Thursday, June 18, 2009

City of Fishes

This is also a slightly dated story but it is something I think is cool and invites speculation. In brief, scientists used some new sonar to watch a macroscopic convalescence of herring.

"The process starts as fish begin to aggregate near the seabed at sunset. When the fish reach a critical density — about one fish in a 15-foot-square area — their behavior changes. They draw closer to each other into "clusters," Makris says, and align their movements. Then the clusters coalesce in what appears to be a wave passing through the mass of fish. Makris says it looks like the kind of wave people create in sports stadiums.

"Once the giant school forms, it then moves south as a single entity, to an area where the fish spawn.

"The Georges Bank herring school at times stretched for 25 miles."

So, herring enact the post-'68 wet (fish pun!) dream regularly so that they don't get eaten while mating. Is there anything for us to learn from this aside from the details of piscine spawning?

I want to connect this briefly to John Brown, especially as I made a not especially well-informed remark about Brown in another post. Brown was foremost in my mind because I had read an article that morning about the thousand pikes Brown had commissioned for his rebellion. That seemed, well, pretty cool, because it took advantage of certain facts about his situation: 1) slave owners, like other modern sovereigns, did not want to have to prove their rule through the confrontation of the joust; they wanted to instill and maintain power through mediated, uninvolved displays of absolute power 2) he was living in the age of industrial steel, when a person could feasibly purchase 1000 technically primitive weapons that were, because of the cost-competitive pressure of mass production, still very good at killing (not as cheap as killing is today, but well within the threshold of industrial militaristic production). And 3) the technical skill to wield a pike is low. A pike does not jam; it requires only basic cleaning; any weaknesses or damages to it are immediately evident. It was a democratic weapon that would not cripple his campaign with its economic weight.

Brown's fantasy was anti-imperial, and I mean this in a technical sense. He took the dromocratic structure of the phalanx that marched across Roman Europe and made it the enemy of the sovereign's power. By "anti-imperial" I mean that it is the structure of imperial force but directed against the empire (as opposed to, say, pacifist anarchism which is "anti-imperial" in a very different way).

These twenty-five miles of massed herring are a similar fantasy. Who wouldn't want to be like those herring, caught up in an Event that duplicated seamlessly between subjects faster even than the fish could swim, which is to say it outruns the speed-limit of conscious communication. But the fish narrative currently offers nothing to politics. They don't want to be eaten; they just want to mate. These explanations are sufficient for science but are the crude material of evolutionary biology that has almost no grip on explaining human behavior, and less still when political agency is concerned. This seems like an incomplete narrative, sketched as yet only in the most cliched terms. It is not so much about us learning to be more like the fish, as learning to see our world in a way that lets this fish story appear within the political.