The First Post For Which I Have No Title

» September 13th, 2014

Imagine living in the 18th century. Almost everything about your physical existence would make immediate and intuitive sense. Your food, your shoes, your clothes, your transportation, your garden, the mill that churned your flour, your house—these would hold few mysteries in terms of how they came to be and how they operated. Spiritual conundrums might haunt you. But not the logistics of the physical world. It was all levers and pulleys and other manifestations of forces visible.

Now imagine the physicality of your existence today. Can you really explain how your iphone works? Email? Do I have any idea how this post will appear in hundreds of inboxes of people I don’t know? How does an elevator operate? A car engine? The cloud? The bomb? My toilet? The gun that killed Mike Brown?

It’s safe to say that at some point in the twentieth century modern humans went from engaging with the physical world from a position of understanding to a position of trust. Blind trust. The first books I ever read were called Tell Me Why, but I remain essentially clueless about the inner mechanisms of the objects that surround me. Every day I ask “why,” shrug my shoulders, send my emails, grab the wheel, and view the details of my physical life as comprehensible as Chinese algebra. I just stand back and marvel at it. Or I just hit send.

I wonder if this habit of blind acceptance of technological miracle-making results in a way of thinking that blunts our ability to appreciate the significance of animal cognition? We routinely hear stories about the amazing feats accomplished by sentient animals—feats that clearly involve substantial cognition and emotional awareness—but we fail to reflect on the deeper implications of those findings, much less alter our behavior accordingly. If you learned that a pig could play a video game and kept eating bacon, you’d be typical in your response to new information about the hidden lives of animals. Wrong, but typical.

To situate this moral failure to act in the context of our alienation from the material world’s more complex but utilitarian objects might seem arbitrary. But my thought is that it’s not. After all, it does not seem altogether unreasonable to hypothesize that a gradual acceptance of magic as the basis of our material existence—and that’s what my iphone is to me: magic—would predispose one to conclude that any feat of cognition or emotional expression by an animal would be similarly magical. And thus not worth trying to understand, much less act upon.



20 Responses to The First Post For Which I Have No Title

  1. John Maher says:

    I am not sure what this post is about but I suspect it engages with the ‘new materialist’ turn in philosophy? Isabelle Stengers and Jane Bennett come to mind. In other words how temporal, semiotic, and material beings function and produce dislocations in traditional orders of mind and social relations. This is not a bad thing in the abstract but if James is saying there is a binary disconnect between subject and object and cause and effect achieved via technicity then the discipline of Science and Technology Studies would agree with him part of the way and say that materialist entities constantly (re) form their realities. This the pig is not slaughtered in the yard but abstracted and commodified as a possible condition of future bacon dependent more upon the Chicago Future’s Market and long term supply contracts than a subject or material object coexisting with humans. Melinda Cooper called her book “Life as Surplus” and was onto this very idea.

  2. Jim Upchurch says:

    I stepped on my dog’s paw yesterday and he yelped in pain. Is that not simple enough for anyone to know that our fellow animals can feel even the smallest amount of pain? Why do we need to delve into these deep philosophical discussions of sentient animal responses? It is somewhat disturbing that we have to recognize that humans just don’t care that other species suffer pain if the species is in the food chain?

    • John Maher says:

      Heuristic. If someone in your position understood that there are questions raised within even your attempt at reduction, then that person would know why such questions matter and would ask even better and more meaningful questions.

    • Steven van Staden says:

      The point remains valid that no amount of philosophizing changes the self-evident observation that the vast majority of humans are not compassionate when being so is not to their immediate and selfish advantage.

  3. John t maher says:

    Beware of observations that one assumes are self-evident. philosophy adjs why this is so unlike sophistry which states positions in absolutes whether ‘self-evident’ or not. For example, in your comment define compassionate. Is this about the individual or species? Can killing be compassionAte ?Isn’t it more interesting to ask why than to adhere to static repetition of dogma? Can the human or certain species transform into collective ethic of interspecies care rather than behave in the binary opposition you propose? Can we become as lichen? Does whitehead trump Spinoza in the philosophical terms certain readers take exception to?

    • Steven van Staden says:

      I mean, as I said, a self-evident observation, and not even a philosopher can talk this one to death. Who among us thinks that the majority of our species are compassionate (dictionary definition will do)? This brief space is not adequate to argue this and there should be no reason to argue it. Surely a survey would prove the point I’m obviously making, if that point isn’t self-evident to you from your life’s observations, which is that the vast majority of our species, from the stupid to the clever, don’t care about animal suffering as long as it’s in their interest.

      • John Maher says:

        I can only cringe in response. Nature also does not care about any suffering except among Deleuzian multiplicities.

        I say: ask better questions.

        • Steven van Staden says:

          I’m afraid you’re just underlining the point made earlier by James, if I haven’t misunderstood, that complexity has disguised so much of what we used to know and cope with first-hand, and that this distancing has led us to almost blind acceptance of so much that we would hitherto have found unacceptable (for example, so many are comfortable with a take-away or something indeterminate to throw into the microwave oven, but would be uncomfortable slaughtering an animal for that meal). I’m sorry that you consider my thoughts and observations simplistic but it remains my opinion that you are introducing complexity where simplicity suffices, and therefore, as I said, simply giving voice to the point made earlier.

          • John t maher says:

            I never said I completely disagree with you on your substantive point , termed by some as cognitive dissonance the social hieroglyph or zbsentvreferent or other such labels. What I object to is a reductive assumthat

          • John t maher says:

            Tion in phrased in meaningless terms such as ‘self evident’. If you have begun yo question norms then I think that is great and encourage it. But there is ‘simply’ no substitute for questioning your terms and assumptions as to what they might mean in order to arrive at a meaningful conclusion.

  4. Karen Harris says:

    Being neither a philosopher nor academic, much of the preceding comments elude me. However, it seems to me that deeming something magical – whether the existence of cognition and emotional awareness on the part of animals, or an iPhone – does not imply that it is not worthy of contemplation, respect and action. Possibly the opposite.

  5. Keith Akers says:

    The combination of fossil fuels and computer technology has made our society so complex, that specialization is inevitable. You can understand the links, or the things to which they are linked, but complexity is so deep and knowledge is so specialized that no one can understand everything.

    I am worried about the effect of this on our moral sensibility (animals are at the end of some of those links). But I am even more worried about a limits to growth, debt-fueled economic collapse that will sever our links to the possibility of retrieving any of this knowledge, and plunge us into a new (and perhaps permanent) dark age.

  6. Sailesh Rao says:


    Perhaps if you truly knew how the iPhone was made, you wouldn’t buy it or at least think twice before replacing it. As someone who used to work in that field, I’m aware of the unbelievable amount of human suffering involved in the mass production and disposal of electronics. Here’s a short video on how some of the minerals needed for electronics are produced:

    • Sailesh Rao says:

      Here’s the video I meant to post. The other one is worth watching as well:

    • James says:

      Wha?! Did you submit this comment by pony-express (oh, sorry, that would be animal exploitation). But, seriously, how can you make the comment you just made via digital fibrous communication? Please, I beg: explain.

      • Sailesh Rao says:

        We tend to spin a cocoon of moral failure, denial or blind acceptance around ourselves, with regard to how the objects that we use are made. Even 18th century citizens were likely oblivious to some of the atrocities that went into the products that they were using:

        Yes, I still use this technology knowing that some poor Congolese people and wildlife subsidized it for me with their blood and suffering. Even if the technology we use is made with “conflict-free” materials as Intel and others advertise, the price of those materials were artificially lowered by the genocide in the Congo and the slave labor in China, and therefore, we’re still complicit. Therefore, I try to limit my use of technology for the purpose of freeing ourselves from this violence-drenched system that we are all stuck in. I also try to stretch what I have bought until it literally falls apart, and only make discretionary purchases once a year.

  7. Actually all the gadgets and guns you mentioned can STILL be explained with most high-school physics (or chemistry when it comes to e.g. combustion). Clearly school didactics must do an awful job if evidently intellectual and erudite people pose such rhetorical questions and expect all readers to agree. And as for the “levers and pulleys and other manifestations of forces visible” – indeed, but on the other hand there were a lot of things people could not explain, like lightning and how clouds and the weather came to be. I think so far, on balance, the scales have not been tilted to less understanding but bad pedagogy makes people forget all they learned.

  8. Mountain says:

    As a great philosopher once said: “Life is a mystery/ Everyone must stand alone.”

  9. James says:

    “What I feel and I know is that I am here now, at this moment in the grand sweep of time. I am not part of the void. I am not a fluctuation in the quantum vacuum. Even though I understand that someday my atoms will be scattered in soil and in air, that I will no longer exist, that I will join some kind of Nothingness, I am alive now. I am feeling this moment. I can see my hand on my writing desk. I can feel the warmth of the sun through the window. And looking out, I can see the pine-needled path that goes down to the sea. Now.”

    Beautiful. Thanks for sharing.

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