remorse at how crudely my cousins and I acted. But with the scissor tail, there is something more akin to neighborliness. And there is a strong analogy to my father, not at home so much but at work in Dallas, while my mother volunteered at my 3rd grade room. The mother swallow fussed over her nest, protected it. The shared normality of mother and mother, of child and soon to be chicks drew us to take note. The abnormal was nature itself… the most normal of normalities: Chance, accident. Had the Cedar fallen toward the  house, not only their  nest but my own room would have been crushed. We shared the variance of unexpected Texas weather, but one of the animal groupings was destroyed.

Derrida speaks of meeting animal-others in the person of his own cat as “the crossing of borders” (2008: 3). He is caught out naked in front of a feline, as he explains it, as “ashamed” of standing without any clothes as he prepares to shower (2008: 4). The shame is the normative shame that humans undergo concerning our bodies without clothing, without device to separate us as a chosen shelter from the rest of animal kind. While we may come into the world without clothing; at the end, we do not necessarily need to leave the world wearing any raiment. Only in the constitutive normality (normativity) of being with most other humans does clothing appear as not-optional. Whereas, the cat, on its side of the border knows nothing of a “normal need” for such coverings. 

Indeed, mother-scissor tail may have constructed a “home” for roosting, but I never looked out of my bedroom window to see her preparing to knit socklets for her chicks. On the other hand, my own mother fretted about me wearing clean underwear and matching socks. Is that what Derrida means when he quotes Nietzsche about humankind being entities that promise? I swear that I shall keep to the social contract of not going about nude. I shall commit to being normalized against the backdrop of all other animals as that one that hides his body from others and himself (2008: 3). Surely all of this centers on how the cat or the swallow or any of the animals heretofore mentioned respond to the world and to those alongside them in the world: “The said question of the said animal in its entirety comes down to knowing not whether the animal speaks but whether one can know what respond[viii] means. And how to distinguish a response from a reaction” (Derrida 2008: 8). 

Back in Houston, one of the grackles grabs a bit of tortilla strip that had fallen from my salad, hopping quickly away and squawking at another nearby. Is this a display of triumph—“I got mine”—or a call that the goodies are over here—“we can all get some”? They run together and flap away from each other. They are quite bold. A large male comes close to me before pecking at the female who grabbed my tortilla  strip. I don’t like the look of him; I flip my scarf in his direction and tell him to get away from the female. He flaps away into the bush, a few other females peck in the air beneath him as he hops over. I get the feeling they do not like him much either. 

While Edmund Husserl is more focused on human as animate being in describing “The Constitution of the Spiritual World,” his thinking on the appearance of the other in Ideas II gives us some clues for thinking of being-alongside another which is other-kinds, e.g. animals

We are in relation to a common surrounding world — we are in a personal association: these processes belong together. We could not be persons for others if a common surrounding world did not stand there for us in a community, in an intentional linkage of our lives. (2008: 201)

He speaks in this text of how another person appears to us; nonetheless, I am not convinced that this being-with must ONLY be with people. I have this intersubjective give and take in the moment with these animals I find around me—many of whom happen to be human, many not. Moreover, certainly all of those animals that my memory draws up in relating to these living presences now/here with me contribute to the constitution of the world as it now appears.

All of these animals are constituted each one with the other through “personal association” in a “relation to a common surrounding world” (2008: 201). 

Husserl is concerned here with humans as persons who share information in the give and take of communicative exchange. Yet how can this—in a possibly more muted manner—exclude these many other animals who obviously share significant effects with us? I am not just thinking of dogs and cats who through co-evolutional contact have become open to our [mostly] grasping the meaning of their behaviors. But this moth and that lizard and those grackles… Their activities are open for interpretation and, I dare say, they can perform very basic interpretations of my own acts. That is, so long as I am not acting hostile, posing no threat, I and others I witness are not treated to the animals running away entirely. The moth, the day I sat typing in Starbucks, perched atop the edge of my screen a few times. I get that it is attracted to the light but it is not threatened by the movement of my fingers on the keyboard. The lizard, earlier frightened by a car horn to run behind and/or beneath the rock outside, I now see perching on the white brick of the building. I think he might hunt the moth if it got as close to him as it has gotten to me. The grackles are the most suspicious of those humans sitting outside. Or maybe it would be better to say that they are wary… hopping leftward or backward, just “out of reach” of these large animals dropping goodies to the ground. 

I cannot help but think of these entities “not as opposed objects but as counter-subjects[ix]who live ‘with’ one another, who converse and are related to one another, actually or potentially… (Husserl 2008: 204).

I am sure some would accuse me of anthropomorphizing, esp. since I am specifically making use of a section of Ideas II pertaining to how people make a world by communicative exchange. Nevertheless, Husserl himself, earlier in the same text where he describes “The Constitution of Material Nature,” makes sure animals are not thought of in the harsh Cartesian light of being merely mechanical appearances even as he keeps Descartes’ notion of materiality as extension. Rather, they are ensouled, that is, have psychic (Gr. Psyche, soul) structures by virtue of being-animal. The generative constitution of spirit—which makes connections and, as Heidegger might say, gathers world by its techniques (2001: 157f)—works in all animals to explore the expanse of the life-world:

Spiritual nature, understood as animal nature, is a complex composed of a lower stratum of material nature, whose essential feature is extensio, and an inseparable upper stratum which is of a fundamentally different essence and which, above all, excludes extension (Husserl 2008: 32). 

I believe I finally understand what Heidegger means when he says that animals have a poverty of world precisely because they may not have anything at present which they carry or which they have lost (1995: 209).

They are poor but able to gain.

We, on the other hand, as the animals that “promise” (Derrida 2008: 8) and as those who discover the intersubjective constitution of I and not-I in the horizon of bodily experience (Husserl 1989: 165f), make-up worlds in one moment and let-them drop-down in favor of other ones the next. Animal lacking is a poverty that St. Francis might find noble: it does not bear the onus of forgetting their own being as well as to-be-itself. Other animal-being has not gathered a world unto itself and in the process lost its own way in an impoverishment of riches. These “abnormal” Others have a way of being that constantly discloses conjunction with life and does not have to rediscover the lost.

Truth does not matter for animals.

If truth is ἀλήθεια (a-letheia, un-forgetting) truthing only matters to those who have achieved the forgetfulness of being. 

There is a great responsibility in being those who not only name things but gather the world. Surely a part of that responsibility rests in letting things simply be themselves and not be turned toward some human end. It means being silent alongside those who do not speak words yet nonetheless are worthy of having their expressions heeded–howsoever they may present themselves as real—if abnormal—responses. So we do not share the full power of language with other entities. We do share mobility and sensation with animals. And with all forms of life—including plants, fungi, etc.—we share the need for nourishment. This is all Aristotle 101 (cf. On the Soul).

Is it enough that we are aware of our ownmost being-now-here conjoined with all this life?

Do we need to pass meaningful phrases between us and other forms of life for their living to be worthy of our fullest consideration?

If I turn to moth, lizard, or grackle, saying in a whisper, “I see you”, must they need respond back in some fashion, “I see you, too”? Does it matter?

Do I need them to see me to be sure I have not ceased my own being?

Being with them is its own form of communication—expressing our conjunction without fretting over superficial meanings. Even if not a single one of these other animals—or even most of the people in a given Starbucks—recognize my being alongside, there is no disruption in a beautiful conjunction:

Gathering in this place at this time for living.


[i] Trailer for Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom. 2017. Jeff Goldblum, reprising his role as mathematician Ian Maxwell in the blockbuster franchise, reiterates to a Congressional committee his dire warnings delivered to John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) in the original 1993 Spielberg film adapted from John Crichton’s novel. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vn9mMeWcgoM&feature=youtu.be Accessed 15 Dec 2017.

[ii] I was one of the worst sinners in this regard; Prof. Kaplan of course recognized the problem and did his best to get us back in sync.

[iii] I recognize there are anomalies like Coco the Gorilla, but in a sense these singular primate examples might be the proverbial exceptions that prove the rule: irregularities that shine light on the regular way of things. 

[iv] …fremde Leib… “strange life,” “alien life.” Sometimes, Dorian Cairns translations are bit too technical. 

[v] …wirklich als Leib… “really as life.”

[vi] While one of us would go on to become an avid hunter in adulthood, and two of us would become nurses, none of us grow up to be biologists. 

[vii] The two terms are etymologically connected. https://www.etymonline.com/word/cruel Accessed 08 Dec 2017.

[viii] Emphasis in the original. 

[ix] Emphasis in original text.

Works Cited

Derrida, Jacques. 2008. The Animal that therefore I am. Ed. Marie-Louise Mallet; Trans. David Wills. New York: Fordham University Press. 

Heidegger, Martin. 1995. The Fundamental concepts of metaphysics: World, finitude, solitude. Trans. William McNeill and Nicholas Walker. Bloomington, IN: Indiana Univ Press.  

__________. 2001. “Building Dwelling Thinking.” Poetry Language Thought. Trans. Albert Hofstadter. New York: HarperCollins, 143-59. 

Husserl, Edmund. 1960. Cartesian Meditations: An Introduction to Phenomenology. Trans. Dorian Cairns. The Hague: F. Nijhof Publishers.

__________. 1989. Ideas pertaining to a pure phenomenology and to phenomenological philosophySecond Book: Studies in the phenomenology of constitution. Trans. Richard Rojcewicz and André Schuwer. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers. 

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