Category Archives: Animal Studies

Pigs, Cucumbers, and Cloacal Martial Arts

“True Facts about the Sea Pig” is the latest in an ongoing series of irreverent minidocs by zefrank about odd animals and their behaviours. This recent episode on the Sea Pig—a genus of Sea Cucumbers that resides on abyssal plains in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans—riffs on the absurdities of common taxonomic designations and offers a brief lesson in self-defense from these masters of bung-fu. (Apologies for the groaner . . . I couldn’t help myself!)

Featured image credit:

Scotoplanes globosa. The “legs” sported by these animals are a trait unique to this genus of sea cucumbers (class Holothuroidea). Image from Wikimedia Commons, from Report on the Scientific Results of the Voyage of H.M.S. Challenger during the Years 1873-76: Under the Command of Captain George S. Nares, R.N., F.R.S. and Captain Frank Turle Thomson, R.N. 1882.

[zefrank, via]


Signs of Prayer

Man certainly began praying long before he knew how to speak, for the pangs he must have suffered upon leaving animality, upon denying it, could not have been endured without grunts and groans, prefigurations, premonitory signs of prayer.

E.M. Cioran. The Trouble with Being Born. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Arcade, 1976. 169.

New Talk: The Hen Electric and the Mechanical Boy

“The Hen Electric and the Mechanical Boy: Joey, Bruno Bettelheim, and the Empty Fortresses of Humanism.” Paper presented at the 26th Annual Conference of the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts, “Nonhuman,” Hilton, Milwaukee, WI, 28 September 2012.

In the March 1959 issue of Scientific American, Bruno Bettelheim relates the case history of Joey, the so-called “Mechanical Boy.” In this article, Bettelheim stages the child’s complex emotional disturbance as a psychoanalytic Pinocchio story for the “machine age.” Joey’s autistic imprisonment in a “world of machines” renders him a robot-child that oscillates between imperious withdrawal from, and helpless desperation for, human affection. When Bettelheim retells Joey’s story nearly a decade later, in The Empty Fortress, the Pinocchio story remains, along with its starkly moralized theme of a human species endangered by its own inept infancy in the face of highly complex and impersonal technological advancement. Yet where the magazine article deliberately concentrates on pathology over therapeutics, the greatly expanded account of Joey’s case history in the latter text does detail his course of therapy at the University of Chicago’s Sonya Shankman Orthogenic School. This account traces Joey’s journey through a psychological “rebirth” and escape from the captivity of his delusions. For Bettelheim, Joey’s flight from the machine world thus marks a triumphant delivery into a fully human world–at last he becomes a real boy! Yet I argue that the text depicts an (anthropo)genesis that is not at all as orthotic as Bettelheim claims. Joey’s psychically newborn self is a singular entity hatched from a miraculous egg, laid by an electric hen, and midwifed by kangaroos, bears, and dinosaurs. Joey’s story is therefore one of allogenesis, even xenogenesis, and suggests expansive forms of kinship and communication beyond the merely human.

Life at the Fundament

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For me, if there is one thing that puts a sock in any expression of a progressive evolutionary schema that gives human beings pride of place at the top of some teleological developmental ladder and thereby stakes a claim to our biological “success,” it is the humbling fact that we are far outnumbered by and profoundly dependent upon countless species of uncanny, alien invertebrates that reside in the oceans. Indeed, many of these creatures remain unknown to biologists, and many more stand to remain unknown as global climate changes threaten their survival.

The folks over at Planet˚ have put together a great slideshow of images of a number of microorganisms, courtesy of Tara Oceans.

The Tara Expeditions project is an ongoing research mission whose goal is to investigate the effects of climate change on the world’s oceanic ecosystems and to collect samples to support scientific research.

The expeditions have taken particular interest in the study of plankton, on which Tara has this to say:

Having a detailed knowledge of this oceanic life system is essential for the following reasons:

  • Plankton biodiversity provides the base of the oceanic food web
  • Plankton is key to the survival of larger fish, sea mammals and billions of humans
  • Photosynthetic plankton produced the oxygen that allowed the emergence of mammals on earth
  • Photosynthetic plankton produce about 50% of the oxygen we breathe each day
  • It is also the major biological carbon trap of our planet
  • Planktonic organisms, in particular photosynthetic ones, play a key role in climate regulation by determining the concentrations of greenhouse gases and cloud-forming molecules in the atmosphere
  • Terrestrial life forms evolved from these organisms and some of them may teach us why we have a bilateral symmetry, how our eyes and brain evolved, and much more
  • Biomolecules from plankton have largely untapped biomedical potential

And yet . . . we know almost nothing about these ecosystems . . .

The impacts of plankton on life on earth are so broad that they are highly important for global human security.
Therefore, both from an ecological and evolutionary point of view, it is absolutely essential to get a better knowledge of plankton ecosystems, to know what their communities look like, and how the various organisms interact with each other and their physico-chemical environment.

Is our evolutionary success, our biological triumph on this world, to be measured by the annihilation of the very foundations of the Earth’s biosphere?

Joey, the “Mechanical Animal” Boy

“I laid myself as an egg, hatched myself, and gave birth to me.”

The hen electric, pregnant with the electric fetus. (The Empty Fortress 323)
I just finished reading the mammoth chapter on Joey in Bruno Bettelheim’s The Empty Fortress: Infantile Autism and the Birth of the Self as part of my research for my paper presentation at SLSA 2012. It is a greatly expanded account of the case study Bettelheim presented as a Scientific American article almost a decade earlier in 1959, and offers much more detail about Joey’s treatment at the Orthogenic School as well as the psychic “rebirth” that marks the beginning of his journey out of his delusion.

The tale of Joey initially interested me because of his elaborate fantasy, according to which he believed himself a machine requiring elaborate apparatuses to remain alive.  The Scientific American article concentrates on Joey’s machine world, Bettelheim going so far as to suggest that this extraordinary case study “has a general relevance to the understanding of emotion in a machine age” (“Joey” 117).  It is this dimension of the story that establishes the broad topic of my SLSA paper, where I will primarily explore connections between children and machines.  But Joey’s story, as recounted in The Empty Fortress, closes the “cybernetic triangle” of animals, humans, and machines, with numerous references to nonhuman animals and a crucial role played by hens. Continue reading Joey, the “Mechanical Animal” Boy

Anthropomorphism 2: Narcissus Narcosis

It is not those who yield to the appeal of anthropomorphism who reproduce the sad story of Narcissus but, rather, those who believe in its very existence. Those who see anthropomorphism about them in the discourses of science and culture, whether they would eliminate it or extol its utility, believe, at heart, in a distinct and recognizable human form. Both parties see animals transformed, recast with human features. . . . Those who believe in the possibility of this species narcissism fail to appreciate that what they see is of their own making, and they practice, thereby, a true form of narcissism. Like Narcissus, they fail to realize that they themselves are captivated by their own image, while remaining ignorant of the very thing on which they have set eyes. If we suspend this assumption, this implicit and uncritical prior belief in uniquely human capabilities, then the very notion of anthropomorphism fails to make sense. . . . [T]he very belief in anthropomorphism betrays a lack of foresight of self-reflection on the part of those so thoroughly wedded to the idea that they are, before all else, human.

Tom Tyler, Ciferae: A Bestiary in Five Fingers (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), 63.