Everywhere animals disappear. In zoos they constitute the living monument to their own disappearance.
Compared to humans, other animals seem quite reasonable.
As I write, Clare and her son Morten, or ‘Greenface Group’, are drawing a chicken watching a spider eating a cockroach; a war of magic between a lizard and a bush turkey; the inner life of a pig; a wolf and her human mother reunited by the moon.
I’m reading about human-animal embryo experiments in Japan; millions of wild hogs wreaking havoc across the American South; bees addicted to nicotine-derived pesticides; crabs confusing plastic containers for shells.
In my apartment I live with a hunting spider. She must have only just torn open the silk sac that contains at least 200 eggs because tiny translucent bodies are scuttling along the bathroom ceiling or hanging down on strings of silk, creating a world at the same time that they explore one.
When I tell Eugene about the spiders she tells me the mother will stand guard for weeks without eating to ensure the safety of their offspring, and may hang around another several weeks once they’ve hatched. Of course the question of what to do quickly comes up, but why shouldn’t these spiders live here?
On my desk is a stack of books, from histories of anthrozoology to multispecies studies, machine learning and data harvesting. I’m reading them to write about Planet Zoo, a deep simulation video game that, as advertised, uses advanced AI to conjure ‘authentic living animals who think, feel and explore the world you create around them.’
To play the game, you select a location anywhere on the planet, choose a biome, modify the terrain, build enclosures, buy and sell animals, manage staff and work to expand your zoo franchise.
A player can choose to be a cruel zoo manager (there are many examples of these ‘apocalyptic zoos’ online), where the animals are miserable, try to escape or die, protesters show up and the zoo quickly goes bankrupt. Or the player can follow the recommended guidelines of the game and try to keep the animals stimulated, well fed and comfortable, which means they’ll play and reproduce, people will pay to see them and the player will get rich.
To see animals as humans and humans as animals is a common occurrence, especially when it comes to craft and mimicry. Animals are forever practising their crafts, just as children are mimicking animals, and both acts point to secret systems of knowledge.
When I go to shower in the morning the spiderlings quickly disperse from their huddles on the ceiling. On the edge of the sink I see one climbing to the tip of the twisted tube of toothpaste and when it reaches the summit it pauses for a moment and, having taken in the view, abseils down.
One way of explaining away the secrecy of animals is to say that their silence (false to begin with) has allowed humans to project onto them every possible thought in order to make sense of their own world. This explanation can be summarised by the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, who in 1962 wrote that totemic animals
cease to be solely or principally creatures which are feared, admired, or envied; their perceptible reality permits the embodiment of ideas and relations conceived by speculative thought on the basis of empirical observations. We can understand, too, that natural species are chosen not because they are ‘good to eat’ but because they are ‘good to think’.1
Lévi-Strauss’ formulation of totemism was an attempt to show how the human–animal relationship fits, like the rest of his anthropology, within a structure of oppositions, a conceptual system. He attempted to demonstrate how animals (nature) are decoded and recoded by the always-immutable mind (culture). Animals are not only food but also serve an intellectual function within a system of classification. It leads him, and many others after him, to conclude that totemism is an illusion — the projection of cultural concepts onto natural phenomena. Meaning his point isn’t really about animals at all but about human thinking and speculation.
Another way to go about the problem of animal secrecy is to critique the binary, a necessary (and perhaps expected) activity these days, where one might point out the fact that the division of ‘culture’ and ‘nature’ is a ‘mental model’ particular to western epistemologies and is one of the reasons why the planet is in the state that it’s in. Many cosmologies render this division meaningless, unthought and not at all universal — it was meaningless before, during, and after it came under scrutiny from anthropologists and philosophers. But just because it’s meaningless doesn’t mean it’s not everywhere.
In Aristotle’s zoology he organised life as a ‘ladder’ where ‘nature proceeds little by little from things lifeless to animal life’ Bluntly summarised: life ordered from the least complex to the most complex.
Descartes went further to divide body and mind, also the human from the animal (belonging to the law of physics and mechanics, the animal for him was lacking the ability to think), and his thinking can still be found today, where animals appear as entertainers, fashion accessories, inconveniences, messengers or pure and innocent beings in need of constant saving, and not as thinkers. And yet something non-human might have a human past.
The Ancient Greeks imagined the common ancestor of a spider to be a prodigious girl named Arachne. Arachne was a master weaver and spinner who produced magnificent tapestries. She was so good she challenged Athene, the goddess of war and wisdom, to a contest. When Athene tried to destroy Arachne’s work, Arachne attempted to hang herself, but Athene turned her into a spider.
Is it too much of a stretch to imagine that, given the continual destruction done to their physical worlds, animals are taking refuge in Planet Zoo? Like the immortal solider in a shoot ’em up, they may die but can be brought back to life in the next level.
Or, just as the hunting spider may have once nestled under a loose piece of bark to build her silk sac but now puts up with me in the bathroom, are animals conducting their own research?
To critique Planet Zoo seems too obvious (from the way land is made endlessly available to mercantile exploitation and ‘care’ is normalised as managerialism). But what if we were to take AI animals seriously? Is it possible to speak of this secret knowledge of animals in the context of deep learning and artificial neural networks? Is it possible to care for knowledge that refuses to disclose its methods?
For the spiders in my bathroom I must be a peculiar body, one that’s always up to something. For the AI warthog or AI honey badger in Planet Zoo, I’m a thing — a presence, a bit of data, an input? — sitting on the other side of the screen for hours.
The question is, what are these AI creatures, capable of deep learning, coming to realise about a species that seems fated to loneliness? And can an AI spider speak to the hunting spider in my bathroom?
Just as the branches of a tree exceed and confuse the rules of linear perspective, so too do animals exceed and confuse human concepts and representations. That almost goes without saying, if only we could remember it.
Representations are never just representations.
A picture of an animal is always doing work, always revealing both the game and the gamer.
And if an image of an animal is more of an operation, a relation, Planet Zoo might be a site where animals are gaming their own representations, turning data into knowledge.
Animals are everywhere, even as they are disappearing. Or they are everywhere precisely because they are disappearing. They are everywhere because they are problem solvers and, because of the many problems, they are willing to experiment with their craft.
One morning the spiders in my bathroom are gone. But when I leave the apartment I think I feel one on the back of my neck. I read it as both a planned escape and a caring embrace, such are two ideals in any system of knowledge worth caring about.
Tom Melick co-edits the pamphlet series [SLUG]* and works with Stolon Press, a Sydney-based publisher of small books and pamphlets.
Claude Lévi-Strauss, Totemism, trans. Rodney Needham, Merlin Press, London, 1962, p. 62 ↩