E-Co-Affectivity: Exploring Pathos at Life’s Material Interfaces

E-Co-Affectivity: Exploring Pathos at Life’s Material Interfaces
Marjolein Oele

SUNY Press, Albany, NY, 2020
268 pp. Trade, $95.00
ISBN: 978-1438478616.

Reviewed by
Gregory Tague
December 2020

In her absorbing book, E-Co-Affectivity, philosopher Marjolein Oele explores how humans, plants, animals, and the soil can relate as a co-affective community. For anyone interested in seeing how interdisciplinary studies can be applied, I highly recommend this philosophically creative and intellectually challenging book, which could be valuable not only for philosophers but also for environmentalists and those across animal studies fields. Oele touches on biological, medical, and evolutionary elements throughout her prolonged philosophical analysis. The writing is clear and poetic, so along with the thoughtful meditations it’s the kind of book that sharpens, as it has for me, a mental and visceral awakening to the material world. My review can give only a glimpse of the academic sophistication of this book, and I hope not to over simplify some of the philosophically layered textures.

The material factors of life, organic and inorganic, are “always emerging” (p. 2) in an onto-genesis via materiality created through affective states that recall the past and look to the future. Oele’s example is human skin, but she also includes soil. In this regard Oele does not see earth as a home ground as might Heidegger. Rather, dirt cells are rife with teeming, felt interfaces of living organisms and non-living particles, large and small, here and now, there and past. This means that pathos-induced affectivity from forms of material life is a participatory exchange process and not simply a static effect, says Oele. Beyond merely taking in affects there is a release of thought, emotion, and perhaps action. There is literal and figurative movement in life that includes matter and mind, affective and often ecological states of being. To distinguish herself from Heidegger, Oele is more concerned with communal becoming (p. 6) and not just individual being-in-the world. The ethics implied in this stance should be apparent: responsibly permitting all life forms the opportunity of existence in their respective communities and inclusive pathos with ecological contexts of the nonhuman. The so-called examined life should include a consideration of many carbon based life forms and even other inorganic elements. In addition to the ethical, clearly there are political dimensions to ecologically shared affectivity through, for instance, animal rights, biodiversity conservation, and climate change.

In Chapter 1, Oele talks about the “constant ontogenesis” of plants since they are all around us in earth’s biomass and yet figuratively invisible to our sight and literally invisible in their complex root systems (p. 18). Seemingly passive, plants are quite adaptively active, communicating with their different parts and with other plants. They are rooted, but not; they are still, but not; they are situated, but not; they are becoming in the world. There’s no strict division, however, of passivity/activity for plants but what Oele refers to as the middle voice, a non-divisive alternative among the localities of roots and leaves. There is no true center in a plant, but that’s meant positively by virtue of its flexible transitivity in an environment of relations. Plants speak through photosynthesis, light and water absorption, and interactions where they feed themselves in affective processes of unity and not the hard duality of subject/object. Plants have no stomachs and feed in a distributive method as if there are multiple selves spread across deep soil, topsoil, and air in a coordinated and cooperative system of continual, unmitigated growth regenerating various parts. From this admixture we see that plants can epigenetically transmit as heritable material a sense of the bounty, or not, of their place in communities. Likewise, plants are known to graft naturally. Are plants enabled with a memory in response to environmental stress? Oele’s point is that plants occupy a middle space or mid-voice between life and death where they are ever growing without temporal fixity while testing spatial limits. Plants exemplify an eco-affective response to their environs.

In Chapter 2, Oele spends time talking about birds, specifically the tactility of their feathers. Concerning Aristotle’s aisthēsis (loosely, sense perception) she’s more to Heidegger; the emphasis is not just passive perceiving but active eco-psychology about one’s changing place or becoming in a world. The external environment affects us and other “animals” in a synergistic process of external, physical perception and internal, emergent sensation. This means that aisthēsis is neither in the subject nor the world but “indebted to both” (p. 59) in an exchange, with touch (of tongue, beak, paw, or skin) as the primary sense experience evident across bodies in the animal world. Body in the world is a fluid transaction of sensation, movement, being, and becoming. There are different types of feathers on any one bird, some as fine as hair, others made of keratin, where some feathers are for sensation whereas others help contour flight. Some feathers are highly sensitive and connect to other feathers and the bird’s flesh, mediating bodily experience. Some types of feathers are an “extension” of the bird’s skin into tactile physical space. Oele’s point, apparent in the example of the bird/feathers, is that touch is not localized and so aisthēsis is not simply “direct contact” (p. 66) but affectively creative between space/place and animal/other. Oele goes on to discuss how damage to feathers, from environmental stress or trauma, could be mediated by some birds as a dynamic ability to control their “affective space” (p. 72). Furthermore, social birds preen the feathers of others, broadening their affective area by keeping those in the community healthy and clean. If birds keep another individual tick free, that’s good for the group, what Aristotle would call, Oele says, synaisthanesthai or the affective behavior of “sensing-together” (p. 76).

Oele questions, in Chapter 3, prevailing language that pictures the placenta as unimportant afterbirth or as something ancillary to the fetus-mother interaction. The placenta, in fact, generates mother-child affectivity. Oele argues that the placenta is not necessarily a static boundary but a permeable borderline and place for the creation of selves: mother and child. Just as she spoke of the middle voice of plants, here the active placenta represents the metaphor of in-between self and other, past and future. This chapter reflects Oele’s medical training and how in her early career she was charged with inspecting afterbirth placentas for abnormalities. This is where the philosopher has unequivocal hands-on experience with her subject. The placenta, in effect, energizes growth of mothering and of child. In this part of her book, Oele relies on a subverted reading of Plato more than Aristotle, summoning the notion of placenta as polis, binding others, especially youth, in healthful community. Contrary to Plato’s static, wise guardians, Oele places faith in the wisdom of the dynamic flesh. The placenta generates existence over Plato’s forms. Oele suggests that neither placenta nor embryo early on should be given primacy over the other. Referencing Plato, the placenta becomes a “pregnant city” (p. 91) with the difference of sharing material existence by creating place (p. 93) and not simply provoking the copying of ideas. Indeed, the placenta is a shared home space for baby and mother, affecting them both in physiological, immunological, psychological, and other biochemical ways, what Oele calls “auto-affection” (p. 100) for the mother. Though focused on the human, clearly this idea applies, in my estimation, to all mammals.

Building from mid-voiced plants, bird feather sensation, and placental affectivity, in Chapter 4 Oele examines the affective interface of human skin, which is not merely “surface” but the “mooring of our existence” or the site of the “inside’s exterior” (p. 108). We are not prisoners of our skins; rather, skin extends to others and other places, emerging outward from within. Skin is a necessary point of contact with another, from birth onward. While there are skin layers, they don’t separate but participate with each other creating the plastic boundary (knowingly and feelingly working with the brain) from the inside out. Skin is “open to the world” (p. 117) through touch, though from an affective perspective that relationship is not without risk, Oele intimates. Skin is part of one’s historical identity with all its telltale markings, some of which are natural, acquired through age, or manifestations of injury or cultural infiltration. Oele contemplates the epidermal from many angles. Skin is a horizon: ever changing it’s a link to the past but in its friability routinely points to our ultimate decrepitude and demise if we should live to advanced age. Skin is part of a cultural and political climate where touch and sensitivity are emotionally charged (e.g., fear and shame, she says), whether in a cultural movement or through effects of climate change. Skin colors, tones, and surfaces speak, in some ways, and are perceived prejudicially in other ways. This stilted perception is true even in the case of some cultures where the skin is almost completely concealed beneath a veil. While skin covers and protects, it’s also a source of vulnerability and affective differences. We see skin as smooth and beautiful, but it can also be rough and diseased. Skin responds to physical and emotional stimuli; it reacts and adapts. Skin, while plastic, can resist cultural, economic, or ideological change. Skin can flourish and suffer, but it’s shared across humanity and is, as Oele suggests, the ultimate connective tissue.

In Chapter 5, Oele is concerned with pulling together the previous chapters on affectivity to question how humans can create a community of affect with other inorganic and organic life forms, what she calls e-co-affectivity. Humans now more than ever need to heed and attend to the feelings of other creatures and places, to truly get beyond any Cartesian mastery over nature and embrace, as constituents, the self-regulating system of Gaia. Oele does not advocate, necessarily, individual action or witnessing but a co-affective network, evidenced in life’s connection from birth to death in the soil (p. 142). The new philosophical shift should turn to a participatory sharing with the earth. Is this politically possible? Oele, as in other chapters, continues her reliance on, reference to, and yet distance from Aristotle, among others like Heidegger and more contemporary philosophers including Donna J. Haraway. Unlike Haraway, in When Species Meet, for Oele e-co-affectivity is neither immediate nor local but persistent and global. In her final deliberation, Oele meditates via Plato on the porous spaces of air, water, or gases in soil. These spots are not isolated but mediators connected to and with other organic organisms and inorganic materials across a living threshold without barriers. In the soil there is incessant movement and becoming. We are rooted in and dependent upon the soil, so Oele suggests we need to create a new eco-affective alliance with it for the sake of earth’s sustainable future.

Overall, Marjolein Oele’s E-Co-Affectivity is a potent reminder of life’s fragility, despite survival mechanisms, and the need for interactive sustenance of physical, psychological, and emotional sensibility across species and organic life forms.