Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Small realization about anthropocentrism


I just realized, just now, that the anxiety over anthropomorphic/anthropocentric projection in, say, critical animal studies forgets that this kind of projection is *also* sympathetic entanglement. The human center mirroring or projecting itself will be inevitably changed through this projection. In fact, entanglements like these, with whatever, is probably the *only* way our lonely human selves can be transformed short of that other sympathetic entanglement known as injury or death.

What, then, is the fear of anthropomorphic projection, the 'oh, you're able to think of that chimp only as an image of yourself?' It's the fear of sympathy, or that sympathy isn't good enough, or it's the certainty or hope that what you are will never change.


Jeffrey Cohen said...

Wrote this on Facebook and will paste here:

That's perfect. Really like that formulation (and insight). I'm reviewing Susan Crane's book and have been struck by the good work she does on NOT obsessing over anthropomorphism. She makes the point that launching "anthropomorphism!" as charge against certain modes of scholarship makes the mistake of assuming that we know already what the terms it makes touch ("human" "animal") mean, as if those categories were settled in advance.

Eileen Joy said...

This is also something Jane Bennett writes about in Vibrant Matter--that anthropocentrism [more specifically, imagining other objects, whether animals or whatever, might be *like us* in some fashion] is not the worst way to build a better ethics. Cary Wolfe, Patricia MacCormack, and others, would disagree strenuously, but I side with the Bersani: we're all the same and difference is just, if we can see this better, the non-threatening ontological supplement to sameness/homo-ness.

Joseph Taylor said...


Yes, compelling statement here. I've committed this sin of demonizing anthropomorophism myself in my graduate seminar this semester on the Ecological Chaucer, provoked by much secondary literature. I suppose the question is whether and how far one carries the humanization of animals that opens the reverse possibility, such as how Cary Wolfe frequently critiques animal rights discourse as making way for the animalization of humans. But any sort of ethical encounter needs entanglement and exposure (whether fear of sympathy or fear of metamorphosis). In the most basic Freudian way, it seems that to see yourself in the neighbor (whether human or non-human) is crucial to your relationship with that neighbor. My students have given me the "who cares?" reaction that you rightly suggest here. A few of them are writing on the little whelp in Book of the Duchess, taken by the unspoken communication between the dreamer and the pup that contrasts mightily with the lack of communication between the dreamer and the Man in Black. We have pressed this point, noting the hound-in-training's disinterest in the Octavian hunt going on that matches the dreamer's own disinterest. This indifference to royal pastime seems to inform the dreamer's inability to comprehend the Man in Black's high-style, performative mourning, another noble pursuit. I suppose we revert back to a "human" conversation in the end, but I thought that was an interesting reading by them, one that rejects an exclusively human/animal labeling (whether you are pup or poet, noble artifice bores you!). And certainly mourning itself is an act that is neither exclusively human or non-human/animal, whatever that means (see Where the Red Fern Grows). Perhaps we can rewrite Donne's Meditation 17 to say "No Life is an island."

Nathaniel M. Campbell said...

Then there's the plain epistemological fact that anthropocentrism is inescapable: we are human thinkers, so our thinking about both ourselves and everything else in this enmeshed world will always be human thinking, rather than bat or fish or amoeba or (pace your project, Jeffrey) stone thinking.

But as Karl points out: we should embrace the potential of that ineluctability, rather than mourn its liability.

Ben said...

Yes yes yes - all of this. I have an essay about to come out (like, in weeks, I think) where I argue the same for early medieval riddles (and citing Bennett).

I have heard that ethologists have recently started to revalue anthropomorphism for these very reasons. They've also started to recognize the fallacy of insisting that animals are *nothing* like humans. I don't have a good source to share with you, though - I think I heard about this while cruising nature videos with my daughter.

jebmcl said...

Useful easy to accesses article exploring some of the issues in ethology, science and theology.

"Abstract:There is a striking similarity between theological and scientific debates about the concept of anthropomorphism....."

Luke Fidler said...

ron broglio has some interesting thoughts on precisely this topic: