An owl is an owl is an owl—but only in the assembly lines of our minds. The title of this book recalls a mysterious phrase from David Lynch’s Twin Peaks and the carnivorous birds that haunt the show by way of decorative lamps and bibelots, as well as flesh-and-blood “actors” who appear to play the role of forest intercessors between the town and the Black Lodge (fan websites exist devoted solely to the many owls in this television series). By making these sometimes nocturnal creatures fetishistically strange, Lynch refuses traditional or commonsense projections that come ready-made with these sentient-minded beings. Yet owls are neither the malevolent incarnation of BOB, nor the eminent wisdom of Minerva, nor harbingers of death, nor symbols of wealth, nor the talons of AI love (see the incredible owl scene from Her , which might be a nice callback to the owl in Blade Runner ), nor reducible to the taxonomic order Strigiformes, nor even simply “owls.” They might be all these things in our histories of human culture, art, politics, science, and language, but not in the creaturely real—that nonnegotiable horizon and ground of what we understand emoting, thinking, communicating forms of life to be, of which we humans are only one (and usually our own favorite) example.
How can we sneak up on these speculative creatures that subtend, come before, but also, in some sense, only come to be actualized as we know them in human cultures, arts, politics, sciences, and languages? This question echoes the correlationist conundrums in Continental philosophy and the more recent speculative endeavors of thinking the nonhuman real. In this case, however, we are part and parcel of what we are trying to catch up to or entrap. We are one of these roaming creatures, in mind and body, along the orders of animality thrown together on this planet by the pure contingency of its evo-existential unfoldings (those who would say this preface is a performative contradiction through a practice no other creature has been able to develop have  a limited notion of what writing is and  one foot inside the immanent circle of evolutionary processes and one foot outside in a groundless metaphysics of self-endowed human exceptionalism). When Nietzsche called us winged insects gathering honey-knowledge for the home, thereby remaining strangers to ourselves, since home is already where the creaturely heart is, I like to think he was calling out not only farsighted humanist knowledge making but also, more specifically, ethological knowledge (a discipline that had yet to be named and was only getting off the ground as a practice in the late nineteenth century). From this vantage point, it is clear why Nietzsche proved important for the following century’s phenomenologists—and even if these philosophers have not always been amenable to nonhuman corporeality and mindedness, nothing keeps us from reading their philosophical approach as a history of animality without knowing or fully avowing it.
Alongside such philosophical practices, I maintain the need for science and art, and in such a way that they are mutually self-correcting. The positivist killjoys will have to loosen up and realize that the entities and modalities that evade the scientism of their disciplinary nets are not therefore mere pseudo-objects fit for the dustbins of New Age speculation. For their turn, aesthetic practices will have to remain vigilant of jejuneness, of the trivial instrumentally interesting, and of its institutional constraints that today more and more tend toward moneyed crassness, lifestylizations, and show. In a sense, scientists will have to think more like artists, and artists will have to think more like killjoys. Chris Marker—an artist as ethologist if there ever was one—has a short work called An Owl Is an Owl Is an Owl from his Bestiaries (1985–90) videos. Over a robotic soundtrack and voice that repeats the eponymous phrase, Marker’s camera dwells on sundry owls in cages, plumed heads swiveling with smoothness and at angles that seem impossible, with massive eyes that often stare right at the viewer. Marker forces us into an ethological position of observing another life-form in the only way we can: through our own eyes and ways of being. Since the birds are not presented within the genre of some “nature” show lulling the viewer in wilderness spectacle, but instead defamiliarized via the incessant visual repetition of the camera and the eerie soundtrack, we start to get a glimpse beyond the baggage of our human cultures, arts, politics, sciences, and languages. Quite simply, the work makes us think, yes, these are owls, but what exactly is an “owl” anyway? From this moment of deconditioning, a space for speculation opens up—and if there is a central claim in my present tract, it is that philosophy, ethology, and art need each other when speculating on animality and other minds.
Another key claim: we are always both analogous and homologous with other creatures—always embedded and embodied in both a creaturely constellation and a continuum. In other words, we exist in variegated superimpositions whereby other minds and bodies are both bridges and abysses (sometime more abyss than bridge, but never fully abyssal). And yet, however interesting it is to speculate on other animals, the time comes when we need to risk entering into concrete solidarities. In the so-called Anthropocene, the sixth mass extinction, and our age of accelerating environmental destruction through, in part, the exploitation and extraction of animal bodies on a nightmarish scale, this is such a time. Going somewhat against the grain of Derridean ethics (Derrida nonetheless looms large in my thinking), whereby one is most irresponsible when one thinks oneself responsible, I maintain the need for brazen responsibility in the face of other animals and the violence relentlessly inflicted on them—or perhaps better, aspiring to be responsibly irresponsibly responsible. This has become a necessary practical and theoretical gamble for ethical and ecopolitical care in these urgent and obscene times. With apologies to both Lynch fans and owl lovers, neither makes another appearance in this book. I hope the reader will nonetheless continue on and meet a slew of different animals in art history that implicate aesthetics, philosophy, and science in polemical though ultimately constructive ways.