Interspecific connections and cyborg eroticism: about the cat, Kitch, and the camera in Carolee Schneemann’s short film, “Fuses”


Olivia Fert

#II. inside animals / animals inside

ii. a bestiarium vocabulum – the cat

spring, 2022


1) Hours of Charlotte of Savoy, Paris ca. 1420-1425. NY, Morgan Library & Museum, MS M.1004, fol. 172r. 2) untitled, Mark Peckmezian

Carolee Schneemann’s short film Fuses (1964-1967) is a silent film in 16mm format, shot over a period of three years between 1964 and 1967, with a duration of 22 minutes at 24 frames per second. The film is composed of short sequences of erotic scenes from a love act, in which the artist herself and her partner at the time, James Tenney, participated. Fuses is the first film in Schneemann’s “autobiographical trilogy” followed by Plumb Line (1968-1971) and Kitch’s Last Meal (1973-1978). It is principally known for its subversive representation of female sexuality.

Carolee Schneemann (b. 1939 in Fox Chase, Pennsylvania – d. 2019 in New York, N.Y.) has been a pioneer in confronting in her own feminist art practice the visual representations of the female body in the media and the underrepresentation of women artists in the United States. After the 1960’s, as the feminist movement in the United States grew, both appreciation and criticism of Caroline Schneemans’ works deepened. As the topic of female sexuality has offered the most natural framework for interpreting Fuses, the special appearances in the film by Kitch, Caroline Schneemann’s cat from 1956 to 1976, have been downplayed. Here, I want to open up for a closer investigation of Kitch’s contribution to Schneemann’s controversial short film.

Most of the scenes in Fuses take place in the interior of a bedroom. Since the film was shot over a long period of time, a few scenes from the outside environment show different seasons. A landscape in the snow, Christmas lights towards the end of the film as well as more spring-like moments outdoors, in a meadow and on the beach. At several moments, close-ups of body parts break through the film, like bodily landscapes, a metaphoric frequently explored in experimental film at the time. The viewer may find it difficult to identify the active bodies. But she can recognize somatic and organic elements mainly by close-up shots of moving skin, sometimes shiny, smooth or wet. Then, suddenly, images of genitals appear, unavoidable.

In this expressive and erotic show, the cat Kitch is filmed, standing at the window. The shot/countershot cuts make Kitch an observer of the scene. Scenes where Kitch is being caressed sometimes appear between the most intimate love scenes, suggesting a close relationship and entanglement between the loving couple and the cat. Kitch, who has his eyes closed, also appears to be feeling enjoyment and is stroked by an unidentifiable hand in some sporadic shots. This is especially articulated in Fuses in two consecutive scenes. The first shows a hand stroking Carolee’s vulva, while in the second, a similar close-up shot shows one caressing Kitch. Beside a humorous configuration, this depicted encounter shows an intimate tactile relationship between the animal and the human.

Excerpts from ”Fuses”, (1964-1967) Carolee Schneemann. Source: Carolee Schneemann Foundation

The interpretations of Kitch’s role in Fuses have been many and varying in kind. Fuses isn’t the first occasion where Schneemann film intimate and tender moments with her cats. In her video work Infinity Kisses (2008), an endless series of kisses between Schneemann and her cats indicate the close relationship between her and her various feline companions, Kitch, Cluny and Vesper, and the importance of them in her artistic practice.

Functioning as an observer in Fuses, Kitch could be understood as a metaphor for a neutral position, addressing issues around the male gaze in feminist film theory (Mulvey 1975). The cat would then be understood to embody a gaze, freed from any cultural determination, as if she edited and authored the film. However, the first person to film the erotic liaison between James Tenney and Carolee Schneemann in 1957 was Stan Brakhage, a close friend and cinematic source of inspiration for Schneemann. In the four min long 16mm silent film Loving, he portrays Tenney as the active and mostly covering Schneemann in a dominant manner. Unhappy with the outcome, she herself portrays an equal relationship with Kitch, who metaphorically represents an impartial point of view.

Against this, Thyrza Nichols Goodeve argues that Kitch would not be an ”objective point of view”, but rather a ”subject position”. She thus suggests a co-production of “co-shaped species” and points out that the perspective that the viewer identifies with is neither just ”human” nor just ”animal” but what in Animal Studies is emphasized as an ”encounter”. This, Nichols Goodeve argues, makes the film ”a twenty-two minute cinematic excursion into the ‘space in-between’ animal and human.”

Schneemann herself is supposed to have claimed that her “muse-cats who have inspired and guided [her] work […] have enlarged and shifted [her] scale of perceptions”. One might want to suggest that Schneemann’s cats are to be regarded as a medium, an extension of her senses – perhaps working much like the camera, feeling and filming? Schneemann presents us with a monstrous sensuality and eroticism through her interchanging usage of cameras, objects, bodies, humans and cats as mediums. Fuses recode and reconnect modern dualisms, relations of domination and subordination and suggests a new ontology for what we understand as natural sexuality. Perhaps we could talk about a cyborg-erotic aesthetics here, in Donna Haraway’s sense.

When Donna Haraway published ”A Cyborg Manifesto” in The Socialist Review 1985, she used the concept of the cyborg in a rather broad way, where technology is not to be understood only as technical tools or processes but as encompassing cultural practices of everyday behaviors like writing, lovemaking and performing genders. Donna Haraway’s understanding of feminism, characterized by a postmodern socialist and scientific view, lets the cyborg embody a hybrid of machine and living organism, intended to exercise criticism of the modern concept of nature. The cyborg is not to bring a new category, but new possibilities to the table, without fixing an identity. Technology in the high-tech age mixes with the biological. Science fiction would for example be a genre that allows us to imagine these mixtures, like ”monsters”, even more extreme. The emancipating potential in the use of the cyborg  metaphor lies in the utopian that is worth thinking about. Schneemann might not use the world of science fiction to blur cultural categories but uses her own aesthetic in the same manner.

The hand-held camera in Fuses allows access to the intimate, to the hidden, makes accessible what could not be shown. The development or improvement of media techniques in the 60s, such as the portability of the camera with 16mm and 8mm formats, is a significant technical contribution that allows media to be used more widely and under new conditions that were previously unthinkable. For this purpose, the camera is placed in bed, manipulated, exchanged and hung to be able to film. It is completely immersed in the sexual act, as part of the performative act. It gives the camera an important role as actively shaping the sexual act. “It’s a participant in the experience, functioning both as a stimulus and receiver of stimulae.” One might want to say here that this poses an eroticism of the human/machine.

Excerpts from ”Fuses”, (1964-1967) Carolee Schneemann. Source: Carolee Schneemann Foundation

The role of the camera does not only determine the means of interaction between the different actors but also the aesthetics that Schneemann proposes to the viewers. Close-ups reinforce the closeness to the viewer, which can give him/her the feeling of being part of the sexual act. In Fuses, the reality of the sexual act competes with the distinct formal aesthetic aspect that the artist has achieved. In fact, Carolee Schneemann brings a particular touch from her artistic language as a painter; she modifies the celluloid of the film tape itself. The transformation of the celluloid enhances the sensual qualities of the images. This technique was common in experimental animation in the 1920s among the Dadaists and Surrealists.

David E. James, theorist of independent film from north America argues that these cinematic effects merge with the erotic in Fuses; “Emerging as the totalizing, polymorphous, introverted energy and self-absorbed hyper-sensuality of the sexual activity of the profilmic, the erotic power of Fuses overflows into the filmic, is reproduced there as a filmic function“ and that “filmmaking itself becomes the site of sexual action between filmmaker and film.“ But the mode of filming in Fuses is not limited to the artist’s self-engagement. The medium acts as an extension of the human body. It could be considered as a ”feminine” counter-model to what Stan Brakhage was doing at the time but what interested Schneemann was rather to present a diversity and equality of perspectives. Here, the private and intimate merges with the public – art makes visible what is not supposed to be visible and introduces a counter-model of society.

Excerpts from ”Fuses”, (1964-1967) Carolee Schneemann. Source: Carolee Schneemann Foundation

Although Fuses displays typical roles of women and men, such as James Tenney driving a car, representing a modern male, and Schneemann walking on a beach, fluidity emerges from the erotic and sensuous field, a space where cultural codes are ignored and renegotiated. Scott Macdonald, professor in Art History at Hamilton College, who has made numerous interviews with filmmakers, including Schneemann, has already noted that the body here constitute the connection between the species – perhaps also between genders – taking place in the domain of the senses, arguably in the aesthetical domain where the camera works.

Haraway wrote, “Communication sciences and biology are constructions of natural-technical objects of knowledge in which the difference between machine and organism is thoroughly blurred; mind, body, and tool are on very intimate terms.“ Schneemann is not the sole creator of this sexual act, but the tools, the camera, the film, and Kitch as mediums also shape the act and its representations. She questions us about our erotic relationships with others, be they men, women, machines, objects, media, or animals, through an aesthetic of the in-between. It testifies to the fact that there is a tactile, sensual and erotic way of being connected, intertwined.


Bibliography

Benzan, Carla: „The lives and deaths of Carolee’s Carts: Intimate encounters, gentle transgressions and incalculable ethics“, in: C magazine, No.107, Autumn 2010, S. 6-12.

Bouvard, Emilie: „Carolee Schneemann. Féminisme et Histoire“. Then and Now. Carolee Schneemann, Arles 2013, S.54-65.

Bühler, Kathleen: Autobiographie als Performance. Carolee Schneemanns Experimentalfilme, Marburg 2009.

Donna J. Haraway: Simians, Cyborgs, and Women. The Reinvention of Nature, New York 1991.

James, David E.: Allegories of Cinema. American Film in the Sixties, New Jersey 1989.

Kubitza, Anette: Fluxus, Flirt, Feminismus? Carolee Schneemann Körperkunst und die Avantgarde, Berlin 2002.

MacDonald, Scott: „Autobiographical Trilogy“ in: Film Quarterly, Vol. 34, No.1, Autumn 1980, S. 27-32.

Mulvey, Laura: ”Visuelle Lust und narratives Kino“, in: Liliane Weissberg (Hg.) Weiblichkeit als Maskerade, Frankfurt/Main 1994, S. 48-65.

Nichols Goodeve, Thyrza: „How a Body Shaped by a Cat and a Cat Shaped by a Human Pioneered a New Species of Cinema“, 2006, Pierre Menil Gallery , S. 4-9.

Nichols Goodeve, Thyrza: “The Cat Is My Medium”: Notes on the Writing and Art of Carolee Schneemann, July 29, 2015, Art Journal 74, no. 1 (Spring 2015).

Schneemann, Carolee: Imaging Her Erotics: Essays, Interviews, Projects, London 2002.

Youngblood, Gene: Expended Cinema, New York 1970.


For the Birds: Beauty in Human-Avian Companion Agency


Nicole Miller

#II. inside animals / animals inside

ii. a bestiarium vocabulum – the bird

spring, 2022


1) Detail from The Luttrell Psalter, British Library Add MS 42130 (medieval manuscript,1325-1340), f58v. 2) untitled, Mark Peckmezian

Philosopher Vinciane Despret introduces the idea of “companion agents” as animals that are agentic actors in a web of interrelations with other creatures. The web of interrelations necessitates a reciprocally dependent relationship where cooperation or resistance can occur.[i] Despret exemplifies this relationship with an experiment about cats who quickly learned how to fulfill the researchers’ goals but then refused to cooperate any further once they realized it was what the researchers desired. It is notable that animal agency exerted through resistance is often directed towards human imposition of work, as if the drive to work is against animal will. Within the framework of companion agency, a heterarchy of influence can be seen in human-animal relations. It is specifically evident in the relationship between humans and pet birds where both humans and birds have the power to sculpt the relationship and the social situation, which is often done through play. 

By allowing animals into our homes, allowing them to be seen as more human, their capacities and ours are extended past their categorical limitations. Friedrich Schiller famously asserted that play is a state achieved by humans and which makes one human.[ii] Today we know that animals also have the ability to play, which seems at times more developed than ours considering the amount of time we devote to work. When animals move into our homes and we start to play with them, a number of things change in our relationships. We become comfortable with them, building an intimacy and trust with them, while becoming more attentive to their moods and desires. Increased daily interaction means we build bonds with them, much like we might with a coworker, a family member or a friend. Eventually we start to understand our pets as subjects much like humans. Finally, and what I am most interested in, we can start to understand them as co-participants in creating moods, situations and worlds. The act of play with the trust and mutual affection it implies, allows the borders of the cage to be momentarily dissolved in a heterarchical relationship. 

The concept of social aesthetics and its focus on the beauty of interactions allows aesthetics to be processual. A shifting human-avian relationship, due to the nature of its interactivity and entanglement, must be called social by nature. Philosopher Arnold Berleant emphasizes that nonhierarchical relationships, aspects of interactive performativity and an underlying element of harmony are essential to achieving an ideal social aesthetic.[iii] In bending our world to better include birds as well as affecting and being affected by the bird world with our human interventions, the idea of  human-avian companion agency could in its best form represent these ideals.

The companion agency relationship can in itself be beautiful, and this can be seen through an increased play dialogue between pet birds and humans, resulting in adaptations and points of mutual meeting in each other’s previously distant lifeworlds. There is an adaptability necessary in activities like competition, training, and play, necessitating both subjects to extend the boundaries of their worlds to better include each other; this flexibility serves as a focal point for aesthetic examination. Additionally, the cooperation between pet birds and humans results in something akin to artworks – aesthetic material products that come into existence as a result of the playing between them – giving a concrete form through which to recognize the human-pet bird relationship.

Three groups of pet birds in particular are useful for observing a human-avian social aesthetic: homing pigeons, songbirds, and parrots. There is a gradient of birds as companion agents where increased interactions facilitates play and the mutuality of the relationship increases with each interaction. They each exemplify a different level of human intertwinement ranging from the light game playing interactions of humans and racing pigeons to the completely dependent relations of humans and pet parrots in which parrots assume a role similar to another human. The interactions of humans and pet birds demonstrate an aesthetically beautiful flexibility in humans and birds to shift their lifeworlds to include each other.

Homing Pigeons/Racing Pigeons: Otherwise known as Regular Pigeons if they Don’t Come Home

Pigeons provide an opportunity to observe a shift in domesticating birds for human pleasure.  Pigeons are not typically thought of as pets, but their urban presence marks a shift towards increased interconnection with humans. Additionally, pigeons have historically been brought into the house for specific purposes ranging from function to pleasure. For thousands of years homing pigeons were trained to make journeys back home when being released farther and farther away.  They were used to deliver messages, and they worked to set up an infrastructure for exchanging information at (relatively) quick speeds.[iv] Pigeons were the predecessor of the modern day post office or internet.  In other words, Western society created a permanent infrastructure that was heavily influenced by human-avian relationships. 

In 19th century France breeding and training pigeons became popularized for an activity loosely labeled as ‘sport’ – pigeon racing. Pigeon racing entailed a competitive aspect centered around the speed of returning home. The frame of competition created a condition for play between humans and pigeons. French racing pigeons could not really be considered pets in the sense that we often associate with the term today. They were often given away and sometimes eaten by their owners if they were poor performers (ie. not fast enough).[v] This is abnormal for the common conception of a pet, which in many cultures is now synonymous with being part of the family. However, the spirit of cooperation and consistent interaction involved in training a pigeon reflects an intimate relationship between a human and an animal. If a pigeon is trained to learn that their home is the same as their trainer’s, it can be argued they are no longer wild, but part of the family, sharing a common address as well as sense of belonging. At the same time, in pigeon racing as in message delivering, it is not uncommon for a pigeon to disappear. The unexpected agency of a trained animal that never returns home challenges the idea that humans are in complete control of the natural world or of their pet relationships.  

Songbirds and the Humans that Copy Them

Songbirds are perhaps where an element of human-bird performativity has existed the longest.  Humans have been driven to attempt to replicate and capture their sounds. In the wild, bird fanciers have created elaborate instruments for replicating bird calls, while also trying to transcribe the sounds birds make in order to duplicate them.[vi] The transcriptions, called ‘bird words’, reflect a cultivated communication method that resembles an alien language (language of the bird people) or an attempt at poetry. 

“Woonk-a-chunk

po-ta-to-chip (and dip {in flight})

please; please; please squeeeeze

I am so laz-eeeeee

ra-vi-o-li (flute-like)

ee-oh-lay (flute-like – last note trilly)

ra-vi-o-li (flute-like)

chak; chak; chak”[vii]

The instances of perfecting bird calls, as well as inventing new recording methods such as the stereophonic record[viii] just to re-listen to birdsong, reflect an avian obsession that propelled humans into inventive states to fulfill a desire to better understand and connect with birds. It is not surprising that this obsession was contemporaneous to increased popularity in caging songbirds and training them, resulting also in inventions such as the whistling “bird organ” (or serinette), created to teach canaries to sing.[ix] New inventions and tools to facilitate more interactions in the home demonstrate a shift to a more intimate relationship, where imitation can be seen as a form of flattery.  In fact, humans’ obsessive mimicry of birds is a typical avian behavior. As a result of humans becoming more bird-like, a whole aesthetic genre, ranging from classical music imitating birdsong to “bird words” and the sounds of the “bird organ”, can be attributed to the influence and companion agency of songbirds. The historical trajectory of humans adapting themselves to the sounds of birds is demonstrative of a processual and transformative beauty in human-bird relationships.

Parroted Fragments: Trying to be Human

A humorous, almost alien take on the human experience can be seen when it is imitated by parrots. As is the case with other pet birds, domestication has made parrots highly dependent on humans. They need significant amounts of attention including stimulating toys and playtime. Because of their close relationships with their owners, developed through constant interaction and talking, they are often called ‘companion parrots’. Their desire for playful activities allows humans to use playtime for teaching competitive activities, like has been done with pigeons. For instance, Zac the Macaw achieved the Guinness World Record for most canned drinks opened in a minute with his beak (35) in 2012.[x] This arguably useless skill for a bird likely results from hours of engagement between Zac and his owner. 

Parrot owners are often surprised by the mimetic training of their pets; it is somewhat unpredictable which phrases and sounds a parrot chooses to learn and repeat. In 2017 a pet parrot named Bud was witness to a murder in Michigan and was found to be repeating the final dialogue between the victim (his owner) and the assailant including the words “don’t shoot”.[xi] Bud was the first parrot to be considered a potential witness in court, although at the last minute his testimony was cancelled. Aside from providing evidence in court cases, parrots as companion animals provide the feeling of a human interaction in their ability to ‘speak’ human languages. But they also demonstrate an absurdity in the human experience when selected sounds and phrases are repeated over and over. Parrots perform an interpretative summary of their human relationships according to their own mood and preferences for crafting language. The human world takes on a new perspective when viewed through the audio fragments of a parrot.

“I wanna go to kitchen.

Let’s eat dinner.

Sweet potato. Corn. (eating sounds)

 Raspberry. Let’s go kitchen. Let’s eat!

Let’s go eat some lunch.

Corn.  (eating sounds)

It’s gooood. Carrot. Sweet potatoes. Broccoli. Carrot.” [xii]

The attempted adaptation of parrots to human life is not one-sided as parrot owners often restructure their entire lives around their pets, making adjustments to their house decor and schedules to account for playtime and pleasing environments. Cookbooks such as A Parrot’s Fine Cuisine Cookbook[xiii] offer information on preparing teas, smoothies, and elaborate meals for one’s pet.  The bereavement forum for a popular parrot owner community, which has 35,000 members and nearly 1 million posts, demonstrates how deeply affecting parrots are on humans, as funeral arrangements, last moments, and sentimental memories are discussed tenderly. 

“I don’t think he’s ever had human affection before but I hope I was able to give him that. He liked being sung to and sweet talked. He would always grind his beak contentedly. I sang a lullaby to him and Pewpew every night before I turned the lights off.” [xiv]

Parrots with their ability to ‘speak’, not just sing as with songbirds, have carved out a space in our homes where their roles can be categorized as almost human. They exemplify an openness between both species to live with and care for one another. 

Collaborative Art: Material Evidence of a Human-Avian Social Aesthetic

Birds and humans have been mutually influential on each other over time, becoming increasingly more entangled as birds were brought closer to earth and into the home, in part due to the usage of the cage. If humans approach relationships with their pets by letting them inside (both literally and metaphorically), and if animals have a desire for human companionship, a conscious harmony can be reached comparable to an ideal social aesthetic. Although the intentionality of birds and the feeling of their lifeworlds cannot be fully known, the sway of human-animal relationships in an agentic assemblage can be seen as processually beautiful, where one’s will bends at times to the other’s wishes and desires. In a companion agency relationship birds and humans become a little closer to each other, a little more empathetic in their explorations of each other’s worlds, creatively collaborating on the invention of material culture that shows our willingness to be part of each others’ worlds. The artifacts produced, such as pigeon racing trophies, the bird serinette, or a gourmet cookbook for parrots, serve as physical evidence of a symbiotic, affectionate merging of human-avian lifeworlds.

untitled, Mark Peckmezian

Footnotes

[i] Despret, V. From Secret Agents To Interagency. History and Theory: Studies in the Philosophy of History. vol. 52 (2013) no. 4 pp. 29-44

[ii] F. Schiller, On the Aesthetic Education of Man, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954.

[iii] A. Berleant, Ideas for a Social Aesthetic, in Andrew Light & Jonathan M. Smith (eds) The Aesthetics of Everyday Life. Columbia University Press, 2005, pp. 23-38.

[iv] M. Blume, The Hallowed History of the Carrier Pigeon, The New York Times, 2004, https://www.nytimes.com/2004/01/30/style/the-hallowed-history-of-the-carrier-pigeon.html

[v] A.R.H. Baker, Pigeon Racing Clubs in Pas-de-Calais, France, 1870 -1914, Journal of Historical Geography, 41, 2013, 1-12.

[vi] J. Bevis, A Complete History of Collecting and Imitating Birdsong. 2019. https://thereader.mitpress.mit.edu/a-complete-history-of-collecting-and-imitating-birdsong/

[vii] A selection of “Mnemonic Bird Songs” compiled by Stanford and South Bay Birders Unlimited https://web.stanford.edu/~kendric/birds/birdsong.html

[viii] Bevis, A Complete History of Collecting and Imitating Birdsong, 2019.

[iv] Bevis, A Complete History of Collecting and Imitating Birdsong, 2019

[x] Most Canned Drinked Opened by a Parrot in One Minute, 2012, https://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/world-records/106300-most-canned-drinks-opened-by-a-parrot-in-one-minute

[xi] BBC News, Parrot Witness Case: Michigan Woman Guilty of Husband’s Murder, 2017. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-40665520

[xii] Hungry Talking Parrot Plans a Dinner Buffet, 2021, https://rumble.com/vp6emb-hungry-talking-parrot-plans-a-dinner-buffet.html

[xiii] Budai, K. A Parrot’s Fine Cuisine Cookbook and Nutritional Guide. Quietlight Productions. 2018.

[xiv] Parrotforums.com, A Tribute to Little Eight, 2018,  https://www.parrotforums.com/threads/a-tribute-to-little-eight.78660/

Ecce Equus!

Egalitarian Equine Communities’ Acknowledgement of the Horse as Subject


Nicole Pergament Crona

#II. inside animals / animals inside

ii. a bestiarium vocabulum – the horse

spring, 2022


1) The Prophet Muhammad and the Muslim Army at the Battle of Uhud, from the Siyer-i Nebi, 1595. The David Collection, Copenhagen, Inv. No. 13/2001, 2) untitled, Mark Peckmezian


And each horse, whether jumping, trotting, racing, hitched in a troika, each one of them knows precisely the extent of human stupidity, knows that for all these 3000 years horses and people have spent together, everything could have been different.[i.]

Alexander Nevzorov

The Russian author, filmmaker, and horseman, Alexander Nevzorov, condemns the way in which Man has made use of the horse ever since we first started to employ this animal for our own purposes. But more than anything else he condemns equestrian sports. Nevzorov predicts a future in which equestrian sports will be outlawed and our grandchildren will try to forget this “shameful practice of man’s biography”; they will “burn of shame” thinking of this practice of the past, as we are ashamed now thinking of slavery or concentration camps.[ii.] A “horse revolution” is coming, Nevzorov claims, and the fight has already begun; it is a fight between two completely different views regarding the horse and its relation to humans.[iii.] 

Even though Nevzorov is a controversial person whose opinions are rather provocative to many people – there are even those thinking that he “asks to be shot” – he still has followers and official representatives in several countries across the world, including Sweden.[iv.] There are also other prophets, besides Nevzorov, predicting a future “paradigm shift”.[v.] Still, I cannot say myself, overlooking the equine world of today, that I see any real signs of a coming “revolution”. On the contrary, contemporary equine scientists have highlighted the difficulties in impelling people in the equestrian world to adjust to current scientific findings concerning the wellbeing of horses.[vi.] And within human-animal studies (HAS),[vii.] as well as within the post humanistic field in general, it has been pointed out that we still lack knowledge of how animals can be recognized as subjects and agents with the possession of cognitive and social abilities.[viii.] But even if it is hard to find any signs of a coming equine revolution in a literary sense, there are, luckily, signs of an ongoing and pervasive change of attitudes in today’s horse-human relationship. 

This article is based on my master thesis in ethnology,[ix.] in which I set out to examine what I with an obvious wink to the French revolution – chose to call egalitarian equine communities. Egalitarian, since they are aiming for equality – not for themselves, but for horses. Although these communities showed to be not as condemning of man’s use of the horse as Nevzorov, most of their members have still abandoned all kinds of contesting activities involving horses. They are also critical against many of the values of the formal equestrian world since they regard these values to be constituted by the nineteenth hundred’s cavalry riding, when training and conditioning of the horse aimed for the horse’s obedience and subordination. Instead, their aim is to acknowledge the horse as a subject. But how is this acknowledgement expressed and practiced? And what are the implications?

The study included participant observations as well as interviews conducted in Sweden in 2018 and 2019 with thirteen horsepersons,[x.] all of them being what I consider as egalitarian. They were between twenty-seven and sixty-nine years old, and all but one were females. Most of them were or had been horse-owners, and a majority kept horses back at their farms. Four of them were professional horse trainers and/or riding instructors. All of them were riders and had experiences from formal riding schools. However, seen through the lens of a phenomenological HAS perspective,[xi.] my point of departure is that when studying the horse-human relationship, a focus on the human as a rider not only confirms the traditional view of what constitutes a relation between the two species; it also supports a taken for granted assumption that the horse is a being meant to be mounted. As already mentioned, the egalitarian ambition is to acknowledge horses as subjects. That means giving them a greater portion of agency, something that implies the right to say no – even to be ridden. Therefore, unlike many other studies, commonly focused on the relation between the horse and the rider, my study examined the interaction between the horse and the human, that is, the relation as a whole, regardless of where and how it takes place – whether the human has her feet on the ground or is sitting on top of her companion.

Egalitarian communities

The egalitarian communities can be understood as a reaction against the “interpretive precedence” of the Swedish Equestrian Federation and its subdivisions – the riding schools and the riding clubs. Not only have these institutions dominated equestrian education in Sweden for generations, but they have also decided over what is understood as “good” and “bad”, “right” and “wrong” in the equestrian world.

However, since the end of the nineties, we have seen a wider range of knowledge distributors in the Swedish equine world. For those who never felt comfortable with the military legacy of the equestrian context, the internet offered alternative equine identities, informal knowledge providers, and new “truths”. According to sociologist Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, anti-definitions of reality, as well as of identity, emerges as soon as a few such individuals start to gather in socially durable groups.[xii.] This is the first impulse for a change process to start, something that enables a more complex knowledge distribution. As a result, an anti-reality might start to be objectified and these marginalized social groups will soon start their own processes of socialization.

I claim, supported by my material, that these kinds of processes of socialization are exactly what we have seen emerging in Sweden since the beginning of this millennium. Employing the internet, unsatisfied individuals started to reach out, find like-minded people, transgress national borders, build chat forums. They began the setup and marketing of courses and clinics, offering IRL education, as well as distance education. They sought and found new, more egalitarian ways of riding, new “disciplines”, of which some were not new at all. Academic riding, baroque, western, Icelandic, and Portuguese riding replaced what had up until then been the only options: traditional dressage and jumping. 

Others looked for alternative ways of spending time with their horses. They came across philosophies and methods like natural horsemanship, relation-based horse training, treat training, trust technique, and others. Some people even gave up mounting their horses, ensuring they were happy just taking a walk together. 

Even though a greater portion of equality in the relation between human and horse was what they were looking for, it is not possible to distinguish a clearly defined common set of values among today’s egalitarian communities. Their members, let us call them “egalitarians” for the sake of simplicity, often share normative opinions and values that are supported by current research within veterinary medicine as well as behavioral science, a circumstance that has bearing on how they interact with their horses. On the other hand, many egalitarians think of knowledge as something that is not necessarily scientifically legitimized; to them, true knowledge can also be found in the everyday interaction between themselves and their horses, as well as from “within” – from insights, authenticity, intuition, meditation, mindfulness, and personal growth. In addition, conceptions concerning the extent of equality, as well as what this equality is supposed to embrace and how it is to be manifested, vary. Still, in my material, I did find a set of central ideals connected to the egalitarian approach to horses which proved to be shared by many within these communities. These ideals were such as naturalness, relation before achievement, welfare and sustainability, willingness and consent, presence, closeness, and authenticity.

Naturalness

Over time, the concept of naturalness has had different understandings within the egalitarian communities. Some egalitarians – such as myself – have a background in the philosophy of natural horsemanship, with its training methods of negative reinforcements. However, this philosophy is nowadays being criticized for not having much to do with the concept of equality – even if we, the followers, used to work hard to convince ourselves that this was the case by repeating the mantra: “the horse is always given a choice”, neglecting the fact that the options available were not always very pleasant to the horse. I was among those convinced of the idea that horses do not seek equality in the wild herd, why the state of hierarchy is “natural” to them, implying that a happy horse is a horse with a strong human leader. Notchka, my own breeding, proved me wrong. Unlike her mother, who always accepted my dominance with something I preferred to interpret as “natural” submissiveness, Notchka demanded to have a say of her own concerning where, when, and how to do things. 

Today, hardly any of my former friends from the natural horsemanship community remains within the philosophy and the same goes for several of the informants in the study. The concept has been given negative connotations, charged with more or less explicit accusations for saying one thing, doing another. The idea of every relationship demanding the one and only leader, no matter what the situation is, has been challenged – as have the idea of negative reinforcement being the most effective way of training a horse. Instead, so-called relation-based training and treat training, using positive reinforcement, have been given much more attention.

However, whatever training or conditioning method you prefer, there is something the egalitarian horseperson cannot ignore, namely the actual “non-naturalness” of any horse-human relationship. For a prey animal to be together with a predator is in fact not very natural at all. Seen from an evolutionary perspective, the amount of time that humans and horses have spent together is very brief – just about 6000 years, compared to the almost 60 million years horses have rambled this earth without us interfering. To think that they by now have come to experience our presence as something “natural” is but wishful thinking. This means that the egalitarian horseperson needs to be extra cautious, not taking it for granted when asking a horse, especially a young horse, to step out of the stable or pasture to go training with a human. Even if it is temporary, from the horse’s point of view, this means to leave the herd – any prey animal’s utmost guarantee for survival – to go with a potential killer. To think this is a “natural” thing to do for a horse is to be anthropocentric. 

Another way of relating to naturalness concerns the amount of time one lets the foal remain with its mother. Instead of the anthropocentric idea of the foal being “ready” to go by the age of four to seven months, after which most foals in human custody never see their mother again, the egalitarian way is to wait as long as possible. Ultimately, one let the mare and the foal take care of their own business, leaving it to them to decide when and how to separate. In the wilderness, that would mean not until just before the next foal is to come, in other words, not until the first foal is approximately ten months. 

Another aspect of naturalness is that of natural horsekeeping, the idea that it is your responsibility to make sure your horse is given a meaningful everyday existence. That does not mean going on the racetracks, becoming sweaty for a reason you cannot see – as a lot of equestrians seem to think – but being together with horsy friends in a wide pasture where you spend most of your time eating and searching for more to eat. Concepts like “free-range stabling” and “active stables” are seen as ideals. In these settings, horses live a more “herdlike” life, spending all their time outdoors together with their companion species.

Relation before achievement

The conception that a horse is a creature made for usage is a common-sense knowledge that is challenged by the attitudes within the egalitarian communities. As mentioned earlier, competitions are no longer of interest to many egalitarian riders. Instead, one is searching for knowledge on how to, in one way or the other, relate to horses in new, untraditional ways. Building a lasting and mutually respectful relationship with the horse is seen as much more important than achieving glory and fame on the racetracks. This idea might sometimes entail a reluctance to lend your horse to someone else. One of my informants, Bodil, compared the question “may I try out your horse?” with “may I try out your husband?”, which I interpret as a fear of offending the horse. You simply do not lend out your dear ones –whether husband or horse. As a consequence, Bodil did not like to go on so-called horseback vacations since she thought of them to be too short for building a relationship with the horse you are temporarily renting at the site. “I’d rather drive a moped!”, she said. Again, the horse is seen as a subject and not as a machine, tool, or automat. The philosopher Jonna Bornemark has pointed out that there is a difference between seeing a horse as an automat and seeing a horse as a subject. You cannot do to a subject what you can do to an automat.[xiii.] 

Whether a horse has the same need to build a lasting relationship with its human can of course be discussed. I think Bodil thinks so. I think most egalitarians think so. I even think most horsepersons think so. Being an egalitarian horseperson, I think so too. As a scientist, I took refuge in the phenomenological perspective’s focus on how individuals subjectively construct, experience, and understand their reality, regardless of whether this reality can be considered objectively “correct” or not. Consequently, during my study, I examined the egalitarian communities’ interpretations of the horses’ experiences, regardless of whether these interpretations can be expected to be even close to the horses’ actual experiences or not since that is irrelevant to “the phenomenological attitude”.[xiv.] Hence, by applying the phenomenological attitude, I examined how the horses’ experiences of being acknowledged as subjects appeared to my informants. No more, no less.

Welfare and sustainability

Welfare and Sustainability are two other ideals that are often highlighted among egalitarians, especially when it comes to riding. The academic art of riding is a popular riding style within the egalitarian communities. Instead of competing, the focus here lies on the upbuilding and sustainability of the horse’s body and mentality, as well as on getting the horse’s consent. A central ambition is to make the horse actually want to be ridden and to want to perform certain moves.

Sustainability is of course of interest in the traditional equestrian world as well. But a basic difference is that within equestrian sports, the achievement is still the goal. It is still taken for granted that a horse is to deliver at the racetrack or at the competition ground. It is only a matter of keeping it physically fit, because as soon as it is not, when the horse is worn out, then it is time to replace it with another, still not worn out horse. While in the academic art of riding, the goal is to make this horse, this very individual, become as good as only he or she can be, based on the ability and willingness he or she happens to have at the time being. 

Willingness and consent

How do you get a horse’s consent? Well, as Anna, one of my informants, said: “It is like calling a friend – you don’t start talking until you get a hello in the other end, do you?” Anna is a highly educated riding instructor who abandoned the equestrian world to devote her life to the academic art of riding. When she rides today, she tries to think about the horse as a partner with whom she has dialogue, and not as someone who has to obey her orders. Instead of commandingly moving the horse’s body from A to B, Anna asks the horse, (physically using her aids[xv.], and telepathically, using her thoughts): “Can you make a turn here?” And whatever the answer is – whether it is “No, I can’t make a turn right now”, or “Yes, sure, no problem”, it is alright. In other words, she gives the horse an option and a possibility to give consent – or not. 

Presence

At one of the study’s participants observations, I visited a retreat called “A day for relaxation and mindfulness, guided by the wisdom of horses”. The day started off with me and the other participants spreading out in a pasture to practice meditation while observed by a bunch of quite surprised horses. Afterwards, we all agreed this was a new and odd, but very pleasant way of visiting a pasture: just being here and now, without any particular intention or purpose. That is something we never do, the course leader said. But this is how the horses live their lives. From horses we can learn to take care of ourselves, forget about such things as time, forget about the “musts”, forget about achievements, what others might think, how we are being looked upon or judged. Therefore, we do not need to feel that we have to train our horses all the time, or to achieve things with them. All we have to do is to be with them! Learn from them! Enjoy the present! 

Closeness and authenticity

Several of the informants expressed the feeling of becoming mentally harsh in the traditional equestrian world, they became something they did not want to be. Instead of the tenderness and closeness, the little stable girl is longing for when she enters the stable for the first time, she gets to learn discipline.[xvi.] She learns how to discipline the horses. She learns how to discipline herself: “You’ve got to be tough with him”, they say, “you’ve got to show him who’s in charge! Don’t let him do that! Don’t let him scrub his face against you! Keep him out of your way! Use your whip! Use your spurs! Shorten your reins!” In the end, she has got it all internalized. This is the process of socialization. Or, as Berger & Luckmann claims: this is the handing over of a world of established norms and practices.[xvii.] Instead of being close, we are taught to tie up, lock up, hold on, hold in. Making us aware of this might be what horses can help us with, some egalitarians claim. To make us understand that the encounter with the Other might actually be the encounter with ourselves. The horse wants us to be authentic. And when we are not, the horse confronts us with the revealing question: Is this really you? 

untitled, Mark Peckmezian

Footnotes

i. Alexander Nevzorov, The Horse Crucified and Risen Nevzorov Haute Ecole, 2011), p. 123.

ii. Nevzorov 2011, p. 123.

iii. Nevzorov 2011, pp. 123f, 322.

iv. The Horse Forum, https://www.horseforum.com/search/96146/?q=nevzorov&o=relevance [accessed 2022-1-1].

v. Francesco De Giorgio, Equus Lost? How we misunderstand the nature of the horse-human relationship – plus, brave new ideas for the future (North Pomfret, Vt.: Trafalgar Square, 2016).

vi. This was a common experience among researchers at the third Equine Cultures in Transition Conference – Past, Present and Future Challenges, which I attended the 22-24 of June 2021. Cf: Sahl, Mia 2016. 2016-03-01. Sprid kunskapen bättre. Tidningen Djurskyddet. http://tidningen.djurskyddet.se/2016/03/sprid-kunskapen-battre/

vii. Human animal studies can be seen as the answer to the last decades posthumanistic discussion of man’s position in the order of the world. The idea of humankind and its supposedly superior position, as well as its anthropocentric boundaries against other species, is said to be “in transition” – in academia as well as in the practice of everyday life, cf: Jonna Bornemark, Petra Andersson & Ulla Ekström von Essen, Equine cultures in transition: ethical questions (London: Routledge, 2019).

viii. Bornemark, Andersson & Ekström von Essen 2019.

ix. Nicole Pergament Crona, Ecce Equus! Egalitära hästgemenskapers erkännande av hästen som subjekt Stockholms Universitet, 2020).

x. With the term horseperson, I mean a human being who, continuously, in one way or the other, spends time with horses and consequently also with other horsepersons, and thereby acquire knowledge about horses as well as membership in one or several equine communities.

xi. To be more exact, I have examined this ongoing reevaluation through Alfred Schutz’s variant of phenomenology that holds a certain interest in knowledge, further developed by the sociologists Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, see Peter L. Berger, Thomas Luckmann & Synnöve Olsson, Kunskapssociologi: hur individen uppfattar och formar sin sociala verklighet (Stockholm: Wahlström & Widstrand, 1979).; Alfred Schütz, Den sociala världens fenomenologi (Göteborg: Daidalos, Mediaprint, 1999).

xii. Berger, Luckmann & Olsson 1979.; Schütz 1999.

xiii. Jonna Bornemark, ”Introduction”, in Equine cultures in transition: ethical questions, eds. Petra Andersson, Ulla Ekström von Essen & Jonna Bornemark (London: Routledge, 2019), p. 4.

xiv. Staffan Carlshamre, Fenomenologi – försök till en pedagogisk översikt https://www2.philosophy.su.se/carlshamre/texter/FenomenologiKapitel.pdf [hämtad 2021-12-29].

xv. Riding aids are the cues, or signals a rider gives the horse to communicate what the rider wants the horse to do.

xvi. Moa Matthis, ”Spegel, spegel på väggen där”, in Över alla hinder: en civilisationshistoria, Hedén, Anne, Matthis, Moa & Milles, Ulrika (Stockholm: Bonnier, mediaprint, 2000). 17 Berger, Luckmann & Olsson 1979, p. 154.

xvii. Berger, Luckmann & Olsson 1979, p. 154.


Bibliography

Berger, Peter L., Luckmann, Thomas & Olsson, Synnöve, Kunskapssociologi: hur individen uppfattar och formar sin sociala verklighet (Stockholm: Wahlström & Widstrand, 1979).

Bornemark, Jonna, ”Introduction”, in Equine cultures in transition: ethical questions, eds. Petra Andersson, Ulla Ekström von Essen & Jonna Bornemark (London: Routledge, 2019), Routledge advances in sociology 256.

Bornemark, Jonna, Andersson, Petra & Ekström von Essen, Ulla, Equine cultures in transition: ethical questions (London: Routledge, 2019).

Carlshamre, Staffan, Fenomenologi – försök till en pedagogisk översikt, , https://www2.philosophy.su.se/carlshamre/texter/FenomenologiKapitel.pdf [accessed 2021-12-29].

De Giorgio, Francesco, Equus Lost? How we misunderstand the nature of the horse-human relationship – plus, brave new ideas for the future (North Pomfret, Vt.: Trafalgar Square, 2016).

Matthis, Moa, ”Spegel, spegel på väggen där”, in Över alla hinder: en civilisationshistoria, Hedén, Anne, Matthis, Moa & Milles, Ulrika (Stockholm: Bonnier, mediaprint, 2000).

Nevzorov, Alexander, The Horse Crucified and Risen Nevzorov Haute Ecole, 2011).

Pergament Crona, Nicole, Ecce Equus! Egalitära hästgemenskapers erkännande av hästen som subjekt Stockholms Universitet, 2020).

Schütz, Alfred, Den sociala världens fenomenologi (Göteborg: Daidalos, Mediaprint, 1999).

The Horse Forum, https://www.horseforum.com/search/96146/?q=nevzorov&o=relevance [accessed 2022-1-1].


In a Tentacled Neighbor’s Garden


Axel Rudolphi

#II. inside animals / animals inside

ii. a bestiarium vocabulum – the octopus

spring, 2022


1) untitled, Mark Peckmezian 2)Utagawa Kunyoshi, “Tamakazura, die Taucherin holt die Perlen zurück” aus der Serie Vergleich von Darstellungen aus dem Genji-Roman und der fließenden Welt © MAK/Georg Mayer.

If Derrida’s decisive experience of being under the gaze of a cat—or more precisely, his own “little pussycat,” in his own bathroom—left him with an unprecedented propulsion to “think through this absolute alterity of the neighbor” (2002, 380), one may wonder what further philosophical impetus would have come out of an encounter like the one that the South African filmmaker Craig Foster had with a certain octopus(sy) in his own coastal backyard.

In the Academy Award-winning wildlife/human-autobiography documentary My Octopus Teacher (Netflix 2020), Foster documents his developing, and increasingly intimate, relation to a nameless common octopus (Octopus vulgaris) in the cold waters outside his Western Cape home, to the backdrop of his own previous psychological burnout. In the course of eleven months, Foster pays daily visits to the octopus and follows her throughout the remainder of her life, presented in a string of fragmental moments of however long he manages to hold his breath. As a matter of fact, a lot seems to come out of these encounters: a transformative development for the human protagonist, a symbolically rich piece of reality-cinematography for the viewers, and presumably even a few valuable events for the other, cephalopod, lead character, herself.

In this essay, I will explore some of the questions that, like in this example, arise concerning the human relation to the animal other. In the first part of the essay I discuss some of the philosophical literature on the topic, with a particular emphasis on the writings of Jacques Derrida. I then turn to the example of the octopus in the essay’s second and final part, with some reflections on this particular human-animal encounter and the things that render it interesting.

***

In Derrida’s account, the topic of animals is of fundamental importance to philosophy, with ineluctable consequences for all three of philosophy’s core branches, of ethics, ontology and epistemology. As such, the maladroit, rejective treatment—or perhaps, rather, the careful repression—of the topic of animals within the history of Western philosophy, warrants a certain deconstructionist examination.

In the essay “The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow)” (2002), Derrida takes up this task, with a particular emphasis on the philosophies of thinkers like Descartes, Heidegger, Lacan and Levinas, and on the mythologies of the Judeo-Christian and Greek traditions. According to Derrida’s (2002, 399) main argument, the line separating man and animal, as imagined in traditional Western philosophy and “common sense,” does not constitute a unilinear, indivisible border, but is rather a heterogeneous one that also has an ongoing history. Moreover, on the other side of this imagined line across from man, we do not find a group of beings that can legitimately be subsumed under the unified concept of “the Animal” in general. Rather, this is a space of great plurality and of shifting relational divisions, which renders futile the idea of steadily objectifying this realm once and for all. Finally, the history of the relational border between man and animal seems, according to Derrida, to have recently entered an unprecedented phase, with important consequences for both human subjectivity and ethics.

Let us now take a closer look at what Derrida means by these various, connected claims. It is first of all important to make clear that Derrida (2002, 398) is not at all trying to simply erase any conceptual border between human and what humans call “the Animal,” in favor of some kind of biologically underpinned continuity between all living creatures. This would, on the one hand, leave us with an even blunter concept of “Life” in general, saying even less than “the Animal” in general, by ignoring all possible differences. On the other hand, such geneticism can, as we are well aware of, have ethically dubitable consequences. Rather, what Derrida is interested in is what “feeds” this limit and gives rise to its various configurations.

 Unsurprisingly, one of the things that seems to feed this limit the most, is the concept of language. For Descartes, and his philosophy of mind-body dualism, the aspect of language easily settled the question of how the animal is distinguished from man. He writes (2007, 61):

[A]lthough all animals easily communicate to us, by voice or bodily movement, their natural impulses of anger, fear, hunger, and so on, it has never yet been observed that any brute animal reached the stage of using real speech, that is to say, of indicating by word or sign or anything pertaining to pure thought and not to natural impulse. Such speech is the only certain sign of thought hidden in a body.

Moreover, although we may be tempted to infer the idea that some resourceful animals also possess immortal souls just like humans, this, Descartes (2007, 60) writes, “is unlikely, because there is no reason to believe it of some animals without believing it of all, and many of them such as oysters and sponges are too imperfect for this to be credible.” The issue of language thus becomes at least twofold: for philosophers like Descartes it is the criteria by which we can distinguish man from animal, while for Derrida this tendency to name, and subsume all animals under a single linguistic concept also becomes the track for his deconstructionist approach to animal philosophy.

This way of thinking about the animal is far from unique to Descartes, Derrida observes. It is, rather, endemic to all of Western philosophy. In fact, the very title of Derrida’s essay on Lacan’s theorizing on the animal, more or less sums it all up. In “And Say the Animal Responded?” (2003) Derrida questions the rigor with which Lacan’s distinction between “reacting” and “responding” determines the limit between the human and the animal. Despite preliminary hopes of a more nuanced account of the psychoanalytical subject vis-à-vis the cited evidence of something similar to a mirror stage in certain animals, Lacan nevertheless maintains a distinction between animal communication as “gregarious” and human communication as “social.” In an attempt to counter ill-founded communication theories of “language as sign,” Lacan holds that human language, rather than operating within a fixed structure of signs, functions by evocation (of a response in relation to the other), and not through simply informing. By contrast, animal interaction can legitimately be seen as a type of pre-wired system of communication, but to then infer that this must also be the case with humans would be a fallacious case of, as Lacan (cited in Derrida 2002, 126) puts it, “putting the rabbit into the hat so as to be able to pull it out again later.” Moreover, animals can of course also work to misinform through pretense, but what here allegedly distinguishes the human realm is the human further capacity of “pretended pretense.”

Derrida’s mission is then, again, not to collapse the difference between concepts such as “reaction” and “response,” but rather to question the way in which these distinctions are taken to provide the border between the human and the animal. How does one in actuality determine whether a behavior is a case of “pretended pretense” or merely simple “pretense”? And can we in fact attribute all these capacities that have been denied the animal, to man in every instance? Furthermore, Derrida (2003, 135) asks, even if such a distinction would be possible to draw in principle, what would be its foundation? Since Lacan refuses any theoretical input from empirical accounts of e.g. ethology, it seems that the bedrock here consists in mere dogma. Any allowance for the animal to actually be giving a response is just rejected a priori.

This trait becomes, I believe, more explicit in Heidegger (1995), whose phenomenological ontology essentially takes as one of its core aims to clarify the metaphysical foundations of the sciences. Thus, even if biology and zoology may talk about “the environmental world” of the animal, we cannot, Heidegger (Ibid., 193) seems to say, engage in any detailed interpretation of such theories on the lives of animals, before the question of what constitutes the essence of animality has been examined on a metaphysical level.

Heidegger’s thesis is that animality consists in “poverty-in-world,” which means that animals, in contrast to inanimate objects, do have a certain access to being, and yet lack the human capacities of world-formation and of ontologically penetrating one’s lived environment in the sense of “taking-as,” as of human Dasein. Here, again, the animal is deprived of exhibiting some essential capacity, which in turn separates it from man. In line with this, Derrida (2002, 388) cites Walter Benjamin’s similar idea of the perceived aphasic “sadness” of nature in not being able respond. Accordingly, humans can name the animals, but in contrast to named—or, to use Althusserian language, interpellated—human subjects, animals lack the possibility of linguistic resignification (FN: crucial to e.g. Judith Butler’s [1997] philosophy) or, more simply, of responding to this quasi-subjectifying call from the other.

But is this really the proper approach with regard to the animal? And to what extent is this not just a question of a lack in animals, but rather of something that relates to ourselves as human subjects?

As for the general methodological decision to take ontology as the fundamental starting point in philosophy, an important alternative has been provided in the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas. Levinas (1959; 1961) instead argues that subjectivity and ontological discourse first comes into being through the encounter with the other in the form of a face, which expresses the vulnerability of that other, along with an ethical injunction to be in its service and to not harm it. Accordingly, it is rather the ethical relation toward this perceived lack in the other that produces the subjectivity of the human “I” and all that follows from this. As such, before ontology and before language, there is the encounter with the untotalizable alterity of the face of the other, and this is how humans gain their essential abilities of responding and of responsibility.

Yet, even in the case of Levinas, one may, as Derrida does, ask how other this other is taken to be. As Levinas (1988, 172) states in an interview, his principal thesis is that “the human breaks with pure being,” in the sense of “being,” proposed by both Heidegger and Darwin, that “the living being struggles for [its own] life.” This is then what separates man from animal life, namely a fundamental ethics with regard to the other. And yet, Levinas does not entirely break with Heidegger when he earlier in the same interview (Ibid., 169) states that “[w]e understand the animal, the face of the animal, in accordance with Dasein.” Conceding, furthermore, that the existence of a face in an animal is not something we can entirely refuse, Levinas nevertheless maintains that the face of an animal is not a face in its purest form (again, this Heideggerian in-between state), and that any ascription of a face to the animal will always be secondary to, and derivative from, the concepts that arise from the fundamental event of encountering the face of a human other.

However, this humanist line of reasoning may be found somewhat surprising, given the crucial asymmetry that fundamentally structures the ethical relation in Levinas’ account. According to Levinas (1986, 31), ethics has its basis in the original, dual ‘I-Thou’ relationship, in which this perspectival ‘I’ is not generalizable to a demand for ethical or moral reciprocity. To take such a step would be to enter directly onto the political level, where several other ‘Thous’ must be taken into account, and be compared to some (essentially tragic) extent. And yet, what must remain the primary guide in such a second-level strife toward ideal, and always improvable, political justice, is the ethical encounter with the other. As Levinas (1986, 31) phrases this fundamental ethics: “not only am I more responsible than the other but I am even responsible for everyone else’s responsibility!”

So, why, one may ask, should we then suddenly refer to a perceived lack of reciprocal responsibility in the other, when it comes to denying the animal a proper face? This question becomes all the more pressing when we take into consideration the fundamentally infinite alterity that Levinas ascribes to the face. How is it that this infinity is somehow still conditional upon it being a human face?

In response to this, as well as to all the ontological accounts we have just discussed, Derrida describes a similar face-to-face scene where he, naked, meets his cat in his bathroom and is filled with not only a sensation of shame, but of shame of being ashamed. The encounter may be said to have two crucial components. First of all, Derrida asks, how could it be denied that I am in fact being seen by the cat, whose gaze moreover is so bottomless and undecidable that it can only be described as an infinite alterity? And secondly, whence this shame of being ashamed? Ashamed in front of whom? Regarding this second point, Derrida makes a lengthy exegesis of Western mythology which lands in the fact that the human acquisition of clothes, technics and language—in other words, all that is taken to uphold the distinction between man and animal—is fundamentally related to an imagined fault or original misdeed in the human.

This can be said to help reverse the whole perspective. What the encounter with the face of a cat produces is not just a pity of the silent animal but, rather, a feeling, in the human subject, of shameful neglect of proper responsibility toward the unique animal other. The question that, as Derrida (2002, 396) argues, should be asked in regard to animals is thus not “can they think?,” but rather, as Bentham suggested, “can they suffer?,” or somewhat paradoxically, “can they not be able?” The affirmative response to that question seems so obvious and undeniable, that Derrida wonders how it is that no other philosopher in history (except presumably Bentham), has had or has acknowledged such an encounter with another animal in their philosophies. Perhaps it is rather due to a case of shameful repression, that the question of the suppression and suffering of animals has been supplanted by the question of whether they possess language or not. In light of this, the first step forward in the political economy of animals, must, as Derrida (1991, 113-5) states in an interview, be that we acknowledge the fundamental, ethical crime in killing and suppressing animals, without any redemptive prevarications or disavowals. In other words, although we inevitably must eat, what we need to do is to at least “sacrifice sacrifice.”

untitled, Mark Peckmezian

As both Derrida (2002, 394-5) and John Berger (2007) recognize, humans’ relation toward animals seems to have entered a completely new phase in the last roughly 200 years. Since the industrial revolution, the presence of animals in human society has increasingly been one of seeing animals in terms of materials, to be produced in factories, or alternatively as distractions in zoos. Simultaneously, this brutal disavowal of animal dignity has, however, also spurred a seemingly new awareness of the rights of animals. To come back to the theme of the perceived “mute sadness” in animals, it is perhaps not surprising that the restricted mode of existence that animals have been assigned in zoos, yields, as Berger (Ibid., 260) seems to describe, a disappointing muteness with regard to what we could plausibly take to be the animals’ own ways of responding or of exhibiting some sort of expression of life. So, how can we, on a more positive note, work to decrease the suppression of animal dignity, and do so more on the animals’ own terms?

A first step would naturally be to acknowledge the obvious fact that animals lack the capacity to sit at the political negotiation table themselves. But this, as Martha Nussbaum  (2006) argues in her criticism of the social-contract model for political justice, should not mean that they should thereby be excluded from holding any rights. In her alternative “capabilities approach” to political justice, Nussbaum conceives of justice in the form of sets of inviolable and non-fungible rights to the various capabilities required to lead a dignified life, regardless of birth. Such a list of basic capabilities will determine a minimum threshold for the provided possibilities of pursing a dignified existence according to one’s own further convictions, but will naturally vary depending on what is at least minimally normative to the given species in question. This means that each individual must, in the first instance, be seen in terms of their own specific abilities and inabilities, against which an engagement to help develop these capabilities must rely. The direction of this facilitation of basic capabilities must, in Nussbaum’s view, then be guided by some kind of normative species ontology, and especially in cases where the right-holders in question may themselves be unable to linguistically express themselves (as in the case of animals) or even be partly unaware of what form such a dignified life could have. Although this Aristotelian-inspired approach of Nussbaum’s thus certainly operates with an ontological understanding in the pursuit of justice, the acknowledged asymmetry with regard to the plurality of rights-holders, along with its fundamentally ethical momentum, make it seem to me as a basically instrumental use of ontology, and, overall, as not too far from the kind of path toward greater justice that both Derrida and—though slightly unwittingly or unwillingly—Levinas gesture toward.

***

The octopus,” Aristotle (1910) writes, “is a stupid creature, for it will approach a man’s hand if it be lowered in the water.” Although the originator of deductive logic and biology was certainly a bit too quick in this inference, we could perhaps understand his mistake to the backdrop of the ostensibly radical otherness of this creature. To begin with, the significance of the cephalopod in human culture occupies such an immense range, that it seems both wider and deeper than the oceans. From the Hawaiian sea god of Kanaloa to the terrifying myths of the deep-sea monster Kraken in Scandinavian folklore—recurring in the infamous giant squid attacking the Nautilus in Jule Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Seas—and H.P. Lovecraft’s more recent Cthulhu deity, the cephalopod again and again shows up as the other par excellence; as master of the infinite seas, or as an atrociously other-worldly creature, imagined as so infinitely alien and far from the life of man.

Its spineless, soft body that can squeeze itself through the smallest aperture, its capacity to adapt and camouflage the color of its skin, and its decentralized intelligence with neurons dispersed throughout its entire body to the tips of its multiple suckered arms—poking and grabbing in various directions—also gives it the shape of the omnipresent, surveilling Parent, God or State. When the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office launched its NROL-39 reconnaissance satellite project in 2013, it opted—to much subsequent public outcry—for the logo of a gigantic yellow octopus wrapping its arms around the Earth, along with the slogan “Nothing Is Beyond Our Reach.” As a spokeswoman of the NRO explained the choice (Hill 2013): “NROL-39 is represented by the octopus, a versatile, adaptable, and highly intelligent creature. Emblematically, enemies of the United States can be reached no matter where they choose to hide.” Here, the octopus is, thus, not only master of the seas but also of space.

The figure of the octopus, moreover, lends itself to many obvious psychoanalytic interpretations: again, the omnipresent parent (cf. Louise Bourgeois’ famously imposing eight-armed spider sculpture Maman) and last but not least, the conspicuous set of tentacles. The cephalopod tentacle remains one of the most famous fetishes of Japanese erotica and pornography, with a tradition stretching back to at least Hokusai’s celebrated 1814 woodblock print The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife. The genre of tentacle erotica is frequently associated with rape (or at least as taking place in the murky waters between violation and consent), as perpetrated by the beastly cephalopod, and it is perhaps this very transgression—between human and the frightening, othered animal—that serves to eroticize this scene, similarly to what the film scholar Linda Williams (2004) has described in an article on the skewed dynamics of interracial pornography. In fact, one of the first and loudest internet discussions upon the release of My Octopus Teacher, was the one of whether Foster in fact engaged in a sexual act with the octopus. In one Twitter thread (Lewis 2020), Foster was even critiqued for his own patently queerphobic disownment of having had sex with the octopus. That may be a step too far to state (Foster cuddles with the octopus, at the octopus’ initiative; not exactly a Hokusai scene), but the cultural imagination at work here is indeed telling.

Finally, cephalopods are eaten and enjoyed as food in many places of the world: from the calamari of Greece (perhaps the symbol of its cuisine) to Korean san-nakji, where the cephalopod is ingested alive, or, at least, posthumously still moving (often taken as a sign of the consumer’s masculinity). To conclude, and to stop this inexhaustible list, the topic of the relation between human and cephalopod, seems to warrant a sub-discipline in itself.

Although some criticism has been vented against the autobiographical narrative aspect of My Octopus Teacher—notably, the trope of the white, depressed man reconnecting with nature—as stealing the spotlight from the real, non-human, star of the show, I still believe that the film marks an interesting contrast to the standard, popular wildlife infotainment found everywhere else on Netflix and other channels. Here it is not just a question of a digitally mediated aquarium or of a “technical clairvoyance” that, to cite John Berger (2007, 257), allows us to see the normally “invisible” nooks of the natural world. Rather, what we see is someone being seen by the seeing animal, and who—despite any cynical tropes—in fact gains, and regains, some sort of subjectivity due to this fact. In the wake of mourning his deceased octopus friend, Foster’s reaction is not simply one of personal gratitude, but also one of felt responsibility towards marine life, as he comes to initiate an organization (Sea Change Project), with the mission of informing about the preservation of threatened marine life.

However, as with many other similar charity initiatives, one may legitimately ask whom it is for, and by what means. On the front page of Sea Change Project’s website (www.seachangeproject.com), one is met with the exhortation “remember you are WILD,” to the backdrop of a fluctuating ocean surface capping a beautifully swaying, dark-turquoise forest of kelp. First of all, it would be very easy to interpret this reminder as merely another message to the modern urbanite that the main value of the preservation of marine habitats and habitants lies in the therapeutic possibility for disconnected humans to heal themselves through nature. And secondly, one may ask, does “nature” have to be this beautiful in order to be protected?

These critical remarks may be fitting to some extent, but then, from the point of view of Derrida, why, initially, disparage this arguably responsible approach of Foster’s? Especially when it is so clearly grounded in the caring for an individual animal other, as in this case. Despite Foster’s exhilaration at “being part of this place” he—lacking gills—still clearly remains a guest in these “wild” waters (where it is, ironically, the octopus who hurries to cover her body, in algae clothing, in the first face-to-face encounter with the semi-nude man, outside her den). If more animals have their capabilities of leading a flourishing existence increased by such initiatives, then so much the better.

And yet, choosing one specific habitat to protect, in the wake of a one-on-one encounter, will of course, as Derrida would point out, naturally mean a disregard of another third party, who does not get seen or protected to the same extent. Here it becomes, I believe, particularly clear that the aesthetic predicates we tend to ascribe to various animals and species have an important impact on who gets seen and who gets protection. As Roderick Nash points out in a fascinating overview of the history of the U.S. Endangered Species Act of 1973, despite the fact that the U.S. federal law of 1973 made up a great advancement in animal rights, the law’s formulation remained somewhat anthropocentric in its stated purpose of protecting species that are “of aesthetic, ecological, educational, historical, recreational and scientific value to the Nation and its people” (Nash 1989, 176). Emblematically, while the ESA made possible the first non-human plaintiff in a U.S. court, in the form of a beautifully yellow Hawaiian bird whose habitats had become threatened by excessive grazing, and who later won the case, the law’s specification of e.g. “aesthetic value,” also made possible certain loopholes. One of the first cases of ESA lawsuits going to the Supreme Court, included a legal battle between a multi-million dollar Tennessee dam project and the snail-darter, which is a grey, three-inch type of minnow fish discovered to only live in a small section of the Little Tennessee river. As the main opponent Rep. John Duncan of Tennessee expressed his position in the battle: “I have a picture of the snail-darter. You cannot eat it. It is not much to look at. It is a slimy color.” (Nash 1989, 178). After a long protracted legal battle, the snail-darter eventually lost to the dam project.

Similarly, we may wonder whether the greyish and horrifying pajama sharks that repeatedly harass and even dismember Foster’s octopus friend, will be granted a face in the extended Levinasian sense. For, common to most empirical accounts of respectful human-animal relations in which the animal is granted a subjectivity of its own, is that they are after all accounts of either primates, genetically and morphologically close to ourselves, or of animals that have been bred and trained to live with humans, which we thus naturally tend to have an affectionate regard toward (see e.g. Smuts 1999). Against this background, a similar account from a relation with a wild mollusk like Foster’s octopus friend is indeed a significant step farther. Yet, having proven what an intelligent, graceful and fascinating animal the octopus in fact is, we may wonder to what extent her rights of a dignified existence are indeed conditioned upon her aesthetic features. How can we guarantee justice for all the ugly, scary, and disgusting animals out there?

Regardless of its ethical relevance to the question of animal justice, I can’t help feeling compelled by the octopus’ being, which is presented in My Octopus Teacher. This is an invertebrate animal with a resourcefulness and inventiveness that in several situations make myself feel outsmarted, and whose shifting form, colors, and ways of moving I could probably look at indefinitely. It is also arguably an animal that is playful and curious about what it sees, and that sometimes reaches out an arm just to see. What Aristotle took for stupidity may in fact just have been an invitation of trust.

This essay was originally written in connection with the course ‘New Perspectives on Vulnerability,’ given by Professor Don Kulick at Uppsala University in the fall of 2020. A special thanks to Don for providing numerous inspiring discussions, readings, and perspectives on the issues at hand.

Bibliography

Aristotle. 1910. Historia Animalium. Trans. D’arcy Wentworth Thompson. Oxford:                         Clarendon Press.

Berger, John. 2007 (1972). Why Look at Animals? In The Animal Reader, Linda Kalof &                        Amy Fitzgerald (eds.). Oxford: Berg, 251-261.

Butler, Judith. 1997. Excitable Speech: The Politics of the Performative. New York:                        Routledge.

Derrida, Jacques. 2002. The Animal that Therefore I Am (More to Follow). Critical Inquiry            28:2, 396-418.

—2003. And Say the Animal Responded? In Zoontologies: The Question of the Animal, Cary                  Wolfe (ed.) Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 121-146.

—1991. ‘Eating Well’, or the Calculation of the Subject: An Interview with Jacques Derrida. In Who Comes After the Subject?, Cadava, Connor & Nancy (eds.). London: Routledge, 96-119.

Descartes, René. 2007. From Letters of 1646 and 1649. In The Animal Reader, Linda Kalof            & Amy Fitzgerald (eds.). Oxford: Berg, 59-62.

Heidegger, Martin. 1995. The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude,                            Solitude. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Hill, Kashmir. U.S. Spy Rocket Has Octopus-Themed ‘Nothing Is Beyond Our Reach’ Logo. Seriously. Forbes Dec 5 2013. [https://www.forbes.com/sites/kashmirhill/2013/12/05/u-s-spy-rocket-launching-today-has-octopus-themed-nothing-is-beyond-our-reach-logo-seriously/?sh=6bd3248a6869] Retrieved Oct 29 2020.

Levinas, Emmanuel. 1996 (1951). Is Ontology Fundamental? In Emmanuel Levinas: Basic             Philosophical Writings, Peperzak, Critchley & Bernasconi (eds.). Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

— 1969. Totality and Infinity. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press.

Levinas, Emmanuel & Richard Kearney. 1986. Dialogue with Levinas. In Face to Face with          Levinas, Richard A Cohen (ed.). Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 13-33.

Lewis, Sophie. 2020. Twitter: [https://twitter.com/reproutopia/status/1307785450766163968] Retrieved Nov 6 2020.

Nash, Roderick Frazier. 1989. The Rights of Nature: A History of Environmental Ethics. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.

Nussbaum, Martha. 2007. Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership.           Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Smuts, Barbara. 1999. Reflections. In Coetzee, J.M. The Lives of Animals. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 107-120.

Williams, Linda. 2004. Skin Flicks on the Racial Border: Pornography, Exploitation, and Interracial Lust. In Porn Studies,Linda Williams (ed.). Durham & London: Duke                           University Press.

Wright, Tamra, Peter Hughes & Alison Ainley. 1988. The Paradox of Morality: An Interview with Emmanuel Levinas. In The Provocation of Levinas: Rethinking the Other, Bernasconi & Wood (eds.). London & New York: Routledge, 168-180.


The Human Need for a Future


Peter Gärdenfors – Lund University Cognitive Science

#II. inside animals / animals inside

ii. a bestiarium vocabulum – the primate

spring, 2022


1) Book of Hours, MS M.282 fol. 58r France, Paris, ca. 1460 – Images from Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts. 2) untitled, Mark Peckmezian


After all, life can be summed up in the paradoxical formula: the preservation of the future.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe 

Broadening horizons

Humans have, as long as there is history, been obsessed with demarcating themselves from other animals. Different answers have been tried, such as that we are alone in using tools. Then it was found that many species use tools. Next attempt was to say that we are alone in making tools. Again, this is not true since both apes and birds make tools. One demarcation has remained though: humans have language. 

From an evolutionary point of view, the next question then becomes why we are the only species that has language. Before attempting to answer that question, the ecology of our ancestors must be considered. One explanation for what happened when the ancestors of humans (hominins) separated from those of chimpanzees some 6-8 million years ago is that the hominins adapted to a life in open landscapes, while the early chimpanzees remained in forests or denser vegetation. The adaptations to a savannah landscape provided new evolutionary pressures on the hominins, who had to travel over larger distances. Foraging demanded planning for longer periods of time. In brief, the ecology forced the hominins to broaden their spatial and temporal horizons. We have become the far-ranging apes.

The selection pressures, however, also affected the inner worlds of the hominins. In the same way as they needed to see further across the savannah, they needed to be able to see further within themselves. The evolution of human thinking is closely connected to how we have succeeded in broadening our inner and outer horizons. In short, my thesis is that the unique position of humans is due to the fact that we are the only animals that can plan for future needs and not just for the needs we have here and now. 

It is a peculiarity of man that he can only live by looking to the future – sub specie aeternitatis. And this is his salvation in the most difficult moments of his existence, although he sometimes has to force his mind to the task. 

Viktor Frankl

The poet Paul Valéry says in one of his aphorisms that the task of consciousness is to create a future. Much of the analysis of the minds of animals, children and adults concerns precisely how rich their images of the future are. Evolution has given humans an increasingly rich inner world and more and more cognitive abilities. As I shall argue, this has generated language, leading to an increasing ability to transmit knowledge between generations. 

As Rüdiger Safranski notes, however, a rich consciousness leads to complications in our relationship to the world.

Consciousness results in a broken link with the world. It plunges us into time: into a past that harasses us because we cannot forget it and that remains present even when repressed; into a present that constantly escapes our grasp; and into a future that may become a disturbing scenario beset with threats. Everything would be simpler if consciousness were only conscious being. But it breaks loose and becomes open to a horizon of new possibilities. Consciousness is able to transcend the given reality, and hence to discover either a dizzying nothingness or a god in which everything comes to rest.

Rüdiger Safranski

Prospective cognition

The main advantage of an inner world is that it makes it possible to go through an imagined future before the real one falls upon you. To the extent that you manage to foresee the consequences of your choices, you are in a better position to control the future. The essence of planning is that, in contrast to trial-and-error, an individual imagines a series of actions that will lead to a desired goal before carrying out the actions. One should however distinguish between immediate planning, which aims at fulfilling current desires, and prospective planning, which aims at satisfying future desires. 

It was, for a long time, assumed that humans were the only animals capable of prospective planning. This is sometimes called the Bischof-Köhler hypothesis. We can foresee that we will be hungry tomorrow and save some of the food; we realise that it will be cold and windy in winter and build ourselves a shelter well in advance. We sow and we harvest. Humans live in their dreams and plans – notions that carry them away, but also give them perseverance. We act on what’s in our heads, not just on what’s around us. This applies to all kinds of distant goals: to pass a degree, to build a house, to write a book, to get the one you love, and so on. Imagination is our strongest driving force. 

What makes it harder to plan for future needs than for present ones? The answer is that the two types of planning rely on different levels of imagination. When planning to satisfy a current need, the value of the consequences is determined in relation to what one wants to do at the moment, but it does not require conscious thought about the need. Planning for future needs, on the other hand, requires the ability to imagine and value these potential needs even though one is not experiencing them now. 


The human throws at the future 

an arrow tied to a string. 

The arrow lands in an image

and the human reels itself in towards that object

Paul Valéry


The limited future of animal thought

Apes don’t believe in God. That’s what happens when you have so much fur you can’t see your own navel. They don’t ask about origins, any more than they believe in death. They just laugh as if it were a joke that they exist.

Cecilia Bornäs

Yet much of what animals do seems to be planning for the future: birds building nests, squirrels gathering food for the winter, etc. But these behaviours are only instinctive. Most animals seem to have no idea of the future – they just follow their urges. 

One example of how difficult it is for animals to imagine being different is how monkeys are caught in Asia. They find a hole in a tree trunk just big enough for a monkey to get its hand in. In the hole you put boiled rice, which the monkeys are very fond of. When a monkey spots the rice, it reaches in and grabs it. But then the hand is too big to be pulled out of the hole again. The strange thing is that the monkey is left sitting there, its hand clutching the rice. It cannot disconnect from the thought of the presence of the sweet rice and imagine itself as a free monkey, only to let go of the rice. The monkey’s prospective planning seems to be completely non-existent.

The Bischof-Köhler hypothesis can, however, no longer be upheld in the light of recent experimental results. Great apes are not only able to select tools for future use, but also to save tools that have currently been used to satisfy a desire. Perhaps most importantly, great apes are able outcompete current drives in favor of future ones as well as being able to envision future events. Another example is that in Furuvik Zoo in Sweden, the male chimpanzee Santino has been observed calmly collecting stones in a pile in the morning (and hiding them from his care-takers), and later in the day throwing them at visitors that he becomes angry with. Interestingly, this ability to plan for future needs also seems to have evolved independently in the avian taxon of corvids. For example, scrub jays save food that they will prefer for breakfast tomorrow. Even though these results show that some animals have the capacity for prospective planning, the time range and variations of the plans are rather limited in relation to the capacity of humans.

The difference between immediate and prospective planning can be seen, for example, in the use of tools. Apes and other animals make tools, but almost only for their current needs. Humans, on the other hand, may realize that they will need the tool tomorrow as well and thus carry it with them to a new environment. Signs of carrying tools therefore become an interesting test of whether you are capable of prospective planning or not. Stone tools dating back some 2.5 million years have been found from the so-called Oldowan culture. Archaeologists have been able to show that many of these tools were transported over several kilometres.  Even the raw material for the tools has been moved over long distances, suggesting that there was a plan to produce the tool later at another location. In contrast, studies of chimpanzee tool use have mostly seen them carrying their tools a few hundred metres. This suggest that is a marked difference in prospective planning ability between apes and early humans. It is clear, however, that human foresight has become more extensive over time and nowadays we are constantly juggling the future. We carry not only tools, but also tickets, almanacs, mobile phones, etc. 

The dilemma of the future

Our most important thoughts are those which contradict our feelings.

Paul Valéry

Prospective cognition gives rise to a fundamental predicament. The dilemma is that the actions required to satisfy future needs are often in conflict with those that satisfy present desires. If I don’t want to freeze later tonight, I must go out and look for firewood, but right now I am warm and cosy and have no desire to leave the fire. We have to choose between acting for the present or for the future. There are big individual differences between how we deal with the conflict between our present desires and the future needs we can foresee. The differences are well illustrated by Aesop’s fable of the ant and the cricket. Some people, like the ant in the fable, find it difficult to live in the present and get their greatest satisfaction from planning for the future. They take out retirement insurance at the age of twenty-five. 

The conflict between the present and the future self is closely related to what Kierkegaard calls ”despair” in his book The Sickness unto Death. Despair means that we have no way out of the conflict between living in the present and thinking ahead, but it is precisely this that makes us human. Kierkegaard also points out that the form of “sickness” that despair represents is unique to human beings: 

The possibility of this sickness is man’s superiority over the animal, and this superiority distinguishes him in quite another way than does his erect walk, for it indicates infinite erectness or sublimity, that he is spirit.

When humans acquire the ability to choose their own ends and to plan and dream accordingly, they become more flexible beings, but at the same time their paradisiacal innocence is ended. They become dual natures, living in both a real and an imagined world. The imaginary world can easily become a seductive refuge – a heaven of fantasy – that overshadows the grey, often arduous everyday life. It is tempting not to connect the two worlds – to let the imagination gallop away with no requirement for action in the real world. The inner world becomes a gnawing longing and the inability to realise it leads to constant frustration. 

We should once again become good neighbours with the nearest things, and not stare beyond them as contemptuously as we have done hitherto at clouds and night skies. In forests and caves, in swamps and under cloudy skies – there man has lived too long, in millennia-long stages of culture – and lived miserably. There he has learned to despise the present and the neighbourhood and life and himself – and we, the inhabitants of the lighter regions of nature and spirit, still have in our blood, by inheritance, something of this poisonous contempt for what is nearest.

Friedrich Nietzsche

In this way, the rich inner world of humans has become a burden to us – much as the male peacock has to drag around his gaudy tail to attract the females. As Nietzsche suggests, perhaps it is better to come to one’s senses, abandon the most alluring castles in the sky and strive to anchor one’s thoughts in the reality in which one finds oneself, even if it is far less tempting. 

The future and free will

There is a very strong link between having free will and being able to plan for future needs. Harry Frankfurt says that a necessary criterion for an individual to be a person is that the individual not only wants something but also wants it to be wanted. This criterion of free will is based on being able to imagine one’s own desires, which is a prerequisite for prospective planning. Thus, free will requires prospective planning. The converse is also true to some extent: The capacity for prospective planning requires that one can freely choose between trying to fulfil the goals one has now or to fulfil the goals one imagines one will have in the future.

A free will also presupposes a form of self-consciousness in the sense that one must be conscious of one’s own desires in order to want another desire. Kierkegaard expresses the connection as follows:

Over all, consciousness, i.e., self-consciousness, is the decisive thing in relation to the self; the more consciousness, the more self; the more consciousness, the more will; the more will, the more self. A person who has no will at all is not a self; but the more will he has, the more self-consciousness he has also. 

The explanation of why there is a strong correlation between the degree of free will and the level of self-consciousness is that the more freely humans want to be able to choose, the more different goals, present and future, they must be able to conceive of. In other words, the richer your inner world is, the more choices you have. By developing your imagination, and thereby your capacity for prospective planning, you increase your ability to choose freely.

Morality and the future

The ability of human to foresee their future needs leads to two complications. First, individuals are given a much larger set of options from which to choose, since they must also consider future possibilities. Secondly, they can reflect on their own choices and contrast different values. These two complications often lead to great uncertainty for the chooser – in difficult cases to existential uncertainty. In a sense, humans are so free that they can even disregard their self-interest. (This is the topic of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground.) 

In order to reduce this uncertainty, humans need guiding rules to help them choose. To be moral, one must have free will. Darwin writes that morality consists in being able to reflect on and evaluate one’s actions. He believes that short-term desires such as hunger and lust need to be suppressed in favour of longer-term values. Darwin already clearly identifies the dilemmas faced by a prospective planner.

Morality is needed to support the long-term and overarching goals in the struggle between them and our throbbing egocentric desires. Morality points to our future actions, towards things we have not yet decided to do, and it therefore presupposes prospective thinking and a free will.

An unselfish strategy, which is often unconscious, involves foregoing short-term selfish gain in order to build trust that may lead to future benefits in forms of collaborative outcomes that are more valuable than a quick windfall. Nietzsche puts it that people are selfless because they care about their reputation:

A fixed reputation was formerly a matter of the very greatest utility; and wherever society continues to be ruled by the herd-instinct, it is still most suitable for every individual to give to his character and business the appearance of unalterableness, – even when they are not so in reality. ”One can rely on him, he remains the same” – that is the praise which has most significance in all dangerous conditions of society.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Therefore, being selfless now generally means being selfish in the long run. Such an investment model, where trust is capital, provides a rational explanation of general morality. It is important to note, however, that the reasoning is based on the premise that one is capable of prospective planning. We need to be able to compare the reward that an egoistic choice gives us directly with the value of the opportunities that future trust may offer.

Self-consciousness enables us to reflect on our choices and thus to make moral decisions – this possibility is not available to other animals. Already Darwin notes in The Descent of Man that a moral creature must be able to reflect on and evaluate his actions. Jean Piaget argues that children’s moral values do not derive from following the rules of their parents or other authorities, but from their ability to empathise with others, that is, the ability to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. Such a role reversal presupposes that the child has an idea of the feelings of the other. But this is not enough for morality to emerge. If I am to be moral towards you, and not just compassionate, then I must make a conscious choice – I must have an idea of my goal and be able to contrast this with other possible goals. Immanuel Kant says in the third part of Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten that one must see oneself as the origin of one’s principles, without outside influence, in order to consider oneself morally free.

Morality is an ill-chosen and ill-reputed term for one of the branches of generalizing politics, which involves the tactics of the self against itself. In the statements, I am master of myself, I give in to myself, I allow myself, ‘I’ and ‘me’ there are separate – or are they not? One could simplify the moral analysis to a determination of whether the distinction between these two pronouns is real or fictional.

Paul Valéry

To be moral, therefore, requires self-consciousness and free will – to be able to distinguish between ‘I’ and ‘me’ as Valéry puts it. Animals are not moral because they cannot consciously evaluate their actions. For the same reason, we generally do not assign morality to young children, because we understand that their inner world is not yet sufficiently developed for them to make conscious choices. On the other hand, monkeys, apes and children have a sense of being treated unfairly and react accordingly.

Small children also have difficulty thinking ahead and are therefore, in all their sweetness, great egoists. A well-known experiment that has been performed with four-year-olds is the following: The experimenter gives a child a marshmallow and says: ”If you can wait a few minutes to eat it, I’ll give you another marshmallow”. Then the person leaves the room and the child sits there alone with the candy. After fifteen minutes, the person comes back in and if the child still has his marshmallow, he gets another one. Only about a third of four-year-olds can wait. The most interesting thing about the test, however, is that it was followed up ten years later and it turned out that the children who could put off the reward were also the ones with the best school grades. For these children, the inner world was sufficiently developed by the age of four that the glow of the imagined future with two marshmallows was more appealing than the present piece of candy.

Language and the future

Man’s unique capacity for foresight also has consequences for our ability to cooperate. Different animal species can cooperate in many ways. Such seemingly simple animals as ants and bees build complex societies with collective efforts. This form of animal cooperation is instinctive – they have no idea of the goals to which the work will lead. Therefore, they cannot create new goals to collaborate on. My main thesis concerning the evolution of language is that, humans have created symbolic communication as a powerful tool for achieving innovative cooperation on future goals.

Homo sapiens is the only species that use symbols to communicate about what happened long ago, about their plans for the future, and about their dreams. In their natural state, animals do not use symbols. They communicate with signals about what is happening here and now. Unlike human communication, animals seldom check whether their signals are getting through. It takes two to tango – human language is, in contrast, based on an interaction with the person you are communicating with.

The difference between the symbols of a language and the signals that animals use is that the signals are only about what is present in the animal’s environment. Bees only dance immediately after returning to the hive after finding nectar. Vervets only signal when danger is imminent. Neither they nor the bees ever tell each other stories or make joint plans.

The point is that without the help of language symbols, we would not be able to share visions of the future and convince each other that a certain unknown goal is worth striving for. This function is probably one of the most important evolutionary drivers behind the emergence of language. Unlike other theories of the evolution of language, it also explains why humans are alone in having a language, since the ability to cooperate on future goals requires both an awareness of oneself in the future and an advanced ability to empathise with the inner worlds of others. Both of these abilities are most developed in humans.

Conclusion

The increasingly rich inner world of man has increased our awareness and extended our imagination of the future, but at the same time made it more difficult for us to choose. We are increasingly able to reflect on our decisions and judge them from a moral perspective. Moreover, our capacity for prospection means that we need to think not only about the consequences of our choices for the present, but also about how they will affect our future choices. These complex choice situations create a need for meaning, for deliberations that place the various choices in a larger context. 

If I were a tree among trees, an animal among animals, life would have meaning, or rather, the problem would have no meaning, because I would be part of the world. I would be the world, to which my consciousness and my whole demand for familiarity now place me in opposition. It is ridiculous reason that sets me against the whole of creation. … And what is at the bottom of this conflict, this rupture between the world and my thought, if not my own consciousness of the world?

Albert Camus


 The text builds partly on material from my book Den meningssökande människan (The Meaning-seeking Human), Natur & Kultur, Stockholm 2006.


In Conversation with photographer Mark Peckmezian


Amanda Winberg

#II. inside animals / animals inside

ii. a bestiarium vocabulum – the dog

spring, 2022


1) Jagdszene aus: Abhandlung über die Jagd, Mailand, 863 n. d. H./ 1459 u. Z. Chantilly, Musée Condé, Ms. 368, fol. 85r. 2) untitled, Mark Peckmezian

Mark Peckmezian is a Berlin-based fashion-photographer and artist with an extraordinary eye for the beautiful awkwardness in failed visual archetypes. He has earned international fame for his creative fashion-photography for major fashion houses such as Gucci, Hermes and Dior, as well as for his portraits of Bill Gates, Joe Biden, and other political animals, featured in outlets like The New York Times and Le Monde. The most recent work of his is the artistic portraiture book Nice from 2021, printed by Roma Publications.

In this issue of Differens Magazine, #II. inside animals / animals inside, we have been given the opportunity to learn more about Peckmezian’s dog photography. Describing it as a reconnection with his artistic practice after many years of art theory at the Ryerson University in Toronto, photographing animals seem to has figured as something like a source of creative vitality for Peckmezian since the beginning of his career:

I started shooting dogs immediately after leaving school, actually. It felt like a bit of a detox or something. Returning to an innocent and joyous engagement with photography after being brainwashed by university, this delusional academic discourse. I hated the way my professors talked about and conceived art. In fact, they would’ve absolutely hated these dog photos.”

With a visual language characterized by irony, drama and extravagance, the dogs in Peckmezian’s photography raises fundamental questions about interspecific perception, scenes and spectacles. His dogs are not nonhumans but morethanhumans, pointing toward something extremely, perhaps supreme, human, yet to find its concepts. We, being this embarrassingly contrived species with too much self-consciousness to assertively express and stage our equally hilarious as beautiful temperaments, find ourselves admitting that humans have a lot to learn from the expressive aesthetic of the dogs, in Peckmezian’s photography.


Being one of our times hottest dog photographers, what do you think about when you hear the word dog?

Haha I reject that characterization but nevertheless: I think I think about dogs? I should say that I don’t think my dog photos are about dogs really. I see the dogs as a token subject. They’re a stand in for the human subject, and the project is a space to play with photography and its codes and conventions. This describes my creative motivation at least. They are still literally pictures of dogs, and I do like dogs a lot. I can see why the pictures would be interesting to dog enthusiasts even though they were meant differently. 

Your dog photography often investigates the moods and attitudes of dog-being, how different is it to approach and shoot dogs compared to humans?

I think of shooting dogs and shooting people as very, very similar activities. They both involve a lot of the same creative ‘modules’: Getting a read on a character, a personality; distilling that into a relatable idea; finding the right photographic form to articulate that. 

I think I often approach portraiture as something like caricature. You get an overwhelming sense of a subjects’ mental state or persona. For example: the small prissy dog, wound up tight, trotting anxiously on its little ballerina feet. I know that mood! I know that person. How do you depict this visually, in a clear and compelling way? To answer that question involves understanding a lot about photography, and a lot of that knowledge is directly applicable to portraiture of people. In this way I see these photos as one big exercise.

Describing it as a retreat from theory, do you at all work with something like an ideal for the portraits or is it just interaction and Zen all the way through?

I think this work specifically is all about letting go and reacting. I found that whenever I go to a dog park with expectations, the pictures fall apart. There are too many variables to ever really control, so it’s foolish to even try. I just walk around, watch dogs, and daydream about picture ideas. The vast majority of my dog pictures were taken spontaneously, when I was out with a camera. I would also deliberately go to hang out at dog parks to find dogs.

I’d like to take a moment to think about the meeting between these fluffy sometimes clumsy and, you know, fleshy, bodies and the hard, objective, and technical instrument, that the camera is. What happens in the meeting between dog and camera?

As it happens, dogs don’t really care so much about my presence. They usually pay me minimal attention, they’re too busy sniffing shit or whatever. Sometimes the flash angers them.

Something I always find interesting is the reaction of the dog owners. I’ve photographed hundreds of dogs and not once has an owner ever objected. On the contrary they seem to beam with pride. This always makes me laugh for some reason. I imagine that they think “someone else sees how beautiful and perfect my dog is,” their personal vanity somehow extending to another being. 

While I was doing some research for this interview, I came across texts about your photography that suggested that you were “giving personality” to the dogs through your style of expression. How do you feel about this characterization?

I have a very agnostic attitude towards this. I always start off being inspired by something specific about the dog, but I’m not loyal to that perception. I’ll do whatever makes for a good picture: ‘Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story.’ I cheat pictures all the time. Maybe a dog was in fact a graceful dog, and was running gracefully when I took the picture, but in the frame I have he looks like a wild mess. Maybe that attitude makes for a better picture.

 If there is such a thing as unphotogenic humans (that is, humans who don’t really photograph well), are there correspondingly unphotogenic dogs?

On an ultimate level I think there are no boring subjects. Every subject has some kind of interestingness somewhere. It comes down to the intelligence and talent of the photographer to be able to find and articulate that. But conventionally speaking yes of course. I think people or dogs that are banal, have nothing specific about them, are “unphotogenic.” Of course even that banality, if concentrated enough, can become special. 

An interesting corollary would be that some subjects are too photogenic. I think this exists. I think about subjects that are too obviously interesting. Consider the poodle with dyed pink hair or something. I think as a viewer you always want to feel like you’re discovering something, and subjects like to deprive you of that experience.

untitled, Mark Peckmezian

I understand your dog portraits as an ambition to capture the temperaments, directness and playfulness of the dog’s bodily expressions, perhaps suggesting that a similar humour is to be found in the expressions of the human body and its doings? Is the value of something being “fun” or, as your latest publication is called, “nice” underestimated in the art world?

Yeah I think that’s the tone I bring to most of my work, lightness and humour. I laugh a lot when I take pictures. I think about the whole enterprise of making art as possessing a fundamental absurdity. But I don’t mean that as a complaint: I want to celebrate that absurdity, I want to enjoy something as it is, exactly as it is.I don’t believe that all art has to be pleasurable per se, but personally I certainly prefer art that is.

Additionally I have no tolerance for work that discards pleasure unduly, usually out of narcissism (refusal to meet the viewer half way), incompetence (inability to communicate well), or out of some sort of ideology that says ‘pleasurable work is unserious work.’ 

As we approaching the end of this interview, I must ask the question I’ve been most excited about: do you envy dogs and their humor?

Great question and the answer is absolutely, yes. I think I fetishize a state of innocence. I admire that deeply. I think dogs have many attitudes that, if possessed by a human, would be very admirable. I’m imagining the cliche good natured dog: easy going, down for whatever, always enthusiastic about whatever they’re doing, curious and adventurous, friendly, trusting.

I know some people like this. I see these qualities as a kind of moral intelligence. I think there are many kinds of intelligence, and I think moral intelligence is the most valuable kind by a factor of ten. And some people just seem to be born with sound moral intuitions. I don’t have that, I felt like I had to fight for every inch haha. 

Haha, relate. But now I immediately feel compelled to ask one supplementary and last question… If you must pick a human to symbolize the virtues of the dog, who would it be?

Hmm in terms of a well known figure, maybe the Prince from The Idiot.

untitled, Mark Peckmezian

Museum of Nonhumanity

http://museumofnonhumanity.org


Gustafsson&Haapoja

#II. inside animals / animals inside

i. humans and nonhumans

spring, 2022


The Museum of Nonhumanity is a utopian museum in the form of a 70-minute, 10-channel video installation that displays historical divisions between humans and animals and reflections on their resultant oppression of the non-human. Behind the museum is the collaborative artist duo Gustafsson&Haapoja, consisting of the Helsinki based author Laura Gustafsson and the New York based artist Terike Haapoja.

As an author and playwriter, Laura Gustafsson has published several books and produced works in various fields, such as theatre, visual arts, and tv. As a consistent theme for her writing, she like to nourice perspectives of the unforeseen, whether the topic is motherhood or the end of the world. Gustafsson’s debut, Huorasatu [Whory Tale] published in 2011, is an anti-Aristotelian novel that embraces the whole herstory of life, dealing with mythologies spanning from ancient Babylonia to the era of MTV. This work was later nominated for the Finlandia Prize by the Finnish Book Foundation. Her latest novel Rehab, from 2021, raises questions on how we are to deal with waste and how we could come to terms with the materiality of our bodies. Her works have been translated from Finnish to German, French and Turkish.

Terike Haapoja’s large scale installations, writing, and political projects investigate the mechanics of othering with a specific focus on issues arising from the anthropocentric world view of western modernism. Some of the works she produced are Closed Circuit – Open Duration (2008-2013), an exhibition and series of works focused on questions of mortality, co-existence and the relationship between humans and nature, and The Party of Others (2011), a project entailing the appropriation of the form of a political party, to study the status of species and groups excluded from juridical systems. In addition, Haapoja contributes regularly to Finnish and international art publications and represented Finland at the Venice Biennale in 2013 with a solo show in the Nordic Pavilion. Her work has been awarded with the Guggenheim Fellowship (2022), the ANTI Prize for Live Art (2016), the Dukaatti prize (2008) and the Säde prize (2009). She is currently employed as an adjunct professor at NYU Steinhardt and Parsons Fine Arts, New York.

As Gustafsson&Haapoja, Laura Gustafsson and Terike Haapoja produce exhibitions, stage works and publications that focus on problems arising from anthropocentric worldviews of Western traditions. Their first large scale exhibition, Museum of the History of Cattle, was first shown in Helsinki in 2013 and the accompanying book History According to Cattle was published in 2015. In 2014, they produced the participatory court room performance The Trial, commissioned by the Baltic Circle Festival, in which they explored the notion of nonhuman legal personhood and rights of nature. As Flow Festival’s Visual Artists of the Year, Gustafsson&Haapoja presented in 2016 the work Embrace your Empathy! The same year of 2016, the exhibition Museum of Nonhumanity opened for the first time in Helsinki and has since then been on tour around the world. In 2020 at the Helsinki Art Museum, they presented Becoming (2020), a 3-channel, 3-hour video installation that discuss emergent notions of being human, historically shadowed by Western worldviews. Their most recent works, Waiting Room (2019) and Pigs (2021), explore the biopolitics of industrial animal agriculture.

With a wide international span of appearances behind them, including exhibitions at Taipei Biennale, Momentum Biennale, Helsinki Biennale, The New Tratyakov Gallery Moscow, Turner Contemporary, Santarcangelo Festival, Flow Festival Helsinki, Droog Gallery Amsterdam and Prague Fotograf Festival, Gustafsson&Haapoja was awarded with Kiila Prize for socially engaged art in 2013 and Finnish State Media Art Award in 2016.

Differens Magazine could not be prouder to be able to once again present some of the duo’s thoughts and materials, here in resonance and dialog with the topic of our second issue, inside animals / animals inside.


Towards a time after “the animal”

Terike Haapoja

Museum of Nonhumanity is a utopian museum in the form of a 70-minute, 10-channel video installation that displays the division between human and animal, and the resultant oppression. The content of the video installation is made up of archive materials, selected quotations from key works of the tradition of western thought, and dictionary or encyclopaedia definitions that exemplify the mechanics of animalization in the history of western culture.

The Museum interrogates the way we interpret ‘animal’ and ‘human’ as ecological and biological species concepts, and suggests that moves towards inter-species justice overlook the ways in which conceptual discrimination between human and animal in western thought has acted as a tool for marginalizing and oppressing humans and other species. Here I will examine the distinction made between animal and human via three different conceptual frameworks: first, as a species concept that references biological categories; then as a key question for posthumanist thought about the structural connection between the concepts of human and animal; and finally as a demand, arising from decolonial frameworks, to locate the boundary between human and animal within the colonialist paradigm of racialization.

Museum of Nonhumanity, Gustafsson&Haapoja. Photo, Terike Haapoja

Speciesism and the circle of rights

In human-rights discussions the animal-rights movement is often seen as a pastime of a white elite, which betrays that elite’s lack of concern for human-rights issues. Inside the animal-rights movement, meanwhile, the accentuation of the intrinsic value of humanity looks like a negation of the rights of nature and other species. Underlying this conflict is often the way in which the two sides view the human/animal distinction primarily as a species question. When humanity is seen as a synonym for the species Homo sapiens, and animality, in turn, as a common denominator for all other species, “animals” are seen as a single group who compete with marginalized human groups for recognition of their rights.

The concept of speciesism made famous by the moral philosopher Peter Singer derives from this basic configuration.[i] The term speciesism identifies the same mechanism as being behind the oppression of animals as is behind racism or sexism: an arbitrary marker (skin colour, gender, species) has been co-opted to justify oppression, even if in reality the issue is simply one of subjugation. The background to Singer’s thinking is Kant’s moral theory, which roots human dignity in the capacity for self-reflection and autonomous thought.[ii] According to Kant, animals do not have these capacities, and are consequently only means, not ends in themselves. Singer points out that, in reality many animals are capable of self-reflection and are also autonomous, while many humans – for example, those with severe disabilities or illnesses, the very young or old – are not.[iii] For the argument to be coherent, the inherent value of a living being and its fundamental rights should be formulated according to the individual’s actual attributes, and not species boundaries. This would potentially move some humans into a category with limited human rights, and correspondingly make some animals the holders of a variety of fundamental rights to be determined case by case. To those who are worried that shifting human rights onto a sliding scale makes human individuals vulnerable to exploitation, Singer replies that in current thinking the price of that fear is paid by the billions of animals who have no rights at all.[iv]

The notion of non-human animals possessing cognitive capacities that forms the basis of Singer’s argument is nowadays a universally acknowledged fact in zoology and other science disciplines. Research data on the abilities of non-human animals to use language, form social relationships, use tools, and even view the world aesthetically – all abilities that were previously seen as exclusively human characteristics – has shattered the idea that human beings differ biologically from all other creatures. Faced with scientific evidence and the sixth extinction the idea of animals having legal rights has broken out of the margins and moved closer to the mainstream.

The Nonhuman Rights Project founded by the US lawyer Steven Wise has long campaigned for the recognition of the fundamental rights of non-human animals, and in recent years NHRP campaigns have reached as high as the state supreme court.[v] The NHRP’s arguments echo Kant’s moral theory and the Singerian conceptualization of speciesism: According to Wise, it is specifically the capacity for autonomy that is the basis of human rights, and if we take this seriously, many autonomous animals that also have human-like cognitive abilities, such as chimpanzees, orcas and elephants, should be moved from the category of objects to the category of persons possessing legal rights.[vi]

NHRP’s strategy is to bring court cases on behalf of captive animals with the aid of the habeas corpus method. A writ of habeas corpus demands that the court investigate whether the detention or imprisonment of a person has been done lawfully, and compels the prosecutor either to free the detained person or to charge them with a crime.[vii] This judicial procedure, which dates back to the middle ages, has been used in historic anti-slavery trials, which have then served as precedents in proving the illegality of slavery. Underlying the NHRP’s argument is the idea of the historical advance of fundamental rights in ever-expanding circles: first, slavery was banned; then came recognition of the rights of women, children, people with disabilities and other minorities; and now it is the animals’ turn. So, the NHRP’s approach, although radical, does not call into question the figure of the autonomous, Kantian human being as the norm for determining legal rights. That is why its potential for bringing non-human beings within the circle of rights is limited: the less human-like a being is, the harder it is to justify its inclusion in the category of persons with rights.

Another problem with the concept of speciesism is the way it overlooks the fact that universal, equal human rights have not been implemented fairly, and that a large portion of the world’s human beings are still excluded from rights. The understanding of the concepts of animal and human as a division rooted in biological species is echoed in discussions of social justice in which human uniqueness is specifically seen as the foundation of human dignity and legal rights.[viii] From this viewpoint the biggest problem is not the division between human and animal, but the porousness of that divide: a substantial portion of humans are in reality treated “like animals”. When the concept of justice is founded on human exceptionality, any attempt to dismantle the division between human and animal endangers the whole basis for social justice. The way the NHRP compares the plights of enslaved humans and of animals kept in zoos has prompted criticism for precisely that reason: after all, throughout the ages, the oppression of humans has been justified specifically by comparing them to animals.[ix]

The inability of the mainstream animal-rights movement to answer this challenge deepens the rift between the two fronts. Carol Adams applies the linguistics concept ‘absent referent’ in her examination of the violence hidden underneath language.[x] For example, “meat” is a referent that conceals beneath it the real animal and its actual suffering. According to Adams, the way animal-rights movements compare the treatment of animals to slavery operates on the same mechanism: the oppression of humans becomes a rhetorical tool used to talk about animal suffering, and thus violence experienced by humans is concealed or even instrumentalized.[xi] In the process, a mechanism that nullifies violence and makes it invisible, and under which countless humans still live, is reproduced. When the human/animal division is understood as referring to a boundary that divides species, the consequence is almost inevitably a conflict in which human rights and animal rights are opposed to each other, or even mutually exclusive. Posthumanist thinking seeks to bridge that chasm by viewing the concepts of human and animal not as biological categories, but as social constructs.

The unstable construct of humanity

Human and animal are not in reality biological concepts that refer to species. Homo sapiens is one of the great apes and belongs to the continuum of species just as other animals do. Modern zoology has overturned every attempt to define human uniqueness on the basis of biological difference. Science has failed to demonstrate that there exists any property that is unique to the human species, and which is absent from all other species, nor is there any one factor that unites all other species, and which is correspondingly absent from humans. As Matthew Calarco writes, the question of the animal actually contains two different questions: one concerns conceptual opposition between human and animal, the other the concrete relationships between humans and other species.[xii] But it is impossible to dismantle the violent relationship between humans and other species without first confronting the construction of the binary opposition human/animal in the Western tradition of thought.

The numerous strands of posthumanism are united by their critical approach to Greco-Roman political theory and to the essentialist understanding of the figure of the human being in Enlightenment thinking. Zakiyyah Iman Jackson writes about how these discussions often draw on the writings of poststructuralism and especially of Michel Foucault, which present the human figure as a construct tied to a particular paradigm of knowledge, not as a natural state of affairs. If the distinctive ‘being’ of the human is replaced by the idea that the human is a product of a particular historical and socio-epistemic system, it is also possible to call into question and dismantle the concept of the human.[xiii]

One main starting point for posthumanist theories is that humans have humanized themselves by rejecting their own animality. Dismantling the human/animal opposition is thus a crucial measure for re-imagining the concept of the human. Giorgio Agamben applies Foucault’s analysis of the relationships between biopolitics and democracy to the construction of the human/animal polarity in a way that is useful for critical animal studies and posthumanism. In The Open – Man and Animal (2004) Agamben traces the distinction between human and animal from the wellsprings of western thought to modern philosophy.[xiv] Agamben uses numerous examples to demonstrate how the attempt to separate humanity from its animal body constitutes a constantly recurring problem for western thought.[xv] A common feature of Agamben’s examples is the inability that recurs throughout history to define the human in positive terms – the definition is always done through a negation of the animal. The western conception of the human is founded on this negation process, which perpetually and forever unsuccessfully seeks to separate humanity from the animal. This process is possible because, ever since Antiquity, it has been thought that the human is made up of two different levels: on the one hand, the human being is the basis of organic life or the animal-body, and on the other hand, it is, as it were, the layer of humanity that exists on top of it.

In ancient Greek thought, which also defined Aristotle’s philosophy, zoē describes the basic form of life common to all living things, while bios describes the good, political life characteristic solely of humans. The human is the only being that combines both zoē and bios: bios is, as it were, the layer of social life on top of the basic form of life. It is precisely this dual nature and the juncture or fissure that it produces that makes it possible to strip away the humanity from a human – i.e. returning the person in the eyes of the law to being the animal-body hidden beneath the form of “humanity”, so that the laws that protect a person who possesses legal rights and obligations do not apply. Agamben calls this historical process the “anthropological machine” – a lethal mechanism at the core of western thinking that makes anyone potentially “bare life”.[xvi]

But Agamben is not interested in the figure of the animal or in the plight of concrete animals. The figure of the animal is linked in his thinking with the mechanisms of violence of western political theory, mechanisms that ultimately make totalitarianism and extermination camps possible.[xvii] For posthumanist thought Agamben’s theory offers tools for interpreting the concepts of the human and the animal, not as species concepts, but as terms that define a being’s relationship with the law and the rights conferred by law. If there is no natural positive basis for humanity and the only thing that separates the human from the animal is that the human “recognizes itself as human”, then an animal can be literally anyone or anything. Human and animal are, thus, not biological, but social and moral categories. Cora Diamond criticizes Singer’s speciesism by pointing out that in the real world moral categories do not come about by observing differences in the natural world, but by naming. The naming of one being as “human” and another as “animal” discursively produces two mutually different beings that are subject to different moral norms and legal principles.[xviii]

Dehumanization is thus not such an effective mechanism of violence because some humans are more like animals. It works because “animal” is not a species concept. “Animal” means a being that is killable, which in law means a non-human, and hence also a non-person that cannot have rights. In the conceptual system in which human and animal are each other’s binary opposites, everything that is associated with the human (dignity, rights, status) is absent from the very outset from the definition of animal.[xix] Violence directed at literal non-human animals thus also produces the category of ‘humanity’ protected from violence. As Maneesha Deckha writes, human-to-human violence that resembles the normalized violence directed at animals makes that violence more acceptable, precisely because violence directed at non-human animals constitutes the foundation of humanity. Violence directed at animals thus also constitutes an example and testing ground for the dehumanization of humans.[xx] The animal thus emerges as a category whose most important function is to create a space where it is possible to commit violence in broad daylight. Because the category of ‘animal’ exists, anyone can be thrust into that space, where they can then be treated “like an animal”.

The category of animal can thus in practice include anything and anyone, regardless of species. Because the ideal human of the western tradition of thought is the white, European man, anyone who deviates from that norm is in danger of being animalized. Seen from this viewpoint racism, sexism and xenophobia are all forms of animalization: the structure of animalization is itself a necessary precondition for them. Cary Wolfe sees the biopolitical field as a “species grid” or matrix, its nodes being humanized human, humanized animal, animalized human, and animalized animal.[xxi] Instead of a binary division into human/animal, the biopolitical hierarchy appears in the light of Wolfe’s thinking more like a pyramid, with the protected zone of the rights-bearing subject located at its pinnacle, and the substratum of object-beings made to be killed on its lowest level. The concepts of human and animal act as levers in this structure, ceaselessly moving beings up and down.

Posthumanist thinking thus approaches the concepts of human and animal as social constructs intrinsically bound up with the mechanisms of biopower and violence. Thus, the conceptual opposition of human/animal already produces the structures in which any encounter with other species occurs: already beforehand, animalization governs how we approach other species. Seen through the lens of animalization non-human animals are irrational, bloodthirsty, hypersexual, primitive, simple – in other words “women”, “blacks”, “natives”, “homosexuals”, “the disabled”, i.e. everyone that is categorically rejected by the ideal of humanity as defined by Eurocentric white supremacy and the patriarchy.

No analysis of the encounter with other species can be made without taking into account how the mechanics of animalization also enable the oppression of human groups and individuals. Consequently, it is not an adequate goal of rights struggles to get one or a few species across the human/animal dividing line if that very line is to be left where it is. The ultimate goal should be a fundamental questioning of that division and the construction of a non-anthropocentric ethics.

Museum of Nonhumanity, Gustafsson&Haapoja. Photo, Terike Haapoja

Racialized animal – animalized human

Several thinkers who approach the concept of the animal from the viewpoint of postcolonial and decolonial thinking criticize both the mainstream animal-rights movement and the posthumanism that derives from the Continental philosophy tradition for not taking into account the relationship between modern racism and the human/animal polarity. According to them, the critique of the western conception of the human and the related mechanism of animalization also has a long history in non-western traditions of thought and in postcolonial theory, which posthumanist thinking rarely takes into account.[xxii] In these traditions dismantling the concepts of animal and human is not just a theoretical problem, but literally a deadly serious task that affects the necessary preconditions for human life and liberty. From this viewpoint posthumanist thought that disregards non-western and postcolonial traditions of thought and the knowledge they produce is in danger of reviving the ideals of colonialist European thinking.

According to the sociologist Ramón Grosfoguel, the universalization of the western conception of knowledge was preceded by a wave of genocides and epistemicides.[xxiii] The idea of the objectivity and universality of the western tradition of thought and its methods – still often prevalent in western academic research – is only possible because other traditions of thought have been concretely destroyed. Grosfoguel identifies four genocides/epistemicides that preceded the universalization of the knowledge ideals of the enlightenment: against Muslims and Jews in the conquest of Al-Andalus; against the indigenous peoples of the Americas; the enslavement of large sections of the African population; and the destruction of women’s traditional knowledge in witch hunts. Descartes’ famous phrase “I think, therefore I am” was only possible because it was preceded by centuries of white Europe’s “I conquer, therefore I am”.[xxiv] Western science is founded on colonialist violence. At the same time, it is also a foundation for the current conception of the human, which is determined by the logic of racializationdo s (de to afctual genoocide which the old way of being human is endangered .

The philosopher Syl Ko writes that the mechanism of racialization produced by European colonialism also fundamentally changed the way the concepts of human and animal are understood.[xxv] Ko points out that understanding the human/animal divide within the framework of today’s world also requires taking into account the logic of racialization. As Grosfoguel says, the encounter between the Spanish colonialists and the indigenous peoples of the Americas put into question the humanity of what in the eyes of the colonialists were “people without religion”, and who thus also potentially had no soul. If, in the 16th-century European worldview, humanity was primarily defined by the individual’s relationship with God, a human being with no relationship with the divine recognizable to Europeans appeared to be a person who lacked the most essential element of what makes someone human. Eurocentric racism thus emerged as a way for European colonialist conquerors to construct within the concept of the human an ontological hierarchy that divides humans proper from ‘sub-humanity’.[xxvi] The transatlantic slave trade universalized this principle and inscribed blackness as a signifier for ‘sub-humanity’, while white Europeanness signified pure humanity.

As Ko says, the construction of humanity in such a thought model is fundamentally different from what is proposed by a universalist, posthumanist critique. The conceptual opposite presumed by the human proper is no longer so much the non-human animal as the racialized ‘sub-human’.[xxvii] Other species and their historical oppression get drawn into this configuration and accordingly racialized, the grounds for this being their assumed proximity to the ‘sub-human’ in the great chain of being. The animal and the racialized human are thus not distinct positions in the identity game, positions that compete with each other for recognition, but two different manifestations of the Other required to maintain the Eurocentric, colonialist image of humanity. This also has consequences for the human-rights viewpoint: According to Deckha, humanism’s idea of universal, equal human rights never really secures minorities’ rights, because the humanist conception of the human is founded on the exclusion of racialized and animalized others.[xxviii] Destabilizing the conceptual boundary between human and animal would be a better approach. On the other hand, talking about animal rights as an expansion of the circle of human rights does not take into account the interweaving of racialization and animalization. As Che Gossett writes: “For many in animal liberation and animal studies, abolition is imagined as teleological; first slavery was abolished and now forms of animal captivity must be, too. It is as though animal is the new black even though blackness has already been racialized through animalization.”[xxix] Thus, the concepts of human or animal cannot be dismantled without also dismantling the mechanisms of racism – and correspondingly, as Syl Ko emphasizes, dismantling racism requires a re-conceptualization of the relationship between human and animal.

For Agamben the concentration camp is an extreme manifestation of modern biopower without a historical parallel.[xxx] Alexander Weheliye, nevertheless, asks what Agamben’s analysis would look like if he had taken the transatlantic slave trade and not the holocaust as his starting point.[xxxi] From this viewpoint, within the realm of the sovereign we can see a third possible position: that of an object that can be owned. Being able to be owned links both non-human animals and racialized, enslaved humans to the sovereign field. In the biopolitical arena the object (of rights) is thus neither an outlawed human being nor a sovereign power, but the thing that makes them possible and which is their foundation (land, animals, anonymous nature as a resource, enslaved humans, wombs controlled by the patriarchy, and so on). Although Agamben criticizes the ‘anthropological machine’ that violently produces the division between human and animal in western thought, he still inhabits an anthropocentric, Eurocentric framework, seen from which the racialization of the concept of the animal is invisible. Zakiyyah Iman Jackson also criticizes posthumanism’s blindness to non-western traditions of thought and their critique of the enlightenment’s conception of the human. Other ways of conceptualizing the human have always existed, and still do. Jackson asks whether it might be the case that the ‘beyond humanity’ proposed by posthumanism points not to a temporal, but to a geographical beyond – an area beyond the west.[xxxii]

Bringing racialization into the “animal question” opens up a channel to the constructive articulation of the relationships between human rights and other species. This viewpoint also makes possible an alliance between antiracist action and the animal-rights movement in a way that is difficult, if the posthumanist critique does not take into account the link between racism and the modern world’s animalizing mechanisms, or non-western critiques of the enlightenment conception of the human; and even impossible, if the human/animal polarity is understood as following a species boundary. In their book Aphro-Ism – Essays on Pop Culture, Feminism, and Black Veganism from Two Sisters (2017)Syl Ko and Aph Ko set out an antiracist vegan practice, Black Veganism.[xxxiii] The sisters stress that Black Veganism is not only a veganism practised by non-white people, but also an ethical theory. Refusing to take part in the oppression of non-human animals is also a resistance to white supremacy and the logic of animalization inscribed in it.

Thus, anyone can practise Black Veganism, but racialized humans have special experiential knowledge of what it is like to be shut outside of humanity. That experience can lead to an understanding that ‘animal’ is a polymorphous social construct that includes both humans and other species.[xxxiv] Hence, the viewpoint of Black Veganism offers a place from which the human rights movement can approach other species via an antiracist, inter-species alliance. As Ko points out, by the same token the animalization of other species is inscribed into their embodied experience. But even if the animals assigned as other species experience oppression, they do not internalize their own animalization like humans do. The oppression of humans and other species are thus not psychologically identical: other species can hardly have the ontological experience of a lack of humanity resulting from internalized racism of the kind Syl Ko describes. In Ko’s words, they have epistemic resilience to the logic of animalization,[xxxv] which makes them good allies for critics of Eurocentric humanism.

Museum of Nonhumanity, Gustafsson&Haapoja. Photo, Terike Haapoja

In Conclusion

The transatlantic slave trade is the foundation of modern capitalism. For example, the British cotton factories and working class could not have come about without cotton plantations run on slave labour. Thus, the mechanisms of animalization cannot be understood without their links to the history of European racism, colonialist violence and capitalism. Capitalism needs animal bodies: it is dependent on the non-human beyond the reach of rights and made killable, whose labour, body and reproduction are a central precondition for capitalist production. This class is not defined according to species boundaries, but is in constant motion: the pinnacle of the biopolitical pyramid takes the form of a white space of humanity and legal rights, to which, for example, charismatic megafauna – lions, tigers, orcas, chimpanzees, elephants – can be raised, while the base of the pyramid is constituted by an ever-greater number of humans and individuals of other species who have been instrumentalized as disposable parts of the production economy. A critique of capitalism thus has to begin by challenging not only the concept of class, race and gender, but also that of the animal.

If posthumanist art or critical animal studies view the animal question solely as a problem related to the question of species, it wastes an opportunity to create a connection with movements promoting social justice. The worrisome whiteness of posthumanist and animal-rights discourses does not solely tell us that these academic and art spaces are closed structures of privilege. Rather, it says that their way of articulating the question of what comes after humanity does not appear meaningful to those humans who find themselves concrete objects of the violence associated with the concepts of animal and human. It is also problematic to produce information about a phenomenon if an essential aspect of it – in this case, the connection between the concept of the animal and structural racism – is seen as a side issue in the discourse. Thus, at the worst, the knowledge produced, instead of calling into question an epistemology based on colonialist violence, actually carries on the epistemicide referred to by Grosfoguel.

Intersectionality and decolonization are terms that are also in danger of being diluted if they are adopted as part of the Eurocentric academic tradition, without challenging the underlying values of this canon and the institutions and practices that support it. It is crucial to understand that decolonization is not a metaphor, as Eve Tuck powerfully argues.[xxxvi] Along with many other things, decolonization means restoring the land rights of indigenous peoples and recognizing their right to national self-determination and self-governance. Every act of knowledge production that aims at the decolonization – i.e. at side-lining the white, Western perspective – should also commit to supporting this concrete goal.

The ‘after humanity’ called for by posthumanism will not come about if we do not let go of the concept of the human elevated to the status of universal. That universality is a smokescreen that conceals the ascendancy of whiteness and Eurocentricism. The “human” of the modern, western tradition of thought is always defined by racialization . This challenge also presents itself in the opposite direction: in social-justice movements it is often difficult, if not impossible, to elevate the rights of nature and other species alongside human-rights struggles, because in the short term humanity appears as a refuge from the violence of animalization. That is why in the critique of humanism put forward by posthumanism there needs to be an emphasis on an analysis in which the racist, colonialist roots of humanism are made visible. Only then will we be ready to break out of the paradigm of the human into a time beyond animality.

Museum of Nonhumanity makes visible the way that the concepts of sub-human and animal are rhetorical devices that justify violence. The Museum reveals the conception of the human at the core of the western tradition of thought to be the basis for the oppression directed at both human and non-human beings. Dehumanization generally occurs first on the level of language and conceptualization, and then in action. The ten different themes of the Museum of Nonhumanity exhibition examine this act of definition as it occurs on the level of language in different sub-areas of western culture. The final theme of the exhibition is “the museum”, which as a historical institution is an intrinsic part of the mechanics of dehumanization. The institutions that produce and display knowledge justify hierarchies that have material consequences, often deadly ones. A museum can speak something into truth, in which case it becomes a part of social reality. Thus Museum of Nonhumanity is, in Laura Gustafsson’s words, “a performance in which the actor’s role is played by the public, which by believing in the Museum’s narrative of the end of dehumanization makes it momentarily true.” At the same time, the term museum expands also to refer to institutions that are responsible for showing art more broadly. If posthumanism aims at a world in which the normative “human” produced by white supremacy and patriarchy as an image of themselves has been side-lined, what will that world’s museum or its viewers be like? Can a museum – an institution whose history is specifically rooted in the construction of that normative image of the human and in the maintenance of othering representations – truly be decolonized, or do we need to seek to move towards traditions in which not only the conception of the human, but also the conception of art and creativity, are situated differently?

In Museum of Nonhumanity these and other open questions are considered in various venues in the form of discussions, lectures and workshops tailored to match the local situation. Through these discussions Museum of Nonhumanity also calls into question the premises for its own existence. It does not seek to be a solution, nor to paint an image of a new paradigm. Utopian thinking becomes dangerous if it projects onto the future an idealized, totalized version of the current value system. Museum of Nonhumanity is a bridge towards something that we cannot even imagine; a bridge that has been built to break through to the other side that follows the transition.

Museum of Nonhumanity, Gustafsson&Haapoja. Photo, Terike Haapoja

Footnotes

[i] The concept of “speciesism” was developed by the philosopher Richard Ryder in 1970 (see Ryder, 2010). It was subsequently brought to the awareness of the general public in Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation – A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals (1975).

[ii] Kant 1997. “Animals are not self-conscious and are there merely as a means to an end. That end is man.” Kant 1963, 239.

[iii] Singer 1990, 568-570.

[iv] Singer 1990, 578-581.

[v] The Nonhuman Rights Project, https://www.nonhumanrights.org

[vi] The Nonhuman Rights Project website puts it like this: “The Nonhuman Rights Project is leading the fight to secure actual legal rights for nonhuman animals through a state-by-state, country-by-country, long-term litigation campaign. Our groundbreaking habeas corpus lawsuits demand recognition of the legal personhood and fundamental right to bodily liberty of individual great apes, elephants, dolphins, and whales held in captivity across the US. With the support of world-renowned scientists, we argue that common law courts must free these self-aware, autonomous beings to appropriate sanctuaries not out of concern for their welfare, but respect for their rights.” https://www.nonhumanrights.org/litigation/ (11.11.2019)

[vii] See Nonhuman Rights Project website: “Habeas corpus is a centuries-old means of testing the lawfulness of one’s imprisonment before a court. It was used extensively in the 18th and 19th centuries to fight human slavery, and abolitionists often petitioned for common law writs of habeas corpus on behalf of enslaved individuals. The most well known such case is Somerset v. Steuart (1772) in which the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales granted the writ to a human slave, freeing him unequivocally and essentially transforming him from a legal thing to a legal person. We argue common law courts should do the same for our nonhuman clients.” https://www.nonhumanrights.org/litigation/ (11.11.2019)

[viii] The “argument for marginal cases” is a term used in animal rights theory and linked to a problem that arises out of the partial overlap between the cognitive abilities of humans and other species. The argument seeks to show that any categorical moral separation of human and animal is impossible, because some animals have abilities that not all humans have. For example, a new-born human does not have a capacity for language or autonomy, while many nonhuman animals are able to express themselves in language as soon as they are born. According to the counterargument moral categories are based on generalizations behind which are the average differences between species: because humans in general are independent, they should be treated as a coherent moral category. (see, e.g. Tanner, 2009.)

[ix] For example, New York Post headlined an action taken by the Nonhuman Rights Project in New York state’s supreme court as follows: “Lab chimps likened to enslaved blacks at animal-rights trial” NY Post, 2015, https://nypost.com/2015/05/27/lab-chimps-likened-to-enslaved-blacks-at-animal-rights-trial (11.11.2019)

[x] Adams says on the Earthling Liberation Kollective website: “The absent referent is a term I politicized in “The Sexual Politics of Meat”. The absent referent is the literal being who disappears in the eating of dead bodies. There are three ways I see the absent referent functioning. Literally, an animal killed to become food or “meat”. Physically, the animal is dismembered – cut up, generally – sold off as body parts. So the reminder that the animal was a full being, living a life, disappears. Then the third way is metaphorically. Their oppression, someone else’s oppression, becomes a metaphor for another group’s oppression. Where being treated “like a piece of meat” is, would be an example of the metaphor of the absent referent.” https://humanrightsareanimalrights.com/2016/01/01/carol-j-adams-politics-and-the-absent-referent-in-2014/ (11.11.2019)

[xi] In 2015, the essayist Antti Nylén wrote a column in Suomen Luonto (Nature of Finland) magazine with the heading “Sika on maailman N-” (the pig is the N- of the world). The text appropriated Yoko Ono’s famous saying: “Woman is the N- of the world”. The text, to my mind justifiably, enraged many minorities, and is a model example of the absent referent: In Nylén’s case a globally oppressed human group was made a means for speaking about the subjugation of another being. (Nylen 2015. See also Hubara 2016).

[xii] Calarco 2008, 2.

[xiii] Jackson 2013, 670.

[xiv] Agamben 2004.

[xv] Agamben 2004. For Agamben the Ancient Greek terms describing “life” zoē and bios form the foundation for Aristotle’s thinking, in which life is for the first time arranged hierarchically; the organic lifeforce that unites all of life and the sensoriness that links all animals culminate in human rationality. Starting with Aristotle’s thinking, these levels are discernible in the human figure: the level of general life, the level of the animal, and the highest level of the human being. This structure is echoed at the roots/origins of modern science in the thinking of the enlightenment thinker and anatomist Marie François Xavier Bichat, in which the being of organisms is seen through a kind of double exposure: present in an animal, on the one hand, is its “organic life” and, on the other hand, its sensory or perceptual life. For Christian eschatology the Resurrection is a headache, since even if specifically the human soul comes from God, it inhabits an animal body. What, then, happens to the animal body in Heaven? From the viewpoint of modern science and taxonomy the attempt to define an essential difference between humans and other great apes is an impossible task, which the father of modern taxonomy, Carl Linnaeus, tries to get out of by saying that the human is an ape that “recognizes itself as human”. In Heidegger’s thinking, in turn, between Dasein and the animal there is an “unbridgeable chasm”. Agamben also deals with the problem of the end of history in 20th century critical theory in the light of the human/animal distinction.

[xvi] As Agamben says: “Both [the premodern and the modern anthropological] machines are able to function only by establishing a zone of indifference at their centers, within which – like a ‘missing link’ which is always lacking because it is already virtually present – the articulation between human and animal, man and non-man, speaking being and living being, must take place. Like every space of exception, this zone is, in truth, perfectly empty, and the truly human being who should occur there is only the place of a ceaselessly updated decision in which the caesurae and their rearticulation are always dislocated and displaced anew. What would thus be obtained, however, is neither and animal life nor a human life, but only a life that is separated and excluded from itself – only a bare life.” (Agamben 2004, 37-38.)

[xvii] Agamben 1998, passim.

[xviii] Diamond 1978, 470.

[xix] Ko 2017, 111

[xx] Deckha 2010, 37.

[xxi] Wolfe 2003, 101.

[xxii] See, e.g. Ko 2017; Gossett 2015; Jackson 2013, 2015 and 2016.

[xxiii] Grosfoguel, 2013.

[xxiv] Grosfoguel 2013, 77.

[xxv] Ko 2017.

[xxvi] Grosfoguel, 2013, 81. See also Ko 2013 and Palang 2019.

[xxvii] Palang 2013, 10-11.

[xxviii] Deckha 2010, 45-46.

[xxix] Gossett describes this idea, for instance, like this: “In contrast to the vision of abolition offered by Douglass, for many in animal liberation and animal studies, abolition is imagined as teleological; first slavery was abolished and now forms of animal captivity must be, too. It is as though animal is the new black even though blackness has already been racialized through animalization. Critiques of “human exceptionalism” and anthropocentrism in critical animal studies often presume that the human in the human/animal divide is a universally inhabited and privileged category, rather than a contested and fractured one. Blackness and its relation to animality and abolition is often left in what Saidiya Hartman and Frank Wilderson call “the position of the unthought.” (Gossett 2015)

[xxx] Agamben 2000, 37-49.

[xxxi] Weheliye 2014, 33-36.

[xxxii] Jackson 2013, 681.

[xxxiii] Ko 2017, 50-56, 120-127.

[xxxiv] Ko 2017, 124.

[xxxv] Palang 2019, 20

[xxxvi] Tuck, 2012.


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Hubara, Koko 2016. Sikamaista vertailua. Ruskeat Tytöt blog, Lily.fi. 26.5.2016.

https://www.lily.fi/blogit/ruskeat-tytot/sikamaista-vertailua/ (11.11.2019)

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The Nonhuman Rights Project

https://www.nonhumanrights.org (23.5.2019)

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http://museumofnonhumanity.org (23.5.2019)


Repairing the Attention to the Living World:
Following the Tracks of Nonhumans


Jeanne Degortes

#II. inside animals / animals inside

i. humans and nonhumans

spring, 2022


You are walking in a forest. It is still early in the morning. After a good night’s sleep, a warm cup of tea and a light breakfast, you have decided to take a walk in the forest near your home. Just to breathe fresh air before your day starts for real. So here you are now. Only surrounded by trees. You listen to the cracking of the dry leaves under each step, you enjoy the rays of sun that manage to pass through the dense branches high above your head, that warm you just enough for you not to think about it. Birds seem to celebrate by a sweet melody that you can catch from time to time. You continue your walk. The same path as usual. But you like it. It feels like it is never the same. The floor smells like mushrooms. It is a bit wet. Your eyes sometimes stop on small mounds looking suspiciously brown before realizing, inevitably, that you were tricked by a pack of leaves, as usual. But you like this game. You like this atmosphere, the fresh air, the green and brown and yellow colors. No gray, no road, no sign, no building. In this forest you feel free. Almost in a different world. You know you are lucky to live near such a peaceful place, and you are grateful for it. After some time you remember you should probably go to work. You turn around and take the same path in the other direction. It all seems faster. You reach the edge of the forest, and there you are, back to your busy life, ready for your day. 

You might perhaps relate to this kind of soothing insight in a forest, or any other kind of natural environment. But were you not struck by something? Or, rather, the absence of something? I give my answer: animals. Animals were not part of your experience of the forest. Of course, you heard the birds singing. But you only heard them. You did not listen. You couldn’t tell whether there were one, two or many birds calling to each other. You didn’t pay attention to a specific pattern in their songs, to what species it could have been. One could add that you did not see the trail that appeared between the shaken leaves in some places, and the bark of damaged tree trunks about a meter above the ground, which could have led you to guess the passage of a deer. Nor did you spot the rabbit droppings, a few steps away from your path. Not to mention the insects that swarmed on the ground, under the stones, on the trunks. So animals were not part of your experience of the forest. Yet they inhabit it, they shape it. How is it that you did not perceive their presence? You entered that forest with the desire to break from your habits and daily life, to encounter the natural world surrounding you, but, even though you were paying attention to some elements of that natural environment, some animals among them, in the end, these elements were part of the landscape. You did not interact with them. They were only part of the whole scenery you came for. 

untitled, Mark Peckmezian

This little thought experiment highlights several interesting points regarding the western  relation to the living world and to other animals. This article aims to illustrate the view of the French contemporary philosopher Baptiste Morizot, who teaches philosophy at Aix-Marseilles University. Morizot develops a reflection about the place non-human animals have in our life and our relationship to nature. The little story we started with can illustrate and help us follow his argumentation.  

But before going into a more detailed analysis of Morizot’s main concepts and arguments, it is important to have in mind Philippe Descola’s criticism of the western dualism between nature and culture (2005). Western cultures have separated the natural world from the human one, the human culture becoming a distinct space from natural ones. In our example, wanting to have a little walk in the forest before starting your day, wanting to be immersed into nature  before going back to your life, is a way of illustrating the strong demarcation we draw between a forest, its inhabitants and its dynamics, and a city, its rules and people. So, in this dualism, as Descola and Palsson (1996) explain, nature has taken a different place in respect to different paradigms. Some, for instance, have considered environmental constraints as what social institutions and culture had to adapt to in order to build themselves; others that the natural scientific discourse was what gave legitimacy to social actions. But in all cases, nature was something different than our human culture, and, in addition, little attention was given to non-western conceptions of nature, if such a concept makes sense elsewhere. 

From this analysis and from his anthropological fieldwork in non-western cultures, Descola draws four ontological categories that include non-western conceptions of nature, namely animism, totemism, analogism and naturalism (the western one). By this he aims to show that our western distinction between nature and culture is not the only conception possible, and that we should not take it for granted. In other words, he aims to debunk ethnocentrism. Descola’s criticism has been influential in the following works in social sciences and humanities. It has also influenced Baptiste Morizot’s reflection about our relationship to non-human animals.

Morizot’s analysis suggests another way to look at the other animals and to reconcile the “natural world” and the “cultural world”. First of all, he analyzes our current relationship to non-human animals as a “crisis of sensitivity”. Non-human animals indeed have a very specific status for us. Apart from the violence with which we treat those we breed in order to kill, we have made them a subject of interest only for children. To care about animals, to be interested in them, is not “serious”. Only sensitive people do. Therefore, our sensitivity to non-human animals has become illegitimate, as well as our perceptivity. This is a first aspect of the crisis of sensitivity he describes. But it mostly refers to a more general analysis: 

By ‘crisis of sensitivity’, I mean an impoverishment of what we can feel, perceive, understand, and weave as relationships towards the living. A reduction in the range of affects, perceptions, concepts and practices linking us to it. We have a multitude of words, types of relationships, types of affects to qualify the relationships between humans, between collectives, between institutions, with technical objects or with works of art, but much less for our relationships with the living. (Morizot, 2020: 17)

The crisis of sensitivity thus describes our weak ability to reach the living that surrounds us, to perceive it and to interact with it. We have unlearned to understand and see all the relations and issues that each living individual deals with every day, everywhere, at the very places we go to and live in. In the case of the walk in the forest, we saw that non-human animals were absent from your experience. You did not perceive all the signs that could have helped you understand the events happening in that place. And it was not because you were not attentive enough or because you are not a specialist in ecology or biology. It is because, according to Morizot, we do not live in a world that we think about as shared. He thus identifies the need to acquire a less anthropocentric representation of the world, open to otherness. 

To do so, Morizot mobilizes a specific methodology that also nourishes his philosophical works: the philosophical tracking (pistage philosophique), which takes for him a deep and specific meaning:

Trailing means deciphering and interpreting traces and footprints in order to reconstitute animal perspectives: investigating this world of clues that reveal the habits of the fauna, its way of living among us, intertwined with others. Our eye, used to unobstructed perspectives, to clear horizons, is initially only accustomed with difficulty to this shift of the landscape: from in front of us, it has moved under our feet. The ground is the new panorama rich in signs, the place that now calls our attention. To track, in this new sense, is also to investigate the art of living of the other living beings, the society, the plants, the cosmopolitan micro-fauna that makes the life of the grounds, and on their relations between them and with us: their conflicts and alliances with the human uses of the territories. To focus the attention not on the beings but on the relations. (Morizot, 2018: 21-22)

To Morizot, tracking thus means to change the focus of our attention, to be attentive to clues and signs that non-human animals leave behind us. It is, in fact, about adopting their perspective in their apprehension of their environment. Just as Descola went among non-western cultures to understand their relationship to what we call nature, to understand according to which categories they think and interact with plants, non-human animals, natural elements, spirits and, of course, each other, Morizot immerses himself into the perspective of the animals he tracks. He provides long stories of tracking wolves in the Alps, following their prints, hair, droppings, analyzing the direction of their movement, how they can leave only one trail of prints in the snow when they are a pack of up to ten individuals. He relates how he slept in a tent, at the top of a mountain, how the wolves noticed his presence, how they responded to his calls… By doing so, we understand their perspectives, their way of thinking, of moving and behaving, it feels like discovering the world all over again. Remember when the forest almost felt like a new world for you. 

But in your case this was a bit different. Indeed, you felt so because the forest belongs, according to our common categories, to the natural world. Thus, you had the perception that different dynamics than the ones we are familiar with in cities were shaping that place. It was, for you, another kind of place. But Morizot’s point is not to show how different each of our worlds are, how everyone lives in their own bubble and does not have access to the other ones. It is rather to show that we share the same world, the same kind of places. They can take different meanings for different cultures and different species, but this does not separate us. We only have to pay attention to the network of relations that constitutes a place to understand that we are only a part of that network. This is what was lacking in the walk in the forest. 

The acknowledgment of these relations provides a different perspective on what we consider as a natural place, and also on the categories in which we put animals. They become partners of interaction, which can even teach us other ways of considering and behaving with the living otherness: 

Animals are not more bestial than we are, nor are they more free. They do not embody an unbridled and ferocious savagery (this is a myth of domestication), nor a purer innocence (this is its reactive reverse). They are not superior to humans in authenticity or inferior in elevation: they embody above all other ways of being alive. (Morizot, 2020: 24, author’s emphasis). 

Paying more attention to the clues they leave in the world is a way for Morizot to debunk the categorization of animals, along with our insensitivity to their environmental relations.

In addition to all of that, you may have noticed that the notion of inhabiting a place is quite recurrent in Morizot. His analysis opens a reflection about sharing a common world with other species, respecting their dynamics, their needs and their representation. In other words: cohabitation. He points out a phenomenon that he calls “eco-fragmentation” and which is for him the spatial dimension of the crisis of sensitivity.  

[This fragmentation] originates first of all in our blindness to the fact that other living beings inhabit: the crisis of our way of inhabiting comes down to denying others the status of inhabitants. The stake is thus to repopulate, in the philosophical sense to make visible that the myriad of forms of life which constitute our donating environments are also, since always, not a decoration for our human tribulations, but the rightful inhabitants of the world. (Morizot, 2020: 29, author’s emphasis).

untitled, Mark Peckmezian

Having fragmented our environments, having delimited forests and cities – forests and home in our case –, is therefore a result of this blindness to the relations other living beings have with their environment. By not considering that they inhabit them, because they do it differently than we do, we have excluded them from the considerations of cohabitation. This issue at stake here is thus spatial. There is a strong spatial dimension in the reconnection to the living world and the interrelations that connects its members.  

All in all, through his analysis of the crisis of sensitivity, with its spatial dimension, and the philosophical trailing suggested to counter it, Morizot claims that a new form of relationship to the living otherness is necessary to recover a contact to the other species with whom we share this world, and to thus be able to share it better. In fact, according to Morizot, this reflection, and especially the crisis of sensitivity, is closely linked to the ecological crisis and the erosion of biodiversity that we are facing all around the world. Indeed, the ecological crisis leads to more destroyed places, more fragmentation, and also less opportunities to encounter other species, as they are decreasing. Non-human animals become de facto less present in our lives. The crisis of sensitivity could thus be thought of as a consequence of the ecological one. But it can also be thought of as its cause, since it may be because of the lack of sensitivity and perception that human activities have led to it. It is hard not to harm something or someone that you are not aware of. This is why recovering a form of sensitivity to non-human animals and their relationship to their environment (which we share with them) appears as the basis for a more general and global conception of the non-human living world as being an ethical subject, that could nourish the overall reflection of how to share this world together and live freely without harming the others. Paying better attention to the clues the living leaves in its environment is a way to do so. Morizot’s reflection may thus have global ethical consequences, because it is not about a reconciliation and acknowledgment of non-human animals, but about debunking our distinction between nature and culture, and rebuilding our relationship to otherness, to the world in general, and each of the elements that it is made of. Including us.


Bibliography

Descola, P., & Palsson, G. (Eds.). Nature and Society: Anthropological Perspectives (1st ed.). Routledge, 1996. 

Descola, P. (2005). Beyond nature and culture. University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Morizot, B. On the animal trail, Actes Sud, 2018. All translations mine. 

Morizot, B. Ways of being alive, Actes Sud, 2020. All translations mine.


Searching for the roots of consciousness: An interview with Peter Godfrey-Smith


Johannes Stenlund

#II. inside animals / animals inside

i. humans and nonhumans

spring, 2022


untitled, Mark Peckmezian

Some years ago, philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith started to scuba-dive regularly in the ocean off the south-east coast of his native Australia. The creatures that he met there – cephalopods, such as giant cuttlefish and octopuses, displaying strange but unmistakable forms of intelligence – made him devote more time to the questions of how vastly different animals came to be conscious and what that tells us about consciousness today. Since then, he has laid out his views in two books, with a third on the way.

Godfrey-Smith is in no doubt that consciousness is real and that humans – and probably many other animals – are capable of having rich qualitative experiences. As a materialist, however, he does not think that mental experiences are constituted by any special properties, such as an immaterial soul. This means he faces an explanatory gap – that between our best physicalist theories of how brains work and what it actually feels to be something. While many approaches to bridge the gap set out from those rich qualitative experiences – of being overwhelmed by the intense colour of a painting, say – Godfrey-Smith tries to approach it from a different direction.

Experiences of qualia, he says, are real – when you let the redness of a Rothko painting wash over you, you are experiencing a state of what it can be like to be a conscious being. But it is not the paradigm example of being conscious. Instead of bridging the explanatory gap from the starting point of qualia, we should start with subjectivity – why animals have a point of view at all. That, Godfrey-Smith says, is a byproduct of agency, a much less contentious evolutionary concept. That animals had to do things brought subjectivity with it, which was the first step towards the complex mental experiences that are part of our lives today.

In Godfrey-Smith’s evolutionary framework, consciousness is not a switch that was suddenly turned on at a certain point in history, but a genuinely gradual process that passed through intermediate stages of partially experiential animals. Even today, Godfrey-Smith claims, we can expect to find borderline cases of animals that we cannot categorise as either conscious or nonconscious. That idea has met resistance from philosophers for several reasons. First, the idea of a partial experience seems to go against intuitions of consciousness as a binary state. Even when we feel our consciousness altered or impacted, there is a sharp cut-off point between being conscious and not being conscious. In a partially experiential subject, the question of what it is like to be something would need a very different kind of answer. Second, it raises ethical questions. Ascribing moral status to subjects based on their level of consciousness is harder in a case where experiencing is partial. Are there borderline cases of experiencing subjects where there is no answer of how we ought to behave towards these animals?

Taking a closer look at the varieties of consciousness in animals as different as octopuses and humans and many animals in between, Godfrey-Smith’s evolutionary view also brings up the question of what base is needed for certain mental experiences to arise. Can the same mental state be realised in different physical kinds or do mental experiences only exist as part of their specific make-up? Peter Godfrey-Smith holds that these challenges should not cause us to abandon the view of partially experiencing subjects, but to get used to thinking about a world of genuine gradualness, even if it means developing new concepts that go against our current intuitions. He has laid out these views in Other Minds (2016), a book about his field-work with octopuses, and Metazoa (2020), which takes a broader look at the history of animals. He is currently writing a third book in the series, focusing on the ethical implications of his view. He is also the 2022 Jean Nicod Laureate and will hold the lectures in Paris in June this year.


What made you start with this project of looking at octopuses and the origins of animal consciousness?

Other Minds began as a consequence of spending time with those animals in the sea when I was back in Australia while I was teaching in the US. I first thought of it as a fairly minor side-project, but once the book got going I invested quite a lot in it. The book is organised around the common ancestry that links humans with cephalopods – that the common ancestor was such a long time ago and still there are these similarities between us and a sense that we can make contact with the animals. So Other Minds was about one group of animals and one part of the tree of life.

With Metazoa, I thought I would apply the same kind of framework but much more broadly – looking at the whole history of animals, including non-bilaterian animals and land animals. That meant looking at common ancestry and relationships to some extent, but also using the history of animal life as a way to cast light on philosophical questions about minds and bodies. That was the transition from Other Minds to Metazoa.

Now I’m writing a third book, which is going to broaden out even further and look at the place of life within the history of the earth. It will include fairly detailed discussions of policy questions, questions about farming, the use of animals in scientific experiments, climate change, habitat destruction – standard pressing moral questions. So in the very last part of the third I’ll be trying to ask what we should do in light of the picture that is being put together across the three books.

As you have shown, octopuses are fascinating animals that raise philosophical questions. Did you also have a theoretical interest that guided you towards studying them?

No, that came afterwards. Before meeting octopuses, I met giant cuttlefish and they are just such astounding animals. I took a lot of photos of them and began to think about them. That led to these themes about the tree of life in Other Minds.

Then octopuses as other cephalopods are relatives and there just happens to be lots of octopuses in the Sydney area. I think most people don’t realise that because they are so camouflaged, but once you start looking there are lots and lots. So the theoretical interest came after the contact with the animals.

Was there a particular moment when you realised that your spending time with octopuses was relevant to your philosophical interests?

It was when I began to think about the fact that these animals are molluscs and that means that they have this very deep evolutionary relationship. It is such a complicated animal, with some of them interested in me, but their relatives are oysters and clams and snails. That really was a bit of a revelation and I thought “okay, that is amazing”.

Also, when I began reading about them, I read Cephalopod Behaviour [by Roger Hanlon and John Messenger], which was the standard scientific summary at the time. They alerted me to the fact that their nervous system is such a different one in architecture from ours. They talked about how the nervous system in the arms of an octopus are “curiously divorced from the central brain”. That was the phrase that they used. It wasn’t trying to make the animals exciting, it was just what it looked like. That also made me think that this is philosophically quite important and something to follow up.

Octopuses have always had a kind of cameo role in philosophy of mind. Hilary Putnam occasionally used them in his early discussion about multiple realisability. To use the semi-caricature, if you have a simple identity about the mental where pain is the firing of C-fibers, that suggests that if you don’t have C-fibers, you can’t have pain, and that presses towards multiple realisability. Putnam realised that very early on.

But your conclusions are quite different from Putnam’s when it comes to multiple realisability.

I think that nervous systems are special in the area of explaining how experience is possible. Bearing in mind that everything we say on this topic has to be fairly cautious, the view in Metazoa of how experience came to exist and what it’s like – how there can be something it’s like to be us and so on – is a view that gives a certain role to physical peculiarities of nervous systems.

That makes it somewhat antagonistic to the strongest forms of traditional multiple realisability, the Putnam, [Jerry] Fodor sorts of views. But not to all forms. It’s a guiding idea in my work that you don’t have to have a vertebrate architecture to have consciousness, or C-fibres to have pain, or the particular kind of nervous system that we have to have experience.

So the octopus as a guide to multiple realisability as pioneered by Putnam stays on the table, but not the kind of very abstract “every physical substrate will do” position that they developed. Then one has to work out how to fill that idea out.

Years ago, I co-authored a paper with Rosa Cao from Stanford where we tried to redo the whole question of multiple realisability in a way we referred to as ‘grain-sensitive materialism’. Here’s one way to get into the idea. When functionalists talk about functional profiles or properties of nervous systems, they say that any system that has the same functional properties as a human brain has to have the same mental state.

Well, that phrase ‘the same’ there is really quite misleading. If the functional properties of the system are what the system does, then there are both very fine-grained and very coarse-grained specifications of what the system does. Suppose you lift your arm on two occasions. There will be micro-differences between the two events. It’s not really ‘the same’ action in the strictest possible sense of the word ‘same’ – there are small differences.

Do those differences matter? In a coarse-grained view, they don’t. And functionalists are used to thinking about things that have a very stereotypical output, like Coke machines, or a computer program that is designed to have a stereotypical output, where if you type on the keyboard the key H you get an H every time you type. But brains are not like that, and organisms are not like that. Everything they do is a little bit different on different occasions, so there are very fine-grained and very coarse-grained functional profiles.

The whole idea of functional identity as something that could be seen across systems that have very different physical make-ups I think is really a little bit of a myth. If they’re made up differently, they will do things differently. The what-they-do side will be different as a consequence of the what-they’re-made-of side. Maybe only in fine-grained ways, but then the question is which of those fine-grained differences matter and which ones don’t matter.

This I’m going to have to work through carefully. Not for the third book in this series because it’s too technical – but I’m going to give the Jean Nicod lectures in Paris next year, and one of the aims of those lectures will be to do some of the things that were done in a fairly low-key way in the book in a lot more philosophical detail. And multiple realisability is one of those things.

Most people would accept an evolutionary picture of life and yet there seems to be a lot of resistance to the idea that our mental experiences also started this way. I understand your book as a way of untying some knots in thinking about this. What’s the first tool you would give people to set people on the right track?

There seems to be at least one thing that people do seem reluctant to accept about this. That is the idea that the history could be truly gradual, in the sense where there is a time when experience does not exist and there is a time when it does exist – that there is an evolutionary process that gets us from here to there, and on some of the in-between stages there is no fact of the matter. Experience is sort of present, sort of not present. There is something there that is quasi-experiential or partially experiential, but if you ask “is there something it’s like to be this guy in the middle?”, the answer is “well, sort of”. A lot of people really don’t like that feature.

A view that a lot of people are okay with is a view where there’s a discreet step that gets you from no to yes, and that yes is a simple but a hundred percent genuine form of experience. Then you have a gradual process that makes it more complicated, more elaborate, richer, and so on, but there’s got to be that discreet step from no to yes. I think of it as an escalator – there’s a single step you take onto the escalator, and then the rest is gradual, but there has to be a step onto the escalator.

I think it’s true that it’s more convenient to think in terms of a discrete step of no to yes and then a great gradual process. But that’s just our habits of thought and the concepts that we presently have. There’s no way that that could constrain the evolutionary story. We just might have to revise our thinking in this area and get used to the idea of true gradedness. The only conclusion that I can see that makes sense is that our concepts might be poorly adapted to the facts in this area and we’ll just have to revise our concepts. That gradedness about experience might be real is something that we just have to get used to.

This will have consequences for the distribution of experience in animals around us. If someone asks us whether earthworms have experiences, or very small arthropods like mites, I think there is quite a good chance that the answer will be “not really yes and not really no”. They’re in the middle.

I think this is the locus at the moment of real resistance to an evolutionary story about experience. Most philosophers are not so resistant to a gradualist story about belief or the information-processing side of things, but they are resistant to the gradualist view about experience.

For example, Michael Tye has a new book out [Vagueness and the Evolution of Consciousness] that is unusual because he embraces a kind of panpsychism. Tye has never been even close to radical ideas like that before, but in his book he goes all the way to a partially panpsychist view, and does so because he thinks that the presence of consciousness, in one sense of that term, has to be a binary thing, it can’t be a matter of degree. To me, that’s quite extraordinary: it’s such a constraint on the story for it to be gradual that if that means we have to be panpsychists, then that’s okay. This is what Tye argues in his book.

When it comes to approaching the gradualist question, a pair of concepts that I found quite helpful were subjectivity and agency. How do those concepts help in thinking about this?

Agency and subjectivity are not concepts that solve the problem, but they have this useful framing role when thinking about it. Animals are specialised in action, and they do things on a multicellular scale. They’re large objects, several trillion cells in our case, that can act as wholes. Evolutionists are interested in agency because it’s a big thing from an evolutionary point of view, and agency brings with it subjectivity.

Agency and subjectivity are somewhat complementary concepts, because a coherent agent has to not just be able to act but act in certain circumstances: do this in circumstances X, do something else in circumstances Y. And this will be a matter of how things seem to the agent.

Now, once we talk about how things seem, subjectivity is beginning to get into the picture. Thomas Nagel, especially in some of the books like Mind and Cosmos and The View from Nowhere, says that understanding how subjectivity is possible is the big problem for philosophy. I still think that’s a good way of looking at the problem, but once you say it this way, it’s not so bad. Subjectivity is complementary to agency, it comes along with it, and agency is something that has a very deft evolutionary rationale. Animals live by means of agency, we may say.

Those are the two steps: the evolutionary perspective on agency and the fact that subjectivity comes along with agency. It’s not that you could be a coherent agent and not a subject at all. In order to act in a way that is not just internally coordinated but coordinated with environmental events, you have to sense. You will do better as an agent if you have a coherent perspective on the world, a point of view. And the more elaborate and refined aspects of subjectivity, such having a world model with you as a part of the world – here I’m drawing on the work of Björn Merker, a Swede – the more you get the link to agency that makes them evolutionary natural or explicable.

untitled, Mark Peckmezian

Some philosophers do not like the fact that there could be cases where we neither determinately do nor determinately do not have moral obligations towards certain animals. In a review of Metazoa, Jonathan Birch contrasted your gradualist picture with a dualist’s, saying “the dualist’s ontology may be more complicated, but their moral view is simpler”. How do you see the ethical implications of your view?

This is one of the main things that I’m trying to think through at the moment. The way I’m approaching it is via revisiting, rereading and in some cases just reading a lot of stuff in meta-ethics trying to work out what kind of thing we can take ourselves to be doing when we engage in moral discourse and moral judgement.

I wrote a review of Christine Korsgaard’s book Fellow Creatures earlier this year. That’s a good book, for a lot of reasons. One is that it tries to give a very naturalistically based version of a Kantian argument for why we have to have a certain kind of concern for the well-being of other animals. I don’t think there’s a ‘have to’ to be gotten in this area. I don’t think the kind of compulsion that the neo-Kantian project is looking for can work. I’m more of a constructivist about values, quite influenced by Simon Blackburn’s work in the book Ruling Passions, but I’m going to have to build it all and I don’t think I’ve done that yet.

Earlier I was talking about discussions of gradualism where there is the more difficult version of genuinely indeterminate cases of consciousness, and the easy version where there’s a kind of step onto the escalator and then you’re in the yes category and then after that it can be gradual. Birch put on a conference where we talked about this in quite a lot of detail, and the view that Birch finds so difficult to accept ethically is this truly gradualist picture – it’s not that he thinks that that shows that the non-gradualist view is true, but I think he very much hopes it’s true because he thinks the ethical implications of a fully gradualist view would be very awkward. I agree with that, I think they are awkward, but again it’s something that we may have to deal with and accept.

[That the moral world is simpler] is true even if you’re not a dualist but if you have this very discreet treatment of presence versus absence of experience. If you’re a non-gradualist materialist, there’s the same kind of simplicity.

In another review, David Papineau wrote that your approach could help to invigorate the field of philosophy of mind, which in his view has gone stale with predictable battle lines. Would you agree with that?

I certainly appreciated the Papineau review, but I wouldn’t want to advertise or talk about what I think of as good or better [about the book]. A thing that feels distinctive in the development of my view is the idea that the evolutionary history – not a kind of made-up one but an empirically informed one, one which takes seriously the transition from radial to bilaterian animals and the theories of where nervous systems arose – is important. And those deep evolutionary considerations are not just a constraint. It’s not just that philosophy of mind has to fit in with them, but that thinking about the early stages, the origin of nervous systems and of action, provide a lot of interestingly surprising resources for trying to bridge the explanatory gap and make sense of the mind-body problem. If there’s something that feels distinctive from my point of view, it’s that use of those rather ancient features of the evolutionary story.

Also, I obviously try to guide my story with the actual facts about animals around us now, but I don’t think that’s particularly novel, a lot of good philosophers are paying attention to what animals around us are like.

In the documentary My Octopus Teacher [where the film-maker Craig Foster spends a year bonding with an octopus on the coast of South Africa], the viewer gets a glimpse of the emotional connection that can be formed by socialising with octopuses. You have also spent a lot of time in the sea with these creatures. Do you think being physically close to octopuses can help in thinking philosophically about them?

I’ve not had experiences with individual octopuses that are anything like Craig Foster’s, that particular kind of on-going relationship. I have had experiences with giant cuttlefish, the animals that I started with, that were a bit like that but briefer, where there’s this strong sense of engagement on both sides. That made me realise that there’s a lot more sentience around than I thought. There’s just a lot more experience in the world than I thought. Once you have that gestalt-switch, it’s quite powerful.

I think it’s good to spend time with animals that are far from one’s own species. It gives you the sense that they defy these simpler descriptions that people have attempted to give them – there’s just more there, and a lot of it is very chaotic and inexplicable. It’s a good experience to be confronted with the fact that there is a kind of noisy complexity in animals that are far from us. We’re already used to that in some ways with domestic animals, but the idea that also invertebrate animals can have more happening I think is a valuable thing.

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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