Monthly Archives: August 2019

Post-humanism, “Black Betty” writes a novel?

In my last post, I wrote about a cool short story by Nisi Shawl. It’s written from a dog’s point of view but, as I say, retains the cognitive center of a human. Not surprising at all because, again, to repeat myself, Shawl was writing for humans, not dogs.

But what, I wonder, what sort of story would a dog (or any other animal) tell? Would we recognize that telling as a story? Put another way, could a human truly write from an animal’s point of view? Is it possible to decenter the human in favor of an animal’s consciousness?

The question is framed up nicely by Jane Rawson in a LitHub piece:

But how would you even go about writing a novel from an animal’s perspective? There has been a lot of discussion lately about whether authors have the right to write from the perspective of people different to themselves, and those who argue yes generally emphasize how important it is to do your research, to understand the community, the history, the thoughts and feelings of your protagonists. But do we even have any idea what animals know, think and feel?

It’s a question most of us have asked ourselves, particularly in relation to the animals we raise for food. How much do cows suffer when we slaughter them? Do fish feel fear when they’re pulled from the water? Does it matter?

Rawson is arguing in this piece that the only way to save animals from extinction is by considering them as persons, as individuals. She writes:

When we think of animals as a species rather than as individuals, not every rhino death is equal. The last one has to carry the full weight of our self-involved concern.

But for the northern white rhinos themselves, the death of the last male was no more traumatic than the deaths that came before. Potentially, it was less traumatic, in fact. Sudan, as we knew him, died at 45—the upper end of rhino life expectancy—from old age. You might call it a good innings. He died surrounded by those who loved him—his keepers—though sadly without much comfort from other rhinos. Most northern white rhinos over the past few centuries, on the other hand, died in horrible circumstances, forced from their homes and killed for their horns. They passed unmourned on Facebook.

I’m not sure where to take this, but the Rawson piece is worth reading. Plus, yay, she quotes Richard Powers, the author of The Overstory, my favorite book of 2018 (and one of my favorites ever), and that seems to be a good place to leave this:

“Every form of mental despair and terror and incapacity in modern life seems to be related in some way to this complete alienation from everything else alive. We’re deeply, existentially lonely.”

Post-humanism, the Nisi Shawl edition

My latest, new (50+-year-old, so renewed) obsession is looking for writing from non-human perspectives. In non-human voices.

Because, humans. Very tired indeed of them right now. Nothing personal. This guy, this dog you see, is attached to me by this piece of thread. He is wild, strong, I go where he wants. Mostly. We work on it together, for I am fairly massive as well, so can actually get my way pretty easily. Still, where once a five-year-old was the captain of my ship, I now give the helm as often as possible to a middle-aged Mixit Hound.

But, I digress, because: Nisi Shawl! A human one does not grow tired of, her imagination ranging out beyond us normies squirming on the griddle of quotidia. She is way finding, probing the differences and nurturing them with languages of justice: she and her fictionable voices are charming, funny, alarming, actionable…. I’m still trying to figure out my own post-humanist words, so this is hard, but it’s also the reason I read. And was so happy, in a some-how search, to stumble here:

Black Betty” is a Nisi Shawl short story told from Betty the Dog’s point of view. Betty already knows what we’re saying; like a reader, or a child, Betty understands so much more than she can say or pronounce. (“I don’t have your tongue,” snips the cat.) Which is precisely nothing, until Betty the dog is modded through a diet addition that gives her the power to articulate human speech.

A twist on dog food leads to a talking dog and a linguist’s delight: is dialect a sign of–anything? Because… Betty is different. She talk funny, Betty do. Shawl does a fine and interesting and genuine job of adopting something very much like what I suspect a dog’s mind might articulate, if a dog chose to articulate like a human and realized that, hey, this whole pack thing is super complicated. And fucked up and weird. So while there’s still that adherence to a normative (human) core of cognition–as with Spencer Quinn (though in a totally different way)–Shawl is, after all, telling us a story, not her dog. Humans need to mind other-critters as well as dogs do. We are probably much poorer at it than we think, but respect to all who try.

Shawl cuts to the chase (no pun, it’s not really Betty’s thing, though her first whiff from a car window of possible-rabbit gets an exclamation), and covers a lot of ground, some thoughtful, deep, touching, some funny and touching (but: sucker for dogs here; and Shawl’s writing is, often, like an atomic force microscope, brushing the surfaces and depths with the lightest but most discriminate of touches), and all of it curving on a lovely narrative arc that has, I can’t believe I’m saying this, a cat teaching a lesson. That’s not a spoiler dammit! But those killers, those house cats let out, that one could be right and inspire such an act of insurrection!

Go Baby Boo, go Black Betty.

And then, when it’s done and I’m chewing on my thoughts, I am left with these questions:

If you spun a dog a story, what would that sound like? Would a dog tell this story differently? Is there a difference in degree or quality between the socialities, the cultural mores and forays, of dogs and humans? (Well, of course there is, stupid: but has that ever been described in any useful sort of way? Perhaps by Elizabeth Thomas? [review by me]) Maybe it’s humans what needs the mods?

I know I sure do.