Kangaroos - The 100 Days Project: Day 63 [38]

    Writing Roos II

Anthropomorphism

Do you respond to this photograph? Seem to recognise any of the emotions involved? Then you are probably guilty of anthropomorphism.

‘Anthropomorphism’? Yes. The assumption of the presence of human-like thoughts and emotions in animals. There is already a small mountain of problems in that sentence alone, of course, central amongst them the idea already explained (Day 53) that the lump- or umbrella-term ‘animal’ is an intellectual violence in the first place, that the notion of ‘animal’ is a human device to help define itself (i.e. the human) and set itself apart, and that there are no ‘animals’, only sheep, cats, snakes, bats, foxes, kangaroos (etc., etc.). Or the notion that the

human is an animal too, and that we should be speaking, if we must speak of animals at all, of human animals, and non-human animals. Or …

But let’s not trouble ourselves with those things right now. Technically, ‘anthropomorphism’ means giving or extending human form to non-human things. I.E. not letting those things be in themselves – not seeing them for themselves – but obscuring their reality by sucking them into a sort of human envelope. ‘Anthropomorphism’, that is to say, is seen by many (many) as, at best, a naïvety, a failure of objectivity.

But there are even more problems here. ‘We see all things through the human head,’ writes Nietzsche, ‘and cannot take off that head’. Everything we see and try in some way to take a mental hold of is sucked already into the human head-set. Arguably we cannot even see, cannot even think, without anthropomorphism.

Such considerations, however, do not seem to trouble those people – they appear to be scientists and philosophers, mainly – who would use the accusation of anthropomorphism to try to bludgeon those who in their own turn try to point out the suffering and/or emotional lives of non-human animals, and to question the ancient and lethal presumption of human dominion over them. I.E. if those who would point out the suffering of fellow animals (largely anthropogenic suffering, which is to say suffering which originates in the behaviour of human animals) can be seen as trying to reduce the barriers between humans and other species, the wielders of ‘anthropomorphism’ can be seen as trying to preserve those barriers.

What does this have to do with writing about kangaroos? Firstly, those who would try to point out the suffering of kangaroos – the impacts of human predations on the emotional and cultural lives of kangaroos – must be prepared to face and withstand the accusation of anthropomorphism, which, as I have said, is usually accompanied by the imputation of intellectual sloppiness, as if anthropomorphism were an error of thought, rather than one of its key components.

I put up – thread through these posts – the stunning (better say revelatory, because they show something) photographs by Stella Reid of the orphaned joeys Cooper and Merlot, or the very moving photographs of joeys and their mothers by Ray Drew, with the clear intention of conveying, on the one hand, the psychological trauma of fire and the death of family/parents, and the intense, nurturing, teaching relationship between mother and joey on the other (and these are only some of the things these photographs attest), and expose myself immediately to the accusation of anthropomorphism. Animals do not love, is the imputation; animals do not mourn, or comfort each other. Cooper and Merlot are not hugging, not consoling – they are merely grooming one another (etc.).

Perhaps it’s a good sign. The accusation of anthropomorphism is most likely to occur when the species barrier is most under threat. Anthropomorphism is so derided because it is the principal means of – the greatest facility we have for – intensifying our empathy toward non-human animals.

A storm in a teacup, anyway, one part of me says, and yes, it is true that I have not actually received any accusation of anthropomorphism over any of the posts I have written here (though I understand that others, in defending them, have). But that is hardly the point. The tendrils of this accusation of anthropomorphism are subtle, penetrating, and ubiquitous, and perhaps more powerful in their implicit than their explicit forms; anyone who cares for non-human animals, let alone writes about them, must be aware of them. Subtle, but also, as I shall attempt to show in forthcoming posts concerning some extraordinary photographs of a grieving kangaroo that drew world-wide attention two years ago, brutal and, for those not prepared for them, potentially devastating, in hosing down outbreaks of public sympathy, on the one hand, and, on the other – more to be feared – shaping the kinds of lethal public policies toward non-human animals that we find ourselves everywhere and every day faced with.

Photo: Ray Drew

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