Animal Collective

Cherry blossoms outside NYU.

WHEN I ATTENDED THE ASSOCIATION OF WRITERS AND WRITING PROGRAMS CONFERENCE recently in Portland, Oregon, my thoughts turned to H. P. Lovecraft. Perhaps it was the clammy, fertile, haunted quality of the Pacific Northwest; perhaps it was the unearthly horror of having no agent and few prospects. Really, though, I blame Jeff VanderMeer, whose book Annihilation (2014) I had bought for the airplane. While the justly praised novel is typically described as ecological sci-fi, VanderMeer pulls a classic trick at its climax that I associate with Lovecraft: In a scene that takes place deep in the bowels of the earth, we are confronted with a creature, the Crawler, with an appearance so violating that it cannot be captured in language and whose presence rends the rational functioning of the brain.

Like VanderMeer’s Crawler, social insects present a provocative, unnerving boundary case for language surrounding being. Their forms morph; they teem in a profusion of detail that refuses to settle. We recognize the absurdity of individuating the hive but likewise find the prospect of conferring being upon the collective a little uncanny . . . and offensive to neoliberal pieties. At the symposium “Hiving: Living Forms, Forms of Living,” hosted by the Performance Studies department at New York University, a number of outstanding thinkers, including Elizabeth Povinelli and Fred Moten, took up the bee, hive, and swarm as metaphors, examining their social-utopian possibilities. But the most arresting contributor was the event’s actual bee-ologist, Michael Thiele, an alternative apiarist who lives in Northern California.

Thiele is one of those people who, when addressing a crowd, is comfortable enough to close his eyes and take long pauses between statements while he carefully chooses his words. At times he appeared to almost slip into a meditative state—and, in fact, Thiele has received Zen Buddhist lay ordination. He is tall, middle-aged, handsome, thoughtful, and German in origin. He gestures elegantly when speaking, his demeanor tinged with joy. And when he speaks about bees, Thiele takes care to deconstruct not only preconceived anthropocentric ideas about Apis mellifera—a designation he finds inferior to Apis arborea, which names bees according to their habitat rather than what we find useful about them—but also ideas of essence in favor of relation. “I am not a beekeeper,” Thiele began by saying. “I don’t think beekeeping exists, actually.”

Thiele’s talk seemed largely off-the-cuff, delivered in a register somewhere between Starhawk and Derrida. It emerged from him in a gentle flow, rather like the energy issuing in spiral lavender gouts from the sun in one of the images he showed us, related to the way (I think) that apian activity is, like all life, an expression of solar energy. He introduced us to the Gaelic term anam cara, which means “soul friend.” He referred to the hive overall as a living being, preferred to speak not of bees but of “the apian being,” and explained that he wanted to give us “a sense of what she are, of what bees is.” He brought a beautiful slab of honeycomb, or in Theielean terminology, “tissue,” for us to taste, or rather, “engage with.” Prompted to talk about his facility for moving masses of bees with his bare hands from one location to another, he described the heat inside the apian being so sensuously that it suddenly seemed as if he were conducting a workshop on fisting.

Artist Georgia Sagri.

The symposium’s other speakers took a variety of approaches more familiar to academic settings. Its organizer, Sarah Richter, a Ph.D. student in the Performance Studies department, broke down the settler-colonial, heteronormative, and capitalist ideologies embedded in the Langstroth hive, the boxy, domestic apparatus invented in 1851 by a Pennsylvania minister and which, to this day, remains the industry bee-keeping standard. Moten cycled through topics including the Borg, poetry, jazz, and the unfixity of units of measure, alliterating and punning all the way. Artist Georgia Sagri, who came from Greece for the occasion, delivered a mournful talk/performance that began with her discussing the recent deaths of two friends, including the LGTBQ activist Zak Kostopoulos, who was murdered in Athens last fall (six men, including four police officers, have been arrested). She then segued into a rumination on her personal/public project space, Hyle, and how to keep moving forward with it in a way that evades both privatization and official nonprofit status in favor of some other, undefined form of collective organization. This resistance not just to societal mandate but to definition in general knit together the day’s events. Language’s plasticity was key. Hyle itself means “matter,” with the implication of something that has no inherent form.

Listening to the presenters, I kept thinking of Donna Haraway, who shares the bee-unkeeper’s emphasis on the relational, intertwined nature of life on earth as well as his care with language. Thiele’s fellow Californian proposes as a happier alternative to our current apocalyptic era the Chthulucene. This “ongoing temporality” has as its prime mover Gaia, a chaotic force that escapes and overrides the human and enters into myriad manifestations: gorgons, cnidarians, and Potnia Melissa, Mistress of the Bees. “Gaia is not about a list of questions waiting for rational policies; Gaia is an intrusive event that undoes thinking as usual,” Haraway writes in her book Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (2016). The Gaian also undoes language as usual, eliciting the dedicated locutions of Thiele (whose advocacy organization happens to be called Gaia Bees) and, depending on one’s cosmology, perhaps also the rigorous undoing practiced by the rest of the presenters at “Hiving.”

Haraway differentiates her Chthulucene from Lovecraft’s Cthulu; a careful reader will note the divergent spelling. Likewise, VanderMeer differentiates himself even in the fine grain of his metaphors from the virulently racist Lovecraft. Turning the screw, VanderMeer makes his Crawler, who terrorizes by resisting description, into an agent of language: The creature disgorges destroyer-creator psalms onto the walls of a spiral tunnel it inhabits, “writing” words in a fungus-like medium that is itself alive, and teeming: “Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner I shall bring forth the seeds of the dead to share with the worms.” That which defies the ascription of a label should not be seen as malign, VanderMeer seems to say (though with rather more eschatological emphasis than Haraway might prefer); rather, it may produce new and extraordinary forms.