By Emily Jane Godwin
As my dissertation attends to the prevalence of ‘schistosomiasis’ in Senegal and the multispecies encounters it bestows, this blog post will help outline its methodological approach by unpacking the term ‘zoegraphy’ – a posthumanist take on the notion of biography that negates the custom of a human body or self at the centre.
Image credit: Hindawi.com. Case Reports in Infectious Diseases [online]
Schistosomiasis is a parasite pervasive in subtropical and tropical fresh waters, with the Planorbidae snail its intermediate host (Tran, 2012). It is particularly damaging to children; impairing their growth and cognitive development (ibid). Senegal has the highest transmission rate in the world, which is largely due to the erection of the 1986 Diama Dam in Senegal River, built to provide electricity and avert saltwater from flowing into agricultural lands, which blocked the migration of native freshwater prawns, the snail’s natural predator (ibid). Projet Crevette (French for prawn) seeks to restore the prawn population in the lower Senegal river basin, and since its start in 2011, has seen infection rates drop (ibid). Prawns are hatched in human-run hatcheries and transported down river, though a ‘water ladder’ will need to be erected to make the project self-sustaining (ibid). Due to the various multispecies encounters present, the undertaking of a multispecies biography, or ‘zoegraphy’, of the narrative is tempting.
The literature surrounding the concept of a multispecies biography, or a ‘zoegraphy’, is deeply rooted in posthumanism, which is a mode of thought embedded in the much broader critique of the ‘superior’ status of the human subject, as is ‘poststructuralism’, ‘queer theory’, ‘postmodernism’, ‘disability studies’ etc. What makes posthumanist thought different, however, is its primary concern with the limits of the human. It, in other words, destabilises the notions and categories separating the ‘human’ and the ‘nonhuman’, and in turn gives the latter, be it organic or non-organic, a sense of vitality and life . The nonhuman is, and always has been, entangled with the agency of the human. It thus calls for new models of identification (Whitlock, 2012).
Moreover, the current era is itself helping to subvert the human as a biological entity, making posthumanism particularly productive in present times (ibid). Today, what counts as life, and thus the human, is constantly being challenged by new means of technology, communication and bioscience. Life, today, is unceasingly changeable – an open question. Yet, it would be a mistake to regard posthumanism as a new phenomenon (van den Hengel, 2003). If anything, it has indicated that humans have never been just human. Life has always been, and always will be, posthuman. Every single living being is undoubtedly a part of the technological and biological realms that sustains it.
Though an ending of humanity, or even a turn to the antihuman, is not in any way the goal. Rather, the hierarchies of speciesism and anthropocentrism contingent to humanist thought are targets of reconsideration, along with the related conception of the human as the only independent being with individual agency and choice . Posthumanism seeks, rather, to unravel what it is that ‘counts’ as human and why.
Though broad, this blog will focus on a particular strand of work emergent from posthumanist thought – that related to life narrative. According to Whitlock (2012:vi), an academic writing on the subject, “the life of the (auto)biographical ‘self’ is profoundly invested in the human”, and “for this reason it is persistently haunted by its non-, in-, and sub-human other: the monstrous, the animal, the dead, the irrational, the primitive, the mechanical”. These thus “mark the limits of…(auto)biography”, meaning that all such writing is restricted to a certain humanist mode of thinking (ibid). Whitlock takes this further by relating it to the legacy of western Enlightenment thought. It gave rise, she argues, to the masterful ‘I’ of the autobiography and the masterful ‘he/she’ of the biography. With this, the word ‘life’ itself has a singular and anthropocentric epitome, with the narration of ‘lives’ thus tethered to it.
In order to negate the above, the notion of ‘zoegraphy’ can be brought in. ‘Zoegraphy’ is a non-anthropocentric method of life narration (van den Hengel, 2012). The use of the word ‘zoe’ is taken from ancient Greece. For the ancient Greeks, ‘life’ was separated into two distinct terms: “zoë, which expressed the simple fact of living common to all living beings (animals, men, or gods), and bios, which indicated the form or way of living proper to an individual or a group” (Agamben, 1998:1). Zoegraphy, thus, turns away from the ‘bios’ of ‘biography’ and its human-centred essence and towards the ‘zoe’ of ‘zoegraphy’ and its ability to tell a story not centered on human life worlds.
Moreover, it is important to note that, classically, bios refers to ‘socially qualified’ life (van den Hengel, 2012). In other words, the life of the elite, the male and the political. Those that make up the ‘polis’. On the other hand, zoe refers to the life of the natural, the simple and the private. The ‘oikos’. In fact, it is the very exclusion of the zoe from the bios which makes the latter a political place (ibid). Zoe thus represents “the mindless vitality of Life carrying on independently of and regardless of rational control” (Braidotti, 2006:37). A zoegraphy, or what van den Hengel (2012:5) terms a “non-representational life-storying technology”, thus harnesses this ‘Life’ and in doing so highlights relations between bodies, species, and technologies. The human being dominantly signified in autobiographical and biographical narratives becomes a part of a multi-layered assemblage. With this, a zoegraphy is largely centered on a self/other relation, or in other words, the idea that “the human subject…only emerges through a multiplicity of encounters in and through proximity to what it is not” (Whitlock, 2012:viii).
Therefore, a new materialist notion of life as zoe can be used to take the life of ‘life writing’ into the posthuman. To attend to the complexity of the multispecies encounters involved in the Diama Dam event, and the tight tangling of all participatory beings. To question what the life of schistosomiasis is and how it makes itself known, as well as in what ways it can be brought “beyond the figure of the human organism, beyond the linear time of the biography, and beyond the boundaries of individual personhood” (van den Hengal, 2012:16).
Agamben, G. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1998. Print.
Braidotti, R. Transpositions: On Nomadic Ethics. Cambridge: Polity, 2006. Print.
Tran, M. (2012). How prawn farms in Senegal are combating schistosomiasis. [online] The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/poverty-matters/2012/dec/30/prawn-farms-senegal-schistosomiasis [Accessed 20 Jul. 2017].
van den Hengel, L. (2012). Zoegraphy: Per/forming Posthuman Lives. Biography, 35(1), p.1-20.
Whitlock, G. (2012). Post-ing Lives. Biography, 35(1), p.v-xvi.
 Available at: https://www.hindawi.com/journals/criid/2012/896820/fig1/ [Accessed 20 Jul. 2017].