I've long wondered about animals and the internet. The most read stories on the BBC regularly feature dogs that have adopted kittens, sheep that have had sex with goats, cats that can water-ski. There was one story that frequently recurred in the top five, of a man who was forced to marry a farm animal that he'd been caught having sex with. Then there are those annoying 'I can haz' cat pictures that I've never understood.
Why is this? Maybe this is just a variant on pornography. The animals are, after all, usually naked. Simon Critchley argues that the existential substrate of humour (as opposed to comedy) is the blurring of the distinction between human and animal. We all laugh when a human does something animalistic, or an animal does something human. His book on the topic offers a definitive case of a joke involving a man having sex with a bear, which is surely destined for the BBC's 'most read' list.
There is universality in this, but it is the inverse of that promised by Enlightenment cosmopolitanism. To appreciate this, read Kant's Idea for a Universal History, whose third thesis runs:
Nature has willed that man should, by himself,
produce everything that goes beyond the mechanical ordering of his
animal existence, and that he should partake of no other happiness or
perfection than that which he himself, independently of instinct, has
created by his own reason.
Kant's account of history sees the human species gradually heading towards a single, global civil society, in which discourse is rational and elevated above the animal and the parochial. Humanity's telos is to globalise, rationalise, de-nationalise and de-naturalise its condition. The anti-Enlightenment sneer of Nietzsche and his followers - especially John Gray today - stresses the gut over the head, the friend over the enemy, the irrational custom over the civilised debate, desire over rationality. Animality doesn't just rattle reason, but gobbles it up.
The Haitian disaster is both shockingly counter-Enlightenment - almost counter-civilisation - and potentially a condition of greater Enlightenment. The grizzly reports refer to the living amongst piled up corpses, and the dying left to die without care, let alone modern medicine. It's not just that humanity is overwhelmed by a natural disaster, or that humans are on the verge of sub-human conditions and behaviour, but that modern science, technology and politics are virtually helpless at present. The Lisbon earthquake had a profound effect on the formation of European Enlightenment, famously leading Voltaire to abandon his theological optimism. An earthquake reveals how thin the veneer of modernity ever is, though perhaps equally how much thicker we have to make it.
I heard Douglas Alexander on the radio yesterday morning declaring that nobody knew the number of dead. I kept wondering why this number was so important - was it just morbid fascination on an epic scale? - until he used the phrase "so we can't get our arms around the scale of the problem", and then realised that, as puny and as silly as they are, numbers are one of the main tools that contemporary humans use to try and save themselves. As the Latourians would tell you disparagingly, they're one of our best sticks for fending off nature and keeping it at bay. So, fair enough, Douglas Alexander - I'll let you off this time. When nature was this rampant, cavemen would employ every tool available to them.
Meanwhile, another million people have watched the clip of the dog being taught Polish. As a space of communication, the internet hovers uncertainly between the promised global civil society that Kant believed would eventually arrive, and the sort of horror show that Nietzsche and Gray believe we are biologically wired to gawp at. The 'most read' section on the BBC website is a sort of barometer of the human condition, neither as elevated as the 'global civil society', nor as grotesque as nature's full awfulness. The watching world can't cope with Haiti from an Enlightenment perspective, for it can't get its 'arms around the scale of the problem' (which is not a bad definition of the Kantian sublime). But thankfully it can't cope with it from a Nietzschean perspective either, for some forms of awfulness are too much even for animals as sick as us. So we watch a dog learning Polish instead.
Pets sit mid-way between a global civil society and a global horror show. As Critchley indicates, human beings can't all partake in a single rational discourse about the nature of scientific progress, but they can all laugh at a cat that plays the clarinet. I saw the film of Disgrace at the weekend, and if there's one way that the film actually supplements the book, its with the constant canine imagery. I suspect that this is Coetzee's point, that between the sexual animal violence of the wild and the judicial order of the city lies the intermediary of the pet dog, representing both our connection to nature, and our miniscule distance from it. A cat or a dog turns out to be the most comforting thing to look at, for beings that can't work out if they're animals or not.