Standing in the shower reading the label on my hair conditioner, it occurred to me, as I’m sure it has to many other humans, that at some level we are the guinea pigs who hair care products are tested on. At a common sense level the hair conditioner chemicals are harmless, of course, yet there I was in the shower conditioning my hair and wondering if It’s the first time an animal’s body came into contact with this particular mixture of ingredients. We think of ourselves as outside nature; part of it yet separate from it?like a cloud in a sky, or a wisp of lichen on a tree. Part of the context, yet somehow foreign; like lichen that breezes in on the wind or clouds that congealed seemingly out of thin air.
At a societal level, the logic of our beliefs about nature and the beings in it implies that non-human animals are of a very different order than we Homo sapiens. Jacques Derrida described what would happen if “through the maw of the untamable beast, a figure of the sovereign were to appear” (Derrida, 2009). The sovereign Derrida describes is we humans who believe ourselves different or superior from all we envision to be natural. Yet, contrary to our elevated sense of self, we often see ourselves as animals capable of ?mindless? deeds that seem out of our control. Derrida adds that “where the animal realm is so often opposed to the human realm, as the realm of the nonpolitical to the realm of the political” is where reside the ideas and themes that guide our interactions with each other, with ?nature?, and with aspects of the natural world which we draw into our orbit of omniscience and control.
My kitty, Bella, dug what I was on about as she gazed at me through the foggy mist behind the shower door. Where hair care products are concerned she is the animal in our familial relationship; She’s the ?other?, the beast, the one who is saved from chemical horrors of animal testing. My Bella is the not-human who at once is also human, all too human, socialized into the indoor realm of treats and cuddles and litterboxes. She knows how to manipulate attention by nuzzling my cheek and face and by double tapping her paw onto my left arm even as I type at my laptop. She is in some ways more essentially human than I in that she personifies visceral desires and conditioned responses; not unlike an infant who, lacking language, resorts to its innate cuteness to be satiated with food and affection. At the same time my cat is just like me. She was born as a desiring creature yet the objects of her desire remain to be learned and socialized. In a different setting she would subsist on mice, yet her life involves cat food and treats. Either way, the desire for sustenance is satiated.
How could anyone test chemicals on my Bella? Her animal self is beyond the pale, yet just inside this invisible line of how I perceive her lies the reality that her physiological self is inseparable from her social construction as a pet?a step or two removed from a mindless beast. I recall the movie Pocahontas where the native people were ascribed the status ?savage?. Not man and not beast, but certainly not deserving of the same rights and respect as those with the power to name and control the ?new world?. As modern humans we reserve for ourselves the godlike status of non-animal, while tacitly admitting that we are indeed primates, indeed mammals, indeed mortal and indeed susceptible to chemical toxicity. Chemical weapons represent our testing of the powers we hold over each other and over nature; yet what we term ?nature? still remains separate from ourselves.
Then I think of an entry point to an imaginary film scene based on nature as a trope by which we judge ourselves and possibly others:
A woman finds her husband splayed across the living room floor across the lap of a random woman. There’s beer bottles everywhere and the sun is slowly rising and splashing an ominous tangerine glow across the short living room carpet.
She exclaims, “You pig! You beast! You’re worse than the dog! I leave you alone for a night and then there you are humping the wall or someone’s leg! Sheesh mageesh, why do you hafta be such an animal!”
She’s not asking, She’s telling.
At some level our animalistic natures find expression in inverse correlation to the disgust which others levy in our direction. When we mess up we feel ourselves revert to a bestial and antediluvian self, one who knows no pride nor culture nor scruples. Yet between these dichotomies of cultured, civilized human and ravenous, savage beast lies the reality of our socialized-yet-animal selves. Bella is neither a killer/predator nor a plush toy. And neither am I. When companies avoid animal testing they implicitly recognize that to hurt nature is to hurt ourselves; yet paradoxically we humans do not completely accept our natures as fully-animal. We inhabit an in between realm, an intermundia. To understand ourselves and the world around us it seems useful to remember that we are neither completely bestial nor completely human, but in reality something in between. Or, as Pico della Mirandola put it in the 15th Century “man’s place in the universe is somewhere between the beasts and the angels, but, because of the divine image planted in him, there are no limits to what man can accomplish”.
Derrida, J. The Beast and the Sovereign; University of Chicago Press: Chicago, IL, USA, 2009; Volume 1.