Martin Rowe, The Polar Bear In The Zoo

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7/16/2013:

Part I – Martin Rowe
THE POLAR BEAR IN THE ZOO: A SPECULATION

Martin Rowe is the co-founder of Lantern Books. He is the author of Nicaea: A Book of Correspondences, Bertie Wooster and the Lizard King, and co-author of Right Off the Bat: Baseball, Cricket, Literature, and Life. He edited the collection The Way of Compassion and co-founded the monthly magazine Satya. More of Martin’s published writings can be found at martin-rowe.com, my book reviews at Martin’s Random Reviews, and my thoughts about cricket at Right Off the Bat.

TRANSCRIPTION:

Caryn Hartglass: Hello everybody, hi, I’m Caryn Hartglass and you’re listening to It’s All About Food. How are you doing today on this very lovely hot humid July 16, 2013. I’m actually back, I don’t know if you missed me but for a couple of weeks I was not doing the program and I missed it, so now here I am I’m back, and I wanted to tell you a little story. So yesterday I was finishing up on filming a food show for Responsible Eating and Living, my nonprofit, responsibleeatingandliving.com, and actually, we’re introducing into our food show, the swing in gourmets, you may have heard of the Swingin’ Gourmets before, swingingourmets.com. And I was running some errands before finishing up the filming, and I was in my neighborhood in Forest Hills, walking down Queen’s Boulevard, Queen’s Boulevard as you may know is called the Boulevard of Death, or the Boulevard of Broken Bones, because there have been so many accidents down this street. And I’m crossing the street and there’s a whole bunch of cars going through a red light, trying to get through, as pedestrians are trying to go cause they have actually the right of way, and there’s one last car passing through as I’m crossing and I’m behind a literal little old lady, she’s got a floppy hat on and she’s walking with a cane, and I’m walking behind her, and this car is about to hit us, so I put my thumb and forefinger together and I blow a big piercing loud whistle, and the guy stops and we get to pass. And I was thinking to myself during that time like “I know that I’m not really making a difference here by blowing a whistle but it makes me feel a little better and I’m thinking maybe the driver will wake up just for that moment and notice there are people walking in front of him and maybe he’ll connect the dots somehow”. Anyway, we made it to the other side and I could tell the old woman was a little irked and we started having this conversation and I told her “Can you believe how inconsiderate all these drivers are?” and she said “All empires, all great empires fall, and ours is on the way down”. And I thought “Ok, she’s seen a lot”, but then she changed her tone and she said “But there are many people on this planet who make it all worthwhile, the heroes that are doing good and making a difference, and all of those animal right activists, I love them”, and then I took a double take and looked at her, “What did you say, animal rights activists, I said that’s me, I’m a vegan, I’m an animal rights activist” and then I loved her, she was just this wonderful woman who was just lonely marching down the street getting from one place to another and we had a really lovely conversation until we made it to the next intersection and there was another driver who was trying to make the left turn, looking left, we were on his right, he was rolling, he was not paying any attention to us, and sure enough I whistles again and he stopped and I kind of glared at him and he shrugs and then he’s angry, he’s angry at me for stopping so that I didn’t get killed with this woman, anyways it was kind of crazy. But in the end after talking to this woman, and she was telling me how grateful she was for the people who were doing the trap, neuter, and release, and people that take in pets, take in animals, and take care of them as foster parents for a while until they get permanent homes and the woman that was taking their cat to the vet that day because she was too frail to do so, she was so grateful for those people and as I continued in the hot and humid atmosphere, wondering as I always do why I do what I do, I felt inspiration to keep going from this person who showed some appreciation and wisdom. Anyway, so on that note I thought we would lead into what we’re gonna talk about today with my wonderful guest Martin Rowe, who is the co-founder of Lantern Books, he’s the author of, how do you pronounce that?

Martin Rowe: Go ahead

Caryn Hartglass: I never knew, I’ve read it and I don’t even know how to say it.

Martin Rowe: Nicaea

Caryn Hartglass: Nicaea, a Book of Correspondences, Bernie Wooster and the Lizard King, and co-author of Right Off the Bat: Baseball, Cricket, Literature, and Life. He edited the collection the Way of Compassion and co-founded the monthly magazine Satya More of Martin’s published writings can be found at martin-rowe.com and he’s got Martin’s random reviews and thoughts on cricket at right off the bat and you can find links to that on the responsible eating and living website. And welcome.

Martin Rowe: Thank you.

Caryn Hartglass: And thank you for joining me here in the studio.

Martin Rowe: It’s a pleasure, nice an cool in here

Caryn Hartglass: It could be cooler, but I’m not complaining, anyway, so you’ve written this book, The Polar Bear in the Zoo: A Speculation, and it is indeed a speculation. Very interesting because you’re talking about one photograph and several other photographs of animals and how we perceive them and how others perceive them, how the animals perceive their situation in that moment and how our perspective is affected by the box around that picture, or the frame, and all frames, the way we see things, framing, where did you get this concept as a point of reference to start your story about frames.

Martin Rowe: Well, the particular photograph I’m interested in, The Polar Bear in the Zoo, is a very framed photograph, it’s in black and white and the left hand side of the photograph is fully black, and the right hand side of the photograph is an image of the polar bear which is in a glass tank in which light streams onto the huddled forms of six small children, and right down the middle of the photograph is a big thick wooden frame, so the picture is in of itself, an expression of, it’s very dichotomous, the existence of dark and light, black and white, and of animal and human. So for me it was very interesting to see a photograph that plays so much with this literal frame and the frame of the photograph of course encapsulates the certain way that we put animals especially in zoos, where we’re on one side and they’re on the other side. So the frame can just be a moat or it can be a fence, or in some ways a distancing medium, so that obviously put me at mind not only of the frame of the zoo and the photograph but also the capture of the image and the capture of the animal and the reverse of that, the exposure of the animal and the expose of the photograph, with all of the sort of scandalous surreptitiousness that the word expose has to it.

Caryn Hartglass: Did you find this photo and decide you had to write this or were you thinking about writing something like this and found the photo?

Martin Rowe: No it was very much the photo, I wanted to write something about our relationship with animals, particularly involving critical theory and some continental philosophy, and I’ve been looking for some thing, or some way of inspiring me to write in this vein and this photo arrested me, it stopped me and said concentrate on me, and it really is very very compelling and made me really try and investigate this one photograph to see what it could reveal to me.

Caryn Hartglass: Well I really enjoyed reading your explanation of it and all your thoughts about it along with the other pictures you mention in the book and what I think of is how we’re in this society of sound bites and just everything is fast, and to take the time to just look at one picture, not even many, I know that when I go to the Louvre in Paris or other large museums, I’m overwhelmed, there’s just too much information, but to spend time and really think about, you could learn so much from any one image, but most people don’t want to invest that.

Martin Rowe: Sure, I think I wanted to go deeply into the image to show that one can investigate something from multiple perspectives, and bring in a lot of other detail from other pictures but to focus it, and again, there’s the visual metaphor, to focus on one particular image and a set of tropes and ideas that image reveals to you. I remember going to the Louvre myself and I remember everyone of course was clustered at the Mona Lisa, and in the next door room was a magnificent picture of San Sebastian, Martyr San Sebastian by Georges de La Tour who uses light in a very evocative and interesting way, and nobody was looking at that painting, and I stood there all that time, and I’ve never forgotten that painting, it’s a very very vivid and evocative work, so for me the opportunity to concentrate without anybody in front of you, and without anybody demanding that you say this image is value and figure out why it is value, instead say, this image speaks to me, why does it speak to me, it was much more significant

Caryn Hartglass: Well now we’re coming from a foundation of being aware of all the animal exploitation that goes on, the violence in the world, and both of us as individuals trying to do what we can to help the world see and respond in a more positive way, you as the co-founder of Lantern Books, amongst many of the other projects you’ve been involved in have enabled many other authors to write books about issues affecting animal exploitation, we’re both vegan, and so I see this book as another way to get people to focus on some of the issues and things that we really take for granted, especially in zoos or pictures of animals where we don’t even see the pain, the suffering, many of us I’m sure just put our own images and thoughts and not even realize what’s going on in the image, and so it was somewhat eye opening to read your interpretations of all the pictures, to think about what we take for granted very often.

Martin Rowe: Right, the photograph is about coming face-to-face with the animal, but because you’re looking into the glass of the animals’ enclosure, at least partly, when one looks into the face of the animal through the glass, the glass reflects back themself, so the animal is not only looking at you and demanding attention from you, but you are yourself are holding up a mirror to yourself, so there is, this is why it’s called a speculation, the speculation of this, the word specular means mirror in Latin. So you’ve got a strong sense of looking through into something that you hope will reveal some truth to you. But also a recognition, at least partly, you are looking back at yourself which could lead you to reflect literally on yourself and hopefully gain some insight, but on the other hand might be a way of validating your own perspective instead of honestly accepting the look of the animal as it looks directly at you.

Caryn Hartglass: It’s really a crazy thing that we have zoos, it’s just one of many crazy things that humans do, we have invented many crazy things, and why do we need zoos? It’s all part of this power trip I guess we’re on where we feel superior and want to believe that animals don’t have the same needs that we do, and do we care that they mind being away from their family and friends, do we care that they’re living in a cage, in an unnatural environment, I don’t really know. I know it’s a fun place for families to bring their kids, and what are the kids learning subliminally by seeing all this?

Martin Rowe: Well the zoo, as I said, in the book actually, the zoo began as a way for powerful kings and potentates to gather together animals from around the world in a way that expressed their control over the natural world and the peoples who lived in those countries, it was political as well as geographical control. And then zoos became places to see and be seen by people walking through, and a place where the city itself could express its civilization. And then ultimately, it becomes a place where animals are displayed as in a gallery, and several of the photographs that I have in the book show the very highly decorated and tablatures and scenes that you see, so it’s actually a theatre, it’s a gallery, it’s a visual way of displaying the art of the animals, so these are static tableau we want of creatures therefore our edification and entertainment, so in that regard, they serve a very particular purpose, which is to be alive, using modern art.

Caryn Hartglass: And they’re not part of any actor’s equity union performing.

Martin Rowe: No they don’t get any union deals.

Caryn Hartglass: Or benefits.

Martin Rowe: Or benefits.

Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, unfortunate, I’m just thinking back to when I was really young, I don’t think I was around actually, I just heard this story, my parents took my sister to the zoo, took her little red coat, and left it on the fence between them and the elephant, and the elephant picked up that coat and swung it around and put it to shreds, I’m not exactly sure what that elephant was trying to tell them, but I’m glad he had an opportunity to do that.

Martin Rowe: Probably some stimulation, some of the only stimulation he’s seen all day.

Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, actually, that’s probably it, oh, here’s something, something new. Gosh, alright, so here it is, we are doing what we can in this world as vegans and there’s this thread throughout the book about why we do what we do and does it make a difference, and you kind of come to the end, and I don’t want to give any spoiler alerts here, but there is no answer why we do what we do, you do what you do because?

Martin Rowe: Well I, talk here about my evolution as an animal activist, which was a surprise to me, since there was no clear conversion experience, there was no one moment when I realized that everything had to change, and yet, when animal activists talk about their work, they talk in the language of conversion, the religious experience, the moment, the idea that, again, using a visual metaphor, they were blind but now they see, that what was completely unknowing to them becomes massively self evident to them, and they can’t understand why nobody else sees it, which is essentially a religious narrative. So I want to explore that and to try and present what I think of an existential mode of activism, where by the concept that by one would create a vegan world is recognized for the impossible, almost, absurd, goal. And yet, because it is absurd, not in spite of it being absurd, but because of it being absurd, one does it anyways, one puts aside specific goals or notions of success and progress and accepts that one is seeking the ultimately impossible task, and yet continues to do it, so it is in that regard, a kind of fundamentally existential activity.

Caryn Hartglass: I think I love that, and I think we need to talk more about that, we have many different animal activists out there and they all have different approaches, some are more successful than others, some really piss people off, and then a lot of people burn out, and if we really understood that we’re doing it because it’s what we do, period, there’s no reason other than it’s right, it’s right for us as individuals, we can’t really know or believe that in the long term, in our lifetime or in another lifetime, things are going to be the way we want them to be.

Martin Rowe: Right, I think we need to get out of the way of our own aspirations and let the aspiration itself and the activity itself speak to the person or persons you’re trying to reach, I think many times those people who are trying to convince you of their passion allow their passion to get in the way of your response to their information and their passion. If you allow them to feel themselves, an agent in their own change, they will do it, and that will be, the ultimate success, you may not see it, you may not feel responsible for it, but if you continually hammer away at somebody, demanding that they change, the will put out resistance, we just published a book by Nick Cooney at Lantern Books called Change of Heart which essentially argues that case, that too many times those who wish to bring about social change allow themselves to get in the way of their own message by not being responsive to the way people receive information and receive information that changes them internally and then they process that information in their own way.

Caryn Hartglass: Well as this message becomes more popular, this vegan message, animal rights, how our food choices affect health and environment and treatment of animals, it’s becoming more popular thanks to the Internet I think, primarily. There’s a portion of it where it’s trendy and people are more interested in it because there are celebrities that are involved, there’s a lot of, there are some activists that are getting more notoriety than others not necessarily because of the work that they do, but just because of the way of the world. And some people have fame, and some people are just working hard all the time without much acknowledgement, but I think what you’re telling us is kind of a message not just for activism, but for all life, that we can’t really control anything.

Martin Rowe: Right, in the end, to go back to the polar bear in the zoo, and what is demanded of the polar bear in the zoo is that you approach the window and the animal presents him or herself before you, and it is up to you to determine how you best respond or most appropriately respond to that demand, which is that demand that the animal has towards you, which is recognize me, see me, and that seeing means that you can do two things, you can return that look and the return of that look could be a threat, but it could be an acknowledgement of some fellow feeling, or you could turn away, and that turning away could be an ignoring of that animal, or turning away because it is too painful to acknowledge your own complicity in that animal’s demand, that you acknowledge their presence on this planet. So I think really all animal activists can do at the heart of their work is to present the information in such a way that the individual is compelled through their own desire to see, to face the animal, and to respond to the animal’s question.

Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, well, any time I have an opportunity to interact with an animal, no, I haven’t been to a zoo in a very long time, but I have been out in Costa Rice for example where there are cows walking around an any other animal that I might bump into. I really love to look at them as much as I possibly can, without thinking I’m going to put myself in any kind of crazy danger, but there is so much in any being’s eyes, we don’t speak the same languages, but there is this look at me like you said, see me, acknowledge me.

Martin Rowe: Right, the seeing can also be in a slab of meat, and the point being, that when you look at the slab of meat, instead of seeing the meat, you see the animal, and the animal once looked, and the animal is still demanding that question of you, the question is: do you see the being that was there before the being was unbeing, was turned into a thing instead of an individual.

Caryn Hartglass: There was that other picture of a hawk I think it was, just the head, what an incredible photograph.

Martin Rowe: I should say these photographs are all taken by a Canadian photojournalist called Jo-Anne McArthur, who has a book coming out from us later on in the year called We Animals, and it’s the subject of a magnificent documentary filmed by Liz Marshall called The Ghosts in Our Machine. And the wonderful thing about Jo-Anne is that she is an incredibly perspicacious photographer, she really allows you to gain perspective, and she provides perspective in her photographs by placing human beings within the frame or in this case, the one you’re mentioning, of disturbing our notions of what the look means because there you see this incredibly strong and vivid look from the right eye of a red tailed hawk, and only after a millisecond do you realize that the hawk’s head is all that exists of the hawk sitting on a table and on an vivisection laboratory, so one is constantly aware of the liveliness behind the eye of the hawk, only to realize that you are the one who is doing the animating, because the hawk is dead. So it’s a really very striking and strong photograph, she does that, she forces you to shift the way you look and the way you see what is presented before you in a way to develop discernment and insight.

Caryn Hartglass: Yeah that look in that bird’s eye is very alive, but I guess it’s me making it, well…

Martin Rowe: Well once you make it alive you are therefore responsible, you are a Frankenstein, you are responsible for the life of that creature.

Caryn Hartglass: But part of it might be just the fact that you know we have all kinds of crazy movies these days with all kinds of graphic arts where heads talk that have no bodies, and there’s all that crazy cartoon stuff that goes on.

Martin Rowe: That comes from the myth of Frankenstein which of course was an early 19th century response to the new science of vivisection it was a new way of looking at nature, which many people felt was deeply problematic and blasphemous towards how one should relate to the natural world. Instead of putting it onto a slab and cutting it up in order to understand how nature works, others, including Mary Shelly, felt that one should sort of honor the rhythms and natural systems intact and not bring them into a lab and cut them up. So this head represents that, and Frankenstein’s monster is an example of the disembodied body sewn together from cadavers, and given life by human beings, only for it to express itself as a vegetarian caring being who seeks to find his place amongst the natural environment, and is then destroyed because of it.

Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, I don’t think most people know that story.

Martin Rowe: Carol Adams, The Sexual Politics of Meat, she has a whole chapter on Frankenstein’s monster, I would suggest people would check it out.

Caryn Hartglass: Yes, another wonderful Lantern book.

Martin Rowe: Not yet, not yet, not one of ours, but she’s a Lantern author.

Caryn Hartglass: Oh, Lantern author, not a Lantern book, ok.

Martin Rowe: Bloomsbury published it.

Caryn Hartglass: Still, very good, and groundbreaking for its time. And have we talked about The Defiant Daughters a while back, and had Carol on the show, yes, that’s a great Lantern book.

Martin Rowe: Yes, I think so too.

Caryn Hartglass: Many many are. All right, so we just have a very few minutes left. Who is this book for?

Martin Rowe: This book is directed towards people who are interested in photograph, it’s also for people who are interested in philosophy and social studies, it’s got a bit of theology in there as well, I hope that it will be picked up by university students, both as supplementary reading to their work on human animal studies, if they’re in that discipline, or also as primary reading whereby they can exert their disciplanary understanding to that book. So, it’s one of the first of a series of books, and the series I’m calling Biographies, bio-graphies, I want people to examine one particular species in one particular frame, and go deep rather than broadly into the subject, and the next one coming along is called The Elephant in the Room: Ana Excavation, which is about two Kenyan conservationists, elephants, and the American Museum of Natural History. So that’s coming out in September, so we will see the series developing from there.

Caryn Hartglass: That sounds, well I’m going to read that one next.

Martin Rowe: Excellent.

Caryn Hartglass: Okay, alright, we definitely do see different things when we look in closely at something and then we pull away and see a much broader view, and when we pull away and see, again, it depends on who we are, our perspective is going to be different, but when I pull away and I see, as we go further and further back, we see the globe, we see our solar system, the universe, etc. We can make many different interpretations, but when we look in close, we see the individual stories and those are the ones that really speak to us and where we can understand, we kind of get numb when we pull back I think and when we see thousands and thousands, when we talk about the numbers like 60 billion land animals a year are killed for food, and so many millions of this and that, the numbers are just overwhelming and when we look at individuals, it’s like when people go to a puppy mill, I mean a puppy store, not a puppy mill, but they’re from puppy mills, that’s what I’m thinking, and we find the incredible cuteness or something in one of these particular animals and we want to have one, we relay it definitely on an individual level, and that might make us react in one way or another, it might make us want to take the puppy home, it might make us want to understand something more about that animal, I don’t know.

Martin Rowe: Right, well I’m a great believer of small picture thinking, there’s a lot of big picture thinking, and many of the manuscripts I’ve received are about the entire cosmos and the history of animal exploitation for tens of thousands of years and there’s a place for that, but I think to go deep and particular not only is very revealing generally and allows people to indeed focus on one particular creature and understand that animal, but it also allows you to tell a deeper and more individual story that can transform somebody.

Caryn Hartglass: The big picture is numbing, the big picture makes you think you can’t make a difference, there’s really no point in doing anything being that one drop in that very very very large bucket that’s never going to be filled up, but when you focus in on something, it has individual meaning, and it can make a difference to you or anyone that’s sharing that moment with you.

Martin Rowe: Sure

Caryn Hartglass: Well I enjoyed reading The Polar Bear in the Zoo: A Speculation, and anyone who is looking to dig, anyone who is questioning where they want to go with their diet of their lifestyle or their look into life, this is a good starting point for thinking about things. So there you have it, okay, and read every other book Lantern has published, and that’s just my assignment for today.

Martin Rowe: Not a difficult task, there are only 170 of them.

Caryn Hartglass: Only 170, look at that, okay well thank you for joining us Martin and thank you for everything that you’re doing for this planet, everything absurd and meaningful.

Martin Rowe: Thank you.

Caryn Hartglass: Let’s take a break.

Transcribed by Brandon Chung, 7/27/2013

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