Volume 4. No. 1. Summer 2011
ISSN 1752-6388

The Coming Non-Human Community: A Conversation

Ron Broglio and Frederick Young

The coming non-human community

Ron Broglio: Over the years we have both talked about theory and how animal studies might change the inflections of thought. For you, what is the role of theory in relation to animal studies? There are theories of the Other (Lyotard to Levinas) but what makes animal studies a unique area of investigation for theory and perhaps more interestingly, how does animal studies develop new avenues of thought at the horizon of theory?

Frederick Young: Regarding animal studies, I think we have to consider the institutions that we are working in, and an intellectually conservative, or potentially conservative, inscription or domestication of the animal and animal studies itself. Derrida speaks of autoimmunity, in which radical thought is taken in small doses and the ideas, actions, become domesticated, and have the in-capacity for a scholarship that doesn’t extend beyond a small self-referring economy. This might be worth exploring more, especially since both of our art projects deal with the domesticated animal, and attempt to open a moment for the animal to have it's day... I would see this as different than animal rights, which is obviously an important way of caring for the animal!, and like civil rights is a key aspects of humanism that can move us away from barbarism. But the artist experiments with the domestic animal offering a more radical gesture, a co-existence of human and animal. It would have to involve a transformation of old philosophical economies, of hierarchies that bind entrenched and reified metaphysical relations. We need animal geometries, philosophy for golden retrievers, taught by golden retrievers who can teach us how to think,

to open the furtive ruptures in the American suburbs, and whose passive yet dangerous suburbanites who often vote and support the most cynical of America’s foreign and domestic policies. We need more bike lanes, ferret lanes, and the Utopian polis of animalities to-come. I think that working with the animal will produce new concepts that can come back for theory to think, though not as the SAME. I am thinking here on Deleuze at the end of Cinema 2 regarding film.1

RB: You mention a specific rupture of metaphysics and this brings to mind Cary Wolfe's What is Posthumanism which I'm currently working through. While there have been many movements of rights and recognition, Wolfe sees animal studies (along with disabilities studies) as unique in that 'it poses fundamental challenges, as the earlier movements have, to a model of subjectivity and experience drawn from the liberal justice tradition and its central concept of "rights", in which ethical standing and civic inclusion are predicated upon rationality, autonomy, and agency. And that agency, in turn, is taken to be expressive of the intentionality of one who is a member of what Kant called "the community of reasonable beings”—an intentionality that is taken to be more or less transparent to the subject itself'.2 This is, as you note, a challenge to institutions in a liberal democracy which is founded upon Enlightenment ideals of rationality and a clear understanding of what it means to be a citizen and participant in civic discourse. Cats and cattle, rats and roadkill (to name a few animals that show up in this issue of Art & Research) certainly function and even actively participate in culture, but they are not given a seat at the table (so to speak). (They don't yet have ferret lanes as you say.) The 'rights' conversation is within the parameters of 'the community of rational beings'; in other words, 'rights' already concedes and supports the idea that community is founded on humanist ideals. Taking animals and animal studies seriously means undermining the foundations of what constitutes the human community: communication, reason, reciprocity, active agency, etc.

FY: It's hard to picture Ferret Lanes on a Kantian model. We know that the animal traditionally ends up at the table. Or rather ‘on’ the table—but those who eat (here I keep thinking of Heidegger's notion that the animal eats with us, but does not eat!) at the civilized table of humans, with a particular demarcation of techne as tool in the service of cutting, politeness, etc. Here the table is Enlightened and interpellates specific relations of human, animal andtechne. In the US, we just had Thanksgiving. Animals, American Indians were all invited, and we know the perverse history of such a table, which William S Burroughs speaks of in his Thanksgiving Prayer. Perhaps we need to table the metaphor altogether, to turn the tables into an animal-machine, think toward new modes of agency, collectivity, relation, that don't reinscribe back into a Kantian subject. I agree completely that we need to ‘undermine’ the humanist foundations, as you put it, but to what new modes of creativity, of praxis?

RB: Postmodernism has called for new modes and praxis for some time now. In some ways, these modes and practices are already going on around us. Wolfe's essay from which I quoted is on the work of Temple Grandin who uses her autistic 'inability' as a way of seeing and comportment that allows her to understand animals and build animal architecture—spaces more suited to the animal sensibility than the human one. Various artists in this collection of Art & Research are already engaged in the turning the tables, as it were. Or perhaps upending the table all together and having a good stroll through the worlds of animals and humans amid the complexity of nature-culture and the civil-wild continuum. I'm not sure there is an arrival, nor practically speaking an ability to totally overturn the liberal humanist model of society. But there are heterotopic spaces, non-homogeneous non-human spaces and times which we enter into. Derrida in his famous ‘The Animal that therefore I am (more to follow)’ talks about not a single abyss between humans and animals but multiple fractures: 'The multiple and heterogeneous border of this abyssal rupture has a history. Both macroscopic and microscopic and far from being closed, that history is now passing through the most unusual phase in which we find ourselves and for which there is no scale'.3 So too there are heterogeneous border crossings and macro and micro bridges. Indeed, signing a ‘natural contract’ with the animals is not an affair of a single moment in (human) history.4

FY:That is a lovely passage in Derrida that I have thought of a lot. Perhaps these micro and macro crossings are experiments of an artistic nature involving taking chances. I am thinking of your artistic project of giving the animals weapons, and the paintings that I have done ON horses and cows with my colleague, Linus Lancaster.

RB: You and I have both spent time writing theoretical pieces on animals and animal art. I've often pondered how can theorists work with art without appropriating the artwork? That is to say, how can a theorist not turn the work of art into an instance of his/her already formed theories? And how can the artist and the theorist work without appropriating the animal for their own (all too human) ends? That is, how can one not simply use the animal for the 'fame and fortune' of our own livelihoods?

FY:I am having eggs for breakfast, so appropriation is unavoidable at some level. I was struck by something Marcel O'Gorman said when he spoke at UC Merced a few weeks back regarding his own experiments in art. If I remember correctly, there is a certain chance or risk in the art work that cannot predict the outcomes in a way that a theory essay would, at least in terms of a certain control of the pen, etc, though of course, there are endless interpretations. The art piece I am working on: ‘How a Horse Talks to a Zeppelin’ is a Baroque encounter with two crucial aspects of my own work in animality and techne. The first part involves a horse named Dawn that Lancaster and I painted on. I’ll save the zeppelin aspect for another conversation. We literally painted portraits of Nietzsche on one side, and Walter Benjamin on the other.

The horse was wearing RAF goggles, and Nietzsche and Benjamin both had phones and were connected via telephone cables. As a theorist I am interested in art as a mode of expression that might exceed theory or its narrative, or maybe work with its more experimental modes. Many concepts come up that I put into the fray without knowing the outcome: for example, the move from canvas to surface (Deleuze) to what I now call the furface, where the animal fur is at one moment appropriated as we use a horsehair brush, but at the same time, the animal breathes and the painting begins to speak back to us.

The breath of animality, its seems, moves into a conversation with our otherwise static concept. Benjamin and Nietzsche move... the cables, the phone, the slight temporal delays on teletechnics (and Avital Ronell is brilliant with the telephone) that stay mainly within synchronic registers might open to a more radical or diachronic shift as the literal movements of these philosophical spectres driven by a will-to-horse-power, begin to speak to one another. It's a chance and a risk. An invocation... The hauntology of Benjamin and Nietzsche moving through these cables can also impossibly send their thoughts through these lines... A constellation would rupture the synchronic into a diachronic constellation, as radical repetition of difference would meet it. Who knows what will happen? But the animal is a conduit, and Muybridge's spectacular attempt at showing a horse off the ground, and at the same time, the horse drives the show by means of its breath. These are but speculations, since Mr. Ed took our language with him a few years before '68.

RB: Risk seems like a good place to start. To risk means to be vulnerable and also to be hospitable. As Derrida reminds us in Of Hospitality the truly hospitable does not get to pick and choose one's guests. Rather unconditional hospitality would be willing to show generosity to even those who are not invited. If the theorist uses art to theory's own ends, it is not to the determinate of art which shows hospitality; rather, it points to the blindness or limits in (one's) theory. Vulnerability and hospitality are at least one register of animality, as the chicken whose eggs you've eaten bears witness. This horse, Dawn whom you mention seems like a rather patient beast as no doubt was the horses for Muybridge in his films. Their agency introduces new risks for the artist and the theorist. From Paula Rego to Heide Hatry, artists open themselves to the hospitality and vulnerability of animals and in doing so take us all along new directions. 

FY: I think risk and vulnerability are crucial here. In Rivers of Shadows Rebecca Solnit's excellent work on Muybridge, she opens up critical trajectories of Muybridge's own history.I wish I had more time to go into the narration and subtleties of Solnit’s work here. With Muybridge's horse, whose name was Occident, there are many registers at work, and I am not at all sure that the horse is passive here. At least in the sense that it opens up filmic movement, freezes the moment of time, for the human eye by the apparatus of the camera. This also involves or invokes questions of Stanford and Muybridge's bet, the cynical political history of California and the railroad as a specific determination of techne, steel and the quantification of time, etc. Solnit remarks, ‘What factories had done for the worktime—impose standardized, inflexible schedule on workers—the railroads did to the world at large’5. I guess what I am trying to get at here is there are specific historical determinations of techneand animality that transform the world, time, etc., and as Marx reminds us, we have to develop counter-strategies to the ruins and possibilities we are always left with in our own historical moment. Steel has been able to standardize time through a cynical horizontal plane by means of commerce and the railroad, while Eiffel opened up a verticality that mocked the transcendence of time often metaphorically understood in vertical moments. While the railroad steel (steal?) turned the surface into a commodity of temporality. But, back to the point of case of Dawn the horse, to be honest, when Linus and I were painting ‘on’ her, we were both a bit intimidated!

Dawn's trainer was there, and showed us how to approach her, touch her, talk to her, etc. It was an entirely different experience than with Annie-the-Cow that we painted Rothko and Pollock on! A friend of mine who grew up around horses saw some of the pictures of Dawn and said that she was quite relaxed, probably much more than us... I think at the surface or furface there is that moment of risk and vulnerability. Part of painting Nietzsche on one side was the invocation of Turin, and a haunted apologetics. I'm just glad Nietzsche didn't dive into a shark tank.

RB: What is the role of art in animal studies? I see artists as working with material and materiality that is not only enmeshed in our cultural world but also participates in the world of other beings… world(s) not totally known or knowable to us yet connected to us. This working and speaking between worlds and materials provides a unique way of thinking and unique comportment of our (non)human being. 

FY: Ron, I think you can speak better in regards to framing the emergent animal studies as your work more directly addresses specific artists, trends, etc. The question of engaging with other worlds is fascinating. A lot of the language regarding ‘world’ invokes, for me at least, Heidegger. I think that the notion of the subject, etc., would have to come under some transformation and not bring with it the human or world in advance. It really is a matter of relations, and how those relations are practiced, thought, etc.

RB: Ah, Fred, worlds and materials. Lets start with worlds then move to think about artists' materials. As you know, Heidegger says that animals are 'poor in world'. The proposition itself is questionable. He got this concept of world from Jacob von Uexküll. There is a new translation of Uexküll's influential A Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans. It’s a good read. Uexküll suggests that animals live in a bubble, a world, that is different from ours because their senses are different. They taste, feel, smell, see the earth differently and so build a different world. What may be unimportant and indeed unrecognized by us is for some animals highly important and useful. For example, the butyric acid released from mammal sweat may go unnoticed by us, but for the tick in the woods, it is his signal to pounce. What fascinating other worlds there are! And each animal world interacts with the material objects of the earth in different ways. Now enter the artist who works with animals. (By the way, the 'with' here is doing a lot of work as art practices range considerably). These artists are using material objects that have a valence in our cultured world but at the same time because they are material objects, they exist in the non-human worlds as well. The famous example is Joseph Beuys I Like America and America Likes Me (1974) where he is enclosed in a gallery space with a coyote for several days. All the artist's gestures and materials during this performance played to the humans but also to this animal. As a more recent example, Snæbjörnsdóttir / Wilson have a show going on at the Storey Gallery in Lancaster. Their work called Uncertainty in the City (2010) looks at how humans regard various animals as pests. These animals are reacting to material objects, built environments, of our world. They see the city with its vast quantities of food and its shelter as a good place to dwell and don't ask our approval before hand. I've traversed a bit of ground here simply to say that artists mediate between worlds by manipulating or pondering the manipulation of material objects.

FY:I am familiar with Beuys work here and look forward to seeing Snæbjörnsdóttir / Wilson's Uncertainty in the City. It is curious how Heidegger appropriates 'world' and 'hands' it to Dasein almost exclusively. But yes, I think the artist in these instances puts themselves directly in relation to the animal, and perhaps its no longer a mediation, but a different type of encounter. Drawing back to Heidegger's 'mitsein,' Jean-Luc Nancy, in ‘Being Singular Plural’ opens up or radicalizes the notion of relation to ontology. I am thinking in particular when you brought up Heidegger’s notion of the animal as Weltarm, not having access, or rather poor access to ‘world’ and Being. Nancy states in this longer quote, ‘“With” is the sharing of time-space: it is the at-the-same-time-in-the-same-place as itself, in itself, shattered. It is the instant scaling back of the principle of identity: Being is at the same time in the same place only on the condition of the spacing of the indefinite plurality of singularities. Being is with Being; it does not recover itself, but is near to itself, beside itself, in touch with itself, its very self, in the paradox of that proximity where distancing and strangeness are revealed. We are each time an other, each time with others. “With” does not indicate the sharing of a common situation any more than the juxtaposition of the pure exteriorities does (for example, a bench with a tree with a dog with a passer by).’6 I am just thinking out loud here of a way to 'explain' this relation of artist and animal... to think through a shared ‘experience’ in which the circulation of human and animal traverses, or rather the classical or fundamental ontology of Being slips into the shared circulation of the ‘With.’ I really like your use of the word 'traversal' here, and think that might be a good way to describe the relation(s) of art and animal in your examples. I guess I am just weary of terms like mediation or re-mediation as they imply a Hegelian retrieval.

RB: With representational art falling away to our contemporary state of affairs in art, the notion that it is no longer a mediation between humans and animals in these works seem rather appropriate. So, what language to use? Transversals and a pidgin language, for sure, taking the term from linguistics where it describes 'social spaces where disparate cultures [here human and animal] meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in highly asymmetrical relations of domination and subordination' and 'improvised languages that develop among speakers of different native languages who need to communicate with each other consistently'.7 I would like to hear more about this 'mitsein' or being with without the human(ist) being, just the 'with'. This gives us another way of describing this human-animal dynamic.

Does animal studies produce a question of form or style? I'm moved by the work of Alphonso Lingis who writes and thinks between styles that are personal, anecdotal, poetic, and yet always thought through with echoes from phenomenology and an awareness of rippling directions for readers and future thinkers who would take up his lines of flight. Perhaps his Nietzschean sensibilities with their turns and undermining of foundations work well for a human writing against humanism and on the side of animality. 

FY: Yes, I think it is always a question of style and Lingis is a great example. I don't know if animal studies has a particular style per se, but style is also a political question. A young or lesser know scholar or artist will have trouble getting their style across, or published, seen, etc. But back to your main question: for myself that moment is French philosophy where so many amazing experiments were taking place had a real influence for me. Avant-gardes as well. What interests me is the philosophical erudition coming into experiments that allows it to lose itself. I think that animal studies, especially with the actual role of the animal, and artists, can invent new forms of expression! The animal has been haunting philosophy for years, knocking at the door. In this regard, it's time to let it out. And with the emergent teletechnics, I think the role of technology in vital here: both as tool, and as a philosophical wildcard getting its own unique position in regards to philosophy's assumptions about it. (I think thinking here of Bernard Stiegler.) 

RB: Techne or technology fits with the earlier question of material objects that have a place in the human and the non-human worlds. So much of technology used to benefit us humans has averse effects on the non-humans and their worlds. But technology is also an opportunity to take us and the other animals in new directions. Artists work with a variety of technologies—from brush to video and beyond. How they use these technologies gives us a different way of thinking about technology and how it relates to the human and non-human community. Underlying any technology is an unspoken ideology of how it is to be used and fitted to our present world. Artists can bend uses and suggest new and different directions. They work from different spoken or unspoken ideologies which challenge foundational cultural thinking. So, technologies provide opportunities to explore style. In another way, this very dialogue we are having is a style of thought. It suggests a hospitality, a willingness to give oneself over to the ideas of another and to play host to these ideas. Throughout this special issue of Art and Research there are several dialogues and interviews. I've found these conversations to be very important because they bring together different perspectives and reveal the dynamic and complexity of hospitality. They show the risk of putting one’s ideas forth for another and the vulnerability of thinking alongside another. As I've suggested earlier, risk, vulnerability, and hospitality are lessons we can glean from animals. These concepts—indeed not just concepts but ways of being in the world—offer new styles of thought which confront our all-too-human preference for reason and mastery. 

FY: I agree that the style of a dialogue or conversation opens up a bit of risk, vulnerability and hospitality. Unlike the Platonic dialogues, there are at least two different voices here not always on the same page but opening up hospitality, working things out in a more 'live' 'fashion', a chance to explore ideas and improvise before teasing out and developing particular lines or threads in an academic essay. The new technologies provide the artist with new modes of experimentation. Walter Benjamin's notion that the philosopher needs to think in montage, and his own experiments really open up style as an epistemological intervention, which connects modes of expression to a politics of art.

RB: Yes, please do develop this. Describe a bit more montage, mosaic, and/or constellation—all Benjamin terms for his experimental mode of thought. And how might these be useful for artists and theorists working alongside the animals?

FY: I have been fascinated with Benjamin’s willingness to experiment along many lines, which we are already quite aware of.What strikes me are a few critical things in the brief time we have here: in our Angelaki issue, I will expand on this further.First off, Benjamin’s understanding of technology, and his own experiments, such as The Arcades Project, One Way Street, etc., are an important philosophical encounter with philosophy, and technology and philosophy enter into a new relationship. Montage was the experimental form of Benjamin’s time, and the influence of Dada and Surrealism, all added to his willingness to push philosophy further, to engage thought in its historical, technological and material encounters.Without getting too far astray, Benjamin’s work was always inherently political and working within a Marxist trajectory (and the correspondence with him and Adorno is telling.)What I find particularly fascinating with Benjamin in the ‘Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproducibility’ is how he describes in direct language that what will follow has no value for Fascism. We can’t forget the stakes of his of plight, while Heidegger wrote in comfort at that time. The famous counter to the Fascist notion of an ‘Aestheticization of Politics’ where ritual and art are moving into the public sphere, the polis, was his notion of a ‘politics of art.’Part of the conversation we are working through here, Ron, is whether the theorist is taking over or appropriating art. I remember Nietzsche once remarked beware of the artist-philosopher, look for the philosopher-artist. It seems to me, that a ‘politics of art’ would not be an ontic object of art per se (we’ve seen bad Stalinist art), but would have to involve emergent inhuman subjectivities, new couplings, assemblages, a polis shared whose radical materiality would not dialectically fight fascism in its historical or modern forms, but would render that subjectivity, and other humanist subjectivities, as impossible.To the animals.

1 Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time Image (University of Minnesota Press, 1989).

2 Cary Wolfe, What is Posthumanism? (University of Minnesota Press, 2009), pp. 127.

3 Jacques Derrida, ‘The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow)’, Critical Inquiry 28:2, 2002, pp. 369–418. Quotation on p. 399.

4 Michel Serres, ‘The Natural Contract’ in The Natural Contract, Michel Serres (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995), pp. 27-50.

5 Rebecca Solnit, River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West (Penguin Books, 2004), pp 61.

6 Jean-Luc Nancy, “Being Singular Plural”, Being Singular Plural (Stanford University Press, 2000), pp. 35.

7 Mary-Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes, (New York: Routledge, 1992), pp. 4, 6.