Thursday, January 17, 2008

some thoughts on why I am interested in animals

I dislike nature shows: the animal porn, the emphasis on "the hunt," the sly suggestion that animal "violence" naturalizes or justifies human brutality. I dislike the way one is expected to assume that there is a logical and natural distinction between "the cultivated" and "the wild," or the implication that cultivation is less violent than wilderness. I dislike the omission of the human -- whether it be the camera crew or the people who live near the photographed animals. I vaguely recall the John Berger essay, "Why Look at Animals?" The Victorian zoo and nineteenth-century capitalism. The way looking is about distance, objectification. This connects to many of my thoughts about gender and gender constructions and gender politics.

Still, I go to youtube and look for videos of animals. I go on walks and photograph the animals I see. There are reasons I look at animals, they just are not the reasons suggested by the nature porn. I look at animals to feel less lost, to feel alive. I have been thinking a lot about living, or rather living as a state of being. I want anything alive to keep living. But it does not bother me that an animal kills another animal because it is hungry. The polar bear does not kill the walrus it does not need to eat.

But one nature program shows chimps attacking a neighboring group. They live in fig trees and it is suggested that they have plenty to eat. Their group is 150, which Attenborough tells us is quite large. Despite the figs, the chimps attack the neighboring group out of desire for more territory (so we are told). The neighboring group scatters when the large group descends, screaming. Some of the dominant males of the larger group capture one of the younger rivals. They kill and eat the baby. The pass the red limbs to one another. It appears to be about ritual, not hunger.

I do not know why they ate the baby, but I'm not convinced that it is out of a desire for dominance -- the sort of motivated violence I associate with humans. Some researchers suggest that these attacks are the direct result of habitat loss and contact with humans. That the violence amongst themselves is a defense against the stress of an ever-shrinking jungle.

The same program opens with a segment on Birds of Paradise. The birds live in Papau New Guinea where, according to Wikipedia, sea shells were abolished as currency in 1933. In this segment, Attenborough tells us that "the abundance of food gives [the birds] plenty of time to do other things."

I'm not keen on the way gender constructions are projected onto the birds in this clip, but I'm intrigued by the suggestion that -- in the absence of scarcity -- the birds not only thrive physically, but also become more artistic. Usually when I think of scarcity, I think of it in the context of capitalism, of how greed turns more into less, of how William Morris suggests that if everyone had creative work, the problem of scarcity would be abolished. And then I remember the camera and that I am looking at animals. And I am reminded of Eileen Myles's observations about pets and animals and gender. How in the presence of animals, gender constructions weaken. I've not yet mapped the constellations of my interest in animals, but my feeling is that -- like all interests -- its political aspects are something I must explore and attempt to articulate even if ultimately I end up saying many things I might change my mind about after saying them.

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is this real?