My latest in the International New York Times. Click here to read the pdf.
Surely no one makes the case for orthophemism as a virtue of public speech more clearly than Cicero: "When you speak of the anus," he writes, "you call it by a name [‘anus’, i.e., ‘ring’] that is not its own; why not rather call it by its own [i.e., ‘culus’]? If it is indecent, do not use even the substituted name; if not, you had better call it by its own" (Epistolae ad familiares IX xxii).
This sounds like a reasonable enough demand: say what you mean, don't hide it, don't hold back. But notice what has happened in the languages that descend from Latin or that have borrowed heavily from its vocabulary: the straightshooting word (culus) has become a profanity (French cul, Spanish culo, etc.), and the word (anus) previously used for talking around what was really in question has moved in to serve as the orthophemism par excellence: doctors now say 'anus' to their patients to signal that they mean the actual anatomical region, with no cultural, moral, or aesthetic judgment implied; family members and other intimates will speak of their 'butts' or (Br.) 'bums'; prudes and kindergarten teachers say 'bottom'; while Lyndon B. Johnson, in celebration of his presidential might, proudly sings the song of his own 'bunghole'.
There is a wide array of choices here, but one senses that none gets it quite right. One senses in fact that it is impossible to get it right. All you can do is speak of the thing in question at various registers, and the trick of communication is to be able to judge what the correct register is in a given situation.
Anus started out as a euphemism, one meant to bring to mind rings in general rather than that particular sphincter (thus the noteworthy similarity to words such as the Latin annus, the Spanish año, and the English annual: all suggesting a cyclical or ring-like motion of the seasons back to where they started). Anyone who thinks that bodily opening can always be adequately discussed in total abstraction from its cultural, moral, aesthetic, etc., implications is missing out on most of what in fact motivates people to turn to this topic of conversation. We are not proctologists. If we insist too hard on using the proctological orthophemism, we will find that it, too, starts to sound funny, and we'll have to move on to another supposed anchor of correctness.
When it comes to words for the genital organs, the truth is I just don't know what to say. 'Penis' and 'vagina' are out of the question. These, too, like anus, started out as Latin euphemisms. 'Penis' for example derives from a word for 'tail', and thus, like the German Schwanz, originates as a euphemism of the most common sort: a terminological displacement to another slightly more acceptable bodily part, presumably rendered safer by the fact that it is a part human beings lack. It is hard also not to believe that it is this particular lexeme that prevailed, at least for a time, in part as a result of a fortuitous impression of onomatopoeia: penises pee, just as bees buzz. It's all so hopelessly diminutive, primitive, fundamentally unserious, notwithstanding its pretense of directness.
'Penis', 'vagina': people never just use these words, without also wanting it to be registered that they are using them. You've surely felt this yourself, as a speaker or a listener: the way they hang in the air, the way they demand recognition, even as the official rule of the conversational game is that one must take them straightfacedly, like adults. Like urologists.
As I've said, I just can't play along. Nothing seems to work. I go searching in foreign tongues: I speak of le sexe, le membre. I go looking for archaicisms, such as 'the yard', or I deploy poetical convolutions, like 'the mound of Venus'. But these overreach, and I retreat in embarrassment. I want to rewind and erase. I go searching instead in the dusty old files of vulgarities I learned in youth. But these are too low, now, and would give the impression of slumming (only 'cunt', I find, has any philological nobility). No, nothing works. Not the dysphemistic dick, nor the orthophemistic penis, nor yet the various high-brow talkings-around to which I have access thanks to my education in arts and letters. I just can't find the right register.
When I do say these words, against my very nature, they hang in the air like lies.
Cicero missed the point, later established by solid sociolinguistic evidence, that any attempt to fix the right word once and for all will only send our imaginations elsewhere. This is what Eve Ensler has missed too, and all of our earnest young-adult friends in academic and self-styled progressive circles who use the language of urology to publicly display their coming of age, their sérieux. But there is perhaps a corollary point to the one Cicero makes: that if you wish to speak about something, you had better be sure you are ready to do so. On this line of thinking the fact that it is so hard to find the right register when it comes to the genital organs is a result of their, shall we say, particularly charged role in human life, in human imagination, phantasm, lore.
Academics, and other right-thinking people, imagine that it would be a mark of progress to drain the genitals of this charge. It seems to me however that the difficulty of finding the right register, and the essential instability of any elected orthophemism, could be a perfectly appropriate reflection of the significance of the domain of human life in question. Insisting on the clinical term neither deflates nor faces up to this significance, but in the end only constitutes its own sort of evasion.
I have been saying for quite some time that one of the most useful windows into a culture's folk-ontological commitments is the unique way it variously applies mass nouns and count nouns to foodstuffs. Russians see potatoes as a mass: e.g., give me some potato. This is revealing, I believe, of many other things besides.
It is with respect to animals, in particular, that these folk commitments might be thought at once to carry with them significant moral implications. Ordinarily, animals are taken as individual beings par excellence, and this at least since Aristotle said, in the Categories, that what he means by 'substance' is really just 'this particular horse or man' (to paraphrase).
Animals lose their substantial unity in slaughter and preparation, yet even there they frequently maintain their conceptual unity: for Thanksgiving, e.g., a family has a turkey, and that is as much a single, individual entity as the living, strutting tom that preceded it. The further we move down the scale of ritual importance, it seems, the more likely the creature, following its slaughter, is going to be treated as a mass, or, ironically, as a 'substance' not in the Aristotelian sense but in the decidedly modern sense (of which the dreaded 'pink slime' is arguably a limit case, much like prime matter in Aristotle's scheme).
I have been noticing for a while now that 'chicken', long mass-produced on a scale rivalled by no othery poultry, and long considered a very low-status meat, has filtered into German to describe the end product of the process of deanimalization, which is at the same time a process of deindividualization. I think it was the Turkish döner vendors who first started using the word chicken in compounds to describe the stuff they scrape off of those massive mounds of flesh that spin around all day, like brontosaurus thighs, in their tiny sweltering Imbissstuben. I have even seen some döner joints, run by Turks bent on German hypercorrectness, who have taken the first bold steps towards Germanification of the spelling: Tschickendöner.
Now the German language is extremely promiscuous, or at least it has an ongoing unsavory relationship with English, and is often seen to import words for which it would be extremely easy to find a properly Germanic equivalent. Why, oh why, do Germans say Citycall and Departmentstore? Every time I see these abominations I think to myself: this is not what I came here for. These unwanted babies are the product of the same cultural uncertainty that has German parents choosing names like Kevin and Lisa, to the utter disappointment of those of us who have come looking for Heinrichs, Wolfgangs, and Hedwigs. But anyhow, it's a different story with French, and when an English word pierces through the thick membrane of pride that has grown up around their tongue, you will know this is for strong conceptual reasons: there was an idea there that had to be expressed, and only English could do the trick. Enter chicken.
As is well known, French law requires advertisers who use English to include an asterisked translation in tiny text at the bottom (other languages as well, but de facto 90% or so English; most Italian allusions, for tomato sauce and stuff, are taken care of by the suffixation of an -issimo to a proper French word, which does not necessitate an asterisk). The burger chain Quick (and remind me to write another note soon on the word quick and its connection to the word bios, and thus its surprising proximity to the issue currently at hand), has decided to sell a 'chicken' product, and was compelled by law to offer a translation of this word. What did they come up with? 'Chicken' is a 'fried preparation of poulet', where a poulet, in turn, is conceptualized as an integral animal.
As we see with anthropomorphized hot dogs and the like, animals rendered into pure masses can then be reconstituted into something that is conceptualized as an integral being. But chicken, in the continental European sense, seems to be essentially a mass. The implications of this sort of example are tremendous, I think, for the way language shapes our conceptualization of the community of beings (a conceptualization that is ontological and moral at once).
In view of my impending move to France at the end of this month, I am frantically sorting through a lifetime's worth of old papers, trying to perform a rather radical triage and to get what remains down to the dimensions of a single box or two to be sent after me by freight. I've been discovering some real gems, and posting photos of them to a private social media site. There has been a tremendous outcry among my friends against the proposal to throw some of this stuff away. Fine, I thought. I'll sell it. I'll have an auction here at jehsmith.com.
The PayPal donation button to the right has lapsed into near total desuetude over the past few weeks. Apparently people still want physical objects for their money. Well, here's one: a 1987 report on walruses, "a truly fascinating animal that belongs in the pinniped (fin-feet) classification along with seals and sea lions and it lives in the northern Pacific, northern Atlantic, and Arctic Oceans." Send me a bid, by private message, or in the comments section, within the next week (or until I have a bid that's sufficiently high), and if the price is right I will send you the report by post. If you think it is scandalous that I would part with such a thing, then you, as the highest bidder, may elect to hold it in trust for me until I, uh, need it again.
We'll see how well this works. I have many other equally precious papers with which I might follow this up, including a 1989 Sacramento County arrest warrant for yours truly, and envelopes stuffed with old love letters, in order to help offset the exorbitant cost of this intercontinental move.
All joking and stuntsmanship aside, it strikes me as I go through my papers that I actually have a fairly rich archive, documenting not just my own curious peregrinations and many false starts, but also a good slice of life in the late-20th and early-21st-century West. And you could own a part of it!
There is a cat that sits on the sidewalk in front of the bistro Chez Bébert near the Gare Montparnasse in Paris (I snapped his picture just yesterday). He does not greet visitors, but he does give them to know, in his silent occupation of that crucial space before the door, that this is his bistro, and that, whatever the surrounding humans may call him, he is Bébert. And anyone who has read Louis-Ferdinand Céline's infamous 1957 novel, D'un château l'autre [From Castle to Castle] cannot help but wonder, upon encountering this Bébert, whether here is not in fact a concrete instance of the well-known feline power of reincarnation.
Céline had been an unrepentant Nazi-collaborationist, a traitor, a bloody anti-Semite, and an otherwise all-around awful person. As the war was drawing to a close, he got it into his head to flee Paris, through the ruins of Germany, to Denmark. He had intended to take only his wife, but his beloved cat, Bébert, imposed himself, refused to let them go alone. So Bébert was stuck in a sack and hauled through the craters and bombed-out castles, and would eventually prove to be the only remotely admirable character in the author's subsquent fictional retelling of the odyssey. On arrival in Copenhagen, Céline was arrested (it is not at all clear why he thought the Danes would have wanted him), and Bébert seized. The cat had cancer, for which, rather remarkably under the circumstances, he was able to receive an operation. Eventually he was returned to France along with his owner, who died in 1961, after years, according to some sources, of eating nothing but noodles. Bébert himself is said to have lived only until 1952.
Yet it seems somehow vulgar to stamp Bébert with a date of demise, to give him a necrologue and be done with it. For in surviving the war, in becoming the only steady weight and the only bastion of serenity in the most terrible and blazing work of 20th-century literature, Bébert came to stand for survival itself, and demonstrated why in the popular imagination the feline is indestructible (we call it 'reincarnation' and we number the lives at nine, but what we really mean is that there is some indestructible cat essence that just keeps pushing through all the gross violent things men do to cats and around them).
Impressions such as these, no doubt, inspired George Steiner to write:
It is Bébert I want to write about--Bébert the arch-survivor and the incarnation of French cunning... Bébert would be a joy to report on. Céline is not.
Is the cat really the spirit-animal of the French? We know, particularly from Robert Darnton, that the cat was the animal most excessively abused around the period of Revolutionary fervor, bound together and thrown onto bonfires en masse, so that the rowdies, unhappy about their labor conditions or something, could delight in the cats' screeches as a sort of next-best-thing to punitive justice. And we know of Chris Marker's obsessive attempt to impose the figure of the cat heraldically in place of himself, to dissolve the human into the feline. Marker's cat was a composite of the Japanese maneki-neko, Lewis Carroll's Cheshire (another peculiar French obsession), and his own domestic animal, who was called Guillaume. Like Bébert, Guillaume had many lives, and does not always appear to have been hosted by one and the same physical cat. Yet he was always Guillaume.
And then there is Claude Lévi-Strauss, who realizes at the very end of Tristes Tropiques that he did not have to go all the way to the tropics to have a primordial encounter, as there was one waiting for him right there in his apartment:
Farewell to savages, then, farewell to journeying! And instead, during the brief intervals in which humanity can bear to interrupt its hive-like labours, let us grasp the essence of what our species has been and still is, beyond thought and beneath society: an essence that may be vouchsafed to is in a mineral more beautiful than any work of Man: in the scent, more subtly evolved than our books, that lingers in the heart of a lily; or in the wink of an eye, heavy with patience, serenity, and mutual forgiveness, that sometimes, through an involuntary understanding, one can exchange with a cat.
I am not going to venture a theory of national character, or attempt to explain why it was left to a German to write Dog and Man (Konrad Lorenz, following Johan Huizinga, if I remember correctly, attempted to minimize the role of the cat in human society by arguing from medieval transfers of title to estates, which show that cats were always considered part of the property, like trees, while dogs always went with the previous owners; we know however that at least some cats will follow their owners through the apocalypse). But I do think Steiner is right about Bébert's symbolic power as the embodiment of a commendable --because silent-- will to survive, a symbolic power that makes sense only against the deep, deep background of folk beliefs about what cats are capable of. And I would add that if one is looking for national symbols, it is good that France has Bébert, and not only his human companion, who died most definitively in 1961, still a shit (a shit who'd just completed another, final masterpiece called Rigodon), still uninterested in serenity or forgiveness.
And I am convinced also that attention to the cat massacres of the 18th century; to Lévi-Strauss's turn away from the savage toward the feline; to the Cheshire graffiti that still covers Paris in memory of Chris Marker; and to Céline's misanthropic escape into cat-love, to the complimentarity of his anti-semitism and his philo-felinism: that all of this considered together (no doubt alongside other examples I haven't recalled) could tell us a great deal about the cultural and intellectual history of modern France.
G. E. Lessing, the great critic and philosopher of the German Enlightenment, noted in his 1759 essay ‘On the Use of Animals in Fables’ that “the great majority of fables feature animals, and still lesser creatures, as acting persons.” Lessing wanted to know what we could learn from this. My own view is that his conclusions are dead wrong, but that the question itself is one that it took a certain kind of genius to ask in the first place, and one that remains as urgent as ever to answer, not just for the sake of literary theory, but above all for the sake of our understanding of what animals are, and of the way our moral commitments to them flow from this understanding.
Lessing gives two primary reasons for the replacement of human beings by animals in fables. The first is that we all tend to recognize more readily the sort of character represented by an animal species than by a particular human being. If one were to relate the historical tale of Nero and Britannicus, for example, it was already quite likely in the 18th century --and is all the more so today-- that most listeners will have no idea what these characters are meant to represent. But if a fable has as its primary function the imparting of some moral principle or other, as Lessing supposes, it is far better to replace Nero with a wolf, and Britannicus with a lamb. Everyone, we might suppose, down to the most ignorant yokel, knows what these creatures represent, and how they stand in relation to one another. If the purpose is to communicate a moral principle rather than a history lesson, why let background knowledge of individual human actors stand as a prerequisite? It is the wolf and the lamb that require the least in the way of shared background knowledge, and thus that serve most directly the fable’s function of universal moral edification.
Lessing adds another reason for the casting of animals in fables, one that he claims derives from his ‘sensibility’ --a common trope of the distinctly German reception of Enlightenment values-- rather than from logical conclusions. He maintains that nothing gets in the way of the teaching of a moral lesson moreso than the passions. He brings up the example of the avaricious priest in 2 Samuel 12, who wishes to take away a poor man’s only lamb. Lessing maintains that in this tale our passion of sympathy for the poor man is great, as is our passion of hatred for the priest. But if we substitute animals for the relevant actors, then, in so far as these creatures are ‘lesser’ than we are, the arousal of the passions in reading about them is thereby reduced, and we are better able to focus on the moral lesson at hand. “We sympathize with the lamb,” Lessing writes, “but this sympathy is so weak that it has no noticeable impact upon our intuitive knowledge of the moral principle.”
I find the first argument interesting, and the second one deplorable. I also find that Lessing’s engagement with the topic leaves a great many considerations completely unexplored.
The second argument seems to me patently false: even though we have strong species-based loyalties in our reasoned moral commitments, these loyalties are most likely to be suspended when, as in a fable, an anthropomorphized animal occupies a role that in another genre of story-telling would be held by a human being. The substitutability of an animal for a human in a fable brings with it, I think, the transferability of sympathy, as well as the other passions that some people, including Lessing, might ordinarily reserve, at least in their strongest form, for members of their own species.
Since the Paris World Fair in 1900, the Galerie d’Anatomie Comparée of the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle exhibition has been housed together with the Galerie de Paléontologie, featuring the fossils of extinct creatures: the dinosaurs and outsized Pleistocene mammals that so enrapture the children, and that often compel them to pose some of their first philosophical questions about the nature of existence (dinosaurs do not exist, yet they are not, for that reason, fictional; how is this possible?). I feel more at home in Comparative Anatomy. It reveals a static, Polaroid-like slice of nature as it is at present. But nature is not really like this. Nature is always unfolding, and it is the Gallery of Paleontology that reveals the effort of the Muséum's founders (most of whom, again, were creationists) to take into account the entire film of it, so to speak, rather than only the single still that the present provides.
Entering the Gallery of Paleontology from the north staircase, we immediately encounter three large dinosaur skeletons. All of these turn out, on closer inspection, to be casts made of metal, rather than skeletons of bone. The kids running around don’t seem to care. Successive waves of them flow by, all declaring that they are in the presence of ‘dinosaurs’: not bones of dinosaurs, let alone models of bones of dinosaurs, but dinosaurs. One of the three models, of the peculiarly named Allosaurus fragilis, is the only bipedal carnivore on display, the only one approximating the Platonic form of the dinosaur established for all time by the Tyranosaurus rex. Another of the three is the Iguanadon bernissartensis, a species whose gait, and the proper display of whose bones, has been the source of sustained controversy. Does it walk upright? Does it walk on all fours? The masses of six-year-olds are eager to know. Finally, the largest of the three is a cast of a Diplodocus Carnegii, a brontosaurus-like dinosaur, one of the lumbering, gentle vegetarians, given to the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle as a gift from Andrew Carnegie in 1908, who was at the same time building up one of the world’s great natural history museums in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. A year earlier, Carnegie had been one of the principal donators to the French Muséum; like Jefferson to Buffon before him, the American continued to think of Paris as one of the great centers of natural history.
We also find the holotype of the Sarcosuchus imperator, not a dinosaur but rather a gigantic --as in, characterized by gigantism-- extinct relative of modern crocodiles dating from the early Cretaceous. A holotype is a paleontological specimen that is used for the original species-defining description. This means that at the Gallery of Paleontology one can see the Sarcosuchus imperator itself, the standard against which all subsequent finds are measured. In this respect modern paleontology retains a trace of Platonism, to the extent that there is an exemplary measure of what it is to be a member of a given kind. Yet rather than casting its exemplars into some otherworldly realm of transcendental forms, it locates them in actual fossils, than which nothing can be more concrete.
There is a cast of a pteranodon hanging nearby, and there are glass cases with a Pelagosaurus typus and a Lystrosaurus Murrayi. These names, I am finding, are exhausting and unevocative. Other than a few of the most well-known --T. Rex, bronto, sabertooth, etc.--, for obvious reasons extinct animals do not have popular names parallel to their binomial nomenclature. One of the most intriguing things about the ground floor of the gallery is the way the Latin binomials variously complement and contrast with the names that have bubbled up spontaneously for the animals in the vulgate (taupe, tatou, etc.). This is a possibility paleontology lacks, since for the most part it studies creatures that departed before there was language in the world.
There is a composite Cryptoclidus oxoniensis, pieced together from several representatives of this marine reptile species dug up in Oxfordshire. There is an Ichthyosaurus tenuirostris not yet removed from the rock in which it was found, and a Tarbosaurus Bataar, discovered, as its name implies, in Mongolia, by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit priest and paleontologist who believed that evolution is a testimony to God's greatness.
Before coming to the half-way point of the main floor of the exhibition hall (the point at which, one floor below in the Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, the display of terrestrial mammal skeletons gives way to the Cetaceum), we begin to find remains of the great mammals that thrived throughout the last glacial period, particularly the skulls of gargantuan Rhinocerotidae. Only one of these is known by a folk name, the ‘woolly rhinoceros’, which is to say the Coelodonta antiquitatis. These various skulls are mixed in with a cast of from a triceratops, and other remnants of the Cretaceous period, which preceded the Pleistocene of the great mammals by 65 million years or so. But no one seems to notice the anachronism, and least of all the children, who are running about indiscriminately labelling everything they see a ‘dinosaur’. And it is hard to blame them, for the Rhinoceros megarhinus, the Acerotherium Persiae, and most of all the Arsinoitherium of the early Oligocene, with two massive blades for horns, do indeed appear nearly indistinguishable, in mass and in monstrosity, from the saurians. Sometimes, even their names are misleading, as is the case with the Dinoceras mirabile, an Eocene mammal whose name means ‘wonderful terrible-horn’. This creature is like the dinosaurs, in name, only to the extent that it is deinos, terrible, but its ceras has nothing to do with a saurus.
We are now half-way through. The second segment of the hall, directly above the Cetaceum, begins, from left to right, with a bloc ossifère, a fossil-bearing stone block, with scattered vestiges of the ancient horse known as ‘hipparion’; then a glass case with dodo bones (originally called by Linnaeus a Didus ineptus; was it out of respect for the departed that this name was subsequently changed?) on top of a wooden cabinet with locked and unlabelled drawers; then the complete skeletons of two extinct fossil species of manatee. Behind these, Cuvier’s own complete skeleton of a Megatherium Americanum, which translates simply as ‘great American beast’: a fitting name for this Pliocene ground sloth at least as large as any African elephant. It is a sort of prototypical beast, a hungry mound of fur, without many distinguishing features beyond this. Even the name ‘great American beast’ seems too specific for it.
To its left is the complete skeleton of a Hipparion mediterraneum, and behind it a complete Equus hemionus (a ‘half-ass’) and a cast of a Hippidion principale. The horse lineage does not seem to have exhibited the diversity of the rhinoceroses or even the elephants: all equids seem, more or less, to be horses. There is another sort of ground sloth behind them, and to their right two skulls of the Pleistocene Hippopotamus major, and also a complete Glyptodon asper, to which we will return shortly. There are scattered skulls, jaws, and tusks of extinct proboscidians; to the left a composite skeleton of an Archaeobelodon, and to the right a rather small skeleton of a juvenile Mammuthus primigenius. In the middle rear of the hall, directly above the fin whale one floor below, is the Pleistocene pièce de résistance, a complete Mammuthus meridionalis skeleton, a behemoth extracted out of deepest, coldest Siberia. Even its skeleton seems woolly, somehow. Surrounding the mammoth are various casts, of a saber-toothed tiger (known in the nomenclature by the evocative name of Smilodon, which unfortunately has nothing to do with smiling); and of a Diprotodon australis, a sort of rhinoceros-sized wombat. There is a cast of a male Irish elk, and a skeleton of a much smaller female.
In the middle, behind the great mammoth, there are two glass cases. One contains the skeletons of three cave bears (Ursus spelaeus), two lions, a wolf, and a hyena, all displayed, though skeletons, in the middle of some species-specific activity (rearing up, scavenging). The rearing cave bear is the only display in the Gallery, on either floor, that has been able to induce in me a frisson of fear. Behind these creatures is another glass case, filled with extinct ‘ratite’ birds (giant, flightless, ostrich-like), including the shockingly large Aepyornis maximus, along with five of its watermelon-sized eggs. These do not invoke fright, as does the cave bear, but a much more familiar feeling from other encounters in the museum: a sort of wonder mixed with queasiness, a sort of fascinated nausea. It is peculiar that there is no word for this.
As at the Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, here as well there are glass cases surrounding the exhibition floor. In the Gallery of Paleontology though they are much more haphazard; the numbering, as one moves clockwise around the hall from the north entrance, is odd, going up to 115 at the other end of the hall, at which point one arrives at an even 116 and begins to count down from there to cabinet number 2. Many of the cases are empty, and many contain models made of styrofoam, felt, and what look like fishing lures, the sort of re-imaginings of the Jurassic one might find at a high-school science fair. There is extensive information, often presented on what looks like construction paper, about various excavations that took place in France in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Cabinets 59 through 67, running alongside the hipparion skeleton on the main floor, tell of the evolution of equids; and on the opposite side cabinets 106 through 98 run through the history of primates, and feature a cast of the Lucy skeleton, whose original is on permanent display in Addis Ababa. Cabinet 86 features the still furry and gristly leg and face of a Siberian mammoth; cabinet 18, the still scaly fossil of a Lepidotus laevis fish. Cabinet 10 teaches us, in cut-out construction paper, that among fish it is a mark of advanced evolution to have fewer and softer bones; as the French puts it, ‘ossification regresses’ in fish evolution.
And there is much that I missed besides: the skull of an Odobenocetops, a sort of tusked Pliocene whale; a display on the neoteny of stegocephalids; the Ichthyosaurus platyodon skull found by Mary Anning, Cuvier’s English correspondent from Dorset, who from 1826 until her death ran a small shop, Anning’s Fossil Depot, near the Blue Lias cliffs in Lyme Regis, where she sold devil’s-fingers and the fossils of 'verteberries': her own spontaneous folk term, a sort of diminutive, for ‘vertebrates’.
I am growing increasingly convinced that people who believe we have an absolute moral duty to see to the well-being of all other human beings, to install water-purifying equipment in villages on the other side of the world, etc., and who, at the same time, happily contribute to the ongoing mass slaughter of animals, are really just picking and choosing their causes. There simply is no compelling reason why I, or anyone, should suppose that all and only human beings are the worthy targets of moral concern. This is not to say that you should care about animals. It is only to say that there is nothing natural or obvious or conclusive about your belief that you should care about all and only human beings. Your belief is a prejudice, characteristic of a time and place, and not the final say about where the reach of moral community ends.
We have an extremely peculiar ontology, from which we suppose our moral commitments flow. It is unlike anything in human experience prior to the rise of the modern West. In all other places and times, since the appearance of the human species, there has been a presumption of some sort of shared socio-natural community that extends well beyond the boundaries of the species. This sounds like an exaggeration, and it attributes to many groups of people views they have left no explicit record of having supported. But from the explicit record, anyway, there is not a shred of evidence of any culture ever supposing, prior to our own, that moral community is defined by the boundaries of our species.
There is a well known rift in the feminist and anti-racist movements, between those who are willing to consider their plight in relation to the way we treat animals, and those who think that the very suggestion that the two questions could have anything in common is offensive. See this comment thread at the website Feministe, for example, for a cascade of mockery of the very suggestion that there might be a connection between masculine domination of women and human domination of animals.
To refuse to pay attention to the obvious parallels is to remain willfully ignorant. Inequality in human society emerge in direct conjunction with the domestication of animals. You can not understand the one without understanding the other. The very fact that consideration of one's own plight in relation to the plight of an animal can seem degrading to, say, a feminist, only shows how thoroughly successful the human domination of animals has been. But if you are looking to understand things, rather than simply looking after your own, then you have to take the wide-focused view, and consider humanity within the community of beings, to which we have uniformly and without exception believed ourselves to belong for the vastly greater part of the history of our species.
When we try to imagine what belonging to such a socio-natural community is like, what we usually do is to think about how much we care about our pets, or how much we enjoy bird-watching, or zoos, and we suppose that primitive Amazonians, say, must have done a lot of this sort of stuff. Thus we stay all the while in our moral-intellectual comfort zone of modern anthropocentric individualism, projecting back onto people in the distant past a caricatured version of our own token and fleeting attention to beings beyond the bounds of our species. In fact, though, this entirely misses the sort of difference we are attempting to understand; it is as off-target as if we were to suppose that hunter-gatherers, out collecting berries or fish, conceptualized their activity as 'a good line of work'.
It is, principally, the work of anthropologists that enables us to think our way into the world of people who inhabited a socio-natural community with non-human beings, and to do this without simply projecting onto these people our own ontology. Philippe Descola, in his monumental Par-delà nature et culture, has done much to reconstruct the non-anthropocentrist ontologies of societies outside the modern West.
The Makuna, for example, say that tapirs groom themselves with roucou before dancing, and that peccaries play the horn during their rituals, while the Wari' suppose that peccaries make maize beer and that the jaguar takes its prey back home for his wife to cook. For a long time, this sort of belief was taken as testimony of a sort of thought that is resistant to logic, incapable of distinguish the real from dreams and myths, or as simple figures of speech, metaphors, or word play. But the Makuna, the Wari', and many other Amerindian peoples who believe this sort of thing are not more myopic or credulous than we are. They know very well that the jaguar devours its prey raw, and that the peccary ruins maize crops rather than cultivating them. It is the jaguar and the peccary themselves, they say, that see themselves as carrying out acts that are identical to those of humans, who imagine themselves in good faith to be sharing with humans the same technologies, the same social existence, the same beliefs and aspirations. In short, Amerindians do not see what we call 'culture' as an appurtenance of human beings, since there are many animals and plants that are held to believe themselves to be in possession of it, and to live according to its norms (187-88).
Similarly, when a hunter sings a song to his prey in order to woo it into 'giving' itself, it is not that he has been unable to make the empirical observation that animals do not ordinarily respond to human natural language in the same way human speakers of that natural language do. Rather, every stage of the hunt, including the tracking and the slinging of darts, and other acts that can be recognized by an outside observer as expressions of practical reason, is embedded within a cosmology of perpetual exchange between all domains of the natural world. Descola asks rhetorically:
When an Achuar hunter finds himself within shooting reach, and he sings an anent to the game, a supplication intended to seduce the animal and to assuage his mistrust with captious promises, does he suddenly lurch from the rational to the irrational, from instrumentalized knowledge to chimera? Does he completely change his register following the long period of approach in which he knew full well how to mobilize his ethological expertise, his deep knowledge of the environment, his experience as a tracker, all those qualities that enabled him to bring together almost by instinct a multitude of indices into a single thread that led him to his prey?
It is not that the hunter suddenly shifts from practical-rational action to the merely 'ceremonial' at the moment he begins singing, but rather the singing flows seamlessly from the same rationality that gives rise to the practices, and that is based on a belief in the constant cycling of immaterial life principles between the human and non-human domains. We can recognize and measure this cycling from the outside within the very limited terms of calories, but from within the cosmology that supposes that this exchange is itself constitutive of both individual human beings as well as of humanity itself, there is no reason why it should not also be manifested in verbal exchange, or communication in the usual sense, across domains.
The constant cyclical exchange rests, generally, on a metaphysics of the individual according to which every natural being, including every human being, is constituted out of the life principles of other natural beings. The predicament of the eater, and also what puts him most in danger of deep transgression through cannibalism, stems, as an Inuit informant put it to Knud Rasmussen, "from the fact that the nourishment of men consists entirely in souls." If this suggests to the student of Western philosophy a metaphysics of nested corporeal substances, she or he may not be entirely off track. Interestingly, Descola, following the precedent of Viveiros de Castro and, before him, Durkheim, sees Leibniz's metaphysics as providing a point of access to this sort of animist ontology. Leibniz, like the Makuna and the Wari', supposes that "est sujet qui se trouve activé ou 'agenté' par un point de vue" (197), and thus that the discontinuity of forms in nature is underlain by a deeper unity, and is explained by a difference of perspectives. Perspectivism, Descola explains, "is thus the expression of the idea that every being occupies a point of view of reference, and thus finds itself situated as a subject" (197). Descola, following Viveiros de Castro, concludes that a Leibnizian perspectivism is "an ethno-epistemological corollary of animism" (202). Every being, on this view, is an expression of exactly the same rational order. But heterogeneity or discontinuity of forms arises at the corporeal level. Different beings have different bodies, and so also different phenomenologies, since their perception of the world takes place through their bodily sense organs. This means also that they must conduct themselves in the world differently, that they will be non-identical with respect to their agentive means, even if at a fundamental level all in the end have the same rational ends. Animals are pursuing fundamentally the same ends as humans, even if the different conformation of their bodies requires them to do this differently. There is no ontological gap between them and us, only circumstantial differences, or, to speak with Leibniz, different poitns of view.
This independent existence as rational agents pursuing rational ends in their own way, becomes difficult to conceptualize with the rise of domestication, when we know what animals are doing in their 'private' lives, because we are in control of their lives. They are standing in the barn, or they are tied to a post; they are not at home with their families, cooking and making beer. Culture continues to be attributed to animals in limited spheres of human imagination, such as children's tales. But it does not define our primary, 'grown-up' understanding of what it is animals are like, of what their natures are.
When, in our society, people attempt to win back for animals a degree of sensitivity, of social attachment, and so on, it is now always conceptualized as a sort of lesser approximation of the richness of human social life. Animal-rights advocates will point to the social bonding of a given species, and anthropocentrists will predictably respond: so what, that is only a distant shadow of what human beings are capable of. Animal-rights advocates, just like the most committed speciesists, remain anthropocentrist to the extent that they are measuring animals' capacities, and implicitly or explicitly their moral relevance, by a human yardstick.
We need anthropology, zooarcheology, and related disciplines in order to adequately understand the problem of human-animal relations, and in order to even begin to make normative claims that can have any kind of purchase on us about how we should be interacting with animals. We need these disciplines much more, in fact, than we need neurophysiological research on animals, scientific research on the very narrowest understanding of science, that tells us the objective truth about what animals are capable of feeling and thinking. In spite of what animal-rights advocates never stop hoping, telling the public about the findings of this research changes nothing: it makes no difference to people with an a priori commitment to the non-membership of animals within our moral community to tell them that animals are capable of feeling pain. They're capable of feeling pain, yes, but they're animals that are capable of feeling pain, is the implicit response. So so what? The boundaries of our moral community were not established in the first place based on a misinterpretation of the empirical data about what the inner lives of animals are like. There is therefore no reason why an improvement in the adequacy of the empirical data should be expected to result in a modification of the boundaries of our moral community.
The way we think about animals, rather, flows from a fundamental ontology, characteristic of a society that is structured in a certain way. This society, with its associated ontology, has been 10,000 years in the making; it begins with pastoralism, and culminates in our current system of factory farming, in which animals, now conceptualized as pure commodities, exist entirely outside the bounds of moral community. Efforts to bring them back into that community are based on weak and unconvincing appeals to sentiment, dressed up in the language of objective science, on the part of a small minority of people: Look how much this turkey cares for its offspring! Look how this pig can operate a joystick! They're just like us! Except that they're not just like us, since on the reigning ontology a pig operating a joystick is an entirely different matter from a human operating a joystick, and again, nothing that pig does with the joystick is capable of budging this fundamental ontology.
Of course this ontology is not entirely a priori. It has a history. And if there is to be any hope of displacing it, this will be through uncovering and examining this history, and not through treating the question --as all Anglo-American philosophers have until now-- as if it were a simple matter of learning from science what sort of entities animals are.
It's been a busy few weeks for announcements about how smart non-human life-forms are. First there was the talking beluga in California, then there was the elephant in Korea who could articulate a few words, then, finally, the report on a lowly slime mold's ability to make sophisticated decisions. All three of these reports repeated many of the conventional tropes for talking about animal intelligence; all trumpeted as wholly new and unheard-of the sort of data that have long been a staple of science reporting; and all are sure to leave everything exactly the same: with anti-anthropocentrists shouting see! See!, and with those who believe that human beings are something special in the cosmic scheme insisting that anything they are shown can be explained in terms of mimicry, stimulus, and other automatisms.
The irrelevance of empirical data for deciding the matter, in fact, long precedes the very existence of science journalism: it defines a clear rift already in 17th-century philosophy, while the 'new' discoveries themselves are for the most part only variations of what was already well documented in Aristotle's Historia animalium. And yet, the journalists always report as if until yesterday we were all fully committed to a hardcore version of the bête-machine doctrine. At the same time, however, they ensure that the topic will remain perpetually new by reinforcing, willy-nilly, the very doctrine their news item is supposed to be calling into question.
What do I mean by this? Consider the report from the New York Daily News, in which Koshik the Korean elephant is described as 'parroting' human speech. Parrot speech, again, at least since Aristotle, has been easily bracketed as non-speech in view of its presumed automatic or (to project back our own technological analogies) recorder-like character. The great authority on elephant cognition, Christine Roberts (whose day job is as a reporter for the News), tells us that although Koshik is vocalizing by putting his trunk in his mouth, nonetheless "he is only mimicking the noises, not speaking them." Mimicry, or 'aping', as it's sometimes called, is so far from serving as a corroboration of the reality of animal cognition to those who have an a priori commitment to not believing in it, that in fact it has generally only served historically to reinforce the conviction that nature is a very impressive, and deceitful, producer of simulations. This is why humans hate apes (or generally have hated apes): because they look like they can do many of the things we explain in humans through the possession of a soul, and yet we know that only humans have souls. The language has been updated, but this remains the take-away point of the reporting on Koshik the elephant.
Though it concerns a variety of protists, and not animals, reporting on the slime-mold follows much the same pattern. None of what is described will strike the skeptic as in any way indicative of anything like cognition. The 'ability' to trace the shortest line between any two points, for example, thus 'simulating' the work of a city planner designing an underground rail system, is easily and obviously explicable in terms of the mundane principles of optimality that govern the behavior of catenaries and other systems in the physical world. But what is particularly interesting here is the condescension in the language used to describe what a slime-mold does. What I describe as 'condescension' will of course be explained by others as an attempt to make the news fun, or kid-friendly, or something, but the fact remains that no one would think to describe the behavior of either a human being taking an IQ test or the behavior of gas molecules in a vacuum as if they were describing a diminutive cartoon character. In a PBS video about the slime-mold, we've already been told that this species has no brain, or nervous system, and presumably therefore no taste-buds; and yet we are expected to play along when the protein-carbohydrate blend it gets for performing its little trick is described as 'tasty'.
It is by such cute little words ('yummy' is the one that is usually invoked in science journalism to describe the rewards given to test subjects) that we are meant to understand that whatever amazing behavior an animal has just exhibited, in the end it only did it for the treat. This sort of system of rewarding, we are meant to recall at least subconsciously, is, since Pavlov, the touchstone of the classical-conditioning theory of animal motivations, and also by extension of behaviorism, both of which rest on the presumption that there is no real cognition of interest going on in the animal's mind. The fact that we can only introduce the possibility of intelligence in a brainless slime-mold by simultaneously taking it away with reassuring cutesiness about the yummy treats the scientists are giving it shows, I think, how anxious we really are about seriously considering the possibility that non-human creatures have rich, not cute, internal lives.
I make no secret about being a pananimist. I am fairly convinced that it is minds, or mind-like principles, that govern the activity of all natural beings, and that there is nothing fundamentally different in my intelligent behavior from what we observe in a slime-mold. I am happy whenever new attention to the rationality of creatures such as slime-molds is paid, but (i) I think that it is something we knew about all along, but which we have preferred of late to ignore; and (ii) I am very wary of the conventions we have for talking about it, as I believe they carry with them a built-in mechanism for self-deflation.
Whether species all emerged from the same origin, each representing slight variations on the same underlying type, or whether, to return to Buffon’s view, they are timeless variations on the same underlying type, related not by ancestry but only by their conceptual proximity in the mind of God, remained a contested matter at the Muséum long after the demise of Buffon and of the ancien régime. The two positions were well represented in the controversy between the Gallery’s two most prominent members in the early 19th century, Georges Cuvier and Étienne Geoffroy St. Hilaire. Geoffroy was a disciple of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829), the evolutionary theorist best known as the pre-Darwinian who got it all wrong, supposing, as the high-school biology textbooks often caricature him, that the necks of giraffes grew longer because giraffes themselves made such an effort to stretch their necks and to reach the leaves at the tops of trees. Cuvier would criticize this theory as holding “that efforts and desires may engender organs.”
Cuvier succeeded Louis Daubenton as ‘professor of the natural history of organized bodies’ in 1800, and two years later was made chair of animal anatomy at the Muséum. A devout Protestant, he believed that it was befitting God’s power and wisdom to have created all beings at once, and to have outfitted them with every part and every function they would ever need to survive. He held that there were four basic classes or embranchements of animals --the vertebrates, the articulates (or exoskeletal animals), the molluscs, and the radiates--, and that their parts were so ingeniously designed to function together as integral wholes that from any one part the existence and conformation of the others could be inferred with a high degree of accuracy. Thus he says of the skeleton that “the number, direction, and shape of the bones that compose each part of an animal’s body are always in a necessary relation to all the other parts, in such a way that --up to a point-- one can infer the whole from any one of them and vice versa.” He also believes that it is unworthy of the creator’s dignity to suppose that there should be any continuity or contact between these classes, to suppose, in effect, that God should have created a messy order of nature, where one category of thing bleeds into the next.
Mummified animals recently recovered from Egypt (by Geoffroy) seemed to confirm for Cuvier his doctrine of species fixism: the fact that cats, oxen, and the once sacred ibis had not changed at all since the Pharaonic period could only mean that members of a species are eternally bound to one another in a closed generational series. Geoffroy had accompanied Napoleon as the resident naturalist on the general’s 1798 expedition to Egypt, and may have felt that Cuvier’s speculations about mummies were an unjustified usurpation. Geoffroy’s mobility contrasted with Cuvier’s stationary career: the latter remained as fixed in Paris as he supposed animals were in their lineages. It is difficult not to notice, here, that theories of species transformation had long been held by Europeans to be richly confirmed in Africa, and in particular along the banks of the Nile. The ancient motto Ex Africa semper aliquid novi (‘Out of Africa there is always something new’), cited by Aristotle and nearly every natural historian after him, originally had to do with the idea that on that unknown continent the ordinary laws of reproduction do not hold, as animals regularly generate hybrids by mating with members of other species. The Nile, in turn, was held to possess the ideal balance of heat and moisture for the spontaneous generation of unusually large animals. Rather than being limited to bringing forth frogs, eels, and geese, as was thought to happen in the Thames, the Seine, and the Rhine, in Egypt even crocodiles could be spontaneously generated from expansive bubbles of Nilotic slime. In Italy, the Renaissance freethinker Lucilio Vanini had his tongue torn out by the Inquisition for suggesting that human beings could be produced this way as well.
Curiously, Geoffroy’s principal interest throughout his career was the classification of fossil species of Crocodylia, and here he flatly rejected Cuvier's vision of discrete and non-overlapping kinds. Geoffroy believed that there is a ‘unity of composition’ throughout nature, that all species are, so to speak, variations on a single theme. The full spectrum of these variations, Cuvier believed, can be observed in fetal development. A descendant of this view would later be expressed in Ernst Haeckel’s famous 19th-century dictum that ‘ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny’, that is, that the stages of development of a fetus are substantially the same as those of the species of which the fetus is a member. Of course, in order to believe that the development of the fetus duplicates the history of the fetus’s species, one must believe that a species emerges over time, and that God did not create it once and for all as it is in its current state. This belief also transforms embryology into a vastly more important endeavor than it otherwise would be: to observe and describe the development of a fetus is to witness in nuce the entire history of a species. Accordingly, the study of ‘misfires’ in the course of embryogenesis, of so-called ‘monsters’, would come to be seen as a source of insight into how evolutionary branching might occur. Geoffroy thus sets himself up as the founder of a new discipline, teratology, or the study of monsters, which yields his classic 1812 work on the Essay on the Classification of Monsters. A curious new taxonomy emerges: there are ‘g monsters’, which have two heads and are fused at the torso; and there are ‘l monsters’, the reverse, having a single head but two bodies. There are ‘thoracodelphic chickens’, that is, chickens with brother chickens emerging from their thorax; and ‘derodymous ducks’, a designation whose meaning, I admit, I have not been able to unravel. There are also the elegantly named monstres simples, ‘simple monsters’, such as the ‘cyclops pig’ with a single eye in the middle of its head. All of these are on display, in formaldehyde, at the rear end of the Gallery of Comparative Anatomy.
The conflict between Cuvier and Geoffroy on the question of the unity of the animal kingdom caused a sufficient storm to be discussed, often very critically, well outside of the European scientific community, even leaving its mark in the French literary canon. In his Guide-Âne à l’usage des animaux qui veulent parvenir aux honneurs [Beginners’ Guide for Animals Seeking Acclaim], which appeared serially between 1840 and 1842, Honoré de Balzac set out to demonstrate the asininity of the men of science who build their reputations on claims about the organization of the animal kingdom. The story centers around a man named Adam Marmus, who arrives in Paris accompanied by his donkey, scheming to gain fame and fortune however he can.
The donkey is obliging; he seems sensitive to the vanity of all human endeavors, and as a good beast of burden is more or less happy to go along with them when called upon. From their first arrival in the capital, the menagerie of the Jardin des Plantes represents for Marmus’s companion a sort of paradise on earth, “where the animals are so well cared for,” and “where one drinks and eats without fear of being beaten.” Will you ever, he implores the garden, “open up to me your twenty-square-foot steppes, your Swiss valleys thirty meters in size? Will I ever be an animal that lies upon the grass of your budget? Will I die of old age among your elegant trellises, labelled under some number, with the words: African ass... Will the king come to see me?”
Marmus and his donkey check in at a flop-house. The beast is stabled outside, while inside its owner discusses with the other lodgers the best way to become rich and successful as a scientist. Together, they cook up a new science of ‘instinctology’, which holds that instinct is in animals the equivalent to thought in human beings, and according to which it is an animal’s instinct, rather than “its bones, its tarsals, its teeth, or its vertebrae,” that is most useful in determining the nature of a given animal, since “although instinct undergoes modifications, it is one in its essence, and nothing will better prove the unity of things, notwithstanding their apparent diversity.”
The scheme really begins to come together only when it is revealed that Marmus has an animal companion waiting outside. “You have a donkey!,” one of his interlocutors exclaims, “we’re saved!” They devise a plan to “make of it an extraordinary zebra, which will draw the attention of the learned world to your system of comparative instincts, by a certain singularity which will disturb the classifications. Learned men live by nomenclature, so let us overturn the nomenclature.” Marmus’s donkey is worked over by the lodgers. The newspapers will soon report that “a courageous traveller, the modest naturalist Adam Marmus, who crossed Africa by going right through its center, has brought back... a zebra whose peculiarities plainly unsettle the fundamental ideas of zoology, and prove right the illustrious philosopher [i.e., Geoffroy] who does not admit any difference in animal organization, and who proclaimed, to the applause of the learned men of Germany, the great principle of one and the same contexture for all animals.”
This is not just any zebra. Its stripes, we quickly learn, “are yellow and they stand out from a black background.” The new creature is also peculiar in its behavior, with a giraffe-like gait, and this is taken to show, in favor of Marmus’s new science of comparative instinctology, that “the instinct of animals is modified according to the environments in which they find themselves.” And from this modification derives “a new theory of the greatest importance for zoology, one that threatens to overturn the reigning doctrine of the great ‘Baron Cerceau’ --a thinly veiled representation of the historical Georges Cuvier--, according to which “each class (is) an organization unto itself.” Now, it turns out, as a result of the yellow-striped, giraffe-like zebra, that “the oyster, the polyp, the coral, the lion, the zoophyte, microscopic animalcules, and man, are all the same apparatus, simply modified by means of organs that are elongated more or less.” Marmus will accordingly declare, at the height of his fame, that “my zebra is no longer a zebra, but a fact that engenders a science.” More correctly, the zebra has engendered a rift in the scientific community, with Cerceau losing ground to the defenders of ‘zoological unity’. The Baron is soon betrayed by a disciple who converts to Marmusianism, and who offers a course of comparative instinctology, opening it up even to women and to curious members of the bourgeois public. Various intrigues ensue, and eventually the ‘zebra’ ends up in the zoological garden of London (“France was not able to hold onto the most curious animal in the world”), from where he recounts the story of Marmus and Cerceau.
Balzac allows the disguised donkey, telling its tale from London, to serve as a mouthpiece for his own, the author’s, dire assessment of the machinations of learned men: the only thing that has been learned from the great French zoology wars of the early 19th century, the author thinks, is that ‘imbeciles are ready to give money and acclaim to intriguers’. The donkey exhorts his fellow inmates at the London zoo to accept their lot, indeed to realize (in reference to the tale’s French title) that to live out one’s days in a menagerie is precisely to ‘make it’ [parvenir], and that his parvenu companions should banish the thought of rebellion or protest. He imagines a future in which jardins des plantes multiply in every country, and animals are free to live out their lives “behind gilded trellises, at the cost of the state: a bunch of Marmusian sinecures.” For him, as for the Rhinoceros of Versailles and so many other animals, the mortal end of this charmed life represents only a transition from the menagerie to the gallery of comparative anatomy: “Think about it,” he implores them: “after my death I will be stuffed and preserved in the collections, and I doubt that we would be able, in the state of nature, to achieve such an immortality. Museums are the Pantheon of animals.”
This is all very good satire: where else but in satire’s inverted world could an ass appear, to invoke Buffon's categories, as the most noble figure, and the humans the most degenerate? After all, as Edward Topsell tells us in his 1607 Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes, the ass is nothing if not “slow, burthen-bearing, back-bearing, vile, cart-drawing, mill-labouring, sluggish, crooked, vulgar, slow-paced, long-eared, blockish, braying, ydle, devill-hayred, filthy, saddle-bearer, slow-foot, four-foot, unsavoury, and a beast of miserable condition; beside many other such titles in the Greeke.” (Curiously, however, one of Buffon’s most elegiac passages, cited above, in which he encourages us to “admire equally the magnificence of the execution and the simplicity of the design,” occurs in the section of his Histoire naturelle on ‘The Donkey’). Yet the satire only works on the presumption that animals do not deserve their own Pantheon. On one way of reading Balzac’s tale, human beings only debase themselves when they attribute too much importance to learning about the order of nature, and about their own place in that order. Marmus’s intrigues are permitted because the Parisian world, sustained by the fleeting enthusiasms of bourgeois women and men, is ready to be taken by storm at the sight of a new sort of creature brought out of the depths of Africa. They are so ready, in fact, that they are able to let a painted donkey overturn everything they had previously believed about the principles behind nature’s organization.
I have never been to the real Panthéon, the pantheon of French humans, though I have crossed in front of it countless times, when I was a visiting student in Paris. I had next to no money, and was obliged to do my grocery shopping at an oddly placed branch of Picard les Surgélés, a store specializing in down-market frozen foods, at the Place du Panthéon, inserted among some of the world's most distinguished real estate. (If my mood had been slightly different this summer, I could very well have ended up writing a book about Picard and its elegant aisles of chunky white plastic sacs, filled with frozen spinach pellets and curled-up little shrimps.) I gather the Panthéon is a great gallery filled with busts of a number of the heroes of the French Republic. I can't help but note, though, that this is already a sort of profanation, an intentional crossing of ontological boundaries that were once carefully guarded. A pantheon, after all, is a place to revere gods, and not men, and once the gods have been chased out of a culture’s imagination, it is not at all surprising that attention turns to animals: for heaven’s sake, we need to revere something besides other humans.
If Balzac is right, that the modern natural history museum is a Pantheon for animals, this could mean that the banishment of the gods in the modern era has in fact led to a sort of retheriomorphization of divinity, a return to the idea, last embraced in full in ancient Egypt, that animals themselves are gods. Certainly, no Buffon or Cuvier would ever say as much. They would acknowledge at most that animals are, so to speak, divine wisdom congealed. Yet that basic insight driving Buffon and Cuvier, it seems to me, is the same insight that motivated Aristotle to say, of the study of living beings, ‘here too dwell gods’. This insight is nothing to ridicule. The Gallery of Comparative Anatomy is a Pantheon of animals, and it is not only an ass who would suggest they deserve to have one if humans do.
[To appear, in Polish translation, in Autoportret]
Consider the following series: my soft skin; my hard excrescences (hair, nails); my teeth; my endoskeleton; a lobster's exoskeleton; an oyster's shell; a hermit crab's shell; a rodent's burrow; a wasp's nest; a beaver dam; a tent; a brick house; an apartment bloc. We've come so far, yet by nearly imperceptible steps.
Our list suggests, among other things, that we really do not have a very clear idea of where our bodies leave off and our dwellings begin. There is an old wisdom that tells us that the body itself is a dwelling. Paul's letter to the Corinthians tells us that it is 'a temple', for example, while the Pythagoreans complained that it was a 'prison'. Now in the antidualistic spirit of our own age we are taught that we should not buy into this model, that in order to be in a body one must oneself be something apart and distinct from the body, something non-bodily, which is, we are told, an absurdity. But would anyone tell us we are victims of an ontological illusion for supposing that we inhabit our homes? Is a lobster in its shell, after all? Is a rodent in its burrow?
The slippery slope from body to dwelling --a slope carved by nature itself, and not at all the invention of philosophy-- cannot but lend some validity to the old conception of the relationship between ourselves (of whatever nature these might turn out to be) and our bodies. I might not know what I am, but I am certain that the way I am in my body and the way I am in my room are not entirely different.
Kafka's 'The Burrow', written in 1923-24, is held to represent an extreme in Kafka's work: a full expression of the paranoia and claustrophobia that runs through nearly all of his stories. The story consists in a first-person relation, from some sort of ground-dwelling mammal, of life in the system of tunnels that it has recently completed for itself. J. M. Coetzee observes of the story that the anxious mood of its protagonist stems from Kafka's careful attention to temporality: the burrow is complete, but it has not yet been complete long enough for its builder to know whether it will be successful in its primary purpose: keeping our mole-hero safe from enemies known and unknown.
Curiously, for our interests here, its original title is, simply, 'Der Bau': in German, there is no lexical distinction between the holes that animals dig for themselves, and the sort of above-ground structures for the dwelling of humans dreamt up by Walter Gropius. The solitary-confinement zone of a prison is also referred to in German, euphemistically, as 'der Bau'. Presumably this is meant in the sense of a 'burrow', yet how could the shared etymology with Gebäude ('building'), Aufbau ('construction'), bauen ('to build'), etc., escape the notice of any competent speaker?
Why, now should the burrow be a suitable setting for Kafka's examination of the paranoid mood? Why should it not rather be a place of what the Danes call hjemmehygge? That is, roughly, home-hugginess: a snug, tight, feeling of all-around rightness. Well, for one thing, there is an enemy lurking nearby, ready to claw or bite our mole-hero to death.
Yet isn't there always some threat from enemies in our bodies and homes (termites, cancer), a threat that does not preclude the possibility of at least a sporadic carefree snugness in the inhabiting of them? The hero of 'The Burrow' is not entirely unable to experience such moments; it (for I will not call it a 'he') relates for example that "every hundred yards I have widened the passages into little round cells; there I can curl myself up in comfort and lie warm." But these are stolen moments, and the burrower never forgets that they could spell death for it. The best of times are "happy but dangerous hours." The animal would like to enjoy its construction, and its inability to do so only enhances the dread that is its normal condition: "Is it not a very grave injustice to the burrow," it asks, "to regard it in moments of nervous panic as a mere hole into which one can creep and be safe?" The inability to curtail this injustice goes together with the inability to ever feel truly safe.
In one astounding passage, which I have not seen commented upon elsewhere, the animal briefly describes a sort of burrow mythology, a cult of lore about unseen, transcendent beings, who come from below rather than from above: "And it is not only by external enemies that I am threatened," the hero relates. "There are also enemies in the bowels of the earth. I have never seen them, but legend tells of them and I firmly believe in them. They are creatures of the inner earth; not even legend can describe them. Their very victims can scarcely have seen them; they come, you here the scratching of their claws just under in the ground, which is their element, and already you are lost. Here it is of no avail to console yourself with the thought that you are in your own house; far rather are you in theirs." The known enemy, the invasive, fellow rodent or rodent-like creature, is easy to accommodate. It is a mortal threat, certainly, but the nature of the threat can at least be comprehended. It is the analogue in the burrow to the cancer of the body, to the termites of the house. To what, then, is this other, incomprehensible threat analogous? Why can't it be described?
I have suggested that there is no clear boundary between body and dwelling. Kafka's burrower, so jealous of its abode, often speaks of it like some aging hypochondriac. "My sensitiveness to disturbances in the burrow has perhaps become greater with the years," it complains, "yet my hearing has by no means grown keener." It is hard not to think of 'The Burrow' in relation to the 1922 story, 'A Hunger Artist'. Here, the protagonist inhabits a conventional body (though beyond this conventional body, it should be noted, he also inhabits a cage), and, in contrast with the burrowing animal he is a model of serenity. The hunger artist is forlorn to know that no one cares for his sort of art in this vulgar age, but beyond this there is no worry coursing through the story; in this respect the story amounts to something of an exception in Kafka's oeuvre. An unsympathetic reader might call the hunger artist a 'nihilist', which in this case would mean only that he is someone who has abandoned the ultimately futile effort to hold the body together. The burrower, by contrast, thinks of nothing but this, and this is both the extent of its life and the source of its anxiety. The ulitmate futility of a life sustained by this anxiety goes unproven in 'The Burrow', but only because the story itself is left unfinished.
Here, in turn, an unsympathetic reader might complain that 'The Burrow' is not so much nihilistic as fantastical. When did a rodent ever grasp its own condition so lucidly? Yet in spite of the animal's linguistic and conceptual subtlety, this story is a universe away from the anthropomorphic fairy tale. In fact, it is resolutely realist. If a rodent were thinking, this is what it would be thinking. It is not implausible --not to me, anyway-- that this is what a rodent is thinking, if not so articulately. Life is like this. Life is anxious and jealous of its boundaries, even as it remains fundamentally uncertain of where its boundaries are.
Much early modern discussion of the problem of living bodies revolved around the question whether they develop as a result of the inherence of some sort of immaterial, soul-like, formative principle or not. It was not unusual to claim, or to deny, that the soul itself is 'the architect of the body'. Thus Tobias Andreae writes in 1669 that there is a subtle principle at work in fetal development, 'a sort of architect of nutrition and growth' [nutritionis et augmentationis quasi architectus est].
But to give the soul a role in the construction and upkeep of the body is at the same time to impose upon the soul, to give it something to worry about. Thus G. W. Leibniz complains to G. E. Stahl in 1709 of the latter's theory, on which the soul is directly responsible for maintaining vital functioning: "I do not see why the soul should always fear for its body [corpori suo timere debeat]. This would be to live in perpetual anxiety [in perpetua anxietate]." If our souls were the architects and groundskeepers of our bodies, we would be just like Kafka's burrower. The only way to win any serenity for the soul is to remove it altogether from the mundane affair of organic bodily functioning, to resort to the Leibnizian alternative of a regnum in regno: a parallel, causally separate, kingdom within a kingdom. Or to deny the soul's existence altogether.
But these options were a long time in coming, and for the greater part of Western history a soul just was 'life's form', to use the Aristotelian phrase. And this was something that could be discerned, by the eye, in the organic order of nature. Wherever such order was in evidence, one could assume the inherence of an immaterial soul-like principle that had brought it about. Thus the 16th-century Dominican author Antoine Goudin writes of the formation of fossils that there is a "force, similar to the maternal bosom from which animals arise," which "assuredly plays a great role in the formation of [fossils]; this is why, according to Aristotle and Saint Thomas, earth and water furnish to everything arising from the bowels of the earth their matter and bosom, as would a mother, while heaven and the stars fulfill the office of the father, who imparts the form" (Philosophy, following the Principles of Saint Thomas, Paris, 1668).
Renaissance palaeontology, whatever its attainments, failed to take much interest in what would later be called 'ichnofossils': the geological traces of dead animals, which do not record the presence of the animal itself, but rather of its dwelling. Burrows, too, yield fossils, and it is ichnology, or palaeoichnology, whose task is to reconstruct what the world was once like from the fossils of burrows and similar traces.
What, now, if Goudin had identified an ichnofossil burrow? Could this not also be seen as a record of the working of that very force that produced the animals themselves? Is this not also a vestige of soul? It is, at the very least, a vestige of action, which in turn often served as yet another stock definition of 'life' in early modern philosophy. Thus Johannes Clauberg writes in the mid-17th century: "I call life that which cannot be understood without action." If the fossilized burrow is a trace of a life, and if life is action, Kafka's 'Burrow' cannot but cause us to see the action that produced it as action rooted in what Leibniz called timor. An ichnofossil burrow may be seen as a chunk of petrified dread.
There are also recent ichnofossils, created by human intervention. The best way to study a massive underground ant colony, it turns out, is to fill it with cement, and then to dig the solid, colony-shaped object out of the ground. The resulting form is a Geigeresque xenobiological monument, like some alien race's space station, a strange Bau of tunnels and pods. It is hard to look at it and not conclude that what one is looking at is architecture-- not in the sense that it looks like structures made by humans with biomimetic intention, but rather in the sense that what they are doing when they build their colonies is substantially the same thing as what we are doing when we build our colonies. From this perspective, architecture cannot possibly be biomimetic, since it is simply and straightforwardly biological --a sort of excrescence, an eventual ichnofossil, of a certain biological species-- and a thing cannot be an imitation of what it is.
One can imagine a variation on 'The Burrow' that takes place in just such a doomed ant colony. It would surely not be written by Kafka himself. There is nothing 'Kafkaesque' (would that we had a new adjective to replace this degraded one!) about a hecatomb; this is rather the stuff of Michael Bay movies. Unlike 'The Burrow', 'The Ant Colony' would most certainly be finished. Just imagine the terror that that concrete monument records! Imagine what someone with the expressive power of Kafka could do to convey the perspective of an ant witnessing the destruction of its world, a world created not alone, as was the burrow, but through the collective labor, and care, and worry, of billions.
I am not supposed to admit this, but I do believe, against my epoch, that an ant colony is the work of soul, and I imagine if ants could articulate a lore for themselves, of unseen, transcendent beings, they could not come up with anything more incomprehensibly wrathful than the entomologist who pours concrete into the tunnels of their world.
Ants build downward, while other insect species, such as termites, build up. It has been discovered that some termite mounds are constructed to absorb oxygen and release carbon dioxide in a way that duplicates certain features of the respiratory function in animals. They build for themselves a sort of giant, breathing golem. They work to keep it together. The mound is congealed anxiety, we might, again, imagine. A mound of life. The work of soul.
Follow me on Facebook.
To read Autoportret, go here. Learn Polish if necessary.
Some Indo-European languages rely heavily on neuter singular adjectives to express abstraction, or something approaching what is conveyed by the English suffixes -ness or -hood. Significant work is done by this form of inflection in ancient Greek, where, as many have noted, the possibility of speaking of to kalon ('the beautiful'), for example, strongly suggests that beyond all the various beautiful things, there is a beautiful itself. The neuter singular adjective facilitates abstraction, it turns a word for a property of things into the concept of things themselves, and thus into the ultimate substantivized form, somehow leaping right over the intermediate quasi-substantial thing to which the property might attach.
This possibility is there in German as well (one of the features of German that caused Heidegger to believe it had some particular affinity with Greek), making it a challenge to capture all the subtlety of this otherwise very familiar language in English. Thus das Spannende has to be rendered as 'the exciting thing', and not 'the Exciting'; das Wichtige as 'the important thing' and not 'the Important', and so on.
Yet a new possibility has appeared in the American English of the most recent years, and while I would like to be able to say that this possibility is opening up to us the richness of the Helleno-Germanic thought-worlds, in fact I fear that it is a symptom of what appears to me, in my more pessimistic moments, to be the ongoing impoverishment of our expressive power. When I am visiting the more bourgeois wing of my family, and thus the wing most susceptible to channeling forms of speech they hear in trendy TV ads and other fragments of mass culture that subtly serve to instruct that class as to how to be, I have begun to notice a troubling new habit. One person will say something like (and I have picked what is likely the most annoying adjective in the English language, just to drive the point home): 'Be careful, these sticky buns are really sticky', to which the other will reply: 'Oh good. I like sticky'.
Now this looks on the face of it like a substantivization of just the sort we see in German or Greek. But does the speaker mean to say that she likes, as it were, 'the Sticky'? I doubt it, and if I might speculate as to the metaphysics behind this bit of peculiar grammar, I would say that whoever says this is likely only capable of conceptualizing sundry sticky things, and has no idea of the Sticky itself beyond these. This is convergent grammatical evolution, then; it looks the same as the abstraction-facilitating device of other Indo-European languages, but, to the extent that it is really just a contraction for the expression of a desire to get one's hands on this or that bun, it is underlain by an entirely different ontology.
And it gets worse still. I have just been to a Starbucks in New Jersey, where I saw a new advertising slogan, something for the 'holiday season' (why, I ask, is this season always at the avant garde of musical, linguistic, and aesthetic awfulness?), that attempts to make an adjective into a fucking verb. Let's merry, it actually says. As in, let us be merry. Plainly, we are not getting any closer to the essence of merriment by letting the real verb drop out. We are just being compelled to thoughtlessly buy shit. The adjective is now degraded in the process of transformation from one part of speech to the other, whereas in Greek and German it had been lifted up and made to do even more conceptual work than the part of speech for which it stood in.
From the Chronicle of Higher Education, November 27, 2011. To read the entire essay, go here.
When I was very small I lived on a defunct chicken farm. There was a house with a yard, and these together took up half an acre. To the north there was a long, thin chicken coop, empty of chickens, and behind it lay the back pasture, which occupied one acre. Perpendicular to this, to the west, there was the side pasture. Steers dwelled in the back pasture, ate hay, shat, sculpted odd forms on the salt lick (until we had them shot and butchered). As far as I know, these were actually existing steers. But the side pasture was inhabited, I imagined for a long time, by a fox. When I went there by day, I felt I was entering upon its territory; and when I lay in bed at night, I was certain it was out there, in its burrow, dwelling. It lived there like a human in a home, and was as real as any neighbor—except that I had myself brought it into existence, likely by projecting it out of a picture in a book.
The fox did not need to exist in order to function in my imagined community, one which must be judged no more or less real than that of, say, Indonesians, or of humanity. It was enough that there be foxes at all, or creatures that fit that description, in order for me to conjure community with the imaginary fox in the side pasture. And it was no mere puerile phantasm that caused me to imagine this community, either. It was rather my thinking upon my own humanity, a condition which until very recently remained, over the course of an entire human life, embedded within a larger community of beings.
These days, we are expected to grow out of that sort of thinking well before puberty. Our adult humanity consists in cutting off ties of community with animals, ceasing, as Lévi-Strauss put it, to think with them. When on occasion adults begin again to think about animals, if not with them, it is to assess whether animals deserve the status of rights-bearers. Animal rights, should there be such things, are now thought to flow from neurophysiological features and behavioral aptitudes: recognizing oneself in the mirror, running through mazes, stacking blocks to reach a banana.
But what is forgotten here is that the animals are being tested for re-admission to a community from which they were previously expelled, and not because they were judged to lack the minimum requirements for the granting of rights. They were expelled because they are hairy brutes, and we learned to be ashamed of thinking of them as our kin. This shame only increased when Darwin confirmed our kinship, thus telling us something Paleolithic hunters already knew full well. Morality doubled up its effort to preserve a distinction that seemed to be slipping away. Since the 19th century, science has colluded with morality, always allowing some trivial marker of human uniqueness or other to function as a token for entry into the privileged moral universe of human beings. "They don't have syntax, so we can eat them," is how Richard Sorabji brilliantly reduces this collusion to absurdity...
I've been rethinking n+1's 2010 intervention, "What Was the Hipster?", which I continue to take as some of the best amateur sociology of recent decades. It alludes explicitly to Anatole Broyard's 1947 "Anatomy of a Hipster," but the real antecedents are works like William Foote Whyte's 1943 Street Corner Society. It is a serious analysis of phenomena that don't exactly make their own case for being taken seriously.
One thing that did not strike me on my first reading of it a year or so ago was the description of a shift, circa 2003, I think, from a sort of Phase 1, which was entirely based upon appropriation of symbols of American whiteness, to a Phase 2 that might be called 'lycanthropic' (in the broad sense in which we understand 'clinical lycanthropy' today, to include not just werewolfism, but any human adoption of the physical or behavioral traits of an animal, cf. T. A. Fahy, "Lycanthropy: A Review," J R Soc Med 82, 1 (January, 1989): 37–9). This involved both a new animal-centered totemism that was somewhat continuous with the old irony (the howling-wolf-before-the-full-moon t-shirt might be seen as straddling both Phases), as well as a more literal becoming-animal (to speak with Deleuze, which I try not to do) that involved the growing of thick beards, a sort of coming-out as hirsute beings.
Not since the Sexual Revolution has so much hair been left to grow, laissé pousser, as they say. Even if this time around the additional hair does not provoke conservative outcries about the decline of civilization (perhaps there are too many other symptoms of that for the old and hairless to notice), and instead is immediately taken up into the system of commerce and advertising --thick beards suddenly appearing on the models in the vitrines of FCUK and Stüssy, mere frozen photographs, yet somehow blowing like weathervanes--, even if things are different this time around, I say, to the extent that capitalism has developed quite a bit since 1968 in its ability to swallow whatever comes along, still, this new hair must be seen as pointing beyond itself, as significant.
I don't want to get into what that might be. I suspect that it has something to do with the rise of ecology as a rallying point for the post-political youth in search of something to be earnest about. It also, perhaps, and perhaps relatedly, has something to do with a historical shift in the way we think about our community with animals.
But here is what I did want to get to: those who have been around me for the last month or so have noticed that I am having trouble shutting up about bears. I wrote a review for the Chronicle of Higher Education of a book about the history of the bear as a symbol in medieval Europe. It was an excellent book, and it fit nicely with my current broad interest, both scholarly and belle-lettristic, in the importance of animals in the constitution of human social reality.
Puzzlingly, when I arrived in Brooklyn a month ago, I quickly noticed that everyone around me was on about bears as well: the lad at the café would have one tattooed on his forearm; at least one restaurant would feature a bearskin rug, as if this were some hunting lodge; the names of bands I'd never heard of would bespeak the resurgence of the sort of ursine cult that the Church was supposed to have stamped out by the 11th century.
But here too, perhaps, the cult was waning: the kids had already started regretting their tattooing priorities of 2008; the bands with the ursine names were in close-out bins (bins full of recordings made in the last days of the history of the recording as a material object); and so on. And here I was, a middle-aged man arriving from the far provinces, just getting on to this bear thing!
And the question this has caused me to ask is one that is more Bourdieuian than Deleuzian: is everything, in the end, trickle-down, or do I actually care about bears? Am I like some mom on Facebook trying to use teen lingo? Or is my own 'animal turn', which expresses itself in books and essays and reviews (and blog posts too), rather than in tattoos and t-shirts and new directions in facial hair, something that has arisen quite independently?
In the end it doesn't matter; I'll write about them one way or another. And in a way it is heartening to see such intimate confirmation of what I have long suspected: that there is, so to speak, a regnum in regno, a kingdom within a kingdom --not grace within nature, but ideas within culture-- and intellectual trends might very well track those of fashion, without for that reason being any the less worth pursuing.
In a subsequent post I will attempt to say more about what I take to be the deeper causes of this cultural lycanthropy, and perhaps to make some sense of why I have become swept up in it.
[This is a short excerpt from my current book project, Language and Animals, about which you will be hearing more soon. --JEHS]
Some decades after M. F. K. Fisher, following Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, implored us to 'consider the oyster', David Foster Wallace asked us do the very same thing with a lobster. It was not at his request that I first did so, and neither was he the first to make the request. In the Essay on Classification of 1851, the Swiss zoologist Louis Agassiz also asked us to consider the lobster, but what he really wanted was something rather more radical: he wanted us to consider the lobster alone, to consider the world as if the lobster had no relatives, no exoskeletal cousins next to which we might be able to make some sort of sense of this odd creature:
[S]uppose, for instance, that our Lobster (Homarus americanus) were the only representative of that extraordinarily diversified type [the 'Articulata'], --how should we introduce that species of animal into our systems? Simply as a genus with one species by the side of all the other classes with their orders, families, etc., or as a family containing only one genus with one species, or as a class with one order and one genus, or as a class with one family and one genus? And should we acknowledge, by the side of Vertebrata, Mollusca, and Radiata, another type, Articulata, on account of the existence of that one Lobster, or would it be natural to call it by a single name, simply as a species, in contradistinction to all other animals? (Agassiz, Essay on Classification, London, 1859, 5).
If you think the lobster is peculiar, just imagine how peculiar, how utterly non-pareil, it would be if it were the only articulate (i.e., exoskeletal) animal in existence? How could we even begin to say what it is if there were nothing else like it?
We might ask something more radical still: Ecce homo. Consider the human. Next, consider the human alone, without any animal relatives, endoskeletal or otherwise. What would such a creature be like? Standing in relation to nothing that is like it, and at the same time not it, how would we know what sort of being we were beholding?
Agassiz wanted to say that without other articulates --without, so to speak, articulacy in the world-- we could not make any sense of the lobster as an articulate being. Now obviously Agassiz had in mind a very special sense of articulacy, but I am going to permit myself to extend this notion back to its ordinary usage, and to propose that, for us too, it is our existence alongside beings that are like us, but not us, that makes us articulate. We would not know ourselves if we did not know the animals; they are mute (it is said), but they give us voice. Language and animals are of a pair.
The connection I am proposing is sufficiently well attested historically for me to feel little need to argue for it. It is there in the naming ceremony in the book of Genesis, when Adam zaps into the very essences of the brutes and gives them the names, the real, proper, singular names, that match these essences; it is there in the medieval bestiary, where the emerging idea of the 'book of nature' seems to presuppose that if nature is a book, the animals are its lexicon, its thesaurus (which sounds like a lizard but in fact suggests treasure). It is there in Claude Lévi-Strauss's famous claim, to which we will be returning on multiple occasions, that the 'concrete logic' of 'primitive' peoples is based on a 'thinking with animals'; and it is there in Charles Darwin, who argued that it is our recognition of our kinship with animals, including the cognate nature of our mental faculties with theirs, that enables us to recognize that we are natural beings at all, whose capacities emerge over time, just like those of everything else in the world:
If no organic being excepting man had possessed any mental power, or if his powers had been of a wholly different nature from those of the lower animals, then we should never have been able to convince ourselves that our high faculties had been gradually developed (Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, , Princeton University Press, 1981, 34).
If it were not for animals, we would misunderstand our higher faculties; we would take them to have popped into being suddenly and miraculously. We would take ourselves to be angels, and we angels would be deprived of the bulk of our metaphors, which is to say of the bulk of our language, as well as of any bearings or sense of situatedness within any broader community of beings. We would be lonely, inarticulate angels. Instead we are animals that won't shut up ('rational animals', is how this has sometimes been put), and, whether we care to admit it or not, we are not alone.
I am spending much of this month working a number of esquisses of academic articles on animals, which for various reasons I never published, into a non-academic essay that I will publish as a non-academic book. How does one transform academic writing into non-academic writing? For the most part, I find I just have to delete those stupid guiding phrases like, "In this section, I will show that...", or "Consider the following sentence..." (a vulgarism about which Ted Cohen once brilliantly commented: "What the hell else did you think I was going to do? Get to that point and then start reading backwards?!"); and I am nixing those tiresome appeals to authority, like, "As such-and-such authors have shown..." I find this re-working a true pleasure; I am finally saying what I wanted to say about animals in the way I wanted to say it.
I surprised some friends recently when I told them that I never write anything entirely new. Every time I begin writing I do it by cutting and pasting some chunk of old writing, and then I set about re-working it, and expanding it, until it becomes something new. I compared this at the moment to planting a twig from an old tree, but in fact I think it's something more like that cooking practice in certain traditional cultures, where the same pot is used, unwashed, for generations of stews. A 'new' stew is begun upon the film and dregs of the old one, and the flavor of each stew is produced from thousands of such iterations. In any case if I were absolutely obliged to write something that had no pre-existence at all, I would have to give up and confess my illiteracy.
ii. The imagination of animals
iii. G. E. Lessing and the profundity of the animal fable
iv. Order: Natural or Alphabetical?
1. The Ass
2. The Bear
3. The Cephalopod
4. The Dog
5. The Elephant
6. The Fawn
7. The Gorgon
8. The Hybrid
9. The Insect
10. 'J' Is Not Even a Proper Letter, But if It Must Have Its Own Entry, This May as Well Be the Jackalope
11. The King of the Beasts
12. The Lycanthrope
14. The Nosehorn
15. The Orang-Outang
16. The Pig
17. The Quagga
18. The Rational Animal; or, If You Prefer, The Roughie
19. The Scapegoat
20. The Two-Backed Beast
21. The Unicorn
22. The Varmint
23. The Weasel
24. 'X': No Serious Bestiary Would Include an Entry for 'X'
25. The Yolk
26. The Zoophyte
[More information forthcoming. Please be patient.]
In The Bear: History of a Fallen King (tr. Harvard University Press, 2011), Michel Pastoureau relates that in a famous capitulary of 852-853, "Archbishop Hincmar of Reims... vigorously denounced, among other practices, 'vile games with a bear' (turpia joca cum urso) and demanded that the bishops of his province not tolerate such turpitudes under any circumstances. He provides no details about these 'vile games', but it can be imagined that they were dances or mimes performed at carnival time and still containing, in the late ninth century, powerful remnants of paganism, perhaps even simulations of copulation. A few decades later, Bishop Adalbéron of Laon, despite his strongly ursine name, also denounced games and masquerades in which men disguised themselves as bears or danced with bears. It was a wasted effort. The bear was the quintessential animal for disguises... and until the end of the Middle Ages, and even later, many prelates reeated, although they were not really obeyed, that a good Christian should not 'play the bear'" (83).
Below is a video, one of many available on YouTube, filmed in modern-day Romania. It features a traditional dance in celebration of New Year's Day, that bears nearly the same name as the activity denounced by Hincmar of Reims: from the Latin jocum cum urso, we still have today a Latinate remnant in the Carpathians, jocul ursului, or 'the game of the bear':
I've held forth on the theme of the incompletion of the project of depaganization visible in certain features of Balkan and Carpathian folk culture (see, e.g., this footage I took of a Christmas-Day goat dance). As an outsider I'm treading on sensitive territory here, and over the years I've learned not to make broad generalizations from fleeting glimpses of cultural exuberance (even if the thesis of an Unterschicht of pagan folk culture overlain by Orthodoxy is one that scholars such as Eliade readily accept).
But anyway today I just wanted to note how newly fascinating the idea of Christianization as an ongoing project --one that was by no means completed in the Middle Ages and one that still has more difficulty taking root in mountainous regions than in valleys (see also, in this connection, Sergei Paradjanov's masterpiece, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors)-- now seems to me in light of Pastoureau's treatment of the cultural history of the bear.
His argument is that until around the 10th century in Europe --and moreso the further one moved from the Mediterranean and Roman-dominated zones-- there was a vibrant cult of bear worship. Bears were not just ordinary animals, but were in nearly every respect doubles of human beings. They were presumed to be interfertile with human women, and half-bear offspring were held to be particularly virile and heroic. In the 12th-century Gesta Danorum, Saxo Grammaticus casually notes that the Danish king is descended from a bear, an observation that is repeated as late as the 16th century in the work of Olaus Magnus, even if by this time Viking raiders had long since ceased the practice of going berserk, i.e., putting on the 'bear shirt' before battle and transforming themselves into their ursine doubles.
Pastoureau argues that the sexuality and violence of the bear made it a naturally suspicious creature for the church, and that by the high Middle Ages the ecclesiastical authorities had succeeded in deposing it, reducing it to the status of a chained curiosity, of a pathetic circus performer, while enthroning the lion in the bear's former place in the iconography of heraldly and more broadly in the medieval symbolic imagination. The lion was a safe king of the beasts in large part because it was entirely extinct in Europe; it was no longer phenomenally salient in the daily lives of European folk, and there was no threat of dangerous effects from consuming its parts, from wearing its hide, or from having sex with it.
The bear was already more or less extinct in France (and England, and the Low Countries), other than in parts of the Alps and the Pyrenées, by the late Middle Ages. The worship of it seems to have diminished in rough correspondence to its geographical disappearance over the centuries. Romania has by far the highest concentration of bears in Europe (thanks in part to Ceauşescu's promotion of bear fertility-- a policy derived entirely from his personal interest in accumulating hunting trophies), and is also the place you are most likely to see vestiges of the jocum cum urso that was already on the decline in France by the 9th century.
I'm inclined to think, along lines spelled out by James C. Scott in Seeing Like a State (and also in Malinowski's description of folk customs in his native village in the Polish Carpathians), that both the endurance of the brown bear as well as the endurance of what look like pagan customs are in the end just a corollary effect of geographical circumstances: mountains have different cultural histories and different ecologies, and neither can be fully understood without consideration of the other.
Jaron Lanier, of virtual-reality fame, was permitted to hold forth a few years ago in a Discover blog space on the topic of 'morphing' in molluscs.
The result is messy: Lanier introduces the analogy between cephalopod intelligence and extraterrestrial intelligence three times, each time as though it is the first. He says that cephalopods offer "the best standing example of how truly different intelligent extraterrestrials (if they exist) might be from us," only to go on a few paragraphs further to wonder, "if cephalopods someday evolve to become intelligent creatures with civilizations, what might they do with their ability to morph?" Well are they morphing already because they are intelligent, or aren't they? Is morphing just a preadaptation that might someday facilitate a different kind of communication than we are used to, or is it already a self-evident sign of intelligence?
Lanier wants to suggest, evidently not in the interest of paradox-mongering, but simply as an account of what he thinks is going on, that the ability of certain marine invertebrates to radically transform their shape, color, and pigmentation is a variety of 'post-symbolic communication'. He imagines that if we ourselves could communicate through morphing, we might 'simulate' our own transparency when we are hungry, so that our friends could see our empty stomachs and be given to know of our condition. But just the vaguest familiarity with the semiotic tradition would have dissuaded Lanier from calling the display of the empty stomach an instance of non- (because post-) symbolic communication.
On C. S. Peirce's influential view, for example, molehills are secure in their standing as signs of burrowing moles, as smoke is of fire. A fortiori, if one intentionally flashes an empty stomach to a friend in the interest of pressuring that friend into serving as restaurant accompaniment, one is not communicating directly the message 'empty stomach', in which case the sign and the object would be identical (but even here I don't think the message would be non-symbolic). One is rather using the empty stomach as a sign for communicating something like 'let us get something to eat'. (Compare in this connection the familiar male primate gesture of flashing an erect penis. Surely the message there is not, or not just, erect penis. Rather it's what might possibly be done with the primate male member that makes this an eminently symbolic display.) Since moles make molehills, molehills signify moles; and since hunger depletes the contents of the stomach, an empty stomach signifies hunger. There's nothing post-symbolic about it.
We're left with the possibility that cephalopod morphing is either a non-symbolic preadaptation to what might someday evolve into a visual-corporeal language, as opposed to an oral-aural one (which Lanier seems to believe when he imagines what cephalopods might someday become); or that it is already a language in the proper sense (which Lanier seems to believe when he identifies cephalopods as 'the strangest smart creatures on earth'). In deciding between these two, it's worth noting that the range at least of a cuttlefish's morphing options seems rigidly determined by the features of the environment in which it evolved. If placed in an environment with unfamiliar color patterns --as, for example, on top of a chess board-- it will do its best to take on these patterns, but clearly performs better when in its own natural element.
This footage suggests that there's nothing at all like the infinite recursiveness that characterizes human language in the limited range of transformative options of which a cuttlefish can avail itself. In this respect, to call its transformations 'intelligent' is to take a leap of faith. Once one has conceded that the activation of a cuttlefish's chromatophores by changes in its environment might be the result of intelligence, there is no good reason not to suppose that any stable phenotypic feature of a species that has appeared gradually across generations through natural selection is not also a mark of intelligence. This is what is known as 'Intelligent Design' --the idea that organisms have the features they do because there is some intelligent concern, in them or in an external agent, to accommodate their interests in the universe--, and it is universally despised in respectable company.
Judging from his most recent cri de coeur, I gather that Lanier is a skeptic about all varieties of techno-utopianism, and has gravitated towards something that feels like its opposite and that might be called a species of primitivism. It looks to the animals and to nature to give us what technology and human innovation turn out to have falsely promised. In this Lanier is joining up with a long tradition, one that vastly precedes his own coming-to-consciousness of the limitations of the Internet, &c. This tradition is exemplified by Zhuangzi in the 4th century BCE, who, as if to offer an anticipatory rebuttal of Thomas Nagel's claim that you cannot know what it is like to be a bat, for example, insisted that he himself could clearly apprehend wherein a fish's happiness consists. And it consists, not surprisingly, in swimming around and doing what comes naturally to a fish.
To the extent that happiness and rationality are two sides of the same coin, this perspective is taken up again in early modern European libertine thought, as in Girolamo Rorario's 16th-century treatise, Quod animalia bruta ratione utantur melius homine (That Brute Animals Make Better Use of Reason than Man). The idea here, and then later even more prominently in the work of the Baconian philosopher John Bulwer, is that animals seek out what is in their natural interest directly, without the mediation of language (in Bulwer's terms, the animals' language is the language of the body; we slow ourselves down when we rely on the language of the mouth). Nature is rational, so action directly in accordance with nature is a direct expression of reason. Human exercise of reason-through-language is already mediated, distantiated, or cut off from the realm of reasons itself. It is approximative, whereas animals, lacking speech, are able to have directly what humans only approximate.
Rorario and Bulwer would surely have been enthusiastic about the cuttlefish (and probably knew ancient anecdotes about octopus intelligence via Aelian and Aristotle's Historia animalium). Lanier's interpretation of what is going on in the animal realm has a long history. This is a venerable history, and one the claims of which I myself find very compelling. But these claims rest on philosophical commitments that don't simply flow from the self-evidence of a cephalopod's corporeal transformations, or from facile comparisons to the world of virtual reality.