Beyond the human body: expanding empathy to all life

By: Haley Bosco Doyle 

*This is a midterm paper from CHID 390: Politics of Life, focusing on non-human life & using Ann Hamilton’s exhibit as a lens to think through cross-species connection

In this essay, I would like to focus on love, how it is both restricted and expanded by the use of our senses, and what it means to be without it.

Love is an injustice because when we love it is the one or ones who are special to us that we save.  Naisargi Dave

These words, which resonated with me so deeply upon first reading Dave’s beautiful essay, lingered in my mind as I walked through Ann Hamilton’s prolific exhibit. Who do we love, who don’t we love? Who do we save, who don’t we save? What fills up the space between love and apathy, between saving and abandonment? Such a seemingly boundless entity as love is, yet it is so unequally, cruelly bounded. Are our hearts not so large as to refill compassion and empathy in the way that Hamilton refills those stacks of paper? We take, we take, and we take. Greedy, we are. We need love; we need saving. We want to receive limitlessly, but paradoxically we are sparing with extending our own compassion onto others. Perhaps this is somewhat in alignment with Wayne Pacelle’s discussion of “compassion fatigue”, but I am determined to challenge these prickly limits of love.

I want to focus specifically on the fur/clothing room on the exhibit’s bottom floor because I think this space, that so awe-inspiring displays both life and death, will best exemplify my thoughts on love. After glancing at the morgue-like tags describing the articles of clothing and its composed materials, peering through the uninviting curtains is an experience that both “inspires, but conflicts.” In its aesthetics, its positioning, and its careful craft, the artistic beauty of these animal skins is undeniable. Similar to the film trailer Midway, a kind of “despair porn” draws us in to engage with these visually pleasing materials, but it then becomes easy to lose sight of the hidden, silenced stories that stretch beyond the surface of the glass.

Beautiful things inspire us. We long to be beautiful because, when you are beautiful, you will be loved. We (I’m primarily talking about females here, but it certainly applies to males as well) are taught, from a young age, that we must improve our bodies so that Prince Charming will come rescue us and love us for all eternity. So, unsurprisingly, in a society that values youth and vitality, the strive for beauty is seen everywhere. We buy cosmetics, leather shoes, shiny shampoos, fur coats, and feathered headbands for the appearance of beauty, so that we can be seen, so that we can be loved. Yet, in order to attain this love, other invisible bodies are sacrificed. For us to be seen, they must be unseen.

Indeed, the slaughter and rendering of animals creates these beauty-inducing products. Beyond animals, “other-ed” human bodies similarly serve in the production of these same materials. We ironically wear these perceived lower-classed bodies as a way to heighten our own status so that we will get noticed. In doing so, we, unknowingly or not, silence the voices of these others, stripping power and agency away for our own selfish, superficial gain. They are what make us beautiful, they allow us the opportunity to be loved, and, in return, they get nothing but a perpetuating torture inflicted upon their tired bodies.

Back to the exhibit, in this moment of interaction between our living body and this dead animal, we will feel and act based upon our own personal histories and experiences. For the woman who grew fondly nostalgic in seeing these furs that had been “playful” like “puppets”, there enacts a sense of warmth and comfort. She is transported back to youth; seeing this death reminds her of her own life, rather than her similar mortality because she sees the furs not as death, but as an alive memory. In fact, for her, and as Jane Bennett would express, there furs are “active matter” because they have had a role in positioning an effect or change within the world. (Bennett) In this case, they have caused an experience to which this particular woman would associate fur with love rather than violence. But what does this mean that she loves the fur, the dress-up games, the memories involving something dead, etc.? For her to love, another life had to be exploited and killed. This reminds me of reading about Walter talking about his reproductoras: “I care for them deeply. I love my little ladies.” These seemingly contradictory feelings strike me uncomfortably, as the language he uses is “seamlessly woven within a narrative of love and profit.” (Garcia) He claims to love these animals, yet he sees no qualm in exploiting their bodies for financial gain. So what does this mean about love? If the woman can love the dead animals that have given her quaint memories and Walter can love the soon-to-be-dead guinea pigs that provide for his family, then I would fear “love” as a death sentence. If you truly love something, how you could you not find a conflict in harming the same body that has given to you so generously? But again, we take and we take and we take. “Love is an injustice” because even when we do love, or claim to love, it still cannot always save the ones we “love.” And the ones who are not loved, in the first place, also surely become abandoned. So if even love cannot always save you, what hope is left? In this case, “the clichéd idea that love conquers all may be an apt metaphor” as we try to take a bird’s eye view of this crueler side of love. (Garcia)

As Timothy Pachirat so eloquently said “we are living in a world of systemic violence.” (Pachirat) For one being to thrive, another must simultaneously suffer. This is, of course, cruelly unjust and unequal, but these brutalities build the foundation for the society we all inhabit. In these hierarchies, bodies are trampled and silenced so that the victors can stand up tall upon the crushed bones of the other bodies. But for many, this blood-spill is unseen, unheard, un-smelled, untouched, and un-tasted. There is a paradox of the senses. The woman with the expensive fur coat won’t have to hear the haunting screams of an animal being skinned alive or smell the rotting flesh or touch the bare, fur-less body or see the act at all. No, she will wear her coat and she will wear it proudly as a symbol of her high social status and she will be lucky enough to escape her senses. Because without her senses, she gets to release all moral responsibility. If she can’t hear, smell, touch, taste, or see, how will she “sense” that she’s done anything wrong at all? To her, it’s a coat that she has the money to buy, not an exploited other used for her senseless indulgence. But when we allow ourselves the opportunity to uncover the truths of what we have been too afraid or too ignorant to see, a humbling enlightening can take place.

Considering all that has been discussed about love, despite its irrefutable unkindness at times, I also need to express that it can (and needs to) also create a powerful bond that can cause us to react (re-act) in the way that it touches us so profoundly. Having the positive, intimate interaction with Tony, the pig from Pig’s Peace Sanctuary drew me into action because I came to love him and I could no longer sit easily in my inaction. Like Catarina in Vita, or the cow with the ear tag #1389 in Katie Gillespie’s writing or Olivia’s pet rat or Elizabeth Tova Bailey’s bedside snail, a singular life can capture our hearts and, consequently, change what our hands do. (Biehl, Gillespie, Bailey, & Metz) When you get to know a story, intimately, whether human or non-human, when you look into strikingly similar eyes, hear their unique voices, and touch each other with physical and emotional resemblance, an attachment occurs. This may not always bloom into love, but for me, it did. And while I am uncertain if Tony loved me back, it does not matter. My love for him, despite his non-humanness, his muddy feet, his stinky breath, extended beyond myself into a compassion that intertwined us. My love may not have saved him since he was already at a sanctuary, but it allowed me to save other pigs because I no longer wanted to eat any of them at all. Being connected with Tony in this positive, intimate experience caused much more of a reaction and action than I had ever felt before, despite having seen many bloody documentaries. In this specific scenario, love was a powerful force of action.

Although I do not know Ann Hamilton’s personal intentions nor do I believe her exhibit to be without its share of confusion, I thank her for giving the community a chance to “think animals”. Even though the fur/clothes room sparked an anger within me, I also respect the different interpretations that are a product of all of our unique histories. But, in this space, in this moment, we all intersect. My rage about injustices, that woman’s kind nostalgia, another’s artistic appreciation, the animal’s stare back into our direction. Through these eyes (although fake, I think) that meet our eyes, these stories that meet our stories, these inspirations that meet our conflicts, this love that meet our love (or apathy), we are enwoven. And perhaps love may not always save, and even when our senses connect or divide, there is sure to be an instance, even a small one, when to love and to be loved will not have to be beautiful, but it will just be love, and it will be enough to save and it will be what we need to act.




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