Tangled and entangled—compost and companions 


For the last few days, I’ve been deep into Donna Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene and I’ve been excited by how she revels in the “wormy pile” that is compost (32). I like to imagine that she would feel a-kin to the squirmy companion critters in our compost bin—even if worms don’t actually loom large in her writing. Speaking of compost, I love how in this book Haraway proposes compost and companions as more congenial figures for kin relations with critters than posthumanism. I’ve never really warmed to posthumanism myself, preferring new materialism and the more-than-human (if we want to bring human into the fore/background) and now I’m thinking about how Haraway’s ‘com’ figures also evoke the with-ness of kinships.

So I decided I needed to go back to Haraway’s earlier book, When Species Meet, where she digs into the roots of companion and finds cum panis–with bread (17). This reminder of how breaking bread and eating together lie at the heart of companionship makes me notice how our worms, companion-critters, eat with us. As I put my breakfast makings and leavings into the worm café and compost bin, I realize that it’s not just that we are feeding the worms but that they are actually eating what we eat—we are all eating the same food, drinking the same drinks (yes, an incredible amount of coffee and tea and quite a lot of toast, speaking of panis). A moveable, shared, companionable vegetarian feast.

As I drink my/our morning coffee and munch my/our toast, I remember, too, that Darwin also recognized worms’ companionability, their sociability: “They perhaps have a trace of social feeling, for they are not disturbed by crawling over each other’s bodies, and they sometimes lie in contact” (15). Or, as Donna Haraway might put it, “entangled meaningful bodies” (26).


Ok, I can’t resist bringing Z&Z into this conversation. Again, they are still in bed upstairs while we’re all having breakfast downstairs and outside (yes it’s still wintry cold here). But as ever, Ziggy and Zazie are part of this assemblage and have a lot to say about companionable entanglements.


In an earlier post, I was thinking about how Haraway  reacted to Deleuze and Guattari’s ‘becoming-animal.’ It’s not that she rejects becoming, it’s just that for her what matters is real worldling becoming with. And the care and curiosity this involves. In When Species Meet, she talks about “practices of care” (90) that shape all the critters in the relationship—and the need to “act in companion species webs with complexity, care and curiosity” (106).  Her com or with figures resonate with Vinciane Despret. As I’ve been reading their books together–and together with the worms–I’ve  loved how they write with a certain attuned entanglement with each other and with animals—sharing interests and concerns and questions and surprises: “Emphasizing that articulating bodies to each other is always a political question about collective lives, Despret studies those practices in which animals and people become available to each other, become attuned to each other, in such a way that both parties become more interesting to each other, more open to surprises, smarter, more ‘polite,’ move inventive… partners learn to be ‘affected’; they become ‘available to events’; they engage in a relationship that ‘discloses perplexity.’” (207)

Lots to chew on there! Before I finish my last coffee and piece of toast—spoiler alert—I want to mention some more com relations, that I’ll add to the compost of my next post where I want to think about the complex kinship of working with worms in an art project as collaborators, colluders, contrivers.

Can of worms…becoming-animal

No, it’s not really a can – just another of our compost bins – but there’s lots of proximate wriggling, not to mention putrefaction and fermentation, so I’m putting it up anyway. Sadly my version of WordPress doesn’t like video and turning the movie into a jpg was a can of worms in itself so please use your imagination here…Can of worms jpg

Ok, now that thanks to Darwin I’m thinking through intimacy with the worms, it’s time to open the can of worms that is ‘becoming-animal.’ Will becoming-animal help think/work with the worms? Will they help think/work with it? Becoming-animal is one of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s many becomings. Like so much of D&G’s work, the concept is purposely slippery, or can I say wriggly? Anyhow, I do like how it seems to vibrate somewhere between or beside the literal and metaphoric. Time to get down and dirty with D&G, but spoiler alert, it can be a bit soupy.

D&G are trying to get away from ontological states of being here. They talk about becoming-animal as movements by contagion, as a way of thinking movements that are not about the more familiar relations of pity, identification, analogy, imitation, representation, resemblance, or reproduction. In this Spinozan vein, they are invoking forces and “a proximity ‘that makes it impossible to say where the boundary between the human and the animal lies’” (273). That works for me. And it works even better when digested by Christof Cox, who takes philosophy into wonderful artful and sonic zones. Cox reckons becoming-animal is being “drawn into a zone of action or passion that one can have in common with an animal. It is a matter of unlearning physical and emotional habits and learning to take on new ones” (23).

From Cox, I sense becoming-animal as entering (should I say worming into?) a shared affective and productive zone to experience common capacities with animals rather than imitating their forms. And in this movement, he explains, we can experience new physicalities, new emotions, and new relations with others and with the world. I feel inspired by Cox’s approach. Moved as it is by engaging with artworks, it sidesteps Deleuze and Guattari’s abstraction. Perhaps in this way Cox helps rescue becoming-animal from what Donna Haraway criticizes as D &G’s “disdain for the daily, the ordinary, the affectional rather than the sublime.” (29) And hopefully the worms help too — what could be more ‘daily’ and ‘ordinary’ than worms– as we work together, connected by affect and affection?

Cox’s focus on artworks and his idea of unlearning/learning anew reminds me of the work of Melbourne-based artist Catherine Clover. I love her play with voice, listening, unsentimental relations with birds and lots more that I’ve written about at length in Voicetracks: Attuning to Voice in Media and the Arts. (shameless plug for my book, just out in May!) I’ll just grab an edited teaser from there for now: “Catherine Clover has been making works for and with noisy, wild urban birds for many years—listening, recording, translating, transcribing, reading to them, performing for and with and after them, making books and performances and installations. Like some of the scientists that Vinciane Despret discussed, Clover seeks artistic practices and ways to develop relationships of attunement with the birds. Her choice of urban gulls and pigeons is deliberately not sentimental; instead of ‘beautiful’ and mellifluous or even sublime birds, calling to us from the ‘wild,’ she works in a sort of minor mode with despised and everyday species. These are birds with whom we share urban space but often without noticing them, unless to bemoan their presence. These are birds whose groupings we name as deadly and dirty—a murder of crows, a filth of starlings, as the title of one of Clover’s works reminds me.”

I’m sure I’ll come back to Clover and Despret and of course to attunement – as well as to the can of worms that is becoming-animal — which I just wanted to open for now. Meanwhile, wriggling around in this can of worms has made we want to read Donna Haraway — Staying with the Trouble calls. While the worms are still in their wintry quietude, I’ll keep bookworming.

Digesting Darwin

A few days ago, when I was ‘Taking a break,’ I was gripped by Adam Phillips’ essay on Darwin, worms, and digestion. When Phillips says Charles Darwin “commemorates, and rejoices in, the [worms’] powers of digestion” (55), I’m definitely in. Since then I too  burrowed into the rich ground of Darwin’s The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms.


It’s been quite an alchemical experience, as I burped my way through Darwin’s book (my gut telling me I’d had way too much coffee when I was trying to lure the worms out from under their blanket with ever more coffee grounds). The experience reminded me of when I was working on a radiophonic essay on alchemy and its transformations [Separation Anxiety: not the truth about alchemy]—and I went through all the seven stages of alchemy in the process. Dissolution was painful and the coagulation was intense, but it was putrefaction and fermentation that was the most challenging and transformative of all. Time for a new category for the blog — digestion.

I like that the worms call me to think about alchemy again now, years later. Alchemy is an alluring knowledge that is all about affinities and transformation… just like the project working with worms. It’s turning out that alchemical transformations and affinities abound once we tune in to them. Not just digestion – there is also shredding. We seem to be kindred Kin here, as Donna Haraway might have it… us with our shredding habit and the worms with theirs. (As I said in the early days of the blog, we shredded a lot of paper for a previous art work, and now we’re feeding the shreds to the worms to digest and transform. (Strangely, looking back, we actually did try to eat them ourselves in that work, but not too successfully– there were just way too many to digest.)

I’m inspired when Darwin speaks about the intimate co-compositional moments in shredding and digesting: “The leaves which they consume are moistened, torn into small shreds, partially digested, and intimately commingled with the earth…” (79) And so we feed the worms our shredded leaves of paper to do with what they will, to transform in their alchemical habitual way. There’s an unexpected intimacy here as we wait and wonder…

And thinking about wonder, when I was looking for what Jane Bennett said about alchemy in her wonderful The Enchantment of Modern Life, I remembered how important her work has been for us. It made me sense how enchanting the worms are in the work they are doing with us. Darwin, too, seems enchanted by worms and his amazement is infections. But, bowing to science, he also fills the book with calculations to demonstrate the power of worms. That I didn’t mind– they seemed to make him happy– but I have to say I did gasp as I read of the eviscerated worms sacrificed to science to explain the chemical functioning of their digestion. Sadly, it seems that quite a few worms suffered in the writing of that book, paying a price for the glory of worm-kind. At the same time, though, I feel drawn to the Darwin who is not bowed by science, who tells stories of running around old buildings with his sons and working at home observing the eating and burrowing habits of worms. And I laugh at the Darwin who gently blows tobacco breath at the worms as part of his enquiries into their senses. These passages  where he speaks as a more attuned, amateur scientist, are for me far more alluring and thought-provoking than his descriptions of their dissected digestive tracts.

But I think I like Darwin best when he’s discussing the worms’ favourite foods. And the way he’s moved by their consciousness, their attentiveness, their intelligence and the sensitivity to touch of their whole bodies. And when he assures us how hugely important part a worms play in the history of the world. And when, asking what Vinciane Despret calls the  ‘right questions,’ he is rewarded by the surprises of worms’ responses—as, for example, when together they bury the tired concept of blind instinct: “But it is far more surprising that they should apparently exhibit some degrees of intelligence instead of a mere blind instinctive impulse, in their manner of plugging up the mouths of their burrows.” (103)

What I’ve responded to in Darwin’s engaging worms is what Phillips calls his “artful science” (55). Like Despret I appreciate Darwin’s recognition of animals’ agency and aesthetic sense (37-38). This is a far cry from the scientists Despret questions for being out of touch with the affects and effects of their relations with the animals they study.

I’m happy to be coming back to Despret. I realise that I’ve digested about as much science of worms as I want to and it’s time to think about art again. So I return with relish to her artful writing and her first chapter (“A for artists”). Stirring words about the importance of the achievements as “beasts and humans accomplish a work together. And they do so with the grace and joy of the work to be done.” And so she finishes, “Isn’t this what matters in the end? To welcome new ways of speaking, describing, and narrating that allow us to respond, in a sensitive way to these events?” (6)


Three books for the beginnings of this project. Difficult to decide where to start but Vinciane Despret is calling the most insistently. What Would Animals Say If We Asked the Right Questions? How can I resist her first chapter, “A For Artist: stupid like a painter?” The challenge is not to quote every provocative and enchanting sentence. Like this one “But above all, this enchantment arises by the grace of the attunement between living beings” as animals and people work together.  “No single response has the power to sanction the meaning of what is happening, and this very uncertainty, which is similar to that which we witness in a a display of magic, is part of what makes us sensitive to its grace and enchantment.” (4)

attunement…enchantment…uncertainty…these call out to be categories, now that i’ve wormed my way into wordpress and I’m digging down into categories, heading for subcategories

“O for oeuvres: Do birds make art?” will be next.