What distinguished man from animals was the human capacity for symbolic thought, the capacity which was inseperable from the development of langauge in which words were not mere signals, but signifiers of something other than themselves. Yet the first symbols were animals. What distinguishes men from animals was born of their relationship with them.
The Iliad is one of the earliest texts available to us, and in it the use of metaphor still reveals the proximity of man and animal, the proximity from which metaphor itself arose...
This seems an important point, regarding the proximity of metaphor with the animal at its birth. There also seems a danger inherent to any too-quick recourse to origins, whether etymologic or anthropologic (or some combination thereof). A danger, naturally, of naturalizing away or foreclosing prematurely on the future, and which extends beyond the mere hubris of anthropomorphism. But is it hubris merely? Perhaps our love/hate relationship with anthropomorphism is itself a kind of naturalizing shield, once again endlessly thematizing something we would rather not look at too closely. Berger notes:
Anthropomorphism was the residue of the continuous use of animal metaphor. In the last two centuries, animals have gradually disappeared. Today we live with them. And in this new solitude, anthropomorphism makes us doubly uneasy.
Are we uneasy precisely because to be reminded of our differences (such as through exaggerated projections of sameness–the gambling farm animals at the table) is also in a sense to conjure this originary proximity, and vice versa? The fact remains that there is no pure division, despite what Descartes maybe wished to believe, and despite the numerous ways in which the world of culture and commerce still reflects to some degree a Cartesian worldview, albeit one now largely metastasized and soulless.
The decisive theoretical break came with Descartes. Descartes internalised, within man, the dualism implicit in the human relation to animals. In dividing absolutely body from soul, he bequeathed the body to the laws of physics and mechanics, and, since animals were soulless, the animal was reduced to the model of a machine.
The consequences of Descartes's break followed only slowly. A century later, the great zoologist Buffon [sic], although accepting and using the model of the machine in order to classify animals and their capacities, nevertheless displays a tenderness towards animals which temporarily reinstates them as companions. This tenderness is half envious.
What man has to do in order to transcend the animal, to transcend the mechanical within himself, and what his unique spirituality leads to, is often anguish. And so, by comparison and despite the model of the machine, the animal seems to him to enjoy a kind of innocence. The animal has been emptied of experience and secrets, and this new invented "innocence" begins to provoke in man a kind of nostalgia. For the first time, animals are placed in a receding past.
So far so good. The roots of our projection are laid bare; having diagnosed ourselves as part machines, we look back to "the animal" for a kind of redemption, somewhat jealous and bitter. Perhaps we would even like to punish the animal not a little bit, for our sins. Hence the anthropological machine, in which we inadvertently trap ourselves, and misread both the human and the animal most miserably.
However Berger then claims that "eventually, Descartes's model was surpassed:"
In the first stages of the industrial revolution, animals were used as machines. As also were children. [Well, perhaps they had no "human rights" as such, but were they really thought of as machines pure and simple?] Later, in the so-called post-industrial societies, they are treated as raw material. Animals required for food are processed like manufactured commodities....
This reduction of the animal, which has a theoretical as well as economic history, is part of the same process as that by which men have been reduced to isolated productive and consuming units. Indeed, during this period an approach to animals often prefigured an approach to man. The mechanical view of the animal's work capacity was later applied to that of workers. F.W. Taylor who developed "Taylorish" of time-motion studies and "scientific" management of industry proposed that work must be "so stupid" and so phlegmatic that he (the worker) "more nearly resembles in his mental make-up the ok than any other type." Nearly all modern techniques of social conditioning were first established with animal experiments...Today behaviourists like Skinner imprison the very concept of man within the limits of what they conclude from their artificial tests with animals. [Again, my emphasis]
So if the Cartesian model has been "surpassed," it is perhaps only inasmuch as its immediate material consequences have thrived and spread, to stain the whole terrain; the menace of the mechanical analogy has not failed to extend itself to humans, and in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways it is now the content of our experiences and secrets, in addition to our very bodies, that is increasingly under threat. Biopolitics, as they say.
And how do we––"we" the petty bourgeois poised to inheret the earth––cope with this situation? Well, we "complete" our identities with pets:
In the past, families of all classes kept domestic animals because they served a useful purpose...The practice of keeping animals regardless of their usefulness...[as] pets...is a modern innovation, and, on the social scale on which it exists today, is unique. It is part of that universal but personal withdrawal into the private small family unit, decorated or furnished with mementoes from the outside world, which is such a distinguishing feature of consumer societies.
The small family living unit lacks space, earth, other animals, seasons, natural temperatures, and so on. The pet is either sterilised or sexually isolated, extremely limited in its exercise, deprived of almost all other animal contact, and fed with artificial foods. This is the material process which lies behind the truism that pets come to resemble their masters or mistresses. They are creatures of their owner's way of life.
Equally important is the way the average owner regards his pet. (Children are, briefly, somewhat different.) The pet completes him, offering responses to aspects of his character which would otherwise remain unconfirmed. He can be to his pet what he is not to anybody or anything else. Furthermore, the pet can be conditioned to react as though it, too, recognizes this. THe pet offers its owner a mirror to a part that is otherwise never reflected. But, since in this relationship the autonomy of both parties has been lost (the owner has become the-special-man-he-is-only-to-his-pet, and the animal has become dependent on its owner for every physical need), the parallelism of their separate lives has been destroyed. (About Looking)
Berger has been blowing a little hard here and he backs off for a minute to resume contact with the original subject, namely: language:
The cultural marginalisation of animals is, of course, a more complex process than their physical marginalisation. The animals of the mind cannot be so easily dispersed. Sayings, dreams, games, stories, superstitions, the language itself, recall them. The animals of the mind, instead of being dispersed, have been co-opted into other categories so that the category animal has lost its central importance. Mostly they have been co-opted into the family and into the spectacle...
The animals transformed into spectacle have disappeared in another way. In the windows of bookshops at Christmas, a third of the volumes on display are animal picture books. Baby owls or giraffes, the camera fixes them in a domain which, although entirely visible to the camera, will never be entered by the spectator. All animals appear like fish seen through the plate glass of an aquarium.
Berger goes on to describe how this spectacle is both technical and ideological. Technical, because the quick camera shutter captures the animal in a frozen moment otherwise inaccessible, or "invisible" to us. Ideological because it is always the animals that are observed: "The fact that they can observe us has lost all significance." (Indeed, anyone who's spent any real time with a dog or a cat knows what sensitive observers they are.)
The absinthian irony is that we are also subjects to this spectacle, perhaps even inescapably so. Our language is the very act of domestification. To even say, "I speak" is madness, to domesticate. We are fish behind the glass, in collective cages of our own forgetting. In dutifully confusing the spectacle for reality, partly because of its economic and social power, and partly for its illusion of archival permanence, we resign ourselves to performing the role of 'fish,' something which is not, in the end, at all true to the fishly. Animals nevertheless represent a chance for humanity, and not only to re-think the position of this glass but also in our relations. But if and only if the horizon of both these concepts, 'animal' and 'human' is understood to lie outside of their ceaseless and circular Disneyfication. That the non-human is not simply the animal, nor vice versa. That the concept of "human rights" might very well one day extend to animals as well. Most of all, that it is not the "emptying" of experience and secrets that makes for "innocence" but rather their very existence, that which gives "innocence" any meaning at all. (Without secrets, there can be no innocence as such; the word itself would cease to signify.)
I confess that this entire post (and congratulations if you've endured this far) has been the working up to a loose question about Agamben. Specifically, whether he retains a certain proto-Catholic or latently Cartesian disposition. Here is the passage in question, one, I dare say, where he is once again wishing to side with a certain Blanchot and against a certain Derrida. (Why hasn't anybody written about these tensions explicitly yet? Derrida's final texts remain so full of discreet points of difference, and pleas to so many thinkers––my guess is that most of them won't even be noticed much less commented on for years. Though of course that is precisely what Agamben is doing here, (on page 92), and in likewise discreet manner, in which case it is worth noting that Derrida responds back again in Acts of Religion and elsewhere, but then again these are only the antics of philistine theorists so you needn't worry about it all that much). Agamben:
Insofar as the animal knows neither beings nor nonbeings, neither open nore closed, it is outside of being; it is outside in an exteriority more external than any open, and inside in an intimacy more internal than any closedness. To let the animal be would then mean: to let it be outside of being. The zone of nonknowledge–or of a-knowledge–that is at issue here is beyond both knowing and not knowing, beyond both disconcealing and concealing, beyond both being and the nothing. But what is thus left to be outside of being is not thereby negated or taken away; it is not, for this reason, inexistent. It is an existing, real thing that has gone beyond the difference between being and beings.
However, it is not here a question of trying to trace the no longer human or animal contours of a new creation that would run the risk of being equally as mythological as the other. As we have seen, in our culture man has always been the result of a simultaneous division and articulation of the animal and the human, in which one of the two terms of the operation was also what was at stake in it. To render inoperative the machine that governs our conception of man will therefore mean no longer to seek new–more effective or more authentic–articulations, but rather to show the central emptiness, the hiatus that–within man–separates man and animal, and to risk ourselves in this emptiness: the suspension of the suspension, Shabbat of both animal and man.
And if one day, according to a now-classic image, the "face in the sand" that the sciences of man have formed on the shore of our history should finally be erased, what will appear in its place will not be a new mandylion or "Veronica" of a regained humanity or animality. The righteous with animal heads in the miniature in the Ambrosian do no represent a new declension of the man-animal relation so much as a figure of "great ignorance" which lets both of them be outside of being, saved precisely in their being unsavable. Perhaps there is still a way in which living beings can sit at the messianic banquet of the righteous without taking on a historical task and without setting the anthropological machine into action. Once again, the solution of the mysterium coniunctionis by which the human has been produced passes through an unprecedented inquiry into the practico-political mystery of separation. (The Open, Trans. Keven Attell, 2004)
(For more comments on this post see LS)