Dear Volker: a human-sparrow epistolary about expression, desire, and thresholds of relation


by Ally Bisshop

View Ally Bisshop's Biography

Ally Bisshop is a settler artist, writer and researcher working on the unceded lands of the Turrbal and Jagera people, and interdisciplinary lecturer at Griffith Film School, Meanjin/ Brisbane.

Dear Volker: a human-sparrow epistolary about expression, desire, and thresholds of relation



If COVID-19 unsettled speciated stories of bodies and relation, it also offered a chance to write them anew. Viral movements rendered tangible the porosities and reciprocities between human and nonhuman bodies — exposing the myth of the atomistic human subject. In turn, as pandemic lockdowns sought to limit particular trans-corporeal relations, they fomented a critical and creative curiosity about other kinds of relation: the more-than-human meshworks and semiotic ecologies of our domestic spaces, to which we found ourselves newly attentive. In its rendering strange of the patterns and contours of social life, in its disruptions of the telos of human desires — the pandemic opened space for thinking and relating differently to the social lives, expressions and desires of the nonhuman bodies who were our intimate companions in confinement — and for reimagining the stories we tell about them.

In the locked-down Spring and Summer of 2021, the noisy societies of house sparrows who take up seasonal residence on my apartment balcony were displaced by one lonely and territorial male. I named this sparrow Volker — because it's a German name and I live in Berlin, but also because of its resonances with 'vocal' and 'volk' [people]: a nod to the passerine communities that he spent each day loudly signalling, and whose bodies and songs happily plaited the branches of the trees below.

Watching him from the unbearable familiarity of my living room, I couldn't determine whether Volker was actively summoning his sparrow kin or warning them away. As Volker's loneliness persisted, his agitation grew. His calls became louder [and tonally aggressive, at least to my emotionally labile ears] — shrieked from the balcony balustrade toward the sparrow collectives below, who kept a convivial distance.

Volker was in distress, I decided. The ritournelle (Deleuze and Guattari 312) he sounded was too rigid and hermetic; if his songs enunciated a social territory, then it was one ringed by vibratory walls of exclusion. But then, what if Volker was signalling refusal; an incantation of resistance in a performance that also gave him creative agency (Despret "Secret Agents" 42-44)? What aspects of avian desire, joy and subjective expression are missed by speciated and mechanistic readings of birdsong and behaviour? What kinds of relation do such readings foreclose?

This essay-as-epistolary is an exercise in thinking-with Volker: about desire, expression, and relation. Desire displaces mechanism in this ethological story — the nonhuman desire habitually excluded from scientific accounts of Volker's behaviour and semiotics, and my own desires to make relations [and make sense] with him. This essay also thinks [with Volker] about the possibilities and limits of making relations across thresholds of difference [human/bird]: the kind of ethical considerations difference demands, and how difference itself can be a lure for relation — particularly for making relations otherwise. In so doing, it considers how the categorical distinctions and hierarchies that codify the human/bird relation might be reworked through a curious, zoē-egalitarian (Braidotti "Theoretical Framework" 12) attention to Volker's "other ways of being alive" (Morizot 13) — an attention that unfolds in intra-territorial margins; an attention sharpened by lockdowns that rendered worlds unfamiliar; an attention that does not seek to assimilate or interpret his queer and expressive modes of language, but to practice a mode of "not knowing" (de la Cadena 254) that finds ethical purchase and generative possibility in unassimilable difference. An attention that reads Volker's zoo-semiotics as zoē-semiotics: animated by generative vitality, threaded with affective currents of desire.

Semiotics is an epistemological exercise (Kull 48), meaning that thinking about Volker's performative vocalisations is a practice, however unsteady, of knowing-with him. As thinking-with, knowing-with nonhuman others is a speculative task, this text unfolds in a speculative register: an eco- and mytho-poetic "fictioning" that draws from the real — empirical and embodied interaction, scientific data, ethological observation — to imagine possibilities for being and relating otherwise (Burrows and O'Sullivan 1).

This fictioning unfolds as an epistolary — understood as an 'auto'-ethnographic [life writing] practice that draws from and expresses knowledge as lived experience, marking it as an appropriate format for creative, critical inquiries into arts of living. If the lived experience of the epistolary is prima facie understood as human, then a more-than-human letter-writing exercise takes aim at "this auto-definition ... of man" (Derrida 24). I cannot speak to Volker's lived experience, nor do I wish to ventriloquize him. Addressing him in my letters becomes a way of reworking a 'life writing' practice away from the human subject as the measure of lived experience, intentionality, and agency, while challenging my own habits in translating experience to knowledge, as such.

To keep Volker in mind as the reader — if only speculatively — trains my thinking and writing toward potential and generosity. It primes me to attend — to be open — to the possibility of Volker's response; to remain curious about his behaviours and expansive in my speculation about if and what he signals. To imagine this writing as dialogic is to lean into a mythopoesis of interspecies relation, understood as a creative praxis: of testing the hard edges of relational possibility; of probing the semiotic limits of "not-being-able" that condition our shared "finitude" (Wolfe 571); of imagining worlds in which a conversation with a sparrow — however untranslatable or 'unknowable' — might be possible.

1 - Bisshop_Cover.jpg

VERNAL AFFECTS [Spring and lust, among other things]

Dear Volker,

Here's the first threshold of our story; the budding of "this exigent season called Spring" (Robertson "Venus"). In the vernal perfume of this season — when Eros gestures slyly at us from behind the narcotic veil of Winter — desire, and therefore language and territory, begin to swell.

Spring is a rhythmic marker for both of us, Volker, to reshape our territories. To sound out their borders, to make them our own — and in so doing, to remember and redraw the contours of our desiring, chattering selves. This winter just gone had rendered me torpid. Like you, and other Berliners numbed by the prickle of icy weather, grey skies, and bad moods, I had in-folded my territories of sociality, of belonging and subjectification. From the seclusion of my apartment, the already isolationist drag of a European winter laboured under the weight of endless lockdowns that limited physical possibilities for relation: contracting, cramping the borders of the social sphere, the relational tendencies of my desiring self.

Spring, though — this gentle loosening of winter's grip — is our cue for territorial expansion. Windows are washed; glass panes scraped with razor blades quickly blunted by clots of birdshit and desiccated insect bodies. The balcony doors thrown open: extending the apartment outward, welcoming this exterior territory back into its fold.

This balcony isn't mine alone. Along with the other non-human bodies it cradles, I share this space with a chorus of house sparrows whose presence I actively solicit. The lures I enrol are material, aligned with passerine desires I imagine as if my own: food [a birdfeeder replenished daily with seed]; water [a bird bath as site of sustenance, bathing, boisterous play]; security/sexual privacy [a nesting box installed under the eaves of the upstairs balcony].

From this summoned people you sprang, Volker, to make a claim on this space to mark it as your own — a performative territorialisation I encounter on venturing outside one Spring morning, coffee in hand.

cheep-cheep, chirrup, cheep

There you were — perched on the balustrade — chest puffed; loudly, endlessly announcing yourself to an audience-yet-unseen. Were you calling to me, this strange body who had cut into your space? Threaded through the limbs of bushes at street level below I could hear a chorus of sparrows chattering: a social hum, an undertone to the whole. Was it for their eyes, then; their ears, their libidinal bodies, that you danced and sang so ferociously? Was any part of this dance for me?

As per the scientific account, the lengthening of days and a fresh ripple of sex hormones triggered by the start of Spring signals to you [and other unmated male sparrows] that it's time to find a place for nesting, courting, and singing (Whitfield-Rucker and Cassone 173); a territory that grounds your affections, a site from which to broadcast yourself to the world. So far, so good, Volker. If your desire is to hold space for a sexual mate yet-to-come, it's a fine site you've chosen. But as days pass and neither mate nor kin appear, I wonder if I am reading your desire — your story — correctly.

I am a Spinozan — or try to be. I do not claim to possess "adequate ideas" (Deleuze "Spinoza" 19) about your thoughts, wants, behaviours. I can but try to tell a story that registers the affects that unfold in this particular space where our minds, utterances and gestural bodies come to meet. A story placed auf dem Balkon, a site which is both territory and interval; an interspecific threshold that forms its own kind of territorial logic. A story threaded with thresholds — unsteady spaces where things emerge, meet, swell, and bleed. And perhaps, in the telling, I might venture some worthy ideas about the signals and desires dancing between us.

Spring affects us both, Volker — ravelling us together in a synchronous wash of seasonal affects: hormones flushing human and nonhuman bodies pink with lust; the slow stretching of yellow sunlit days activating a kind of "sensual-ethical" pleasure (Rigby 56) in certain humans, at the same time as it triggers in certain plants a molecular, florigenic signal to bloom; the gentle acceleration of warmth provoking your migratory kin to take flight, as much it prompts me to test again the weathered boards of my balcony with unslippered feet.

If I sound romantic, Volker — it's not a romanticism bent upon exoticising and othering a more-than-human 'nature' in which I also figure. Rather, I want to begin with the figuring. I want to think through a "contemplative ecopoetics" (Rigby 54) that engages bodies as sensing, relational and porous — that is, affecting and affected — sites of knowing. A poetics that proceeds by engaging the affective and semiotic mesh (Whitehouse 60) that gathers and interpenetrates all manner of bodies — biological, atmospheric, mineralogical, technological; a poetics that takes seriously the liminal pull of the interspecific affects, signs and excesses that emerge in the event of our small encounters, in the space of our shared milieu.

In the telling, I hope to unravel the narrative of mechanism that circles and delimits stories of your behaviour, Volker; your capacity for thought, passion, expression. I am not running counter to science — I was a biologist before practising art; its logic still grips my analytical body. Rather, I am running interference. Science explains all manner of expressive and idiosyncratic behaviours in terms of a species-specific adherence to biological [reproductive] programming — excluding the possibility, Volker, of your own desires, your capacity to decide on the manner and shape of your own life. But science is itself a story, and can be told differently (Haraway "Primate Visions" 4-5) — none more so than animal behavioural science [ethology]: "a story of stories" (Buchanan et al. 165), no less! Telling your story differently is a matter of troubling exigent myths that present themselves as worldly facts, imagining new models and perspectives of and in worlds affectively shaped by more-than-only-human passions.

If I speculate about your desires, it's not because I presume to know them. It's a way to escape the trap of causalism in thinking about your expressive ways. To begin with the possibility of your desire opens this story onto a biopolitics in which life — human and nonhuman — is driven by a fundamental desire for affirmative [joyful] self-expression conatus. It returns this ethology to an ethics that asks, rather than presumes, what a body can do; one that brings "joyful passions" into its attempt to form "notional ideas⁠" (Deleuze "Spinoza" 28) about the thresholds in which our lives coincide. If life is a matter of desire, then desire is a good place to begin ethically reworking the storying of animal life.

I'll write more, Volker; unspooling ideas in cadence with the seasonal and affective drifts that shape our tendencies to sociality and song. In the intervals, I'll look for your response: in your trills, your dance between balustrade and bath, your silences.

3 - Bisshop_FIG1.jpg

Figure 1: Unfixed photo paper left in the base of the bird feeder.

TERRITORIES AND PERIPHERIES [things happen in the margins]

Dear Volker,

Here we are, in the bake of European Summer. Forearms glued to the table with a slip of sweat; my eyes and ears pricked with fizzy irritation toward the balcony visible beyond open doors; now a stage, it seems, for endless panicked vocalisations of your chirrups and chirps.

Heat does funny things to us. It softens us; makes us fluid. It smears the edges of things, like a horizon line that blurs under the vapor of a baking earth. It arouses us — renders us curious and permeable, braiding us more tightly with climate, wind, season, hour; the-animal-stalks-at-five-o'clock (Deleuze and Guattari 263). As my apartment becomes porous — admitting more of the 'outside world' in — so, of course, do I.

To burn is to transform energy, and your desire, it seems, is to swell canicular energy into sonic choreographies. Your soundings-out become our thick and joyful companions; indexes for the absurd and theatrical vigour of Summer [erotic vitality] itself: "I can hear from their little racket, the birds are burning up and down like holy fools" (Carson "Little Racket").

And here you are, Volker, still making your little racket. Still tripping between balustrade, eave, and feeder. Still sounding your "barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world" (Whitman 87); perhaps toward the bushes below whose plump boughs are bouncing with chattering societies of your speciated kin.

chirrup, chirrup, chirrup, chirrup

By this stage of Summer, some sparrows are onto their second brood of the nesting season. You remain a bachelor. There are eyes and ears on your performance — mine, at the very least — but no conspecific mate has arrived to share this territory with you. And with your continued celibacy, your sonic performances seem — to me, who watches and listens — to have accelerated: in the frenzy of their rhythm, the fury of their projections. You seem distressed about your solitary condition, and I worry that these sonic expressions of distress are, ironically, driving potential mates away.

cheep, cheep, cheep-cheep, cheep

Maybe this sounds like I am under the sway of the programmatic logic I said I would resist — one which holds that sexual reproduction is the endgame, the sole engine, of your performances — and that the absence of a nesting mate distresses only this generative urge with which you are unwittingly programmed. But what I am imagining is that these little spectacles of yours express a desire for relation itself: the joy of testing one's thresholds — which happens by pushing up against an outside, an edge, an 'other' body (Braidotti "The Ethics" 137).1 It happens by testing your capacities for being alive in a trans-territorial world that is more than yours [or mine] alone. I want to attend to this story of territory, its edges and interweavings, its fielding of social and subjective expressions — and look for cues there.

I hinted earlier at this synanthropic history that tethered human and sparrow territories together. In this story, the advent of agriculture — that great lodestone in the progression of human 'civilisation' — also impressed itself upon your feathered body: curving your skull, making your digestive circuitry more amenable to starch (Ravinet et al. 8). Pressing up against human territories [and ways of being] rendered your ways, your body, differently.

In stalking human agricultural [and later urban] territories, you never gave up the desire for staking your own space, separate from con- and allo-specific neighbours. This territory of yours is a site of reproductive [erotic] activity — but also expression: borders drawn through sonic and gestural performance; soundings-out that function — as the scientific story goes — as both declarative warning to competitors [a walling off] and sexual lure [an invitation in].

Scientific accounts of your territories — long-tethered to ideas of sexual aggression and Malthusian competition — are shifting, as we pay closer attention to how these territories [and their borders] are performed (Despret "Living" 7-40); how territory is "embodied and embedded" (Braidotti "Theoretical Framework" 4) in a complex avian social contract. Rather than distancing you from conspecific 'rivals', territories knit you together in material-semiotic ways (Despret "Living" 44). Presumed conflicts at territorial borders are now understood as "social stimuli", but also "devices for enthusiasm" (124-125) — underscoring the ways in which relation and joy are intimately interwoven. If you invent pretexts for territorial skirmishes (143), it's because there's joy to be had in this expressive dance of encounter [or desire thereof]. Of course, you already know this Volker — bear with me while I catch up.

chirrup, chirrup, chirrup, chirrup, chirrup

Ah, yes! Your territory is also a stage for expressive performances of self. Whitman's "barbaric yawp" was a way of sounding-out his own Song of Myself. I imagine you do the same — each chirrup enunciating an "existential territory" of subjectification (Guattari in Genosko 196), and each territory, in turn, providing an excuse to sing (Despret "Living" 93-94). A performance that declares 'Here I am! I am here!' to those watching, but also to yourself — as you huff and bluff your way into the world. And, if your ritournelle draws your home and a kind of subjectivity, it also invents a threshold of difference against which an outside — something that isn't you — can be defined.

What territories bring to our story of desire, relation and expression is the importance of "a periphery"; an edge across which relations can take shape, a "limit by which [you] can relate to a neighbour" (Despret "Living" 124-125). The edging of territories is a way to intensify relation, composing thresholds of individuation and difference along which the social stimuli [so foundational to your libidinal desire]2 can be danced/sung. Territorial instantiations of 'self' provide the very conditions for relation — social or otherwise. And bodies, it seems, have a greater capacity for affection in the margins between worlds (Deleuze "Lecture").

So here we are, Volker, occupying our own funny margin: a balcony that is both existential territory and relational threshold. A differentiating edge that allows us to push against one another, reworking our selves, worlds, capacities for relation. If peripheries stage cues that shape carnal, social, and expressive desires, then what kinds of signals are being transmitted here, along this human-avian territorial edge?

The dynamics of our territorial margin are made peculiar, though, by this context in which our lives are now caught: a global pandemic that distances and disembodies human social relations — while conversely allowing me to attend so closely, Volker, to our possibilities for bodily and affective relation. As the pandemic amplifies my anxiety, can you sense it? Might the swirling of interspecies affects in this territory-cum-threshold explain the panicked accelerations of your behaviour? Is your angst riffing upon my own? Or is my anxiety simply colouring my observation — making me read passions in your movements that aren't there?

If this balcony stitches our individual territories together, it's also the site for a general braiding of sparrow and human worldings. From your balcony perch, you are touched by other socio-sensory pandemic cues: the emptiness of footpaths, the soundlessness of the ping-pong table across the street, a smellscape no longer clamouring with the tang of the Argentinian grill downstairs, its ovens long dormant. What do you make of the fact that humans — your evolutionary messmates — are eschewing physical contact; willingly caging ourselves in territories that are supposed to gift us the very freedom to leave (Despret "Living" 54)? Are these performative estrangements shaping your queer expressions of sociality — the manic chirrups that seemingly wall you off from passerine kin?

Part of my anxiety belongs to me — as with your own passions, Volker. But if part of our anxiety is shared, I wonder how it might trace to the trauma of the cut: the separation from familiar relational ecologies this pandemic forced upon us. Dislocation from the semiotic hum of more-than-human relation can trigger panic (Whitehouse 61-62) and render the world strange. Watching your movements allows me to re-ground my thoughts — to recover a sense of immersion in a lively relational meshwork (61). I understand your response to this strangeness: these iterative refrains that draw the contours of a world safe and familiar (Deleuze and Guattari 311). But take care not to draw the circle too tightly; you must leave a gap if you want to let others in (311).

2 - Bisshop_FIG2.jpg

Figure 2: Temporal drawing of Volker's movements across the balcony.


Dear Volker,

Summer is sloping away. Trees are wasting their leaves on the balcony floor; spiny winds whipping up clouds of lindenblumen and feathers from already-abandoned nests. Soon I'll shut the doors again to our shared territory, closing off, a little, from your expressive ways. Not to be fatalistic, but it's time for a final letter.

In these letters, I am trying to think with you about desire — how it [re]writes the story of site and song, the thresholds of self, difference, and relation. "I am writing this to be as wrong as possible to you" (Carson "Plainwater" 45) — meaning I want to venture ideas that aren't afraid of embarrassing themselves in the face of deterministic claims about your capacities for language, cognition, passion. I want to be wilfully, joyfully wrong3 — if it lets me imagine how your expressiveness counts for something on its own terms (Rose 98), and in ways that remain unknowable by me, even as I am gripped by their affective power.

I will also be wrong to the extent that my storying errs in the direction of generalised claims. Ethology tends to develop descriptors that apply at the species level — but Volker, you're no archetype! You're a "subject with [your] own perspectives on life" (Meijer 13); your behaviours — and expressive language [loaded, as it is, with meanings I cannot grasp] — differ accordingly.

cheep, cheep, cheep, chirrup

Expressively, though, you're no nightingale. I am not talking about a difference along speciated lines, but along an "ethological chart of affects" (Deleuze "Lectures") of which bodies are capable. Or rather, I am talking about the affective power of your song — a measure of which I can only grasp in terms of its capacity to affect me. I'll grant that for you and other sparrows, there's an affective tonality to chirrup, cheep not graspable by a sensing body such as mine.4 Our bodies have limits that condition our "style" — our attempts to "stammer in [our] own language" (Deleuze and Parnet 4) — and our capacity to be affected by the language of others. Nonetheless, I do not imagine it was your calls, Volker, that prompted Lucretius' to claim "birds instructed man" in the art of song.

Lucretius' 2000-year-old claim discloses a protracted human obsession with birdsong; with the question of animal language [and by correlation, animal minds]. We've since manifested a discipline around animal forms of semiosis: zoosemiotics, which hopes to think with you — or rather, to understand what and how you know things — by looking for correlative signs in what you say and do (Kull 51).

Where I also try to think-with you through attention to your song and dance, I am no semiotician! I do wonder, though, if a focus on signification and representation misses something; an attention to nodes that glosses the semiotic mesh (Whitehouse 60). What if your chirpings are not so much a key to your inner thoughts as they are a "way of being alive" (Ingold in Langford 97): of manifesting yourself in a world of affective relations in which your song has the power to affect others, in which singing intensifies the possibilities for transversal affections? As with other noisy birds — perhaps the drone of your "continuous racket" is a way to "keep communication channels open and flowing", rather than a means of conveying specific messages (Luz 32). Your insistent bleating, Volker, opens affective possibilities for both relation and subjective instantiation — and perhaps this is your point. A way of expressing the desire to feel the fuzzy hum of your bodily limits; to touch others at a distance, to be touched in turn.

Thinking this way marks your expressions as an ethical pursuit of joy: not as happiness [although neither removed from it!] — but as an affirmation of your power [potentia] for self-expression, a faithfulness to your innermost desire [conatus] for "freedom of becoming" (Deleuze "Spinoza" 21; Braidotti "The Ethics" 134-135). Olivier Messiaen — a composer so attentive to the complexity of birdsong — had read a "philosophy of freedom" (Weir) in your ways of being, seeing birds as "servants of immaterial joy" (Messiaen Ch. IX). Perhaps this explains why birdsong performatively exceeds any mechanistic function in the service of purely reproductive territorial logics (Despret "Living" 51). The desire to sing, to say and speak (Braidotti "Writing" 169) as an outpouring of a fundamental desire for freedom of becoming.

All of this is to suggest that your songs and dances say something about desire itself — in writing the expressive subject, in writing possibilities for relation. We are both "becoming-subjects" sustained by an "ontological desire to connect and relate" (Braidotti "Posthuman Feminism" 199); a desire immanent to our lively expressions, but which overflows the edges of our bodies. This is where a concept of life as zoē (Braidotti "Transpositions" 37) is useful — a way of undoing the hierarchical distinction between human [bios] and nonhuman life, or even of thinking life as something that begins and ends with a biological body. The 'zoo' of zoosemiotics denotes an attention to a semiosis of 'the animal' [separate from this human animal writing] — it carries traces of the dualistic thinking that seeks to carve the human [speaking and knowing] subject out from the more-than-human semiotic mesh. Zoē conceives life as a generative and transversal force that moves across and through human and nonhuman bodies alike, linking us in affective threads of desire and becoming (Braidotti "The Untimely" 234). A hungry, nomadic pulse that thrums, connects and exceeds both of our bodies, Volker: in circuits of song; in intensive relays of passions, good and bad. I want to experiment with making this joyful leap from zoo-semiotics to zoē-semiotics; to think your expressive ways in terms of a transversal, impersonal and generative force that also runs in me.

To think life in terms of becoming is to think life as [relational] desire for becomings-with (Haraway "Species" 244); a life that affirms its affective [ethical] power by experimenting with forms of relation across thresholds of difference. We need to bristle against others to understand the limits of our powers to affect and be affected. This relational desire underwrites my attempts to think-with, sense-with you; to will myself to be imprinted by your ways of being. Perhaps this relational [socialising] desire also underlies birdsong itself; birdsong as a way to build communities [including across species] — an "expressive cosmopolitics" that works by accommodating others, musically, in a collective score (Despret "Living" 148, 155-156). There's a danger, though, in thinking that a convivial notion of sociality is the endpoint of relational desire. Not all relations put us under the sway of joyful [ethical] passions, nor is all language spoken out loud.

Part of desire is refusal; another way of expressing your freedom to choose. Refusal as a performance of avian agency (Despret "Secret Agents" 42-44) — of your power to act — by withholding your voice, or wielding it 'improperly' [shrieking too loudly, too much, from the balcony]. Perhaps refusal — of your reproductive fate, of expectations of passerine sociality — is the affective undertone to your manic tweets, whose volume and thrust now seem to express a desire to partition yourself from the "risky terms of social life" (Butler 28). It does seem strange, Volker, for you to open a noisy channel of relation (Luz 32) only in order to seal it shut — but; refusal-as-desire works in curious ways. Refusal can also be an affirmative [ethical] act, in the sense of turning away from negative passions, rejecting what is unacceptable about the present (Braidotti "Posthuman Knowledge" 166). I would prefer not to is, after all, a necessary step before "I desire otherwise" (166). And, desiring-otherwise is an increasingly ethical project — at the personal level of "know[ing and choosing] the encounters which agree with you" (Deleuze "Lecture") and that increase your powers to act in joyful ways — but also at the socio-political level, of refusing those aspects of a world that feels inhospitable, perilous. I get it — this urge to refuse a world as barbed as this; to close yourself off from worldly configurations that compromise your desire.

Returning to this letter's starting point: I also want to be wrong insofar as I want to grant you "the power of not submitting to [my] interpretation" (Bussolini 196) — the chance to wriggle free from my clumsy analyses. This demands that I exit an analytical framework in which I am the one in this relationship who possesses the possibility of knowing you — the [animal] other. If I begin having already hierarchically defined our cognitive, sensory, and affective capacities, I will miss the tendencies and potentials that emerge in and through our relation. I will miss your efforts to tell me things I hadn't thought to ask (Haraway "Curious" 6).

I want to embrace the potential of "not knowing" (de la Cadena 254) as an affirmative and ethical way of approaching the task of making relations across thresholds of difference. Not knowing doesn't signal a lack of curiosity or failure of method. It is an ethical condition of respecting our differences; of not wanting to assimilate your ways of being, Volker, into my own. Not knowing begins with an acceptance of the ungraspable excess; a practice of estranging myself from analytical habits (254). Not knowing as part of our coming together in this inter-territorial periphery in which we "understood each other and did not understand each other" (248). Not knowing as a vertiginous force that propels my own experimentation with relational and affective limits.

These letters tell a story of expression, difference, and desire by experimenting with a poetics of relation. Poetics — in eco-, mytho- and zoē- forms — is a way to "make room" for a sense of a world rich with mind and agency (Rose 106). It's also a way to make room for not knowing; a way to hold together incongruent and incompatible ideas, to test the joyful limits of our own expressive powers. To engage passions as lures for thought.

The light is dipping ever earlier; shadows stippling my skin, pinching my language. I see it affects you too; an incremental quieting in your song as the days shorten, as social cues recede, as your hormones ebb. I am closing the balcony doors now, signing off this letter. Do not worry — I'll bring you seeds in the morning.

4 - Bisshop_FIG3.jpg

Figure 3: A transpositional relay of chirrups and cheeps. We invent strategies to approach avian vocalisation, as if (Despret "Becomings" 125) we were the same— a lure for their attentions. I transposed Volker's chirrups into musical notation not to prove its musicality, but to find the "bird's breath ... in my throat" (Robertson "Weather" 82); a pish that might grip him when played. In the end, he seemed to prefer Satie.


Braidotti, Rosi. Posthuman Feminism. Cambridge: Polity, 2022.

—. Posthuman Knowledge. Cambridge: Polity, 2019.

—. "A Theoretical Framework for the Critical Posthumanities." Theory, Culture and Society (SI: Transversal Posthumanities), 2018, pp. 1-31.

—. "The Untimely." In B. Blaagaard and I. van der Tuin (Eds.), The Subject of Rosi Braidotti. London: Bloomsbury, 2014, pp. 227-250.

—. "Writing as a Nomadic Subject." Comparative Critical Studies 11 (2-3), 2014, pp. 163-184.

—. "The Ethics of Becoming-Imperceptible." In C. V Boundas (Ed.), Deleuze and Philosophy. Edinburgh: EUP, 2006, pp. 133-159.

—. Transpositions: On Nomadic Ethics. Cambridge: Polity, 2006.

Bruyninckx, Joeri. Listening in the Field: Recording and the Science of Birdsong, Cambridge: MIT Press, 2018.

Buchanan, Brett, et al. "On Asking the Right Questions: An Interview with Vinciane Despret." Angelaki - Journal of the Theoretical Humanities 20 (2), 2015, pp. 165-178.

Burrows, David, and Simon O'Sullivan. Fictioning: The Myth-Functions of Contemporary Art and Philosophy, Edinburgh: EUP, 2019.

Bussolini, Jeffrey. "Recent French, Belgian and Italian Work in the Cognitive Science of Animals: Dominique Lestel, Vinciane Despret, Roberto Marchesini and Giorgio Celli." Social Science Information 52 (2), 2013, pp. 187-209.

Butler, Judith. The Psychic Life of Power, Stanford: SUP, 1997.

Carson, Anne. "Little Racket". The New Yorker, December 14, 2015. Available at:

—. Plainwater: Essays and Poetry. New York: Vintage Contemporaries, 2000.

de la Cadena, Marisol. "Not Knowing: In the Presence of ...." In A. Ballestero and B. Winthereik (Eds.), Experimenting with Ethnography: A Companion to Analysis. Durham: Duke University Press, 2021, pp. 246-256.

Deleuze, Gilles. Spinoza: Practical Philosophy. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1988.

—. Lecture Transcripts on Spinoza's Concept of Affect, 1978. Available at:

Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: capitalism and schizophrenia, B. Massumi (trans.). Minneapolis: UOM Press, 1987.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Claire Parnet. Dialogues II, H. Tomlinson and B. Habberjam (trans.). New York: Columbia University Press, 2016.

Derrida, Jacques. The Animal That Therefore I Am, M-L Mallet (ed.), D. Wills (trans.). New York: Fordham University Press, 2008.

Despret, Vinciane. Living as a Bird, H. Morrison (trans.). Cambridge: Polity, 2021.

—. "From Secret Agents to Interagency." History and Theory 52 (4), 2013, pp. 29-44.

—. "The Becomings of Subjectivity in Animal Worlds." Subjectivity 23 (1), 2008, pp. 123-139.

Gatens, Moira, and Genevieve Lloyd. Collective Imaginings: Spinoza, Past and Present. London: Routledge, 1999.

Genosko, Gary. The Guattari Reader. Cambridge: Blackwell, 1996.

Haraway, Donna. "A Curious Practice." Angelaki - Journal of the Theoretical Humanities 20 (2), 2015, pp. 5-14.

—. Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science. New York: Routledge, 1989.

Ingold, Tim. Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description. London: Routledge, 2011.

Kull, Kalevi. "Zoosemiotics Is the Study of Animal Forms of Knowing." Semiotica 198, 2014, pp. 47-60.

Luz, Nuno da. "Undocumented Birds: Echopolitics as Interspecies Resistance." Cadernos de Arte e Antropologia 10⁠99 10(1), 2020, pp. 26-36.

Meijer, Eva. "Political Animal Voices." Doctoral thesis, University of Amsterdam, 2017.

Messiaen, Olivier. The technique of my musical language, J. Satterfield (trans.). Paris: Alphonse Leduc, 1956.

Morizot, Baptiste. Ways of being alive. Cambridge: Polity, 2022.

Ravinet M., et al. "Signatures of human-commensalism in the house sparrow genome." Proc. Royal Society B 285:20181246, 2018.

Rigby, Kate. Reclaiming Romanticism: Towards an Ecopoetics of Decolonization. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020.

Robertson, Lisa. "The Venus Problem." Triple Canopy, 2011. Available at:

—. The weather. Vancouver: New Star Books, 2001.

Rose, Deborah Bird. "Val Plumwood's Philosophical Animism: Attentive Interactions in the Sentient World." Environmental Humanities 3 (1), 2013, pp. 93-109.

Weir, Gillian. "Olivier Messiaen - The Composer I Know; The Man I Knew." Eloquence, 2020. Available at:

Whitehouse, Andrew. "Listening to Birds in the Anthropocene: The Anxious Semiotics of Sound in a Human-Dominated World." Environmental Humanities 6 (1), 2015, pp. 53-71.

Whitfield-Rucker, M. and Cassone, V. "Photoperiodic Regulation of the Male House Sparrow Song Control System." General and Comparative Endocrinology 118 (1), 2000, pp. 173-183.

Whitman, Walt. "Song of Myself". In Leaves of Grass, Philadelphia: David McKay, 1904.

Wolfe, Cary. "Human, all too human: animal studies and the humanities." PMLA 124 (2), 2009, pp. 564-575.


  1. See also Guattari (Genosko 196) on the ecology of subjectivity - a collectivity emphasising relations with both an outside (a socius) and within

  2. Despret ("Living" 56) citing Darling's argument that the presence of other territorial birds arouse hormonal cycles essential for reproduction. 

  3. 'Wrong' also in the sense that fictions "involve untruths that are knowingly entertained rather than mistaken for inadequate ideas" (Gatens and Lloyd 34). 

  4. Bruyninckx (69): "what a bird sings" is not equivalent to "what can be heard".