Friday, May 15, 2009

The Humanizing Effect of Animals or the Animalizing Effects of Humans?

It was an animal themed day. I watched Oprah for the first time in years and had the (un)fortunate experience of watching X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Oprah was focused on animals, not as simply cuddly and cute creatures but as companions both to humans and to other species. X-Men too was about animals and the struggle between species - human and mutant. In both of these texts, the relationships between human and "other" was rather apparent yet to some extent very different. Oprah's guests, human and animal, illustrated the important relationship between species with one guest noting the emotional reactions and realities of his best friend - a grizzley bear. Animals in this instance are not merely pets...but they are companions capable of interacting on an inter-species level. This is of course not new...humans and animals have been interacting for perhaps all of time, with the advent of domestication altering these relationships to some extent. Yet, what is "new" is perhaps the change from animals as pets to animals as companions. Donna Haraway, feminist philosopher, has most poignantly explored this in her recently published book When Species Meet.

But, my interest is not in re-iterating Haraway - I've but read pieces of this work - and her thoughts underlie this exploration. My interest is in thinking about these two texts and what they perhaps allow us or perhaps just me to think about. X-Men Origins: Wolverine made numerous references to the Logan needing to let out the "animal" (Wolverine) for it is the animal as constructed in the film, that is irrational, blood thristy, without a moral code. The animal in this was not a companion to the human, rather its enemy. The animal side is something that must be fought against and "tamed". This dehumanizing of Logan to become a "killing machine" (animal) is not only seen in films though...but in "real" life whereby prisoners or criminals are called "animals" after they have committed heinous crimes. This of course makes "sense" as framing criminals as "animals" allows for them to be dehumanized - it allows for these humans to become un-human for what they have done and as such be ungreivable...placed in a cell, violated by the state apparatus, and in some instances put to death.

To the second text...Oprah, with the help of Glenn Close, showed a new program called puppies behind bars where inmates train service dogs for returning veterans suffering from traumatic brain injury. The inmates discussed how the puppies allowed them to love again, to experience love again since many of their lives were not filled with love, but rather violence. In this curious coupling of dogs (literal animals) with criminals (figural animals), both species found companions - companions that cared for and loved one another in the ways they knew possible. The animal and human merged whereby both species were transformed by one another and transformed one another...

One might argue at first look that the dogs humanized the inmates but that would make the animals "human" or capable of bringing out the "human" in "animals" or the "non-human"...This makes the line between what is human and what is animal rather blurred for while we might "humanize" animals (both literally through "domestication" and figuratively in literature/fairy tales) they simultaneously "humanize" us (i.e. make us "feel" seemingly "human" things). But "humanize" seems problematic since it is a one-way road to "becoming" human and I do not want to make animals human for doing so would deny their difference - creating sameness and would be rather "human-centric". It also would maintain the privlege of the "human" whereby the "animal" is always the Other, the instinctual, non-human other which allows for "us" to violate animals through abuse (i.e. dog fighting) or entertainment (i.e. circuses). What then is an alternative? Can we get out of humanism? When we critically analyze the relationships humans have with other species seeing them not as simply relationships of domination, but of companionship, do we find a path to create space where the human becomes unstable, unable to define itself against the animal AND the animal becomes unstable, unable to be used to define the human? Does this challenge how we engage the issue of when animals attack humans which often positions the animal as something dispensible, a risk to the human...when it is inevitably the human that is a risk for animals? This is of course tricky...navigating the terrain of interspecies meeting as companions would ask us to challenge our fundamental assumptions about being human, being animal, being humane...

I am not sure how to go about such navigation...


WillTrumanEsq said...

Ad-am !
The whole point of seeing X-men Origins : Wolverine, wasn't to analyze its symbols, it was to see Hugh Jackman get partially naked and he did, didn't he ? A nice shot his muscular butt and full frontal for a couple of seconds as he descended the waterfall.

So stop complaining amigo !

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Anonymous said...

Your thoughts are great! I don't believe there is an exact answer to these questions, but the fact that you care enough to question and to entertain these ideas is more than most humans do.

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