From Peter Sloterdick’s Selected Exaggerations, loc 1411-1416

Incidentally, there are almost as many horses today as there were in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries, but they have all been reassigned. They are almost all leisure horses, hardly any workhorses nowadays. Isn’t it an odd comment on today’s society that only horses have achieved emancipation? Humans are still work animals just as they always were, even if they are miserable jobless people, but the horses standing in German paddocks today are all horses of pleasure, post-historic horses. Children stroke them and adults admire them, and we feel very sorry for the last workhorses we see now and then at the circus and at racecourses. Some are used in psychotherapy for children with behavioural problems, but they are treated well and respectfully. All the other European horses have managed to do what humans still dream of –horses are the only ones for whom historical philosophy’s dream of a good end to history has become reality. They are the happy unemployed that evolution seemed to be moving towards. For them, the realm of freedom has been reached, they stand in their paddock, are fed, have completely forgotten the old drudgery and live out their natural mobility.

CqK8dLCWgAAcLpmHow do human beings and animals relate to each other? One way to answer this question is to empty the putative relation of substantive content: human beings project onto animals while animals are materially dependent on human beings. My own approach would be to contextualise this projection in terms of real relationality, arguing that it represents a human coming-to-terms with creatures which are, in their absence of language use, radically other to us. It’s the immediacy of this otherness which at least for me constitutes a large part of the appeal of pet ownership. But I think this otherness is reciprical, as nicely expressed in the claim that “cats are our captives, domesticated aliens with no way of explaining their customs, or of interpreting ours.”

Walking home in the rain earlier today, I encountered a very fluffy and very wet cat sitting unhappily outside someone’s front door. Upon getting my attention, the cat insistently tried to lead me towards the front door in the hope that I would open it. It’s not the first time I’ve noticed cats doing this and I think it shows something interesting about cognition. Cats have come to recognise the capacity of human beings to remove the obstacles that impede fulfilment of their wishes. However they fail to recognise that particular people have the capacity to open particular doors. That cat was convinced I had the capacity to open its front door. They presumably have the understanding they do on an inductive basis, inferring a capacity from the recurrent interventions of human beings in relation to once closed doors that are subsequently opened. To differentiate within the ensuing category, recognising the connections between particular people and particular contexts within which they can (and should) intervene, presupposes a complex web of further categories which could not in themselves be derived inductively.

I see my cat act in a similar way when a local stray comes to steal her food. She acts aggressively towards the other cat but has no idea what to do when the other cat completely fails to respond, having no interest in performing territoriality but only in acquiring food. It occcured to me when I watched the racoons video that this is awkwardness in Adam Kotsko’s sense of the term:

 

I’m someone who likes animals. I’m also someone who spends a lot of time procrastinating on youtube. These two facts converged some time ago when I noticed an interesting trend for youtube videos, usually filmed by female partners, capturing usually male soldiers being reunited with their dogs. Turns out Buzzfeed noticed it too:

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I love these videos as someone mildly obsessed by animals. But I also find them really interesting as a sociologist. There’s a very specific pattern recurring in countless videos I’ve watched in which the female partner narrates the soldier’s return to the animals (“right guys, you ready?”) before filming the inexpressible enthusiasm with which the animals greet him, as well as his (usually) equally effusive response. The affectivity of the shared pet seems to act as a communicative mediator, as if the anxieties and ambiguities inherent to human relationships can be temporarily dissolved through the reciprocal embrace of a mutually loved animal who can feel and react much more simply than we are able to. The last video of these is the most interesting, at least with my pseudo-psychoanalytical hat on, not least of all because of the moment when the woman filming the reunion feels the need to exclaim “I’m not drunk”. Towards the end they exchange statements of “I love you” in a way which seems oddly ambiguous as to whether they are talking to each other or to their dog. In fact the soldier is looking at the dog as he begins to say this, before he looks towards the camera.

I feel the need to add that I’m someone who was once engaged to a woman with whom I owned a dog, a cat and a large number of rodents. I’m writing this in a somewhat self-interrogative manner, as opposed to trying to say something about the military. I think the very specific situations depicted in these videos of military homecomings reveal something much broader about the role that pets in general, as well as dogs in particular, play in grounding and reproducing domesticity.