Tag Archives: dogs

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.

The Hidden Life of Dogs by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

The Hidden Life of DogsThe Hidden Life of Dogs by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a beautiful book. Thomas writes gracefully and forthrightly and, clearly, judging by the many negative reviews of this book, her writing is not for the faint of heart. This is what I’d call “thick” ethnography; thick in the sense that she writes from a place that is in the thick of things.

Thomas has wonderful empathy and insight into dogs’ minds. She rightly challenges the all-too-human ban on “anthropomorphism.” She’s way nicer about about challenging that ban that I am. Thomas points out that humans are animals and, like all animals, we share common ancestors, have long sequences of genetic material in common, and have similar brain structures. So why wouldn’t we have similar emotions and cognitive abilities? To assume that humans are somehow unique is, in my view, precisely the hubris that has allowed us to dominate the planet–and to destroy it. While I wouldn’t care that we are destroying the planet if it were only a matter of humans dying out, the fact of the matter is we are taking all life forms down with us.

In “The Hidden Life” Thomas wanted to answer a relatively simple and straightforward question: what do dogs want? Again, humans tend to think they know everything and to know what is best for everyone (though in fact we haven’t a clue). Trained as an anthropologist, Thomas used the participant-observer method to find out what her dogs wanted. This entailed letting them, so to speak, run wild. She tracked the extent of their ranging by the calls she got from the people upon whose doorsteps the dogs ended up. (They’re smart: the travel far, but then let a human call home so they can get a ride.)

A lot of reviewers are really upset about this, stating (as if they know best) that Thomas doesn’t deserve pets. They’re correct: in Thomas’s view, pet “ownership” is a sort of slavery. That’s why it’s called ownership!

But I doubt the people who left angry reviews actually read the whole book. If they had, they’d have been left in a puddle of tears: the last half of this short book is very moving, tender-hearted, and full of insights about dogs’ minds and hearts.

I think if you can read this book understanding that it is nothing to do with being a “pet” “owner” and everything to do with being inquisitive and empathetic, you will, as I did, learn a lot about your best friends.

View all my reviews