El nuevo episodio de Planet Earth de BBC nos da un atisbo de nuestro extraño futuro. Los Animales hacen algo a la ciudad y sus espacios; nos recuerdan que no somos realmente libres.
Looking directly into the eyes of a wild animal is a haunting, almost religious experience. The late John Berger describes it in one of his most tender passages: that sense of recognition, the sense that, even though this creature is looking at you across ‘an abyss of non-comprehension,’ it sees you in exactly the same way that you can see it. ‘The animal,’ he writes, ‘has secrets that, unlike the secrets of caves, mountains, seas, are specifically addressed to man.’
London foxes are smart, irreverent, and have little fear of humans; even when they do run away from us it’s slowly and mockingly, turning back to fix you with a sneer over their shoulders. Often they’d just simply watch, half-distracted, curious but not too interested in this strange creature briefly interrupting their territory. Foxes don’t care.
This is the hidden message in the last episode of the BBC’s Planet Earth II, throatily narrated by David Attenborough and broadcasting in the United States this month. Most of the series is gorgeous and disappointing. In each episode we’re introduced to a different type of habitat—islands, jungles, deserts—and shown how the various living things have adapted themselves to it in tiny six-minute vignettes, as if biological life were made up of little stories. But the final episode, showing animals in the city, is spectacular. The natural world is no longer out there, in the eternal wilderness, divided from our own lives by an absolute ontological barrier, and interacting with humanity only insofar as we destroy it. Instead it’s rising up from underneath with a mocking challenge to the world we think we’ve built.
It’s so hard, these days, for many young people to find somewhere affordable to live; the city is foreign to us, controlled by strange and impersonal forces. Sometimes there are moments of riot and revolt: We build barricades across the street and take freely whatever’s behind the shuttered-up sores, until the cops arrive and start enforcing socially produced space with clubs and water cannons. Urban space is political, arranged by a certain configuration of power, and while animals might sometimes find themselves on the receiving end of its discipline, shot or poisoned by quota, for the most part they’re given the freedom of a mutual indifference.
In the first scene of the Planet Earth II episode, we see a territorial battle between langur monkeys in Jodhpur: an alpha male with his harem on the roof of a residential building, defending his territory from a gang of predatory bachelors. The langur’s territory is a spatial product mapped onto the same physical substrate as the human city, but it’s different in every way. Streets are chasms. Telephone and power lines, strung between buildings, are passages; the monkeys leap between them or crawl along with their prehensile feet. Territorial consistency extends horizontally, along the roofs of multiple buildings. The langur-city is dense and wild, the raw information of its material form decoded and recoded in the shifting interactions which which they remake the city every day.
But what the documentary constantly skirts around, what it mentions very briefly and then darts away from, to show us some more pretty creatures behaving oddly, is this: Animals that live in the city are simply not like animals that live in the wildernesses. They’re different things entirely—not more human, they still have very little in common with our subjectivities, but more urban. Animals that live in cities are smarter than their cousins to the point of having measurably larger brains, they have more children, they spend more time at play, they evolve faster. Living in cities presents difficulties that are not present in the wilderness; there’s pollution and disease, disorientating lights and sounds, the direct danger of human predation and the far greater danger of human indifference.
We still don’t know exactly how human consciousness developed. There are some, like the late Princeton psychologist Julian Jaynes, who controversially argue that it didn’t actually emerge until well into the historical period, around the time of the Bronze Age Collapse five thousand years ago, when humans already had cities, social structures, language, and literature—all of which, to some degree, we share with our animal cousins. (As Jacques Derrida points out, a dog pissing against a tree is involved in a certain form of writing.) The forms of social and biological life, even in the hinterlands, are determined by what goes on in cities: their productions of space, their emanations of power.
The modern, rational human being, the one that knows it once descended from animals but along the way turned into something completely different, did not create cities. They created us. And it’s only chauvinism that lets us imagine that we did all the heavy lifting alone, that every jaguar’s lair or falcon’s roost isn’t as much a part of the city as the shopping centers and apartment buildings that have official planning permission. We all constructed these things together. And if humans find themselves alienated, it’s only because we were just the first phase, here to lay the groundwork for something far richer and stranger than we could imagine.