Vinciane Despret, Living as a Bird – translated by Helen Morrison, Polity, October 2021 and discussion at New Books Network
In the first days of spring, birds undergo a spectacular metamorphosis. After a long winter of migration and peaceful coexistence, they suddenly begin to sing with all their might, varying each series of notes as if it were an audiophonic novel. They cannot bear the presence of other birds and begin to threaten and attack them if they cross a border, which might be invisible to human eyes but seems perfectly tangible to birds. Is this display of bird aggression just a pretence, a game that all birds play? Or do birds suddenly become territorial – and, if so, why?
By attending carefully to the ways that birds construct their worlds and ornithologists have tried to understand them, Despret sheds fresh light on the activities of both and, at the same time, enables us to become more aware of the multiple worlds and modes of existence that characterize the planet we share in common with birds and other species.
There is a discussion of the book at the New Books Network with Carrie Figdor here.
Birds sing to set up a territory, but the relationships between the bird, the song, the territory, and the bird’s community are highly complex and individually variable. InLiving as a Bird (English translation by Helen Morrison, Polity Press, 2021), Vinciane Despret explores the concept of territory from a perspective that situates philosophical work on human conceptions of other animals within historical and contemporary empirical research into bird song and territorial behavior. Following recent theorizing by ornithologists and ethologists, Despret – an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Liege in Belgium – critiques the popular view of territories as private property and birds as petit bourgeois who gain property rights, a conception grounded in European social upheavals starting in the 17th century. Instead, territories are zones of social interaction with one’s “dear enemies” at the peripheries, where male and female birds alike are active participants in the shaping, reshaping and sharing of neighborhoods bounded in song as well as space. This new translation makes Despret’s thoughtful analysis of songbird life accessible to an English-speaking audience.