Talking to pets and the individual sacred

While eating my egg and cheese sandwich/coffee breakfast this morning, I perused the paper and discovered that for some married folks pets are better listeners than their spouses.

While I can’t verify any of that from personal experience since I’ve never married, I have listened to plenty of talk from espoused male friends about their communicative challenges with their wives, usually, I think, with a certain masculine hyperbole attached that plays on gendered stereotypes of often puzzled and clueless male tolerance of female chattering.

(Why this or any poll focuses on the marriage class other than the cultural bias toward and privileging of that specific cultural institution despite it’s common dissolution continually befuddles me. It goes to the problematic of polls generally, their design flaws including and starting with the questions that are asked and their format. Most of them are ridiculously flawed!)

Other than perhaps to reinforce stereotypes that women need or simply do talk more than men in their marital relationships–one third of women and one-fifth of men think their pets are better listeners than their spouses and therefore choose to vent to their non-human language speaking housemates–the discussion of the poll results highlights another subordinate, but significant conclusion to me.

In our self-obsessed way of being human, especially being human in a hyper-individualized ideological culture where the world must turn around one’s specific emotional, psychological, and physical needs, talking to one’s pet as a sort of last resort of communication, regardless of one’s opinion of the extent of an animal’s discursive, empathetic, and rational communicative abilities, is really beside the point.

Of course, the poll doesn’t and can’t measure the degree to which any given pet can comprehend and respond in a dialogical manner to a human being despite our attempts to anthropomorphize them in imaginative ways, i.e. projection. In my own fantasies of my cats Baldo and Chica, as smart and kind and loving and loyal as they are to me, I have yet to experience any kind of communication with them where I am utterly clear about their understanding of what I think about, write about, or what I do as human male “Randy Rodriguez.”

Sure, I talk to them all the time, but I can pretty much say whatever I want, even cussing at them when they test my patience. They generally seem completely oblivious to my communicative interests. As long as they get their food, are let outside to play, or get the periodic thorough massage or combing they want, they seem to accept me sharing space and time with them.

I can’t recall even having a real good sit-down, drawn out back and forth where they listen to the stuff that really motivates me as a social critic and independent scholar or when I feel a need to vent about something personal. Never. (Oh well…)

Regardless of having been single my entire life–I now imagine sometimes I’d be better off in a monastery even though I couldn’t tolerate the discipline required to be “spiritual” (a term I use with hesitation because I can’t really imagine what that is any more, frankly, it being another one of those projections that is easy to assert, but to prove with anything compelling unlikely except the witnesses’ anecdote that can’t be verified)–and only in a few off and on romantic relationships, I still have been in plenty of relationships with family and friends enough to know that I am sociable enough to have friendly and extended conversations, some even spirited and thoughtful, that provide me with enough anecdotal evidence to understand the difficulty of communicating and, especially, listening effectively.

Which brings me back to my main point of the cultural and ideological obsession with self in our culture which is not just Euro-American, but modern and capitalist and “liberal” in the classic, enlightenment sense of the liberation of the individual from the tyranny of despotic, divinely asserted monarchical arbitrary rule from the 1700s on.

The desacralization of the divine paternity embodied monarchical state, thought of literally, whose remnants persist even in Great Britain with the royal family, decentered power culturally, religiously and politically in the masses who could then be reimagined as fully legitimate actors and agents of change, not the passive inheritors of forms of status/destiny. The essence of the individual–a totally new idea–was not fixed or limited by ascription or estate. Indeed, personality as a cultural idea accompanying the construction of the “individual” as a bounded “subject” could no longer be controlled or defined by god’s will or some essential relationship to the natural world in all its mysterious power. No, not even pantheism could define its subjects as fated by any combination of sacred origin narratives with the expansion of economic, cultural, military, and political liberalism and capital.

Of course, as I have recently commented on this historical process, and it was/is not as neatly linear nor complete nor simple as I present it here, but the general implication is the same. The hegemonic imagination of the sacralization of all things more or less pre-1700s/enlightenment was replaced by a secularization, a seeming, at least, superficial rationalization of culture through the rise of modern science, religious reform (protestantism), democratic state-craft, and economic liberalism.

But all this desacralization of pre-modern cultural institutions, authority, and narratives, one might even suggest it was a kind of cultural patricide (killing the cultural fathers), embodied ironically the ideological sacralization and expansion of the individual as its central component.

I don’t lament this loss. Some cultural authority doesn’t deserve to persist especially when it is abusive and destructive and debasing. And despite the positive aspects of the liberation and idealization of the notion of the individual, its mythical construction was and persists in many similar abusive, destructive, and debasing acts as the earlier cultural systems, but simply with a different ideological justification.

Of course, any loss is accompanied by a trauma and sometimes central to the trauma is not knowing who to talk to about the loss. Or even more fundamentally, it’s about the more general loss of any centralized authority to define for any subjects of a given cultural and narrative system how or who one talks to about one’s sense of loss or a specific trauma.

So what we have now, what has developed over the past couple of centuries to accommodate and reinforce the individual as the center of an ideological sacred cultural system, is a therapeutic, technocratic, medically scientific, rational model. All along this was and is reinforced by the individualist tendencies of the protestantism that emphasized the more direct, unmediated relationship of the individual supplicant to god. In this systemic, ideological change the individual’s trauma experienced with the loss of earthly sacred authority to direct her or his spiritual life and temporal status became a positive in the ability to define one’s own spiritual self and temporal/material station.

So I’m not really sure how much of the problem at the core of the poll and the brief discussion in the newspaper article regarding its significance is about poor listening skills and interest of spouses and the projected talking of pet owners. (I’m all for the therapeutic value of our wonderful animal companions, but that’s totally different from anthropomorphizing them.) I’ve had plenty of experience of being in conversations that are really monologues of venting and complaint where neither I nor my partner in talk are carefully listening and responding. We’ve already practiced in our heads and with others, most likely, and heard practiced by others, the words we are hearing and speaking.

Often enough I’ve participated in these talking rituals and enjoyed them at a certain level for what they are: a reinforcement with the like-minded of what I already feel and believe.

Most of the time these aren’t really conversations or dialogues because we don’t have to listen to each other. We already know from past experience what will be said and we know how to respond for the most part.  But the deep irony of these talking rituals is that usually they are not highly individualized.

Indeed, and this may be part of the reason why we would rather talk to our pets in a kind of imaginative discursive exercise where s/he, our talk partner, will not object to our mythologically uniquely, supposedly innovative, absurdly individualized voice. The therapeutic value may be not necessarily in a non-judgmental “listener,” but in the feeling of our individual reassertion, the power to control our imaginative, emotional, and psychological spaces uncontested.

We get to have it “our way,” to paraphrase a famous hamburger ad.

In some sense, then, I think such a silly poll reveals deeper cultural rules regarding how and who we can vent to and why we often can’t even talk to our intimate associates. It addresses our deeper concerns of cultural authority (who determines the kinds of stories that are normative and who we can talk to about them), gender relations (we could speculate why more women talk to their pets than men do), and the ideologically sacred (to what extent is the individual actually a functional social actor or is it simply a convenient cultural construct in the ongoing imperialist expansion of global capital power?).

Unfortunately, the power of the Individualist mythos leads to a vicious circle of unending venting and unresolved talk. The need for “closure,” for a neat, happy ending to the individual story which reasserts control over the narrative is illusory. The narrative is always dynamic, fluid, traumatized by externalia. The felt need to tell our stories repeatedly never ends especially because we fail to understand their origins and functions in our lives. (A central cultural authority no longer exists to define these for us in a simple, clear fashion, if they ever really did.) That is the nature of the individual life, of the stories we tell ourselves, of the stories we inherit that we tell ourselves in ritual fashion over and over and over.

We recreate and reimagine ourselves continually, trying to reassert an imagination we have of ourselves that is consistent, reliable, and orderly despite the internal and external forces that constantly play with our senses of integration. Even as we acknowledge life as a process of decline and randomness, we are always attempting to buttress and heal the self’s borders. Perhaps this defines our existence as much as anything although I don’t think it makes us essentially “human” or superior to other living species. It might, though, make us more interesting to ourselves and feed our apparent need to justify our exceptionalist, evolutionary imperialism.

So, it seems, we’ll take what we can get. At least our pets will listen to our stories. They will allow us to imaginatively reassert our individuality and thereby maintain our mythological center in a decentered, global capitalized community!

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