Breathe in breathe out

To live through the days sometimes you moan like deer. Sometimes you sigh. The world says stop that.

– from Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric

Kanye West’s vocalizations, on and off record, have always been heard as barking. Rather than resist this perception, Ye insists on it on Yeezus. The album is “a barking dog high on hubris.” On tracks one through four, Ye “barks about dicks in mouths,” he “barks with animalistic aggression,” “he petulantly barks that he’s a God,” and he “barks about contracts”; track five features “Keef’s thoughtless barks.” Finally, on “I’m In It,” Ye lets an actual dog do this work: in the hook, a canine’s cry marks the off-beats. And in the video version of lead single “Black Skinhead,” three dogs provide a cacophonous intro. They reappear throughout the clip, while Ye bounces and his human body’s boundaries blur.

The dominant conception of the human is predicated on an ugly white twisted fantasy of transcending animality; in order to achieve this humanity one must leave the body, and barking, behind. Ye’s proximity to and collaboration with dogs indicate his refusal to try for this transcendence. Perhaps this seems reckless: to emphasize his embodiment is to confirm what’s already assumed by white supremacy, that black lives are merely matter, that black bodies are more nonhuman than human. But Ye’s racialization assures the impossibility of his transcendence before he opens his mouth. “You know that niggers can’t read,” he says on “New Slaves” – so why are you throwing contracts at him? Likewise: you know that in our culture black bodies are a priori subhuman – so why are you freaked out by his declining to politely petition for full humanity?

Fuck it. C’est la vie (des Noirs).

The boundaries of the human are constantly threatening to blur and must be reinforced via the disavowal of dogs and other deviants – tell me that isn’t insecure – not because dogs are qualitatively different or because some dogs seem aggressive but because all dogs, all bodies, are vulnerable.

from the Watch the Throne album artwork

from the Watch the Throne album artwork

A dog’s supposed lack of speech, her supposedly inarticulate bark, marks her vulnerability. A body’s breath – involuntary, imperative – is even more to the point. Yeezus is avant-rap, industrial rap, future electro, and it’s the album of animal noises that was rumoured to be Ye’s next move after the squawking and roaring of “No Church in the Wild.” There are bodily sounds in addition to barking, like breathing and gasping and panting and screaming, throughout Yeezus.

“You niggers ain’t breathing you gasping,” Ye taunts on “Black Skinhead.” And yet the song’s percussion is partly composed of his own gasping and breathing, and the track is punctuated by his paralinguistic yelps. These yelps become terrified shrieks followed by desperate panting on “I Am a God,” and again, these sounds belie the song’s superficial message: what kind of god ends up bawling like that?

More generally, what kind of god needs to breathe this much? “Bound 2” sounds like a throwback partly because, despite all of the long-ass verses, there are hardly any breath sounds – as on his previous work, Ye has deleted most of them, or used punch-ins, and he’s kept what’s left far away from the listener. Elsewhere on the album, however, one hears, high in the mix, almost every breath he takes. He’d rather not be a swallower (and concomitant to this essay, of course, are considerations of the disavowals Ye makes in constituting himself), but Yeezus declares that he sucks air. This avowal is simultaneously articulated and enacted in the culmination of the album’s centerpiece, “Blood on the Leaves”: “and breathe / And breathe and breathe / And breathe and breathe / And breathe and breathe…And live / And live.”

And this is why West is a perennial source of white worry: the prevailing theme of his work is the persistence of black breath. On the first track of his first album, the fact of black lives past age twenty-five is told as a joke on a culture that is structured to produce black death; later on Dropout, Ye keeps breathing, barely, while observing a Chicago that, today, evokes images from Staten Island: “the view alone will leave you breathless / Try to catch it, it’s kind of hard / Getting choked by detectives…” On Cruel Summer it’s the media that look forward to his death: “They want to find me not breathing like they found Mike.”

But he continues to breathe, not passively or politely but purposefully, pointedly. The video for his first post-Yeezus release, “Only One,” co-stars North West. It opens with the sound of Ye’s breathing, mingled with the somewhat less familiar sound of his laughing. The joke’s on the hope that black life will cease to exist: he’s still alive, and North embodies another kind of hope.

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Works consulted:

Corbell, Laurent Bastien. “Mourners Gather to Remember Andrew Loku, Shot Dead by Toronto Police.” Toronto Star, July 18, 2015.

Curry, Tommy J. “Pessimistic Themes in Kanye West’s Necrophobic Aesthetic: Moving beyond Subjects of Perfection to Understand the New Slave as a Paradigm of Anti-Black Violence.” The Pluralist 9.3, 2014.

Dibben, Nicola. “Understanding Performance Expression in Popular Music Recordings.” Expressiveness in Music Performance: Empirical Approaches Across Styles and Cultures. Eds. Dorottya Fabian, Renee Timmers, Emery Schubert, 2014.

Gumbs, Alexis. “That Transformative Dark Thing.” The New Inquiry, May 19, 2015.

Porco, Alex S. “Throw Yo’ Voice Out: Disability as a Desirable Practice in Hip-Hop Vocal Performance.” Disability Studies Quarterly 34.4, 2014.

Weheliye, Alexander G. “‘Feenin’: Posthuman Voices in Contemporary Black Popular Music.” Social Text 20.2, 2002.

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Cats on turtle island

S. Harper says with a straight face that Canada has “no history of colonialism” and then heads home to cuddle with foster cats from the Ottawa Humane Society. The OHS “cares for” around 7000 cats a year and kills roughly half of them. If the country has no history of colonialism, how did its capital come to be crawling with cats?

S.H. slouches w/ OHS kitten

Obviously Harper wants to erase the fact that the history of “Canada” is the history of a colony. Less obvious is the role that cats play in this history.

Cats were recruited to take part in the colonization of the continent because they are useful to settler agriculture because they kill (native and “invasive”) rodents. This is important work given that settler agriculture helps propel settler expansion and undermine indigenous food sovereignty. Cats continue to contribute to work on farms and ranches (and distilleries), and as the most popular pet on the continent, they contribute to the demand for the products of farms and ranches, too – they consume well over two million tons of “agricultural inputs” per year – and thus help to propel the expansion of settler agriculture from the comfort of settler homes.

The Harpers have found further uses for cats. Steve’s sweater vest was a joke, his handshake with his son was awkward, his classic rock crooning is existentially embarrassing. But his cats are cute, and in their presence some of the worst parts of the PM’s personality – his recalcitrance, his authoritarianism, his imperiousness, his pride – look like cat-like virtues; in the presence of cats, Steve looks human. Laureen, too, helps “put a more human face on the government,” in part by caring about cats – an ideal pet cause because it’s apolitical: cats might be subjects of charity, but they are not Canadian subjects, the federal government has no obligations to them. In sum: cats are a good look for the authors of the latest chapters of the colony’s history.

S.H., L.H., and Stanley

At the Toronto stop of the Just for Cats video festival this past April, Hailey King resisted the Harpers’ narrative. “Raising awareness about cat welfare is a good look for your husband’s upcoming campaign strategy,” King told special guest Laureen. “Don’t you think supporting government action on missing and murdered indigenous women in this country would be a better look?” The problem of homeless cats has the same provenance as the problem of missing and murdered indigenous women; to raise the problem of homeless cats without ever acknowledging this provenance, without mentioning the fact that five hundred years ago there wasn’t a problem because there wasn’t a cat to be found, is one more way of facilitating the erasure of indigenous land and life.

Craig McFarlane’s critiques of the OHS, at Theoria and at Misanthropology, are very helpful – I draw on (and link to) the latest of them above. McFarlane’s discussion of King’s cat festival intervention is another matter.

McFarlane opens by arguing that Laureen Harper does not deserve the appellation “animal advocate,” and that actual animal advocates can support both cats and indigenous women. These points are practical and uncontroversial.

Then he hits AR autopilot and produces an anti-seal hunt screed that is no help to anyone.

S.H. samples seal meat

S.H. samples seal meat

McFarlane reads the Harper government’s defense of Inuit seal hunting as a side effect of the Conservative commitment to northern development and neglects to call nonsense: northern development is incompatible with seal hunting (and will kill way more nonhuman animals). He claims that “literally no one considers seal meat to be edible,” an erasure as audacious as any of Steve’s. He argues that the Inuit defense of seal hunting is the response of a culture that “feels itself to be under siege,” and implies that this response is pathological and misguided. He suggests that we read “an important book, The Sexual Politics of Meat,” but is oblivious to the role that indigenous women play in the feminist tradition that Carol J. Adams works in.

The reference to Adams is telling. Adams argues that speciesism is the fundamental oppression: “Human society takes from the oppression of animals its structures and treatment of people…all forms of oppression can be traced to the treatment of animals by humans.” This wager has been hugely influential and generative; it is at the foundation of the field of animal studies. I make it when I argue that we are going to continue to hear “Blurred Lines” as long as animality is denigrated.

But Adams’ wager is not without risk: it can facilitate the erasure of indigenous land and life. McFarlane suggests that “animal rights activists and Native rights activists should work together.” What he means is that “Native rights activists” should become animal rights activists, should assimilate to veganism, since speciesism structures the oppression of indigenous people in general and indigenous women in particular: “cultures that rape cows (to get milk) also rape women; cultures that easily dispose of vulnerable animals (such as Laureen Harper’s cats) also dispose of vulnerable women; cultures that murder animals also murder women.” Thus: “A Native man slaughtering a seal is no better than a white man slaughtering a Native woman.”

All this homologizing erases indigenous nations that are irreducible to “human society,” that have been on this Island since the beginning of time (i.e. before the cats and cattle – and pigs and chickens – and settlers washed up), and that do things differently. In McFarlane’s telling, epidemic violence against indigenous women became inevitable when the first Inuk speared a seal. In fact, pre-colonization, indigenous nations were mostly matrilineal and sexual violence was rare (as were domesticated food animals); post-colonization, rape is a tool of patriarchal control and genocide. In this context, all forms of oppression might be traced to the treatment of indigenous nations by settler nations; settler colonialism, one might argue, is the fundamental oppression.

So: cultures that steal land and call it property also consider women and other animals property; cultures that try to disappear the original inhabitants of a continent also try to disappear women and other animals; settler colonialism precipitates heteropatriarchy and speciesism.

“That’s a great cause,” L. Harper told Hailey King, “but that’s another night. Tonight we’re here for homeless cats.” Actual animal advocates who are actually interested in building coalitions with nations that have been defending the land and the animals on it forever cannot follow Laureen’s schedule. We need to work toward the return of stolen land, now. We need to understand how our messaging can reproduce racist justifications for colonization, and then change our messaging. We need to read some books that aren’t in the animal studies canon.

And we need to attend to what is incommensurable between decolonization and animal liberation. That means surrendering the comforts of smug certainty. We need to get ready to get unsettled.

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Works consulted:

Anderson, Karen. Chain Her By One Foot: The Subjugation of Women in Seventeenth-Century New France.

Barker, Joanne. “Gender, Sovereignty, Rights: Native Women’s Activism against Social Inequality and Violence in Canada.” American Quarterly, 2008.

Deer, Sarah. “Decolonizing Rape Law: A Native Feminist Synthesis of Safety and Sovereignty.” Wicazo Sa Review, Fall 2009.

Poupart, Lisa M. “The Familiar Face of Genocide: Internalized Oppression among American Indians.” Hypatia, Spring 2003.

Powell, Dylan. “Veganism in the Occupied Territories Pt. II: Decolonization, Land, and ‘Choice’”.

Roque, Sara. Six Miles Deep.

Shupak, Greg. “The Logic of Israeli Violence”.

Wolfe, Patrick. “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native.” Journal of Genocide Research, December 2006.

Animals and aliens only

Battle: Los Angeles is a belaboured attempt to recoup American exceptionalism via the redemption of USMC SSgt. Michael Nantz, 2/5. This attempt fails: American exceptionalism loses the battle, badly, though America wins a war thanks to Nantz.

Ssgt. Nantz salutes his flag

Ssgt. Nantz salutes his flag

Nantz has been a marine for twenty years. He has a file full of commendations and a box full of medals, including a Silver Star earned in Iraq during his most recent tour. Everyone knows the “grimy details” of this tour. Nantz kicked ass, “he went into that compound alone and killed ten insurgents.” But he also got the men – “Kids” – under his command killed. It wasn’t his fault: “There was no right call. You went left you go right it didn’t matter.” When extraterrestrials attack Earth on August 12, 2011, they give the begrimed marine a chance to prove the purity of his character, and they give almost post-Iraq America a chance to prove the unique quality of its military.

Hours before the attack, Nantz submitted his retirement papers, but when the aliens arrive it’s all hands on deck, and the staff sergeant immediately falls into line under the command of 2ndLt. William Martinez. Nantz guides Martinez as the 2ndLt. discovers that graduating first in his class has not prepared him for leading men into alien ambushes; Nantz performs a hasty vivisection on a wounded alien to discover where the invaders might be vulnerable; Nantz pulls some “serious John Wayne shit” to save the platoon from an enemy aircraft; Nantz takes command when Martinez dies; etc., etc., until Nantz coordinates the destruction of an alien command and control center, receives a hero’s welcome at a temporary operating base in the Mojave Desert, declines breakfast, reloads, and heads out for more. Forget Iraq: the guy is a paragon, he’s perfect, his character is unimpeachable.

Except that we can’t forget Iraq because the movie depends on Iraq for the same reason that it depends on shaky cam: it wants to be realistic. And so it turns Los Angeles into Iraq (Fallujah, specifically), which makes marines insurgents. Which makes the warmongers, the invaders, the aliens: Americans.

When Nantz returns from his John Wayne escapade, he tells Martinez “That aircraft was unmanned…Drone.” This syllable evokes horror in those who hear it, it confirms the aliens’ otherness, their evilness, their total lack of scruples. When the protagonists’ platoon is stuck on a freeway, outgunned and about to be overrun, the marines make a car bomb. The car bomb fails to detonate, so 2ndLt. Martinez makes himself a suicide bomber, he blows himself up on a bus. His death is honourable.

“IS THIS AN OCCUPATION?” asks CNN, and a talking head responds that “obviously [the aliens] are here for our resources. When you invade a place for its resources, you wipe out the indigenous population. Those are the rules of any colonization. And right now, we are being colonized.” Thus the alien invasion is a recapitulation not only of America’s imperial adventures in Iraq and elsewhere but of the very founding of America.

Anthony Lane argues that the movie’s battle is supposed to be unambiguous:

Politically, the film is calculated to a tee. The real America remains in the claws of two foreign conflicts that have been morally and practically contentious from the start, so what can fictional Americans do to heal, or temporarily conceal, such wounds? The answer is to engage a hostile force that can be assailed with impunity and without division or debate; to be blunt, it’s not possible to commit atrocities against extraterrestrials.

And yet Battle is a quagmire; American exceptionalism proves untenable; the aliens are us, i.e. they’re the U.S.

American exceptionalism proves untenable; human exceptionalism, however, lives to fight another day.

The marines’ mission is to rescue some civilians caught behind enemy lines: “You get those civilians and you get the hell out of there and you kill anything that is not human.” The first thing they encounter outside of Camp Pendleton Marine Base is not-human, is “Just a little doggy” named Glenn. Moments after Glenn’s appearance, the marines are under attack: the dog is at the vanguard of his fellow not-humans’ assault.

just a little doggy named Glenn

just a little doggy named Glenn

Lcpl. Kerns tentatively identifies with his enemies: “It’s like those things are on overwatch just like us. That one looks like the leader, so now they got leadership.” His fellow marine dismisses his observations as anthropomorphism: “So do ants, Kerns.” Meanwhile, as mentioned, Nantz experiments on a wounded ant-alien.

scenes from a hasty vivisection

scenes from a hasty vivisection

One of the rescued civilians, Michele, is a veterinarian. She helps with the vivisecting. And a few scenes later, when she notices that Nantz was scratched during his John Wayne shit, she tells him “You should have the doc take a look at that.”

“I thought you were a doctor,” he says.

“Animals and aliens only.”

Human exceptionalism is unimpeachable: Michele’s knowledge of the dog and the cat and the rest of not-human creation is applicable to the alien, any alien, but the human is a completely different kind of creature, and totally beyond her ken.

The identification between women and not-humans that enables male exceptionalism proves endurable, too. Pre-attack, Nantz walks into 1stSgt. John Roy’s office and asks “What happened to that picture of us in Iraq with that camel – I mean your girlfriend?”

Later in the film, the platoon speeds through L.A. in an LAV and a Humvee. Aliens appear up ahead. “You know what they say if you’re gonna hit a deer?” asks Nantz. The answer is “Speed up!” (This is not the answer.) When Nantz’ LAV speeds up and hits a deer-alien, the thing is tossed over the LAV and smashes through the windshield of Cpl. Kevin Harris and USAF TSgt. Elena Santos’ Humvee. Santos shoots it; its head explodes. “Are you alright?” asks Harris. This prompts what is arguably the movie’s most ridiculous line: “I’ve got that sticky stuff all over my mouth…Why are you laughing?”

“You let him do you on the first date!” Harris exclaims, exultant, exceptional.

Shooting an elephant

No scene in 5 Broken Cameras challenges the viewer’s credulity like the chicken scene.

The chicken scene opens with Adeeb and Phil looking at a tree full of chickens. Both of them smile and point at the chickens. Surely Emad has said to them “Act like you’re talking about the chickens in the tree.”

a tree full of chickens

a tree full of chickens

While Adeeb and Phil awkwardly point at the chickens, Emad, in voiceover, talks about his two friends. “Through the camera, I see Adeeb’s endurance, Phil’s great spirit,” he says. The camera pans from Adeeb and Phil to the chickens in the tree. “They both have such a love of life.”

Next is a shot of Adeeb sitting in a deck chair. A child squirms in his lap while he (Adeeb) talks about the chickens. “They have a coop,” says Adeeb, “but they won’t go in it. Everyday – wintertime, summertime… They climb the tree everyday.”

“Why?” asks Emad.

Adeeb smiles broadly. He knows his friend has made him the narrator of an obvious allegory. He shrugs, and laughs, and delivers his line: “They have their freedom!”

The chickens are Adeeb and Phil and the rest of the residents of Bil’in: they don’t want to be cooped up, they want to be free, they have such a love of life.

The sheep scene is less difficult to believe.

a sheep resists

a sheep resists

A sheep resists as two men force her through a doorway. Gibreel slumps in a chair and watches. “Gibreel is 4 years old now, so is Bil’in’s resistance,” remarks Emad.

The sheep’s throat is cut. The viewer gets a close-up of her blood spilling across concrete as she continues to try to shake off her killers. Gibreel stays slumped a few feet away. “The only protection I can offer him,” says Emad, “is allowing him to see everything with his own eyes, so he can confront just how vulnerable life is.”

Elsewhere in the film Emad says of the conflict between Bil’in and the IDF and the settlers “It’s an endless cycle”; and he says “People feel that nothing will stop the occupation from its course”; and Phil says “They’ll never take down the wall if they can keep building the settlement. It’s all for nothing!” This fatalism is in the sheep scene, too: the sheep’s death is framed as an inevitable consequence of the vulnerability of life. Gibreel is allowed to see her get slaughtered for the same reason that he is allowed to watch the residents of his town get shoved around and shot at and slaughtered.

The sheep, like the chickens, is Adeeb and Phil and the rest of the residents of Bil’in: she resists violence, but she is vulnerable.

There are many other animals in 5 Broken Cameras: goats, and a horse, and a donkey, and a deer. There are four long shots of birds over Bil’in. (Perhaps these shots are what prompted one reviewer to call the film “a birdsong of perseverance in the face of irrational violence.”) And there is El-Phil, the elephant.

birds over Bil'in

birds over Bil’in

Phil isn’t often fatalistic. Late in the film, Emad says “Phil is the only one who’s still optimistic. He’s like his nickname, ‘the elephant.’ Strong and thick-skinned. But he’s a gentle man.” Emad hopes that Gibreel, too, will become elephant-like: “Gibreel’s skin is so sensitive, even the scratch of a sponge leaves marks on his back. I hope he’ll develop a thick skin fast.”

Everyone in Bil’in is chicken-like and sheep-like, but Phil is the only one we meet who is nicknamed after a nonhuman. So when he falls to the ground dead in the scene that follows the sheep scene, we are both shocked and not.

In December 2013, Gary Yourofsky travelled to the West Bank to speak at Ariel University, about twenty kilometers northeast of Bil’in. Prior to his trip, Yourofsky spoke to Haggai Matar about visiting occupied territory: “I don’t care about Jews or Palestinians…I care about animals, who are the only oppressed, enslaved and tormented beings on this planet…When people start eating up Jew flesh, or seared Palestinian children in between two slices of bread with onions, pickles and mustard, then I’ll be concerned about the Middle East situation.”

5 Broken Cameras is an earnest, artful doc. Had Emad and co-director Guy Davidi chosen a satiric approach, however, it might well have taken the form of a modest proposal: the film is about an occupying power that has already devoured much of Emad and seems to have the best title to Gibreel; it is about a country which would be glad to eat up Emad’s whole nation without any condiments.

Daniel Erlich told Matar that criticisms of Yourofsky are “due to the tendency to put humans at the center of everything – a tendency shared even by some vegans.” Indeed: in Yourofsky’s comments to Matar, nonhumans are “innocent,” passive victims, and humans are heterogeneous victimizers, “Humans are the SCUM of the earth,” humans are uniquely abject and active, humans are unique.

Yourofsky’s right, though: humans are, mostly, SCUM of a sort: our cells are mostly microbes, mostly bacteria and fungi and protists. And we’re chickens and sheep and elephants, too. We share such a love of life with these species, and we share an often fatal vulnerability. We are not unique.

But we’re not homogeneous, either, we are not “we.” The category “human” is a privileged category occupied by a very few hominids. The residents of Bil’in aren’t among them, thus they’re subject to occupation.

Adeeb asks the occupiers, the IDF, “Have you no heart?” And again, later, “Where’s your heart? Your commander has no heart!” He’s asking them to acknowledge their vulnerability, the vulnerability they share with the residents of Bil’in, and with chickens and sheep and elephants. Yourofsky, too, refuses to acknowledge this shared vulnerability. His refusal allies him with an army that makes it easy for vegans to kill elephants, to kill El-Phil.

Robin Thicke has a big dichotomy

I’d assumed that Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” was a celebration of uncertainty. No is synonymous with no – but, I thought the song said, maybe it isn’t? Maybe it could be tentative, or maybe it could get garbled, or maybe one could feign disability: “Maybe I’m going deaf / Maybe I’m going blind / Maybe I’m out of my mind.” Maybe no means maybe.

Then I looked at the lyrics. The song’s speaker, it turns out, is uncomfortable with uncertainty: “I hate these blurred lines,” he whines. The binary that bothers him is not precisely the no/yes thing, it’s “the good-girl/bad-girl thing.” Because how is he to know which kind of girl he’s addressing?

The speaker solves this problem not by asking his addressee if she wants to have sex with him but by collapsing the good-girl/bad-girl binary; the song proposes that good girls are synonymous with bad girls. Thus the addressee is a “good girl” who “Must wanna get nasty,” and thus, again and again, the speaker can aver with certainty “I know you want it.”

The speaker effaces the line between good girls and bad girls by reinscribing the line that separates men from women and other animals: “Okay now he was close / Tried to domesticate you / But you’re an animal / Baby it’s in your nature.” The speaker and his rival are fully human – they transcend animality – but the addressee is synonymous with her physiology, and consent is built into her body. There’s no way out, which makes the next line of the song especially cynical: “Just let me liberate you.”

The speaker’s humanity is signaled in part by his speaking. His addressee isn’t entirely silent, but she certainly doesn’t speak: between “Baby it’s in your nature” and “Just let me liberate you,” low in the mix, she meows.

In sum: the category “animal” underpins the speaker’s logic.

A corollary: an adequate challenge to the speaker’s logic will encompass a critique of the category “animal.”

Robin Thicke points at the camera and looks at Elle Evans; Evans looks at the camera and holds a lamb; Pharell points at the lamb and looks him in the eye.

Robin Thicke points at the camera and looks at Elle Evans; Evans looks at the camera and holds a lamb; Pharell points at the lamb and looks him in the eye.

The speaker’s logic has been understood and underscored – but left unchallenged – by virtually everyone who has adapted the song, beginning with Diane Martel. Hence the “barnyard pizazz” in her music video(s): the bales of hay, the sausage links, the fully human and thus fully clothed performers and their naked chattel: Elle Evans, Emily Ratajkowski, Jessi M’Bengue, a “nasty dog,” and a little lamb.

Nikki and Sara propose to star in a companion video, “for the ladies.” The duo end up cowering and screaming, upset by their (literal) proximity to “#LIVESTOCK” and threatened by the naked male bodies they’ve recruited; their inversion fails.

Nikki and Sara are surrounded by naked men and animals.

Nikki and Sara are surrounded by naked men and animals.

The Law Revue Girls preface their “feminist parody” with an adaptation of the American Humane Association’s empty promise: “NO MEN WERE HARMED IN THE MAKING OF THIS VIDEO.” The Girls maintain control over their unharmed male chattel, in part by putting one on a leash; their inversion is successful insofar as they flip the original’s gender roles. But the speaker’s logic is perpetuated, the category “animal” persists. Likewise in Melinda Hughes’ “Lame Lines”: the roles are reversed, the nonhumans remain. (One commenter asks, “Seriously – is there some special store that rents out goats for music videos?”) Moreover, Hughes follows Thicke in using disability as metaphorical material: “Your dance is spastic…I hate your lame lines.”

l: one Law Revue Girl sits on a director's chair; a mostly naked man crawls toward her, held on a leash by a second Law Revue Girl; r: a topless man holds a baby goat and looks at Amy Machado in Melinda Hughes' "Lame Lines"

l: one Law Revue Girl sits on a director’s chair; a mostly naked man crawls toward her, held on a leash by a second Law Revue Girl; r: a topless man holds a baby goat and looks at Amy Machado in Melinda Hughes’ “Lame Lines”

In Postmodern Jukebox’s bluegrass cover, “You the hottest bitch in this place” becomes “You the hottest gal in this barn”; in Vampire Weekend’s version, it’s “You the hottest fish in this place.” The species isn’t important; the category “animal” is indispensable.

In The Pet Collective's "Furred Lines," a dog looks at the camera while Alyssa Esparza dances above him, her back to the camera.

In The Pet Collective’s “Furred Lines,” a dog looks at the camera while Alyssa Esparza dances above him, her back to the camera.

The original’s “bitch” prompts Jayme Karales to joke that “What ‘Blurred Lines’ is really about is a man…trying to train his adopted dog.” (See also “Furred Lines” by The Pet Collective: “Give you a treat if you’re a good girl / Stay if you want it / Sit if you want it / Beg if you want it.”) (See also “Furred Lines” by the University of Sydney Vet Revue: “I’m gonna be a good vet / I know they want me / I love them furry / I’m trained don’t worry.”) (See also Rob Sheffield’s reading: “He sings ‘good girl’ like he’s cheering up a depressed shih tzu.”) The reading that results is often inadvertently insightful: “the dog’s past owner had failed at taming the animal, but Thicke refuses to give in…we confirm that he’s speaking to an animal, and he proceeds to excuse its [sic] behavior due to its [sic] species.” At least one commenter is convinced: “Very interesting to draw a parallel between treatment of women with treatment of domesticated animals. It points out general dehumanization of women when it comes to their sexuality in media.”

Dehumanization happens when a particular morphology is uniquely valued. Bodies that fit this form – humans – can give consent or be coerced. Others – animals – lack agency; the concepts “consent” and “coercion” cannot apply to them.

The speaker aligns his addressee with animality in order to argue away her agency; “Blurred Lines” is the most controversial song of the decade because so many listeners are compelled to recuperate her humanity, as in Rosalind Peters’ straightforward “Reply”: “Okay now he was close / Tried to domesticate you  / That’s what they do to animals / Baby it’s not your nature!” If the addressee is human, then she can give consent or be coerced, and Thicke’s song is a “rape song” that celebrates coercion, that says no means maybe, no means yes.

This response does not go far enough: it leaves a line between humans and animals unchallenged and merely moves the speaker to the valued side. As a result, dehumanization remains a live option.  Rather than recuperate the addressee’s humanity, I want to argue for trans-species agency: I want dehumanization dead. This entails rejecting the category “animal” altogether, and asking after all of the video’s performers, including the little lamb. Evans, Ratajkowski, and M’Bengue are, in the world of the song, animal, chattel, but in the world proper, their status is ambiguous. The lamb, on the other hand, is always already available to be used by humans: for meat, for wool, for leather, for milk, for science, for entertainment, for anything; the concepts “consent” and “coercion” cannot apply to the lamb. The status of women in our culture continues to be contested – the movement between dehumanization and rehumanization is constant – in part because the lamb’s status is static: he has no agency anywhere, and so is a ready referent for rape song singers.

An anecdote from Evans makes the lamb’s status clear: Pharell “tried to hold it [sic]. The lamb must not have liked him very much, because he kept kicking and violently thrashing, trying to escape…At one point, the lamb actually got loose on set for a minute – he was trotting around, making his little bleat noises, you know – ‘ba-aaa’!’ It [sic] was such a cute thing, he really made everyone smile.” In the speaker’s world, “liberate” means little; in Evans’ anecdote, “escape” and “got loose” are similarly circumscribed.

A baby goat looks at the camera in "Decisions" by Borgore feat. Miley Cyrus; he is held, presumably, by Elle Evans.

A baby goat looks at the camera in “Decisions” by Borgore feat. Miley Cyrus; he is held, presumably, by Elle Evans. (The video was directed by Christian Lamb . . .)

Evans observes that “In my life, I’ve been in two music videos, and in the first one I was holding a baby goat and in the second one I was holding a baby lamb.” The logic of dehumanization lives as long as these bodies are available to be used; “no” remains subject to interpretation in part because lambs cannot be recognized as subject to coercion. Absent a critique of the category “animal” and the biological determinism it assumes, attempts to assert the addressee’s agency are inadequate.

Regarding Robin Thicke’s surname, Diane Martel says it “is strong and I suppose it has subconscious connotations.” Elizabeth Day declares it is “surely one of the best examples of nominative determinism since Rich Ricci became the head of investment banking at Barclays.” In sum it suggests its bearer has a big dick or a small intellect or both.

Thicke’s given name, however, promises that the logic of “Blurred Lines” cannot hold. “Robin” blurs the line that separates men and women as well as the line that separates humans and animals. In 1977, the year that Thicke was born, it was the 408th most popular boy’s name and the 84th most popular girl’s name in the United States. And it was, of course, the 1st most popular name for Thicke’s fellow singers Turdus migratorius.

An American Robin – Turdus migratorius – as sketched by J.J. Audubon (detail)

Every oppressive logic – androcentric, anthropocentric, carnophallogocentric – is fuzzy. Every line we scrawl is blurry. A man and a woman are one. A man and a woman and a robin are one.

No is synonymous with no – this logic has to hold. But Homo sapiens is not synonymous with humanity, and Ovis aries is irreducible to animality. I love these blurred lines, and I think that celebrating them is the only adequate response to haters like Thicke’s speaker.