The myth of endless progress
The “progress narrative” that has undergirded Western culture for millennia was nice while it lasted, but it’s also responsible for getting us where we are today, as it stoked the fantasy that we were invincibly moving ever forward, and that our rampantly voracious overdevelopment (exploration, imperialism, conquest, growth) had no costs, no limits, no externalities, no consequences.
As an English professor, I find it exciting (oddly and perversely exciting, I have to say) to consider the possibilities for a new voice, a new style, a new writerly consciousness that may accompany and chronicle the winding down of our sound and fury.
Other cultures at similar points in their trajectory – past the zenith, clearly waning yet close enough to the glories of the past – have often produced keenly insightful literature and art. Being on the cusp of decline provokes incisive self-reflection. As the Greeks called it, anagnorisis: recognition.
Cervantes achieved this in Don Quixote toward the end of Spain’s Golden Age, as did T. S. Eliot in The Waste Land, his report from the front lines of the cultural disintegration that accompanied the collapse of European imperialism. “These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” he wrote at the end of the poem.
What should be our last words before the lights go out?On a personal level, we as individuals have lately begun to do a better job of dying, and of accepting death, writing “death plans,” forsaking heroic measures of resuscitation. So, too, as a species, we may learn to accept the inescapability of our impending ecological fate. We can celebrate the bright spots from our past human heritage, acknowledge our follies, and finally, deal with it. It is what it is.
There will be a limited future audience for this brave new art if we’re hovering on the verge of extinction, but it will leave an interesting time capsule for whoever might come to recolonize the planet after we’re gone.
“Anthropocene,” a recently coined term for our present epoch, reflects the unique phenomenon of human impact that has changed (disrupted, ruined) the Earth. Complementing this scientific assessment, a parallel aesthetic movement must acknowledge, better late than never, that we have irreparably fouled our nest.
We might demarcate our cultural expressions of this period as “epitaphal”: our last words, as on a gravestone, inscribed, like an epitaph, with a solidity that will outlast our bodies, our species, and will announce for eternity what kind of people we were, what kind of people we wanted to be, and how we hoped we might be remembered.
On some level, I’m trying to provoke an argument here. I’d love for someone – writers, ecologists, biologists, spiritual leaders, perhaps Meryl Streep – to argue against my proposition that we are in our death throes. Or, if not, then I invite others to help me figure out how to deal with this (misery loves company!) and how to help write our own epitaphs. What should be our last words? It may be macabre, but empowering. And as you are no doubt aware, these are not generally empowering times for people who are concerned about the fate of animals – other animals and human animals. It may be empowering and cathartic, and perhaps even somehow practically useful, for us to accept this necessary perspective and embark upon this one final task, which we may think of as ethically, literarily, intellectually cleaning up after ourselves before the lights go out.
How we view other animals
This all may seem like a roundabout way to get to what I’m supposed to talk about today: How we “view” other animals.
“View” (note the ironic air-quotes in my title). We look, but we don’t see. We gape, we gawk, we ogle, we leer. Like “the male gaze” that Laura Mulvey described – always patriarchal, always invasive, always horny – the human gaze, similarly, is always scanning the menagerie to see, What’s in it for me? What looks good here? What can I take? What can I play with? What can I eat? What can I wear? Which of these creatures will best amuse me?
How do we look at animals? John Berger, who died last month, asked this question in 1977 and, inspired by him, I have asked it a lot myself. There are many different ways in which contemporary culture looks at animals, but I think they are generally reducible to a small number of variations on a theme. We look, but we don’t see. We gape, we gawk, we ogle, we leer.
Zoos have been, for me, the paradigmatic platform, dysfunctional and counter-educational, for viewing other animals. I have been writing about zoos, against zoos, for 20 years. I am, possibly, close to running out of things to say.
I chose zoos as my topic, my obsession, because they seemed to me to be the best site of resistance and intervention: the best entrees into the mass cultural ecological mindset.
In a nutshell, my working thesis from my book Reading Zoos is that we shouldn’t view animals in zoos. That’s because they’re not real animals, they’re captive animals, stuck animals, decontextualized animals, often mentally deranged animals (thanks to us). We delude ourselves with the flattering supposition that when we view these shadows of animals, these simulacra of animals, we are actually encountering and engaging with living creatures and all that accompanies them: biotas, habitats, ecosystems, ranges, nature. But instead, we are seeing isolation, removal, framing, caging, extraction from nature, the triviality of nature, the replicability of nature and habitat (with a really nice cage, and meals delivered by room service).
Let me present two examples, two case studies, of how people view animals, chosen at random from among thousands of iterations of how we view animals. These are, if not exactly zoo stories, then at least a little bit zoo-ish.
There are so many stories of people dangerously viewing animals – viewing Jumbo the elephant (Thomas Edison invited us to view at his death by electrocution), or Laika the Soviet space dog (we looked at her dying in a rocket ship, though for many years people pretended she lived), or whatever new and animal-viewing spectacle catches our eye for 15 minutes: Cecil the lion, or Harambe the gorilla, or Knut the polar bear, or Marius the giraffe.
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