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Gone to the dogs: canine city

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In their roaming of the streets, dogs transgress the human domination and order of the city

One species that the field of modernist study has been preoccupied with, beyond the human, has been the ‘modern dog’. This new canine is distinct from previous formations of the pooch, distinct as a result of a change in classification. While before the 19th century dogs were often determined by their relation to the labour they performed for humans – working, sporting, pet – from the 1860s onwards dogs were increasingly identified by their breed. 

With the rapid onset of industrialisation and urbanisation in Europe, the ‘working’ dog in particular found itself in a state of technological obsolescence. What was a sheepdog to do when there were no sheep? Breeds like deerhounds and collies were faced with the mercilessness of human tendencies to determine the value of a life by its use-value. Their ‘special talents’ were to be rendered superfluous by the ‘conditions of modernity’, the risk being their possible disappearance, according to English professor Karalyn Kendall-Morwick – unless the dog-passionate reinvented pet-keeping. 

The lap dog existed well before the modernist period, but it was difficult to see how an energetic animal like a collie or German shepherd – used to running around verdant fields – would appeal to flat-owning Londoners who may never have walked through a field themselves. This act of metamorphosis – from specialist worker to ‘domestic companion or show specimen’ in Kendall-Morwick’s words – was a project of reinvention  as fantastical and elaborate as any other fiction. 

A story of animal companionship, JR Ackerley’s 1956 book My Dog Tulip was made into an animated film in 2009

First, the dog had to be reformed into an aesthetic object, defined not by its relation to work or function but by its features. In other words, the dog became determined by its breed. This led to the widescale adoption of a taxonomy that determined the lineage of a dog by its ‘head and coat’, especially in England where breeding became a fashionable pursuit. Kennel clubs developed, and Crufts, the world’s first dog show, began in 1891. The dog became aesthetically defined by way of a project of beautification, engineered by modern breeders who saw it as wholly justifiable in the light of the threat of uselessness and all that may have followed. 

After this project of aestheticisation, no other animal was quite so well invited into the modern household as the dog. Cats might miaow (or ‘mkgnao’ as James Joyce puts it in Ulysses) in disagreement, but the puppy craze of the pandemic suggests a continued fondness for the canine. 

As dogs were fitted into the domestic as fashionable embellishments, our relationship to their bodies changed. The control of their sexual lives became more widespread and invasive, intensifying in the practice of breeding ‘purebreds’ or pedigrees who had an established ancestry. So too began a scheme of systematic vivisection, and the control of dog populations who were either not owned, or not of a sought-after breed.

‘The dog became aesthetically defined by way of a project of beautification, engineered by modern breeders who saw it as wholly justifiable in the light of the threat of uselessness and all that may have followed’

Modernity also exerted its force on the non-human animal in the attempted control of their comportment on the streets, especially the control of their bowels. Domesticated non-human animals were expected to act with the same compunction as domesticated humans; they were not to take their business to the streets. The most compelling account of this can be found in JR Ackerley’s 1956 book My Dog Tulip, an ode to the author’s beloved German shepherd bitch – known in the book by the name of Tulip – who came into his possession by way of an ex-lover. Combining a human and non-human love story with a doggy biography, Ackerley manages to turn the travails of pet ownership into a tragic plot that could rival any of Jane Austen’s. Yet, while Austen never saw fit to discuss the precautions necessary for her protagonists in their multiple-occupancy country estates to shit in peace, Ackerley includes a detailed observation of Tulip’s digestive and urinary patterns and their effect upon the landscape of Richmond, London. 

His focus on what happens south of her belly establishes the intimacies that he shares with Tulip, but it is also indicative of much more than their personal bond. It is a clear-sighted view of the ways in which the conception of modern architecture and the city, built on the ideological ground of ‘progress’ and ‘technology’, is so fixated on the body of the human that it can be forgotten that the city is an ecosystem, not a mono-species state. In a chapter devoted to the workings of Tulip’s bladder and bowel, titled ‘Liquids and Solids’, he explains the difficulty of finding a place in central London for his beloved pet to take a dump in safety and without harassment. Tulip, unknowingly, infringes the statutes that dictate ‘it is an offence for dogs to foul the pavement’, for which both Ackerley and his dog receive a diatribe from an angry cyclist. It is only ‘amid the flotsam and jetsam of wood, bottles, old tin cans, French letters and the swollen bodies of drowned cats, dogs and birds’ on a beach on the River Thames that she is able to tend to a most basic function without castigation or shame. 

‘Combining a human and non-human love story with a doggy biography, Ackerley manages to turn the travails of pet ownership into a tragic plot that could rival any of Jane Austen’s’

With these episodes Acklerley reveals what Kendall-Morwick suggests are ‘the limits of human control’. Ackerley is at his best when he plainly states the obvious: ‘Dogs do not hold up their paws and say “May I?” They simply squat and begin.’ Pointing to the sociologist Tora Holmberg, Kendall-Morwick writes that dogs, and other urban animals, are difficult to discipline, and in this evasion of human control, they ‘transgress legal as well as cultural ordering systems, while roaming the city’. 

In contrast, Tulip’s urine, through Ackerley’s observations, becomes something of a fine epistolary form, a secret code sprayed over the city, subverting the visible landscape with an idiosyncratic odour unavailable to humans. Pre-empting scientific study on the nuances of dog urine, Ackerley writes, ‘Dogs read the world through their noses and write their history in urine. Urine is another and highly complex source of social information; it is a language, a code, a means by which they not only express their feelings and emotions, but communicate and appraise each other.’ He distinguishes two types of pee – ‘necessity’ and ‘social’ – likening the micturition to love letters, even a way of undermining the dominance of the human order by coding the edges of buildings, doorways and parks with a scent – and information – that defies human sensing. 

The pressure exerted by human law and human architecture does not only apply to the human species; we have laws for other species too. For the modern dog, the postmodern dog and all the dogs that follow, there is a demand to participate in urban life in a way that humans find acceptable. But as Kendall-Morwick points out, animals will continue to subvert these laws. 

It is for humans – not dogs – to shift away from a singular understanding of the city as an amalgamation of ‘man-made’ buildings, roads and transport systems. Instead, we should tend to the ways in which urban space is inflected with the desires and actions of multiple species, domesticated and otherwise, many of whom are dependent upon human activity in direct and indirect ways. Were we to tend to the perception of other animals more closely, we might find that the static notion of a city is a falsity; instead it is a living form dependent on a complex web of entangled, precarious beings. 

Lead image: Dogs make their own urinary geographies of the city, working against the grain of who urban accretions are built for, as in Sergio Larrain’s photograph of a wandering hound in Montmartre, Paris, 1959. Credit: Sergio Larrain / Magnum

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