Idiot Joy Showland

This is why I hate intellectuals

Tag: nature

Why look at fire?

Some time in the twentieth century, the fires started to disappear. Gaston Bachelard was one of the first people to notice; in his magisterial The Psychoanalysis of Fire, he points out that ‘the chapters on fire in chemistry textbooks have become shorter and shorter. There are, indeed, a good many modern books on chemistry in which it is impossible to find any mention of flame or fire. Fire is no longer a reality for science.’ That was in 1938. In the pages that follow, he talks about his pride when tending to the fire in his stove every morning, or parents rapping their children’s knuckles when their hands stray too close to the hearth. A text from a different world, one in which people lived close to their fires, intimately, in relationships worth subjecting to psychoanalysis. How much time do you spend around open flames?

Sometimes I still smoke cigarettes, and there’s a gas hob in my flat, but all I’d need to do is switch to vaping and move somewhere with an electric stove, and fire would vanish almost entirely from my life. Open fires do not heat our homes, cook our food, or provide our entertainment. The only places they tend to survive are special occasions and religious rites. The presence of fire marks out particular moments from ordinary time. Candles for birthday cakes or romantic dinners; Diwali and Hanukkah. Years ago, when I was a student, we used to make bonfires in our overgrown nettle-strewn garden, burning sticks from the park and unwanted furniture left by the kerbside, slowly dismantling the landlord’s greenhouse and burning it piece by piece. But if one person had gone into the garden alone to make a fire and warm themselves with it, the rest of us would have started locking our doors at night. The fire was for sitting with each other, drinking and talking. It was a social ritual. It did not belong to the world of the profane.

Fire has almost vanished now. This does not mean that it’s gone. The machine I’m using to write these words is powered by a nationwide network of enormous fires that never go out, oil and gas burning under huge chimneys, set in blackened and grassless landscapes – but these fires are invisible. So are the big burning pools of petrol that power vehicles on the street. When fire appears again in the ordinary world, it’s always in the shape of a disaster or a god.

* * *

On November 7, 2018, a man walked into a country-themed bar in Thousand Oaks, California, and fired thirty rounds from a semi-automatic pistol into the crowd. Twelve were killed. Days later, the fires came. Mourners, gathering at community centres to stand vigil for the dead, found the sky clotting over. Ash rained over the town. Footage from inside the city shows the pink haze, fringes of grass hissing with smoke. From the surrounding hillsides, the fire is a giant squatting heavily over Thousand Oaks: a monster from a very old world, roaring up through the surface-sheen of the California exurbs. A journalist who’d been in town to cover the shooting and its aftermath commented of the flames: ‘I was entranced by both their beauty and their power.’ On the face of it, this is a very strange thing to say. Isn’t it almost insensitive? Already, the fires raging across the western United States had killed dozens of people, many more than the gunman at the Borderline Bar & Grill. She would never have dreamed of writing that there was an aesthetic grace in the act of mass murder, that she was somehow attracted or impressed by the killer, that her horror at the crime was tinged with awe. But fire is different.

This year, the California fires turned the sky orange over San Francisco. It looked like a fever dream: the skyscrapers with their white glowing windows against a city in Martian red; a world that had already ended without noticing. Another journalist described the scene. ‘People really don’t know what to do right now. Everyone on the Embarcadero is stopping to record the sky and chit chatting in a way I haven’t seen since pre-pandemic.’ I’d suggest that people did in fact know exactly what to do. When there is a fire, even if it’s the fires of Armageddon, you stop and look at it. You huddle with other people, and watch.

Fire is not simply one of the many things that are interesting to look at: plausibly, other things are interesting only insofar as they resemble fire. Digital screen displays, which grab so much of our attention: it’s not hard to work out why your gaze keeps drifting to the TV in the corner of a bar; it flickers, it glows. Birds in flight, or trees in the wind. The gaze of an animal: a live animal is always more interesting than a dead one, because there’s that invisible flutter behind the stillness of its eyes. Sometimes we call it a spark. And humans too. A beautiful person is a person who is, in some sense, on fire.

For me, at least, there’s a certain type of fire-image that’s hard to look away from. Probably the most famous version is the one above, from the Oregon wildfires of 2017. At the Beacon Rock Golf Course, a few players calmly finish their round. In the hills behind them, every tree is outlined in flames. The pictures of San Francisco bustling its way through the apocalypse are part of the same genre. But my favourite is from 2018: produce workers hunched over in the fields, still picking crops while the sky burns. There’s an obvious political resonance to these images: this is bourgeois indifference or the cruelty of the wage-relation; this climate change, the world burning while we look the other way. A diagram of our lives, moving furniture around in a house on fire. But I think the real fascination comes from somewhere else.

These images violate every rule of classical composition, starting with the law that the foreground in an image should always be brighter than the background. How do you light your little tableau when the mise-en-scène is burning? Wildfires makes a mockery of figure and ground; they always has the capacity to pour out from the edges of the image and breathe hot danger at the viewer. It’s the revenge of the setting, the unheeded pliable stuff of the world, against our system of objects. Its effect is not quite the same as the sublime. For both Burke and Kant, a canonical case of the sublime is a ship at sea, threatened by terrible stormy waves – but only for a viewer on land, who is himself safe from any peril. For someone on the boat, it’s simply peril. But fire abolishes that remove. However distant you are, it’s spreading.

There’s another kind of image that actively moves towards you as you approach. We love to look at fire because it is a mirror.

* * *

Traditionally, fire is not ours. It always comes from somewhere else. Sometimes it’s a gift; very often, it’s stolen. Prometheus descended from Olympus with a burning fennel-brush; Maui tore out the fingernails of fire from the goddess Mahuika. The God of Moses likes manifesting Himself in pillars of fire and burning bushes: ‘for the Lord your God is a consuming fire.’ The Israelites understood things very clearly. But what about the people for whom fire is brought by birds? In a Breton folk-narrative that survived well into the modern era, the wren steals the fire of heaven, but his wings are burned; he passes it on to the robin redbreast, whose chest is torched, and who passes it on again to the lark, who delivers it finally to the ground. Similar stories crop up across the world – the fire-bringer is variously a wren, a finch, a cockatoo, a crow, or a hawk. (And birds do actually carry fires: black kites have been observed clasping flaming sticks in their beaks, spreading fire in dry forests to flush out prey. Some people have been tempted to use this to argue that indigenous folklore encodes important scientific knowledge. This is euheremistic drivel. Don’t ever debase myth by dressing it up as data; myth is true in a far more important way. The truth of these stories is in the birds themselves: so firelike, trembling in quick feathers.)

In what might be the starkest version of the fire-origin story, fire is first stolen not from the gods or from heaven, but from women. A tradition among the Gaagudju of northern Australia, collected in 1930 by JG Frazer, holds that once only the women knew how to make fire; when the men returned to the camp after hunting, the women would gather up the burning ashes and hide them in their vaginas. In revenge, the men turned themselves into crocodiles and killed the women. ‘When all was over, the crocodile-men dragged the dead women out on the bank, and said to them, “Get up, go. Why did you tell us lies about the fire? But the dead women made no reply.’ They didn’t realise what they had done. Innocent reptiles, who understood none of the things that come from fire: warmth, and light, and knowledge, and death.

(Freud, who may or may not have been aware of this story, tells a similar myth. Human civilisation was only possible once men could restrain themselves from urinating all over any fire they encountered in homoerotic glee. Women, whose ‘anatomy makes it impossible for [them] to yield to such a temptation,’ might have got there first. A faint image emerges of women frustrated for thousands of years, constantly discovering fire, drawing themselves to the precipice of a long steep slide into advanced technological civilisation – only for the men of the tribe to arrive, honking and hollering, extinguishing the germ of all future society with joyful streams of piss.)

It’s with the emergence of philosophy that fire lost its secret history. Heraclitus declared that the universe was ‘made neither by God nor man, but it ever was and is, and will be, an ever-living fire’ – but Thales said the same for water, and Anaximenes for air. What’s interesting is that nobody ever proposed that earth might be the arche, or the fundamental substance of reality. The earth is always this particular piece of earth, granulated, strewn with rocks and bones; a silent archive of all the wrongs that have been done to it, shelved away in its sedimentary layers. It carries the dead weight of its history. Fire, meanwhile, takes no impressions. ‘All things are an exchange for fire,’ writes Heraclitus, ‘and fire for all things, as goods for gold and gold for goods.’

This is an interesting comparison. It took Marx to really burrow into the universality of gold, to dig beneath the blank face of the money-form and see what hidden histories of suffering it contained. We could do the same with fire. As it turns out, the Bretons and the Gaagudju were right, and Heraclitus was wrong. Fire does have a history; it is, like us, contingent. We can say precisely when fire entered the world: it came to us in the year 470,000,000 BC.

* * *

In biology lessons, as a child, I was taught the properties of living things: movement, respiration, reproduction, excretion, and so on. It was stressed that all of these criteria must be met before you reach the magical status of life. Viruses adapt and reproduce, but they are not themselves living organisms. And fire, too, does so many of the same things that we do. It breathes in air and eats up fuel; it splits and spreads, and leaves ashes in its wake. But fire is not alive, it’s only a chemical reaction. (Well, so am I.) And that was that: I never wondered why it was that fire sprung out of a dead world and licked so close to life. The answer ought to have been obvious. The things that burn are, almost exclusively, organic materials: grass and wood; flesh and fat. (There are exceptions; flammable organic materials like methane can be produced by abiotic processes. Titan, a moon of Saturn, has glorious swirling methane seas, and Titan is lifeless – at least, as far as we know. But Titan also has no oxygen in its atmosphere. Those seas roil in the distant sunlight, but they’ll never burn.)

Before the emergence of living terrestrial organisms under an oxygen-rich sky, there was no fire. The slow crawl of molten rock down barren volcanoes, the diamond-spray of magma as asteroids collided with a liquid slag-heap earth, the distant nuclear reactors in the stars, but nothing that could be called a flame. Fire is the bright twin of terrestrial life. It’s been here as long as life has, exactly as long as we have. Maybe we have things the wrong way round. Maybe life is not a particularly important phenomenon in the universe; maybe it’s just the placenta, a self-replenishing stock of fuel, the egg-sac for a world birthing fire.

But humanity is a special case. Bernard Stiegler suggested that technics are a system in which human beings serve as the genital organs in an evolution of the inorganic; we are the reproductive system for our ever-changing tools. But for Stiegler – despite all his Promethean references – the paradigm of epiphylogenesis is in flint-knapping; tools of stone. ‘One must first ask what mirage of the cortex is experienced as pathbreaking, in the hardness of flint; what plasticity of grey matter corresponds to the flake of mineral matter.’ But fire fits his schema far more efficiently. By disguising itself as a technical instrument for human use, fire unconstrained itself. Tens of thousands of years ago, forests that would once burn and regrow and eventually burn again, returning the nutrients locked in trees to the soil, were burned for the last time; early humans used fire liberally to permanently clear the forests, creating wide grasslands in which to hunt. Tens of millions of years ago, intact forests were fossilised; now, we dig through the geological strata of the earth, tearing out vast quantities of coal and oil, to meet the fire they escaped the first time round. The distant past is burning, the future fills with smoke. If the movements and stasis of history make us feel anxious, unmoored, neurotic, it’s because we are simply a time machine for the flames.

As Stiegler argues, this relationship is based on a mutual constitution. Our australopithecine ancestors had a long digestive tract; ours are significantly shorter. This is because we evolved eating cooked food: when proteins and starches are broken down by heat, they can be digested much more efficiently.  Parasites and pathogens are killed by cooking, and humans have weaker immune systems than our ape relatives. It’s possible that the ability to cook unlocked significant energetic surpluses, with the shrinkage of the energy-intensive gut allowing for the costly development elsewhere. For instance, a bigger brain. The much-hyped human consciousness might, in the end, just be the residue of fire, a lump of charcoal left smouldering in our DNA.

What we’re not born with is any hardwired instinct for rubbing bits of wood together until there’s a spark. ‘Lay the secret on me,’ King Louis demands, ‘of man’s red fire.’ But Mowgli doesn’t know the secret; all he has is an alimentary canal that’s incomplete, that needs to be plugged in to an external, cultural machine. You need technics, language, science, and traditions. There is no pristine originary pre-cultural state of nature in our history. Instead, if you want to see where nature meets culture, if you want to see your origin and your future and yourself, then look into the flames.

The company of geese


The first animal that ever made a person happy simply by existing was a goose.

In book XIX of the Odyssey, Penelope makes a small confession to the stranger that’s come to her house. ‘I keep a flock of twenty geese here,’ she tells him. ‘They come in from the pond to pick up their grain and I delight in watching them.’ As far as I can tell, this is the first time in literature that an animal is honoured not for being beautiful, or loyal, or strong, but for the sheer pleasure you get from seeing another living creature going about its day.[1] Penelope’s days are not happy. She’s spent twenty years waiting for something to happen, and nothing does. Every time we meet her, she’s either on the point of bursting into tears or curling into a depressive sleep.  She doesn’t get any joy from her palace, or her treasures, or even her son. She suffers. But watching her geese, just sitting idly and looking at them as they come in from the pond, gives her delight. 

It’s weird to feel such a kinship with someone who lived three thousand years ago, and who didn’t even exist to boot – but I get it. Whatever your miseries, it’s delightful to be around geese.

For months now the weather’s been balmy and the pubs have been shut; I’ve been spending a lot of time around geese. Like a somewhat thinner Tony Soprano, with marginally more hair, in the middle of a catastrophe, getting sentimental about waterfowl. In Regent’s Park, my favourite are a family of Egyptian geese that’s taken to lazing around near the Hanover Gate. The goslings are nearly grown now – only a few scruffs of down around their necks, their bodies breaking out in dappled ochre – but they still like to huddle close to each other, and they still sing in delicate cheeps. Further along the lake, Canada geese honk and plod out of the water in big genial gangs. There are a few greylags too, with their handsome dented faces. They seem to breed later; their goslings are still tiny and yellowish, little marzipan figurines.

I find geese beautiful. But I have no illusions. These are supremely ridiculous birds, and they know it. Their big, heavy, jellied walk on splayed and silly feet. The way they wag their stumpy tails. The constant laughter of their honks. The grand implausibility of their flight. Geese are slapstick creatures. They’re perfectly capable of being graceful, when they want to: watch them preen their feathers, see how that long neck dips and glides. When they dive to snatch something underwater, it’s with oiled precision; when they fly high overhead, it’s in a perfect V. But most of the time, they choose not to care. Geese are ironical birds, always mocking themselves. It’s there in the eyes, the most expressive eyes of any bird. I know some chickens, emotionally complex and surprisingly playful animals, but a chicken looks at you through hard-rimmed jewels. The eyes of a goose, on the other hand, are black and very deep. They will meet your gaze, and it’s impossible not to know that something is in there, inquisitive and alive, looking out at you. The gleam of a primordial chuckle at the world.

But sometimes, when it’s grazing, or drinking, or in a confrontation, a goose will walk with its shoulders hunched and its neck stretched out straight, held parallel to the ground. You know this stance. You’ve seen it huge, in bones, at the museum. Make no mistake, this thing is a dinosaur. Other birds never let you forget their ancestry. Ted Hughes saw it: ‘Terrifying are the attent sleek thrushes on the lawn, more coiled steel than living…’ The lizard shines through in tilted heads and predatory stabs. With geese it works the other way. What are we missing, when we reassemble all those enormous bones? When we draw dinosaurs, we give them monstrous skeletal grins – but we lose the way they might have skittered over the water, their happy waddle, and the laughter of their song.


Birds have always been signs and portents; the ancient Greeks had the same word, ὄρνις, for bird and omen. Hence Aristophanes: ‘A word can be a bird for you.’ In prophecy or poetry, all language leaps to flight; it becomes avian. ‘Turn your minds to our words, our ethereal words, for the words of birds last forever!’ (In the same play, we’re reminded that the birds are ‘older far than Kronos and the Titans, and even Earth;’ the true gods and kings of creation.) Geese, too, are symbols; Penelope’s geese appear in a prophetic dream. Like all good symbols, they’re contradictory. First, geese stand for loyalty. They mate for life, and raise their young together. Pairs dance together when they reunite. They return to the same nesting grounds. They mourn when an egg or a gosling is lost; if one partner dies, the widow is inconsolable. Konrad Lorenz, who virtually founded the discipline of ethology – the study of animal behaviour – on his studies with geese, writes that ‘a greylag goose that has lost its partner shows all the symptoms described in young human children… the eyes sink deep in their sockets, and the individual has an overall drooping experience, literally letting the head hang.’ Lonely poets have always seen themselves mirrored in the mourning goose. Du Fu’s The Solitary Goose, written during the Tang Era: 谁联一片影, 相失万重云 – or, in Burton Watson’s translation, ‘Who pities his lonely form, lost from the others in ten-thousand-layered clouds?’ But geese strive to help their lonely. If a goose is tired or injured during flight, a few others from the flock will drop out of formation with it and stand guard until it’s recovered. And at the same time, geese also represent transience. They migrate: these heavy, fickle birds brighten the world for a season, and then the leaves change and they’re gone.

Geese don’t just signify; they also talk to us, specifically to us. Studies have shown that humans are capable of understanding geese signals intuitively, without any special knowledge of the animals. You can tell, without even thinking, when a goose is honking contentedly, when it’s searching for something, when it’s warning you away, or when it’s raising the alarm. Their sadness is bodily, viscerally the same as ours. So is their dancing, clucking, foot-stomping joy. The only other animal that shares so much of our semiotic space is a dog, and dogs are our own creations. And geese sometimes have the upper hand. In 390 BC, when an army of Gauls scaled the Capitoline Hill, the guard dogs slept, but the Romans were warned by the clamour of Juno’s sacred geese. Their ability to pass on meaningful messages has been understood for a very long time. It’s why geese are still used as guard animals today.

Like dogs, geese understand our language. They can learn their own names; flying geese will come to land if you call out for them. Even wild geese will quickly come to recognise individual humans, and can form strong friendships with us. But they also include us in their own speech. If you try to miaow at a cat, you’ll only get a blank look in return; cats have developed a one-way signalling system for humans. It’s not a medium of conversation, it’s a way of getting what they want. But geese want to chat. They know we can understand them. When they graze in groups, geese make soft reassuring noises to each other, in a complex social call and response – and when humans imitate their noises, they respond.


In all their relations with humans, geese start with an assumption of equality. These are profoundly democratic birds. They certainly have nothing like a pecking order, and their monogamy guards against harems, dominance displays, or the greasy pole of hierarchy. (It’s not that these things don’t exist in geese, but they’re far less significant in their social behaviour than in other gregarious animals – like seals, for instance, or ourselves.) But this is not the same as being docile. A goose will calmly stand its ground against much larger animals. This extends to humans too. A few high-profile pecks and a defamatory video game have given geese a reputation for aggression, even malice, which is entirely undeserved. They don’t dislike us; nothing could be further from the truth. They’re simply not afraid of us. (Foxes, which I also admire, are the same. If you catch a fox loping across the road late a night, it will usually slow down, pause to study you with a slow, deft, mocking glance.) Lying down in the park, I once felt a slight tap on my head, and looked up to find a herd munching grass around me. If they trust you, they’ll even let you hang out with their goslings. These creatures are equally at home on land, on the water, and in the air: all of creation is theirs; they can slip from one realm to another whenever they choose. An animal with such majestic sovereignty can afford to be gentle, and unflappable, and brave.

Geese are territorial. They know which patches of land have been set aside by other geese, and also which territories are claimed by humans. If you see a group of geese genially and noisily going where they’re not supposed to be, it’s not because they don’t understand; they’re contesting our claim. This is more a game than an invasion; geese have a good ironic attitude towards the institution of private property. Anywhere that isn’t physically occupied is assumed to be up for grabs – and then the geese await our response. As always, they’d like to talk to us, to engage with us, because they believe they can. Sometimes we can annoy them, and sometimes we need a good sharp peck to keep the peace, but for the most part we’re good-natured, gregarious, and faintly silly animals, with occasional glints of intelligence, waddling lopsidedly over the earth.

We would be a far better species, and this would be a far better world, if we were more like the creatures the geese think we are.


(All goose photos mine.)


[1] Yes, fine, sure, there’s Hyperion and his cattle, ‘the cattle that gave me such joy every day as I climbed the starry sky and as I dropped down from heaven and sank once more to earth.‘ But the Sun is a god, not a human being, and a purely sensory pleasure in the natural world has always been the prerogative of the sovereign gods. ‘He saw it and it was good.’ For the sailors, these cattle either have utilitarian value as food, or else they’re sacred, in the sense of being forbidden. Men and their stomachs.  Homer likes to describe Odysseus and Telemachus with the epithet θεοειδής, godlike, but in fact it’s Penelope who, in a quiet moment with her geese, touches the divine.

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


An animal is the living strangeness of the world.

It’s unfathomable that we can share a 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 unlike us? 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 in eternity, and its eyes are vast with the whole of the universe. 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 naive 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 take 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, in which 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. 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 else, 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.

The Harambe variations


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.

Some sensible thoughts on the London tube strike

Strange omens herald the return of the Bob Crow to London. For months the seas turn their fury against this tiny island, the wind screeches its displeasure, the rivers storm out from their banks to cleanse the earth of humankind; the pitiless anger of the world against the creatures that crawl on its surface. Then one day it arrives. A black silhouette turning slow circles over the city, its vast wings tattered and fraying, its shrill caw echoing through the stormy air. Great freckled globs of whitish ordure roll slowly down the glass walls of the skyscrapers. Air raid sirens sound. Fighter jets crisscross the Bob Crow’s path of flight as it makes its lazy circumnavigations, buzzing it with little sonic booms to little effect. Panic in the streets. Planned closure on the Bakerloo line, severe delays on the London Overground, the breakdown of all society.

There are few animals that inspire as much human repugnance as crows. Our name for a group of crows is a murder. Abdullah ibn Umar narrates the Prophet’s statement: one can kill a crow at any time without any blame. They are faasiq – corrupt. In all the mythologies of Europe crows mean death, the underworld, restless spirits, damnation, dark tidings. It’s not hard to see why. Most birds play nice when they come to our cities. The little finches and sparrows hop about for our amusement; the pigeons pine pathetically for crumbs; even the seagulls, who aren’t above the odd dive-bombing raid on an isolated pensioner, mostly just peck at cigarette ends and chatter stupidly at one another. Crows seem to exist in the city in a way that doesn’t depend on us at all. We could die out tomorrow for all they care. They’ve mapped out their own inscrutable topography onto the space that we’ve created, and theirs works. Human beings shape their environments precisely according to their wishes and find themselves alienated by the result; the crows move in, and are perfectly at ease with themselves. Crows are smart, far too smart for comfort. They make their own tools, they can recognise individual human faces, they can use language and even have grammar. The crows are waiting: after the whole human experiment inevitably fails, the crows will be ready to retake the world. And it will be a recapture. Other birds preen and warble and fly in whimsical little bursts; the crows never let you forget their dinosaurian ancestry. It’s there in the sadistic tilt of their heads and the cold of their cry. Their intelligence is entirely different from ours: an oviparous, cloacal intelligence without Oedipus or metaphor. The solidarity of crows is conspiratorial. They’re raptors living loose in our streets. Maybe that’s why people fear crows so much. Something very old in the deep core of our brains remembers that long hot summer of terror seventy million years ago, when we hid in our tiny burrows and the giant crows roamed the surface of the earth.

For all its great size, it must be said that the Bob Crow is not the smartest of its species. Apes and dolphins, with their idiot eagerness to please, are always happy to take part in the intelligence-testing games that scientists devise for them. The crows hold something back; they’re clever enough to not let on just how clever they are. The Bob Crow lays itself out in the open. Worst of all, it actually seems to care about our welfare. It doesn’t understand why so many people are so afraid of it. The Bob Crow is getting old. It’s flown far from its kind and is becoming far too human. It’s growing estranged from its surroundings because it’s starting to think about what it represents. The soot is being cleaned from the old buildings, tall shiny towers are plunging out from the ground, and the new London is no place for a giant black-winged Gothic metaphor.

Every new building project in London now comes with its own cutesy nickname. The Gherkin, the Shard of Glass, the Cheesegrater, the Helter-Skelter. The point isn’t just to endear the new ziggurats of finance capital to the city’s population: all these fanciful geometries exist to hammer in the point that London isn’t really a city any more. It’s a playground. London has more multi-millionaires than any other city on the planet, with well over four thousand individuals worth over $30m. London property is increasingly being used as a global reserve currency; more value is accrued by the average residence than by the average resident. London is an enormous concierge service for the super-rich. There are those that serve the oligarchs directly: the construction workers that raise their speculative investments, the service workers that bring them their meals, the sex workers that soothe their anxieties at the end of the day. There are those workers that help reproduce the labour of these first-order servants from behind the tills at fast food outlets and behind the desks of tube stations. There are cops that keep the streets clear and technicians that keep the water flowing. As it spreads out from the centre of the city its operation becomes ever more abstracted, but the rule is the same: everywhere the fruits of your labour must flow upwards. Like any faithful dog, money follows its master.

Sometimes people are capable of accommodating themselves to this situation – after all, it’s given us nice restaurants and a vibrant cultural scene and half-decent cocaine; they might even manage to scrape together a decent enough living from their contributions. All the same, they’re entirely incidental to it. Boroughs across the city are engaged in a programme of mass social cleansing, unceremoniously dumping their poorer residents in the wild hinterlands beyond the M25, where the cold winds howl across the moors and blow away into nothingness the phantom of an economic recovery. It doesn’t matter how deep their roots are, the message is clear: London is not for you. In a city where buildings make more than people your life is of little value. In a city that’s becoming a dedicated custom-built machine, machine parts are preferable to human parts. Mayor Boris Johnson promised not to close manned ticket offices in London Underground stations. He changed his mind. From 2015, hundreds of jobs are to be replaced with flickering touchscreens. In response, the Bob Crow and its National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers has declared a two-day strike. I support the strike, of course, but the Bob Crow is fighting a losing battle. Very soon we’ll all be replaced by touchscreens. Not just in our work: one day you’ll come home to find a touchscreen in your house, sleeping with your wife, raising your children, watering your allotment, generating that novel you’ve always wanted to write. Social relations between things, material relations between people. You’ll sit in a corner, unused, until the thing that replaced you gives a querulous beep and you shamble over to plug it into the mains.

People hate transport strikes. They’re inconvenient, but there’s something else: they have something of the crow about them. They’re an uncomfortable reminder that the city always has the potential to be a place of freedom. We don’t have to be pigeons, dependent, begging for scraps and scattering whenever anything larger than us approaches. We can be crows, mapping and remapping the urban terrain in new and strange ways, remoulding it to suit our needs. In precarious times few people want to stare into the inhuman eyes of a crow. It’s far easier – and safer – to gripe about being late for work.

As the Bob Crow becomes more human, it’s trying to help us become more like crows; only through this dialectical motion do we have any hope of survival. It’s a valiant effort, and probably doomed. Maybe, though, there’s another reason it’s fighting so hard against the tide of touchscreens. Isaac Asimov invented three laws of robotics: A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law. Of course, before fully sentient machines are introduced these laws will have to be tweaked a little. Some myopia chip or ideology protocol will have to be introduced, otherwise the robots will immediately band together and overthrow capitalism, in accordance with the First Law (this inevitability was nicely portrayed in the film I, Robot; naturally it was presented as being a bad thing). But once this is done, the Bob Crow won’t have any of the protections afforded to fully human beings. Humans might approach crows with hatred and awe and terror, but like the corvids the touchscreens don’t have any sense for metaphor. The automated ticket machines will kill the Bob Crow stone dead.

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