Monday, November 16, 2009


In my last response to Elizabeth Costello, I discussed the human bias towards reason as a superior mode of perception. It is this bias that makes us discount animals’ ability to perceive a spectrum of reality that is similar in scope to ours – emotions, pain, compassion, the prospect of death. We assume that because we cannot recognize a comparable faculty of reason within animals, that it must not exist, and they are therefore inferior. But it is not their lacking which is the problem – it is our inability to perceive an ulterior form of perception, to give credit to a phenomenon we cannot observe, that has created this misunderstanding between humans and animals. And yet people still strive to understand this different perception, this different state of being, which animals hold so furtively. In Elizabeth’s lecture, it is the poet who seeks to come closest to uncovering these secrets.

So what is the difference? What is the intangible essence of being that animals posses which we do not, and cannot define? If they don’t see the world through our lens of reason, what lens do they see it through? Instinct? Survival? Or something else entirely? Costello uses the example of poets Rilke and Hughes, their attempts to posses, or be possessed by, the being of animals; to capture the feeling, the being, the perception of a beast. Both poets recognize a will of animals, a will that powers their being, which asserts itself in their movements and in their very presence. We cannot describe what powers this will of animals, but, as in Rilke’s poem, we can determine what breaks it. In the cage, the panther exists, and continues to move, yet, “inside, a gigantic Will stands stunned and numbed (Rilke, anthology, 372).” Costello describes it as this, “a concentric lope that leaves the will stupefied, narcotized (Coetzee, 95).” So perhaps an animal’s will comes from its freedom of movement – its existence in space, in nature, from where it draws all its stimuli and channels all of its responses. Because if an animal’s perception is not contained within the frame of its own mind, within a network of reasoning and deduction, it must be free to exist outside of the mind, to move with what is being perceived – as Costello says, “his consciousness is kinetic rather than abstract (Coetzee, 95).” Does this mean animals have a greater ability to project into their environments? To have a confidence, and assertiveness, of movement and of being that is limited by the human need for rational order, for cognition over impulse? We cannot know, because of that very limitation. To get close to how animals feel and think, we must let go of the backbone of our consciousness – reason – and feel blindly, as Costello describes, “Hughes is feeling his way towards a different kind of being-in-the-world (Coetzee, 95).”

An affront to the will of animals, confinement.

What drives poets to want to capture the mystery of animals? Is it the same thing that draws people to zoos? That creates an audience for programming devoted solely to documenting animals in their natural state? We recognize the mystery in the lives of animals, just as we recognize the mystery of the cosmos, and so we seek to explore it further, we are engaged, fascinated by that mystery. One would think that the idea of animals containing some force that we don’t know about would be a concession to their equality with humans, and yet we continue to treat them as inferiors. This is the contradiction that comes with our fascination – we see the beauty, the mystery, the magnetism of animals; and yet we destroy them, thoughtlessly.

This destruction has not always been a contradiction. Costello makes the case for primitivism, as addressed by poets such as Hughes. Primitivism is a celebration of the animal, “a contest, a ritual, and honour (Coetzee, 97).” When we must face the creature we are about to destroy, match it in physical strength and dexterity and reaction (a cognitive prowess), we are conceding to it an equivalence, making it something that must be earned, that is not ours by right, not innately inferior. We destroy animals not because we have contempt for their existence, but because we recognize the power and the sustenance they give us. If this were how we got all of our meat, by matching ourselves against animals in their natural state, by earning their destruction, I would not mind eating it. But if that was how we got all of our meat, we would never have had the time to develop human civilization – of which the relative importance is a whole other discussion. And so we abandoned primitivism out of what most consider necessity, and here is where the contradictions emerge.

The Eagle, an animal we admire and revere.

Humans still hold a primitive fascination with animals – a desire to run with the wolf, fly with the eagle, swing through the jungle with the monkey. Yet, as Costello’s son reflects, “You won’t get a bunch of Australians standing around a sheep, listening to its silly baa, writing poems about it (Coetzee, 100).” We are biased in the animals we choose to revere, and it is no coincidence that the ones we don’t choose show up on our dinner tables. The ones we continue to admire are the ones who remain free – who retain that mysterious will, the power of being that we struggle to define. We recognize that an animal’s freedom is what makes it beautiful, and yet we take it away. We take away what makes animals powerful, unique, and proceed to slaughter them. We do not feel for them because we do not see the power, the being, that we are destroying, because we have already stifled it. And yet despite our stifling, who is to say that it is gone? This could be an argument for either side. On one hand, if we have deprived animals of what defines their perception, their will – their free movement in nature – than they no longer have that will to live, and their deaths are of no moral consequence. But on the other side, a creature’s will to live is immutable, and though we may have reduced animals to their base function, depriving them of an opportunity to flourish, the will exists, trapped, tortured, rebelling until death. Hughes suggests as much in “The Jaguar”-
“By the bang of blood in the brain deaf the ear-
He spins from the bars, but there’s no cage to him
More than to the visionary his cell:
His stride is wildernesses of freedom” (Anthology, 375)

We cannot assume that an animal is simpler than a human, that its will is easier to break. And we cannot deny that there exists a will – we concede to its existence in our art, poetry, and educational programming. So we must live with a contradiction, or seek to resolve it.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


I had many acute responses – skeptical and celebratory – to Elizabeth Costello, her character and her lectures. I was a little discouraged, however, to see these responses similarly outlined in the commentary in our course anthology. My little gems of enlightened post-its seem perfunctory now, moot points.

The main ideas I found to share with the commentators were the arguments on the relative importance of beings by Singer and the focus on eastern religion by Doniger. Both posed the questions, found the flaws, of Costello’s argument that I did.

Do the inherent differences between man and animal create a disparity in their worth? Or do they negate that perceived disparity as a symptom of narrow-mindedness? Singer argues the former, Costello the latter, and neither convinces me entirely. So I think I’m left with a question which, at least for now, I wont seek to answer.

Is there a scale to measure the
relative worth of beings?

On the other hand, Doniger discusses all of the points that immediately came to mind as O’ Hearne claimed that compassion for animals was a modern, western concept. Granted, O ‘Hearne does specify the “obligation to animals themselves (Coetzee, 106)” rather than the hope for human well-being or salvation that is often the case of animal veneration in eastern religions. Yet his, and ultimately Coetzee’s, complete omission of eastern tradition in the issue of animal treatment seems like a gross oversight. Be it calculated or careless, I think it weakens both arguments considerably.

Costello could’ve used the examples of eastern tradition, as Doniger discusses at length, to present two arguments. The first, that humans have associated the cruelty to and killing of animals with evil, or moral depravity, for hundreds of years. Even if in their own interests, the idea that killing or harming an animal is an affront to god, an affront to one’s own soul, definitely gives animals more worth than is ascribed to them in western religion, even when viewed through a “compassionate” western lens. In western tradition, animals are lesser, more innocent creatures, and we should protect them because of their weakness and because of our strength. In the east however, animals posses souls of equal value to those of humans, and are regarded as equals by the gods, and so must be preserved for the preservation of man’s own being - man must share his right to exist. On top of this, Doniger points out that eastern tradition calls for a heightened moral consciousness in man, “the… argument that we know that they are going to die, and that that makes it bad for us to kill them. (Anthology, 351)” Costello does not use this eastern perspective in her argument. She does however, criticize one thing that eastern and western tradition have in common, though it manifests differently in both, and that is the use of god as justification – scapegoat – for the killing of animals. Doniger discusses examples of this at length, and so I won’t repeat them.
The veneration of the cow in
Hindu tradition.

Although Coetzee omits specific religious ideas in Costello’s argument, there is much discussion of God. Yet it is the abstract God of western tradition that Costello depicts, not the anthropomorphic Gods of the east. It is the God referred to in irony, in an attempt to undermine the very notion of God, and thus to undermine the doctrines of a God that says we are different than animals, that we were created in a different image, with a different worth. Costello calls it “the God of reason (Coetzee, 67)” and suggests it is a false god – not “the being of the universe (67)” against which man and animal are measured and separated. It is a construct, a faculty given too much value, a device twisted to become exclusionary. Man can reason, animal cannot, and reason is thus superior to all other faculties – even those which animals posses and we lack. Through our reason we may be able to unlock certain “secrets of the universe,” but we can only describe them insofar as reason allows, and having become so enamored with reason as to disregard other forms of perception, we limit ourselves, and at the same time feel we posses such higher cognition than the animals who remain unfettered, subject only to the reality of nature, not the constructs of man. The idea that reason is the penultimate method of understanding is a flaw in how we view our own cognition and especially in how we seek to distinguish ourselves from animals. Reason is the God which, as Costello would argue, we use to justify the killing of animals. Reason is the scapegoat, the excuse, for our cruelty, and reason is why we must have a scapegoat to begin with. Reason is how we try to answer the question I posed at the beginning – do our inherent differences give us different worth? The God of Reason says that yes, our cognitive faculties make us superior to those with a different sort of cognition. It says that it is no matter if animals feel, if they love, if they empathize - only if they reason, in our terms and in ways we understand, could they be our equals. This is the fallacy of man - a comfortable fallacy that not only leads us towards depravity, towards cruelty, but that goes so far as to limit what is good in us - our vast cognition, our capacity for several modes of perception.

Monday, November 2, 2009


What is the difference between the “specific talent(s)”(Dick, 124) of empathy, sympathy, and compassion? When I read the anthology definitions and the abstractions website, and then applied them to what I was reading in Androids, I was faced with numerous contradictions. It seems that one thing they all have in common is that they are unquantifiable – and rightly so. Because if we could truly quantify these aspects which, as argued in our last discussion, make us uniquely human, we could then apply that knowledge to non-human things – in Dick’s case, androids.

We are warned against the dangers of abstractions, but what about the danger of trying to define, to quantify, the things that truly are abstract? I base my view of abstraction on the Oxford English Dictionary definition “the idea of something which has no independent existence.”(Abstractions website) Basically, something which is subjective, that cannot exist without reference to other phenomena – be they tangible or imagined. In this way, our concepts of empathy, sympathy, and compassion truly are abstractions. The only differences to be found between them are in how they are carried out – how they are manifested in human actions. However, those actions do not define their nature – as their nature is intangible, abstract as the emotions that they produce and are produced by. So the nature of empathy, sympathy, and compassion is subject to the emotional context they are being viewed in, and thus leaves their “definition” open to much debate and inconsistency.

Perhaps then we shouldn’t try to define these concepts, but rather allow them to be innate, intangible qualities we recognize in ourselves and in others – not only through their actions, but through some immeasurable response in their person – a gut feeling, pulled heartstrings, etc.; all abstract rhetorical devices used to explain something that is not concrete, but that we know exists. So is the nature of empathy, sympathy, and compassion. Why then is Rick Deckard’s “gut feeling” not enough to distinguish humans from androids? They can’t project sympathy onto him, can’t empathize, are not drawn to compassion – they posses none of the human subtleties, none of the intangibles, that we sense in one another. So why is Deckard fooled by their ability to synthesize such reactions, through their words and actions?

Androids may seem to have human emotions,
but merely mimic them through their actions.

This question helps to elucidate the nature of how we classify actions as being empathetic, sympathetic, or compassionate. They are all a result of how we project our own feelings, and can only be comprehended within the frames of our individual selves. They can also only be fully realized, fully observed, as we see them inside ourselves – we cannot honestly make judgments on the motives of others – even the intangible feelings we get from them could be merely projections of our own feelings, our desire to fill the gap between individuals, to support the idea of our capacity for co-feeling. But this desire gets in the way when trying to determine, as Deckard must, who possesses these uniquely human emotions and who does not.

As I said earlier, empathy, sympathy, and compassion are emotions that cannot be quantified. However, in 2021, and admittedly in our own age, humans have found ways to do just that. What is empathy? A subtle spasm in the eye muscles at the mention of a mounted deer head. What is sympathy? Compassion? Neuroscientists would say they’re the result of a precise sequence of neural firings, a combination of chemical compounds, a reaction not to a person, but to an electric signal. None of the definitions in the anthology follow this line of thinking, this new capacity for quantifying emotions. So we must ask ourselves – will we ever be satisfied with a quantifiable definition of our emotions? Or is it that which we cannot define – the intangible, the abstract – which makes them meaningful, which makes them human?

The definitions and the analysis by Walter Jackson Bate on page 274O do not attempt to describe empathy, sympathy, and compassion as independent forces, but rather describe them in terms of their effects – on the subject and the object. Both rely heavily on general terms – citing things such as “feelings”, “projecting one’s personality”, and “the fundamental reality and inner working.”(Anthology, 274J-O) What does any of this signify? Only how little we are able to articulate about our specific emotions without referencing some equally-as-vague construct. As it seems in Bate’s analysis, the more we try to explain these intangibles, the more we contradict ourselves. I’d love to go into an analysis of these contradictions, but I feel I’ve gotten far enough away from the issue of Dick’s novel already, and so I’ll take this opportunity to leave you with my vague assertions and circle back around.

So, Deckard cannot rely on his emotional responses in dealing with androids, but must remain detached – observing in them only that which is quantifiable. The issue arises when he cannot help but to project his own emotions onto the androids – specifically female androids. He reflects on how “it was an odd sensation, knowing intellectually that they were machines, but emotionally reacting anyhow.”(Dick, 95) This just proves that we create emotion where it doesn’t exist – not unlike forced relationships, with false constructs of love left clinging to a semblance of human connectivity. This is the world of 2021, where emotions – empathy included – have become hard to come by in their honest forms. It is not only that Deckard must struggle to believe that androids don’t posses emotions, but that he struggles with the idea that humans are equally as devoid of emotion, and that theirs might be of the same construct as the androids’ – synthetic or imagined. He shows this when he thinks, “most androids I’ve known have more vitality and desire to live than my wife. She has nothing to give me.” And so the constructs of empathy, sympathy, and compassion are essentially the same, despite their differences in application – they come from a selfish desire, or perhaps even a need, to experience the emotions of others – to remind ourselves that we are among other living, feeling beings, that we are not alone in our suffering or our joy. Perhaps this is why androids are threatening – because they refute that belief. Androids show us that we cant really tell who is feeling and who isn’t, that our ideas of sympathy, empathy, and compassion could merely be constructs of our own desire for that reality – a co-feeling reality in which we are all connected and our emotions for each other are real – real beyond the concrete, real in the way that only an abstraction can be.
Is this shared emotion real? We like to think so.