Human and Animal


/1/ – Critical Separation

What is it that separates human beings from animals? It is a simple question in the most broad sense and one that is constantly answered and simultaneously unanswerable. The connective tissue is one immersed in violence – when humans are treated ‘like animals’ do both the torturers and the subjects of torture become less than human or do both become more human? Is the infliction of pain on another person a human act assuming its outside of survival, clearly human and is what makes us human in our suffering the fact that, a la V for Vendetta, there is that which can never be destroyed by violence, the inch of our unknowable subjectivity which grants us the possibility of immortality.

Such capacity for immortality is the only purely human trait according to Badiou’s Ethics. In an interview appendix of the text, Badiou is jokingly attacked by Peter Hallward for being too hard on animals. Badiou states that, in a sort of material sense, we are animals, we belong in the category of animals. What sets is apart on a base level is our use of mathematics and, as Badiou sees it, it is mathematics which is the language which allows us to understand ontology, to access the possibility of subjective fidelity to an event, to become a subject in the wake of an event. Badiou argues that the animality of humans is exceeded by a kind of grace of thought – though the event is itself only materiality, it is a materiality grasped in a way that cannot be reduced to the interactions of the material pieces of our animal brains.

In terms of history of course, the line is blurred through long years of horrific treatment. The institution of slavery, the popularity of humans-as-spectacle in various world’s fairs – the human zoo of the Paris exposition, the odd fame of the Hottentot Venus and so forth. Given that so much animal treatment has primarily to do with enclosure, it should be no surprise that Agamben constructs the difference between animal and human with spatial perception as the material. Following Heidegger, Agamben argues that the animal perceives a mess of small worlds whereas only the human being sees the open as such, the broad system. The chapter entitled ‘Tick’ is an excellent example – the creature is blind and only sniffs out blood to feed on. Nietzsche’s comments about animal memory in The Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life, seem to come to a similar conclusion – the absence of history in animals leaves them in ignorant bliss.

/2/ – Contractual Interrelations

Waltzing through Manhattan instantly gives one an idea of how people will go for their pets emotionally, conceptually and financially. The anthropomorphization of dogs and cats in particular is evidence of the weight of anthrozoological relations. The domestication of the dog and the horse goes back tens of thousands of years and the use of live stock just as far if not further. Despite technological advance, services animals are still widely used to aid the blind and the deaf, and the benefits of human-animal contact for the sick and disabled is still popular.

A brief tour of reality television illustrates human investment in the pet – The Dog Whisperer, documents the inability of humans to control their pets as well as the relative ease of doing so. Interestingly enough, Cesar Milan’s approach is to instruct the owner to become a pack leader, an odd sort of Deleuzian becoming-animal if there ever was one. To become a pack is, in Deleuze and Guattari’s terms, to shift from the molar to the molecular, the embrace a sort of errant multiplicity. Dog Town, which tells various stories surrounding the animals and people of a giant rescue in northern Arizona, is evidence of the cost and effort that many are willing to put in to care for sick and homeless animals.

The notorious PETA is, of course, diametrically opposed to such relations. To say nothing of their activism, their media tactics have become increasingly ridiculously. Not too long ago they began a media campaign called the holocaust on your plate. The campaign juxtaposed large pictures of holocaust victims within camp walls with shots of animals in farm cages. The creator of the media argued that the same mindset allowed both to happen. The animalization of the Jews is, of course nothing new. Several of the Nazi texts, particular those that focused on the so called original races from mythological times.

In Mladen Dolar’s A Voice and Nothing More, there is an interesting anecdote about the relation of mice to Jews. He writes: “With mice we should also keep in mind the connection in German (a verb derived from Yiddish for Moses, Mausche, and meaning to speak Yiddish or Yiddishized German, and by extension to speak in an incomprehensible way, and by further extension secret dealings, hidden afairs, decit).” (p. 208)

Art Spiegelman’s well known Maus, tells one man’s experience of the holocaust by using anthropomorphic animals: the Jews are mice, the Polish pigs, the Nazis are cats, the Americans dogs and so forth. While there are several critical essays on Maus, they have become hard to find and many focus more of their attention on memory then the animalization of the holocaust. The effect, instead of trivializing history, brings a tenderness through sheer difference that is increasingly hard to find in the plethora of holocaust tales. The likely explanation here would be that of the uncanny valley – that non-humans with human characteristics create a strong emotional response. A somewhat similar attempt is made, in regards to the Iraq War, in Brian Vaughn’s Pride of Baghdad.

/3/ – Deep relations

While several texts have emerged regarding human animal relations, Midas Dekkers’ text Dearest Pet: On Bestiality remains one of the few that critical deals with zoophilia. Dekkers makes a fuss over how despite the intent of affection we have for our pets we can carefully mentally eliminate the possibility of cross species contact. This fear, as Deleuze and Guattari make clear, has quite a bit to do with theology – the witch, the devil et cetera, are always bestial, unnatural. D and G, in A Thousand Plateaus, confront psychoanalysis as unduly erasing the category becoming-animal, that it reduces the animal to the drives, to the bare biology, even pre-biological (p. 258-259).

Peter Greenaway’s A Zed & Two Naughts (aka Zoo) follows two previously conjoined twins, Oliver and Oswald, whose wives die in a strange car accident. The two of them become obsessed with death, decay and the beginnings of life as well as strange coincidences surrounding the crash – the woman driving, who survived, was named Buick, and lost her baby after taken mercury in the past. She lost another pregnancy in the car crash – the car was a ford mercury. The accident was caused when Buick was distracted by a series of swans – the street she was on was swan lane.

The brothers soon produce time lapse movies of animals decaying, in an attempt to understand what happened to their wives as well as their own grief. Coupled with this is a fascination with amputation – Buick’s leg is amputated because of the crash and she later asks for the second to be done. This amputation, as well as Oswald’s and Oliver’s relationship, is mended through a strange appreciation of symmetry. The twins, both zoologists, relate their own state of being to the zoo in that, in previous times, conjoined twins would be deemed an oddity and locked up in cages, as was the aforementioned venus.

The films most interesting side character is, incidentally, Venus, a seamstress who sells her body and tells extravagant tales of bestiality on the side in hopes of one day being published. The large ominous blue sign of the Zoo, which simply says ZOO in giant blue letters, is seen backwards, as ooz or ooze, as that which all life returns to, as Venus goes of to either have sex with a zebra or die by it, it is not clear. By way of her unseen death, Venus provides a common connection of love and death as well as the knot of not being ever able to know how things end, the specifics of death (what the brothers are trying to understand) nor the beginning, the rising from the ooze.

If, following Badiou, we are capable of escaping the gravity of our bestial nature through a kind of errant immortality, then in what ways do we turn back to the animal?

/4/ – Battles or separation unraveled

The history channel’s recent special Life After Humans, wonders what would happen if every human on the planet was to up and leave. The show devotes most of its time to structural decay and the inevitable rampancy of animals after our sudden departure but also shows the severity of our current impact on them in myriad ways. For one, the special talked of how roads violently carve up the migration paths of many animals, most notably bears.

Warner Hertzog’s Grizzly Man is, at least partially, about a failed attempt to return to nature. The film follows Timothy Treadwell, an animal enthusiast who, along with his girlfriend, was found eaten alive by bears – his watch ticking on a disembodied hand. Treadwell, as well as various other animal hunters, many of which seem to care far less about conservation than he did, are written off, particularly when they die, as fools who tested the mettle of Mother Nature and hence none of us should be surprised.

Returning to Life After Humans, there is an ever present motif in disaster and apocalyptic/post apocalyptic films – that of the animals once enslaved, turning back to nature or perhaps, more accurately, reasserting their nature despite their bonds. The deer wondering through the abandoned school, the horse and carriage wondering without driver or passenger. Is this suggestive of a naive return to nature, to some harmony?

The very concept of nature itself, seen through the eyes of humans, is unnatural, such as when Lacan articulates the concept of antiphusis or anti-nature. As Lacanians such as Adrian Johnston and Lorenzo Chisea have discussed, human existence is shot through with the symbolic from the moment of our birth. Just as there is something always already ruined about humans (as animals at least) there is always the bit of the beast that cannot be erased from the animal – that glimmer of hunger or chance at escape which remains. The weighing question is the same that is at the end of the film Equus: who is it that really has the bit in the mouth?

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