Saturday, March 5, 2011

Kids' Revolution

For Naomi

Today, perhaps more than ever, parents are plagued by the anxiety that they do not give their children what it takes to get “ahead in life.” After the recent uprisings around the globe, some radically-inclined mothers and fathers might ask themselves another fundamental question: What can I do to make my kids grow up to become good revolutionaries? When the time comes, will they be among those in the street, or will they stay at home and miss the historical moment?

The solution to this pressing problem is simpler than you think. All that the parent needs is a copy of the most revolutionary movie in recent memory. I am referring, of course, to the animated feature, Madagascar. The film begins in the Central Park Zoo, where the caged animals are treated like celebrities, adored by the visitors and pampered by their caretakers. Relinquishing this cozy arrangement, the zebra leads the lion, giraffe and their cohorts to escape from the zoo and experience life in the wild for the first time.

To understand the deep revolutionary spirit of Madagascar, we need to go back for a second to Aristotle. Humans, he points out the obvious, are animals. But they are a special type of animal that possesses the additional capacity for political life. Every animal has a given form of life that it shares with its species. A fish lives its life in one way and a donkey lives its life in another way. But a fish cannot decide one morning to live like a donkey or vice versa. Humans, on the other hand, don’t have to follow such a narrow form of life. They can live in many different ways, speak in many languages, have different occupations, and so on. And how do humans come to change, develop, and share those diverse forms of life? Aristotle’s answer is twofold: first, they need to realize that the aim in life is not just to live, but to have a good life. Second, they need to speak and act with one another in order to pursue this good life together. If both conditions are met, man transforms from just another animal to a political animal (or, in Greek, politikon zoon).

In a regular zoo, the captive animals have no way out. They are doomed to live the life prescribed to them by their biological necessity and by the zookeeper. In the animated zoo presented in Madagascar, however, the animals transform into political animals, since they act and speak with one another, and since they come to ask themselves whether a different life, perhaps a better life, awaits on the other side of the wall. As a result, they can revolt. A similar point is made in another popular animated film, where the question is radicalized even further. Toys are just things. They have no life whatsoever. Kids can do to them whatever they want: play with them, toss them around, stuff them in a box, etc. A pet still maintains a certain level of volition (the puppy can bite the kid), but a toy is absolutely powerless. In Toy Story, however, the toys mount their revenge. Again, by acting and speaking with one another, by transforming into political animals (or political objects?) they are no longer merely impotent playthings. The story of those toys is therefore a revolutionary story, with the child in the role of the great dictator.

The moral is very simple. Human beings, those animals with the additional possibility of living a political life, have a choice. They can just hold on to life itself, which, Aristotle admits, is pretty sweet as such. Like the other animals, they don’t need to question the way they live. They can simply accept it as a given. They don’t need to seek the good life beyond the confines of their already prescribed lifestyle. The other option, which is the more difficult one, arises from a dissatisfaction with the life we live, with a sense that the good life is elsewhere, and that, by speaking and acting with other humans who find themselves in the same condition, we can change this form of life. We can revolutionize or resist or revolt against every aspect of our life, and not only the way we are being governed. When we do so, we become political animals. When we don’t, we are essentially just animals, or maybe even only inanimate objects. In fact, we can barely even be a “we.”

A final clarification. One might assume that living in captivity is an unnatural way for an animal to exist. Trying to escape from the zoo and live in the wild, so it seems, is an attempt to fulfill the animal’s natural destiny, its true essence. But of course, when the animals in Madagascar that were used to the amenities of life in New York find themselves in the middle of the jungle, they realize, like the Woody Allen character, that this is not exactly for them. To paraphrase one of Allen’s zingers, “Have you read the book Jews and Nature? It is very very short!” We may lose the joke if we swap “Jews” for “humans,” but we gain in this way a basic philosophical insight that runs from Aristotle in ancient Greece to Agamben in contemporary Italy. The “good life” that humans try to achieve as political animals is never defined in a particular way. The good revolutionary cause, as basic as it might seem (freedom, democracy, equality, etc.), is not a natural goal that all humans must necessarily achieve. Sometimes the good life does not even lie in our ability to change the world (as in Marx's credo). Sometimes it is enough to simply try, like philosophers do, to interpret it.


Anonymous said...

So would you consider greed as a factor of revolutionizing/revolting/resiting? Greed can push someones idea of the good life to another level, and sometimes that just doesn't stop... What about when someone fulfills their idea of 'the good life' but gradually works up thoughts of getting more from their lives? Then their original satisfaction turns into settling for less and their not as happy with what they got?

-Maureen Algenio

Anonymous said...

Thank you David, this essay is an interesting read. When I try to find out for myself the meaning of a good life, I think about the things I do and how I feel when I do them. If they lead me to my fulfillment, I am happy, however there is so much more about what it means to have a good life. Your essay nevertheless clarifies many of my questions. To be alive is to be active with some kind of autonomy and freedom, to think, to act, to imagine, and reason.

Laura Martin

Matthew Balliro said...

Just a short comment: this post gave me a really entertaining way to think about Agamben's idea of a "bios that is its own zoe" (it's been a while since Homo Sacer, I think that's the gist). It's been something I've been struggling with and somehow thinking about the animals and the zoo made it click for me. Well done!

Lewis Li said...

the blog posted is very much a "clarification" of what has been said, taught, discussed and read for and in class. I really like the ending, that sometimes simply interpreting is enough for a human being. ha, from now on i will be trying to relate movies to real life more than just with what im given as entertainment. This was a very cool, fun example using Madagascar.

Anonymous said...

very interesting.

Anonymous said...


I am really struggling to agree with the statement that interpreting life can be a revolutionary act. I'm a young Philosophy student and, lately, I've been thinking about what we do... it just seems so sterile. I also find it very juvenile to think that interpreting life (as powerful and beautiful as those interpretations might be, like Agamben's) is sufficient in a time when everything seems so needy of our corporeally-active help. In another post you mention life as an academic as the permanent searching for excuses of not having anything relevant to say. What is this profession of ours? We produce some mental candy so other people (which you can count with your fingers) can enjoy it and then those people will recommend our candy to other people and, in the end, we will end up being famous candy makers. And that's it? man... it seems so egocentric, especially now. I don't know, I hope I'm absolutely wrong on this.

Anyway, cheers from Mexico.

Anonymous said...

You are only wrong about one thing: no academic treats the other's publications as "candy." a spinach metaphor would be more apt.