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Philosopher Slavoj Žizek on Animals

Excerpt from SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK:
God Without the Sacred: The Book of Job, the First Critique of Ideology
LIVE from the New York Public Library

Jacques Derrida, of whom I am otherwise rather critical, reported on a kind of primordial scene from his life. After awakening he went naked to his bathroom, where his cat followed him, then the awkward moment occurred. He was standing in front of the cat, which looked at his naked body. Unable to endure this situation, he did something—put a towel around his waist, chasing the cat outside, entering the shower. The cat’s gaze stands for the gaze of the Other. An inhuman gaze, but for this reason all the more the Other’s gaze in all its abyssal impenetrability. Seeing oneself being seen by an animal is an abyssal encounter of the Other’s gaze, since, precisely because we should not simply project onto the animal our inner experience, something is returning the gaze which is impenetrable, radically other. The entire history of philosophy is based, perhaps, upon a disavowal of such an encounter.

I remember a photo of a cat after it was submitted to some lab experiment in a centrifuge. I saw this photo thirty years ago. A cat, its bones half-broken, its skin half-hairless, its eyes helplessly looking into the camera. This is the gaze of the Other disavowed not only by philosophers but by humans as such. Even Levinas, who wrote so much about the helpless Other’s face as the original site of ethical responsibility explicitly denied that an animal’s face can function like this. One of the few honorable exceptions was here, Jeremiah Bentham, who made this simple proposal, “Instead of asking, ‘can animals reason and think? Can they talk?’”—all this humanist enterprises when you triumphantly say, No, they can’t, they just exchange signs, they don’t really talk and so on, we should, according to Bentham, ask, “Can they suffer?”

Human industry alone is continuously causing immense suffering on animals which is systematically disavowed. We know about it but we pretend not to know. Not only laboratory experiments but special regimes, for example, to produce eggs and meat, turning artificial light on and off to shorten the day, use of hormones, and so on. Beaks which are half-blind and barely able to walk, just fattened fast to be slaughtered and so on and so on. The majority of those who visit a chicken factory can no longer eat chicken, and all of us knows—all of us know what goes on there, but this knowledge has to be neutralized, again, so that we can act as if we do not know.

One of the ways to facilitate this ignorance is the Cartesian notion of animal machine. Cartesians already in the seventeenth century were warning people against compassion with animals. They claimed that when we see an animal emitting sounds of pain, we should always bear in mind that these sounds do not express any real inner feeling, since animals do not have souls. These are just sounds generated by a complex mechanism of muscles, bones, fluids, and so on. You can clearly see the origin of these sounds through dissection. The problem is that the notion of animal machine has to end up in La Mettrie’s notion of l’homme machine, of a human man, as a machine. If is one is a fully committed neurobiologist, exactly the same claim can be made about sounds and gestures emitted by humans when they are tortured. There is no separate interior domain of soul where pain is really felt. Such sounds and gestures are simply produced by the complex neurobiological mechanisms that constitute a human body.

So back to the gaze of the cat. What if the perplexity the human looking at the cat sees in the cat’s gaze is the perplexity aroused by the monstrosity of the human being itself? What if what we see in this abyss of the other’s gaze is our own abyss or to quote Racine, a wonderful line from Jean Racine’s Phædre: “Dans ses yeux je vois ma perte écrite,”

“In her eyes I see inscribed my loss.” Gilbert Keith Chesterton proposed such a reversal of perspective. Instead of asking what are animals for us humans, for our experience, we should ask what—or try to imagine what are we humans for animals? In his practically unknown essay “Everlasting Man,” Chesterton makes a wonderful mental experiment along these lines, imagining the monster that man might have seemed at first to the animals around him.

A quote: “The simplest truth about man is that he is a very strange being, almost in the sense of being a stranger on the earth. In all sobriety, he has much more of the external appearance of one bringing alien habits from another land than of a mere growth of this one. He has an unfair advantage and an unfair disadvantage. He cannot sleep in his own skin. He cannot trust his own instincts. He is at once a creator moving miraculous hands and fingers and a kind of cripple. He’s wrapped in artificial bandages called clothes, he’s propped on artificial crutches called furniture. Alone among the animal, man is shaken with the beautiful madness called laughter. As if he had caught sight of some secret in the very shape of the universe hidden from the universe itself. Alone among the animals, man feels the need of averting his thought from the rude realities of his own bodily being, of hiding them as in the presence of some higher possibility which creates the mystery of shame.”

So my point here is that if we try to imagine things like this, maybe this is the first step of wisdom, to extend this logic which was first formulated by Descartes, which is for me the origin of—and I use now the term in its positive sense, multiculturalism. When you find other people’s customs strange, remember how your own customs must appear strange to the same foreigners. We should maybe try just to imagine what kind of monstrosity we were and still are for animals. Maybe this is what we should read in the perplexed animal gaze.

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