Walter Putnam explores philosophical and literary attempts at understanding the human animal in the context of the larger animal world.
by Carolyn Gonzales
Walter Putnam, professor of Foreign Languages and Literatures, was hired at UNM to teach 20th century French literature. Giraffes and kangaroos don't generally come to mind when reflecting on the works of Marcel Proust, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus. But, Putnam's early interest in European colonialism in Africa led him to go beyond French lit and look at the animal kingdom.
He developed a course, Zoophilosophy, where he and his students explore philosophical and literary attempts to locate, define, describe, and understand the human animal with respect to the larger animal world. He focuses on continental philosophers who have based some aspect of their thinking on animals: Nietzsche, Heidegger, Deleuze, Derrida, and Agamben, among the most prominent. Identity and ethics direct his thinking as he deals with issues of status and treatment of animals.
"I also like to devote some attention to the visual representation of the postmodern animal. This multidisciplinary approach allows us to gauge the range and richness of thought not only 'about' but 'with' the animal," he says.
The 21st century will be dominated by the question of the animal, Putnam learned at a UNM conference on the philosopher Derrida. But before looking at the current condition of fish, fowl, and furry friends, Putnam takes us back to a wilder, untamed world.
Putnam points out that Aristotle wrote the first study on animals, saying that what defines being human is in reference to what is animal. "Plato said that man is nothing but a 'featherless biped.' Greek philosopher Diogenes responded by fetching a plucked chicken and calling it "Plato's man," he says. Descartes, he continues, referred to animals as "soulless machines." "That set in motion two and a half centuries of how we view animals in the western world," he says.
Animals on Exhibit
On the way through Holland, Napoleon's armies sent back wild animals to join those liberated from the Royal Menagerie in Versailles in the French Revolution. "Menageries had been the privilege of nobles and the wealthy under the ancien regime. These private collections contained animals from Africa and Asia. The elephant couple sent to Paris were a source of fascination and raised questions about their nature, habits, and temperament."
"People didn't know what to make of them. The French put on a concert of classical music and even some revolutionary hymns to see if the elephants had a natural revolutionary tendency. They got the animals agitated. They wanted them to procreate, but the animals didn't," Putnam says. "Animals have often performed for humans, but this was a rare moment when humans actually performed for animals."
People flocked to see the elephants, not unlike how people reacted when President Nixon received giant pandas from the Chinese government, Putnam says. "Paris was the site of the first public western zoo in 1793, and it is still located on the banks of the Seine in the Jardin des Plantes. It was also a place of scientific research where Buffon, Lacepede Saint-Hilaire, and others invented the field of natural history," he says.
"In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, they became interested in observing and classifying the world's flora and fauna. Taxonomy emerged, and with it, the distinction between species in a great scheme invented by Linnaeus," he says. Mammal groupings, for example, included species as different as humans and whales, based on one common factor: lactation. "At the same time Rousseau was encouraging women to breast-feed, reflecting the importance of this practice, whether on land or at sea," Putnam says.
Plants and animals were sent from one part of the world to another for Western scientists and philosophers to understand.
"Greater international trade and shipping made it possible to send new and unusual animals from the far ends of the earth to Europe. Through global commerce, the animals were sent on ships," says Putnam. Then, in 1827, at the end of the Restoration Period in French history, a giraffe was shipped to France.
"Imagine, a giraffe hadn't been on French soil since the Roman Empire -- some 1,900 years. It was a diplomatic gift to Charles X, King of France from the Pasha of Egypt," Putnam says. "Two calves were captured, one for France, the other for England. The giraffes were brought up the Nile by boat and across the Mediterranean by ship -- they had to cut a hole in it to accommodate them -- and they were fed cow's milk."
Once in France, the giraffe spent the winter in Marseilles at the museum/zoo in the private garden of the prefect. Her promenades around town were attended by ladies who fed her flowers from their hats and flirted with her Egyptian keepers. (The giraffe destined for England died.) "A party then walked the giraffe from Marseilles to Paris, where the king met the giraffe on the steps of the palace."
Putnam wonders what French peasants thought in 1828 when, while plowing a field, they saw this bizarre animal coming over a hill. "Animals have always created that sense of wonder in people. It must've been jaw-dropping to see something that is not supposed to be there, but is," he says.
Is it curious, then, that the British sent out an expedition in the late 18th century to look for a unicorn in Southern Africa?
That same curiosity exists in people today. Many have searched for a giant squid that has the biggest eye of any being on the planet. "They have washed up on shore, but no one has captured one to put on display," Putnam says.
Zoos were popular public institutions in the colonial world and their popularity continues to this day. "Zoos have a larger attendance than professional baseball, football, and basketball combined," says Putnam.
Zoos educate and entertain. International trade in animals is up all over the world. Zoos are a source of public pride -- such as the Bronx and San Diego zoos. "There is an increased demand for animals to fill zoos, at the same time certain institutions such as the Philadelphia Zoo, are closing elephant exhibits and sending animals to refuges where they will live out their lives in happier conditions," Putnam says.
Zoos have also influenced people's perceptions of the world. "The African world is recreated and visitors assimilate what they see and believe that that's how it is in the real world, when in reality, many species in Africa don't inhabit the same regions," he says.
"Zoos justify incarceration because of endangered species and threats to their populations because of politics, economics or ideology," he says. The silverback gorilla is native to Eastern Congo, a region with some of the most fragile and interesting species on the planet. "The war, the most devastating since World War II, has deep colonial roots."
A scandal erupted around 2001 that centered on the mining of coltan, the colloquial African name for columbite-tantalite -- an ore used in cell phones, DVD players, video game systems, and computers. Export of coltan from the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo to European and American markets has been cited by experts as helping finance the war in the Congo, a war where an estimated 5.4 million people have died since 1998.
"Impoverished people in the Rwandan/Congo border rush to provide electronics manufacturers with the metal for resisters in cell phones. And they need to eat, so they started killing the gorillas for 'bush meat.' As consumers, we need to see the political and economic choices we make as having an impact on people and species," Putnam says.
It's difficult to encourage people to set aside reserves for animals. "We have to find a way to deal with competing demands for conservation of species and expanding demographic pressures," he says.
Currently, the silverback gorillas are "paying for themselves" through tourism. Conservationists use Facebook to try to save them, and people fly in to see the rare species. As a result, they are being protected against poachers. "Still, there are only a few hundred left in pockets," says Putnam.
The animal and human worlds are interconnected and there is a massive species collapse as many of the world's creatures are facing extinction. Poaching and traffic in rare species is up, especially in fish and birds. "Some are intrigued about being close to 'wildness,' but it can be a risky venture," Putnam says. "And like Charles X, the rich and famous still like to collect animals as symbols of power. The policies and practices related to animals present one of the most vital challenges to our survival on this planet. We need to understand their richness and diversity if we are to thrive as a population."
Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce tribe once said: "If all the animals were to vanish from the earth, then men and women would die of a great loneliness of the spirit."