Ursula K. Le Guin on Animal Stories:

“Why do most children and many adults respond both to real animals and to stories about them, fascinated by and identifying with creatures which or dominate religions and ethics consider mere objects for human use: no longer working with us, in industrial societies, but mere raw material for our food, subjects of scientific experiments to benefit us, entertaining curiosities of the zoo and the TV nature program, pets kept to improve our psychological health?

Perhaps we give animal stories to children and encourage their interest in animals because we see children as inferior, mentally ‘primitive,’ not yet fully human: so we see pets and zoos and animal stories as ‘natural’ steps on the child’s way up to adult, exclusive humanity—rungs on the ladder from mindless, helpless babyhood to the full glory of intellectual maturity and mastery. Ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny in terms of the Great Chain of Being.”

– Ursula K. Le Guin


BookTuber Tuesday – More Popular Books I Don’t Like!

Ursula K. Le Guin on Philip Pullman:

“Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is a long, richly imagined, and deeply incoherent work, in which I’ll try only to trace the part animals play. Despite appearances, it is a small part. The two cats in the story, who have a minor but important role, do what cats have often done in myth and fable: they cross between worlds. Otherwise they’re just cats, realistically drawn. Animals are otherwise absent from the books, except for a tribe of polar bears who talk and build forts and use weapons, as humans do, but who don’t have daemons, as humans do.

But I think Pullman overloads the concept and then confuses it. He implies strongly that the daemon is a kind of visible soul, that to be severed from it is fatal, and his plot hinges on the cruelty and horror of this separation. But then he begins changing the rules: we find that witches can live apart from their daemons; in the second voume we are in our world, where nobody has visible or tangible daemons; back in her world, the heroine Lyra leaves her daemon on the wharves of hell, and though she misses him, she lives on perfectly competently, and in fact saves the universe, without him. Their reunion seems almost perfunctory.

In fantasy, to change or break your own rules is to make the story literally inconsequential. If the daemons are meant to show that we are part animal and must not be severed from our animality, they can’t do it, since the essence of animality is the body, the living body with all its brainless needs and embarrassing functions—exactly what the daemons do not have.”

– Ursula K. Le Guin, ‘The Beast in the Book.’

GABBLER RECOMMENDS: “Peach Scone” by Hobo Johnson for NPR Tiny Desk Submission

GABBLER RECOMMENDS: Animal agents by Amanda Rees

“Self-aware animal protagonists have always existed within the human world. Usually, however, they’ve been imaginary, and mostly they’ve appeared in the pages of children’s stories. Characters such as the talking animals in The Chronicles of Narnia (1950-56) by C S Lewis, for example, were relatively simple. For all their animal appearance, their thoughts, actions and emotions were largely indistinguishable from those of humans. Other stories have exploited differences in human and animal experience to teach moral or ethical lessons, by precept or example. In some cases, this involved close exploration of the inner lives of animal protagonists – the gradual civilisation of the wolf-dog in Jack London’s White Fang (1906), for example, or the mature suffering of the horse in Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty (1877). But more often than not, the author’s aim was to use the animal to explore the human, and humane.

Many other aspects of human-animal relationships have now been scrutinised by historians, sociologists, linguists, geographers and anthropologists: the emergence of the pet industry; the changing appearance and functions of zoos; or the continuing significance of hunting and fishing to industrialised urban societies. Their results throw light on changing relations within and between human societies, as well as on the ethical and moral issues they posed. It is in short order becoming plain that human history has depended – in any number of ways – on the contribution of different animal species.

But does this mean that animals can be considered agents of history? Their contribution, after all, wasn’t planned or deliberate. Rats, for example, despite the best efforts of poison manufacturers to portray them as such, are not an invading army. And while the European colonisation of the Americas might have depended on the contribution made by livestock animals, those animals were not themselves conscious of their role. In this sense, the humanities’ turn towards animals has merely rendered human histories more inclusive. The subject matter has expanded, rather than a new perspective emerging. At most, such stories chart the way that humans have made use of animals, or those aspects of their lives that have interested human observers. Recovering, or accessing the lived experiences of nonhuman, nonverbal animals, and writing animal-focused histories, still seemed impossible.

Nonetheless, some scholars tried. As with the efforts of scientists to see the world from the animal’s perspective, scholars have drawn on ethology, on evolutionary theory and physiological studies, in a sustained attempt to write histories – or, with Sandra Swart, ‘horse-stories’ – from an animal perspective. They’ve called for a combination of methods (archives, experiments, their imaginations) to put themselves in the place of the embodied other. What if sound was tasted, or felt, as much as it was heard? What would social life be like, if meetings were haunted by the olfactory presence of absent friends (or enemies)? Alongside these attempts to record animal experiences, the question of intent and deliberation continues to cloud debates about whether animals can, in fact, be agents of their own history. Animals might have shaped human history, and might make their own history, but, especially in the age of the Anthropocene, they seem to do so under circumstances of human choosing.

For those of us who share our lives with pets, companions or working animals, managing our daily lives depends on recognising not just the needs, but the intentions, capacities and capabilities of the nonhuman – not least the extent to which we rely on such qualities. For the past century or so, these commonsense, lay understandings of animal agency have been marginalised as examples of sloppy anthropomorphism. It is now past time to take this tacit, non-expert knowledge seriously. By adopting a new approach to animal agency, we can develop new ways of thinking about multiple, distributed agencies and the way that they are remaking the world. In the age of the Anthropocene, we cannot afford to assume that these changes will always and forever be under conscious human control.”