“Inhuman Caress, or, Cruelty and Vulnerability” A Lecture by Dr. Dejan Lukic

by Terri Pyle, Cohort 19

He brooded on how close destruction always was to all creatures, animals as well as humans, and he realized that there is nothing we can predict or know for certain in this world except death. — Herman Hesse


On October 23, 2021, Professor Dejan Lukic offered an intriguing lecture on the presence of the wound in the animal world, opening with a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche: “One should have more respect for the bashfulness with which nature has hidden behind riddles and iridescent uncertainties” (8).  Lukic corrects Nietzsche’s notion of “bashfulness” and highlights, instead, its violence. His focus on the animal world to represent the ‘absolute present’ is displayed in Huang Yong Ping’s work, Theater of the World and The Bridge (1993), which contains insects and reptiles within an octagonal and snake-like construction connected together.  These two interrelated installations, Theater of the World and The Bridge, are deemed a metaphor for contemporary society as Ping sees it and helps to illuminate Dr. Lukic’s topic of ‘cruelty and vulnerability’ in an amoral world, particularly in the world of insects and reptiles as they devour each other--regardless of who is watching.

“Theater of the World and The Bridge” by Huang Yong Ping 

Intrigued, I explored Ping’s artwork further to discover an interview with Guggenheim Curator Alexandra Munroe and her colleagues who each describe this art installation as, first:  “a roughly octagonal structure that conjures the panopticon, an 18th century building designed by the English social theorist Jeremy Bentham as a model of surveillance.” Co-curator, Philip Tinari, explains its significance:  “The roof of this ‘theater’ resembles a tortoise shell, while the companion work that arches over it, The Bridge, recalls a snake. Together they evoke Xuanwu, a mythological deity with the head and tail of a snake and the body of a tortoise. In Daoist cosmology, the potent union of these two creatures is said to have created the universe. Huang draws freely from such sources to offer a new hybrid system of art and thought.” Curatorial Assistant, Xiaorui Zhu-Nowell, poses interesting questions in response to this artwork: “Is the Theater of the World an insect zoo? A test site where various species of the natural world devour one another? A space for observing the activity of ‘insects’? An architectural form as a closed system? A cross between a panopticon and the shamanistic practice of keeping insects? A metaphor for the conflict among different peoples and cultures? Or, rather, a modern representation of the ancient Chinese character gu, [or] chaos?” (https://www.guggenheim.org/audio/track/theater-of-the-world-and-the-bridge-by-huang-yong-ping)

It is helpful to consider the aforementioned questions in the context of Dr. Lukic’s lecture, as his interest in “the wound” and “rupture of the wound” is represented further in Roger Caillois' essay "Mimicry and Legendary Phsychasthenia."  In this text, Lukic tells us that camouflage insects are skilled at imitation and, even, primitive magic.  That is, they invite one another to a feast, a ritualized feast, and thereupon eat the other to finally eat one’s self.  It is here that Lukic believes there are no ethics in the animal world, and he proposes, ‘ethics is wrong.’  I interpret this statement as nature not following rules but following what comes intrinsically to each animal or insect.  Lukic poses the question:  “What is the price of immanence?”  I wonder, is it the acceptance of cruelty?  Is it the embracing of vulnerability? Is it both?

Lukic then expands upon the idea of immanence with the term “pancare,” which he defines as "care for the entire creation … a rhythmic exchange, and a response to the prevalent shivering of the world …” and hopes through his research of the animal world, nature, and fairy tales, he can take away the distinction between human and non-human.  In the context of planetary aesthetics, Lukic seeks to prove that there is vulnerability (and joy) despite cruelty.  Finally, Lukic believes fairy tales, even more so than mythology, come from a dissatisfaction of the world as it is, and our studies of them could change our disposition of the non-human, as well as the consciousness of the human.


Works Cited and Photo Credit

Callois, Roger. "Mimicry and Legendary Psychasthenia." in October, Vol. 31 (Winter, 1984), pp. 16-32

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science, Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Image: “Theater of the World and The Bridge” by Huang Yong Ping