01/25/2012 12:04 pm ET Updated Mar 24, 2012

Bilious Cruelty Against Bears in the Name of Medicine

Man's fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; man has no advantage over the animal. (Ecclesiastes 3:19)

On Friday, August 5, 2011 AsiaOne published an article drawn from a Chinese media report (possibly this article on Renminbao from February 16, 2011) about an incident at a bile farm. "Mother bear kills cub and then itself" explains that bear bile is used in traditional Chinese medicine and that remote farms extract bile from imprisoned bears daily. Each bear is kept in a "crush cage" and "lives" with a hole punctured in his or her abdomen and gall bladder. "The bears are fitted with an iron vest, as they often try to kill themselves by hitting their stomach as they are unable to bear the pain." Various animals occasionally commit suicide under certain neurological and environmental conditions. It's both incredible and perfectly sensible for bears to often attempt suicide under the conditions of the crush cage.

The scene: The bile farmers prepared to drill a hole in the cub's abdomen. It (the cub's gender isn't given in the article) howled. This noise reached the mother, who broke out of her cage and drove off the humans only to find that she couldn't free her cub. She hugged her child before strangling him or her, then ran headfirst into a wall. We can credit this mother bear with the discovery of a way out of the rigorous experimental conditions imposed by her human masters (the hypothesis "it is possible to make a bear into a bile-machine" would be more honest, if nothing else, than the unarticulated assumption "bears are bile-machines"). In fact, suicide is the only imaginable willed escape from a crush cage, and in killing herself the bear throws back in the face of her human torturers the objecthood they impose on her. She makes herself a corpse. In despair and not without hate, she renders her body useless. The humans understand the bear as pure body; the bear puts this knowledge into effect by demonstrating the value of a mindless bear.

But the more incredible aspect of this homicide-suicide has to be the second act. In the first, the mother is tortured. Her world is impoverished and intensified; she lives only pain, but has not yet succeeded in rupturing her stomach. The crisis arrives with noise, an interruption; the mother recognizes the intentions of the humans wrestling with her cub. The cub is the third term in the parasitic many-one relation between humans and bear; his/her cry functions as the medium of necessity, as the impetus for an invention of justice. The mother chooses death for the flesh of her flesh over the hell of slavery (remember the stories of those enslaved black women in America who chose death for their children). The mother's grief exceeds the feelings of her masters, who know nothing--in fact they deny everything -- of the lives of bears. The mother hugs her child, loves her child until s/he suffocates.

How human this scene appears. And yet. What we see as most human is an image of what is most inhumane. The bile farmers set out to reduce the bear to an organ and instead met an expression of the essence of tragedy. Humans parasitize all; they make all in their own image; they displace their oppressive fears onto the bear by crushing her, and for what? "Bear bile is traditionally used to remove 'heat' from the body as well as treat high fever, liver ailments and sore eyes." Humans heat the bear in order to cool down. It's as though unfeeling thought, a terrifying algorithmic logic, were required to bring un-thought agitations under control. To calm the body, inure the mind. The sore sight of the wretched bear is rendered a salve for sore eyes.

This traditional Chinese medicine is perfectly modern; it traces a circular path around human frailty / mortality anxieties. To assure ourselves of the possibility of keeping ourselves alive, we keep the bear alive in a state of desiring death. We sacrifice the other for our health. Where is our peace of mind?