Pictured: Right whale callosity. Image by Iain Kerr Ocean Alliance.
What enters through the blazon of the body, sensations, aesthesis , is not just the form of an object, it’s the anguish of being full of holes.
—Lyotard, “Music, Mutic”1
This pair of banners (see A Swarm is My Bonnet), each 7 feet tall, represents the endangered North Atlantic right whale and cyamids, the tiny crustaceans who live on them. Each banner contains about half a whale at a little more than one-quarter scale. The distinct markings are composed of crustaceans, who remain in these configurations for the life of the whale.
These banners honor a colony of commensal animals who, by living on the whale, inadvertently sign the whale’s individuality to humans. Humans, who love both science and story, tend to tune in more when they can identify individuals. The bonnets become the grounds for calling these whales Cassiopeia or Starboard, and tracking them over their lifetimes. They become the “face” of the whale for humans working in whale and ocean conservation.
And yet, whales have much more in common with humans than with cyamids. They have been shown to be uniquely highly social and vocal, endowed with massive brains and highly complex and extensive communication systems. In the case of baleen whales, that communication happens thanks to vocal cords.
In many ancient Arctic whale-hunting societies, it was understood that whales not only spoke their own language with each other, but that they also communicated with humans. This was among the primary reasons that it made perfect sense to refer to them as a kind of people. 3 Today, some cetacean rights advocates are still quite focused on the idea that whales have language and thus deserve rights. 4 But their argument for whale personhood seems to have lost the dimension of communication between whales and humans. It seems like something out of a fable, at once too fantastic and too literal.
Because of publisher restrictions, this essay cannot be reprinted in full. If you would like to know more, please contact me and I will read it to you.