Dog Wants Cupcakes: A Brief Reflection on the Emergence of the Face

Curator's Note

This dog wants cupcakes. So says the YouTube title for this home-made video. And yet this same canine has been trained to resist them. The remarkable aspect of this clip is the pained expression on the dog’s face as s/he metaphorically drools for what seems like an eternity. We see the full agony of desire wrestling with self-denial etched across his or her features, to the extent where it tips into the realm of “becoming-human.” It is amusing, because we can relate to the situation. And it is disturbing for this very same reason. After all, human subjectivity is premised on repressing one’s instincts: to eat whenever, to dance wherever, to urinate however, to rut over and over. Such is the discontent of civilization. The reward for such repression – or so we are told – is the ego: the socialized self, suspended between the primal needs of the body, and the internalized strictures of the wider world. Levinas reads the face as an ethical epiphany; the very interface of one’s infinite obligation to do right by the other. In sharp contrast, Deleuze and Guattari consider the face to be “a horror story,” the grotesque all-too-human territorialization of the animal head. The face of the dog in this video embodies both perspectives. It is as if we are seeing a speeded-up time-lapse of not only the emergence of an individual, but the very birth of the human as a species. Since Darwin we are cognizant of the narrative in which the human more or less floats to the surface of the bestial, so that our kind is considered as “animal +”. Indeed such a notion stretches back to Aristotle’s “rational animal.” Stiegler prefers to talk of “hominization” rather than “the human,” which has the advantage of acknowledging the intelligence and technical ingenuities of other creatures. However it also has the disadvantage of collapsing all evolutionary potentialities into a single trajectory: that “humanity” with which we are familiar. So the question this dog poses for a post-human age, through its silent grimace, is whether the face is a universal site of emergence for a shared ontology, or whether it is the opaque reflection of fractal alterity. In other words, can a dog’s ego overlap with a human’s? And if so, what lies within the middle-space of the Venn Diagram? (other than cupcakes, of course).


Thanks, Dominic, for kicking off our week with such an insightful and interesting piece.

For me, the face-to-face encounter with the other tends to reveal the radical alterity of the other rather than demonstrating some shared ontology.  Or, perhaps it's better to say that the uncanniness of the radical alterity is due to the realization of some shared ontology.  The very familiarity of the face is what is so disturbing.  In any case, there is something quite unsettling about the dog's stare.  It reveals a desire that we can interpret, but it is a desire that quite different from human desire.  The interface between the dog's stare and our stare seems to be a productive site of exploration.

Your post also makes me wonder about what happens when "liveliness" is removed from the face.  I'm thinking here of Damien Hirst's work ( or some of the pieces from Body Worlds ( or  What do these "faces of death" show us?  What do they reveal about the ethics of the face?  It seems that there is a similar density to these non-living faces and the face of the living other.  They are both mask and reflection, disturbing for both their similarity to and difference from the (living) human face.

Humanization is a wonderful term here for the various forces at work in this video. Since Pettman has invoked Deleuze and Guattari, it is worth noting that they make distinctions between the “wild” animal and the Oedipalized animal—one that becomes a member of the family. In the cupcake video, the number of constraints on the dog reveal the sad state of affairs of the socially constructing the other. In contrast to this cupcake video, William Wegman dialogues with a dog in Spelling Lesson. In his video Wegman leverages humor pointed against himself, the human who is trying to correct the dog’s spelling. Stupid humans trying to interpellate nature. It is hard to find the humor in the cupcake video where the animal is domesticated and bound to the human.

Is the animal interpellated? Hardly. He is domesticated and perhaps Oedipalized but has minimal standing in the human world—few rights and is property more than person with the social and legal apparatus. With minimal standing, can their be interpellation? Or is another word more functional?

Pettman uses the face as a provocative figure for asking is there a way out of this boxing in of the animal…including the human animal. Is the “minimal standing” and the ability to relate to the face of the animal a way of thinking an outside? I can only hope there are more than cupcakes on the horizon of the posthuman.


Is it the dog's overall facial expression that is so riveting here, or, more specifically I think, the eyes? Ice-blue, fixated on cupcakes, made creepier by a minor key soundtack. . . those eyes seem to be the locus of the horror. The horrors of hominization/subject formation? Domestication? In any case, I have trouble relating to those eyes as we see them in this clip. Radical alterity indeed. Give me a bone over those cupcakes! 

To me the dog looks like a robot. Stains the robot, an instrumental tool, trained to stay away from the human food.

Apart from the evidently disturbing power dynamic at work here (I found the music, and the dog's "audience", most troublesome), the reality, of course, is that if Stains ate the cupcakes he would be momentarily happy but then probably have an upset stomach. He would also make is situation worse for himself by upsetting his master; so his programming is the appropriate response to ensure his long term well-being.

I see the robot as a direct extension of the human ego, and anticipate robots deriving much of their happiness from satisfying their human masters, as dogs do despite the crazy things we make them do. While it is unlikely that future robots will want to eat cupcakes, this does raise the question of whether our robots can be trusted to insure their own health. They will be certain to possess a "wild" side. As a consequence, if it were me, I would be tempted to spoil the robot.

The question is certainly interesting. As we see what looks like pain in Stain's expression as he curtails his desire to please the master,  we recognize both humanize him and recognize his non-human status (that he's a dog). But I don't think these have to be put into a binary, as our discussion seems to be doing. Dominic, I found your phrasing most interesting near the end, "shared ontology," "overlapping egos." For Deleuze and Guattari, the story of the face is one of territorialization, but territorialization is also not perminant. One desiring machine enables a flow that organizes into a different one. So, yes, while we similtaneously recognize and perform Stain's humanization by reading pain in his face, might we also be witnessing a reorganization of the human? Perhaps they, dog and person, share an ontology, but that doesn't mean it has to be "human." 

This might be out of turn, but I just attended a lecture by Elizabeth Wilson who spoke on "Affect and Artificial Intelligence" here at the University of Washington, Seattle.  She spoke of the turn in AI research to affect and the desire to create emotional connection and responses, a relationship between human and machine.  Current projects produce uncanny faces--weird, creepy, too human faces, perhaps.  Technologies which throw in our face what it means to be/relate as humans (as Drew, Ron, Lisa, and Eva have noted).  Also from Wilson's talk, she spoke of Kelly Dobson and her "Blendy" project and Dobson's evocation of machines as a kind of "companion species" (referencing of course Haraway/Tim's comment above speaks to this, too).  It would be interesting here to think of the responses to the above dog in terms of affect but also to think about how this desire for/reading of affect comments upon the relationality between "human" and "non-human."  And might the affective response and affective reading of the dog's face (or a temperamental computer) be a circuit that speaks of the posthuman?

One thing that has always struck me in D+G's various discussions of "becoming" (e.g. becoming-animal) is their vague references to "particle emission." What sort of particles are emitted here? Salivary particles. A gaze. An image of desire... D (and maybe G) follow Bergson in formulating image=mattter=movement. The pertinent question: what sort of becomings do we (and the dog) enter into? There is the becoming-human of the animal that Dominic so beautifully captures in his post. But there is also a becoming-animal of the humans here in their reversion to such cruel disciplinary treatment (or is this more illustrative of control? or perhaps even sovereign power?) of the animal. The arrogant display of dominance exemplified by programs such as this is most troubling insofar as it would seem to be a bad sort of becoming-animal, one that retains and emphasizes the superiority of the human on an animal plane. Behind the scenes I imagine another sort of animal becoming, one in which the humans on the set scarf down the cupcakes after the cameras switch off.

I actually have an extended discussion of "interfaciality" in my book Love and Other Technologies, which does indeed consider the robotic or AI equivalent of Stains (and one can only wonder what Lacan would do with a name like that!). Specifically, I focus on the moment in William Gibson's Idoru, where the protagonist blushes under the gaze of the holographic woman; thereby physiologically acknowledging an ontological ahuman presence. Of course this brings us back to animals, by reminding us of Derrida, blushing while naked in front of his cat. Which is why I think we need to think the posthuman in terms of what I call "the cybernetic triangle" - i.e., animals, humans, machines. The tricky part is to know when to emphasize difference (or specific "excellences" in Glen Mazis' terms), and when to draw attention to the inherent and ongoing overlaps.

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