People Looking at Animals




3 minutes reading

I’ve been recently confronted with the anxiety inducing idea that there will soon be a third member of my household. After more than three years of nagging and negotiating, my girlfriend’s wishes have finally overthrown my relentless attempts to preserve my current lifestyle. Now, it’s inevitable: I’m about to become a dog owner.

It’s not that I worry so much about the animal’s care-taking, I’ll probably get used to that. But rather, on a deeper level, I wonder if I will be able to fully appreciate the dog’s presence. In a strange way, and this feels awful to say, I’ve never been that interested in their existence. Animals operated mainly in the back of my anthropocentric state of mind. As a sociologist, I’m trained to look at the world, and all its inhabitants, from a humanistic point of view. My everyday life is human spectacle, full of creativity, contradictions and challenges. Community, I realise now, has always been a deeply human concept for me, one in which animals fulfilled a subordinate role.

It looks like I’ll have to re-evaluate things.

In his famous essay ‘Why Look at Animals?’ (1980), John Berger argues that animals offer man a companionship different from any that can be offered by human exchange. Because of our incapacity for shared language with them, because of the distance implicit in the way we look at each other, uncomprehending, animals exist in parallel to man, both connected and separated. Therefore, he explains, “it is a companionship offered to the loneliness of man as a species”.

Does this explain the extent to which photos of animals capture our collective attention? Do lolcats and doge memes, and the pervasive spread of animal photos (sometimes with words superimposed) ultimately appeal to us because they offer something that fellow people simply cannot? Perhaps it is not just a dog that offers a balm to our loneliness, but also simply a photo of a dog – and by sharing it with one another, we share between humans our connection with animals. In this sense, a dog doesn’t just expand community between man and animal; a dog builds communion among mankind.

Looking at a photograph of a dog, we tend to anthropomorphize, with limited success. Maybe this has something to do with our preoccupation with language, with words. When trying to project thoughts and emotions onto an animal, we are confronted with the limitation of something so dear to us: the language of our own thoughts.

it is a companionship offered to the loneliness of man as a species

But, as Berger states, it wasn’t always so. Throughout the 19th and 20th century, the ancient ‘unspeaking relationship’ between man and animal was broken, because we came to think of body and soul as separate. In acquiring this philosophy of Descartian dualism, Berger writes, “the animal was reduced to the model of the machine”. Just another material at mankind’s disposal.

Does looking at animals remind us of this unhappy split between our mental ambitions and corporeal existence? As I reckon with the impending introduction of a dog into my life, into my inner community, I wonder if this integration begins by embracing their wordless mysticism. Perhaps our communion with animals starts by an internal process, as we learn again how to merge our dualism back into a single whole. When we look at animals, we remember how.

People Looking at Animals by Ruben Jacobs was featured in GUP#46, the Community issue. To see more of Martin Usborne's series The Silence of Dogs in Cars, read our book review.