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The Book That Made Me: An Animal | Public Books
"The Lives of Animals was the first book I read in college—or at least the first book I read in a strange, amazing seminar that rewired my brain in the first semester of freshman year. The course was about animals, and I signed up for it probably because it was a course my dad, who had been advising me on all things college, would have taken himself. He kept animal effigies all over the apartment: portraits of a donkey and a marmot in the bathroom; a giant poster of “The External Structure of Cock and Chicken” in the living room; dog figures of many breeds; pigs, his favorite, in all shapes and sizes, in every single nook and cranny. In the dining room he had a huge pig sculpture made of leather, which in retrospect was a strange and morbid combination: one animal skinned to make an image of another. Our cocker spaniel had chewed its face beyond recognition by the time my mom got around to throwing it out.

My dad passed away in 2016, two years after they got divorced, and I faced the monumental task of disposing of his menagerie. I kept many things, of course, but couldn’t keep them all. It was so easy to throw out or donate clothes, housewares, furniture, even books. I didn’t know what to do with the creatures, who seemed to contain his spirit more than anything else. I laughed when I found a key chain in a random drawer: a little brass effigy of one pig mounting another. That was his humor. That was his mind, his way of seeing, his culture—which was based, like all cultures, in certain ideas about nature. Frankly, he was a difficult man to know even when he was alive. The animals offered me a way in, as they probably did for him.

Anyway, he was the one who saw the listing for a course named “Zooësis” and thought I might like it. And I really did, from the moment our indefatigably brilliant professor, Una Chaudhuri, asked us to read J. M. Coetzee’s weird, hybrid book. The Lives of Animals is a novella, but Coetzee delivered it as a two-part Tanner Lecture at Princeton in 1997, and it centers, in turn, on two lectures delivered by its aging novelist protagonist, Elizabeth Costello. During her visit to an obscure liberal arts college, she speaks hard-to-swallow truths about the cruelties we visit upon animals, making a controversial analogy between industrialized farming and the Third Reich. But the content of her lectures is almost less important than the reactions they generate and the personal consequences she incurs, which Coetzee shows us by nesting the lectures within a fictional frame. People get incensed; the academic establishment rebukes her argument, her way of arguing, everything she represents. Even her family relationships buckle under the weight of a worldview that seems to reject reason.

Her first lecture is about the poverty of philosophy, both as a basis for animal ethics and as a medium for thinking one’s way into the mind of another kind of creature. But her second lecture is about the potential of poetry, and it’s captivating in its optimism about the ability of human language to imagine radically nonhuman forms of sensory experience—or, perhaps more radically, forms of sensory experience we share with other species.

As a person who has worked within the field commonly known as animal studies but has never worked with real animals (unlike so many great boundary-crossing thinkers: the late poet-philosopher-veterinarian Vicki Hearne, the philosopher-ethologist Vinciane Despret, et al.), I often find myself bummed out by the inadequacy of representation: Specifically, what good are animals in books? Are they not inevitably vessels of human meaning? In Flush, her novel about the inner life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel, Virginia Woolf has another way of putting the problem: “Do words say everything? Can words say anything? Do not words destroy the symbol that lies beyond the reach of words?” To which I would add: Do they not destroy, or at least ignore, the creature beyond the symbol as well?

Coetzee has a different view. Or Costello, at least, has some different ideas about what poetry can do. She celebrates poems like Ted Hughes’s “The Jaguar” and Rainer Maria Rilke’s “The Panther”—“poetry that does not try to find an idea in the animal, that is not about the animal, but is instead the record of an engagement with him.” She finds value in poems that try to capture the fluid complexity of a moment of contact across species, rather than try to preserve an imagined essence of the animal in amber. She also defends the human imagination as something more powerful than we give it credit for. My favorite line from the book is her response to Thomas Nagel’s famous essay “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” Nagel insists that it’s impossible for a human to know the answer to his titular question. Costello rebuts: “If we are capable of thinking our own death, why on earth should we not be capable of thinking our way into the life of a bat?” I think it takes an effort of heart, more than mind, to follow her train of thought.

The novella reflects her resistance to the imperious voice of human reason—and her embrace of the messiness of the subjective imagination—on many levels. She’s uneasy at the bully pulpit, as was Coetzee himself. For the longest time I thought that the narrator was omniscient—an impersonal God figure aligned with Coetzee’s own position at that Princeton lectern. But then I read the novella again, preparing to teach it in a lit class where we were also reading Jane Austen. I realized that the narrator filters everything through the perspective of John Bernard, Costello’s son, who has a strange tendency to obsess over his mother’s body (paging Dr. Freud: “Her shoulders stoop; her flesh has grown flabby”) and profoundly ambivalent feelings about her. He is torn between sympathy and repulsion, connection and alienation. He is torn, also, between her perspective, which persuades him to an extent, and the perspective of his wife, Norma, a philosophy professor who loathes her and has no patience for her anti-rationalist message.

The question this novella raises is always that of its own construction: Why is it a novella in the first place? What does Coetzee communicate through fiction that he couldn’t have communicated through a polemic? I think the technique of focalization, which grounds everything in John’s perspective, shows us exactly what an abstract polemic about animals couldn’t: the impossibility of speaking from a position outside our embodiment, our emotions, our primordial and instinctual feelings toward kin. In other words, the impossibility of speaking about animals as though we were not animals ourselves.

Every time I read the book—definitely every time I teach it—the potentialities of its form grow in number. I find new rooms in the house of fiction that reveal how grand a mansion it is. I display it proudly, in the center of a bookshelf lined with animal books like Marian Engel’s Bear, Woolf’s Flush, J. R. Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip, Kafka’s stories, and John Berger’s Pig Earth. The shelf is my own version of my father’s menagerie, brimming with all manner of complex and contradictory creatures. All of them are representations, but that doesn’t make them feel any less real, or any less alive.

I regard my father with some of the ambivalence that John, the son in Coetzee’s story, feels toward his own mother and her thoughts on animals. But I encounter the creatures he left behind with warmth, solidarity, and hope."
via:timoslimo  jmcoetzee  multispecies  morethanhuman  senses  writing  howwewrite  language  whywewrite  fiction  animals  bodies  unachaudhuri  philosophy  elizabethbarrettbrowning  virginiawoolf  vincianedespret  animalrights  vickihearne  rainermariarilke  tedhughes  narration  thomasnagel  imagination  messiness  janeausten  perspective  novellas  kafka  johnberger  marianengel  jrackerley  hope  solidarity  communication  embodiment  emotions  persuasion  mattmargini  canon  books  reading  howweread  teaching  howweteach  farming  livestock  sensory  multisensory  animalstudies  poetry  poems  complexity  grief  literature  families  2019 
6 weeks ago by robertogreco
Into the Beast – Versions
"“I couldn’t care less about empathy,” said Natalie Jeremijenko. “I don’t see VR as a prosthetic for empathy. I refuse that. I think it’s bullshit.”

Few people have been working at the intersections between art, technology, and animals for as long as Jeremijenko, whose eccentric, restlessly interdisciplinary energy has produced an impressive array of bizarre projects. In 2009, she set up an installation along the East River in which participants could send a text message to a fish and receive a response recording its overall health and wellbeing; at Socrates Sculpture Park in Queens, a place where many of her ideas have been realized, she built a “Salamander Superhighway” across the road that would tweet whenever salamanders migrated through it, since salamanders, in her view, represent a better potential source of ethical meat than Google’s artificial burger; more recently, she enlisted kids from New York’s PS 153 to use “Feral Robot Dogs”—some of them disturbingly repurposed AIBOs—to sniff out soil contaminants in their local community.

In 2004, Jeremijenko was already thinking about what VR could do to connect humans and animals. But she wasn’t thinking about empathy, which she views as an “atomizing, individuating phenomenon” that should never be instrumentalized. Instead, she asked a counterintuitive question: what might VR be able to do to improve the material lives of animals themselves?

Inspired by the canard digérateur—or “digesting duck”—invented by Jacques de Vaucanson in 1739, Jeremijenko created a fleet of duck and geese robots that could be operated by people wearing VR goggles (with beaks attached). After enlisting local kids from an LA public school, she encouraged them to drive their ersatz waterfowls directly into contact with real-life counterparts. The real ducks and geese never mistook the robots for other real ducks and geese. But the drivers could engage in rudimentary communication with them, learning quickly that a straight neck would be interpreted as aggressive behavior, a craned neck “would allow for a closer approach.” And they would see their interactions firsthand.

“I didn’t build a 3D environment, because we were in one,” she said. “I was actually using a physical avatar in physical space. But it constituted a critique of what it is we do with VR: whether it should be this closed world, fantastical, or whether it should allow us to understand the actual world.”

In one case, the project actually led to environmental change—or at least potential environmental change. After one mecha-goose found a nest full of smashed eggs, she and her team investigated and discovered the root cause: the park authorities had been using petrochemical fertilizers that had compromised the eggs’ structural integrity. They weren’t able to fix the situation, but they did discover a situation that might not have been discovered, precisely because they had been seeing things from a more gooselike POV. The project demonstrated one of Jeremijenko’s central theses in utter clarity: if and when VR and animals come together, the only worthwhile byproduct ought to be actual, material change. Anything else is mere escapism.

For the team behind In the Eyes of the Animal, escapism is the entire point. The project is premised on the idea that a blissful, peacefully psychedelic sensory experience can expand our vision—our moral vision—beyond the scope of the human. “Somehow it creates a cocoon,” Steel said. “It gives you this kind of isolation, in a similar kind of way that you get when you’re walking through the woods and you’ve got no mobile signal. It gives you space to think. It taps into the tranquil state of mind that you can get floating on the surface of water, or sitting on a mountain and looking at the view. That sense of presence.”

Jeremijenko would call bullshit. And in a lot of ways, she has a point, even though In the Eyes of the Animal has the advantage of being much more aesthetically and emotionally arresting than a VR-controlled duck sim in which you look for signs of petrochemical toxicity. Jeremijenko maintains that nothing good will happen from the perspective of environmental health if we let VR transport us to “nature” in the traditional sense: a space pristine, unpolluted, unaffected by our presence. VR could be an agent of real change in what she calls the “environmental commons”—a way of seeing how our animal neighbors actually live, not necessarily through their eyes but at the level of habitat. It could also be a dangerously effective way to ignore that commons: a way to strap on the headset and return to Xanadu while the world silently turns to waste."



"Major new technologies of representation have a tendency to advertise themselves as ways of bringing us into closer contact with “nature”. They also have a tendency to do precisely the opposite. When the aquarium took Britain by storm in the 1850s, it was promoted as a glass box that could bring people into a completely new relationship with the inaccessible ocean depths; it also became a way of framing those depths, making them artificial, subjecting them to editorial control. One of the very first motion pictures was Eadweard Muybridge’s Horse in Motion, which revealed new truths about animal movement; another was Edison’s electrocuted elephant, which proved in the most darkly literal way that technology could destroy animals by making them into spectacles. Nature TV from the David Attenborough 1980s to now has been defined by its gradual, insistent movement toward intimacy: where we once observed them from a reserved distance, we now find ourselves among them, in their lives, in the fray. It has also been adept at hiding its own mediation, at pretending to be a form of closeness when it is really anything but.

We already know what some animal-centric VR experiences are going to look like, and others are pretty easy to imagine. Sir Attenborough himself has already collaborated on VR nature films, insisting that “you actually really are there—inside a rainforest, diving in the ocean or exploring a pyramid, wherever you want to go.” Apps like Ocean Rift unironically use the word “safari” to encapsulate the experience of coming that much closer to exotic creatures. These experiences still place us outside the animal, albeit an inch away. More will come, though, that attempt to place us “inside,” leveraging the power of empathy that seems to be the medium’s unique ethical promise. Much more than Jeremijenko, I’m inclined to think that a piece of software that takes a stab at interspecies empathy could form the basis for material change. I can imagine seeing from the eyes of an orca at SeaWorld. I can imagine feeling a rage that lingers.

At the same time, In the Eyes of the Animal, Jeremijenko’s VR waterfowl, and Theriomorphous Cyborg share one thing in common that should serve as a warning to the creators and consumers of empathy apps in general: all three envision “VR” as a means to “AR,” the self-enclosed app as a means to a more layered, more nuanced understanding of the world—or worlds—in which we live. Perhaps this ought to be the ethical litmus test for empathy apps: what they ask us to do with the experience we’ve had as soon as we take off the headset and return to the world. What they ask us to remember. What they ask us not to forget."
vr  virtualreality  empathy  nataliejeremijenko  via:anne  multispecies  ethics  mattmargini  escapism  pov  jakobvonuexküll  simoneferracina  philipkdick  rickdeckard  nonnydelapeña  border  borders  us  mexico  wilburmercer  richardfeynman  barneysteel 
march 2016 by robertogreco

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