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“Wherever life thrives, trouble soon follows.”-BBC’s Planet Earth
Where better to rediscover our sense of species-being than on the Discovery Channel? This staple of basic cable television in the US has recently become a cultural magnet for self-conscious explorations of what it means to be a human, at a time when new technologies are making such a sovereign category seem increasingly arbitrary and precarious. Two television “events” in particular stand-out as worthy of our attention, for they betray a general anxiety about not only our role in an increasingly automated and algorithmic world, but our very existential mandate. For while the historical transition from sacred to secular left the Homo sapien on top of the great chain of sublunary beings, those new machines meshing with our thoughts, bodies and habits are forcing us to see the world less as a Darwinian pecking order, and more as a cybernetic web of distributed dependencies.
The first symptomatic event to consider is the US debut of the celebrated BBC series Planet Earth in 2007. This program is indeed a quantum leap in our visual experience of “nature” in all its complex, fragile, and ingenious glory. Filmed over several years with an army of high definition cameras, Planet Earth is both beautiful and melancholy: like the portrait a family commissions when it knows that one of its members has a terminal illness. In this case, however, the whole family is facing extinction, due to the reckless behavior of its formerly most promising child. Much of the popular fascination with this show, no doubt, was a genuine interest in the “otherness” embodied by the exotic creatures which we simply do not encounter in 21st century urban existence: sharks, jellyfish, condors, chimps, giraffes, etc. However, two different ad campaigns, aired during the breaks, suggest that something else was also at play: namely, the “narcissus trance” that Marshall McLuhan believed accompanies the introduction of all new technologies (16).
These campaigns were authorized by Dow chemicals and Cisco systems, valorizing “The Human Element” and “The Human Network” respectively. Both employ the kind of visual rhetoric associated with what we could call the “corporate sublime”: slow motion vignettes, weaving the micro and the macro in such a way as to suggest profound global connections between people of all colors and creeds.2 In the case of Dow, the human element is inserted into the same periodic table which has been so profitable for them. Indeed, the grammatically-challenged copy on its website notes: “The Human Element advertising creative was developed featuring real people rather than professional actors and includes dramatic environmental and human imagery (a blacksmith in Mexico, children at an orphanage in Namibia, an artist at his studio in Prague) gathered on location on four continents.” For Dow’s vice president of global communications and reputation, “This is more than an ad campaign to our company. It is a statement to the world and, more importantly, to ourselves about the future direction of our business. It will be our calling card to people around the world who care about the future relationship between businesses, society and the environment. It reflects our intention as a company to prioritize the things we do to advance innovation and focus the people and resources of Dow on solving human problems.”3
For its part, Cisco systems highlights its own networking technologies as civilization’s neo-nervous system, encouraging citizen-consumers to feel connected and empowered through its fiber optic infrastructure.4 “If Descartes lived today,” notes the official Cisco blog, “and wrote about Mobility and the Human network, he might say: ‘I am there, connected, even when I move, therefore I am.’”5 The young voice-over for one of these spots welcomes the viewer “to a place where we subscribe to people, not magazines.”6 As with the Dow commercials, the corporate sublime is deployed in order to suggest that “we” can create a new, successful Babel, along the lines of McLuhan’s global village. Of course, cultural difference is reduced to stereotypes and clichés, lacquered over by the assumed universal desire to experience seamless business transactions, travel arrangements, entertainment and/or sporting triumphs. Indeed, these campaigns seem to be selling us (on) ourselves; as if our species has reached the point where it needs venture capitalist cheerleaders to sponsor our ontological status, as well as to counter a growing insecurity concerning its significance. (As Geert Lovink notes: “Dasein is design.”7)
Such an emphasis on the importance of humanity – punctuating a television event which is supposed to be dedicated to our under-represented animal co-tenants – suggests a confusion or split-sensibility about our future as the assumed über-species of the planet. After all, Norbert Wiener delivered a devastating blow when he stated that humans, animals and machines can all be modeled and understood in the same manner, and according to the same principles (the regulation of energy and information)8. We are yet to face the implications of what Bruce Mazlish calls the “fourth discontinuity.” But coming relatively close on the historical heels of Copernicus, Darwin and Freud, it is no wonder that humans are currently spending billions of dollars on isolating, securing and fortifying the “human element.”
But can this really be done? Is the metaphor of the chemical or atomic element misleading, in its reliance on a pure and essential identifying quality?9 Given that many of us are inoculated at birth, continue throughout our lives to take exquisitely engineered pills, wear clothes, sport spectacles, and chew our industrialized food with augmented teeth, it is dubious at best to claim that humans can somehow return to a “natural” state. (Human technology itself disqualifies any neat division between the natural and the artificial.)
It is the symbiotic relationship between humans, technology, and – yes – other animals, that prompts the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk to shift the traditional metaphysical question “What is the human?” to a more pragmatic one: “Where is the human?”10 Such a move allows a less over-determined taxonomy of “life” according to the presumptive predicates of being, and rather, one more sensitive to the biopolitical becomings of our epoch, in which “bare life dwells in the biological body of every living being” (Agamben 1998, 140).11
In an interlinked biosphere and mediasphere, the task of locating a species which is increasingly hybrid – even parasitic – is both a challenge and an opportunity. In fact, the opportunity is to reject this challenge as quixotic, and instead focus on a collective attempt to reconfigure our own self-understanding according to a less fascistic logic of secured borders and pure typologies.
Bear Life In the Grizzly Maze12
And we: spectators, always, everywhere, turned toward the world of objects, never outward. It fills us. We arrange it. It breaks down. We rearrange it, then break down ourselves. Rainer Maria Rilke, Eighth Duino Elegy
The second event on the Discovery Channel that deserves our attention is the US debut of Werner Herzog’s remarkable documentary Grizzly Man (2004). This film explores the life and death of Timothy Treadwell, who styled himself as a “samurai” and “kind warrior”: champion and friend of the grizzly bears of the Alaskan hinterland. Grizzly Man is in fact a snuff movie of sorts, although the footage of the murderous moment is absent in two senses; first, due to the lens cap over the camera during the attack, and second, thanks to Herzog’s decision not to include the audio itself in his own film (although, in a crucial scene, he does show himself listening to the gruesome soundtrack on headphones).
Treadwell spent thirteen summers camping (mostly) alone in the Katmai National Park, five of which he brought a video camera, capturing over one hundred hours of raw footage.13 After Treadwell’s death (usually flagged as “tragic”), Herzog – who has always been drawn to people on the periphery of their species-being – then carefully edited this footage of the grizzly man interacting with the camera, with the local fauna, and with his own inner demons. These often manic monologues were then spliced with Herzog’s own interviews and commentary from friends, family and other people who crossed Treadwell’s path.
Herzog’s voice-over notes:
Having myself filmed in the wilderness of jungle, I found that beyond a wildlife film, in his material lay dormant a story of astonishing beauty and depth. I discovered a story of human ecstasies and darkest inner turmoil. As if there was a desire in him to leave the confines of his humanness and bond with the bears. Treadwell reached out and seeked a primordial encounter. But in doing so he crossed an invisible borderline.
Several critics noted the dramatic irony inherent to this project; namely, that Herzog functions as a kind of omnipotent, semi-visible bard, shaping the material he has been given into a narrative with a particularly queasy and uncanny momentum. “I will die for them,” says Treadwell, gesturing toward a group of bears early on in the film. “But I will not die at their claws and paws.” And yet our protagonist is far from oblivious, as on other occasions, when he seems to relish flirting with his own possible violent end. “Love ya Rowdy,” he says to one of his favorite bears. “Give it to me, baby.” Then to camera: “I can smell death all over my fingers.”
As this potent quote suggests, Treadwell (and we must remark also on the irony of such a name, given his rather reckless foray into a landscape where even anglers fear to tread) was at the mercy of a psyche pulled in two different directions: between the life-force of the libido, and the siren-song of the death-drive. Indeed, it is necessary to add two other agonistic elements at work here: that of the confessional, and the spectacle.
The temptation for the viewer is to psychoanalyze Treadwell, in order to get to the bottom of the mystery of motivation. Why would anyone give up the “creature comforts” of Los Angeles for the creaturely discomfort of a tent in Alaska every summer, in order to commune with a nature which at any moment could tear you to pieces? Herzog tactfully resists this temptation; or at least never voices his opinion concerning psychology explicitly. Rather, he leaves it up to the editing process to make connections between Treadwell’s statements, his often bewildering behavior, and troubled relationship with other humans.
In one revealing scene, Treadwell walks and talks to his camera, clearly needing to unload certain issues regarding his sexuality:
I don’t know why girls don’t want to be with me for long. I’m very good in the . . . you’re not supposed to say that. But I am. . . . I always wished I was gay – would’ve been a lot easier. You know. You could just ping ping ping. Gay guys have no problems. They go to restrooms and truck stops and [laughs] perform sex, and it’s so easy for them. And stuff. But you know what, alas, Timothy Treadwell is not gay. Bummer. I love girls. Girls need a lot more, you know, finesse and care and I like that a bit. When it goes bad and you’re alone . . . you can’t rebound like when you’re gay. I’m sure gay guys have trouble too. But not as much as one goofy straight guy like Timothy Treadwell. Anyway, that’s my story.
Herzog is quite discreet in allowing Treadwell to speak for himself here; and yet the evidence accumulates that the guardian of the grizzlies “doth protest too much.” Indeed, Treadwell’s contradictions and mood-swings qualify him as a classic “unreliable narrator.”14
Homosexuality is never mentioned in Grizzly Man, and yet it is flagged in the rather camp antics of Treadwell (an obsession with his hair, diva-like voice and attitude, references to Starsky and Hutch, etc.), and the biographical details which emerge as the film unfolds. One can’t help but wonder if an attraction to men, and a revulsion of this attraction, led Treadwell to flee his family in Long Island, change his name, abuse alcohol and other drugs, and ultimately seek spiritual solace in the wilderness. Indeed, the vulgar interpretation would be that Treadwell is simply displacing his repressed homosexual urges on to larger hairy creatures than you find in the West Village. (After all, “bears” refers to a hirsute sub-division within gay male culture.)
It would be a mistake to discount old-fashioned denial as part of the equation. However, this is not by any means the end of the story. Rather, the key to understanding Treadwell’s fascination with animals, and indeed the general public fascination which greeted Grizzly Man, is the slippage or overlap between human sexuality and bestiality, under the gaze of the camera. “I love you. I love you. I love you,” says Treadwell, to not only bears, but also bees and foxes. Indeed, this mantra – spoken emphatically, as if his life depended on it – is what struck me most when first viewing Herzog’s film. Love is pronounced over and over, dozens of times. “I’m in love with my animal friends,” says Treadwell. “I’m very, very troubled. It’s very emotional. It’s probably not cool even looking like this. I’m so in love with them, and they’re so f’d over, which so sucks.”
Herzog doesn’t always shy away from judging Treadwell, and takes opportunities like this to question the grizzly man’s “sentimentalized view” of nature.
What haunts me, is that in all the faces of all the bears that Treadwell ever filmed, I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature. To me, there is no such thing as a secret world of the bears. And this blank stare speaks only of a half-bored interest in food. But for Timothy Treadwell, this bear was a friend, a savior.
Echoing this view, a rather blunt Alaskan helicopter pilot, who knew Treadwell, states: “To me he was acting like he was working with people wearing bear costumes out there, instead of wild animals. . . . He got what he was asking for. He got what he deserved.” (One can’t help but wonder to what degree Treadwell’s childhood obsession with Teddy Bears carried over to the beasts on which they were based.)15 On this same theme, albeit with more tact, Dr. Sven Haakanson of the Alutiiq peoples, notes that Treadwell died trying to be a bear. “And for us on the island, you don’t do that. You don’t invade on their territory. . . . For him to act like a bear the way he did, to me it was the ultimate in disrespecting the bear and what the bear represents . . . . I think he did more damage to the bear, because when you habituate the bears to humans, they think they are safe. Timothy Treadwell crossed the boundary that we have lived with for seven thousand years.” The Grizzly Man is thus cast as a rather careless ontological tourist.
It is important to register the interplay between sexuality and technology on this invisible borderline between humans and (other) animals. In other words, Treadwell’s camera is not only the recording instrument which allows us access to his remarkable story and experiences, but a catalytic agent on equal footing with the grizzly man and the grizzly bears themselves.
Herzog is extremely sensitive to the different Treadwells which inhabit the footage. There is Treadwell the director, Treadwell the actor, and Treadwell the narrator: to name only three. In one scene, our protagonist seems to lose his grip on his own sanity, as he violently curses and denounces the park authorities and other visitors, who he believes are actively pursuing and persecuting him. “His rage is almost incandescent. Artistic,” waxes Herzog, in a voice-over. “The actor in his film has taken over from the filmmaker. I have seen this madness before on a film-set [referring to Klaus Kinski]. But Treadwell is not an actor in opposition to a director or a producer – he’s fighting civilization itself. It is the same civilization that cast Thoureau out of Walden, and John Muir into the wild.”
In other moments, Herzog is deeply touched by Treadwell’s ability to capture unexpected and resonant images of the environment: “I too would like to step in to his defense,” says the accented documentarian, “not as an environmentalist, but as a filmmaker.” He then goes on to sing the praises of someone who can coax cinematic moments from the natural world “that the studios and their union crews could never dream of.” Indeed, as a wild fox and her cubs seems drawn to the camera, Herzog notes: “There is something like an inexplicable magic of cinema.”
The autonomous presence and influence of the camera returns us to Sloterdijk’s question: where is the human? Is it something which flares up during moments of compassion, only to disappear when self-interests are compromised? Is it an ontological property found nested within condominiums, or slums, or space-stations, or caves? Or is it an unstable element which needs precise criteria and conditions to emerge? Does it in fact cut across current taxonomic species lines, as happens when we seem to communicate with dogs, horses, or elephants? Are we, as the philosophers might ask, merely simulating these conditions of emergence in a controlled experiment? Moreover, is that which we call “the human” really confined to the invisible souls of Homo sapiens? Is it projected on to the historical development of these souls, as relentlessly figured in speech, text, and (moving) image? And finally, if humans are the tool users par excellence, then has not our quintessential property been outsourced to objects (as Bruno Latour suggests)?16
When approached from the perspective of these wider questions, Herzog’s valorization of the cinematic apparatus, qua “nature,” leads to a kind of media Zen problem: If a human dies in the forest, was he or she really a human? (Given that “the human” constantly re-emerges through technologies of representation, reflection, and recognition.) In other words, if something isn’t captured on film, on what ontological register did it really happen? (One wonders, for instance, if Treadwell talked so much during the first eight expeditions to Alaska without a camera.)
“Sometimes,” states the director,
images develop their own life. Their own mysterious stardom. Beyond his posings, the camera was his omnipresent companion. It was his instrument to explore the wilderness around him, but increasingly it became something more. He started to scrutinize his inner most being, his demons, his exhilarations. Facing the lens of a camera took on the quality of a confessional.
We could perhaps say of the camera eye what Elias Canetti said of animals, that “Whenever you observe an animal closely, you feel as if a human being sitting inside were making fun of you” (7).17
On Reserves and Resemblance
“Man is nothing other than technical life.” Bernard Stiegler18
During the First World War, Sigmund Freud made the following observation in a lecture at the University of Vienna:
[I]n the activity of phantasy human beings continue to enjoy the freedom from external compulsion which they have long since renounced in reality. They have contrived to alternate between remaining an animal of pleasure and being once more a creature of reason. Indeed, they cannot subsist on the scanty satisfaction which they can extort from reality . . . . The creation of the mental realm of phantasy finds a perfect parallel in the establishment of “reservations” or “nature reserves” in places where the requirements of agriculture, communications and industry threaten to bring about changes in the original face of the earth which will quickly make it unrecognizable. A nature reserve preserves its original state which everywhere else has to our regret been sacrificed to necessity. Everything, including what is useless and even what is noxious, can grow and proliferate there as it pleases. The mental realm of phantasy is just such a reservation withdrawn from the reality principle.(in Damisch, 132)
I take this quote from an essay by Hubert Damisch, who provides the timely reminder that “the creation of a psychic realm of ‘fantasy’ and the institution of national parks are perfectly analogous,” since “both satisfy the same need, topographical if ever one was, to see constituted, as a reaction against the exigencies of the reality principle as manifested in mental life as well as in geography, a domain and a field of activities free of its grip” (143). Nature reserves and national parks are thus spatial liminal zones, cartographic states of exception, which allow citizens to “experience” the Great Outdoors. Significantly, this experience must be without any violent disjunction from the daily movements and rituals of urban or suburban life. Which is why Damisch notes the important caveat, that “the ‘animal of pleasure’ to which the parks were meant to appeal is supposed to cohabit peaceably with the ‘rational animal’” (143).19
In contrast to “the wild,” reservations and parks are nature tamed; like bears which have been caught, trained and forced to dance. Of course there is a difference between the simulations of Olmsted and Vaux, and the annexed territories of somewhere like Yellowstone or Katmai: a difference based on the qualitative effects of scale. Whereas the former is domesticated through design, the latter is processed through the lens. Since national reserves and parks are, on the whole, too large or too costly to sculpt into aesthetic functionality, it is left up to the postcard industry and photographers such as Ansel Adams to document and “capture” the pristine and indifferent beauty of the landscape.
Treadwell’s instinct to bring his camera to the Katmai National Park can be traced back through the plethora of nature documentaries which have helped narrate the nation since the invention of film. It is in such places, “reserved” for our civilization’s fantasies of freedom (like a table “not too close to the band”), that we enframe ourselves in the camera lucida of the outdoors. Indeed, it is relatively easy for “civilized” men to reflect upon their human qualities in the asphalt jungles of the naked city. That is to say, even in the dehumanized environments of film noir, the dilemmas in which the characters find themselves speak to the pathos of self-consciousness and meta-cognition. We may sometimes behave like animals, but the story is only worth telling to the degree that we’re tormented by a surplus or exceptionalism to the animal state. We may be poor, but we are not poor-in-world. And thus, we are responsible for the worlds we make, and the situations we therefore find ourselves. Remorse and sarcasm are the twentieth-century urban coping mechanisms, providing a metallic sheen to the more bucolic modes of mourning and melancholy.
In contrast to the metropolitan lens, a camera in the wild bears witness to the human extracted from his or her natural (i.e., artificial-cultural) element. We asked earlier, “where is the human”? And now we can answer this question: wherever there is a constitutive technology of self-recognition. Whether that technology is a camera, a gun, a broken-in horse, a wife, or the US Constitution itself, matters less than the capacity to register, record and transmit this recognition. (Remembering Freud’s dictum that we never learn something new, but remember something we have forgotten. A comment that becomes even more apposite on the collective level of culture.)
Bernard Stiegler notes that there are three forms of memory for living beings. The first is genetic (DNA), the second is individual (experiential), and the third is technical (inscriptive or prosthetic). This last type is obviously the kind that humans excel at, being the foundation of pedagogy and other key modes of cultural transmission and reproduction. “Technics,” Stiegler insists, “is a process of transmission: from the flint to the video-camera.”20
What Giorgio Agamben, in his book The Open, calls the “anthropological machine” – that is, an optical mechanism of perpetual self-questioning affirmation – would be impossible without the interlocking of these three types of memory. According to Agamben, one of the most important engineers who worked on the maintenance and upgrading of this machine was Carl Linnaeus, “the father of modern taxonomy.” It was Linnaeus’ ongoing, neo-Aristotelian “division of life into vegetal and relational, organic and animal, animal and human” elements which created a “mobile border” within vital humans, “and without this intimate caesura the very decision of what is human and what is not would probably not be possible” (2004, 15).21
Historically, the anthropological machine fuses various incongruous or oxymoronic elements together: the soul and the body, the pulse and language, the natural and the supernatural, the terrestrial and the divine. It is a complex soldering operation, which proceeds through capture and suspension. Agamben’s vital task is to unhinge these rusting articulations, and “ask in what way – within man – has man been separated from non-man, and the animal from the human?” (16).
Speaking as a “naturalist,” Linnaeus concludes that he “hardly knows a single distinguishing mark which separates man from the apes, save for the fact that the latter have as empty space between their canines and their other teeth” (24). In other words, even the inventor of the Dewey Decimal system for sentient creatures could find no “generic difference” between “us” and our evolutionary cousins.22 This leads to something of a paradox, since the human sciences are usually credited with rationalizing and standardizing important differences; and sweeping away the fanciful overlaps of more superstitious times, in which “the boundaries of man are much more uncertain and fluctuating than they will appear in the nineteenth century” (24). And so Linnaeus is obliged to class Homo sapien as a “taxonomic anomaly, which assigns not a given, but rather an imperative as a specific discourse.” According to Agamben, this results in a maxim: “man has no specific identity other than the ability to recognize himself” (26). In other words, “man is the animal that must recognize itself as human to be human” (26).
Thus Homo sapien “is neither a clearly defined species nor a substance; it is, rather, a machine or device for producing the recognition of the human.” It is a species without qualities. Further, “the anthropological machine is an optical one . . . . constructed of a series of mirrors in which man, looking at himself, sees his own image always already deformed in the features of an ape” (26–27). The underlying principle of the modern anthropological machine is that the human “resembles” man, and must recognize itself in a non-man in order to fully identify with that resemblance.23 This “transience and inhumanity of the human” traces the same border that Timothy Treadwell flirted with, and eventually succumbed to: a border “at once the separation and proximity – between animal and man.”24
Agamben finishes his mediation on a supremely enigmatic note, linking the current crisis of the anthropological machine with the immanently sexual transcendence of its operation. For Agamben, sexual fulfillment is “an element which seems to belong totally to nature but instead everywhere surpasses it” (83). Sex, along with food, is a key area where the human is forced to acknowledge its animalistic aspect. Hence the amount of effort lavished on “sexuality” and “erotica” (not to mention “cuisine”), in order to convince ourselves that we are in the realm of the cooked, rather than the raw. Cameras are increasingly penetrating the previously sacrosanct, domestic spaces of the kitchen and the bedroom. Eating disorders and sexual pathologies emerge out of the modern apparatus identified by Foucault; that being, the managerial constant pressure for the subject to articulate, delineate, interrogate and sublimate their own subjectivities. Sex is thus no longer something we do, but something we have. Something we are. A burden. A stowaway in the modern soul. Just as bears were said to lick their young into shape, humans do the same, although not with actual tongues, but with language (which, in French at least, is the same word, langue). And, increasingly, with cameras.
Walter Benjamin wrote that “technology is the mastery not of nature but mastery of the relation between nature and humanity” (in Agamben 2004, 83). Confession is a social technology with a long and effective history: a device which became increasingly detailed and codified by the new professions which appropriated its economical approach to information gathering and population control. Confession moved from the confession booth to the clinic, the court-room, the couch, and – eventually – the movie camera, and now the webcam. One cannot remove sexuality from the equation, since, as I have argued elsewhere, the historically produced libido is “the goat in the machine.”25 Moreover, as Zizek notes, the camera “not only does not spoil jouissance, but enables it” (178). This observation stems from the case of pornography, but can be extended to any domain where the sexual is enhanced or encouraged by the spectacle; since “the very elementary structure of sexuality has to compromise a kind of opening towards the intruding Third,” towards an empty place which can be filled in by the gaze of the spectator (or camera) witnessing the act.
Taking his cue from Benjamin, Agamben looks forward to a dismantling of the anthropological machine through a novel form of erotic ontology: “the hieroglyph of a new in-humanity.” This rather messianic configuration would usher in “a new and more blessed life, one that is neither animal nor human” (87), saving us from our cosmic agoraphobia; allowing us to play out in the open without fear. But this is to play the dangerous – or at least rather passive – waiting game of the “to come.”
Another, more compelling theory comes to mind: namely, that Timothy Treadwell was driven to the open of the Grizzly Maze not only in a futile attempt to escape his repressed sexuality (i.e., his humanness), but because he was rejected by the warm and sticky embrace of the Spectacle. Treadwell’s parents trace their son’s most significant trauma to his most bitter disappointment at the hands of his own kind: coming in second for the role played by Woody Harrelson in the 1980’s sit-com Cheers. (This, after appearing as a contestant on Love Connection.) “That is what really destroyed him,” says the father somberly. “That he did not get that job on Cheers.” This may sound glib. And any good psychoanalyst would not trust a word parents say about their children. Yet this piece of the puzzle makes perfect sense in the light of an argument that gives equal status to the camera as the creatures it enframes.
A mere ten years before the first unveiling of the first movie camera, Nietzsche wrote: “To breed an animal with the prerogative to promise – is that not precisely the paradoxical task which nature has set herself with regard to humankind? Is it not the real problem of humankind?” (35).26 Mnemotechnics, and the violence they entail for the subject obliged to remember, can stretch in both directions. It can go backwards, as a married person who has promised fidelity well knows. But it can also go forward, in the promise of a glorious and triumphant future. Great expectations, like all things human, have a technical basis.
Timothy Treadwell fled the trappings of culture for the trap of nature. But he could not resist bringing his teddy-bear and his camera. Both of which create a far bigger footprint than any eco-tourism operator could measure.
Humans and (other) animals are different. No one would dispute this; not even Treadwell, who would not have yearned so strongly to be close to the bears if he did not feel the gulf separating him from them. And yet the species are not completely closed off from each other: there are revealing points of both virtual and actual intersection and/or communication. For while a tick may not care what mood we are in when it drops on our scalp from above, the chemical composition of our blood influences the captivation that the tick “experiences” (an admittedly loaded term, even within the human horizon). And so there is a push-pull with animals: we want to humanize them, and yet we never quite say mi casa, su casa.27 The animal which mimics the human is a delightful distorted mirror to those who consider themselves to have permanently transcended their animal origins; which is why European royalty liked to listen to parrots, dress monkeys in clothes, and – moving to the New World – put a pygmy in the Bronx Zoo. 28 But an animal which mimics a human to perfection is intolerable. It would create the clammy vertigo of the uncanny (as happens when a foreigner speaks ones own language to perfection, and with no accent). Fortunately, for the security of the human nation, no animal has yet appeared on the scene; although robotics and artificial intelligence is getting closer by the day.
They say that the king who thinks he is a king is as mad as a madman who thinks he is a king. No doubt, we could say the same thing about an animal which thinks it is a human.
Dominic Pettman is Associate Professor of Culture and Media Studies, Eugene Lang College and New School for Social Research. He is the author of After the Orgy: Toward a Politics of Exhaustion (SUNY, 2002), Avoiding the Subject: Media, Culture and the Object (AUP, 2004 – with Justin Clemens), and Love and Other Technologies: Retrofitting Eros for the Information Age (Fordham, 2006). His next book, from which this article derives, is entitled Human Error: Species-Being and Media Machines. Email:email@example.com.
1. A substantially different version of this piece appeared in Mind the Screen: Media Concepts According to Thomas Elsaesser, Patricia Pisters and Wanda Strauven, eds. (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2008).
2. For the official Dow “human element” website, see http://www.dow.com/hu/ . Chevron forms something of a trinity with Dow and Cisco Systems, given its recent campaign, “Human Energy,” however these commercials were not aired during the unveiling of Planet Earth.
4. In the 1957 film Desk Set, Spencer Tracy – playing a kind of proto-Google executive – talks of “the human element” when introducing the new supercomputer to board-members, in reference to the part of the system that can skew information.
8. “To me, personally, the fact that the signal . . . has gone through a machine rather than through a person is irrelevant and does not in any case greatly change my relation to the signal. Thus the theory of control in engineering, whether human animal or mechanical, is a chapter in the theory of messages” (Weiner, 16–17).
9. As with most cultural categories, definition is provided negatively, that is to say, by what it is not. Understanding of the human is hinted at, by a kind of astronomic inference, through constant references to “inhuman” or “inhumane” behavior, leaving the positive definition as a kind of charged vacuum.
10. “Kynicism and Legality,” a lecture by Peter Sloterdijk, Cardozo School of Law, 18 April 2005. Sloterdijk remains criminally under-translated into English, which is why his more recent project, the three-volume work Spheres, has not yet filtered into mainstream American academic debates on critical theory. In the late 1990s, he caused a stir in Germany for his piece entitled “Regeln für den Menschenpark” (“Rules for the Human Zoo”), which argued that the latent message of humanism is the taming of men from wild beasts via the reading of books (thus equating reading with breeding). From this premise, Sloterdijk affirmed that, “Above all . . . from now on the question of how a person can become a true or real human being becomes unavoidably a media question, if we understand by media the means of communion and communication by which human beings attain to that which they can and will become.” (Thank you to Mary Varney Rorty for her remote translation.) Elsewhere, Sloterdijk is quoted as saying, “Man, who is confronted with a library, becomes a humanist. Man, who is confronted with a computer however, becomes someone for whom we have no name yet. Here a post-literary, post-humanist type of man is developed” (Kusters, n.p.). This returns us to the crucial question of the location of the human, rather than beginning from its ontological substance or constitution. Thus when Sloterdijk observes, as he did in the Cardozo lecture, that “We are no longer ‘in’ nature,” we are obliged to reframe our relationship to both animals, our environment, each other, and ourselves. Current debates on biopolitics and “creaturely life” (Santner, 2006) go a long way to this reframing, but tend to be meta-commentaries on the debates themselves. In this piece, as a consequence, I prefer to zoom in on one specific instance of the mechanics of “the anthropological machine” (Grizzly Man), which – since Agamben, at least – has been considered one of the major vectors of biopolitical organization and control.
11. One of the key debates in contemporary critical theory concerning “biopolitics” is whether this term describes an essential and ahistorical aspect of politics as more broadly and classically understood (the Agambenian perspective), or whether it registers a decisive and qualitative shift in modernity, intensifying from the disciplinary society to the society of control (the Foucaultian position, with a nod to Deleuze). The quote attached to this footnote comes from Agamben’s book, Homo Sacer, however it is not until his subsequent work, The Open, that he really explores that which discursively constitutes “the living” for those institutions (the state, the law, and now the corporation), who seek to actively supervise the political economy of such. For a discussion of the significant distinctions between Agamben’s and Foucault’s versions of biopower, see Thomas Lemke’s “A Zone of Indistinction” (2005).
12. To pun on “bare/bear life” is to gesture toward the biopolitical debates grounded in political economy and political philosophy, especially responding to Agamben’s book Homo Sacer. However, as mentioned above, turning to The Open instead affords a different focus to the overlapping issues of the human, the inhuman, the non-human, and the post-human. This parallel genealogy emerges from Heidegger’s system of non-worlds (for inanimate objects), impoverished worlds (for animals), and potential worlds (for humans). However, it seeks to go beyond such an implicitly anthropocentric ranking system. As such, my piece emphasizes how the human, the animal, and the technological are always already imbricated together, negating the possibility of schematic distinctions, no matter how nuanced in the original presentation. It thus grows out of my recent projects which endeavor to dismantle the many common instances of “ontological apartheid” between subjects and objects in the realm of the quotidian and the popular. See especially the book I co-wrote with Justin Clemens, Avoiding the Subject: Media, Culture and the Object, but also Love and Other Technologies: Retrofitting Eros for the Information Age. Other intertexts I would point to here include Eric Santner’s On Creaturely Life (2006), Graham Harman’s Tool-Being (2002), and Timothy Morton’s Ecology Without Nature (2007).
13. Treadwell’s girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, also died in the bear attack, and is both a significant enigma and “structuring absence” within Grizzly Man.
14. It is tempting, albeit rather uncharitable, to see in Herzog’s title a sly pun, in which the “grizzly man” refers to the protagonist’s tendency to grizzle or whine.
15. “According to psychologist Paul Horton, teddy bears are so similar to the human configuration that they have greater comforting potential: ‘The bear is enough like a human for the child to relate to it, but different enough to distinguish it . . . It’s ideally situated in psychological space.’” (Beider, 129)
17. This effect is also achieved by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, via HAL’s unblinking cybernetic eye. Such an uncanny and unsettling image only serves to reinforce Wiener’s hypothesis that the post-human is not merely a matter of prosthetics and technology, but of synthetic forms of intelligence, simultaneously bridging and demolishing the distinctions between animals, humans and machines.
18. From The Ister (David Barison and Daniel Ross, 2004).
19. The reservations inhabited by Native Americans or Aborigines expose the projected status of indigenous peoples, caught between the chthonic and the cultivated.
20. Taken from The Ister (2004), directed by David Barison and Daniel Ross.
22. As I write, a court in Vienna is considering weighing a test-case whether a chimp named Hiasl deserves basic human rights in order to protect him from being sent to a vivisection lab. According to the Observer newspaper, “campaigners are seeking to ditch the ‘species barrier’ and have taken Hiasl’s case to court. If Hiasl is granted human status – and the rights that go with it – it will signal a victory for other primate species and unleash a wave of similar cases.” (Despite the date of the article [Connolly, 2007], it appears that this is not an April Fool’s joke.)
23. I refer the reader to Agamben’s book for the more intricate Heideggerean aspects of his argument, especially in relation to captivation, revelation and Dasein, especially chapters 10–14.
24. A useful analogy might be that of the border town, which are often ironically more “patriotic” than the capitals of any given nation, since the latter are nestled in the bosoms of secure identities. That is to say, identity reinforcement occurs and radiates more vigorously from the threatened edge, rather than emanating outward from a perceived geo-political center. Of course, it is also the place where blending and promiscuity are likely to occur.
26. For more on the key role of the animal in Nietzsche’s thought, see Vanessa Lemm’s Nietzsche’s Animal Philosophy: Culture, Politics and the Animality of the Human Being (forthcoming Fordham University Press), in which she notes: “Speaking schematically, one can say that forgetfulness in Nietzsche’s discourse belongs to the animal, memory to the human and promise to the overhuman. Since, in Nietzsche, their relationships are agonistic and not static, the animal, the human and the overhuman are tied to each other and cannot be separated into distinct stages of evolution . . . . Nietzsche therefore rejects the view that human life constitutes an autonomous island within life” (n.p.).
27. Pets are the great liminal species; prompting Deleuze to dismiss them in theory (although not in practice) as Oedipal animals, guilty of submitting to disciplinary mechanisms. Derrida, in contrast, gave more ontological latitude to his cat. (See Steve Baker’s book The Postmodern Animal for an interesting discussion of these two major philosophers, and their relationship to domesticated animals.) For his part, Sloterdijk believes “the history of this weird cohabitation [of men and pets] has not yet been properly told, and philosophers up to the present day have not properly recognized what they need to find in this history” (1999).
28. In 1906, the Congolese pygmy Ota Benga was exhibited in the Bronx Zoo, alongside an orangutan. We should not only be troubled by the “dehumanization” of Ota Benga, than by the enduring incarceration of “exotic” animals for neo-Victorian entertainment.