Curating Proteins and Fibers

Green caterpillar on person's hands by Renatto Mora.

No 4
Accessing the Umwelt through Poetry
How do we, as humans, gain access to the lived experiences of nonhuman animals?

In the third reading group session, we attempted to answer this question by looking at aesthetic objects such as literary texts and art work. With Ada Smailbegović as our guide, we saw how poetry might render the perceived worlds, or Umwelten, of fiber-producing animals sensible to humans. The concept of the Umwelt comes from Jakob von Uexküll. He believed that the worlds, or Umwelten, of all living beings are constituted through their specific experiences of perceiving their environments.

Smailbegović argues that poetry can act as an aesthetic amplification device that helps us make sense of something like the life cycle of a silkworm as the worm itself experiences it. She looks at several twentieth- and twenty-first-century poets who draw on the methodologies of the natural sciences to see whether poetry can, indeed, render the near-inaccessible Umwelten of nonhuman animals more legible.

Jen Bervin’s Silk Poems is among the aesthetic objects that Smailbegović examines. By disorienting the reader with its scale, spacing, and form, Silk Poems gives some sense of the rhythms, durations, and transformations of the silkworm. The poem may be helping to facilitate interspecies translation, allowing us to briefly perceive the silk worm’s Umwelt. But ultimately, we only get glimpses of these more-than-human worlds in the disorienting experience of the poem. We cannot fully access these worlds, as Smailbegović’s analysis of Nina Katchadourian’s “Mended Spiderweb” series makes clear. In “Mended Spiderweb,” Katchadourian fixed broken spider webs with thread. No matter how similar to spider silk the thread seemed to Katchadourian, the spider always removed it and made its own repairs. This example suggests that we are failing at interspecies translation, even if we attempt to bridge the gap with materials and scales that should seem familiar to the nonhuman other. But in this failure, there are moments of learning about the limits of both our narrative and imaginative capacities.

Thinking about aesthetic objects such as poetry allows us to ask the following questions:

  • To access the perceptions of nonhuman animals, do we need new methods and instruments sensitive to other beings’ perceptions or do we need new ways of narrating?
  • How do these methods, instruments, and narrative techniques work across various temporal and spatial scales to facilitate interspecies translation?
  • How can we use failures of interspecies translation to better comprehend the subjectivity of nonhuman animals? That is, how can we embrace failure as generative mode of apprehending the Umwelten of nonhuman animals?
  • What other options do we have for narrating the experiences of nonhuman animals? Can we use them in combination to increase interspecies translation?

Melissa Charenko


Ada Smailbegović, Poetics of Liveliness: Molecules, Fibers, Tissues, Clouds. New York: Columbia University Press, 2021.

Jakob von Uexküll, A Foray Into the Worlds of Animals and Humans: With a Theory of Meaning. Translated by Joseph D. O’Neil. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, [1934] 2010.


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