John Berger is an English academic, who, in 1972, put out a very influential collection of essays,Ways of Seeing. One of his essays that most influenced me is “Why Look at Animals” (you should click the link to read it - it’s great). The essay deals with the distancing of humans from nature, the Iliad and language, anthropomorphism, domestication, capitalism, and why going to zoos makes us sad. And, born in 1926, Berger is still alive.
I would love to know his views on memes and the roles of animals online. Ever since the net has been a thing, Berger’s books have shied away from it. His main focus, and, to be fair, the main focus of Ways of Seeing, is photography. But his essay on how we view animals is a landmark. In 2009 Penguin Classics chose to include it as their most chronologically recent selection in their 100 Great Ideas series - a list that includes writings by Orwell, Darwin, Confucius, and Plato. It’s worth revisiting, I feel - especially now that, in the 21st century, our interactions with animals are shifting all the more.
Or are they? Have we changed the means by which we look at animals, and as a consequence think about them, but not in a fundamental way? Idea Channel has a recent video up which prompted these musings, on self-identity and posting. Around six minutes in this image happened:
and I was struck by how often we see images like that seal. We use animal stand-ins for the self constantly. Of course, in the internet meme era, we use all sorts of other things to stand in for the self - such as cartoon drawings. But in light of Berger I feel the unique relationship humans have towards other animals - all those thousands of years of accumulated history and relations, makes the animal meme something special. Perhaps that’s why they quickly became so popular in the first place.