Saturday, October 20, 2007

Inhuman commitments

As I have mentioned earlier, I used to work in an animal shelter and continue to volunteer at one. It is because of this, and a long and vexed history of being associated with, or at least around, people with commitments to “animal liberation,” that I was curious to see The Year of the Dog. Well not so curious that I saw it in theaters over the summer, but curious enough to rent it.

I think that the film does a good job of capturing the unyielding moralism that defines animal liberation activists: a moralism that is grounded on the superiority of speaking for an absolute victim, a purely innocent creature. In the film, Peggy, the protagonist, cannot understand or tolerate any one who does not fully commit themselves to the cause of saving animals. There are only innocent animals and the guilty people who do not care. I have come to think that there are certain structural similarities between animal liberation activists and anti-abortion activists; both of whom believe themselves to be speaking for a purely innocent creature, a creature that cannot speak or act on its own accord. Although, in this case, the film does have Valentine, a German shepherd who serves a reminder to the fact that animals remain absolutely indifferent to our moral categories.

(Valentine has what those in the business would call “food aggression,” the tendency to violently guard food bowls, snacks, etc.: fairly common problem amongst “shelter dogs,” and one that is exasperated by the failure of human beings to understand it. As Donna Haraway points out, dogs and people often suffer from a human, all too human tendency of the latter to understand dogs as a little furry children, to think that they can understand the intent behind such gestures as cleaning around the dog bowl or a good night kiss.)

It is thus easy to see the film as a critique of animal liberation, at least initially. Peggy becomes increasingly shrill, intolerant, and self-destructive in her actions, stealing money, traumatizing children, and destroying her home, in an attempt to care for as many animals as possible. However, what saves the film from making a fairly simple critique at a fairly easy target (animal liberationists care more about animals than people), is that it paints the other characters in the film in an even less flattering light: Peggy’s boss is obsessed with money; her friend with marriage; her neighbor with hunting and knives; and her family with their children’s health. These four things, money, marriage, hobbies, and children, which make up the majority of not only people’s lives, but what gets to matter in contemporary society, are portrayed as essentially self-centered activities, defined by a myopic attention to the everyday and survival. (On the this idea of what gets to matter, I recommend Lawrence Grossberg’s overlooked We Gotta Get Outa this Place). Throughout the film, characters talk about their particular interests, whether it be their child’s allergies or their engagement, oblivious as whether or not anyone is listening.

As much as the film deals with a politics that is profoundly apolitical, if not anti-political, since it is ground on a moralizing fantasy of absolute innocence and wrong, the film also offers something of a picture of political passion, of political love, or fidelity. More specifically, it deals with how out of sync such passions are with the obsessive narcissism of contemporary society. It is possible to argue that the film accurately presents “animal liberation” as what remains of politics in a culture in which moralism, the fantasy of innocence, and the individual reign supreme.


Hasana said...

I really like this movie. I didn't consciously have quite the despairing portrait you have about what it says about political possibilities today, but my reading may amount to the same thing. I thought that it had to be a comedy and parody, because no one except (some of) the converted would watch a movie about veganism, or animal liberation, w/o feeling attacked. So, the only way to make it sympathetic, make the way of life a tolerable image of happiness ("heaven"), is to make the other common modern preoccupations even more abject. I do find myself increasingly vulnerable to misanthropy, which is conditioned by contemporary life, melting ice caps, wars, and pheasant hunting. I loved the moment in "Into the Wild" when Chris says that happiness doesn't come only from human relationships, but can be found in every little thing around us. For Spinoza, however, finding love and pleasure in inhuman encounters should mitigate our misanthropy and not be an escape from humanity.

unemployed negativity said...

For some strange reason, I have a bad habit of reading IMDB comments after I watch a film. In this case they only served to heightened my appreciation of the film. Many viewers were angry that the film was not a romantic comedy (Girl loses dog, girl meets sensitive animal trainer...and so on.) This is the only vision of happiness they would accept. For that reason, I love the last scene, as the Molly Shannon character rides on the bus with other activists. I liked it as an image of happiness and of community, a strangely anonymous and impersonal community, the joyous aspect of attending a march or rally.