Saturday, April 02, 2005

Question of the Animal

Aperiodic poetry bloggence time, on the question of the animal, in which we ruminate on Mark Twain, Rilke, Derrida, the shame of humanism, and the gaze of the animal. Our task is to explore the other side of post-humanism -- not the promethean side of genetic engineering, cyborgs, and artificial intelligence wherein we move closer to the gods; but rather the other side on which we discover new epiphanies of our inhuman nature, and beyond that our human-animality or animal-humanity.

Part 1
In the beginning, so says the 1st page of the Bible, we were without shame and we lollygagged around just as naked as the rest of the animals. Actually we weren't even "naked" in the sense that the animals are not really naked -- that is to say more properly, they aren't nudes. But as the myth of Genesis says, at the beginning of our fall into shame, and knowledge, and labor, and mortality, and strife, and all the rest of our fate somewhere east of Eden, there occured at that moment the significant novelty of a sudden need to cover our shame. Humanity is cotemporaneous with Clothing. We are the only animal that gets dressed in the morning. You can quote me on that.

Or if you don't want to quote me, you can quote Mark Twain, who is always more witty: "Man is the only animal that blushes -- or needs to."

One of several related questions of the animal, therefore, is whether or not this distinction between humanity and other creatures is sufficient ground to set up humans above animals. Or is it a matter of something like general craziness, something for which psychoanalysis attempted to find a cure? Now we are ready to go down deeper into the madness. Please follow me, like Alice through the looking-glass that mirrors our self-regard, down to meet the gaze of the vanishing Cat who will announce that "We're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad." All that remains of that cat is the gaze, our own mirror stage in which we reflect upon the error of identity, or the illusion of our separateness.

Part 2
I learned something about this from reading Derrida. In his final few years, Derrida said he was "turning green" -- which in English has a few idiomatic meanings that he didn't intend. No, Derrida was neither nauseous nor jealous, as far as I know. That would be Sartre, a different French intellectual. The green in Derrida's statement is the same green as in "the green fields" or in The Green Party as in environmentalists. His late work was about the human / animal binary opposition, and of course if you've heard anything at all about Derrida, you know that such polar opposites are what he got out of bed in the morning in order to deconstruct -- presumably right after he got dressed. Deconstruction teases out the mad contradictions of our neat categories, so as to show how the hierarchy in place can be rethought as a mere difference, and moreover as a difference that keeps shifting and moving depending upon which terms we use to think about it. Derrida raised the "question of the animal" -- where that "of" generates two meanings by reversing the object and subject. Derrida talked at length about the animal's question for us, and about how the gaze of the animal, a gaze which we today increasingly recognize, in which we are ashamed to be caught especially when we are naked, raises the question of how and why we set ourselves above mere animality and yet feel shame about that. To make matters worse, we postmods today even feel "shame about feeling shame" when caught in the gaze of the animal. We begin to suspect that animals are people too; and vice-versa, that people are animals after all.

Derrida's essay is very long, very dense, very funny, and very serious. In short, we can't do all of that here. To follow all of that, we'd first need to read Heidegger, Lacan, Levinas, and Lewis Carroll, after which we'd all be about as old as Derrida was when he died of old age. Recall that death and aging is what also arrived at the very moment of our fall into the human condition. We don't have world enough and Time. But I will suggest that you take a bit seriously this momento mori: Death is a keyword of Derrida's essay, except that this knowledge of death also fails to distinguish us from the animals, if by "distinguish" we imply distinguished, as in dignified. If anything, death makes us undignified, since exactly like our shame, our knowledge of death drives us into unholy forms of escapist madness. Again, the animals come away looking rather blamelessly shameless in this regard too.

In short, Derrida deconstructs the binary opposition between the human essence and the animal essence. This common illusion is dis-solved in his own unblinking gaze. He will still see a difference, albeit fleeting and provisional and inextricable from an array of related differences that sometimes pertain and sometimes do not. But it is not an essential difference, or a constitutive difference on which we might lay the foundation of Humanism in the old way. The traditional framework of ideas that propped up the Human over the Animal is kicked out from under you. Well, it is if you can spot the madness inherent in that framework. Derrida's posthumanism is one that overlaps with animality, a curious self-reflexive animal that can reveal itself as naked and say "Behold the Animal, I say! (with words)." Derrida writes, "ecce animot" as a dense pun plus a coinage and a homonym thrown in too -- about which I'll explain later. Much later and not here.

Tune in, turn on, and drop by tomorrow for a bigger cat in Part 3: Panther, Panther Burning Bright / In the Cage of Human Right when we will discover that the madness continues . . . .


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