Before we all take the nonhuman turn, perhaps we should revisit what being human means in the first place. The debate has a rich pedigree. Situating the humans among the animals, as well as among our machines, is as fraught a philosophical position as one is likely to find. What separates us? Language? Self-awareness? Consciousness? Suffering? The machines themselves? No one, from Descartes and Kant to Heidegger and Levinas, seems to have a defensible answer. Two recent books explore the animal question in very different but interesting ways.
The human is a pointless and treacherous category.
— Kodwo Eshun
Burroughs to Ginsberg: “Human, Allen, is an adjective, and its use as a noun is in itself regrettable.” — Tweeted by Steven Shaviro, November 28, 2009.
Building an elaborate three-way bridge connecting animals and humans and machines (a.k.a. “the cybernetic triangle”), Human Error: Species-Being and Media Machines by Dominic Pettman (University of Minnesota Press, 2011) is a wildly engaging exploration of what it means to be human. From the philosophies of Agamben, Deleuze and Guattari, Haraway, and Heidegger to documentaries like Grizzly Man (2006) and Zoo (2007) and from songs like Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer to God” to Aerogramme’s “A Simple Process of Elimination,” Pettman swings wide in search of the lines we draw as well as the ones we cross.
Animals came from miles around
So tired of walking so close to the ground
They needed a change, that’s what they said
“Life is better walking on two legs!”
But they were in for a big surprise
‘Cause they didn’t know the law!
— Oingo Boingo, “No Spill Blood”
Pettman writes, “In Descartes’s time, the beating of an animal was, in most cases, the beating of a machine, akin to thrashing an unreliable car that would complain by beeping its horn. Compassion for animals was seen as a misguided and extravagant anthropomorphism” (p. 114). He cites Jean Baudrillard arguing that animal cruelty, specifically the late medieval ritual practice of hanging a horse, makes us more human by equalizing the two. He continues, “Today, we have widened the circle of empathy, depending on our cultural and individual sensibilities, although not yet to the extent that we would throw our arms around a photocopier were we to witness it being assaulted by an overworked librarian” (p. 114). The argument continues, citing a sort of Turing test of suffering, as if each species must prove to us (humans) that it is in pain.
The rules are written in the stone
Break the rules and you get no bones
All you get is ridicule, laughter
And a trip to the house of pain!
— Oingo Boingo, “No Spill Blood”
Donkeys are stoic in their suffering, forever keeping their cards close to their chests. They would pass the Turing test of animal suffering in only the most extreme cases. In The Wisdom of Donkeys: Finding Tranquility in a Chaotic World (Walker & Co., 2008), Andy Merriman explores his humanity through the calm eyes of the donkey. A former academic, Merriman escaped that bookish bedlam to the south of France to roam the hills with a donkey named Gribouille. He visits the outdoor clinic of the Society for the Protection and Welfare of Donkeys and Mules in Egypt and finds it more inspiring than the Pyramids. The economy there is driven by donkeys, not camels as is widely assumed. Donkeys plow the fields, carry the equipment and supplies, and since they are being bred less and less, the few extant donkeys are more precious to the economy and subsequently evermore overworked. Head veterinarian Dr. Mohsen Hassan posits that most donkey mistreatment comes from ignorance not cruelty, and that most of the donkeys collective problems seen in the clinic could be avoided “with sensible handling practice and informed care” (p. 187). In short, respect for the donkey. The workers there don’t seem to think that donkeys feel pain. They treat them as machines.
Merriman’s book follows his travels elsewhere through the southern regions of France and through many fictional tales of humans and donkeys and donkey treatment. They do not respond well to the prodding and beating they get. Donkeys need patience and gentle encouragement. Often their circumstances do not afford them this. Saying the same about us, Merriman writes, “Global donkey inequities mimic the human world’s inequities” (p. 191). Or, as Pettman puts it, “To err is human; to forgive, equine” (p. 110).
Special thanks to Ken Wark for recommending Merriman’s donkey book.
Elfman, Danny. (1983). “No Spill Blood” [Recorded by Oingo Boingo]. On Good For Your Soul [LP]. Santa Monica, CA: A&M Records.
Eshun, Kodwo. (1998). More Brilliant Than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction. London: Quartet Books.
Merriman, Andy. (2008). The Wisdom of Donkeys: Finding Tranquility in a Chaotic World. New York: Walker & Co.
Pettman, Dominic. (2011). Human Error: Species-Being and Media Machines. Minneapolis, MN: The University of Minnesota Press.
I marshal the middle between Mathers and McLuhan.
Editor of Boogie Down Predictions (Strange Attractor, 2022), author of Escape Philosophy (punctum, 2022) and Dead Precedents (Repeater, 2019).