On 25 October 2014 Dixon Place presented a staged reading of this dialogue.
Excerpt from the final script
THE PROFESSOR: There are people who are passionate about animal rights because they love animals, and they love animals — other animals — more than human beings. They may love animals as a way of escaping their less-agreeable experiences with homo sapiens. This, however, is not me. I don’t even have a cat. And yet I am disturbed by the cruelty of our science, our medical research. I am deeply disturbed. And perhaps what we are going to have to say is that, intellectual that I am, my reaction to this cruelty, to my disturbance, has been to build a theory, a theory by which this cruelty is not only cruel — or not merely cruel? — but also pointless, absurd. Or, extremist that I am, what I am headed toward is asserting that the difference between the dog-torturer and the cancer researcher is not as great as we like to believe. The research is less about knowledge and more about feelings of mastery and power — feelings that are covers for other feelings, for feelings of insufficiency — and for loneliness.
Perhaps what I’d really like to do is to help us get in touch with these feelings, with our loneliness — or “isolation,” perhaps that’s the word I’m looking for. And so the challenge is not to appreciate the otherness — the difference, the distance from us — of a chimpanzee or a dog or even of a tree. These are living things with which we might feel we had at least something in common. Let’s try to get in touch with and respect the otherness of things that are truly other.
CYNTHIA: Rocks, in other words.
PROFESSOR: In my class I pass around photographs that were taken by a young Korean artist, an acquaintance — perhaps a little more than an acquaintance, I once thought, until I found out she was married. In any case, one thing she liked to do was to take pictures from the perspective — that is, from the location along the side of a road — of small rocks she came across in her walks. To my students, as to me, the images do not look like much. But then the question — the homework assignment — what would a rock be doing taking a photograph? Or, if you prefer: How does a rock take a photograph?
CYNTHIA: So, if we are going to “try to get in touch with and respect the otherness of things that are truly other,” rocks are a great place to start.
PROFESSOR: Well — maybe you just want to make fun of me — what with your “Professor of Ignorance” — but yes, rocks are a great place to start.
CYNTHIA, still unimpressed: And they fit somehow with your idea — or with any number of people’s ideas — about how human beings should not be engaged in research that involves harming other living things. Let’s try not to put the audience to sleep.
PROFESSOR: Be gentle with me, Cynthia. Since I have agreed to talk about beliefs rather than ignorance, I’m like a turtle without his shell. Searching for the truth, in less than 24 hours Oedipus lost crown, wife and self-confidence. He transformed himself — the son of a king, himself a king — into a blind beggar.
CYNTHIA, now being gentler with the Professor:
Maybe this can help. I read the other day in the Science Times about how the European Space Agency was experimenting on “water bears” — tiny little creatures that have lived for eons in lakes and oceans, among mosses and lichens. They were taking these “water bears” into outer space. Some of these creatures were exposed only to the vacuum of space, while others were exposed to the vacuum and to ultraviolet radiation as well. I am assuming you are not in favor of this sort of thing.
PROFESSOR, speaking to the audience but not ignoring Cynthia:
You know — we have to admit this, recognize this — our human capacity for engineering is truly extraordinary. I have the sense that, on the one hand, we all do recognize this, and people write about it in various ways, and yet, on the other hand, we take our engineering skill for granted. We do not realize how truly extraordinary it is. I can well imagine that there are other animals who think and communicate with one another in sophisticated ways that we fail to appreciate. There are of course other animals who have developed complex social structures. Some of my freshman students have written fascinating things about what sort of spiritual behaviors plants might engage in, and lots of scientists are writing now about plant language — how plants “talk” to one another.
But look at the tools we human beings make — the quantity, the range, the sophistication.
But — there’s always a but with me, I’m afraid. And I’m not telling you anything you don’t know already. All the things we now make and buy and use with such enthusiasm — and notwithstanding the harm these things might do or are doing to our planet, to other species, to ourselves. Why are we so attached to these things?
It’s as if we were in love with our own ingenuity.
CYNTHIA: So much for relationships. We’re in love with our own ingenuity. Narcissus — the lake — his own reflection.
PROFESSOR: Very good, Cynthia! You’re underemployed.
CYNTHIA: Me and half the people in this room.
PROFESSOR: And yet somewhere in our hearts we feel that the ultimate end of all our progress — of all our under-employment, you might want to say — but also of the wonders of flat-screen TVs, telephone-cameras, GPSes, artificial hearts. At the end of all this awaits immortality.
I can’t help thinking that this is what it’s all about. A hoping against hope — ignoring, pretending — using all our engineering skill, all our products to distract ourselves.
CYNTHIA: From the fact that we’re going to die, you’re saying. From our mortality.
PROFESSOR: Here’s a paradox Tertullian would have appreciated: Destroying species upon species — and taking water bears into outer space — we think we may achieve immortality.
CYNTHIA: I read once — Bob Dylan, maybe. He was talking about when inventions stopped being useful. Or maybe it was — Which was the last invention to be more good than bad? I think he said the light bulb.
PROFESSOR, smiling, relaxing, his voice softening: Oh, thank God, Cynthia. I think we finally found our way to the airplane!
CYNTHIA: Finally, how many minutes in are we?
She checks the time. Then, speaking to the audience, explaining again:
I ended up transcribing the whole interview, snuck it onto our website when Peter wasn’t looking, not that he ever looks. The only thing he believes in — in all his ignorance — is print. Life before the Internet. As if there was no life after it.
And Matthew — he’s not stupid. He was all over that airplane — the Professor’s comments about the airplane.
She imitates Matthew:
“The airplane, not useful, more bad than good. I’d certainly like to hear more about that, Professor.”
And the Professor — of course, he was too full of himself, too happy to finally have a microphone in front of his face — couldn’t not give his lecture about the airplane.
Credit: Illustration is by Richard Delgado.
For the first Professor of Ignorance post click here.
Categories: De la philosophie impure