Feeling Fishy

Listening as Response

HUMN 4008

Uncanny Animals

Salmon swimming upstream
Ella Taylor

In queer and feminist theory, concepts of embodiment and affect are often used to understand how certain bodies are marginalized, and to challenge the power structures that impose such marginalization. Judith Butler, for example, mobilizes grief as a tool for social change. For Butler, in the act of grieving, we are undone by others and are therefore forced to consider our interdependence on one another. Although Butler does not specifically consider what it would mean to grieve more-than-human animals, her mobilization of embodied affect opens a generative intersection between queer theory and animal studies. When describing Butler's work on grief in relation to animals, Stephanie Jenkins writes, “our ability to be responsive to others, a prerequisite for responsibility, is found in conditioned, bodily response" (508). In looking at embodied affect as response, we may begin to regard the body of the animal-other and simultaneously recognize our own bodies in the process. This essay looks at how listening can become—like Butler’s grieving—a strategy to trouble the EuroAmerican division between human and non-human animals. Working at the level of “perception and the senses'” (Jenkins 509), embodied listening offers the possibility of relations between human and nonhuman animals that is not predicated on language, but rather a respect for the incommensurability of the life of the other. Together, Metis scholar Dr Zoe Todd’s freshwater fish philosophy, and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s story of the Nishnaabeg and the Hoof Clan, point to how relations built on this form of listening create the grounds for responsibility. 

Working specifically with the Lake Winnipeg Watershed, Dr Zoe Todd suggests that we can use the way that fish listen to their environments as a model for inter-species responsibility. According to Todd, hearing for fish is both auditory and bodily as their lateral line (a sensory system running along the bodies of fish) allows them to respond to the relative movements between their bodies and the surrounding water and other fish (Modgans 66). In Todd’s research, it is through this careful listening and attunement to the environment that settlers may begin to recognize plural Indigenous sovereignties across Turtle Island. In relation to animal studies, this form of listening offers the potential for humans to become “audiences to conversations in a language not our own” (Kimmerer, 48). That is to say, it is through listening to the bodies of others via our own bodily functions that we are able to enter into a space of multiple modes of existence that would otherwise not be recognizable within the EuroAmerican presupposition of language. This long held presupposition is rooted in René Descartes’ distinction between response and reaction wherein he affords humans the ability to respond through symbolic language as evidence of consciousness and relegates non-human animals to the realm of machines or “natural automata” (Descartes 277) that can only react to external stimuli.

The form of fishy listening that Todd explores moves beyond Descartes’ rigid binary finding potential for inter-species responsibility among slimy scales and swimming bodies. This potential to build relationships of responsibility can be observed in Leanne BetaSamosake Simpson’s telling of the story of the Nishnaabeg and the Deer in the book As We Have Always Done. Simpson recounts how “the Hoof Clan had left their territory because the Nishnaabeg were no longer honoring them. They had been wasting their meat and not treating their bodies with the proper reverence” (60). In response, the Nishnaabeg sent a party of diplomats, spiritual people, and mediators to listen to the Hoof Clan. After several days of listening, Simpson describes how “all the parties thought about what they could give up to restore the relationship [and] the Nishnaabeg agreed to honor and respect the lives and beings of the Hoof Clan, in life and in death” (60). Embodied listening begins in this story when the Nishnaabeg sense the withdrawal of the Hoof Clan, when the hunters returned with no meat and when the hoofed tracks were missing in the snow. We can identify the responsibility of the Nishnaabeg to the Hoof Clan in their bodily responses: in the runners that were sent to look for the Hoof Clan, and in the extended listening of the diplomats during the process of negotiation. For Simpson, this form of listening constitutes an expression of Nishnaabeg Internationalism built on the recognition and respect of the different ways in which the deer experience and make meaning of the world (Simpson 61). To be responsible in this story, we see the Nishnaabeg listening as a way of making themselves open to response. In this sense, embodied listening is not meant to mimic the feelings of the other, but, as Vinciane Despret writes when describing empathy, it is to “create a relationship that will make beings of different species becoming corresponding, not to, but with each other” (70). Within the context of human and non-human animal relations, I posit Despret’s concept of corresponding—of being open to response—as the foundation for responsibility, where, in the moment of being with (produced through embodied listening), the plurality of the world around us is made audible.

And yet, I can sympathize with the historic resistance to such correspondence. The static natural world depicted in EuroAmerican scientific observation leaves no room for the ‘as ifs’ of interspecies embodied communication⁠—and in doing so maintains human exceptionalism. In the conclusion of her book, When Species Meet, Donna Haraway describes the “risky obligation of curiosity” that exists among companion species and that ultimately inspires the growth of responsibility (287). Letting the curiosity of our senses drive meaning is risky and makes us vulnerable; it implies letting go of language—the characteristic used to presuppose human’s domination over nature. But within the vulnerability of admitting to one’s body and keeping an ear—or “fingery eye” (Haraway 287)—out for the response of the other, our ability to correspond with non-human animals is made possible. 

Locally, the fish of the Wonscotonach (Don) River provide a site for imagining this correspondence. Atlantic Salmon, the native species of salmon to the river, are considered indicator species as their health directly reflects the health of the ecosystem they inhabit. Today, as a result of the intense development of this area however, the Wonscotonash River has become too polluted for the Atlantic salmon to survive. Instead, the river is artificially stocked with Pacific salmon, which despite being a more pollution resistant species, are still unable to naturally spawn in the river. What does it mean to listen to the fishes' long, scaly lateral lines, to move or respond in relation to the fish through our own embodied listening? Being open to response in this case means feeling the absence of the Atlantic salmon and recognizing the uninhabitable nature of their environment—which we must remember is also our own. Without a fishy listening to the body, the impact of their absence only becomes apparent when the river floods due to the eroded shores, and the Don Valley Parkway becomes submerged under water. When we make ourselves open to the other, we situate their body in relation to our own, not on a plane of blind equivocation, but rather “toward a broader space necessarily multiple” (LaBelle 245).

Altogether, in recognizing embodied listening as response, we can reimagine how interspecies correspondence and responsibility can be constructed or rather co-constructed. As the relations between the Hoof Clan and the Nishnaabeg demonstrate in Simpson’s story, making ourselves open to the response of the other (a prerequisite of responsibility), requires listening through our own bodies to the bodies of the other. This form of listening offers the opportunity to reconceptualize the relationship of humans and non-human animals. Whether it be the Atlantic Salmon missing from the Wonscotonach river, or the animals whose lives are relegated to human consumption, there exists a possibility of correspondence beyond human language, we need only to listen.

Ella Taylor

Ella Taylor is a curator, writer and artist based in the traditional territories of the Haudenosaunee, Anishinaabe, Wendat, and the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nations in Tkaronto. Ella’s work engages with pedagogies of place, queer theory, and community-based projects. Ella draws on research-creation methodologies as they plant their feet in the dirt of community gardens, swim with the numerous artistic practices centered around the Wonscotonach (Don) River and get lost in the curiosities of the Leslie Spit. Ella is currently completing a year-long curatorial residency with WIA projects in the Window Box Gallery at Gallery1313. In 2023, Ella completed their BFA in Criticism and Curatorial Practice with a minor in Art and Social Change at OCAD University.

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