PDF version of this review [page 50]

Review of The Animals Reader

Tom Tyler

Oxford Brookes University, UK

first published in
Frieze 108 (June July August 2007), p. 50.

Linda Kalof and Amy Fitzgerald, eds, The Animals Reader: The Essential Classic and Contemporary Writings (Oxford: Berg, 2007)

The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss once suggested that ‘animals are good to think’, and as the editors of this timely collection argue, there has indeed been a great deal of significant thinking about animals in recent years. The burgeoning field of animal studies has sought to address what Linda Kalof and Amy Fitzgerald call ‘the animal question’: how shall we ‘rethink, rebuild and recast our relationships with other animals’ in the light of this explosion of new research. Faced with such a range of potential material, Kalof and Fitzgerald present 35 carefully chosen texts, drawn both from contemporary studies and from the long history of thinking about animals. Selected on the basis of influence, intrigue and interdisciplinarity, The Animals Reader brings together a collection of important writings that will pique the interest of the most varied audience.

Among the many influential texts collected here the editors include extracts from René Descartes’ letters, in which the French philosopher infamously denied both speech and thought to animals, Lévi-Strauss’ much-cited critique of animal totemism, and articles by the philosophers Peter Singer and Tom Regan, whose work kick-started the animal rights movement in the 1970s. Also included is John Berger’s romantic but enduring essay ‘Why Look at Animals?’ (1980), in which he traces the process by which, throughout the modern period, animals have been increasingly marginalised. The central place they once occupied in all human life, returning the human gaze and thereby reaffirming humanity’s natural origins, has long since been displaced. Berger argues that animals today are observed but are never observers, scrutinised in zoos and nature documentaries or co-opted as pets into the private family unit. Like the preposterously clad creatures of J. J. Grandville’s illustration The Animals are Entering the Steam Ark (1842) the animals are filing slowly away, fading from view.

Especially intriguing entries include Pliny the Elder’s description of spontaneous popular protest against elephant slaughter in ancient Rome, Steve Baker’s discussion of the use of animals - living and dead - within contemporary art practice and Carol J. Adams’ careful analyses of the sexual and gender politics of meat-eating. Jonathan Burt’s essay seeks to restore the animals who have largely been effaced within historical accounts of the development of technologies of visual culture and representation. In his discussion of the early decades of moving film, for instance, Burt shows how the considerable potential for representing animals was quickly grasped but presented technical challenges that the medium and its early pioneers were forced to meet. At the same time, as the British Board of Film Classification’s early rulings show, tensions inevitably arose between questions of entertainment and humanitarian education, though too late for Topsy, the subject of Thomas Edison’s infamous short film Electrocuting an Elephant (1903).

In addition to readings drawn from across the humanities and sciences - from history, archaeology, biology, genetics, feminism, gender studies, philosophy, ethology, literary and cultural studies, sociology and anthropology - a substantial number of the texts bring into question the very disciplinary boundaries that have, to date, served to prevent the study of animals as a distinct and coherent subject area. Susan Whatmore’s ‘hybrid geographies’ move far beyond conventional approaches to nature, space and society, seeking to account for varieties of non-human agency, while Donna Haraway considers the co-constitutive relationships that persist between human and companion species. Especially instructive is an essay by an international team of primatologists, which details variations in material culture between distinct groups of wild orangutan, from leaves used as gloves to autoerotic tools. This combination of approaches makes possible the sustained, collective enquiry into the animal question that has so occupied recent thought and which this anthology represents so effectively.

Tom Tyler is a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy and Culture at Oxford Brookes University. More essays are available at his Research page.