Tag Archives: posthumanism

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.”

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.

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