Blasphemy, Not Apostasy | (Human)DolphinNets

Below is the text for the talk I’m giving as part of the Reconsidering John C. Lilly symposium that takes place online on April 2, 2022. I’m hoping to expand on the distinction between a behaviorialist and an ethological approach to thinking through (human)dolphinNets when I turn the talk into a book chapter in the coming months.


Over the last month as I have been preparing to talk with you today about John C. Lilly, I kept asking myself: how did I get here? How did I end up trying to work through dolphin communication (of all the things) and how it involves the ad hoc creation of a water/flesh/sound-based network? My own trajectory as someone who was first heavily involved in the world of experimental poetry, then materialist media studies, and now what you might call network archaeology isn’t particularly interesting except that I hope the orthogonal approach I bring to Lilly and his dolphins helps expand our sense of what networks are and what they could be.

I’m going to begin, then, with what’s by now a fairly uncontroversial assertion in media studies: that the human body is a medium that shapes, creates, circulates, and even communicates within and beyond the boundaries of skin.

At the same time as John C. Lilly’s moved from what I see as a behaviorialist approach to an ethological approach to dolphin communication in the late 1960s, Canadian sound poets (many of whom were living alongside and socializing with Marshall McLuhan) returned to the early 20th century avant garde practice of asemic gurgling, hissing, and howling to show us how the human body is itself a medium. This cluster of 20th century artists and writers have so subtly infiltrated our thinking that it’s no longer particularly controversial of me to point out examples of short-distance communication networks that revolve almost solely around the medium of the human body: whistles, semaphore, sign language, dance, finger tapping, and finger snapping.

However, for all of its wildness, experimental poetry has long been more interested in challenging what counts as meaning and medium for humans than in challenging the anthropocentrism embedded in ideas about meaning and medium. This lingering anthropocentrism might explain why their howling, spitting, gurgling, and hissing was never as unsettling to the public imagination as Lilly’s later, Ketamine-induced, seemingly far-out musings about what he called “manDolphin” communication networks. These were musings that really did try to reduce so-called Man (my favorite Kittler sneer) to the status of an animal, equal and sometimes even inferior to whales and dolphins. However, as I suggested a few minutes ago, Lilly’s 1950s and early 1960s work on dolphin communication seemed to be heavily influenced by a behavioralist approach to studying dolphins using technologies designed by and for humans (such as transmitters, receivers, and microphones).  

And even though the purpose was in part to solve how to communicate with alien or extraterrestrial life, the approach was still normative enough for the time (especially in the context of the world of first order cybernetics) that it wasn’t particularly eyebrow-raising. But by the time he publishes Mind of the Dolphin in 1967, a year before he loses his government funding and has to close the Cetacea Research Institute, the approach shifts to something like an ethological approach. Rather than approaching nonhuman animals as the means to human ends or evaluating animal bodies “according to their innate, morphological essences,” in the words of Jussi Parikka, an ethological approach (especially one that runs through Spinoza, Uexkull, and Deleuze) approaches nonhuman animals as “expressions of certain movements, sensations, and interactions with their environments” or as “assemblages” that are “compositions, affects, and passages in a state of becoming.” Primatologist Frans De Waal puts it even more simply when he writes that ethology is an attempt to “meet the animal on its own terms” (257) and often involves a recognition of similarities and fundamental differences across species.

You can see this ethological approach begin to emerge in Lilly’s work when he writes in Mind of the Dolphin that whereas “our communication is essentially airborne”, “the dolphin originates his communication inside his own head in air passages; the sound is transmitted through his flesh into the sea and becomes waterborne” (65). By 1978, these musings on how different animal bodies act as different sorts of communication media shift to musings about the ways in which dolphins transmit and receive communications over long distances and how they are instances of “significant otherness” (Haraway, The Companion Species Manifesto). As he writes in Communication Between Man and Dolphin, “Opening one’s eyes to the possibilities of nonhuman communications with immensely complex and ancient histories and ethics on this planet requires one to shed the blinding beliefs inherited from the past.”

By 1988, he turns even more explicitly to the issue of networks, not just communication and not just media, and the fact that humans should attempt to learn from nonhuman animal networks. In his autobiography The Scientist he retroactively describes (in the third person) a formative experience he had with Ketamine while in an isolation tank in the 1970s; he writes that he “began to see the necessity…for tuning in on the networks of communication in the galaxy. He realized that Man would have to be extremely careful in choosing the proper networks. It would be necessary to find those which were furthering the evolution of life as man knew it…” And while he worries about the influence of “other solid-state forms elsewhere in the galaxy” on earth-based networks of information, ultimately he points to the “networks of communication between the whales and dolphins” as models for humans. If it’s possible to bracket out his belief that whales and dolphions had learned to act as “repeater stations for the biologically oriented networks of extraterrestrial information” (154), embedded in this perspective is an approach that neither attempts to center everything around the human nor naievely tries to escape from the perspective of the human altogether but instead recognizes that humans are coextensive with other species.

Writing as if gripped for a moment with a media archaeological investment in alternative futures derived from alternative approaches to the past and present, he writes, “Alternative futures for Man…need an opening of his communication systems, currently devoted exclusively to interhuman problems, to include the other capable species in his communication. Man needs a new humility…” (205)    

While sound poets and media studies gurus helped pave the way for us to see bodies as networks, Lilly not only paved the way to viewing communication between human and nonhuman animals as a kind of network but eventually to seeing networks themselves as species-specific. Lilly isn’t solely responsible for this but it’s undeniable that over the last several decades we’ve become much more comfortable with the idea of species-specific networks as it’s no longer uncommon for even the most casual gardener, botanist, arborist, or horticulturist to express enthusiasm for tree networks, fungal networks, or plant networks.

Image of the “wood wide web” from “What lies beneath – scientists map the global wood wide web

There are clusters of thinkers in animal studies, STS, and of course zoosemiotics and animal behavioralism whose work assumes that nonhuman animals communicate and proceeds to study how and what is being communicated. But with the exception of a few of my favorite thinkers who happen to be present here today, materialist media studies has remained largely blind to or completely disinterested in the how of nonhuman animal communication. I’m guessing this is probably because of either a persistent anthropocentrism or, as Frans de Waal calls it, a persistent anthopodenialism–a term he coinedfor the a priori rejection of shared characteristics between humans and animals when in fact they may exist. Anthropodenial is a blindness to the human-like characteristics of animals, or the animal-like characteristics of ourselves.” (258) The goal in trying to understand nonhuman animals (and by extension their networks) is not merely to project human experiences on to them but rather to, in De Waal’s words, “understand animals based on what we know about their Umwelt–a German term introduced by Jakob Von Uexküll for the environment as perceived by the animal.” (265) Insofar as Lilly’s dolphin nets are part of this attempt to think outside the human while recognizing the near-impossibility of the endeavor, we can put him squarely in a lineage of thinkers that, again, runs from Spinoza through Uexküll and Deleuze but also even his contemporary Gregory Bateson. We can even bring Lilly and this line of thinking more into materialist media studies as a way to more deeply enrich our thinking about the limits and possibilities of networks.

For the past six years I have been collecting examples of “other networks”  or networks that preceded the internet or that exist outside of the internet. I’ve noticed that the closer any given “other” network is to the present moment, the more it stands as a kind of blasphemous gesture to “the” internet. As Jenny Hval puts it in her 2020 novel Girls Against God, clearly echoing Donna Haraway’s 1980s assertions about the importance of blasphemy over apostasy in the “Cyborg Manifesto”: “Blasphemy protects us against the moral fables with grew up with; blasphemy renounces anything that requires our submission. It shows us a crack in this reality, through which we can pass into another, more open meeting place.” Which is to say that the point to thinking about the significant otherness of nonhuman animals along with plants, bacteria, or viruses is not simply because we have the luxury to entertain any idea we like and not simply because we can use this revelation to somehow improve human communication networks. But rather the point is to engage in the productive, faith-ful practice of thinking and imagining otherwise.

Given the state of the contemporary, all-encompassing, practically invisible, surveillance- and profit-driven internet; and given that different network structures afford different sets of relations, there’s no better time to begin thinking more expansively about what constitutes an alternative network. More, as we try to imagine different network-mediated relationships than the ones we currently have, what and how can we learn from networks such as those formed by the water-mediated clicks and whistles generated by dolphins? In this context, there is no such thing as a packet, a node, or a network topology. Instead, nonhuman networks make it clear that most networks aren’t even stable entities that can be captured as diagrams.

Rather, nonhuman animals show us that networks can be so complex and involve so many overlapping processes and assemblages of any combination of living and nonliving, human and nonhuman that they might even be non representable. Instead, to understand these nonhuman networks we might have to turn to the chortles, snorts, and howls of sound poets or perhaps to speculative, impossible-to-realize projects like Ant Farms’ “Dolphin Embassy” which proposed this “RV John Lilly” that would give humans and dolphins a “half-wet, half-dry network of labs and living rooms for interspecies cohabitation,” communication, and comprehension.

Ant Farm’s never-realized “Dolphin Embassy” (1974)