Primate Planet

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“My people will crouch and conspire and plot and plan for the inevitable day of Man’s downfall—the day when he finally and self-destructively turns his weapons against his own kind…. When the sea is a dead sea, and the land is a wasteland….“

I want to write about the difficulty of being open and responsive to otherness, of accepting the potential that the world is bigger and more complex than we may realize, and of accounting for the unknown and its potential for radical transformation. One area where these difficulties are readily apparent is in discussion of monkeys and apes. In Primate Visions, Donna Haraway studies how the cultures of the people who contribute to primate studies are inscribed into studies of nature—namely, through the ways that those cultures are “written into the texts of the lives of monkeys and apes”. The primatologists end up writing themselves into their work on the apes even though many of them seek to see the apes for what they are, to respect their otherness.

This is important in part because apes have long served as stand-ins for the discussion of social issues like dominance and cooperation. Black people are and continue to be the brunt of racist stereotypes comparing them to apes, in order to somehow justify oppressing them by asserting that one group can be lower down some evolutionary ladder (a ladder which, not surprisingly, has largely been defined by whites). This view was seen in discriminatory characatures that circulated before the election of Obama as the US president. Female apes have received particular attention in light of stereotypes that women are somehow closer to nature, even or especially where such closeness is romanticized as maternal instinct. As Haraway shows, similar assumptions and stereotypes about the roles of people of color and women infuse scientific accounts of primate societies.

This failure of imagination, an inability to see the other as a no more than a mirror for the observer and their prejudices, is also evident in the science fiction franchise, The Planet of the Apes. In a general sense, there are two groups of films, those from the 1970s and those that began in 2000. Each group begins with a movie, set in the distant future, where apes run the planet and humans are their slaves. In subsequent films in each group, we are then transported back to the near future, to a world much more similar to the present one, where humans dominate apes. From that starting point, they then tell the history of how apes’ domination of humans arose from their own oppression at human hands.

This is the context for the quotation at the beginning of this post. In the first group of films from the 1970s, this quotation is taken from the speech that Caesar, the leader of the ape revolution, gives at the moment where the insurrection succeeds. The speech hints at how the series is rooted in a critique of dominant civilization’s propensity for warfare and the destruction of nature. That critique dates back to the original novel by the French author Pierre Boulle(later translated into English), which was the source of the first Planet of the Apes movie. Boulle lived and worked in the French colonial territories that later became the contemporary nation of Vietnam, albeit only after considerable efforts at violent repression on the part of both France and, later in the Vietnam War, the US. In this context, the book, and the movie on which it was based, evidences disgust for the militaristic values of western colonialism. But what the book also shows is an assumption that others, given the opportunity to dominate the world, couldn’t do it any better.

So the series is also an apology for colonialism—not because it suggests that the colonials aren’t violent or oppressive, but rather because it suggests that, regardless of how bad they are, there is little alternative. If they didn’t do it, someone else probably would have. So in the same moment where the films critique the dominance of dominance in the world, they also see no way out. Not surprisingly, the films have an apocalyptic character. This contradiction, of wanting something different but being stuck in a cycle of dominance, can be seen in the next part of Caesar’s speech:

“And we will build our own cities in which there will be no place for humans except to serve our ends! And we shall found our own armies, our own religion, our own dynasty! And that day is upon you, now!”

What the speech shows is simply an inversion of the hierarchy, rather than an alternative. Apes will build their own cities, armies, religion, and dynasty—and a dominant dynasty, since he pointedly doesn’t say “dynasties”. It seems to suggest that for any beings to exist, for there to be a community at all, there must be cities, armies, religion, and dynasties. The viewer is not even left open to imagine the possibility of a community without cities or an army, for example.

In a way, the films are caught in a double bind. They want ape society to appear like human society, because the goal is to critique human society. However, in doing so, they foreclose even the pretension to alternatives, to the notion of doing things differently somehow. Yet there is room for variation. Haraway’s Primate Vision shows as much in her detailed analysis of primatology over time, and across different authors and research groups.

Variation within dominance is also evident in the films. Unlike the novel, which was written in the context of French colonialism, the films were produced in the United States. As such, the depiction of the apes rising up brought up old and persistent white fears of slave rebellions of the past, and it also shows the influence of the anti-racist protests led by African Americans in the 1970s. The first film that depicts Caesar’s rebellion, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, originally ended with the rebels killing one of their former human guards. However, apparently this ‘tested poorly’, and so it was replaced by a view of clemency, in which Caesar pardons the guard isntead and gives one additional speech, a speech where he advocates acommodation instead of resistance:

“Now we will put away out hatred. Now we will put down our weapons…. And [those] who were our masters are now our servants. And we, who are not human, can afford to be humane. Destiny is the will of God. And, if it is man’s destiny to be dominated, it is God’s will that he be dominated with compassion and understanding.”

The writers couldn’t imagine a world without domination. Or, to be more generous, without domination they wouldn’t have a plot. So in order to accommodate white audiences who identified with the human oppressors, they give us domination “with compassion”, one that smells of colonial paternalism. The films suggest that apes and humans may not be so different. While this is evidently true in some respects, I’d like to keep open the possibility that assumptions about their similarities with humans might actually be insulting to apes. Similarly, although there is not an accepted alternative to contemporary world dominance, this doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist—only that many of us might not see it, even if it did.