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on (unironically) loving dogs
Symposium on Animals: Part II
Note to our readers: this is the second essay in our ongoing symposium on animals. The first (by Dhananjay) was on how animals can help us understand AI. We will be running two guest essays as part of our symposium in the coming weeks, as well as further essays by each of us on this theme.
I’m one of those people who really loves dogs. If we’ve ever met in person, you may have seen me stop a conversation, mid-sentence, to shriek aloud with joy if a particularly fluffy Pomeranian, or an especially winsome red Cavapoo, happens across my field of vision. There are few dogs I see, crossing the street in Brooklyn or the Upper West Side, that I do not instinctively long to stop or greet or pet; only a veneer of human politeness stops me from absconding with some of them altogether.
Part of the reason for this is that I’m just a “dog person.” But I think there is, in my love of animals – and in my love of dogs specifically (I like cats fine, but find their veneer of superiority intimidating) – something more than mere aesthetic affection.
What I love about dogs, and the kind of affectionate, indeed loving, relationship we can have with dogs, is the utter straightforwardness of their being. Dogs play; they bark; they beg or fetch or sit or stay; most importantly, they dog. Which is to say: as both fundamentally social and communal animals, and simply as animals, dogs express their dog-ness with nearly every single action or gesture they make. When a dog plays, whether with another dog or with a human being, it does so with joyful instinct: with a giddy openness to play as part of the natural business of living, rather than as a frivolous add-on to more immediately or obviously necessary pursuits.
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I expressed this, once, half-jokingly by saying that “dogs aren’t brain-poisoned, the way humans are.” Dogs don’t know who the main character of Twitter is. They have no conception of Discourse. But, more importantly, dogs – and our relationship with dogs – lack the capacity for any kind of irony. You can tease a dog in play – pretending to throw a ball, say – but your relationship with the dog can never be mediated, through allusive language or ambiguous glances or high-context responsivity, the way human relations can be and, I would argue, increasingly are.
I am often curious whether our ever-increasing cultural appreciation of dogs – our willingness to call them “fur-babies” or “surrogate children” or otherwise to understand our relationships with them as primary to our social being more broadly – isn’t simply about the atomization of urban life or liberal alienation or the declining cultural interest in parenthood, but rather about the fact that, in the Internet Age, more and more of our lives and social relationships are thoroughly mediated. We construct personae online; we carefully calibrate paraprofessional brands that collapse the difference between social capital, sexual capital, and just plain capital. Our self-conceptions involve layers not just of language or imagistic speculation but of performance. This is not unique to the age of the Internet, of course, but the Internet has at once normalized and intensified this practice: the idea that we would not consciously curate our own selves, even as an unreachable ideal, is as laughable now as it is implausible.
It's different with dogs. We cannot perform in front of them; we cannot establish a relationship with them based on anything but our own social animality. They are vulnerable to us; we must care for them with wholeheartedness, whether or not we live the rest of our lives mired in irony. We must receive their love with equal wholeheartedness.
Moreover, dogs cannot perform in front of us. There is an apocryphal saying – always attributed to a great Shakespearean actor like John Gielgud or Laurence Olivier – that the most dangerous thing to put onstage is a baby or an animal. No matter how good an actor is at playing Hamlet or Macbeth, he will never be able to match the sheer unselfconsciousness of a dog playing – being – itself. Dogs cannot be other than what they are; everything they do is a manifestation of what they are.
It is precisely this that I find most affecting, when I – irony-poisoned and brain-worm-ridden being that I am – stop to touch a spaniel’s ears. A dog is capable of doing what I cannot do, of – to quote Gerard Manley Hopkins – dealing “out that being indoors each one dwells.” The just man does justice. The dog dogs.
That said, even dogs do not always dog purely now. The rise of “pet influencers” — who post photographs of their beloved animals in the hopes of gaining brand sponsorship — has complicated our relationship to animals: rendering ironic and monetizable our very desire for innocent authenticity. (My own favorite Internet Pomeranian has, unfortunately, become an unwitting spokesdog; his account has long since turned into one long advertisement for dog food.) And while — as far as branding goes — I’d rather see cute puppies on subway advertisements than, say, women in bikinis or smug-looking “successful” billionaires, I worry that even the human-animal relationship can be transformed, through the Internet panopticon, into a source of Content.
Still, at its best, the relationship between humans and the animals we love can be an anchor to a version of ourselves in which we are as immediate, as fully ourselves, in being and action alike, as they are what they are.
This past week was the feast day of St. Philip Neri, a Roman saint who – in one icon, at least – is portrayed with a particularly silly-looking Pomeranian. This is a reference to a story about the saint, who was fond of using humor in the service of penance. When one high-and-mighty noble asked how he might perform an act of contrition, St. Philip assigned him to walk a very small and (reportedly) very ridiculous dog (we do not know if it was in fact a Pomeranian): to humble himself in part by acknowledging his own nature in relation to a creature that, unlike most humans, was extremely good at being nothing more or less than its own self. It’s a penance I think more of us should take on.