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Killing Harambe, or how monsters are made

Something spectacular happened on the 28th day of May twenty sixteen – a breach in the order of things. A bleeding rift in the sky.

(Originally published in German with Evolve Magazine as ‘Tod Fur Harambe: Wie man Monster Macht’)

One of ‘us’ slipped through the cracks and met with one of ‘them’…an event so upsetting, so out of place, that the frantic screams for a resolution from those nearby and the ensuing crackle of a fired bullet still haven’t fixed the glitch. But the portal is closing, and soon that mad unsayable moment between a 440 pound silverback gorilla and a 3 year old child (pixelated glimpses of which do not tell the whole story) will go the way of all things, and will become no more shocking than a nude painting in the hallway. Just another piece of modern furniture. While it lingers, still provoking talk and emotions and clicks and essays and calls for justice, we perhaps might study the details a bit closer.

So, who did what? How did it come to be that with all the talk today around safety and building walls and keeping things out, a three year old child could navigate the perimeters of a moat at the Cincinnati Zoo? Who should we blame? Is it fair that the parents of the adventurous boy have been excoriated by a livid virtual mob of angry armchair liberals, or do we pull out the guillotine for the zookeepers? These are however not the questions I want to dwell with – mainly because the asking of them pales next to the stunning achievement of our little frontier explorer. It slips by so easily, this consideration, but it bears mentioning that the 3-foot wall little Isaiah Gregg transgressed wasn’t just an innocent zoo boundary, it was a fence whose intellectual, ethico-cultural and socio-political roots are deeper and sturdier than its weak frame allows us to see. And it was why Harambe the captive gorilla was dead long before his captors pulled the trigger.

What makes a monster and what makes a man?

Isaiah meeting Harambe is a story about encountering monsters.

Every time we meet a monster we cross a threshold. We ‘enter into’ a liminal zone, and we are never the same from then on. We never walk away intact. And yet we keep invoking them. It seems we need monsters to break us down, to beat us into a pulp, to disturb the fixity of our shapes, and to challenge our notion of continuity. This is probably the reason why pop culture is replete with fantastical accounts of meeting monsters or being haunted by them. It’s almost as if our exhaustion with the familiar colludes with the unspeakability of the liminal, and produces grotesque images and bloated bodies and warped figures in the collective psyche. From King Kong and Cthulhu to the Blob, and from Frankenstein’s abomination, Moby Dick, the Kraken and spider tricksters, there is a persistent discursive investment in and yearning for dismemberment – a longing made even more intense by our modern pretensions to permanence, and preyed upon by astute horror movie producers.

We have however learned how to keep our distance, and how to console ourselves. We have learned to keep ourselves immured in the imaginations of ‘losing oneself’, and learned to satisfy ourselves in our gentrified loss of immediacy. Simply put, our monsters no longer scare us. They do not threaten us or challenge us. Their roars are becoming faint and impotent.

Thanks to mounting cinematic sophistication, we may now have even more painstakingly realized monsters – but that hasn’t made the monstrous any more real to us. Computer-generated aliens arrive in their freckled disks of angry steel, casting foreboding shadows over our little cities; a giant gorilla scales the New York Empire State Building; a young Palestinian girl and her brother appeal for help after their parents were killed by a recent bombing in the Gaza Strip. All you need to do is click a button to help them, a well-manicured, disembodied voice intones. But our scarability/feeling thresholds are even higher: we don’t scare easy[1]. At best, our monsters are now a source of amusement and entertainment. We’ve found a way to make them useful.

I am reminded of the opening lyrics of the Disney animated feature, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a story about another encounter between man and beast. In the opening number, Gypsy leader Clopin Trouillefou, the narrative voice whose playful exoticness is the leitmotif of the tale, tells the story of a mysterious bell-ringing hunchback named Quasimodo, “a cruel name that means half-formed”, and Judge Claude Frollo, the man who gives Quasimodo his name – a pale, toffee-nosed, deep-voiced, self-righteous friar character, painted with the dark hues of obvious villainy. Frollo is a man who “saw corruption ev’rywhere, except within”. Clopin’s rapturous song dances along, weaving a tale of dark purposes, of an apparently holy man caught up in the fetish of ridding the world of the ‘other’, whose unflattering charge is to lock up a monstrous gypsy child, and use him for some untold scheme. “Who knows? Our Lord works in mysterious ways”, Frollo himself sings. “Even this foul creature may yet prove one day to be of use to me”, he says. Clopin’s singing voice resumes with a stirring question, the spirit of which is to force us to weigh the misfortune and innocence of the disfigured child, the apparent monster, with the villainy of a holy man who seeks to control him: “Now here is a riddle to guess if you can…who is the monster and who is the man?”

Clopin’s point is that our monsters define us. How we treat our monsters is a stunning testimonial about our culture. In the specificity of modernity, we meet our monsters by shutting them out; by reducing their lives to a single frequency that serves our agendas; by making them objects of amusement we can look at through thick layers of tempered glass. Everything we seek to kill, we first render useful[2]. Purpose is the first wound we inflict, because purpose is exclusionary. It is a holding space, but it is also a cutting out, a silencing of manifoldness and a rendering into a linearity that serves ‘us’.

But a deeper point is to be made here.

At the end of Notre Dame, in the full glare of the people of the town, the hunchback is re-humanized when he saves the life of a fellow protagonist, Esmeralda. Frollo plunges to his death, escorted by the cathedral’s gargoyles; a child steps forward to examine Quasimodo’s shocking features, eventually embracing him; and, the civilians lift Quasimodo on their shoulders as a hero. No longer a monster. Here, Clopin asks a new riddle, “what makes the monster and what makes the man?” It’s as if he folds back on his initial riddle, and stretches it out – so that it is now no longer a question of ‘who’ (things), but of ‘how’ (process). No longer an issue of identity, but of emergence. At the very site of Quasimodo’s acceptance into the society he longed to be a part of, Clopin seems to suggest that the real monster was the line the citizens drew in the sand. The cut by which they enacted a sense of the ‘other’ and, by implication, a sense of ‘self’.

It’s an important point to make: the monster is not that which lies outside our fences; the monster is the fence, the partition, the cut that has been made. Whatever falls outside that cut becomes the threat.

Walls are not just for protection, they are to mark our territory, to insist on a notion of self that must be guarded.

Our boundaries shape us

The fence that incarcerated Harambe and his female companions (as objects of amusement) – the fence which Isaiah scaled – is part of the material/discursive architecture of a society that has shut out the vibrancy of the world. The fence is where scientific, political and onto-epistemological streams congeal. By this I mean that our ways of knowing and being in the world are premised on the notion that we are somehow autonomous and separate from ‘nature’ – from gorillas, from crocodiles, from lions, from barnacles and trees and moats and mountains and wind.

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What makes us separate? Not our bodily configuration[3] or our ability to solve problems. What makes us separate and sovereign is ‘essential’ – variously translated into different contexts as ‘soul’ or ‘sentience’. There are real effects of thinking about the world and ourselves in this way, for if anything is less human, then its greatest service is to serve us, entertain us, or at least be comprehended in its entirety. However, the ‘cut’ that ennobles and essentializes the human self to the exclusion of ‘earth others’ also creates an ‘alienated aliveness’ and an ethical imperative to compensate for our aloneness.

This is the reason why those of us gestating in this modern apparatus are constantly seeking to fill in the gaps (gaps mean we are not doing our jobs well); why not being busy is threatening; why we are mortified by silence and stillness; and, why we are constantly seeking to do more and more and more, faster and faster, if only to keep up the appearances of vitality in this culture of bombast and spectacle. Even for those more conscientious groups committed to seeking some sort of ‘enlightenment’, the invitation to slow down has never been more urgent. We are constantly adding to the lists of things to do, and the list of things to know. It’s yoga and jogging and green tea and conferences and endless self-assurances that we will stay on the bandwagon.

The soul we have not yet met

In some sense, our frenetic pace is a symptom of a deadness modern culture has learned to live with. By deadness I do not mean to suggest that there is a place of aliveness to arrive at; I do not mean to treat culture and nature as separate tropes, where the former is the deviation and the latter the ultimate goal[4]. The accusation here is not that we are dead or not alive, but that our form of aliveness, our way of ‘performing nature’ is as escape – as an exodus from the feared hordes of Egypt and their chariots of nothingness – and as yearned-for approach…a linear progression towards a promised future that converts relationships into utilities that serve our fleeing.

In some other sense, our mad rush of a society is a symptom of the thresholds we are not meeting. The monsters we are not embracing. And it is to these frightening portals, edges and precipices we must head. We are aching to feel. To touch and be touched in return. But we are immersed in a constellation of blind spots that shuts out the dancing colours of things, the polyvocality of worlds, and the possibility that Harambe was less of a threat than he seemed to be.

I do not seek to fantasize about Harambe – to romanticize him. If it were my own daughter trapped in there, I can guarantee you I would have seen only a hulking giant intent on ripping my child apart from limb to limb. I have no morally ‘superior’ recommendations for how that unfortunate event could have played out differently. I will not chastise Isaiah’s father and mother whose parenting cannot be predicated on a single moment of distraction. Neither are there ‘final’ words to be offered to those who sense that an outrageous crime was committed, and someone or some institution (perhaps, the zoo) ought to be held responsible for it.

I however stand in the place where Harambe was shot down – in this site where movement, voice, bodies and longings meet – to account for my embeddedness within a culture that approaches the strange only by making it useful for its entertainment; a culture that fights itself over what was right to do, blind to the fact that what happened in that encounter was more than the outplay of ‘free will’ or ‘choice’. The ethical disorientation of the Harambe incident – not knowing who to blame – might stultify political action, but it is for this very reason that we can perhaps lean into it even more, and stay with its trouble a while longer.

Harambe was never alive to us, his mocking audience. By drawing our lines in the sand and erecting a fence around him, we made him useful for our convenience. We fashioned a creature by the walls we constructed to contain him. The agencies of the fence, the moat, the zoo establishment, the audience and an anthropocentric culture are what killed him.

The thing is that we are not as distinct or as discernible as we think; we are not as ‘human’ as we conclude we are. To isolate the ‘wild’ is to repress aspects of our ‘selves’ and cultivate a sanity that is blind to its mutuality with the world that performs it. And those partitions we installed that created a realm of the user and a realm of the used? They are falling apart. Therefore, to account for Harambe’s death, we must go beyond an atomistic ethics of blame, and pay attention to the entangling influences and effects that occasioned it. We must studiously engage the boundaries we have erected, and how these constituted boundaries simultaneously constitute us. We must move towards the monster, towards the winking edges, towards the precipice…for what lies beyond the threshold are aspects of our soul we haven’t yet met – locked away or converted to deadening utility.

This is Harambe’s last great teaching to us: he wasn’t in the zoo; we are.

[1] Perhaps this is why in a life-threatening situation, we are still inclined to whip out our phones to record the event – as was the case with Harambe and Isaiah.

[2] Is this why the Jewish tradition of not ‘speaking God’s name in vain’ thrived? In rendering God’s name as something that could be spoken, it is said, we defile it, make it less sacred, and perpetuate a blindness of the God’s manifoldness and immeasurability.

[3] We don’t still consider cyborgs or machines ergonomically designed to look and behave exactly like we do as human beings.

[4] This is another instantiation of Enlightenment thinking, which is consequential in how modernity emerged.