Beware the Category: Human

25 November 2020
By Robert McKay

Photo Credit: Hugo Glendinning

Robert McKay is Co-Director of the Sheffield Animal Studies Research Centre (ShARC).

He is one of the performers/practice-researchers in Beware the Cat, a multimedia performance adaptation of William Baldwin’s 16th Century prose work using music, song, text-reading, signs and projected images. Centred on the grisly alchemical experiments of a rambling priest seeking to understand the language of cats, the story reflects on a question that has provoked humans across the ages: do birds and beasts have reason? The work is being performed as part of the Animal Movements conference at the University of Leeds on 22 November 2019.

I am a scholar of literature produced from the last third of the 20th century to the present. This is an era marked by world-changing discoveries about nonhuman animals’ intelligence, their rich capacities for feeling and embodied experience, their complex emotional and social lives, and the rights and human duties that many people recognise to follow from these truths. This period of new knowledge can be understood to put into profound question the tendency towards anthropocentrism that has characterised modern Western societies.

Anthropocentrism means putting humans at the centre of everything. Anthropocentric attitudes take what are regarded (not, by any means, with proper justification) as quintessentially human ways of life as the norms by which the world is understood. What humans say goes

Another characteristic anthropocentric attitude is to presume that even if they are like other animals, humans remain fundamentally different from them: more different from any nonhuman animal than any such animal is from another one.

A lot of things are offered as the fundamental ground for this human exceptionalism, capacities humans supposedly “have” that animals don’t: altruism; a sense of self, time, generosity, or humour; transmissive culture, ritual and performance; ethics, politics, and law; the understanding that others have thoughts about us; reason. But often it eventually comes down to one thing that is said to underpin all the rest: language.

When this idea of absolute difference, human exceptionalism, bleeds into the presumption that humans are better than other animals, you have the basis of what’s called speciesism: believing that it is right and just to treat different species with inequality. Humans might be animals, but they are certainly aren’t beasts.

If anthropocentrism is indeed coming into question, then relations between “the human” and all other animals should be at a crucial juncture. Can we imagine a way beyond anthropocentrism, as current knowledge about animals and recognition of the injustice of elitist, self-centred thinking suggest we must? Fundamentally it is this project of thought that has underwritten a lot of work in the academy over the last twenty years or so that falls under the rubric of “animal studies”, the field in which I work.

What does the contemporary literature that I study have to do with this? Literary writers are, I suppose, the people who most fully put that medium to work, language, that is supposed once and for all to distinguish the human. And I’ve spent my entire working life thinking about what it means for them to tell stories about animals and to use animals to tell stories. But I have always been fascinated by something a bit more specific: not quite stories about animals, but works that take it upon themselves to tell stories about animal life as a way of explaining the human; stories that pontificate about animals, about what they are and what they are not, about what they can do and what they can’t. I call these stories our “animal corpus”: the catalogue of texts that write animals as just bodies, lacking language, reason, ethics, sociable community or whatever.

I’m fascinated by them because such stories—in their very factitiousness—can reveal one of the great paradoxes of anthropocentric human exceptionalism: that it’s impossible without animals. We can only know we are human by telling stories about how animals are different from “us”, and we’re making them up.

It’s for these reasons that I’ve delighted in being cast as William Baldwin in Beware the Cat. Because the (initially) pompous and self-confident “author” of the work (characteristics not relevant to the casting, I trust) frames the tale for us, and sets the argument of the piece in motion by avowing some core truths that the humanist holds to be self-evident. Plays, he insists, should not feature animals because it is “not comical to make speechless things to speak, or brutish things to common reasonably”. Animals do not have language, they do not have reason, and so they do not form a civic community; and any art is to be discouraged that pretends even for a moment that they do. What follows in Beware the Cat, by contrast, is a wonderful debunking of that hubristic expression of human pride in difference from animals. So let me just highlight just two key moments in the text and performance that resonate for me with ideas and innovations that are at work in animal studies.

The first is the way that, by excessively documenting the mechanics of scientific inquiry, Baldwin fictionalises the way that “truths” about animals are the product of humans’ ways of making meaning about them. In the edifice of human exceptionalism—centuries and millennia in the making—human self-knowledge is bound up inextricably with projecting inquiry outwards to discover an animal object that is supposedly out there, existing independent of that project. But Beware the Cat shows us the obsessiveness of humans looking at animals, of needing to know what they are thinking, of chasing and taking hold of them in order to do so, of doing violence to some animals so as to find out something about other ones.

Baldwin details with great and tangible reality the materiality of the process of gaining such knowledge: for Master Streamer, philosophical science as animal ethology is nothing like the dispassionate pursuit of truth by an observer, the ideal that underpins empirical science’s self-presentation in the 21st century. “Caught with such a desire” to know what the cats said that he cannot sleep at all, it’s an endeavour in which he is perilously and almost nightmarishly invested. It is reliant on the specific technologies and animal bodies at hand, it is done under the prurient gaze of others and with them in mind: and all of these aspects frame what he is able to know and say about animals.

When he hears the cats, then, we’re left wondering: would he have heard something different, or nothing at all, if hadn’t found and gutted a hedgehog? if the kite that attacked him had gotten the fox he’d killed for his experiment? if the ingredients or shape of the magical-hearing pillows he makes had been different? What if he had listened to different cats from the ones on this printing house roof? As Vinciane Despret puts it in the title of her own book debunking human exceptionalism in animal science, Baldwin’s text certainly gives us to ask: what would animals say if we asked the right questions?

A second interesting moment is when we view Mouseslayer’s story itself. Here, Baldwin fictionalises the cat not as a mirror to the human, but as a critical viewer of the human. In Beware the Cat, cats look at humans, and the world of cats looks at the world of humans: as performers and viewers, we are in turn asked to judge ourselves in the eyes of the cat, the cat Mouseslayer: to be responsible not for her, but before her.

In perhaps the most famous essay in the field of animal studies (certainly it is an endlessly fascinating one) the philosopher Jacques Derrida says this about the corpus of ideas in which animals are said to lack this, that or the other: “It is as if the men representing this configuration had seen without being seen, seen the animal without being seen by it; without being seen seen by it”.

The experience of Beware the Cat is indeed like seeing the anthropocentric category of humanity being seen by an animal. It is not quite that the cat court offers a parody of human law and order, showing us by satire that human claims to authority, self-rule and the ability to “common reasonably” are quite deluded. Animals are often pressed into that kind of literary service (in which animals’ irrationality is confirmed by showing humans’ fundamental similarity to it).

Instead, the point is that feline “reasonableness” is proved in the very act of it revealing human unreasonableness (sexual duplicity, religious idolatry, ecclesiastical debasement etc.). This, we discover, is a peculiarly human unreasonableness not unlike the anthropocentric prejudice against animals’ intelligence—the unreasoned, unevidenced, article of faith in human exceptionalism—with which the text begins but which it counsels us eventually to renounce.