According to the caption, here, this image is, “A raven typing his own name on the typewriter.” The photo was taken by Peter Stackpole, for a 1939 issue of LIFE magazine. I’ve taken a moment to write about some of the threads that can be found here to demonstrate how themes emerge when we trace some of the connections embedded in one simple image. When a raven steps into a place reserved for humans (in front of a typewriter) and considers himself (typing his own name), what does he find? I’ve chosen this image as an icon for our class because I’m interested in what we find when we use writing as a mirror for our humanness.
Of course, the raven here is unlikely to know anything about the meaning of words he is typing. If it’s fair to imagine what non-human animals are thinking in English terms, the thoughts going through his head might be along the lines of, “I do this stupid task so the humans will feed me.” Perhaps there was no real typing at all but just the sprinkling of food onto the typewriter keys to give the viewer the impression of intentional action. What we have here is not the raven’s conscious consideration of self but the play of it for our benefit. More than the writing of a raven’s name through the technology of a typewriter, it is the writing of our own humanness through the sculpting of an animal’s behavior and through the technology of the photo, the magazine, the archive.
This photo was originally accompanied two others. Along with typing, ravens can be seen smoking a pipe and using a rotary dialed telephone. Why were these tasks chosen at that moment in 1939? Perhaps they seemed the most mundane and quintessentially human, for an American audience, and so the most likely to inspire a moment of laughter and disbelief. Today, none of these are common place. We might have ravens googling their names on a laptop or texting a friend. Would today a raven be drinking a beer or smoking a joint (in a state where it is now legal to do so)? In the year 1939, with the Second World War beginning to unfold, and Billie Holiday recording “Strange Fruit,” a haunting song about the lynching of African Americans, what was taken for granted – imagined to always be a part of human life on the Earth? The technologies change but the things that drive us remain.
People are absent from the picture but they are implied everywhere. The trainer who imagined the range of absurd things one could get a raven to do, and painstakingly persuaded these intelligent birds to imitate human conduct, is there just beyond the frame. The table, the room, the typewriter, were all crafted by human hands for human use. The perspective we see is that of the photographer, Peter Stackpole, who held the camera up to his eye to snap one picture among the many he would take for LIFE magazine. The magazine’s production and printing and the subsequent digitization is the work of numerous people working with a variety of artifacts. Perhaps the audience, who bought the magazine and so funded this particular endeavor. In this way, this photo is about the projects of humans to imagine themselves to themselves.
Specifically, in this case, it is a record of a project of people thinking of themselves through animals. While this photo is interesting to the viewer on multiple levels, it may have been primarily expected to evoke a small amazement that these birds are intelligent enough to do such complex tasks. Yet, ravens already do complicated things every day to find food, build nests, and impress each other. Why then have them typing and holding a pipe in their mouths? To demonstrate intelligence, animals are often measured against a specifically human ruler. Are we surprised that they should come up short?
Nature writer, Henry Beston, is often quoted on this point: “We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. …We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.” (The Outermost House, 1928/2003, pg. 25)
A raven typing his own name on the typewriter. A photographer captures an instant in two birds “living by voices we shall never hear.” Who else has her name written here?