zooRecently I’ve been thinking a lot about old zoos and their significance.  It is my view that all of our comportments towards the world and all of our action presuppose a pre-reflective ontological understanding of being.  To say that it is pre-reflective is to say that it is operative in our thought, understanding, and action without us being aware of it.  It is the lens through which we encounter and act upon beings.  However, it is a strange sort of lens, for it is unconscious and therefore engenders the sense that this is just how it is with the beings themselves, rather than being the lens through which we encounter beings.  Often our pre-reflective ontologies are deeply inconsistent and cause us all sorts of problems which we are unable to recognize because we don’t recognize the way in which they arise from our own lenses.  A philosophical ontology, by contrast, attempts to render our pre-reflective ontologies explicit and subject them to critique.

32DABFBB00000578-3523886-image-a-81_1459831825739So, with this in mind, back to the old zoos.  We can approach the way people represent things, the things they build, and the way they pose problems as symptoms of their pre-reflective ontologies.  Just as a very simple dream can be a symptom of a highly complex thought uncovered through the process of free association, a human representation or artifact can be seen as a symptom of a broader set of ontological assumptions or assumptions about the nature of being.  In the old zoos we encounter the animal caged, behind bars, with little to nothing in their cell.  How must one think of beings– not just animals –to construct a zoo such as this?  Is there a more generalized set of ontological assumptions reflected in this zoo construction?

6870050-3x2-700x467The leopard or zebra in a cell such as this is quite literally an abstraction.  These animals have been reduced to abstractions.  Throughout his work, Husserl regularly points out that the objects of our intentions are structured around internal and external horizons.  The marker sitting on my desk presents itself to me in profiles.  I am never able to apprehend all of the marker at once.  I pick it up and I turn it about, and now new profiles appear or give themselves.  The others disappear.  I intend or apprehend the marker as a unity, as a totality, but it is never given all at once.  Elements of it are present and others are absent.  Nonetheless, it is given to me as a whole or a totality.  The absent profiles I intend in the marker are the internal horizon of the marker.  This internal horizon is deeply temporal as well.  I anticipate the profiles that will appear should I turn the marker about, and I retend the profiles that disappeared as I make new profiles appear.  Indeed, the very act of grasping the marker despite the fact that profiles of it are absent in my visual perception of it already indicate the work of a bodily intentionality in my engagement with things that encounters them as unities and totalities, rather than two-dimensional beings gradually built up out of atomic sensations.

read on!

surfaces_dryeraseboard-768x512However, the marker does not merely have an internal horizon that is the pre-delineation of its internal structure in lived experience.  It has an external horizon as well.  The thing is a figure against a ground.  It is something that stands forth from a ground.  There is a sort of spatiality to the thing in the way it stands forth from the background.  Not only does the marker present itself in place and space, here upon the desk where I am writing, but, as Heidegger would later note, the marker presents itself in a field of relations to other things and activities that give the marker its sense and meaning.  The marker is not merely a physical entity in Newtonian or Einsteinian space, but rather has a different spatiality composed of its relations to the marker board, the activity of teaching and learning, the meaning of teaching and learning in our life projects, and so on.

As per the arguments of object-oriented ontology, the marker is not, of course, intrinsically related to this space.  It can be severed from this space.  There is something of the marker that is in excess of its relations or its spatiality, and it is this something that allows for the movement of the marker.  Derrida, in “Signature Event Context” notes as much in his observation that context does not saturate the citation for the citation can always be grafted into another citation.  This, in part, is why the marker has the capacity to surprise us.  Perhaps we stumble across such a marker in a remote and uninhabited region of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  Here the marker is out of place.  From the standpoint of Newtonian space it is impossible for anything to be out of place because wherever something is, it is there.  The space where the marker is out-placed is an external horizon of meaning and activities that constitute the sense of the marker for lived experience.

leopardAll of this is obvious from the standpoint of lived experience.  It is so obvious that we never bother to notice it.  This is why the cages in those zoos are so perplexing.  In these cages, the animals are severed from their external horizon, from the broader field in which they dwell.  They are literally abstracted and totalized as individual beings independent of any sort of a broader territory.  Despite the ubiquity of the figure/ground relation in all of our lived experience, there seems to be a tendency of thought that almost ineluctably drives it to divorce the figure from the ground.  The leopards spots cannot be understood apart from ground where it dwells:  the jungle.  They are a strange sort of camouflage that use not shades of green to disappear in the ground or the external horizon, but rather use dappled sunlight falling through the leaves of the jungle.  Their’s is a luminous camouflage that is paradoxical for this reason.

The imprisonment of the animal in a cage that severs them as figure from ground is not merely a cruelty to the animal, but it is a cruelty of thought.  Such abstraction perpetually haunts thought in all sorts of ways, leading us to pose problems in a way that attends only to figures, ignoring the grounds in which those figures dwell as their external horizon.  Perhaps this is what Whitehead refers to as the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness”.  For example, like the form of thought that thinks there is no harm in locking an animal in a cage without any sort of habitat or likeness of their external horizon in which to dwell, or like the owner who thinking nothing of locking their dog up all alone outside for the vast duration of their life, we might think of how problems in education are often posed by state governments.  Like the leopard severed from its ground, poor academic performance is often solely thought as a problem of the teacher alone.  The teacher has a poor technique, the story goes, and all that is needed is more training or economic incentives such as merit pay that might motivate them to do better.  Questions about class sizes, socio-economic conditions in that region, whether or not the students are even getting enough food, and home-life are studiously ignored.  Learning is severed from its external horizon and abstracted from its broader set of conditions in a manner analogous to how we think no harm is done by placing an animal in a cage without a habitat.  Such is the nature of zoo thinking.