“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Saturday, April 04, 2009

It’s over, m. le coq, to sleep with the chickens

Does nature have rights?

One solution to the situation caused by the erasure of the human limit would be to say that there is a human limit defined by the rights of nature. From a practical point of view, this might be a smart environmentalist move. From a philosophical point of view, it might be a bit hard to construct (do swallows have a right to their migratory flight paths?), yet I could see how, within the framework of Rawlesian liberalism, this might seem a doable proposition.

From my perspective, however, this would not “solve” the problem. Rather, it would be another way of annexing nature to the artificial paradise. If we scratch the rights talk, we find the same massive attitude. Which is why I am traveling to such strange spots, the shadow of an it, an outsider pounding on your door, in the hide and sneakery of Limited Inc.

The question brings us back to a particular animal with rights – man – and his peculiar property of being now naked, now not. I’ve been looking at this nakedness from one tradition. Now let us look at it from the tradition of the animal.

Let me refer to Sergio della Bernardina’s ‘A person not completely like the others: the animal and its status (L’homme 1991 31(4))

To start off with – the title from this post comes from one of Bernardina’s pieces of data. It is a saying in a Spanish ritual, in which a cock is buried up to its neck and members of a group that surrounds it take turns, blindfolded, trying to detach his head with the blow of a stick.

Bernardina groups together a number of rituals and behaviors – behaviors of peasants driving cattle to the slaughter house, behaviors of hunters – from pre-industrial times until now. It is not just cocks that are treated to such bouts of cruelty. Dogs, wild mountain goats, pigs. Bernardina quotes an ethnological report concerning the emblematic Ainu bear ritual. In the Ainu village, the villagers first capture a bear cub. The cub becomes the pet of the village. It is cuddled. ‘Even officially” it is treated like a person.

Then comes the fatal day of the ceremony. “He is given a tour of the village, and all the details of the ceremony are gently explained to him, compensation for all the tribe of bears for the future ones put to death. It is necessary that he can recount all the grandeur of the ceremony in order for others to be happy to come to men who treat them so well and not to feel that anger which can destroy the huts of the village.”

Then, according to the ethnologist who Bernardina is quoting, “for reasons that we didn’t quite grasp”, each begins to mistreat the bear, to make it angry, to strike on it from all sides, to poke it with branches, etc. At last it is lead to the center of the village, where everyone is assembled, and then the chief of the ceremony shoots at it with an arrow. Theoretically, this should kill it right away – actually, everybody begins to shoot arrows at it. Then the bear, either dead or dying, is dragged about. Someone breaks its neck.

What the anthropologist doesn’t understand is why this cruelty has to be exercised. This is Bernardina starting point. Far from being an expression of plebian sadism - a very popular claim - Bernardina thinks that the cruelty actually plays a structural role. And that role is about transformation.

His notion is this: there is an idea out there that an animal is a thing. A machine. But Bernardina claims that we have no evidence that the direct human experience of an animal is of a thing. The tendency we find across cultures is that an animal is a person. It has “rights” in the sense that it has a certain personhood. For Bernardina, the idea that an animal is a thing or a machine only makes its entrance when the animal is put to death. It is here that the animal must be demoted from person to beast. The cruelty it is subject to is not, he claims, derived from some sadistic substratum, but is a way of making the beast appear as a beast. It will lash out. It will prove that it is guilty. And it will be put to death.

In fact, in Bernardina’s interviews with hunters in contemporary Europe, again and again, the fact that the beast, the prey, flees is unconsciously but compulsively presented as a justification to kill it. M. le coq, of course, is guilty of the sin of concupiscence. And so on. The very flies boys kill for sport "bother" us with their buzzing.

In a sense, Bernardina’s theory – of the making of the thing from the person – is the other side of what Bataille says, in his book on the cursed portion. There, he talks about dilapidating the thing to make it into a subject – even a divinity. This would be the negative of the positive of cruelty – in the former case, lowering the person to the status of a thing, in the latter case, raising a thing to a subject by way of making it cry out. There's an interdependence in the cultural logic here. For if punishment is about making a person into a thing, to punish a thing implies that it once was a person. The tears of things are the signatures of the spirit. In the dream of universal history, the punishment comes first, and the crime later. I cut myself to punish the object that I am, and thus become a subject doubly, first as the punisher, and then as the person who cries over the wound.

What does this have to do with our thread? Myself, I’ve been thinking of the passage from the dressed subject to the vulgar undressed nude. The act of undressing does seem to bring into play the same semiotic factors. And yet, of course, there are the nudes of Greece. The Lacedomonian girls wrestled naked with the Lacaedomonian boys, naked – or so the myth would go. Such innocence – it all begins in innocence.

Here is a story from an Italian paper:
M. Alessandro Schena, we read in an article of the press of 1895 (Caccia e Tiri, 20 August) “had bought a young English setter. He raised it with paternal care and much patience, since the student, in growing up, revealed a rather lunatic character and a rather independent temperament, which did not please his master too much… On the other hand, he manifested some excellent qualities: a very fine flair, a beautiful point, an impeccable sound (riporto) were his gifts, which were great enough to pardon some small sins. So much so that as a result of mutual indulgences, they became sister souls. But love, that perturbing and universal demon, broke their peaceful ties. Once coming to the age of manhoon, the animal commenced to court not females of his own species, but those of the human species; perhaps he had heard that the latter, unlike the former, are available in all seasons. Since he could not satisfy his desires with simple galanteries, he even had recourse to violence. Every day the master had to face protests from honest wives and modest virgins of the village. When one day he was caught in the act, the dog revolted against the just and vigorous punishment of the master not only by showing his teeth, but even in addressing some obscene propositions to the master himself. So much so that the master, red faced and with a broken heart,saw himself obliged to send this lascivious animal, with one shot, to the circle of Semiramis.”


traxus4420 said...


roger said...

You know, I was thinking of a culture monkey post about the rights for nature.

roger said...

ps - for those who might find my Human Limit stuff interesting - and why else come to Limited inc? - this is an important post. The two axes in my history are: happiness as a social phenomenon, and the limit on what humans can do in the world as a socially defined boundary on the social itself. There is a connection between the rise of the happiness culture and the fall of the human limit.
That is the simplest way to look at what I am doing here.