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  • Ethics Outside the HumanA Brief Introduction
  • Jordan Lev Greenwald (bio)

“When I look at it just from a purely ethical standpoint . . . I think this is a frightening world.” So states interdisciplinary artist and writer Coco Fusco in a Q&A regarding the preparation of her 2013 performance piece Observations of Predation in Humans: A Lecture by Dr. Zira, Animal Psychologist.1 It is a passing comment (Fusco is responding to an audience question on the pervasiveness of neoliberal forms of logic, calculation, and governance in everyday life) and yet one that speaks directly to the nature of the performance in question and the attitude toward the world it engenders. In Observations of Predation in Humans, Fusco takes on the persona of the chimpanzee animal psychologist Dr. Zira, a pivotal character in the Planet of the Apes films of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Dr. Zira, so the backstory is presented to the audience (in a “Skype call” from none other than Donna Haraway), did not actually die as she appears to in Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), but rather feigned her death and has remained in hiding since then, observing human behavior through television and film. In the performance, Dr. Zira, an expert in primatology, neuroscience, and evolutionary biology, gives a lecture on predation in the human species (fig. 1).2 The lecture, inspired by the fact that the physiological effects of poverty on humans are identical to those of captivity on animals, is ultimately a work of ethology: it reflects [End Page 1]


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Fig. 1.

Dr. Zira lecturing in Coco Fusco’s ted Ethology: Primate Visions of the Human Mind (2015).

Courtesy of the artist.

[End Page 2]

on modern social violence (structural immiseration, the prison industrial complex, financial speculation, and drone warfare, to name a few aspects) as evidence of the prevalence of aggression and predation (of “beta” types by “alpha” types) in human behavior. The lecture is delivered with delightfully deadpan condescension by a character estranged from humanity not only by the difference of her species but also by the “objective” viewpoint she adopts as a scientific observer. The performance is thus precisely a rendering of the “frightening world” Fusco describes in the comment above, a world unjustifiable from an ethical standpoint.

And yet, what sort of world would be justifiable—or to echo Fusco’s wording, unfrightening—from an ethical standpoint? Fusco’s Zira provides something like an answer by contrasting human social behavior to that of other primate societies (both actual societies and the speculative ones of the Planet of the Apes films) wherein violence takes on decidedly different, if not less severe, forms. A bonobo civilization, for instance, might look a lot less frightening than a human one “from an ethical standpoint.” The means by which Fusco-Zira occupies this standpoint are crucial to the formulation of any ethical alternative Zira might offer. To understand the performance and its critical capacity, one must examine the conditions in which Fusco-Zira’s pronouncements about humanity’s unethical behavior are articulated. Fusco’s performance, inspired by the speculative fictions of Afrofuturist cultural production, deploys fictional self-estrangement for the purpose of ethical reflection. As she has shared in many an interview, the content of the performance was not conceived and written beforehand, only to be delivered later through the mouthpiece of Dr. Zira. Rather, the critique of human behavior presented in the lecture is unique to the perspective of the character and is generated by Fusco’s adoption of the character’s worldview and personal history—which includes, of course, the adoption of her status as nonhuman. Remarkably, in some iterations of the performance Fusco even conducts a post-lecture audience Q&A as Zira, generating fresh (and sardonic) insights about the ethically intolerable nature of the (human) present. To think with and through the horrors of the unethicality by which “humanity” is lived means, in this case, to become an other to the self, to become an other to the human. It means to think outside [End Page 3] the normative bounds of the human, to betray one’s species, even, in order...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1938-8020
Print ISSN
1041-8385
Pages
pp. 1-15
Launched on MUSE
2016-12-02
Open Access
No
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