Why Look at Animals: John Berger on What Our Relationship with Our Fellow Beings Reveals About Us
“[Animals] are the objects of our ever-extending knowledge.”
By Maria Popova
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Published April 1, 2014