Ape and Écriture: The Chimpanzee as Post-Structuralist

William Plank
Foreign Languages and Literature
Eastern Montana College

[Presented at the Conference of the Society for Literature and Science University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, 1989]

One day while reading Jacques Lacan, I set up a large mirror in the living room and called in my German Shorthair Pointer. I urged him to look at himself. He looked at me with uncertainty, trying as always to do what I wanted of him. Finally he gave up trying to understand, looked at me suspiciously and sniffed the varnished frame of the mirror. Apparently his nose was more important to him than his image. I thought that if he could be an individual without the theories of Lacan, then perhaps I could, too.

1. The subject of this essay is the continuity of biological evolution and the extent to which we may apply principles of animal perceptions, values, and communications to understanding human perceptions, values, and communications. Inversely, it is a discussion of the validity of applying human perceptions, values, and principles of communication, all of which have metaphysical assumptions, to understanding and theorizing about animal perceptions, values, and communications. Generally, the subject of this essay is the problematic (methodology) of trying to understand different species within the overall scope of biological continuity and to determine how far we may insist on that evolutionary continuity to cast light on the different species. This discussion will develop within the greater framework of structural and post-structural theories of signs, semiotics, language, and meaning, and will exploit the sometimes intimidating jargon of the Frenchman, which I will try to define as I go along and for which I apologize in advance. I hope that whatever levity may appear will add to the ferment and will not detract from the seriousness of the project. If primates have a sense of humor, there is no reason why intellectuals may not share it.

2. Extending evolutionary continuity. Comparative anatomists, physiologists and biochemists compare the structure, the DNA, the proteins, and the metabolites of various orders and species in an effort to learn about them from the point of view of biological and evolutionary continuity. Can we extend the same implicit belief in evolutionary continuity to nonbiological elements or does man's use of language leave an unbridgeable gap between him and apes, monkeys, dogs, etc.? Certainly we accept evolutionary and biological continuity to a great extent in medical experimentations but traditionally species chauvinists have balked at attributing language to chimpanzees because somewhere in their heart of hearts they must have realized that they would have to lay most of western metaphysics on the simple pongid, a metaphysics they in some cases were not aware of themselves and certainly preferred to maintain as their own uniquely human property. Even if chimps have failed to discuss Kant, they have succeeded in exchanging bananas. Seen from this point of view, a work such as Sebeok's Speaking of Apes is less a study of linguistic theory and animal communications than it is an implicit effort to justify a western logos and its accompanying metaphysics of presence. We must further deal with the problem of whether the neo-cortical development which makes speech possible justifies a certain biologism which would cause us to include not merely language as a branch of biology, but the application of language as well. Such a procedure would lead toward biologizing communications and thought and philosophy. Biologism, like sociologism and anthropologism, has frequently elicited contempt and indignation from liberal and humanistic intellectuals, but if biologism offers us insights into communications and human thought processes, then its heuristic value ought not to be neglected. For if the human self is a linguistic phenomenon, then the self and language may be understood within a biological context. Teilhard's vision, expunged of its theological and unnecessary baggage, is a beautiful vision.

3. Existence of the individual. Given the impossibility of an absolute definition of species, the individual is a genetic fact and accounts for the variability of a species which otherwise would be deprived of the adaptability necessary for evolution. Its extinction would be guaranteed. Although the existence of the individual is a genetic fact, these individuals are highly--although not completely--standardized by society, culture, and language. This standardization makes possible the human sciences (psychology, sociology, anthropology, linguistics, the theory and criticism of literature), but at the same time it guarantees that these sciences are inexact and statistical by the very nature of the collection of partly standardized individuals they treat. Only a totally definable species could be subjected to an exact sociology. Since the absolutely definable species cannot exist (or at least survive), an exact sociology cannot exist either and none of the human sciences will therefore ever be exact. An exact sociology can exist only for extinct cultures, in which case sociology is called archaeology.

Humans are chemically standardized by the laws of chemistry and physics, therefore making medicine, biochemistry, and biophysics exact sciences. DNA and proteins vary in individuals but pharmacology becomes an exact science because of that chemistry, even though medicines vary in their effect on individuals. In summary, genetic individuals are standardized by their chemistry but only mostly standardized by culture and language.

4. Origin of the individual. Given the genetic reality of the individual, that genetic reality has a standardized yet individual behavior which we have come to call subjectivity. Subjectivity is a term to describe the exaltation the human individual has conferred on himself, on which he has built the entire philosophy of existentialism and the Bill of Rights. In all fairness, this we call subjectivity is probably not without justification even though in its extreme forms and in ignorance of the standardizing influence of culture and language, that philosophy of individualism can be deadly to the very individual it exalts (Plank 19ff.).

5. The individual and the dominant sense. The individual in the "higher" mammalian orders and even "lower" in the phylogenetic scale pretty obviously determines its identity based on the development of a dominant sense. Thus dogs, wolves, etc. maintain individuality and territoriality and develop social behavior largely based on the olfactory sense. Individuality and territoriality are closely related concepts and it is probably intellectually unrewarding to treat them separately. If we accept the intuition of Derrida, that phonocentrism does not determine language, that ecriture (writing) is a concept which assimilates all signifiers, whether phonic or graphic (or "grammic"), then if we do not admit the existence of an olfactory signifier we become guilty of a species chauvinism based on our lack of a good nose. The olfactory signifier brings up the possibility or the positing of an olfactory signified (returning to a more Sausurrian terminology) and therefore to the problem of a universal olfactory signifier, a nasal Platonism. If this proposal sounds ridiculous it is because:

  1. the signifier-signified way of dealing with things is invalid and has been demonstrated to be so by applying it to animal perceptions, so that applying such things to animal perceptions is an apparent reductio ad absurdum which reveals the absurdity of a proposition even when applied to human perceptions, or

  2. it is logical that a being (the reader) whose sense of identity is visual rather than olfactory would fail to find it valid.

  3. Derrida's grammatology, reducing everything to écriture, is a vision-based theory and therefore is either wrong, unproductive, or inapt to describe the bases of animal communications and therefore is species chauvinistic. If it fails to describe olfactory signifiers in animals it is an example of how the appeal to theories regarding human perceptions may be checked against animal perceptions to see whether they may remain valid for either species--which was the stated subject of this essay in section 1. Such species chauvinism would damage our original project of trying to gain new intuitions within the idea of evolutionary and biological continuity.

6. Visual identity: Goffman, Sartre, Derrida, Lacan. Higher primates, however, especially man, determine identity visually. This is not a very surprising idea until we realize that many modern theories of self and identity are based on the visual. Visual identity seems so normal to us that we hoot at an olfactory signifier which we cannot detect and do not think to attach irrefragably an evolutionary development of the eye and bipedalism to visual origins of identity. Evolutionary development of the eye and bipedalism thus have produced such theories as the dramaturgical sociology of Erving Goffman in which identity is prepared in the backstage dressing-room area of life and then brought forth on the stage of daily existence in an effort to control the image thus prepared. Sartre's theories of identity are heavily based on visual stimuli: The Look of the Other (le regard) is the basis of the nature of being perceived by other people and sets up a whole vision of the self as a metastable entity oscillating between one's view of one's self and the visual opinion of the Other. Numerous Sartrean characters derive feelings of personal superiority by seeing without being seen. Entire monographs have been successfully devoted to studying the identifying function of mirrors in the works of Sartre, demonstrating among other things the unexpected usefulness of recondite literary studies to suspicious graduate students and dubious editors. Derrida's rejection of phonocentrism as a test for language and his assimilating of language to the manipulation of the signifier as écriture is likewise the disconcerting maneuver of a visually oriented animal (as I suggested in section 5). I believe that écriture is basically a visually inspired concept even if its general intuition is that of the instituted trace engraved into a chaotic archécriture (archewriting).

The specular stage in the theories of psychogenesis of Jacques Lacan is a major use of the visual in identifying the self and because it can provide some curious ideas when applied to animal "selves" deserves to be treated at slightly greater length. Readers familiar with Lacan may reasonably skip this section. His well hidden ideas are fairly lucidly revealed by J.B. Fages. The specular (mirror stage), however, is complicated by another stage, the symbolic, which supercedes and completes the specular for human psychic maturity and normalcy, a stage attained through the narrow defile of language and metaphor. The specular (mirror stage) is not an original idea with Lacan, but is used and researched by other psychologists and gives every appearance of being an authentic event in general human psychogenesis, emphasizing thus the importance of bipedalism and the mammalian eye in the development of individual identity.

7. Summary of Lacan. There are three stages in the development of the child between the ages of six and eighteen months in the mirror (specular, imaginaire) stage: (a) the image in the mirror is a reality like any other, and the child (or simian) may look behind the mirror for the reality, (b) the child stops treating it as a real object and will not look behind the mirror for an other; to this point his reaction is like that of a monkey, (c) he recognizes it as his own image. This is the stage of the imaginaire, a term not translatable very well as imaginary, but more as "imagic." This is a progressive process in his evolution towards being a subject. Identifying himself with an image which is not himself permits him to recognize himself, contributes to recognizing himself as a separate physical body.

He likewise identifies himself with another. There is a confusion between himself and the other, even identifying his body with that of others. An other is treated as his double. Such is the nature of his original relation to his mother, in which the child does not really distinguish his body from his surroundings. (Sartre called the differentiating process "nihilation" and made it a conscious process in an existential philosophy--or psychology--based on reflective consciousness.) But between sixteen and eighteen months, by identifying himself with an image which is not himself, he ends up recognizing himself. It is the first "drame de l'existence" (Fages 15), and anticipates his maturation.

Psychotic children may show anguish at their mirror image, as chimpanzees reared in isolation seem also to show (Desmond 188), and seem frozen, turned to stone. Now the child must move out of this mirror, specular, imaginary stage into the "stade du symbolique," the stage of the symbolic. Otherwise, he remains in the imaginaire as an expression of his mother. He moves into this symbolic stage through the arrival of an element which deprives him of the ability to identify himself with the mother, i.e., the father, the Lacanian phallus (name of the father). The access to the symbolic and subject status is through the Oedipus structure or triad (child, mother, father-phallus).

The Oedipus structure has three stages also: (a) This is the same stage as the third stage of the mirror, specular stage, i.e., the imaginary, in which the child identifies with the mother. The Oedipus thus overlaps with the specular. (b) The father arrives, deprives the child of mother's bed, and of the possibility of the identification with the mother. (c) The child, forced to name the father as the origin of the absence of the mother, performs a metaphorical, linguistic substitution, entering thus to true selfhood by the metaphorical, symbolic event, through the pathway of language. The "phallus" is the "name of the father" in Lacan's explanation of the symbolic nature of the Oedipus structure. The phallus is the symbolic entity which arrives to introduce the structure of difference into the "specular" imaginary non-differentiation of child and mother. As such, the child attains selfhood as metaphor, whereas the name of the father (phallus) substitutes for the specular identification with the mother. It could be demonstrated that Sartrean differentiation is also heavily based on the denominating power of language (v. Plank, 1981).

The human self is realized through a substitution (i.e., metaphor), otherwise the child would remain identified with the mother. The reality of the human self is a substitution, made possible by the existence of the symbolic. Lacan's Oedipus explains the differentiation of the child from his mother as a reality of metaphoric substitution in the structure of difference of the family triad, the reality of which is metaphoric substitution. Reality is symbol and the self is actualized (constituted) by language in the signifier-signified structure (where, however, for Lacan, the role of the signifier is dominant over the signified, which is actualized by the signifier). Neurosis is the failure to accede to the symbolic and to remain in the imaginaire. The Lacanian phallus acts as a differentiation factor to give the child the aptitude to give the name of the father as the cause of the absence of the mother. This access to the symbolic order is access to language, culture, and civilization. Through linguistic elements and symbol the child can then exercise, repeat, prolong, and play out the expression of his desire or desires for that which is absent.

According to Lacan, his doctrine is "founded on the fact that the subconscious has the radical structure of language, that a material is in play there which operates according to laws which are those discoverable in the study of real languages (langues positives), of languages which are or were spoken" (my translation, Fages 20). The subject is thus constituted by the symbolic order, for language means the relation of signified to signifier. It would appear that anything which removes the visual mother forces the arrival of the symbolic and that deprivation of the visual triggers the symbolic or at least true selfhood, the authentic functioning individual.

We will now have to deal with such questions as whether the chimp, if he has no language, can have (in Lacanian terms) a self, or a subconscious, and whether Lacan's ideas force us to the conclusion, with Descartes, that he is an automaton or whether we have to reject Lacan's ideas based on the apparent absurdity of their application to chimps, or whether I may simply be wrong in attempting to judge Lacan based on applying his ideas to chimpanzees. Obviously, I prefer not to consider the latter possibility since it would mean the end of the discussion.

8. Ape language and metaphysics. Thinkers who seek to determine whether the chimpanzee really uses language (or more extreme yet, human language) have to ask themselves whether the chimp "really" knows what he is talking about. Desmond phrases the question thus:

If apes can use our words, then they might invest them with different meanings. Surely a cat is a "cat" for both chimp and man, but is "sorry" (a word in all ape vocabularies)? Even though our "cat" might describe the same object, it is equally possible that our two species conceptualize the animal differently. It is, however, in ethically loaded words like "sorry" that the real crunch comes, since their human meaning presupposes a human social structure. And finally, just to introduce a piece of interpretive pandemonium, what about "think" a word used by the first symbolizing gorilla? How can two species whose brains differ come to the same understanding of a word which describes brain states? (Desmond 22)

The above citation requires many metaphysical preassumptions about the nature of language, meaning, and reality. Who is to say, after all, whether the human speaker knows the "true" meaning of the word he uses. In this case, the question about the nature of human language is included in the definition of ape language. "Can the chimp understand the symbolic nature of the lexigram?" (Desmond, plate 15). Does the chimpanzee know the "real" meaning of the word in American Sign Language or of the lexigram on the machine keyboard? These questions presuppose that the symbol has a meaning which is connected to a stable referent, and/or that stable referents exist.

Let us rephrase the question in terms of structural and post-structural linguistic theories. The basis behind such questions is the belief that signifiers have signifieds which are stable (even transcendental) and assumes the theological and metaphysical existence of Platonic ideals, or Universals, or at the very least of Aristotelian concepts, i.e., the existence of the apparent in which is contained the real (ideal), that Universals exist as they are given form in the world of the apparent, but that they exist nevertheless. In this sense, language and meaning can exist because the signifier is present to the truly, really existing truth of the ideal. With a reality to correspond to, the chimpanzee may then be judged on whether he has knowledge of the ideal so that his signifier can be present to it. The hidden question in all such questions about the nature of ape language is "Is the ape a Platonist?" "Does the ape accept the western logos?" "Does the ape operate according to the metaphysics of presence?" And the final implicit question, "Does the ape have a soul?" For in order to function according to the metaphysics of presence and the western logos, it would go without saying that Washoe has to have a soul! It behooves us to deny the chimp access to human language because of the implications about the nature of his soul, for in Platonism that soul communicates with the Ideal in the mind of God in order for that signifier and the world of the apparent to have real meaning by the existence of the Universal and Ideal. It is not only, therefore, that we must wonder about the ape's use of the words "sorry" and "think," but especially if the ape can communicate without a soul, if he can use human language without a soul and a knowledge of the Universal, then perhaps man likewise can, and the Universal as basis for knowledge and morality is not even a useful and valid concept for man. If the ape can be demonstrated to use human language, then he becomes a subversive in western metaphysics, a fly in the theological ointment as distasteful as was the Copernican theory of the universe. Evolutionary continuity extended to ideas is a little shocking! We have just got used to the idea that we are almost identical to upper primates in the configuration of DNA.

The possibility of the soul or the subjectivity we may find shocking. But such terms may very well be outmoded unless we are willing to declare that subjectivity is interspecific, or that animals have "non-theological" souls, which begins to sound a little silly. We find ourselves reluctant to talk about soul and subjectivity in apes or dogs or cats and rats because such terms are bound tightly to a theological existence from which animals must be excluded, and the nature of their consciousness poses great problems. Our metaphysical inability to attribute subjectivity to animals because of our theological background (or the unconscious theological nostalgia of many atheists) begins to get in the way of understanding animal consciousness and even the consciousness of man.

Western philosophy might have been changed if Descartes had had a good dog, if he had been emotionally unable to deprive Rover of a soul because of the way he begged at the dinner table or the way he wagged his tail, licked his master's hand, and sat on his foot in front of the evening fire. But depriving the animal of a soul, turning him into an insensitive automaton good for the table of the vivisectionist, keeping him in his place is still an important ploy in the aristocracy of homo sapiens. Linguists who deny language to the chimpanzee on the grounds that he does not "really" know what he is saying, (a) are applying their belief in the signifier-signified duality for the origin of language and meaning, (b) operating on the Platonistic metaphysics of presence and the logos, implicitly insisting that the chimpanzee should be a Christian in order to have droit de cité, (c) as scientists who would not knowingly allow religion to influence their analyses of language or biology, who would not insist that the animal has no feelings because for theological reasons Descartes deprived him of a soul, these thinkers go ahead and apply a Cartesian model to animal psychism by replacing the concept of a soul with the concept of true language, thereby getting the same result Descartes got. It is no longer the "soul" or lack thereof which is the true measure of animality, it is language which keeps the animal in his place and homo sapiens in his. But as we shall soon see, all we have to do is change the definition of language and Pongo and Homo become brothers.

If modern linguists deprive the animal of true language, they therefore deny him selfhood, deny subjectivity to a genetic individual, and even hoot at the idea that the concept of subjectivity may be used in speaking of animals. By thinking back to our summary of Jacques Lacan in section 7 and the role of language and metaphor in the development of the subject, we have to wonder what happens in the mental evolution from puppy to dog, or in the separation of the young chimp from his mother and how he takes on his role as other-than-his-mother in chimp society. Either the chimp does have language (seen from this problematic) or he would have to achieve otherness without the Lacanian Oedipus, which is based on language and metaphor, on the signifier-signified duality, on metaphorical replacement, and on the role of the father-phallus.

But if the baby chimp can separate from his mother without language and the Oedipus and become an individual in the family-tribe, as it is perfectly obvious that he can do, then why can't we? On the other hand, the chimpanzee does have a mommy and a daddy--and having these parents, why may he not have a metaphor, too? The possibility arises that he many not have to be aware of the metaphorical replacement for the Oedipus to function for an animal, that the metaphor of the family triad (or whatever structure of difference is in play in chimpanzee society) operates to provide his individuality without his awareness or intention.

Another major possibility is that the chimpanzee is a Deleuzian, that considering the chimpanzee in relation to theories of human language makes him a demon for the human chauvinist for it makes him the functional equivalent of the Deleuzian anti-Oedipus, the anti-capitalist schizoanalytic, the demonstration of the truth of the autoproductive unconscious. My German shorthair, Nimrod, has a Deleuzian autoproductive unconscious which allows him a subjectivity without the Oedipus, without language, without metaphor, without knowing "really" what the nature of the reality is to which a symbol-signifier corresponds. The conclusion is that access to individuality (subjectivity) is an inexorable biological, physiological, evolutionary event which does not need the beautiful but superfluous system of Jacques Lacan to be understood or to come into existence. Thus, if we are unable to accept Deleuze's accusations that Lacan's system is a bourgeois-capitalist daddy-mommy structure forced on the autoproductive unconscious, I would recommend that we can at least see it as a species-chauvinist structure forced on the continuity of biological evolution and that it may in all likelihood prevent us from understanding human consciousness in terms of the totality of life, on a Nietzschean will to power.

It is not difficult on the other hand to reach the general conclusion that the name of the phallus as metaphor which gives complete selfhood to the human is probably inaccessible to the chimpanzee and the gorilla. The conclusions:

  1. the chimpanzee self is radically different from the human self and consequently so is his whole society. If such is the case, then a certain human chauvinism is justified and intuitions about the human from thinking about animals are denied us, or

  2. Lacan is simply wrong. He has contrived a very clever, beautiful, and esoteric system to explain how humans become mature selves, but the fact that the chimpanzee does become an adult chimpanzee without it proves it can be done and that therefore the whole idea that the "name of the phallus" within the bosom of the Oedipal triad produces a complete individual is simply unnecessary, that becoming a true adult self is a biological, endocrinological, sociological event. Otherwise the chimp and the hound dog are perpetual neurotics or adolescents. In fact, dogs do exhibit signs of adolescent dog behavior in the home from which they have never been expelled by their human "mothers," never being forced to become "adults."

  3. Deaf people are different selves from hearing people, since the "name of the phallus" must be of a different nature. Derrida's écriture, denying the definition of language as phonocentrism, seems to be supported by well-adjusted deaf people. Hans Furth concluded that phonic structure in the deaf is replaced by some other kind of structure. Thus, language has a much wider definition than "phonocentrism." Becoming a self may be a much "simpler" biological endocrinological event than the specular-metaphorical psychogenesis of Lacan would allow us to believe./*/

9. Cross-modal matching, the signified as sensorial consensus, the angular gyrus as origin of Idealism. Desmond (109ff) defines cross-modal matching by illustration: each sense feeds raw data into a specific area of the cerebral cortex concerned with its interpretation; here a unique representation of reality as scanned by that one sense can be fashioned. An orange can be felt, seen, smelled, tasted and so on; each of these sense organs then relays the information to its own cortical association area where respective sense-dimensions of the orange are analyzed. "Reality" as interpreted by individual senses thus emerges in remarkable, diverse guises. Indeed, a sensuous infinity separates the feel and sight of apparently the same object (110). The various senses report their information to a central area for correlation and the creation of a central image of the particular object in question. The location of this "neo-cortical crossroads" was suggested by Harvard's Geschwind:

In man, the cortical association areas of the brain, each responsible for interpreting the senses of vision, touch and hearing, are clustered round and plugged into a structure known as the angular gyrus. (Desmond 111)

Tactile information is not automatically visual information, visual information is not automatically gustatory information. Each must be processed in the human inferior parietal lobule, where are the angular and supramarginal gyri. The angular gyrus, as the reader may see, makes a mess out of nominalism--because the word is no longer necessary as the origin and support of the universal. By the same token, it embarrasses the Platonic Ideal and the Aristotelian concept by making them unnecessary for intellectual functioning, sense perception, and judgment. On the other hand, by providing an anatomical-physiological origin of general ideas, it strongly suggests that a signified may develop early in the life of the organism as a neurological consensus. And if there is the basis for a neurologically existing signified, then all the semiotic theories which are based on the signifier-signified models are strengthened and Derrida's signifier chains are reduced almost to naught. The claim that speech is an essential requirement for sense association can no longer be maintained.

Now, it has been demonstrated by Davenport and Rogers that apes have cross-modal matching abilities (Desmond 113). It has been detected in rhesus and capuchin monkeys (115). I would suggest that Pavlov's dog could not have salivated at the bell without cross-modal ability of some kind. Geschwind was adamant:

...it cannot be argued that the ability to form cross-modal associations depends on already having speech...; the ability to acquire speech has as a prerequisite the ability to form cross-modal associations. (quoted by Desmond 113)

It appears possible and probable that "one needs some sort of free-floating supramodal 'image,' divorced from any one sense, before a name tag can be hung on it," and there is a neural center to do just that. It seems that the angular gyrus creates an embarrassment for post-structuralism. The angular gyrus is the cybernetic organ for the creation of signifieds, signifieds which Plato made divine as the Ideal...signifieds which supply the basis for a metaphorical replacement which makes Lacan's theories more probable but which also makes it embarrassingly possible that the chimpanzee is a Lacanian subjectivity, and so is the monkey and the dog, and we are all brothers under the skin. Allow me to remind the reader that the subject of this essay is not proving one or the other, but the attempt to demonstrate the validity of comparing animal and human communications and "ideas" within the preconception of evolutionary continuity.

There is thus a neural basis for Platonism, nominalism, Aristotelian conceptualism, Saussurian linguistics, Lacanian psychiatry, and the enthusiastic writings of Lévi-Strauss on the arts, etc., which use the signifier-signified model. It would seem to weaken Derrida's idea that there are only signifiers of signifiers (signifier chains) but on the other hand it strengthens the idea of Derridean écriture, which does away with the mere phonic signifier (as the test for language); and by extending the definition to include the instituted trace in its visual form, allows us likewise to use the angular gyrus and cross-modal association to reinforce the idea of the olfactory signifier of which we spoke at the beginning of the essay in relation to a dominant sense which provides the basis for identity.

By teaching apes the use of symbols, "we can gauge the type of pre-existent concepts and logical relations embedded deep within the pongid mind." The point is to "map these words on to ape minds to uncover equivalent logical operations" (Desmond 119). Washoe was an enthusiastic "skimmer" of glossy magazines. But

Merest mention of apes picture "reading" for pleasure is greeted by rank incredulity followed by flirtatious excitement, the kind of confused response Lyell felt for Darwin. Yet all the ingredients are housed in the ape cranium: symbolic representation is second nature to fluent chimps, their mind's eye "imagery" is probably propositional in structure, allowing them mentally to operate on the world and play out their strategies for success (reason by any other name).... (Desmond 125)

Now we are ready to answer the question: Why have apes not used language before? I propose a simple-minded and simplistic answer: because no one ever tried to talk to them before. Since the ape has an angular gyrus for the formation of "signifieds," we might as well suggest that his brain is an example of preadaption (a respectable concept in biological evolution) to speech, or at least to the use of symbols, at the very least of access to Derridean écriture.

The crucial point is that apes take readily to words, gestures, or type: symbols which may take on idiosyncratic ape meanings and may even be manipulated according to a unique syntax--we still do not know. These symbols form a surface topography, allowing us to map out the subterranean representational processes of the mind. (Desmond 127)

It is the last sentence of this quotation which interests me most: it supports Lacan's thesis that the mind, and the subconscious mind, have the structure of language and it suggests, based on a study of chimpanzee communication and mentality, that there is a Lacanian connection between mind, subjectivity, and language (symbol). In Deleuzian terms, the ape has the capacity to be "bourgeoisified." But many humans have been embourgeoisifié and there is no reason why a political event may not have scientific reality, why organisms other than man may not have the capacity to be standardized by capitalism and power. Such an assumption makes Deleuze a moralist rather than a scientist.

10. The origin of value. There can be no doubt whatsoever that the chimpanzee wields signifiers, whether in the Saussurian, Lacanian, or Derridean signified-less sense. We have just seen what metaphysical baggage we can lay onto Pongo when we attribute language to him, but what about questions of value as they are related to concepts of work, appetite preference, and the manipulation of signifiers? A brief remark in reference to Marx and Baudrillard is in order. Is not mere appetite preference enough to establish the nature of the value of a product or do we have to get involved in signifiers again? It has been said that Newtonian physics is good enough to get you to the supermarket and back but not good enough to provide a deep understanding of the behavior of matter and energy. Chimpanzees prefer chocolate to bananas, and bananas to bean cake. I cannot without species chauvinism deny the ape a basic value system based on appetite, since I have granted him the manipulation of signifiers. The chimpanzee carefully chooses and prepares a twig for the collection of termites, spending hours at the occupation. Is this "labor" for the chimp, or is his food collection only fun? Are these termites not the equivalent of Locke's acorns? By labor in collecting these termites does he not create value as such influential thinkers in economic history as Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and Karl Marx (use-value) have proclaimed? I would have to draw the line (for the present) at Baudrillardian hyperreality. Baudrillard's vision of the manipulation of the signifier effectively assimilates all of modern human culture to his special definition of consumption, in which consumption goes far beyond but without totally rejecting the role of a practical use-value. Modern human consumer-society values are a function of the use of the signifier in a condition of hyperreality, where it is basically the product as signifier which is the entity consumed and to which value and reality are assigned. But I can imagine a chimpanzee, without too much science fiction, before the console of his machine replacing the banana, in the absence of a banana, by the lexigram and struggling with his colleague over mastery of the machine which displays the lexigrams. At least, Marx's ideas of the origin of value in use-value preserve a certain biological continuity between us and the animals.

11. Conclusion. Considering the ape's communication as language allows us to introduce him to almost everything else that is human and to evaluate its validity for humans as well. Since our theories about language are inextricably bound up with thought, value, meaning, morality, etc., the chimp which uses language has got himself in human hot water. The absurdity of some human ideas when applied to pongids, dogs, etc., reveals their absurdity when applied to humans as well. Such a procedure is that of the cartoonist Larson, as Stephen Jay Gould pointed out in the foreword to The Far Side, Gallery 3. It has, moreover, an ancient lineage, going back at least to Aesop and folk literature.

We have seen several paradoxical conclusions:

  1. There is reason to doubt the necessity for the complexity of the theories of Jacques Lacan's psychogenesis.

  2. The theories of Jacques Derrida, which deny phonocentrism as a test for language by using the concept of écriture, enlarge the scope of the definition of language so much as to allow us to posit an olfactory signifier and to use Derridean terminology to avoid the western metaphysical baggage (logos and the metaphysics of presence) when seeking to understand chimp and human within the framework of evolutionary continuity;

  3. Derrida's signifier manipulation provides a vocabulary in which to consider human and ape communication, even the signifiers used by much more phylogenetically distant organisms;

  4. Animals may use unconscious metaphorical systems of difference to achieve individuation, suggesting that they may be unconscious in humans, too, allowing us to see the similarity of humans and animals within the concept of Gilles Deleuze's autoproductive unconscious;

  5. The angular gyrus suggests some validity to the idea of a "general image" and would lend strength to a more traditional semiotic of sign-referent and signifier-signified, even if the Derridean signifier chain simplifies talking about human and animal communication and thinking.

We have seen that, depending on our definition of language and the ramifications of that definition for theories of thought and meaning, the pongid may be a Platonist, an Aristotelian conceptualist, a Marxist, a phenomenologist, a structuralist, a poststructuralist, an incipient post-modernist, a Deleuzian schizo-analyst with an autoproductive unconscious, or an automaton. It ought to make us think before we join any of those clubs ourselves. If the chimp manipulates signifiers, then he may manipulate signifier chains, even if his syntax is not much more than a surrealistic word association. Thus he achieves meaning in the same way a Derridean does in the scandalous manipulation of the signifier. The chimpanzee may even come to know the pleasure of the signifier as Roland Barthes described the basis for literary enjoyment in Le Plaisir du texte.

If the phrase "meaning of life" means anything and is not too corny to use anymore, I would suggest that this meaning gains texture and depth of intuition when we put it in the context of biological evolution, when we go beyond human philosophical concepts, when we check our human ideas and behavior against animal behavior, and when we put that meaning in the context of evolutionary continuity rather than within the frequently parochial human moralities and theologies. The concept of communication in the animal kingdom gives us a ground of comparison and suggests the extension of biology into the realm of ideas. Since biology itself is a philosophy which probably does not escape metaphysics, we ought not to flinch at the intrusion of biology into philosophy.


* H.R. Furth in his extensive research into the intelligence of the deaf ran a series of tests on concept discovery, memory, perception, and logical classification and came to the following conclusion:

...the major significance of the reported findings for the theories of thinking is the demonstration that logical, intelligent thinking does not need the support of a symbolic system, as it exists in the living language of a society. Thinking is undoubtedly an internal system, a hierarchical ordering within the person of his interaction with the world. The symbol system of language mirrors and in a certain way expresses that internal organization. However, the internal organization of intelligence is not dependent on the language system; on the contrary, comprehension and use of the ready-made language is dependent on the structure of the intelligence. (228)[Back]


Barthes, Roland. The Pleasure of the Text. New York: Hill and Wang, 1975. (Tr. by Miller of Le Plaisir du texte. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1973.)

Baudrillard, Jean. Selected Writings. Ed. Mark Poster. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. New York: Viking Penguin, 1977. (Tr. of L'Anti-Oedipe. Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1972.)

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974. (Tr. by G. Spivak of De La Grammatologie.)

Desmond, A. The Ape's Reflexion. New York: Dial Press, 1979.

Fages, J.B. Comprendre Jacques Lacan. Toulouse: Edouard Privat, 1971.

Furth, Hans G. Thinking Without Language, Psychological Implications of Deafness. New York: Free Press, 1966.

Goffman, Erving. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Garden City, NJ: Doubleday, 1959.

Gould, Stephen Jay. "Introduction." Gary Larson, The Far Side: Gallery 3. Kansas City: Andrews and McMeel, 1984.

Plank, William. Gulag 65. A Humanist Looks at Aging. New York and Bern: Peter Lang, 1989.

---. Sartre and Surrealism. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1981.

Sebeok, Thomas. Speaking of Apes. New York and London: Plenum Press, 1980.

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