Tag Archives: animal symbols

The strength of symbols

Richard Adams’ Watership Down was one of the first books I remember reading–it’s also one of the few books where the film rivals the original for artistic merit. The film also probably traumatized its fair share of kids…it’s got lots of violence and adult themes, and I think I saw it when I was around 10.

But some of the core messages–about agency, coping with death, political identity, and the scope of the moral community–have stuck with me. This book doesn’t engage with animal ethics nearly as directly as The Plague Dogs, but its oblique approach is all the more powerful for its subtlety, especially when compared to the banality of Disney’s anthropomorphic sidekicks.

Symbolism redux and posthumanism(s)

“Why does Hollywood make animals act like humans? As The Atlantic’s James Parker has pointed out, the answers lie in philosophy. The French film critic André Bazin wrote of our relationship to onscreen animals as an “ontological otherness”—a connection with an outside world that reminds us of ourselves—or what’s also been called the “human gaze” by animal ethicist Randy Malamud. We’ve become accustomed to seeing “animals doing silly things for the audience’s amusement—things they don’t usually do, and have no reason to do,” Malamud argues. When we see Free Willy’s whale flip through the sky, it’s not for his entertainment so much as ours. The same is true of a cute YouTube video of a hamster eating broccoli or a LOLcat pleading for a cheeseburger, an amusingly discomfiting image. It’s also funny to see Zookeeper’s animals talking on a cell phone—or, at least, it’s supposed to be.” (from this article, on Zookeeper, Project Nim, and animal symbolism)

John Berger pointed out in “Why Look At Animals” that the pervasiveness of nonhuman animal symbolism inversely correlates to the presence of actual nonhuman animals in our lives. I haven’t seen Zookeeper, and, given the controversy surrounding the treatment of its captive animals and the mediocre-at-best Kevin James, I don’t really plan to. (Project Nim, on the other hand, I look forward to.) But this caustic article posted on Minding the Campus (a generally conservative counterpoint to the Chronicle of Higher Ed’s Brainstorm — or at least that’s how I parse it) got me to thinking.

Mary Grabar’s “Literature Professors Discover Animals” ranges from Foucault to the Institute for Critical Animal Studies (ICAS) to Steve Best to posthumanism (as against transhumanism – see this post at IEET for the distinction). The audience, apparently, is supposed to know why such studies are “ominous”, because she never explains her position. She is also lumping together two related but distinct things–posthumanism and critical animal studies–about which I have two different opinions.

As this muddled and contested Wikipedia page indicates, the term posthumanism (like the field of animal studies) means different things to different people. I’m ambivalent about the term, but I still can’t accept the bald anthropocentrism of humanism, much of which I otherwise agree with.

Critical animal studies, on the other hand, tends to specifically embrace the post-Marx continental philosophy in which all of reality can be viewed as a hierarchical power struggle of otherness, alterity, exploitation, and domination. This is, of course, an oversimplification, but I’ve been to both CAS conferences and to the HSUS’ TAFA, and the two are very different in scope and sensibility. One is broadly welfarist, the other abolitionist. At this stage in the social movement for animals, I think we need both movements, just as we need both PETA and the ASPCA, ADI and IFAW. The two are, indeed, distinct, sometimes even mutually hostile (which is unfortunate, but not surprising).

My reaction to Grabar’s piece, then, is threefold: 1) she lumps a range of different material under the same header, leading the reader to assume that all academic work in animal studies is Foucauldian, etc.; 2) she presumes her argument to be so obvious that it doesn’t need mentioning (why, exactly, is this an ‘ominous’ development, and what’s so great about the existing Judeo-Xian ethic?), which it isn’t, and it does; and 3) the result is that this ends up resembling an ‘ivory tower hit job’ in which posthumanism becomes anti-human, which it needn’t be, and where animal studies becomes, falsely, nothing more than CAS.

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.