Colin Dayan: With Dogs at the Edge of Life (Book Review)

With Dogs at the Edge of Life

Colin Dayan does a rare thing at the crossroads of humanism and animalism by treating each as a reflection of the other. She engages the malleability of either tropism, stepping over the stalemated kings of corporeal and moral rights—which too often shunt their pawns to better enjoy the sound of their own echoes—and into a philosophical realm for which all life partakes equally of vulnerability. Such a project will not sit well with some readers. Neither is it meant to, for the uneasiness brought to life, and death, across the book’s 208 pages is a necessary encounter. In this respect, Dayan is the closest we have to a torchbearer of Vicki Hearne, whose classic Adam’s Task: Calling Animals by Name comes readily and repeatedly to mind as I read this worthy successor.

In her introduction, too, Dayan sidesteps convention by doing very little of the encapsulations to which academics are encouraged to accede. Rather, she sets up a fledged narrative through a call to action that is harder than it looks. In asking us to do nothing more than sit on the equals sign of the equation between Self and Other she is so artfully devising, she invites a “radical change in perspective: not only in how we see the world but also in how we read a story” (p. xiii). And so, while for her this is a book of tales, it is also a tale unto itself, an entity whose parts share ligaments with too many of our own to pass off as intellectual navel-gazing.

On the surface of Dayan’s theory-planet, dogs would seem to occupy a range of metaphorical terrains. They are, by virtue of variation, at once bridges between opposing states of sentience and being, bearers of revelation, personal property, “non-human persons,” and, in the most sweeping of Hearne-isms, language incarnate. Closer inspection, however, reveals these as more than cloak-and-dagger tricks of a talented wordsmith, but instead as markers of lived realities. For this reason, Dayan is far more interested in the “oscillation between the categories that bind” (p. xiv) than in the binding of oscillation into categories, and in destabilization of human positionality as the capstone of a worldview pyramid. She outs the project of judgment as one of collective privilege, reveals the empathetic precedent of ethical action, and the power of “mutual discomfort” (p. 110) to bring all into a truer sense of community.

From this emerges a tripartite concerto for canine soloists fronting an orchestra of conundrums. Part I, “Like a Dog,” is that concerto’s Allegro, and as such sifts passionately yet accessibly through autobiographical recollections of dogs living and non. “We are living in a time of extinctions,” she observes (p. 2), a central point she takes care to reiterate in the book’s EPK, and one which points to the harsh truths unraveling therefrom. And not only a time of extinctions, but of killings sanctioned by a society bent on devaluing dogs and other animals to the status of criminals.

Dayan reminds a missing piece in recent national conversations around police brutality: treatment of racialized humans as animals walks hand in hand with treatment of animals as racialized humans, and allows an indulgence of taboos normally relegated to the annals of private exploitation. And so, a discussion of pit bulls banned from low-income housing in New York City, for instance, not only discloses the absurdity of fears around specified breeds, but also sobers us to the sheer publicity of blatant discriminations and our acceptance of their ubiquity. While most, I think, can see that racial typing often revolves around the animalization of designated groups of human beings, forgotten is the humanization of designated species of animals. Which is why Dayan recognizes the all-too-common shootings of pit bulls as a national habit or, more viscerally, “a ritual that reminds citizens of the reach of lawful predation” (p. 9). It is with these dynamics in mind that she thinks back to the earliest dogs in her life, the necessity of their warm-blooded bodies against her own. An especially poignant discovery of a childhood photograph reminds her of a dog she never remembered, and whose anchorage draws light through the prism of this book as a magnet would iron filings.

In continued service of my musical analogy, I would characterize Part II, “When Law Comes to Visit,” as the central Largo. For while its rhythms might seem more furious and jagged, its carefully measured effect suggests the ponderousness of that very time signature. Here dogs unfold as sociopolitical animals, each subject to fatal blows of the law. Hypocrisies abound in such stories as that of Floyd Boudreaux, a breeder of American pit bull terriers who was erroneously accused of being a dog fighting kingpin and, once deemed as such, had to suffer the extermination of his entire line. By such acts, the warmongering tendencies of the state become a primary network in which worthiness of life comes to be determined (only the moral elite can kill dogs without being deemed cruel). Regardless of the motivations, be they financial or political, the fact is that the law legitimizes imagined threats and sanctifies animal exterminations through illusions of compassion (Boudreaux’s dogs were being done a favor, as the script goes, by being removed from danger to others and themselves). Pit bulls in this regard suffer the particular brunt of an historical amnesia in the United States, and have become the unfortunate collateral of stigmatization.

Part III, “Pariah Dogs,” is the concluding Vivace. In it, Dayan explores the expendability and vitality in kind of cinematic dogs, who on the one hand serve as mascots of loss, while on the other burst with so much awareness of things that it is all we can do to match their levels of understanding. “The fullness of a dog’s loyalty or commitment,” Dayan avers, “can be understood only as counter to the merely intellectual acceptance of a doctrine” (p. 159), and as such the dog comes to embody an unattainable state, so that “to position oneself in this way, even if tenuously, both inside and outside a human background, is to let our bond with dogs count for something momentous” (p. 162). So yes, Dayan has invited us to sit alongside her, with dogs, at the edge of life, but also to contemplate what happens when those same dogs are pushed off that edge. And where would they exist in our memories if not for brave writers like her to document their receding gaze with such honest fortitude?

And because the bricks of such a book might topple without the mortar of its personal experiences, I can’t help but end with one of my own, remembering a dog I met on the streets of Beijing who responded to constant harassment from local shop owners with a heaving sigh. I think of this image when Dayan writes, “Dogs have infinite patience” (p. 144), reading into those darkly set eyes nothing less than that very patience, which sees through my camera lens and into the heart of the one cradling it like the relic it will one day become.

China Dogs


Book Review: Entangled Empathy by Lori Gruen

Entangled Empathy

Just as feminist allegiance means nothing without challenging patriarchy, it’s no longer enough to be pro-animal without engaging the emotional systems in which nonhuman rights have become ensnared. Such thinking inhales through the lungs of Entangled Empathy, from which philosopher Lori Gruen exhales a timely call to action.

Gruen begins where she must: by thumbnail-sketching her activist history, during which time she grew critical of “animal suffering,” already too vague a term to be of value to a political throat parched for want of specificity. Entangled empathy comes as a refinement of Gruen’s formative scholarship on sympathy, wherein she critiqued utilitarian animal rights trendsetters like Peter Singer for their paltry affective resonance and inability to articulate the hierarchical infrastructures from which hang the skeletons of those gone before.

As Gruen defines it, empathy is more than glorified sympathy. In the latter framework, the effects of any active moral agent (read: sympathizer) amount to nothing more than singularities. One nods, however deeply, in the general direction of doing good but moves on for having done so, leaving systemic origins unscathed. Ignorance of the profound relationships between victims and victimizers leads to compartmentalization of self-interest. Which is why we should be ever-wary of hypotheticals, such as the infamous “child or the dog” (only one of whom you have time to save from a burning house) scenario posed by Gary Francione. These leave us unhealthily equipped for the interactive possibilities of daily circumstance. While it may behoove one to recognize the spectrum of responses possible in crisis situations, confining those responses into arenas of the mind is of little more use than throwing heretics to lions.

Gruen is critical of sameness-over-difference arguments such as those espoused by another pioneering thinker, Tom Regan. Her gripe is not with the motivation but with the perpetuation of human standards as existential norms that reinforce what she calls an “arrogant anthropocentrism,” an ideology by which human significance trumps itself with illusions of grandeur. The problem with Singer and Regan is that neither’s argument is particularized. It comes down to the difference between being rational and relational. In response, Gruen proposes a compound approach in which similarities and differences are vitalized through context.

Because, really, the issue at hand is not the attribution of human qualities to animals, but lack of recognition in their entanglement. Gruen parries those who cry “anthropomorphism” by forging connections with the little things. The dangers of anthropomorphism, then, lie not in the projection of selves onto others but the erasure of others through selves. When we ascribe feelings and thoughts to animals, we are not imparting the uniquely human, but elucidating inner qualities. True anthropomorphism is assuming that animals are empty machines. Such thinking fits snugly alongside Kay Milton’s alternative concept of egomorphism, a process by which ego or self becomes the golden standard of all earthly life and serves to frame economy as a social relation.

The value of Gruen’s approach flowers through its recognition of relationships in an interconnected world. Though human suffering statistically pales in comparison to animal suffering, focus on the former betrays an egomorphic attribution of importance that blankets fatalities of creaturely life with a central ideal. Gruen can only fault the bulk of ethical theory for being so inaccessible in this regard, separated as it is from on-the-ground practice. The conundrum of standard ethical arguments lies in the fact that they, in Gruen’s words, “flatten or erase the complexity of actual moral problems.” The key word here is actual. Connecting to lived experiences is paramount in any ethical project.

Gruen’s project is, above all, a feminist one for valuing the truth of experience as something more than narrative evidence. There is no relational existence without some form of communication at play. Her approach deeply echoes, and builds upon, Marc Bekoff’s concept of “deep ethology” in that it recognizes animals as beings who thrive on communal living. Not only does she follow in the compassionate footprints of Bekoff in advocating an empathetic worldview; she fills those footprints with theoretical plaster and paints them in the practical colors of the activist’s palette. It’s an approach, too, that sidesteps unproductive debate around the concept of sentience—which, no matter how you slice it, portions its largest share to Homo sapiens—by asserting that animals deserve respect by sheer virtue of their existence. It’s not about bringing animals to our exalted level of difference, but recognizing that differences are nature itself. It is the realization that, through manipulation of nature, unfounded cruelties, and the exaltation of humans above other animals, we all have blood on our hands. Which brings us to the ecological core of her argument. This is the only logical direction in which to move, looking at the integrations of inner and outer, nature and nurture, fear and determination that are the lifeblood of advocacy. As an activist, Gruen is one who turns to this state of affairs not with confrontation, but with the realization that, as author pattrice jones would have it, living beings are “open systems” rather than objects. Seeing our bodies as systems within systems renders lofty separation impossible.

Empathy is a proven evolutionary process. Specificity is key to unlocking and understanding malfeasances of cultural appropriation and other forms of dominance-based thinking. Taking ourselves beyond comfort zones is a small price to pay when we’ve done nothing but take animals out of theirs. Gruen’s response is something far more important than a paradigm shift. It is the recognition that paradigms are themselves precepts of a hierarchically minded species. Recognition of entanglement illuminates the necessity of the micro in the meso, and of the meso in the macro.

Understanding moral perception, as practiced through this radical form of empathy, means being self-aware and reflective. It also means being preemptive. It necessarily makes mistakes through anticipation. It is a learning process. This is why Gruen aligns herself with the sadly under-recognized feminist ethics of care tradition, which harbors no illusions of objectivity or impartiality, but instead embraces integrations of subjective awareness. Entanglement breaks down the binary opposition of justice and care and guides us instead into a relational perspective of action and response, thereby honoring the truths of difference and their many manifestations across demarcations of race, class, and geographic location. Just as Bekoff argues that animals’ emotional lives are public, Gruen shows they are vividly private. And yet, we can no longer say the personal is political, because this ignores the fact that we live in an age where the political has become too personal, invading corporeal and psychological spaces with ideologies that lure us from entanglement.

Empathy is a tall order in the present day. On this point Gruen would seem to follow jones in seeing the schism between self and world as the result of a traumatic separation from nature, one subject to both conscious and unconscious reinforcement from all directions. Emotions are both physical and social, defining and reflecting dominant paradigm shifts in relation to the connectedness of all life. They are generative tools in matrices of binding force. All action moves forward. All action carries repercussions. All action is change. None of this suggests that empathy cannot be overused or misguided, for what Gruen calls epistemic failures (incorrect readings of situations) are always possible. This is why attention to the self is so vital. Just as alienation compounds itself, so does empathy generate more of the same. All it takes is a bit of logic and willingness to observe, listen, and speak through action.