Do Electric Sheep Dream?

Do Electric Sheep Dream?

As a one-time zoologist, I have an enormous respect for the natural world and the contribution it has made willingly or unwittingly to human survival, as well as for those human cultures that have recognised the inter-relatedness of the world system and the, often, irreparable damage wrought by wanton human behaviour. The following notes are made from this perspective.

In 1947 Heidegger wrote: ‘The stone is worldless. The animal is poor in world. Man is world-forming’ (Letter on Humanism). Although I imagine Heidegger was not intending to suggest a hierarchical moral universe, still, his comment reeks of a Western anthropocentrism largely ignorant (as indigenous America was not) of the relation between the micro-worlds of local ecosystems and the macro-world of global inter-connectedness in which every animate and inanimate entity has a reciprocal place with the ‘order of things’. Why, for instance, should we assume that the atoms and molecules of a stone would not respond to those of a moss, which, for ecologically favourably reasons, happens to attach itself to it? As such, we cannot legitimately say that the ‘stone is worldless’, and this issue becomes ever more urgent when we think of the relations between animate organisms and what exactly ‘poor in world’ means, if it means to suggest the absence of agency in human terms? I wish to suggest that this is a complete misrepresentation of the process of agency in the non-human world. And how the human world has become not ‘world-forming’ but ‘world destroying’. Moreover, we have forgotten that Mahatma Gandhi once said, ‘The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.

In recent decades there has been an increase in ‘animal studies’ under the general discourse of ‘posthumanities’. The questions include, what is the being of ‘the animal’? Where, if any, are the boundaries between the animal, the human and now the machine? What do our relations with the non-human say about the nature of human subjectivity and ethics? One human trait apparently not shared with animals is stupidity: animals are not stupid. So what these studies demand is that we think differently and less stupidly about our relations with the animal world.

The first word of caution is against generalisations: When humans speak about ‘the animal’, they homogenise a massive diversity of forms, behaviours and agencies. To mention just a few examples of diversity that now share the status of endangered species thanks to human action on their habitats: stag beetle, snow leopard, axolotl, Adonis butterfly, polar bear, tarantula, chameleon. Roughly a third of animal species are vulnerable or endangered due to climate change, corporate farming and mining, poaching, pollution, pesticides, urbanisation, deforestation, desertification, and so on.

Some notes on anthropocentrism and anthropomorphism

Vine Deloria Jr, the late Lakota Sioux lawyer noted: ‘Perhaps the most extravagant pretense of Western civilization is its tenaciously held belief that only humans matter in the scheme of things.’ (Quoted in Thomas C. Gannon, review of Vine Deloria Jr, C. G. Jung and the Sioux Traditions: Dreams, Visions, Nature, and the Primitive, Spring Journal Books, 2009, p 99.) Although we need to modify his statement and say, only some humans matter... From Deloria’s cultural point of view, Western subjectivity is bound up with anthropocentrism – a hierarchical and reductive binarism in which the human assumes for himself a superior subjectivity over other creatures.

In popular culture one of the most famous critiques of this binarism was Philip K Dick’s sci-fi novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) The story is set on a dystopian post-nuclear earth, where most animals have died and healthy humans have been shipped ‘off-world’ along with their android slaves, leaving behind the physical and psychologically damaged and degenerate. Animals are so rare that they have become status symbols, real ones being prized over electric ones. A group of ‘off-world’ androids rebel and escape to earth, and bounty hunters are tasked with ‘retiring’ them. The ‘Empathy Test’ is supposed to distinguish androids from humans; but, as we find, empathy blurs distinctions between, and among, non-human and human, the individual and the collective, the real and the simulacrum.

The film version, Blade Runner (1982), engages in a Kantian dialogue between phenomena (the appearance of things, which is influenced by how and by whom things are observed) and noumena (things in themselves, supposedly known through reason – although I am not convinced that human reason is that reasonable…) Throughout the film the audience is led to believe that the bounty hunter hero Deckard is human. However, in one odd sequence Deckard daydreams of a white unicorn. Its significance only emerges at the end when the policeman leaves an origami unicorn on his doorstep. The unicorn is the implanted memory of a fiction; hence we are left with the question of whether Deckard himself is also an android (or simulacrum – an entity without an origin based in the real). The postmodern critique of any claim to human origins, divine or otherwise, prompted Donna Haraway to comment that we are all ‘cyborgs’ – couplings of organism and machine at the porous interface of human-animal.

The key element that blurs animal-human distinctions in the Blade Runner narrative is empathy. For instance, in our world, lack of empathy for others is a symptom of the human sociopath; whereas several animal groups exhibit intraspecies, and occasionally interspecies, empathy. In Blade Runner, the androids exhibit more empathy for one another than the humans for humans; and they are programmed with a four-year lifespan to prevent empathy developing. Empathy implies consciousness of and responsiveness to others’ sensitivities and is therefore not based in selfish gain. The same is true of both curiosity, which relates to play and invention – noted in animals from apes to insects – and grief, which is well documented in elephants. In other words, the presence of emotional affects in animals destabilises the generalised humanist criteria by which humans were said to be ontologically and ethically superior and distinct. If there are differences between human and animal, they cannot be drawn through old humanist criteria.

In times past when humans had a more fraternal and coexistent relation to animals, anthropomorphism may be seen as a mark of respect for skills and qualities humans did not possess. Vine Deloria speaks from this American Indian tradition, which is anthropomorphic but not anthropocentric. Moreover, for whatever reasons, in the Eurasian world, humans have historically invented a phantasmagoria of animal-human hybrids and imaginary beasts with special qualities. For instance, in Greece, the Sphinx denoted treachery; and in Mediaeval Europe, the Unicorn represented purity and innocence.

As well as using animals in epics and fables as metaphors for human relations and behaviours, animals were made to act or look like humans. Examples from old illustrations include, the mediaeval boar with a qa’nun; Jean Grandville’s Les Poissons d’Avril; and a Medical anatomy image of 1807 depicting a monkey and cat. Animals are also assigned human traits. Thus, whilst the eagle is a ‘noble’ predator, the vulture is despised as a ‘scavenger’, but it is, of course, a vital link in the economy of a specific ecosystem.

The Judeo-Christian world declared all creatures had divine origin. Interestingly, in the Middle Ages, animals, such as pigs, chickens, flies and mosquitoes, were put on trial for crimes of murder, theft or nuisance and assigned defence lawyers. That is, as originating from God, they therefore had rights, and independent agency. However, Judeo-Christian anthropocentrism claimed humans had divine permission to rule over animals, which become human property. With secular humanism, the animal was cast as without emotions, language or reflexive thinking. So alongside property, animals become specimens for scientific or quasi-scientific study. One artist who has specifically critiqued this history of humanism is Minerva Cuevas with her installations Social Anthropology; Like Me (which features a chimp wearing a jacket and held by a keeper as if it were a human baby); and the videos Dreamlike I, II and III, 2007 (which use what looks like 1950s footage of experiments on human baby motor functions that come across uncomfortably as torture.)

Some notes on ethics and zoos

Among the first to advance an ethical perspective on animals was the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who equated the exploitation of animals with that of enslaved humans. Bentham challenged the mechanistic view, developed with Cartesian rationalism, that the world and the body behaved like machines. Animals, assumed to be without sentience or language, were likewise regarded as no more than machines or ‘things’, which could not feel, speak, or think but only respond to their world by innate behaviour. As ‘things’, humans had no moral or legal obligation to them, opening them up to greater exploitation and commodification. Bentham objected to this, but his concern was not the rationality of the agent, but the effect of the agent’s actions on all sentient beings, which were to be accounted equal. In his argument against slavery he notes: ‘The day may come, when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been withholden from them but by the hand of tyranny.’ Then, after questioning the role of reason, he famously ends with the following: ‘The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? Why should the law refuse its protection to any sensitive being?’ (Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789), second edition, 1823, chapter 17, footnote.)

However, despite Bentham’s appeal, there has been little enlightenment in animal law. Aside from laws to protect endangered species (ineffective when there is inadequate policing), animals have no legal standing under the law themselves and whatever rights they possess are part of the property rights of humans. It means that ‘wild’ animals have no legal protection and no penalty can be imposed on humans for – for example – damage resulting from oil spills. In 2011, the animal rights group PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) brought a lawsuit against Seaworld in Orlando under the 13th Amendment against Slavery, claiming that its captive killer whales were treated like slaves, forced to perform tricks and procreate. They of course lost the case.

What is objectionable about Seaworld and zoos in general? As John Berger says, zoos also arose during the era of rapid urbanisation and industrialisation when animals disappeared from daily life (p 23). As enclosures, zoos reinforce the boundaries between animal and human worlds; and this is the impoverished view of nature experienced by most contemporary urban children – animals as specimens again. Here’s a sad case: Following the Israeli military attack on Gaza in 2009, the animals in Gaza Zoo, killed by white phosphorus, were stuffed and now constitute the main exhibits.

Does it matter if zoo exhibits are alive or dead? Are they ‘dead’ to their world anyway when they are incarcerated in zoos? Specimens need display settings. But as the Zootopia introduction asks, whilst zoo commissions give licence to fanciful, even award-winning, architectural designs, are these suitable for the animals they contain? That is, the building is an integral part of the spectacle for the spectator, but not necessarily ‘homely’ for the animal inmate.

The zoo has been called many things: spectacle, theatre, museum and memorial to the disappearance of nature. In effect, it is a panoptical prison. The zoo inmate is subjected to the gaze, noise and often humiliations of spectators. It cannot escape, so it has the choice of performing to the audience, feigning indifference, seeking privacy in its hut if it has one, or like the concentration camp victims known as ‘muselmen’, withdrawing from all sentient relation to the world. In zoos, animals can only move up and down, or round and round in circles. Their behaviour in the zoo responds to the spatiotemporal restrictions the space imposes. The zoo is therefore also an asylum in which perfectly sane animals are driven mad: they experience deprivation of social companionship, loneliness, frustration, boredom, and exhibit symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder and psychosis.

The zoo is the anodyne public façade behind which there exists a vast industrial bioengineering technology of unspeakable cruelties perpetrated against animals in the name of human welfare and food production – or just to prove a point. For instance, chickens bred for rapid muscle development can barely walk. And what is the morality of the grotesque grafting of a human ear onto a mouse? The zoo also treats animals as commodities, buying and selling ‘specimens’. The zoo is a museum of the absence of animals and produces the equivalent of electric sheep: zoo-born inmates have no experience of their native environments; hence they are passive surrogates of the real, programmed to behave according to the will and strictures of humans. They can rarely be returned to their native habitats because they lack survival skills. Meanwhile zoos do little to preserve natural habitats.

Sadly, the increased desire for a better understanding of the animal has coincided with an escalation of abuse. Distressing TV advertisements by animal charities desperate for finance to save animals – from abused donkeys or elephants to abandoned or maltreated domestic cats and dogs – now appear alongside charity appeals for starving or damaged children caught in conflict zones; but these appeals serve only to reinforce a sense of helplessness and hopelessness in the face of unremitting human cruelty and indifference.

The new discourses on the animal stem largely from feminist, poststructuralist and postmodern critiques of the ‘I think therefore I am’ notion of the privileged and autonomous human subject, in an effort to reconfigure subjectivity as a sociolinguistic construct, formed in relation to others. But when the Cherokee philosopher Yazzie Burkhart says ‘We are therefore I am’, he means to include the natural world, a perspective that has only filtered into Western consciousness in recent decades. Those features that were thought to distinguish human from animal – empathy, cognisance of past and future, reflexive thinking, game playing, and particularly articulate language – have all been challenged by new animal studies. For instance, observations on bottlenose dolphins demonstrate that they have a language of gestures and individual voices. And yet we must also recall that observations are conditioned by the presence or position of the observer, which renders all human animal research speculative.

Some notes on Derrida’s ‘The Animal That Therefore I Am (to follow)’

The philosopher most associated with ‘the animal’ is Jacques Derrida, who was a keen supporter of animal rights based in ethics and respect. He was concerned to deconstruct what he calls the ontotheological grounds of humanism that I have briefly outlined. He proposed two principles to begin loosening the grip of anthropocentrism:

1 The mode of existence of animals and humans is subject to the same network of forces and this should enable us to develop less anthropocentric ways of relating to ourselves and to the world.

2 Ethics and politics are to be rethought in ways that do not exclude the animal. These can include democratic organisation, gift-giving, hospitality, empathic friendship…. Derrida suggests (p118) that any question of the animal, like Bentham’s ‘can they suffer?’, is in response to an interruption by a proto-ethical event or encounter, most obviously with an animal’s vulnerability – a realisation that animals and humans share pain and mortality, which prompts compassion.

Derrida, however, relates a surprising encounter with his little cat in the bathroom that has nothing to do with her vulnerability: he is embarrassed to be caught naked by the cat’s gaze. This is not some anthropomorphic displacement of cat’s gaze to human gaze. Derrida says that in that moment he doesn’t know who he is. He says, ‘Who is it that I am (following)? Whom should this be asked of if not the other? And perhaps of the cat itself?’ (There are many occasions when I am sitting at the computer and realise that the cat is sitting by my chair watching me with unblinking eyes. And I have no idea how long he has been there or what he is thinking…) I take Derrida to mean that in this instance he realises that the cat sees him from her own unique point of view, an ‘other’ which he can never know. So he experiences both a loss of his subjectivity – or rather, cognisance that his subjectivity relies on an other – together with recognition of the unique individuality of the cat. It is in acknowledging this gaze of a singular other that is the basis of an ethical relation. However, as Matthew Calarco (in Zoographies) points out, despite all the accumulating evidence undermining the old humanism, Derrida remains curiously insistent that the difference between the human and the animal is distinct and unbridgeable.

At this point we can note two human performances that refer to animals. The first is Oleg Kulik’s, I bite America and America bites me, 1994. This was a gallery performance with audience participation. Kulik, naked but wearing a collar and leash, lived in a hut in the gallery and behaved like a fairly savage dog. In other words, irrespective of what human political point he was making, Kulik mimicked a dog’s behaviour –but one that is cruelly restrained, and therefore unlikely to be good-humoured. This is almost the opposite of what Derrida means. Kulik’s performance was, of course, a reference to Joseph Beuys’ gallery performance with a coyote – which was not restrained – I like America and America likes me, 1974. Here the audience was not part of the performance. Beuys perhaps comes closer to Vine Deloria’s American Indian perspective. Beuys did his usual shamanistic posturing, but clearly knew that in American Indian cosmogonies coyote as trickster has intellectual symbolic meaning as cultural transformer. The encounter between Beuys and coyote was not confrontational, but a trust-building exercise where both subjectivities, human and animal, had to modify their beings to accommodate the other. However, both performances were described as symbolic of relationships that had little to do with animals: Kulik’s – the US and Russia; and Beuys – the US and Native America.

So far it seems impossible for Western civilisation to think outside of anthropocentrism, to engage in relationships that respect animal difference. Despite being well-intentioned, the tendency of animal rights is to see animals in patronising terms of their suffering, not in terms of independent agency. To paraphrase a perplexed Sigmund Freud, who was motivated to ask, ‘what does a woman want?’, we should ask, ‘what does an animal want?’ To answer this, we need to listen to what they say… which seems to be what Derrida was asking of us.

What price agency?

Michel de Certeau, writing in the aftermath of the Paris 1968 popular uprising, noted: ‘To speak means to come forward and to locate oneself in one’s sphere of existence; it means to claim a modest modicum of agency.’ (The Capture of Speech, 1997, p 98.) With globalisation, paradoxically one’s sphere of existence, at least that which one can possibly control, is shrinking. To speak assumes a responsive listener, but power is increasingly withdrawn from the ‘commons’ and in the hands of extra-state corporate elites, largely indifferent to human rights or environmental security. This, of course, has repercussions on any attempts to advocate for animal rights. Technology itself is breaking down the old assumed boundaries between human, animal and machine, at the same time as we experience an increasing loss of agency. We can summarise a few effects. With increased surveillance technology in urban space and digital communications networks, justified as national security or consumer capture, humans become zoo animals. Militarised unmanned drones now treat humans as hunted wild animals, the objects of extrajudicial murders executed by a computer operator thousands of miles away. A new crime has emerged in recent decades – people trafficking in human organs. Also cause for alarm is the patenting of human genomes by corporations so that people no longer own their biological inheritance and identities. This is also true for animals, particularly cross-species bioengineering and genetic modifications to produce hybrids and deformities for commercial purposes. In sum, the world is being shaped solely according to the desires of those with the power to profit from it. This impoverishes the world of and for all living beings, and humans may yet live to regret that they will have exchanged GM for natural crops, or electric for organic sheep, where the former can only dream of a past utopia.

Selected References on the ‘question of the animal’

John Berger, ‘‘Why Look at Animals?’ (1977). Republished in Berger, Why Look at Animals?, Penguin: Great Ideas, 2009. A downloadable pdf.

Jacques Derrida, ‘The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow)’, Critical Inquiry, Vol 28, No. 2 (Winter 2002). A downloadable pdf. Republished in, Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I am, New York: Fordham University Press, 2008.

Matthew Calarco, Zoographies: The Question of the Animal from Heidegger to Derrida, New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.

Cary Wolfe (ed), Zoontologies: The Question of the Animal, Minneapolis and London: Minnesota University Press, 2003.

Elizabeth de Fontenay, Without Offending Humans: A Critique of Animal Rights, Minneapolis and London: Minnesota University Press, 2012.

Donna Haraway, The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness, Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2003.

The Animal Gaze Returned: Contemporary Art and Animal/Human Studies: a practice-led research project funded by London Metropolitan University:

Based on a lecture-seminar to the Royal College of Art ‘Zootopia’ series, October 2012.