Big Denise’s crim boyfriend doesn’t like no from you fucking queens so he forces Big Denise who doesn’t do anal because she’s keeping penetrative sex until she gets a vagina in Casablanca or Cairo or wherever vaginas can be got in 1967, I don’t know, and ten days later, she can’t shit, and the pain makes Big Denise feel smaller and smaller and tight even though she is still as huge and as soft as usual and there is blood and creamy pus coming out of her bottom in strings and it is August and the winter winds rake Sydney Harbour with dry fingers so hard and sharp everything hurts. Big Denise gets desperate. She takes herself to the emergency room at St Vincent’s and at first, they are solicitous, yes, miss, doctor will see you now, miss. ‘Would you mind undressing for an examination,’ the doctor says, and when he sees that Big Denise has not yet been to Cairo or Casablanca or wherever girls went then, he says, ‘put your clothes back on. We don’t treat creatures like you.’ Big Denise says, ‘I’m bleeding; it hurts.’ The nurse says, ‘this is a hospital, we can’t help you.’ Big Denise says, ‘what am I supposed to do, go to a fucking vet.’ The doctor smiles winningly at Big Denise and says, ‘not such a bad idea. I could give you a referral asking him to put you down.’ ‘I can speak for myself,’ Big Denise says, ‘and you can stop ogling my tits. I know you want me, you fuckwit, live in hope.’
Human beings have their own theories, and it is always amusing to hear them talk about us. Such ignorance and self-assurance!
R. K. Narayan’s speaking tiger does not speak. His is the prevailing condition of animals in human discourse: the beast is dumb and requires ventriloquy to be heard. But putting words into the mouths of animals inflicts upon both animal and human being what Gilles Deleuze would say is the indignity of speaking for others. There exists a whole animal rights activist front of expert ventriloquists created around giving voice to the voiceless and committed to the Deleuzian indignity. They charitably ventriloquize what pigs bred for ham feel about it and what chickens living in concentration camps from where they arrive on your plate as Chicken Kiev, Green Curry of Chicken, or KFC (not on a plate) agonize over—there are so many ways of doing chicken—and what pit bulls with their ears cut off and taught to hate want or do not want from human beings, and then the ventriloquists convince us that animals cannot speak and that their undignified ventriloquy of animals is an accurate translation of what even silent animals want human beings to know. They foreclose the possibility that if you shut up and attend carefully to an animal, it might become apparent that animals are not dumb and might not need you to say things like: if I were a cow, the sale of my calf down the river to the meat packing plant would break my heart. Listen to the poor mother bellow: heartbroken.
Language is the crux of difference between human animals and nonhuman animals, I have read, I think it was in something by that nineteenth century German philologist, Heymann Steinthal, who thought that human language has almost mystical origins and arrived upon us when some overflow of ‘soul force’ changed into words in the prelinguistic stage of human ascent, and, apparently, animals lack the kind of magnanimous soul necessary for forces to well up and spill out and turn into grammar and vocabulary.
I live with an eleven-year-old Blue Burmese tomcat. I own him, I am not shy of saying that. He is castrated. We share things: I play Isaac Hayes on the stereo and pick the cat up and dance with him, figure eights and pelvic gyration around the living room. This cat was abandoned three times before I found him in a shelter and he is obsessively clingy now; he might have been obsessively clingy before, for all I know, and that would explain the history of couch surfing. This cat has vocal outbursts when I leave the house and, on a bad day, he has outbursts even when I leave the bedroom, not words but enunciations, an arpeggio of strident chords ascending and getting louder on the way up, then down again and quieter until silent—where are you, why are you not here, come back, I need you, deserter, return to me, get back here, don’t go, I love you, bitch, you’d better not go, get here quick smart or something bad will happen, oh, why don’t you obey, deserter, oh, please you’re disappearing, there’s a bird, here’s the bed, electric heat pad, tuna chunks in gravy, I don’t mind this kibble, I’m better off without you anyway, who needs deserters—(sleeping). I decode and ventriloquize these cat sounds using a key that always turns high-pitched keens and wails into what they generally mean when they issue from human mouths: distress, and yet, for all I know, that yowling, that screeching could be telling the world, look at me, she’s going, and I will be autonomous, the world mine, the whole place to myself, food in the bowl, views of birds and possums running on the roof, and unlimited data to myself.
The deeper the marks upon your subjectivity, the closer to animal you go and the more your language is handled by others. I worked once in a hospital ward for men with catastrophic intellectual disabilities, don’t ask me to repeat what we called them and thought it was fine. We hosed the men down pro re nata, and ‘as needed’ was often because the men fouled themselves often and when the naked men grimaced and howled beneath the fonts of tepid water, we said things like, oh, they think they’re at Waikiki Beach, they love it, oh, they’re asking where’s the Cussons English Leather soap, what fun, Damian, do you want a surfboard? It looked like agony to me, but the others said it was pleasure, ‘you’re new to this, you’ll get the hang of what they’re telling you soon enough, it’s not complicated.’
A friend who is not trans anything that I know of takes to rebutting transphobic posts on Facebook. He explains the principles of transition, he explains trans politics, he explains what trans people want. He exposes himself to trolling and the basest sorts of vituperation. It is impossible to not admire my friend’s willingness to speak against the demons, to bear it; your heart is in exactly the right place, I think, but I want him to shut the fuck up. His explanations are not wrong, yet they are the type of speaking that leaves me feeling like an animal, devoiced like the men in Ward 14 or like the White Man’s Burden. I comment on Facebook: Consider Rudyard Kipling. He replies: Too cryptic. Listen, I reply, meow.
In The Dreaming, Dilangarri people live with gigantic magical dogs. On the days when the Dilangarri adults go out to hunt kangaroo or flightless birds as large as stallions and gather yam, they leave their children and the giant dogs together, saying to the kids, this is a warning, never tickle the dogs and make them laugh because if the dogs laugh, they will speak, and then there will be trouble, but the children do tickle the gigantic dogs and the dogs do laugh and the dogs talk as it was said they certainly would talk and as soon as the gigantic dogs speak, all the Dilangarri human beings vanish forever beneath the ground. No wonder we refuse to let animals speak for themselves.
‘That magpie wants minced meat,’ my mother says. I say, ‘I understand hamburger meat kills native birds.’ My mother says, ‘the magpies have never mentioned that to me.’
I show up in court on a summer’s day wearing a chrome yellow sundress and a tan and big blonde hair. Magistrate Cocks says, ‘blah blah blah blah you are absurd blah blah coming into my court like that blah blah blah blah get out and get another court date and come back in something blah blah blah.’ What I hear is too much skin and what I wonder is if the chrome yellow might be too strong for a legal proceeding, and yellow is not often a popular colour anywhere, chrome nor daffodil, I’ve read, and when I appear again before him, I am in a Merivale dress in terracotta crepe with sleeves, no skin, and pantyhose and high heels, very nice, it is January 1969 and Magistrate Cocks says, ‘your blah blah blahsurdity blah blah in contempt blah blah blah blah blah blah’ and he eyes me up and down like the men hankering for a blowjob or something more eye me up and down on Liverpool Street in the nights, is she worth it, or is it worth she, or is it worth it; Magistrate Cocks is not different in my mind except for the lustful car there and the juridical wig here, blah blah blah suck it and blah blah blah blah obtain a new hearing date.
I come back in a pair of pink bell bottom pants and a Biba floral blouse with a pussy bow picked up just for the occasion at a used clothing store on Albion Street near the court, ‘gorgeous, darling,’ Big Denise says, and it is June by now. Before he is even seated—and there are six to be tried before me, offensive behaviour, soliciting, loitering, consorting, indecent behaviour, shoplifting—Magistrate Cocks glares at me. He yells so fiercely what he has to say comes out of his square-shaped mouth in bold, blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah and absurd at me. He wants me to do something differently, but I don’t understand exactly what it is he wants me to do differently. I hear every word clearly yet, somewhere between my tympanic membrane and my auditory cortex, Magistrate Cocks’s words lose meaning. I understand the colour but not the pattern. I am as willing to comprehend as any good dog who hears human commands to sit, roll over, stay Spot, yet does not get it and tries everything to oblige without success until some human system of punishment or reward kicks in, and at last, oh, that is what the ruling class wants, but I cannot get to that canine level of understanding until ‘His Honour wants you to come to court in men’s clothes,’ the clerk says, ‘you’re not really trying. You’ll end up in the prison at Long Bay where you can expect a lot of attention.’ What attention at Long Bay prison means, I do understand, and from that persevering but unlearning dog I go to that cat who will have it both ways, to that cat who ignores the sound of your voice and waves a tail indolently or smooches your leg and goes around what you want until you give up and say, indulgently, cats.
I return to court in one of M’s navy blue suits, very tight on me for M is a bit smaller, and a white button-down shirt and a pale blue tie and lace-up men’s shoes with dangerously pointed toes and my big blonde hair looped back and up in a knot and silver beige fingernails, Mary Quant Titch, and Andrea false eyelashes made of mink, and eyeliner everywhere eyerelated and a little beyond and Revlon Nothing Frosted on my lips, and not for the first time, nor the last, I think, men’s clothes are better than women’s clothes, and M clearly thinks so too (don’t touch me, this is serious) and I might wear a suit and tie more often if people don’t think it’s queer. I am daring the court, I don’t care, but Magistrate Cocks must have been tired of me or hungover or he finally sees who I am, or he thinks I’ve heard him sufficiently, for he does not use absurd, and he does not give me orders I can’t hear properly. He levies a fine of fifty-five dollars, although that is a foreign language to me: I spend the money that should have gone to pay the fine on drinks at The Bottoms Up Bar and on more drinks for dancing at Chez Ivy and on cat food and a cat toy and the adoption fee for a black kitten with nuclear eyes who moves away after three weeks. Even though I beg him to stay with me, he doesn’t hear the urgent tones, let alone the meaning of don’t leave me.
+ + +
The Earth moved in my lecture theatre. The view on a clean afternoon of the northern hills and the saffron tiles atop The Pavilion of Buddha’s Fragrance seemed to jump a few frames, and we shook, so great the far seism, people rose from their seats, ready to run, torpid no more, engaged at last, but not with me or Foucault’s ways with history. Wherever it was, something had happened, somewhere, and one hundred and ten students started fingering their China Mobile and China Unicom phones: where was that?
In Japan, where that was, more than eighteen thousand people perished, most of them in the tsunami which came with waves as high as a six-story building and fell upon the land like The End. The walls of water turned to solids, towering in and thickening all the way, a moving chaos of human and animal bodies, hand tractors with their ploughing blades still attached and spinning in the wave, Toshiba washing machines, Mitsubishi refrigerators, SONY flat screen televisions, beds, dining room tables, mini trucks, Honda Fits, Nissan Notes, a candy pink Daihatsu Taft, a black taxi with its driver and passenger still inside and their teeth already knocked out, dinghies and whole fishing trawlers, most of a Lawson Station convenience store, the entire service area of an Esso gas station, seven houses disaggregating and that entire line of black pines from the promenade, many school children, and tens of thousands of dogs and cats and angora rabbits and gerbils and ferrets and mice and spiders all coming for you, and the temple, blocking the sky before it got you running away and battered you to death and left you a corpse in a tree or sucked you back out into the ocean or buried you in a crypt of mud, oh, will we ever find Akira-chan? The Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant melted down and more than two hundred thousand people had to be taken away from the showers of radioactive isotopes.
The nights of Fukushima fell into an utter darkness emptied of human speech but filled with the enunciations of animals alive, abandoned, and trying to say something; nights of meows, moos, bleats, howling, chirping, and grunts, mostly unheard, perhaps misunderstood if heard, and then fading as the animals starved to death or died of radiation disease or diseases caused by radiation or were hunted down and executed, perhaps twenty thousand dogs and cats, three thousand four hundred cows, six hundred and thirty thousand chickens and thirty-one thousand pigs, although some pigs and cows and chickens and dogs and cats, even an emu, went feral and haunted the human world at Fukushima for years, patrolling the magical cedar forests and wooded valleys and the coppices above the steep little bays, roaming the devastation like nuclear wraiths, their livers, their hearts, their kidneys, and their gonads reconstructed as warehouses done out in alimentary shades of pink and maroon and stuffed with cesium. Even now, if you wake in Iitate at three in the morning during the August week of Obon festival, and if you walk into the warm dark and toward the mountain called Notegamiyama, you may come upon phosphorescent cats dancing among the pre-dawn trees and pulsing green each time they waltz close to radioisotopes decaying reluctantly in the dark soil.
Harry tells me the Windscale nuclear accident in 1957 spewed polonium, cesium 137, xenon and strontium and other radioisotopes all over the United Kingdom and produced tabby cats mutated to the size of mountain lions, their descendants now stalking Cumbria and Cornwall and remote parts of Scotland, mutilating Herefords and sheep and terrifying children, but when I Google it and find reliable accounts of the Beast of Bodmin Moor and the Beast of Buchan, there is no mention of the Windscale nuclear reactor fire nor of nuclear radiation. Instead, it seems the giant and murderous cats glimpsed every few years are not nuclear cats at all, but descendants of pumas released from a private zoo in Plymouth, or they are the grandchildren or great-grandchildren of pumas brought as pets to Scotland by pilots of the United States Air Force stationed there and later abandoned when the pilots were repositioned, or it could all be stories, after all, news has origins in medieval reports of monsters and chimeras sighted, impossible beings stalking the fens, haunting our hearts. Not too long before she died, my mother told me how she had read of Christine Jorgensen’s sex change in the Sunday Mirror in 1953 and had said to my father, ‘they’re making that up, “ExGI Becomes Blonde Beauty”, I never. It will be centaurs next.’
The abandoned nuclear dogs of Chernobyl formed their own societies until a battalion of exterminators moved into the ChZO, one of whom was Yevgeny Samoylov. Mr. Samoylov confessed himself surprised to see the nuclear dogs arrange themselves into three concentric semicircles around the pile of lethalised cow meat and kibble he had set out for them. Closest to the food and alone, the ruler: a large mongrel bitch. Beyond her in a semicircle: blonde and harlequin Great Danes; St. Bernards panting even in the late autumn chill; German shepherds. Terriers and spaniels twenty feet further out. Another twenty feet: Dachshunds; miniature French poodles born in Ukraine; motley lapdogs for whom there were no more laps, ever.
+ + +
This is Franz Kafka’s ape speaking: The Zoological Garden is only a new barred cage. If you go there, you’re lost.
I’m driving south on M-31, the main motorway between Sydney and Melbourne, and it’s late at night in winter and it’s a nine to ten hour drive and I’m moving fast, wanting to get home and the cat, and I don’t like driving at night, wallabies and kangaroos and wombats with nuclear eyes might run in front and clunk, and a semi-trailer overtakes me, even faster, and it is packed it is stuffed with pigs some ears flapping out between the slats and bars of the rig in the slipstream like parsnip-coloured hands waving for help and I see their eyes shining in the dark and watching me in that knowing way pigs watch everything, there they go,
absolute pig awful pig pig pig male
chauvinist pig beastly pig fat pig filthy pig
greedy pig insufferable ignorant pig
pig irritating pig lucky
misogynist swine murderous pigs
patronizing pig drunken
swine pigs pig rotten
savage pig self-righteous pig
selfish little swine pigs pig
foreign pigs selfish pig self-regarding swine
stupid pig unbelieving swine mean pig
unfeeling pig pompous capitalist pig
ungallant swine unscrupulous swine untidy pig
old fat pig you fucking lying pig
so many pigs
they are not pork
and I know they are going from a factory pig farm in the flat country north of Benalla to some slaughterhouse and meat processing plant, and I know, too, that the farmer, if he can be called a farmer when he is a manufacturer of pigs, and the abattoir and the transport company deliberately shift the pigs at night because the traffic is lighter and because mothers and fathers and the kids in Hyundai SUVs and grannies and grandpas in their white Camrys and ladies with hearts bleeding pink in black Volvos like me are less likely to be on the road and see the transportation of life to death our appetite for bacon causes and thus donate to PETA or call their member of parliament and say things like I insist you push for it to be kinder, I’m telling you, it could have been a scene out of Schindler’s List or the unfunny parts of Life is Beautiful. Who needs to see that?
I’ve been told that animals manufactured for meat in factory farms using methods analogous to the methods used to manufacture microwave ovens in a kitchen appliance factory take any opportunity to escape from what is a forced labour camp in which your work is to make yourself meat and no matter how hard you work, the work you do does not make you free, it makes your babies into sausages with fennel and you into something delicious when you can’t do babies properly any longer, which is why death might come as an improvement for those animals who never get away.
The doctor asks what medications I take, and when I get to estrogen, he checks my date of birth, and seeing I’m only thirty, he asks why, and I tell him why, why not, and his eyes go pale with scientific speculation or something else less objective and he rubs his hands together, cannot help himself, so predictable, and asks me to undress, everything off please, and lie down for a full body examination. I could say why, it’s a sore throat and/or no, I could escape, but instead I get naked and lie down and he examines me until I rise up against those turnkey eyes. I spread my legs and I open my arms and I show the doctor the full abundance of my beauty and my glamorous complexity, I am a special animal, I am a white peacock. I am narwhal. I am a black bird of paradise. I am coorinna. I am a dire wolf. I am a unicorn. I am a dragon. I am phoenix. I am transsexual woman, I am traversal itself, and he can barely breathe, like a tourist at dawn on the Serengeti, he is entranced. I have doctor where he needs to be: you dancing monkey.
‘John took the dog down to the river and shot him, it was the humane thing to do, that dog was no good anymore, no use whatsoever,’ my mother says. My stepfather has said many times ‘you are no bloody good’ and I know it, and I am now concerned he will take me down to where the Marrambidya bends around the town and he will shoot me and throw my body into the water where I begin immediately to rot and float toward South Australia like the carcass of a dead sheep, like all the pesticide and fertiliser runoff from the wheat and clover grown on purloined land, poisoning the country but peaceful at last. That would have been the humane thing to do.
I don’t imagine myself as a dog, ever; they are too eager and love me, love me, please, I will not say.
Miriam Margolyes finds herself at a loose end after her role in the Harry Potter movies and she takes a job in an Australian Broadcasting Corporation television documentary in which Miriam Margolyes drives around Australia in a Mercedes Benz mobile home telling everybody she meets, I’m a lesbian. In Darwin, she accosts a group of transgender or sistergirl Tiwi Island women, or at least, it is filmed and edited as accost. ‘Have you have have you you know had your cocks chopped off yet?’ she hollers in a jocular way like a vet sexing a chicken except Miriam Margolyes can’t help smirking at some private vision of her own outrageousness. Uncalibrated rudeness is her brand. She seems to admire her capacity to abuse, amusingly, Indigenous trans women who are not exactly in a position to tell this rich, famous white woman with her phalanx of camera people, etcetera, from the national television network to shut the fuck up white skank and don’t speak to me like that.
My own white privilege is not valuable enough to keep the same question from me, but it does mean the question is more courteously put, um, have you, you know, had the operation yet? At seventy something there have been so many operations it’s hard to know which one I am meant to answer for.
What the Tiwi sistergirls/transsexuals/women in Darwin and I might share is an understanding that only haters ask human beings who they do not know and who they do not fuck what they’ve got between their legs, which means that Miriam Margolyes and every other person who asks that question either hates trans people or thinks us inhuman or something else, the choice is animal or thing. One would rather be a thing at times like these since nobody asks an attack helicopter or a vase what’s gone on in its private parts, and we know what happens to animals: pets or meat.
West of Bakersfield, I drive into an unstoppable odour that not even a red Cadillac and gold rings on my fingers are able to prevent. I am passing a feed lot as big as Gotham City, a metropolis populated by a million calves and steers standing deep in a porridge of their own shit and piss and stuffed with fodder and antibiotics and steroids every day until it is time for the next stage in the production line and there are no cries, they are not citizens, and there is nothing to hear except silence in the Central Valley. Some oblique emotion of the cattle, or of mine, rises to the hanging clouds and obscures the green view of the mountains between me and the Pacific coast. Drive on.
The vet keeps sticking a long aspiration needle between the ribs of my cat, over and over and over and over and over trying to strike the reservoir of serous fluid he is certain lies in there somewhere between her lungs and her ribcage. Over and over. ‘She’s not Texas,’ I say. My cat never struggles. She does not cry out. She submits and looks at me, and I wonder if her submission is because she is ill or because she was trained to submit during the years when her sole justification for life was her ability to bear kittens for sale at a thousand dollars a pop, twice a year or more, and always a caesarean delivery to make sure no thousand-dollar baby died. Scars ridge the skin of her belly beneath a veldt of pearly hair. Then the vet gives up. He passes her to me. She bites his hand, hard, and he says ‘ow’ and tiny cabochons of blood appear, and the vet nurse says, ‘cranky thing.’
+ + +
I see dogs flirting and then, fucking, and I burst into tears. ‘Don’t be silly’ Aunty Snow says, ‘it’s just something automatic.’ All that dog longing all that grinning with tongues hanging out and those dancing bodies seem like a strategy to me—may I?—and will anybody ever dance longingly for me like that, I wonder, and thus, the crying, or will they go at me like hungry mouths go at sandwiches; go at me like that young soldier with marble skin and titian hair and the bluish dick goes at me in the swimming pool change room in Wagga Wagga and says after he rinses me clean of his cum with water from the tap, gentle, ‘don’t be shocked. You’re a lovely little boy. A man is an animal,’ and I think, the dogs smile and dance around a lot before they get to whatever this was, you are not an animal.
The cat seems shocked and disgusted the first time I kiss him on the mouth, but I keep doing it and now he puts his face up for it. I suspect him of trying to pucker unpuckerable lips. I have read that cats cannot learn through collaboration because they don’t use a collaborative approach, it goes against their motivations, but I think learning to kiss is always collaboration.
Fairy does me with a large black strap-on. I don’t query the colour. I don’t like to be fucked but sometimes you have to. I don’t like plastic or latex or rubber anything but sometimes you do. I focus on the weekends in Paris or Safranbolu and dinners in restaurants with views, and books. This is called accommodation, like a Motel 6, we leave the light on for you and please come again, I am not quoting. When it happens, which is not that often, I wonder if she will notice I am tepid and I wonder, too, if how I feel about the black strap-on is how the cat feels about being kissed and neither of us can say so, no.
Angelina starts spinning in the water and it looks as if she has perfected a dance routine for me after so much hoping but her spinning goes on unceasing into the night and her eyes fix on me as she whirls around, and I have to deal with it, which means killing even though she had always come to the glass as soon as she sees me enter the room and how beautiful you are, Angelina, even now, on the edge of The End, like a gold and ebony brooch shimmering in the aqueous shadows, but the spinning. I scoop her from the tank and rest her on the white marble cutting board, one eye up and a little panicked. I take up that large Japanese kitchen knife I had made Harry buy for me and I chop Angelina’s head off at a point which I estimate is the right point and that is that, although for a few seconds, with her head separated from her body, Angelina’s mouth still moves like talking and her upward-facing eye drinks me in, Mary Queen of Scots in one of those movies comes to mind, but she’s just gasping for water and then she is gone.
It is not death itself, nor even the manner of death, that causes suffering; it is life and its conditions that hurt and contort living beings. Angelina had been as comfortable as any cichlid could be in a tank which was not some Amazonian tributary. It was a good big tank and clean and little forests of healthy plants and I catered to her hunting desires with live dinners twice a week. Angelina was pretty happy in it, I surmised, I told anybody who asked, happy, except when the Kona weather stopped the trade winds, filling the air with the colour of volcano, and the temperature went up very high, and I threw ice cubes into her home to keep her water cool enough and it was clear she did not care for that. I diced her body into almost perfect tiny cubes and fed them to the neighbour’s cat. ‘Angelina understood that only life matters,’ I said to Harry, who had aghast lips at me and, like all human beings, was afraid of dying in one way or another and had complex but unacknowledged routines for avoiding The End of anything. ‘But she was your pet,’ he said.
We use which and it on animals we want to be machines and on animals we plan to turn into something else: meatballs; a handbag; an IVF procedure; a mitral valve. She, he, and who come into play when we see ourselves or the human condition in the animal, when we care. Of course, the border between pronouns for things and pronouns for people, between machine and mirror, leaks badly, and don’t care and do care flow back and forth quick and so mutable, animals must find humans confusing. In Isaac Bashevis Singer’s The Key, the widow Bessie Popkin comes upon a black street cat. She hates it. It sniffs Bessie’s bag. It rubs its back on Bessie’s leg. It hooks its tail and speaks, and very quickly, Bessie wishes she could give her something to eat. Bessie is lost on the street and tired and hungry herself; the cat might wish she could give Bessie something to eat but if she does, it will not be said that the cat cares for Bessie; it will be said that the cat wants Bessie to learn how to hunt.
+ + +
This is a time when human beings consume so many animals that sheep, chickens, cows, pigs, turkeys, ducks, goats, salmon, shrimp, quail, and geese at least must be grown and harvested like crops of rice or wheat, en masse, cut like broccoli for the table, must be cropped for the clothes we wear, those heavenly pillows, the sofas upon which we sit, and for the medical treatments that allow us to have babies or not and survive cancer or not. My favourite Sergio Rossi shoes used to moo. This is a time when millions watch crush videos in which women in underwear or negligee, stiletto heels or bare feet, stomp and pierce rabbits, cats, small dogs, mice, ferrets to death, suffocate them with cling wrap, vivisect them with kitchen knives, see me drown a kitten in extra virgin olive oil, watch me pierce a rabbit’s cranium with an ice pick, bludgeon a rat, and jerk off while you watch, go on. But this is also a time when we obsess about animals as feeling beings and as objects of welfare. We agonise and coo over them. We wonder about their subjectivity or not. We perv endlessly at them and we weep on our screens at what we are told is their unhappiness or we make grins of pleasure at animal antics and animal salvations, Grumpy Cat, animal rescues, animal tricks, animal adoptions, ducks making friends with tigers, clever animals, a welter of living animals amidst mass extermination and rashes of gulags where the only forms of labour are to bear more animals and to transubstantiate into a commodity.
When my cat is stuck in one of his pacing fits caused by a life lived unnaturally indoors, the panacea is high-definition videos of squirrels and chickadees and blue jays eating seeds from a feeder in the snow somewhere in the Green Mountains of Vermont or the Connecticut River Valley, and while he watches his shows, which he does intently, I cook and eat a lamb cutlet or a chicken thigh in Australia, perpetually trapped somewhere between two countries and between turning animals into human beings and turning animals into food. ‘You would become food for him’ Fairy says, ‘if necessary, now let me eat you.’ Our discrepant ways of talking and thinking and being about animals are a late modern agonistic: wanting to consume but fearing that consumption may not be quite the right thing. How painful the human appetite when stoppered by ethics.
Miss Blanche, having given through her tears a complete account of this event, assured me that, to maintain our own parental love and to enjoy our beautiful family life, we, the cat-race, must engage in total war upon all humans. We have no choice but to exterminate them. I think it is a very reasonable proposition.
Although there might be a sly dendron in every human brain transmitting fear of animal retaliation for how we’ve managed interspecies affairs (The Birds), nobody believes that Natsume Sōseki’s cat really talks; there is not that much magic in the world. In some parts of Japan, however, the belief that Namazu, who is a catfish the size of Tokyo, causes earthquakes lingers. The humanoid deity, Takemikazuchi, keeps Namazu under tight control, but sometimes Takemikazuchi looks the other way or dozes off and then Namazu lets fly. Mrs. Nakamura says, ‘long before the ground begins to shake, the cats get the feeling that O-Takemikazuchi has fallen down on his job and Ōnamazu is out and about. The cats feel everything but know nothing. People, on the other hand. What is knowing but a feeling?’
René Descartes, or may we blame Plato, thought animals are machines incapable of intention and adapted response. Animal behaviour is automatism: your cat is an algorithm. The only animal endowed with subjectivity is you.
Animals themselves object to this proposition. If you look at animal conduct and refuse to arrive at the parsimonious conclusion that what you are looking at can always be reduced to the automated conduct of an algorithm, you come upon the objection of the animal mind, which begins with intention. The mammologist, George Schaller, thinks that lions, at least, have a sense of history and base leonine action in the present upon what they know about the past. In the Masai lands straddling the border between Tanzania and Kenya, Schaller observes a lion previously expelled from a pride for killing a cub. When the lion attempts to return to the pride two years after the crime, he is met with refusal and outright hostility from all who witnessed what occurred as well as those who were not there but who appear to have been told about it or they do what the elders who do remember tell them to do. Whales clear out once the news of human predation reaches them and it is clear they have been told. Woodpeckers shorten and smooth out twigs until the twig suits an intention, and it is likely that, like human beings, woodpeckers have some category of twig in their minds and a kind of taxonomy of twig sizes and uses.
Animals living in relationship to human beings frequently demonstrate an intention to resist the relationship or to modify it. Aunty Olga’s cows refuse to give milk or contrive to poop in their milk if they feel disrespected, called in too early or too late, inadequately flattered before work begins on their teats. The cat comes home with an entire roast chicken still warm in her mouth. She deposits it on the kitchen table and for days she refuses to eat anything else until presented with the carcass picked clean at which time, she curls her tail into a question mark and lets me know she intends to eat tuna in aspic tonight. A horse kicks its abusive master to death. Elephants wreck a construction camp set up to build a road through their territory. Laboratory animals move to the back of their cages to avoid the hands of scientists and have to be persuaded out. Dogs intervene in domestic arguments between humans. A little Cairn terrier lies down on the end of his leash on a hot day and ignores all pleas to walk Oscar, come on Oscar, and the little dog will not move and has to be carried home to the climate control. A cat sits right over your malignant tumour and purrs and lets her body heat onto it until you feel almost better.
I have, however, read that in an effort to fend off a rival who is not there, robins will attack empty air; what does the robin see? Animal intentionality does not mean animals see and do the world in the same way human beings see and do the world. Animal intentionality does not even mean that lions and milking cows and whales in the North Atlantic and a lab rat and a dog and a cat and robins see and do the world in the same way. Every species of animal appears to have its own way of seeing and managing things, of being in the world.
The Japanese Ministry of the Environment announced that in future disasters, pets and farm animals are to, as much as possible, evacuate with what the ministry called, their guardians. This announcement does not create rights for animals, the ministry said, be assured, the right is for the guardians only, and, in any case, it is not a right but a guideline. We can’t have rights of animal evacuation, said officials of the Japan Veterinary Medical Association, talking about animals and rights together will only cause trouble, by which the vets meant that animal rights talk leads to talk about animals having subjectivity just like you and I have subjectivity, by which I mean we experience, observe, use, and evaluate relationships and objects to create the world in which we be.
‘Do you have subjectivity?’ I say to the retired breeding cat with the pearly coat who has always been able to make me feel evaluated and used and loved. She is very sick now, not long to go. She gives me a nuclear eye, which I take to mean, wtf is subjectivity at a time like this, and she sits on my heart and blinks at me like taking snapshots to keep for the future.
Roberto Marchesini thinks all animals experience, observe, use, and evaluate relationships and objects to create the world. Even insects, who are often the least of animals to us, barely alive, let alone subjective, do it, though not as human beings or many other animals do it, out of stimulus and response. Instead, insects create the world through unconscious mappings of connections which they manage flexibly so that the map can be an environment, a place, a target, or an operative scheme, as required.
I mention insect subjectivity because it is hard to get your head around it and that hard-to-get-your-head-around condition is one of the things shaping how human beings think of and handle animals. Animal subjectivity can’t be human subjectivity and yet, we assess animal subjectivity or not, mostly not, using terms devised for understanding human beings. Liquify the terms, Marchesini says, and come up with different measurements for different subjectivities.
Care: Before Angelina fell ill with spinning disease, she hatched seventy-seven eggs and then proceeded to eat the infants one by one until I put a stop to it. Harry said, ‘she’s eating her children for fuck’s sake, are you sure you want to have that kind of creature in the house?’ In the numinous streams and warm pools of the Amazon and Orinoco basins and the Guiana Shield, which are the natural homelands of what we call angelfish, Angelina would not have created a world that included eating her own offspring. Wild angelfish are affectionate and attentive carers of their children, but most female angelfish in captivity will try to eat their young as eggs or fry, and as they eat, the proper subjectivity of angelfish appears in its absence.
Longing which is a form of desire may also be a condition of subjectivity and, in dogs, also appears in its negation: The dog that is allowed to go out and might get cut, or get thorns, is happier than a dog that’s just shut inside and not allowed to run around and scrap through the bush. When an animal is put in a position where the expression of its desire is blocked or taken away from it, then it starts to visit harm on itself, biting itself, hitting itself against the wall or barrier, licking too much, to the point of giving itself sores.
Interpretation: My cat must interpret both his phylogenetic identity as feline and his identity as my cat. If he now interprets kissing me on the lips as a characteristic of ‘my cat’ but not of being feline that is because he knows who he is in the world and adjusts the world accordingly.
Without animal alterity, human civilization might not exist in the way it now exists, we could not be what we are and certainly not who we are. Yet, we have estranged ourselves from the animals who make us. We have fallen in love with combustion and out of love with the reality of the Umwelt which is that human and nonhuman animals already live and belong together in one world, on a single planet, and our shared home casts us all into interaction and exchange within the same frame of reference.
I might know every cat and every dog in my short street. I am on how-are-you terms with six crows, five magpies, and seven brush-tailed possums. Tribes of rainbow lorikeets just pass through. All we have between us is: they squawk and I raise my eyebrows, but, even so, there is relationship in that. Two pied currawongs from a local mob raise chicks in the same tree every year. A rat family lives in the embankment beneath my home where they enjoy a better view of the river than is available to me. There is a female redback spider in an empty garden pot. She no longer shrinks back when I peer in and say good evening. I carefully withhold the account of how I ate one of her kind in the garden across from the beach at Currarong when I was three, then vomited it onto my onesie. My mother looked at the remains of spider abdomen on my chest, still lustrous black and that single dot of crimson like good jewellery, and the story, which I do not remember, is that she said, ‘how on earth did that get there? Did you eat it? You silly thing. Are you trying to turn into a spider? What next? Redbacks are not food, are they Ev.’ This to my father’s mother, who was there and looking disgusted. ‘Nor are spiders our neighbours,’ my mother added, causing my grandmother to estimate the intelligence of what had been said with a turn of her indelibly painted lips. ‘I’m not sure, Rene, that I like the idea of eating the Skeers family any more than I like the idea of eating a redback spider,’ my father’s mother said. ‘Oh, you know what I mean, Ev,’ my mother said. ‘Spiders are not a part of normal life.’ What does that mean?
Before Descartes and his animals-are-automata and only-humans-have-consciousness formulation, the Humanists of the early Renaissance did not think animals are human beings, but they did think the cosmos itself is an animal; they did think that divine wisdom might come as a dragon, a sphinx, a serpent, or a lamb. Early Renaissance painters put animal heads on three of the Four Evangelists. Pope Alexander VI had his Vatican apartments decorated with pictures showing bull worship; he thought Apis the bull deity was a predecessor of Jesus Christ. To go into the future with animals, we might need to recover a form of totemism not unrelated to this.
Marchesini advises zoo-mimesis, by which he does not mean an impossible human copying or appropriation of animal being and comportment but an interpretation that has the potential to transform one’s own being through reflection. That Boeing 787 Dreamliner you fly to LAX is a very far downstream human interpretation of bird subjectivity begun by some ancient human who contemplated albatrosses floating above an Hawai’ian beach or swifts doing their whistling aerobatics along the Adriatic cliffs of the Gargano and thought, that could be me. Human bodies in flight are zoo-mimetic performances of animal self, results of human longing to interpret flight for ourselves. No matter how dreary flying can sometimes seem, and how ordinary, every time you soar above the clouds, you enact an ancestor’s longing to fly, her yearning to transform the range of human being and extend the quality of human identity by doing bird.
The deer dances of the Yoeme people in Sonora appear now as entertainment, and they are that, but the dancers’ zoo-mimesis of white-tailed deer is also a way of dancing human beings into transformation, into the perspective of the deer. The dance creates a world in which deer being and human being function reciprocally, they flow into one another.
Bronwyn announced an intention to enter the Chameleons drag performance talent show that June with a lip-synch of Dionne Warwick doing Burt Bacharach’s ‘A House is Not a Home’. These days, a cisgender straight woman doing trans work might be called ‘cultural appropriation’ and even back then, Big Denise said, ‘I’m not being stroppy, Bron, but are you trying to take the piss out of us? And don’t ask for either my eyelashes or my orange and black crepe sheath to do it in, and don’t whine if everybody laughs at you.’ Bronwyn had her own eyelashes and asked for Little Carol’s silver lamé, which, on the night, made her look like a sparkling sausage, gesticulating in the spotlight, her glittering lips moving about a second behind each of Dionne Warwick’s words and setting off asynchrony in the lip-synch and an opportunity to jeer and laugh all the way through. A chair is not a chair, we sang, standing up, but when Bronwyn came back to our table with the pink sash for Best Effort, oh, how we loved her for doing us, for her trans-mimetic performance. The following June, she married an American corporal she had met at Whisky a Go Go while he was on R&R in Sydney from the war in Vietnam. She moved to Tuba City and took the Navajo name, Haloke, which means salmon. ‘Fish is fish,’ Big Denise said when the letter came.
My stepfather watches our rented Pye twenty-three inch black and white television in January 1966, only for the school holiday, and he sees Yolngu men dancing in far northern Australia, and he says, ‘look at them. They’re nothing better than bloody animals,’ and he uses a word unforgettable and unrepeatable anywhere, he uses a word which might once have meant elder brother in Java but has been weaponized and turned into a crude racial epithet in some lexical migration south, he doesn’t mean brother, he doesn’t mean any kind of kinship, and he gets up and changes to the commercial channel and Gunsmoke, and I am relieved he is not firing wounding words at me.
The Yolngu men on television are dancing kangaroo. I’ve been told Yolngu people dance kangaroo before they begin the hunt for kangaroo, which is never open slather, that the Yolngu dance is mimesis of the kangaroo body and of kangaroo culture, not dancing to become kangaroo in some shamanic way but to summon the intrinsic kangaroo characteristics of Yolngu people into the frame. After dancing, the hunters go out, kill, and eat, then wait until the balance has been restored and then they dance once more, and kill, and eat again and, if the kangaroo do not like it, if there is drought, too many taken already, we would rather not deal with loss at this time, or they move elsewhere for sweeter grass, the Yolngu wait for the kangaroo to return, and when they do, the men dance kangaroo again and even in-between.
Vivian Blaxell grew up poor and religious in the 1950s and early 1960s in Wagga Wagga. She is a former street kid, teenage sex worker, mental health nurse, and a former professor of history and politics specialising in Japan and East Asia and political philosophy at universities in the United States, Australia, Japan, Turkey, and China. Vivian is a trans pioneer and elder. She was one of the first Australians to complete chemical and surgical transition within Australia, and one of the first to speak publicly about it in the language of social justice. Working with Roberta Perkins and others, Vivian co-founded the Australian Transsexual Association in 1981 and then co-founded Tiresias House, Australia’s first shelter and resource centre for and by trans people, now The Gender Centre in Sydney. Vivian has written and published short stories, scholarly essays, personal essays, and reportage in a variety of publications. Most recent is ‘The Disappointments’, which appeared in Overland in February 2021, and which, along with ‘Nuclear Cats’, is intended as part of a large autobiographical essay project structured as dérive of the mind.