Friday, July 02, 2010

The Representation of Animals

Talk of "the Other" was popular for a long time in Continental philosophy. Perhaps it still is. To tell you the truth, it bores the hell out of me. People who still think capitalizing the "O" is going to shock people into realizing something are perhaps misjudging how much ground they've gained in the last 50 years, and forgotten that it was a rhetorical tactic, not an ontology. (Well, in fairness, much of the mischief was because many did originally think it was an ontology.) This will likely be the only time I talk about animals in a philosophical way, since I tend to think that all the hard work to be done is in talking about factory farms, which means for the most part giving up trying to penetrate the silent face of animals to hear their call. I register in some fashion the fact that all philosophical reflection deals on some level with two prior distinctions in order to get off the ground--humanity's distinction from Nature, and humanity's distinction from Animals. But I don't think this fact gets us terribly far by itself, though a lot of ground has been gained in better ways of treating both ideas.

Baudrillard - Simulacra and Simulation, (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan
Press), 1995
Garrard - Ecocriticism, (New York: Routledge), 2004
Midgley 1 - Animals and Why They Matter, (Athens: University of Georgia
Press), 1984
Midgley 2 - Beast and Man, Rev. Ed., (New York: Routledge), 2002
Perkins - Romanticism and Animal Rights, (New York: Cambridge University
Press), 2003
Snell - The Discovery of the Mind, trans. T.G. Rosenmeyer, (New York: Dover),
1953, 1982
Wittgenstein - Philosophical Investigations, 3rd Ed., trans. G.E.M. Anscombe,
(New York: Macmillan Company), 1953
A version of Robert Burns's "To a Mouse."
A version of Anna Laetitia Barbauld's "The Mouse's Petition."


Apparently reporting on a break in recent scholarship, Greg Garrard says that there is a “split between philosophical consideration of animal rights and cultural analysis of the representation of animals” (Garrard 136). Whether this is accurate or not, I should argue that it is odd, since how we represent animals leads directly into how we philosophically consider them, for you can’t consider them without first conceptualizing them in some manner. Garrard briefly takes up this line of thought in talking of Mary Midgley, but the power of this point in tackling not only the particular issue of animals, but also the wider issue of “nature” is obscured. I will argue that Midgley’s pragmatic sensibleness opens up a vista with which to explore representations of animals as reflections on humanity that histrionic talk of the radical otherness of nature and animals obliterates—which, then, ironically destroys the only hope of these silent beings. To illustrate the profitability of this vista, I will consider Robert Burns and Anna Barbauld’s different representations of mice in their two short poems.

Midgley’s appreciation of anthropomorphism, which Garrard briefly considers (137-8), basically consists in the note that language—and hence all verbs, nouns, and particularly descriptive adjectives—is in some sense a projection of our own humanity. When facing down the threat of Cartesian solipsism produced by the sundering of Mind from Nature (in Descartes’ res cogitans and res extensa), we face what Midgley calls the “unrealistic sceptical isolation of human life from every possible context” (Midgley 1 128). It is because of this previous Cartesian platitude that anthropomorphism—when taken as an ecocritical concept—becomes distended. Defenders of nature and animals, wishing to do right by those they defend, wish to render the “authentic” animal, the lion qua lion. But registering the previous note that language is a set of human categories, the idea of anthropomorphism can generate the sheer impossibility of conceptualizing animals entirely, suggesting that “God – and indeed all non-human life – must be so unlike us that none of it can be understood from a human standpoint at all” (128). This is what Wittgenstein meant when, pointing at this Cartesian picture holding us captive, he said, “If a lion could talk, we could not understand him” (Wittgenstein 223). The idea that we could understand the lion qua lion is a mirage created by our previous posited isolation from him, and this mirage—appearing the oasis from humanity’s tainted touch—is what renders the lion qua human categories reprehensible.

This Cartesian isolation is what produces the tangled web of Horkheimer and Adorno’s and Heidegger’s pessimism about the human situation. The haunting inevitability of “blindly pragmatized thought” [fn.1] lurks behind Heidegger’s obscure attempts to clear away and rehabilitate what he calls, in contradistinction to scientific thought, “Thought.” But Heidegger’s late-stage obscurity about what exactly he means by “Thought,” or “the Thinker” or “Poet,” just highlights the on-going struggle with the Cartesian problematic. Even Midgley falls for it, albeit briefly: “There is nothing unusual about confusing a symbol with the thing symbolized, about projecting a fantasy. … Mixing up a symbol with an attribution is, in fact, normal. Among human beings, it is often best checked by the victim, the walking symbol himself, who can say, ‘Hey, look—I am not that, but me’” (Midgley 2 33) Asking “the victim” is the Heideggerian point about the redescription of essence (res) as a “gathering,” which leads to Heideggerian authenticity (every “thing” has its own authentic collection of attributes) and the switch to aural metaphors (if only we could hear them). But this distinction between projected attributes and essential attributes can’t be maintained for the same reason that the Galilean metaphor of Science reading the Book of Nature cannot be maintained—only humans have and use language, and Heidegger’s reversal (“language speaks man”) simply obscures the silence Baudrillard says haunts us about animals. Even here, however, Baudrillard’s sense that Reason, and hence experimentation, is simply out for the “admission of the principle of objectivity” (129) muddles just what else we are supposed to do. Baudrillard says, “What is essential is that nothing escape the empire of meaning, the sharing of meaning. Certainly, behind all that, nothing speaks to us, neither the mad, nor the dead, nor children, nor savages, and fundamentally we know nothing of them, but what is essential is that Reason save face, and that everything escape silence” (137). Baudrillard is attempting to cast Reason as a bad guy for putting words in unspeaking mouths, but it is unclear what speaking is once you get “behind” the “empire of meaning”—behind meaning is noise, and even those who speak for themselves take part in that empire, which means animals do not present humans with a peculiar problem, so much as the constant threat of the breakdown in communication always does.

The representation of animals has to remain a pragmatic event of trial-and-error, for there is no “essence” to anything that we do not put there. This antiessentialism comes out of a consideration of how language works in the Cartesian problematic because the only way to beat Cartesian solipsism is by attribution, by the extension of what you are aware of (as a self-aware res cogitans) to everything else by analogy. The cessation of doubt, rather than through the theoretical scaffolding Descartes hoped to erect from undoubted doubting, to God, to everything else, is rather a practical affair of testing extensions and seeing what works. When we come to the particular kinds of attributions humanity has made to animals, they are varied, but one pernicious one Midgley analyzes is the “Beast Within” (Midgley 2 35). Midgley suggests that this image was created to “solve the problem of evil” (39). Whereas in the Iliad, the formula for explaining misfortune seems to be “if you cannot blame the enemy, blame the gods” (41), the slow slide in belief in Gods' efficacious externality (including their internalization as thumos—will, drive, spirit) produced the need for a new scapegoat. And so we get Plato’s Simile of the Charioteer, with the partitioning of the soul into a good horse and a bad horse, and as Midgley says, “the feelings named in this connection are shame, ambition, the sense of honor, never, for instance, pity or affection, where the body might be held to make good suggestions to the soul. Plato’s map excludes such a possibility” (42).

This is the shift we see taking place in the Romantic era. The rise of the function of Imagination in the role of the mind’s relationship to reality is concurrently the rise of sympathy’s fortunes in the realm of morality, which we can see in Edmund Burke’s account of the mind’s faculties in the Philosophical Enquiry and most especially in the Scottish Enlighenment’s redistribution of the mind’s powers for morals, e.g., in Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. The dynamic begun by Homeric and Platonic similes is still best given by Bruno Snell in his still classic, if a bit battered, The Discovery of the Mind: “it is not quite correct to say that the rock is viewed anthropomorphically, unless we add that our understanding of the rock is anthropomorphic for the same reason that we are able to look at ourselves petromorphically…. In other words, and this is all-important in any explanation of the simile, man must listen to an echo of himself before he may hear or know himself" (201, italics mine).

In Burns’s and Barbauld’s poems about the mouse, this analogical attitude is on full display, though in different ways. What is interesting in this juxtaposition is that, as Perkins notes, Barbauld’s “mouse speaker is an intellectual” (Perkins 9), whereas Burns’s ploughman is “more personal, impulsive, and emotional” (10). This juxtaposition registers the fact that the ploughman, on the one hand, as a human is the intended audience for the sympathetic plea. So the reader, as a fellow human, identifies with the ploughman, who makes the plea because he shows imaginative sensitivity to the plight of the mouse (e.g., lines 19-24, when the “Nest” of the title is analogized to “Thy wee-bit housie”). On the other hand, the first move of imagination is already made in Barbauld’s poem when she makes the speaker’s voice the mouse’s. Instead of having to make the superior position (the ploughman) receptive to the work of sympathy, Barbauld’s taken the locus of weakness as the poem’s voice, and the mouse—following out Burke’s insight about size—makes itself quite a naturally sympathetic voice. To counter an over-balancing, in which the mouse becomes pathetic and therefore threatens to become an object of contempt, Barbauld rather makes the mouse a site of intellectual power. And in the course of the plea, Barbauld’s mouse argues for sympathy—unable to display the sympathetic ear (as with the ploughman), the mouse reasons that the “well taught philosophic mind” “feels for all that lives” (line 25, 28). The important move in Barbauld’s poem is “men, like mice” (line 46)—the center of gravity of the simile is the mouse. The conceit of the poem is the projection of the highest virtues of humanity (vaunted Reason and Philosophy) to mice, which are only then glancingly reflected back to humanity.


[1] I talk a little about Horkheimer and Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment in "Blake and the Dialectic of Englightenment," though not nearly extensively enough. Their pessimism is succinctly treated in Rorty's Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, 56-7. Bernard Yack diagnoses the underlying problem of both Horkheimer and Adorno and Heidegger as a totalizing concept of modernity in his The Fetishism of Modernities, Ch. 5. Yack's impressive little book presses home the thought on contemporary theory he excavated in The Longing for Total Revolution: that the troubling theoretical problems of both post-Marxist forms of thought (Frankfurt School critical theory to Birmingham School cultural studies) and post-Nietzschean forms (from Heidegger and Sartre to Foucault and Derrida) are one and the same--a totalizing concept of Society requiring a Herculean concept of autonomy.


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