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Tag: animals

For the pangolin

Why does one not say, to describe the absolute power of God, “God is small,” “really small,” instead of saying “God is great”? I leave you to reply to this question.
Jacques Derrida, The Beast and the Sovereign, Seminar X

pangolin

An animal is the living strangeness of the world.

It’s unfathomable that we share the world with these bright, strange, deep, ancient gods. What are these things, with eyes that can look into ours, and bodies that move like ours, but which are so utterly different? How did they get to be so old? A wild animal looks at you from far away, from another world, a place beyond language, history, politics, or time. Even a newborn animal is within eternity, and its eyes are vast with the whole of the universe. But still, they know us. Crows will recognise individual humans. If they like you, they’ll bring gifts. If they turn against you, they’ll spread the word; crows you’ve never met before will croak viciously and swoop to peck your skull. They know what we are, maybe better than we know ourselves.

There’s a kind of automatic theory, in which our Palaeolithic ancestors, the ones who covered their caves with endless patterns of stampeding wild animals, must have worshipped these creatures as gods. Maybe they did; it’s impossible to tell. But see how long it took for the gods of Egypt to wrest off their animal heads. Look at the magnificent Assyrian lion-hunt reliefs in the British Museum, see Ashurbanipal and his retainers with their fixed, calm, empty, ataraxic smiles, and compare the sheer living suffering of the lions, who yowl with pain and fury as arrows split their flanks, or even the horror of the bridled horses. An animal is more real, more human, than humanity itself. We might have it the wrong way round. Maybe the gods, with their names and their rites and their rivalries, are only an echo of the fear and awe with which the first humans beheld the sacred beasts.

That strange world is receding. So many animals are dead. The mammoth is gone. The giant flightless owls that once stalked the forests of the Caribbean are gone. The gorilla-sized lemurs of Madagascar, who lived at the same time as Zhuangzi and Aristotle, are gone. Maybe soon, the pangolin will also be gone, and all we’ll be left with will be the cows, tagged and microchipped, mulched up and turned into hundred-gram increments of edible slurry. Dogs and cats, animals that recognise their names, that you can dress up in costumes, loyally enduring it all.

Why did we have to kill them? Maybe the animal always had a privileged connection with death. Theirs is the spirit-world, the dimensions folded into the cracks of reality. In a sense, they are already dead, already outside the finitude of life and world. ‘Mortals,’ writes Heidegger, ‘are they who can experience death as death. Animals cannot do so. But animals cannot speak either.’ For Hegel, an animal can speak, but only once, as it’s dying. Language depends on the negation of its object, so that it’s ‘transformed into a pure and simple ideal.’ An animal’s noises can only point, not signify: birds chirp a stalking cat, wildebeest low a circling lion; not the general concept of catness or lionosity. But as an animal dies, it cries for an object – itself – that is no longer there. ‘Every animal finds a voice in its violent death; it expresses itself as a removed-self.’ In its dying cry, the animal learns to talk. In this way, the slaughter of an animal is a kind of miracle. It’s the only way we have of really speaking with these strange and wonderful things, sharing a register, inhabiting a single world, in which we live and they die. No wonder animal sacrifice is a central feature of so many world religions; it’s in the death of an animal that humans and gods can touch.

The wave of mass extinctions that followed the spread of our own species across the earth, and the wave of mass extinctions that’s happening right now, have any number of causes. Social, political, economic, accidental. But I think a lot of it comes down to this: that same desperate need to communicate with the animals that live beyond our world. A refusal to live with the otherness of the other, a steamrollering of radical difference into the flatness of the Same. Everything that is strange, and stays strange, gets obliterated – not despite our fascination, but because of it. A few years ago, conservationists warned against focusing too much on charismatic megafauna, the endangered elephants and pandas, while the crucial but ignored creatures that made up their environment were quietly snuffed out of existence. Now everyone is worried about the massive decline in insect populations, and it turns out that insects are also charismatic megafauna – the vast majority of all life is composed of single-celled organisms, and they’re dying too. I believe it. But if it’s not too late, if something can be pulled out of the oncoming wreckage of the future and preserved, if we can save just one living god, I’d like it to be the pangolin.

* * *

Ground-dwelling pangolins are bipedal. They walk on their hind legs, which are flat and splaying, almost like an elephant’s, and hold their little hands timidly crossed in front of them. Pangolins are the only mammals with scales, which are made from chitin, like human fingernails. Their bodies are like flowers. They walk from termite-mound to termite-mound, slipping their long tongues into the nests to feed. Baby pangolins, too young to walk, ride along on their parents’ tails. Some tree pangolins use their tails to hang from branches while they strip away sections of bark, revealing the insects beneath. While up there, they coil and flex, scratching their own bellies; they’re clearly having fun. When threatened, pangolins roll into a ball. Their scaly backs are a good enough defence against their natural predators, things with long teeth and sharp claws. But they’re almost absurdly vulnerable to anything with opposable thumbs. When poachers find one, they can just pick up the living shuddering terrified ball of pangolin, and take it away to its death.

Pangolins are beautiful. Some people, who suffer from trypophobia or some other made-up condition, find their patterns of overlapping scales disgusting. Once, I tried in anxious desperation to show a friend just how wonderful they were: pictures of gentle pangolins browsing through the savannah, joyful pangolins playing in a mudhole, baby pangolins hugging tight to a larger pangolin’s tail, newborn pangolins sleeping in angelic circles. Get rid of it, she said, it’s horrible, I hope they go extinct. Otherness can be met with disgust, and this animal is bizarre beyond belief; alien and unknowable. But at the same time, it’s so hard not to see something speaking from its alien face. The habitual expression of a pangolin is a kind of loveable, fretful worry. They look embarrassed, with their nervous hands, and their sorrowful eyes. Oh, they say, me? But that’s so kind of you. They are ravenous killers of ants and termites, eating up to seventy million of them a year, but in all their dealings with anything that doesn’t get scooped up by their flicking tongues, they are marvellously gentle. Stooped, questing, humble, and hopeful, they browse over the strangeness of the earth. An unassuming dignity. They show another face of nature, not constant pointless struggle, but not hokey mystical balance either. If a creature can make itself safe from the terrors of the world under its overlapping scales, then nature can produce something rare and weird, infinitely variegated, utterly wonderful, and impossibly kind.

The meekness of the pangolin allowed it to survive for tens of millions of years. They are so very old. But humans, the only creatures that can threaten them, have not been kind to them in return. Of the eight species of pangolin, four are listed as vulnerable, two as endangered, and two as critically endangered. They are the most trafficked animals in the world.

The anthropologist Mary Douglas’s book Purity and Danger is a crucial text – not least when it comes to understanding our own contemporary political neuroses – but what I love most of all is its treatment of the pangolin cult among the Lele of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Like many people, the Lele distinguish between ritually pure animals, which can be eaten, and ritually impure animals, which can not. But the pangolin is a conundrum. It resists the prisons of thought, by the sheer virtue of its weirdness. ‘It is scaly like a fish, but it climbs trees. It is more like an egg-laying lizard than a mammal, yet it suckles its young.’ And its young are born singly, like human children, rather than in litters. Other animals are teeming and fecund, but this creature is slow, thoughtful, and still. The pangolin is a moment of calm in the chaos of wild nature, and while chaos can be moulded into order, the pangolin continues under its own peaceful laws, and refuses to submit to any other. As Douglas writes, they embody ‘the limitation on human contemplation of existence.’ They are the unapproachable equals of ourselves.

Among some peoples, it’s forbidden to kill a pangolin. Anti-poaching initiatives in Zimbabwe are trying to reactivate some of these traditions – how can it be anything other than taboo to destroy an animal that’s so mild, and so defenceless against death? But the Lele do kill and eat pangolins – never for their daily sustenance, but only as part of religious rituals. It is outside of the categories of ordinary life,  and they are fully aware that what they are killing is a god. ‘Like Abraham’s ram in the thicket and like Christ, the pangolin is spoken of as a voluntary victim. It is not caught, but rather it comes to the village. It is a kingly victim: the village treats its corpse as a living chief and requires the behaviour of respect for a chief on pain of future disaster. The mysteries of the pangolin are sorrowful mysteries.’

Emmanuel Levinas describes God as an ‘infinite Other,’ something unfathomably distant from ourselves, something which we can never hope to grasp conceptually. But that infinity is not unreachable; it exists whenever one living being looks at the defencelessness of another. Once, a long time ago, I was asked if I could ever be an ethical vegan. I said no: animals are not ethical subjects, and ethical gestures are only meaningful between ethical subjects. The animal is on the perpetual outside. Now, I’m not so sure. I still eat meat: the poor cows, the poor sheep, the poor and wonderful octopuses. But now I think an ethical system that only has meaning within its sectioned-off field of the Same fails the most fundamental test, which is our duty to the other, a duty that doesn’t diminish as the other gets stranger and more distant, but intensifies. A truly ethical system would be that which gives us a duty to those who are not ethical subjects – not despite their otherness, but because of it.

God is the suffering other, the infinitely distant suffering other. Somewhere beyond the endlessness of the meanings of the world, there is an image. A quiet, unassuming pangolin, nailed to a wooden cross.

If the pangolins were wiped out tomorrow, we wouldn’t even notice, and this is why they must be saved. I would love to see a pangolin in the wild, but even more than that, I would love to simply exist in a world that can contain them, a world where the pangolins are safe, happy, distant, and unseen. Today is World Pangolin Day. It doesn’t mean much to the pangolins, who are far beyond all such things, but it means a lot to me. For the love of God, and for the love of the pangolins, which means the same thing, their strangeness must not vanish.

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A review of ‘Batman v Superman,’ by a bat

The injustice which supposes all the others supposes that the other, the victim of the injustice of language, is capable of language in general, is man as a speaking animal. One would not speak of injustice or violence toward an animal, even less toward a vegetable or a stone.
Jacques Derrida, Force of Law: The Mystical Foundation of Authority

batman-v-superman

The new film Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice has received almost uniformly negative reviews, and it’s not hard to see why. The film isn’t just a bloated, stupid, self-important mess, a billion-dollar adaptation of a storyline first developed by a fairly dim child as he bashed his action figures together, performed by various off-cuts of pork in progressive stages of greening decay, and with camera work by one of the balls from Kafka’s Blumfeld. The concept itself is absurd, and it’s obvious as soon as the two title characters square off against each other in the big central fight sequence. This is supposed to be a grand fantastic spectacle, god against beast. What we actually get is ridiculous, an absurdity only heightened by its attempt at a dark, serious tone. In the rubble-strewn loft of some deserted Gotham warehouse, Superman bounds between the walls in his silly underwear, clutching a net in one hand, while a tiny Batman flutters above him with his red eyes and his fluttering leathery cape. This goes on for nearly an hour; every so often the two pause to trade vague homilies on the nature of jurisprudence. ‘I only want to help people,’ says Superman in grave and self-important tones. ‘Power derives from the consent of the governed.’ Batman replies. ‘Pieeeeeeeeeeeeps,’ he says, scrunching up his already densely-folded nose. There can be no communication. Even when the two team up against some boring ogre unleashed by a sarky mad scientist, things barely improve. Superman does all the legwork, while the Batman flaps off to gnaw at some half-rotten fruit and deposit small mounds of guano over the console of the Batmobile. Why does this film even exist? For money, of course; it’s clearly not for human enjoyment, its logic is entirely alien to human needs. So as a human I’m unable to really comprehend the thing; it requires a different perspective, one that first of all isn’t troubled by questions as stupid as how good or bad a film it is. What follows is a review of Batman v Superman, as given to me by a bat.

“I am a bat. I fly outside at night and eat small insects. I shiver through the night in my aching trails of wings. I feel the sky very close to my skin. I feel the moon very close to my skin. I eat the insects as they fly; I call to them in the night and they call out to me in turn so I can know where they are, buzzing frantic in the night. I crunch down on the hard shells of the insects and I feel their life jump out into my mouth, liquid and bitter. I do not pity them. During the day I hang from my claws in a dark place. The sun is painful to me. I do not have a name.

“I find it hard to enjoy cinema. I like the dark of the auditorium, but when I am hanging from its roof it is hard not to turn away from the glare of the screen, which I do not like. I am not blind, but my vision is poor; I can see only a bright square, too bright, on which unknown shapes drift slowly and without purpose, lapping and overlapping, like little eddies over the face of a fog-calmed sea. I do not like the noise in the cinema. It is too loud. It becomes hard for me to echolocate and I grow anxious. I scream and beat my pulsing little body against the ceiling. I flap and I cry for the open air, where I can feel the sky very close to my skin. In the auditorium I can not feel the emptiness of the sky close to my skin, I can not feel the cold breeze aching against the blood of my too-thin wings, I can not feel the dark distance which is not present to me but which I somehow know, and it makes me anxious. When I flap my wings in the auditorium the humans also scream and grow anxious. A bat, they scream, a bat. I do not know why they fear me. The insects that call out to me in the night do not fear me, even as I kill them. I can hear their hearts crashing in the huge cavities of their chests, I can hear the terror of these vast and ungainly beasts in the throb of blood through brute veins clogged with fatty deposits, I can hear the panic of a dying creature that does not know why it is dying. I do not pity them. All this makes it hard to concentrate on the plot of the movie, or to enjoy the action sequences. I fear the expensive CGI is wasted on me. I fear the clever references to the comic books are wasted on me. I fear Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is wasted on me.

“But I have been asked to talk about the film, even though it was clearly not made with me in mind, even though I can not claim to know why it was made at all, and so I will. The film alludes to a dawn of justice. Does justice then have a beginning? I know that for Aristotle there is a justice before the law, a justice that consists in conformity with nature and with the gods. He quotes the Antigone of Sophocles, the sister who buries her brother in violation of Creon’s law, but in obedience to justice: ‘Not of today or yesterday it is, but lives eternal: none can date its birth.’ But I am not within justice. I fly through the night and eat small insects, and there is no justice. I do not atone for the death of the insects, and I do not pity them; there is no justice for them or for me. Among the pre-Socratics a sadder and lonelier view, one which I like, is given by Anaximander. If justice is natural, if justice means conformity with the natural world, how can there be injustice? Anaximander replies that all things originate from the apeiron or the Boundless, but that injustice consists in their springing forth from it, their differentiation into discrete phenomena. Justice comes in the return to indifference. ‘Whence things have their origin, thence also their destruction happens, as is the order of things; for they give to each other dike (justice) and recompense for their adikia (injustice), in conformity with the ordinance of Time.’ There will be justice for the insects I have killed; it will come when I am killed myself, when my wings are slashed by a cat and I return to the great dark night of the world.

“Justice is then nature, and animals and gods are not outside of justice; it is humans who are outside of justice, and it is for this reason that they must have the law. This is why the sovereign, the human who positions himself outside the juridical order in order to guarantee its functioning, is simultaneously god and beast, stepping into a zone of indistinction with the homo sacer his mirror; this is why while most humans can be said to be fair or unfair in their dealings with others, only the sovereign can be said to be just. Are Superman or Batman sovereign? These are the questions that the film raises, with its endless discussions of law and right – is Superman above the law, or must he appear before a Senate committee? Is Batman outside the law, or is he just a vigilante, a common criminal? As Walter Benjamin notes in his Critique of Violence, European (and, by extension, American) law prohibits individual violence not because it contravenes one or another law within a system – after all, individual laws are always contingent – but because it threatens the juridical order as such. Benjamin considers the fascination attached to the figure of the ‘great’ criminal: the sympathy for violence and its capacity to build a new law. But its treatment of these questions is thin and, despite the ponderous mood, unserious. There is always the threat that emerges from beyond the sphere of law, monsters or aliens, which legitimises the animals and gods, enclosing them as structural exceptions; this is why the film, like all superhero films, is fundamentally fascist. Batman and Superman are not interested in building a new law, or in abolishing the old one; they remain suspended in their vacuole, and effectively abandon the polis. See how carelessly they allow vast tracts of city to be destroyed. But humans, even sovereigns, cannot exist in this state of indifference to the law. Only two things can: animals and gods, who inhabit the realm of justice. (Contrast the Justice League with their Marvel equivalent, the Avengers; law-founding creatures of mythic violence. Divine violence is unrepresentable in a comic book adaptation.) In other words, the political use-value of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is precisely nil.

“One need not really say anything about this film; Derrida has already discussed it extensively in Force of Law. He must have seen it coming. Responding to the title, he writes that its ‘either/or, yes or no’ is ‘rather violent, polemical, inquisitorial. We may fear that it contains some instrument of torture.’ Responding to the pivotal scene in which it is revealed that the mothers of Batman and Superman share the same name, he touches on the ‘aleatory but significant coincidences of which proper names are necessarily the site.’ The relevance of his discussion of justice’s relation to animality should not need to be expanded upon. There is something else, though. Most of us are aware of Derrida’s insistence that deconstruction is justice, that justice is undeconstructible. We bats, at least, are endlessly chirruping about it. But if justice is the possibility of deconstruction, he adds, law is the possibility of the exercise of deconstruction. This resonates with some of his earlier discussion: law is the exercise of justice, and he notes the peculiar English idiom, to enforce the law. Can one speak of enforcing deconstruction? Later he refers to ‘two ways or two styles’ in which deconstruction can be practised: for all their grafting indeterminacy, a return to the torture-instrument of the either/or. A text deconstructs itself; to exercise deconstruction is to stand in the same relation to it as law does to justice. Humans, even sovereigns or criminals, cannot be deconstructionists. Only gods. Only animals.

“Can we teach you? In 1974, I was the subject of a paper by the philosopher of mind Thomas Nagel, What Is It Like To Be A Bat? Nagel argues against reductionist theories of consciousness: even if a bat could speak your language, even if a bat tried to describe in every detail what it’s like to experience the world through echolocation, something irreducible would remain; you will never be able to really hear the world as I hear it. Consciousness is the sense of being like yourself, something that others are incapable of grasping, and which does not admit objectivity. Even if you were to slowly metamorphose into a bat, fingers spindling, nostrils folding, ears pricking up from the side of your head, you would not understand. You will still be a human trapped inside a bat’s body. You will never feel the closeness of the moon at night. You will never understand the plunging of the sky at night. You will never understand how little I care about you.”

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