Monday, April 04, 2005

The Laugh of the Animal

To follow up on this ongoing question of the animal, today's bloggence points out two recent scientific findings: animals joke around and they use language.

1. In the history of western thought, it has been our Language and more specifically our Logos that essentially distinguishes us from the animals. Derrida deconstructs this tradition, namely through his critique of Heidegger's argument that animals do not have a language and thus lack an awareness of death. Again, as in the question of the animal for the past two blogs (see archives to your right), this appeal to some essential foundation for humanism has been kicked out from under us. We still acknowledge a shifting set of differences among animals, but such differences are no longer so absolute -- much less grounds for a binary opposition that upholds the traditional hierarchy of Man over Animal. Instead we wind up with complex polythetic sets of overlapping similarities and differences, some of which contradict our superiority complex: as we suggested in the case of shame about feeling shame under the gaze of the animal.

Some of you my dear readers are still having trouble getting a sense of what that might mean. Just feel lucky that you aren't in some godforsaken monastery under my tutelage, because it would now be Zen Master time, unsparingly cruel with the rod time -- the old smack with the stick and get back to meditation and quit wasting your time response. This is not allowed by the current technology of blogging, so consider yourself unfortunate because the legends of enlightenment say that this sudden smack upside your head is sometimes indeed a rude awakening, but far better than never awakening.

Just kidding. Even humans are said to have a sense of humor, sometimes. And now so are animals. To get a better sense, or a smack-free sense, of the background assumptions about animals today, here are two popular science reports.

1. The laugh of the animal. Several different studies "suggest monkeys, dogs and even rats love a good laugh. People, meanwhile, have been laughing since before they could talk.
"Indeed, neural circuits for laughter exist in very ancient regions of the brain, and ancestral forms of play and laughter existed in other animals eons before we humans came along." This is one of the complex of meanings when Derrida, e.g., writes that he is "following" the animal. To read more about such studies of animal laughter, see:
Now, hasn't it ever occured to you that animals laugh at you? This is a singular instance of what Derrida means here by "response" being a larger concept than "conversation."

2. Prairie dogs' language includes a term for "humans". Prairie dogs not only laugh, but they have a word for you. Since we usually kill them as pests, I doubt that they laugh very often at us, but maybe on special occasions. The reality of animal languages has slowly been gaining recognition. What do we mean when we say "language"?

"Linguists have set five criteria that must be met for something to qualify as language:

  • It must contain words with abstract meanings
  • possess syntax in which the order of words is part of their meaning
  • have the ability to coin new words
  • be composed of smaller elements
  • use words separated in space and time from what they represent."

The scientist said: "I've been chipping away at all of these." Apparently many animals have systematic communication that includes some of these features, again in shifting polythetic sets. But prairie dogs have a word for you. And that's with the language of little prairie dogs, not to mention the language of dolphins who compared with humans have larger brains with a more convoluted neocortex (the higher brain functions) and a signal range, or medium of communication, that is several times greater than our own, potentially. Plus it is eerie that they have permanent smiles -- perhaps because they get to cruise around all day singing songs and sending X-ray pictures to each other.

See more about this report at:

The gaze of the animal who gazes at you now includes aspects of language and humor.


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