TO THE DISSOLUTION OF HIERARCHIES: MARX’S HONEYBEE CONTRA MARX’S HUMANISM PART I – Kevin Clarke

by admin.

In Das Kapital, Marx advances another criterion to distinguish between non-human animals and human animals. He advances the criteria of “imagination,” or the ability to foresee the production of something not yet produced (DK, 344). For Marx, non-human animals are seamlessly attached to the products of their labor as a function of their immediate needs. What he means by this is that non-human animals follow specific desires that immediately fulfill roles in survival such as hunger and fear etc. This rhetoric is fairly consistent even as far back as the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. Marx states: “It is true that the animal, too, produces. It builds itself a nest, a dwelling, like the bee… But it only produces what it needs immediately for itself or its offspring; it produces one-sidedly…” (76). Humans on the other hand are able to engage in detached relations with our objects of production. This is the starting point for having relations. In order to have relations between something we have to first see it as external to ourselves. Relaying this relationship requires further the establishment of language to convey an experience. Thus, Marx also views language as a human attribute. Marx makes explicit references in the German Ideology to language and its concurrent development with consciousness. This concurrence explains further the foundational dichotomy in Marx between, human animals, who possess a consciousness of language and affect, and non-human animals, who do not possess these relations of language and affect. It is useful to quote Marx at length on this point:

            “…we find that man [sic] also possesses “consciousness”; but, even so, not inherent, not “pure” consciousness. From the start the “spirit” is afflicted with the curse of being “burdened” with matter, which here makes its appearance in the form of agitated layers of air, sounds, in short of languageLanguage is as old as consciousness, language is practical consciousness, as it exists for other men, and for that reason is really beginning to exist for me personally as well; for language, like consciousness, only arises from the need, the necessity, of an intercourse with other men. Where there exists a relationship, it exists for me: the animal has no “relations” with anything, cannot have any. For the animal, its relation to others does not exist as a relation. Consciousness is therefore from the very beginning as social product, and remains so as long as men exist at all.” – The German Ideology, Part 1. (158).

            This quote corresponds with the sentiment in Das Kapital, where Marx outlines a similar criterion for language. He says that language is a production; it involves the arrangement of relations and the relations of arrangement.  Marx’s hierarchy between the species has been heavily debated and can be particularly hard to respond to because of its intuitive appeal to distinctions such as beauty, utility, alienation, and language. Ironically, Marx’s (much needed) criticisms of reductionism in scholarship only focused on the exterior of the subject. Although, Marx was able to spot the reductionist assumption of an isolated ego in literature and science, he was unable to remove the reductionism surrounding his investigation with the interior workings of the subject. In all of the attributes that Marx advances for the species distinction, he performs a reductionist maneuver of first defining the existence of that particular category in humanist terms before the production of that category is justified. With this in mind the following analysis is an investigation of this threshold. Even a seemingly smooth threshold or rigid line becomes jagged, fragmented, porous, on closer inspection. If we zoom in close enough, what seemed to be a boundary, a distinction, a limitation dissolves.

The honeybee provides a distinct test case for an experiment within Marx’s writing.  Even as far back as the Philosophic and Economic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx uses the example of the bee to convey his distinction. Today, scientists possess more knowledge concerning honeybee behavior. In the 1980’s many experiments uncovered their ability for communication and memory.  Honeybees can learn patterns and remember images to navigate a landscape. When an individual bee locates an area for nutrients, then it remembers the location and communicates the message to other bees in the colony. This language capacity can take place through many mediums as well including through visual dancing, the production of pheromones, and the presentation of food. Marx would have been unaware of the advanced intelligence of honeybees; he especially could not have foreseen the advanced fields in engineering based on honeybees including ‘hive memory’ and ‘swarm theory.’ Inside a bee hive is a thriving economy of bees interacting with their environment and themselves. The air around the hive is circulating with chemical messages.  These messages allow for communication to occur through an intricate pheromone transmission system.
TO THE DISSOLUTION OF HIERARCHIES: MARX’S HONEYBEE CONTRA MARX’S HUMANISM PART II

I wish to explore the threshold between the human/animal barrier in Marx by investigating the honeybee’s capacity for language and memory. Is it possible that Marx is using the wrong units for analysis? How do we know that a single bee compared to a single human is adequate? Why not an entire hive versus a single neuron?  The first comparison would clearly favor the human specimen, while the second comparison would favor the bee. Surely, Marx believes that the human cannot be reduced to a single neuron. This warrants that the human consciousness must in some sense emerge from some organization between the neurons within our brain. The billions of neurons each contribute to a process of self-organization. As the network of neurons receives more input they react and respond. Complexity theory refers to the spontaneous adaptation of a system as ‘learning.’  What we call the imagination or memory is simply an archive of associations in history.  These memories are held together on a common substrate which we typically reference as our subject(ivity). The attributes and behaviors of our subjecthood are stored in a large library of imprints and arrangements. This is no library of books, better rather a library of neurons and chemical messages. 

Similarly in honeybees, if we remove our anthropocentric and reductionist urge to compare one human versus one bee, then our units of analysis become the hive with its swarm of honeybees versus the brain and its swarm of neurons. Because Marx portrays language as an activity concurrent with consciousness, irreparable tension is injected into his depiction of the human animal and non-human animal dichotomy. If language and consciousness are “not inherent” but rather arise out of a “burden with matter,” then on what grounds can we confine consciousness and relations to the realm of the human animal (GI, 158)?  I believe complexity theory provides a solution to this problem. Complexity theory provides an explanation for how something can arise spontaneously. This style of explanation would escape the need for some essentialist or rule-based foundation (like Marx).

Complexity-theory scholarship offers much to Marxism, but specific to this investigation is the nature of conscious and what makes up memory. In complexity theory a complex process can accumulate imprints or reactions to information through encounter. My brain currently is encountering music, concepts, and anxieties. Each of these elements work in an ensemble to cover, uncover, and recover past information that is embedded in the network of neurons. There is no perfectly defined cause and effect in this network, which makes it problematic to utilize a reductionist analysis to account for human essence. This is not to say that there are no organized relations in the mind, but rather to say that even the seemingly organized and confined structures of thought are saturated with a compact, dense form of excess. The mind is truly buzzing with activity like a hive full of dancing bees. Where neurons interact by firing chemical messages, bees interact by sending chemical pheromones and by engaging in sophisticated dance language. The hive is a structure brimming with the language of chemical dance.  It is ironic to find Marx’s beginning for human value and human consciousness in language, which is in my analysis equally a nexus from which to end the privileged category of the human. I see Marx ascribing to the curriculum of Nietzsche’s “devil,” the spirit of gravity; this is a devil where “through him all things fall.” Only the honeybee’s dance ruptures the belief in the spirit of gravity and propels one forward to find another belief altogether. We should heed Nietzsche’s caution to “believe only in a god who could dance.”  A god, who rules over a place, where “every day I count wasted in which there has been no dancing.”  In the beehive there is no day counted as true waste, because in the beehive no day is without the language of dancing.

Friedrich Nietzsche. Zarathustra, “On Reading and Writing.”