The “crisis of life” announced by the becoming “life-like” of technology invites reflections on the ambiguous relationship between life and technology, challenging the common divisions of nature and culture, history and material environments, and human and non-human forms of life. In this track, Worlds of Camouflage: Environment, Technique, Response-ability, we hope to approach these themes by rethinking camouflage in its different guises and registers, drawing out their philosophical, political, and ethical implications.
Rather than having one origin, the concept of camouflage has a convoluted history, interwoven between zoology, evolutionary theory, the arts, and military science (Shell, 2012). To take one example, during the First and Second World Wars, cubist artists and naturalist scientists were hired to develop technologies of deception. By means of photography and taxidermy, these engineers sought to demonstrate the “natural laws” according to which non-human beings blend in with their environments, performing experiments that would flatten bodies (including those of moths, ducks, and hares,) into two-dimensional representations that were staged against static backgrounds. Paired with a neo-Darwinian ideology which characterised the natural world as a violent competition between species, these experiments reduced multitudes of non-human techniques of imitation and environmental responsiveness to pre-determined genetic properties and instinctual mechanisms to be appropriated for warfare technologies (Haraway 2008; Margulis & Sagan, 1997). This militaristic understanding of camouflage dogmatically presupposed that human beings are autonomous agents, free to utilise technologies to master their ostensibly inert natural environments.
And yet, underlying and enabling this anthropocentric thinking of camouflage, there is already lurking a radically different configuration of the relations of the human, non-human and techniques. Imagine a soldier in a field covered in foliage and branches—where does the “technology” of camouflage end and the “nature” of an environment begin? Here, rather than being a mere instrument, camouflage already problematises the supposedly clear delineations of human/nature/technology, attesting instead to the specific forms of engagements-with and responses-to an environment, which itself is far from being an inert background, but a localised field of different forces in and against which any form of life is articulated (Deleuze, 2014; Simondon, 2020).
This question of camouflage as a matter of environmental response also arises in regard to non-human techniques. Octopuses, for example, can rapidly morph their body shapes and colours to produce eerily accurate imitations of coral reefs, kelp forests or sand plains (Hanlon, 2018). This dynamic camouflage, along with their remarkable intelligence, curiosity and skills, has helped render neo-Darwinian notions of animals as instinctual automatons untenable. Instead, octopuses’ camouflage presents a technique of a continuous negotiation of boundaries through which a self and environment take form, pushing us to rethink camouflage as a fascinating play between the organic and inorganic, a kind of responsiveness to locality that precedes any opposition of (non)human life and technique (Barad, 2007; Derrida, 2009, 2011, 2017; Haraway 2016; Hoffmeyer, 2008; Jackson, 2020).
In this way, we suggest that camouflage presents a particular mode of worlding—a responsive boundary negotiation that underpins any composition of locality—opening onto a myriad of questions: How can camouflage as ruse or sabotage be an emancipatory strategy for human and non-human survival, evading authoritarian surveillance regimes and systems of taxonomic order? How can we understand camouflage differently, as a form of expression or storytelling, where the non-human becomes an unreliable narrator? How do contemporary biomimetic technological developments have to be scrutinised in light of this thinking of camouflage? How does this question of non-human technique challenge the traditional binaries of human and non-human life, according to which access to history, community, and being are monopolised for humans alone? Finally, how does this question of camouflage complicate the very formulation of “life-likeness”?
We invite paper submissions and experimental engagements in line with, but not limited to, the suggested themes that may take the form of theoretical reflections, artistic presentations, performative interventions or the like.