Zoo exhibits people behind glass

So now we have 6 people going into a zoo in Adelaide, Australia. Going, not to look at (other) animals, but to be looked at – as if they are animals. A form of monkey, perhaps, they are there to be seen in all the places, and at all their places. Alone, sort of, with one or more of the others. Privacy…gone. They are on public display (AP video spot via USA Today). These 6 people are the zoo.

This is not all new. In the 1800’s and extending into much of the early 20th century, most aboriginal peoples were considered to be “primitives” or “savages.” And some of them were “placed on display” – as if they were “animals.” Perhaps this current display is a “return” to the old days, as new brain science seems to be raising the question of human nature as more fixed or pre-determined than we have been considered, especially since the rise of human rights.

Maybe it is a way of seeing ourselves – and gaining some new insights into the human – maybe insights into other animals, to our ways of observing other species – maybe commentary on whether we should capture and display any species in places like zoos.

From my perspective as a continuing student of the human condition and human nature, this event raises all sorts of thoughts about how to see and observe ourselves:

First, there is little that will happen with or to these persons, that we haven’t already witnessed: nakedness, in or on the toilet, eating, peeing. Nothing that we all don’t do. Maybe sex, maybe clothed. Perhaps interacting with one another, in two’s or three’s or as six.

This moves me back to the question of how we observe humans (and oneself) – to Erving Goffman’s “Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.” Lots of what and who we are is kept out of the public domains: how do we observe the human, when so much of our being remains hidden, at least private. Even more complicated: how do others see us; how do we see ourselves’ seeing?

Much of the study of the human has been done quite narrowly in fairly public domains where even the politics of our being are often masked or not obvious.

Politics are always there, and perhaps clearer or more obvious than they are usually – perhaps quite obscure in the contexts of enclosed spaces. Politics may develop or evolve: an alpha male – or female – might emerge: out of ambition, boredom, wishes to control oneself or others.

Confined to particular space – a kind of prison: a kind of deep freedom since the possibilities of movement and surrounds are so completely determined that they are driven into their own “heads” rather than finding much new or risky to explore as in the ordinary world.

It also reminds me of how I/we observe zoo behavior. I love seeing other animals – except I mourn the fact that they are captives, and in a kind of jail. Then – as an anthropologist-of-the ordinary – I begin to note who’s there (and “who isn’t” – pace Goffman). Kids, kids, kids and their parents of most ages. So much fun to watch them, the politics of different families – different ages of kids, interactions, control…

The Gorilla Viewing Area: photo by John Morton

And there, almost always, there are couples (male and female – in my notings, but then, today might be a different day). And these couples seem to be “into” the kids in a very loving and “hot” way, as if love and procreation are most imminent.

And so the idea of a group of humans (all sort of grown-up from reports so far – and not too far in age from one another, or social class, or ethnicity?) – may help cast new insights into the human condition.

For me, this situation raises many questions: a study of the “zoo,” in its own complicated terms; ways to lead us all to ask ourselves harder questions about observing, beginning with ongoing and historical observations of the observer, namely myself; to ask about the nature of the “zoos” in which all of us live. Why is this happening now: what is the nature of the human condition as it changes in a rapidly changing world?

Most important, it pushes us toward the really tough and historical questions: what ideas are already afloat in our thinking which frame or shape our questions and observations? And, the most difficult: what is the human – nature, behavior, language? The central problems of these times!?