Notes from Reading Loop 18/05/11

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

One thought on “Notes from Reading Loop 18/05/11

  1. Comment from Paul Evans on Reading Loop 18/5/11

    “Eres Lo Que Lees” Or “No Whale Was Harmed in the Making of This Drawing”
    I am very grateful to Hester Reeve for attracting our attention to the fascinating example of ‘Eres Lo Que Lees’ (You Are What You Read) a 2007 installation featuring an (allegedly) starving dog by the Costa Rican artist Guillermo ‘Habacuc’ Vargas. When news of this exhibition appeared it (perhaps unsurprisingly) sparked a global wave of protest:
    ‘The Costa Rican has been called an animal abuser, killer and worse over claims that a stray dog called Natividad died of starvation after he displayed it at an exhibition last year at the Códice Gallery in Managua, Nicaragua. Vargas tethered the animal without food and water under the words ‘Eres Lo Que Lees’ – ‘You Are What You Read’ – made out of dog biscuits while he played the Sandinista anthem backwards and set 175 pieces of crack cocaine alight in a massive incense burner. More than a million people have signed an online petition urging organisers of this year’s event to stop Vargas taking part.’
    As Hester points out, the concept behind this piece is a very difficult one – and the question soon arises as to why no-one in the audience took responsibility to free the animal:
    ‘Vargas, 32, said he wanted to test the public’s reaction, and insisted none of the exhibition visitors intervened to stop the animal’s suffering.’ As it turns out the exhibition was a hoax: ‘Juanita Bermúdez, director of the Códice Gallery, insisted Natividad escaped after just one day. She said: ‘It was untied all the time except for the three hours the exhibition lasted and it was fed regularly with dog food Habacuc himself brought in.’ (Above quotes from: http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2008/mar/30/art.spain)
    In spite of this fact, our shocked response to the idea of ‘Eres Lo Que Lees’ does raise two very important questions: 1) What does the reaction to this exhibition (dumbfounded in the seminar; outraged online and apparently indifferent within the gallery context) say about human nature? 2) Are there any ethical limits to the content of art? I’ll begin with some thoughts on the second question. Esther’s example put me in mind of another work titled Portable Fish Farm by Californian artist Newton Harrison. It was exhibited at the Hayward Gallery in 1971 – here’s a news item from Time relating to the piece: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,903152,00.html Harrison populated large aquaria with various salt water animals, including 135 catfish. On the night of the exhibition 35 of the catfish were scheduled to be electrocuted. Shocking, you might say. The RSPCA protested against this ‘ritual slaughter’ and the comedian Spike Milligan (perhaps with arguable seriousness, but who knows) argued for laws to protect defenseless fish. In the end the piscid ‘executions’ were put off. I guess the issue here might relate to subject and content. Evidently it’s OK to make art about cruelty (in the case of Portable Fish Farm Harrison claimed that the piece was about the circle of life and, as we know, life can be cruel), however, to include actual suffering as part of the content, is that OK? The other question that I posed above relates to the issue of reactions to the exhibition and what they might reveal about human nature. [insert image] The image that we see is of apparently indifferent gallery goers at a private view; there is a starving dog in the foreground. This situation has been sanctioned by the institution of art. Is this apparent lack of concern merely the expression of a vapid form of moral relativism? Is it decadence? Or is it an issue of authority? I may be at risk of dramatic hyperbole here, but I am put in mind of the Milgram Experiment. This was a famously bizarre social psychology experiment that took place in the 1960s. A paid subject (who received $4 per hour) was asked to press a button that apparently administered an electric shock to another experimental subject (though the person receiving the shock was actually an actor). The shocks grew in intensity, the actor faking more and more pain until he eventually ‘passed out’. In many cases the subject simply continued pressing the button in response to the authority figure controlling the experiment. The point of the experiment was to demonstrate the susceptibility of the will to authority figures, in fact the findings were published in a 1974 book Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View.* To an extent Vargas has created a similarly outrageous ‘thought experiment’. It is debatable wether this would get the blessing of a scientific ethics committee (and this would be the same for the Milgram Experiment if it was proposed today) but, well, does that really matter? When looking at ‘Eres Lo Que Lees’ , do we see a criticism of a hypocritical society that will happily tolerate the suffering of ‘the significant other’ whilst sipping from plastic cups? Or do we see an example of an abuse of creative authority? Or should we be taking an artworld prank this seriously? Please discuss … * One could also usefully consider the bystander effect or Genovese syndrome – the phenomenon when people do not offer assistance to individuals in need during emergency situations.

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