Review of An Introduction to Animals and Visual Culture by Randy Malamud 2012; The Palgrave Macmillan Animal Ethics Series
Hayley Zertuche, Clemson University
Enculturation: http://enculturation.net/malamuds-animals (Published: May 14, 2015)
Over three decades have passed since John Berger famously asked, “Why look at animals?” Despite Berger’s solemn conclusion regarding the disappearance of animals into the margins of zoos and popular spectacles, animals are more a spectacle now than ever. In An Introduction to Animals and Visual Culture, Randy Malamud takes Berger’s question to the next (startling) level in a moving inspection of the cultural frames surrounding animals. Malamud rolls up his sleeves and unapologetically approaches the border of these frames where animals are filleted on the butcher block of cultural consumption, literally and figuratively. Readers should expect a considerable amount of discomfort as Malamud dissects the overwhelming presence of animals in multiple forms throughout and beyond visual culture, including seemingly innocent metaphors in speech, the conscious consumption of animal “meat,” and even the taboo acts of bestiality and zoophilia. With each topic, Malamud explores profound ecological implications and questions about the future of our “posthuman consciousness.”
Malamud critiques what he sees as a profound cultural ignorance of “real” animals and the deluded anthropocentrism with which animals are created as figures of mass consumption. As an example, while writing this on a couch in my living room, I see 24 images of animals (from a single vantage point): 9 pictures of animals (“Petey” of Little Rascals fame, a slab of meat in the hands of my husband’s grandfather [a butcher], and photos of family pets); four small figurines; three illustrations on posters, books, and pre-K homework; three “stuffed” toys; one painting done by my four-year old; and one real dog sleeping at my feet. There is clearly a proliferation of animal representations in my own environment, and this only increases exponentially when the various windows into popular culture—our televisions, laptops, and smart devices—are opened.
In An Introduction to Animals and Visual Culture, Malamud sets out to deconstruct the peculiar frames within our homes and cultures in which animals have been poorly contextualized and displaced. In framing animals outside their relative natural habitats, Malamud says we do two obvious but important things: we make animals visible (in an artificial kind of way), and we make them acculturated. These two acts create a profound misunderstanding of animals as they really exist in the world. But how do these representations, these decontextualizations, affect real animals and our relationships with and perceptions toward them? Believe it or not, the seemingly innocent illustrations on my son’s homework imply a much larger cultural misunderstanding that only snowballs on the digital screens of today. Animals begin for children as characters in storybooks and quickly become slogans for products, products themselves, entertainment in various frames, and metaphors of the very language in which we create reality. How we look at animals, speak animals, and create animals within these frames changes reality itself for animals of all species, including the human kind.
In his chapter “Famous Animals,” Malamud introduces us to several specific examples of those nonhuman individuals who experience the “imposition” (and burden) of the human spotlight of popular culture in history, film, cartoons, and on the Internet. We are (re)introduced to Topsy the circus elephant who killed three humans and was subsequently made the spectacle of Thomas Edison’s film Electrocuting an Elephant: “The scene opens with a keeper leading Topsy to her execution. Copper electrodes are attached to her feet, and 6,600 volts of electricity are turned on. Topsy becomes rigid and falls forward to the ground dead amid a cloud of smoke” (25-26).(This short, disturbing film can easily be found on YouTube). Malamud also revisits Rin-Tin-Tin’s fame, reminding us that the one and only Rin-Tin-Tin was actually a role filled by a line of German shepherds: “The dog(s), thus, early subjects in the practice of mass media visual representation, illustrate a tradition of visual deceit” (26). This deceit is illustrated further in a panoply of examples featuring animals across media. We now get laughs from things like a rabbit balancing various objects on its head and “a cat looking at a cat on a computer screen who is looking at a cat on a computer screen who is looking at a cat on a computer screen, ad infinitum” (37). The animal memes are endless. Malamud argues that this cultural framing causes not only real harm to animals in some cases (for the sake of humankind) but also an “erasure of their actual being”–a deprivation and theft, if you will, of integrity, control of self and “an imagistic authenticity” that are the “natural birthright[s]” of any animal (35). Humans are colonizers of everything from which the culturally framed animals are evicted (36).
In his chapter “Photographic Animals,” Malamud juxtaposes two photographers: Britta Jaschinski and Eadweard Muybridge. Malamud argues that Jaschinski’s contemporary photographs, permeated by an “otherworldy darkness” and “troubling philosophical depth that touches both the animal inside the frame and the human spector” (51), exemplify Deleuze and Guattari’s becoming-animal. Rather than simply framing animals in her photographs, Jaschniski allows the animals to escape, remain hidden, and at times become unrecognizable. Muybridge on the other hand, the creator of stop-motion sequences, “celebrates the brash, vast execution of American expansion, and the domination of the landscape... the animals appear against a backdrop of numbered scales and grids, the more convenient to chart and graph them” (66). Jaschinski’s photos are stunning and offer excellent examples of how cultural frames may better represent real animals in contrast to Muybridge’s visual dissection of animal movement.
Muybridge’s stop-motion photography segues into Malamud’s examination of animals in film. Here the breadth of examples is significant, beginning with the role of the American Humane Association in monitoring conditions and treatments of animals on film sets—a need that became apparent after “Henry King’s 1939 film Jesse James in which a horse was forced to leap to his death from the top of a cliff” (71). The human impulse to harm or imply harm to animals since film’s emergence is obvious. Malamud most stresses the objectification of animals and the disconnectedness of humans from nature in this analysis. Animals are props, decontextualized and distanced from their natural habits and habitats, for the imperial human gaze. Malamud points out how many films that would seem to approach “becoming-animal” (stressed as the ideal) on the surface, like Free Willy or Dances with Wolves, are actually “just another way of harvesting something from the animal object” to serve anthropocentric narratives (75). Malamud finds promise with the intriguing and no doubt game-changing independent films The Lord God Bird and Silent Roar: Searching for the Snow Leopard. While the titles suggest animals would be fully present within these films like any other animal documentary, much of the footage is dedicated to the difficulty or impossibility of viewing real animals. According to Malamud, “This teaches us the vital lesson that we are not omnipotent emperors who can look at animals whenever we choose,” which is a sense we are more likely to experience even in our own backyards than on our television screens (86).
The animated children’s film Ratatouille is also highlighted for how it teaches “about the limitations of the human animal, and the necessity that we work with others” (90). Films like this are not perfect representations of “becoming-animal,” of course. The characters are anthropomorphized, driven by apparent human goals and desires, and speak in a human language. But they deepen our sense of animal lives and, as in Ratatouille, illustrate how symbiotic relationships with animals work. As Malamud says: “The hegemonic tradition is stale, exhausted, and can be recharged only by a multicultural infusion of the previously marginalized subalterns” (90).
A diligent scrutiny of animals in cultural frames finds Malamud also peeking into the seedy genre of human-animal pornography, yet another way of looking at and desiring animals (albeit one that transcends cultural norms and passes into taboo). Malamud makes some interesting comparisons between animal porn and human porn from the ecofeminism stance—particularly the similar objectification of both women and animals often meant for a heterosexual male gaze—such that “understanding and deconstructing patriarchy primes us to understand and deconstruct anthropocentrism” (100). But there are, of course, differences. Unlike human porn, the animal porn Malamud analyzes (ten hours worth) has no story, no fiction, no creativity, if you will. It is simply (or not-so-simply for the women participants) the sexual act itself. This contrasts with more fanciful (and sanitized) references to bestiality in popular culture, myth, and art, which are numerous and go back to the Stone Age. Bestiality and animal pornography more directly pose the question, as Malamud suggests, of human limits and borders. Clearly, framing animals in various ways isolates them into particular roles, often for human desires and consumptions. This fixedness and objectification causes abuses of all kinds. But, in another light (and one I will return to later with Elizabeth Grosz), we have framed ourselves apart from nature and, thus, animals. Inviting animals into our own frames, into our own homes as pets and pictures and illustrations on homework, shows the extent to which we wish to not only define ourselves against animals, but also complicate the distinctions between “human” and “animal.” Animal porn is an unfortunate, disturbing, and abusive example of this, but it is undeniable at this (pathological) extreme how humans desire to complicate our own sense of fixedness. So, as Malamud asks, is there perhaps something helpful that might be learned from a male voyeur of animal porn who identifies with the animal actor on screen? Is there a “germ of desire for transspecies consciousness and experience that could perhaps be redirected in less exploitive ways” (111)? An even more compelling question raised by Malamud is how the incomprehensible images made visible in animal pornography, from which most people would turn away, might help “habituate” our turning away from other images of animals in popular culture.
Malamud’s chapter “Zoo Animals” continues this question of when it might be best to look away from animals and their images and representations. He argues that the purported positive impacts of zoos have little to no standing; education cannot truly be gained from zoos when people zip past enclosures where animals are stripped of natural contexts and placed in artificial environments. With their origins in colonialism and their nearly exclusive consumer driven nature, zoos ultimately do no more than allow us to “sublimate and deny the real ecological discourse…because it is psychologically painful for us to confront the real ecological impact of our unsustainable overconsumption” (127). Zoos are an example of one of the most tragic frames in which we place animals: frames with real bars and borders in which the animal body is physically contained. But not all these cages render animals visible: the meat industry comes to mind, though it is not a frame Malamud directly discusses. It would be interesting to consider this type of framing—one that makes the animal body invisible—in comparison to the framing of zoo animals, for once these sequestered animals are forcibly made visible in their horrid and often abusive conditions, there is, like pornographic animals, an instinctual turning away. Why do we look in some contexts and not others?
The final chapter on “Weird Animals” focuses on animals in American culture in particular, as “Americans lead the way with our commercially powerful resource-intensive anthrozoological perversities” (133, 130). Malamud explores a variety of American perversities with animals, including a series of fashion photographs in which women wear chicken skin, fashion spreads with elephants, and even the age-old joke: “Why did the chicken cross the road?” Malamud attributes the particularly exploitive American attitude to Manifest Destiny and the high value placed on progress, which is often at odds with nature. Malamud suggests and questions how animals may be incorporated into a more ecologically advanced future worldview. Rather than using animals in these “weird” ways, how might we learn from them (to avoid tsunamis, for example)?
One question I had while reading the chapter on “weird” animals, as I did elsewhere in the book, is (what seems to me to be) the special case of domestic animals. We do a lot of “weird” things with our pets, as Malamud’s example of “famous” Oolong—the domestic rabbit trained to pose with objects on his (or her) head-clearly illustrates. Our relationships with rabbits, cats, dogs, and cattle are given the same scrutiny as our relationships with other animals; Malamud insists they are decontextualized in our cultural frames. But what is a dog or cat’s natural frame (or unframe)? Such a distinction is important when considering how animals are framed and whether they are, in fact, displaced. In the example of Oolong, Malamud insists that such a visual rendering gives a person “the power to displace the animal from his ecological well-being and, implicitly, the person has colonized for his own use the ecological space from which the rabbit has been evicted” (36). Perhaps this could be considered more clearly in the case of breeding domestic dogs from wolves and domestic rabbits from wild rabbits; the displacement of animals from their natural habitats and “ecological well-being” occurs at that point of human-controlled artificial evolution. But now we have domestic animals with different behaviors, different emotional lives, different characteristics from their wild counterparts. We cannot put the domestic rabbit back into the wild; it is no longer its natural habitat. The various frames in which we place the animals with which we share our own homes, our own personal frames, would be interesting to revisit with this special consideration in mind (not that it necessarily makes the pancake on Oolong’s head less “weird”).
In his introductory chapter, Malamud explains the inherent power of all this framing. The framing of artwork in museums is given as the example of how “this framing privileges the space inside the frame…paintings are framed to impose a categorical uniformity upon an otherwise diverse and eclectic set of images” (5, his emphasis). Malamud insists, however: “I do not have any ethical concerns about the framing of paintings, but I do object to the framing of animals” (5). Perhaps there is more to be gained from this comparison. In Chaos, Territory, Art: Deleuze and the Framing of the Earth, Elizabeth Grosz argues for the sexualized, intimate nature of art between the body and the earth. Art arises from animals as a force of sexual selection by framing territories. This can be seen in the specific example, as provided by Deleuze and Guattari, of the Australian bowerbird (or Scenopoetes dentirostris), a bird that creates for itself an artistic frame from different leaves, flowers, and found objects in its environment to visually attract a mate (Grosz 12). So, this framing—while it can certainly incite segregations and power relations—also connects us to an inherent animal, biological impulse that offers its own hope for representing more than what is held inside the frame itself:
Like architecture, art is not only the movement of territorialization, the movement of joining the body to the chaos of the universe itself according to the body’s needs and interests; it is also the converse movement, that of deterritorialization, of cutting through territories, breaking up systems of enclosure and performance, traversing territory in order to retouch chaos, enabling something mad, asystematic, something of the chaotic outside to reassert and restore itself in and through the body, through works and events that impact the body. If framing creates the very condition for the plane of composition and thus of any particular works of art, art itself is equally a project that disjars, distends, and transforms frames, that focuses on the intervals and conjunctions between frames. In this sense the history of painting, and of art after painting, can be seen as the action of leaving the frame, of moving beyond, and pressing against the frame, the frame exploding through the movement it can no longer contain. (18)
Art (and the framing of art) is a useful way of thinking animals and how we might as a culture continually press against the frames that have been constructed around animals. When I first read Malamud’s book, my initial response was something like: perhaps it’s better to not look at animals…to release them from these cultural frames (as if that were somehow possible). Many examples of animals in cultural frames given by Malamud are negative. But, as in the case of meat production and animal pornography, even not looking at animals does not guarantee their safety from exploitation. Framing is not limited to the visible. Rather, let us consider the examples of how to frame and reframe animals in a way that challenges the current hegemonic cultural frames. Let us make this visual culture of animals one that “disjars, distends, and tranforms frames.” Malamud’s examples of photographer Britta Jaschinski and films The Lord God Bird and Silent Roar are excellent examples of this: each has us wondering what is beyond the screen, hiding in the dark, in the wilderness beyond our view.
In conclusion, Malamud’s An Introduction to Animals in Visual Culture is an educational and enlightening introductory exploration of how animals are framed for our desires, consumption, and entertainment. Clearly the visual representations of animals have a significant effect on our perceived relationships toward animals and real treatment of the planet’s ecosystems. The challenge is finding ways in which mainstream representations can approach “becoming-animal” rather than simply exploiting-animal: how do we press against the established frames and “retouch chaos, enabling something mad, asystematic, something of the chaotic outside to reassert and restore itself in and through the body” (18)? The animal in visual culture is not an easy body to dissect for answers, for it is not just any animal body: it is a human-imal body. The animal representations we surround ourselves with are images by which we define “human.” And us the framers, the dissectors, cutting open our own dark and enfolding cavities, what could we possibly hope to discover about an exterior animal world so cleanly removed from our own materiality? It is a painful endeavor, and one that will never bring us any closer to understanding “real” animals than where we have always already been: following ourselves, following our own animal bodies. Reframing animals perhaps begins there.
Berger, John. About Looking. New York: Pantheon Books, 1980. Print.
Grosz, Elizabeth A. Chaos, Territory, Art: Deleuze and the Framing of the Earth. New York: Columbia UP, 2013. Print.
Malamud, Randy. An Introduction to Animals and Visual Culture. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. Print.