Crisis of Humanism, Alternative Biopolitics and Developmentalism in Latin American Animal Literature (1950 – 1970)

Oscar Sebastian Tellini

#II. inside animals / animals inside

i. humans and nonhumans

spring, 2022

Animals share the same planet with humans and, since prehistoric times, they have been subject of various human artistic representations, such as cave paintings and sculptures. With social and technological transformations, cultural references to the animal world begin to appear in written form, in the texts of thinkers and philosophers. Most of the philosophical writings that have remained intact until nowadays reveal that, within Western philosophy, until the last decades of the previous century the human-animal relationship has been conceived by emphasizing the oppositions between humans and animals and by claiming the superiority of the human being due to its capacity of reason.

After Aristotle’s writings, the most famous are those of Descartes (1596-1650) and Kant (1724-1804), which have not only influenced the development that philosophical thought was to follow with respect to the question of the animal, but also, and above all, the way in which the human being was going to relate to animals, and to the environment of which the animal is part, in everyday life. Indeed, as the American ecofeminist philosopher Carolyn Merchant (1980) points out, between the 16th and 18th centuries the human thought of domination over animals and nature began to extend beyond the religious and philosophical spheres and to spread in the social and political domains to legitimize the industrialization of the period and the related exploitation of the environment. 

However, since the last decades of the 20th century and with the upsurge of the current ecological crisis, the animal question produced a turn in culture, with the emergence of Animal Studies. Animal Studies is a branch of cultural studies which challenges that tradition of Western philosophical thought by highlighting the affinities and contiguities between human beings and animals and by advancing new ways of understanding the animal beyond Western cultural currents. Within Animal Studies, the human-animal relationship has been studied through a variety of philosophical poststructuralist approaches (Deleuze, Guattari, 2002; Berger, 2009; Derrida, 2008); from biopolitics and its emphasis on the control over life, bodies and populations and on the political significance intrinsic to biological bodies (Agamben, 1998); from an ecological perspective that is primarily concerned with the ecological consequences of certain types of relationships that humans establish with animals (Wolfe, 2003; Hesie, 2016); and from a critical perspective which focuses on the animal to explore racial and social class issues (Gossett, 2015; Ko & Ko, 2017). It is through these latest cultural approaches to the animal that the human-animal dichotomy is destabilized, as the animal begins to be considered no longer as a being ”other pure and primitive” (Wolfe, 2003: 17), but rather as a part that constitutes the human being itself. 

Although Animal Studies emerged in the last decades of the 20th century accompanying the rise of the awareness about the environmental destruction, Latin American literature, which is the expression on which I will focus in the following chapters, has been notably concerned about the status of the animal, the human-animal relationship, the treatment of animals and the ethical awareness about the animal from more remote times. 

Within Animal Studies there is a distinction between the focus on the animal and the idea of animality. While the former implies a concern for the living conditions of non-human animals, the latter does not express a clear interest for the defence and welfare of animals. Rather, starting from representations of the animal in cultural products, it aims to analyse how cultural ideas about animals are constructed and to initiate discussions related to, for example, human politics, ideas of otherness fixed in culture and the condition of human beings (Lundblad, 2009). In this essay, my approach to the animal combines the focus on the animal and the focus on animality since, starting from Latin American literary representations of animals, I reflect both on the life and conditions of real animals as well as on issues related to human identity, politics and economy.

untitled, Mark Peckmezian

II. Animals in the cage, the death of the metaphor and the crisis of humanism

An influential literary critic within Latin American Animal Studies is the Argentinian Julieta Yelin. In her literary analyses, Yelin (2009, 2010) draws from the theoretical perspectives of the philosopher John Berger (2009), who has reflected on the contiguities between humans and animals and on the place that animals occupy in modern times. Berger (ibid.) underlines that both humans and animals are dominated by a deep incomprehension when they meet the gaze of another being, and he concludes that language is an element that supports a false superiority of the human being with respect to animals insofar as it allows the human being to attenuate this incomprehension by communicating and finding a confirmation in the other. However, this incomprehension continues to dominate the human being, who realizes it when he finds himself in front of another being with whom he can not communicate through language. Berger (ibid.) also analyses the nature of the encounter between humans and animals in zoological gardens and indicates that in these spaces it is possible to experience how animals, although they are physically close to human beings, are isolated from their natural context and completely marginalized. Thus, in a zoo, when crossing the gaze of an animal, the human being can only feel infinitely alone and realize that there is no longer any type of authentic relationship with the other.

Starting from Berger’s (2009) ideas, Yelin (2009) explores the capacities of literary language to challenge an anthropocentric perspective. She points out that a literature which wishes to break any hierarchy between human and animal is filled with metamorphic processes, zones of passage and transitional becomings that are neither human nor animal but rather zones in which human and animal coexist and are indistinguishable. Yelin (2010) also explores how the animal presence in Latin American literature illustrates the crisis of humanism in its questioning of human identity. To do so, she analyses the short poetic proses in Bestiario by Juan José Arreola (1918-2001) and the Zoos by João Guimarães Rosa (1908-1967), in which the animal is located in zoos or similar environments where human violence against animals materializes. It is worth mentioning here that, as Yelin (ibid.) underlines, “post-war writers frequently went to the zoo, the botanical garden, the aquarium, as if looking for a way – the only one, perhaps, after the brutal effects of Nazism – to talk about the human world” (ibid., 3, my translation). According to the literary critic, the rupture of the tradition of animal metaphors in these works highlights an intimate link between human and animal and foregrounds a space where the distinction between human and animal becomes imperceptible, thus questioning the identity of human beings. The metaphorical ruptures in the literary language criticize the disappearance of animals in modern times at the same time that they are expression of the identity loss of the narrator (and of the whole humanity): looking at animals in the zoological garden, the observer neither recognizes the animal nor himself and is therefore unable to establish an equivalent relationship with the animal through language and metaphors. These works thus highlight a bond between human and animal which is generated by a shared precariousness: the human being, who had always defined himself in relation to the animal, no longer recognizing the exploited animal in front of him in the zoo and becoming unable to have a natural contact with the gaze of that animal, is now no longer able to recognize and define himself.

II. Strange Shapes and Animal Bodies for Alternative Biopolitics

Another influential study in Latin American animal criticism is Formas Comunes. Animalidad, Cultura, Biopolítica (2014), in which Gabriel Giorgi traces a genealogy of the animal in Latin American culture. Giorgi (ibid.) underlines that since the sixties the distinction between human and animal begins to become precarious, leaving space for an animal life that commence to function as an organic, affective, material and political “continuum” (ibid., 12, italics in original) with the human. Giorgi (ibid.) points out that the animal presence in Latin American literature of the period shatters a series of distinctions such as nature/culture, irrational/rational, alive/dead, which had ordered and classified bodies and forms of life, thus sustaining a neoliberal market order. Starting from Giorgio Agamben (1998), who through his conception of bare life underlines that “the novelty of modern biopolitics is, strictly speaking, that biology is, as such, immediately political and vice versa” (ibid., 187, my translation), Giorgi (2014) suggests that this animal literature, which emphasizes diseases, passions and affections of both human and animal bodies, and in which bodies which are neither human nor animal appear without defined shapes and borders, proposes alternative biopolitics as a reflection on the ethics of the living. Therefore, following Giorgi’s reasoning, through the abundance of animal figurations that break the human-animal opposition in literary works, Latin American culture of the sixties offers tools to destabilize biopolitics which traces the Foucauldian distinction between lives that deserve to be lived and lives to be abandoned. In other words, through its animal configurations, this literature questions a body-centered politics by inviting us to reflect on concerns linked to economy and politics as forms of control over bodies, lives and populations. 

IV. Critical Zoographies of Developmentalism

The 1960s coincide with developmentalism in Latin America, a period in which the environmental impact of development narratives linked to the expansion of economic models to maximize productivity by extracting natural resources were becoming evident (Svampa and Antonelli, 2009: 15, 114). With the main purpose of counter-acting Communism in the region, the United States implemented a series of economic programs which began to use the country’s resources to support development in Latin American countries, whose economic stagnations represented a threat to the United States itself (Heffes, French, 2021: 211). This period was marked by an important advance in industrialization, as well as by efforts to displace product manufacturing into the regions, in the company of ideas of progress (ibid.). These industrialization processes had immense human and ecological costs with harmful consequences for Latin American ecosystems (ibid., 213). In this context of development, the animal becomes part of an imaginary linked to production and performance (food, furniture, remedies), to human entertainment (zoos) and to industrial sectors (medical, weapons, technological) (González Gallinas, 2015: 6) that would lead to great extinctions of species, in many cases due to the alteration of their habitats. 

In the short story Alta Cocina by Amparo Dávila, a narrative voice painfully remembers the moment when he witnessed some snails from the market being cooked in the home of a bourgeois family. The human narrative voice is able to perceive the suffering of these beings and painfully alludes to the fact that they were torn from the earth to be taken to the market and, thereafter, destined to die in the haute cuisine. I argue that the presence of a shared pain between the dying animals and the observer narrator shatters, in Alta cocina, the human animal opposition as if to criticize the tearing of the animals from their natural environment and their sale in the market. In the 23 short poetic proses which constitute Juan José Arreola’s Bestiario, the narrator and observer metaphorically compares the animals in the zoological garden of Chapultepec with industrial machines or animal products while he alludes to the environment from which they were torn away to be taken to the zoo. I argue that, through this metaphorical language, the short poetic narratives highlight a state of shared precariousness between human and animal – precariousness that is caused precisely by the irruption of industrial elements that overlap both the voice of the narrator and the animal configurations – which allows the emergence of a judgment regarding the rapid industrial development of the moment and its consequences on both human and non-human communities. Finally, in the 38 poems of the poetry collection El gran zoo by Nicolás Guillén, the poetic voice mingles the animal with institutions, military and technological objects, classes of people from various social backgrounds and meteorological phenomena. According to Schulz-Cruz (1992), El gran zoo raises a criticism towards corrupt institutions and demagogues that appear, in animal forms, caged inside the zoo as a metaphor of society. From his side, Valle (2003) argues that the book aims to foreground vices and misfortunes of contemporary civilization.

Collectively, these three works produce a literary-critical animal discourse of the narratives of progress in Latin American developmentalism due to the fact that the animal configurations raise critical questions regarding the industrialization, the commodification and the disappearance of the animal as well as the exploitation of the environment. Although in a different way, the idea of animal disappearance is central in these three works. In Bestiario the animal disappears from the environment when it is captured to be brought to the zoo; in Alta cocina the animal disappears from the environment and ends up being cooked in a pot; in El gran zoo, the animal disappears as it is blurred between technological and military objects. The foregrounding of the animal torn from the environment and the evocation of products and objects obtained from the industrialization of the animal – such as sausages, clothes and soap – in Arreola; the highlighting of the horror of the snails in the pan whose screams structure a cultural history of Mexican bourgeois gastronomy in Dávila; and the animal put in contiguity with a list of objects that include weapons, human beings and institutions in sarcastic visions of the space race and of the confidence in modern technological development in Guillén, can be said to constitute instances of criticism of developmentalism in these three works.

V. Conclusion

In conclusion, Latin American literature of between the late 1950s and early 1970s shows that in the Latin American culture of the time the animal was not conceived as a being ”other pure and primitive” (Wolfe, 2003: 17), as the criticism from which the more recent Western Animal Studies starts. Indeed, the gift borne by this literature is its desire and ability to shatter – despite using language which is an exclusively human domain – any human-animal opposition and to bring to light a series of contiguities between humans and animals. By foregrounding an intimate relationship between humans and animals, this literature leads us to reflect on the identity of human beings in a period in which both anthropocentrism and the certainties of humanism are collapsing. At the same time, the animal in these works functions as a political sign that dismantles the biopolitical distinction between lives that deserve to be lived and lives to be abandoned in order to question the control of economy and politics over bodies and populations. In addition, these animal configurations also raise critical questions towards the industrialization, the commodification and the disappearance of the animal as well as the exploitation of the environment, all of which are socio-environmental issues related to the narratives of progress in Latin American developmentalism. Thus, Latin American animal literature of between the 1950s and 1970s not only leads us to undertake philosophical and biopolitical reflections starting from the animal, but it harbors also various and diverse perspectives to understand our approaches to companion species, as the American feminist and postmodernist philosopher Donna Haraway calls them, and repair the damage we cause to animals and their environment.


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