Tuesday, May 22, 2007

ant love: a question for Karl

Driving home to let out the dog (caninophiliac that I am) before picking up the kids, and listening to an NPR interview with one of the producers of the recent Planet Earth TV extravaganza ...

The producer was asked why his crew did not intervene when a baby elephant was filmed heading in the wrong direction from his mom, deep into a jungle that could only bring his demise. The producer spoke of a kind of nature filmer's implicit code of non-intervention (but admitted that a baby penguin that toppled into a hole had been retrieved). He also spoke of the scenes that just could not be shown as part of the series: an adult elephant being devoured by thirty lions, its eye watching its own ingestion; a penguin that had been flailed by a sea lion attempting to return to the salty sea. The producer then spoke proudly of a scene that he loved and had labored over: an ant, possessed by a fungus that takes over its entire body, after three weeks suddenly bursts into a fireworks display of spores and shoots.

So, I wonder: why sorrow for the lost or eaten-aware elephants, the lost or brine-stung penguins, while no possibility of empathy for the fungus-infected ant? Does the anthropomorphism of the pachyderm and the cuteness (I guess that's just another word for anthropomorphism) of the pengiun explain it all? These aren't situations of power and domination, like the caninophilia post explicated. Why can we behold the death of the ant as a kind of art?

Why shed a tear for a flailed aquatic bird?

14 comments:

Karl Steel said...

Does the anthropomorphism of the pachyderm and the cuteness (I guess that's just another word for anthropomorphism) of the pengiun explain it all?

I'm inclined to say yes, but perhaps that's just because my brain's feeling a bit creaky right now. I'll pass the question to our commenters and perhaps, if we're lucky, even a few lurkers.

That said, I'm highly suspicious of this--kind of nature filmer's implicit code of non-intervention--and wonder whether the insights of critical anthropology (which insights I know very, very minimally) might be applied. I mean, it's not as though humans are apart from "nature," although that is, after all, precisely it: there's so much in that "as though," that recognition and sympathy, and then the highminded refusal to intervene, which, as a refusal, cannot be the non-act that it wants to be.

And were the humans to intervene on behalf of the baby elephant against the jungle, is that, then, only the logic of the pet at work?

And what of the ant, to repeat Jeffrey's question?

Does the articulation of formical limbs tempt us into seeing it as a machine? I think we might be able to think through the delight in the fungus perhaps through the critical work, if there is any, on the Survival Research Laboratories? (try here and here

Nicola Masciandaro said...

The question of what kinds of death spectacles, animal or human, we allow, sanction, enjoy has much to do, I suspect, with what kinds of stories about death we want to tell ourselves and what kind we don't. Spectacles of animal death obviously afford a way of approaching the problem of death at a "safe" distance, free from both responsibility and threat, a place for death without evil, natural death, but also thus a place where evil can be naturalized. The ambivalence around the median category of humans killing animals seems instructive: natives ritually slaughtering a cow (ok), industrial slaughterhouse (not ok), hunting for sport (somewhere in between).

But to save myself from lauching into a neverending typology, I think the problem in a nutshell is the problem of the witness. If death is annihiliation, it cannot be witnessed. If death can be witnessed, it is not death. The place of the eye/camera within the spectacle and experience of death thus becomes crucial (cf. Psycho, Grizzly Man, Jeffrey's elephant, Arcite's death in KnT). What happens when the death-witnessing eye of victim is brought into alignment with the camera, our eye, and the I behind it? Many things, and not least among them the virtual production of the unsettling possibility of an eye within the eye, an immaterial unkillable witness.

Alex said...

The most recent version of this, the "survival of the cutest" hypothesis, can be read in the following link, or in the Human Ecology article:

http://uwnews.washington.edu/ni/article.asp?articleID=30008

But I think beyond cuteness, we extend greater empathy for animals that are similar to us genetically and socially, e.g. mammals and other organisms that form long-lasting kin relationships.

While there are all sorts of objections for this position, I do think it serves a valuable function in that the animals more likely to elicit our empathy tend to have more evolved brains, and thus the possibility of consciousness. In other words, one frequently unmentioned concern is whether animals can experience emotions like fear and happiness, and suffer pain. And those that have those experiences ought to have certain rights. And I hope that the cuteness factor at least provides the animal rights marketing department a way to approach these more relevant issues.

Now, we don't quite have the ability to quantitatively determine animal intelligence yet, but that's not to say that we can't make good educated guesses: dogs, for one, are easy. So are elephants, primates, pigs, and cats. Birds and cows, we're not sure. But I give the cow the benefit of the doubt and only eat chicken and fish. But insects, from what I understand, are as close to computer programs as biology gets.

Alex said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Karl Steel said...

In other words, one frequently unmentioned concern is whether animals can experience emotions like fear and happiness, and suffer pain. And those that have those experiences ought to have certain rights.

I believe I've quoted this here before, although not recently that our new readers could know it. From my diss and my forthcoming article:

"[A]nimal rights also promotes an absolute concept of the human. It does so by making consciousness key to the recognition of such rights. Elizabeth Costello, the fictional novelist of J. M. Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals, seems to evade this limitation. During a university lecture, Costello assails philosophy for the self-justifying use of reason, that particularly human form of consciousness, as the chief determinate of which creatures deserve rights. In the course of her critique, she describes the thoughts of an ape, Sultan, captured by the psychologist Wolfgang Köhler. Sultan initially responds with dismay and disappointment to a laboratory puzzle that makes it progressively more difficult for him to reach his meal of bananas. It is only after he resigns himself to a form of betrayal that he complies with the scientists’ wish: Sultan stacks crates to reach the bananas. To scientific eyes, Sultan’s solution demonstrates both the purely instrumental intelligence of apes and the superiority of the human reason that designed such an experiment. Fiction differs from science by allowing allows writers to extend themselves sympathetically into the minds of others. Through her story, Costello shows that Sultan is no mere beast driven only by a predictable, merely gustatory frustration, but an unfortunate creature “at every turn…driven to think the less interesting thought.” For Costello, the human can escape the hermetic confines of its own mind by entering into the lives and thoughts of animals just as it enters into the inner lives of characters, whether real or fictional. This escape into empathy is not mere daydreaming, but rather the grounds for rescuing animals from the enormities of industrialized slaughter, whose analog, Costello argues—to the dismay of some of her audience—is the Holocaust. Nevertheless the route Coetzee’s Costello takes—through art rather than philosophy—does not shelter her from Cary Wolfe’s argument that, so far as animal rights thinkers are concerned, “the animal other matters only insofar as it mirrors…the human form that is the ‘source’ of recognizing animals as bodies that have sensations, feel pain, and so on.” In these systems the pain, fear, and love of the human becomes the model for determining other creatures’ capacities for these traits and by extension each creature’s rights. Costello imagines Sultan feeling what she herself would feel in such a situation; because Costello would be distressed, Sultan must be rescued. Following this logic, the human reenters the discussion under another sign: “human” feelings are determinates of animal rights because they are what matter most in a human umwelt. Such approaches, at their least self-critical, imagine this umwelt not as subjective and inescapably immanent, but rather, at least insofar as it grounds ethics, as an objective understanding of the world that describes ideal capacities for sensation and desire that transcend any sensory or appetitive limitations. Whether an idealized human consciousness or corporeal sensitivity disguised under names such as “subject-of-a-life” or Lévinas, Lacan, and Heidegger’s chauvinist assurance of the uniqueness of human subjectivity, this is anthropocentrism, a form, even the foundation, of ethical provincialism."

Eileen Joy said...

Karl--what I think I would like for you to maybe do now [pretty please?] is maybe start outlining, if even provisionally, how, if we are to accept your argument that, say, forms and understandings of human consciousness *cannot* be a basis for our understanding/loving/extending rights to animals [and I pretty much accept your argument], we can begin to sketch out/build nodes and sites of relationality with animals. Is it that we just say, anything that is "alive" has an equal, say, "right to life," and what does that mean, exactly? How do we articulate/ensure/enact that?

Karl Steel said...

Is it that we just say, anything that is "alive" has an equal, say, "right to life," and what does that mean, exactly? How do we articulate/ensure/enact that?

I. don't. know.

I don't know. Not yet. Maybe not ever. Please keep asking me.

I do know that I want to believe in an ethics that can be enacted without the appropriations of recognition. A start: can you believe I've only now started to get to know Lévinas outside his few references to animals? Well, there you go. Nonetheless, I don't want--and I think I'm echoing something you said, EJ--to slide into alliance with the anti-choicers, even if it's only the few anti-choicers whose concern is with "unborn lives" and not with female sexuality more generally. Once I start talking about honoring the lifeworlds of cephalopods, it's might be a small step to talking about the lifeworlds of fetuses: and I know I don't want to do that.

I think the conversations about touching and disaggregation of the self, the discussions of the khora, and the like, get us at what I'd like to see. But how this would play out in practice I don't know. I keep coming back to Laudine's parakeet example: we humans would save the stranger human over the stranger parakeet, and we would do this regardless, I think, of our redistributed senses of self, because, after all, there's still death.

And I think all this talk about love, as moving as it's been, has not quite got us at the problem of death. Or maybe it has, and I've missed it.

Eileen Joy said...

But death isn't everything, or even the end of everything, as much as we often give it that prominence [or pride of place in all our ontologies]. I suppose you and I make excellent shadow-boxers, in that respect. I say "love," you say "death," and we have to keep trying to come to terms with each other [and with "love" and "death"], but I suppose, too, that if we insist that we defer every philosophy we craft/believe in to the question of, "so, how does it hold up to death?" or more specifically, "how does it hold up when you have to make a choice between saving a parakeet or a woman named Helen?" then we're always kind of doomed, aren't we? I'd rather have a philosophy that aims at something like, "when push [crisis] comes to shove [death], we'll do the best we can to save the parakeet and Helen, and even die trying if we have to." But for the most part, I guess I want to defer the subject of death, but also realize that isn't really an option since it's around me all the time, even when I'm not looking, and sometimes I'm the cause of it.

J J Cohen said...

It's funny you should return us to death, Eileen, because in my post I ALMOST quoted Lucretius, whose atomism is the classical verion of Deleuze. I would have quoted the following, from "on the Nature of Things" in a section called "The Folly of the Fear of Death," where Lucretius reminds us that the pain we feel at the imagination of death is really the pain of the realization of our limited lifespan:

Hence, where thou seest a man to grieve because
When dead he rots with body laid away,
Or perishes in flames or jaws of beasts,
Know well: he rings not true, and that beneath
Still works an unseen sting upon his heart,
However he deny that he believes.
His shall be aught of feeling after death.
For he, I fancy, grants not what he says,
Nor what that presupposes, and he fails
To pluck himself with all his roots from life
And cast that self away, quite unawares
Feigning that some remainder's left behind.
For when in life one pictures to oneself
His body dead by beasts and vultures torn,
He pities his state, dividing not himself
Therefrom, removing not the self enough
From the body flung away, imagining
Himself that body, and projecting there
His own sense, as he stands beside it: hence
He grieves that he is mortal born, nor marks
That in true death there is no second self
Alive and able to sorrow for self destroyed,
Or stand lamenting that the self lies there
Mangled or burning.

Eileen Joy said...

Interestingly enough, in relation to the Lucretius passage cited by JJC, I was just this morning typing out a portion of the Bhagavad Gita for my Tolkien/heroic poetry course students, where Arjuna, just before the big battle with his cousins, says to Krishna, "I see no good in killing my kinsmen in battle," and Arjuna replies, "As a man discards his worn-out clothes to put on new and different ones, so the embodied self discards its worn-out bodies to take on other new ones. Weapons do not cut it, fire does not burn it, waters do not wet it, wind does not wither it," etc. etc. Of course, this is not exactly Lucretius's or even Deleuze's atomism, partly because Krishna is espousing the idea of some kind of "immovable" and "timeless" soul, which we could assume has some kind of unitary identity that is fixed while also being transversal.

But I would be remiss [and maybe even a bit of a hypocrite] if I didn't say at this point, as I have been saying all along, and regardless of my recent enchantment with the thinking of Elizabeth Grosz, Deleuze and Guattari, etc., that I can also side with that grieving man of Lucretius who supposedly "fails to pluck himself with all his roots from life and cast that self away" because he *imagines* himself "that body." For, in a sense, we *are* that body and when it goes, we do, indeed, *go*. I want a philosophy that allows me access to processes of inter-placing my flows and intensities with the flows and intensities of others, that allows me [again again] to disperse myself across and even beyond the usual, expected horizons of "self," but this body I am currently in is, in fact, my home, however I conceive of that home as more of a "wandering" than as a "root." I fear the end of it and mourn it in advance, not because it is "all I am," but because it is the best vehicle I have, at this point in time, for taking myself anywhere, and for being recognized, for being touched, and for touching, and no amount of metaphysical discourse--whether Hindu, Judeo-Christian, Platonist, or deleuzoguattarian--will disabuse me of this notion.

J J Cohen said...

Oh I am with you on that Eileen. It's just that no matter how much I love this home -- changeable, and always changing me; limited, and always limiting me; unpredicatble, and always reminding me of how little I know and control -- I know this body is going to be my end when it gives out or breaks or falls apart.

Like you I mourn that event in advance, because I'd actually prefer eternal life, thank you very much. But I do recognize that my body is not all there is to me, that even if I am an embodied subjectivity inextricable from my specific embodied state -- and that without this single body I won't exist anymore -- still I know that I am also an intersubjective, intercorporeal thing as well.

Karl Steel said...

But I do recognize that my body is not all there is to me, that even if I am an embodied subjectivity inextricable from my specific embodied state -- and that without this single body I won't exist anymore -- still I know that I am also an intersubjective, intercorporeal thing as well.

That bolded thing is the bit that's been troubling me all along. Here's how I might rewrite things to approach matters: "I know that I am an intersubjective, intercorporeal thing, but without this single body I won't exist anymore." This thickening of stuff is not all I am, but without this thickening, I'm not at all.

Nicola Masciandaro said...

. . . because it is the best vehicle I have, at this point in time, for taking myself anywhere, and for being recognized, for being touched, and for touching, and no amount of metaphysical discourse--whether Hindu, Judeo-Christian, Platonist, or deleuzoguattarian--will disabuse me of this notion.

I love this idea of "the best vehicle," that it is not corporeality per se that resists the discourse of the spirt but its instrumentality, for which JJC's reading of horse and rider (one of the most ancient metaphors for the human) is a powerful analogue.

Discovering a new formulation of the body-self relationship, one that is neither reductive (I am my body) nor dualistic (I am a soul in a body) has got to be one of the biggest projects on the table now, and one wholly implicated in the animal/human boundary question, not to mention the obesity epidemic and the daily spectacles of violence.

It is interesting to see the vehicular body being identified in my favorite "Eastern" text:
"It is a mistake to set up an antithesis between “flesh” and “spirit.” Such contrast almost inevitably ends in an unqualified condemnation of the body. The body obstructs spiritual fulfillment only if it is pampered as having claims in its own right. Its proper function is rightly understood as ancillary to spiritual purposes. The rider needs a horse if he is to fight a battle, though the horse can become an impediment if it refuses to be completely submissive to his will. In the same way the spirit needs to be clothed in matter if it is to come into full possession of its own possibilities, although the body can at times become a hindrance if it refuses to be compliant with the requirements of the spirit. If the body yields to the claims of the spirit as it should, it is instrumental in bringing down the kingdom of heaven on earth" (Meher Baba, Discourses, I.124).

This is something different from the classical humanistic notion of mutually developed body and spirit as part of the good life. It is different from the medieval spirt/body antagonism (though Francis calling his body 'Brother Ass' both fulfills and frustrates this antagonism). It is also different from what we recognize as Eastern, especially Vedantic notions of the body as illusion or as the site/medium of self-ignorance. This is body as instrument, vehicle, not as the mere means of an essentialzed immaterial something else, but as the very space of "its" possibilities.

Does loving the body as vehicle, which sounds very Augustinian, join at some point with loving animals? Loving them, not only as vehicles of the human -- though this principle also might be taken, via evolution, far beyond the old fashioned idea of dominion -- but as vehicles of themselves?

And in regard to Eileen and Karl's love/death boxing match, Jeremy's Lucretius, and so much else that has been indicated whose interrelationships would require more time than I have to understand much less articulate, I keep thinking of the importance of first principles and the wonderful happiness and discomfort that repondering them, living within their questions, produces. I would like to combat the tyranny of the normal at every turn, every outpost, but especially with regard to the fact of the existence of this thing we call the world. How much waywardness, how much suffering, is caused by living in unconscious, i.e. unquestioning relation to this fact? How much stands to be gained by returning in wonder to the fact that the universe actually exists, that it is a universe that happens to produce consciousness of itself in so many forms, and that we happen to be the peculiarly situated witnesses to this fact that we are!

Eileen Joy said...

Nicola, thank you so much for sharing that passage from Baba's "Discourses," which does, indeed, convey what I was trying to say about the body as a kind of "best vehicle" [in the interim of the span of one's particular "life"] for expressing what might be called the more ephemeral [yet still material, really] "self" [call it spiritual or what-have-you: that thing not entirely bound by the body but tied to it]. As to your question,

"How much stands to be gained by returning in wonder to the fact that the universe actually exists, that it is a universe that happens to produce consciousness of itself in so many forms, and that we happen to be the peculiarly situated witnesses to this fact that we are![??]"

Well, everything is to be gained. Simply everything.