Link to the book: HERE
One of the most important issues addressed by Roberto Marchesini in recent years has undoubtedly been ‘subjectivity’. In fact, in his book Post-human (2002), the philosopher pointed out that one of the matters that most undermines the structure of Western philosophy is the question of the subject. Marchesini notes that subjectivity cannot be limited tohuman animals, as already claimed by other philosophers; however, the innovative aspect of his thought lies in the ideathat a solution to this problem does not regard extending qualities – such as consciousness, reason, and thought –to other species, but rather changing the very traditional paradigm of subjectivity.
In Etologia filosofica (2016), Marchesini investigates the traditional descriptive models of subjectivity, proposing an alternative that can help us understand how the concepts of consciousness, reason, and cogito are only components of subjectivity, and that they cannot fully determine it. This insight, therefore, forces us to think of the subject in entirely new terms while obliging us to ground subjectivity itself on other paradigms.
In The Creative Animal Roberto Marchesini takes this effort to the extreme. Marchesini emphasises that the subject operates in the world in an active manner. The first of the several attributes of subjectivity discussed in the book isagency: a subject, being able to perceive the world, acts on it on the basis of its own perceptions. Along this line,subjectivity is not a monolith, but rather an active element that dialogues with and through reality. Each subject has a specific perspective on the external world that takes shape in the dialectic between feeling and acting. Subjectivity is never something (pre-)determined: it is autopoiesis and sympoiesis, intersecting in a constant and never quite definitive manners. It is impossible to give an absolute definition of subjectivity, since it is exposed to constant reprogramming and change due to its incessant dialogue with the world.
This type of reading takes up what in Etologia filosofica Marchesini defined as the “subject’s ownership” – the subject’s intrinsic ability to come up with its own plan of action, a project linked to its specific sensibility towards reality. For this reason, being a subject means, this ability occurs by negotiating the status quo, envisioning possible alternative paths and, therefore, prefiguring a future that transcends simple existence at the mercy of the here and now. Thus, every subject is first and foremost a creative and creating power – the text shows frequent comparisons with Bergson’s thought – that determines a protagonism capable of defining, but never delimiting, the concept of subjectivity.
That of agency is thus the first level of subjectivity around which other elements are assembled: one of these is affectivity. Hence the subject can be conceived as desiring motions and emotions: it is from these desires that the expression of a for-Self (second level of subjectivity) takes place. What Marchesini means when he speaks of “desiring drive” is crucial, since, with this expression, he is able to combine both his scientific knowledge and a renewed reading of the concept of desire in the philosophical sphere. In this regard, it is useful to mention that Marchesini is not only a philosopher but also an ethologist with an in-depth specialisation in entomology: this expertise constantly resurfaces in the text through examples and references to non-human species and insects. Desire propels the subject into the world and drives it according to very precise coordinates linked to its history as a species, which Marchesini defines as ‘Having-already-been-there’. This concept is fundamental because it highlights the phylogenetic history that inhabits each individual, which always finds in the world what it already 'knows' in order to then discover new elements.
Taking up Lorenz’s lesson that a priori characteristics are phylogenetically a posteriori, Marchesini observes that each individual subject triggers a conversation with the world, which is not based on a tabula rasa and, therefore, that followsprecise coordinates dictated by the subject’s phylogeny. The latter, instead, must be understood as the capacity to interpret, in a renewed way, what history has imprinted on – and somatised in – an individual, thus enabling the creative activity that generates the wonder of living. Therefore, having-already-been-there does not just express the past of an individual, but also it delivers an individual to future projects linked to the creative capacity of each subject.
Animal creativity is thus a gift of inventiveness and adaptation that is necessary for the realisation of a species-specific behavioural repertoire. In this sense, phylogeny does not nail the subject to pre-established behaviours, for it becomes a place of creative interpretation, a corollary of infinite possibilities that can unfold in multiple forms. In this sense, the idea of desire also changes its structure: it no longer aligns to Plato's leaky jar as a void that must forever be filled, but rather as surplus – a driving urge and attraction towards reality with a view to self-expression. It calls for the realisation of a for-Self that speaks of Having-already-been-there and Being-there in the light of wonder and creativity.
In these terms, Marchesini strongly rejects two theses connected to Heidegger’s thought. The first concerns the concept of animality: no animal can be captivated and nailed to its instincts, as it is always the bearer of a for-Self and, therefore,of a desiring and creative action in the world. The second is the concept of ‘thrownness’: no animal, including man, is thrown into a reality that it does not recognise (this is a vision that still has a strong humanist/Cartesian aftertaste). Rather, every being comes into the world with precise coordinates in order to interweave a specific, but always creative,dialogue with reality. This is precisely what Marchesini means when he asserts that being interested is both a rediscovery and a discovery.
The presence of an intrinsic level of subjectivity is what allows the creation of an in-Self (third level of subjectivity) and, therefore, contents of cognition such as knowledge, elaboration and consciousness. In this reworking of the concept of subjectivity, Marchesini does not emphasise hierarchy, but rather he focuses on how different planes integrate with each other and can be more or less present. The philosopher's discussion on consciousness is very interesting. In fact, much of the philosophical tradition has grounded the very possibility of subjectivity on it, leading some thinkers to seek to establish what animals might be endowed with it: here, too, Marchesini overturns the traditional perspective on consciousness. It does not ground subjectivity because even the human being, who has always been considered the subject par excellence, performs many actions without any degree of consciousness. Therefore, consciousness may or may not arise, but it does not, in any way, determine the presence or absence of a subject. The examples that Marchesini discusses are many, but the one I find most clarificatory is the act of sleeping, which, in fact, is a state in which we are not conscious: in this regard, Marchesini ironically asks whether we stop being subjects when we are asleep.
According to Marchesini, consciousness is like a light that has the power to illuminate a room in which, however, objects are already present. The mind, appointed as the fourth level of subjectivity, can be understood as the unitary condition arising from an integration of different components. The mind is a property that allows the individual to have a unitary experience, i.e. an integrated convergence of states and functions, which is why it is referred to as an ‘emergent requirement’: it is a state condition rather than a function and, therefore, it contributes to the subject’s unitary positionality and propositionality.
The mind has both an integrative and a productive character; to give an example: the mind is like a recipe without which the various ingredients (integrative character) could never become a cake (productive character). For this reason, we should not imagine subjectivity as a single condition bound to all-or-nothing values, but rather in terms of mutually integrating dimensions that may be present to a greater or lesser extent in a species (which, however, neither exclude each other, nor confer hierarchies of subjectivity on different animals): to simplify, no animal is ‘more of a subject’ than another.
The Creative Animal does not only offer a fierce reflection on the concept of subjectivity, but also it thematises further questions: among these are that of learning and intelligence, re-evaluating theories linked to the relationship between environment and subject (niche theory), delving into the issue of animal culture. Anyway, the central argument of the book remains the radical reinterpretation of the concept of subject. The last chapter of the volume highlights how, according to Marchesini, even the philosophical tradition that apparently supported animality – and Derrida in particular – failed to break the disjunctive ontological chains that had always opposed human and animal beings.
The paradigmatic shift offered by The Creative Animal is necessary not only to recompose the animal other within the ontological horizon of homo sapiens, but also to acknowledge its subjective dimension, thus freeing it from the shackles of humanist objectification. To be an agent – and a subject – means to be a protagonist and, therefore, to be “a fish [that] goes against the current, an antelope [that] can jump over an obstacle, a bird [that] can fly and not fall like a stone to the ground”, as Marchesini writes.
Reading this book, you will certainly find many answers to questions that this review, due to its constraints, cannot address. The examples that Marchesini provides are fascinating, considering his capacity to show how subjectivity can in fact be extended to every form of life, even to those that we have traditionally excluded. Moreover, the many references, sources and citations included the book make it a seminal work on the question of animal subjectivity.
The paradigm of the subject proposed in The Creative Animal perfectly fits into the interpretative model of posthumanism, rejecting every verticalist matrix and fully embracing a horizontal perspective, with a descriptive rather than a prescriptive approach. I believe, in fact, that the most important achievement of The Creative Animal consists of disengaging the concept of subject from any essentialist – and therefore humanist – component: according toMarchesini, the animal is creative in that all subjectivity is given as an act of creation. There is no such thing as a subject per se, but only a peripatetic being that, in its journey through the world and the evolution of life, has modified its trajectories, has coordinated them with its history, and has made itself part of and available to constant construction, in the name of difference and creativity.
No animal, in the course of its evolutionary history, has remained captivated in its Having-already-been-there. An animalalways grounds its identity through its own coordinates, challenging them and betraying them to act as the protagonist of its own script, to make space for itself on the stage of the world by enacting its personal and subjective story. This is how identity and subjectivity meet, as each and every subject grounds its coordinates on an agency dimension linked to its own desires and emotions, and to the awareness that it will not remain nailed to a sterile individualism, but rather that it will be able to create a dialogue with the history of life.