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’.
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.
It is, says Susan Stewart, a “sadness without an object”, an “inauthentic longing”, “a genesis where lived and mediated experience are one, where authenticity and transcendence are both present and everywhere”… It is “the repetition that mourns the inauthenticity of all repetition and denies the repetition’s capacity to form identity”.
Impossible to reconcile “les jardins [et] les sables” [gardens and sands] (Edouard Glissant), impossible to simultaneously see the glass and the view from the window (Ortega y Gasset)… Comprehension is oscillatory – which, blurred, appears as synthesis, but “defer[s], perhaps endlessly, the vanishing horizon of authenticity” (John Frow). Maybe ‘exile’, whose expression is nostalgia, is the alienation brought about by the failure to resolve this dialectic between the ‘real’ and its reduction(s). Exile, then, this isolation in an incommunicable reality, would be the permanent condition, and not some extra-ordinary state of being.
(Ovid might lament being thrust among the barbarians, but the lamentations are not his. Rather, they are the cries of an imagined self from an imagined Rome – spatial exile, not to be confused with separation, is only another nationalist figment.)
Hondartza Fraga‘s recent video works – Bearing Elsewhere (2010) and Annorstädes (2010) – explore the journey as an endlessly repeating, perpetually unfinished and non-linear process, a thwarted movement towards an elusive elsewhere (annorstädes in Swedish), within the vast expanse of which we hope (and fail) to beat the bounds of a home. Figments of Home (2011), a black and white video work made from fragments of six films, interrogates the nostalgia which which underpins our constructions of home, staging fictions which speak to our desiring memories.
We discussed home as ‘a dangerous myth that we keep repeating but never resolve’; as ‘a myth-making gesture’ that belies our realisation that ‘we want home to be real, but it never can be’.
Exile, then: ‘both quotidian and profound’.
‘You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood, back home to romantic love, back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame, back home to exile, to escape to Europe and some foreign land, back home to lyricism, to singing just for singing’s sake, back home to aestheticism, to one’s youthful idea of ‘the artist’ and the all-sufficiency of ‘art’ and ‘beauty’ and ‘love,’ back home to the ivory tower, back home to places in the country, to the cottage in Bermude, away from all the strife and conflict of the world, back home to the father you have lost and have been looking for, back home to someone who can help you, save you, ease the burden for you, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time–back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.’ (Thomas Wolfe, You Can’t Go Home Again)
Hondartza is Spanish, Basque, and has lived in England for six years. She explained how she went to Norway and felt at home there, although she does not speak the language… How, then, do we explain the equation of certain feelings with that senseof being at home? Perhaps, paradoxically, it is about being outside and looking in from afar; seeing the city from the window of an aeroplane, neat and bounded beneath you, as though caught in a snowglobe… A miniature…
This idea that in miniature, the city below looks perfect, freed from contradiction and conflict… As Bachelard states, to miniaturise is to resolve contradictions within a space…
‘Psychologists — and more especially philosophers — pay little attention to the play of miniature frequently introduced into fairy tales. In the eyes of the psychologist, the writer is merely amusing himself when he creates houses that can be set on a pea. But this is a basic absurdity that places the tale on a level with the merest fantasy. And fantasy precludes the writer from entering, really, into the domain of the fantastic. Indeed he himself, when he develops his facile inventions, often quite ponderously, would appear not to believe in a psychological reality that corresponds to these miniature features. He lacks that little particle of dream which could be handed on from writer to reader. To make others believe, we must believe ourselves.’ (Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space)
We discussed George Szirtes’ poem, The Looking-Glass Dictionary (from The Budapest File, 2000), exploring the poem’s articulation of the resistance of language to meaning. This idea of Lacan’s of one’s homelessness in language…
‘Words withheld. Words loosed in angry swarms. / An otherness. The whole universe was / other, a sum of indeterminate forms / in motion. Who knows what the neighbour does / behind closed doors?’ (George Szirtes)
For L.P., what the neighbour does behind closed doors resumes the whole problem of language: ‘other people’s imaginative worlds are closed off to Szirtes, just as his is closed off to them’.
M.E. raised the question of exile in time… To be exiled in the time in which one lives. Is this, then, what prompts nostalgia? How – and with whom? – do we construct the home from which we are exiled, in time and in space?
Read Helen Cocker’s full response to last Wednesday’s Reading Loop here. To give you a taste, an extract below!
So, as I approach an afternoon in the studio faced with images and fraught by language, I ask myself – are the pages really mute, or am I simply stunned by their inexpressible content? Does it matter that words slide into objects before my eyes, and that quantifying them in form generates new entities – images?
The artist Paul Evans will be leading the Reading Loop on May 18th. The aim will be to explore concepts surrounding our contemporary relationship with animals (particularly ‘urban’ species) and to touch on a few philosophical ideas concerning anthropocentrism.
We will view a few examples from the Origin series, discuss Florent Tillon’s video Rond-point de la porte Maillot (The Porte Maillot Roundabout) and listen to extracts from Peter Reading’s poems Faunal and -273.15.
For a copy of the text, please email email@example.com
And so we escaped arm in arm through the streets, continuing our daytime conversation, roving by chance until the early hours and seeking amongst the chaotic lights and shadows of the thronging city those innumerable excitations of the spirit that peaceful study cannot offer.
(Edgar Allen Poe, Double Assassinat dans la rue Morgue, translated by Adrian Rifkin)
The French artist Jérôme Grivel will be coming to Sheffield to begin a 4-week residency in summer 2011.
A graduate of the prestigious Villa Arson in Nice, his practice explores the problematic of sound and its reception by the spectator. His work is voluntarily physical, aggressive and even violent, drawing its inspiration from the artistic culture of the 1970s and the functions and principles of noise. This music, born of an underground culture, assumes from the moment of its production the effect it has on listeners. The work is about taking spectators somewhere, whether they appreciate that or not. It’s about saturating spaces, producing a physical implication in that space in order to confront better the elements which surround us.