Animal Symbols

I teach a class at UMass Lowell on animal ethics, and one of my favorite classes to prepare for is on John Berger‘s “Why Look at Animals”. His essay traces the process by which animals were marginalized in modernity, from mythic companion to Cartesian machine to Taylorist commodity. Just as “animals were the first symbols” when they were ever-present in our lives, “In the last two centuries, animals have gradually disappeared [, and] today we live without them. And in this new solitude, anthropomorphism makes us doubly uneasy.” (Berger 9) The irony, of course, is that animal imagery surrounds us, and this new symbolic anthropomorphism bestows animals with an unwelcome human nature: Berger traces the progression that begins with Grandville’s animals and “ends with the banality of Disney”:

DONALD: Man, what a day! What a perfect day for fishing, boating, dating or pcnicking — only I can’t do any of those things!
NEPHEW: Why not, Unca Donald? What’s holding you back?
DONALD: The Bread of Life boys! As usual, I’m broke and its eons till payday.
NEPHEW: You could take a walk Unca Donald — go bird-watching.
DONALD: (groan!) I may have to! But first, I’ll wait for the maiman. He may bring something good newswise!
NEPHEW: Like a cheque from an unknown relative in moneyville? (Berger 13-14)

Fast forward 50 years and we’ve taken the banality to a whole new level.  Think for a moment about this cartoon, where a collection of animals visit the zoo. Children grow up in a synthetic wilderness where animals are co-opted as family, as spectacle, and as simulacra, and adults escape the monotony of wage labor (Berger was a Marxian critical theorist, after all) by inventing a ‘language’ for cats. And I’m not  even getting in to Berger’s attack on zoos, other than to cite his view that they are “a monument to the impossibility of (genuine human-animal) encounters,” because “you are looking at something that has been rendered absolutely marginal.” (Berger 23-24)

The irony here is that such embedded symbolism might even play into scientism’s over-broad rejection of anthroporphism, leading to the claim that empathy for nonhuman suffering or identification with mammalian or other behavioral characteristics are merely anthropomorphic, when in biological fact they are much deeper.

Is there any way out of this maze? . Claude Lévi-Strauss famously (well, famously in animal studies circles, at least…) said that “animals are good to think.” The representations I’ve shown so far have been just the opposite: animals have been press-ganged into the human world, such that their ‘think value’ is lost. As Berger, dissecting Grandville’s animals, puts it: “The vulture as landlord is more dreadfully rapacious than he is as a bird. The crocodiles at dinner are greedier at the table than they are in the river.” (Berger 17)

But all it takes to look at the relationship anew is to look with a critical eye. Pieter Hugo has done fascinating work on the complex web of human-animal interdependence in his photoessay, “The Hyena and Other Men”.

Others invert our traditional childhood expectations, fostering a disruptive cognitive dissonance that may jar us out of anthropocentric complacency (okay, this may be a stretch). And many more representations are clearly and openly anthropomorphic, but not necessarily in as culturally harmful a way as Berger describes. And some arguably go beyond banal to shine a light on our species’ peculiar eccentricities. But then again, apparently lots of people still think it’s okay to tattoo live pigs (because hey, he’s a vegetarian!).

And finally, there’s this.

2 responses to “Animal Symbols

  1. I would have been fine, really fine, without ever seeing happy tree friends.

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