Link to the book: HERE
Simply beautiful. There is no better blurb to describe Manuela Macelloni’s latest book. In its pages, post-humanist philosophy becomes autobiography, the story of a life, of the relationships with the world that, in their kaleidoscopic becoming, have shaped the author – both in her body and mind. Because, as she repeatedly observes, the body’s claims and reasons, its needs, fragility, but above all its emotions and desires are as post-human as can be. This is the reason why dogs, social animals par excellence, can, if we let them, offer a helping paw. Their brimming, bubbling, brisk and free sociality is something that we, techno sapiens, have long forgotten. Dogs can save us, the author argues. They are the gaze into which we can dive and rediscover our shipwrecked identity: our animal identity and therefore our eco-ontological belonging.
Macelloni reminds us that philosophy is not about finding answers, but about asking the right questions, the questions that guide our existence. Hence, with that lightness of style that Calvino recommended in his Six Memos for the next Millenium, Manuela Macelloni peruses the history of Western philosophy from Plato to Derrida urged by the question: “Who am I?”. Post-humanism has dismantled the idea of a human essence. Similarly, the finalistic view of evolution, which continued to dominate philosophical anthropology even after Darwin, knuckled under. By stepping into this revolutionary path, Macelloni uproots several myths of Western philosophy and regrafts them onto the thought of Roberto Marchesini.
She begins with the myth of Prometheus and Epimetheus in Plato’s Protagoras. Bestowed with the task of distributing natural talents among earthly creatures, Epimetheus fulfils his duty but forgets about humankind. His brother Prometheus offers help by stealing fire from the gods and gifting it to humans. Naked but ingenious and free, the human can now use Prometheus’ fire, a metaphor of technology, to spread and dominate the world. The animal, equipped by Epimetheus, is in need of nothing; yet, it is condemned to the prison of instinctuality. We are at the roots of anthropocentrism.
While re-reading this myth, Macelloni reflects on one key element: Epimetheus is not just the short-sighted Titan that the anthropocentric tradition has passed onto us. The task of distributing talents to earthly animals is something he is committed to. He fulfils his duty with care and dedication, devoting time and love to it, making sure that resources are distributed with equanimity and balance, so that life is ensured for all the world’s creatures. Epimetheus’ care for non-human animals is a necessary element for the emergence of humans. It is by observing the work of Epimetheus, rather than stepping away from him, that Prometheus can save us. Without Epimetheus, Prometheus cannot operate; becoming human cannot happen without the becoming animal.
Just as post-humanist philosophy has debunked the human-animal dualism, the names of the two Titan brothers – afterthought and forethought – have a challenging meaning. They become a metaphor of evolution – not of human evolution, but of animal evolution, an evolution that encompasses humans. Evolving and moving forward means diving into the world motivated by desire. But the desiring drive drags its own past along, that phylogenetic inheritance that Roberto Marchesini calls “having-been-there-before”. This is true for all living creatures. The ebb and flow of the tide, the criss-cross of gazes between Prometheus, who anticipates, and Epimetheus, who realizes belatedly, characterises the entire course of life, both of species and individuals. It is also the Leitmotif that ties together the pages of Macelloni’s book. Unlike Heidegger, for whom the human was ‘thrown’ into the world, Macelloni believes that life is always ‘back to the future’, a return and a projection. Like the creatures of Epimetheus, we too are born already equipped, because the relationships that preceded us and pushed us along the tree of life have shaped us. Our past relationships have made us more and more capable of weaving new, unanticipated bonds, as our encounter with the wolf testifies.
Some palaeontological findings suggest that this must have happened during the Palaeolithic period, at least 30,000 years ago. Because of its chronological remoteness, our relationship with the wolf and proto-dog cannot be related to the intentionality and control inherent in the word ‘domestication’. The latter process started in the Neolithic. It refers to the subjugation and enclosure of other species within domesticated areas, at a time when nomadism waned and the first settlements began. Accordingly, Macelloni believes that we can legitimise the term ‘wolf domestication’ only if we acknowledge a parallel ‘human domestication’. All the more so, if we consider that the circumstances that have likely contributed to the development of the neocortex and eventually led to the emergence of homo sapiens, followed our encounter with wolves and proto-dogs. Relieved from the need to defend themselves against predators, hominids could sleep deeper and more peaceful sleeps facilitating those neuronal activities that boosted cognitive capacities. It is therefore difficult to talk about the evolution of the dog without also talking about the evolution of the human. In essence, humans and dogs have co-evolved.
That is why, as the book’s subtitle suggests, the footprints that chart the post-human path are paws and feet together. The author, who, moreover, cleverly describes some human behaviours by referring to parameters also used in dog training (explorative, competitive, territorial and possessive motivations, p. 201), reminds us that we must learn to listen to the dog again, to grant him back the gaze that over two thousand years of logocentric tradition and consolidated humanist culture took away from him. Like Prometheus, we must return to Epimetheus, because, before we can move forward, we must recognise who we are. Returning to Epimetheus means rediscovering our animal condition, experiencing our body, celebrating our emotions. It means making peace with our condition of specialised rather than special beings. And it means above all that, like all other animals, we are driven by emotions.
Zia Winky was a white, small but strong and mighty West Highland Terrier and Manuela’s companion for fourteen years. It was thanks to this dog that the author vigorously shifted philosophical thought from the pages of books to her everyday life. By imposing her gaze on Manuela, Zia Winky also forced on her the vital question: "Who am I?". Driven by the wisdom of affectivity, she taught Manuela that emotions have a cognitive value. She would spontaneously and whimsically surf the waves of her desires, waves that, by breaking on the world, could also grasp its unpredictable opportunities. Zia Winky was to Manuela like the slave who broke free from the chains in Plato’s myth of the cave. Having discovered that the world that was known to him was merely the projection of the shadows produced by the fire burning behind his shoulders, he felt compelled to return to the cave and free his fellow prisoners. Yet he knew that he risked being mocked and killed by them.
Notwithstanding the risks, the freed slave wants to return to liberate the others and offer them the opportunity to really live their lives. For to live means to find sense in the secret of life. Macelloni notes that the concepts of sense and secret are very tightly bound together: they can retain their meaning only if untold. Significantly the dog, but, in general, all animals, become guardians of the sense of life because they are the sole ones who can truly keep its secret. Not because they cannot speak, though, but because they are immersed in affectivity, that emotional and bodily dimension that expresses itself through what Macelloni names ‘care’ and ‘spontaneous gesture’. The rereading of Plato’s myth of the cave in the book kindles a reflection that, as we shall see in the following paragraphs, simultaneously subverts several ideas: the idea of the human as the shepherd of being; of the animal as being, in Heideggerian terms, ‘poor in world’ and of the animal as an object, rather than a subject, of observation. It also subverts the meaning of Ulysses’ homecoming, the value of nihilism and the principle of non-contradiction.
Heidegger calls the human the “shepherd of being” because it is endowed with language. Yet, as the author sharply remarks, “not having words does not mean being deprived of language” [“non avere parola non significa essere privi di linguaggio”] (p. 35). Moreover, in today’s world, even words are fading under the glare of images. Flooded, drenched and intoxicated by our own tautological self-celebration, which is enacted via selfies, social networks and web pages, we cannot look at others, if they do not mirror ourselves. We have no interest in a world that does not confirm our own solipsistic identity. Rather than non-humans, we are the ones who are ‘poor in world’, the author rightly observes. In fact, we have tried to drag animals along with us down into a delirium of replicating units, which all look alike. We have done this with our frenzy for breeds, aesthetic standards and exhibitions. We have tried to turn dogs into accessories too, to make them ‘companion’ animals, ‘pets’. As if emotions and affectivity were things that can be bought at the supermarket.
In truth, by constraining the planet’s each and every element to the logic of money, we have tried to transform it into a supermarket. Even the concept of sustainability is not sustainable, since it concerns the interests of one species only, humans, rather than being about the entire ecological system of which the human is only just a small part. If we want to do something to help what the beautiful film of Emanuele Caruso calls The Good Ground [La terra buona], we must watch and follow the commitment and care Epimetheus devotes to his work. We must return to him, to his love for balance, to the consideration he shows in distributing resources that may ensure the protection of all creatures. Once again, as Macelloni reminds us, the dog is our teacher. For s/he asks him/herself: “What can I do in order to best help my pack?” [“cosa posso fare io di buono per questo branco?”] (p. 134).
So the animal’s gaze will be all the more severe, when it reminds us that we are naked. This is the experience that Jacques Derrida made when, one day, getting out of the shower, he was caught naked by his cat who was watching his nudity, just to see. The gaze of Derrida’s cat is not the top-down gaze of the creator, as the Bible would have it. It is a gaze that brings the human back to a horizontal dimension of creature among creatures, made of body, spontaneity and affectivity. The animal who watches you, rather than who is just being watched, is an animal that can die. It is not an animal who simply ceases to live, as Heidegger assumed. It is at this point in the book that the powerful and touching reflection upon the relationship between life and death starts, a reflection to which the last part of Macelloni’s work is dedicated. It is also an elegy in memory of Zia Winky, who died of a pituitary tumour just over a year before the book’s publication.
Like our animal condition, death is also a condition we censored for millennia. It is something that decentralises and therefore frightens us. Significantly, in its delirium about mind downloading and eternal life, transhumanism is an attempt to censor death. And it is therefore also an endeavour to negate our emotional dimension, which is what death ultimately comes to. A dead body can be seen, perceived and felt; the death of the other, whether human or non-human, is specific. And this is indeed the way in which Manuela Macelloni describes it: through her own experience, her own bereavement, the loss of Zia Winky – how she along with her other dog Emma lived through it. But in order to talk about this specific death, she also draws of yet another myth: Ulysses’ return to Ithaca.
Since he is disguised as a beggar, Ulysses is not recognised by anybody but his forsaken and dying dog Argos, who has waited twenty years for the return of his old hunting mate. No words, an act: the gaze. Argo and Ulysses look at each other and recognise each other. The meeting of their gazes, however, is not about death, as in Pavese’s words, but about the becoming of life, part of which entails the crossing of death. When he sees Ulysses, old Argo drops his ears, wags his tail and can eventually die, because the final reunion with his ancient hunting pall gives him back his identity. On seeing Argo, Ulysses sheds a tear and finds himself again: because he recognises himself in him, he is ready to become the Prince of Ithaca again. The future of Prometheus who watches Epimetheus, and of the slave who returns to the cave, is a promise of both freedom and death.
But how can we be or discover ourselves in death? This is a complex reflection that enables the author also to reinterpret the concept of nihilism. Death’s image are the eyes that can no longer see. Death is the non-existence of the beholder as well as of the beheld. Death means to no longer be there in the eyes of the other. Paradoxically, however, non-being in death is something tremendously physical, something concrete, material and definite. Death is body. It is a motionless, inert and heavy body. Death is the body that in the Western philosophical tradition has always been the opposite of human res cogitans. It is a body which, only through death, we discover as being actually res estensa, animality. Descartes’ prospective error is thus exposed. It smashes us to the ground, next to, and not above, the billions of creatures that we have not only brought to extinction, but also continue to exterminate in the eternal Treblinka of intensive farming and slaughterhouses. We pretend that they only cease to live, because it would be too inconvenient to acknowledge that they can actually watch us.
But Macelloni’s reflection leads us to yet another discovery: that death is as relational as life; it is a predicate of life. Death discloses itself in a body that is dead; yet it also inhabits us, because we know that we will die. We are affectively inhabited by death, because death frightens us, and we all ¬try to escape it – both humans and non-humans. “To know that we can die is probably our most basic awareness” [“Il sapere di poter morire è probabilmente la consapevolezza più basica in assoluto”] (p. 157). It is a knowledge that all animals share. This is why a gazelle flees a lion. And it is also the reason that makes it absurd to argue that animals ‘cannot die’ but only ‘cease to live’.
Ultimately, death configures itself like all other relationships: something both inside and outside us. Death is an oxymoron; it is immutable change. It is rupture, exit, immobility and impossibility, but it is also part of our becoming; we carry it within. For we are part of an indefinite. We are also us, but not only us. We are not only “individual and specific” [“individuati e specifici”] (p. 166), but we are also that, i.e., one of multiple life layers. Non-being is not only who dies, but also who, by continuing to live, disappears to the eyes of whoever ceases to see. The gazes that, like Argo’s and Zia Winky’s, cease to see reveal that we can cease to be seen. They tell us how transient our being is, how ephemeral the condition of our cherished individuality. The gaze that ceases to see tells us that we are as much immersed in life as we are in death, that being and non-being are intertwined.
The implications are manifold. Just as non-being means discovering that we are in being even when, by overcoming our individual identity, we realise that we are part of a whole, immersed in being is also whoever, human or non-human, is a non-being to us, because, by refusing to look at him/her, s/he cannot return the gaze. We refuse to see and do not allow ourselves to be seen. Our world is full of presences in front of which we turn away our gaze: from the animals we continue to feed on, to the humans we prefer to ignore, because we do not have the guts to imagine that, to paraphrase a well-known song by Umberto Tozzi, ‘the others could be us’ [“gli altri siamo noi”].
Manuela Macelloni’s reflection on nihilism breaks the principle of non-contradiction: being and non-being can simultaneously coexist. As living individuals, we are part of both: our being in time makes us continually slip into non-being. Encounters begin and end; loves follow one another; the others, both humans and non-humans, cease to see us. All of this is a continuous reminder that we are relationships, and that relationships change – themselves and us. This is true not only for all the relationships that engage us during that fractal of specific time that brackets our individual lives, but for the life that continues beyond us. We belong to nihilism; we are in it, Macelloni observes. But we should not be afraid.
The post-humanist future that we, along with Manuela Macelloni, wish for ourselves consists of animality, corporeity, affectivity, relationship, contamination and compromise (some of the book’s key words). Since time becomes the space where life incessantly unfolds, as time and space overlap, the concept of human time itself withers. Moving forward in order to return, ebb and flow, Prometheus and Epimetheus. All the things that we can learn from dogs, such as care, spontaneous gesture and affectivity, are what can actually save us.
La filosofia del cane flows like life and carries us along. I have only just sketched a few of its many extraordinarily thought-provoking reflections. Manuela Macelloni’s is a totally original, lively, courageous and dissonant voice – as dissonant as the dog is in our anthropopoietic construction. We did not shape dogs like we did other non-human animals. We co-evolved with them. This book has a lot to say about this and much more. It is difficult to write a review that may do justice to it. It needs to be read.