Throughout most of Western thinking, the body has been reduced to a thing, an object in the world like any other. Only recently was it recast as something far more: the root and expression of subjectivity. The first to push the conversation in this direction were maverick thinkers like James, Dewey, and Nietzsche. Then, since the mid-20th century, the phenomenologists, feminists, and cognitive scientists have joined in. But the discourse they animated has been decisively limited. It mostly confines itself to a particular sort of body, that of the homo sapiens sapiens. This move results in inoculating us against relatedness to other bodied beings. At the same time, it has the effect of conceptualizing the body as a vehicle for human culture and spirit−for what continues to be seen as “more-than-animal.” In other words, the rethinking and revaluation of the body have served primarily to prop up a new humanism, to rehash an answer to the question of what it means to be human.
One the one hand, this approach can be understood as a necessary and desirable component in the struggle against the technoscientific effacement of the Subject. It is easier to protect a human essence from technological onslaught when it is neatly isolated from the inessential. On the other hand, such a division is compatible with the technical-instrumental attitude that dissects the world surrounding the Subject. In this sense, it helps to once more artificially delineate the human from the other animals. It facilitates the liquidation of the Nonhuman Subject that now proceeds at double speed, with humanism and technological reification holding hands. Meanwhile, the body and the somatic come to be conceptually grasped as the (back)ground for qualities that had long been praised not only as uniquely human but fetishized as evolution’s crowning achievement.
Reason, intelligence, and language, now seen as embodied, are largely reserved for the body seen as human. To the degree that our body is still called “animal,” it is mostly in tribute to the heritage of Darwin and to the scientific method in general. Indeed, mainstream thinking has it that the human is not really and not exactly an animal. Whatever the intentions behind such distancing from animality, some of the effects have been to: 1) ideologically uphold human domination in a deeply speciesist world, and 2) further take away from the humans’ animal joy of life. As a species, we have grown increasingly isolated, alone, and locked away from the world. Interspecies similarities and differences are found and acknowledged, but not to the end of establishing a pluralist appreciation. Even though more attention is given to our bodies, the fleshly commonality of all animals is seen as a residue of a discardable past. In its place unfolds a homogenizing exclusion of the Other, propelled by the latest twist in the narrative of human exceptionalism.
The specific organization of our bodily faculties supposedly makes us stand out, in many ways, from the other animals populating the earth. Standing out, we exist. Self-assured of our uniqueness, we can afford to look down on our animal kin. We unabashedly take ourselves to be a special case. This is not to say that we are not unique as these bipedal, large-brained animals. But looked at soberly, the specific features and feats constituting our uniqueness might not give us as much reason for celebration as most of us like to believe. The aspect of our organism that we abstract from its life and call “mind,” “soul,” or “spirit,” has long ago grown apart from the world. Since then, we have been unable to paste it back in. In fact, we see that very abstraction as the core of the uniquely human self. The human has been identified precisely with this prevailing sense of ego with all its purported characteristics of self-direction, self-determination, self-control. These were first understood as working over and above the flesh, and then−since the “corporeal turn”−through the flesh itself. What followed was a severe, sustained contraction of our organic being.
The constraints and pressures inflating the individual- and the culture-wide ego are all too real; the material, institutional, and discursive arrangements dominant in social life draw the atomistic ”I” out from the subconscious spontaneity of bodily life and into a prison of separation. In no particular order, the list of factors conducive to this state of affairs includes: manufactured and real scarcity coupled with a sense of fear before the future; the predominance of a regime of enforced and competitive work and a related experience of life as hurried and lost; sensory overload on the one hand and the boredom of isolation inside the four walls on the other; and accelerating privatization of space with the withering away of communal life. Many more items could be added but their detailed discussion is not the point here. These developments are generally recognized. The point is rather that, taken together as the inevitable of human progress, they may turn out to be our primary legacy.
Granted, there are practical improvements that soothe and sustain us. But at a systemic level they mainly serve to cushion our insertion into abstract, hostile structures that support and facilitate our alienation from the rest of nature, other beings, and one another. We are manipulated, often by forces that seem wholly impersonal, into deepening our existential predicament. At its civilized apogee, humanity is further than ever from a relatively harmonious way of being-in-the-world. Undeniably, humanity is an Empire. But at its heart is the individual who, increasingly steeped in a mass of faceless others, perseveres like a muscle in excruciating spasm.
Not everyone feels subjection to the demands of technocapitalist hegemony as keenly as the next person. Those of “higher” social standing will accuse me of exaggeration. But my conviction is that the comfort of the minority is built through a sustained, iron grip at the throats of the countless dispossessed. Despite their usual sedation with routine and their impressive powers of denial, even the beneficiaries subliminally tremble at the prospects of an increasing instability of (post)modern existence. Repressed anxiety simmers, feeding neurosis, until it is ripe to break out into the open.
In a tightly structured and technologically suffused system, we are not left to our own devices in seeking relief. As pathology after pathology is turned into a source of profit, the endlessly regurgitated, manufactured fad of instant gratification is proposed as one of the antidotes to lurking psychic strain and numbness. The pressures of daily life mount, so the culture industry has an easier job pushing shabby trips to replace the lost sensitivity of animal presence. The only thing it can offer here and is the commodity up for consumption, and with flashy packaging.
Good in themselves but poor as substitutes of a blooming animality−music, art, sports, comedy, tourism, and more− become professionalized and standardized, cut up into bite-size pieces and sold. For good measure, pills are thrown into the mix as a shortcut to the desired results. But both because they are sham, and because our insatiability is carefully cultivated, we are left perpetually dissatisfied with these quick fixes. Instead of the promised relief and release from the burden of our cumbersome ego-self, we feel our sensorial numbness amplified, and experience an absence from experience. Or we take another hit not to experience that, either. As we resign ourselves to illusory gratification and remain oblivious to the animality suppressed within, our life energies only become more dispersed.
We also end up with a distorted view of spontaneity, play and animality. Spontaneity is simultaneously desired and lost. Reduced into an object of striving, ever-elusive and chased after, it is delayed and inadvertently pushed out of reach. In turn, in the eyes of many, play comes to be equated with Dionysian frenzy: adrenalin must flow! Until one has gone mad, one has not played. Without the background of a deadening form of life, one would have no reason to think so. Animality itself is devalued into either dumb play or grim toil. In fact, as sustained observation of the myriad other animals by ethologists shows, it extends well beyond both. Other animals hardly ever fail to attend to their vital needs, of which play is in many cases a major component. Before consigning them to the “realm of necessity,” one should take a long look at how they play and leisurely enjoy themselves. In fact, the boundary between “work” and “play” in other animals’ lives is often impossible to demarcate. This may be seen as one of the hallmarks of free animality.
With our own lives becoming ever more compartmentalized, we used to look to the other animals for some sense of our own animality. However, these days we seldom have the time, patience, attentiveness, or humility to actually notice what the pigeons and the squirrels are doing. The animals considered pets would be our next stop. But while they remain a source of joy, companionship, and love to their caregivers, many of them have been made too dependent and too cut off from their original lives to give us a sense of freedom that developed animality brings. Just think of leashes, collars, and chains on dogs’ necks. And more species are en route in the same direction. People already keep cats indoors their entire lives or walk them on a leash.
The zoo, as always and by definition, offers not free play and spontaneity but artifice, plain and simple. It both mirrors, and makes more difficult to notice, the cages in which we lock ourselves away: the barren contours of the technoworld. We also used to be able to relearn bits and pieces of animal spontaneity from our children. The sense of regaining something lacking, something that was lost, seems to be part of the fascination of adults with childhood and children in general. But as some able writers have argued, childhood is fast disappearing as children are becoming more and more like adults. The earlier they start to speak, count, and read, the better. Their time becomes increasingly structured and organized by professionals, their play turns into planned, supervised recreation. And recreation fuels, and is organized around, improved performance. In this way, children gradually subordinate their playful impulses to the technical attitude.
The path out of this rut requires a gut realization that this body is more than human, that it is not just a basis for abstract conceptualizations, not merely a necessary foundation for a departure into disembodied realms of technical and contemplative prowess, and not an just an object of utilitarian considerations. Reduced to an appendage of the machine, the body-as-subject suffers and withers away. Humanism has been insufficient to make sense of this and appreciate its devastating consequences. It consecrated culture and set it off against technology, forgetting that both are constructs that rip us out of the immediacy of worldly being. Questions dealing with our animality may suggest more desirable avenues for the difficult task of somatological revival. Until they supersede those of our humanity, we are likely to remain animals at war with ourselves, the world, and our own technological constructs.
If the abstraction of the human from the animal continues to be analytically useful at all, if we had to take sides on that sort of ground, we would do well with a short confession. It is the body that sustains itself through its assumedly human essence, and not the other way around. It is when, under pressure of material and cultural circumstance, the body uses its mind against itself, that things go awry. Otherwise, the body “in its big reason does the I”−as Nietzsche said−for its own sake and those around it. It is vulnerable and frail, the bemoaned house of pain. But it is also powerful, Nietzsche’s mighty ruler. It permits but does not ask permission. Its voice is expressed and heard as limits, needs, desires, and instincts, thoughts and as ego itself. It not only holds the key to all experience, conscious and unconscious. This sentient, sensible body is experience itself.
But only by transcending the mind/body dichotomy will we be able to appreciate anew the relative coherence and sanity of animal life. One can pay lip service to animality, one can call us homo sapiens sapiens, designate a slot for us in a taxonomic scheme, and forget about the whole thing. But if we truly are an animal species, and if hardship and tragedy constitute an unavoidable side of animal life, then it might just be better to face reality as an animal reconciled with its various dimensions rather than one in denial. Out of a sense of opposition between the animal and the human and between the body and mind, we have been driving a wedge into our sensitive flesh, attempting to break out of ourselves in the name of an ethereal sort of autonomy. But the human is not the opposite, or the other side, of the animal. It is but an extension. And not, as some would like to believe, a “vertical” one, offering an escape route up to the heavens. Rather, it unfolds “horizontally,” leaving us immersed along with all the other animals in the surrounding ecologies and the dirt, pain, and joys of carnal life.
These considerations are intended as a mere fragment of a slowly sprouting, larger whole. As others before me, I mean to suggest that it is necessary to reevaluate the dominant worldview that has 1) crippled the human, 2) granted it phony, undeserved nobility, and 3) sentenced a multitude of other animals to misery in the wake of human supremacy. Such rethinking requires theory to work with, around, and against the abstractions in which we have become immersed, sacrificing the sensuous dimensions of our animal natures. But the impulse for the revaluation of animality does not originate in theory and should not end there. To leave the matter on paper would be to betray it and to further betray ourselves. These thoughts emerge from, and refer back to, practical, daily life, and only there can truly be animated. As such, they call for a gradual yet radical transformation. A longing matures in many of us for conditions of life that would allow for real simplicity, immediacy, presence, empathy, and wisdom. At present, the options for those who feel at odds with the current order are few: some accommodate and buy into the sham substitutes, others subsist at the margins, hoping to be spared as the machine presses on. Most attempt to navigate between these two poles. But this more-than-human body wants something else altogether. It hears the truth of a different life.