I really enjoyed reading Jakob Von Uekull's 'The Worlds of Animals in Men' after Erica Fudge's 'Animal' because a lot of it supports some of the main ideas she discusses. Fudge claims that a lot of ways in which certain animal species are intelligent are usually labeled as 'instinct' by humans, and so the animal is not given credit for being extremely intelligent in its own world and enviornment-which is obviously very different from humans. She gives the example of a dog's remarkable ability of scent-this is not usually attributed as intelligence; it's more of a convenient skill that the animal has. Uexkull and Painleve both broaden this argument by describing the perception of specific animals in their own unique world. Humans and animals do not respond to the same cues. We have to first accept this difference before we can begin to appreciate the intelligence and abilities of other species. This narccisstic tendency that humans have to deny that there is any species on earth as complicated and impressive as themselves blinds them to the fact that we simply are not the only beings with unique reflexes and skills. Uexxkul discusses the Umwelten, which is the epitome of each animal's perceptive skills for adaption and recognition. Some animals have more impressive ones-but some humans don't have these skills at all. Pigeons, for example, have an internal 'homing' mechanism that lets them know where they are. Humans don't even have this; we still need maps and GPS to figure out where we are. But these skills are not mechanic. And as Uexxkul claims, animals are not like machines. They are capable of interpreting cues just like a human would.
Jean Painleve and Von Uexkull approach their studies of animals in a way that tries to negate anthropocentrism. Painleve observes the absurdity of believing the humans are above all things when he states "the most preposterous anthropomorphism reigns in this field: everything has been made for Man and in the image of Man"... "this leads to observations that are inaccurate". Instead, both Painleve and Uexkull create work that initiates an alternative approach to understanding nonhumans. Through understanding these nonhumans as separate from them selves, and how different animals are from each other, both give up their control over these animals. Painleve explains that when filming or observing animals, it is important not to control the outcomes or environment of the animal. In the work of Uexkull, he understand animals as if they had their own worlds, of which there were many different stimuli and responses. In a way, Uexkull and Painleve, gave up their control over the animals and simply observed their behaviors.
This week's readings made me think about the strong pull to bring the animal world into that of the human realm. Both Von Uexkull and Painleve fought with this often overpowering desire when writing and filming their animal subjects. While each man stayed true to observing the animal without heavily preconceived notions, even Painleve is quoted as saying "...I noticed how the vampire bat extends its wings before going to sleep. I thought it looked like the Nazi Heil-Hitler salute." Von Uexkull introduced me to the idea of coexisting realities within the world, both with humans and animals: among species and individuals. Each being perceives the world in a unique way but this fact is sometimes hard to imagine because of our ego-centric way of thought. Painleve was quite an inspiration due to his pure curiousity and patience with the animal world. Even with crude diving equipment, he cared deeply when filming his first film on the sea horse. It was quite a beautiful thought in my opinion. When I read his comment about the vampire bat, it caused a new train of thought. I think an interesting thing happens in observing animals. We reflect ourselves onto animals; perhaps to deal or learn about ourselves in the current time. Painleve's comment came from a time when the Nazi regime threatened both his world and his work. Sometimes we are so subconsciously involved with the problems around us that they fuse with all other aspects of live, non-human alike. Above everything else, both Von Uexkull and Painleve believed in the animal as their own being. That in order to be properly observed and understood they must exist in their own realities, their own space. With only minimal influence from their human world, both men brought new science and new beauty out of the world of the animal.
In class, we discussed the end of the Von Uexkull piece as a dramatic change in style and subject, potentially not worthy of lasting discussion, and certainly not as significant as the rest of his essay. I believe the topic of the role of “nature” and “God” to be quite relevant to both his essay and what we have covered in class so far. If all living beings are subjects perceiving a shared environment through an individually crafted umwelt, then it is feasible that every being (human and non-human) perceives the world entirely differently than every other being—even those of the same species. Every being is the center of its own universe. However, the constant interaction between these beings shows the necessity of a connection between beings. In what ways are we related, what is the nature of this relation, and what does the knowledge of this tell us? One of the easiest demonstrations of relation is through groupings of species. An even easier demonstration asserts that all beings can be encompassed by nature. Every subjective & individual being is part of the same whole. Viewed as such, the desire to further “know” non-human beings is spurned not by the desire to know more about humankind, but to know more about the individual self, and the self’s role in the entirety of nature.
I found Jean Painleve's work and what he has to say about it (and his approach to filmmaking in general) to be very interesting because of how the medium of film influences and is influenced by animals as subjects. More than once, the animals were referred to as "actors," an interesting euphemism considering actors are essentially misleading the audience, as is mentioned by the authors. If we look to Painleve's problem of lighting, we see further evidence of this understanding of the animal as performer - on page 131 he discusses the problem of how lighting affects the behavior of the animals, especially certain sea animals, which relates back to the problem of objectivity. Here, not only are the filmmakers lacking objectivity because of their human-ness, but they are also observing the animal through a camera lens and for the purpose of creating a (admittedly scientific) documentary - here, the camera is further distorting, or at the very least complicating, the authenticity of any event or behavior the filmmakers witness. Painleve himself refers to this issue of objectivity and anthropomorphism, citing humans' tendency to view animals' behavior and habits in human ("Man") terms, which can result in a misleading or just plain wrong interpretation or appreciation of those observed behaviors. On a different topic, I think the desire to show the wide variety of animal behaviors and environments pairs well with the medium of film, just as it does with zoos - we humans are a visual species, and would much rather see a new species (or a species displaying some behavior, whether its a male raising the young or a caterpillar turning in to a butterfly) rather than just read about it. This helps to explain the popularity of nature programs and zoos and safaris and all of those other experiences whereby humans are, at the most basic level, simply observing animals and how they act. Lastly, I thought it interesting that a documentary (Painleve's film "The Vampire," on vampire bats) can act or be interpreted as an allegory for something else (here, Nazism). I recently saw a documentary called "Rabbit a la Berlin," which told the story, from the animals' point of view, of the thousands of wild rabbits who lived in the Death Zone of the Berlin Wall. It was a safe, human- and predator-free area, and the rabbits quickly flourished. When the wall fell, the rabbits were forced out, and the film serves as an allegorical tale of a totalitarian society and its affects on the individual. I find it particularly interesting that animal documentaries serve as interpretations of human behaviors or events - it's as if we are anthropomorphizing to the point where animals' actions become metaphors for humans' actions, which is perhaps what at least some of Painleve's work rests upon.
Painlevé offers a portal through which to view the very unique worlds of various creatures. At this time, creatures such as the octopus, seahorse and hermit crab could begin to be observed by the general public. In this way, those who had not been previously exposed to such exquisite life forms could command a personal interest in life that exists, seemingly, beyond the boundaries of man’s own reality. And yet, the overwhelming idea that all animals exist solely for the purpose of man continued. Painlevé spoke of animals being beautifully exceptional in their own specialized ways, moving through the world for purposes unknown to man. All he proposed to do was to attempt to document their actions in the most realistic way possible. Uexküll wrote of man, of how our perception of other life is what we make of it, that many believe it to exist solely within our “soap bubble” of existence, when in actuality all life forms exist within their own individual bubbles in a time and place that looks and feels very different to the world in which we live. Our “umwelt” may collide with that of another creature, but the interaction between the “moment” it experiences with the one that we do can never be fully understood. These parallel and unbelievably, fascinatingly dissimilar worlds somehow, some way, come in contact with one another on an unending random timetable, and yet we catch no glimpse of their qualities. As humans, we attempt to understand all that puzzles us, but when it comes to animals we are unendingly captivated and mystified by them. What is most interesting to me is the non-human perception of the world in which man has transformed to fit his needs. Can animals get a sense of a resonating purpose from other creatures? And if so, what do animals think it is that humans are doing? How do they perceive us as we move through the world, their world?
Just as humans are, animals are beautiful and intricate creatures designed to interact with the world in near perfect balance. In both Jean Painleve’s and Von Uexkull’s piece’s, they share their appreciation for the majestic creatures we share this world with and through their love, unintentionally, consequentially urge us to do the same. By observing from afar we can attempt to understand the parallel lives these creatures have. As Painleve proves, we breed, love and live differently than any individual creature. We do not have fins or paws and do not walk on all fours, so there is no real way, with the resources we currently have, that we could ever truly understand how they live. However, with our current abilities as human beings, we can observe, analyze and value as these men do. Through Painleve’s use of the commandments, he is successful in his attempts create compassion within the viewer. I watched Jean Painleve’s "L'hippocampe” and although I cannot understand French, the artistic scientific footage portrayed seahorses as delicate and complex creatures and made me feel as if I were given the honor to view them in their natural environment.
The continual process of seeking to understand seems to be psychological phenomena particular to humans and is reflected through daily life and activities. The most basic manifestation of this phenomenon would most likely be language, which has allowed for the complex development of religion, politics, society and other various intellectual pursuits. Perception serves as the subjective force in each of these dimensions as well as the fundamental origin of conflict (religious wars, political systems and treatment of animals). There are varying perspectives related to animals, for example the relatively new development of veganism, vegetarianism, animal rights and in contrast, the sport of hunting. Uexkull introduces the concept of the “Umwelt,” characterized by the convergence of a subject’s perceptual and effector worlds (6). Each subject, whether human, animal or plant has its own distinct “Umwelt,” or in other words, its own distinct perception of its surroundings. Uexkull discusses the tick and it’s incredible ability to live for up to 18 years without eating. According to Uexkull this is evidence of time as specific to an animals world (12). The realization of time as a variable within the animal world challenges our view that time is an objective force. Uexkull also stresses the fact that humans are limited in observing animals within their given environment because of the overwhelming transformation from a natural world to a human world (13). “This fallacy is fed by a belief in the existence of a single world, into which all living creatures are pigeonholed” (14). This statement highlights a possible reason for the overwhelming sense of ambivalence humans feel when defining the status of animals as well as their relationships. It seems we are only able to explain animals either through our relationships with them or their significance through their usefulness. This relates to most of our readings, specifically Erica Fudge and Vicki Hearne, who strongly opposed the theory of anthropomorphism. Uexkull calls attention to the importance of understanding an animal in its given environment, “Whoever denies the existence of subjective realities, has failed to recognize the foundations of his own “Umwelt” (72). After a lengthy discussion of space and time along with differing examples of “Umwelten,” Uexkull concludes with his final realization, that nature is the only subject through which all “Umwelten” may exist, and complete understanding or knowledge of nature as a subject is impossible.
As we have discussed in class, the ability to empathize with other animals and understand their perspective is extremely difficult and debatably not possible. What Von Uxekull and Painleve offer is an attempt at better understanding the perspective of other living things. The analyses of how biological entities operate in and occupy space puts ourselves as humans in perspective with the other biological entities that occupy this world we live in. It is so easy to dismiss other animals as inferior when we only compare them to the way we perceive and act in our own environment. All living things complete the same functions and actions, only on different scales, utilizing their own mental and physical capacities, as well as the objects that surround them. Because we have two opposable thumbs and the ability to advance in our accomplishments of creation in human civilization, as well as the ability to record our own historical narrative, we assume we are better. It is not that other animals are inferior or more simple, they are just different, and interact with their own environment and each other in their own individual ways.
I’m having a really hard time responding to Uexkull for many reasons, one being that I can’t get over the parallels to neo-platonism and I want to comparatively look between the texts at some point. I think it’s easy to draw similarities between hypotheses on animal consciousness and perception to philosophical, or religious, ideas. All of which are strictly subjects of human thought and the majority of what anyone believes to be fact is mostly faith rather. Faith in someone else’s word and I personally have trouble committing to absolutes because I see the probability of everything being possible more likely than not. I’ve been thinking about the possibility that there are multiple realities (neo-platonic) and each species is a vessel that can only perceive one of these prospective realities based on functional necessity. This may be fun to think about, however I’m not comfortable with speculating on what the implications are. Painleve is unlike Uexkull because he stands as more of a passive observer and doesn’t try discover the inner world of each animal by interpreting their actions through his human faculty of reasoning or experimentation. Most things can never be known but only hypothesized and the answers can only believed through faith rather than fact. But there’s no reason not to explore, asking every question to answer, reassess and answer again.
Based on the way we project ourselves onto animals throughout our quests to understand the unknown we anthropocentize our own behaviors, mannerisms and motivations onto the animals we perceive. Often, as Painleve realizes, this approach limits our ability to observe these creatures and their widely diverse stages of development, mannerisms, sexual functions etc. Our understandings of which become stunted and over generalized based on our superimposed assumptions that all other animals should and can be understood based on how humans function in the world. Painleve comments on mankind’s problematic way of understanding the unknown stating, “Unfortunately this search has led certain minds away from scientific inquiry to more or less voluntary self-delusion…”(pg.119). I feel this idea of Painleve’s is especially pertinent to the other readings and ideas discussed in the class. It is also something that can be grounded in histories such as the ancient Greeks- who when faced with identifying and understanding the unknown anthropocentized themselves and imagined that human-looking gods controlled the seasons, the animals, and many other things. This is also evidenced further along in history in the tales of the great cat massacre. Here again humans, in their attempt to understand the unknown, blame cats and there supposed powers, often resulting in the mutilation and death of these creatures.
What struck me most by Painleve's work was the very real interplay between anthropomorphism and understanding a creature as is. Insofar as Painleve is preaching against man's determination of how other creatures function in and perceive the world around them, yet, pays tribute to the concept he is explicating by giving his documentaries quite anthropocentric titles. "Love life of the Octopus", for example. He, surely, is not claiming that an Octopus is aware of the concept of love, nor could an Octopus, even with the knowledge, feel it in the same way as humans. Rather, by doing this Painleve is trying to shift the way in which - I dare use "umwelt" - we assign perceptions to the natural world. Language should be used merely to relativize human conceptions to animals, not necessarily seek to define them. For a man who decides against the practices of anthropomorphism, it would seem odd to give films names such as "Fresh Water Assassins" and "Dancers of the Sea" - but such an absolute view of what Painleve is doing, I argue, is missing the point. He is trying to create a way in which we can correlate the existence of other animals to our own, while at the same time, acknowledging and understanding the inherent differences between species.This is not all that dissimilar to Uexkell's conception of the umwelt, as humans have sought to define other life relative to the human perception. This, given human self-interest, makes a sensible and maybe even decent starting point to observing and understanding other animals. However, when it is the only determination, and it becomes one of absolute dominance, it creates a rift of species equity and real value cannot be understood. What I wonder, and will continue to, is how to create an actual strata of ordered knowledge for the umwelts' of other self-conscious animals? It would seem the only likely, though obvious and contemporarily impossible, solution would be to map out the brain functions and activity. Neuroscience cannot do this as of yet but is improving. The day when observational assumptions may be overturned by empirical fact will be a day of better understanding of the roles of all animals within the natural world.
Both readings and Painleve's films present another interesting struggle between letting animals exist as animals and brining them into the human realm in order to help us better understand them. I was most struck by Painleve and his films, his close attention creatures that are so foreign to so many people, and the activities they participate in that on one hand emphasize their alienism and on another reach even further to drawing them closer to us. When I first watched the vampire bat I thought of it as sinister vulgar, but it took me a while to realize that those are human concepts that don't exist in a world without language and judgement. As far as I know, other animals don't peceive the bat that way, let alone understand those terms. Among animals, killing and eating is the only means to live, and not partaken in for pleasure. When I saw the male seahorses giving birth it seemed bizarre and not unnatural necessarily, but certainly a different type of nature than what I'm used to. When Painleve then showed the baby seahorses looping tales with one another, and compared them to children at play, it sparked recognition in my brain. The process of giving birth was odd, but ah, here's something I can relate to. I understand why humans instinctually try to relate to other creatures, but at the same time there's something to be said for appreciating them in their own ways.