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A gift for Santino on 'being and time'

February 14, 2011

Ssssh. Don’t tell Santino, but a package is on its way to him in Sweden.

Will he like the gift? Ron Broglio, an assistant professor of English, certainly hopes so, because he put a lot of thought into selecting just the right present. Not to mention writing a fairly hefty check for the postage.

Broglio has never met Santino, but he thinks the gift – a copy of philosopher Martin Heidegger’s book “Being and Time,” wrapped in brown paper and placed in a hand-made wooden box – will catch Santino’s fancy.

If nothing else, Santino can throw the book at someone. Santino is, after all, a chimpanzee who is noted for throwing rocks at visitors to the Furuvik Zoo in Furuvik, Sweden – and most important, having the forethought, or temporality, to collect rocks and stockpile them to have them handy for tossing.

In other words, Santino plans ahead, in a very human-like way.

So why send a book about philosophy to a chimpanzee in Sweden who can’t even read? And even cradle it in a specially made box that was crafted by an artisan in Georgia specifically for this project?

OK, it’s a bit of “performance art,” but it’s also a window into Broglio’s research on how philosophy and aesthetics can help us rethink the relationship betweens humans and the environment, and between humans and animals.

And, it’s a commentary on how humans control animals, and how humans may attribute human sensibilities to animals that may not exist: The Swedish zookeepers castrated Santino because they believed his rock-throwing was an aggressive act against humans.

“What got me started on this project is Santino’s documented sense of forethought and interestingly that this forethought was seen to be an aggression against humans,” Broglio said. “The zookeepers castrated Santino as a mode of control over his behavior and future plans. His castration is an interesting coda and raises issues of human-animal relations. Most animal handlers and vets will note that castration does not have the same weight and psychological effect in animals as it does in humans.

“It does highlight how the chimp is placed in a human-controlled environment. We are the environment for these animals and we are poised with the question: What is our responsibility to them? I have empathy for this animal.”

The story of Santino and the research done by Swedish scientist Mathias Osvath has made the rounds at universities, and it’s even received coverage in major newspapers. “This is quite a remarkable event. I didn’t think it would catch on,” Broglio said.

“It really stayed with me because of the temporality – other animals have temporality, but this is a documented case.”

Broglio, who began his academic career studying and teaching English Romantic poetry and art, became interested in the animal-human relationship when he began thinking about how animals were represented in poetry and art.

“We share the same Earth, but we’re in different worlds,” Broglio said of animals. “We can’t access that world. We know there’s something there. How do you acknowledge that? How do you make a gesture to them? How can we open our hands to something we don’t know?”

“Santino’s Gift,” which is the name of Broglio’s project, is, in a way, a protest about how animals such as Santino are treated.

“Enough people go the moral route such as protesting at zoos, but that’s very flat. It doesn’t get to the complexity of the issue. I thought an absurdist gesture would be more fitting. The joke’s not so much on him but us. What are we doing in relationship to these animals?”

So, Santino is getting a book as his gift, and Santino’s gift to Broglio – and all other humans – was “throwing the rocks and knocking us off our pedestals,” Broglio said.

How will Broglio know that Santino has received his book in the handmade wooden box?

Besides sending the package with a return confirmation, Broglio enclosed a note to Santino in English and Swedish, and a self-stamped (with Swedish stamps, of course), self-addressed postcard for Santino to send when he’s opened the box.

Some people may regard “Santino’s Gift” as a silly prank, but Broglio also sees it as a community project, and a way to get people to think about how animals are thought about and treated.

Broglio enlisted his friend Hugh Crawford, and his son Charlie, in Georgia to make the box without using any electric tools. (The box was made by hand, Broglio explained, because Heidegger believed that animal hands grasp but don’t open, “by which he means that animal hands do not participate with the mind in thinking. In other words, for Heidegger, the hand is shorthand for human thinking. Making a gift for Santino by hand is lending him a human hand in his non-human but very thoughtful thinking.”) And, ASU faculty member Cajsa Baldini translated the note to Santino into Swedish. English Department associate research professional Bruce Matsunaga made a film of Broglio wrapping the package. And, the process is documented as part of an exhibit titled “Origins,” on view Feb. 1-April 29 at the Institute for Humanities Research, Social Sciences Building room 109.

Why the Heidegger book, specifically?

“The preeminent philosopher Martin Heidegger uses forethought as the scaffolding for explaining human uniqueness in his work ‘Being and Time,’” Broglio said. “Visualizing a future allows humans to plan and build, to make objects function as equipment toward future ends, and to fashion technology.”

As of today, there’s no word from Sweden about the delivery of “Santino’s Gift,” and what Santino thought about it. Stay tuned.

In addition to his faculty position in the ASU Department of English, Broglio is a senior scholar at the Global Institute of Sustainability at ASU. He has written on ethics and livestock husbandry, and he has participated in and published with a number of scholarly animal studies groups in the United States and the United Kingdom.

He occasionally shows art and curates at local galleries. Broglio continues publishing on the visionary poet William Blake and writes occasional essays on digital humanities. He has received fellowships at the Huntington Library, The Yale Center for British Art and was a visiting scholar in residence fellowship at the University of Waterloo. He has served in editor positions for Romantic Circles and Configurations. Broglio's essays appear in Journal of Visual Culture, New Formations, The Wordsworth Circle, Praxis, TEXT Technology, and Visible Language among other publications.