Week 9: Humane Gestures

When we first think of primates and chimpanzees, we usually think of them as a genetic cousin; thanks to good ol’ Darwin, people (who believe in evolution) know that homo sapiens and modern monkeys have evolved from a common ancestor.  However despite this being a common fact, we retain a feeling of superiority over our genetic cousins.  Chimpanzees and Apes don’t rule the earth, and humans aren’t caged in public displays or restricted to natural habitats.  Although we acknowledge our genetic similarities with these ape species, we also tend to notice our differences as well.

However, in last week’s lecture, experimental filmmaker Rachel Mayeri and Professor Deborah Forster’s works really tests the question of difference between the “superior” and the “inferior”.

Out of the few films of Primate Cinema that were shown during class, Apes of a Family struck out as the most controversial one.  It was a film about a chimpanzees in a zoo watching a film about chimpanzees.  The video on the display TV in the monkey pen showed a bunch of human actors in monkey suits emulating monkey-like behavior in a domestic environment.  They groomed each other, performed sexual activities, reacted loudly etc.  Apart from the human “monkeys” there was also a real monkey that interacted with them.  The real seemed to interact with the human actors, and seemed to treat them as real monkeys.  Whether the real one recognized that the others were humans wasn’t completely apparent.  The “audience”, or the monkeys in the zoo, reacted differently to the video on screen with inconsistent results; some monkeys ignored the screen, and some watched.  Some of them made wild noises and even imitated the acts in the TV.

This experiment was for monkey “audiences” and to study their form of communication.  Although the reactions of the monkeys inside the cage were varied unpredictable, they still displayed emotions relating to what they saw on the TV.  Monkeys showed emotion through their own form of expressions such as shaking their arms in a frenzied way or making wild hooting noises.  The things to highlight in the film is to emphasize that non-human species are able to express emotions and communicate intelligently.  This sounds like a really simple and elementary concept, but I think in an era where our generation is getting used to things that are more ephemeral and quick-changing, this is something we should keep in mind.  I think it was an interesting take by Mayeri to try to create primate “entertainment” to try to elicit a response from primates similar to humans watching TV at home.

On the other hand, Deborah Forster’s gesture tests really illuminate how important our minds our in relationship to our bodies.  Through meditation, we gain more control over own bodily functions.  A modern example would be a person looking over the internet while maintaining a bad sitting posture.  He or she is enraptured by the things happening on the screen, which makes him or her unaware of the back pain he or she is having.  But through meditation and self-cognizant treatment, you become more physically aware.

This brings me back to the argument relating to the films of Primate Cinema; primates and monkeys seem to be more cognizant in relation to their physical bodies.  We can see (and not just from the films we saw in lecture) the priorities these animals place on physical needs.  Primates too are intelligent in managing their lifestyles that are vastly different from us, their genetic cousins.  But sometimes cultural biases tend to put a different light upon them.  But I think it’s crucial to us to be not only be aware of own bodies, but of other species as well.

Elliot Yang



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