Book | Why Look at Animals? – John Berger

This week Last month, I read Why Look At Animals? – a compilation of essays and musings by John Berger that deal with the role of animals in our modern society as well as meditate over human behaviour, nature, art and human progress. Berger’s standpoints a lot of the time are depressingly Marxist and neo-Darwinist but the writing style is light and accessible and can actually be taken seriously.!!d8P1)gCGM~$(KGrHqMOKkEEwQOfWmnGBMSC0-tZ8g~~_35

The essay “Why look at animals?” looks at how animals have changed from kindred beasts that we used to interact with every day, share in our labours and revere with respect and reliance, versus now where they exist as a commodity or as often quoted in the book, a “marginalised spectacle” thanks to the logic of capitalism. Animals have become reduced to being things outside of themselves in human eyes, whether as representations of social status or else symbols of exoticism and civic/historical alliance, or else as empty promises of transcending our own emotions and biological limitations. Animals sit listless in zoos or lurking within human homes and streets. We have now become completely separate to animals despite how biologically and emotionally similar we are to them and Berger stresses how capitalism’s powers have corrupted this relationship to an irreparable extent:

“The marginalization of animals is today being followed by the marginalization and disposal of the only class who, throughout history, has remained familiar with animals and maintained the wisdom which accompanies that familiarity: the middle and small peasant … That look between animal and man, which may have played a crucial role in the development of human society, and with which, in any case, all men had always lived until less than a century ago, has been extinguished. Looking at each animal, the unaccompanied zoo visitor is alone. As for the crowds, they belong to a species which has at last been isolated”

Another essay, “Ape Theatre”, elaborates on the results of animal captivity and marginalisation by talking about his experience at a zoo in Basen. This essay is more focused on Darwinism, evolution and the rejection of creationism. It is structured anecdotally while providing lots of neat facts and philosophy about how similar apes are to us in how they can communicate and experience the same emotions as we do. This essay was written during a time where the discovery of our 99% genetic similarity to apes created a wave of thought concerning evolution and the instability of religion. Nevertheless, Berger’s position is poetic by confronting these two trains of belief and in the way we see our world.

“Birth begins the process of learning to be separate. The separation is hard to believe or accept. Yet, as we accept it, our imagination grows – imagination which is the capacity to reconnect, to bring together, that which is separate. Metaphor finds the traces which indicate that all is one. Acts of solidarity, compassion, self-sacrifice, generosity are attempts to establish – or at least a refusal to forget – a once-known unity … To create is to let take over something which did not exist before, and is therefore new. And the new is inseparable form pain, for it is alone … Alone, we are forced to recognise that we have been created, like everything else. Only our souls, when encouraged, remember the origin, wordlessly.”

Deep stuff, innit.

There are other cool little essays like comparing the eating habits between different classes and why one (no prizes for guessing which) is will be insatiably unfulfilled over the other. Also here’s an extract of this cool poem:

Out of the single night
came the day’s look,
the wary animal’s glance
on every side

Once the animals flowed like their milk

Now that they have gone
it is their endurance we miss

This post ties in seamlessly with the fact that I went to the zoo the other day. London Zoo. Bit of a bittersweet situation. Obviously it is great to spend hilarious times with friends and see all the different animals but you can’t help but wonder how aware the animals are of their own captivity. Seeing endangered species whose only means of existence is within the confines of a zoo is also quite depressing. Depressing’s not really the right word for it. But seeing this rockhopper penguin isolating himself to just stare at the edge of the enclosure says it all really.

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