Author’s Mt-II stress fracture 17 days post-trauma as seen on MRI, transverse and coronal views. Lichtenberg, Berlin, March 19, 2012.

Dogs with bandages

Everywhere I go I see dogs with bandages on their paws. It happened earlier this week. It was coming up on 9am on a Sunday morning at the end of May, the air temperature a dismal 45° F (7° C). A fine, soaking rain had been falling since about 2, and the streets were quiet. I was approaching my corner, togged out for running, my shoes soaked but the rest of me in better shape than anticipated. For most of the run I’d stuck close to the Isar, the river that runs through the center of Munich, shielded from the rain by the tree canopy and a series of overpasses. As I made the corner, I saw a young woman out walking her dog, maybe 35 pounds, with wiry hair pasted down in the damp. On one front paw he—or she, though it’s difficult for me not to say he when I see a dog with a bandaged paw these days—sported a bright blue swatch of vet wrap with gauze sticking out from underneath. He—or she—did not seem to be in much discomfort.

So many ways to read in: the dog’s cast was the same color as the shoes I was wearing (Minimus MR00s, a bit wanting in ground feel), and this was the first time I had run without pain in months. In fact, it was just the second time I’d run outdoors in over a year. I’d started back the week before with an easy, gingerly run that left my right foot irritated, but not unstable feeling, for a full day. This second Sunday I did not think I had it in me to go running. For one thing, I did not have protective clothing. The cold rain sent me back indoors, where a few minutes’ experimentation proved no form of yoga was going to give me the very specific form of tapas I needed. I promised myself 25 minutes. Forty minutes later, passing back under the Mittlererring on the return route, I broke into HIITs.

In March of last year I broke my foot running in Vivo Aqua Lites on a treadmill at a 6.5 percent incline. The distal cause is debatable: I’d been running in low-stack, heel-toe-neutral shoes close to two years, with plenty of time both on asphalt and indoors, and I’d been injury-free the whole time after a series of heel and knee pains in cushioned shoes. The dorsiflexion of a constant 6.5–7 percent incline over an hour’s run three times a week was probably a factor, along with the lunges I was doing in a power cage on alternate days.

The morning I broke my foot, a Friday, I was exhausted. The day before I’d had a blowout fight with my then girlfriend—more of a struggle session, in the Cultural Revolution sense—which entailed sitting in her apartment for five hours while she alternately chain-smoked, accused me of infidelity, and cried. We’d be dating about a month. It’s a tribute to my exhaustion that I did not simply leave after an hour of this. At other times she was one of the most compelling people I’d ever met.

The following week I was to present the target paper in a colloquium at the research institute where I was then a fellow. I was underslept and distracted, alternating manic euphoria and depressive rumination from one day to the next, and it occurred to me, as I booted up the running machine, that I did not have the presence of mind to maintain proper form that day and should probably use the erg instead.

Very specific form of tapas.

I knew something was wrong at minute 39 and had to stop. My foot felt tender and was a bit swollen, but there had been no trauma, no *snap* moment. I hobbled around that weekend enduring further tongue-lashings, gave my paper, and went to Paris for five days, where I hobbled around some more, practiced twice at Rasa, convinced myself the sprain was starting to heal.

Breaking my foot turned out to be one of the best things that’s ever happened to me, though when it was diagnosed, 17 days post-trauma, it felt like the world was ending. In the talk I gave at IDEO in Munich this week I explained a bit why breaking my foot, and spending nearly ten weeks on crutches, proved so productive, personally and professionally, and I’ll do that in another post here at some point.

Here I want to focus on dogs with bandages. And limps and amputations.

As soon as I was up on crutches, I began to encounter dogs with leg injuries everywhere. I was living then on Czarnikauer Straße in the northwest corner of Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin. In the storefront nextdoor was an upholstery workshop, and the upholsterers had a pair of dogs, tawny shepherd mixes, apparently siblings. One of them felt threatened and bared its teeth whenever I approached. The other lay on the sidewalk all day. She was there when I turned in from Driesener Straße in the late afternoons, a rancid odor coming off her, one front paw wrapped in a dirty bandage. She would slap her tail in recognition when I approached and would have been glad had I sat with her all night.

On Schivelbeiner Straße, where I had three long blocks to cover to get from home to the S/U-Bahn station, a German shepherd with a limp seemed forever to be turning into a doorway just as I got to the späti on the corner of Prenzlauer Allee.

I do not want this to be a cute dog story. What I’m trying to get across is the glancing weave of interspecific empathy that lifts the weight of aloneness when we are injured, or becalmed, or feeling excluded. This is something I have been trying to make sense of for two years. It is slippery. We (at least, certain of my colleagues) can talk about posthumanism and biosocial capital and multispecies ethnography and honoring the “agency” of other-than-human “actors”, but none of that helps me understand why I experienced such relief seeing dogs negotiating the same awkwardness of locomotion constrained as I was.

It’s got something to do with the shock of recognition I alluded to in my post on the Shanghai Wild Animal Park, the sudden closing of gap, the unexpected alignment of experience with a being whose way of moving is different from our own.

The philosopher Alice Crary has been writing about the indexical power of species difference, the value of acknowledging that other animals do not have the same kind of personhood as we do, not even aspirationally, that it is the complementary roles different kinds of animate presence play in our lives that gives force to the argument for treating other kinds of animals as subjects.

I’ve said something similar in my talks on the role of the livestock industry in the colonization of Indigenous Australia: it is not that the ways we treat animals raised for food resemble the ways participants in settlement colonization have treated their opposite numbers in the local population. It is, rather, that the two forms of violence represent mutually supporting elements in a single phenomenon.

This is why I’ve never been able to get with the standard arguments for animal liberation, to wit, that species barrier represents just another fictive category difference as race and gender did in the past. To say this is to deny the specificity (locomotor, cognitive, emotional) of other kinds of animals and to establish—whatever we say about up/down criteria like the capacity for pain—an invidious gradient of personhood: how like us is this moving thing?

It is not just the closing of a gap that makes dogs, say, such resonant fellow sufferers. It’s also, of course, that we do not ascribe to them the same responsibility for their actions as we do other human beings, nor the same reflexive and chronesthetic or mental time-traveling capacities, the ability to situate an injury in the longer arc of a life, to understand that it will pass—or that it will endure, and harm one’s life chances.

The fact that other animals lack episodic memory makes them seem stoic in the face of pain, though this too is anthropomorphic projection.

Bah, this is brooding nonsense, but, what the hell, I needed to get it down.