Thursday, June 27, 2013

Cross-species kinship

I've been making my way through Deborah Bird Rose's recent Wild Dog Dreaming: Love and Extinction (University of Virginia, 2011). I used some of Rose's important Dingo Makes Us Human: Life and Land in an Australian Aboriginal Culture in the Aboriginal Australia course. In this work she argues for an "ecological existentialism," weaving together Aboriginal and western stories, engaging philosophers and ecologists, histories of genocide and the great man-made wave of extinctions of our time, all in the service of ethics. An American anthropologist who's been in Australia for decades, Rose is a central figure in the "environmental humanities" which seems to be such an exciting intellectual community here in Australia.

Other parts of this book, like its engagement with Levinas, I'll tell you about some other time. Here's just two bits of her Aboriginal-informed insights. The first fits my existing, rather schematic and not unromantic, conceptions.

Old Tim Yilngayarri’s stories about Earth-Sky connections are especially precious to me because he was the only person in the region who had been there. He told how the Sky people had dropped a rope and taken him up to their country where they gave him special powers. And when he looked back at Earth he saw the fires of people’s camps looking like stars.

The second goes way beyond this: not Sky people but animals, including us. (What Rose calls "cross-species kinship" is one of the main themes of her book.) The start of a powerful argument for the importance of death to life she describes hunting with Aboriginal people and, here, dividing up the still warm body:

[Y]ou know without any doubt that the way this animal feels to your hands is exactly how you would feel if someone were doing this to you— the same heat, same textures, the fresh smell, the red blood. That intimacy of interchangeable interiority forms a special kind of empathy based on the tactile knowledge of our mammalian kinship and our shared condition as creatures born to die. This dead animal could be me, and I myself will one day be a dead animal.

Existential indeed! ... And there's a chapter coming up about Job!

No comments: