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Otherness: Essays & Studies 5.2

Edited by Sune Borkfelt


Introduction: Thinking through Animal Alterities

by Sune Borkfelt


‘“No! You silly savage!” said Josephine. “No, you wild beast. … I might as well have a baboon, or a bear. You are Tarzan of the Apes; … I can assure you that if mankind thinks of you, it thinks you are the missing link. You ought to be shut up and exhibited here in the Zoo … with the gorilla on one side and the chimpanzee on the other. Science would gain a lot”’.

Such are the words with which John Cromartie, the protagonist of David Garnett’s short novel A Man in the Zoo (1924, 6-7), is answered when he asks his beloved Josephine to marry him. As the two have been strolling from cage to cage through the London Zoo, she has found his reasoning about both interhuman and human-nonhuman relations increasingly difficult to understand, creating a distance between them until she finally explodes in a cascade of slurs suggesting he is unfit for human society and should be locked up like the animals in the zoo.

It is no coincidence that in emphasizing the distance she perceives between John and herself, Josephine turns to ideas of beastliness. As she calls John a ‘wild beast’ and opposes him to ‘mankind’, she draws on a long tradition of phrasing Otherness along a binary where the ‘animal’ stands in opposition to the supposedly ‘human’, and suggests that – like savages or the very animals in the zoo have been subdued, exhibited, studied – so should John, since his behaviour and thinking mark him as an outsider to the common British social norms she lives by. And yet, even her insults reveal a certain ambiguity; for as John is painted as an Other in animal terms, he is also conceptualized as, perhaps uncomfortably, close to the self. As much as the animal insults are derogatory, the descriptions of him as a ‘missing link’ and as ‘Tarzan of the Apes’ also imply the closeness of nonhuman animals to human ones, indicating how humans have often tended to view those of their characteristics deemed least desirable as betraying our own animality. In our attempts to know the ‘animal’, therefore, also lies an attempt to know ourselves – both because the nonhuman animal is the Other that can mirror the human self and because, paradoxically, it is also a part of that self.

The quest to know the animal other is, however, neither easy nor ethically straightforward, given that the ways in which we may go about this are rooted in a firmly human epistemology; our ideas of what it means to ‘know’ anything, animal or otherwise, will necessarily be human, and any assumption that human forms of knowledge are the only forms would seem to be an anthropocentric notion. This may well lead to the conclusion that any attempt to know the ‘nonhuman animal other’ will necessarily have an element of colonization to it from the onset.

In addition to this comes the, perhaps even more basic, phenomenological (and behind this ontological) question of what it is actually like to be the nonhuman animal, so famously asked by Thomas Nagel (1974). As he writes of his chosen nonhuman subject, ‘Even without the benefit of philosophical reflection, anyone who has spent some time in an enclosed space with an excited bat knows what it is to encounter a fundamentally alien form of life’ (ibid., 438), and even where the animal in question occurs to us as perhaps somehow less alien, truly knowing what it is like to be that other animal is not possible – at least if one follows Nagel’s thinking on the subject. Thus, there would seem to be both phenomenological and epistemological divides between human and nonhuman animals, which represent not just theoretical, but also practical and ethical, obstacles in nonhuman-human relations. Social theorist Zygmunt Bauman contends ‘that what we call “the others” we live with … is what we know of them’ (1993, 146), and to act ethically towards the more anonymous others in our lives, our ethics therefore need to extend beyond our knowledge, and beyond the proximity that determines this knowledge. There is, in other words, a risk that basing our ethics purely on what we (think we) know of the ‘nonhuman animal other’ may lead us to an unjust evaluation of the relevance of animal ethics.

Emmanuel Levinas amply illustrates this when he essentially excludes animals from his ethical consideration of the Other by claiming that ‘The being of animals is a struggle for life. A struggle of life without ethics. It is a question of might’ (2004, 50). As others have argued, the contention that ethics and morality are exclusively human is fallacious (e.g. De Waal 1996; Bekoff and Pierce 2009), but this is not necessarily the point. Rather, by his refusal to go beyond his basic conception of what animal life is, that is, to give nonhuman animals the benefit of the doubt or allow for the animal experience that lies outside his knowledge, Levinas upholds and justifies an all too common line of thinking about nonhuman animals, which situates them beyond the kinds of consideration afforded to human others; the nonhuman animal becomes othered even from our thinking on otherness. It is no wonder, then, that scholars concerned with the question of the animal have argued that animals are the ‘ultimate other’ and are ‘placed in a constant, almost irredeemable state of alterity’ (Wolch and Emel 1995, 632; Elder, Wolch and Emel 1998, 74; Borkfelt 2011, 137). It follows that given this deeper alterity in which we place nonhuman animals, the animal question as such, and the increase in concern over the marginalization of the nonhuman (both inside and outside of academia), therefore strike at the heart of concerns about the concept of otherness and its influence on ethics.

Despite the epistemological and phenomenological issues involved, it may well be that there is an ethical imperative to apply our imaginations – albeit perhaps carefully – to thinking about the animal other. Indeed, even Nagel, for whom knowing what it is like to be a bat turns out to be ultimately impossible, implies that we should still try and states clearly the importance of not dismissing or denying animal experience:

‘The fact that we cannot expect to ever accommodate in our language a detailed description of … bat phenomenology should not lead us to dismiss as meaningless the claim that bats … have experiences fully comparable in richness of detail to our own […] And to deny the reality or logical significance of what we can never describe or understand is the crudest form of cognitive dissonance’ (1974, 440-41).

As such, the mere attempt to contemplate (or to represent) nonhuman animal subjectivity has ethical relevance in and of itself. It is in this contemplation of the subjective experience of the animal that Jacques Derrida, too, finds relevance. Although, or perhaps rather because, the animal is an ‘absolute other’, he writes, ‘nothing will have ever given me more food for thinking through this absolute alterity of the neighbour or of the next(-door)’ than finding he is being watched, naked, by a cat (2008, 11). Thus, considering the world of the animal as absolutely other allows contemplation of alterity itself and of human Others as well.

Their convergences on issues of ethics, ontology, phenomenology and epistemology are not, however, the only things that otherness studies and animal studies have in common. As reflected by the diversity of the contributions to this issue, the two fields also share an interdisciplinarity that allows for a multitude of different perspectives on their subjects without compromising the fields as such.

Since much thinking about the otherness of nonhuman animals revolves around ideas of their likeness or difference in relation to humans, discussions on the issue often have at their centre the question of whether the nonhuman animal is – whatever likenesses may be – fundamentally different in ethically and existentially important ways, or is – whatever their differences – fundamentally alike in the ways that should matter most in questions of ethics, ontology and epistemology. In ‘From Over the Horizon’, Richie Nimmo challenges this essentially dualist way of thinking about the significance of proximity and alterity, and proposes that an appreciation of distance between human and nonhuman does not necessarily connote a lack of appreciation for the nonhuman animal. Since, in the modern scientific tradition, anthropomorphism has often been considered little more than self-indulgent sentimentalism, and thus anathema to ‘proper’ knowledge, scholars across animal studies – from philosophy to cognitive ethology – have made an effort to reconceptualise and defend some forms of anthropomorphism, arguing for instance that it is the normal response to other animals and is essentially similar to the way in which we understand our fellow humans by focusing on assumed ontological similarities. Yet, Nimmo argues, the anthropomorphic focus on similarity and proximity can mean ‘eradicating distance and alterity’ and losing perspective of how otherness should be acknowledged rather than colonised for truly ethical relations to emerge. Nimmo proposes instead an ‘intimacy at a distance’ or ‘liminal intimacy’ in which ‘animals are both like and unlike, present yet always partially absent, familiar yet unknowable, near to us yet far away’ and exemplifies this concept through specific instances of human-animal relations.

With the rise of animal studies, critical animal scholars have found themselves needing to consider the pedagogy of teaching on human-animal relations. While those of us teaching on nonhuman animals in various contexts can sometimes draw on important work done in teaching on issues concerning marginalized or suppressed humans, teaching from the point of view of critical animal studies can also present its own challenges. For instance, whereas often in academia one may find that a majority of students state humanist concerns with marginalizations or binaries based on, for example, ethnicity or gender, questioning the human/animal binary or inviting a discussion of nonhumans as victims of discrimination will sometimes be met with greater confusion, if not actual resistance. Detailing an example from his own university teaching experience in Japan, Dylan Hallingstad O’Brien’s ‘Other(ed) Rabbits’ explores critical pedagogical issues in animal studies teaching. Focusing on a unit of a media course where students watched and discussed the 1978 animated film version of Watership Down, O’Brien discusses the possibilities and outcomes in using otherness as a frame for teaching human-animal relations and getting students to reflect critically on representations of nonhuman animals. Finding that students engaged richly and critically with human-animal relations within this frame, O’Brien’s work suggests a clear potential in joining animal studies and otherness studies in university teaching. In addition, student responses posit important questions for future research, concerning for example correlations between gender and responses to the consumption of nonhuman animals, and suggest a possible need to re-evaluate previous theoretical ideas about responses to the visibility of practices related to uses of nonhuman animals, and the knowledge structures tied to such visibility and response.

Knowledge structures are also at the heart of Audrey Appudurai’s article on ‘The Lungfishes from a Historical Perspective’, if in entirely different ways. Using different cultural and historical configurations of knowledge about lungfishes, Appudurai demonstrates not only how the stories we tell about animals affect our ideas of their lives, but also how animals whose natures defy the stories we want to be true can become further othered through their failure to fit within existing categories of knowledge. As their name implies, lungfishes are such animals that initially defied neatly separated categories of fish and land animals. Tracing their history through indigenous knowledges, cryptozoological ideas relating the animal to the monstrous, Western scientific classifications and modern conceptions of lungfishes within categories of the exotic and popular, Appudurai ultimately connects the cultural history of the animal to her own research into the visual abilities and umwelt of these particular animals, unearthing how this, too, is unavoidably informed by preconceived ideas and cultural history.

As lungfishes and other nonhuman animals have sometimes been relegated to the category of the monstrous, so have humans, and often through reference to nonhuman animals and animality. A story about this particular kind of othering through animalization is what emerges from Dana Rehn’s article ‘Going to the Dogs’. Centred on an analysis of German Renaissance prints depicting dog-headed races, or cynocephali, Rehn traces how such depictions of the monstrous served to other and demonize the foreign and non-Christian in opposition to the civilized, the European and the Christian. Used for instance in depictions of Muslim Ottoman Turks, Mongols, or New World ‘savages’, the image of cynocephali could be used to suggest ties to biblical demons and monsters of the apocalypse, to cannibalism, or to sinful behaviours such as bestiality, while also conversely used to further ideas of conversion and absolution from such sins. By tracing these artistic developments as tied to the religious and ideological ideas of their time, Rehn’s article demonstrates and exemplifies how ideas of little understood human outsiders’ otherness connect historically and conceptually with the monstrous through ideas of the imagined ‘animal other’.

In a more contemporary American setting, dogs and the monstrous are still connected and hold symbolic significance tied to otherness, although in new and different ways. In their article ‘American Bully’, Rachel Levine and Justyna Poray-Wybranowska analyse connections between ‘pit bull’ type dogs and American identity constructions. Once symbolic of American strength and bravery, the pit bull was gradually vilified as it was tied to racialized images of crime and the War on Drugs, and became the stereotypical image of aggression in dogs, before once again being reconfigured through the images used by today’s breeders and owners. Focusing on the online marketing of a new pit bull ‘breed’ labelled the ‘American Bully’, Levine and Poray-Wybranowska analyse the ways in which celebration of the dogs’ ‘extreme’ physique and muscularity are coupled with new, more benign images of the dog, as it is used in reshaping the connotations formerly attached to both the dogs and their owners. As inhabitants of animal bodies ‘intentionally constructed to resonate with public fears’, American Bully dogs fashioned as friendly and relaxed come to paradoxically serve to advance the reconfiguration of otherness in a claim to social normativity for human groups formerly and presently disregarded as deviant.

Whereas the stories considered in the articles by Appudurai, Rehn, and Levine and Poray-Wybranowska, are presented as knowledge and truth, and thus demonstrate the ways in which configurations and reconfigurations of otherness shape our realities, the stories analysed in the final three articles of this issue present themselves as fiction, yet reveal an indubitable relevance to lives lived. It is a persistent idea, in animal studies as well as other disciplines, that the poetic imagination may give us ways of knowing the ‘wholly other’, or the ‘fundamentally alien’, in the words of Derrida (2008, 11) and Nagel (1974, 438), respectively. Indeed, while he finds it to lack engagement with the philosophical and theoretical explorations that should follow, Derrida (2008, 7) turns to a poetic way of thinking to make up for the lack of consideration of animal subjectivity he finds in philosophy at large and, albeit in a footnote, Nagel may have thought along similar lines when he conceded that ‘It may be easier than I suppose to transcend inter-species barriers with the aid of the imagination’ (1974, 442n). Moreover, pitting herself against Nagel’s overall conclusions in what has become one of the most widely read texts for literary animal studies, J.M. Coetzee’s protagonist Elizabeth Costello takes her faith in the ethical potential of literature much further, when she argues that ‘there is no limit to the extent to which we can think ourselves into the being of another. There are no bounds to the sympathetic imagination’ (1999, 35). For Costello, while our imaginations may indeed bring us closer to the nonhuman phenomenological experience that Nagel ponders, the basic nature of (shared) being – rather than the actual emotional or physical experience of that being – is all that is required for the kind of imagination into nonhuman life that is of ethical relevance, and we find such imagination in literature. As she posits with reference to her own fiction about James Joyce’s character Marion Bloom: ‘If I can think my way into the existence of a being who has never existed, then I can think myself into the existence of a bat or a chimpanzee or an oyster, any being with whom I share the substrate of life’ (ibid.). Imagination has the power to transcend boundaries, including those between species, and this carries ethical possibilities and relevance.

The approaches to transcending boundaries can vary greatly, however, as can the ethical outcomes. The physical and conceptual boundaries transcended when a professor in Mikhail Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog (1925) turns a dog into a man through experimentation are at the centre of Andrea McDowell’s article ‘“I ona byla chelovekom” (For the Dog was Once a Human Being)’. Whereas other scholars have previously largely dismissed the importance of the animal presence in the story, McDowell focuses on the narrative shifts and use of free indirect discourse in the novella to highlight the importance of its animal voice, and ties this to the historical and literary contexts from which the story arose. Read in this way, a moral obligation is discerned from the story, making it a reminder to protect those more vulnerable than oneself, whether human or nonhuman.

Colin McAdam’s novel A Beautiful Truth (2013) is a work that also explores ethical issues as well as the question of imagining oneself into the being of another through an emphasis on shared ontology, in this case the ‘apehood’ that we share with the novel’s chimpanzee protagonist. In her article ‘Crossing the Threshold’, Laura Jean McKay explores the novel’s depiction of animal otherness while drawing on and expanding theoretical work on territorialisation by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, and sets up an analytical and conceptual framework that allows for discussions of novels that challenge human/animal binaries through an interplay between notions of territory and agency. As McKay also points out, fiction about nonhuman-human relations often depicts territories that allow for different kinds of interaction between species than does reality, and thus explores notions of nonhuman otherness through such territorial imaginings. Where human and nonhuman territories overlap, it is the unfathomable otherness of the nonhuman that means the territory of other species is misunderstood (if an effort to bridge the gap is made at all), and the nonhuman often ends up the victim of encounters. This is also the case in McAdam’s novel, whose main character is moved between territories shared by humans, giving readers ideas of how chimpanzee territorialisation may work, as seen through the eyes of the simian other.

In the final essay of this issue, ‘Divine Wings’, Susan Pyke’s ecocritical readings of poetry by Emily Brontë along with Alexis Wright’s novel The Swan Book, connect the themes of territory and nonhuman otherness to current ecological crisis and climate change. Here, human failure to escape anthropocentric perspectives and embrace a more posthuman understanding of our place in the world leads to the fragile state of that world. Yet the imaginary avian (and near-angelic) territories of literature offer different paths, which allow for recognition of the vulnerability of all through the fragility of others as readers’ empathic imaginations are challenged to, if not understand, then embrace and accept their strangeness. In this way, while the texts of Brontë and Wright stem from different cultures and different centuries, both offer posthuman perspectives in Pyke’s readings, whether through harsh seasons or a no less harsh apocalyptic outlook. This leaves the fragility of avian lives open to the reader, and thus, despite bleakness, there is hope. In Pyke’s words, ‘Humans have the option to look and respond to nonhumans in more inclusive ways’.    



Bauman, Zygmunt. 1993. Postmodern Ethics. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Bekoff, Marc, and Jessica Pierce. 2009. Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Borkfelt, Sune. 2011. ‘Non-Human Otherness: Animals as Others and Devices for Othering’, in Otherness: A Multilateral Perspective, edited by Susan Yi Sencindiver, Maria Beville and Marie Lauritzen. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.

Coetzee, J. M. 1999. The Lives of Animals. Edited by Amy Gutmann. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Derrida, Jacques. 2008. The Animal That Therefore I Am. Edited by Marie-Louise Mallet. Translated by David Wills. New York: Fordham University Press.

De Waal, Frans. 1996. Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Elder, Glen, Jennifer Wolch, and Jody Emel. 1998. ‘Le Pratique Sauvage: Race, Place, and the Human-Animal Divide’, in Animal Geographies: Place, Politics, and Identity in the Nature-Culture Borderlands, edited by Jennifer Wolch and Jody Emel. London: Verso.

Garnett, David. 1924. A Man in the Zoo. London: Chatto & Windus.

Levinas, Emmanuel. 2004. ‘The Name of a Dog, or Natural Rights’. In Animal Philosophy: Essential Readings in Continental Thought, edited by Peter Atterton and Matthew Calarco, 47-50. London: Continuum.

Nagel, Thomas. 1974. ‘What Is It Like to Be a Bat?’. The Philosophical Review 83.4: 435-450.

Wolch, Jennifer, and Jody Emel. 1995. ‘Bringing the animals back in’. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 13: 632-636.

Many thanks to our contributors.