- Of Birds and Hands
Tom Tyler's Ciferae: A Bestiary in Five Fingers is playful philosophy with a serious purpose. One imagines from his book's pragmaticist arguments that Tyler would dispute that there is any other meaningful kind. It joins that now rapidly growing field of animal studies which is a part of thinking beyond the human-centred which Cary Wolfe's Posthumanities series for the University of Minnesota Press has done so much to support. In hanging his bestiary from five fingers, Tyler means to release both our arguments and our nonhuman animal others from enslavement (from 'mancipium, literally "taken by hand"' to the emancipation of 'manumissus, "released from the hand"' (p264)) to the anthropocentric view which makes man the measure of all things. That the human animal's measure is both extraordinary and a source of much pain must form a later part of the argument upon which animal studies (and posthumanism generally) has embarked.
Tyler's book is a meditation on anthropomorphism, realist universalism, nominalism (i.e. human fictive categories) and pragmatism. Many have argued that our dexterous human hand is intimately tied to our dexterous human mind: a pragmatic and evolutionary version of mind as doing and becoming which Tyler's arguments will broadly support; as with anyone taking ecology, evolution and our biological confraternity with other species seriously, Tyler is out to argue against the nominalist idea that reality is an unknowable thing in itself which is clothed in human fictions.
The book is hung from the human hand, and from the (as some will know) vexed question of whether or not nonhuman animals have something sufficiently like it. Noting Protagoras's opposition to realism (i.e. the truth of mind-independent universal categories) and his claim that 'Man is the measure of all things' (p2), Tyler opens with the semiotics of indexes, the pointing of first fingers, and the cipher status of animals in philosophical texts. Derived from the Sanskrit sunya (meaning 'empty'), ciphers are (empty) placeholders for 'nothing' and then, eventually, secret codes for what must not be spoken directly. As Tyler notes, 'Although all manner of entities are fair game for cipherous appropriation, philosophers have been especially keen on animals' (p23). Ciferae are thus both 'meaningless' placeholders - mathematical zeros, cifers - and also wild animal (ferae) codes which philosophers think to domesticate in the service of their arguments, but which, Tyler will argue, may run riot with uncontrollable meanings: 'This wild side [End Page 188] endures in even the most domesticated beasts, and we will find that whenever we meet a cipher, there is every chance that all the careful work undertaken for their master has already begun to come undone. These animals are not content to remain mere ciphers and demand to be treated otherwise' (p29).
Although Anglophone cultures (especially the scientific and worldly bits) are generally inclined to believe that the word 'metaphor' always has a silent 'only', 'just' or 'mere' before it, Tyler wants us to take both the word and its ramifications seriously. Of course, this means engaging with that arch nominalist finger-poker Friedrich Nietzsche and all his marching armies of metaphors, metonyms and anthropomorphisms. There is a long history, going back to F.W. Schelling at least, of understanding metaphor not as illusion, but as world-disclosing. Although Jakob von Uexküll, who might have served as an interesting counterpoint to Nietzsche here, doesn't appear in the index, Tyler understands that animals have worlds, and reminds us that Nietzsche thought so too. One imagines that Nietzsche's apparent nominalism must have been intended as something of a cattle-prod for hapless human animals overwhelmed by false humility: egotism out of its depth, as Hugh Kingsmill once said. Why, after all, if animals have access to worlds (good enough for them to survive, reproduce and thus evolve - Boltzmann's evolutionary pragmatism is invoked here contra Kant and idealism - see particularly chapter 4: Digito Minimo) why should human animals be so denied? Indeed, the truth of evolution biological and...