I’m more of a Catiline person

“Once in a while somebody comes along who says, ‘F— this!’, and that person becomes the voice of a generation.” –Henry Rollins, talking about quite a few of my favorite musicians

This is going to be such a lunatic post that I’m going to start it with something positive: Beginning today, Sunday, we are celebrating National Earnest Awkwardness Week. EA Week is a time to listen to the Shins and the Moldy Peaches, to watch Napoleon Dynamite, and to tell your loved ones things which are very hard to say. It’s a good week for talking to complete strangers and making odd videos where you read poetry you wrote in high school.

And meanwhile, to the Dog Whisperer: Don’t come to Irvine. I will beat you up. Since you are a dog whisperer, you probably don’t have bodyguards yet; in fact, I’m willing to lay down money that when you take an ordinary trip for the lecture circuit, you don’t even take a dog with you. So you will be walking down the street, your ears back, your back straight, and your arms straight but with palms open to signify gentle authority, when WHAM! POW! OOF!

Now an ordinary person who is, perhaps, reading, may feel strongly that violence is not the answer, and furthermore that since I’ve been laid up watching coming-of-age movies it’s quite possible I’m weak as a kitten.

I’ll tackle the second point first. I’ve recovered. Through one of those processes which so invisibly weave the mental and physical, I’m healthier now than I was before and feel like a Viking. It is probably a combination of spending time by myself, reflecting on life and listening to Elvis, and eating right because junk food tastes strange to an ailing man.

As for violence: I’m going to play with you, dog whisperer, in your sandbox — the physical, a place where instinct can reign in more than one way. It’s all in Jack London, actually: there’s the pack instinct of the dogsled, and there’s also the ferocious and lonely self.

You see, I’m not going to argue with you, because I’m not doing what you’re doing. I’m too innocent for that. Were a spectator to watch us argue, you would be working on two levels, and I would be working on just one. I grew up with a Kid Whisperer as principal of my high school, and I have a pretty good idea of how these things look from the outside: freedom looks shrill. The body language of confidence, the simplicity of verbal expression, the gestures of implacability — yours. I would be working only with a genuine desire to make you shut up about power.

Because that is what dog whispering is about: power. Animal care providers have been working to heal traumatized animals for millenia. Certainly, they’re comfortable asserting authority over the animal, but the foundation of their “theory” (not that they have one) is giving the animal an experience of loving kindness which gradually allays its fears.

Likewise, dog sledders have been managing “packs” of dogs for an incredibly long time. If anyone actually cared to ask the Inuit, it would be relatively easy to explain the routines that enable you to put a dog’s life in order, bind it to a group of other animals, and teach it to follow your directions. But notice that there is a goal here. You are trying to get yourself and a sled over a whole lot of ice. So you work together with dogs, and the whole project moves forward. You are not just a leader in the abstract.

Let us pause for a moment to consider the historical moment. We are watching the return of the Sophists. They’ve been knocking at the door for a long time, actually — hence Dale Carnegie — but now, having found new and fertile ground in behaviorist research, they’re everywhere.

It would be nice to believe that the autistic woman who helped calm down the cows was an isolated genius, a sort of Beethoven of soothe. But we have to consider the research on smells (apple cinnamon calms you down, citrus perks you up), colors (yellow is the happy color), and above all path marketing. Long before Temple Grandin was gentling the axe, supermarkets and department stores were organizing routes for consumers (moving in search of a given product) which maximized spending.

The dog whisperer is, of course, not content to retain old binaries like human / dog. No, it turns out that you can whisper to children, too, to help them learn to function within limits. You can whisper to disabled children who are having a difficult time. This goes along with Temple Grandin’s discovery that she could relieve the symptoms of her autistic distress using tactile environments designed for cows. Part of erasing the dividing line means importing animal technologies into human life.

So you have these new technologies of comfort and control for animals (dogs, cows) and what are apparently, according to these experts, the most animal-like humans: children and the disabled or mentally ill.

But how many people really fall out of those categories? About a third of all Americans suffer from a mental illness at some point in their lives. The rates of autism are very much on the rise, particularly since milder forms of autism (i.e. Asperger’s) are now commonly diagnosed and treated. In fact, in the academy, very mild mental illness is fetishized: one of our more well-known professors is referred to lovingly as “autistic.”

So that, in the end, it is perhaps not even a majority of people who shouldn’t be the beneficiaries of somebody’s whispering. The movement is ultimately rhetorical: it is about the rhetorical forms of leadership and reassurance which can be put to any use. It draws strength from the fact that consumer capitalism encourages people to put their faith in things and environments: to alienate their ability to relax into an herbal shampoo. For all of its putative power, though, rhetoric can’t conceive of any ends besides uniformity, or victory in combat.

Thus Stanley Fish is applauded for rhetorical force after giving a lecture about, and I say this advisedly, absolutely nothing of any interest. Likewise Walter Benn-Michaels.

Well, give me literature instead. When I read Call of the Wild, I loved the dog Buck. When I read Where The Red Fern Grows, I loved Old Dan and Little Ann. These were books that taught me about individual animals, and the joy and misery of that bond. I have to believe that that feeling will continue to be its own reward, while the trick of getting fifty dogs to look the same direction will always raise the following question: what are they looking at?

Or, Temple Grandin, what, please, happens to the cows when they reach the end of the chute?

Because in the end I want to lose. I’m perfectly happy to land a good sucker punch, and then, showing a clear debt to Chuck Palahniuk, I want you to mess up my teeth and bloody my nose, O brave dog whisperer. Because you are probably innocent, and so is suffering Temple Grandin. You probably think you’re talking about empathy, and you like going on television, and you don’t know what is really going on.

But you better have the guts to cause me some discomfort or I’ll never leave you alone. Because I know who never gets hurt. The dogs.

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