Animals, Humans, and Forms of Life

Still from the “Ship of Theseus” (2012)

By Maya Ratnam, Johns Hopkins University §

In what ways do we humans share lives with nonhuman animals? What are our ethical commitments towards them? What kinds of moral worlds is it possible for humans and nonhumans to cohabit? These questions have preoccupied not just moral philosophers but also anthropologists working in diverse ecological and socio-political milieus. While debates in philosophy engage in such complicated questions as our duties with respect to animals and their rights in respect to us, anthropologists have tended to focus more on actual local worlds in which humans share lives with nonhuman others—animals, plants, microorganisms and spirit beings. While an older anthropology explored our kinship with nonhuman others in the form of debates on totemism, sacrifice and animism, sub-fields such as “ecological” anthropology locate these questions in the nature-culture interface. The more recent, “ontological” turn attempts a radical unsettling of the epistemological certainties of “Western” social science by dwelling in spaces of trans-species engagements and encounters. Dreaming dogs (Kohn 2007), caribou that give themselves to their hunters (Willerslev 2007), jaguar spirit masters (Nadasdy 2007)— these all invite journeying into worlds where human uniqueness cannot be assumed. These are not merely quaint, alternative cosmologies where people “believe” certain things about nonhuman personhood, they are spaces in which humanness is not taken for granted as the property of some and denied to others (those who do not possess language or tool-use or souls); humanness is, instead, a task to be achieved in spaces of shared encounter and habitation. By no means are these spaces, often ecological niches such as forests or mountains or deserts, inhabited on equal terms. But they are frequently worlds in which the stakes of the nonhuman in sustaining or threatening the life of a human community is explicitly acknowledged.

In contrast, modern, post-industrial societies have largely invisibilized animals from everyday social worlds. Contact between animals and humans only takes place in highly regulated situations; as pets, for instance, in zoos, sanctuaries and theme parks or in laboratories and stockyards, where they are bred for human use and overuse. As spaces of real freedom for animals decline and they come more and more under human stewardship, the problem of humans’ ethical responsibilities towards them, and their rights with respect to us is named, if not resolved, by the term “animal rights.” The requirement for a new conceptual vocabulary to address the complex ethical and political implications of human-animal entanglements in diverse conditions has led to the emergence of the hybrid, boundary-crossing field of animal studies spanning disciplines as diverse as cognitive ethology, field ecology behavioral psychology, philosophy, literary studies and biological and social anthropology.

In this context, a recent set of essays, framed as philosophical responses to the writings of novelist J.M. Coetzee, addresses these issues from a rather singular vantage point. My aim in this brief essay is to bring these essays into conversation with certain Indian materials— a film, to be specific, that also deals with similar themes.

Cover art for Coetzee's "Elizabeth Costello" (2003)
Cover art for Coetzee’s “Elizabeth Costello” (2003)

In 1997, novelist J.M. Coetzee introduced his eponymous character Elizabeth Costello on the occasion of the Tanner Lectures at Princeton University; while ostensibly dealing with philosophical themes, his lectures deviated from convention in that they took the form of a fictional Australian author, Elizabeth Costello, delivering two lectures to an American university audience. The two lectures, entitled “The Lives of Animals,” were subsequently published as a volume with a set of commentaries, and also in a novel by Coetzee, titled “Elizabeth Costello.” Rather like the question of the animal itself, Costello’s is a presence that jars, haunts and discomfits. The character is that of an aging novelist who is invited to give a lecture at the liberal arts college where her son also teaches. Instead of delivering the lecture expected of her, Costello, rather like Coetzee himself, delivers a lecture on what her son calls “a hobbyhorse of hers”—the status of animals. The content and tone of the two lectures delivered by Costello are far from the works for which she is famous, and signal her own alienation from her younger self and the world around her. Costello likens herself to Kafka’s Red Peter, who performs for the academy. Almost immediately, she polarizes her listeners by likening the contemporary mass killing of animals in slaughterhouses, stockyards and laboratories to the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. In order for life to go on in areas surrounding the camps, there must have been, Costello argues, a certain willful misrecognition on the part of those living there. A sort of not-knowing that replaced a full acknowledgement of the horrors that went on around them. In order for people to live with what was being done around them, it was necessary for them not to know. We are now accustomed in our rhetoric, says Costello, “to think of Germans of a particular standing a little outside of humanity…[t]hey lost their humanity, in our eyes because of a certain willed ignorance on their part” (Coetzee 1999:20). The very normalization of brutality that now, today, makes us feel that a whole generation was tainted by it, is akin to what continues to happen in the case of our non-response to the plight of animals, says Costello. In a sense then, it is possible to go through the pleasant streets of a nice town, by agreeing to not know that possibly, quite nearby, there are abattoirs and factory farms. This not knowing is of a very specific kind and it points to an aspect of knowing that the philosopher Stanley Cavell calls “acknowledgement.” It refers to situations where knowing, as a mode of relating to the world, fails. It only reinscribes our separateness from the world and our lack of fit with the world. It is not-knowing in relation to this special sense of knowing that Costello refers to.

Costello’s words, which do not take the conventional form of prescriptions or arguments for the better treatment of animals, are jarring, and succeed in losing her audience. Her son is embarrassed, and so are her hosts. People take offense at her comparison of the situation of animals with the holocaust.

Costello declines to speak in the voice of reason. Reason, she says, is better available in the words of countless philosophers from Augustine to Aquinas, Porphyry to Plato. The audience doesn’t need her to repeat their words. Reason is also what has systematically been used to distance humans not just from other living beings but from our own organic life. Reason is what argues for an unbridgeable gap between human experience and nonhuman experience, that renders each inaccessible to the other. She prefers, she says, the voice of poetry, which allows for us to just experience in embodied form, both joy and suffering, to just be. Poetry, in the language available to Costello, is a much more likely country from which to experience animal life and our own animality. Costello’s speech does not take the form of propositional argument or of a polemic— pro or anti vegetarianism, in favor of or against laboratory testing, for instance. These arguments stem from a point where the place of the animal in our world is settled. Instead, Costello, or the figure of Costello, pressures us to be unsettled, asks us to allow the animal to mark us. She does this at various points in her speech by drawing attention to her own body: she likens herself to an animal, to Kafka’s ape, to a corpse. Therefore, when she fields sharp questions from her audience— are you saying we should give up meat?— her answers fail to convince, because she is not speaking from a place of rationality, she is speaking from a place of madness. Later, at the polite dinner given in her honor, when a guest professes “great respect,” for vegetarianism as a way of life, Costello says- “I’m wearing leather shoes…I’m carrying a leather purse. I wouldn’t have overmuch respect if I were you” (Coetzee 1999:43).

By way of this comment, Costello draws attention to the specificity of the human animals’ form of life— we can be marked by animal suffering and also not be marked by it, we can distance ourselves not just from other animals, but also from our own animality, and from other humans who are regarded as somehow “not quite human.”

It is impossible to do justice to all the nuances of Coetzee’s brilliant text in the space of this brief essay— but one further remark must be made. Coetzee, through Costello, is also making a particular kind of claim about language, particularly human language—not as something that separates us and elevates us beyond the plane of nonhuman animals, but as something that exposes us, in all our vulnerability, to the world. This point has been brilliantly explored in a set of essays titled “Philosophy and Animal Life” that try to respond, in a philosophical voice, to Coetzee’s genre-bending text (and the set of essays that accompanies “The Lives of Animals”). Of these, the response by Cora Diamond stands out for its stunning appreciation of the Costello pieces as not merely putting forth a case for animal rights in an imaginative and literary way, in which the figure of Costello is a mouthpiece for Coetzee’s views on our ethical responsibilities to animals. Instead, Diamond suggests that there are two ways to read the lectures— one is to read them as grappling with the ethical issue of how to treat animals. Another is to see them as being centrally about a wounded woman, a wounded animal. The statement about the holocaust, which so polarizes Costello’s audience, can be seen as an argument by analogy for our treatment of animals in the contemporary moment, or as the cry of “a wounded woman exhibiting herself as wounded through talk of the Holocaust that she knows will offend and not be understood” (Wolfe et al. 2008:50). It is really a cry of madness. This, argues Diamond, drops away totally in conventional readings of Coetzee’s text. Drawing from the work of philosopher Stanley Cavell (who also has a piece in the volume), she calls such conventional readings as instances of “deflection,” in which “we are moved from the appreciation, or attempt at appreciation, of a difficulty of reality to a philosophical or moral problem apparently in the vicinity” (Wolfe et al. 2008:57). “Our concepts, our ordinary life with our concepts pass by as if it were not there; the difficulty, if we try to see it, shoulders us out of life, is deadly chilling” (Wolfe et al. 2008:58). In other words, arguments about animals’ rights, or vegetarianism, or laboratory testing are really the limited response that human language can come up with to contain a horror that, if embraced in its fullness, would leave us with no home in our language. It is this domain of experience, which resists interpretation, which resists philosophy, that Diamond says is what the figure of Costello is “about.”

When I walk to my classes and to the library on campus everyday, the possible use of animals in medical and scientific research in unseen underground laboratories around me does not unhinge me. In fact, I hardly think about it. This is not the same as not knowing about it. It is a special kind of unknowing where I do not allow the knowledge to mark me. For, if it did, I would not be able to take another step. In a sense then, this dulling of our response to the pain of the other is also what marks the human form of life, enables it to carry on and protect itself. But then, is it human anymore? The response to this “difficulty of reality” cannot take the form— but, animal research is necessary for… – for then the problem has already been displaced to another register. That is what Diamond refers to as the “difficulty of philosophy,” of doing philosophy when philosophy has in a sense, become impossible. It is this potential of the everyday around us to carry horrors that throw us into skeptical doubt that has been a running theme in the work of Stanley Cavell, and which Diamond explores fully in her essay, “The Difficulty of Reality and the Difficulty of Philosophy.”

At this point, I find that my thoughts and words have, of themselves, led me to the example I was proposing to discuss to amplify this “difficulty of reality” outlined above. My example consists of a film, “Ship of Theseus,” written and directed by an Indian filmmaker, Anand Gandhi, which premiered at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival to much critical acclaim. I discuss the film as an ethnographic vignette, that is, as a voice from a particular culture that speaks to global concerns. The title of the film is a reference to the paradox of whether an object restored with the dismembered parts of its former self is still the same object. The film itself tracks three individuals in present-day Mumbai— a young woman photographer from Egypt, an ailing monk, and a young stockbroker. All three are in need of vital organs, and only come together at the very end of the film at an event organized by the NGO that facilitates organ donation. The film has received much praise for being a somewhat unique venture within the general climate of popular Indian cinema, unabashedly dealing with weighty, cerebral themes. It has also been sneered at for the apparent pretentiousness of its “philosophy”— encapsulated in snippets of ponderous dialogue. I find the film intriguing for the simple reason that it explicitly deals with the question of animal suffering, a theme that has rarely found any place in the popular cinema of any part of the world, and offers a brief glimpse into the marginal spaces that animals occupy in the life of a bustling mega-city. The second segment of the three-part film, which is the one that this essay takes up for discussion, centers on Maitreya, a monk belonging to a sect practicing extreme nonviolence, who is portrayed as being an intelligent, scientifically-oriented, articulate man. Maitreya is actively involved with animal rights causes, but unlike Coetzee’s Costello, believes that reason and not sentiment should form the basis for animal rights campaigns. In the course of long, barefoot walks around the city, he engages a skeptical youngster who challenges him on his “extreme” views. Significantly for the film, Maitreya rejects for a long time, the medication that will prepare his body to undergo a liver transplant on the grounds that it has been tested on animals. Scenes of his progressing ailment are interspersed with montages of him attending a court case where animal rights groups are fighting a pharmaceutical company to give up animal testing. There are painful shots of rabbits in laboratories. Maitreya’s health deteriorates rapidly, and he ends up bedridden in a shelter, with other monks tending to his emaciated body and its discharges, over which he now has no control. At the point of delirium, when he finds the horror of his own mortality staring him in the face (the camera here pans directly into his ashen face), Maitreya collapses. Or rather, the entire structure of concepts with which he confronts the world, collapses. He is unable to embrace death and opts instead to take the medication.

Neeraj Kabi as Maitreya in Anand Gandhi’s “Ship of Theseus” (2012)

Maitreya, as a figure, is an interesting foil to Costello. They are both unseated, or rather, choose to be unseated, by the treatment they see meted out to animals around them. While Costello rejects the voice of reason for its complicity in this violence—Maitreya embraces it as a way to sound sane, to reach out to people around him. He is also coming from a different tradition— though the sect that he belongs to is not named, it is perhaps easy to identify as belonging to the Jain tradition, of which ahimsa is a founding principle. But ahimsa, which does not quite translate into its commonly invoked English counterpart, nonviolence, also encompasses a very different view of the human in relation to the world than the Judaeo-Christian tradition which Costello claims as her inheritance. “We— even in Australia— belong to a civilization deeply rooted in Greek and Judeo-Christian religious thought. We may not, all of us, believe in pollution, we may not believe in sin, but we do believe in the psychic correlates” (Coetzee 1999:21). Maitreya, on the other hand, coming from a culture whose location we might call, following Homi Bhabha, “hybrid,” is able to try on different voices for size. Unlike Costello, who rejects the voice of reason and feels trapped by it, he speaks with the voice of reason in an effort to reach out to those around him. Costello presents her body—exposes—we might say, her body to her audience as a wounded, talking animal. Maitreya’s body is equally “unreasonable,” but it is already a body immersed in a long tradition of practicing kinship with all organic life as an ethics of the self. Maitreya takes on his body, his organic being, as a vehicle for a practice of the self, not as Costello does, as a wound and a rebuke that alienates her from her fellow humans. Costello’s state of being resonates with a comment made by Veena Das in her reading of Wittgenstein— that “claims to one’s culture rest on one’s being able to find a voice within it both as a gift and also as a rebuke.” Oddly enough, given that he is a monk, Maitreya is much less unsettled in his world than Costello is in hers. His response to the suffering of nonhuman others, as embodied as Costello’s, does not result in paralysis; he does what is possible for him to do, or rather, what is available to him from within the tools of his culture. He picks a worm up from the floor where it can be crushed underfoot and places it on a leaf. He refuses to consume medicines tested on animals. He walks to the courthouse daily, barefoot, to follow the trial. He argues his point of view in a reasoned and cogent manner. He gives us a glimpse of what it might mean to live and exist in the face of what Diamond calls “the difficulty of reality.” But, in the final reckoning, when confronted with his death, the end of his physical being, he retreats. This is not a fall from grace, or a state of grace, as Costello feels her existence undoubtedly is, but an acknowledgement of his humanness and its limits. For Costello, this means constantly living a life in which she is “shouldered out” from the acceptable speech of those around her; she can only inhabit a place of madness. Maitreya’s culture is able to absorb him.

I find the film useful for anthropological thinking. The many emerging anthropologies of trans-species encounters are, after all, concerned with the problem of the humanness of the animal other. In many non-western ontologies, personhood as a state of being is not limited to humans. This view most often finds expression in the idea that the manifest form of each species is a mere envelope (a form of “clothing”) that is variable, and houses an internal essence or substance or soul which is unvarying. It is this knowledge of possession of an unvarying soul or essence that makes trans-species communication possible at all. By donning the skin of a bear, I am able to become a bear, to inhabit its “umwelt.” There is no limit, in that sense, to my capacity to become another. That is why, when these metamorphoses betray us, or we misread the signals from another being, our whole form of life is thrown into question. Because the presumption in any case is that communication across ontological domains is possible. This is the situation Eduardo Kohn describes in his remarkable essay, “How Dogs Dream: Amazonian Natures and the Politics of Transspecies Engagements” (Kohn 2007). Costello, who finds only disappointment in the languages available to her from her culture to address these sorts of questions, turns to poetry, which offers greater possibilities for sympathetic embodiment. Like all human animals, she struggles to find a home in culture and language.

Works Cited:

Coetzee, J.M. 1999. The Lives of Animals. Ed. and intro. Amy Gutman. Princeton University Press. Princeton, N.J.
Gandhi, Anand. 2012. Ship of Theseus. See trailer here
Kohn Eduardo. 2007. How Dogs Dream: Amazonian Natures and the Politics of Transspecies Engagements. American Ethnologist. Vol. 34, No. 1, pp. 3-24.
Nadasdy, Paul. 2007. The Gift in the Animal: The Ontology of Hunting and Human-Animal Sociality. American Ethnologist, Vol. 34, No. 1, (Feb., 2007), pp. 25-43.
Willerslev, R. 2007. Soul hunters: hunting, animism and personhood among the Siberian Yukaghirs. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Wolfe, Cary, Stanley Cavell, Cora Diamond, John McDowell and Ian Hacking eds. 2008. Philosophy and Animal Life. Columbia University Press. New York.

Maya Ratnam is presently a PhD candidate at the Department of Anthropology, Johns Hopkins University. She is writing her dissertation on the poetics and politics of forest-dwelling in Central India.

This post is part of our thematic series: “Multi-Species Anthropology: Becoming Human with Others