Delenda Est Carthago

Why not delve into a twisted mind? Thoughts on the world, history, politics, entertainment, comics, and why all shall call me master!

Name:
Location: Mesa, Arizona, United States

I plan on being the supreme dictator of the country, if not the world. Therefore, you might want to stay on my good side. Just a hint: ABBA rules!

29.12.04

Are We Not Men?

I read an interesting article in the October issue of History Today magazine (vol. 54 no. 10). The article, by Erica Fudge, is in response to the new Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. In the article, Fudge asks why animals aren't included in the dictionary. She goes on to examine a couple of famous animals and then examines what it means to have a "biography" written about someone (or something). The interesting part of the article is about the nature of animals and what it means to be an animal as opposed to a human being. She quotes several philosophers who have questioned human superiority. Pierre Charron in 1601 was asked about the need to compare humans and animals, and he answered: "But who shall doe it? Shall man? He is a partie and to be suspected; and to say the truth, deales partially therein." Michel de Montaigne wondered about his pets: "When I play with my cat, how do I know that she is not passing time with me rather than I with her?" An English text from 1590 attributed to Walter Ralegh states: "For why should I presume to prefer my conceit and imagination, in affirming that a thing is thus, or thus, in its own nature, because it seemeth to me to be so, before the conceit of other living creatures, who may as well think it to be otherwise in each one nature, because it appeareth otherwise to them than it doth to me?" All of these philosophers are building on Sextus Empiricus, who wrote around A.D. 200.

This is all well and good, you say, but who cares? Well, it's important because of the way we look at the world, and whether we feel that animals have any more intrinsic right to live than humans do. Many feel that they don't. Others, who contribute to Greenpeace and don't eat meat, feel animals are at least equal to man (and in some cases, superior). My point is in popular culture, you don't often get anything but a "human-centric" vision of the world, and that's an issue, because how can we look at our planet without accepting that we are in the minority?

Interestingly enough, The Matrix and some comic books do a better job of addressing man's place on Earth and his relationship with the other living creatures on the planet than more "serious" forms of literature. In The Matrix, there's the famous speech by Agent Smith about man being a virus. Obviously, this line was written by a human being (unless the Wachowski Bros. are actually machines; has anyone ever confirmed their species?), but it tries to look at humans and animals objectively, from outside the equation, which is what Charron was saying 400 years ago -- men are obviously going to prefer the human species, because you stick with your own kind. The Matrix, by using machines as the arbiters, comes up with a new and frightening examination of the human condition (maybe it's not new -- the Wachowskis could have stolen it, I suppose). Whether you agree with it or not, it does destroy an old paradigm that perhaps has outlived its usefulness. Do we hear anything about this in philosophic corners? Beats me -- I don't hang out in those corners.

Meanwhile, the world of comics continues to push the envelope on what can be done in fiction. Comics, because of their less-than-stellar reputation among academics (even among those people who accept science fiction or fantasy), can get away with stuff that more respected writers wouldn't dream of doing. Therefore, we can read stories from an animal's point of view that attempts to actually discover the animal's point of view rather than just anthropomorphizing the said animal. Neil Gaiman did this in Sandman #18, "A Dream of a Thousand Cats." The cats are not presented as little cartoon humans, but as predatory and alien, which ought to be disturbing to anyone who reads it. Many people wrote in claiming all the right things -- they didn't own their cats, their cats owned them, that sort of thing -- but at the end of the day, do we really understand our pets? Gaiman attempts to get inside the head of a cat, and the result is one of the most memorable stories of the series.

Over in Animal Man, Grant Morrison was exploring weird stuff all his own, not all of it animal-related. As the title goes, however, so go the stories, and he did explore quite a lot of animal issues. Most of it was from a human view, however, as Buddy Baker learns how he can better relate to animals. However, in issue #15, "The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea," Morrison attempts to get inside the head of a dolphin. Buddy goes to Norway to stop a traditional dolphin hunt, and both sides of the argument for and against the hunt are given and examined. At the end, a dolphin takes center stage and we see how Morrison believes it would act. One can argue that this is Morrison imprinting his beliefs on how the dolphin would act on the animal, but it is still an attempt to show how dolphins are different from humans. More recently, in We3, Morrison goes further into the heads of animals, and, I would argue, more successfully. His dog, cat, and rabbit each have a unique personality, but they are each truly alien from distinguishable "human" traits. It's a chilling look at what we, in our haughtiness, would consider "normal" house pets.

The point is, we need these forms of literature to challenge us. Movies and comics can bring extraordinary philosophical viewpoints to a more mainstream audience, and we need to accept them and examine them (more than one person has pointed out the Randian tone of The Incredibles, for instance) so that we can have greater insight into our world. Is that such a bad thing?