Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

The New Solitude: Melancholy Anthropomorphism and the Molecular Gaze

Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

The New Solitude: Melancholy Anthropomorphism and the Molecular Gaze

Article excerpt


Anthropomorphism, as it is usually understood, is a matter of identity. To anthropomorphize is to project a human identity onto something nonhuman. Originally, anthropomorphism referred to the "Ascription of a human form and attributes to the Deity." Now it means the "Ascription of a human attribute or personality to anything impersonal or irrational" ("Anthropomorphism"). If anthropomorphism often strikes us as a type of logical error, this is because we see the identity it produces--say, God in human form with flowing white beard--as a mistaken or metaphorical identity. In this sense, anthropomorphism presumes the relative stability and apriority of human and non-human identity. We say it is wrong to ascribe human form to God because we presume God's identity to be non-human.

While anthropomorphism seems more mistaken as a strategy for understanding God, it seems less mistaken as a strategy for understanding non-human animals, especially in a post-Darwinian world. As Wendy Doniger notes, "Anthropomorphism and zoomorphism are two different attempts to reduce the otherness between humans and animals, to see the sameness beneath the difference" (34). But what happens to the idea of anthropomorphism when one assumes the separation of human and animal to be absolute? This is a question that arises out of John Berger's highly influential analysis of the global animal in his 1977 article "Why Look at Animals?" In this essay, Berger writes:

   Until the 19th century ... anthropomorphism was integral to the
   relation between man and animal and was an expression of their
   proximity. Anthropomorphism was the residue of the continuous use
   of animal metaphor. In the last two centuries, animals have
   gradually disappeared. Today we live without them. And in this new
   solitude, anthropomorphism makes us doubly uneasy. (21)

For Berger, the process of industrialization begun in Western Europe and North America in the nineteenth century has broken every tradition that previously mediated between humans and nature, including anthropomorphism.

Why does Berger say that anthropomorphism makes us doubly uneasy in the postindustrial age? It makes us uneasy in the first place because, having separated ourselves from other animals through the processes of industrialization and capitalization, it no longer strikes us as a natural mode of comparison. It is unsettling in the second place because it has become something that we humans do to non-human animals. A significant, although implicit and unacknowledged, rhetorical move Berger makes in "Why Look at Animals?" is to shift anthropomorphism from being a matter of identity to being a matter of action. For Berger, the pet owner anthropomorphizes his or her pet by radically changing the material conditions of the animal. "The small family unit lacks space," he writes, "earth, other animals, seasons, natural temperatures, and so on. The pet is either sterilized or sexually isolated, extremely limited in its exercise, deprived of almost all other animal contact, and fed with artificial foods" (24). The problem here is not simply that pet owners anthropomorphically see themselves in their pets. (This is the perspective of traditional anthropomorphism.) It is also that they change the physical environment of the pets to such an extent that these animals stop being animals and become denatured: sterilized, sexually and socially isolated, unfit and badly fed.

Berger's claim in "Why Look at Animals?" is a radically materialist one: namely, that the physical marginalization of animals in Western society results in their cultural marginalization. Along with that of the family pet, he appeals to the example of the zoo animal to illustrate the now-irreparable separation of the human species from the rest of the animal kingdom. While the public purpose of zoos is to allow visitors the chance to look at animals, Berger writes, "nowhere in a zoo can a stranger encounter the look of an animal. …

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