This latest animal stunt from Putin is so ridiculous it’s hard to know where to begin. Previous activities showcasing him as a “manly” wildlife fan have included bare-chested horseback riding, tranquilizing polar bears and tigers, and stroking an octopus. This time, the deeply sinister autocrat co-piloted some sort of microlight, and attempted to lead a flock of young, captive-raised Siberian cranes.
After three brief flights, broadcast widely on Russian TV in some odd footage, Putin returned to earth. “I saw the birds following me on either side. They are beautiful creatures… I am not just doing this for fun.”
Is this self-mythologizing beyond satire? His critics dubbed him “Crane Tsar”; they pointed out that not all the cranes followed their leader; that the crane leader was incompetent and perhaps unloved; comedy bird-riding images went viral.
At a press conference, Putin turned the bird mission into political allegory, calling the Russian people “weak cranes”. Amid all the online piss-taking, buried in comments on youtube, I stumbled upon a plaintive voice:
“I mean how do you know he doesn’t just like it, as a man? You can’t know.”
This person is presumably a Putin apologist, and they get resoundly trolled to oblivion. But maybe there is a sense that something more is going on than a shallow PR stunt. Maybe, in sharing some sense of what it might be like to be a crane, leading a flock, Putin is in some sense “becoming crane”.
Becoming animal is not about aping or mimicking animals, nor literally becoming an animal, but sharing some part of another creature’s lifeworld by enhancing the powers one has, or getting new capabilities if only for a time. It is to enter a zone of proximity. There are many ways to attempt this – through prosthetics like critter cams, the rhythms of hunting, meditating on ravens. In each of these the ‘me’ doing the thing changes: maybe a lot, maybe not a lot. We change not in a transcendent awakening, but in a much more mundane type of ‘becoming’ – changing into something new while continuing to remain the same. There is also an important sense, for D&G of ‘becoming minoritarian’ – stepping outside our own self-certainty.
This all sounds great in theory. It sounds great when we’re talking about a human being as inspiring as Donna Haraway becoming with her dogs (the with is important for her as it signals that we are never alive alone). But critical left-ists have no monopoly on becoming animal: if we follow through, then Putin has to be experiencing an ‘infinitesimal mote of what it means to be companion species’ (Haraway again). Can we say that Putin becomes something different during his crane-flight? Watch the footage. It doesn’t look especially slick or stage-managed to me. He looks awkward, the editing is shoddy; though sure, all other humans are blank figures. In sharing the lifeworld of these orphaned cranes for a short while, did Putin become something other, someone more or less different than he was before?
This is of course unanswerable. And further, how can it even be asked? I mean come on. Putin is such a demonstrable fuckshard that we are implored, required even, shrilly and without hesitation to denounce his undoubted evil. Like lemon on the tongue, the normative certainties of humanist critique are refreshingly irresistible. It must be a stunt. It must be shallow. It must be about politics. We must criticise immediately!
Maybe not. Maybe we can hesitate. Certainly not for Putin’s sake, but for the cranes. For there is something in them that resists; something that exceeds evil autocratic exploitation, as well as our own narrow words of critique: something that soars away from us.