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The new solitude: melancholy anthropomorphism and the molecular gaze.


Anthropomorphism, as it is usually understood, is a matter of identity. To anthropomorphize is to project a human identity onto something nonhuman. Originally, anthropomorphism referred to the "Ascription of a human form and attributes to the Deity." Now it means the "Ascription of a human attribute or personality to anything impersonal or irrational" ("Anthropomorphism"). If anthropomorphism often strikes us as a type of logical error, this is because we see the identity it produces--say, God in human form with flowing white beard--as a mistaken or metaphorical identity. In this sense, anthropomorphism presumes the relative stability and apriority of human and non-human identity. We say it is wrong to ascribe human form to God because we presume God's identity to be non-human.

While anthropomorphism seems more mistaken as a strategy for understanding God, it seems less mistaken as a strategy for understanding non-human animals, especially in a post-Darwinian world. As Wendy Doniger notes, "Anthropomorphism and zoomorphism are two different attempts to reduce the otherness between humans and animals, to see the sameness beneath the difference" (34). But what happens to the idea of anthropomorphism when one assumes the separation of human and animal to be absolute? This is a question that arises out of John Berger's highly influential analysis of the global animal in his 1977 article "Why Look at Animals?" In this essay, Berger writes:
   Until the 19th century ... anthropomorphism was integral to the
   relation between man and animal and was an expression of their
   proximity. Anthropomorphism was the residue of the continuous use
   of animal metaphor. In the last two centuries, animals have
   gradually disappeared. Today we live without them. And in this new
   solitude, anthropomorphism makes us doubly uneasy. (21)

For Berger, the process of industrialization begun in Western Europe and North America in the nineteenth century has broken every tradition that previously mediated between humans and nature, including anthropomorphism.

Why does Berger say that anthropomorphism makes us doubly uneasy in the postindustrial age? It makes us uneasy in the first place because, having separated ourselves from other animals through the processes of industrialization and capitalization, it no longer strikes us as a natural mode of comparison. It is unsettling in the second place because it has become something that we humans do to non-human animals. A significant, although implicit and unacknowledged, rhetorical move Berger makes in "Why Look at Animals?" is to shift anthropomorphism from being a matter of identity to being a matter of action. For Berger, the pet owner anthropomorphizes his or her pet by radically changing the material conditions of the animal. "The small family unit lacks space," he writes, "earth, other animals, seasons, natural temperatures, and so on. The pet is either sterilized or sexually isolated, extremely limited in its exercise, deprived of almost all other animal contact, and fed with artificial foods" (24). The problem here is not simply that pet owners anthropomorphically see themselves in their pets. (This is the perspective of traditional anthropomorphism.) It is also that they change the physical environment of the pets to such an extent that these animals stop being animals and become denatured: sterilized, sexually and socially isolated, unfit and badly fed.

Berger's claim in "Why Look at Animals?" is a radically materialist one: namely, that the physical marginalization of animals in Western society results in their cultural marginalization. Along with that of the family pet, he appeals to the example of the zoo animal to illustrate the now-irreparable separation of the human species from the rest of the animal kingdom. While the public purpose of zoos is to allow visitors the chance to look at animals, Berger writes, "nowhere in a zoo can a stranger encounter the look of an animal. At the most, the animal's gaze flickers and passes on. They look sideways. They look blindly beyond. They have been immunized to encounter, because nothing can any more occupy a central place in their attention" (37). Berger presents the zoo as an optical machine: visitors "proceed from cage to cage, not unlike visitors in an art gallery who stop in front of one painting, and then move on to the next or the one after next" (33). But what the zoo-goer encounters is the non-vital, disoriented, and discombobulated gaze of the animal as the final confirmation of the terminal marginalization of animals in modern human society. "Everywhere animals disappear," Berger writes in the dramatic quotation that is on the front cover of my Penguin Great Ideas edition of Why Look at Animals? "In zoos they constitute the living monument to their own disappearance" (36).

Berger presents the public and private spaces of urbanized, bourgeois modernity--represented metonymically by the zoological garden and the family home--as human technologies of animal mortification. To the non-vital and non-attentive gaze of the captive zoo animal, he opposes the vital and attentive look of the wild animal encountered by pre-industrial human societies. "The eyes of an animal when they consider a man are attentive and wary," writes Berger. "The same animal may well look at other species in the same way" (13). But humans, he thinks, are the only species to recognize themselves in the look of another animal: "Other animals are held by the look. Man becomes aware of himself returning the look" (13). The reason the gaze of the wild animal is familiar to us is that it shows the animal to be the subjective centre of its surroundings as we are the subjective centre of our surroundings. Modern zoo-goers, Berger thinks, also become aware of themselves returning the look of the animal. But what this new look paradoxically reveals to them is their newfound isolation from the rest of the animal kingdom. The zoo, in being a monument to the disappearance of the animal, is also a monument to the isolation of the human species. "Looking at each animal," writes Berger, "the unaccompanied viewer is alone. As for the crowds, they belong to a species which has at last been isolated" (37).

In "Why Look at Animals?" Berger attributes to the human and to the human environment the incredible power to denature the non-human animal. But now I must ask: Is this an anthropomorphic gesture on his part? That is to say, is Berger ultimately describing the situation of animals in modern human society (as he claims) or is he rather anthropomorphically describing the situation of modern humans by recourse to the animal?

According to Gilbert Simondon in his essay Two Lessons on Animal and Man, it becomes the case in nineteenth- and twentieth-century conceptualizations of the human-animal relation that "the content of reality you put into animality, this content allows us to characterize man. Namely, it is by the universalization of the animal that human reality is dealt with" (61). Berger does follow Simondon's rule in "Why Look at Animals?" What is true of animals in his account is also true of humans. As he says of pets, "They are creatures of their owner's way of life" (25). But the important thing to note is that the content of reality Berger puts into animality is negative. In modern urbanized society, the animal is denatured, alienated, and melancholic like the urbanized and industrialized human being. This, then, is Berger's melancholy anthropomorphism: the animal exists for the human only insofar as it reflects the pernicious artificiality of modern human life.

There are two ways in which one might dissent from Berger's analysis of the human-animal relation. The first is to say that humans are not as isolated or as decontextualized as he claims. As Erica Fudge points out, Berger is wrong to say that pets are deprived of contact with other animals. Homo sapiens are, of course, central to the lives of their pets. What Fudge notices about the argument of "Why Look at Animals?" is that it expresses a paradoxically self-loathing form of anthropocentricism. Berger "posits the notion of the human as separate from animals [and] implicitly proposes the human as fully comprehensible in isolation ... and this in an essay in which he is bewailing such a perspective" (Fudge 24). Berger's account is anthropocentric in the sense that it treats the human as thinkable in isolation to all other species. As Eduardo Viveiros de Castro says of the notion of the human species in the discipline of anthropology, it "presupposes a foundational discontinuity between our species and all others, given that the 'psychic unity' [of the human] suggests that our species counter-unifies all others into a single sub-psychic (or a-psychic) realm, which is exhaustively determined by an extra-psychic corporeality." At the same time as he reduces the non-human animal to an extra-psychic corporeality in "Why Look at Animals?," Berger also bemoans what modern humans do to other animals. Indeed, he goes further than this, postulating that it is too late for industrialized humans to repair or to recover their relation with non-human animals. His anthropomorphism is thus doubly melancholic or unsociable: not only does it refuse to think the animality of the human; it also gives up on the possibility of reconciling human and non-human animal identity.

A second and related criticism one might level at Berger is that he overdetermines the role of human agency in the human-animal relation. In Berger's account, the animal seems to lose all agency or autonomy once it enters into the human environment. "No animal confirms man, either positively or negatively" (14), writes Berger early in his essay of the animal the pre-industrial human encounters in the wild. But, objectified and abjected, the pet and the zoo animal can do nothing else but negatively confirm the human. By limiting its agency in this way, Berger turns the animal into the surface of a mirror paradoxically reflecting the impotency of human concern for the animal. Rather than an emanation from within it, the melancholy gaze of the zoo animal that "flickers and passes on" is really a projection of Berger's own melancholy anthropomorphism.

The problem with Berger's account of the human-animal relation is not just that it anthropocentrically treats the human as thinkable in isolation from the rest of the animal kingdom but also that it anthropomorphizes agency. By this I mean that it presents the human as acting on the animal but the animal as no longer acting on the human. We never get the sense when reading "Why Look at Animals?" of something newspapers are always reporting to us: namely, that pets and zoo animals are agents that can act unpredictably by attacking their owners, their keepers, or other people. Nor do we get the sense reading Berger that pets or zoo animals have an identity that is independent of or irreducible to their material conditions. This is because Berger understands anthropomorphism in the most materialist of terms, as the action whereby the human so completely transforms the physical conditions of the non-human animal that the non-human animal becomes denatured.

In exemplary fashion, Berger's article traces a shift in the meaning of anthropomorphism from what it was traditionally--a strategy for likening the non-human to the human--to what it is in the postindustrial era--a testament to the mutual alienation of animal and human. How are we to account for this shift conceptually? My explanation runs as follows. Rather than as an engagement with two pre-existing or a priori identities (the human and the non-human), Berger understands anthropomorphism in the postindustrial context as an action upon life, as a material change that human beings make to the conditions of life that in turn alters the nature of human and non-human being. Once we understand it as the human acting upon and changing the conditions of life, then it follows that anthropomorphism becomes a way for human beings to define themselves in isolation to other species.

Even though I have used a single article by John Berger to elucidate it, my claim in this essay is that the anthropomorphization of agency is a widespread phenomenon. In order to critique this phenomenon, it will help to see how it functions in different contexts. To this end, in what follows I will look at how the anthropomorphization of agency operates in two apparently quite different contexts: one scientific, the other philosophical. First, I want to show how in the molecular life sciences anthropomorphism takes the form of the human acting upon the conditions of life in order to take control of them. Second, I want to show how, in his influential 2002 study The Open: Man and Animal, Giorgio Agamben understands the human to be nothing more or other than anthropomorphic action. What is ultimately problematic about the anthropomorphization of agency from a philosophical perspective, I will suggest, is that it reductively makes human and non-human identity alike a function of action.

The Molecular Gaze

Helga Nowotny and Giuseppe Testa begin their 2009 book Naked Genes: Reinventing the Human in the Molecular Age by discussing a phenomenon they call the molecular gaze. Nowotny, a social scientist and president of the European Research Council, and Testa, a molecular biologist, use this term the molecular gaze as shorthand for a certain type of scientific reductionism. "A defining feature of the molecular life sciences," they write, "is that they make things visible that could not previously be seen. Extracted from their original context (and placed into new ones), these things tend to acquire, precisely through their newly found visibility, an essential status of their own. They are thus--falsely--seen as agents that can act on their own" (1). The problem with the molecular gaze is not just that it invests the phenomena it makes visible (genes, dna) with a false sense of agency but also that, in so doing, it immunizes the human subject against a broader and older set of determinative forces (whether social, religious, or ethological).

Nowotny and Testa illustrate their point with the example of reproduction. They make the heretical claim that, despite being scientifically untenable from today's viewpoint, "earlier interpretations of reproduction were better able to grasp the continuum of events that shaped its outcome and to connect the various factors with each other" (12). In contrast to current explanations of reproduction, which tend to be reductive, these earlier explanations were hermeneutically expansive. "There was a continuum that provided scope for gods and wet nurses," write Nowotny and Testa, "for immaculate conception and multiple fatherhood, whereas today the genetic gaze prevails exclusively. The ambiguity that used to exist proved to be astonishingly flexible in relation to the changing context, while today we see the prevalence of unambiguousness and separation from context" (1213). Whereas reproduction used to be seen as a complex and unpredictable process involving more than the two parents alone, it is now understood largely in terms of genetic inheritance. As Nowotny and Testa point out, "in the process of the molecular reduction of our functioning as persons, the knowledge thereby gained takes on an increasingly essentialist form" (12). It is not just that "the societal context is split off from the genetic core" but also that "the power to shape the social context in the first place is attributed to the genes" (12). By making certain hitherto invisible biological factors in reproduction visible, the molecular gaze renders the societal context in which these biological factors function invisible.

Genetic knowledge takes on an increasingly essentialist form not just because of the causative power we attribute to it but also because we feel that it empowers us to change life. Nowotny and Testa write, "Under the hegemony of the molecular glance, knowledge has become action. Today the fact is that understanding life means changing life" (5). As Paul Rabinow explains, a sharp distinction no longer exists in the molecular life sciences between observation and action: "The object to be known--the human genome--will be known in such a way that it can be changed." For Rabinow, what defines modern rationality is this inseparability of observation and action in scientific experiment. "Representing and intervening, knowledge and power, understanding and reform," he notes, "are built in, from the start, as simultaneous goals and means" (7). It is possible to see the molecular gaze as an attempt to bring the conditions of reproduction under human control, which is to say, to anthropomorphize them. In pre-molecular understandings of reproduction, Nowotny and Testa write, "Gods, weather conditions, the mother's dreams at the time of conception, and several other factors were mobilized to explain the newborn's appearance and characteristics, which today is called the henotype" (12). Against the determinative force of these extrahuman contextual factors, the molecular gaze pits the power of humans to observe and change the conditions of life itself.

By downplaying the power of extrahuman contextual factors over the human, the molecular gaze can be said to anthropomorphize agency. Action becomes the action of the human upon life, not the action of life upon the human. This tendency of the molecular life sciences to anthropomorphize action is perhaps most evident in the idea of algeny, a term coined by the Nobel Laureate biologist Joshua Lederberg in 1966 to mean "The attempt to 'improve on' or 'perfect' naturally existing organisms by means other than conventional breeding, esp. by genetic engineering" ("Algeny"). Algeny is genetic alchemy. As Mary Midgley explains in The Myths We Live By, "Algenists propose ... that just as the alchemists thought of all chemical substances as merely stages on an unbroken continuum, so biologists should see living species as stages on a continuum along which, in principle, they can always be moved and exchange properties." The important point to note here is that this process is teleological. Alchemists understood all metals to be in the process of becoming gold. As Midgley continues, "Alchemists saw themselves as midwives accelerating this natural process of improvement.. In the same way today, the mystics of the genetic revolution see themselves as experts engaged in completing nature's work and especially in the business of perfecting humanity" (157). According to Gregory Stock, one of Midgley's so-called mystics of the genetic revolution, in his 2002 book Redesigning Humans: Choosing Our Children's Genes, "the technological powers we have hitherto used so effectively to remake our world are now potent and precise enough for us to turn them on ourselves. With our biological research we are taking control of evolution and beginning to direct it" (quoted in Midgley 158). But this is really the end of evolution as we know it and the beginning of what Judith Roof calls in The Poetics of dna the anthropomorphization of the gene: "Ideas of agency attributed to anthropomorphized genes substitute will or desire for probability. In narratives of agency, Darwin's finches would will themselves longer beaks or camouflage plumage so that they could survive, instead of working as statistical populations" (118).

Berger's vision in "Why Look at Animals?" is decidedly dystopian: postindustrial humans have altered their physical environment to such an extent that they have isolated themselves from other species and denatured the ones with which they live. Algeny is the utopic flipside of Berger's humanist dystopia. For the algenist, we might still yet perfect the human organism through biotechnological means. But what we must not forget is that Berger's humanist dystopia and algeny's humanist utopia are really just two sides of the same coin, for fueling both of these visions is the anthropomorphization of agency: the act of granting humans the power to alter the material conditions of life so radically that these conditions become both human shaped and human shaping.

The molecular gaze performs two key reductions. First, it reduces human nature to the functioning of our genes. As Alex Mauron writes in "Is the Genome the Secular Equivalent of the Soul?":
   With the complete genome sequence now at hand, the notion that our
   genome is synonymous with our humanness is gaining strength. This
   view is a kind of "genetic metaphysics": the genome is viewed as
   the core of our nature, determining both our individuality and our
   species identity. According to this view, the genome is seen as the
   true essence of human nature, with external influences considered
   as accidental. (831)

But this is not quite the full picture. By way of a second reduction, the molecular gaze also understands human nature to be the result or the function of a type of action performed by the human upon the conditions of life. The appeal of the genome is not just the idea that our genes determine our behaviour but also the idea that we somehow have the power to alter the genome and, in so doing, better our nature. What we notice here, then, as we move from the first reduction to the second reduction, is that anthropomorphism shifts from being a matter of identity (is the genome the secular equivalent of our soul?) to being a matter of action (how might we act upon the genome in order to change our nature?). Enabling this shift in meaning is the modern molecular rationality, according to which understanding life means changing life.

The Anthropological Machine

At the outset of this essay, I stated that traditional anthropomorphism presupposes the relative stability and a priority of human and non-human identity. In biological terms, traditional anthropomorphism assumes the relative stability and a priority of species identity. As Midgley points out,
   Our tradition has so far held that this concept [of species] should
   be taken pretty seriously, that the boundaries of a species should
   be respected ... This conviction is reflected in the symbolism of
   our myths. Traditional mixed monsters--minotaurs, chimeras, lamias,
   gorgons--stand for a deep and threatening disorder, something not
   just confusing but dreadful and invasive. (155)

But underpinning Berger's analysis of the human-animal relation in "Why Look at Animals?" and Nowotny and Testa's account of the molecular gaze in Naked Genes is the contrasting idea that species identity is highly mutable. The rupture in relations between humans and animals that Berger thinks accompanied the industrial revolution is evidence for him of a radical change in human identity. Algeny is another name for the radical fluidity and transformability of species.

So now I would like to ask: What happens to the idea of anthropomorphism when we no longer presume the human to be a stable and a priori identity--when, by adopting a certain type of biological or philosophical thinking, we refuse to ascribe a nature to the human?

The radical answer Giorgio Agamben gives to this question is that anthropomorphism becomes the very engine of human identity. According to Agamben in The Open, it is through a perpetual process of anthropomorphism that the human establishes its identity:
   Homosapiens ... is neither a clearly defined species nor a
   substance; it is, rather, a machine or device for producing the
   recognition of the human. In line with the taste of the epoch, the
   anthropogenic (or--taking up Furio Jesi's expression--we might say
   anthropological) machine is an optical one.. It is an optical
   machine constructed as a series of mirrors in which man, looking at
   himself, sees his own image always already deformed in the features
   of an ape. Homo is a constitutively "anthropomorphous" animal (that
   is, "resembling man" according to the term that Linnaeus constantly
   uses until the tenth edition of the Systema), who must recognize
   himself in a non-man in order to be human. (26-27)

For Agamben, there is no essence to the human, no human nature. As he notes, Carl Linnaeus (1707 to 1778), the eighteenth century Swedish founder of modern scientific taxonomy, "does not record--as he does with the other species--any specific identifying characteristic next to the generic name Homo, only the philosophical adage: nosce te ipsum [know yourself]" (25). Lacking any proper nature, any distinguishing characteristic, the human becomes for Agamben a machine for producing recognition of the human: "man is the animal that must recognize itself as human to be human (26).

Agamben's position on the human in The Open closely resembles Stanley Cavell's position on the human in The Claim of Reason. According to Cavell, "Being human is the power to grant being human" (397). What I want to note about this way of defining the human is that it works by collapsing the difference between identity and action. For Agamben and Cavell, human identity does not pre-exist the encounter with the nonhuman. Rather, it is the action of producing recognition of the human in the encounter with the non-human other. This kind of thinking about the relation of the human to the non-human has its roots in existentialism. As Sartre writes in "Existentialism Is a Humanism": "The doctrine I am presenting before you is ... that there is no reality except in action. It goes further, indeed, and adds, 'Man is nothing else but what he purposes, he exists only in so far as he realizes himself, he is therefore nothing else but the sum of his actions, nothing else but what his life is' " (300).

The anthropological machine is a thoroughly Sartrean contraption in the sense that it presents the human as having an identity only in and through the act of anthropomorphizing the non-human other. Traditional anthropomorphism projects human identity out on non-human identity. It places the human in a world of non-human beings. It presupposes the essential similarity of humans and animals. The anthropological machine works in the opposite way to increase the otherness between humans and animals by anthropomorphizing agency. It internalizes the non- human other as that which the human must transcend (or act upon) in order to emerge as such. While discussing Alexandre Kojeve's lectures on Hegel, Agamben writes: "Man ... can be human only to the degree that he transcends and transforms the anthropophorus [or human-bearing] animal which supports him, and only because, through the action of negation, he is capable of mastering and, eventually, destroying his own animality" (12). Before operating on others, the anthropological machine is first an internal operation conducted on the self's anthropophoric or human-bearing animality. "It is possible to oppose man to other living things," Agamben writes, "and at the same time to organize the complex--and not always edifying--economy of relations between men and animals, only because something like an animal life has been separated within man, only because his distance and proximity to the animal have been measured and recognized first of all in the closest and most intimate place" (15-16).

For Agamben, the human is produced by an act of anthropomorphism that separates anthropophoric or human-bearing animality from humanity proper. But my claim is that this act of anthropomorphism turns out to be profoundly nihilistic and solipsistic. Not only does it separate human from animal within the human self. At the level of species, it also isolates human beings from the rest of nature.

Whereas traditional anthropomorphism expansively projects the human out into the non-human realm, the anthropological machine contractively sees in the non-human animal only a deformation of the human. Its two modes--the modern and the ancient--generate a nonhuman animal that is really just a human being or a slight variation on a human being. The modern or post-Darwinian anthropological machine,

Agamben writes, "functions by excluding as not (yet) human an already human being from itself, that is, by animalizing the human, by isolating the non-human within the human: Homo alalus, or the ape-man" (37). This version of the anthropological machine guides the search by nineteenth-century paleontologists for the missing link that connects the speechless ape to the speaking human. But, as Matthew Calarco explains, "it also opens the way for the totalitarian and democratic experiments on and around human nature that function by excluding animal life from human life within human being" (93). As examples of victims of this process of biopolitical experimentation, Agamben lists the figure of the Jew in the Holocaust, the overcomatose person, and the neomort or brain dead person (37). The pre-modern version of the anthropological machine works in the opposite way to the modern version. Here, "the non-man is produced by the humanization of an animal: the man-ape, the enfant sauvage or Homo ferus, but also and above all the slave, the barbarian, and the foreigner, as figures of an animal in human form" (37).

Even though he sees it as presently determining our sense of the human, one of the tasks Agamben sets himself in The Open is to imagine a way of stopping the anthropological machine: "it is not so much a matter of asking which of the two machines (or of the two variants of the same machine) is better or more effective--or, rather, less lethal and bloody--as it is of understanding how they work so that we might, eventually, be able to stop them" (38). As critics have pointed out, however, the anthropocentricism of Agamben's approach immediately gets in the way of this attempt to dismantle the machine. Callarco remarks that Agamben focuses "entirely and exclusively on the effects on human beings and never explore[s] the impact the machine has on various forms of animal life" (102). Kelly Oliver similarly observes: "We certainly need to break the anthropological machine that creates subhuman 'peoples' who are enslaved, tortured, and murdered. But we also need to consider how this machine affects nonhuman animals and investigate the man/animal dichotomy from both sides and not just the side of the human" (243-44).

Despite criticizing Agamben for being anthropocentric, both Callarco and Oliver still believe it is possible to explore the impact of the anthropological machine on non-human life. By contrast, I contend the anthropological machine is a solipsistic device that cuts the human off from the rest of non-human life, that measures the human not against other real animals but against the ontological fantasy of the animal within the human. As Andrew Benjamin notes in his recent book Of Jews and Animals, "implicit within Agamben's overall argument is a form of utopianism ... that would configure the human beyond the hold of identity" (120). By configuring the human as without a nature, Agamben also effaces the particularity of the non-human. To say, as Agamben does, that the anthropological machine figures the Jew in the Holocaust as "the non-man produced within the man" (37) is not yet to say anything particular about the Jew or about the situation of the Jew in the Holocaust. Each time the human is figured as non-human or the non-human animal is figured as human, there are specificities about the situation that will tell us something about human identity. But, since Agamben believes the "anthropological machine of humanism is an ironic apparatus that verifies the absence of a nature proper to the human" (29), he has nothing to say about the specific situations of the various victims of the machine. These victims literally become a list of names in his text. As Benjamin notes, "Particularity will have been effaced by the machine's operation" (123).

I would go one step farther in my critique of Agamben than Benjamin does. The problem is not just that Agamben denies particularity by configuring the human beyond the hold of identity. It is also that he anthropomorphizes agency by precluding the non-human animal from acting on the human subject as this subject constitutes itself. This is where his analysis in The Open closely resembles Berger's in "Why Look at Animals?": Agamben imagines the human subject producing itself in opposition to a nature that it has already objectified and petrified, emptied of all agency and authority over the human. Although he claims that the anthropological machine operates throughout the Western philosophical tradition, I read it as a decidedly postindustrial machine, one that is made possible by Berger's reading of the postindustrial human-animal relation. Enabling both the modern and the premodern versions of the anthropological machine is the postindustrial presupposition that humans and animals live radically separate and incompatible lives. Agamben's anthropomorphism, like Berger's anthropomorphism, is melancholic or unsociable. Any ethical concern Agamben might have for the situation of the non-human animal is neutralized by the fact that his analysis serves to divest the animal of the very capacity to act on the human. Put another way, the agential unity of the human in his account counter-unifies all other species into a single subagential realm.

Since Agamben defines the essence of the human as action--and, in particular, the action of separating the human from the animal--the only way he can imagine stopping the anthropological machine is to imagine the human as ceasing to act in relation to the animal. "To render inoperative the machine that governs our conception of man," he writes in the final chapter of The Open, "will therefore mean no longer to seek new--more effective or more authentic--articulations, but rather to show the central emptiness, the hiatus that--within man--separates man and animal, and to risk ourselves in this emptiness: the suspension of the suspension, Shabbath of both animal and man" (92). As Krzysztof Ziarek notes, what Agamben is advocating here is:
   letting the difference between humanity and animality be, precisely
   without trying to grasp or master it. In thus leaving the
   difference unworked and inoperative, what comes to the fore is
   perhaps the "essence" of the human, defined precisely as "letting
   be." Though this moment is not entirely clear or fleshed out in
   Agamben's text, it appears that leaving the difference unworked
   becomes a matter of a human decision and act, in which the human
   acts in order not to act (not to work the difference at the core of
   the anthropological machine). (207-08)

Here, in a nutshell, is the anthropocentrism and solipsism of Agamben's position: The human acts in relation to the animal or decides not to act in relation to the animal (decides, that is, to let the animal be). In Agamben's schema, crucially, there is no possibility for the animal to act on the human.

Both Berger and Agamben displace traditional anthropomorphism by thinking of the human as that which anthropomorphically separates itself from the animal. Berger puts a date to the irreparable rupture between human and animal: it occurred roughly at the time of the industrial revolution. For his part, Agamben sees this rupture as running through Western history and even determining its course. "In our culture," writes Agamben,
   man has always been thought of as the articulation and conjunction
   of a body and a soul, of a living thing and a logos, of a natural
   (or animal) element and a supernatural or social or divine element.
   We must learn instead to think of man as what results from the
   incongruity of these two elements, and investigate not the
   metaphysical mystery of conjunction, but rather the practical and
   political mystery of separation. (16)

But I've been arguing that, in thinking the human as separate from the animal, one runs the risk of overdetermining the role of human agency in the human-animal relation. My aim in this essay has been to give this philosophical act of overvaluing human agency and human autonomy a name: the anthropomorphization of agency.

Let me end by asking: In what sense is the identity of the non-human animal really reducible to the sum of what the human has done to it? According to Franz Kafka in number 50 of The Zurau Aphorisms: "A man cannot live without a steady faith in something indestructible within him, though both the faith and the indestructible thing may remain permanently concealed from him" (51). We might call Berger's and Agamben's anthropomorphism melancholic in the sense that, spying only the destructible within the human, they project human destructibility on the non-human animal. A postmelancholic anthropomorphism would try to counteract this anthropomorphization of agency by asserting the indestructibility of non-human animal identity.


I would like to thank Christopher Peterson, Karyn Ball, and Melissa Haynes for their incisive remarks on earlier drafts of this essay.

Works Cited

Agamben, Giorgio. The Open: Man and Animal. Trans. Kevin Attell. Stanford: Stanford up, 2004.

"Algeny." The Oxford English Dictionary. 3rd ed. 2012.

"Anthropomorphism." The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989.

Benjamin, Andrew. Of Jews and Animals. Edinburgh: Edinburgh up, 2011.

Berger, John. Why Look at Animals? London: Penguin, 2009.

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Chris Danta

University of New South Wales

Chris Danta is Senior Lecturer in English in the School of the Arts and Media at the University of New South Wales, Sydney. He is the author of Literature Suspends Death: Sacrifice and Storytelling in Kierkegaard, Kafka, and Blanchot (Continuum, 2011) and the co-editor of Strong Opinions: J. M. Coetzee and the Authority of Contemporary Fiction (Continuum, 2011). He has also published essays in New Literary History, Angelaki, Textual Practice, Modernism/ modernity, SubStance, and Literature and Theology.
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Author:Danta, Chris
Publication:English Studies in Canada
Article Type:Essay
Date:Mar 1, 2013
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