This article engages with French filmmaker Jean Painlevé’s experimental shorts on the physiognomy and behavior of marine animals. The article argues that Painlevé’s films establish a corporeal and nonlinguistic mode of interspecies communication that draws upon the spectators’ immediate emphatic and empathetic reactions to the animal creatures on-screen. By evoking affective responses below the visible and audible registers, the films place the human animal body both in proximity to and at a distance from the nonhuman animal, revealing ontological ties as well as uncanny encounters with other ways of living. In doing so, the films inspire a plurality of ethico-political perspectives on species entanglement that all propose distinct responsibilities without making any organism the center of agentic events. To illuminate those perspectives, the article brings Painlevé’s films into conversation with Massumi’s animal politics, Deleuze and Guattari’s idea of becoming-animal, and neuroscientific research. It thus shows how the cinematic medium can make palpable debates in environmental studies and political theory and installs communication as an interspecies phenomenon that involves human and nonhuman bodies in a shared affective space. Last, the article reclaims Painlevé for contemporary concerns, linking aesthetics to ethics and politics and bodily movement to care for the world.
In 1933, The Sea Horse—one of the first films to ever use footage of underwater life—appeared in French cinemas. Its intimate scenes of playing and copulating seahorses provoked outrage, yet also a widespread fascination with underwater animals, and even led to the production of a line of fashion accessories. The film was directed by Jean Painlevé, a pioneer of early documentary filmmaking who between 1925 and 1986 shot more than two hundred films on the physiognomy and behavior of marine animals. Most of them are about fifteen minutes long and feature extensive passages of the animals’ movements as well as close-ups of their body parts. My article examines the effects that these films have on the human body below the visible and audible registers, asking how they inform our sense of self and contribute to debates about the ethical and political dimensions of species entanglement. Specifically, I argue that Painlevé’s films establish a corporeal and nonlinguistic mode of interspecies communication that draws upon the spectators’ immediate emphatic and empathetic reactions to supposedly alien creatures on-screen. By evoking affective responses, the films place the impressionable human animal body both in proximity to and at a distance from the nonhuman animal, revealing ontological ties as well as uncanny encounters with other ways of living. The films thus allow us to recognize affinities between the element of water and the fluid boundaries of human and nonhuman life, or between animal bodies and the bodily senses of spectators. They also complicate those affinities by letting sound, image, and text each tell their own story of multispecies existence—sometimes in sync, other times not. In doing so, the films eventually inspire a plurality of ethico-political perspectives on entanglement.
In recent years multispecies entanglement has become a prominent topic in the field of multispecies studies. Despite internal differences, scholars in this field share the assumption that life does not exist in isolation but in ever-changing relations. More specifically, they presume that all beings live in multispecies communities and that living-with-others always involves intimate bodily connections. As a result, “multispecies relationality . . . makes evident a lively world in which being is always becoming, becoming is always becoming-with.”1 Acknowledging relationality eventually leads to the task of generating a vocabulary for the “different forms of life caught up in diverse relationships of knowing and living together,” and of communicating that the human is also an entangled being.2 I claim that this task requires rethinking notions of communication altogether, and that Painlevé’s films contribute to this project by translating ideas of species entanglement to a corporeal level. Specifically, they install movement as a shared experience among species, thus exposing intimate and uncanny conversations between various parts of our more-than-human bodies and the body parts of oceanic creatures. While imagining this intimacy with creatures such as sea slugs or octopuses is difficult for many authors, Painlevé allows us to extend our thoughts and feelings to presumably faraway underwater species.
For most scholars, multispecies existence implies not just epistemological considerations but reflections on the ensuing ethico-political commitments or the distinct accountabilities that are folded into a world of relational becomings.3 Accordingly, Donna Haraway argues for an ethics of care that emerges from “world-making entanglement” or “sym-bio-genesis,”4 and Thom van Dooren is critical of strategies of caring yet suggests that mourning is necessary to relearn affection for/in the world.5 Eva Giraud, by contrast, wants ethics to emerge not simply from relationality but from taking responsibility for the exclusions that are necessary to bring certain realities into being. She thus implies that some beings resist relationality and that some relationships must be contested to create space for alternatives.6 As a result, for Giraud, multiple ethical approaches must “remain in fraught dialogue with one another in order to recognize that the contradictions inherent in each approach mark imperfect responses to an equally messy and contradictory ethico-political terrain.”7 Painlevé’s films join this dialogue by creating a cinematic storytelling based on plurality and curiosity, or on the wish to explore various possibilities of living-together. More precisely, each film lets narration, image, and music offer distinct—at times conflicting—views on species entanglement. All views produce responses (from disgust to recognition to admiration) in the spectator and inspire their own set of ethical obligations (including mourning or care yet also separation and withdrawal). Taken together Painlevé’s films thus allow us to juxtapose different modes of interspecies cohabitation and to envision ethico-political ventures that meet the creativity of the actual world in equally creative ways.
Painlevé’s approach to storytelling resonates with Haraway’s idea of “multispecies storytelling” about “complex histories that are as full of dying as of living, as full of endings . . . as beginnings,”8 and with van Dooren’s stories that treat the extinction of a species as a loss of “a complex and precious way of life.”9 For both van Dooren and Haraway, stories thus participate in worldly movements and involve joyful and tragic elements. Along similar lines, Painlevé’s films find inspiration in the “miraculous qualities”—namely wonder, charm, and horror—of the natural world, since “compared to Nature, Man’s imagination produces weak revelations.”10 The films hence make us recognize as spectacular what we have become accustomed to, or render familiar what we thought to be unthinkable. They recall Jane Bennett’s notion of enchantment, which involves being struck by the extraordinary amid the ordinary—an experience “that can be fostered through deliberate strategies.”11 Giraud and van Dooren emphasize the need to reflect on the distinct obligations that humans hold for such enchanted strategies, and thus for meaningful ethico-political action amid entanglement.12 Painlevé’s films support those reflections, as they all reserve space for human responsibility without making human beings the center of agentic events.
To bring out this potential, after briefly discussing Painlevé’s general principles, my article places Painlevé’s cinematic techniques in conversation with political philosophy—notably Brian Massumi’s animal politics and Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s idea of becoming-animal. While Massumi has gained prominence in areas such as animal studies and artistic research, his writings on the nonhuman animal have rarely been applied in the context of cinema. By contrast, there is much scholarship on Deleuze’s relevance for film and media studies, which, in turn, often bypasses Deleuze and Guattari’s work. The article then views Painlevé’s films through the lens of neuroscientific research and theories of affect to parse out new forms of collective action and communicative practices.
The article contributes to three wider conversations. First, it illuminates how the cinematic medium can make palpable debates in environmental studies and political theory, thus also establishing a bridge to scholarship on cinematic spectatorship. Second, it promotes communication as an embodied and interspecies phenomenon that emerges from the involvement of human and nonhuman bodies in a shared affective space and that treats human and nonhuman animals as neither superior nor self-sufficient but as responsive and relational beings. Third, the article reclaims Painlevé’s films for contemporary concerns, linking aesthetics to ethics and politics, and bodily movement to care for the world. In what follows, I thus use Painlevé to go under (water) and come up for air, or to see inflexible categories of thought in a new light and reimagine ecologically sustainable modes of cohabitation. I begin this diving process by introducing the socio-historical context of Painlevé’s work against the background of film scholarship.
As an academic, political activist, and surrealist with degrees in physics, chemistry, and biology, Painlevé has had a precarious position within the scientific community throughout his lifetime. The French avant-garde, however, assured him a cultlike status.13 It did so because of his production of experimental shorts (made by various artists at the time to rebel against commercial cinema), which were streamed in special theaters (ciné-clubs). Over time, these films have gained some interest among film scholars but have rarely been taken seriously by political philosophers or cultural historians.14 Moreover, the ethico-political aspects of Painlevé’s films often remain underdeveloped, exceptions being James Cahill’s and Belinda Smaill’s works.15 Cahill studies Painlevé’s films through the lens of “photogénie,” which lets the cinematic apparatus confront and extend human perception.16 Smaill, by contrast, is “more concerned with how the cinema might convey material phenomena” or challenge humanistic forms of identification.17
Both Smaill and Cahill place emphasis on the documentary character of Painlevé’s filmmaking practice. However, as will become evident, Painlevé does not simply rework the meaning of documentaries or “science films.” Instead, he directs his films under the dictum “science is fiction,”18 suggesting that the reality that creates the foundation of his art is full of wonder, or that fantasy is needed to tell a somewhat realistic story about life on earth. Painlevé’s approach thus differs from the many wildlife documentaries in recent years (such as The Blue Planet , Planet Earth , or Our Planet ). Those documentaries attempt to change our relationship to the nonhuman world by “adequately” depicting animal life in sound, image, and narration.19 While Painlevé shares this wish to bring us closer to other animals, he includes experimental and surrealist elements in his work, or unites fiction with the scientific realm, so that fantastic facts can contribute to the imagination of new realities and alternative modes of cohabitation. Said another way, he uses his films to convey numerous sparks of inspiration, rather than a single message or a coherent narrative. The films’ dramatic soundtracks (composed by pioneers of electronic music) contribute to these sparks by telling their own version of a film’s story, which often complicates the story told by images. By contrast, the spectacular music in many wildlife documentaries largely supports the on-screen drama. Lastly, Painlevé regularly makes visible his filmmaking techniques on-screen, underlining the subjective nature of documentaries and shedding light on the ways in which technologies of observation are involved in the production of human and nonhuman life.
What is more, Painlevé lets the distinct features of the marine animal starring a film inspire the film’s composition. For this, he specifically develops—and constantly modifies—technology to communicate the biology of underwater species and present crucial moments in the species’ life cycles, which might otherwise remain beneath our notice.20 He also emphasizes the importance of a filmmaker’s patience, noting that a film’s most beautiful scenes occur without planning.21 Altogether, Painlevé thus involves both organisms and filmmakers, the element of water and specific technological means in the creative process. He initiates a reorientation of cinema according to which films must visualize both the human perception of nonhuman animals and the sensory-affective encounters that draw attention to our status as embodied spectators.22 Moreover, films should rely not on epistemological guarantees but their ability to account for novelty.23
In line with this reorientation, Painlevé’s films create an underwater aesthetics that involves both cognitive and corporeal elements in modes of understanding, dissolves the boundary between images and “objects” under study, and relates science to storytelling. They hence prompt us “to reconsider not only the role of imagination in documentaries, but our strange devotion to inflexible categories of all kind,” including “our ideas about how we view other species, let alone humanity itself.”24 In fact the films sometimes make us leave our human observer perspective and reveal that the oceanic world cannot be reduced to our preferred organ of perception: the eye.25 Accordingly, they involve all bodily senses in assemblages of human and nonhuman elements, when most scholarship on embodied cinematic spectatorship centers on the human body.26 Eventually, Painlevé’s science-fiction films are designed to address socio-cultural and political concerns.27 They thereby unfold effects beyond the intended information by translating theoretical concepts of entanglement to a preconscious, corporeal register. The subsequent section illuminates the relevance of this cinematic translation for micropolitical tactics.
Becoming Animal, Becoming Human
The Octopus (1928, black and white, 13 min.) is Painlevé’s first film for a nonscientific audience. It begins and ends abruptly, suggesting that our insights into another being’s life can only ever be temporary. This eerie realization is aided by the fact that the film has neither an official soundtrack nor a voiceover narrator, suspending the common link between on-screen images and spectators. A few text captions provide information about the octopus but impede a coherent viewing experience by always interrupting an ongoing scene. They turn The Octopus into an assemblage of brief, disconnected shots of animal parts and long scenes that follow the octopus on land, into shallow water, and eventually to the ground of the sea. Entering deeper into a foreign world in this way, we also immerse “deeper” into affective movements, appreciating that what we considered to be limitations—the silence, the incoherence—indeed creates space for imagination. Thus, while the sound and narration in many wildlife documentaries direct the spectator’s gaze, The Octopus calls forth an affective-imaginative, silent realm of meaning-making. In it, we learn that knowledge can be communicated affectively, and that silence makes our nerve endings receptive for distinct flows of information. More specifically, silence allows the sounds of our surroundings to enter the film and become the film’s “soundtrack,” so that each viewing experience generates unique sonic-visual constellations and thus the potential for new interpretations of or responses to on-screen images.
Amid affective, informative flows sits the camera, alternating between underwater shots and external views of the ocean, seemingly connecting microcosmic and macrocosmic perspectives. For Deleuze, both perspectives are held together in our brain, turning the brain into a sensuous organ or a “brain-screen.”28 The brain hence extends from the body into the world, and the screen links corporeal perception to the environment. As a result, we do not remain passive viewers in front of a screen but become active participants in an audiovisual environment in which the world enters films, images enter our brain, and sensual reactions travel through our body and into the world. Similarly, the octopus’s nervous system is not located in the brain either, but spreads throughout its body, allowing the animal’s skin to “see” and change its color, depending on its surroundings and emotional state. The octopus might thus be able to teach us something about ways of living that dissolve the harsh brain-body distinction and strict human-nonhuman dualism.29
For Deleuze and Guattari, “the only way to get outside the [human-nonhuman] dualisms is to be-between.”30 Entering this “zone of indeterminacy” that challenges the boundary between human and nonhuman life requires practicing certain experimental micropolitical techniques, such as becoming-animal. Becoming-animal constitutes a playful stretch of the self, which makes us discover and endorse our corporeal heterogeneity, rather than relying on assimilation, imitation, or mere symbolism.31 Contributing to this discovery, The Octopus projects heterogeneous parts of ourselves onto the screen and next to the octopus, allowing us to learn from, with, and about the nonhuman animal. More specifically, the film generates intimate encounters of not just bodies but body parts, allowing micromovements to turn distance and uneasiness into corporeal alignment. In the long sequences that depict an octopus’s breathing apparatus, for instance, we begin to slow down our own breathing, letting our body communicate with the animal’s body rhythm and thus participate in an affective cinematic entanglement. The accompanying text describing this entanglement becomes almost redundant. Text captions gain more relevance when they point out unsettling resemblances between the octopus’s eye and its human equivalent, indicating that the act of watching “others” might lead to the experience of being watched (by an equal).
The latter experience further reveals that moments of becoming-animal can involve the becoming-human of animals. At first sight, this involvement seems to fall prey to what Giraud calls “spectacular environmentalisms” or “sentimental representations” according to which animals are worthy of attention only if they are portrayed as being similar to humans.32 Painlevé responds to this charge in a threefold manner. On the one hand, he plays into the accusation by accentuating corporeal sympathies in a specific way. Rather than simply portraying animals as humans, or substituting human characteristics for animal ones, Painlevé engages in a subversive form of anthropomorphism,33 which recognizes a deep-seated relationality between human and animal capacities and—to use Bennett’s words—“can catalyze a sensibility that finds a world filled not with ontologically distinct categories of beings . . . but with variously composed materialities that form confederations.”34 On the other hand, Painlevé plays up differences, again confronting our inflexible analytical categories and perceptual faculties. A surreal sequence in The Octopus, for instance—which shows the octopus in a tree, a bed, and a window frame—challenges our common sense of belonging as well as our belief in simple cohabitation. It does so by not easily resolving the octopus’s misplacements, hence suggesting that we must cope with coexistent life worlds on earth that may need to be kept apart or may even invade our everyday surroundings in surprising ways. The sequence also reveals that although parts of nonhuman animal bodies might be unlike human ones, they nonetheless stimulate corporeal responses in their human counterparts.
It is remarkable that we recognize similarities between us and animals only underwater, while on land—on familiar grounds—the octopus remains foreign to us. Painlevé here eventually plays with common expectations at the time, when the octopus had a central role in scenarios that saw the ocean as a materialization of the world’s wonderful-yet-frightening secrets, or as the source of all life that is also life’s ultimate “Other.” Thus, a lack of technology and related absence of knowledge about marine life turned the underwater world into an epitome of the “underworld.”35The Love Life of the Octopus (1967, color, 14 min.)—Painlevé’s remake of The Octopus—takes up this idea in an ironic fashion. Its psychedelic music and overly dramatic voiceover suggest the tale of a horror story about foreignness, and its scenes of hunting octopuses are accompanied by excessive chewing noises. The film thus uses a cinematic element that could bring the octopus closer to us—sound—to make the animal seem even more repulsive, only to then subvert this impression and explain that engaging in playful interactions constitutes a central feature of octopuses’ biology. Such interactions also inform Massumi’s notion of animal play in which human and nonhuman animals meet in their difference, rendering the previously distinct gestures of fight and play indiscernible. The resulting deterritorializing “ludic gesture” situates consciousness in between the human and the nonhuman, initiating new forms of togetherness or a potentializing circuit between present and future.36 While humans experience this mutual inclusion of combat and game as a breakdown of dominant categories of thought and experience, the nonhuman animal is activated by the paradoxes of play. Capable of improvising on the spot, it turns the act of learning into a creative and unpredictable, autonomous and affective impetus toward thinking-as-doing in which the content of play becomes absorbed into play’s vitality.37
Mutual inclusivity connects nonhuman animal play to Deleuze and Guattari’s becoming-animal through which we “enter the zone of proximity of the animal molecule.”38 Both affirmations of heterogeneity thus constitute nonrepresentational, affective events that use corporeal enthusiasm to let humans move toward an undetermined form.39 Moreover, both can be accessed through Painlevé’s films on the octopus, which center on the creative potentiality of individual animals by emphasizing the human and/as the nonhuman. In doing so, the films show how cinematic-corporeal exercises can make palpable self-transformations that usually reside outside of our immediate awareness, and how experimental tactics may challenge strict boundaries between a human “self” and “other” species. The films also direct our ethical and epistemological considerations toward reflecting on ways to prepare for ever-different creative encounters on our brain-screen. For Deleuze and Guattari, those encounters simultaneously involve and exceed the body, whereas Massumi’s animal play continuously generates newly included middles.40 And while the “enthusiasm of the body” imagined by Massumi seems to always be transformative, becoming-animal has an undefined outcome. In short, with Deleuze and Guattari, we engage in a never-before-seen/done/felt dramatization rather than interpretation of the self, which may be creatively repeated, if we follow Massumi.
The Octopus enacts this dramatization-repetition when it shows us the death of an octopus in a long and dramatic, painful yet beautiful scene in the middle of the film, and again and again from different angles. Viewing the scene, we suffer with the animal, both realizing our own mortality and understanding death as an inevitable experience, which we share with all animals, and which always anticipates a new beginning or (re)birth in the midst of life. In fact, Painlevé usually spends significant parts of his films on reproductive processes, including detailed pictures of the growth of embryos and the birth of an animal’s offspring. The Love Life of the Octopus even ends with a birthing scene in which the young octopuses pop out of their shells as small, white lightning bulbs, illuminating a previously dark screen. The scene gains a tragic dimension when we learn that the female octopus is left in the dark and dies after just this one pregnancy.41 However, aside from despair, her short-lived existence might offer us a distinct perspective on life—one that teaches us to make use of, focus on, and experiment with the present. We may learn, in other words, that all transformations (of the self) begin in the here and now. Even the octopus’s anatomy confirms this perspective: Octopuses have almost no hard parts, like shell or skeleton, which is unusual for an animal of this size and the reason why fossil records barely exist.42 Encountering this absence of records—or the octopus’s body in general—reminds us that, in the effort of deciphering what we are confronted with, we might not always be able to rely on traceable relations between present and future, but must invest in our imaginative faculties. How this experience changes our ways of forming and communicating in collectives will be the subject of the following section.
Bodies in Communication
Experimental self-transformations involve a point of opening the individual to the world. Becoming-animal is a “speculative pragmatic autonomy of expression, carried to the highest, most politicized, transindividual power,” and in animal play “the vitality affect expressing enthusiasm of the body establishes a transindividual link.”43 This emphasis on transindividuality relates human and nonhuman animal becomings to collective cohabitations, or the unbound human self to flows of affection between bodies. It thus moves from the nondualistic being of the octopus to communities of sea slugs in Acera, or The Witches’ Dance (1972, color, 13 min.) and starfish in Sea Ballerinas (1956, color, 13 min.).
Both Sea Ballerinas and Acera revolve around motion and are composed mostly of close-ups of dancing animal body parts. All animal movements thereby reflect wits and grace, challenging human entitlements to artistic figuration, or making us “wonder whether our . . . pastimes (dancing) are as exclusively human as we tend to assume.”44 More specifically, in Sea Ballerinas spectators witness an oceanic dance spectacle in which starfish swim elegantly through water in ballet-like figures that echo the orchestra’s music (and vice versa). In Acera, sea slugs perform a nightly dance on their own, which is both fast and elegant, and surprising given the animals’ clumsy posture. In both films, the soundtrack becomes a distinct part of Painlevé’s cinematic storytelling, reminding us that en-chant-ment has a musical component,45 and that music can provide sensory access to the vitality of natural processes. The sea slugs experience this enchantment first, as they find themselves being inspired to dance to a soundtrack that alternates between experimental (string, trumpet, flute) music and piano melodies. In fact, the animals adjust their dancing styles to the music patterns, so that musical expressions become inseparable from becoming-animal, and “the sounds of an animal coexist with its colors, gestures, silhouettes.”46
But the musical and animal movements on-screen do not just resonate with each other. They also set in motion a circulation of affective flows or render sonorous contagious vitality forces that could not be heard otherwise and that call for our affective involvement. Affects generate this involvement by reaching to the nonconscious register, triggering instant bodily reactions. Capturing this form of reaction-participation, which includes and exceeds the individual, Deleuze and Guattari describe becoming-animal as a deterritorialized flow of impersonal affects; a “becoming-molecular.”47 For Massumi, too, the categorical affect of animal play, usually called emotion, is better described as the emergence of a vitality, which is immediately absorbed and transduced into corporeal activities, making the ludic gesture a pure affective event. What is more, enthusiastic corporeality becomes a noncognitive form of understanding.48 Recent neurobiological research on “mirror neurons” supports this theoretical assumption and finds that affective, bodily responses can occur prior to consciously recognized thoughts or even feelings. More specifically, the research shows—with the help of brain-imaging studies that record the blood flows in certain cerebral regions—how the same brain areas are energized when a motor act is actively performed or merely observed.49 This implies that knowledge of an action may be registered in an unmediated way.
One way or another, Massumi, Deleuze and Guattari, and mirror neuron researchers are all concerned with the workings of microperception as something that is felt and reacted to without being consciously recognized. Massumi assumes that image reception always begins on the level of affective intensity, which is neither semantically nor semiotically ordered, neither active nor passive, but rather constitutes a state of suspense. He thus emphasizes the “overfull” half-second delay between affection and conscious response in which “the body is radically open, absorbing impulses quicker than they can be perceived.”50 Also Deleuze and Guattari define bodily capacities along longitudes (pure affective relations) and latitudes (intensive affects possible at a given moment).51 Both descriptions help us to rethink the body and subjectivity in relational terms or as generated by vitality flows in between bodies. From an affective perspective, we hence see “a relational complex,” meaning “that the body is that region of in-mixing from which subjectivity emerges.”52
However, the circulation of contagious affective flows brings not only the “self” but also a community into being. Painlevé’s films build this community—often imagined as a human constellation—across species,53 inspiring the question of how bodies in such multispecies communal movements communicate with one other. Exploring answers, we can draw inspiration from Massumi’s claim that the saying-by/as-doing of animal play creates the conditions of nonhuman language,54 and from biosemiotics research on communicative exchanges between human and nonhuman organisms.55 Painlevé’s films substantialize this inspiration cinematically, creating an impetus for interspecies communication beyond the linguistic register. More specifically, they install movement as the shared language of human and nonhuman experience. When the shapes of marine animals thus seemingly assure the unity and distinctiveness of bodies, the movements of the animals’ body parts effectively and affectively transgress those assumed boundaries. And when the rhythms and melodies of a film’s soundtrack set an animal dance in motion, they also generate activities in the spectators, engaging us on a visceral level, and inviting us into the conversation. This connection of listening and corporeal empathy—confirmed by neuroscientific studies on the activation of mirror neurons through sound56—allows our body to register movement at its nerve ends, and to itself become a medium in relation to (and with) others.57 Movement, thus experienced below the level of consciousness, initiates a kind of visceral communication.
For Haraway, “embodied communication is more like a dance than a word.”58 Once the sea slugs in Acera participate in this communicative dance, their previously indistinguishable (round and soft) bodies move in ways that express uniqueness yet also resemble one another enough to be recognized as belonging to one community. They thus express one ideal of living-together as composed of both similarity and individuality. The smoothness of the animals’ bodies thereby allows the sea slugs to adjust to the music’s movement—to hit the screen, a dead end, the aquarium glass, before bouncing back into sync. We feel these hits and are surprised that they energize us as much as they do the animals. Painlevé visualizes this shared energy by replacing the fast-spinning sea slugs for a split second with a human dancer. The switch is almost unnoticeable, or becomes noticeable only after the fact, yet it alerts us to an already sensed connection between us and the animals. All of this happens without any linguistic aid, meaning that the film’s long dancing scenes without commentary let sounds and images “speak” through affective flows, knowledge be registered corporeally, and bodies partake in an intensely personal but still collective communicative exchange. Once the music of this exchange changes abruptly, bodily movements change too, triggering hectic even in the sea slugs’ conversation.
Sea Ballerinas initiates communication in a way that is slower but no less surprising. In it, the starfish hold their ballet-like figures for a while to generate space for admiration. To move the figurations and communicative exchange, they then move one arm and pause again, creating suspense about which arm is being shifted next and in which direction the conversation is going. The film hence complicates both neuroscientific claims that, based on an initial observation, we can decipher the aim of an action and possible succeeding acts,59 and Massumi’s supposition that the ludic gesture anticipates a countermovement.60 The film does so by not simply countering movements but using immediately shared affects to connect organisms in a common motion. The consequences of this collective and aquatic agency for ethico-political undertakings—including the question of how corporeal affection may create not just instantaneous but cross-temporal affinities, giving Painlevé’s work new relevance in the present—will be explored in the next section.
When octopuses, sea slugs, and starfish set in motion affective flows across bodies, we are called on to accept them as agentic creatures and to rethink political possibilities and ethical responsibilities accordingly. In other words we are invited to reconfigure multispecies communication from the affective register—or to use cinematic experience to cultivate links between sensation and action, aesthetics and ethics, and perception and politics—making microperception the “purely affective rebeginning of the world.”61 Painlevé’s films propose various ways to initiate this rebeginning and to alter the composition of political assemblages. They do so by allowing us to both experience and reflect on the affective encounters of beings. All films offer distinct perspectives on interspecies communication, which sometimes confirm and sometimes contradict one another, yet always rely on the participation of body parts. In fact, the films turn bodies into mediums for exchanges between cinematic impressions and creative expressions, thus facilitating ever-different sensations. More precisely, they continuously translate affective influences into expressions such as animal play or becoming-animal, illuminating that ethical sensibilities can be cinematically trained, corporeal practices inform political activities, and cinematic-corporeal exercises involve human and nonhuman elements.
Briefly put, Painlevé’s stories resonate with both Deleuze and Guattari’s idea of micropolitical action, which implicates heterogeneous assemblages of human and nonhuman singularities,62 and Massumi’s animal politics, which constitutes an arrangement of autonomous expressions that extracts the ludic from the coming together of animals and intensifies it in a transformative movement that holds a maximum of contrasts.63 In the framework of mirror neuron studies, affective movements connect bodies in such a way that “a shared space of action” arises between them without linguistic deliberation.64 As I mentioned before, Painlevé’s films can make visible and audible the affective flows that bring this space into being. What is more, the films let us dwell in otherwise fleeting interstitial spaces, thus materializing panoramas of possible collectives. More specifically, the films inspire us to think about the various political and ethical strategies that are necessary to bring those panoramas into being. Moreover, they allow us to feel, imagine, and juxtapose those strategies, and to figure out our role and involvement in them before implementing steps toward their realization. Eventually, they make us aware that we initiate such steps but never fully control them. Once ethico-political motion pictures venture into the world, they share agency with ongoing movements and imply the potential for transformation. This understanding of agency makes causality emergent, rather than efficient, and calls on us to welcome spontaneity and uncertainty but no absolute contingency. In Massumi’s words, it means letting ethical imperatives emerge from a given situation or from the “mess” of the actual world, and exploring degrees of participation in and accountability for emerging events.65
Embracing both spontaneity and responsibility puts ideas of human mastery or anthropocentric notions of the world into question. Painlevé urges us to contest such notions in an affectionate tone, proclaiming that “there are so many myths to shatter! The most preposterous anthropomorphism reigns in this field: everything has been made for Man [sic] and in the image of Man and can only be explained in the terms of Man.”66 Man can here be read literally, indicating that Painlevé’s films regularly point out features of marine species that challenge heteronormativity or traditional organizations of sex and gender. The films thus resonate with Deleuze and Guattari’s claim that sexuality is not dualistically organized but constitutes a process that links becoming-animal to “becoming-woman,” or that connects the becoming-woman of men with the becoming-animal of humans.67 With this claim, the authors do not equate-and-disparage femininity and animality but propose two modes of becoming that challenge (male, disentangled) existence.
In light of these becomings, Sea Ballerinas and Acera teach us that some starfish and sea slugs are hermaphrodites—and thus live with both male and female characteristics—and The Sea Horse (1933, black and white, 14 min.) introduces us to a male seahorse that gives birth to its offspring. Moreover, as I pointed out earlier, intimate footage of reproductive processes is often part of Painlevé’s films. For example, Acera contains a scene of a sea slug threesome in which copulation is combined with eating and each animal simultaneously fertilizes eggs and has its own eggs fertilized. By contrast, the mating act in The Love Life of the Octopus is rather violent and accompanied by the narrator’s remark that the octopus knows no officially sanctioned position for lovemaking. As mentioned before, the film often combines ironic comments about the octopuses’ behavior with information about the animals’ physical characteristics. It uses voiceover in a subversive way to push the frontiers of our perceptive faculties. Hence, while most voiceover descriptions in contemporary wildlife documentaries limit what can be seen by tying an animal’s physiognomy to its behavior, The Love Life of the Octopus creates space for images, soundtrack, and commentary to form various constellations on our mind-brain-body-screens, generating associations that are different for every spectator.
As a result, instead of confirming expectations, we can use scenes from Painlevé’s films to embrace or contest the relations, realities, and lifestyles they embody. In some scenes, we see alternative modes of living that could also be available to us, such as the sea slugs’ unconventional and provocative sex practices. Other scenes remind us of what we already do—namely dance, nurture, hunt, or play. Again others might seem too drastic, like the view of the octopuses’ violence. And then there are those that make us appreciate both the possibility of emotional connection and the limitation of imitation, as in the case of the male seahorse’s pain in childbirth. Taken together, those scenes uphold productive tensions between various kinds of communication and action. By extension, they inspire a plurality of ethical perspectives on species entanglement, as was called for by Giraud at the beginning of this article. Viewing Painlevé’s films, we can reflect on those perspectives and their possible consequences, all the while knowing that each film allows for different interpretations and embraces relationality without overshadowing distinctions between human and nonhuman animals.
Acknowledging entanglement in this way can also lead us to understand Man as human in the quotation above, revealing that Painlevé does not lose sight of human activities or the irreparable effects of humanity’s interference in the ecosystem. In fact, he explicitly points out dangerous human involvements in species extinction, noting that “any subtle change in natural conditions can affect the whole existence and lead to the decline or disappearance of a species for years.”68 In The Octopus, he even lets human beings appear on-screen, showing how they capture octopuses on the shore, while the animals try—and sometimes manage—to escape. At the end of the film, the octopus finds itself caught behind glass in an aquarium. This scene can suggest that the animal’s long reign over human fantasy has been replaced by humanity’s control over its reality—an epitome of life in the Anthropocene. Still, the octopus continues to hectically move its arms in an attempt to break out of its new environment. By contrast, the seahorses in The Sea Horse are reluctant to escape even in the face of imminent danger. According to the narrator, their movements are too slow and majestic for lines of flight, and their calmness can likely be explained by the absence of human intrusion in their daily life.
Nonetheless, by parsing out modes of action within novel circumstances, both octopuses and seahorses communicate the fact that in heterogeneous assemblages agency is shared among bodies, organisms, and other natural elements. As a result, every nonautonomous agent finds its acts altered and its intentions translated, all the while modifying the acts and intentions of others. As Massumi puts it, each agentic body carries “a different set of tendencies and capacities,” making it respond differently to a shared affective event. And however different these eventual responses are, “all will have unfolded from the same suspense.”69 The responses also change with the respective context or assemblage involved, and we might misconstrue the intentions motivating a response due to missing information. Watching The Octopus, for example, we interpret the animal’s movement in the aquarium as representing an escape-wish, yet are not informed that octopuses indeed adjust their behavior when they are being watched,70 challenging linear associations between actions seen and objectives behind them. However, despite—or maybe because of—this possible misconception, the scene can still inspire a heightened awareness or prompt us to change our behavior toward the animal.
Briefly put, The Octopus’s scene of capture captures our attention in a playful manner and explores the productive potential of unsettlement. Along similar lines, The Sea Horse plays with conflicting messages by mixing background sound, meta-commentary, and explanations of biological facts without a dominant frame of reference, complicating the interpretation of on-screen images. While the images, for example, hold on to the story of calmness and oblivion, the narrator informs us that we can indeed detect worry about the future in the seahorses’ eyes, if we only looked closely enough. In the context of global warming, this worry gains a new dimension, also giving new meaning to The Sea Horse’s last scene. During this scene, seahorses swim in the foreground, while the background screen of their lives displays galloping racehorses (tide levels, temperatures, etc.). The background then moves to the foreground, and the human jockeys take over the planet. As do so many of Painlevé’s films, The Sea Horse thus ends in an abrupt, possibly frustrating way. It confronts us with possibilities of cohabitation, leaving it to us to derive relevant modes of action from them. For instance, we could imagine a different ending for the film—and hence productively participate in our planet’s future—by switching the background and the foreground. More specifically, we could give up fantasies of human mastery for fantasies of living-together, learn that reality is composed of creative configurations of not-only-human nature, and—following Giraud—pay attention “to the frictions, foreclosures, and exclusions that play a constitutive role in the composition of lived reality.”71
With Giraud in mind, we can acknowledge that Painlevé’s films generate newly included middles between species, or affective relations between animals, filmmaker, and spectators. We can also confront the omissions that accompany each film’s epistemological and ethico-political project, and consider that beings like the seahorse might need distance from relations to flourish. Moreover, we can learn about the transformations of human and nonhuman organisms, which may not always be productive or voluntary, let alone comforting, but which confirm affect’s incessant capacity to generate receptiveness and convert into an activity. Mirror neuron studies build this receptive intentionality deeper into our modes of existence, implying that each act viewed or heard may trigger corporeal responses in us, and thus possibly change our relation to the world and our course of action in it. Politically speaking, this receptivity establishes cohabitation as an intimate relationality between bodies. To embrace relationality, The Octopus teaches us to accept foreign-yet-familiar parts of ourselves as well as the occasional need for capture that facilitates interspecies contact to begin with. Ethically speaking, receptivity—or the fact that even minor gestures could move and alter the bodies of others—increases our responsibility to think about the potential consequences of actions. We learn about this responsibility and the ways in which it draws us into emerging collectives from Acera and Sea Ballerinas.
Altogether, Painlevé thus makes us aware of the complex—potentially hazardous, potentially humorous—stakes of multispecies encounters. Along those lines, even the violent hunting scenes in the films on the octopus create interspecies intimacies that oscillate between dance and combat—recall Massumi’s animal play—and generate new bodily forms—recall Deleuze and Guattari’s becoming-animal. And while most wildlife documentaries would subsume those scenes under the common “predator-prey” trope in animal life, the scenes are actually more in line with a multispecies approach that shows how “lively agents . . . bring one another into being through entangled relations that include, but always also exceed, dynamics of predator and prey, parasite and host, researcher and researched, symbiotic partner, or indifferent neighbor.”72 Indeed, relationality even involves bodily penetration, so that small organisms effectively travel in-between bodies and create molecular coexistence. Depicting this coexistence, Painlevé first alludes to a “safe” distance between us and the animal behavior on-screen, only to then let this distance collapse and bring heterogeneity closer to us. He captures agentic entanglements in fields of destruction and entertaining elements among the tragedies of life, suggesting that cohabitation involves uneasy elements, and that violence may be implicated in the understanding of other organisms. In The Sea Horse, for example, animals are dissected to study their anatomy; in The Octopus, a tentacle is separated from the octopus’s body for a similar purpose.
The latter scenes reveal that Painlevé’s films portray both nonhuman animals—facing human interference—and human animals—out of their element and reliant on technology to perceive and live with others underwater—as vulnerable and entangled beings. The films thus prompt us to view organisms on a continuum with differences only in degree, not kind. However, they also underline the occasional need for separation, which allows certain species to exist, flourish, or even survive. In one moment, the films’ oceanic flows hence transgress boundaries and find subtle-yet-significant similarities between species (such as the breathing apparatuses of humans and octopuses). In the next moment, they manifest differences or point out distinct characteristics of an animal (such as the dancing styles of various sea creatures). Both moments are important, as they decenter human elements in notions of collectivity and subjectivity. At the same time they do not altogether dissolve human characteristics, allowing us to find space for human responsibility without presuming that responsible actions ever only involve human elements. Acknowledging both ontological continuities and interspecies variation might eventually make us realize that by destroying biodiversity we are hurting—even losing—parts of ourselves as much as we hurt “others.” With the loss of species diversity, we lose the affective flows that constitute our bodies as well as the various beings that amaze and entertain us on an existential level. It is the accomplishment of Painlevé’s films to remind us of this kind of existential entertainment in and above water.
Coming Up for Air
Finding in the fusion of art, science, and poetry cinema’s best quality, Painlevé’s films bring together the human and the nonhuman, scientific experiments and storytelling, forms of technology and modes of living. From underwater adventures and encounters between species, the films generate a bodily entertainment that is both intensely personal and deeply collective, and that sparks ethico-political responses through affective forms of communication and understanding. Those responses are multiple—inspiring, tragic, complicated. Some responses support one another, others challenge previous ones, and all generate knowledge about interspecies relations by relying on emphatic bodily involvement rather than the neutrality of spectators and filmmakers. Pushing the boundaries of both reality and imagination in this way, Painlevé’s work exposes the limits of “objective” research and allows scientific information to align with metaphysical considerations. Accordingly, his films convey images of marine life in an immediate—political yet not explicitly theoretical, playful but not shallow—manner. They enact Deleuze’s claim that “the techniques of the image always refers to a metaphysics of the imagination”73 and use the idea of science-as-fiction to enhance our care for a world shared with other animals. In doing so, each film embraces a comprehensive but open worldview, illuminating that finite explanations of a constantly changing reality are both impossible and undesirable, as they ignore—in Painlevé’s words—“an infinite field of magnificent and continual joy that prevents us from completely elucidating the mystery or the miracle” of life.74
I am grateful to Stephanie Posthumus, the anonymous reviewers, and the editors at Environmental Humanities, whose insightful comments during the review and editorial process have greatly improved my article. I presented earlier versions of this article at the 2017 Princeton-Weimar Summer School for Media Studies and the 2019 Storytelling and the Body Conference, and I would like to thank the participants of both events for their engaging and thought-provoking questions. I thank Jane Bennett for her encouragement and initial feedback on an early draft of this article.
The biographical information is based on Berg, “Contradictory Forces”; Berg, “Maverick Filmmaker Jean Painlevé”; and Smaill, “Encountering Animals.”
Noteworthy exceptions are Gibbs, “Mimesis as a Mode of Knowing”; and Adamowsky, “Annäherung an eine Ästhetik des Geheimnisvollen.”
A notable exception—resonating with Painlevé’s spirit—is the film Microcosmos (1996), which consists of myriad dramatic and beautiful close observations of insect life using an expressive soundtrack.
Cahill, “Forgetting Lessons.” Painlevé pairs this with a critique of the disciplinary formation of common sense and lack of critical engagement in the French educational system.
Noteworthy examples are Rutherford, What Makes a Film Tick?; Shaviro, Cinematic Body; and Marks, Skin of the Film.
Adamowsky, “Annäherung an eine Ästhetik des Geheimnisvollen.” To this date, the ground of the ocean is largely unknown, as 78.5 percent of it lies in complete darkness.
Massumi, What Animals Teach Us about Politics, 25–29. While feelings or emotions are qualified intensities and imply the evaluation of an event, affects constitute unqualified intensities that relate only to the moving body. Massumi, “Autonomy of Affect,” 88.
Rizzolatti and Sinigaglia, Mirrors in the Brain, 116. While providing a vocabulary for the workings of affect, some neuroscientific research faces the charge of biological reductionism.
Anna Gibbs shares this assumption. Gibbs, “Mimesis as a Mode of Knowing.” But while she relies on mimesis as a form of copying, I focus on the immediate sharing of bodily affects.
More translational work is needed to parse out the ethico-political relevance of this research, especially given the field’s reliance on a separation of mind and brain. For the formation and common parameters of the field, see Favareau, Essential Readings in Biosemiotics; and Kull et al., “Theses on Biosemiotics.”