Look me in the eye. Still your inferior?

2009-10-14 00:00

THE cat may look at the queen, but does the queen return the gaze? Those of us who have established close and sensitive relationships with the animals who share our homes, will be aware of the frequent eye contact­ initiated by the animal in a variety of contexts. Are we going out? What do you want me to do? Is it food time? Or, simply, I have a closeness to you that speaks of two subjectivities that communicate the depths of this relationship.

A recent book titled The Animal Gaze by Wendy Woodward, an academic­ at the University of Western Cape, explores the significance of this eye contact, “... initiated by the animal­, meditative in its quietness and stillness and which compels a response on the part of the human, as it contradicts any assumed superiority of the human over the nonhuman animal”.

Do we recognise the significance of the animal’s gaze, challenging us to respond to the cat as a fellow being, not as an inferior creature? Do we recognise the subjectivity of the nonhuman animal, are we able to regard him or her as an individual self, rather than simply a creature that we own as a household pet, an object to be fed and cared for, but which is essentially unable to communicate on any meaningful level?

Only in very recent centuries have philosophers questioned the view of the 17th-century philosopher, René Descartes, who experimented on live dogs with no qualms as he asserted that they were incapable of suffering. Most people regarded animals as lower beings, lacking sentience, whose existence and welfare was entirely for the benefit of superior humans, to be exploited and used without regard for their intrinsic value.

This mind-set persisted until 19th- century philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham and John Stewart Mill emphasised­ that animals were capable of suffering, and that this had ethical implications. This posed a fundamental challenge to existing assumptions, opening the way for the now fast- developing­ field of animal studies.

The traditional anthropocentric view of the centrality and superiority of humans­ has been disputed, and thinkers such as animal rights advocate­ Peter Singer, Jacques Derrida­, and South African novelist J. M. Coetzee­ are at the forefront of the advocacy­ of animal rights.

This paradigm shift has caused the decentering of humans and the realisation that the boundaries between human and nonhuman animals are far more permeable than previously thought, demonstrated, for example, by the discovery that chimpanzees share 98,5% of their DNA with humans­.

Scientific studies of animal intelligence have revealed remarkable abilities in many animals from elephants, to dogs, dolphins and whales, and even parrots and crows, so that the old saying “bird-brained” faces serious challenges.

These studies have also revealed knowledge of the emotional lives of animals; their ability to experience pleasure, anticipation, fear, foreboding, as well as their remarkably long memories. Thus, many now claim that animals should be viewed as ethical­ subjects of justice, with the right to a flourishing existence.

Traditional notions of nature and animal life as being unfeeling, violent, and predatory are contradicted by these findings, further questioning the justification of the continued human­ exploitation of nature. As sentient­ individuals, and moral agents, it is argued that animals deserve­ equal consideration with humans­, possessing­ rights alongside human rights.

Rather than being regarded as serving the sole purpose of providing for the comfort and welfare of human animals­ , it needs to be acknowledged that all animals have an intrinsic right to exist in themselves, and they have the right to equal protection; pigs do not merely exist to become pork, or cattle­ to become beef, and so on.

Woodward also draws attention to the similar attitude displayed by much so-called ecotourism, which promotes the wilderness and wild animals­,­ in reserves only to provide uplifting and restorative experiences for the humans who visit, with scant respect for the intrinsic value of the areas and the dignity and integrity of its creatures. In the process animals are colonised and objectified, with the human animal once again manipulating the environment for his or her own purposes. The survival of life on this planet depends on the full co-operation between all species, not competition and exploitation.

Unfortunately, the South African Constitution does not recognise the status of animals. Before 1994 most writers were reluctant to foreground animal rights when the majority of South Africans were without rights, but the time has now come when the dualism between the “we humans” and the “them animals” can no longer be justified.

Significantly, South Africa is only one of three nations that have gathered 100 000 signatures urging the United Nations to acknowledge animals­ officially as sentient beings whose wellbeing matters. For the wellbeing of the entire planet, it is imperative that South Africa should re-cognise the necessity of social justice for all animals.

Reverence for the creative spirit within all life will help achieve healing for the Earth, the animal gaze being a potent reminder of our need to live in harmony­ with the natural world.

The contemporary mystic, Meinrad Craighead, expresses this movingly in her experience of sacredness evoked by the gaze of her dog.

“I think everything and everyone slept that hot summer afternoon. I sat with my dog in a cool place ... at the side of my grandparents’ clapboard house. ... I held the dog’s head, stroking her to sleep. But she held my gaze. As I looked into her eyes I realised that I would never travel further than into this animal’s eyes. They were as deep, as bewildering, as unattainable as a night sky. Just as mysterious was a clear awareness of water within me, the sound in my ears, yet resounding from my breast. I gazed into the dog’s eyes and listened to the sound of rushing water inside me … the sound of moving water, waterfall water. And I understood that these two things went together — the depth of a dark infinity and this energy of water. This is ... the divine immanence, and she is inside me.”

• The Animal Gaze: Animal Subjectivities in Southern African Narratives. Wendy Woodward. (Wits University Press, 2008.)

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