Fourth Thought: In Place of the Animal


(This is a re-written and expanded version of an earlier post.)

(4a) One of the duties we have assigned the Zombie is to take the place of the animal, specifically the ‘wild’ animal. In my discussion of the ‘guttural’ Zombie I relied on Agamben’s concept of the “animal voice.” My goal was to get at an idea of death as the undoing of the Voice (of conscience, of identity, of mortality) that had emerged by way of a negation of the (mere) animal voice—and so: death as the collapse back into the (merely) animal voice that cannot speak about its speaking; death as the death of Voice only, not of the organism that may remain animate, ‘alive,’ even though it is dead and retains its (lowercase) voice. But in doing this thinking I, firstly, came perilously close to calling the Zombie an animal (it may turn out to be one) and, secondly, relied on a concept of ‘the animal’ that has remained shockingly, distressingly untroubled for far too long. Indeed, it is a prescriptive understanding of ‘the animal’ always defined in terms of its lack of specifically human attributes or capacities, principally speech—a view of the animal as a (kind of) Zombie, in fact—that I need to confront. At the same time, a comparison of ‘the Zombie’ with ‘the animal’ it may resemble—and not only in terms of its lack—may help clarify the symbolic work that the Zombie is engaged to perform with respect to the originary and constitutive opposition through which the human names itself and proclaims its primacy: namely, its essential otherness with respect to the animal world and wild ‘nature’.

Two Kinds of Animals

(4b) The ferocity with which the human world has imposed an unassailable wall between itself and the ‘animal world’ is in direct proportion to the degree of our similarity with animals as living entities. For millennia, we have relied on a view of the animal whose primary function is to protect us from our own awareness of this proximity. Otherwise, how could we bring ourselves to eat our brethren, with butter even? How could we wear their skins, corral, domesticate, and press into service their bodies, if not by way of a premeditated and strategic narrative of ‘the human’ defined in contradistinction to ‘the animal’ and upon which all rights to and authority over the non-human world are derived? We tell ourselves that we eat them because they are animals; but, really, they are ‘animals’ because we eat them.

Yet even the vegan will find him or herself granting special status to the human, if only by making an argument against meat on ethical grounds. “Meat is murder.” She will not, cannot, hold the lion to the same ethical standard because the lion operates by instinct whereas the human being has a choice. (Of course, particular individuals and communities have not always had the luxury of choice when it comes to their diet, and in any case chicken nuggets are still cheaper than kale in most grocery stores.) In principle, at least, the matter of meat-eating, for humans, is a question of ‘should’ not ‘could’: and in the possibility of that distinction resides the very possibility of the human as such. Thus ethics, when perceived as the sole property of the human realm, likewise serves to maintain an essential difference between the human and the animal. It is no less part of the wall separating us from the animal world than my taste for foie gras.

Some serious cracks are beginning to appear in this wall. Indeed, we are in the midst of a radical transformation of the very category of the animal and of our relationship to the natural world, its objects and inhabitants. Advances in our understanding of animal biology and behavior have expanded and complicated our view of non-human life-forms, making simple or one-sided generalizations about ‘the animal’ harder to maintain; the environmental and climate change movements have succeeded in demonstrating the interdependence of human and non-human ecologies—the importance of protecting our planet’s biodiversity is generally acknowledged; recent decades have shown signs of a wider acknowledgement of Indigenous knowledges which often assume a less bifurcated and more holistic approach to human-animal relations; a broad range of academic discourses are now beginning to think the world out from the corporeal body and its material connections rather than down from the mental constructs inherited from the Western cultural tradition. For example, in her defense of a poetics of the body that would downplay the rational and symbolic discourse of the dominant (male) tradition of writing—a so-called semiotic “écriture féminine“—Canadian poet Daphne Marlatt writes of the first-order corporeal experiences that inform her poetry: her language must speak to “the mutuality her body shares embracing other bodies, children, friends, animals, all those she customarily holds and is held by” (Musing with Mothertongue 55). As a Canadianist, I know this passage well. I have always felt that the inclusion of animals in this list is its most interesting element. The implication is clear: a poetry ‘of the body’ would inevitably dissolve much of the barrier separating ‘the human’ from ‘the animal.’ It would do so by recognizing the “mutuality” of embracing bodies; bodies that can give and take comfort from contact with other bodies. (This is one of the reasons we keep animals as pets: when my wife is out on call, the dog takes her place on the couch, and we are just as cosy, though admittedly the conversation suffers.)

In the vanguard of those forces reshaping our society’s view of ‘the animal’ is the animal rights movement. A crucial touchstone in the discourse of animal rights is Jeremy Bentham’s argument against animal cruelty on the basis of animals’ ability to experience pain and suffering. The power of Bentham’s approach lies precisely in its avoidance of those factors with had historically served to construct differences in kind between animals and humans: language, will, ethics, self-consciousness. Rather, by focusing on the sensory capacities of animals Bentham draws attention to the mutuality of humans and animals as living organisms. Bentham writes: “The question is not Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?” In Defending Animal Rights, Tom Regan cites Bentham and glosses his argument as follows:

The possession of sentience (the capacity to feel pleasure or pain), not the possession of rationality, autonomy, or linguistic competence, entitles any individual to direct moral consideration; because nonhuman animals have this capacity Bentham and [John Stuart] Mill affirm our direct duty not to cause them needless suffering. We owe it to these animals themselves, not those humans who might be affected by what we do, to consider their pleasures and pains and, having done so, to make sure that we never make them suffer without good reason. (14)

Hidden in Bentham’s question is an implicit comparison between animal experience and our own: can they suffer like us? It is because we can relate to the animal’s experience of pain, of discomfort—because our own experience of these things seems transferable to any sensitive organism with a face—that we can begin to entertain Regan’s insistence that “we owe” some consideration to the animal Other. And the more we consider the animal as worthy of that consideration and the more we begin to recognize the commonalities between animal experience and our own, the less Other ‘the animal’ becomes.

In fact, we might speak of the contemporary emergence of a new category, the category of the animal as non-Other, the Postmodern Animal. The postmodern animal is no longer ‘wild’ even if it is undomesticated. A quasi-subject, it is affiliated with the human world of affect and experience in ways that challenge our traditional hierarchies and compartmentalizations. It is deserving of rights, worthy of respect and most especially pity when it is endangered or threatened. It is this postmodern view of the animal that underlies the outrage directed at Walter Palmer for shooting Cecil the lion in Hwange National Park or at Cincinatti Zoo officials for shooting Harambe the gorilla. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that little, if any, protest would have attended these events 30 or 40 years ago. Nothing better exemplifies the clash of opposed understandings of ‘the animal’ better than Palmer’s dazed incomprehension regarding the public outcry, or the manner in which his hunt was constructed as an act of assassination in the popular media. The general tendency is clear: we are entering a new world in which every animal we call animal will have a name. What we gain from this, potentially, is a less antagonistic and exploitive attitude towards certain creatures; what we lose is a sense of ‘the animal’ as unassimilated Other—one of the primary constructs in relation to which ‘the human’ historically had constituted itself.

But there is another version of ‘the animal,’ one no less a product of postmodern life than Cecil or Harambe—or Pizza Rat, for that matter. On the one hand, we may speak of the highly individuated animal—the animal luminary or social media star, the animal produced by human discursive networks. On the other hand, we may speak of the animal produced not by our speech acts, but by capital, the animal brought to life by genetic science and industrial farming. In The Animal that Therefore I Am, Jacques Derrida writes:

It is all too evident that in the course of the last two centuries … traditional forms of treatment of the animal have been turned upside down by the joint developments of zoological, ethological, biological, and genetic forms of knowledge, which remain inseparable from techniques of intervention into their objects, from the transformation of the actual object, and from the milieu and world of their object, namely, the living animal. This has occurred by means of farming and regimentalization at a demographic level unknown in the past, by means of genetic experimentation, the industrialization of what can be called the production for consumption of animal meat, artificial insemination on a massive scale, more and more audacious manipulations of the genome, the reduction of the animal to production and overactive reproduction (hormones, genetic crossbreeding, cloning, etc.) of meat for consumption, but also of all sorts of other end products, and all that in the service of a certain being and the putative human well-being of man. (25)

In effect, Derrida suggests that the hyperbolic manipulation of living tissues, the scope and intensity with which humans have intervened in the natural evolution of animal biology, coupled with the now unimaginable scale of livestock production have contributed to a transformation of ‘the animal’ in kind. Whatever the relationship between ‘the human’ and ‘the animal’ implied in traditional forms of domestication and husbandry, it has been replaced with something else. This ‘something else’ is hard to define, and is still very much evolving. But we can question whether the animal produced in this context has any of the autonomy or sovereignty of a distinct life form, any of the Otherness we might accord a another living thing. In fact, it is unclear whether our usual language for talking about animal life still retains its usefulness when the object of our speaking is so imbricated in this multitude of human systems.

To summarize: what I think we see happening with respect to the concept of the animal is this: on the one hand, an explosion in the quantity of animals brought into this world for human consumption, coupled with the qualitative (though no less material) transformation of their nature for the same purpose, has produced a set of organisms that the term ‘animal’ fails to signify (insofar as these animals are no longer ‘part of nature’). These creatures are hardly representable at all, which is precisely the point, as they continue to proliferate and change in that discursive silence. Whatever they are, and whatever names we might choose to talk about them, the category to which they belong does not present itself as something against which, or in relation to, ‘the human’ might define itself. On the other hand, and in contrast to the diffusion of the farm animal into undifferentiated meat particles, we get the highly individuated celebrity animal, the animal with a name, the animal that we continue to call ‘animal.’ This animal is unique, valuable, embattled, familiar, and necessary to maintaining our general feelings of guilt with respect to our destruction of the planet: in short, the animal as a symbol of ‘the animal.’

Running Out of Things to Kill

(4c) My theory is that the ubiquity of the Zombie narrative today relates in part to the unavailability of ‘the wild animal’ as the Other in a dialectical process of socio-cultural self-definition. Whereas we once exploited an imaginary concept of real creatures (‘the animal’) in order to define the boundaries of the human and to supply, by way of contrast, a set of attributes, values, goals, even burdens that constitute the human condition, we now employ a real concept of imaginary creatures (‘the Zombie’) to accomplish the same goal. The primary factors urging this substitution can be deduced from the preceding discussion. In a nutshell: we’re running out of things to kill. This is both literally true—the depletion of our forests, seas, and skies of animal life is a measurable fact—and true insofar as the structural category of ‘the animal’ as Other appears to be eroding along two distinct but related fault lines. Primarily, it is the reconfiguration of the animal as a sympathetic victim of human history—a history it stands within, not outside of, as was the case in other eras—that has compelled the search for a substitute, but the disappearance of anything resembling ‘the animal’ on our farms and in our grocery carts plays a significant role as well. It is interesting to note that even as Zombie narratives work to insinuate its subject in the place of the wild animal in explorations of the meaning and direction of human life, it also works to conserve and shore up traditional ideas about domesticated animals, in particular farm animals of the ‘E I E I O’ variety.

One of the hallmarks of living in the Anthropocene is that we are no longer afraid, existentially speaking, of animals. (We may be afraid of what is becoming of animals, but that is another matter entirely.) Animals now occupy the position of victim, not threat. Rushing in, symbolically, to fill the void left by the animal which we no longer quite feel we can kill, exploit, consume, or ignore with impunity and without guilt is the Zombie who/which takes on some of the functions hitherto assigned ‘the animal.’ The Zombie offers itself up as an acceptable antagonist in necessary (or at least persistent) narrative structures that would normally have featured animal or, by way of a connected logic, Indigenous aggressors.

It is surely no accident that the cause of the ‘rage virus’ that turns people into Zombies in 28 Days Later is the release, by animal rights activists, of apes and monkeys that had been subjected to medical experiments. The film thus begins by confirming the emergent view of animals as innocent victims of human overreaching: animals who have been robbed of their natural rights and right to be natural. Refusing a view of the animal as object, insisting on its subjectivity, militating on behalf of its right to a life free from pain and exploitation, the activists empty the cages of infected animals and in the process become infected themselves. Thus begins the birth of a new kind of human being genetically engineered, as it were, to take the place of the savage, threatening, wild animal. Until the end of the film, when animals suddenly reappear in the context of a traditional farm setting, no animals are shown. In their stead: the Zombie who manifests all of the negative characteristics ever attributed to the untamed beast of yore: it is mindless, languageless, instinctual, rapacious, bloodthirsty, unassimilable. The animals might be saved, but so, too, must the idea of wildness, of ‘pure’ nature be preserved, even if this requires the invention of a figure to enact it in the place of the animals who no longer signify in this way.

The Zombie represents a cultural adjustment to the loss of the animal as Other. The archetypal structure of 28 Days Later suggests that we continue to need something ‘on the other side of’ the human against which to define ourselves, and that the best way to test the border between human and not is by killing whatever’s on the other side of it. It is the Zombie’s job to be killed, a job once performed by animals and natives, which the category of ‘the animal’ was obligingly extended to include. As with animals, we no longer feel it appropriate to delight in the mass murder of primitives (which we attempted to render extinct with as much zeal as we showed the buffalo.)


Fellow Travellers: Giorgio Agamben, Jeremy Bentham, Jacques Derrida, Daphne Marlatt, Harambe the gorilla, Cecil the lion, Pizza Rat.

Stops along the way: 28 Days Later, The Walking Dead