‘Awakenings’ and Disinhibitors: Thoughts on the human-animal distiction

image127In his book, ‘The Open’, Georgio Agamben unfogged another area of his intellectual terrain which has cross-pollinating implications to his work on biopower, law and humanity. Through a reading of Baron Jacodb Uexkull, a zoologist who aimed to abandon anthropocentric perspectives of life-sciences and understand the life-world of insects and animals, Agamben seeks to follow and go beyond Heidegger in an attempt at uncovering the unthought between the animal and the human. Like Heidegger, Agamben’s focus is on the notion of ‘world’. By defining ‘world’ we define the human. For Uexkull, a life-world (Umwelt) is the environment-world dictated by ‘carriers of significance’, ‘marks’ or as Heidegger puts it ‘disinhibitors’. These disinhibitors are things of interest. More importantly, they are the only things of interest for an animal or insect. Using this observation as a starting point, this article aims to use the film ‘Awakenings’ and Graham Harman’s object-oriented philosophy to tease out a more appropriate definition of world which is big enough for humans and animals.


In one fascinating investigation of the Ixodes ricinus, which is commonly known as a ‘tick’, Uexkull discovers that a tick responds exclusively to three disinhibitors: 1) the odour of the butyric acid contained in the sweat of all mammals; 2) the correct blood/bodily temperature of 37 degrees; 3) the skin’s typology (if it has blood vessels). If these disinhibitors are never encountered, the tick will lie dormant, in a ‘period of waiting’. Once the criteria has been met, the tick acts indiscriminately on any substance or creature defined only by the presentation of these qualities. The animal, Heidegger notes, is fully closed in the circle of its disinhibitors. Beings are not revealed to the animal, but they are not closed off. It is never revealed to itself as being, neither is its environment. How does the animal relate to the world and to being? For Heidegger, the animal never relates to being as being. They are always “suspended.. between itself and its environment” (H in A, 54). “If [animal] behaviour is not a relation to beings, does this mean that it is a relation to the nothing? No!” writes Heidegger, yet “it must be a relation to something, which must itself be?”. By conclusion, animals must be open (offen) but not disconcealled/openable (offenbar). What this means for the animal is that it has something, but does not have a world, it has only disinhibitors.

The problem I see with this is Heidegger’s necessity to keep the human mode of access to being superior via his concept of ‘the open’. It is through ‘the open’ that Heidegger wants to counter the ‘monstrous anthropomorphization of.. the animal and a corresponding animalization of man’ he sees in the work of Nietzsche which is ‘the oblivion of being’ squarely at work (H in A, 58). For Heidegger, it is fundamentally this fleeing from what is uniquely Dasein’s being that equates to nihilism. It is only through ‘the gaze of authentic thought’, Dasein’s being-towards-death whose being is of concern for it, ‘can see the open which names the unconcealdness of being’ (H in A, 58). The whole of Heidegger argument rests on his notion of the open (or the clearing, as it is better known), who has access to the open, who is in the open, which is reserved elusively for Dasein.

It is here that I hear an interjection from Graham Harman: “there is no free transcendent clearing, in human Dasein or elsewhere” (Tool-being, p. 288). The possibilities-to-be that are presented to Dasein by it’s openness to being are not purely futural, as Heidegger states in Being and Time, they are conditions of the actual relations of objects as they unfold as events. But, as Heidegger says, “the animal is excluded from the essential domain of the conflict between unconcealdness and concealedness. The sign of such an exclusion is that no animal or plant “has the word”’ (H in A, p. 58). [For a rejection of this, see my last post HERE] The word does not bring us any closer to being and does not mean Dasein has a world any more or less than an animal. To make his point, Heidegger refers to the experience of profound boredom as something unique to Dasein which proves that Dasein has a entirely different relation to the as-structure of being than animals. Profound boredom is the feeling of being ‘abandoned in emptiness’ to objects that ‘have nothing to offer us’. They have nothing: no-thing; no specific being that seeks to captivate us. There are no disinhibitors which can engage us in a task or project, nothing to be taken with, there is no captivation, yet we are held to it. If I wait in a super market queue I become bored because I am not captivated by anything, my range of disinhibitors doesn’t include the glossy magazine full of useful calorie counting tips that stares at me from the display which includes tooth rotting temptations and a range of insurance products. In this nothingness, I am handed over to a proximity to being equiprimordial to the captivation of animals towards abstract disinhibitors.

In the film ‘Awakenings’ Malcolm Sayer , the doctor played by Robin Williams, brings a set of catatonic patience ‘back to life’ through the administration of a new drug called ‘L-DOPA’. There are many wonderful themes throughout this film that I won’t cover here (I might write a post about it), but for our purposes it is enough to look at how the film (and I’m sure, a lot of actual medical case history to go with it) gives credibility to Harman’s object-oriented philosophy (OOP) against Heidegger using Heidegger’s own notion of disinhibitors. Such is the simplicity and power of the film ‘Awakenings’ it was quite clear how these issues overlap. The patients in the film do not respond by themselves but require a push start or some kind of sensual provocation. Although there are many examples, the clearest example I like the most is when Lucy (played by Alice Drummond) tries to walk over to the water fountain but stops. Dr Sayer believes he understands the problem based upon his ‘borrowing of will’ theory. Lucy stops before she reaches the window because her field of vision is broken. The chequered pattern of black and white squares under her feet come to an end. There is nothing to ‘will’ her onwards. Dr Sayer and nurse Eleanor colour the floor to match the chequered pattern. When they watch Lucy this time, she doesn’t stop at the edge but continues forward but not to the water fountain as Dr Sayer thought, but to a fan. The floor acts as a visual disinhibitor, in the same way my boredom in the supermarket is only broken by my turn at the checkout.



The difference between me and Lucy is that the disinhibitors have been reduced for Lucy. Although I may suffer profound boredom at the supermarket, the number of disinhibitors are still greater than Lucy’s although my orientation towards beings is one of ‘inactive possibilization’, the refusal and indifference towards beings as being something in particular. Scientifically, boredom is said to be related to a lack of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is formed by the decarboxylation of L-DOPA (according to Wikipedia). The massive doses of L-DOPA administered to the patients in the film were enough to create enough dopamine to expand their range of disinhibitors. I would like to define disinhibitors as ‘paths of abstraction’. For instance, I look at the lamp in front of me. I intend the lamp. Before it was there it was not there. Silent and invisible yet being. I knew it was there but I haven’t thought about it since I last turned it off, about 12 hours ago. What do I think of when looking the lamp: 1) it is something 2) It’s a lamp 3) it’s a pink lamp 4) it head droops down like a wilted flower. I could go on, but I won’t. My first line of abstraction was the ‘isness’ of the lamp, my next line of abstraction was its species identification as a lamp. Next was the abstraction of an identified colour relation. And finally, a metaphorical abstraction. Notice that even the first indicator, ‘isness’, is an abstraction. One way of looking at the difference between human beings and animals is down to the control of disinhibitors. I see human disinhibitors in a spectrum. The activation and deactivation of disinhibitors is caused by any number of environmental stimulae (i.e. a change in object-object relations) which form and break ‘lines of abstraction’ within sets of object assemblages.

As Harman explains, “abstraction is not a feature of the human mind, but of any relation whatsoever, since two events are so utterly concrete that they make contact at all only at the price of abstracting from one another, dealing with a small portion of each other rather than the totality” (Prince of Networks, p. 55). I abstract the world by a different set of disinhibitors than Lucy, just as a tick abstracts the world by a limited number of disinhibitors which given the correct conditions are activated without discrimination. For a tick, these disinhibitors are easily identifiable through testing those conditions to gage a response. I disagree with Heidegger on the ontological implications of my refusal of beings during profound boredom, as he states “the refusal is a calling, it is that which makes authentically possible the Dasein in me” (H in A, p. 67). For Lucy, the refusal of being is the absence of any disinhibitor, the ultimate disinhibitor being dopamine, which brings with it a whole set of new disinhibitors.

The tick examined by Uexkull was kept alive for eighteen years without nourishment, in absolute isolation from its environment. He concludes that ‘without a living subject, time cannot exist’, the world of the tick lies in suspension. For the catatonic patients of the hospital a similar fate has befallen them. When they wake from their catatonia, time has not mentally passed. Their mental disinhibitors that allow for self-reflexivity were not activated. They awoke to a new world which mixed two new sets of disinhibitors: their psychophysical condition and the concrete world of actual relations. The difference between their condition and that of the tick in isolation can now be explained. The tick’s body is not engaged enough in a world of relations to cause tissue degeneration. For the patents, their bodies are still heavily engaged in relations with the environment, hence the effects of ageing are more than apparent. The psychophysical body cannot avoid the environmental abstractions between itself and its world. In profound boredom we find the experience that link the catatonic patients to the isolated tick and to my experience in a supermarket. Thus the difference between human Dasein and animals is not an ontological difference but a difference in the ‘lines of abstraction’ which disinhibits reactions under actual conditions of any object’s thrown facticity.

NB – ‘H in A’ means: Heidegger quotes from Agamben’s ‘The Open’


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2 Responses to “‘Awakenings’ and Disinhibitors: Thoughts on the human-animal distiction”

  1. Laughin Martin Says:

    Quick point: Although I disagree with elements of Heidegger’s understanding of animals I think there is no need to conclude that the ontological difference is invalid. I think Heidegger is far to sweeping; one can not afford a bee the same ontological ‘openess’ as a dolphin. The term animal is what is problematic. In order to question beings in their being one must be able to ‘variate’. Questions open up through a break in repetition. Philosphy would discover nothing (and not Heidegger’s ‘nothing) if it repeated the same questions continuously, or repeated them in the same way (as much as Heidegger would like to suggest that philosophy is a mediation on a few questions. It is but with a continual change of subject matter for the questions to question.) There are very few ‘animals’ that are able to break repetition, question, and survive.
    If you are sure you want to diminish the ontological difference then you must at first criticise Heidegger’s Existentiell of Dasein. Heidegger is using the phrase ‘poor in world’ negatively, in order to illuminate the human situation. There is no great claim being made about ‘animals’, and Heidegger admits a withdrawn element to them as early as ‘the Fundemental Concepts of Metaphysics’.
    I think it is silly to delimit ‘Dasein’ to the human, but also non-sensical to stretch it beyond. That humans have a specific ontological comprehension that is unique, and un-observed in other beings is undeniable. But this claim takes nothing away from other creatures; the structures of ontology are ‘Dasein/human’ specific, they have been written that way.

    It is possible to understand things differently. We can comprehend the world of beings as you and Harmen do, and this is beautiful for understanding certain things. But you must either undermine Heidegger’s understandings of moods or understand the limitations of ‘stretching’.

    The terms that heidgger uses have ‘use’ and ‘value’ within a certain context. All meaning cannot be exhausted via ontology, however neither can it be exhausted via ‘object orientated’…..Humans are very similiar to other creatures in many ways.

    Once again I have to admit my lack of reading in the area…I would like to emphasis the emphasis on value, or quality. For us ‘boredom’, ‘anxiety’, and even ‘laughter’ have a value that breaches ‘everydayness’, and in some sense they open up an understanding of finitude, possibility and freedom. To say another creature is ‘bored’ brings us no closer to understanding the finitude, possibility and freedom of that creature.

    There is something deeper then mediated relation: A person may have more ‘relations’ with a dog then a person (no pun intended), but there are very few people who would be devatsted by the death of their dog more then the death of a close person. There is a qualitive difference, on the whole.

    Havn’t got anything more to say, didn’t intend to write anythinga nd so some hasn’t been thought through……

  2. avoidingthevoid Says:

    The OOP point is that there is the same ontological depth to all objects – bee, human or potato.

    you write:
    [I think it is silly to delimit ‘Dasein’ to the human, but also non-sensical to stretch it beyond.]

    We have to look carefully at this, although Heidegger says that there is a withdrawn feature of animal life, he only allows for objects to gain ontological status when Dasein gives objects their ontological status through a process of ‘worlding’. From an OOP view, this is correlationism. For Heidegger, Dasein cannot be represented: it’s essence is always withdrawn. No objects can be represented without leaving a remainder. Dasein, must therefore be said for all objects. I agree that he is trying to ‘gap’ the relation between the fundamental attunements of humans and animals, but to say rocks are worldless is wrong. Rocks relate, in any relation at all there is world, there is equipmentality. To be is to mean. To mean is to to refer and withdraw: meaning is equipmental not semiological, which is why Harman says that all beings are broken-tools, both in and out of use. All objects, if they relate, are being-in-the-world, as being ‘in’ qua PAH is one of the ontological characteristics we call ‘categorical’ (to say wine is in the bottle, is to approach it categorically). Thus all entities can be approached categorically or existentially, not only human Dasein.

    You say:
    [one can not afford a bee the same ontological ‘openess’ as a dolphin.]

    A bee has just as limited access to the RTH of a flower as a dolphin does to a fish. The difference comes from how beings approach the revealed being of objects. This is through the range of disinhibitors, as Heidegger would say. My observation is that there is simply a different variety within a fluctuating spectrum of abstractions ontically ‘open’ to humans than non humans, but ontologically, being cannot be said to be more for one thing than another. Thus, the ontological gap is closed: all beings refer and withdraw. There is no more a horizon for humans as there is for bees (although Zizek likes to use the example of the bees dance as to exemplify his view of the human as special ontological site – as a Hegelian, the thing in-itself is always already revealed on the surface, thus being is incomplete at all times and humans have an ontological different relations to other beings as we are thrust apart from the Real through the symbolic and imaginary – for example, bee communication is incapable of an ’empty gesture’, unlike human beings, where communication is more than instrumental – I am still very much attached to Zizek’s an Lacan’s work, and as such am still working out the implications of OOP for Zizekian materialist theology).

    You say
    [There are very few ‘animals’ that are able to break repetition, question, and survive.]
    I’m not to sure what you mean when you talk about repetition of questions. Some clarification on this would be much appreciated.

    I’ve just photocopied in its entirety ‘Guerrilla Metaphysics’ by Harman (I’ve placed order for it with three different book sellers who then tell me its out of print), so I should have some notes and a review up soon. That might allow me to obtain sharper theoretical tools for answering questions about OOP, Heidegger and the gap.

    Cheers for you comment. Although, I don’t think you’ll be convinced by my answers. I would really like you to read ‘Tool-being’ at some point so you can catch Harman with his pants down, as it were, and locate the nexus of your disagreement with Harman’s Heidegger.

    I’m going to re-read it over the next few weeks, after reading ‘Guerrilla Metaphysics’ and before re-reading the second part to ‘Prince of Networks’. I think I’ll be presenting a paper on OOP at Sussex undergrad phil soc next term and I want to make sure I’m shit hot on it. Keep your questions coming, they’re definitely helping me to clarify how I can articulate OOP.

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