In the 1950s, the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss reflected that phenomena tend to elicit academic attention just as they are disappearing. Then (as memorably recalled by Emily Martin), he was writing about the world of the “primitive” in human culture, at that time in its last throes of resisting the spread of globalisation. But read against the current proliferation of research on animals across the sciences and the humanities, his observation could not be more depressingly poignant. The now globalized capitalist exploitation of the natural world is precipitating the most urgent crisis humans and other animals have ever known. “If humans killed each other at the same rate we kill animals,” one shocking statistic declares, “we’d be extinct in 17 days” (see Crary and Gruen).
In fact as the West has typically approached the question of the human, the story of the disappearing “primitive”—the variety of human once naively thought closest to “nature”—has always been structurally interwoven with the story of the disappearing animal. Early-modern and modern European attempts to understand others remain indebted to Classical imaginings that deal with the issue of difference by constructing axes of inclusion and exclusion in order to read human diversity in the mirror of the animal. Linnaeus’ foundational enlightenment act of defining the human species as Homo sapiens (the “man who knows” from the Latin sapere) both placed man into the animal kingdom and differentiated him, following Aristotle, as the unique “reasoning” species (Linnaeus playfully appended the imperative nosce te ipsum, the Latinization of the ancient Greek philosophical dictum gnōthi seauton “know yourself,” to the genus heading his list of species, challenging his readers to recognize themselves in the beings of non-sapient others). Even in the nascent strands of nineteenth-century ethnology and anthropology that contested the theory of races which Linnaeus’ taxonomy of the Homo (amongst other sources) inspired, the emergence of fully realized humankind from the animal was conceived as the concomitant of the emergence of ever more complex forms of culture from a primal animalistic nature.
“European attempts to understand others remain indebted to Classical imaginings that deal with the issue of difference by constructing axes of inclusion and exclusion.”
As early anthropology reused that Classical idea, the lives of indigenous others—pursued and so best observed in the “field”—offered a first coordinate in the wider story of humankind’s universal struggle to ascend from the level of the beast. Yet as anthropology’s language of “fieldwork” implied, written into the ambition to find universalities connecting all humans writ large in humanity at its “simplest” was–even amongst the most generous critics—the relegation of indigenous others to states of quasi-animality. Long before the stadial theories of the enlightenment and social evolutionism of the nineteenth century hierarchized humans according to their relative social development (or degree of “progress”), European colonialism had invoked the same idea to justify its expropriation of the labour and rights of indigenous peoples. At the centre of the European exploitation of the New World which (importing African slaves) initiated global capitalism, lay the issue of the humanity or otherwise of the Amerindians, and with their relegation to irrational Aristotelian “natural slaves” by the invaders, so also white settlers’ rights to dehumanize, kill, and exploit for profit.
In our late capitalist modernity, the same binary structures of inclusion and exclusion, power and disenfranchisement, continue to exert themselves: as scientists of the Anthropocene plot disappearing biodiversity and seek to conserve the natural world as if an open resource of benefit to humans, those most economically and socially vulnerable (most famously, the low income, largely migrant workforce working in close proximity in the US’s industrial meat processing plants (see also Crary and Gruen)), suffer soaring rates of infection from COVID-19 (itself, likely a viral by product of the capitalist exploitation of animals). Exemplified by the epochal concept of the Anthropocene (“the new age of the anthrōpos”), which sophistically repurposes a Classical Greek (sophistic) nature-culture antagonism in order to recast a specifically modern capitalist violence as a general human one, the scientific worldview at the foundation of current environmental thinking remains wedded to the prevailing “naturalism” of Western modernity, which authorizes the same human exceptionalism that has long authorized violence against others. We are all implicated in this system by which we are driving ourselves to extinction.
“We need above all else to think differently about difference, and anthropologically about the world we think we already know.”
So how can studying the Classics now possibly matter?
The insidious role of Classical ideas in Western thought about the human and in the pernicious ways of dealing with difference that continue to sustain our unsustainable capitalist lives, should tell us. It should teach us that if we are to find and do better in this existential crisis, our first steps must lie in defamiliarizing our disastrous axiomatic Western contentions, recognizing their Classical contingency, and thinking beyond the structures of thought informing our present deleterious ways of relating to the world. We need above all else to think differently about difference, and anthropologically about the world we think we already know. We will not be the last of the world’s disappearing animals, but we are the only one responsible for its own ruin. Enough of the path we have forged from these Classical beginnings. Now is the time to learn from the possibilities of others.
Featured image taken by Ashley Clements, used with permission.