Why Look at Animals? (or Spaces for Species)

‘The question of the animal should be seen as one of the central questions in critical discourse’ (Matthew Calarco, Zoographies: The Question of the Animal from Heidegger to Derrida).

Animal Studies (I should point out that the term ‘Animal Studies’ still has no proper definition, but it seems to function reasonably well as a working title for this area of contemporary thought) is typically relegated by Anglo-American philosophers into a sub-specialisation within the field of environmental ethics. Seeing as applied ethics is often seen as a minor field within philosophy (perhaps as something of a distraction from more serious pursuits such as metaphysics and epistemology) it is thus fair to say that this area of thought is marginalised.

However, some of the concepts and frameworks within continental philosophy can make a unique contribution to Animal Studies – Calarco uses ideas in ‘Zoographies’ that are taken from Heidegger to Derrida via Levinas and Agamben – although he still points out that these ideas arise from a largely anthropocentric context.

This marginalisation of Animal Studies as a field of thought is not helped by the radical stance expressed by certain members of the animal rights movement. Animal rights is seen by many in the left as a marginal branch of identity politics – perhaps even a luxury of the bourgeois activist – a view that is perhaps supported by some of the politically retrogressive strategies of such groups.

The more I’ve looked into Animal Studies in an effort to contextualise some of the elements within my own creative practice, the more I’ve discovered a complex ecology of thought. It’s a ramified web of ideas that in some ways resembles the network of interfragilities that we see in life itself. So, in response to Berger’s question, ‘Why Look at Animals?’ I would like to propose three more questions to help create an introductory area of focus:

1) The question of ‘Animality’ – what is the ‘being’ of animals?

2) What is the nature of the human/animal distinction?

3) Can human nature be seen as an interspecies relationship?

Question 1) The question of animalism, the being of animals …

We can ask wether there actually is a shared essence – a ‘creatureliness’ – that  binds all animals together? Can the wide variety (we could say vast variety) of beings referred to as ‘animal’ be reduced to an essentialism – a simple (or even relatively complex) set of shared characteristics. I would suggest not.

This ontological question also relates to a range of topics from the biological sciences surrounding the nature of species and the structure of taxonomies. It also has strong implications for any philosophical discourse that uses this essentialist mode of referring to ‘the animal’.

'Chaos and Theory', Paul Evans & Humanstudio, multiple projection, SIA Gallery Sheffield 2010, photo by Dan Sumption

Question 2) The animal/human distinction …

Is there a radical discontinuity between the animal and the human? This ontotheological dichotomy has effectively been undermined by darwinism in favour of a gradualist continuum – very much supported by recent work in genomics (the ancestral studies or ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ of our DNA).

There is a similar displacement in the humanities – where the traditional marks of being human (articulate speech, knowledge of death, consciousness etc.) have been shown to exist in a similar form amongst nonhuman animals

Calarco is arguing that the human animal distinction ‘can no longer and ought no longer be maintained.’

The big question arising from this position is how thought might proceed without the assurance of these traditional conceptions of animality and the human-animal distinction. Calarco states that any genuine encounter with what we call ‘animals’ will only occur within the space of this surrender. We need to clear a space for the ‘event’ of what we call animals. Hence the original title for this seminar – space (or spaces) for species.

Question 3) Inter-species relationships …

In ‘When Species Meet’ Donna Haraway asks this question: ‘What happens if we take seriously the idea of human nature as an inter-species relationship – at all levels?’

We have come to accept the idea of other species existing within an arena of complex inter-species relationships but for some reason we seem to hold back from fully including the human animal in this arrangement. Haraway’s writings address this problem through an extraordinary range, scope and breadth of cultural and scientific reference points, but often return to the example of a specific (or inter-specific) focus: her personal relationship with her dog Ms Cayenne Pepper (see also ‘The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People and Significant Otherness’).

The question of the animal thus becomes a question of ‘the animal who faces me’ – an interruption deriving from the singular animal. An animal whom I face and by whom I am faced and who calls my mode of existence into question.

Paul Evans, 18.5.11