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Posts Tagged ‘sociology’

01 APRIL, 2014

Why Look at Animals: John Berger on What Our Relationship with Our Fellow Beings Reveals About Us

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“[Animals] are the objects of our ever-extending knowledge.”

“Erasing the awe-inspiring variety of sentient life impoverishes all our lives,” Joanna Bourke wrote in her fascinating chronicle of our understanding of what it means to be human, an awareness inextricably entwined with a parallel understanding of the animal experience of our fellow sentient beings. Jon Mooallem put it even more poignantly in his beautiful and bittersweet meditation on the fate of wildlife today: “Maybe you have to believe in the value of everything to believe in the value of anything.” And yet how readily we, as a civilization and as individuals, stop believing in the value of that awe-inspiring variety of sentient life.

Hardly anyone has addressed this disquieting cultural tendency with more dimension than John Berger, best-known for his brilliant 1972 critique of consumer culture, Ways of Seeing. In his essay “Why Look at Animals?,” part of the altogether fantastic 1980 anthology About Looking (public library), Berger examines the evolution of our relationship with animals and how they went from muses for the very first human art, as cave men and women adorned their stone walls with drawings of animals painted with animal blood, to spiritual deities to captive entertainment.

Chauvet cave drawings from '100 Diagrams That Changed the World.' Click image for more.

He opens with a poetic reminder of how it all began:

To suppose that animals first entered the human imagination as meat or leather or horn is to project a 19th century attitude backwards across the millennia. Animals first entered the imagination as messengers and promises. For example, the domestication of cattle did not begin as a simple prospect of milk and meat. Cattle had magical functions, sometimes oracular, sometimes sacrificial. And the choice of a given species as magical, tameable and alimentary was originally determined by the habits, proximity and “invitation” of the animal in question.

But there was also something else that drew us closer to our fellow beings as they went from our bonfires to our backyards to our beds — some other kind of singular comfort they offered. As any devoted pet-parent (to use a term rather telling in itself) can attest, a big part of what makes those bonds so intimate is the unconditional affection pets provide, a lack of conditions largely premised on their inability to speak, to talk back, in our human language, coupled with their capacity to speak directly to the soul. Berger writes:

With their parallel lives, animals offer man a companionship which is different from any offered by human exchange. Different because it is a companionship offered to the loneliness of man as a species. Such an unspeaking companionship was felt to be so equal that often one finds the conviction that it was man who lacked the capacity to speak with animals — hence the stories and legends of exceptional beings, like Orpheus, who could talk with animals in their own language.

Illustration by Isabel Arsenault from 'Jane, the Fox and Me.' Click image for more.

Berger adds:

What were the secrets of the animal’s likeness with, and unlikeness from man? The secrets whose existence man recognized as soon as he intercepted an animal’s look.

In one sense the whole of anthropology, concerned with the passage from nature to culture, is an answer to that question.

Leo from Salvador Dalí's zodiac series, 1967. Click image for more.

The spiritual quality of that animal gaze, Berger reminds us, stretches much further back than the age of domestication — animals comprise eight of the twelve ancient signs of the zodiac, and the Greeks signified each of the twelve clock-hours of the day with an animal. But that representational capacity was also precisely what separated us from other animals:

What distinguished man from animals was the human capacity for symbolic thought, the capacity which was inseparable from the development of language in which words were not mere signals, but signifiers of something other than themselves. Yet the first symbols were animals. What distinguished men from animals was born of their relationship with them.

Berger cites Aristotle’s History of Animals, considered the first scientific work on the subject, in which the legendary philosopher anthropomorphizes animals by suggesting that they carry traces of our “human qualities and attitudes,” such as “fierceness, mildness or cross-temper, courage or timidity, fear or confidence, high spirits or low cunning, and, with regard to intelligence, something akin to sagacity.” That anthropomorphism, rooted in our systematic use of the animal as a metaphor, continued up until the 19th century. Berger laments:

In the last two centuries, animals have gradually disappeared. Today we live without them. And in this new solitude, anthropomorphism makes us doubly uneasy.

Art by Maira Kalman from 'The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs.' Click image for more.

Berger goes on to trace how animals went from caves to carts to cages. The Industrial Revolution gave us the internal combustion engine, which displaced draught animals from both streets and factories. But while this was undoubtedly an upgrade for both animal rights and human productivity, removing animals from our view was detrimental to our sense of shared everyday reality. Meanwhile, as urbanization and industrialization spread, the extinction of wildlife continued removing animals from that reality — more than that, it forcibly denied them the chance to share it with us and instead confined them to the artificial reality of the zoo. Berger draws an unsettling parallel:

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.

Alongside this cultural change emerged another significant shift — the rise of pets, which Virginia Woolf’s nephew argued were an extension of human fashion and vanity. Noting that at the time of his writing the United States was home to an estimated 40 million dogs, 40 million cats, 15 million cage birds and 10 million other pets, Berger contextualizes our compulsion for domestic animal companionship:

The practice of keeping animals regardless of their usefulness, the keeping, exactly, of pets (in the 16th century the word usually referred to a lamb raised by hand) 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.

[…]

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.

Cartoon by George Booth from 'The Big New Yorker Book of Cats.' Click image for more.

But beneath this spiritual role of pets in completing the human self lies a darker dynamic, one in which the notion of caretaking becomes an imbalance of power. Berger writes:

In the accompanying ideology, animals are always the observed. The fact that they can observe us has lost all significance. They are the objects of our ever-extending knowledge. What we know about them is an index of our power, and thus an index of what separates us from them. The more we know, the further away they are.

That dynamic was even more pronounced in the public zoo — a 19th-century innovation that came into existence as animals began to disappear from our daily lives. Emerging as an emblem of colonial power, where the capturing of animals became a trophy in the conquest of exotic lands, the zoo changed not only our relationship with animals, but also our very language. Berger cites the London Zoo Guide:

About 1867, a music hall artist called the Great Vance sang a song called Walking in the zoo is the OK thing to do, and the word ‘zoo’ came into everyday use. London Zoo also brought the word ‘Jumbo’ into the English language. Jumbo was an African elephant of mammoth size, who lived at the zoo between 1865 and 1882. Queen Victoria took an interest in him and eventually he ended his days as the star of the famous Barnum circus which travelled through America — his name living on to describe things of giant proportions.

Berger poignantly observes:

The zoo to which people go to meet animals, to observe them, to see them, is, in fact, a monument to the impossibility of such encounters. Modern zoos are an epitaph to a relationship which was as old as man.

Illustration from 'The Animal Fair' by Alice and Martin Provensen. Click image for more.

But perhaps the most bittersweet reflection on the changing role of animals in our lives comes from the domain of children — the same observation that sparked Jon Mooallem’s ode to wildlife as he watched his little girl play with stuffed animals the real versions of which would be extinct by the time she grew up. Berger writes:

Children in the industrialized world are surrounded by animal imagery: toys, cartoons, pictures, decorations of every sort. No other source of imagery can begin to compete with that of animals. The apparently spontaneous interest that children have in animals might lead one to suppose that this has always been the case. Certainly some of the earliest toys (when toys were unknown to the vast majority of the population) were animal. Equally, children’s games, all over the world, include real or pretended animals. Yet it was not until the 19th century that reproductions of animals became a regular part of the decor of middle class childhoods — and then, in this century, with the advent of vast display and selling systems like Disney’s — of all childhoods.

(Perhaps MoMA curator Juliet Kinchin put it best in her design history of childhood, where she observed that “children help us to mediate between the ideal and the real” — and nowhere is the disconnect between the two more dramatic than in children’s animal toys.)

Returning to the zoo, where animals have become isolated from each other and deprived of interaction between species, where they have come to rely helplessly on their keepers for survival, Berger draws yet another chilling parallel between the animal experience and human culture:

All sites of enforced marginalization — ghettos, shanty towns, prisons, madhouses, concentration camps — have something in common with zoos. But it is both too easy and too evasive to use the zoo as a symbol. The zoo is a demonstration of the relations between man and animals; nothing else. The marginalization of animals is today being followed by the marginalization and disposal of the only class who, throughout history, has remained familiar with animals and maintained the wisdom which accompanies that familiarity: the middle and small peasant. The basis of this wisdom is an acceptance of the dualism at the very origin of the relation between man and animal. The rejection of this dualism is probably an important factor in opening the way to modern totalitarianism.

Photograph by Sharon Montrose from her series 'Menagerie.' Click image for more.

The zoo, then, fulfills Joanna Bourke’s admonition and by marginalizing and impoverishing the lives of animals, it does the same to our own. Berger concludes:

The zoo cannot but disappoint. The public purpose of zoos is to offer visitors the opportunity of looking at animals. Yet nowhere in a zoo can a stranger encounter the look of an animal. At the most, the animal’s gaze flickers and passes on. They look sideways. They look blindly beyond. They scan mechanically. They have been immunized to encounter, because nothing can any more occupy a central place in their attention. Therein lies the ultimate consequence of their marginalization… This historic loss, to which zoos are a monument, is now irredeemable for the culture of capitalism.

About Looking is well worth a read in its entirety. Complement it with Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America, one of the best science books of 2013, then revisit these favorite books about animals.

Thanks, Raghava

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03 OCTOBER, 2013

The Psychology of Pets as an Extension of Human Fashion: Virginia Woolf’s Nephew on Why Dogs Came to Outshine Cats

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“Dogs are the fashion because we can fashion them to our will.”

Given my soft spot for dogs (and the occasional cat), I was intrigued by a passage from On Human Finery (public library) — that fascinating 1947 meditation on sartorial morality and conspicuous consumption by Quentin Bell, Virginia Woolf’s nephew and teenage collaborator — which contrasts the cultural roles of cats and dogs in human society. Bell, an acclaimed author and historian in his own right, and his aunt’s official biographer, presents an anthropological theory of why the dog has emerged as humanity’s pet of choice, “man’s best friend,” over all other domestic animals.

His assertion, served through the lens of the psychology of fashion, appears at first an offputting affront to animal consciousness, reducing our canine companions and their genius to mere objects. But Bell’s arguments actually reveal more about the complexity of being human, driven by an endless osmosis of generosity and solipsism, and speaks to our immutable impulse to will life’s chaos into order. He writes:

The comparison between the cat and the dog is highly instructive. The cat is the most polite of the domestic animals. Its life in the home is almost a kind of symbiosis. It is very clean in its habits; on the whole it pays its way and is frequently of more service than disservice to its owner.

The dog on the other hand has not shown the cat’s adaptation to the life of cities; he belongs to the kennel, but is seldom found there when used as an ornament.

A cat of questionable politeness, from the wonderful 'Lost Cat' by Caroline Paul and Wendy MacNaughton. Click image for more.

Bell quotes the legendary economist and sociologist Thomas Veblen, who asserted that the dog makes up for his unclean habits by having “a service attitude towards his master, and a readiness to inflict damage and discomfort on all else.” In fact, Bell argues, this attitude of servility is the very reason for the dog’s long history as fashionable decoration:

The enormous esteem in which dogs are held and their almost universal employment as ornaments is no doubt in a large measure due to this servile attitude; also perhaps they are psychological substitutes for children (a large section of the pet-loving public … consists of women in the higher income groups).

1967 New Yorker cover by Peter Arno from 'The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs.' Click image for more.

Bell, however, argues there are three main reasons that render dogs “modish above all other creatures”:

  1. Their connection with the futile pursuits of the chase
  2. Their sequacity which makes them in effect a part of the costume
  3. The extreme malleability of the species when subjected to selective breeding

A dog who has clearly not read Bell nor identifies as a mere ‘object’

Bell deems the third factor dogs’ greatest merit, indulging our urge to project ourselves onto the world and bend it to our will — an urge which lends itself to especial extremes when it comes to pets:

Dogs are the fashion because we can fashion them to our will. Dogs, much more than cats, can be made objects of conspicuous leisure; they can be rendered completely incapable of fending for themselves and made demonstrable objects of continual expense and care (whoever saw a cat wearing a little coat in the cold weather?) The highly-bred dog can have its whole frame twisted and distorted into shapes of the most astonishing kind. An uninstructed observer would suppose that the owners and vendors of these crippled and unhealthy animals must of necessity be exceedingly cruel. Such accusations would, however, be unjust; the torturers are genuinely devoted to their victims.

2010 New Yorker cover by Ana Juan from 'The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs.' Click image for more.

Bell concludes the chapter by circling back to the original lens through which he examines our attitudes towards pets — that of fashion’s morality, which he examined earlier in the book — and argues it is motive that exempts the extreme grooming of pets from the sort of moral condemnation with which we view animal testing and other experimental lab atrocities:

Fashion … has a morality of its own; and the cruelty involved in the deformation of unoffending animals, like that involved in blood sports, is redeemed by the economic futility of the motive; that involved in scientific experiments is felt to be odious because of its unpardonable utility.

Though long out-of-print, On Human Finery remains a treasure trove of timeless insight and is very much worth the used-book hunt or trip to the library. For a different cultural lens on the mesmerism of pets, pair this treat with The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs (one of the the best art books of 2012) and T. S. Eliot’s classic vintage verses about cats, illustrated by Edward Gorey.

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25 MARCH, 2013

Gay Talese’s Field Guide to the Social Order of New York’s Cats, Illustrated

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A rare and wonderful 1961 taxonomy of Gotham’s feline fraternity from the godfather of literary journalism.

Cats, not unlike dogs, seem to have claimed the role of literary muses, from Joyce’s children’s books to T. S. Eliot’s poetry to Hemingway’s heart, by way of various other bookish cameos. In 1961, 29-year-old Gay Talese penned New York: A Serendipiter’s Journey (public library) — an obscure out-of-print gem, in which the beloved icon of literary journalism paints an immersive, vibrant portrait of Gotham’s secret life, from its 8,485 telephone operators to its 5,000 prostitutes to its one chauffeur who has a chauffeur, and the entire bubbling cauldron of humanity in between.

Among the singular subcultures Talese explores is the city’s feline fraternity:

When street traffic dwindles and most people are sleeping, some New York neighborhoods begin to crawl with cats. They move quickly through the shadows of building; night watchmen, policemen, garbage collectors and other nocturnal wanderers see them — but never for very long. A majority of them hang around the fish markets, in Greenwich Village and in the East and West Side neighborhoods where garbage can abound. No part of the city is without its strays, however, and all-night garage attendants in such busy neighborhood as Fifty-fourth Street have counted as many as twenty of then around the Ziegfeld Theatre early in the morning. Troops of cats patrol the waterfront piers at night searching for rats. Subway trackwalkers have discovered cats living in the darkness. They seem never to get hit by trains, though some are occasionally liquidated by the third Rail. About twenty-five cats live 75 feet below the west end of Grand Central Terminal, are fed by the underground workers, and never wander up into the daylight.

The roving, independent, self-laundering cats of the streets live a life strangely different from New York’s kept, apartment-house cats.

[…]

Social climbing among the stray cats of Gotham is not common. They rarely acquire a better mailing address out of choice. They usually die within the blocks of their birth, although one flea-bitten specimen picked up by the ASPCA was adopted by a wealthy woman; it now lives in a luxurious East Side apartment and spends the summer at the lady’s estate on Long Island.

Photograph by Martin Lichtner, New York: A Serendipiter's Journey

Talese goes on to illuminate the hierarchy of the feline social order:

In every New York neighborhood the strays are dominated by a ‘boss’ — the largest, strongest tomcat. But, except for the boss, there is not much organization in the street’s cat society. Within the society, however, there are three ‘types’ of cats — wild cats, Bohemians, and part-time grocery store (or restaurant) cats.

The wild cats rely on an occasional loose garbage lid or on rats for food, wand will have little or nothing to do with people — even those who would feed them. These most unkept of strays have a recognizable haunted look, a wide-eyed, wild expression, and they usually are found around the waterfront.

The Bohemian, however, is more tractable. It does not run from people. Often, it is fed in the streets daily by sensitive cat-lovers (mostly women) who call the strays ‘little people,’ ‘angels,’ or ‘darlings,’ and are indignant when the objects of their charity are referred to as ‘alley cats.’ So punctual are most Bohemians at feeding time that one cat-lover has advanced the theory that cats can tell time. He cited a gray tabby that appears five days a week, precisely at 5:30 P.M., in an office building at Broadway and Seventeenth Street, where the elevator men feed it. But the cat never shows up on Saturday or Sundays; it seems to know people don’t work on those days.

The part-time grocery store (or restaurant) cat, often a reformed Bohemian, eats well and keeps rodents away, but it usually uses the store as a hotel and prefers to spend the nights prowling in the streets. Despite its liberal working schedule, it still assumes most of the privileges of a related breed — the full-time, or wholly nonstray, grocery store at — including the right to sleep in the window. A reformed Bohemian at a Bleecker Street delicatessen hides behind the door and chases away all other Bohemians looking for hangouts.

Having just finished an advance copy of the inimitable Wendy MacNaughton’s forthcoming Lost Cat: A True Story of Love, Desperation, and GPS Technology — a heartbreaking, heartwarming, hopelessly hilarious treasure of a tale, penned by writer extraordinaire Caroline Paul and tenderly illustrated by Wendy herself — I couldn’t resist asking Wendy, a frequent collaborator, to illustrate Talese’s feline archetypes. She kindly and brilliantly obliged:

UPDATE: Lost Cat is here!

But, of course, this being Talese, we soon realize cats are but a vehicle for driving home a larger point about New York changing landscape and the era’s tectonic cultural shifts:

The number of full-time cats, incidentally, has diminished greatly since the decline of the small food store and the rise of supermarkets in New York, With better rat-proofing methods, improved packaging of foods and more sanitary conditions, such chain stores as the A&P rarely keep a cat full-time.

Wedged between E. B. White’s indispensable 1949 classic Here Is New York and Jan Morris’s 1987 literary travelogue Manhattan 45, New York: A Serendipiter’s Journey is exquisite in its entirety. Its title, aptly so, is an allusion to the fairy tale The Three Princes of Serendip, who in their travels were constantly finding splendid and interesting things they didn’t expect or seek.

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