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10/15/2012

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jaimey the doth protest animals too much

Hmm, not sure I agree with that either. I think the "people are like animals" arguments are too easily abused -- e.g., can tend too easily to social darwinism (as this comments seems to indicate - is hierarchy really the end-all we should be focused on?).

obviously, we are animals. i'll grant you that. but aren't animals different from one another? don't they have different habits, forms of communication, even social structure? and if they do, isn't the more interesting question how they (aka we) differ from other species? this seems to be, especially for humans, the more interesting and worthwhile question (and thus the job of humanities, e.g., what other animals have nearly as complex a culture as we do? not that we aren't animals, but shouldn't we focus energy on understanding culture rather than reducing us to our primate cousins, cute as they may be).

i haven't read the essay to which you're referring, but i would say, based on your quote, proust is arguing exactly the opposite: the aristocrats and social climbers are obsessed with with primate-like hiearchy (cf. legrandin and norpois) whereas the higher calling is art, which is something that can reflect, and even negate, such banally darwinian behavior

Tom C

My point is not that we should focus only on a narrow idea how we "people are like animals" (i.e. social Darwinism, status competition, group bonding, sexual displays, etc.). That line of thinking is, I agree, too easily abused, in addition to being reductive and dull.

In fact, I should clarify, the substance of the quote I included from the article was not what pleased me about it. True in so far as it goes, it is of course only descriptive of one layer of human behavior, as you note. What pleased me in that quote was merely the mention of us "as primates" in the opening modifier (ungrammatical as it was).

Quite to the contrary of your implication though, jaimey the doth protest animals too much, the point I was trying to make is that we need to EXPAND our idea of what being an animal is -- to include ALL of our human characteristics, not only the ones we associate with our hairier cousins.

Your comment, it seems to me, illustrates exactly how our old Great-Chain-of-Being thinking clouds our self-understanding. You seem to want to separate certain human characteristics (say, art, empathy, law-making, play, sense of fairness, organizational complexity, etc.) from our more "animal" natures. I want to give all of these characteristics their due as natural expressions of our animal natures. This doesn't make us more like monkeys any more than it makes us less like stardust. It is a change in the basic assumptions of how we see ourselves. There is no "higher calling". Nothing can negate Darwinian behavior because it is no more or less banal than anything else. It is who we are.

I don't know where Proust would stand on this ultimate point. After all, he is not of our time. But I do know that his writing seems to get close to appreciating it. Not only is he right about neural associations in his discussions of voluntary and involuntary memory, shifting and rewriting of emotional attachments over time, etc. But he is also keenly aware of the animal quality of much of what we do. Think of his discussions of politics and the self-interest underlying all surface talk of peace and union. Or take this quote I read in this month's reading, where Proust discusses the suppliant and self-seeking attitude of the historian at Mme de Villeparisis' tea party:

"...psychological laws, like physical laws, have a more or less general application. And if the requisite conditions are the same, an identical expression lights up the eyes of different human animals, as an identical sunrise lights up places that are a long way apart and that have no connexion with each other" (ML, 305).

"human animals" -- good stuff. But it doesn't have to be pejorative.

I have written too much. Forgive me. I love the push back.

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