“Since we talked to the dogs”

From an essay by John Berger on Finnish photographer Pentti Sammallahti.

I’ve been thinking at BERG about other senses and empathies engaged by real and robotic dogs as companions, and found this just perfect and lovely.

30 December 2010 - 13.14.55-2

We live our daily lives in a constant exhange with the set of daily appearances surrounding us – often they are very familiar, sometimes they are unexpected and new, but always they confirm us in our lives. They do so even when they are threatening: the sight of a house burning, for example, or a man approaching us with a knife between his teeth, still reminds us (ungently) of our life and its importance. What we habitually see confirms us.

Yet it can happen, suddenly, unexpectedly, and most frequently in the half-light of glimpses, that we catch sight of another visible order which intersects with ours and has nothing to do with it.

The speed of a cinema film is 24 frames per second. God knows how many frames per second flicker past our daily perception. But it is as if at the brief moments I’m talking about, suddenly and disconcertingly we se between two frames. We come upon a part of the visible which wasn’t destined for us. Perhaps it was destined for — night-birds, reindeer, ferrets, eels, whales… Perhaps it was destined not only for animals but for lakes, slow-growing trees, ores, carbon…

Our customary visible order is not the only one: it co-exists with other orders. Stories of fairies, sprites, ogres were a human attempt to come to terms with this co-existence. Hunters are continually aware of it and so can read signs we do not see. Children feel it intuitively, because they have the habit of hiding behind things. There they discover the interstices between different sets of the visible.

Knock! Knock!
Who’s there?
Guess who!

Dogs, with their running legs, sharp noses and developed memory for sounds, are the natural frontier experts of these interstices. Their eyes, whose message often confuses us for it is urgent and mute, are attuned both to the human order and to other visible orders. Perhaps this is why, on so many occasions and for different reasons, we train dogs as guides.

Probably it was a dog who led Sammallahti to the moment and place for taking of each picture. In each one the human order, still in sight, is nevertheless no longer central and is slipping away. The interstices are open.

The result is unsettling for those who are not nomads. There is more solitude, more pain, more dereliction. At the same time, there is an expectancy which we have not experienced since childhood, since we talked to the dogs, listened their secret and kept it to ourselves.

5 comments
  1. I just watched a NOVA program called Dogs Decoded (it’s on Netflix streaming). They went into some recent scientific research on dogs and their relationships to their human companions. It’s fascinating! Apparently, we humans tend to express our emotions more faithfully on the right sides of our faces, and dogs actually read the right sides of our faces. The program mentions the value of all the white that humans have around their irises, it makes our gaze and expression more readable to our animal companions. Just extraordinary stuff.

  2. That is beautiful, essential writing.
    I can no longer image my world(s) without the domestic and wild animals that I have around. Will machines with algorithms that will detect and make new interstices (cochlear implant?) and that “smile” at us while they do it have the same effect? I doubt whether we will be able tell the difference.

  3. Lawrence said:

    That features in his book The Shape of a Pocket, a really insightful read. That passage struck me too

  4. Sam said:

    You might find Donna Harraway’s (2003) “Companion Species Manifesto” of interest. Harraway sets out from the premise ‘what happens when we take dog-human relations seriously’, this facilitates asking questions about contemporary technoscience and how we relate to what the philosopher Bernard Stiegler calls “organised inorganic matter”: http://www.spurse.org/wiki/images/1/14/Haraway,_Companion_Species_Manifesto.pdf

    Her later book (2008) “When species meet” further explores these themes.

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