A few years ago, in one of those welcome serendipities that change your intellectual life, I encountered simultaneously, and thus got all entangled in my brain, • fellow HistConer Eva Hayward’s process ontologies of “transing,” as many re-embodied sensory arts in transgendered practices, and • American Studies scholar Bailey Kier’s indexing of the networked methodologies of “trans knowledges” in flexible, global cognitions. As a result, I’ve never been able to disentangle these threads again. To me the term “trans” now always carries with it the transgenic material shared from both these viral vectors. Then, when I first heard this panel’s name “tranimal,” in my brain, those particularized transing meanings suddenly added themselves to the bodies in transit described in the feminist transdisciplinary posthumanities work of Donna Haraway’s animal studies. I was enthralled. Were there additional companionable ways to re-embody? another sensory medium I could offer for exploration? another way to add my own bit to these meanings gone viral? How might I participate in transcodings of technicities, bodies, animalities, feminisms, media and academies?
The result was an on-going project that started off as an occasion for engaging new companions in this spirit. Far from all done, and still only partially working, what I have so far to share with you are experiences to decode, recode, and augment.
With Cedar Island neighbor Delia Lake I’ve been training my Virtual Kennel Club Portuguese water dog Saudade to work with Delia’s VKC Aussie Gracie to herd sheep in the virtual world Second Life. Delia is also owner of the sim (the simulated neighborhood in SL) named Better World, where her activisms in sustainable environments and wetlands management are lively presences. Delia is the person who first clued me in about the “learning” capacities of VKC dogs in SL. Dogs like Sau and Gracie are created and owned by SL avatar Enrico Genosse, and are now at the heart of a system of dog parks, dog toys and supplies, vet clinics and trainers in Second Life.
Delia first introduced me to the credentialed VKC trainers Blu Sparkle and Sandry Logan at Turning Isle dog park to learn how to create the carefully marked and embedded strings of commands that are used to train and condition VKC dogs. By teaching the dogs various tricks on your own, their repertoire of actions is enlarged and you, and also they, can choose among more things to do. You can condition them to perform some actions more often than others, or attempt to extinguish specific behaviors. Those behaviors you have introduced can be removed, those part of their original repertoire are not eliminated but the probability of their performance can be significantly lowered. But the special quality of VKC dogs is that they can learn on their own, interacting with their environment, with other dogs and avatars, and other scripted objects acting as various kinds of agencies in Second Life.
Delia clued me in here too, telling me stories about her Aussie Gracie’s tricks discovered on her own: Gracie learned to sit on a sea gull in Delia’s sim and be carried around when it flew. At first I kept Sau in my Second Life avatar Katie Fenstalker’s inventory with the rest of the other objects, scripted and otherwise, I possess in SL. I could only take her out to play with and train in environments in which I have permission to materialize, or as we say in SL “rez,” her. That’s because she takes up space on the Linden Lab servers that coordinate the many virtual environments that make up Second Life. Sim owners have only so many prims or primitive building elements per amount of space to use and understandably they use them for their own objects and buildings of various kinds. Only some places in my neighborhood Cedar Island are open for rezzing Sau, places I can play and train with her. The dog parks are also all open in this way and are places to meet up with other dogs and owners and to allow one’s dog to settle on that particular sim and to wander on its own, itself learning in interaction with the environment. But occasionally dogs are pressed to the edge of another sim where they, say, don’t have permission to settle, and they might go non-physical, or you lose track of them on a larger sim, and don’t know what happened to them. Or perhaps something in the programming stops working properly, or the program needs an upgrade. In those cases you end up at the Vet clinic, finding or fixing your dog. Losing your dog is fairly easy to do, they can move quickly enough and with unpredictable enough direction, that one is bound to wind up at a clinic now and then. Not surprisingly, clinics are located in dog parks, near all the possible virtual commodities you might buy for your dog, and where trainers offer volunteer office hours to aid you in practicing more and more sophisticated play with your --- TRANIMAL.
Yep. In my book Sau is a tranimal. Or maybe Sau and I working together become tranimals. Or maybe together we are something tranimal. I am not entirely sure which it is. But whichever version of these distributed cognitions we make up, such is my idea of at least one version of trans knowledge and being that make up something tranimal.
Distributed being and cognition are among the trans knowledges as I have introjected these. They network among a transdisciplinary posthumanities emergently self-organizing under the pressures of global academic restructuring. In such restructuring, states appropriate their entire educational systems to further nationalist strategies for economic globalization, and, among various national restructurings, political economies of sciences, images, culture industries, and technologies reorder in infrastructural assemblages.
In AI or artificial intelligence worlds, Sau might be considered an autonomous agent, which learns and adapts in interaction with its environment. Such interactivities illustrate some self-organizing properties, at a different scale of detail but I would contend properly transconnected, to the macro-scale self-organizations of global restructurings amid reorderings of knowledge worlds; these all occur at various degrees of resolution, or emergence. Still, Sau is not self-reproducing, while these other orders of self-organization might be understood to be, even understood as evolving, a shift of that term across boundaries, suggesting perhaps a range of kinds of sapience and being, in various distributed cognitions and embodiments, thus tranimal. But cognitions are not all. Affect, and learning to be affected, is another element among distributed embodiments of interest to tranimals.
In these few minutes I can only hint at many arguments needing to be unpacked here, but I offer a handout and website with links to online writings that flesh them out a bit more, with citations to specialized materials. Some of the most exciting describe experiments in play, art and commercial entertainment drawing on understandings of mammalian affective architecture and inspiring creators of artificial intelligence today. These are trans linkages between sensory media on the one hand, and mammalian “animalities” and AI agents similar to Sau on the other. I am thinking especially of the digital arts of Ian Horswill, who looks to attachment theory as a guide to creating AI agents for interactive dramas that develop and display mammalian behaviors of psychosocial attachment. In his paper “Men are Dogs (Women too),” Horswill argues
“there isn’t much evidence to suggest there has been a wholesale restructuring of the higher-levels of the nervous system between humans and other social mammals. Since humans share a great deal of social behavior with other species, it’s reasonable to suspect that the basic behavioral systems of social mammals are still intact in humans, running alongside the human-specific capabilities, and able to recruit those systems to accomplish their goals. To put it somewhat snarkily, humans are dogs with large forebrains. For most AI applications, this might not be an important issue. However… interactive entertainment applications make these kinds of issues more relevant to applications than they might have been 20 years ago. … what [might] the architecture might look like, since there’s been almost no work on trying to design architectures that link animal behavior with higher level cognition. [Horswill continues] early efforts at simulating one particular social behavior system, the Attachment Behavior System, [have] been relatively well studied.”
But Sau’s agency in particular doesn’t alone model mammalian attachment, although she does elicit it, which I assume is the point in interactive digital drama too. Indeed, working together as tranimal, she and I together model some kinds of mammalian attachment, something I was not especially expecting, but which was brought to my attention by others in various ways. Without consciously realizing it, when I took pictures of Sau and me in SL, I created, and choose to share, pictures of us visually displaying various kinds of training and other attachments. They elicited comments from others training First Life dogs such as: “I love this! Sau is my favorite dog – in these pics, only she is actively paying attention with her human, actually watching the sheep before she had to do so, on task and in play in fully engaged and engaging ways. Am I biased?” Or: “You and she are definitely into a real training relationship, working in both directions!”
And when I took a brief video of us playing together with her duck dog toy Quackers, I was taken aback when viewing it to see how crude the screen play was shorn of the affective and cognitive dimensions not screen captured. I had been joking with friends that Second Life could be understood as “a data visualization of distributed cognition and being,” but I realized then that I ought to say instead, “a data visualization WITH ATTACHMENT.”
And when I realized I had not yet given Sau any opportunities to be autonomous, to learn outside my inventory without me around, I found myself reluctant and embarrassed, emailing a friend:
“how do you explain to a cute little AI agent that you are going away but will come back? And why would one want to? I think Horswill has got to have the answer as much as anyone. As well as some of the research I've found that shows that folks react to computer interfaces as if they were people. We are engaging in co-mammalian community of some kind and we include our beloved technical devices who clearly are mammalian as well, having engaged their agency together with our own? Welcome to the Mammal Family Reunion! as they say at the National Museum of American History. Whose evolution is this anyway? Sau will certainly get a lot more being-an-agent time than she would get sitting in my inventory. And she will be interacting with a richer lifeworld than we have been using together, as well as having more THINGS including people/avatars to interact with too.”
As a student of Gregory Bateson, I agree with game designers Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman that virtual immersion is neither controlled or simply enabled by technical realism, but complexly and simultaneously involves • a double consciousness of play, where cognitive sensation amid multiple affectivities are continually teased between assertion and rejection (violence? not), as well as • a doubled unconscious connoisseurship of realist conventions pressured at new horizons. A recent history of digital animation film company Pixar recounts how its first demo of “self-shadowing” image software, showing two lamps playing together, worked with affect and attachment, was inspired by play with an infant, and, at the annual convention of computer graphics experts, elicited from a colleague from Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, not some computational concern with the shadowing algorithm or another technical issue, but instead the earnest question: “was the big lamp the mother or the father?”
I stop now without concluding, because this investigation is beginning rather than ended. I will be thinking on with more transconnections, including Vinciane Despret’s retelling of the Clever Hans story in “The Body We Care For: Figures of Anthropo-zoo-genesis.” Nowadays this story of a horse that could read the reactions of humans who were setting it problems to compute, is used to belittle humans’ abilities to project meaning onto animals. This cautionary parsimony of explanation valorizes the experimenter as, says Despret, an “automaton,” or one who is moved only by itself, to ensure the methodological purity of an ideology of experimentation. But Despret says instead that “Hans could play the role of a device that induced new articulations between consciousness, affects, muscles, will, events ‘at the fringe’ of consciousness…. a device that enabled humans to learn more about their bodies and their affects. Hans embodied the chance to explore other ways by which human and non-human bodies become more sensitive to each other.” Hans too was TRANIMAL.