I would like to propose a kind of brief introduction to the historical analysis of different modes of theoretical representation of the animal. A critical genealogy of the discourse of animality in its philosophical, aesthetic and political aspects reprises the metaphysical tradition, which is based on the humanist model of subjectivity. The hidden figure of the animal occupies a truly strange place in the shadow of this tradition from antiquity to modernity.
To tell the truth, I came to this subject matter recently and in a roundabout way – when I was working on my PHD thesis and then afterwards on my book on eroticism in George Bataille. Trying to answer the question, ‘what does the word eroticism mean for Bataille?’, I noticed that he constantly repeats one formula: eroticism is something that distinguishes a human being from an animal.
Bataille is original in this point: as a rule, philosophers have always considered rational thought, language or, for example, consciousness of death as the criterion for such a distinction. But I should say straight away that I’m not involved in a search for the true criterion of distinction between humans and animals. What is much more interesting for me is how this borderline is produced in one or another discursive system.
One can indicate two types of classical philosophical discourse that focus on the animal. The discourse of exclusion starts with the ethical and ontological predominance of the “human,” whereas the discourse of inclusion insists on the affinity of all levels of being. But these two discourses are related and their function is the same: to establish or to conserve a certain order of things. As Bataille pointed out, the base of this rational order is the transcendence of the “human,” requiring the sacrifice of irreducible “animal” nature.
Regarding madness, Foucault says that animality is its internal truth, which shows the limits of the “human.” Animality is like an unthinking, unthinkable mirror-twin of subjectivity. According to Lacan, looking into the mirror, the human being appropriates its own image as “human” from without. But it is the animal that exists outside the mirror, where the human being has to recognize itself and at the same time cannot do so. Re-reading Lacan, Derrida specifies that the enigma is to be found not in the human being looking at itself, but rather in the animal that stares back at it.
The play of inside and outside, of inclusion and exclusion, is a sort of device, which Agamben calls an “anthropological machine”; it establishes a kind of borderline between the self and the “animal” other. This is not only a metaphysical but also a political operation: sometimes, certain humans marked as animals find themselves abandoned beyond the border. So, according to Agamben, the question of the animal is not the question of its essence, but the question of the human/non-human distinction as such, which has certain political implications. The examination of this borderline passes through concepts such as power, sovereignty, order and law.
The question of the animal is therefore the question of subjectivity and power, and it demands a historical analysis. It is important to note, in this respect, that there are no animals in official history, because animality has traditionally been consigned to non-historical nature.
Nevertheless, it has its own historical materiality, at least as a labor force. From my point of view, there is a kind of injustice in this neglect of the animal in history, which is why I intend to produce a peculiar “history of the animal”. This is precisely the name of the book, with regard to which I would like to start my brief and tentative reconstruction.
In his work “History of animals” Aristotle describes animals’ habits, using the anthropic principle. His animal world is clearly humanlike. Human beings are not only part of this world, but also its universal model. Other creatures approach this model to a greater or lesser extent, and are endowed with certain human merits – friendliness or aggression, slyness or simple-mindedness, nobleness or baseness, audacity or timidity.
Animals are not only humanlike, but they imitate humans. Thus, a swallow building itself a nest imitates a human building a house. As Aristotle points out, in arranging twigs, the bird keeps the same order. I have to say that the word “order” is really important here. Keeping order, Aristotle’s swallow imitates human reasonableness. Because of course human beings, too, keep a certain order in their life. It is as if a bird and a human kept some general order, as if they shared some reasonably ordered world.
In this world, there is a sort of continuity, which extends to every living thing. Plants imitate animals, animals imitate humans and humans imitate gods. Mimesis makes it possible to organize an interchange between different levels of being. Animals, humans, plants – everyone is involved in a cause, which could be described as “maintenance of a cosmos”. And everyone has his own way to maintain general world order. This order was not established by humans, but it is measured by humans. And we might note that everyone in his own way already conforms to some general laws and prohibitions, which seems too human.
I would like to draw your attention to one story that Aristotle tells. Somebody says that a Scythian king had a thoroughbred mare which always gave birth to good foals. In order to produce the best offspring, the king’s grooms decided to couple one of them with his mother. The studhorse didn’t want to do this, and then grooms covered the mare’s head. When, after the coupling, the head of the mother horse was uncovered, the studhorse run away and threw himself off a cliff.
Of course, this strange story refers us to a well-known myth. I could say that the gesture of a groom covering up the mare is a kind of parody of the blind fate that brings Oedipus into his mother Jocasta’s embraces. The scene of animal suicide is really impressive: let’s try to imagine this lonely, absurd figure of a fast horse flitting to the brink of an abyss… What impulse of the “animal soul” pushes it on?
Apparently, the theme of the prohibition of incest is so widespread in ancient Greek culture that it’s easy to project it onto animals. But I feel I should specify that what is frightening is not incest per se, but a breach of a certain world order provoked by it. Don’t forget that the Oedipus-horse was born in a reasonable ordered world. The stability of the harmonious structure of this world is guaranteed by the participation, even if passive, of all its functional elements. A local failure imperils the system as a whole.
At any point the frail cosmos can lose its balance, and this is the main danger posed by a breach in the order. And a breach in the order, violence, a failure has to be considered not as a crime, but rather as a fault or an error, because it is made through ignorance, blindly. Nobody will do ill of his own volition, because the reasonableness of Aristotelian humans and humanlike animals consists in looking for a good. Those who do ill just don’t understand their good, or they are not reasonable enough, or they are blinded by passion, or they don’t know the law.
As concerns the highest good and highest laws, one might suspect that they are known only by the select few, and these few are at the head of the state. The hierarchical state system, according to Aristotle, corresponds with human nature itself, according to which the soul rules the body and the mind rules the feelings. Animals, as more foolish, must be subordinate to humans, because through humans they join the highest good.
In turn, an obscure god’s will has power even over those at the top of society. It may seem absurd or unjust, but it has the force of law. Thereby, observing laws[,] which are beyond their understanding, both the king and the king’s horse participate in the maintenance of cosmos, which is – for the Greeks – more or less common, and which is still not finally appropriated by men.
Aristotle’s human recognizes himself in the animal and sees in animals’ behavior a kind of parody of his own gestures. He feels a deep affinity with the animal. This feeling obviously relates both to the rest of totemism and to the ancient Greek belief in metempsychosis, that is the fantastical circulation of anima, living soul, between vegetable, animal and human bodies.
One can imagine the unanimous ensemble of creatures being involved in the kind of common production of the strong effect of unity of the ancient cosmos. And the horse occupies a really important and honorable place in this ensemble. It is even represented on the obverse side of Greek gold coins. In his essay “The Academic Horse” Georges Bataille reflects upon this representation and emphasizes the mathematical precision and nobility of the equine expression of harmony.
Bataille compares the academic horse as the embodiment of eidos with improbable, demented horses represented on Gallic coins. Approximately from IV century B.C. (before Christ) the Gauls began to mint their own coins imitating Greek originals. But the image of the horse has been seriously deformed, and its deformations, according to Bataille, are not random. Crazy barbarian horses are the illustration of a disordered life, which is alien to the high ideals of harmony and perfection. For this life, full of excess and danger, such ideals appear as something like police surveillance for a den of thieves.
Bataille describes the aesthetic degradation of the horse image as the form of a transgression and a rebellion against arrogant idealism. This is the material trace of the process known as falling into barbarism or as a return to the “animal condition”. In the so-called civilized world the least allusion to the possibility of such a process legitimates even the strongest forms of maintaining order and the social hierarchy.
For sure, those who are at the top, represent chaos as the single bad alternative to the status quo. Were it not for wise police measures, the world would cease to be intelligible and anthropomorphic, and sweet humanlike Aristotelian animals would be displaced by maddened barbaric monsters.
Fear of entropy brings people to make plentiful rites. There is an impression that reproduction of the conditions of human life requires permanent efforts. And harmonious ancient forms are the illustration of such efforts. But it seems that once the forces of chaos, such as floods, invasions, war, revolution, epidemics or volcanic explosions, win the day. Thus, the same harmonious forms illustrate the fragility of the cosmos and the difficulty of maintaining its order.
The academic horse, represented on the golden coin, is allied to the Oedipized horse from the Aristotle’s book. However, the initially “good” Aristotelian horse transgresses the order, turns mad and becomes the absurd self-murdering animal. There is no place for him in this glorious police world obeying the laws that he ignores.
Generally speaking, Aristotle’s animals are nevertheless man-like and therefore inoffensive. As I mentioned, the Aristotelian ontological system supposes a kind of unity, due to which the world can be rationally explained. This system functions owing to the inclusion of all the elements. But it makes no provision for a situation where the animal fails in imitating the human. In this case, the system will not be able to cope with the maintenance of cosmos. If the mass of creatures which are unable to maintain the order becomes critical, this world may collapse.
This is rather the logic of another mode of protective thinking, based on the distrust of the alien. Here unpredictable animal nature is often represented as a source of danger. Animals are suspect. They come from outside. They represent another, inhuman world.
Thus, the Aristotelian human recognizes himself in the animal as in the mirror. This is a kind of mirror stage, when he starts to acquire his humanity. Recognizing himself in the animal, he starts to distinguish himself from it. So, the optical device, which Agamben describes as an anthropological machine, has a two-way action. Recognition is attended by misrecognition. The Aristotelian human recognizes himself in the animal until the common anthropomorphic world breaks up into two parts and the mirror stands between him and his other.
Philosophical systems supported by exclusion represent the animal as a being having another nature than the human. This fundamental distinction starts from the idea of exclusive human access to such things as logos, the good, truth or being.
But before the ethical and ontological dualism could appear, our moral laws had to be unsuccessfully imposed on animals as universal laws, and the animals had to be judged by these laws. Every time the beasts are banished from the human world to the wild madness of nature, but every time they return and they try again to live here, to observe our laws and proprieties. And every time they meet with failure.
Absurdist Kafkian animals are striking examples of the efforts of becoming-humans. The hunger-striking dog performing a biological experiment on itself, the nervous burrow-dweller coming to the idea of the social contract, mice as music lovers, the monkey becoming human in his desperate attempts to escape the cage, and, of course, the academic horse, that is the former battle horse of Alexander the Great, now become a lawyer.
Imagine an animal in front of the gates of the law: is it standing beyond or on this side? According to Derrida and Agamben, the animal, and the sovereign as well, are apparently outside the law. Agamben’s animal is a kind of bare life, that is, as contrasted to the human, it cannot be sacrificed, but can simply be killed, slaughtered without ceremony. But I would like to clarify that this is not the eternal condition of animality.
As I already said, animals have a history. But the logic of this history doesn’t conform, in my view, to the optimism of the humanistic discourse of progressive liberation and emancipation of animals finally securing their rights. Nowadays we are dealing really with Agamben’s latent figure of bare life, deprived of any right, and this figure is exactly the seamy side of the official ideology of according rights to animals. But long before the institution of “right”, animals were already the subject of law, and animal killing was prohibited.
I refer not only to the totemism of so called “primitive” societies, where animal sacrifice is a ritual transgression, and where animals have the sacral status of a patron or a forefather of man (rock paintings in the grotto of Lascaux, for example, represents huge animals and a small man, the latter is under the musk of a beast). I mean also, for example, the medieval world. Are you familiar with such phenomena as animal trials?
Nowadays people are astonished by the idea of trying animals according to human laws. But the point is that the medieval animal lived in the same universe as medieval man. That was the universe of God’s creation, and we find a lot of animals with human faces presented in the galaxy of medieval painting as a part of a “family portrait”. If in totemism animals could be sacrificed, then in the Middle Ages it was possible to execute or to excommunicate them. Animals were put on trial. This means that they were recognized as responsible. Formally, juridically they were given almost the same status as humans. A cat or a mouse could be accused and punished.
I just mentioned Dr. Bucephalus, a character in Kafka’s novel “The New Advocate”. Of course, the figure of the animal-advocate is fantastic, but advocates of animals were really present in the medieval legal system. Advocates of accused animals are, among others, the inventors of the humanistic discourse. Their principal argument that one cannot try animals because they don’t have minds opened the way to modern rationality. The paradox is that it was precisely this humanism that became the basis for the future treatment of animals as things, for excluding them because they lack human dignity or special human merits. Advocates of animals established to the satisfaction of the court that we cannot charge them because we cannot speak to them.
There was also another argument presented in animals’ favor, more medieval in a sense. According to this argument, animals are innocents. They are unaware of sin, of good and evil. They had never left the Kingdom of Heaven. But if they are unaware of a sin, then they are at the same time unaware of the Christian message, the Gospel.
Of course, everyone remembers the aspiration of Saint Francis of Assisi to talk to them and to teach them. He really wanted to give them access to the universal divine law. He was preaching the word of God to animals, and the success of his preaching depended on how much nearer he could come to their innocence. In order to speak to animals it was necessary to cleanse himself of sin, to become poor like beasts and birds. Preaching to animals was possible in an era when poverty and misery were qualified not as a crime but rather the opposite, as a sign of sanctity.
A little bit later, with the strengthening, to adopt Max Weber’s definition, of the spirit of capitalism, virtue becomes measured by property and labor. And then animals, as poor and non-working, find themselves outside the law. Now their place is next to lower classes and to society’s outcasts.
In the first part of his “History of madness” Michel Foucault describes how in the course of the Reformation, in connection with the growth of the moral value of work, idleness starts to be exposed to blame, how poverty loses its halo of sanctity and becomes treated as a crime against the “bourgeois order”. According to this order, such a strange man as Francis of Assisi would easily find himself in a detention centre together with beggars and vagabonds.
According to Foucault, in the Classical era the figure of the madman combines criminal poverty and idleness with the animal, inhuman principle. Because as you know, the human of the Classical era is one who is thinking. The one who doesn’t think is not human. Madness reveals the absurdity of the animal nature of man. That’s why, as Foucault says, madness actually acquires the same status as animality. Places of isolation set aside for madmen look like zoos or menageries. The purpose of isolation is to secure the mind against madness and the human against the animal, who now bears no resemblance to the human. And of course, Cartesian exclusion is the theoretical side of this process.
A bright artistic cross point here is the “Meninos” by Velasquez. The foot of jester is lifted over the dog sitting on the right. Just one movement – and the dog will be kicked, turned out of this family portrait (but, in fact, the dog is still here: Picasso). At the era of the Cartesian exclusion (not only of madness, but also of animality as of the absence of a reason) the status of animality is absolutely different. Its place is now at the anatomical table of Descartes, or in the butcher shop, or at the plate together with fruits and wine.