Tropes of Anthropomorphization

This isn’t the post where I come out as pro-otherkin. That one comes later, right after I confide in you that I am an asexual fat apologist who doesn’t conform to the gender binary. But this is the one where I talk for a bit about the way we imagine anthropomorphized animals, in our literature, our films, our Saturday morning cartoons, and elsewhere. Specifically I want to point out that it’s very easy for us to do so, owing to the fictional tropes of anthropomorphization that we’ve developed over the millennia since Aesop for just that purpose.

(My bet is that the blog-reading public in our brave new digital world skews toward the same sort of mildly antisocial, low-commitment narcissism that also prevails in “cat people.” So I’ll tailor my example accordingly and talk about cats.)

What I want to point out is that even when we sit down and imagine an anthropomorphized cat, we never quite lose sight of his essential felinity. You can imagine a human-like cat-person, right? It’s easy to picture. You can imagine him standing upright, about five eight or so. You can imagine him wearing clothes. (He’s probably a snazzy dresser, too, isn’t he? Slim. Fashionable.) He’s a giant, humanoid tabby with orange fur sitting across the table from you at Starbucks, chatting about the weather. Possessed of all the cognitive capacities of the homo sapiens. Fluent in English. Rational, trafficking in symbols, conversational.

But like I said, we don’t lose sight of the animality beneath all that. In your mind’s eye, that cat character probably still prefers a good raw tuna steak. or maybe he just licks tuna out of the can. He grooms himself rather than hitting the shower and might occasionally hack up a hairball. And it doesn’t matter where you are. It doesn’t matter how intellectual the conversation, how serious the occasion, how fine the surrounding decorum, you could still distract him with a laser pointer. And he would still overturn the entire table leaping after it if he saw a mouse out of the corner of his eye.

You know this drill. He’s like that dog with the translator on it in Up. For dialogue purposes, he’s just like any other human character, except he really wants you to toss the tennis ball and short circuits every time he sees a squirrel.

In our art and in our imaginations, then, human rationality is something that gets layered over the animal. It’s not something that replaces it. The animal instincts pattern the humanity rationality rather profoundly. They place boundary conditions on its attitudes and behavior, from the overt (the cat character purrs when he’s happy) to the subtle (the cat character comports himself with a certain imperious grace).

What I would suggest is that there’s a good bit of sense to these sorts of tropes. They’re insightful in the way that all good art and all good metaphors are. They hit on something true. And what I would further suggest is that the truth they hit on applies to the human animal as well. This is the fundamental premise of the paleo meme, in fact. There’s a real sense in which we’re, all of us, simply anthropomorphized animals. We are, in fact, anthropomorphized proto-humans. We’re still in the realm of metaphor here, of course, but what you and I are as a species is a rational, thinking superstructure layered over whatever primate it was who preceded us.

In the same way the cat-man was subject to his primal nature, we’re subject to ours. We’re subject to its drives and motives, its limitations, its instincts. And yes we can stand upright. And yes you can put us in clothes and we can drink fine wines at an art exhibit and philosophize and act presentably in public… We can do all those higher-order, cerebral, human things. But there are facets of us beyond such civilizational remediation. The personified cat will always want to eat the mouse, no matter how assiduously he studies the tenets of ethical veganism. And likewise we ourselves will always want to follow through on our inherited proclivities, which shape and resist even our most elaborate and developed theories. And we have one additional disadvantage as well. There are fewer known quantities in the behavioral formula when it comes to humans. Our own limitations are invisible to us in a way that the limitations of other animal essences are not. We could adjust for the drives of a humanoid bull by not wearing red around him. But it’s hard to adjust for our own drives. It’s hard to adjust for something that’s by its very nature beyond the scrutiny of your conscious mind.

So what do you do with this realization? Hell. Probably not a lot. We live in a post-paleo age, and you knew all this already. You knew that human rationality only goes so far in explaining human behavior and socialization. But for me it’s another reason to distrust the end-all-be-all efficacy of logic and theory and speculative insight. We’re subject to a nature that’s beyond our ability to comprehend in a theoretical sense because it affects even those faculties with which we theorize. It’s hard to perceive because it’s part of our perceptual apparatus. This is a humbling thought, of course, that if anybody does only God knows who you are—not your companion humans and least of all not yourself.

And it’s a reason to avoid capitulating entirely to the cloistered life of the academic, the “life of the mind.”  Your actual self, your totality can only be encountered in its ancient animal habits, those patterns inherited from time immemorial—not in pious and careful contemplation. And to the extent that you can understand at all that proto-human inside of you (and then adjust intellectually for his exotic predispositions), you must encounter him out there, in those primal behaviors and environs, on an infralinguistic, infrasymbolic plane. This is why the archetypal “autist” theorist makes untrue conclusions about the world, even though they might be exquisitely correct. He is the detached human rationality, entirely unmoored from the sort of self-knowledge that could serve to guide and temper his tireless theorizing.

Anyway it’s important to realize that human rationality doesn’t fall short just because it lacks all the relevant data or a brain with sufficient processing power to let it run properly. It does lack data, and we don’t have the requisite cognitive machinery. But those aren’t the only reasons. That’s a failure of imagination. Human rationality also falls short of producing the perfect theory to guide our comings and goings because it’s essentially an anthropomorphized animal, a personified proto-human, dressed up in fancy clothes and talking like a cosmopolitan sophisticate but ultimately operating within behavioral and attitudinal strictures inherited from long-forgotten essences that would nevertheless be obvious to any other third parties in the room. And maybe even a touch absurd at times. Like a cat in a tuxedo.

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