This week’s guest writer is Matthew Clements who is a PhD candidate at the fantastic London Consortium which gathers the very rich resources of the Architectural Association, Birkbeck College (University of London), the Institute of Contemporary Arts, Science Museum and TATE. In this essay, Apian Semantics, Matthew introduces us to his main field of research: biosemiotics via a discourse about bees’ language/dance articulating writings from Samuel Beckett, Karl von Frisch and Aristotle. The latter developed indeed a theory of ‘political animals’ but still suffers from a very anthropocentric point of view on bees’ semiotics. Although the symbolism that characterizes each form of language (there is probably nothing more symbolical than language itself) would tend to insist on the self-determinism of a species, Matthew opens the possibility of a contrary argument: language would be precisely what makes us express the non-contingent forces of the earth.
As a design parallel, I invite the readers of this text to revisit the Sadic Apiaries designed by Brian Buckner & Loukia Tsafoulia for Francois Roche’s studio at Columbia University in Fall 2010.
by Matthew Clements
Late in the second part of Samuel Beckett’s novel Jacques Moran’s thoughts turn back towards his bees. Having given up his pursuit of the eponymous Molloy, and on the verge of returning home, Moran confesses:
I wish to say that I often thought of my bees, more often than of my hens, and God knows I thought often of my hens. And I thought above all of their dance, for my bees danced oh not as men dance, to amuse themselves, but in a different way. I alone of all mankind knew this, to the best of my belief. I had investigated this phenomenon very fully. The dance was best to be observed among the bees returning to the hive, laden more or less with nectar, and it involved a great variety of figures and rhythms. These evolutions I finally interpreted as a system of signals by means of which incoming bees, satisfied or dissatisfied with their plunder, informed the outgoing bees in what direction to go, and in what not to go. But the outgoing bees danced too. It was no doubt their way of saying I understand, or, Don’t worry about me. But away from the hive, and busily at work, the bees did not dance. Here their watchword seemed to be, Every man for himself, assuming bees to be capable of such notions. (Samuel Beckett, Molloy: 162)
This moment marks an ongoing metamorphosis within Moran’s character, an evolution of his own. Having murdered a stranger, and lost track of his son, the cruel, priggish and, scornful Moran – fussing perversely over matters of routine, sanitation, and duty – has given way to another – a solitary man wracked with doubt, preoccupied by theological questions, and in thrall of a nature he knows he cannot comprehend. Through the process of this evolution, the beginning – Molloy’s beginning as writer and wanderer – is made to once again resonate in the end: the identity of each begins to blur and the twin protagonists converge, as if reciprocally narrating one another’s lives. Of course, this change is not so absolute or simple; potentially the later Moran already inhabits the earlier, even if initially he does not represent himself as such. A more pressing constant, affecting each, is the bodily existence which Moran – much like Molloy, Murphy, Watt, and the rest – must endure, its aches, pains, and urges. But for the reader, momentarily at least, a new kind of tenderness is introduced with reference to the bees: ‘And all during this long journey home, when I racked my mind for a little joy in store, the thought of my bees and their dance was the nearest thing to comfort.’ (Molloy: 163)
Eventually Moran will discover that, abandoned, his bees have died in his absence, their remains crumbling in his fingers, leaving no more than ‘A little dust of annulets and wings’ (Molloy: 169). ‘Yes, now I may make and end’ Moran decides. There is no redemption in the transformations undergone by Beckett’s characters, the reality of loss and degradation is as insurmountable as it is comic, but this is not to say that these voices do not find themselves in the world in different ways. It would be unfortunate, in interpreting Beckett’s characters, to make that error the consequences of which Moran wishes to spare his bees, that is to ascribe to them our own angers, fears, desires, and even bodies, for the sake of absolution, but this danger ought not to prevent someone from sharing their interests. Moran’s attention to bees is far from trivial. Though mistaken in imagining that he alone has discovered this phenomenon, Moran is right to identify their dance with a system of signals, and right too to surmise that the figures and rhythms of which it consists serve to provide directions to other members of the hive. In the interpretation of this dance, or rather in the recognition of its ultimate resistance to interpretation, lies a problem tangled deep in the ancient roots of modernity. What does it mean to possess a language?
Honey bees dance to inform fellow members of a hive of the location of a source of those materials vital to the sustenance of a colony. Publishing his ‘Über die “Sprache” der Bienen’ in 1923, it was in the first decades of the twentieth century that the ethologist Karl von Frisch began to make decisive steps towards decoding the foraging dance of bees. However, as von Frisch records in his Nobel Lecture, it was not until twenty years later (not long before Beckett began work on Molloy) that he appreciated another fundamental aspect of the dance. Von Frisch distinguished between two categories of dancing behaviour: the first, the round dance, invited fellow workers to explore the immediate vicinity of the hive, to gather resources close by; the second, the figure-of-eight tail-wagging dance, sent bees out greater distances, but more than this, its pace contained information about distance, and its orientation relative to the sun conveyed the direction of a food-source. Here then was evidence that, however limited, animals other than humans, invertebrates no less, made use of a symbolic system in order to communicate. The dance of bees may not be equivalent to a fully-articulate language, but it does serve to demonstrate that the ecological pressures of natural selection may generate intelligent social interaction, without the need for those substantial brains and nuanced vocalisations that human beings tend to hold dear.
In the years since von Frisch published his research, revelatios about the social habits of bees have continued to accumulate. In the 1990s Thomas D. Seely and Wolfgang Kirschner published papers providing evidence that a third category, the tremble dance, served to inhibit the urge of nearby workers to collect more nectar, signalling that the hive as a whole had accrued an excess of resources, and needed to dedicate more time to processing materials. Researchers now believe that both of the dances von Frisch categorised contain information about distance and direction, with the round dance being a truncated version of the waggle dance. Additionally the fervour with which dances are performed establishes the quality of whatever source a particular bee has tracked down. Testament to the enigmatic aura which continues to surround this topic, in 1997 a mathematician went so far as to postulate that bees might possess instinctive sensitivity to quantum phenomena, observing that the pattern of the bees’ dancing closely approximated a manifold used to represent the multi-dimensional activity of quarks. Though generating quite a lot of interest online, unsurprisingly no papers were published corroborating this likely unverifiable notion. It is true, however, to observe that to some extent the dancing of bees is influenced by the magnetic field of the earth, and in this respect at least responds to factors that would ordinarily remain undetected by human beings. As von Frisch recounts, again in his Noble lecture, slight yet consistent deviations in the flight-path of bees can be corrected by artificially screening out the effects of magnetism.
No doubt many more intriguing examples of research in this field could be cited, but, for now, instead of continuing to catalogue these cases it is worth reflecting on why the collective behaviour of bees continues to prove so fascinating. The answer to this question concerns not just the gestural communication employed by bees, but several other aspects of their behaviour, what, in our anthropomorphic way, we might identify as their architectural, economic, and, by implication, political activities. Again the presence of bees in cultural history is extensive, still, to begin to address this question it will serve my purpose to concentrate on the remarks of one author on this topic: Aristotle.
Long before von Frisch began his investigations it had been observed that bees must employ some system of communication to coordinate their collective behaviour. Whilst a food source located nearby a beehive could remain undiscovered for a prolonged period of time, once found, a more distant source would rapidly be visited by many different bees, suggesting that the message must be passed on somehow. Often attributed to Aristotle, this evidence is actually only indirectly implied in the Historia Animalium as part of a lengthy discussion of the habits of bees, containing a typical mixture of facts, fictions, and uncertainties, derived from apiculture as well as folklore (Aristotle: 627b). Yet Aristotle does make a singularly important reference to bees in another text, in what must be one of the most discussed passages in the history of philosophy.
In his Politics, having famously identified man as a zoōn politikon, Aristotle adds that human beings are necessarily more political than other gregarious animals, including, explicitly, bees. Occasionally this definition of the political is said to include herd animals, and indeed any creature that tends to congregate in groups, but this generalisation misses the point, particularly since bees are singled out as being in special need of separation from humans. In the Historia Animalium social creatures, in addition to being gregarious as opposed to solitary, are defined as sharing the same common object. Men, bees, wasps, ants, and cranes are thereby associated, since their behaviour is in principle devoted to the creation, preservation, and cultivation of a single communal construct, be it nest, hive, or city (Aristotle: 488a). Likewise, in the Politics, it is on the existence of a single complete community, the city-state or polis, that the sociality of human beings is founded. The echo of the ancient affinity between bees and humans is to be found in the vocabulary describing the many different chemicals involved in maintaining a hive and manufacturing honey. Along with bee-brood, beeswax, nectar, honeydew, and pollen, honeybees make use of propolis in the construction of their hives, a sticky resinous compound, extracted from trees and plants.
Aristotle’s claim that human beings are more political than other creatures rests on a second definition: anthropos zoon logon echon, man is that creature which possesses the rationality of language (Aristotle: 1253a). Crucially, the logos possessed by human beings, a word sometimes translated as speech, and sometimes as reason, is to be distinguished from mere voice. Voice, as in the capacity for expressing pain or other emotions, by crying, howling, barking etc., is of course viscerally demonstrated by many different animals, and in certain respects can be taken to epitomise that which Aristotle considered bestial (i.e. the inability to separate emotion and instinct from intelligent thought). Logos, by contrast, denotes a faculty for articulating distinctions. Through logos, not only are pleasure and pain opposed, but the just can be differentiated from the unjust, and the virtuous separated from the sinful, in such a way that, supposedly, the animal impulses of the individual can be subsumed beneath more abstract conceptualisations of a universal or ‘higher’ good.
In this sense, the human polis is not only divided once, in terms of those who do or do not belong within this domain, but twice, and as such countless more times, via the continuous valuation of those who are already its members. In fact, as itself a text, from the outset Aristotle’s Politics is predicated on the human capacity to make generalised distinctions. Without offering much in the way of justification, Aristotle can distinguish between the mastery of male citizens and the subservience of slaves, women, and animals, as if this hierarchy is self-evident and indisputable purely on the basis of having already been observed in the original formation of the polis. Through the logos of language the same teleological and effectively tautological account of natural origins is applied to the family and the state. Accordingly, the foresight and intelligence of a human and inherently masculine mind is opposed to the submission of a passive, feminine, and animal body. Versions of this distinction have survived right up until the present day, as has the equivalent of the Aristotelian claim that although, when perfected, the human is potentially the best of all animals, when isolated from the law and the jurisdiction of the nation state, humans are the most savage and unholy of all creatures, as if somehow more ‘animal’ than animals themselves.
With this account of the human and the political in mind, it is interesting to consider what Aristotle would have made of twentieth-century observations about the communication of bees. Admittedly, taken in an isolated sense, and on the basis of a comparison with human language, the answer is likely not very much. Although bees show signs of symbolic expression, the limitations of their vocabulary, and the fact that the significance of their dances depends on a direct figural relationship with that which it represents, dictates that these insects are incapable of making the kinds of generalised distinctions which Aristotle privileges. Bees cannot invent the equivalent of new words with the same sort of flexibility as human beings, nor can they narrate their own history and keep an archive of changes in their language, beyond that record which is already embedded in their DNA.
Yet, viewed from a different perspective, the eloquent dancing of bees does serve to undermine some of those prejudices epitomised by Aristotle’s take on the political. After Darwin, and hence understood in evolutionary terms, what proves profound is not just the sophisticated structure of honeybee communication as it currently stands, but the dynamic emergence of this system through a stochastic recursive process. Through gradually enhanced receptivity to initially unplanned and coincidental elements of their environment, along with a reciprocal intensification of particular patterns within the behaviour of bees, the round dance, the waggle dance, and the tremble dance must have been selected on the basis of a genetic advantage. As a means of flourishing, contingent and haphazard movements became weighted with exigency, moulded through incremental steps so as to chart and bear the legible trace of a colony’s local environment. The evolution of bee communication offers a striking example of ‘meaning’ – for lack of a better word – entering the world, without any precedent other than recurrent iterations of that constrained indeterminacy which underlies biological and ecological development. As such it provides a useful contrast to the teleological bias of Aristotle, in which the final end of things is determinately presupposed in their natural origins.
Taking an evolutionary perspective on the genealogy of bees also helps to cast doubt on the Aristotelian claim that language represents the self-evident source of man’s intellectual sovereignty. Why, in the first place, should we regard the subjective intentionality and inner-awareness associated with spoken language as the sole paradigm of intelligence? Arguably Aristotle is especially anxious to distinguish bees, because he realises that, superficially at least, they may appear more virtuous than human beings. Ostensibly bees act selflessly on behalf of the group, the hive, and their ‘queen’, without the troublesome tendency to deviate from the norm which seems to afflict so many members of human society. What better way to avoid this unfavourable comparison than to deny bees, along with other animals, the capacity to dispute their own purpose? By resisting the urge to treat individual bees as if they were the equivalent of human individuals, and, likewise, by recognising that the tensions affecting the inter-relations of these insects developed on a time scale irreducible to our self-conscious introspection, the routine of depriving other beings of the capacity for thought can be disrupted. Thought, here, does not stand for the sequential recollection of an isolated monologue, it is the capacity, through sustained endeavour, to creatively experiment and engineer, inventing hypotheses, problems, and solutions that could not exist without the part played by chance and accident in the perpetual ordering and disordering of things.
In his Insectopedia, with reference to bees, along with many other insects and invertebrates, the anthropologist Hugh Raffles has persuasively made the same sort of argument that I am attempting to forge here. Rather than starting out from the limitations we perceive prevent other creatures from living up to our expectations, why not emphasise and hence empathise with those idiosyncratic forms of knowledge and meaning that non-human beings have established in their own right. Precisely in defiance of the kind of inward-looking city-state that Aristotle, for all his brilliance, fails to imagine human beings can ever happily escape from, this argument is not merely a matter of observing the spectacle of “nature”, that mythical domain beyond the boundaries of culture, at once venerated as a lost paradise, and condemned as a site of perpetual conflict. Rather, this argument is political in the fraught sense of unsettling those stubborn boundaries that are persistently taken to demarcate the proper, and the feasible, when it comes to conceiving of the possibilities of living well.
Beckett, as much as any writer, understood that the stuff of thought and language did not amount to an ideal, immaterial evocation of how things ought to be, thought and language were as fallible, as fleshy, as easily flustered or fumbled as any other aspect of our bodily existence. It is apt then, that much like von Frisch, Moran can detect a source of sense and significance, beyond his own knowledge, encrypted in the miniature and mortal bodies of bees.
In spite of all the pains I have lavished on these problems, I was more than ever stupefied by the complexity of this innumerable dance, involving doubtless other determinants of which I had not the slightest idea. And I said, with rapture, Here is something I can study all my life, and never understand. (Molloy: 163)
- Aristotle, The Complete Works of Aristotle: Volumes 1 & 2: Revised Oxford Translation, edited by Jonathan Barnes (Princeton University Press, 1984).
- Samuel Beckett, Three Novels: Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unameable, translation by Patrick Bowles in collaboration with the author (New York: Grove Press, 1991).
- Karl von Frisch, ‘Decoding the Language of the Bee’, Nobel Prize Lecture (1973) <http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/1973/frisch-lecture.pdf>
- Claire Preston, Bee (London: Reaktion Books, 2006).
- Hugh Raffles, Insectopedia (New York: Vintage, 2011).
- Juan Antonio Ramírez, The Bee Hive Metaphor: From Gaudi to Le Corbusier (London: Reaktion Books, 2000).