Television programs such as ‘Animals Do The Funniest Things’ and the animal sections of ‘You’ve Been Framed’ have long been part of our cultural life. But the rise of the internet ‘meme’ and the funny forwarded email has brought with it a more unregulated, more instantaneous culture of the animal, as thousands of pictures of animals are shared every day. As the popular meme ‘Conspiracy Keanu’ puts it, ‘what if cats have their own internet, and it’s full of pictures of us?’
Why should these animals be so funny? The first idea we might apply is what comedy studies refers to as ‘superiority theory’: we laugh at animals in celebration of our own superiority. But this becomes doubtful when we consider how often animals become funny precisely when they are being most ‘human’: wearing clothes, cracking jokes, or pulling uncannily human facial expressions.
This is something that philosophy can help with. For Hegel it is the mouth that marks out the animal from the human; ‘in the formation of the animal head the predominant thing is the mouth, as the tool for chewing.’ The French philosopher, Georges Bataille agrees with Hegel that ‘the mouth is the beginning or, if one prefers, the prow of animals.’ For both, this is not so for humans, in whom ‘it is the eyes that play the meaningful role.’
Perhaps we conceive of the mouth as the central part of the animal because we like to think of animals as driven only by the needs and impulses to eat and drink. As Hegel points out, we also think of each human as containing an ‘animal,’ as it were. We speak of ‘party animals,’ ‘animal urges,’ being ‘beastly’: not to mention ‘chauvinist pigs,’ ‘sly old dogs,’ ‘utter bitches,’ and ‘silly cows.’ And repeatedly, we think in terms of a need to repress these supposed animal drives. For Hegel and for Bataille, what differentiates the human from the animal is that for the human the mouth is no longer central; the eyes take over as the central feature. They are the marker of culture, and of trained, learned behaviour rising about the animal.
With eyes come surveillance, recognition, and the ability to regulate ones behaviours. When we start looking we learn to behave as a human. This mouth/eyes and animal/human distinction seems to be supported by the three images of animals above too. All three are behaving like human, and all three seem to be doing so with their eyes, even the dog in a rubber ring, gazing at us like mother does while she lounges in the pool.
So if there is a radicalism in laughing at these images it is that the animal-acting-human challenges the old idea of humans determining themselves by their tempering of original ‘mouthly’ animal urges with the socialising power of the eyes. If the meme reveals that animals too are capable of looking, then their behaviour must be as ‘learned’ as ours is. It takes an animal to teach us that there is no such thing as natural behaviour: it’s all subject to social conditioning.
A dog reads a sign-post in Charles Dickens’s Pickwick Papers
Just one more!
Animals acting like humans (but it’s the eyes!):