Bridging the Animal and Human Divide Through Art

In order to truly transform the way in which one thinks, they must encounter the other through a phenomenological process, where their consciousness is open to the influence of another. They must not only be the on-looker, but they must also be that which is looked at. There is a fluidity in both subjectivity and objectivity. However, an animal phenomenology is a difficult concept to approach. Ron Broglio in his book Surface Encounters: Thinking with Animals and Art even says, “Animal phenomenology is an impossible horizon because humans fundamentally return to a human phenomenology,” and Ian Bogost in Alien Phenomenology writes that “anthropocentrism is unavoidable, at least for us humans” because they are “restricted to the resources of [their] own mind (Broglio xxiii, Bogost 56-57). Bogost further expresses the inevitability of anthropocentrism when describing another’s experience:

The subjective nature of experience makes the unit operation of one of its perceptions amount always to a caricature in which the one is drawn in the distorted impression of the other. This is true not only of the encounter itself but also of any account of the encounter, which only further distances the one from the other by virtue of the introduction of addition layers of mediation (57).

Essentially, Bogost argues that one’s understanding of something will only ever convey their personal “truth,” not a universal truth. Their ideologies, their understanding of the world, will shape how they see the world so someone’s personal encounter with one animal could be entirely different from another’s. This type of animal phenomenology, lacking in any objectivity, becomes even more convoluted when approached with language.

While fiction can have powerful phenomenological effects on readers in that it shapes and reshapes personal ideologies by deconstructing established social configurations, as evident in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, which takes the social concern for genetic modification, as well as the theoretical debate surrounding human and animal relationships, and sets it in a dystopic, yet possible, future, language can too easily be misinterpreted. Take for instance the Hegelian concept of aufhebung, which can be translated in one of three ways – 1) to abolish, 2) to preserve, and 3) to transcend – or as G.W.F. Hegel argues, it can mean all three simultaneously. Jacques Derrida also enjoys playing with words in order to show the proliferation of meaning every word evokes. For example, Derrida denotes that “the animal” and “animals” sound the same in French. Even more famously, Derrida coined the word differánce – a pun based on the fact that the French word differer means both “to defer” and “to differ.” To defer is the concept that words can never really summon a singular meaning but can only be understood through the appeal to additional words from which they vary. Thus, meaning is forever postponed through an endless chain of words (Think of the word association game). To differ, on the other hand, ultimately results in binary oppositions and hierarchies that underpin meaning itself. In summation, animal phenomenology, or as Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari call it, “becoming animal,” is rooted in multiplicity as animals will always “differ” so actual meaning – or even being – will always be deferred. In addition to the multiplicity of meaning that stems from language, words cannot adequately represent animals as they do not ascribe to human speech. Attributing man-made language to animals in order to understand them disregards their differences and uniqueness, as well as risks falling into anthropomorphism as explained by Bogost: “[humans] never understand the alien experience, [they] only ever reach for it metaphorically” (58). This is why the “insuperable line” that separates humans and animals cannot ever fully be bridged with words (Ingram 128). Only though personal experience – by engaging one’s senses – can the chasm be breached, and art is one way in which to do so as discussed in Ron Broglio’s book Surface Encounters: Thinking with Animals and Art.

Modern art and its approach to the human and animal divide has been heavily influenced by the competing theories of Friedrich Nietzsche, who through his reading of the Dionysus myth, which he articulates in The Birth of Tragedy, challenges the sense that humans are unique and distanced from the “world of things” and Martin Heidegger, who stresses distance – an abyss that separates humans and non-humans (Broglio 31). With Heidegger, destiny plays an integral part in the distancing as man is called to “guard the truth of Being” – to be the “shepherd of Being.” It is destiny then that calls man to shed himself of his animal nature and draw closer to his divine nature. This is reminiscent of the Aristotelean “great chain of being” – a humanist hierarchy – in which humans are elevated above animals being “closer in nature to divinities” (Broglio 45). It is this very idea – this anthropocentric thinking – that Nietzsche argues against and which performance and speculative art try to overcome through a phenomenological becoming, which has psychoanalytic effects on audiences. In other words, the hybridity of humans and animals depicted in these genres of art creates in its audiences a cognitive dissonance as they are simultaneously attracted to yet repulsed by what they see – a psychoanalytic effect called the uncanny. By presenting audiences with the uncanny, animal art blurs the divide between human and animal, which challenges social constructs evident in Carolee Schneemann’s Meat Joy, as well as the literal becoming of genetic modification portrayed in Patricia Piccinini’s The Young Family, Marcus Coates’ Journey to the Lower World, and animal imitators.

The paradoxical effect of attraction and repulsion is clearly evident in performance art, particularly Meat Joy by Carolee Schneemann  as discussed in Broglio’s book. In Meat Joy, male and female bodies intertwine as they roll over and under one another (see images below), in effect, building the sexual tension. Only when the raw meat is thrown atop the writhing human bodies is the climax of the performance reached, evident as the bodies respond with “spasms, twists, groans, and laughter” and “more dancing and painting” (Broglio 28). The audience is taken in with the familiar as they watch the mingling of human bodies only for the familiarity of sex to be disturbed with the introduction of the unfamiliar – that which repels the senses both textually and aromatically. Moreover, the distinction between human and non-human parts is blurred. As the meat, a consumable object, mingles with the humans, humans too are cast as objects: “flesh pressed against flesh, a consumerable form against desires for consumptions” (Broglio 29).

meat-joy-a-1964-happenin-007

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In addition, the co-mingling of human flesh and the flesh of animals leads to the condemnation and/or the celebration of both as the audience cannot show disdain for the raw meat without too rejecting their own flesh (Broglio 31). While both human and non-human bodies maintain equal status as the objects of the work – the surface upon which art is made – they too share paralleled subjectivity. The overall phenomenological message in the work can be described in the words of Donna Haraway as a “subject- and object-shaping dance of encounters” (“Animals” 150-51). In effect, Meat Joy collapses the humanist hierarchy and in doing so frees man to relish in its own base drives – its animality. The “depths” of humanity – that which humans repress so as not to be condemned by society – is liberated through surface contact with the animal other. Therefore, it is the visual, the activation of the senses, that prompts audiences to see the oneness they share with animals.

Whereas live performance art presents audiences with the uncanny to challenge social constructs through both gestures and language, as well as by engaging multiple senses, such as touch, smell, and hearing, speculative art, such as that done by Patricia Piccinini, makes the analysis more difficult for the viewer as it encourages active engagement rather than passive consumption (Dunne and Raby 90). For instance, Paccinini’s The Young Family (see the image below) is of a hyper-realistic life-size transgenic creature suckling her children, reminiscent of the pigoons mentioned in Oryx and Crake. With its vaguely humanistic characteristics like the hands and feet, as well as its pig/dog-like features, this sculpture embodies Nietzsche’s concept of hybridity from which he makes his satyr argument as discussed in Broglio’s book: “Dionysian revelers undergo abulic transports to become like the half-man, half-animal satyr. Such transformation annihilates the individuals and opens them to an abyss between ecstatic truth experienced in the rituals and their mundane realities…” (31).This suspension between ritual and mundane, where human and animal Umwelts meet, is the moment in which one “finds new avenues and lines of flight by which to traverse the un-thought of thought” (Broglio 125).

the_young_family

In the case of Piccinini’s work, the mixing of two Umwelts is represented by physical form, which blurs the human and animal identity into one entity. Because The Young Family bears an uncanny similarity to human, viewers openly gaze at the creature thereby allowing it to transform their consciousness, but what gazes back is not human but both human and animal, so viewers are taken in by what they understand only to be shaped by the unknown. They are presented, as with Schneemann’s Meat Joy, with their own repressed animality. Moreover, the hyper-realistic sculpture, or satyr, not only unveils the depths of “human interiority,” but it presents a possible future genetic modification that is unsettling, which prompts viewers to critically think about using science to literally become animal (Broglio 51). However, the sculpture is “neither an argument for nor against biotechnology but it simply one possible future lying ahead…and it is up to the viewers to decide for themselves if they agree or not” (Dunne and Raby 90). In essence, it evokes the same critical point discussed in Surface Encounters regarding “being” versus “becoming,” or in other words, “It’s the journey, not the destination.”

The issue of stressing “being” over “becoming” is more evident in the live performance art by Marcus Coates, particularly his piece Journey to the Lower World (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FAUWVKxiG2s), as well as animal imitators. In both cases, Coates and animal imitators are not confined to a stage or museum, but rather they take their work where it is least expected, which effectually leads to confusion. To start, Coates in his Journey to the Lower World assumes the role of a shaman, as he wears a deerskin with antlers (see the image below) and performs rituals that to most onlookers looks idiotic, but as is his goal, he is operating on the margins of society – between the human and animal Umwelts.

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Because Coates does not truly believe he is “being” an animal, merely tries to evoke a sense of the uncanny for those who watch his performance, he therefore does not fall into the dangers of “false naming and knowing about animals” that Deleuze and Guattari mention. However, dangers of his performance are still present. For instance, Coates, in reference to his work, says that humans “have a common ancestry” with animals, which could just as easily be construed as a “common phenomenology,” in effect disregarding the vast differences between humans and animals (Broglio 124). It can also lead to a privileging of human consciousness because again, “anthropocentrism is unavoidable” (Bogost 57). Furthermore, this talk can have drastic psychoanalytic effects if misinterpreted, evident by the individuals featured in the documentary Animal Imitators (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DUzS__emdoE). Whether they modify their appearance through surgery or through costumes like Coates’, animal imitators truly believe that they share a common ancestry with animals and that they know and understand them – that they are them. One animal imitator in particular is Stalking Cat (or Cat Man – see image below), who identified as a tiger and as a result underwent 14 surgical modifications to be more cat-like. However, he was never satisfied with his transformation because he strove for “being” rather than “becoming.” For animal imitators like Stalking Cat, who eventually committed suicide in 2007, the object of desire (which is to be another species) will always be deferred and never achieved because the result will always be different from the actual animal they want to be.

cat-man-whiskers

Ultimately, the uncanny effect of modern artwork has both positive and negative effects. In Schneemann’s and Piccinini’s work, the viewers are prompted to reevaluate established social norms in addition to the ethical nature of meat consumption and genetic modification; and through the process of phenomenology, such artwork can positively shape the way individuals approach such critical issues, as well as unveil their own hidden depths. However, performance pieces like Coates’ straddles the thin line between “being” and “becoming,” and as evident by animal imitators, such an approach to animal phenomenology can have negative effects on the psyche. In the end though, art, through its visualization of the familiar and the unfamiliar, as well as its engagement with the senses, brings society closer to bridging the chasm between the the animal and human Umwelts, which can have drastic effects on how society treats other issues like race, gender, and sexuality.

Works Cited

“Animals.” ENGL 2303.009. Blackboard. January 26, 2016.

Animal Imitators. Pure Nature Specials, 2014. Youtube.

Bogost, Ian. Alien Phenomenology, Or, What It’s like to Be a Thing. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 2012. Print.

Broglio, Ron. Surface Encounters: Thinking with Animals and Art. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 2011. Print.

Dunne, Anthony, and Fiona Ray. Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming. Massachusetts: MIT, 2014. Print.

Ingram, David. “Seven: North American Ocean Fauna.” ENGL 2303.009. Blackboard. January 28, 2016.

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