From Terrestrial to Celestial
The readings this week provoked in me some cool thoughts that I thought I’d share. What I keyed in on, and what I intend to address with this post, is something we have discussed before—the difference, or lack thereof, between humans and animals. I think that this is something that really weaves itself into both of our readings for today, but moreso the Bulliet excerpt. I hope enough of this is relevant to the readings to count as a post. In regards Bulliet, I guess you could say that I think he’s noticed something important, but I don’t know if I agree with all of what he says about the objectification of domestic animals.
I don’t know when it happened, when humans woke up and realized they were different. But for as long as history seems to record, we have known it. Whether it is really true or not is something we’ve discussed for a long time, but for whatever reason people have believed it, and that is what is important. Our ability to reason, to abstract, to create, set us apart. And with that awareness came a desire to be unique, to be progressive and avant-garde because we were special and better than the savage world around us. I believe that we are still trying to distance ourselves from what we perceive as an antiquated savagery today. Bulliet mentions bullfighting in Hispanic countries—there is actually a strong anti-bullfight movement in these countries, spearheaded by organizations like PETA, that he does not mention. I won’t extrapolate on it, just know that it exists. It shows many people are ashamed of these cultural practices, practices that have existed for centuries in total acceptance. We grew more ashamed of them over time. The further separation from the human and the animal. But why? I believe it has to do with our mastery of nature. The more distance we put between ourselves and our natural environment, through cities, art, and culture, the more we crave our own uniqueness. And with that comes a desire to establish an identity as humans—not animals trying to survive in the world. Civilization creates savagery, and as it progresses the differences between the two only become more noticeable. Human becomes an adjective and a noun. This is reflected in changing religions across time.
In the beginning, we found apotheosis in our surroundings. The sun, the ocean, the donkey, even reindeer. But from Paganism to Christianity, we abandoned a connection with the earth for a connection with the stars, with the divine, for reasons I think I outline well in above. From the terrestrial to the celestial. We are the apex of perfection; the animal, the earthly, is equated with the uncivilized, the primal, and the stupid. We want nothing to do with these things. Primal lust, including the idolatry of the animal phallus, was beneath us. Thus human religions shifted from the animal to the image of divine people. We are the divine self portrait. Nothing any less deserving of that deserves worship. We deified ourselves because our differences with the natural world had grown too great to even consider it a part of our surroundings. What I find fascinating is that people can have very brutal tendencies and, instead of acknowledging them, we distance ourselves as a species from that behavior, calling it “Inhumane”.
So why the donkey? Even before this reading, I was always curious. Why is the donkey so consistently brought up as an image of mental slowness even though it was worshiped in the past? I don’t know of the ass as being particularly stupid—though I have heard of the stubborn mule. I know Camilla asked this question in her blog post too and I thought I’d provide a response here since it fits. I think it just comes back to trying to distance ourselves from what we think of as the barbaric (Though that is in itself our construction). I think this desire for distance between our idealized image of culture and everything else has grown into total rejection—on both a metaphysical and a cultural (Bullfighting, Asses) level. Even the smaller penises on Greek and Roman sculptures ties back into that—the large penis is a very animalistic image and we, according to our own narrative, are different, better, than that.
Do you think a reason for the idea of a “dumb ass” came because as time progressed, the usefulness of a donkey decreased? I have been reading up on donkeys, as they are my project, and have come to learn that thousands of years ago the donkey was the highest on the domestic totem pole…. That is until they found bigger, better, faster animals (such as the horse). It could be possible that as time progressed, people who had donkeys would begin to say something along the lines of “Oh, that ol’ dumb ass, good for nothin’.” Just a thought.
There is so much here to keep us busy in class tomorrow! Of course desiderata of human uniqueness will (always) be a chicken / egg debate, but it’s safe to assume that we will hang on to it, as it is so central to our identity as humans. We do need to remember, however, that the “mastering nature” framework and the rational man, abstract reasoning obsession are very much rooted in the narrative of Western Civilization — which is important, but it certainly isn’t the only flavor of human culture around, either in the past or the present. Think of the Eveny, for example…
There are a lot of really interesting ideas in this post. I read through it a few times, and each time I felt like I had completely different ideas popping up in my mind. I completely agree that in Western Civilization, we have slowly tried to separate ourselves from animals and nature; however, as Dr. Nelson pointed out in her comment, there are many examples of cultures that don’t exhibit this trait. Why is this? Why as westerners do we seek to completely remove ourselves from our animalistic pasts, while other cultures revolve around the idea that we should be one with nature. And additionally, if we are seeking to separate ourselves from animals, then why do we try to stop things like bullfighting? Do we feel that we are superior to the animal and have a responsibility to look out for its best interests, or is there some sort of subconscious feeling that the bull has feelings and a family and so on and really isn’t so different from us? I don’t really have any answers, your post just really created a lot of questions for me. I look forward to discussing them on Tuesday.
The objectification of domestic animals? Throughout history (and still today) we have objectified people as slaves or in sexual ways. Thus the objectification of animals was not so hard, comparatively. If we understand behavior of other species in light of our behavior (like experiences of pain) then how far down the evolutionary scale does the analogy hold? It could appear to some (like some radical vegan friends of mine) that there exists a challenge for every human to recognize his or her attitudes to non-humans as a form of prejudice no less objectionable than racism or sexism. Domesticated animals, like human slaves of the past and present or land, is property. Today, the relationship to the domestic donkey (and other domestic animals) is strictly economic and includes no obligations only privileges.
It is understanding the historical development of human relationships with donkeys that will help us understand more fully their objectification… and our present-day moral responsibilities.
This was a bit of a tangent but relevant to previous class discussions. hum. till Tuesday, deep-spring2013-historical-philosopher-students.
I think it loops back to Jared Diamond on why some cultures are technologically superior to others; basically which cultures had the tools available to master the world around them.When I think of different cultures focusing on coexistence and the circle of life versus domination over the natural world, I think it comes down to which cultures had the tools to dominate. The ones that didn’t coexisted with their environment and the ones that did dominated it. I don’t think of that as being particularly “western” in any sense besides geography, just “modern”. In other words, what I am saying, and I’m sure someone will push back on me for saying this, is that I don’t think the Eveny (Or the tribes of Papua New Guinea) constitute a modern society. Of course, that raises the question–what is a modern society? Does being a modern society necessitate a mastery over rather than a coexistence with nature? For me, one of the defining features of a modern society is a departure from or a radical change to our natural environment, which the Eveny do not display. How could they possibly dominate their environment? It’s one of the harshest places on the planet. Simply put, in these places, nature is stronger than we are and the development of these cultures and their ideas reflect that. It makes perfect sense to me that their religious beliefs, therefore, would reflect a more earth-centric view of the world rather than the human-divine views that modern, western, dominating societies hold.
This is a lot of what I was trying to say in my post–namely that our ideas on the metaphysical and the symbolic are influenced by the changing degree of control over our environment that we as humans (Though at different rates across different geographical areas) achieve as time goes on. And that, furthermore, the metaphysical and the symbolic are products of this exchange rather than the initiators.