Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Žižek and that strange animal, the human

A fascinating discussion of jealousy, fantasy, animals and utopia, by Slavoj Žižek — the “most dangerous philosopher in the West” (New Republic) — in Living in the End Times (Verso, London, 2010), helps one understand the reasons for our fascination with animals in their “natural” state. This fascination is well-known to most of us — the popularity of certain television channels and of feature films where David Attenborough expounds on the habits of exotic birds, or the elusiveness of the snow leopard, is sufficient to confirm it.

What is less well-known, is a psychoanalytic take on our (growing) predisposition to watch such programmes or films, and how much we learn about ourselves, as very strange animals indeed, through this perspective. By way of a discussion of Gérard Wajcman’s essay on “the animals that treat us badly” (a reference to wild animals), Žižek (p. 81) reminds one forcefully that (quoting from Wajcman) “We do not share animal space”. Wajcman comes to this conclusion after recounting what he calls “my definitive experience with the animal world”, also dubbing it a “thorough disenchantment” (quoted on p. 81), when, as part of a tour group in Africa, he found himself twenty metres from three “big bad lions … and nothing”.

Referring to it as an “encounter of the zero type”, Wajcman’s account is a sobering reminder that, among all the thousands of species of animals, we are not merely the only one, As GK Chesterton once famously remarked in The Everlasting Man, that is capable of “the beautiful madness called laughter”; we are also the only one endlessly fascinated by other animals. In Wajcman’s words (quoted by Žižek on p. 81-82):

“Humanity passes its time watching the animals. We’ve invented all kinds of devices expressly for the purpose. We never grow tired of it. No doubt they represent for us a perfect world. Something strange, different from our own, from our uncertain screwed up chaotic mess of a world. All of which makes the animal world look that much better. Sometimes it seems so foreign that we stand before their perfection and we are stupefied and stricken mute, and despite our sincere wishes, we wonder whether we could ever be like them, ever become so marvellous a society as have the ants and the penguins, where everyone has his place, where everyone is in his place, and where everyone knows and does exactly as he must so that everything can keep on in its proper place, so that society can perpetuate itself, unchanged, indefinitely the same and infinitely perfect. We’ve had a hard time of it, finding our places. After the disasters of the 20th century the animal societies seem to have become the ideal.”

As Žižek points out (p. 80-81), Wajcman’s reflective description is self-consciously written as the imagining of a utopia (Wajcman is a psychoanalytic theorist), which has the same structure as a fantasy in the “purest” sense. In psychoanalysis, a fantasy has the structure of a subject as “gaze” observing a scene from which the subject itself is absent (p. 80), in other words, an imaginative projection of a “paradise” from which one is excluded. The example of jealousy (p. 81) serves to illustrate this: when you are jealous of your lover, it is usually accompanied by the painful fantasy of her/him making love to someone else — something that Stanley Kubrick explored so thoroughly in his last film, the neo-noir masterpiece, Eyes Wide Shut (1999), where the young medical doctor is sent on a death-wish-driven exploration of the link between sex and mortality by imagining his wife in the arms of another man (a fantasy she had first, and fatally shared with him).

So what is the sense of a fantasy concerning the world of animals from which humans are absent (also explored by Alan Weisman in his book, The World Without Us; cf. Žižek p. 80)? Firstly, Žižek shrewdly shows that, in inverse form, it tacitly underpins the many “pop-scientific texts” of today that claim to explain ostensibly mad or incongruous human behaviour in evolutionary terms as “adaptive strategies”. At the overt level the message here is that humans should imitate animals by following the dictates of their bodies — in Wajcman’s words (quoted on p. 82): “Salvation will come in our being animal — body, genes, neurons, and all the rest of it. So whispers the cognitivist in the politicians’ ears to help them find their way. Follow the body, more monkey business!”

Needless to stress, Wajcman parodies this in his own clever fantasy about the perfection of the animal world, which does two things: it reminds us of the difference between the animal “Umwelt”, to which animals are “perfectly” adapted (and which we enjoy observing for reasons already stated), while simultaneously uncovering the repressed truth behind our fascination with the animal world. This has to do with a subliminal awareness that we have screwed up, are still doing so, and that this saddening fact reminds us that being a reflective, linguistic being perhaps has less going for it than we used to think. Referring to the popular-scientific writings mentioned above, Žižek puts it as follows (p. 82-83):

“Such ‘reports’ thus represent dreams of how we might counteract the growing dysfunctionalisation and reflexivity of our ‘postmodern’ societies, in which relying on inherited traditions to provide models for behaviour becomes increasingly untenable: animals, by contrast, do not need any coaching, they just do it … ” (This puts a different spin on the famous Nike slogan, too.)

Secondly, elaborating on this, Žižek (p. 83) claims that our pleasure in watching animal documentaries on a variety of TV channels or in feature films, which open a window on a utopian realm, derives from our realisation that, unlike humans, animals do not need to acquire language in a laborious manner (although they obviously communicate in other ways). Instead, as Wajcman’s essay points out, they live in a “harmonious society” within which there may be the intermittent, evolutionary struggle for supremacy to ensure the species’ best chance for survival, but where no member of the species questions its role, urging development, war or revolution. Wajcman’s formulation here is inimitable (quoted on p. 83):

“Man is a denatured animal. We are animals sick with language. And how sometimes we long for a cure. But just shutting up won’t do it. You can’t just wish your way into animality. So it is then, as a matter of consolation, that we watch the animal channels and marvel at a world untamed by language. The animals get us to hear a voice of pure silence. Nostalgia for the fish life. Humanity seems to have been hit by the [Jacques] Cousteau syndrome.”

Driving the point home, Žižek (p. 83) focuses on the reason for the fascination that one of the “key elements” of the animal world holds for humans. Why do animal mating rituals mesmerise us, as in Attenborough’s series on birds? It is no surprise that Žižek here reverts to what is arguably one of psychoanalysis’ originary (original and originating) insights, namely “the basic inconsistency constitutive of human being as such … the discord (the ‘impossibility’) of the sexual relationship … ” (p. 83). This may sound cryptic, but Lacan’s famous claim that “there is no sexual relationship” simply means that, as linguistic beings, we are not “immediately” present to our sexual acts, but that they are always mediated by language — which is the complicating factor, as most people can testify.

By contrast, animals have sex “ahistorically”, as Wajcman says (p. 83), “where everybody seems to know perfectly well how to do it”, while “[b]etween men and women it’s been pretty messy, the big disorder. Not necessarily unpleasant of course; it’s not war, it’s not some kind of permanent fuck-up, it’s rather a kind of mixing up and clearing up … no set rule, no rhyme or reason”. Which all just goes to show what very strange animals we are as humans.

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