Habiter en oiseau

Habiter en oiseau
Vinciane Despret

Actes Sud, Arles, Fr, 2019
224 pp. 27 illus. Paper, €20.00
ISBN: 978-2-330-12673-5.

Reviewed by
Edith Doove
May 2020

Vinciane Despret’s latest book has not yet been translated into English, but it merits in my view an early review. In these days of crisis when reports state that birds everywhere have become more prevalent, or maybe rather more ‘audible’ through the reduction of traffic and industry, it seems more apt than ever to give them a platform. Habiter en oiseau could be brought in relation to Mundy’s Animal Musicalities that I reviewed earlier [1], but Despret’s book is more like a passionate manifest. Its title can either be translated as Bird Watching or more literally like Living as a Bird. The combination of both would not be bad, although Despret not literally urges us to live like birds. Instead she wants us to open up to other stories, to diversity, other perspectives.

Despret in that sense is very clearly part of a group of scientists that exactly urge for the need of new storytelling, such as Donna Haraway, but certainly also Bruno Latour and Isabelle Stengers, with all three of whom Despret regularly collaborates. It should therefore not be surprising that she dedicates her book to them and frequently makes reference to their writing and thinking. [2]

Habiter en oiseau is in all respects a very sensitive book. To start with, it’s very specifically composed in two so-called accords or agreements that each consist of several chapters and counterpoints. Accord can of course also be interpreted as harmony, and Despret here in particular plays with that notion and that of an overall musical composition. In the first accord it is a blackbird that she hears through her open window that starts everything off. In her journey to understand this blackbird’s singing Despret takes us through a good century of bird study and especially the notion of territory. And it’s exactly the unravelling of the notion of territory or the way it has been and very often still is seen, that is the most important quality of the book. Along the way Despret, in her characteristic style of writing, can be hugely irritated about certain opinions, sometimes a bit unfair in my opinion as in the case of Michel Serres where she maybe becomes a bit too overprotective of animals. In the second accord she’s almost ready to ditch Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus because of its relentless criticism of animal lovers. She initially feels that animals are taken hostage in a problem that isn’t theirs by Deleuze and Guattari but, then, thanks to Isabelle Stengers perseveres in her rereading and ultimately turns their study of territory into one of her most important sources of inspiration. Especially their notion of territorialisation and deterritorialisation, “increasing your territory by deterritorialisation”, becomes crucial.

Just as in her book What Would Animals Say If We Asked the Right Questions (2016), Despret reverses the roles and questions the researchers and their techniques more than the birds. Where the research into territory was for a long time viewed from the perspective of aggression and survival in which the ‘removal’ of birds was common practice in order to test hypotheses, Despret poses in a Karen Barad kind of way the question "what it is that we decide to make remarkable in what we observe?" In her quest to open our imagination to other ways of thinking and breaking with certain routines, it is remarkable that it is mainly female researchers that have discovered that female birds have a lot more to say in the choice of territory than thus far was assumed and that territories turn out to be flexible, not static, with a very specific function of birdsong that for a long time has been overlooked. Referring to Deleuze and Guattari and their argument that “there is a territory when there’s an expressivity of rhythm” [3] as well as Haraway’s notion of the Phonocene as an alternative phrase for the Anthropocene, Despret discovers the territory (of birds) as theatre and place of expression. Fights turn out to be not so much manifestations of aggression but rather tools for a better understanding in a community, ways for better living together. In short, as Despret states towards the end, we need to stop, listen and listen some more. To diversity and different ways of expression. And, I would add, stop questioning whether interspecies animals invent and communicate in the first-place – of course they do, why shouldn’t they? As Despret demonstrates, the questions should be about the how.

Notes [1] Rachel Mundy, Animal Musicalities – Birds, Beasts, and Evolutionary Listening, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, CT, 2018. For my review see

https://www.leonardo.info/review/2019/06/review-of-animal-musicalities-birds-beasts-and-evolutionary-listening.

[2] Despret published Women Who Make a Fuss – The Unfaithful Daughters of Virginia Woolf (2014) with Isabelle Stengers and will contribute a chapter on ‘Inhabiting the Phonocene with birds’ in the upcoming book Critical Zones – The Science and Politics of Landing on Earth, edited by Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel (MIT Press, October 2020).

[3] I have chosen here on purpose a more literal translation than Brian Massuni’s “There’s a territory when the rhythm has expressiveness.”