VIDEO. What do animal stories tell us? Meeting with the philosopher Vinciane Despret

Autobiography of an octopus and other tales of anticipation (South Acts) * a fiction stuffed with science, an invention that welcomes reality with a lot of humor. She unveils a dizzying and mischievous reflection on the creative freedom of living beings and on the need to imagine other ways of reading animal language. And leaves to the imagination the role of approaching the burning question of the extinction of the species. Meeting with a passionate woman who rejoices in the beauty of the world and generously pays tribute to the scientists and philosophers who accompany her journey.

Sciences and the Future: Your fiction immerses us in the projects of strange therolinguists, theroarchitectes, and followers of cosmophonics and paralinguistics. Who are they ?

Vinciane Despret: I forged them from a brilliant invention! That of the science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin, who in 1974 had imagined a research association on the literary creations of animals, and had created the term “therolinguists” by using the root thero, for wild. I first hypothesized that at the end of IIIe Millennia of researchers followed in the footsteps of this association and ended up adopting the name, then I confronted them with a schism. The rupture has its origin in a fundamental question: why limit their investigations to only the visible and the audible manifestations? This excessively anthropocentric framework too limited the field of exploration of animal language, and the quarrel led some of them to embrace disciplines open to other signals, cosmophonics and paralinguistics.

Spiders are sensitive to the slightest vibration that reaches their web. © BERTRAND BODIN / ONLYFRANCE.FR/AFP

Indeed your point is that animals have things to tell us, but that it is necessary revolutionize our modes of perception in order to understand them …

And respect them! This is the whole question. The example treated in my first account introduces this idea. An investigation by therolinguists leads to a disturbing discovery: certain arachnologists using a tuning fork to communicate with spiders find themselves victims of tinnitus: a sort of psychic zoonosis. Scientists, called at that time psycho-patho-geologists, realize that this tinnitus strongly resembles a phenomenon known by musicians who make improvisation, which triggers the activation of neural circuits normally activated by conversation. and communication. This would mean that the spiders express the intention to communicate. These tests in tune would have led them to believe that we could converse in the same mode as them.

But why do they induce a harmful pathology in those who approach them in this way?

Because it’s been ages that we interfere with the life of animals! If it’s okay to interfere, you have to ask yourself how you do it. By triggering tinnitus in those, well-intentioned in spite of everything, who “harass” them with excess waves, they declare that they agree to share this communicational space a little, without however tolerating that everyone comes to cram into it. in a barbaric and cacophonous way! To love is to respect the right distance.

The Wombat has the particularity of producing square faeces. Bjorn Christian Torrissen CC BY SA and JJ Harrison CC BY SA

By mixing science and fiction you show us, on the subject of the wombat, that this small rodent with cubic faeces, would have a sense of the sacred: you push the plug far, right?

(Laughter!) I feed my writing a lot of scientific facts, and this news tries to show that my inventions are finally close to reality. Theroarchitectes rack their brains in the face of a strange riddle: it seems that the fecal walls erected by the wombats all follow a precise orientation. It could be territorial marking, because after all, animals send messages through fecal matter. But the walls of these creatures question differently: does not animal architecture represent, like that of humans, the expression of a story? These recurrently oriented walls are reminiscent of cairns, and in this case, they serve a religious function. They could address themselves to invisible entities whose existence rodents would have perceived, and constitute the elements of their own cosmology. This hypothesis gives animals a wonderful depth of existence.

You also affirm that each living being is guided by a creative impulse: how would you qualify it?

Behind this concept there is an intuition of the American philosopher William James, from which I am inspired: life works because there is a creative drive, and his quest is to extend it so that it is expressed in all forms. . In addition, another philosopher, Emanuele Coccia, enlightened me about a conception of ecology which is very interesting to me, according to which the traits of certain animals – for example the carnivorous or herbivorous trait of a certain beast – allow others to exist thanks to a cascade of interdependencies. This amounts to attributing an ontological power to the trait in itself: not only is each animal moved by a kind of passion for life, expressed in the first degree by the desire to reproduce, but this drive is oriented towards others. This prompted me to re-envision the creative drive in the sense of a network of interdependencies, understood in terms of joie de vivre, of invention, not as a well-oiled functional or mechanical system.

The philosopher Baptiste Morizot. © Actes Sud

Does this correspond to the reserve of freedom offered by the life of which you speak when quoting the philosopher Baptiste Morizot?

What a master stroke! Baptiste Morizot ** formulates there a very powerfully philosophical concept, which he unearthed in the great popularizer of the theories of evolution Stephen Jay Gould: exaptation. Once an organ, a function, has been selected – for example feathers, a wing, a behavior – it becomes available for diversions, subversions. This is the reserve of freedom. From one and the same behavior or function will flow a number of possible relationships with the world. A wing is nothing other than the creation of a new relationship with the world, the possibility for corvids to surf in the air! I realized that I was copying my narration on this reserve of freedom of the living, by diverting scientific knowledge towards reinterpretations. Where a wall of faeces becomes a cairn …

It looks like a game …

Exactly! The game makes the link between this form of exaptation, redefined by Morizot as a reserve of freedom, and the possibility of imagining fictional artistic creations. I like the philosophical definition according to which “the game is the device which emancipates things from their being”! For the child, a stick becomes a sword, a tree lying on the ground a horse … He thus frees the lying tree from its lying tree being, to indulge in the game of “it looks like …”. Through fiction, we use the reserve of freedom of our brain, our body, and diverted objects all at the same time.

Common octopus (Octopus vulgaris) photographed in the Mediterranean. © Jean Cassou / Biosphoto / AFP

Let’s talk about the octopus, the subject of your third story: you use his aphorisms to address the issue of species extinction.

My octopus also has a playful gesture, it diverts the use of its ink jets from their initial function – to delve into prey or predators – and uses them to write messages on pottery that therolinguists will have to interpret, with the help from a funny community called the Ulysses. These people have lived for several generations in symbiosis with octopuses, but alas, when a therolinguist visits their home, she discovers that they have almost disappeared for a very long time. There would remain some somewhere, but it would be absurd to want to live in symbiosis with beings who are no longer there … Who believed in the reincarnation of souls and no longer find enough bodies to invest! So how do you become spokespersons for the dead? The decryption of the octopus’ messages will offer him a clue to face the problem of extinction.

Will it make a positive note for humans?

I am not at all convinced that the conclusion of Ulysses is the right one! The interpretation of the octopus’ messages will allow the community to develop a response to their disappearance, and to conceive the hope of bringing them back one day. A pragmatic response: to start a conservation business. Until then, the Ulysses had considered too violent the choice to promote the reproduction in captivity of a few specimens before releasing them into the wild. It is a strong philosophical position, from a conservation point of view, to opt for non-intervention, and accept the probable disappearance of a species. How hard it is to concede that the world that we offer as an inheritance to future generations is not that welcoming… In the end, they will ignore their convictions because they believe that the octopus encourages them to do so. Are they wrong? What matters to me is that they have changed their minds. I’m just telling them good reasons to move from one position to another… Very fabulous reasons!

* Autobiography of an octopus and other tales of anticipation, Actes Sud, 160 pages, 19 €

** See our interview:

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