Home > Human/Animal seminar, Montaigne M., Nietzsche F., Philosophy > Skepticism at the margins V: On the possibility of pure zoomorphism

Skepticism at the margins V: On the possibility of pure zoomorphism

[My human/animal seminar met for the final time today. These thoughts were occa­sioned by a discussion therein. I will miss it dearly.]

John Cage apparently related the following story about Morton Feldman. Reflecting on the phrase “free as a bird”, he went to a park to observe them. Upon returning, he remarked, “You know? They’re not free: they’re fighting over bits of food.” (The story may be found, I am told, in his Silence: Lectures and Writings.) I wish to understand this as a zoomorphic experience.

I obtained this concept—which I am now perverting—in a discussion in my human/animal seminar. One student distinguished anthropomorphism—placing human characteristics onto animals—from zoomorphism—using animals to learn about humans. I was perplexed; I found it difficult to see how we could use animals to learn about humans without anthropomorphizing. The context of the discussion was the use of animals—actual animal bodies and representations of animals alike—in art, so I ran through works of art I find particularly successful at using animals to teach me something about what it is to be human. In every case, I found human interests guiding the treatment of animals. Animals were viewed not as they are, but as they are for humans. And so, I expect, is how it must be. What we wish to learn about ourselves from animals, we first place upon them. Then we extract them back out, perhaps with remarkable artistry and great insight, but this still does not amount to a pure zoomorphism.

Is zoomorphism that does not collapse into anthropomorphism possible? I think it is, in the form of a skepticism that creeps in at the margins. What I am envisioning is a visceral, direct experience of animals that brings us to the realization of just how distorting our anthropomorphisms are, how much we humanize animal life in order to learn from it. In such an experience, we are forced to confront the fact that animal lives do not exist for us, that what they are for animals is no doubt wholly distinct from what they are for us, and that we have very limited access to what animal lives are for animals.

Joyce’s conception of epiphanies might serve as a model for such an experience. I conceive of it as transformative. We have a dominant mode of relating to the world, one in which we treat of animals insofar as they are useful to us, whether materially or conceptually. These experiences crystallize a skepticism about this dominant mode. They compose, as it were, a minor strain moving below the surface, occasionally rising into view. They make us realize—and force us to reflect upon—the differences between animal life for animals and animal life for humans. They bring us to see our everyday anthropomorphism as something truly imposed upon animals.

Cage’s story about Feldman is an example of such thinking. Birds as a model of freedom is a well-worn trope, one that is inherited and taken for granted, more or less unquestioned. Yet Feldman took it upon himself to investigate directly, and found it lacking. Birds fighting over food are not free. Certainly they are not concerned with serving as an inspiration for humans. They are concerned about getting food, though this still gives us little insight into what it is to be a bird fighting for food. This is a zoomorphic experience.

I think there is an even better example of zoomorphic experience: that of Montaigne, playing with his cat. At some point, playing with his cat, Montaigne realizes that he is treating the cat as a partner in his play, as something with whom Montaigne is playing. But then he asks: “When I play with my cat, who knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me?” (This may be found in his “Apology for Raymond Sebond”, the longest by far of his Essays.) This amounts to a realization, not at an abstract level but quite concretely, that he has taken for granted his cat as a thing for him to play with, and that he is equally as much something for his cat—though what this something is, neither he nor anyone else can say. The only individual capable of saying is the cat itself, and it cannot speak. The experience Montaigne records is the purest instance of zoomorphism I have encountered.

I have praised experience over thought. Why is this? It comes down to my expectation that a genuine zoomorphism will be transformative, will change, for however brief a time, the way one relates to animals. And, in brief, I distrust the ability of pure thought to effect such a transformation. I call Nietzsche to my aid. In Daybreak §30, he makes an insightful comment about the inheritance of customs: “In its ultimate foundation – in this case that means: in its first generation. For when the habit of some distinguishing action is inherited, the thought that lies behind it is not inherited with it.” [Cambridge edition.] It is easy to inherit a sort of zoomorphism as a habit of thought, a custom one follows as it were thoughtlessly, without connection to direct experience. In praising zoomorphic experience over zoomorphic thought, I am praising zoomorphic thought in its first generation, and not as mere habit.

I lack faith in thought. Speaking for myself only, though I am sure I am not alone, thought without a direct connection to experience, to its instances of application, is effete. It spins frictionlessly, making no contact with action or the world. Or, as Nietzsche puts it in another place, “The most confident knowledge or faith cannot provide the strength or the ability needed for a deed, it cannot replace the employment of that subtle, many-faceted mechanism which must first be set in motion if anything at all of an idea is to translate itself into action.” (Daybreak §22) By contrast, I expect experiences of the sort I have countenanced to possess that power.

With such experience, an old thought becomes original. I do not believe in progress for the simple reason that I must go over the same ground as those before me, must grapple with the same enduring problems. I cannot much trust my inheritance until I have made it my own through experience. Zoomorphism as thought is nothing new, and it is easy to think. But to really experience it is to accomplish something new and original, in the only sense of originality one can countenance in a world where the sun shines each day on the nothing new (my gratitude to Samuel Beckett). What is so remarkable about Montaigne’s essays in general is the manner in which he applies his experiences in order to work on himself. He is not merely thinking, he is going over the ground of thought with the aid of his individual set of experiences. Because of that, he achieves, at least once, a pure zoomorphism.

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