John G Bell


Fall '02 - Hill & Gilliam

Book Response: The Lives of Animals by J. M. Coetzee

A. Important things about ...

  1. the power and limitation of dialogue

    All of the major dialogues in this book are about conflicts over what things are. The question in one case is what an animal is and is not. At another case, there's a conflict over whether Elizabeth is saying that the Jew is an animal or that the animal is a Jew. No one seems to step back and ask why it's necessary for things to have an “is-ness” in order to have value. That a thing must be identified and thus by implication have some specific place in a hierarchy of value is a core determination for all the actors in this book.

    For example, there's the question of whether animals are intelligent and thus can be placed hierarchically on par with humans. However, no one seems able to say that both humans and animal seem to exhibit significant forms of intelligence, each fascinatingly different and similar in expression. The question of intelligence is then used to say on a specific ruler of value where each is measured. However, no one seems to be able to value each part of an interdependent whole which has more total value in a state of cooperation and mutual care than in a state of conflict.

    There seems to be an overwhelming tendency in the dialogues modeled in this book to create win-lose, true-false equations that deny the possibility of emergent benefits and externalities to the continued diverse relationships themselves.

  1. American or world society

    The question of whether animals should be treated like humans or the argument about whether saying that the production facilities are like the concentration camp implies that the Jew is animal or that the animal is Jew completely misses the fundamental problem. The problem here is not that one thing that seems similar or different in some way is something else, but that the differences are taken as a form of hierarchy and the similarity is taken as an insult. Emotional investment in the definition of what something “is” creates conflict. Things seem to be, but no amount of perception is sufficient to oblivate the contribution of more perception to approach the concept of identity.

  1. these specific groups

    There's a great number of relationships modeled in this book, all of which seem to have some kind of dysfunction. There's the relationship between John and his mother in which he feels powerless to limit her willingness to step outside social convention and his mother probably feels displaced by a wife of whom she doesn't approve. John and his wife have dysfunction where he seems to have recreated a sense of powerlessness by being involved with a strong, disapproving mate and Norma feels displaced and disrespected by the greater deference John has for his mother and apparent unwillingness to hear Norma's requests for understanding and compassion. There's various levels of conflict between Elizabeth and the various faculty at the college, especially with the professor that objects to the comparison between the Holocaust and the commoditization and industrialization of the animal flesh business.

    It's unfortunate that the format of the discussion is framed within all of these other conflicts because it seems to obscure the actual issues. However, in a broad context it very accurately models the way in which this kind of dialogue is developed between people that do have other issues and experiences that inform current attitudes and convictions. On the one side, it seems like it would be much cleaner to speak directly about the issue of the relative value of animal rights in isolation, but ultimately it's probably not possible to isolate one issue of human experience from all others.

  1. myself

    I made the commitment to being vegetarian as my New Years resolution at the beginning of this year. I had pretty much already been, excepting for the occasional burger on a Boy's Night Out. However, I had been developing in this direction for some time, having tried briefly to become vegetarian in the past and having become more and more aware of what I felt to be negative social and economic impacts to huge scale meat and food industries.

    In one sense I am lucky because I made the choice after having two meat meals in a row and feeling absolutely ill from the fat and grease that I was able to make the choice based on a desire to not have meat in my diet because of the qualities of the meat itself, instead of still desiring meat but making the choice primarily based on other issues. At the same time, I'm finding that the other issues are becoming increasingly relevant to me.

    Over the spring, I took a road trip to Arizona and on the way back traveled through the Redwoods in Northern California. My traveling companion had never experienced the Redwoods before and was emotionally overwhelmed by them. I was not as emotionally charged until after several miles through the Redwoods we drove past a timber mill. My reaction was a feeling of betrayal. Here's a protected forest of beautiful trees, most older than European settlement in the area and some older than European settlement on the continent, and then to see a place where these trees were being killed and dismembered was at the time like a physical hit.

    I've always thought of my ideal home as being made from beautiful wood from the floor to the ceilings and suddenly I felt like this would be the same as living in a bloody uncured leather tent. This connection caused me to retire my leather belts and jacket when I returned home, and to make the choice that I would not purchase more leather goods.

    So, I came to link the value of the plant world to the animal world, instead of the link from the value of humans to animals as modeled in this book.

    I also realize that I have a selective awareness of these issues. For example, I am a reverse label snob. I have started to wear some shirts with large labels inside out so that I'm not a walking billboard, but at the same time I do not hide all labels. I have not clipped a single REI logo off my clothing, but I've clipped other labels. Also, I've not done anything about the small Nike logos on my new, non-leather shoes. So, there's a process of selective awareness and also a threshold of significance that comes into play for the way I think about issues.

B. Talking points

  1. Shame


“Animals have no shame.”

“Animals don't hide their excretions, they perform sex in the open.”

Clearly the author's never lived with a cat. My cats like privacy for biological functions which indicates a shame like thought process. Most cats hide their excretions. Also there's articles in the newspaper every year about how some captive zoo animal is hard to save because they don't like to breed in captivity, preferring not to become amorous in public view.

  1. The death of man


“The only organism over which we do not claim this power of life and death is Man.”

If this were true, we never would have had to watch “Dead Man Walking” and we would not be about to enter into another of a long series of robber baron induced wars in human history. Not only is this statement not true, but the fact that most casualties in war are now non-combatants instead of the combatants indicates that this is becoming more untrue over time.

  1. Sheep


“... but you won't get a bunch of Australians standing around a sheep, listening to its silly baa writing poems about it.”

I just did a Google search on “sheep poetry” and got 131,000 hits. Obviously someone is writing poetry about sheep, even if the Australians aren't. What this point misses is that people tend to mythologize the things that are important objects in daily life. For a society that does not hide from the process of food production, there's an intimate and visceral connection to the animals in the process. However, the hidden and faceless enemy is easy to turn into a monster by creating propaganda. This is the process that is exemplified by boot camp and the indoctrination of people during times of conflict. People are taught to dehumanize the enemy, which means to create a barrier to recognizing the essential worth and significance of the Other.

  1. The face of the enemy


“If I were asked what the general attitude is toward the animals we eat, I would say contempt. We treat them badly because we despise them; we despise them because they don't fight back.”

There's another way of looking at this. Holding the animals in contempt is not the cause of the suffering, but rather the only thing that makes the creation of such suffering on a massive scale acceptable. This is due to the mistaken exclusive “is-ness” of the Other as something alien and monstrous which rejects that the Other could also be wondrous and beautiful. This is the same mechanism talked about in the book “Faces of the Enemy” by Sam Keen whereby the enemy is created as a monstrous Other by a process of propaganda.

  1. Aristotle

p59 (Aristotle in the footnote)

“The art of war is a natural art of acquisition, for the art of acquisition includes hunting, an art which we ought to practice against wild beasts, and against men who, though intended by nature to be governed, will not submit, for war of such a kind is naturally just.”

The claim is that war is just against those that will not submit. However, the domesticated animal is not a wild beast. Also, this constant linking of war with hunting and eating of animals is relevant to the fact that the mechanism of dehumanizing the enemy is a process of war. Atrocity is made acceptable because the Other is a monster and the fundamental value of the Other is revoked by the absolute identity of the Other as alien. The Other is a monster, not that the Other appears or seems to be a monster.

Also, often the hunting of wild beasts is treated as a sacred ritual of renewal by those that engage in the hunt. The link between primitive hunters ancestors with the animals that are hunted is not the link one would expect from someone that hold the Other in contempt. This is a radical change in behavior toward the game animal and food source in modern times. In the past it was exactly the unclean animals that were not allowed as food, but now it is the fact that the animals are worthy of contempt, or in other words unclean, that makes it acceptable to eat and cause them suffering. The attitude then is diametrically opposite in these two conditions.

  1. Western crusade


“... yet another Western crusade against the practices of the rest of the world, claiming universality for what are simply its own standards.”

One of the things that's been in my mind when I've talked with others about being vegetarian is that I realize that I'm privileged to be able to choose to be one. For example, there are simply places in the world where I would not economically or socially be able to make the choice. To be vegetarian in a harsh climate in a primitive society would not be nearly as possible as it is for me now in an age of refrigeration and vacuum-seals.

It seems to me that the increasing number of vegetarians and animal rights activists is in direct proportion to the increase in the cruelty necessary to keep the ratio of production to population and in the increase in the availability of other options. I would not on the extreme expect an aboriginal desert people to become vegetarian nor in the middle be surprised to see a significant level of vegetable and fruits in the diet of a people in a resource abundant environment. However, I would be surprised to see a people in a highly advanced economic and resource rich society to not be developing significantly toward vegetarianism and animal rights activism.

Clearly, that appears to be a bias on my part in thinking that vegetarianism and animal-rights are in some fashion ethically superior to the alternatives. However, vegetarianism for me starts as an aesthetic choice and then evolves to a choice relating to the economic and social and moral impacts of the use of animal flesh for my diet. For me, these impacts are important and significant.

Also, just to be argumentative, vegetarianism was far more of an Eastern philosophy than a Western philosophy. While it was essentially unknown in Europe, it was reasonably prevalent, but not nearly as universal as we tend to think it is, in places like India.

The taboo against the killing and mistreatment of various animals was far more characteristic of other societies than those of the modern European states. While I certainly don't mean all animals has been treated in other cultures with such taboo, but some were. Also, there are historical references to animals in a special class, such as the monkeys of Gibraltar or the ravens of London Tower that existed far longer than just the 150 years of animal rights in the west mentioned in the book.

Further, there have been historical movements of universal animal rights. As a single example of how this is not just a recent phenomena, I offer a quote from the ancient philosopher Pythagoras: “As long as men continue to destroy ruthlessly the living beings from the lower kingdoms, they will know neither health nor peace. As long as they massacre animals, they will kill each other. In effect, whoever sows murder and suffering cannot reap joy and love.”

  1. Respect not reason


“Norma, you're ranting.”

“I'm not ranting. I would have more respect for her if she didn't try to undermine me behind my back ...”

Here's a perfect example of the need for compassionate listening. This is almost identical to the example given in the “Compassionate Communication” article. Here the character is making it clear that it's really nothing to do with reasoning but rather is an issue of respect that is central to her mind. The conflict she has is one of self worth, not in an intellectual disagreement. If the other character, John, would hear the plea for validation instead of addressing the words of conflict he would realize there seems to be a more primary issue involved.

C. Outrageous statement or claim

The literary device of a lecture within a story seems at times to be a convenient way to avoid accuracy by allowing the characters to voice ideas that aren't well researched. There's so many points where I find myself stuck on the accuracy of a statement as a point opposed to hearing the point of view. I'd like to think that this is an intentional effect, but it seems like a excuse for being sloppy sometimes.

One major frustration I had while reading this book was over why difference seems to necessarily imply hierarchy? At the point that difference is recognized, there's an immediate evaluation of where that difference rates on a measure of worth in comparison to everything else. There's not much in our society that we maintain the idea of interdependence beyond hierarchy. There's no significant cultural method to model this kind of relationship. Even models of interdependence like that of a functioning symphonic orchestra is infused with the hierarchy of 1st violin or solo performances or the elevation of the conductor for specific reward.

Further Talking Points

  1. Not the relative values of subjective experience

    p87 Reflections – Peter Singer

    “Pain is pain, no matter what the species of the being that feels it.”

    “I've always said that different capacities are relevant to the wrongness of killing.”

    So, it's more okay to kill a person that has some neurological disorder that doesn't allow them to feel pain than it is to kill someone that fully experiences the pain? Actually, within the human species we've chosen to think that impairment is reason for more mercy than less. For example, the question of a person's ability to understand the charges against them or even the ability to tell right from wrong can radically change the way they are treated by the courts for even the most heinous crimes. This suggests a significant double standard where impairment within the human species is grounds for special treatment and impairment outside that species is ground for mistreatment.

    The interesting opportunity here is to avoid making the choice based on the subjective value of each being's experience of pain, but on the pain itself. The subjective value of a being's pain may differ from another, but the form of pain is not subjective. For example, if the cause of a particular pain for one species is unacceptable, such as being drawn and quartered, then perhaps it should be unacceptable to inflict that form of pain on all other species equally. If it is unacceptable to crowd human prison inmates, then perhaps it is equally wrong to crowd another species because it is the crowding that is the same in the equation.

    So, the possible tool here is to look for the value that is equal and use that as the method for determination of acceptability instead of trying to match by insoluble equation the subjective suffering of beings.

  1. Animal affection

    p114 Reflections – Barbara Smuts

    “Perhaps she sensed my attitude, because in the next moment I felt her impossibly long ape arms wrap around me, and for precious seconds, she held me in her embrace.”

    This summer I was house sitting for my ex-girlfriend while she was in Europe and taking care of our cats that have been living with her. There was one night that I came home late in a particularly sad mood and Segue, my grey and white cat, spent about an hour affectionately head butting me and then spent the entire night sleeping at my side which he hadn't done in quite a while. Segue has always been affectionate to me, but on this night in particular he was very expressive. I have absolutely no doubt that he was reacting to my mood and was making his care and affection for me that night very clear.

    It is hard for me to imagine that someone could spend any significant amount of time in close relationship with animals and not become aware of the powerful, and even subtle, ways that they relate to each other, their environment and to humans.

  1. When you act like a person, you are treated like a person.

    P117 Reflections – Barbara Smuts

    “And, equally important, she [Safi the dog] behaves as if she regards me as a person in the same sense of the word.”

    Beautiful. Here's a non-hierarchical relationship between beings based on multi-modal identity. Neither must be something to have value, but rather has value even just by accepting the way each other seems and behaves. Each acts and behaves toward the other as they seem. That the writer has said this in this way and also had such a strong relationships with various non-human communities seems to me very important.

    The premise that follows in the text is that instead of determining the hierarchical value of another based on the Other, it's the attitude of the self that determines one's own person-hood. This relates back to the Decalogue of Dialogue in that one must be allowed to define themselves. So, in this way, it is only the self that can decide one's own person-hood, not at the whim of another. Each actor in the interspecies dialogue determines their own person-hood by the way they relate to the Other.