Why Still Look at Animals: A Conversation with Oxana Timofeeva

M. Buna interviews Oxana Timofeeva about her book “The History of Animals: A Philosophy.”

“IT’S THE FLEAS biting me, and I know they’re malicious and that they’re biting me with an intelligence that at first is human, and then more than human,” writes Jean Genet in Our Lady of the Flowers (Notre-Dame-des-Fleurs, 1943; translated by Bernard Frechtman). Here are nonhumans doing what humans usually do best: claiming territory for their invasive, top-of-the-food-chain subjectivity. But what would interspecies politics make of this kind of interaction? Oxana Timofeeva’s The History of Animals: A Philosophy makes the case for accepting the animal that is already here to stay — biting us, scratching us, dwelling within and despite us. Timofeeva is associate professor of political science and sociology at the European University at St. Petersburg, senior research fellow at the Institute of Philosophy of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and a member of the art group Chto Delat.


M. BUNA: It has long been argued that the human cannot be human without the presence of the nonhuman (animal). Consequently, the animal became ahistorical. This is a perspective you try to dismantle in The History of Animals: A Philosophy, a book you choose to describe as not a “philosophical bestiary.” How do you avoid traps such as the power inclinations of our species (i.e., anthropocentrism) that even the most advanced animal texts don’t seem to escape from?

OXANA TIMOFEEVA: I dare say that avoiding anthropocentrism is a false target although I’m running the risk of being misunderstood: it’s not that I want to defend a centuries-old metaphysical paradigm against a critique that is common sense for our times. I am just thinking that the more we are trying to avoid the trap of the human, the more we fall into it. Anthropocentrism is used extensively as a fright. No one really wants to be anthropocentric or an old-fashioned humanist. Philosophy, arts, social sciences, and humanities are searching for ways of getting rid of the human perspective. But, paradoxically, the figure of the human remains the main reference for these critical approaches. Whereas humanity is finite, nonhuman is a name for an infinite multiplicity. So, the nonhuman is a negative set defined by what does not belong to it, and what matters here is precisely this “everything but” negation. If we try to interpret it in a classical Freudian manner, we must admit that it is just another way of affirming the figure of the human that persists and shapes all discourses of its radical critique. Another way of understanding this negation would be dialectical, meaning that the non of the nonhuman would operate as a marker of self-alteration, of becoming oneself through the other — the nonhuman would thus be the key to the human, and vice versa.

In this sense, the abolishment of anthropocentrism can only be fictitious, while a side effect of posthumanism might as well be the reinvention of the human. The source of the trouble is the binary opposition between the human and the nonhuman, which we tend to create without reflecting on its dialectical character. But the role of negation is principal here: it mediates between the two, between the one who I am, and the other that I am not. As I do not believe in the otherness of the other, I call for the disavowal of the logic of identity according to which there are “we” and “them,” and these “we” have to decide something about “them.” This logic of identity implies the position of power, the best example being the migration politics. If I recognize a binary, I do not try to pretend that it does not exist. Instead, I take the other side: I don’t see myself as a human being facing the animal other. Once taken seriously, this formula is helpful against the traps not only of anthropocentrism, but also of identity dogmatism.

To illustrate how the logic of subjection versus the logic of exclusion functions, you introduce us to the Aristotelian horse, an academic animal who commits the sin of inbreeding and consequently throws itself down the cliffs as punishment. Through this self-annihilation, Oedipus the Horse wages a war against its own being in the same way humanity wages a war against animality. (Some might even argue that humanity itself is a form of war against animality.) What is the meaning of such a gesture, given the fact that human beings are the only measure of order?

Among questions about what the animal can or cannot do, there is one still without answer: do animals commit suicide? Positivist scientists tend to reply that they don’t; and all animal gestures reminiscent of suicide can be explained by their instinctive behaviors that eventually cause their death. For instance, the mystery of Overtoun Bridge in Scotland, from which dogs leapt, was unraveled when it turned out there were mice and mink burrows under the bridge, so the dogs were leaping there attracted by the smell of the rodents’ urine. Scientists say that animals behave naturally, while suicide is not a natural behavior. Therefore they do not actually commit suicide, except for the cases when they do self-destruct as a result of mental disorder caused by their close proximity to humans, zoo captivity, et cetera. According to this scientific point of view, interpreting certain gestures of animals as suicidal means romanticizing and humanizing them, projecting on them our own fantasies. But what is even more anthropocentric is the scholarly verdict that animals, unlike humans, do not die of their own accord, meaning they are not able to negate themselves as living beings. I like your metaphor of warfare, of humanity as leading the war against the animal, and of the Aristotelian horse who, in this particular war, takes the side of the human. What my book tries to argue is that this negative gesture is intrinsically animal. It is the animal within us that breaks the circle of natural and immediate existence. The animal way of being is negative, and we all share it with other species. By this, I do not intend to argue against natural sciences and claim that nonhuman animals do commit suicide the same way humans do for whatever romantic reasons. What I want to say is that the line between the human and the animal passes through this very creature, be it Oedipus the King or Oedipus the Horse. The negation starts from the animal that in the Oedipal situation (or any exceptional situation) takes the side of the human and attacks the animal that it is. Even if, according to the laws of nature, horses do not kill themselves, there will be at least one that does. This gesture is excessive, it cannot be measured in a positive way, therefore neither science nor law can deal with it — but art and literature can.

Once they lost their sacredness, animals got human laws and prosecution instead. Animal sacrifice was replaced with lawsuits, persecution, and excommunication as humanism was built on the exclusion of animals to prove human superiority. But the successful opposition to this new juridical attitude toward animals and the arguments it was based on came with its own paradoxes. How did these contradictions play out, especially in the inclusion/exclusion game? Can you provide an example of what you’re describing here?

It’s not easy to decide what would be more humanist: to charge a pig that bit a child with a criminal assault and behead it in the main square, or to defend it by saying that a pig cannot be condemned, because it lacks intelligence, morality, and, therefore, is outside the law. Here lies the paradox: from our perspective, medieval animal trials look simply preposterous, while the position of their humanist advocates is easier to understand. But isn’t it that precisely within the logic of the latter the culture of slaughterhouse becomes possible? Although it is based on the idea of hierarchy of God’s creatures, Christian universalism still thinks of animals and humans in terms of certain continuity, where the word of God, and consequently the law, is potentially accessible and translatable for everyone. A community can sentence a pig to death or excommunicate a group of mice while an individual like Saint Francis of Assisi can preach to birds. I was thinking about this as I was participating in Go and Stop the Progress, a performance organized by our art collective Chto Delat this summer in Berlin and dedicated to the idea of conviviality (a term introduced by the Croatian-Austrian philosopher Ivan Illich to designate a creative intercourse of persons with their environments). During rehearsals, one of the performers brought a dog that joined the process and went very well with the movements of the other participants. While some were saying that the dog “feels” the choreography of the play and must therefore take part in the performance itself, others were more skeptical, pointing out that it is still an animal that can get scared or too excited. The risk was taken and, unsurprisingly, the dog performed successfully. I had my own role too, reading a philosophical lecture while lying on a table that echoed the psychoanalytic couch — it was a mixture of lecture and confession. As the action took place outside, I saw the sky and beautiful birds that were my audience. So, in a way, I was lecturing to the birds, but it did not look like they listened to me. We can pretend that we are talking to birds or moving together with dogs, but we do it for the human observer. We are playing for the audience, but animals are not — they are, I would say, playing for real. This is something we can learn from animals, once we manage to change the rules of the universalist game, but without its complete abolishment. We are all animals speaking different languages; and translation, if possible, must be found not in the practices of inclusion through violent repression, but in arts, in performance, in interactions between species that are difficult, if not impossible, to formalize — like friendship, comradeship, love, and care. It sounds very utopian, as the entire capitalist system is based on the slaughter system, but things can change, and we ourselves are the things that can and do change.

As soon as poverty was criminalized as crime against the bourgeois order, misery was no longer a sign of sanctity. Instead, it became a sign of madness and, consequently, humans who were not able or willing to work were treated as outcasts and confined in asylums bearing unnerving similarities to menageries. Against this rather hostile background, what was at stake for animals in particular?

I have to admit that Michel Foucault’s History of Madness (Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique, 1961) was one of my main sources of inspiration, along with Aristotle’s History of Animals (I’ve deliberately borrowed my title from him) and Georges Bataille’s History of Eroticism (L’Histoire de l’érotisme, 1951) — these are the three elephants on the backs of which my own History of Animals stands. Against the background of classical reason that affirms itself through radical exclusion of all those who do not fit into the new bourgeois order, animals play a specific role. In order to better explain this role, I will refer to Foucault’s Order of Things (Les mots et les choses: Une archéologie des sciences humaines, 1966), where he also analyzes Las Meninas (1656) by Diego Velázquez. In this painting, we see the young infanta and her entourage: maids of honor, a chaperone, a bodyguard, two dwarfs, a dog, the artist himself working with a canvas, and the queen’s and king’s mirror images. For Foucault, Las Meninas shows how man emerges as the new episteme. The man who represents and recognizes himself in the mirror is quite recent — he is only a couple of centuries old, as he is a product of the classical era. There is one figure there that deserves a special consideration in our context: the dog. Pavel Dmitrievich Tishchenko wrote an article about this dog. “What is its breed?” (answer: a watchdog) and “What does it watch for?” are questions already discussed by Foucault. Tishchenko pays attention to another detail: the dwarf is about to kick the dog out of this family portrait. Not only the dog itself, but also the gestures toward it are significant. The dog does not only watch over the infant and her entourage, but also over itself, its own dogness, animality, and wilderness, which are monitored by domestication. What the dog watches over is not a human being but an animal ready to get wild at any moment. I think this is a good illustration of the classical exclusion of animality on which the exclusion of madness and poverty, in a Foucauldian sense, is based. But nowadays poverty has been rehabilitated. In the 20th century, bourgeois morals were compromised, and now even the richest often demonstrate a kind of poverty chic. Madness, too, has been rehabilitated — we are allowed to be crazy, to get wild, et cetera. On the other hand, reason is much less celebrated. It is as if capitalist humanity realized that the exclusion is not possible, that madness, poverty, and animality are always and already here — whenever we try to kick them out, they return.

You’re arguing that “we need only go back to the passage from the radical Cartesian exclusion to the radical Hegelian inclusion, where the animal first appears as subjectivity.” With animals being denied the possession of their own life and death, how is the animal subjectivity supposed to survive or even go beyond the frame imposed by human consciousness without literarily and metaphorically dying along the way?

Why is Hegelian inclusion radical? Because it is a dialectical machine. It differs from the other kind of inclusion based on the commonsensical logic of identity that I do not share (according to which the animal other is conceived as a positive entity different from myself). First of all, it was Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s lesson that the self can only be formed in the process of self-alteration or becoming other. And this is what all animals share, driven by the force of negativity. In the logic of identity, the act of inclusion is necessarily accompanied by another exclusion (we include some animals in the domain of rights, but exclude others for whatever reasons; animal others resemble us, therefore we go vegan and only eat plants just like other animals do), whereas the dialectical logic of self-alteration is really all-inclusive. But this is an inclusion through negation — it includes all, but only as negated. There are two terms of the opposition, animal and human, and mediation between them. The death of the animal as the beginning of human consciousness is an extreme example of such mediation as negation. Of course, there are a lot of things here to which contemporary (i.e., post-Nietzschean) philosophy is hostile. First of all, the Hegelian system keeps all traditional hierarchies. At a deeper level, this all-inclusive system, under the term totality, was actively criticized in the 20th century — this totality was associated with enclosure and unity which did not fit the new ideals of openness and multiplicity. The Hegelian principle of negativity was the first thing to be rejected by affirmationism, the theory (labeled by Benjamin Noys) that takes being as something positive — if there is negation, there should be first something to negate, whereas for Hegel, negation comes first. How is this possible? And here lies Hegel’s special understanding of time that embraces such a thing as retroaction. Negation does come first, and it defines what has been negated and what thus appears retroactively. This is how dialectical time moves: the end precedes the beginning. Something happens only when it is remembered, upon its end. Therefore truth, for Hegel, becomes indistinguishable from death. Such an idea of dialectical time is very counterintuitive, but if we appreciate it, we might start to understand how to handle this world that always already reveals itself as post-apocalyptic. It is not only that, in our anthropocentric, slaughter-based world, animals literally die on the way for the humans’ well-being. In a sense, we animals also “die” on the way to ourselves — not even metaphorically but structurally. We still have to understand this structure that lies deeper than the layers of everyday practice where we thought we could simply change or reject it. A better way to grasp this structure is suggested by psychoanalysis, namely by Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan. In this, I am close to the Ljubljana school of psychoanalysis — I am trying to read Hegel with Freud. The chapter on Hegel ends with a reference to Franz Kafka’s philosophical dog, both as Freudian and Hegelian, the dog of science, of the experience of consciousness (Hegel) and, at the same time, of the unconscious (Freud).

Even if the popular narratives of capitalism try to make invisible or even violently erase the presence of animals from modern life, the fact remains that our very survival as a species is still based on animal slavery. But placing animals at the center of the analysis may not sit well with some, as it disperses the focal figure of the human laborer. Could you elaborate on the idea of the animal having an “unemployed negativity”?

In The History of Animals, I do not expand on the topic of slavery, but two years ago, I published an article where I analyzed the nonhuman aspects of slavery in the context of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic. I proceed from the fact that contemporary capitalism is still grounded in slave labor, even if officially, slavery is already abolished. I do not only mean animal labor, neither do I use this term metaphorically, to designate the burnout state of humanity at the beginning of the 21st century with its layers of (self-)exploitation. I mean real slavery, the so-called human trafficking, using unpaid labor of children, women, people in poor countries, sexual workers, illegal migrant workers, et cetera. What these people share is the nonhuman condition in which they work as their living is generally reduced to only this: work. Slavery starts by dehumanizing the one supposed to work for the master. In Alexandre Kojève’s interpretation of Hegel’s dialectic, mastery is linked to human dignity — the master is the one who is recognized (as a human being, as a citizen). On the empirical level, we see that people whose labor equals slavery experience trouble getting recognized (i.e., their status as citizens is vulnerable). As there is a general confusion between human rights and citizen rights, their trouble starts from this very point: if they are not citizens of a given state, the state cannot guarantee their human rights. Dehumanizing is and always was a precondition of slavery; animal slavery was, in this sense, the model for the human one. It was Bataille who paid attention to the fact that animals do not actually work. This sovereignty, as it was called by Bataille, was very important for the prehistoric people who, for this very reason, worshipped animals: while humans had to work hard in order to survive, the idleness of animals was considered to be the sign of divinity. In a way, we still worship this idleness. For instance, the cult of cats in contemporary mass culture: what is so admirable about them is that they look idle, indifferent, and somewhat imperious. Our attraction to these creatures is caused by the waste of sovereignty that they are appointed to symbolize. For Bataille, slavery is a human thing, not an animal one. The animal stays essentially free, even in captivity or bondage.

You use Bataille’s “animality is immediacy or immanence” as a starting point for a chapter devoted to the silent and somehow conforming animality of the fish. What traits would best pin down this “dialectics of the fish,” as you’ve called it?

Immediacy and immanence are other aspects of animality discussed by Bataille, who gets close to Martin Heidegger when talking about animals that live in their environment without noticing it. But if for Heidegger the immanence of animal being is linked to its intrinsic poverty, for Bataille immanence points to excess and freedom. When I claim that Bataille’s animals are essentially free, I keep in mind that he is talking about animal freedom in two senses: that of sovereignty, and that of immanence. Bataille is exceptional as he is both a Hegelian and an anti-Hegelian, sometimes even within one and the same sentence. On the one hand, there is a plan of immanence (to use a Deleuzian phrase) or positive continuity that does not know ruptures. For Bataille’s animals such continuity is the one of the natural being. On the other hand, the animal’s sovereignty points to the order of negativity and the movement beyond one’s restraints. In the chapter dedicated to the dialectics of the fish, I am trying to connect these two contradictory freedoms. I give some examples from the history of philosophy and literature, where fish in water is used as an illustration of the idea of immanence or being that coincides with essence. Thus I create a kind of philosophical narrative about the fish that eventually comes ashore. The latter is a Marxian fish: if its essence is the water of the river, it cannot really coincide with its being as the river gets polluted, et cetera. This fish simply cannot stay in water as the continuity of its environment is broken. According to Karl Marx, proletarians are in the same situation as the fish: that’s how they become revolutionary. It’s not that they simply do not want — they just cannot stay in their “water.” I see this political potency in animals. It is not an obvious thing, as there is nothing commonsensical about it. Fish will not come ashore in order to make a political claim — only its death by pollution casts it ashore. Could this death become the beginning of consciousness? If not, the cause is lost. A planetary revolution is not a matter of individual species, as it claims interspecies solidarity, or “solidarity with nonhuman people,” as Timothy Morton argues.

In Andrei Platonov’s work, the anthropocentric perspective reigns supreme — his animals are humans in disguise, tortured by their unrecognized intellect, imprisoned in bodies and contexts that do not escape the “natural law”: at the end of the day, some still have to be eaten by others. But this poverty of animal life comes with nature’s desire for change (i.e., the becoming-fish of Platonov’s fisherman) in which profound boredom (the Russian toska) plays a distinctive role. Switching from narrative to political mode, what would this desire for change most likely translate into?

Platonov’s writings present a radical revolutionary humanism as well as a kind of untimely, premature posthumanism. Maybe his idea that animals are prisoners in their own bodies, desiring happiness and a better future, is the closest to what I argue about the political potential of the animal subjectivity. This potential can only be actualized in a kind of interspecies communist politics: at the beginning of the 20th century, in post-revolutionary Russia, Platonov was perhaps one of its first proponents. The idea that revolution must be not only international, but planetary, comes from the Russian cosmists who influenced Platonov — not only the society, but nature, too, is waiting for change. We should change the world as soon as possible, says one of his characters, otherwise even animals are getting insane. Toska, the Russian boredom, is the form of this insanity as one simply cannot stand the situation when nothing happens. It is a negation of a present that is getting unbearable. Platonov’s lesson is that not only humans, but animals and plants are bored up to that point. I think this theory is very relevant today.

The History of Animals: A Philosophy is an attempt to erase the line between humans and animals (not from an ethical perspective, but a genealogical one), and produce a telling history of animality when much of the current discourse around the “animal question” is wrapped in sentimentality and affect. It gestures toward the possibility of animal subjectivity even when co-opted into our own subjectivity or prodded into symbolism but, most significantly, it complicates the assumption that animals neither live unhistorically nor with historical passivity. In your work, you advance the concept of acceptance through negativity. How does this concept operate when coming to terms with our own animality? And would this acceptance through negativity ultimately entail the corrosion of Friedrich Nietzsche’s “human, all too human” paradigm?

I want to be clear: by accepting our animality, I do not mean going back to nature, being natural, listening to one’s nature — nothing of this kind. It is not about yoga, biological products, sexual freedoms, sports, and other more or less commercialized practices of self-care performed by contemporary bourgeois individuals. By accepting the animal that I am, I mean a movement toward self-alteration or dis-identifying that implies separating from the position of power. As long as I recognize the structure where the paradigm of “we” versus “they” (animals, migrants, women, aliens, zombies, communists, criminals, et cetera) exists, I join “them” — be it symbolically, performatively, or even sentimentally and affectively (why not?). The attempt to go beyond individuality, to use my humanness merely as a point of departure or a bearer of the other, is not safe, as it breaks my autonomy, but this might be the way to the sovereign being beyond the human. The animal is already here, typing these letters, but to set it free requires a lot of theoretical and practical work that cannot be done in solitude: for this, a collective of various creatures is needed. How to create this collective and how to be a part of it — this is the question for the future interspecies politics.


M. Buna is a freelance writer with work featured in Full Stop, Hong Kong Review of Books3:AM Magazine, and elsewhere.

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M. Buna is a freelance writer.


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