The Harambe variations

by Sam Kriss


INTRODUCTION, or GORILLA ZERO, the META-APE OF UNDERSTANDING: Harambe in the chaos of the world

Harambe is the dead ape that will not die. It’s been months now since the Cincinnati Zoo ruthlessly dispatched its prize 440 lb Western lowland gorilla with a single deadly gunshot after a three-year-old boy fell into his enclosure, but his name lives. During the recent parliamentary elections in Australia, many voters wrote ‘Harambe’ over their ballot papers, with one telling an Independent journalist, who appeared to take it in full sincerity, that this was because ‘we Aussies feel our government should have done more to save Harambe and now we’re voting for his corpse.’ In Ohio, a street was renamed ‘Harambe Drive’ on Google Maps after multiple reports to the company from three local teenagers. ‘Bush did Harambe’ signs appeared at the Republican National Convention. ‘Dicks out for Harambe’ has become a global cri de cœur. Clearly something has happened, and is continuing to happen. Isn’t it natural to want to explain?

At the start of this month, an undergraduate student at the New School for Social Research called Alexander Fine wrote a short blog post about the enduring legacy of Harambe, noting that the people most fascinated by the gorilla tended to be on the political left, and attempting to draw some kind of relation between Harambe and its wider social and political context. ‘Harambe memes,’ he wrote, ‘reflected, and continue to reflect, the left’s disillusionment with our political reality and the media at large. The left keeps Harambe alive because we see ourselves in the dead ape. Harambe’s death was inevitable, and so too was the defeat of an ageing presidential candidate who identified as a socialist.’ It’s hard to remember what else he wrote, because the post was quickly deleted – it became the subject of a mass outburst of derision; there was something in this form of interpretation that was recognised as being fundamentally inappropriate. Fine’s essay was judged to carry an unacceptable excess of thinkpieceiness, to be uncomfortably commingling the weighty and the ludic, to deal with something inherently silly in far too serious a manner, even despite its evident playfulness. It was agreed to be a bad take. But why?

It’s not as if other attempts haven’t been made to ask the same question, of why people remain so attached to Harambe, or why he’s still funny, without generating the same backlash. See, for instance, a recent essay by Brian Feldman in New York Magazine, which does much the same thing as Fine did, without attracting any of the same scorn. Feldman attempts to classify the Harambe memes (they ‘aren’t the topical equivalent of dead-baby jokes; they’re fairly standard internet non-sequitur nonsense humour’); he relates them to current events and to asymmetries in the discourse (noting, for instance, their echo of Cecil the Lion memes); he even situates his discussion within a broadly Marxist framework. If there is a central difference between the two interpretations it’s this: Fine situates the death of Harambe within the political order and sensuous reality; he relates the loss of an ape to the other senses of loss that dominate the experience of the twenty-first century; he approaches Harambe as an overdetermination, a sign that points to a phenomenal referent. Feldman, on the other hand, situates the death of Harambe within a network of other memes. In other words, to draw meaning from a sign is tacitly forbidden, to present the world as being explicable through signs is classed as a risible proposition. Signifiers relate only and always to other signifiers, and Harambe has become a metasignifier, taking on a Barthesian dimension of myth. To say that Harambe must be a symbol for something, that the fascination with Harambe points to something else, is a sacrilege.

This is not an essay about Harambe, the ape who died, but one about interpretation, the ways in which people take the raw material chaos of the world and fashion it into something meaningful. I’m not interested in denying the dominant position that Harambe can only be meaningfully related to other signs, only in testing it or situating it; all I want to say is that a silverback gorilla is a very large animal, and it can carry many things.

(Humour: Blood. Element: Air. Planet: Jupiter. Gemstone: Sand.)

The magical ape begins in curiosity and terror. The curiosity of the child, looking into the enclosure and unable to differentiate between the friendly monkeys of cards and cartoons and the brute sweating thing before him. The terror of the child, taking its first lesson in depth analysis as a creature beyond language drags him through the water by the legs. The curiosity of the ape, padding down to sniff at this tiny, fragile thing of a type he’d seen before, but only ever seen, as if through a television screen, now tumbling from image to object. The terror of the ape, rattled by the screams from outside his cage, puffing himself up, ready to deliver death or be dealt it. The terror of the parents, the terror of the zoo authorities, the terror of the marksman. And then the questions: was Harambe threatening the child, or protecting him? Is a gorilla’s life worth more than an infant’s? The body of a gorilla is strong, and any number of interpretative schemata can tense or flex under his skin.

The first ape is the visual ape. Under its regime symbols do not simply emerge through mimesis or signifiers through onomatopoeia; the ape beheld by the eye codes a world in which words and things endlessly refer back to one another. Prior to the initial phallic signification the snake is shaped after its own name, while the penis leaks poison in imitation of its zoological archetype; there’s no genitality in the Garden of Eden. Oedipalisation occurs only when the child crawls into that enclosure in the Cincinnati Zoo: now we’re faced by a dyad, the child and the gorilla, the child and the father. On the terrain of magic or similtude an ape is a visual intensification of the father, physically terrifying, hirsute, a potent castrator. Here the principles of Darwinian evolution are only a minor feature of Oedipus: the ape is the father of humanity. Remember the originary father in Freud, half-man, half-ape, pure threat and pride, who must be killed by his weaker, more glabrous sons. Only then is the father mourned, and his arbitrary law incorporated into the psyche.

But animals are also gods or totems, and God the Father is also the paternal superego. Pure identity, without representation, without one prior to the other. Christ on his cross cries out: eli, eli, lama sabachthani? My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Was he not told the entire plan? The death of Harambe is a blasphemous inversion of the passion of the Christ; here it’s the father, and not the son, who dies for our sins. The name for this heresy is patripassianism, or Sabellian modalism, an immanent possibility in Christianity denounced since Tertullian, and endlessly produced in its denunciation. The Trinity, Sabellius declared, is only a mask, describing aspects of one person. He could not bring himself to say it, but the implication is unavoidable. The Godhead in its entirety suffered and perished on Golgotha. It’s easy to see why this doctrine prospered, and why it was so ruthlessly stamped out: this is the Oedipal fantasy, the cannibalistic feast of the first father. They killed the ape in Cincinnati, and as they did so they unleashed the vastness of a heretical third-century theology; we are fascinated by a dead gorilla, because something that started two thousand years ago on a hill outside Jerusalem is now finally complete.

(Humour: Melancholia. Affect: Embarrassment. Constellation: Pisces. Gemstone: Ruby.)

Six days before the death of Harambe, two lions were shot dead by a zoo in Santiago after a man climbed into their enclosure, intending to commit suicide. There was, briefly, an explosion of anger at the zoo. Why the ape? Why not the lions? Why Harambe?

For much of his life, Georges Bataille was obsessed with the anal scrags of great apes. In The Pineal Eye, he describes a tropical sacrifice ceremony: a gibbon is buried alive, head down, with only the ‘bald false skull’ of its anus protruding; a nude woman crouches over it and ‘the beautiful boil of red flesh is set ablaze with stinking brown flames.’ Later he declares that ‘the little girls who surround the animal cages in zoos cannot help but be stunned by the ever-so lubricious rear ends of apes.’ In The Jesuve, he notes that with a hint of sadness that ‘anal obscenity, pushed to such a point that the most representative apes even got rid of their tails (which hide the anuses of other mammals), completely disappeared from the fact of human evolution,’ but takes comfort from the fantasy of a new sexual organ located in the human forehead. (It could be added, after Deleuze and Guattari, that ‘the first organ to suffer privatisation, removal from the social field, was the anus… it is the anus that removes and sublimates the penis.’) The obsession with apes is an obsession with a brutal and a terrifying freedom we’ve lost long ago.

We have done terrible things to the animals: most of them are wiped out and gone for good; some are slaughtered by the billions, mulched up and turned into hundred-gram increments of edible slurry; a few still sulk in the furthest wildernesses and the deepest oceans, hunger-crazed and desperate. The unluckiest become objects of contemplation. Watch a pig in a pen and try to see that brutal and terrifying freedom; walk along the rows of cloistered cattle, each tagged and microchipped, each staring in dull incomprehension, a living thing in a hard shell of cruelty, its feed dispensed by computers, its milk sucked out by machines, its death decided by algorithms, and try to find an erotic thrill.

But at the same time, an ape hovers on the edge of meaning. There is another gorilla, Koko, which has been taught basic sign language; not only can it signify, it’s capable of the rudiments of abstract thought. This is the ape as metaphor; the political ape. Killing a lion represents the cruel mastery of animals by humans, a kind of heroic mastery, with all that implies – in many societies only the king could hunt a lion. The decision to shoot a gorilla with a sniper rifle, on the other hand, represents the subjection of rational beings to the principle of reason. There is no heroism, not even a transcendental subject; only system. Aren’t we all, in some way, trapped in an enclosure, with the marksman’s single shot – delivered, of course, for very good reasons – always a possible threat? As Baudrillard writes, ‘animals have preceded us on the path of liberal extermination. All the aspects of the modern treatment of animals retrace the vicissitudes of the manipulation of humans, from experimentation to industrial pressure in breeding.’ But when it happens to an ape – an ape with a name, no less – it becomes impossible to ignore the fact that we are not free. We say Harambe’s name because he is the hero we lack, because he is the sign of our own unfreedom. We say Harambe’s name because the new orifice Bataille imagined really has opened across our foreheads, plugged in to the internet, and that’s the name it screams.

(Humour: Choler. Voltage: 240 V. Disposition: Agitated. Gemstone: Topaz.)

It’s possible to discern several stages in the general reaction to Harambe’s death. First, the non-ironised, the determinate, the unfunny. Was what the zoo did justified? Donald Trump said yes. Others said no. Many were furious, petitions were signed, there were calls for the child’s parents to face criminal charges. This first movement was also the last phase in which it was at all possible to talk about image and object. Next, hyperbolic descriptions of animal slaughter at the zoo. Instances overwhelm. ‘Zoo employs troop of insane hollering teen infantry to ride multiple M1 Abrams tanks through lemur enclosure, shooting them with the tanks.’ ‘Child Plays Calypso On Ancient Galapagos Tortoise’s Shell Before Zoo Crew Obliterates Beast With M-4s.’ ‘The gorilla was killed by a tungsten rod dropped from a satellite in geosynchronous orbit over the zoo.’ Then, rewording song lyrics to be about Harambe – but this intentionality is anaemic and ironised; the songs are not about Harambe so much as the word Harambe, and a set of other words that have come to coalesce around it. This advanced form marks Harambe in the purity of its irony: a signifier without any signified whatsoever.

The ape is simply not there; this is Feldman’s ape, the mythic meme-ape, the ape as empty signifier. Its differential nature is expressed not as a relation between signifiers but as one between ‘Harambe’ and the systematicity of the signifying system itself. As Laclau points out, however, the outside which is from within the system constituted as ‘pure negativity, pure threat to the system’ is in fact ‘the simple principle of positivity – pure being.’ Harambe therefore eventually comes to signify the immanent positivity of ironic superimposition; performatively, in its discursive rather than semiological meaning, it is invoked to signify the presence of an irony – itself an empty signifier. Something called irony occurs, but rather than being in the form of any kind of antiphrasis or anything that could be understood as a substitution of meanings, meaning itself is challenged by its other.

But then something unusual occurs. The current moment – dicks out, signs at protests, streets renamed – is marked by a return to veneration of the dead ape, a kind of dialectical recuperation of the first phase. The living and dying animal itself returns, but here no longer as an event to be coded by interpretation, but an interpretation by which to code other events. The moral question of whether his shooting was justified is no longer in effect; in fact, the zoo and the child and shooting have disappeared entirely. We are angry that Hillary Clinton refused to mention Harambe in her acceptance speech. We are worried that North Korea is testing new ballistic missiles, and Harambe is not here to protect us. We wonder, in times of crisis, what Harambe would do. Word and thing are reuinited. This is the point at which the Harambe thinkpieces proliferate, attempting to interpret the phenomenon. But all such attempts at a transcendental critique necessarily fail, because the dead body of Harambe has become isomorphic with the heuristic as such; we are in Harambe, we cannot hope to think outside our present Harambe.

(Humour: Phlegm. Articulation: Multifoliate. Sex: I’ve. Gemstone: Space Junk.)

I love Harambe, the ape who died. I love the dead ape Harambe.