“The story of the cuckoo and the spymaster tells us that our understanding of animals is deeply influenced by the cultures in which we live. But it shows, too, that we can — and do — use animals as our proxies; we use them to speak for us, to say things that we cannot otherwise articulate.”—Helen Macdonald – The spy and the cuckoo
Sure, we laughed at that Roomba-riding cat in the shark costume just like everyone else, and we’re fans of any dog who knows how to make an entrance. But if we’re living in a golden age of animal photos and videos (and we are), the bar should be high to earn your attention. And if we’re living…
“See! See! See!” the Dukes kept telling me. Wherever they pointed, there were ants: under the door of a microwave oven, crawling out of the electrical outlets, heaped in the flower beds where I mistook them for fresh topsoil. It was shocking, and the Dukes seemed vindicated by my shock. “You don’t feel them crawling up your clothes?” Melvin’s wife, Sharlene, asked me at one point. She was walking around barefoot and in shorts, and I could see ants trickling across her feet and ankles and legs — spelunking between her toes. She clutched a can of a pesticide called Enforcer Instant Knockdown to her chest, more as a security blanket than as a weapon, and constantly swept her hands over her calves.
Soon ants were spiraling up the tongues of my sneakers, onto my sock. I tried to shake them off, but nothing I did disturbed them. Before long, I was sweeping them off my own calves. I kept instinctively taking a step back from some distressing concentration of ants, only to remember that I was standing in the center of an exponentially larger concentration of ants. There was nowhere to go. The ants were horrifying — as in, they inspired horror. Eventually, I scribbled in my notebook: “Holy [expletive] I can’t concentrate on what anyone’s saying. Ants all over me. Phantom itches. Scratching hands, ankles, now my left eye.” Then I got in my car and left.
The Hungarian-born philosopher Aurel Kolnai gave the horrifying qualities of bugs some serious thought. Kolnai ultimately decided that what upsets us is “their pullulating squirming, their cohesion into a homogeneous teeming mass” and their “interminable, directionless sprouting and breeding.” That is, it’s the quantity of crazy ants that’s so destabilizing. As the American psychologist James Hillman argued, an endless swarm of bugs flattens your perception of yourself as precious and meaningful. It instantly reduces your individual consciousness to a “merely numerical or statistical level.”
‘We have a more complicated understanding of football than we do genetics and evolution. Nobody thinks just the quarterback wins the game’
They ask for something like the rejection a century ago of the Victorian-era ‘Great Man’ model of history. This revolt among historians recast leaders not as masters of history, as Tolstoy put it, but as servants. Thus the Russian Revolution exploded not because Marx and Lenin were so clever, but because fed-up peasants created an impatience and an agenda that Marx articulated and Lenin ultimately hijacked. Likewise, D-Day succeeded not because Eisenhower was brilliant but because US and British GIs repeatedly improvised their way out of disastrously fluid situations. Wray, West-Eberhard and company want to depose genes likewise. They want to cast genes not as the instigators of change, but as agents that institutionalise change rising from more dispersed and fluid forces.
“I remember a few years ago they ran a front-page story headlined “Swan Bake” and a story about immigrants eating the Queen’s swans. I chuckled at the gleeful vilification of the alleged perpetrators and the jingoistic reference to the swan’s royal owner. More sinister though was the information not included; that if people are eating swans from a park, it’s not an act of antisocial defiance, it’s because they’re bloody starving. What is the implicit agenda of an institution that highlights this aspect of the narrative? It is significant too (cygnet-nificant? They love a pun) that adjacent to the copy they placed a photograph of some “eastern” looking men and beneath it, the caption “Asylum seekers, like these pictured, are eating the Queen’s swans” – LIKE these pictured!! It wasn’t actually the culprits, merely, the Sun supposed, asylum seekers “like” them. The reason for this irresponsible approximation is that when we next see an “eastern” looking person out and about we will have a visceral, visual association with an act of antisocial barbarism. This is how the Sun wants us to see immigrants, through their lens of vindictive condemnation. They want us looking suspiciously and disdainfully in the direction of marginalised individuals; “chavs”, “immigrants” and “gays,” not in the direction of the institutions who actually damage our society – banks, corporations and the media.”—The Sun on Sunday lied about me last week. Have they learned nothing? | Comment is free | The Guardian
And sitting right at this interface of the bodily and the imaginary are our photographs. Nowadays, family members expecta nearly continuous stream of baby images. What my Aunt Chiquita wants to see is not merely that our baby is alive, but to get some sense of who he is. And the stream of photographs allow us to craft an identity for a child that cannot communicate his own just yet.
In “real life,” he is a tiny, speechless, motor control-less creature just getting used to life outside the womb. But in his photostream, he’s moving adroitly from sleeping lump to baby gorilla to active participant in the human world. The real-time existence of this record is a new thing in the world.
A friend, the writer Jon Mooallem, once told me that the things that are hard about parenting are easy to talk about, while the great things about kids are nearly impossible to describe. I think that’s one reason that the lingua franca of new parents is trading miseries.
The photos we take and post, though, try to get at the other (good!) layer of the experience. That is to say, there is truth in the neverending baby photostream. The stories we tell ourselves about our children, on or off Instagram, are as real a part of becoming mothers and fathers as the diaper changes and sleep deprivation: they’re how we make meaning of this grueling, beautiful experience. Parental life does work at these dual levels, time moving both too slow and too fast.
Wikileaks had a very frustrating time trying to get anyone except bloggers to pay attention to their early revelations. No one seemed to care.
The reason why is important. There’s too much information out there for most people to pay attention to, let alone figure out whether they believe it or not. Hence, most people rely on other institutions such as media organizations to tell them which information is worth caring about. Not only do people not pay much attention to information until it gets the stamp of approval from some authoritative institution, but this information is transformed, because everybody knows that everybody else is paying attention to it. It stops being mere information, and becomes knowledge — generally accepted facts that people use to build their understanding of what everybody knows about politics.
“Harvey and I knew from experience that it takes a while for immigrants to believe a park is truly public and open to them: my mother always used to complain, exaggerating somewhat (and not without a little pride), that she was the only black woman to be seen pushing a stroller through St. James’s Park in 1975. Sometimes a generation of habitation is needed to create the necessary confidence; to believe that this gate will open for you too. In Italy, where so many kinds of gates are closed to so many people, there is something especially beautiful in the freedom of a garden”—Love in the Gardens
“For an athlete, the beard suggests a return to nature as well, to a different sort of battle—to the feral ferocity of medieval or primitive men, or, at least, to the rugged outdoorsiness of nineteenth-century man in confrontation with the elements, both on and off the stubbly and rock-strewn sporting fields. Yet the religious or sacerdotal side of a beard is never far behind: it implies a monastic indifference to worldly cares, a hermetic withdrawal from ordinary concerns, and a fixed focus on the higher mysteries, whether divine, philosophical, or the split-finger fastball.”—From Beantown to Beardtown
“We need new words so we can talk. We need to talk so we can explore. We need to explore so we can build, and we need to build so we can sustain. We are at the beginning of something good, but we need to take care of it and ourselves so it can keep going, better”—Frank Chimero × Blog × The Inferno of Independence
“A couple days after we found out my wife was pregnant, I took a 20-mile hike up in the Oakland hills, thinking. Near the top of the ridge, I was struck by a rock outcropping that I’ve returned to again and again in my mind as I stare at his perfect little ears. Thin plates of sedimentary rock stack vertically, like books. What was once ground is now wall, and time reads from right to left. Atop the rocks, where new soil has become fresh ground, massive eucalyptus trees have gained purchase, and their roots wind down through the rock, splitting it, and holding it together. Down at the base, I see myself from the perspective of the rocks: biology on this teensy-tiny human time scale, large in self-importance, small in duration. To the rocks, I’m a barely-there ghost in a long-exposure photograph. And yet, the asphalt I’m running on marks a more permanent humanity. I remember that at our wedding, a friend explained that Jews bless the wine and not the grapes because it represents not just that which was created, but also what we’ve done with it.”—Alexis Madrigal - On Becoming a Father