Can the Animal Subaltern Laugh?
Mocking Alpha Males with Georgia and Koko
I recently had a mind-altering experience communicating with a gorilla. Her name is Koko. We shared something extraordinary—laughter.
—Robin Williams, The Gorilla Foundation
Animals have long been seen as funny, but something to laugh at, not with. Indeed, if there has ever been a perpetual butt of a joke, it has been animals, who seem to be instinctive creatures more different from than similar to humans. Yet the big surprise is that comparative studies of nonhuman primates and other intelligent animals do not provide humans with that long-sought-after difference that makes us ontologically distinct and superior. Studies of emotions, cultures, communication skills, and even desires within nonhuman animal species have uncovered more parallel capacities than expected. Stephen Colbert’s spoof on a monkey experiment illustrates the humor of endeavors to reestablish human exceptionalism in the context of the post-2007 recession: “Consumer spending is down and we’re in danger of a crippling double dip recession . . . but science has found the secret to getting this economy moving again: monkeys!” Colbert explains that a scientist has joined forces with an advertising firm to test whether capuchin monkeys trained to understand and use money will choose an advertised bowl of Jell-O over the other brand. This is, as a New Scientist headline proclaims, “the first advertising campaign for nonhuman primates,” which aimed to determine if commercialized images of female monkey genitalia and of alpha males would motivate consumer patterns among subapes. As a member of the superior species, Colbert exclaims with mock earnestness that an advertising experiment that exploits the crass animal instincts of monkeys will teach us nothing about ourselves. Meanwhile, images of female lady parts pop up on a screen alongside a Diet Pepsi as Colbert ponders his “urgent reasons” for wanting the drink. To make sure that his human audience doesn’t miss the punch line, a final image of Colbert appears with his own monkey grin, gobbling down Jell-O as the all-revealing monkey vagina flashes in the background, leaving us wondering who the real monkeys are.
When it comes to monkey see and monkey do, we turn to our own comic mix of philosophical reflection: animal studies of communication skills, emotions, and desires, as well as histories of solidarities that cross species divides. Nonhuman animals are assumed not only in Western myth but also in science and philosophy to be above all else inferior to humans, having been constructed as passive, ahistorical, unfeeling, or unthinking, but inevitably lacking Western, colonial, civilizing, or, more recently, neoliberal virtues. Indeed, throughout our post-Paleolithic history, social stratification and cultural exclusion have often entailed projecting demeaning or monstrous animal imagery onto the subaltern. Rituals of humiliation that ridicule the other as a subhuman animal are primary devices for enforcing outsider or subordinate status. Clearly humans have mastered the art of ridicule, and at nonhuman animals’ expense. Philosophers entrenched in Western traditions go so far as to define humor in conjunction with the human as a reflection on the gap between the physical and the psychical. Laughter is said to occur with transgressions at the site of this break, as when the animal imitates the human or vice versa. But what would it mean if some of the animals assumed to be the most proper objects of ridicule have the capacity to laugh? The association of animality with the subaltern provokes the thought that perhaps like their human counterparts, animal subalterns might laugh back.
Subaltern studies have established that ridicule and other forms of humor serve as accessories of cruelty and props of power; they also provide discourses and technologies of reversal, leveling hierarchies by turning stratified structures upside down. At the same time, the field of animal studies has begun to document the capacity for laughter in primates, dogs, and even rats. Far from laughter’s being a uniquely human characteristic, as has long been thought, primate mockery along with common forms of animal play reveal the means for an infrapolitics of cross-species outrage. This cross-species defiance not only unsettles alpha male status but also provides spaces for egalitarian ecologies of inclusive belonging beyond our market-driven neoliberal consciousness. In this chapter, we speculate on the evolutionary origins of laughter, concluding that various species use humor to build solidarity and ridicule against the powerful to demand fair play.
Messing with the Missing Link
Philosophers and scientists for too long have failed to question the question of what makes us uniquely and superiorly human. A popular scientific and philosophical approach is to insist on the superior cognitive or linguistic capacities of humans. An ironically illuminating variation of this kind of a claim is offered by Svante Pääbo, the world-renowned head of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig. Pääbo reflects on the magnitude of his current projects in evolutionary genetics, including sequencing the Neanderthal genome and engineering human protein in mice. These epoch-making exercises in what Foucauldian cynics call biopower could have sci-fi outcomes, like making pets out of Neanderthals rescued from indenture as lab animals for big pharma (Hollywood-style Rise of the Planet of the Apes  redux). In the eyes of big science, these biolicious projects are no less than “attempts to solve a single problem in evolutionary genetics, which might, rather dizzyingly, be posed as: What made us the sort of animal that could create a transgenic mouse?” This is how New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert’s essay on Pääbo’s ambitions restates the philosophical question about self-knowledge that has “been kicking around since Socrates and probably a lot longer.” Kolbert adds, “If it has yet to be satisfactorily resolved, then this, Pääbo suspects, is because it has never been properly framed. ‘The challenge is to address the questions that are answerable,’” he informs Kolbert.
If only Socrates had thought of reframing his questions to his pumped-up interlocutors so that those Socratic questions could be answered! But he was a pretty clever philosopher; asking only questions that are answerable sounds like a good strategy for scientists, but it could put philosophers out of business. Anyway, so-called stingray Socrates, master of the unanswerable question, may well have been more of a ridiculing ironist than an earnest knower—the philosopher as stand-up comic, debunking pretensions rather than proclaiming them. Such serious debunking is not, however, where Pääbo’s admittedly astounding research aims to take us. If the philosophical question of what makes us human is to be framed around our allegedly unique or superior human capacities—such as language, technology, or, for that matter, humor—Pääbo’s restatement of the question seems in keeping with what some of the more serious-minded philosophers and other straight-shooting seekers of knowledge have always sought to do: provide answers. Yet as we shall see, Socrates’s ironic style of questioning spurs a more stimulating approach to the age-old question, “What is man?” This alternative approach leads not to ever more claims of superiority on behalf of man-the-alpha-ape but to a leveling of them.
The promise of Pääbo’s work owes much to the continued successes of evolutionary genetics. Neanderthals—as our closest not-quite-human relative—share most of our genetic material, with some significant exceptions, he explains, as he offers his own testable hypothesis as to what future investigations might find this exception to be: “By about forty-five thousand years ago, modern humans had already reached Australia, a journey that, even mid–ice age, meant crossing open water. Archaic humans like Homo erectus ‘spread like many other mammals in the Old World,’ Pääbo told me [Kolbert]. ‘They never came to Madagascar, never to Australia. Neither did Neanderthals. It’s only fully modern humans who start this thing of venturing out on the ocean where you don’t see land.” Of course, this adventure requires social collaboration in order to solve the problem of building the boat, Pääbo notes all too briefly. But collaboration may not after all provide that allusive answer to the question of what makes the human unique and superior. Pääbo continues: “‘There is also, I like to think or say, some madness there. How many people must have sailed out and vanished. . . . Is it for the glory? for immortality? for curiosity? And now we go to Mars. We never stop.’ If the defining characteristic of modern humans is this sort of Faustian restlessness, then, by Pääbo’s account, there must be some sort of Faustian gene.” In short, for this geneticist, the missing link between the human and nonhuman turns on hubristic madness.
Tragic Overstep and Collaboration across Species
That mythical gene—marking the human defiance of any limit and the definitive demise of rivals for planetary domination—sounds a note of tragic overstep. A nod toward anarchic merrymaking that mocks overreach instead of indulging in it could make for a jollier turn. The tragic tone, however, certainly rings through any range of possible scenarios for our planet’s immanent future as one shifts from the perspective of the human to the nonhuman animal upon whom the overstepping human steps. A heartrending hint from the empirical sciences is found in psychologist Gay Bradshaw’s research on the changing relationships between humans and elephants in Africa and Asia. Recalling that these species once lived peacefully side by side, Bradshaw and others have begun giving serious study to reports of elephants in the forests of Uganda attacking human villages. These studies portray a species immersed in tight social webs of family and tribal communities that have been frayed by our own species’ imperial hubris of cruel hunting and kidnapping elephant tribe members. Orphaned adolescent males stripped of boundary-setting social regulation by missing elders are left to run rogue, and with intentional brutality, they express their trauma and outrage by violating and killing members of their own or other species. Maybe elephants can be Faustian too.
Most of the current work in animal ethics aims to generate sympathy for animal suffering. The variety of approaches in this ethics is diverse, but the most influential stem broadly from the reformist Anglophone literature that has philosophical roots dating back to both Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism and to the sentimental moral traditions associated with David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Scottish Enlightenment. We will not take these kinds of approaches, although we will borrow from aspects of the latter traditions in our reconfiguration of empathy in chapter 5.
The moral challenge of these modern philosophical traditions to what has been deemed the “heartlessness” of scientific rationalism and the classic unregulated liberal state is illustrated in Susan Pearson’s study of the rise of what she calls “sentimental liberalism” in nineteenth-century America. Enlightenment rationalism and classic liberalism, under the influence of thinkers such as Rene Descartes and John Locke, displaced older conceptions of animals together with humans as part of the warp and weft of a common life. For example, in ancient Greek festivals, the sacrifice of a pig would demand the ritual of dripping water on the pig’s head to solicit a nod of consent. The induced consent was symbolic, of course, and could hardly save the pig, but it nonetheless exhibits traces of a fading earlier common life that continues even today in indigenous traditions and that lingered in pockets of Europe until the seventeenth century. In medieval Europe, wild and domesticated animals were treated by legal and ecclesiastical authorities as actual members of the parish community. That the rights of animals paralleled those of humans was demonstrated in numerous instances of court trials across every region of Europe. Humans and animals could be tried together for such criminal violations as bestiality, with animals having their own legal representatives at public expense. In one case, a donkey was defended as innocent of illicit sexual acts and hence a victim of rape on the basis of its “honorable character.” Even animals that were accused of murder could be successfully defended when they were known to have suffered considerable abuse. Invasive pests were not exterminated but were guaranteed parcels of land in court decisions that were based on a theological argument of original ownership and prior claim. Then, half a century after Montaigne argued against the cruelty of animals and spoke of the joys of shared human and animal friendships despite inevitable failures of communication, Descartes and Locke ushered in their use as resource material in the industrial revolution by pronouncing them machines. As subrational creatures, classical liberalism stripped animals of the rights and fellowship that they once had enjoyed in mixed-species communities.
Pearson’s research demonstrates how a milder discourse of sentiment and sympathy won out over a stronger challenge to modernity’s abuses: the short-lived radical egalitarian ideals of the U.S. Reconstruction era after Emancipation. In contrast to more radical approaches, the era’s sentimental discourse (remember republican motherhood in chapter 1) emerged through an ethics and rhetoric of care and protection for dependents. An appeal to the shared capacities for suffering rather than for agency and communal membership prepared the public to reconcile the perceived dependency of nonrational animals and children with the claim that they were rights-bearing individuals deserving of legal or moral protection from harm despite their subrational status. Previously, the classic liberal doctrine of rights to property and the pursuit of liberty for rational and self-sufficient citizens had deemed children and animals to be nonrational and unworthy of rights of their own. Then, in the nineteenth century, the promulgation of stories documenting the abuse of children and animal cruelty prompted various humane societies in the United States and elsewhere to agitate for the reinvention of the modern state from minimalist to interventionist. From the abolitionist through the Progressive eras, the state in alliance with private agencies was reconceived as a proper vehicle of protection rights for “beasts and babes.” These protection rights were granted on the basis of the ability to feel and to suffer, not to reason, and on claims of status of dependency, not on claims for liberty, solidarity, or equality. The reformist movements did not overturn the well-entrenched social hierarchies of the patriarchal family and the human/nonhuman distinction together with its racist legacy; nor did they upset the reason/emotion binary. But they did successfully appeal to public virtue and advocate for social policies that would ameliorate the terrible abuses suffered within hierarchal structures and a doctrine of human exceptionalism.
In contrast to the sentimental movement, the nineteenth-century utilitarian thinkers who likewise came to the fore during this reformist time on behalf of the supposedly nonrational did not appeal directly to feelings as a basis for moral judgments and were not rooted in the eighteenth-century sentimental tradition of Hume and Smith. These earlier modern philosophers of sentiment had challenged philosophical rationalism by arguing that the natural basis for moral judgments and action resided in feelings or sympathy alone. In contrast, utilitarian thinkers including Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and in the twentieth century Peter Singer would draw on rational principles to justify human responsibilities to vulnerable and dependent creatures such as animals. These utilitarians, like the Kantians, would lose sight of the centrality of negotiated relationships and turn to a quasimathematical rationalist ground for moral philosophy. One problem with these rationalist approaches is that they would make it exceedingly difficult to understand how nonhumans like humans might be ethical agents too. Nonetheless, for these utilitarians, like the sentimentalists, feelings and desires, not solely the rational capacities of capable human adults, provide at least a solid ground for moral consideration and account for their attention to animal suffering. This wider focus on vulnerability and sentience is central to American social movements of both sentimental liberalism and utilitarianism, and prevails in reformist discourse in the United States today.
The cult of sensibility in Anglo-American culture from the abolitionist to the Progressive eras prepared a context for liberal reformers to shape a public discourse that appeals to our sentiments and common human sympathy in ways that a narrow valorization of Enlightenment reason cannot. Sentimental liberalism arose in response not only to particular acts of cruelty but to the impersonal brutalization and increasingly visible horrors of the industrial revolution. Its relevance has returned with the neoliberal intensification of animals’ technological and industrial use, extended to biogenetic engineering as seen in cloning, genetic cross-breeding, accelerated growth through hormones, and the redefinition of the human as the creature able to create the transgenic mouse. After long decades in the twentieth century, when animal rights movements lay dormant and analytic traditions of liberal theory reasserted Enlightenment rationalism as a technical if not academic enterprise, this intensification of abuse on an ever more massive scale has prompted Anglophone philosophical traditions to challenge once again the biopower of the food industry and animal research through an appeal to human sympathy for animal suffering and vulnerability.
The concern for the suffering and vulnerability of dependent creatures provides the moral ground for Martha Nussbaum’s massive reworking of modern liberalism in Frontiers of Justice. Nussbaum retools liberalism’s classic aim of protecting individual liberty by incorporating nineteenth- and twentieth-century ideas of social equality in terms of minimal capabilities (among a list that includes life, emotions, affiliation, and play) that should be guaranteed by the state and that moreover should be extended to include animals, the disabled, and noncitizens. While her proposal does not address the new studies of animal sociality and agency, and it stops short of any consideration for the community life and biosocial networks that exceed individual agency, it does extend liberal rights to the protection of minimal capacities and agencies of animals. Like the abovementioned traditions, her approach ultimately rests on an appeal to sympathy for the suffering of nonrational dependents rather than on classic liberal respect for the dignity of fully autonomous creatures. As she writes, her “solution . . . requires people to have very great sympathy and benevolence, and to sustain these sentiments over time.” But note that the paternalism (or maybe maternalism) that Nussbaum explicitly defends as the basis of justice for nonhuman animals neglects intriguing possibilities that other species cultivate ethical norms and various forms of social cooperation, on occasion even in mixed-species communities. The thought that a nonhuman could engage in any sort of shared moral or political citizenship is also dismissed out of hand as “fantastic.”
The Scottish Enlightenment themes central to Nussbaum’s sentimentalist revision of twentieth-century liberal rationalism have also returned in contemporary scientific research on animal and human cognition. For example, citing David Hume, psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues that there is a sound scientific basis for viewing reason as the “slave of the passions” and that moral feelings (sometimes called intuitions) and empathy play pivotal roles in understanding human morality. We will return to this intuitionist tradition of psychology in chapter 5; however, here we note that its rise can reinforce a sentimental, reformist, and ultimately for our purposes too uncritical an approach to the political interplay of emotions among group-oriented animals within and across species. Our approach draws from both sides of the emotion/reason dichotomy while trying to dig ourselves out from underneath it.
Meanwhile, the field of cognitive ethology has dropped a knowledge bomb that threatens to radically alter the parameters for animal rights discourse as well as for questions of who we are. Research scientists such as Frans de Waal have established capacities for sympathy, and indeed moral feelings of fairness, in nonhuman animals. Various species of animals (without specifically human language or modes of conceptual thought) make demands for social justice and express feelings of compassion, sometimes for the sake of helping out humans.
Our challenge is to take these scientific discoveries a step beyond philosophical modernism’s binaries of reason/sentiment or independence/dependence, based as they are on modern models of atomic individualism. If animals have agency, not just vulnerability, and live through networks of interdependence and interconnectedness, not just dependence, and either directly or indirectly through larger ecosystems, then what kind of infrapolitics do their societies reveal? What are the substantial ethical practices, customs, and structures that provide the social glue for their communities and families? Beyond straightforward modernist binaries—the subjective appeal to sentiment and sympathy or an objective appeal to abstract reason—we aim to explore through humor the ethical norms that might emerge for some tentative collaborative efforts at interspecies living. While we support liberal reform measures to expand rights protecting animals against abuse, our starting point is not with vulnerability, dependency, and the compassionate concern for minimal animal capabilities but with animal agency and communities. Animals are not like infants; in surprising ways, they can on occasion be more like us than we might imagine. Our political aim is not ultimately just a reform project for securing animal rights on the basis of their status as needing protection; also, where possible, we advocate for cross-species solidarity with animal coworkers and coinhabitants of interspecies communities. Animals are not merely vulnerable creatures that require protection or recipients of human sympathy but are also sometimes kindred political agents in their own right, with interlocking histories, cultures, and technologies within and across species. Given these aims and concerns, our method draws primarily from critical social theories in the tradition of Audre Lorde and Donna Haraway rather than from liberal theorists. An erotic politics of laughter, to draw kindred motifs from these poet-thinkers, aims for the cultivation of individual feeling as well as for a social infrastructure that substantiates norms and expectations in part on the basis of cross-species codes of reciprocity and solidarity.
Perhaps the strongest nineteenth-century challenge to the sentimental tradition’s obscuring of the agency of those who dare to resist oppression is stated by African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Douglass explains to his white readership the limits of an ethical appeal to moral sentiments in the context of American slavery; white people could not generate sympathy for an enslaved person unless that person asserted some significant degree of agency and demanded through the assertion of that agency recognition from others. Power yields nothing without a demand. For Douglass, that agency was staged as a call for respect and would eventually take shape as a catalyst for the abolitionist movement. While important, a display of vulnerability and an appeal for sympathy do not always suffice to generate an egalitarian political ethics.
Moreover, Douglass extended the range of his moral concern not only to the emancipation of all slaves everywhere and to nineteenth-century women’s movements but also, implicitly, to nonhuman animals. Of course, any appeal to analogies across nonhuman and human species risks reinforcing the worse kind of prejudices against black identity in a white racist culture. This projection of animal qualities on racialized others was a staple of the emerging tradition of blackface humor. Yet Douglass inverted conventional expectations as he proclaimed the agency of the enslaved person in terms of his or her “animal spirits.” He envisioned the free spirit of the enslaved person symbolically as an uncaged animal and as a winged bird in flight. Most significantly, Douglass joined his own struggle with those of the beaten-down ox or horse on the plantation, preparing the way toward a truly revolutionary form of worker collaboration. Douglass’s prophetic vision stems from risking the charged association of blackness and animality to propose what may well have been this abolitionist’s most provocative challenge.
Through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, abolitionist, feminist, and workers’ movements continued to challenge, if not entirely successfully, the classical liberal concept of rights. To varying degrees, new constitutions in Europe would recognize basic rights to social and economic equality. Then, after World War II, the struggle against European colonialism in Africa and elsewhere transformed the meaning and scope of rights yet again to include the recognition of communal bonds (defined in part through those local languages important for a communicative ethics) and environmental rights. More recently, after several generations of rethinking rights, we anticipate yet another radical rethinking that would include rights of animals as not just vulnerable others requiring human protection but also moral agents. Our approach begins with Haraway’s invitation to imagine whether nonhuman animals might be our kin (When Species Meet). Thus, rather than merely listening for the sad cries of otherwise mute animals, we turn to the playful and sometimes subversive social exchanges within and between species that suggest a missing moral link from which might arise collaborative laughs for social justice.
A Tip of the Hat, a Wag of the Tail: Missing Cues
What if the animal other can speak? Or, given that speaking seems to always involve the use of human language, let’s rephrase the question in less speciesist terms: what if the nonhuman subaltern can communicate? After all, what is speech but an address to the other? Recall that Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s pivotal essay on the communicative capacities of the subaltern suggests that the apparently mute servants of the British empire did not seem to speak in part because the colonialist frequencies were not tuned in to hear them. In a similar vein, ontological gaps between the human and nonhuman animal others have been grossly exaggerated by a human failure to pick up on animal social cues. Just as historian Nancy Hewitt suggests that scholars might tune into neglected women’s movements and untold narratives by uncovering a wider band of radio waves heard at different frequencies than those familiar as first-, second-, and third-wave feminism, we too embrace the concept of wave transmissions broadcast beyond the range of human perception in Western cultures. Not all cultures assume the discontinuities and hierarchies between human and nonhuman animals found in the mantra that man is the measure of all things. Borrowing from feminism, we understand the need to make the invisible visible and to reexamine the sources of mixed-species community building. A history that is radically inclusive can reveal a collective ethos outside of any neoliberal master narrative—say of advertising genius, alpha male madness, and lady monkey parts.
Keeping Colbert’s spoof of monkeys and advertising in mind, we shift our ethical focus from the vulnerability and infantilization of the animal other to neglected possibilities for cross-species politics enhanced by the communicative vibes of a collective ethos that testifies not only to various species’ capacities to care for each other but also to laugh and play across enemy lines. Animals enjoy a communicative agency that enhances the possibilities for coresponsibility through a politics of biosocial eros heard in emancipatory tones. Our erotic politics of laughter makes common cause with what utilitarian Peter Singer calls “animal liberation” in his 1975 manifesto as it has been taken up again in the 2011 Occupy Wall Street and kindred European social movements, but with a subversively comic twist.
The animal subaltern’s ability to speak is not a sci-fi moment, like when the human-engineered chimpanzee in Rise of the Planet of the Apes challenges his human captors, uttering the word “No.” Rather, this ability is documented in animal studies. Chimpanzees, elephants, and any number of species communicate—with varying degrees of intentionality—emotions, beliefs, and social cues that researchers tend to miss, much like those well-documented human cues missed by presumably oblivious chimpanzees. Such outdated experiments claim superior cooperative skills for the human species. But the question of whose cues are being missed seems far from clear.
Consider the experiments featured in the Nova National Geographic documentary Ape Genius. While the film provides a fascinating glimpse into some of the new science on animals, the film’s interpretative frame for the discoveries is a problem. Research scientist Brian Hare blames a bonobo for his own failed attempts to teach the animal to pick up a cup, without allowing for any larger questions regarding how a human experimenter could be an effective teacher for bonobos, let alone for what we humans might be capable of learning not about but rather from other primates who may be attempting to teach us a thing or two. For example, consider how the experimenter attempts to teach the ape by pointing to the cup, which is a strategy known to be effective for teaching young human children. Human children attend to special features of objects after having those features pointed out with an index finger by a (human) teacher. They also exhibit a natural tendency not shared by other primates to point to objects. This experiment is part of a cluster used unfairly to establish that although other primates can learn through imitation, only humans can learn by being taught. Noting the natural and perhaps unique import of pointing for humans, but without considering other means for communication and teaching for other species, Michael Tomasello all too hastily concludes: “Apes do not, in either gesture or vocalizations, intend to inform another of things helpfully.” These approaches to animal studies entirely neglect the significant evidence for alternative means of cooperation and social learning. Sometimes it is important to emphasize similarities across species, other times the differences.
A major problem with these kinds of studies is that they assume that nonhumans are always motivated to learn from someone of a different and disconnected species. In fact, we know that when the teacher is of the same species, animals learn quite well from each other. The elders of an elephant clan pass down crucial ecological and cultural knowledge as well as social ethics to the youth. The loss of an elder through poaching or other disasters is experienced traumatically by the community; it threatens the survival of the entire clan. It also threatens the general peace. The trauma of this loss, and the absence of the educative wisdom of elders, leads to rampages by male adolescents. Orphans who are raised outside of their group by humans may be rejected when reintroduced to established elephant communities when they “commit unwitting trespass because they have not learned social etiquette.” The elephant “possesses an extremely large and convoluted hippocampus, the brain structures most responsible for mediating long-term social memory,” Gay Bradshaw explains. In an interspecies community, elephants, with their memories and attentiveness to oral cultures, could serve well as social historians.
Hasty claims for human superiority in cooperative capacities are made without any clear evidence that pointing is the most significant way in which social learning occurs for nonhuman animals. From the fact that nonhuman animals do not typically use pointing, it is deduced that they do not engage in genuine social learning. However, as is noted, while apes do not ordinarily use pointing to communicate among themselves, even they can learn to point to make requests of humans. These requests exemplify cross-species social learning, pointing, so to speak, to the potential for an occasionally cooperative ethics crossing species lines—if oblivious human researchers would just tune in.
Tomasello claims that nonhuman apes are not generally helpful to others and thus are not socially cooperative, and thus are unlike humans. He argues that nonhuman primates, along with wolves and lions, lack the capacity to share goals and form a “we” identity. In fact, bonobos demonstrate strongly “altruistic” actions, including rich capacities to console others; indeed, they are called the “most empathetic ape.” We shall shortly turn to the role of social play and the capacity for inter- and intraspecies friendships and political alliances among lions, wolves, and other social carnivores. The problem is that too many experiments are designed to contrast human and nonhuman responses with human styles of teaching and human teachers. That’s our hubris kicking in again. Don’t we all know plenty of uncooperative humans? Indeed, epistemologically stubborn humans are as unlikely to learn from bonobo teachers as these primates are to learn from humans. Yet one conclusion leads to another, and Ape Genius ends with the claim that humans are “the most social ape.” Given that their competitors for this title include the “make love, not war” bonobos, one has to wonder just what humans might be missing.
Indeed, many of the actual experiments in the film in fact suggest surprising parallels and differences between humans and other primates, not ontological gaps. The capacity for culture and language, for example, is no longer believed to separate humans from the realm of nature. Concerning the question of animal language, Bekoff nicely retorts, “Tails talk to us about what animals are feeling, and so too do various postures, gaits, facial expressions, sounds, and odors. Sometimes I wish I had a tail and mobile ears so I could communicate more effectively with dogs and other animals, whose tails and ears tell us lots about what they’re thinking and feeling.” Ethologist Joyce Poole’s studies of elephants suggest that nonhuman species communicate a range of emotions that humans as a single species may fail to understand because we only share some part. If we listen to nature’s rustling, we hear not just the mute animal’s silent complaint, not even merely an animal that on occasion says “No” with a nod of a head or an assertion of a tusk, but a creature who can laugh and play.
For many species, playful laughter can be part of a friendly process of social bonding distinct from serious and even life-threatening games of competition, as discussed in our book’s introduction. However, as we shall see, nonhuman animals may also mix genres of the serious and the humorous, and use mockery to subvert hierarchies. If so, perhaps human and various nonhuman species are not that different after all—at least not in ways we thought. “Even the most complex mutualistic relationships in nature reflect a tug-of-war between collaboration and exploitation,” primate behavioral ecologist Joan Silk writes. Our aim is to find in the mesh of nature/culture those social cues that we oblivious humans have too often missed—cues that allow us to avoid repeating histories of rogue warfare and, at least on occasion, to rejoin with other species in an unexpected, life-affirming bond. History plays out not just as a series of tragedies but sometimes as comedies as well.
Animal Slapstick and Social Bonding
Scientists, notably including Robert Provine, the author of Laughter: A Scientific Investigation, have studied chimpanzees and found a link between their laughter-like noises and human laughter, which might point to a common origin for communication. “Laughter is literally the sound of play, with the primal ‘pant-pant’—the labored breathing of physical play—becoming the human ‘ha-ha,’” Provine observes, establishing an evolutionary continuity between the tickling and the rough-and-tumble play that stimulates chirping in rats and laughter in other species. Jaak Panksepp has published research that reveals “the possibility that our most commonly used animal subjects, laboratory rodents, may have social-joy type experiences during their playful activities and that an important communicative–affective component of that process, which invigorates social engagement, is a primordial form of laughter.” Moreover, waves of joy transmit across multiple species, as Panksepp discovered when he found that “inducing laughter in young rats promoted bonding: tickled rats would actively seek out specific human hands that had made them laugh.”
Even more astounding, Bekoff notes that “though it’s rarely the focus of scientific research we observe animals making jokes or displaying a sense of humor,” providing an example of a scarlet macaw who “roars with laughter; he teases all who come near, . . . and even plays ‘magic carpet’—wherein his human slaves race down hallways dragging large towels with the macaw riding aboard.” Vicki Hearne observes that when her playful dog finds a dumbbell set on its end instead of its usual position, he “enjoyed the play on form . . . [and would] toss it in the air a few times on his way back with it, to show his appreciation for the joke.” Again quoting Provine: “Most candidates for simian humor involve cases of intentional misusing of objects and misnaming of people and things. For example, researcher Roger Fouts observed the signing chimpanzee Washoe using a toothbrush as if it was a hairbrush. Moja, another of Fouts’s signing chimpanzees, called a purse a ‘shoe,’ put the purse on her foot and wore it as a shoe. Francine ‘Penny’ Patterson observed the signing gorilla Koko treating rocks and other inedible substances as if they were foods, offering them as ‘food’ to people. . . . The above cases of presumed intentional ‘misnaming’ and ‘misusing’ are potential jokes.” Provine here proceeds to draw an analogy between adult chimpanzees and human children, but this is a type of analogy that problematically blurs significant differences and overlapping similarities between species, so we set this and related comments aside, and focus instead on actual observations. He continues: “Reports that apes appeared to be in a playful mood, or glanced at the caregiver for evidence of the effect of their errant actions, suggests . . . a joking intent. Another widely noted class of misnaming involves ‘name calling.’ . . . When upset with her caregiver, gorilla Koko referred to her as ‘dirty toilet.’ . . . In another possible instance of simian humor, Roger Fouts reported that while riding on his shoulders, the chimpanzee Washoe urinated on him, signing ‘funny’ (touching her nose) and snorting.”
Much laughter stems from play behavior, as Provine establishes. As we have discussed in the introduction, the implications of play behavior for ethics and humor are intriguing. Bekoff’s studies of play behavior in social carnivores suggest that play may also provide a training ground for learning egalitarian social norms and expectations for reciprocity—what we humans call the “Golden Rule—do unto others as you would have them do unto you”—among such normally hierarchal species as “wolves, coyotes, red foxes, and domestic dogs.” Key features of play provide the ground for an egalitarian ethos, functioning to level the playing field and to build camaraderie. Bekoff explains that “for the time [these carnivores] are playing, they put aside or neutralize any inequalities in physical size and social rank.” Their playful exchanges exercise capacities for friendships through the sharing of laughter. If laughter is a great leveler, then the politics of collaboration and cooperation might well develop from skills and experiences acquired during social play. Humor may be one more example of such play.
Mixing species and disciplines, we turn again to de Waal. “Of the three ideals of the French Revolution—liberty, equality, and fraternity—fraternity is probably . . . the easiest to understand from a primate perspective with survival relying so heavily on attachment, bonding, and group cohesion,” he observes. “Primates evolved to be community builders.” Some species, such as bonobos, exhibit more egalitarian tendencies; others, like chimpanzees, are more hierarchical. Humans, he speculates, lie somewhere in the middle. Malini Suchak, de Waal’s collaborator, clarifies that although chimpanzees are more hierarchical than bonobos, on the scale of primates, they are fairly egalitarian. Their hierarchies are not typically linear; they engage in victim support; lower-ranking chimpanzees form coalitions to outcompete with alphas; and they have strong ownership norms (regardless of rank). Animals of higher rank aren’t allowed to appropriate food from animals of lesser rank. Recall that social equality is thought to be more prevalent among humans living in the small-scale societies before the Neolithic era; sharp social hierarchies and urban centers began with the rise of agriculture, and further developed with the industrial and now postindustrial revolutions. This ancient egalitarian strain in the human species reemerges from time to time, most recently challenging neoliberalism, as we see, for example, in the Great Recession’s anarchist social movements and their subversive delight in play. Above all else, we take our social cues from the primatologist’s observation that to laugh together is to “broadcast solidarity and togetherness.”
Tricksters, Subversives, and Interspecies Solidarity
To build social bonds, nonhumans may make use of more than just friendly laughter and innocent slapstick routines. De Waal reports the case of a raven playing deceptive tricks on high-ranking males: “The low-ranking male learned to distract his competitor [from food] by enthusiastically opening empty containers and acting as if he were eating from them.” Similar evidence suggests that animals can be tricksters and mockers of authority, challenging assumptions that only humans can deceive, protest, or collaborate against oppressive conditions, and establishing elements of an agency that is strategic and even collective. For animals, as for humans, mockery creates a space beyond surveillance, creating a site for self-assertion and a freedom that cannot be controlled by, say, laboratory norms. It can function not only to downgrade the frightening into the risible but also to convert negative emotions into embolding ones, performing a “mini-revolution” aimed against those who may not get that they are the butt of a joke. Of course, laughter may or may not successfully transform an entrenched social system, but it does lift the spirit, generate hope, and assert agency.
It is not surprising that humor might play a part in animal camaraderie and political trickery given what we now know about a sense of fairness in a number of animal species. In fact, even Darwin hypothesizes that ethics is continuous with animal sociality. Bradshaw observes, “In zoos and circuses, elephants are known for what has been called ‘retaliatory cunning,’ a calculated, directed attack on the someone who has turned on them in the past.” These elephants are normally careful to direct outrage against the perpetrators of injustice; they refrain from retaliating against unintentional crimes or innocent bystanders. De Waal reports on a sense of social regularity that is found not only in humans but also in other social animals. He defines this regularity as a minimal sense of fairness, or “a set of expectations about the way in which oneself (or others) should be treated and how resources should be divided. Whenever reality deviates from these expectations to one’s (or the other’s) disadvantage, a negative reaction ensues, most commonly protest by subordinate individuals and punishment by dominant individuals.” Even monkeys, who are considered by some to be less intelligent than apes, display acts of defiance at conditions that they understand as unfair. (But note that the relevance of the word “intelligence” or related notions of reason and understanding for cross-species comparisons has been questioned, given the complexity of cognitive skills across species too easily missed through the use of a single ambiguous and politically fraught term). De Waal describes an experiment performed with his student, Sarah Brosnan, where they found that offering a monkey a lesser reward than his peer (a cucumber instead of a juicy grape) provoked anger in the disadvantaged monkey, who “hurled . . . pebbles out of the test chamber, sometimes even throwing those paltry cucumber slices. A food normally devoured with gusto had become distasteful.” Even a simple affect-based response to food can take on a political aftertaste! This experience of injustice requires affect and cognition, but not necessarily an explicit reflection on rules or general concepts. Yet monkeys respond to inequity with Occupy Wall Street–style anarchy and outrage. And while monkey outrage sends a serious message to the experimenter—“no more monkeying around”—protest can take a subversively comic tone as well.
A joke is not always a joke; sometimes it can offer a subtle glimpse into an interspecies political ethics. De Waal again provides rich anecdotes. A wily chimpanzee named Georgia freely engages in teasing and mocking human visitors at the Yerkes Field Station in Atlanta. De Waal reports of occasions when Georgia “hurries to the spigot to collect a mouthful of water before they arrive. She then casually mingles with the rest of the colony behind the mesh fence of their outdoor compound, and not even the best observer will notice anything unusual about her. If necessary, Georgia will wait minutes with closed lips until the visitors come near. Then there will be shrieks, laughs, jumps, and sometimes falls, when she suddenly sprays them.” Georgia’s “spontaneous ambush tactics” can make a monkey out of any of her would-be human superiors as she turns the research station into a carnival. In this context, political jokes are “the oral equivalent of guerilla warfare,” a sign less of resignation than rebellion.
Apes may also use tactics of humor against their own in-group superiors, suggesting that in the animal kingdom, laughing can function as a comic means for defrocking the local tyrants. De Waal reports an incident—what to us humans appears as the equivalent of the slip on the banana peel—at the San Diego zoo, where apes are enclosed in an area surrounded by a dry moat with a chain for access. Apparently when an alpha male bonobo named Vernon would visit the moat, a younger male named Kalind would pull away the chain. “He would then look down at Vernon with an open-mouthed play face while slapping the side of the moat. This expression,” de Waal explains, “is the equivalent of human laughter: Kalind was making fun of the boss.” Like his monkey cousin, Kalind would seem to express outrage over injustice; but this ape seems to also enjoy an egalitarian sense of what counts as fair that may not be as pronounced in more rigidly hierarchal animal societies. For Kalind, any ape positioning himself as a superior may count as fair game.
Moving out of the lab and onto the farm, it is difficult to be unaware of the range of moods and dispositions of animals within the same species and their modes of making things right. Those who have worked with or lived in close proximity to animals are less likely to be surprised by stories of either species differences or distinct personalities. To be sure, not all animals are particularly savvy or capable of social camaraderie. Barbara Kingsolver, in her agrarian experiment detailed in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, remarks that some animals are stupid, but such animals tend to be man-made—for example, turkeys genetically engineered for food production. At the same time, she tells of one member of the flock chosen for Thanksgiving dinner on the basis of the turkey’s unpleasant nature. Her point is that singular personalities permeate animal communities.
Coming of age on a mid-Missouri farm, we too have seen not only animal personalities but also animal politics. Some horses, for example, are much more patient and nurturing, while others have less tolerance for human mistakes. An obstinate pony would frequently sit down on the job, or even roll in the dirt to get rid of an unskilled rider. Horses would rub their unwanted riders against a fence or thorny bush to get the pests off their backs. Other horses would show much more sympathy with any human rider, regardless of skill. Some would even walk gingerly, knowing that their fragile and unbalanced cargo could slip off easily. Like other animals, horses have best friends whom they trust to stand guard as well as swat flies away from their faces, and they too have frenemies that they will never see eye to eye with. There is also a fair share of practical jokers, like an Arabian gelding showing off his ability to unlock not only his stall door but also those of his mates. Collectively, these horses also know when something is awry, running deep into the woods when they hear the unmistakable sound of the veterinarian’s clanky truck coming down the gravel driveway. You might say they have a gut instinct—something we all feel and act on. Observing that farmers know to be wary around their donkeys and their tricks, biologist Bekoff does not hesitate to draw the conclusion that creatures that thrive on creating mischief for a laugh can demonstrate real wit as well, posing on occasion as regular “stand-up comedians.”
Can history offer us similar kinds of stories—stories that may complicate this renegade science without dismissing it? To be sure, science has often ignored historical context and taken its own slip on the banana peel. A Harvard team reports as straight science the discovery of an amazing horse named Jim Key. This animal wasn’t just horsing around when he feigned lameness to prevent his owner from selling him off to a stranger. He even seemed to communicate through spelling out the letters of (English) words to his owner and a team of Harvard scientists. For these scientists, ex–enslaved person and self-taught veterinarian Dr. William Key’s horse companion was their sole focus of study, neglecting a complicated history of race and resistance. In Beautiful Jim Key: The Lost History of a Man and Horse Who Changed the World, Mim Eichler Rivas tells not only the tale of a remarkable horse but also the turn-of-the-twentieth-century story that shows a black professional negotiating Jim Key—“the world’s smartest horse”—with Jim Crow. Stories of this horse continue to reverberate through the contemporary mainstream media. The stories take on a life of their own through the horse’s array of unusual feats, and a team of Harvard researchers’ verification. We are sure that Harvard scientists are not easy to deceive, yet African American trickster humor also reveals subtle inflections that may make it difficult for those outside the local community to catch on to subplots. Key was no doubt clever at creating the circus drama that would keep him laughing all the way to the bank. Yet we don’t want to dismiss his animal collaborator. Instead, we can imagine future reconsidered histories in which the human trickster does not get all of the credit and a privileging of a longue durée (the big picture that a historical perspective can give us) that acknowledges animal agency—their tricks, pranks, and infrapolitics—as a means to reveal the workings of authority and power.
Unofficial histories that study challenges to power and authority and paradigm-altering scientific data on animal emotions and behavior afford new understandings and possibilities for collective political change. Jason Hrbal’s Fear of the Animal Planet: The Hidden History of Animal Resistance presents an agency oriented-theory of animal oppression and presents numerous accounts of animal resistance, solidarity, and revenge against targeted abusers. Jeffrey St. Clair’s introduction to the book reports the case of baboons who raid train cars to free captive friends. African lore similarly reports the case of a political alliance between two male lions, who notoriously resisted British colonialism in Tsavo, Kenya. In 1889, the lions worked together to disrupt labor on a railway through their territory. This native uprising was not put down before the rebel lions had killed over a hundred British railway workers. Hribal’s argument that these various acts of resistance demonstrate agency turns on evidence that spirited animals willingly undergo acts of rebellion even though they know that if found out, they will be subjected to severe punishment, including death.
Labor historians, among others, should be intrigued by the desire of animal theorists to pull histories from below. Although a call to listen to voices unheard may seem like old-school social history, the problem of human exceptionalism gives it unexpected relevancy. The centrality of social history, and in particular its aim to find agency where official histories were blind, is well understood. Yet histories beyond the traditional archives still uncover tropes that have wrongly deemed groups of historical actors passive. Recall Vicki Ruiz’s classic work, first published in 1998, bringing voices and experiences of Mexican American women, From Out of the Shadows, and more recently Annelise Orleck’s oral histories and subsequent monograph exposing the agency of African American welfare recipients and how they “fought their own war on poverty.” Can we push social history to another frontier, one in which animality is no longer the last acceptable figure of mute passivity?
Animal subjectivities challenge narrow assumptions in traditional Marxist histories that assume that only man labors and that only men’s labor can be alienating or world making. Feminists argue that child care, service occupations, and emotion work are also skilled and creative labor and can be done under oppressive or world-making conditions. Similarly, histories of animal labor practices should expand beyond accounts of animal suffering to explore the ways in which diverse species give meaning to our overlapping worlds. Animal subjectivities breathe new life into social history by bringing more actors to the stage and by unearthing new energies and visions of collective action.
Tragically, oppressed social groups are not exempt from the general rule that the history of triumph turns on the power of exclusion and not on the ability to hear the subaltern speak. Indeed, great labor historians have found not so much moments of distinct discourses in unison but, in the words of Alexander Saxton, an “indispensable enemy,” which, in his study, turns on anti-Chinese sentiment bolstered by subhuman imagery to prop up caste and class unionism. David Roediger has traced the tragic appeal of whiteness in which the racial and gender tropes reemerge in spaces that range from nineteenth-century worker protests and union halls to turn-of-the-millennium sporting events, prisons, and of course presidential elections. And as mentioned in chapter 2, Vijay Prashad has also expressed the problems of seeking simply bread-and-butter multiculturalism that too easily makes its move up the neoliberal ladder in search of bright whiteness. Yet social historians, like social activists searching for an elusive global link or for the intricacies of intimate labor, celebrate when the desire for change engenders, however unexpectedly, a felt connection and a shared consciousness.
Animal tropes that have passed under the radar as second nature in so many histories make us wonder if we should not reconsider these tropes as pointing to some literal basis for human–nonhuman solidarity. Thus far, so-called natural history (including the intersections of human and nonhuman species) has been inextricably bound to studies of indigenous people. For working-class and labor studies, the history of the worker (long assumed to be white and male) finds the only sympathetic animal trope to turn on mute passivity. Popularly imagined in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle or in Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 mockery of the industrial order, Modern Times, capitalism dupes rational workingmen, turning them into nothing more than a mindless herd of cattle or sheep, or a machine. Yet labor historians are also finding emerging patterns of what Donna Haraway understands as worker–companion species camaraderie that defy these animal tropes. In Thomas Andrews’s groundbreaking study of human, animal, and natural history—what he defines as a “workscape”—of Colorado’s turn-of-the-twentieth-century mines, workers witness the power of collective animal resistance. “Mules, claimed one driver Victor Bazanele, ‘had sense like a human.’” Andrews notes, “Drivers even likened the mules’ resistance to their own struggles. Victor Bazanele joked that mules ‘knew when starting time was and quitting time was.’ When ‘quitting time came around,’ he declared, ‘you couldn’t make those mules do nothing.’ [Alex] Bisculco concurred; the animal workforce, he claimed ‘was unionized before some of us.’”
Andrews discusses miners’ relationships to mice that go beyond the role of the canary in the coal mine. To be sure, mice hearing and sensitivity to vibrations cause them to scatter when there are underground dangers such as a cracking wall, and like their better-known counterpart, they die from exposure to even small amounts of carbon monoxide. Andrews sees more than practicality as the source of an interspecies sense of common purpose. He notes that miners shared lunchtime food scraps with the mice. The miners, who found the mice amusing, also learned to differentiate among their lunch companions according to markings and behavior; some even began to name the mice. “‘Oh yeah,’ Dan DeSantis recalled with a smile, ‘the little buggers they knew their name, yeah Pete this and that, boy they come out of the crack and they get that close with you.’” Insightfully, Andrews argues, “In the camps above, the act of breaking bread together often cemented communal bonds across deep cultural divides; in the mines below, sharing food across the boundary between species helped colliers turn rodent fellow travelers into friends.”
Similar stories of alliances occur between soldiers and dogs on the World War I battlefields in Susan Orlean’s Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend. Rin Tin Tin’s owner and trainer, Lee Duncan, created film scripts for the world-famous canine orphan, which he brought back from Europe, illustrating the dog’s heroic actions. Rin Tin Tin’s heroism grows out of an empathy that, as Orlean explains, “is broader and deeper and more pure than what an ordinary human would be capable of.” The silent films of the 1920s were the perfect medium to shift our human-centered gaze and showcase the virtues of animals who couldn’t speak in words but who could express a range of emotions and real personality: “A dog was at no disadvantage to a human in a silent film: both species had the same set of tools for telling a story—action, expression, gesture. In fact, an animal acting without words looked natural and didn’t fall into pantomime and exaggeration the way human actors in silent film often did.” Here our study of humor and infrapolitics makes visible unacknowledged heroes, raising Haraway’s question: “What if not all such Western human workers with animals have refused the risk of an intersecting gaze?”
Conclusions and Implications
We need to move beyond witnessing vulnerable animal others and allow for both the study of and engagement with animal discourse and society. Animals suffer, but they also assert an agency that at times takes a turn toward the comic. Our critique of long-standing Western assumptions of the passivity of animals learns from feminist critiques of traditional, patriarchal histories that have rendered invisible not only the work of caregiving and emotion labor but also the importance of laughter. The idea that women, let alone feminists, could be funny once seemed as far-fetched as a mule that knew the meaning of a fair day’s work. Like feminist humor, an animal’s work is never done, especially when it comes to invoking signs of visibility that deconstruct the all-too-serious binaries that have left the subaltern animal anything but a laughing matter. Yet it is laughter and joy that render topsy-turvy the very notion of a missing link—now a neoliberal link that purports ontological gaps and other monkey business. Perhaps if we disrupt old-school assumptions that animals can only be funny when they perform human tricks, we will be able to collectively tackle other oppressive norms. The alternative is the reassertion of neoliberal fears and fantasies imagined in sci-fi as the uprising of the planet of the apes. Our own comic version would feature a mischievous Stephen Colbert–ian twist in which instead of enjoying our bread and roses, we must pay monkeys for our Jell-O and porn.