Virago, £30, 469pp. £27 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

What It Means to be Human, By Joanna Bourke

 

Take Emmanuel Levinas's encounters with a dog called Bobby in the 1940s, in a camp near Hanover. Here the philosopher, a Lithuanian-born Jew, was one of 70 cruelly overworked slaves. But every morning and evening Bobby bounded forward to greet him delightedly. "Wasn't it remarkable that, at a time when millions of Homo sapiens were being classified as sub-human or even non-human," Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, "Bobby 'had no doubt that we were men'." But as Joanna Bourke relates, Levinas, when writing up this experiences 30 years later, found himself in difficulties. Recognition of the Other was for him the key to ethics, to which nothing was more important than the face-to-face encounter. But how to place his and Bobby's? Surely the dog couldn't "universalise from basic principles", and did he actually have a face?

This last query was hardly without precedents. Pre-eminent physiognomists, Johann Kaspar Lavater and Sir Charles Bell, would have denied Bobby a face. Look into a dog's eyes, said Swiss pastor Lavater, and you see the vast difference from yourself; besides, the ears are floppy, sign of slavishness. Bell's negative depended on the mouth. "Dogs, in their expression of fondness", a feeling he did concede them, "have a slight eversion of the lips... but nothing which truly approaches to human expression." More than nomenclature is at stake. Eyes are "mirrors of the soul", which most orthodox religious deny animals possess. Lips are for speaking, and isn't speech our supreme distinguishing ability? The great philologist Max Müller was eloquent here, arguing against "even so great a general" as Darwin: speech rendered evolution from apes "impossible, or, at all events, unscientific".

How about deaf-mutes then? Unlike true humans, they could not sing out praises to God. Reynolds' Miscellany 1855 had to pronounce them essentially animals. "Lacking rationality," observes Bourke tartly, "they were excluded from voting, along with 'idiots', infants and criminals. And, of course, women."

If earlier centuries had doubted that women had souls – childbirth rendering them animal - the modern period doubted their capacity for reason. Here comparisons with members of the slave races - African, Australasian – occurred. They were frankly physical, frequently submissive, weak when not vicious: qualities hardly consonant with a position on the top rung of creation's ladder. For Bourke, in this intellectually energetic and important book, human/animal relations and human/human ones ceaselessly cross over, with identity as one infused by the identifications accorded the other.

Bourke uses two brilliant indices. First the writer to The Times, in April 1872, who called herself An Earnest Englishwoman. She pointed out that as British law favoured mistreated dogs and horses over assaulted wives and mistresses, women might do well to ask for "a definitive acknowledgement that they are at least animals". Second, Bourke takes Haiti, where she grew up. In 1791, this slave society declared itself a nation, earning vilification from an outraged Europe. Haitians, like Levinas's camp-mates, were denied proper humanity. Bourke also makes Wuthering Heights a locus classicus for the revision of human/animal distinctions.

What It Means to be Human surveys two centuries of fraught attempts at definition. What a history it reveals of aggressive ingenuity and cavalier disregard for commonsensical contradiction, always propelled by ulterior purpose: to maintain power, or shore up the status quo. Bourke, with persuasive dedication, deconstructs each attempt to oppose or jettison inclusiveness. It is Derrida, more than his friend Levinas, whom she finds the wisest philosopher to address human/animal issues. Bourke considers him "the philosopher of the Möbius Strip", that "continuous single-sided" paper construct with no exits or entrances.

Bourke, whose last chapters probe xenotransplantation and stem cell research, refuses to end with a clarion-call or blueprint. I return to Levinas's encounter. Another dog might have behaved similarly to Bobby but not identically; Bobby was unique. Once uniqueness is admitted, the very notion of eating, hunting, experimenting on or culling any animal undergoes irreversible change.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker