Intriguing Berger Quote

“The relation may become clearer by comparing the look of an animal with the look of another man. Between two men the abysses are, in principle, bridged by language. Even if the encounter is hostile and no words are used (even if the two speak two different languages ), the existence of language allows that at least one of them, if not both mutually, is confirmed by the other. Language allows men to reckon with each other as with themselves…..The animal can be tamed so that it supplies and works for the peasant. But always its lack of common language, its silence, guarentees its distance, its distinctness, its exclusion, from and of man (Berger 5-6).”

Berger’s assertion that an animals lack of ability to speak language with a man allows him to be subject to oppression intrigues me. Though it makes sense, it also seems problematic to me. The assumption that the look between two men, because of the existence of language, allows them to ‘confirm’ one another is ahistorical; it commits the fallacy of assuming that any men in any cultures could share this understanding within a look. For example, I think it is safe to say that an African aborigine and an Alaskan eskimo could potentially look at each other and have no such ‘confirmation.’ Different looks could have completely different meanings in the two cultures. Whereas, that aborigine/eskimo could share a much more understanding look with an animal that he is accustomed to interacting with than a foreign human being.

As to the second half of the quote, that the lack of common language between man and animal causes the distance between the two, I could see this having some truth. Few people can communicate with animals because of this language barrier, which does cause distance and misunderstanding between the two, but the same can be said about their appearance and behaviors being distinct differences that cause distance. It makes me question myself, if animals could talk, would humans listen? And then I imagine a bear saying “get me out of this d&mn3d cage!”  So yes, I agree with Berger that the silence of animals has allowed for their oppression, at least to a degree. But then, I also attribute the oppression of these animals to Darwinistic ideals, not just their silence. Humans in general feel superior to animals because they have culture. Similarly, some humans feel superior to other humans because of their culture. For instance, white men justified enslaving ‘savages’ because of their lack of apparent civility and religion. 

I think Berger’s distinction between man and animal is too cut and dry. He is ignoring distinctions between different men and different animals. He should at least include intelligence, cultural hierarchy, and physical appearance to his reasononing for human domination that developed over animals, rather than simply the language barrier.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by yribaf on November 15, 2011 at 8:03 pm

    You make some very valid points since the lack of a language barrier has hardly stopped humans from enslaving each other, let alone other species of animals. Berger is either not taking into consideration the oppression of some ethnic groups over others, or he just considers some ethnic groups to be inferior to others. His argument is indeed too cut and dry and seems to contradict how some animals have been perceived through time as sacred and not to be oppressed or mistreated despite a language barrier. Also, other animals may be excluded from man, but that’s because we do not understand the signals occurring between other species. Other animals have ways of communicating that we cannot fully understand because we are another species. Our language may be more advanced, and we may be better equipped to exploit other animals because of our opposable thumbs, but the language barrier is rather insignificant in my eyes as to why we exploit them. Despite not understanding their thoughts, we are fully capable of understanding emotions, especially signs of anguish and fear in other animals, so there is no excuse for hurting another living being.

  2. I completely agree that the barrier of language is not enough of a strong argument for why there is such a disconnect between humans and animals. You gave a very valid point that sometimes a native can communicate with his surrounding native animals much more effectively than say another human from another continent. For example, some Eskimos know how to communicate with wolves – there is even a certain vocabulary and empathy in how to listen and be aware. There is something deeper and more significant than a non-shared language ability to why humans experience such a separation from animals. You touched on it with this aspect of culture, which not only expands a superiority between man to animal, but human to human.

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