Involving Animals

Heidi James-Dunbar

From Neolithic cave painting, through to writers as diverse as Rainer Maria Rilke, Dante Alighieri, Franz Kafka, Herman Melville, Ernest Hemingway, D. H. Lawrence, Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortazar and Clarice Lispector, animal others have long served as metaphor, symbol and referent that support human projections and cultural constructions. Materialist and Neo-Darwinian science too continues to impose human social constructions on animal behaviors; this is particularly evident in mainstream television’s ‘nature programmes’ that ascribe heteronormative and filial cultures to other species (Mills, 2013). We might say then that this bestiary of symbolic signifiers is utilised to maintain the Human at the epicentre and beneficiary of the Earth and its resources.

We might also remark that these artistic, literary and media encounters with animal others explore and communicate the artist or writer’s own – human – concerns, projecting onto and presenting (rather than representing) the animal, often using the image or sign of the non-human other to operate as species boundary markers, establishing (and remarking on) the limits between humans / animal others and gatekeepers of normative and so-called ‘natural’ behaviours and instincts / impulses.


Sensation or cognition?: privileging the Kantian subject which transcends mere sensory experience has important consequences for extending phallocentric thought to our understanding of animals

[Image by Anthony under a CC BY-SA license]

These anthropocentric engagements sustain the concept of the transcendent consciousness that inaugurates the Kantian subject. What Quentin Meillassoux defines as correlation: ‘the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other. We will henceforth call correlationism any current of thought which maintains the unsurpassable character of the correlation so defined’ (Meillassoux 5). Part of a broader contemporary movement in philosophy towards speculative realism, correlationism posits that in order to qualify as a person, a subject, with all the privileges that entails, one must be able to think rather than just feel; and this thinking is how we make sense of the world, utilizing concepts that haven’t originated in experience or sensation, in other words, transcending mere sensory data. The correlation between thinking and being has political and ethical ramifications that continue to reverberate through ideas of identity and being for all species. It privileges human consciousness as the basis for subjectivity or personhood substantiating the species divide and, it might be argued, is the logical extension of a phallogocentric economy of thought that has sanctioned the objectification, consumption and commodification of animal others as well as ultimately reifying the metaphysics of otherness that pathologizes those bodies/beings that do not conform the ideal of male, white, healthy etc. – bodies that have been previously identified as ‘natural’, non-rational, feminized, animal.

For Georges Bataille, it is our proximity to our own animal nature and the negation of that intimacy that inaugurates our human being. Our transcendent knowledge or consciousness provides the rupture – the discontinuity from animal others, and a transcendence we seek to reaffirm in order to maintain that frontier – the margins of ‘humanness.’ Bataille writes: ‘The animal can be regarded as a subject for which the rest of the world is an object, but it is never given the possibility of regarding itself in this way’ (Bataille 20). The animal may operate with autonomy, it may distinguish between itself and others – in order to hunt, for example – but it is denied subjectivity or ‘sovereignty.’ The animal can’t affirm difference. This is because ‘[a]nimality is immediacy or immanence’ (Bataille 50). The animal milieu, is entirely continuous – for the animal, according to Bataille, is unable to conceive of a world beyond the now – temporal imaginings that (as Hegel described) make possible relations between subjects and objects, master and slave. Jacques Derrida too, notes this rupture – though for Derrida, the abyss is not dual edged binary of man/animal, but a series of complex, folded relations, the multiplicity that understands interconnectivity and even an ‘address’ (further, Derrida understands that it isn’t necessary for animals to “speak” or chimerically acquire the attribute of language, but to ‘think the absence of the name and of the word otherwise, as something other than privation’ (Derrida 399). However, it is interesting that Bataille also makes it clear that we can’t know what non-human animals are conscious of: ‘Nothing as a matter of fact, is more closed to us than this animal life from which we are descended’ (Bataille 20).

Orange Cat

How can we understand animal subjectivity? Our lack of understanding of the consciousness of non-human animals contributes to an anthropocentric denial of other species’ sovereignty

[Image by Piotr under a CC BY license]

One might reasonably ask why this abyssal ‘not knowing’ occludes the possibility of animals (at least some species) having the potential to affirm difference and thereby attain subjectivity? How do we ‘know’ that animals aren’t in possession of a transcendent consciousness? We might argue that this is another anthropocentric imposition that denies sovereignty based on ignorance – a perverse epistemic closure that denies the possibility that ‘human’ culture and transcendent consciousness is a corollary of evolutionary developments that might be shared in some form by other species. So then how do we write about non-human others without anthropocentric chauvinism, misappropriation or anthropomorphism? Must every representation of other species in literature serve to mark our species limits, operate as metaphor or symbol? This article will consider this question, examining and drawing on theories from Rosi Braidotti, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari to think with Lynne Tillman’s novel, American Genius, A Comedy (2006), and suggest a nomadic reading, informed by Deleuze and Guattari’s theory of nomadology.

In A Thousand Plateaus (2004), Deleuze and Guattari write: ‘We believe in the existence of very special becomings-animal traversing human beings and sweeping them away, affecting the animal no less than the human’ (Deleuze and Guattari, 2004: 261). But this ‘becoming’ is not mimetic, or identification, we aren’t encouraged to imitate dogs or pigeons; neither is it a regression or devolution: ‘Becoming is a verb with a consistency all its own; it does not reduce to, or lead back to, “appearing,” “being,” “equalling,” or “producing”‘ (Deleuze and Guattari, 2004: 263). Rather, becoming compels us towards alliance, involvements and involutions, contagion, propagations, encounters, peopling, filiations; towards assemblage, towards movement, lines of flight. This thinking encourages us to let go of our limiting identifications, to acknowledge the infinite complexities and interconnections that we might call immanence. It is important to note however, that this isn’t a teleological endeavour, we are reminded that: ‘Becoming produces nothing other than itself’ (Deleuze and Guattari, 2004: 263).

This ‘becoming’ is a ‘nomadic’ process of subject projection or accumulation – a transpecies, multi-sexed, interrelational flow – open-ended and moved by interaction and alliance, nomadic because the question of identity is always in flux and resists being settled. Rosi Braidotti tells us that ‘a subject thus constituted explodes the boundaries of humanism at skin level: thus the Deleuzian unorganic body is unlinked from the codes of phallologocentric functional identity’ (Braidotti 83). We might call this transspecies interrelation a ‘soma-resistance’ relinquishing the bodily boundaries or physical distinctions that inform the dualism of nonhuman / human, and with that, the pervasive and invidious dualist categories determining normative gender, body and sexual relations.

Fashion Animals

Biological theories of complexity and emergence undo the binary of human / nonhuman and encourage us to consider a continuum of evolutionary being

[Image by Alvaro Tapia under a CC BY-NC-ND license]

Understanding ourselves as humans less as an evolutionary end point that discards outgrown modes like a snake shedding a skin, but as a hive or multiplicity that suspends, maintains and fuses the processes and dynamics of being with language finds credence and support from biological theories of complexity and emergence (further described by neuroscience and psychoneuroimmunology). These theories proffer an understanding of bodies, minds and environments as a ‘processual continuum’ moving science and its enquiries from analytic reductionism to holistic and collective synthesism (Wheeler 22-26).

Lynne Tillman’s work operates within this network or immanence, examining the milieu of her characters in minute detail. Born in 1947 in the USA, Tillman’s writing first came to prominence as part of the New York art scene of the late 1970s and early 80s. With the publication of her first novel, Haunted Houses (1987) she was briefly associated with the ‘New Narrative’ movement, along with Dennis Cooper and Kathy Acker. Tillman’s writings continue to engage with art and culture, the personal and public, realism and experimentation in an intriguing and challenging synthesis of criticism and fiction.

Her novels and stories are populated by subjects that are produced – not just by a genealogy or macro-history that operates in a patri-linear order of succession, but by a micro-history of intense sensation and interrelation. Her characters are moved by a colour or a screaming car alarm or the touch of a cat or a pigeon landing on the window sill or a memory invoked by stroking fabric, which then connects the character irrevocably to the history of the fabric – its producer, weaver, dyer, seller, the farmer who grew the cotton, the farm hand who harvested it. Objects, human and animal others act as agents of change, as ethical prompts, as apparitions of conscience and dilemma. The pretence of atomisation, of distinct, impervious individuals, is eroded in these texts.

But it is Tillman’s novel, American Genius, A Comedy, that is a textual embodiment of ‘becoming.’ The narrator has checked herself into a community – possibly a medical facility with a salubrious and tranquil atmosphere, but further on in the text, the community appears to be an artist’s retreat of some kind populated by writers, poets, a Contesa even a magician. Without plot or conventional novelistic devices of dialogue, scene and characterisation, this novel employs a neurotic and obsessive stream of consciousness accompanying the narrator as she ponders, remembers, participates in and observes the world around her. The narrator has incredibly sensitive skin, and the treatment of it and its sensations and condition consume her. She sees dermatologists, beauticians; applies ointments and creams; researches skin diseases, parasites, infestations. Her skin, her boundary, is undoing – and her search for relief, for a cure leads her to consider everything, everyone around her. Fabric, food, Kafka, furniture, bathing, slavery… She is a becoming, ‘exploding the boundaries of humanism at skin level…’ (Braidotti 83). Her nomadic thought processes and sensations create filiations, connections, webs of interrelated being.

Tillman 3Becoming animal: Lynne Tillman’s 2006 novel moves beyond species distinctions in its focus on transpecies interaction

[Images by David Shankbone under a CC BY license; and Mark Pritchard under a CC BY-NC-SA license]

In describing how the Wohlfahrtia vigil gravid fly larvae burrows into the skin, the maggots incubating and pulsating there, Tillman’s narrator writes about bodies coming together, of transpecies interaction, of porous and permeable boundaries. She tells us about the flea, the promiscuous bloodsucker hopping from human to dog, to cat infecting, irritating and connecting (Tillman 210). She thinks about bacteria, cancers, tuberculosis, dementia – unerotic couplings that neither produce nor satiate but connect. She writes the process of contagion that affects, she writes what the body does, what bodies, touching, can do. Most importantly she writes that ‘[t]he body’s not a stable foundation’ (Tillman 86). There are no stable foundations to be found in this nomadic novel.

The writing – contradictory, digressive and disparate – undoes the logic of signification, each sentence is in flux, is stated, elaborated upon then negated. This destabilises established codes creating syntactical aberrations, unsettling language itself, questioning and pushing against grammatical codes. and yet never dissolves into incoherence. Instead it offers a radical immanence, where the character is becoming animal, unfettered by category, partition and confinements towards yearning, towards feeling and sensation; the novel seems to direct itself ‘to find a world of pure intensities where all forms come undone, as do all the significations, signifiers and signifieds to the benefit of an unformed matter of deterritorialized flux, of nonsignifiying signs’ (Deleuze and Guattari, 1986: 13). Tillman’s narrator is subsumed, utterly enmeshed in the world of feeling.

The final value perhaps then, is that in nomadic considerations of being – in becoming animal – we open the field of our being and relation, relinquishing our faith in the ontological primacy of mind over matter, thinking over being. The abyss that concerned Bataille and Derrida (amongst others) isn’t so much a rupture between species or a failure or lack of sign-based communication, but an encounter with the limits of transcendence-based thinking, where sensation is enough in order to ‘be.’ The abyss reminds us of our insignificance, eroding pretentions of human dominance. We are not godlike, omniscient, anointed by virtue of consciousness, but flesh and blood, material assemblages. Tillman’s novel operates and plugs into this immanence – neither proclaiming to know or possess, but thinking with, being with, becoming. Her novel describes becoming animal, becoming fabric, ant, chair, skin, disease. This impacts and draws upon how we think identity, gender, disability, species and the environment, unsettling false taxonomies of difference. This thinking promotes an egalitarianism that goes beyond species distinction and physical conformation encouraging an ecology-based philosophy that enfolds and encompasses (Braidotti 97). Finally, the animal other reminds us that we must die, there can be no mind over matter, no exertion of will can alter our material being – we are atoms all the same, despite our complex system of signs.

CITATION: Heidi James-Dunbar, “Involving Animals,” Alluvium, Vol. 3, No. 2 (2014): n. pag. Web. 17 October 2014.

Dr Heidi James-Dunbar is a lecturer in English Literature and Creative Writing at Kingston University. She is author of The Mesmerist’s Daughter (Apis Books, 2007) and Carbon (Blatt, 2009), which is currently being made into a film.

Works Cited:

Bataille, Georges. Theory of Religion, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Zone Books, 1992).

Braidotti, Rosi. Nomadic Theory: The Portable Rosi Braidotti, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011).

Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Felix. A Thousand Plateaus, trans. Brian Massumi (London: Continuum, 2004).

Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Felix. Kafka: Towards a Minor Literature, trans. Dana Polan (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 1986).

Derrida, Jacques. The Animal That Therefore I Am (More To Follow), trans. David Wills. Critical Enquiry 28 ( 2002): 369-418

Jeffries, Tom. “Representation for Animals: An Interview with Dr Brett Mills.” The Journal of Wild Culture, 23 April 2013 (accessed 16 October 2014):

Meillassoux, Quentin. After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, trans. Ray Brassier (London: Continuum, 2008).

Tillman, Lynne. American Genius, A Comedy (Brooklyn: Soft Skull Press, 2006).

Wheeler, Wendy. The Whole Creature (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 2006).

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