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Edited by Michael Lawrence & Laura McMahon

© British Film Institute 2015
Introduction and editorial arrangement © Michael Lawrence and Laura McMahon 2015
Individual chapters © their respective authors 2015

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Acknowledgments — v
Notes on Contributors — vii
Medium Foreword — xi
Akira Mizuta Lippit

Introduction: Animal Lives and Moving Images — 1

Laura McMahon and Michael Lawrence


1 Animal Photogénie — 23
The Wild Side of French Film Theory’s First Wave
James Leo Cahill
2 Cats and the Moving Image — 42
Feline Cinematicity from Lumière to Maru
Rosalind Galt
3 Buñuel’s Bull Meets YouTube’s Lion — 58
Surrealist and Digital Posthumanisms
Adam Lowenstein
4 Muybridgean Motion/Materialist Film — 72
Malcolm Le Grice’s Berlin Horse
Michael Lawrence


5 ‘You Can See What Species I Belong to, but Don’t Treat
Me Lightly’ — 95
Rhetorics of Representation in Animated Animal Narratives
Paul Wells
6 A Cut or a Dissolve? — 108
Insects and Identification in Microcosmos
Georgina Evans
7 Subjunctive Desires — 121
Becoming Animal in Green Porno and Seduce Me
Cynthia Chris
8 Animal Melancholia — 134
On the Scent of Dean Spanley
Lynn Turner
9 King Kong Capitalism — 153
Julian Murphet
10 Animal Life and Moral Agency in Post-war Cinema — 171
Velma Johnston, Marilyn Monroe, Arthur Miller and
John Huston’s The Misfits
Robert McKay
11 Being Struck — 187
On the Force of Slaughter and Cinematic Affect
Nicole Shukin and Sarah O’Brien
12 Screening Pigs — 203
Visibility, Materiality and the Production of Species
Laura McMahon


13 Animal Life in the Cinematic Umwelt — 221
Anat Pick
14 Bear Images — 238
Human Performativity and Animal Touch in Grizzly Man
Cecilia Novero
15 The Tumult of Integrations Out of the Sky — 254
The Movement of Birds and Film’s Ornithology
Jonathan Burt
16 Unknowing Animals — 271
Wild Bird Films and the Limits of Knowledge
Susan McHugh
17 Hitchcock – The Animal, Life and Death — 288
Raymond Bellour

Index — 299

Our deepest thanks to our authors for their contributions and their patience.
A particular debt of gratitude is owed to Jenna Steventon.
Thanks also to Sophia Contento, Lucinda Knight, Malcolm Le Grice, Allyn
Hardyck and Vibeke Madsen.

This book is dedicated to the animals.

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Notes on Contributors

RAYMOND BELLOUR is a researcher, writer and emeritus research scientist at

the CNRS (CRAL, Paris). He has been responsible for the edition of the complete
works of Henri Michaux in the Pléiade (1996–2004) and co-curated in 1990 the
‘Passages de l'image’ exhibition at the Centre Georges Pompidou. His books
include: L’Analyse du film (1995), L’Entre-Images: Photo, Cinéma, Vidéo (2002),
L’Entre-Images 2: Mots, Images; Le Corps du cinéma. Hypnoses, Émotions,
Animalités (2009) and La Querelle des dispositifs. Cinéma – installations, exposi-
tions (2012). He is a founding member of the film journal Trafic.

JONATHAN BURT is the author of Animals in Film (2002) and Rat (2005). He
is the creator and editor of Reaktion’s prize-winning Animal series, which has been
translated into many languages, and is also the author of numerous articles on dif-
ferent aspects of animal history.

JAMES LEO CAHILL is Assistant Professor of Cinema Studies and French at the
University of Toronto and a co-editor of the journal Discourse. He is presently
completing a book manuscript on ‘Cinema’s Copernican Vocation: Science,
Surrealism, and the Early Wildlife Films of Jean Painlevé and Geneviève Hamon’.
His writing appears in Discourse, Empedocles, Framework, Journal of Visual
Culture, Kunstforum International, Spectator, as well as the edited anthologies
Screening Nature: Cinema beyond the Human (2013), Martin Arnold: Gross
Anatomies and The New Silent Cinema.

CYNTHIA CHRIS is Associate Professor in the Department of Media Culture at

the College of Staten Island. Her research interests are in film and television stud-
ies, gender and sexuality studies and critical animal studies. She is the author of
Watching Wildlife (2006) and co-editor of Cable Visions: Television beyond
Broadcasting (2007) and Media Authorship (2013) and, from 2014–16, co-editor
of the journal WSQ.

GEORGINA EVANS is a College Lecturer and Director of Studies in Modern and

Medieval Languages at St John’s College, Cambridge, and an Affiliated Lecturer
of the University of Cambridge. Her book Cinema’s Inter-Sensory Encounters:
Krzysztof Kieślowski and Claire Denis is forthcoming. Her current research is
focused on the cinematic representation of non-mammalian perception.

ROSALIND GALT is Reader in Film Studies at King’s College London. She is the
author of Pretty: Film and the Decorative Image (2011) and The New European
Cinema: Redrawing the Map (2006) and co-editor of Global Art Cinema: New
Theories and Histories (2010). Her recent publications address sexuality, economic
crisis and world cinema.

MICHAEL LAWRENCE is Lecturer in Film Studies at the University of Sussex.

He is the author of Sabu (2014) and the co-editor, with Laura McMahon, of
Animal Life and the Moving Image and, with Karen Lury, of The Zoo and Screen
Media: Images of Exhibition and Encounter.

AKIRA MIZUTA LIPPIT is Professor and Chair of Critical Studies in the School
of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. He is the author of
Atomic Light (Shadow Optics) (2005), Electric Animal: Toward a Rhetoric of
Wildlife (2000) and Ex-Cinema: From a Theory of Experimental Film and Video
(2012). He is currently completing two books, one on contemporary Japanese
cinema and another on David Lynch’s baroque alphabetics.

ADAM LOWENSTEIN is Associate Professor of English and Film Studies at the

University of Pittsburgh, where he also directs the Film Studies Program. He is the
author of Shocking Representation: Historical Trauma, National Cinema, and the
Modern Horror Film (2005) and Dreaming of Cinema: Spectatorship, Surrealism,
and the Age of Digital Media (2015).

SUSAN McHUGH, Professor and Chair of English at the University of New

England, is the author of Animal Stories: Narrating across Species Lines (2011) –
which was awarded the Michelle Kendrick Book Prize by the Society for
Literature, Science, and the Arts in 2012 – as well as Dog (2004). She co-edited
Literary Animals Look, a special issue of Antennae: The Journal of Nature in
Visual Culture (2013) with Robert McKay, and The Routledge Handbook of
Human-Animal Studies (2014) with Garry Marvin. McHugh serves as managing
editor of the humanities for Society & Animals and she is a member of the edi-
torial boards of Antennae, Animal Studies Journal, Environment and History,
H-Animal Discussion Network, and Humanimalia: A Journal of Human–Animal
Interface Studies. With McKay and John Miller, she is co-editor of the book series
Palgrave Studies in Animals and Literature.

Notes on Contributors

ROBERT McKAY is Senior Lecturer in English Literature at the University of

Sheffield. He has published widely on the politics of species in post-war and con-
temporary literature and film and wrote the interdisciplinary collection Killing
Animals (2006) with the Animal Studies Group. He is series co-editor of Palgrave
Studies in Animals and Literature, associate editor (Literature) for Society and
Animals and co-convened the Millennial Animals and Reading Animals confer-
ences at Sheffield in 2000 and 2014.

LAURA McMAHON is College Lecturer in French at Gonville and Caius College,

Cambridge. She is the author of Cinema and Contact: The Withdrawal of Touch
in Nancy, Bresson, Duras and Denis (2012) and the co-editor, with Michael
Lawrence, of Animal Life and the Moving Image. Her current research project
explores relations between cinema, politics and the nonhuman.

JULIAN MURPHET is Scientia Professor in English and Film Studies in the

School of Arts and Media, UNSW, where he also directs the Centre for Modernism
Studies in Australia. He is the author of Multimedia Modernism: Literature and
the Anglo-American Avant-garde (2009), co-editor of Modernism and Masculinity
(2014) and Literature and Visual Technologies (2003) and edits the new journal
in modernism studies Affirmations: of the modern.

CECILIA NOVERO has a PhD in German Studies from the University of

Chicago. After positions held at the University of Michigan, Vassar College and
Penn State University, she joined the University of Otago in 2008. Her book en-
titled Antidiets of the Avant-garde: From Futurist Cooking to Eat Art examines the
temporal relations between the historical avant-garde and the neo-avant-garde. She
has published scholarly articles on Dada, the cultural history of food, Viennese
Actionism, artists Daniel Spoerri and Antoni Miralda, travel writing, and German
and European film. Cecilia’s research and teaching interests encompass aesthetics
and critical theory, European cinema, travel literature, the former GDR, gender
theories and, recently, animal studies.

SARAH O’BRIEN is a Marion L. Brittain postdoctoral fellow in the School of

Literature, Media, and Communication at the Georgia Institute of Technology. She
completed her PhD in comparative literature at the University of Toronto in 2012.
Her current book project, tentatively titled Slaughter Cinema, examines how inter-
species violence, pain and death are inscribed in the temporal forms of both old
and new film technologies. Her article, ‘Nous revenons à nos moutons: Regarding
Animals in Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep’, recently appeared in Cinema Journal.

ANAT PICK is Senior Lecturer in Film at Queen Mary University of London. She
works at the intersection of continental philosophy, film and animal studies, and
is the author of Creaturely Poetics: Animality and Vulnerability in Literature and


Film (2011) and co-editor of Screening Nature: Cinema beyond the Human
(2013). Her new book project is titled Vegan Cinema: Looking, Eating, and
Letting Be.

NICOLE SHUKIN is Associate Professor in the Department of English at the

University of Victoria and faculty member of the graduate programme in Cultural,
Social, and Political Thought. She is the author of Animal Capital: Rendering Life
in Biopolitical Times (2009). By way of tracing the cultural and material politics
of animal life and death through particular histories of modern and late capital-
ism, her work explores things like the securitisation of animal touch in relation to
pandemic fears of zoonotic disease, old and new forms of pastoral power that
govern both human and nonhuman populations, and the affective labour of ani-
mals in post-industrial settings. She is presently at work on a manuscript that the-
orises the ‘feeling power’ of animals as a form of labour and source of value in
militarised market economies of the early twenty-first century.

LYNN TURNER is Senior Lecturer in Visual Cultures at Goldsmiths, University

of London. She writes on deconstruction and animals, sexuality, feminism, film
and science fiction. She is the editor of The Animal Question in Deconstruction
(2013), co-author of Visual Cultures as … Recollection (2013) and co-editor of
The Edinburgh Companion to Animal Studies.

PAUL WELLS is Director of the Animation Academy at Loughborough

University. He has published widely in Animation Studies including Understanding
Animation (forthcoming), Animation: Genre and Authorship (2002), Animation
and America (2002) and The Animated Bestiary: Animals, Cartoons, and Culture
(2009). He is also an established writer and director for radio, television and the-
atre, and conducts consultancies and workshops worldwide based on his book
Scriptwriting. He is Chair of the Association of British Animation Archives.

Akira Mizuta Lippit

Medium Foreword

A field opens up, at once before and all around, without end in every direction.
This field, an expanse, is both space conceived and projected outward – a field of
inquiry – and the very ground that makes possible a field, this and all other fields.
From every angle, one sees another horizon, situating one always in the middle,
even when standing before, outside or at the edges of this field. This field of fields,
that fields, noun and verb, takes place here and now, immediately, while signalling
the possibility of a space to come, imminently. This field is never merely there but
is opened by those who traverse it, by those in turn made visible by their passage
across it. Such a field appears in Michael Lawrence and Laura McMahon’s Animal
Life and the Moving Image, a field that opens outward from this work, but one
that also forms the ground that makes this anthology, this assemblage possible in
the first place. This field is already there, and still follows from the intervention. A
before and below, to come and already close, and yet always still afield.
Before what? What is to come that is already here? How can one be both at
once? By nature, a field, and this field in particular, has had to exist already in
order for it to come. It happens because it already is, there. The field opens up on
and from a field; the field makes possible a field: it fields. Jacques Derrida under-
stood this when he inscribed the subtitle of his first organised intervention on the
subject of animals parenthetically: ‘more to follow’, à suivre. The animal that
therefore I am (‘l’animal que donc je suis’), determines a mode of being as follow-
ing; being defined by following, être and suivre converging in the homophonic con-
jugation suis, a field that forms between being and following another (that I
therefore am and become by following). The self-determination implied in
Descartes’ formulation is undone by the animal that Derrida names (one or more
animals, animot) autobiographically (‘I am’) and as precedence (‘I follow’) in his
rearticulation of the Cartesian cogitatum. To be is also to follow, to come after,
therefore. Derrida’s temporality is critical to understanding the formation of a
field, being and following, being (becoming) by following, following as a mode of
And if to follow is always to come after, how then to stand before, and speak
before that which always arrives in advance, afield? How to write a foreword (the

task at hand) from behind or from within? The genre suggests that one write with-
out, before the work one foresees. What kind of word is a foreword, a word or
sequence of words that come before what follows? This is the paradox, spatial and
temporal that the law of fields works through. There is no field without a field in
place already. Here, already, all around. A field always comes before and after that
which makes the field visible. It produces itself in hindsight, and looks forward by
looking backward. In this instance, the questions taken up by the many brilliant
interventions that constitute Animal Life and the Moving Image, make visible in
retrospection what is to come: the evolution of animal studies across the field of
what might have once seemed at the other side of the world, film and media stud-
ies, like physis and technê, separated by a metaphysics. Between these two ends, a
field that serves both as a destination and a point of departure. In the middle, mid-
field, medium.
Between the two, a field of dreams, a series of questions fielded, the field of law
and law of fields. Here, the field is also simply the ground below, the surface of the
earth, a grassy field for roaming and grazing. With no beginning in sight, it flows
outward in every direction, making both beginning and end seem impossible.
Animal studies has always been thus, a field with no proper origin (art, biology,
philosophy, law) and outer limits; it was always there, as many have noted, a field
already there where and when it began. In a strange way, the study of film and its
offspring, named collectively here ‘the moving image’, has also been a field with-
out beginning or end, a field of inquiry that began long before the advent of
cinema (from the prehistoric caves at Lascaux and elsewhere to the philosopher’s
cave, to many more cameras en route to the cinema’s prehistory) and extends into
an unforeseeable and perhaps barely imaginable future. Like the study of animals
and animality, the study of the moving image exceeds the objects and bodies it
names. That is animal studies, like film studies just before it, speaks to epistemic
shifts in ethics and aesthetics, sexuality and its practices, to the core of the natural
and everything unnatural therein, to the grounding of subjectivity as well as the
shadows that form within such totalities; they are both fields of lines or forces
framed but never bound by an object. And as such, there can be no conventional
spatiality in the field, no standing before or beyond, but only degrees of within.
This is its paradox and dilemma.
Which stands before which (who before whom), animal studies or moving
image studies? Animal life or animation, which movement follows which? Does
the dialectic of being and following require sequencing? One could attempt to nar-
rate a history of the animal life transformed by and to moving image, as if such a
narrative could name a moment of evolution, binding one to the other and naming
between them a subject. A subject that becomes one by being two distinct forms
of life and movement, animal and animation; together an image that follows one
from another. But isn’t the point (certainly here in this collection) that one is
always framed within another, animal life and moving image, inseparable, neither
possible in some fundamental manner, without the other.

Medium Foreword

The convergence of animal and moving image studies also frames a redundancy or
duplication, a doubling of forces that moves through an object without ever reaching
its end in that object. Animals and films, objets petit a, here and elsewhere, always in
the middle, both a medium rather than an end. Doppelgängers, one to the other,
which open onto fields of inquiry, forcing open such fields, force fields. Objects, words
and moving images and bodies that open a field by moving across it. Gilles Deleuze
understood this economy of formation in the figures of animals (in Kafka’s medium),
in becoming-animal but also in the movement and time images he identified as the
basis of cinema. A cinema formed and performed by the time and image movements
it engenders. They are always there, animals and moving images, because as signifiers,
they are formed (embodied) by the fields they traverse and which traverse them, by
the forces that constitute them as objects beyond themselves – beyondness a consti-
tutive feature of animals and moving images and not their transgression.
What happens when these two forcefields collide, synthesis or negation? Do
they form a monstrous whole or disappear into each other, one foreclosing the
other? Or do they produce something that exceeds either force, something that
exceeds the excess already determined by each force? An excess of excess, an
extension of the intensity that moves both inward and outward, toward the centre
and the margins at once. A movement made possible by an image, by the anima-
tion of an image whose very movement determines (and overdetermines) a field.
The field of animal moving image studies, amiss.
A movement that allows one to stand before and follow, to stand in the middle,
as medium, at once. A field understood as medium, neither before nor after, nei-
ther being nor following in any configuration of être or suivre, or even of surviv-
ing, but rather of transmitting, of moving between. (One is rendered medium in
this field, becoming-medium.) A conduit, a channel. Movement made possible by
the force between two fields, animal studies and moving image studies, between
animal life and animated images.
What is amiss, perhaps, astray or inappropriate before animal moving image
studies, what is out of place could be the foreword that tries to speak before, there-
fore, in advance of something that cannot be spoken of beforehand, and whose
words are destined to follow, arriving later, afterward. Backword.
From behind and below, following, the afterword pushes the field foreword,
producing between them a word in-between, a word in transit, medium. The
superimposition of one onto another, the assemblage or montage of animal and
moving image studies generates a field unique to this heterogeneity, to the com-
bination of heterogeneities already at work in each. And from this field of fields,
of forces, emerges a new field whose movements are defined by two elements, two
objects that are themselves defined by their particular relations to movement. Such
are the multiplications, expansions: two words become four. Toward animal life
and the moving image, two words, and then four, foreword. How then to stand
before a field, to see the field ahead without already being inside it, within it
already from the start?


Forward. Can one move forward in an expanse that has no beginning or end?
How to distinguish forward from backward, leading from following, living from
living-on, surviving? Does it matter? Perhaps the proper direction for a field is
every direction, which would render no position before or after, nowhere forward
or backward. Every place then within a field defined by perspectives that render
such points before and after any other given point in the field.
And what name to give this field, these fields, this fertility that yields everything
which comes to pass on and across fields? What to name such transversality?
Animal studies? The fantastic discipline that exceeds biology and zoology, and
which encompasses the human and every life that comes before and after, but also
the animality that makes possible humanity and its negation? As well as that which
comes before and after humanity, ‘before the law’, as Cary Wolfe says following
Kafka and many in-between who have followed Kafka before the law, of human-
ity to its other side and afterword, ‘post-humanity’?
To stand before this field is already to stand in its middle. Before the field is
already its middle, a medium. Because this field, animal film studies is constituted
along a series of borders, frames that make the field possible. Along and through
a series of media. Every limit is its centre, at the edges its medium. And what lies
beyond the field, where does it end? The law of the parergon and of framing more
generally, according to Derrida, the work at the edges of work, at once outside and
constitutive, the work that falls to the margins and yet without which the centre is
unimaginable, unsustainable, defines such a field, an exterritorial site from which
the work becomes visible. Beyond this field, only fields. The field fields. A force-
field, a pressure or movement that directs one forward, toward that which comes
to form the very ground from which it begins again, afterward.
Foreword or forward; which comes first, which follows? How to step forward
onto the field of animal studies, which is not one? Neither a field nor only one
field. An assemblage or gathering, a pack that takes place on a field, in lieu of a
field. How to speak in advance, before, as it were, with no shared language? In
what language, a foreword? Who or what speaks before the language that comes?
But this is already the question posed in these fields, the question that can be said
to constitute these fields.
Among the many concerns in the field of animal studies, and perhaps even more
so in the field of animal film studies is the status of language, of a language denied
animals throughout the history of much philosophy. The inability to name as such
and to respond. For the shrouded animal that Heidegger imagines, the weltarm
animal haunted by a life nearby but unlived, unlivable because it fails to reach its clos-
ure in death. The poverty of animal life for Heidegger follows from the foreclosure
of language in animals, from the experience of death made possible by language.
Without such articulation, life is never lived as life, as such, but only as life fore-
shadowed by life, life postponed by a language not yet articulated. But such unartic-
ulated language exists elsewhere, beyond the purview of philosophy, in the space
between physics and metaphysics, between life and death, in the middle. Medium.

Medium Foreword

Such is the advent of the medium, and its proliferation in all directions, media.
Always a middle but never central, the medium language facilities a transmission
between places on the spectrum of various metaphysics; but the medium itself is a
language that never comes into its own. A language neither created nor extended,
the medium language or word is always as such another’s language. A language
given; what precedes me and which I follow. There before me. And wouldn’t this
disavowal of my own conceit, this language toward which I arrive (take place), in
which I discover myself face to face with another, in another’s eyes, name one of
the invaluable contributions of both animal studies and film studies? Namely, sub-
jectivity discovered elsewhere, in the other, as a response and responsibility to the
other, in the middle between myself and an other?
If the field of animal studies is not one but many, does it share a common ground
across the many species that constitute it? Is there a shared space across which the
multitude moves? A word, perhaps, in the absence of a language to come – ‘animal’
– that comes before everything else. A foreword, animal that stands before whatever
might follow in the form of a field or discipline. And maybe more than one word
before. ‘Animal Life and the Moving Image’, four words, ‘animal’, ‘life’, ‘moving’,
and ‘image’. Four words bound together in a virtual book that moves the series along
from body to body and image to image, toward a word yet to come, the one that
always arrives later, at the end and in hindsight, ‘life’.
For as every chapter in this remarkable book reveals, it is toward life that ani-
mals and cinema converge, not only in it. Life foreshadowed. No life is revealed in
this study, no life secured or saved, no life lost or spent. The only possible life,
animal life, is one that is shared, that forms the very field from which life as such
might be one day possible. And there is no life for us, whoever such an us might
name, without another we call in advance, and for lack of a better word, ‘animal’.
‘Animal’ is the name for what is not yet named or nameable in life, which is to say
in advance, ‘life’. Always before and therefore, foreword.
The menagerie of authors collected in this volume alone illustrates the com-
plexity and diversity of this field that is not one but many. Among them founders
and new arrivals, some of the most rigorous thinkers of this moment and of
moments past; friends and adversaries, well known and soon to be known.
Marked throughout by a rigorous trespass, this group traverses fields and disci-
plines, undisciplined but not unruly, to borrow a phrase from Vivian Sobchack,
who also writes from time to time about animals and film. It must have been
Jonathan Burt who first formulated the expression ‘animals and film’. And with-
out Raymond Bellour, no modern film analysis – not merely as technique but as a
mode of thought. Similarly, without Susan McHugh, no animal studies. The entire
volume brings together some of the most dynamic and original thinkers in the
humanities, social sciences and arts. Such is the field. A new species of scholar
despecialised, to borrow a trope from Peter Kubelka. The sheer complexity and
biodiversity of the group speak not only to the vast gene pool of this field, but also
to the multiplicity the field appears to require.


This field opens across the movement from animal to life, the movement shared
by all of us, here and near. The movement of life, of animals, of the image. This
field is possible because it cannot be flattened to a uniform terrain; it demands a
textured surface of differing dimensions. Who could have foreseen a field, who
could have seen ahead in this field not only the emergence of a field, but a field of
visuality and dreams, a field given to see, a site of animal studies transformed into
a field of vision? And this visualisation is itself a medium, not only that of moving
images, but of the very place where this field takes place – the field itself. Medium
Between animal and life, in the movement between the two, foreword and after-
word, is a moving image, not one but many: the movement of images that drives
animal life, toward animal life, and which drives animal life. And there is no way
to speak for, or before this field, before the law of this field which is not one. Only
to speak from within, in the middle as a medium invoked by this particular ses-
sion. It speaks (he, she and they) through me, a medium, in the middle. Neither
foreword nor afterword, but in the midst, amiss, looking forward and backward,
following the passage of this movement across the fields of animal and moving
image studies. Moving through me.
And so, in the end, in lieu of a foreword, in its place, neither before nor after,
but in the middle, midfield and as medium, four words – animal life moving image.
This field of fields renders the four words that constitute it, the forewords and
afterwords that frame it and every other prescriptive force that defines one before
the law of this and every field, a passage – the movement of passing itself as well
as the passage between any animal being. And in this passage appears everything
destined to remain within this most unique of all places, this medium in which and
from which, I speak and am spoken, with so many others. And finding myself also
to be this medium, I am moved.

April 2014

Laura McMahon and Michael Lawrence

Animal Lives and Moving Images

Nénette (2010), a feature-length documentary by the French film-maker Nicolas

Philibert, opens with an extreme close-up of its eponymous female star: a Bornean
orang-utan (pongo pygmaeu) who has lived for thirty-seven of her forty years in a
menagerie in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris.1 Wrinkled skin fills the screen; large
brown eyes watch and blink. As Nénette moves her head, a light layer of dust in
front of the lens comes into view, signalling the presence of glass – a surface that
we will come to recognise as the glass front of Nénette’s enclosure. Nénette looks
first to the left and then into or past the camera (the direction of her gaze is
ambiguous). In the subsequent close-up, her mouth presses up against the glass,
filling the screen; lined with bristly hairs, it is an abstract image, and only makes
sense as we finally identify lips and gums (she is readying to yawn). There follows
another close-up, this one focuses on her hand: a thumbnail, and the gnarled,

Nénette (2010)

almost cracked, skin of her finger. We have watched Nénette in silence thus far, but
the cut to the next shot – a medium shot of Nénette, her body slumped over the
edge of a ledge, her red hair covered in straw – is marked by the click of a camera
and the echoing sounds of her enclosure (human voices, the bustle of crowds).
Throughout Philibert’s documentary, the camera remains trained on Nénette
and the other orang-utans living with her: her son Tübo, and two others, Théodora
and Tamü. The defamiliarising extreme close-ups with which the film begins are
replaced with less intimate, and more distanced views of the orang-utans, which
seem more consonant with the spectatorial positions occupied by the zoo’s visitors.
Over the film’s long, static shots of these four orang-utans, we hear the conversa-
tions of such visitors, who reflect on Nénette’s life (‘I think she’s depressed’; ‘Look,
she’s utterly sad’; ‘She’s just bored, right?’), but the film never gives us the reverse
shot that would reveal the faces of these spectators (a strategy that organises, for
example, Bert Haanstra’s 1962 documentary short Zoo, which uses rapid montage
sequences to present the similarities of gesture, gait and facial expression between
a zoo’s human visitors and its diverse animal attractions). We are afforded occa-
sional glimpses of the visitors, but only as reflections on the surfaces of the orang-
utans’ glass-fronted enclosure. Occupying the majority of the film’s screen time,
Nénette is held captive – by the zoo, by the cinema and by the gaze.
Philibert’s documentary poses questions that are central to the concerns of this
book: how do we look at animals? How does the moving image shape those acts
of looking? Is this relation only ever one of capture and appropriation, thereby
reiterating dominant structures of inequality between humans and animals? Might
the moving image engender other, more equitable forms of relation? How might
moving images resist or refuse the objectification or anthropomorphisation of the
animal and instead work to unravel hierarchies of looking and distributions of
power? How might the various dimensions of moving image practice engender
alternative modes of cross-species contact and attend to existential and perceptual
worlds that extend beyond the human?
At first glance, Nénette does not seem particularly resistant to modes of anthropo-
centrism or anthropomorphism. As a documentary situated in a menagerie, it
appears to defer to the zoo’s own regimes of presenting the animal as spectacle for
human audiences: cinema, like the zoo, captures and exhibits animal life. Sabine
Nessel has argued that Nénette is ‘a kind of meta-zoo-film, because it takes up the
mise-en-scène of animals in the zoo and cinema’.2 For Nessel, the zoo and the
cinema are part of a cultural history of putting living things on display; both ‘are
related to a historical street-show culture reaching back to the Middle Ages, which
existed centuries before film technology was invented’.3 Nessel argues that
Philibert’s documentary underlines the ‘mediality’ of the animal: in both the zoo
and the cinema, ‘the animal is not simply “the animal,” but is always part of an
order that organises the presentation and viewing to the same degree’.4 In Nénette,
scenes in which the glass barrier is routinely cleaned with soapy water – disrupt-
ing and renewing what we see – draw attention to the zoo enclosure as a visual


apparatus framing the animal, which is then doubled by the cinematic screen, thus
foregrounding both the mediality and the mediations of the animal.
As Philibert’s film exhibits these orang-utans in the present, so it evokes vari-
ous layers of film history, recalling earlier animal films. The Lumière brothers’
Lion, London Zoological Garden (1896), for example, one of the very first ‘zoo
films’, shows a lion pacing back and forth inside its cage, goaded into action by a
uniformed keeper, and filmed by a stationary camera several feet from the enclo-
sure; as in Nénette the spectator is afforded a view of the animal that coincides
with that enjoyed by the visitors at the zoo. Nénette’s mise en scène of the exotic,
endangered animal in captivity also resonates, structurally rather than generically,
with early expedition films, such as those of Martin and Osa Johnson. The
Johnsons’ travel adventure features Simba: The King of the Beasts, A Saga of the
African Veldt (1928) and Congorilla (1932) exemplify cinema’s organisation of the
wild animal through modes of capture and display, mobilising what Catherine
Russell, in her examination of the films’ ‘exploitation-education context’, diag-
noses as a collision of ethnographic, zoological and pornographic gazes.5 Such a
convergence comes to the fore in Nénette, as, in combination with prolonged close-
ups of the orang-utans, we hear the visitors eroticise the animals (from a child’s
remark of ‘Look at her titties!’ to various adults ruminating on the orang-utans’
sex lives) and refer to their foreignness (as another species, and from a different
country). We never hear any sounds from Nénette and the other orang-utans.
Gérard, one of the zookeepers, explains this silence as typical of orang-utans, even
in the wild; yet the contrast between the silent animal image and the sounds of
human voices seems to further entrench human–animal power relations, relegat-
ing the animal to its conventional representational status as mute, lacking in lan-
guage and – following a lineage of Western philosophical thought critiqued by
Jacques Derrida – devoid of consciousness too.6
In reflecting on the display of animal life in the zoo, Nénette resonates with
John Berger’s 1977 essay, ‘Why Look at Animals?’, a foundational text for the
study of animal images. Berger argues that as animals in modernity disappeared
from public life – domesticated as pets or consigned to the slaughterhouse – so they
proliferated as spectacle: in zoos, as animal toys and ‘through the widespread com-
mercial diffusion of animal imagery’.7 Nénette plays out Berger’s diagnosis of the
spectacularisation of the animal (in the zoo and in visual culture), and echoes his
reflections on the asymmetrical relations between the human and the animal. For
Berger, ‘The zoo to which people go to meet animals, to observe them, to see them,
is, in fact, a monument to the impossibility of such encounters.’8 Nénette articu-
lates this impossibility in formal terms through its refusal of the reverse shot, and
through the division of (animal) image and (human) sound. Repeatedly framing
the apparent non-response of Nénette and the other orang-utans to events on the
other side of the enclosure, Philibert’s film embodies the terms of Berger’s thesis:
‘the animal’s gaze flickers and passes on. They look sideways. They look blindly
beyond. They scan mechanically. They have been immunized to encounter, because


nothing can any more occupy a central place in their attention.’9 For Berger, this
behaviour is an unavoidable consequence of the zoo animal’s captivity: depend-
ence on their keepers relegates their existence to an unvarying state of passivity.
Such concerns are made explicit towards the end of Philibert’s film, in a set of
(improvised) remarks by Pierre Meunier (a theatre and film director):

I wonder … how one should exist to hold Nénette’s attention … . Because seeing
this gallery of shining eyes … everyone drains her. She is drained of curiosity … .
She has seen it all. She has seen all of us already … We all merge… .

In this context, the ambiguity of the direction of Nénette’s gaze in the film’s open-
ing close-up – as she appears to look either at us or past us – seems particularly
compelling. The film accords with Berger’s observation that in the zoo animal we
can discern ‘their assumption of an otherwise exclusively human attitude – indif-
ference.’10 Here it is precisely Nénette’s apparent apathy, her lack of curiosity that
holds our attention. Perhaps what makes Nénette so emblematic of the zoo film is
its emphatic staging of the zoo’s inevitable perpetuation of the violent asymmetry
between human and animal: as Randy Malamud has argued, ‘[the] institutional
dynamics of spectatorship as a power stance inhere in the zoo whether or not its
patrons consciously opt to exercise them.’11
The terms of this asymmetry allow the film to reflect on the zoo as a space of
anthropomorphic desire, projection and identification. In ‘The Secret of the Zoo
Exposed’, an article published in Vanity Fair in 1927, the American poet e. e.
cummings described zoo animals as ‘living mirrors, reflecting otherwise unsus-
pected aspects of our human character’.12 In terms similar to those used by cum-
mings, Philibert speaks of his interest in considering Nénette as ‘a receptacle for
our fantasies … a projection screen’; the film is ‘a mirror and because of that we
don’t need to see any humans … . It’s a film about the projection itself, because
when we see these animals we can’t help projecting our own feelings and
thoughts.’13 Furthermore, Philibert considers Nénette’s species identity to be key:
‘It wouldn’t be the same if I had filmed a cow. We do not identify with a cow or
with a spider. But Nénette is at the same time both close and mysterious.’14 More
readily anthropomorphised than certain other species, yet ultimately unknowable,
the orang-utan functions, for Philibert, as the perfect screen onto which so many
anthropocentric desires, fantasies and identifications might be projected. In this
sense, Nénette is a film about the workings of the cinematic apparatus. Philibert
suggests: ‘This is a film on the gaze, on representation. A metaphor for the
cinema, in particular for the documentary, as capturing and as capture.’15
Philibert positions Nénette as a structuralist experiment, a reflection on the oper-
ations of cinema itself. These comments suggest that Nénette displays and uses its
animals merely as a means to an end: its primary focus is an exploration of
cinema, spectatorship, and representation – an exploration which remains firmly
within the domain of the human.


In displaying the animal as silent, objectified, anthropomorphised and ‘immu-

nised to encounter’, Philibert’s film would thus seem to have little to offer in terms
of reimagining human–animal relations. If Nénette is a ‘meta-zoo-film’, as Nessel
argues, it is also a kind of meta-animal-film, in that its painstaking mediation of
animal lives on display distils the risks of cinema’s appropriation of the animal.
Yet we want to suggest that Philibert’s film indicates a particular attentiveness to
animal life that opens to more fluid, dynamic modes of cross-species relationality.
The film does this in three key ways: through an engagement with the particular-
ity of Nénette, through its use of reflected images and through a subversion of zoo
time and space.
Despite Philibert’s emphasis on the importance of Nénette’s species in moti-
vating structures of identification in the film, and the reflections on the species
offered by the keeper Gérard – ‘They smell like orang-utans’, he at one point
explains with a chuckle – the film itself refuses to allow Nénette to stand simply
for her species. Rather, it invites a consideration of the specificity of Nénette her-
self. This invitation takes place in auditory terms through the detailing of Nénette’s
own particular history, which we learn about through the comments of the keep-
ers. These statements provide us with certain facts about Nénette’s time in captiv-
ity (‘She’s had three husbands and wore them all out’; ‘She’s had four [babies]
here’; ‘Two years ago she fell ill with a retro-peritoneal abscess’; ‘She’s alone with
her son and she’s been on the pill for four years now’) as well as various opinions
about her character (‘She’s always had her doleful side’; ‘She loves cameras, para-
doxically’); she is thus individuated by both the concrete details of her biography
and the keepers’ ideas about her ‘personality’. Yet, beyond the anthropomorphic
logic of such comments, Nénette’s specificity is also emphasised in visual, material
terms. The film’s tactile engagement with Nénette’s body in the opening shots
described above inaugurates a mode of embodied encounter with this particular
orang-utan, rather than orang-utans in general, or animals in general. As Derrida
has argued, the term ‘the Animal’ functions as an undifferentiated general singu-
lar that violently reduces the multiplicity of animal life:

Confined within this catch-all concept, within this vast encampment of the animal,
in this general singular, within the strict enclosure of this definite article (‘the
Animal’ and not ‘animals’), as in a virgin forest, a zoo, a hunting or fishing
ground, a paddock or an abattoir, a space of domestication, are all the living things
that man does not recognize as his fellows, his neighbours, or his brothers.16

The metaphorical connections that Derrida proposes between the ‘strict enclo-
sure’ of the term ‘the Animal’ and the space of the zoo itself seem particularly
apt here. From the enclosed, domesticating, violently reductive space of the zoo
itself, from the site of ‘the Animal’, Philibert’s film forges a lived, embodied rela-
tion to the particularity of Nénette, to this orang-utan, here and now. Nénette’s
singularity is conveyed by the film’s preference for long, static takes that focus


on her corporeal being – that contemplate her (for the most part) sitting and
staring, occasionally yawning, stretching or scratching, and sometimes shuffling
about the enclosure and swinging on the ropes – or that show her engaged in
routine activities – eating carrots, slices of melon, a whole head of lettuce – or
that reveal her dexterity and decision-making – pulling a yellow sheet over her
head and shoulders like a shawl, then replacing the yellow sheet with a patterned
sheet; drinking yoghurt from the pot (but first licking the underneath of the lid),
drinking tea from a flask and pouring the tea into the empty yoghurt pot
(spilling some on her foot in the process). Philibert’s film, by focusing on the
orang-utan’s behaviour in this patient way, suggests how the animal’s singular-
ity is revealed through comportment and gesture, indicating film’s capacity to
disclose (even from within the restrictive space of the zoo) what the biophiloso-
pher Jakob von Uexküll terms the Umwelt – the perceptual, purposeful life-
world – of an animal. In her essay for this volume, Anat Pick draws on von
Uexküll to discuss film’s opening to such worlds and its concomitant troubling
of speciesist divisions. Nénette’s durational, material form of engagement with
the orang-utan’s life-world also resonates with Pick’s earlier work on cinema’s
‘creaturely’ modes of attention. In Creaturely Poetics: Animality and Vulnerability
in Literature and Film (2011), Pick reflects on the ‘corporeal zoomorphic qual-
ity’ of cinema, its capacity to articulate a sense of mutual embodiment and vul-
nerability between humans and animals.17 As such, ‘creaturely’ cinema
destabilises a clear dividing line between the human and the nonhuman.
Resonating with Derrida, von Uexküll and Pick, Philibert’s film mobilises a
mode of patient attentiveness to the specificity of Nénette’s embodied being and
her perceptual world that works both to particularise the animal and unravel
species-based hierarchies.

Nénette (2010)


This troubling of species distinction comes to the fore in the scenes showing
reflections of the visitors on the glass of Nénette’s enclosure, visually signalling a
blurring of the terms of the animal/human divide. At the beginning of the film
some visitors discuss whether Nénette can see them; a woman observes: ‘I think
she sees outlines because the light’s on her side.’ We catch reflected images of
schoolchildren, their movements appearing as if superimposed on the dark orange
form of the orang-utan’s immobile body; at one point the reflective surface briefly
captures a visitor taking a photograph of an orang-utan, either Nénette or
Théodora (neither the visitor nor her friend are very sure). This identificatory con-
fusion indicates a disruption of the visitor’s ways of knowing (and possessing) the
animal through the visual technologies of either the camera and the zoo. Yet these
reflected images are disorientating for the film’s viewers too: layers of virtual and
actual space – and planes of human and animal being – coexist within these
images, producing a composite, crystalline effect. Such images refract rather than
merely reflect the human and suggest a commingling of human and nonhuman
And while a ‘meta-zoo-film’ in some senses, Nénette mobilises the presenta-
tional order of the zoo in order not only to reflect (on) it but also to subvert it.
Nessel’s analysis risks conflating Philibert’s film and the function of the zoo by
arguing that ‘[T]he exhibition configurations of the zoo and the cinema have
become indistinguishable.’18 We are interested here in the ways in which Nénette’s
shaping of time and space actively subverts the zoo’s presentational order, re-
organising our perception of animal life beyond the limitations of the zoo’s mise
en scène. Spatially, the film constrains spectatorial mobility. In zoos, visitors are
free to roam from one cage to the next, to move from one species to another,
‘window-shopping’.19 Malamud argues that such freedom of movement is itself
indicative of the imperialist logic of the zoo.20 Yet the prevalence of static framing
in Nénette means that spectatorial mobility – and the attendant consumption of
species diversity – is refused. We do not ‘window-shop’ (or ‘species-shop’) in
Nénette. And while Nénette undercuts the spatialisation of species diversity in the
zoo, it undermines its temporal logic too. According to a survey cited in Garry
Marvin and Bob Mullan’s Zoo Culture (1987), zoo visitors typically spend an
average of forty-four seconds in front of each cage.21 As Malamud suggests, zoos
encourage this mode of accelerated spectatorship: ‘The fact that a cornucopia of
zoo animals is so conveniently available to spectators suggests that it is … easy to
digest all that the animal world has to offer, or at least its greatest hits, in a two-
hour excursion.’22 Yet Nénette refuses this kind of fast-paced consumption of
animal life. With shots that often last three or four minutes, the film enacts a mode
of durational attentiveness to animal being. Countering conventional zoo time, the
film privileges duration over distraction, attention over consumption. As such,
Nénette exhausts the time of zoo spectatorship.
Yet Nénette also exhausts dominant temporal modes of animal film specta-
torship. Documenting the orang-utan’s daily life in the enclosure, Philibert’s film


privileges the stillness and the silence that characterise Nénette’s being. Derek
Bousé has argued that conventional wildlife film and television shows contribute
to a ‘pervasive media image of nature as a site of action and excitement’, despite
the ‘torpor’ that generally characterises animal being: a documentary that accu-
rately represented the life of a lion, he contends, would probably only appeal to
fans of Andy Warhol’s Empire (1964).23 Bousé observes: ‘As technologies, film and
television are perfectly capable of depicting … animals that rest 80 per cent of their
time. As social and economic entities, however, neither film nor television exists to
reproduce this kind of reality.’24 As one of the keepers in Nénette explains: ‘Orang-
utans in general don’t move much … . Even in the natural world, an orang-utan
can spend hours at the top of a tree watching the world around it.’ Foregrounding
extended periods of apparent inactivity, Nénette thus functions as a quasi-
Warholian portrait of an individual orang-utan, and works in direct contrast to the
dominant media image of animal life Bousé describes. Nénette imposes duration;
it privileges (cinematic) dead time as (nonhuman) lived time. In place of action and
excitement, we witness the animal enduring time, and in this time that we share
with Nénette, a set of questions – about captivity, suffering and display – are
implicitly posed.
Nénette thus undermines the zoological and cinematic structures of voyeurism,
fetishism and surveillance that it simultaneously animates. It limits these viewing
structures in spatial terms and exhausts them in temporal terms. In Nénette, look-
ing is too close-up and takes too long, refusing spectatorial mobility, mastery and
consumption: Philibert’s film prolongs the time yet restricts the space of our
encounter with this particular animal to the point at which the conventional
‘impossible’ encounter associated with the zoo collapses in on itself and opens to
a different mode of relation, one marked by attention and consideration. Nénette’s

Nénette (2010)


resistant visual practices, therefore, suggest how the temporal and spatial dimen-
sions of film might not only interrupt and subvert the logics of the zoo and of con-
ventional wildlife narratives, but also invite us to see the animal (and its mediation
by moving image technologies) anew.


In response to a recent surge of interest in the question of the animal across the
arts, humanities and the sciences, Animal Life and the Moving Image examines the
crucial role that moving images play in both the recognition of and our engage-
ment with nonhuman animal life.25 It is the first edited collection of essays to offer
a sustained focus on the relations between moving image technologies and their
various representations of the nonhuman animal. The essays consider a broad
range of issues and concerns related to the presentation of animal life in moving
image media and address the theoretical, philosophical, political and ethical ques-
tions raised by images of animals appearing in diverse contexts. The collection pro-
ceeds from the position that the animal (and human–animal relations) now cannot
be understood without considering modern moving image technologies, and, fur-
thermore, that such media similarly cannot be understood without recourse to the
figure of the animal. Our relations to animal life are shaped by moving images,
particularly in the contemporary terrain of hyper-mediatised animal visibility. If
for Akira Mizuta Lippit, following Berger, ‘the cinema developed, indeed embod-
ied, animal traits as a gesture of mourning for the disappearing wildlife’,26 then the
ubiquity of animal videos online might be seen as the latest stage in this double
movement of animal (dis)appearance. At the same time, however, animals appear
to be the necessary precondition for cinema’s humanist (that is, anthropocentric)
conditions, concerns and claims. Jonathan Burt, in Animals in Film (2002), sug-
gests ‘there is no doubting the significance of the visual animal body to the tech-
nologies of modernity, particularly those such as film, which also shape
modernity’s sense of itself’, and avers that it is ‘impossible to disentangle direct and
mediated aspects of human–animal relations’.27 Animal life, we propose, is
arguably both constituted by and also constitutive of moving image ecologies. Just
as moving images configure animal worlds, so animals actively shape moving
image worlds. Berger suggests that ‘the first subject matter for painting was
animal’; the animal was likewise integral to the development of motion capture
technologies and time-based media.28 Beginning with the protocinematic sequen-
cing of animal motion by Eadweard Muybridge and Étienne-Jules Marey in the
nineteenth century, the ontologies and histories of animal life and the moving
image are deeply interlocked: indeed, Julian Murphet has recently asserted that
‘[the] origins of the [cinematic] apparatus in the rational analysis of animal move-
ment are too well known to need repeating’.29
And, significantly, animals have also played a key role in how we theorise the
moving image. Recent work by Pick, Jennifer Fay and Seung-hoon Jeong, for


example, has revealed the central place of the animal in André Bazin’s reflections
on cinematic specificity.30 Lippit has traced metaphorical links between animality,
physiology and the unconscious in Sergei Eisenstein’s theorisation of montage in
‘biomorphic’, organic terms.31 Raymond Bellour has highlighted hitherto unex-
plored points of contact between Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s concept of
‘becoming-animal’ and Deleuze’s philosophical reflections on cinema.32 Such work
points to the significance of animal life and of animality for some of the founda-
tional claims of film theory itself and also suggests potential ways in which film
theory – and the study of moving images more broadly – might revisit and reimag-
ine sites of meaning in relation to animals both on screen and off.
The first section of the volume, ‘Animal Life and Cinematic Specificity’, intro-
duces the question of the animal’s significance for theoretical and philosophical
accounts of our experience of moving images. How might media specificity be
reconsidered via a privileging of the animal? How might attending to the animal
require us to revise our understanding of the image, and of image technologies and
ecologies? Drawing on a range of critical and conceptual paradigms, and referring
to a wide variety of film and new media texts, the authors in this section argue that
looking at and to the animal can reveal much about both historical and contem-
porary experiences of moving images. James Leo Cahill examines film culture of
the inter-war period, focusing on both theatrical programming and theoretical
writing that was concerned with organising and elucidating cinematic encounters
with animal life. In ‘Animal Photogénie: The Wild Side of French Film Theory’s
First Wave’, Cahill provides a ‘critical inventory’ of the discourse on ‘animal pho-
togénie’ prevalent in the film theory of the 1920s, exploring various critics’ reflec-
tions on the aesthetic significance of the animal ‘in, on and for film’, which the
novelist Colette referred to as the ‘photogénie des bêtes’. For Cahill, the interest in
and commitment to cinema’s anti-anthropocentric potential – its capacities for
expanding the horizons of human perception – demonstrated by the work of film-
makers and critics such as Jean Epstein, Germaine Dulac and Louis Chavance,
among others, anticipates in important (and hitherto unacknowledged) ways the
fascination with filmed and film animals that characterises the theoretical writings
of Bazin in the 1940s. Furthermore, Cahill proposes that the popularity of animal
videos on the internet – an ever-expanding archive of contingent animality, or
animal contingency – should also be reconsidered in relation to ideas associated
with ‘animal photogénie’. The animal’s capacity for illuminating continuities
between early and contemporary moving image cultures is also the concern of
Rosalind Galt’s chapter. In ‘Cats and the Moving Image: Feline Cinematicity from
Lumière to Maru’, Galt argues that the proliferation of images of animals – specif-
ically cats – in online visual culture represents only the most recent manifestation
of a special relationship between feline life and moving image media. Historicising
the phenomena of internet cat videos by referring to a wide range of films which
focus our attention on the unpredictability of feline motion, or the tactility of feline
form – from Lumière’s La Petite fille et son chat (1899) to the avant-garde films


of Maya Deren, Stan Brakhage and Carolee Schneemann – this chapter proposes
that ‘cat love is a viral behaviour transmitted by screen cultures’. Following
Derrida, Galt regards the cat in order to consider how networks of cross-species
looking are mobilised by moving image media, and to promulgate a less an-
thropocentric account of spectatorship. Adam Lowenstein also examines the pos-
sibilities of affective and embodied cross-species contact afforded by digital media
cultures by considering the animal’s relevance for contemporary reconfigurations
of spectatorship. In ‘Buñuel’s Bull Meets YouTube’s Lion: Surrealist and Digital
Posthumanisms’, Lowenstein explores the relationship between the post-cinematic
and the posthuman by attending to the significance of the animal in exemplary
instances of what he terms ‘spectatorship’s digital present and surrealist past’: the
popular YouTube video Christian the Lion and Luis Buñuel’s Los Olvidados
(1950). The chapter assesses the anthropomorphic impulses that are either
embraced or erased by these representations of the animal–human relation in order
to address how the mediation of interspecies contact can foster or foreclose oppor-
tunities for posthuman awakening. In ‘Muybridgean Motion/Materialist Film:
Malcolm Le Grice’s Berlin Horse’, Michael Lawrence reconsiders an early ‘ma-
terialist’ work by the British experimental film-maker – which comprises original
and early footage of horses, manipulated in specific ways – by exploring its evo-
cation of the material and symbolic dimensions of historical relations between
horses and humans, including the horse’s significance for the development of
moving image technologies. Lawrence examines the connections between Le
Grice’s ideological and aesthetic opposition to the cinema of industrial capitalism
and his imaging of animal movement, and argues that the film functions as ‘a
moving documentation of the “livingness” of both human and animal being’. The
chapters in the first section thus consider film spectatorship by asking how the
specificity of our encounter with a moving image is illuminated – and, perhaps,
even exemplified – by an attentiveness to the materiality of an animal being both
general and particular, whether nonhuman or human.
The chapters which comprise the second section, ‘Cross-species Identifications’
consider how films can either generate or present such identifications by deploy-
ing particular modes of representation, including animation and dramatic per-
formance, and by utilising specific cinematic conventions and technologies, such
as point-of-view editing or flashbacks. In ‘“You Can See What Species I Belong to,
but Don’t Treat Me Lightly”: Rhetorics of Representation in Animated Animal
Narratives’, Paul Wells examines how the distinctive language of animation is
exploited to interrogate cultural discourses of animality, and to disclose human–
animal relations in terms of continuity, communion or complementariness.
Discussing the animated creatures that feature in mainstream films such as Bolt
(2008), Ponyo (2008) and Avatar (2009), as well as those found in more experi-
mental works by Geoff Dunbar and Nathalie Djurberg, Wells returns to and
expands the concept of ‘bestial ambivalence’, first developed in his The Animated
Bestiary: Animals, Cartoons, and Culture (2009), to suggest that animation’s


‘intrinsic vocabulary of expression liberates humans to find a fundamental essence

of themselves in animal identity’. Georgina Evans turns to nonhuman subjects in
documentary film and in particular the representation of insects in Marie Pérennou
and Claude Nuridsany’s celebrated Microcosmos (1996). In ‘A Cut or a Dissolve?
Insects and Identification in Microcosmos’, Evans attends to the cinematographic
procedures deployed by the film that seek to produce modes of cross-species iden-
tification which, while resisting the anthropomorphising tendencies associated with
conventional nature films, nevertheless suggest that for these directors ‘[the] quest
to present a truth about insect life does not necessarily imply a rejection of its
resemblance to the human’. Drawing on the writing of Stan Brakhage, and specif-
ically his argument that in cinema we might ‘inherit worlds of eyes’, Evans shows
how Microcosmos examines human visual realities through its rendering of insect
point of view.33 The private worlds of insects (and those of other nonhuman ani-
mals) are also the focus of the next chapter, in which Cynthia Chris examines the
performances of Isabella Rossellini in her recent television series. In ‘Subjunctive
Desires: Becoming Animal in Green Porno and Seduce Me’, Chris draws on the
famous concept of Deleuze and Guattari, but also from Franz Kafka’s The
Metamorphosis (1915), to explore how in these films Rossellini presents a mode
of ‘becoming animal’ in which she is ‘not quite the worm’ – for example – ‘and not
quite not the worm’. Rossellini’s performances, which involve an imaginative iden-
tification with the sexual behaviour of nonhuman animals, are for Chris ‘acts of
recognition’ in which ‘becoming is nothing if not the articulation of a relationship
between the human and the animal’. The final chapter in this section considers a
very specific kind of human–animal relationship – the bond between man and dog
– at the heart of Toa Fraser’s 2008 feature-length adaptation of Lord Dunsany’s
1936 novella Dean Spanley. In ‘Animal Melancholia: On the Scent of Dean
Spanley’, Lynn Turner explores the film’s representation of relationships between
men, and particularly those between fathers and their sons (whether living or
dead), and the bonds of affection which connect men to their dogs (and dogs to
their masters, but also to other dogs). The eponymous Dean’s recollections of his
life as a dog enable a father to accept the death of his son: the film utilises flash-
backs to represent both the Dean’s ‘memories’ of his canine life and the father’s
fantasies of his son’s death. Engaging with the work of Freud and Kristeva (on can-
nibalism and incest), and Derrida (on mourning and ethics), Turner argues that by
privileging an exclusive homosocial fraternity – a primal horde of sorts – the film
does not (and cannot) ‘welcome animality’: its human–animal relations remain
organised according to the law of ‘domesticated totemism’ (but perhaps invite us
to consider alternative arrangements). The essays in this section consider how films
invite their human audiences to identify with and as animals, or watch such iden-
tifications take place, so as to contemplate cross-species continuities, revealed by
the peculiarities of desire and sexuality, or the bonds of affection and loss.
The third section, ‘Animal Economies’, explores the animal in relation to his-
tories, economies and politics, locating cinema’s representation of animal life at


intersections of capitalist crisis and accumulation, Cold War legislative and moral
agency, and biopolitical regimes of labour and feeling. The chapters examine how
the ethical and ideological registers of animality vary across a range of cinematic
forms, from Soviet montage to stop-motion animation, and from experimental
documentary to narrative cinema. In ‘King Kong Capitalism’, Julian Murphet
explores the original 1933 film in relation to capitalist productive relations and
Fordist labour processes. Drawing on the thought of Theodor Adorno and
Antonio Gramsci, as well as the writings of Frederick W. Taylor, and specifically
his notorious suggestion (in Scientific Management, 1914) that gorillas might be
trained to replace human workers, Murphet considers how the labour-intensive
stop-motion animation techniques deployed to produce the motion of the giant
gorilla resulted in a profoundly moving ‘image of unalienated labour in the guise
of animal movement’. The following chapter also examines a film’s ability to
address the impact of industrialisation on American society, focusing specifically
on the political, economic and technological dimensions of biopower relations. In
‘Animal Life and Moral Agency in Post-War Cinema: Velma Johnston, Marilyn
Monroe, Arthur Miller and John Huston’s The Misfits’, Robert McKay explores
the film’s depiction of the decline of mustanging (wild horse hunting) in the con-
text of industrialised food production in the United States (and especially pet food),
and argues that it functions as ‘an indictment of the violence against both human
and animal life, which are not exclusive to modernity but nevertheless become ever
more present in it’. The presence and performance of Marilyn Monroe in Huston’s
film, McKay suggests, raises questions about the possibility of (subjects or films)
articulating an ethical rejection of ‘the sacrificial logic of post-war morality’. The
killing of animals for food is also the focus of the next chapter, which addresses
the (aesthetic) biopolitics of cinema’s depiction of slaughter. In ‘Being Struck: On
the Force of Slaughter and Cinematic Affect’, Nicole Shukin and Sarah O’Brien
examine what they call ‘traces or residues of the sovereign power of slaughter in
the aesthetic registers of cinema’. Drawing on the work of Jacques Rancière, the
authors are concerned with how cinema might protect an ‘intransigent distribution
of the species’, and perpetuate the partitioning of humans and animals. Turning
first to Eisenstein’s Strike (1925), and then to Louis Psihoyos’s 2009 documentary
The Cove, the authors explore the profound paradoxes that shape the films’ pres-
entation of animal death by attending to the way cinematic devices deployed to
organise their ‘affective economies’ ultimately perpetuate the sovereignty of the
human. The final chapter in this section continues the exploration of cinema and
slaughter. In ‘Screening Pigs: Visibility, Materiality and the Production of Species’,
Laura McMahon examines the biopolitical economies of moving image represen-
tations of pigs as meat animals. Against the backdrop of the reifying logic of a pro-
motional video for a global pig breeding company, McMahon explores two
documentaries that reimagine the place of the pig within biopolitical regimes of
representation: Jean-Michel Barjol and Jean Eustache’s Le Cochon (The Pig, 1970)
– an example of ‘Direct Cinema’ that unfolds a material, durational attentiveness


to the slaughter of a pig – and Jean-Louis Le Tacon’s Cochon qui s’en dédit
(1978)34 – a surreal ethnography that affirms, from within a nightmarish vision of
industrialised farming, an opening to instances of cross-species relationality and
nonhuman agency. As McMahon argues, such examples indicate ‘the role played
by moving images in the (re)framing of species being’, as film practices work here
both to shape and disrupt biopolitical taxonomies. As the chapters move from the
dynamism of the monstrous body of King Kong to the ‘striking’ logic of slaughter
both on screen and off, this section traces the connections between visual, affective
and political economies of animal life.
The chapters in the final section explore a set of dialogic exchanges between
moving images and animal life, framed variously in terms of ornithology, rhi-
zomatics, creaturely equitability and communicability. ‘Towards a Non-anthropo-
centric Cinema’ includes discussions of classical Hollywood film, wildlife
documentary, European art cinema and avant-garde film; the authors are con-
cerned with how moving images allow for questions to be posed both for and by
animals. Anat Pick considers cinema’s aptitude for indicating the co-presence of
creaturely universes or ‘life-worlds’ belonging to nonhuman and human beings. In
‘Animal Life in the Cinematic Umwelt’, Pick extends the elaboration of zoo-
morphic realism developed in her book Creaturely Poetics in order to address films
that engage with ‘interior animal worlds’ and in so doing ‘[assert] the multiplicity
and situatedness of worlds’. Her analyses of the cinematic dwelling-worlds pre-
sented by specific scenes of dextrous labour in Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped
(1956) and Nuridsany and Pérennou’s Microcosmos draw on Uexküll’s concept of
Umwelt to examine how the films challenge anthropocentric conceits through their
universalising of ‘the biosemiotic striving of organisms’. In ‘Bear Images: Human
Performativity and Animal Touch in Grizzly Man’, Cecilia Novero discusses
Werner Herzog’s 2005 documentary and focuses on the relationship between the
‘hyperbolic dramatization of the human’ presented by its subject Timothy
Treadwell and the film’s staging of the possibility (always tentative) of interspecies
contact, both between Treadwell and the bears (in the film) and between the bears
and the spectators (of the film). Novero argues that by presenting what she
describes as Treadwell’s ‘becoming with’ the bears – an encounter (one ultimately
fatal for Treadwell) between ‘unknowing species’ – the film reveals ‘the technicity
of existence as always already co-existence’. In ‘The Tumult of Integrations Out of
the Sky: The Movement of Birds and Film’s Ornithology’, Jonathan Burt asks
whether a consideration for species specificity enables ‘a qualitatively different kind
of thinking about animal images’, one which might distinguish the particular
animal from what he describes (following Deleuze) as the ‘any-animal-whatever’.
Reflecting carefully on the recent work of Raymond Bellour, as well as the poetry
of Wallace Stevens, Burt examines the relationship between motion and stillness in
the technological constitution of the film image (as well as the production and
reception of such images) as revealed or embodied by birds, before considering the
‘ornithological’ aspects of a medium that requires and rewards ‘a particular stance


of stillness on the part of the observer in the face of a fleeting object’. Birds are also
examined in the following chapter, which asks how the representation of particu-
lar species might challenge traditional understandings of identity as well as con-
ventional narratives of sexuality. In ‘Unknowing Animals: Wild Bird Films and the
Limits of Knowledge’, Susan McHugh considers how films which focus on ‘the
visual spectacle of flocking’, such as The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (2005),
The March of the Penguins (2005) and The Crimson Wing: Mystery of the
Flamingos (2009), resist (or fail to resist) anthropomorphic modes of cross-species
relating, and subsequently invite (or refuse to invite) audiences to ‘unlearn’ their
‘sense and sensibilities of the social’. For McHugh, the aesthetic strategies deployed
by wild bird films to depict avian ‘life-ways’ reveal cinema’s capacity to conceptu-
alise, visualise and even valorise alternative modes of collective animal life that
might potentially pertain to human populations. In ‘Hitchcock – The Animal, Life
and Death’, Raymond Bellour considers the distribution of the animal motif, and
particularly the ‘duality’ of the animal image – an embodiment of life as well as
death – in a number of the director’s films, and concludes with an analysis of The
Birds (1963).35 Drawing on Deleuze, Bellour attends to the ‘violence and grace of
the bird representing the excellence of the animal body’, whose ‘inseparably nat-
ural and simulated’ movements in Hitchcock’s film refer us – due to a ‘deceptive
naturalism’ based on ‘invisible but appreciable intervals’ – to the technological
basis of the moving image itself. The final section, then, examines how film’s
formal strategies might reach beyond anthropocentrism in their attentiveness to
and imaging of animal life.
Bazin writes that ‘animal films reveal the cinema to us’:36 for Bazin, Bellour
and Lippit, among others, the animal is ontologically and enigmatically bound to
the cinematic. This volume probes this bond yet also moves beyond it to compli-
cate ontologies of both ‘the animal’ and ‘the moving image’ by considering the var-
ious differences, distinctions and mutations signalled by those terms. These essays
ask us to think differently about animals through the moving image – to be alive
to the specific worlds of animals and to renewed forms of cross-species relations.
Yet these essays also revisit familiar moving image concepts – time, space, materi-
ality, affect, spectatorship, identification, perspective, perception – to suggest how,
through paying particular attention to animals, we might think differently about
the moving image.
In November 2010, eight months after the release of Nénette in France, a
screening of the film took place next to the orang-utan enclosure in the Jardin des
Plantes, fulfilling a promise made by Philibert to ‘show the film to his heroine’.37
The screening is documented by an eight-minute film, ‘La Projection’ (included as
an extra on the DVD issued by Éditions Montparnasse). The short film shows
Nénette looking on as the screen and projector are set up. Yet once the film begins,
she appears to lose interest – towards the end of ‘La Projection’, she turns to fiddle
with a piece of purple string, dexterously threading it through a swing in her enclo-


‘La Projection’ acts as an intriguing paratext, supplementing Nénette by destabil-

ising it. As the spectators at the screening stand in a line, looking up expectantly at the
enclosure, seeking any sign of response to the images projected on the screen, Nénette
reveals that her attention is resolutely elsewhere. Nénette, the film that so fascinates us
– while also promising an ethical and political reconsideration of animal life – holds
no fascination for her. As Nénette turns away from the cinematic screen, she frustrates
Philibert’s desire to ‘show the film to his heroine’. ‘La Projection’ discloses, in this
instance, cinema’s failure to enable any meaningful form of cross-species exchange. If
Nénette is a ‘projection screen’, as Philibert suggests, then here she projects back to us
the deadening effects of a failed fantasy of reciprocal recognition.
Studies of animal life and the moving image must contend with such failures,
with the challenges presented by the animal’s lack of interest in our interest. This
(academic, aesthetic) endeavour, the opening of the ‘field’ signalled by Lippit in the
Foreword, might never be recognised as such by the beings it attempts to respond
to. As Derrida suggests, an abyssal asymmetry remains at work. If the studies col-
lected in this volume form part of the ‘animal turn’, ‘La Projection’ serves to
remind us that the animal will not turn to us in recognition of our attention in the
ways we might narcissistically desire. Nénette’s dexterous work with the purple
string does not accord with the spectator’s fantasy of cross-species communication.
Rather, it suggests a world that extends beyond our own.38

1. It is to this menagerie, established in 1795, that the Bornean orang-utan in Poe’s
famous detective story ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ (1841) is eventually sold. See
Edgar Allan Poe, The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Writings, ed. David
Galloway (London: Penguin, 1986), pp. 189–224.
2. Sabine Nessel, ‘The Media Animal: On the Mise-en-scène of Animals in the Zoo and
Cinema’, in Sabine Nessel, Winifried Pauleit, Christine Rüffert, Karl-Heinz Schmid
and Alfred Tews (eds), Animals and the Cinema: Classifications, Cinephilias,
Philosophies (Berlin: Bertz and Fischer, 2012), p. 43.
3. Ibid., p. 37.
4. Ibid., p. 46.
5. Catherine Russell, ‘Zoology, Pornography, Ethnography’, in Experimental
Ethnography: The Work of Film in the Age of Video (Durham, NC and London: Duke
University Press, 1999), p. 141. For another discussion of the Johnsons’ work, and
other travelogue expedition films such as Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness (1927)
and Bring ’Em Back Alive (1932), see Greg Mitman, ‘Science versus Showmanship on
the Silent Screen’, in Reel Nature: America’s Romance with Wildlife on Film (Seattle
and London: University of Washington Press, 1999), pp. 26–58.
6. See Jacques Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, trans. David Wells, ed., Marie-
Louise Mallet (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008); originally published as
L’Animal que donc je suis in 2006.


7. John Berger, ‘Why Look at Animals?’, in Why Look at Animals? (London: Penguin,
2009), p. 35; originally published in 1977.
8. Ibid., p. 30.
9. Ibid., p. 37.
10. Ibid., p. 35.
11. Randy Malamud, Reading Zoos: Representations of Animals and Captivity
(Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1998), p. 230. During one sequence, the conjunction of
image and sound becomes ironic: as we watch the orang-utans in their enclosure, a
nearby public demonstration can be heard; a male voice announces that they are
protesting, among other things, against an increase in video surveillance in Paris
(‘1,226 new cameras’).
12. e. e. cummings, ‘The Secret of the Zoo Exposed’, in George J. Firmage (ed.), E. E.
Cummings: A Miscellany (London: Peter Owen, 1966), p. 175; originally published in
Vanity Fair, March 1927.
13. Nicolas Philibert, quoted in John Lichfield, ‘Ready for Your Close-up, Nénette?’
Independent, 3 April 2010, http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/
features/ready-for-your-close-up-n-nette-1934736.html; and Adam Woodward,
‘Interview with Nicolas Philibert’, Little White Lies, 3 February 2011, http://www.
14. Philibert, quoted in Catherine Shoard, ‘The Future’s Orange’, Guardian, 27 January
2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2011/jan/27/nicolas-philibert-nenette.
15. Philibert, Director’s Comments, Artificial Eye website: http://www.artificial-eye.com/
16. Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, p. 34, emphasis in the original.
17. Anat Pick, Creaturely Poetics: Animality and Vulnerability in Literature and Film
(New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), p. 106.
18. Nessel, ‘The Media Animal’, p. 46.
19. Randy Malamud, An Introduction to Animals and Visual Culture (Basingstoke:
Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), p. 115.
20. Ibid.
21. Garry Marvin and Bob Mullan, Zoo Culture (London: Weidenfield & Nicolson,
1987), cited in Malamud, An Introduction to Animals and Visual Culture, p. 122.
22. Malamud, Reading Zoos, p. 122.
23. Derek Bousé, Wildlife Films (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000),
pp. 6, 7.
24. Ibid., p. 7.
25. Significant publications concerned with animals and the moving image include Steve
Baker, Picturing the Beast: Animals, Identity and Representation (Manchester:
Manchester University Press, 1993); Bousé, Wildlife Films; Mitman, Reel Nature;
Steve Baker, The Postmodern Animal (London: Reaktion Books, 2000); Akira Mizuta
Lippit, Electric Animal: Toward a Rhetoric of Wildlife (Minneapolis and London:
University of Minnesota Press, 2000); Jonathan Burt, Animals in Film (London:
Reaktion Books, 2002); Laura U. Marks, Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory


Media (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2002); Erica Fudge,
Animal (London: Reaktion Books, 2002); Cary Wolfe, Animal Rites: American
Culture, the Discourse of Species, and Posthumanist Theory (Chicago, IL and London:
University of Chicago Press, 2003); Cynthia Chris, Watching Wildlife (Minneapolis
and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2006); Donna Haraway, When Species
Meet (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2008); Paul Wells,
The Animated Bestiary: Animals, Cartoons and Culture (New Brunswick, NJ and
London: Rutgers University Press, 2009); Nicole Shukin, Animal Capital: Rendering
Life in Biopolitical Times (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press,
2009); Raymond Bellour, Le Corps du cinéma: hypnoses, émotions, animalités (Paris:
P.O.L, 2009); Claire Molloy, Popular Media and Animals (Basingstoke and New York:
Palgrave Macmillan, 2011); Pick, Creaturely Poetics; Ron Broglio, Surface
Encounters: Thinking with Animals in Art (Minneapolis and London: University of
Minnesota Press, 2011); Susan McHugh, Animal Stories: Narrating across Species
Lines (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2011); Kari Weil,
Thinking Animals: Why Animal Studies Now? (New York: Columbia University Press,
2012); Malamud, An Introduction to Animals and Visual Culture; Steve Baker, Artist
Animal (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2012); Adrian J.
Ivakhiv, Ecologies of the Moving Image: Cinema, Affect, Nature (Waterloo, ON:
Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2013); Anat Pick and Guinevere Narraway (eds),
Screening Nature: Cinema beyond the Human (New York and Oxford: Berghahn,
2013); Adrienne L. McLean (ed.), Cinematic Canines: Dogs and Their Work in the
Fiction Film (New Brunswick, NJ and London: Rutgers University Press, 2014);
Patricia MacCormack (ed.), The Animal Catalyst: Towards Ahuman Theory (London:
Bloomsbury, 2014); Laura McMahon (ed.), ‘Screen Animals Dossier’, Screen vol. 55
no. 1 (Spring 2015); Michael Lawrence and Karen Lury, (eds), The Zoo: Images of
Exhibition and Encounter (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).
26. Lippit, Electric Animal, p. 196.
27. Burt, Animals in Film, pp. 112, 121.
28. Berger, ‘Why Look at Animals?’, p. 16.
29. Julian Murphet, ‘Pitiable or Political Animals?’, SubStance vol. 37 no. 3 (2008),
p. 102.
30. Jennifer Fay, ‘Seeing/Loving Animals: André Bazin’s Posthumanism’, Journal of Visual
Culture vol. 7 no. 1 (2008), pp. 41–64; Pick, Creaturely Poetics, pp. 103–17; Seung-
hoon Jeong, ‘Animals: an Adventure in Bazin’s Ontology’, in Dudley Andrew with
Hervé Joubert-Laurencin (ed.), Opening Bazin: Postwar Film Theory and Its Afterlife
(New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), pp. 177–85.
31. Lippit, Electric Animal, pp. 192–5.
32. Bellour, Le Corps du cinéma.
33. Stan Brakhage, ‘The Camera Eye’, in Bruce R. McPherson (ed.), Essential Brakhage:
Selected Writings on Filmmaking (New York: Documentext, 2001), p. 19.
34. As discussed in Chapter 12, this translates idiomatically as ‘it’s a done deal’ and
literally as ‘he who goes back on his word is a pig’.


35. An earlier section from Bellour’s book appears in English as ‘From Hypnosis to
Animals’, trans. Alistair Fox, Cinema Journal vol. 53 no. 3 (Spring 2014), pp. 8–25.
36. André Bazin, ‘Les Films d’animaux nous révèlent le cinéma’, Radio-Cinéma-
Télévision vol. 285 (3 July 1955), p. 126; cited in Bellour, Le Corps du cinéma, p. 537.
37. See http://www.france3.fr/emissions/libre-court/nenette-la-projection-la-nuit-tombe-
38. Barbara Creed has recently discussed Philibert’s documentary in relation to
anthropocentrism, attention and absorption, contending that the film works to
‘diminish the boundary between human and animal’ and thus challenge traditional
humanist and speciesist positions (rather than the spatial and temporal logics of the
zoo itself, as we have suggested). Drawing on Agamben’s work on (human) gesture in
the cinema, Creed argues that Nénette compels spectators to endow the orang-utan’s
‘bodily movements and expressions’ with meaning, and thus ‘to interpret her
behaviour through her body language’. For Creed, the results are unambiguous: ‘I am
made fully aware by Nénette’s recorded glance that she has endured a tortured
existence.’ See ‘Nénette: Film Theory, Animals and Boredom’, European Journal of
Media Studies no. 3 (Spring 2013), available online at http://www.necsus-
ejms.org/nenette-film-theory-animals-and-boredom/. Creed continues her exploration
of the centrality of gesture to the cinematic representation of the animal in ‘Films,
Gestures, Species’, Journal for Cultural Research vol. 19 no. 1 (2015), pp. 43–55. John
Blewitt has considered how Philibert’s documentary represents Nénette’s ‘actual and
mediated celebrity’ in ‘What’s New Pussycat? A Genealogy of Animal Celebrity’,
Celebrity Studies vol. 4 no. 3 (2013), pp. 325–38. Robin L. Murray and Joseph K.
Heumann discuss Nénette (alongside Wiseman’s Zoo) in their useful overview of zoo
films, ‘Hatari Means Danger: Filmic Representations of Animal Welfare and
Environmentalism at the Zoo’, Quarterly Review of Film and Video vol. 31 (2014),
pp. 621–34.

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James Leo Cahill

1 Animal Photogénie
The Wild Side of French Film Theory’s First Wave

Animal films reveal the cinema to us.

André Bazin1

In autumn of 1925 the Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier, the Parisian avant-garde and

repertoire cinema directed by Jean Tedesco, announced that the novelist Colette
would appear on 13 February 1926 as part of its forthcoming lecture series
‘Création d’un monde par le cinéma’ (Creation of a world by cinema). Although
Colette’s lecture was cancelled at short notice (Marcel L’Herbier spoke in her
place), its alluring title, ‘Photogénie des Bêtes’ or ‘Animal Photogénie’, indexes a
trajectory of inter-war French film theory that merits revisiting.2 Given Colette’s
zoophilia, the lecture topic is not surprising. The author of Dialogues des bêtes
(1904) and an unproduced film scenario for two dogs, signed a body of film criti-
cism peppered with enthusiastic praise for ‘the extravagance of reality’ and ‘unbri-
dled fantasy of nature’ on display in plant and animal documentaries from the
silent era. She celebrated such films as ‘marvelous witnesses to the enigmas of life,
the habits of shrimp, the victorious combats of the dodder, the birth (éclosion) of
flowers, insects, and cells’.3 Far from being the idiosyncratic trait of a single eccen-
tric thinker, Colette’s proposed lecture belongs among a subset of reflections on
photogénie that addressed the aesthetic and theoretical significance of animals (and
beasts) in, on and for film.
Colette’s undelivered lecture may serve as a relay point between the available
texts of contemporaneous critics and film-makers such as Jean Tedesco, Louis
Delluc, Jean Epstein, Pierre Porte, Dimitri Kirsanoff, Musidora, Marcel Defosse,
Émile Vuillermoz, Germaine Dulac, and Louis Chavance, on the one hand, and
reflections on the afterlife of this constellation of critical and theoretical interven-
tions on the other. Each of these thinkers addressed the importance of cinematic
animals in their speculations on the new medium. What follows provides a critical
inventory of some of the paths covered by French thought on animal photogénie
during the 1920s.
Photogénie has once again become an object of critical interest.4 My emphasis
on photogénie’s wild side addresses a dimension of this thought that has received

almost no critical commentary, and also attends to its untimely resonances for con-
temporary theory. While it would be imprudent to retrospectively impose a criti-
cal consensus upon these otherwise diverse thinkers, their writings on photogénie
frequently emphasise the importance of the indifferent gaze of the camera lens and
its processes of automatic inscription, as well as film’s potential for producing
upheavals in human perception and perspectives. This attention to cinema’s inhu-
man properties was matched by frequent assertions that footage of nonhuman
beings and things tended to produce the most striking and attractive moments in
the cinema, revealing something about the filmic medium’s special or specific
capacities. The discourse on animal photogénie opens up concerns for medium
specificity to an exploration of cinema’s Copernican dimensions and the produc-
tivity of an eccentric, decentring vision for applying critical pressure not only upon
understandings of the cinema, but also upon the pervasive anthropocentrism in
Western thought and culture.
The popularity of animal films from the earliest days of the medium nourished
critical interest in the photogénie. Animal films had been a very popular genre in the
pre-war era. One has only to think of the crowds that flocked to François Bidel’s
Théâtre zoologique (Zoological Theatre) at the foire du Trône in Paris, where ani-
mated views of animals accompanied Bidel’s live animal performances, or the pop-
ularity of the comedies and jungle films of Alfred Machin, such as Madame Babylas
aime les animaux (Madame Babylas Loves Animals, 1911), Max Linder’s Max a
peur des chiens (Max’s Fear of Dogs, 1912), Jean Durand’s Onésime aime les bêtes
(Onésime Loves Animals, 1913), Louis Feuillade’s Bout de Zan vole un éléphant
(Bout de Zan Steals an Elephant, 1913) as well as the many animal documentaries
by Éclair, Gaumont and Pathé.5 Several studios even had their own small menageries,
such as the ones at Jean Comandon’s scientific cinema lab at Pathé and Alfred
Machin’s Les Studios Machin (formerly Pathé-Nice).6 This popularity continued into
the 1920s with the creation of feature-length films such as Machin’s comedy Bêtes…
comme les hommes (Animals… Like Men, 1922), the heroic exploits of the animal
performers Strongheart, Kazan, Rin Tin Tin and Rex the Wonder Horse, and films
organised around safari adventures, such as Machin’s De la jungle à l’écran (From
the Jungle to the Screen, 1928) and Martin and Osa Johnson’s Simba (1928).
Although the pre-war practice of starting an evening at the cinema with a series of
actualités and documentaries – frequently featuring animal subjects – had begun to
taper off in the 1920s as feature-length films became the standard, the contempora-
neous emergence of ciné-clubs, speciality theatres, screening and lecture series held
at the Musée Galliera, and private salon-style screenings, such as those hosted by
Albert Kahn’s Archives de la Planète, kept the exhibition of animal films alive, if
slightly at the margins of France’s film culture.7
The film programming of Jean Tedesco – the director of the Théâtre du Vieux-
Colombier cinema, co-editor of the film review Cinéa-Ciné pour tous, and the one
responsible for soliciting Colette’s lecture – fostered the wild moments of the criticism
and theory of the era. Tedesco incorporated an explicitly critical and pedagogical

Animal Photogénie

element to programmes at the Vieux-Colombier in the form of a film repertory. In

the programme guide for the inaugural season in autumn 1924, Tedesco explained
the theatre’s mandate as a literal refinement of the hunt for photogénie: ‘How
many habitués of the Vieux-Colombier have not dared to venture into a cinema
for fear of being tormented too frequently by film serials … only to learn, often
too late, that amongst so much nonsense was something beautiful?’8 Tedesco’s
repertoire programmes distilled films to their photogenic moments, while also
snobbishly elevating their reception by removing them from the rowdier context
of the popular theatres: ‘Numerous are the beautiful films that have been morally
sabotaged by the usual methods of presentation. Our spectators will rediscover
them here, in a dignified setting and sympathetic atmosphere.’9 The repertoire was
comprised of brief passages from films deemed by Tedesco to be either ‘classic’ (his
term) or particularly endowed with photogénie. Tedesco’s mission statement made
explicit reference to the projection of scientific and documentary films as a pivotal
part of this repertoire: ‘We will choose with particular care these films of great
interest, these slices of life and nature, distant voyages, slow-motion and high-
speed cinematography, underwater cinematography, etc.’10 In the context of the
intensified spectatorship fostered by the Vieux-Colombier, Tedesco frequently fea-
tured moving images of animals that were presented as pivotal to the history of the
medium and its future aesthetic development.
In addition to projecting high-speed and time-lapse laboratory films on the
locomotion of insects by Étienne Jules Marey and Lucien Bull (the subject of a lec-
ture by Tedesco delivered on 26 February 1926), and the scientific studies of plant
life by Jean Comandon, Tedesco presented a series of films on animal and plant life
bearing the imprimatur ‘Film of the Laboratory of the Vieux-Colombier’.11 The
laboratory was part of the micro-studio Tedesco installed in the theatre’s attic.
Films bearing its label appear to have been either financed or acquired and recut
by the Vieux-Colombier. The laboratory films often produced strange filmic
encounters in their titles, many of which include the conjunction and. Among films
advertised under this label were Etoiles et fleurs de mer (Starfish and Sea Flowers),
La Vie secrète du grillon des champs (The Secret Life of Field Crickets), La Mante
religieuse et l’araignée (The Praying Mantis and the Spider), La Vie invisible du
sang (The Invisible Life of Blood), Papillons et chrysalides (Butterflies and
Chrysalises), Les Poissons transparents et les poulpes (Transparent Fish and
Octopuses), La Vie sensible des végétaux (The Sensitive Life of Plants), La Vie
d’une plante à fleurs (The Life of a Flowering Plant), and Les Animaux photo-
géniques (Photogenic Animals), a film possibly compiled to accompany Colette’s
undelivered lecture.12 The Vieux-Colombier considered itself a school for film
spectators. Explicitly engaged in canon formation, the Vieux-Colombier cultivated
a discerning taste for film and a taste for film’s eccentric vision. The programming
practices of the Vieux-Colombier and particularly its laboratory films may also be
understood as an experiment in cinema and cinematic spectatorship charmed by
what Colette called the ‘photogénie des bêtes’.


Photogénie …
Photogénie – literally generated by light – entered popular use shortly after the
emergence of photography to describe the capacity of people, places, beings and
things to be translated by photography in a captivating manner: hence the adjec-
tive photogenic (photogénique).13 The filmic sense of photogénie encapsulates this
understanding of photogenic, but also exceeds it. The critics most associated with
photogénie, Louis Delluc and Jean Epstein, emphasised its elusive nature, sugges-
tively placing the concept beyond even their own efforts at prescription and cal-
culation. For Delluc there were as many versions of photogénie as there were
film-makers, suggesting a strongly personal and subjective aspect that was difficult
to quantify.14 Jean Epstein, reluctant to concretise the fleeting visual phenomena
he initially associated with photogénie, admitted ‘one runs into a brick wall trying
to define it’.15 Photogénie names an unassimilable difference between systems of
representation – mobile photographic images and words – that brings critical lan-
guage, as Monica Dall’Asta has suggested, to a crisis point, due to the challenges
of describing or translating visual sensation into logos.16 Epstein insisted upon the
sense of ineffability, crisis and ambiguity in his use of the term. He maintained a
plastic and dynamic conception of photogénie throughout his texts, developing his
explorations of the concept into a cinematic critique of the principle of identity (the
philosophical maxim A = A and not B) over the course of the 1940s and early 50s.
The cinematograph, in Epstein’s view, had an ‘indifference’ regarding ‘appearances
that remain identical to themselves’ or that claim a ‘permanent character of things’.
Conversely it ‘is extremely inclined to highlight any change or evolution’.17 At its
most radical, photogénie foregrounds cinema’s capacity for transvaluation: for
sparking a critically re-evaluative vision of the world.
The discourse on photogénie addressed ontological, quasi-phenomenological
and medium-specific technical dimensions of cinema. Critics used photogénie to
refer to qualities of the profilmic world revealed by film, the spectator’s cinematic
experience (Epstein’s ‘intermittent paroxysms’ ‘measured in seconds’),18 and the
effects of the cinematic apparatus in animating relays between world, spectacle and
spectator.19 Pierre Porte, in his 1924 essay ‘L’Idée de photogénie’ (The Idea of
Photogénie), defined it simply as ‘the aptitude of a thing to be filmed’, and distin-
guished the ‘absolute photogénie’ of specific forms from the ‘relative photogénie’ of
certain states.20 Porte’s account sets up an ontological assertion that regards only a
particular set of entities as possessing it. Photogénie, for Porte, is a quality that only
comes into visibility by being filmed, revealing another aspect or dimension of real-
ity not immediately apparent to the naked eye. He contrasts absolute photogénie
with relative photogénie, which results from situations in which a cinematographer
may be able to produce photogénie, like a spiritualist might produce ectoplasm,
through the skilled use of her or his instruments.
A month after Porte’s article appeared, Epstein specified in ‘De Quelques con-
ditions de la photogénie’ (‘On Certain Characteristics of Photogénie’) that photo-
génie is defined by its plasticity: ‘only mobile aspects of the world, of things and

Animal Photogénie

souls, may see their moral value increased by filmic reproduction’. Photogénie,
Epstein insisted, was the ‘consequence of [an object’s] variations in space-time’.21
According to Epstein’s clarification, photogénie reveals the non-identical nature of
things, their perpetual becoming rather than their identity as fixed entities. The
film-maker Dimitri Kirsanoff adapted a perspective similar to Epstein’s, suggest-
ing that the term ‘reproduction’ might be inaccurate with regards to cinema, since
photogénic revelations presented the world in a manner outside of our habituated
standards of measure and from a perspective definitely ‘not of our nature’.22 If
photogénie, as Epstein suggested, participated in an amplification of moral values,
it was certainly not in a conventionally moralising manner. To the extent that photo-
génie increases moral value, this value must be considered through cinema’s capac-
ity for transvaluation and the reinvention of moral sense.
A pivotal aspect of photogénie is the cinematic apparatus’s capacity to confront
but also to expand the limits of human perception. Delluc’s and Epstein’s accounts
of photogénie celebrate the indifference of the camera and its lens to the intentions
and values of the artist. In the opening pages of Photogénie (1920), Delluc praised
the manner in which the camera intervened against the volition of the artist to the
profit of the spectator: ‘The gesture captured by a Kodak has nothing at all to do
with the gesture one wished to secure. We generally benefit from this.’23 A year
later, in Bonjour Cinéma, Epstein also emphasised the importance of automatic
inscription and contingency to this new aesthetic: ‘The click of a shutter produces
photogénie … . The artist is reduced to pressing a button. And his intentions are
unraveled by chance.’24 Trond Lundemo notes of Epstein that his theoretical writ-
ings frequently treat the apparatus as a ‘center of indetermination’ whose effects
are less predictable than mechanical reproduction would suggest.25 The contin-
gencies of the real are never fully tamed by the cinematic apparatus.
Almost contemporaneous with Colette’s lecture on animal photogénie in early
1926, Epstein published a set of articles that coupled the benefits of the camera’s
automatic inscription with the importance of the alterity of its vision. Epstein
championed this alterity as the key to revealing the existence of a world beyond
anthropocentric perspectives, and he encouraged film-makers and spectators to
embrace this. In ‘L’Objectif lui-même’ (The Lens Itself) he offered a thesis on
medium specificity based upon the vast potential of cinema’s inhumanity.

Why not profit from one of the rarest qualities of the cinematographic eye, that of
being an eye outside of the eye, that of escaping from the tyrannical egocentrism of
our personal vision? Why oblige the sensitive emulsion to only replicate the
functions of our retina? Why not eagerly seize an almost unique occasion for
organizing a spectacle through relation to a centre other than our own line of
sight? 26

In ‘Le Cinématographe vu de l’Etna’ (The Cinema Seen from Etna) (1926), Epstein
effused that the camera lens was not simply the producer of a decentred vision, but


one ‘without prejudices, without morals, exempt from influences’, in short, anthropo-
logically indifferent.27
Epstein developed this line of thought in an interview published in the theatre
weekly Comœdia near the end of March 1926. He expressed his disappointment
with the tendency of directors to ‘enslave the lens’ to the norms of human percep-
tion, and thereby simply reaffirm what and how we already see. Epstein seemed to
be most excited by the wild aspects of this most modern of technologies.

I am a partisan of using the lens in a savage state (état sauvage) so that it unveils
for us the prodigious things of which we have until now been unaware because our
eyes could not reveal them to us.28

The extrasensory attributes of the cinematograph expand the horizons of the per-
ceptible world beyond that of human-centred vision, purportedly revealing new
dimensions of the real. The untamed lens could make even the most familiar of
faces into strange, moving landscapes. Epstein’s programme for cinema advocated
the pursuit of an uncanny, unhomely, homme-less (personless) vision that displaces
us not only from the shelter of ourselves – suggesting spectator positions based
upon non-identification – but also from our habituated sense of the world. Epstein
summarised this double displacement in his posthumously published study
‘L’Alcool et cinéma’ (Alcohol and Cinema): ‘The cinema is a marvelous apparatus
for taking us outside of ourselves and outside of the world in which we believe our-
selves to live.’29

… des bêtes
The cinematograph’s ‘savage’ eye, with its anti-anthropocentric, Copernican poten-
tial – drawing together a spirit of radical discovery and a sensation of displacement
– was well matched by what Colette and the other theorists believed was a special
sensitivity of the apparatus to the secret lives of animals and plants. This helps
explain why their critical writing so often turned to animal films when discussing
the medium and its ineffable qualities. In the case of Epstein’s work in particular,
it suggests a second register of film’s potential wildness.
Epstein’s films contain a rich cinematic bestiary. In addition to the many experi-
mental subjects depicted in Pasteur (1922) – sheep with anthrax, chickens with
fowl cholera and a rabid rabbit subjected to vivisection – animals frequently fea-
tured in the periphery of Epstein’s images. Pasteur includes a kitten in the salon of
the scientist’s boyhood home, and catches a stray cat and stork in its views of
Strasbourg. La Glace à trois faces (The Three-sided Mirror, 1927) features a cocka-
tiel, a monkey, aquarium fish, dogs and a homicidal bird. The director showed
equal enthusiasm for natural phenomena at the scalar limits of the microscopic and
the oceanic, including the extreme close-up footage of various microbacteria in
Pasteur, the eruption and flowing lava of Mount Etna purported to be depicted in

Animal Photogénie

his lost documentary La Montagne infidèle (Unfaithful Mountain, 1923) and the
slow-motion shots of crashing waves in Finis Terrae (End of the Earth, 1928),
which present forces beyond the complete control of the director. Why else place
the kitten on a table to leap off in Pasteur, or set a monkey and dog in a playpen
in the middle of the sculptor’s salon in La Glace à trois faces, or spend so much
time training the camera on the sea crashing against the rocky shoreline if not to
introduce forces of indeterminacy into the scenes? Epstein’s writings frequently ref-
erenced microscopic imagery, animals and geological events, which interested him
precisely for having ‘little in common with human life’ and for being ‘alien to
human sensibility’.30 This difference, which complements that of the camera lens,
suggests the potential for a double displacement of the human spectator in their
filmic encounters with animals, plants and stones. The doubled alterity of per-
spective and of the image’s content – to the extent it forestalls identification – may
activate moments of voluntary, or just as likely, involuntary suspension in judg-
ment. The caesura between perceptual experience, cognition and evaluation pro-
duced by such moments of cinema force an adjustment or recalibration of the
senses. Paroxysms of a primal, wild, untamed perceptual experience overtake the
spectator during those fleeting instants when the faculties scramble to find points
of reference (hence the importance of the brevity of photogénie for Epstein).
Few of Epstein’s contemporaries developed the same radical implications from
their interest in animals and wildness on screen, but they nevertheless found animal
films to be a privileged site of theorising. Delluc, in Photogénie, credited marginal
films as the ideal sights for encountering photogénie. Documentaries featuring the
‘lives of monkeys and the deaths of flowers’ (the very sorts of films subsequently
featured at the Vieux-Colombier) and glimpses of naked flesh (chair) were rich
sources of photogénie.31 Musidora, famous for her role as Irma Vep in the serial
Les Vampires (The Vampires, 1915), emblematised a highly condensed and
provocative version of these ideas in a full-page photograph and textual inscrip-
tion published in the 8 July 1921 issue of Cinéa (the precursor to Cinéa-Ciné pour
tous). The photograph features the actress Musidora à poil (naked like an animal)
in a tree-lined garden seated at a slight angle to the camera on what appears to be
a marble bench with carved lions for support. Lacsalé, her pet chow, rests in the
shade beneath the bench and Musidora tightly holds in place a strategically posi-
tioned lamb. Accompanying the photograph, Musidora wrote in her own hand:
‘One must be “photogenic” from head to toe. After that it is permissible to have
Musidora’s enigmatic piece stages an encounter between the two gazes at play
in the photograph: one all too human, the other the cold gaze of a machine. These
two gazes generate a set of readings at conflict with each other. At first glimpse,
the photograph fulfils the fetishistic impulses of photogénie (and the editorial pol-
itics of Cinéa). The spectacle of Musidora’s naked body, peeled from her trade-
mark black bodysuit and caught at a slight angle, would seem to be an allusion to
the series of nineteenth-century academic paintings inspired by the voyeuristic


© The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY

Animal Photogénie

scene in James Thomson’s eighteenth-century poem ‘The Seasons’, when the suitor
Damon comes across and watches the young maiden Musidora bathing in the
nude, and his discretion at the sight of her nudity is taken by her as proof of his
love.33 While the angle of Musidora’s body (tilted approximately 40º from the
camera’s line of sight) suggests the modesty-preserving gestures of her namesake,
the tilt of her thrown-back head and her hearty smile (as opposed to her name-
sake’s downcast eyes in the poem and paintings) suggests that her modesty is a ges-
tural parody in response to a prurient and moralising male gaze, rather than a
genuine concern for such imposed virtues. From a humanist perspective, the photo-
graph and its legend risk a condescending conflation of woman and nature to the
benefit of neither, a voyeuristic reduction of this woman to her animal body, while
also anthropocentrically asserting human anatomy (head to toe and everything in
between) as the primary unit of evaluative measure.
The presence of another gaze, aligned with the expansive sense of photogénie,
suggests that the dehumanisation discussed above may also have a potentially affir-
mative sense that challenges the anthropocentric and phallocentric gazes critically
implicated through the revision of Thomson’s Musidora. The twentieth-century
Musidora aligns herself with her fellow creatures as well as with the democratic
revaluations enabled by the camera’s disinterested regard for everything within its
field of view. For the open gaze of the camera the movie star, the dog, the lamb,
but also the stone lions, the grass, the trees in the distance and the light caressing
them all, potentially possess photogénie rooted not in ontological fixity, but in
varied dynamic elements. Photogénie displaces talent in a new system of values.
The hallmark of classical conceptions of art rooted in the long-refined and well-
tutored gifts of an individual genius now becomes a vestigial quality of secondary
importance. The photograph and its caption, expressive of a shared exposure but
also a vivacious audaciousness, suggest that different methods of measure and val-
uation are needed for such instantaneous appearances, ones that unsettle the
anthropocentrism of traditional practices of looking.
Musidora’s performative commentary on the photogenic seems to have suffi-
ciently impressed Delluc. In a subsequent review of the canine adventure film
Kazan, chien-loup (Kazan, 1921), he praised the photogénie of the ubiquitous
snow as well as the animal cast members, whom he believed to ‘have much more
talent’ than the human actors in terms of their appearances on screen and benefit
from purportedly remaining unaware of this fact.34 Talent here has been revised
by Delluc along Musidora’s lines as an aspect of photogénie, which calls for a
reconsideration of the way that we view an environment, a fellow creature and a
Germaine Dulac’s work also bears the mark of animal photogénie. She made
frequent allusions to slow-motion studies of animal locomotion and to
Comandon’s time-lapse documents of plant growth in her critical writing and
films.35 Her 1928 film Thèmes et variations (Themes and Variations) compares the
sinuous movements of a ballerina with uncanny footage of plant growth grafted


from La Vie d’une plante à fleurs. Dulac saw the moving images of plants and ani-
mals as a possible way for film-makers to escape from the narrative trappings of
literature and theatre and their ‘all too-human meaning.’36 Even when utilised in
the most abstract examples of pure cinema, footage of animals and plants triggers
a semiotic collapse of their representational and referential qualities. The vital
movements of nonhuman life thus offered Dulac a field for the exploration of
rhythm, motion, sensation and affect engaged with a more-than-human world.
The critic Marcel Defosse summarised these strands of thought in his essay
‘Une certaine photogénie’, published in Cinéa-Ciné pour tous in September 1927.37
Like Delluc and Dulac, Defosse was fascinated by the moments in cinema when
the discipline of professional acting and the perceived constraints of narrative con-
ceits slacken, and film’s capacity for revealing the spontaneity of the real and
unleashing flashes of perceptual wildness come to the foreground. And Defosse’s
perspective articulates a vision of the medium that, like Delluc’s and Epstein’s,
profits from the reduced interventions of the artist. He defines photogénie as the
aspects of film’s aesthetic pleasures that are least reliant upon the intervention,
interpretation and intentionality of the artist; they come into view by merely being
transcribed by automatic processes of the camera.38
Defosse notes that if the predominant examples of photogénie privilege non-
sentient phenomena, such as the reflection of light off running water or the workings
of machines, this is due to the fact that such objects, much like the animals Delluc
saw in Kazan, chien-loup, do not appear to consciously alter their behaviour before
the camera. This unaffected quality ‘fortifies the spectator’s double impression of nat-
uralness and discovery’, producing an interplay of immediacy and of re-encounter-
ing the world through mediation.39 Using examples of films regularly featured at the
Vieux-Colombier, such as the undersea images of the Williamson brothers, the ‘inhu-
man geometry’ of transparent sea creatures in the UFA documentary Jardin de la mer
(Sea Garden) and the ‘moving spectacle’ of an octopus eating in Rex Ingram’s oth-
erwise fictional film Mare Nostrum (1926), Defosse contends that footage of wild
animals intensifies photogénie by adding an element of contingency unbridled by the
constraints and prejudices of human consciousness. Photogénie requires perpetual
reinvention lest it become commonplace. For this reason, Defosse suggests that the
absence of intervention must ultimately be counterbalanced by the aesthetic treat-
ment of this absence. The point remains that much of cinema’s promise lay in its
coordination of engagements with an indispensible wild side.
Émile Vuillermoz, music and film critic for Le Temps and a habitué of the
Vieux-Colombier, also contributed to the discourse on animal photogénie but,
unlike some of his more radical contemporaries, he remained openly sceptical
about the extent to which film might unsettle humanity’s ‘impenitent anthropo-
centrism’.40 Starting with his earliest columns on the cinema, published in Le
Temps during World War I, Vuillermoz wrote about scientific and animal docu-
mentaries from an aesthetic perspective, advocating that audiences and artists
could learn much about the cinema and the world through them.41 Between

Animal Photogénie

February and July of 1927 Vuillermoz dedicated a series of columns to the ques-
tion of animal films. He published a column calling for the establishment of a spe-
ciality theatre dedicated solely to science films and, in direct reference to his friend
Colette and the title of her undelivered lecture, published a column with the title
‘La Photogénie des bêtes’ that expressed regret that so few film-makers had taken
full advantage of the photogénie of animals.42
Vuillermoz emphasised the revelatory powers of the cinematograph. He under-
stood it to have a prosthetic function capable of extending the human sensorium
in space and time, offering valuable lessons not just for scientists and students of
science, but also for artists and philosophers. Slow-motion, time-lapse, micro-
cinematography and X-ray cinematography show ‘that our imperfect senses only
perceive a fraction of what surrounds us … . The ultrasensitive retina of a camera,
on the contrary, records a much more complex and much more nuanced reality.’43
For all of his enthusiasm for the undeveloped potential of animal photogénie and
its contribution to the art and theory of cinema, as well as to knowledge about the
world, he distinguished himself from Dulac, and implicitly from Epstein, with
regards to the issues of anthropocentrism and the principle of identity. He believed
the cinema nourished rather than challenged an anthropocentric position. If the
cinematograph revealed a reality heretofore unseen, it did no violence to the stable
concept of reality as such. Epstein, on the other hand, saw the cinema’s greatest
potential in its emphasis on permanent transformation and its articulation of a
‘geometry of the unstable’.44 Vuillermoz developed his critique in direct conversa-
tion with Dulac’s 1927 essay ‘Du Sentiment à la ligne’ (From Sentiment to the
Line), which mixes an evocative use of anthropomorphism with a call for an
explicitly non-narrative approach to film-making.45 Dulac promoted the idea of a
pure film detached from any narrative content, which she found exemplified by
Jean Comandon’s time-lapse footage of the germination of a grain of wheat.
Vuillermoz, whose own enthusiastic reviews of Comandon’s films, like those of
Colette, were unabashedly anthropomorphic, likened Comandon’s films of micro-
scopic organisms to fairytales, war films, ballets and serialised ciné-romans. He
believed Dulac’s desire ‘to escape from the tyranny of the passionate anecdote’ and
its ‘all too-human meanings’ was doomed to be a noble failure.46
At this point the word anthropomorphism does not seem to have been a part
of Vuillermoz’s critical lexicon. He may not have confused anthropomorphism
with anthropocentrism, but he did tend to conflate the two, believing the latter was
an immutable fact of human perception and cognition, something humans cannot
escape. In his essay ‘Anthropocentrisme’ (Anthropocentrism), published in March
1927, he asserts: ‘Despite everything, we selfishly submit all natural phenomena to
human discipline, and we arbitrarily manage to conduct the most abstract image
symphonies to follow the supposedly fundamental rhythm of the beating of our
hearts.’ 47 Returning to this point in ‘La Photogénie des bêtes’ four months later,
he noted that even if natural history documentaries suffer from ‘a little too much
anthropocentrism’, in the cinema ‘this interpretation only has advantages’.48


Vuillermoz leaves it to his readers to determine what these advantages might

be. He does not seem to believe that humans are capable of using the cinemato-
graph’s inhuman, mechanical eye to see otherwise than in a manner that re-
inscribes everything in anthropocentric terms. But even in this respect, Vuillermoz’s
interventions can be quite generative for confronting the limits of anthropocen-
trism from within such a perspective. One place where this becomes apparent is in
the conclusion of his essay on laboratory films and the value of a cinema and mode
of spectatorship consecrated to them. Making reference to an unnamed documen-
tary film about the lives of insects that closely resembles descriptions of the
Laboratoire du Vieux-Colombier’s Papillons et chrysalides, Vuillermoz teases the
many mistakes poets have made in depicting butterflies as a symbol of ‘insou-
ciance, frivolity, and caprice’. The cinematograph reveals them to be otherwise:
‘their existence, entirely dedicated to the law of reproduction, is dominated by the
pitiless severity of the procreative mission’.49 Sounding more like a phrase from
Documents than from the bourgeois Le Temps, this observation suggests that one
of the effects of the perceptual expansion of well-made animal films is that they
reveal the absurd idealism and romanticism of anthropocentric anthropomorph-
ism. By accident or design, Vuillermoz produces an insight into anthropomorphism
as a desire to find confirmation for human ideals in nature, so as to help ground
them and make appear natural what is in fact ideological. But anthropomorphism
may also stretch and deform what one believes about the human.
The young journalist Louis Chavance addressed a similar set of questions two
years later in his essay ‘Le Symbole du sang’ (Symbol of Blood), but suggested that
rather than reaffirming the integrity of human-centred perspective, animal films
confronted spectators with the terror and ecstasy of the formless (informe).50
Chavance praised film-makers who, through either fear or courage, aim to depict
‘the truly inhuman aspect of things’.51 Like Vuillermoz, Chavance believed that
animal and science films, such as the UFA documentary La Nature et l’amour
(Nature and Love, c. 1928) which he had recently seen at the Vieux-Colombier,
revealed the porous boundary between utilitarian and poetic uses of film. Beyond
the anthropomorphic projections such films solicited from spectators, they also
troubled the spectator’s sense of self. This was largely an effect of the unsettling
eroticism of the film’s images, from which humans have been abstracted (though
humans certainly remain as a negative imprint in the films). Chavance claimed that
the uncanny appearance of formless protoplasts and the other sticky and wriggling
life-forms that appeared magnified on screen had a disturbing attractiveness, or
‘sexappeal’, that corresponded with the viewer’s ‘most secret desires’.52 He specu-
lated that what frightens spectators is the manner in which the attractiveness of
such charged images – ‘these palpitations, these lacunae [entrebâillements], these
curves’ – foregrounds the plastic, violent, and polymorphous qualities of desire.53
The draw of these images is irreducible to a simple expression of the laws of the
preservation of the species. Preservation and propagation were but pretexts for
such films. The behaviour of the creatures on screen and the mixture of attraction

Animal Photogénie

and revulsion they trigger suggest ‘more equivocal’ instincts than preservation of
the species alone.54 These films manifest a cinema of animal attraction that unset-
tles the self-certainty of anthropocentrism and its measure of all things according
to the standards of man, while responding to an eroticism without limits.
Vuillermoz and Chavance both viewed the cinematograph as providing the
occasion for a recalibration of poetry as a practice aimed at more deeply engaging
the world beyond the limits of the human, even as it reflects upon human being.
These lines of thought echo Jean Epstein’s ‘desire for a more exact poetry’, push-
ing this sentiment toward a bête materialism more agnostic to anthropocentric
worldviews.55 If we cannot escape anthropocentrism, we can at least learn to iden-
tify its contours and limits, which the cinematograph may reveal, if only in fleet-
ing and peripheral instants. The discourse on animal photogénie illuminates one
of cinema’s great unrealised promises, that of using the camera’s indifferent, decen-
tring gaze to realise Nietzsche’s ‘strange and insane task’ of ‘translat[ing] man back
into nature’, an operation that reveals new dimensions and possible relations
between both terms, and transforms each in the process.56

By the end of the 1920s, the attention and energy with which theorists explored
the possibilities of animal photogénie were dissipating, even as many of these ideas
found direct cinematic realisation in the films of Jean Painlevé and Geneviève
Hamon, whose popular documentaries, such as La Pieuvre (The Octopus, 1928),
began appearing on screens in December 1928.57 The coming of the sound film
drew critical focus toward other matters. In the realm of animal films, the addition
of the human voice threatened to domesticate the wildness of images by means of
anthropocentric anthropomorphism. Yet this shift in rhetorical focus did not sig-
nify the total extinction of animal photogénie. It has persisted as an undercurrent
in film theory that has, once again, come into critical focus.
Considering animal photogénie in relation to the history of French film theory
reveals overlooked connections between the inter-war theorists and the post-war
work of André Bazin, author of one of the most sustained reflections on animals
and cinema prior to the present moment. Bazin’s writing during the 1940s and 50s
often staged his key arguments through reflections on animals and cinema and the
anti-anthropocentric potential of the apparatus. Despite the considerable differ-
ences in orientation that exist between the inter-war generation’s concerns for the
status of film as an art form and explorations of medium specificity, and Bazin’s
explicitly impure concerns with realist aesthetics, on the questions of animals and
cinema, and of anthropocentrism, these two traditions of film theory reveal strong
correspondences.58 These historical links permeate the epigraph to this essay from
Bazin, which recapitulates key aspects of the discourse on animal photogénie: just
as cinema may reveal something of animals to humans, animals reveal the cinema
to us. Reading Bazin in light of the discourse on animal photogénie, and with and


against Epstein’s brilliant contemporaneous writings, illuminates new dimensions

and new lacunae of post-war film theory.
Photogénie emerged with photography, but found its conceptual development
enriched in the context of another medium: film. The present migration of moving
image media into new contexts – increasingly distributed and reconfigured across
multiple platforms, scales and diversified modes of spectatorship – offers an oppor-
tunity to critically return to the questions inspired by animal photogénie at a
moment marked by an increasing awareness of environmental fragility and vul-
nerability. An anti-anthropocentric perspective is no longer ‘just’ a matter of ethics.
Video aggregators like YouTube and Dailymotion have exponentially expanded
and popularised the impulses behind Tedesco’s and Vuillermoz’s wishes for an
experimental cinema – a cinema laboratory – where animal photogénie, delivered
in brief doses, would play a significant role. A vital form of amateur and profes-
sionally produced animal and wildlife videos has emerged that concentrates on the
fleeting, contingent, non-narrative, untamed, wild and savage aspects of moving
image media, but also presents examples of a literal photogénie des bêtes: an
animal-generated photogénie.59 To name a few examples: Sea Turtle Finds Lost
Camera (Sea Turtle and Dick de Bruin and Paul Shultz, 2010), wherein a camera
lost in the Caribbean is turned on by a sea turtle who produces a lyrical docu-
mentation of surface reflections, hues of blue sea so deep they begin to pixilate and
the fluid motions of the animal swimming above and below the sea; Octopus Steals
My Video Camera and Swims off with It (Octopus and Victor Huang, 2010),
which as the title suggests, shows the results of an octopus grabbing a video
camera from a diver, examining it with its arms and then rapidly swimming off
with it; and Crab Makes a Movie (aka Oops! I Dropped My Camera in the River)
(2011), in which a crab seizes a camera dropped into the water and films the celes-
tial arc of the water’s surface from several metres below capturing passing fish and
distant swimming humans. The interest generated by these clips, often in con-
tradistinction to Vuillermoz’s claims about anthropocentrism, suggests a growing
fascination with engaging the more-than-human world on more open and contin-
gent terms.
Colette’s undelivered lecture on animal photogénie may yet have its impact on
film and moving image theory. Animal photogénie, as theoretical concern, asks
that we consider film and moving image theory’s relation to and reliance upon ani-
mals as figures and tropes, but also as singular, historical beings. Beyond a dis-
course of cinephilia or cinefetishism, photogénie offers a commitment worth
maintaining: that which Epstein referred to in ‘On Certain Characteristics of
Photogénie’ as cinema’s ability to focalise our relationship to the world in all its
distinct particularity. Epstein notes that the grammar of the cinematograph best
expresses itself not with an ideal and generalised ‘the’ of categorical pronounce-
ments, but rather with a concrete and particularised ‘an’: ‘An eye in close-up is no
longer the eye, it is AN eye.’60 Animal photogénie theorises on the side of radical
singularity. As with Derrida’s critical animots, it encourages us to leave behind

Animal Photogénie

such undifferentiated and generalising concepts as ‘the animal’ for attention to ani-
mals, in all their diversity, singularity and fleeting and unpredictable beauty.61

For Jean-Michel

1. André Bazin, ‘Les Films d’animaux nous révèlent le cinéma’, Radio, Cinéma,
Télévision vol. 285 (3 July 1955), pp. 2–3, 8. Research for this essay was supported by
a Connaught Foundation New Researcher Grant and an SSHRC Insight Development
Grant. I thank Éric Thouvenel, Michael Laurence and Laura McMahon for their
criticism of an earlier draft of this text. Unless noted otherwise, translations from
French are my own.
2. The leaflet announcing Colette’s lecture on ‘Photogénie des Bêtes’ is included in Jean
Tedesco, ‘Recueil factice d’articles de presse, de programmes et de documents
concernant la direction du Vieux-Colombier par Jean Tedesco: saisons cinégraphiques.
1924–1928’, Archives of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Richelieu, Arts du
Spectacle, SR96/362. Colette’s lecture is also listed in an announcement for the entire
series published in Cinéa-Ciné pour tous vol. 51 (15 December 1925), p. 5, though the
title is given as ‘Photogénie de l’animal’ (not ‘Photogénie des bêtes’). The lecture seems
to have been cancelled at short notice. A list of the lectures held appears in Christophe
Gauthier, La Passion du cinéma: Cinéphiles, ciné-clubs et salles specialisées à Paris de
1920 à 1929 (Paris: Association Française de Recherche sur L’Histoire du Cinéma,
1999), pp. 358–9.
3. Colette, ‘Cinema’, in Alain and Odette Virmaux (eds), Colette at the Movies:
Criticism and Screenplays, trans. Sarah W. R. Smith (New York: Ungar, 1980),
p. 61; and Colette, quoted in Claude Vermorel, ‘Colette ferait du cinéma, si …’,
L’Intransigeant (21 May 1932), p. 6. On Colette’s theory of film spectatorship and
her larger place in inter-war film culture, see Paula Amad, ‘These Spectacles Are
Never Forgotten: Memory and Reception in Colette’s Film Criticism’, Camera
Obscura vol. 59 no. 20.2 (2005), pp. 118–63; and Amad, Counter-Archive: Film,
the Everyday, and Albert Kahn’s Archives de la Planète (New York: Columbia
University Press, 2010).
4. From the past decade, see Monica Dall’Asta, ‘Thinking about Cinema: First Waves’, in
Michael Temple and Michael Witt (eds), The French Cinema Book (London: BFI,
2004), pp. 82–90; Malcolm Turvey, Doubting Vision: Film and the Revelationist
Tradition (New York: Oxford, 2008); Sarah Keller and Jason N. Paul (eds), Jean
Epstein: Critical Essays and New Translations (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University
Press, 2012); Christophe M. Wall-Romana, Jean Epstein: Corporeal Cinema and Film
Philosophy (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013); and Epstein’s Écrits
complets, eds Nicole Brenez, Joël Daire and Cyril Neyrat (Paris: Independencia
éditions, 2014), of which volumes III: 1928–1938 and V: 1945–1951 have appeared at
the time this essay was sent to press.


5. On Bidel’s Zoological Theatre see Jacques Deslandes and Jacques Richard, Histoire
comparée du cinéma, vol. 2 (Tournai: Casterman, 1966), p. 170. On early animal
films and the cinema of scientific popularisation, see Oliver Gaycken, ‘A Drama
Unites Them in a Fight to the Death: Some Remarks on the Flourishing of a Cinema
of Scientific Vernacularization in France, 1909–1914’, Historical Journal of Film,
Radio and Television vol. 22 no. 5 (2002), pp. 353–74.
6. See Françis Lacassin, Alfred Machin: De la jungle à l’écran (Paris: Dreamland,
7. See Jean-Jacques Meusy, ‘La Diffusion des Films de “Non-Fiction” dans les
Établissements Parisiens’, 1895 no. 18, Images du Réel: La Non-fiction en France
(1890–1930), ed. Thierry Lefebvre (1995), pp. 169–99; Noureddine Ghali, L’Avant-
garde Cinématographique en France dans les années vingt (Paris: Editions Paris
Expérimental, 1995); and Gauthier, La Passion du cinéma. On Albert Kahn, see
Amad, Counter-Archive.
8. Tedesco, ‘Recueil factice …: Saison 1924–1925’, p. 5.
9. Ibid.
10. Ibid.
11. On the importance of scientific methods and scientific cinema for early film theory,
see Hannah Landecker, ‘Cellular Features: Microcinematography and Film Theory’,
Critical Inquiry vol. 31 no. 4 (2005), pp. 903–37.
12. This list draws from Tedesco’s ‘Recueil factice …’, as well as advertisements for the
Vieux-Colombier in Cinéa-Ciné pour tous and La Semaine à Paris btween 1924 and
1930. With the exception of La Vie d’une plante à fleurs, which the Archive
Françaises du film lists as 1925, it is difficult at present to establish dates for these
films as they have few archival traces and are presumed lost. Many were probably
recut from pre-war science and animal films.
13. For an illuminating discussion of photogénie, see Wall-Romana, Jean Epstein, esp.
pp. 25–35.
14. Louis Delluc, Photogénie (1920) in Écrits cinématographiques I: Le Cinéma et les
Cinéastes (Paris: Cinémathèque Française, 1985), p. 36.
15. Jean Epstein, ‘The Senses 1(b)’, trans. Tom Milne, in French Film Criticism and
Theory, vol. 1, 243; and Epstein, Bonjour Cinéma (Paris: Éditions de la Sirène,
1921), p. 35.
16. Dall’Asta, ‘Thinking about Cinema’, p. 83. Mary Ann Doane makes a similar point
in ‘The Close-up: Scale and Detail in the Cinema’, differences: A Journal of Feminist
Cultural Studies vol. 14 no. 3 (2003), p. 89.
17. Epstein, quoted in Nicole Brenez, ‘Ultra-Modern: Jean Epstein, or Cinema “Serving
the Forces of Transgression and Revolt”’, trans. Mireille Dobrzynski, in Keller and
Paul, Jean Epstein, p. 228. On the critique of the principle of identity, see Epstein,
‘L’Intelligence d’une machine’ (1946) and ‘L’Alcool et cinéma’ (1946–9) in Écrits
sur le cinéma: 1921–1953, 2 vols, ed. Pierre Lherminier (Paris: Seghers, 1973); as
well as Chiara Tognolotti, ‘L’Alcool, le cinéma, et le philosophe. L’influence de
Friedrich Nietzsche sur la théorie cinématographique de Jean Epstein à travers les

Animal Photogénie

notes du fonds Epstein’, 1895 vol. 46 (2005), pp. 37–53; and Éric Thouvenel, ‘À
Toute intelligence je préfère la mienne: quand Jean Epstein lisait Gaston Bachelard’,
1895 vol. 62 (2010), pp. 53–75.
18. Jean Epstein, ‘Magnification’, in French Film Theory and Criticism vol. 236;
Epstein, Bonjour Cinéma, p. 94. On the embodied aspects of Epstein’s theory, see
Doane, ‘The Close-up’, p. 108; and Wall-Romana, Jean Epstein, pp. 67–96.
19. Wall-Romana summarises Epstein’s concept of photogénie as attending to ‘the total
relation between pro-filmic reality … filmic images, and the embodied viewer’. See
ibid, p. 26.
20. Pierre Porte, ‘L’Idée de Photogénie’, Cinéa-Ciné pour tous vol. 17 (15 July 1924),
pp. 14–15.
21. Jean Epstein, ‘On Certain Characteristics of Photogénie’, in Keller and Paul, Jean
Epstein, p. 294; and Epstein, ‘De quelques conditions de la photogénie’, Cinéa-Ciné
pour tous vol. 19 (15 August 1924), pp. 6–7.
22. Dimitri Kirsanoff, ‘Les Problèmes de la Photogénie’, Cinéa-Ciné pour tous vol. 62
(1 June 1926), p. 9. Kirsanoff defined the seductive mystery of photogénie as due to
filmic images’ resistance to our modes of measure in ‘Les Mystères de la
Photogénie’, Cinéa-Ciné pour tous vol. 39 (15 June 1925), p. 9.
23. Louis Delluc, Photogénie (1920) in Pierre Lherminier (ed.), Écrits cinématograph-
iques I: Le Cinéma et les Cinéastes (Paris: Cinémathèque Française, 1985), p. 33.
24. Epstein, ‘The Senses 1(b)’, in French Film Theory and Criticism, 244 (translation
modified); and Epstein, Bonjour Cinéma, p. 37.
25. Trond Lundemo, ‘A Temporal Perspective: Jean Epstein’s Writings on Technology
and Subjectivity’, in Keller and Paul, Jean Epstein, p. 219.
26. Jean Epstein, ‘L’Objectif lui-même’, Cinéa-Ciné pour tous vol. 53 (15 January
1926), p. 8 (my emphasis).
27. Jean Epstein, ‘The Cinema Seen from Etna’, trans. Stuart Liebman, in Keller and
Paul, Jean Epstein, p. 292; and Epstein, Écrits, vol. 1, pp. 136–7.
28. Epstein quoted in Yves Dartois, ‘L’Œil et l’objectif’, Comœdia (29 March 1926),
p. 2. This phrase revises André Breton’s pronouncements that the eye exists in a
savage and wild state in ‘Le Surréalisme et la peinture’, Revolution Surréaliste vol. 4
(15 July 1925), p. 26.
29. Epstein, ‘L’Alcool et cinéma’, p. 223.
30. Epstein, ‘On Certain Characteristics of Photogénie’, p. 295.
31. Delluc, Écrits cinématographiques I, pp. 34, 53–4.
32. Musidora, ‘Il faut être “photogénique”…’, Cinéa vol. 10 (8 July 1921), p. 17. Thanks
to Annette Förster for helping me track down the name of Musidora’s chow and
Maggie Hennefeld for a generative conversation on this image. Françis Lacassin
mentions she named it after Pierre Benoît’s 1921 novel Le Lac salé. Françis Lacassin’s
Musidora: 1889–1957 (Paris: Avant-Scène du Cinéma, 1970), p. 483. Delluc returned
to this image of Musidora in La Jungle du cinéma (1921), where he wrote ‘Musidora
is photogenic from head to toe: I have seen her entirely naked in a photograph, but
not at the theater, and she has not invited me back to her place’ (p. 314).


33. James Thomson, ‘The Seasons’, in The Seasons (1726–30; repr., New York: T. Simpson,
1803), esp. pp. 90–1. Artists who painted scenes inspired by Thomson’s Musidora
include John Opie (c. 1788), Thomas Sully (c. 1813–35) and William Etty (1846).
34. Louis Delluc, ‘Kazan, chien-loup’ (1921), in Écrits cinématographiques II: Le Cinéma
au quotidien (Paris: Cinémathèque Française, 1990), p. 265. In A. B.’s comic article on
cinema’s greater regard for dogs than men (in terms of their working contracts and
their reception by audiences), he concedes that ‘the dog is the most photogenic of all
animals’, and notes the canine stars Teddy, Brownie and Strongheart have earned
laurels comparable with those of any star. A. B., ‘Contrats de … chiens’, Cinémagazine
vol. 27 (4 July 1924), p. 14.
35. Germaine Dulac, ‘À Propos d’Âme d’Artiste’, ‘Aphorismes’, ‘L’Essence du cinéma –
L’Idée visuelle’, in Prosper Hillairet (ed.), Écrits sur le cinéma (1919–1937) (Paris:
Paris Expérimental, 1994), pp. 57–67. See also Landecker, ‘Cellular Features’, p. 934.
36. Dulac, ‘Du Sentiment à la ligne’ (1927), in Écrits, p. 89.
37. Marcel Defosse, ‘Une certaine photogénie’, Cinéa-Ciné pour tous vol. 93 (15
September 1927), pp. 13–14.
38. Ibid., p. 13.
39. Ibid., p. 14.
40. Émile Vuillermoz, ‘La Musique des images’, in L’Art Cinématographique, vol. 3 (Paris:
Librarie Félix Alcan, 1927), p. 64.
41. Émile Vuillermoz, ‘Devant l’écran’, Le Temps (25 April 1917), p. 3.
42. Émile Vuillermoz, ‘Films de laboratoire’, Le Temps (19 February 1927), p. 6; and ‘La
photogénie des bêtes’, Le Temps (9 July 1927), p. 5. Contemporaneous with the latter
essay, E. L. Black penned a short text making a very similar argument for the Swiss
film review Close Up. See Black, ‘Animals on the films’, Close Up vol. 1 (July 1927),
pp. 41–6.
43. Vuillermoz, ‘Films de laboratoire’, p. 6.
44. Epstein, ‘Alcool et cinéma’, p. 215.
45. Dulac, ‘Du Sentiment à la ligne’, pp. 87–9.
46. Ibid., p. 89; Émile Vuillermoz, ‘Devant l’écran: La cinématographie des microbes’, Le
Temps (9 November 1922), p. 3; ‘Anthropocentrisme’, Le Temps (19 March 1927),
p. 5; and Vuillermoz, ‘La Musique des images’, 64. Ghali summarises aspects of this
debate in L’Avant-garde Cinématographique en France, pp. 234–6.
47. Vuillermoz, ‘Anthropocentrisme’, p. 5.
48. Vuillermoz, ‘La Photogénie des bêtes’, p. 5.
49. Vuillermoz, ‘Films de laboratoire’, p. 6.
50. Louis Chavance, ‘Le Symbole du sang’, La Revue du cinéma: Revue de critique et de
recherches cinématographiques vol. 1 no. 2 (February 1929), pp. 50–3.
51. Ibid., p. 50 (my emphasis).
52. Ibid., pp. 52–3. Sexappeal appears in English as a single word in the original. This
equation is not so odd, given Elinor Glyn’s famous comment in 1927 that Rex the
Wonder Horse was one of those rare examples of a being possessed with It (sex

Animal Photogénie

53. Ibid., p. 53.

54. Ibid.
55. Epstein, ‘Magnification’, p. 239; and Bonjour Cinéma, p. 103.
56. Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil in The Basic Writings of Nietzsche, ed.
and trans. Walter Kaufman (New York: Modern Library, 2000 [1886]), pp. 351–2.
57. For more on Painlevé and Hamon, see James Leo Cahill, ‘Anthropomorphism and Its
Vicissitudes: Reflections on Homme-sick Cinema’, in Anat Pick and Guinevere
Narraway (eds), Screening Nature: Cinema beyond the Human (Oxford: Berghahn,
2013), pp. 73–90; and Roxane Hamery, Jean Painlevé, le cinéma au cœur de la vie
(Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2008).
58. With the exception of Roger Leenhardt, Bazin rarely cites his inter-war predecessors,
save for to critique their purist aesthetics.
59. See Florien Leitner, ‘On Robots and Turtles: A Posthuman Perspective on Camera and
Image Movement after Michael Snow’s La région centrale’, Discourse vol. 35 no. 2
(2013), pp. 263–77; and James Leo Cahill, ‘A YouTube Bestiary: 26 Theses on a Post-
cinema of Animal Attractions’, in Paul Flaig and Katherine Groo (eds), The New Silent
Cinema: Digital Anachronisms, Celluloid Specters (New York: AFI/Routledge, 2015),
pp. 263–93.
60. Epstein, ‘On Certain Characteristics of Photogénie’, p. 295.
61. Jacques Derrida, ‘The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow)’, trans. David
Wills, Critical Inquiry vol. 28 no. 2 (2002), pp. 369–418.

Rosalind Galt

2 Cats and the Moving Image

Feline Cinematicity from Lumière to Maru

In 2012, the media reported widely on an artificial intelligence (AI) study jointly
run by Google and Stanford University on ‘large scale unsupervised learning’, or,
in other words, whether a computer could learn to recognise types of image with-
out first being told what to look for. In previous models, researchers would have
to label images (e.g. a human face) and the computer could then detect faces based
on their similarity to the labelled images.1 However, this new experiment set their
computer loose on 10 million still images culled from YouTube videos and asked
it to learn unsupervised – to notice recurring shapes and to build pattern recogni-
tion ability on its own. The researchers started from what are called ‘grandmother
neurons’, a type of neuron in the brain that evidence suggests selects for key cat-
egories such as faces or hands. So, the thinking goes, if humans might develop the
ability to recognise faces and hands because babies see a lot of these things and the
brain has neurons that focus on learning such important objects, then perhaps arti-
ficial intelligence could learn similarly. So what did the AI learn was important
from looking at 10 million YouTube video images? Alongside the human face it
learned to recognise the cat face.
The study reached a broad audience of non-scientists because it seemed to offer
hard (and slightly uncanny) evidence for something long suspected: the internet is
made of cats.2 Cat images and in particular cat videos are a major genre of popu-
lar web culture and are generally believed to be a common but insignificant feature
of the new media landscape. From Keyboard Cat (2007) to Cat Alarm Clock
(2012), cat videos are an enduring staple of internet humour but, with a few excep-
tions, have prompted little scholarship.3 Jody Berland has written persuasively
about the iconography and posthuman implications of still images of cats circulated
online, considering the ambivalent pleasures of the ‘young, furry and innocent’. 4
Berland’s article usefully resists the more radical critiques of interspecies relation-
ships, positing the particularly intimate models of kinship offered by the human–
cat bond. Cats are not domestic in quite the same way as dogs and their liminal
relationship to human space creates, for her, its own cultural history and biopoli-
tics. More recently, some media scholars have begun to pay attention to the cat
video as a genre.5 But considering the centrality of the cat video to contemporary
Cats and the Moving Image

visual culture, the literature is as yet minimal. Here, I argue that the new media
dominance of the cat video is neither insignificant nor random but rather that cats
have a necessary and historical relationship to the moving image. We can trace the
‘cat video’ back to the earliest days of cinema, and we find in moving images of
cats a specifically cinematic form of pleasure. We might say that cat videos circu-
late virally like the toxoplasma parasite that propels humans to like cats. Cat love
is a viral behaviour transmitted by screen cultures.
This essay proposes a relationship between the cat and cinema, viewed at the
intersection of a series of gazes. First, there is a gaze at the cat, in which, as the
Google study evidences, the cat becomes a cinematic object second only to
humans. Second, there is the look of the cat within film, a gaze that experimental
film-makers have found less disturbing than did Derrida, as the feline gaze forms
a recurring theme in post-war experimental cinema.6 Finally, there is the gaze of
the cat at cinema: the question of spectatorship. If film theory has been based
largely on human concepts of psychic investment in the screen, what happens when
cats look at moving images? Among these three gazes we can locate feline cine-
maticity. Not simply a question of representation, the cat is entwined with the
broader social and psychic apparatus of cinema. The Google study bespeaks not
only the predominance of cats in contemporary video culture but the strangeness
of a computer viewing the endless text of YouTube, a nonhuman spectator whose
gaze can be imaged, and who teaches us that human culture has the face of a cat.
In this essay I argue that in cinema cats are not avatars for the human but contain
a unique capacity to remove us from human vision and to capture the otherness of
cinematic life.

Gazing at cats
Cats emerge as the animal par excellence of the mechanically reproduced image.
Although they are represented frequently enough in European painting, they do
not exert the same imaginative force on earlier modes of image-making. Unlike
dogs and horses, cat painting is not a significant art historical genre. The reasons
for this lack are no doubt manifold: histories of domestic cat ownership and genre
painting, and, perhaps, the nature of the feline body. Cats often seem to resist rep-
resentation: their bodies are so plastic and their musculature often hidden by fluff,
and, unless they’re asleep, they rarely sit still long enough to sketch. Although there
are important instances of feline-themed art from Da Vinci’s cat sketches to
Gainsborough’s Six Studies of a Cat (1765–70) and Oide To- ko-’s Cat Watching a
Spider (1888–92), painted cats are often marginal to the frame, or even slightly
wonky-looking (work by Dürer, Hogarth and Goya comes to mind). But in the age
of photography cats take on a new cultural role, their bodies used to figure mod-
ernity’s themes of movement and the street. We see the effects of this shift in the
elegant cat silhouettes of Manet but its direct appearance is in cinema, where the
new figurability of unpredictable feline motion articulates the close affinity of cats


to the discourses of cinematic modernity. The relationship of animals to theories

of the cinematic is well documented: from Topsy the elephant’s death in
Electrocuting an Elephant (1903) to André Bazin’s essay on bullfighting, animal
death has a unique place in film theory.7 However, cats are more often avatars of
life: as early as La Petite fille et son chat (The Little Girl and Her Cat, 1899), cats
animate discourses of cinematic contingency and vitalism.
Lumière’s film might be called an early cat video and it quickly establishes the
genre’s pleasures in movement and the display of unbiddable feline animation. It
begins with the titular child in a chair, feeding treats to a large, bushy cat. The cat
quickly gets distracted, looks off screen to the right and jumps off the chair and
out of the frame. Suddenly the cat reappears, clearly having been thrown back into
shot by an unseen human. Now he is happy to be fed treats, and indeed grabs the
girl’s hand with a paw, pulling the food closer. But what occurs in the cat’s brief
trip off screen is an early lesson in cinematic contingency. As relatively untrainable
animals, cats can’t be relied upon to do what the film-maker wants. Even a pet cat
being bribed with copious amounts of food is just as likely to notice something
interesting elsewhere and leave, and so a cute actuality about a little girl and her
cat becomes a narrative about on- and off-screen space, about desire, about the
unpredictable; in short, about unbiddable life. As much as the wind in the leaves
or the fly climbing up the windowpane in Jules et Jim (1962), Lumière’s wayward
cat instantiates the exhilaration of a cinematic life not quite in human control.
Cats recur in early cinema’s exploration of cinematic vision: in Grandma’s
Reading Glasses (1900) we see a close-up of a cat’s head as one of the items
grandma looks at and in George Albert Smith’s The Sick Kitten (1903) the same
cat appears as the mother of the kitten tended to by a little girl and boy. Vicky
Lebeau cites both La Petite fille and The Sick Kitten as examples of early cinema’s
project of ‘visualizing the child’.8 I don’t think these feline appearances evince a
similar attempt to visualise the cat as much as they demonstrate the extent to
which felinity maps cinema’s project of self-articulation, what we might charac-
terise as the tension between Siegfried Kracauer’s realist and formative tendencies.9
Although The Sick Kitten folds its subject into a fictional narrative of children
playing doctor, it really depends on the indexical pleasures of a kitten lapping milk
in close-up. Further evidence of the affinity between cats and Kracauer’s realism
can be found in its opposite, The Boxing Cats (1894). Here, the formative trick-
ery of a black background hiding people holding the cats’ leashes parallels the
unnatural way the cats are forced to fight ‘like humans’ with boxing gloves. The
awkwardness of these deformations suggests that forcing cats to act human is not
only cruel by modern-day standards but also essentially uncinematic.
The enduring appeal of the cinematic cat can be weighed by the proliferating
subgenres of cat video in the age of YouTube: Ninja Cat (2008), Dramatic Cat
(2008), Inception Cat (2010), etc.10 The most significant cat video series stars
Maru – a Scottish fold cat whose YouTube videos (made by Mugumogu) have
been viewed over 158 million times – and whose oeuvre corresponds closely to

Cats and the Moving Image

the qualities that Kracauer associated with the cinematic.11 For Kracauer, ‘Film…is
uniquely equipped to record and reveal physical reality’ and viewers of the Maru
series take pleasure in exactly these recording and revealing functions.12 This is a
real cat, living in Japan, and the videos record a transient fragment of physical real-
ity. Beyond simply recording, they also reveal things normally unseen, giving us
privileged access to an uncommon feline lifeworld. We enter this unknown world,
the private domestic space of a human we never see on screen, and take pleasure
in Maru’s sensate life.
In Big Box and Maru (2009), the setting is a minimally decorated modern
living room in which we watch Maru in a series of long takes attempting to jump
into a large cardboard box.13 At first he fails to propel himself high enough, even
after jumping onto a table to get a higher angle, and we see him smash comically
into the side of the box. At the video’s midpoint, he makes it into the box with an
impressive vertical spring, and after this point the editing speeds up, showing Maru
leaping in and out of the box repeatedly. Kracauer argues that although ‘the hunt-
ing ground of the motion picture camera is in principle unlimited’, some subjects
‘exert a particular attraction on the medium’.14 These cinematic subjects include
movement such as the chase, dance and nascent motion.15 Maru offers all three:
he chases boxes and toys, his movements are balletic in the sense that we take
pleasure in the elegant physicality of his musculature, and, most directly, we antici-
pate and enjoy nascent motion in his coiling, balancing, teetering and finally leap-
ing from tabletop onto box.
Another cinematic subject for Kracauer is inanimate objects: films tell stories
not only with actors but with things, where the camera allows objects to become
narrative players. Maru is obsessed with boxes: he will attempt to fit his entire
body into smaller and smaller boxes, squashing meaty haunches into not-quite-big-
enough spaces. The Maru videos produce cinematic suspense in its most primal
form from the question of whether Maru will fit into a box. The box is Maru’s
love object and antagonist, thwarting and rewarding him in turn. In A Box and
Maru 8 (2011), he jumps repeatedly into a small cube-shaped box.16 At first, he
leaps headfirst into the box, only to have the whole thing tip over so that he flips
and rolls, tail in the air. It’s pure physical comedy, with Maru’s repeated wipeouts

A Box and Maru 8 (19 June 2011),

edguhyvM (accessed 15 June 2015)


provoking spectatorial sympathy. Finally, though, he manages to force himself into

the box and sits up proudly. For a second, he looks directly at the camera. It’s a
moment of triumph.
Like Lumière’s cat, Maru videos deploy the affinities of cinema for what
Kracauer terms the unstaged and the flow of life.17 In Mask Maru 2 (2009), we
open on Maru sticking his head into a paper bag then spending a few seconds
working it off again.18 After a dissolve, the bag is back on his head and he
spends the next three minutes wandering his spacious apartment. We see more
than usual of Maru’s home here: the white sofa, TV showing a baseball game
and Japanese screens between rooms. In the video’s most cinematic moment,
Maru walks through a gap in the screens to the next room and disappears out of
shot. For several long seconds, we watch an empty room with the screens form-
ing an internal frame to the room behind. It’s a moment formally reminiscent of
Fassbinder or perhaps Ozu. Eventually, Maru reappears, paper bag still over his
head, walking vaguely back across the internal frame, seemingly in his own
world. We’re unusually distanced from Maru’s perspective here, reminded of the
sheer alterity of a creature whose pleasures involve a crisp brown paper bag over
the head. Maru’s owner may have set up his encounter with the bag, but what
transpires is unpredictable and aleatory, a flow of life in which we take pleasure
in waiting for the cat’s unpredictable return to our vision. Maru videos thus con-
tain the central cinematic pleasures of narrative (will Maru make it into the big
box?) and spectacle (just look at that cat walking around with a bag stuck on his
head!) but they also fulfil the promise of the cinematic to tether technological
motion to organic life.
In 2012, the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis curated a cat video film festi-
val that was in part crowdsourced, suggesting the proximity, for audiences at least,
of public culture, film exhibition and new media genres.19 But if there is a large
popular audience for the cute cat video, this very popularity also engenders acute
anxieties. Christian psychologist and self-help guru Gregory Jantz selects Maru as
an example of internet addiction:

It all started with those Maru, the Japanese cat, videos. All of you ended up talking
about them for weeks. People you hardly spoke to at work came up and asked you
to watch them. What’s not to like about a fluffy, rotund kitty and all those crazy
boxes? … It feels good. It does feel good. Each experience is like a drug hit, a thrill
… . The more you do, the closer you come to that line, the line over which
impulsive activity becomes addictive.20

From a conservative viewpoint, the pleasures of Maru, like those of cinema, are
downright dangerous. If cat videos speak to the essential cinematicity of the cat,
they also point us toward the cultural anxieties provoked by unbridled cinematic
life. What could be seductive and sinful about fluff? (Read on: Carolee
Schneemann has the answer …)

Cats and the Moving Image

Jantz speaks to an obviously reactionary moralism but the cat video also tri-
angulates more intellectually sophisticated critiques. Steve Baker’s Picturing the
Beast: Animals, Identity, and Representation (2001) considers cultural representa-
tions of cute cats as part of the mentalité that allows us to eat meat and abuse ani-
mals; in other words, from a certain animal rights’ perspective these images
constitute a symbolic violence that contributes to what he sees as real-life violence.
Citing Jack Zipes, he refers to this cultural superstructure as ‘our Walt Disney con-
sciousness’ and for Baker, following Adorno and Horkheimer, the consciousness
produced by the cute cat image does the work of ideological deception.21 Here, the
‘cute cat’ is exemplary of the stereotyping within which cultural discourses about
animals circulate. However, it is not straightforwardly deceptive: the cute cat forms
a semiotic cluster that does the ideological work of Barthesian myth. For Baker, we
are all implicated in this modern mentalité, our attitudes to animals formed within
what he describes as its narrow boundaries, which makes the careful analysis of
popular cultural representations all the more urgent.22
New media theorist Ethan Zuckerman takes a somewhat more positive view
in his cute cat theory of digital activism, but the cat is still a signifier of, at best,
non-meaning. Zuckerman argues that internet 2.0 is used first for cute cats and
then for activism; by embracing the fact that people want to post cat videos, we
thus build technologies that are useful for activists.23 Here, cat videos are instru-
mentalised as exemplary of banal user-generated content, significant only because
they inadvertently create the conditions for real political speech. It’s not that
Zuckerman is wrong, exactly, but that this argument is so similar to many other
iterations of how popular culture is at best meaningless, at worst actively regres-
sive. What Jantz, Baker and Zuckerman share is an attention to cat images and a
recognition of their cultural potency. Decrying cute cats is thus a vector of another
recurring aspect of the cinematic, viz the frequency with which critics view it as
morally dangerous or ideologically suspect.
Luckily, one contemporary film-maker at least has recognised the inherent cine-
maticity of the cat. Contrary to cute cat theory, Chris Marker insists that the cine-
matic cat can be political. Marker’s cats famously stand in for the director as a
marker of authorship (when asked for a photograph, he would send out a draw-
ing of his cat, Guillaume-en-Egypte), and, as Adrian Danks has described, cats
appear across his films as simultaneous figures of the legibility and ungraspability
of the image.24 But Marker also sees cats as markers of political activism. In his
epic film of radical political movements, Le Fond de l’air est rouge aka Grin with-
out a Cat (1977), he says ‘A cat is never on the side of power.’ In The Case of the
Grinning Cat (2004) a cat makes a visual claim on droit de cité when the grafitti
tag of M. Chat recurs across Paris alongside a wave of leftist political demonstra-
tions. In the wake of Marker’s death, grieving cineastes posted images of his cats
across Facebook, including M. Chat saying ‘make cats, not war’. Marker has
worked in photography, film and new media, but the very low-tech form of spray
paint on walls is close to his heart as a form of political image-making.


Of course, M. Chat is not a real cat. But the issue of real cats speaks precisely
to Marker’s understanding of feline cinematicity. M. Chat is a still image that
‘moves’ when filmed, and that moves the viewer to emotion and action. He artic-
ulates the relationship between the still and moving image that Marker’s work con-
stantly traverses. In La Jetée (The Jetty, 1962) the relationship between still and
moving is the very form of cinema: ‘real birds, real cats, real graves’. Each thing is
a cinematic thing. Graves point to the essential deathliness of cinema, the image
from the past, always already lost. This is the central figure of La Jetée after all,
the man who foresees his own death. But it is also a film about the momentariness
of life and the need to live in and for moments of movement. The film’s key
moment is the woman opening her eye and, even though it is a fake cinematic life,
still images run fast enough that we believe them to be real. And this is the cine-
matic life that the protagonist chooses to return to – not the future in which
humanity has been reborn but the past of real cats.
Marker returns frequently to the cat as cinematic subject. Chat écoutant la
musique (Cat Listening to Music, 1990) is at once a typical Marker short and a
classic cat video. It begins with close-ups of the face and paws of a cat asleep on a
keyboard, continuing at a slow pace, moving from photographed cat to live one,
from out-of-focus to focused image, and watching closely the small movements of
paw and ear that signal feline attention and happiness. The image is full of indices.
There are the photographs of cat and human propped on the back of the keyboard;
there are the blinking lights that indicate sound levels; and the feline bodily signs
of listening and pleasure. The subject of the film is attention; both the titular atten-
tion that the cat pays to the music and the attention that we as human spectators
must pay to understand the cat. We learn to read the affective semiotics of ears,
eyes and claws. Marker’s cinema insists that cats mean, and that they mean par-
tially through our process of paying attention to them. This is as true for the real
cat Guillaume as it is for the drawn M. Chat. We must pay attention to when cats
appear and to what they signify.

Looking through cats

American experimental cinema has paid particularly close attention to cats. If early
cinematic cats and contemporary cat videos emphasise the contingency and vital-
ism of cinema, New American Cinema turned to cats as avatars of cinema’s sensu-
ous materiality and its ability to see the world anew. Film-makers from Maya
Deren and Alexander Hammid to Stan Brakhage and Carolee Schneemann consider
what happens to cinema when cats look. Hammid’s The Private Life of a Cat
(1944), which he made with Maya Deren in their West Village apartment, is the
first of several attempts in experimental cinema to produce for human spectators
an experience of feline vision. The film follows the film-makers’ two (unnamed)
cats through the birth of a litter of kittens: no humans appear in the film and it is
told entirely from the cats’ point of view (POV). It begins by suturing the spectator

Cats and the Moving Image

into narrative space through a play of looks – he looks at her, she looks at him –
and a romantic relationship is created through point of view. The editing is utterly
classical, except the looks through which we look are cats’ looks. The construc-
tion of feline point of view continues with a shot/reverse-shot structure. She seeks
a place to give birth and we see her looking up followed by a low-angle shot
pointed up toward some high cupboards. The camera takes up the cat’s optical
POV, an ordinary strategy in classical cinema but here made strange by asking
the spectator to look as a cat. We look around the room, move toward a box and
hop inside. Hammid’s cat looks in a familiar way, and indeed the film’s experi-
mental quality partly resides in applying classical narrative mechanisms to non-
human subjects.
However, cutting across this classicism, something else happens in the film’s
close-up shots of the kittens. Kracauer considers the cinematic to inhere in things
normally unseen, including the very small scale, and we experience this shift of
scale in the sequence of two-week-old kittens.25 The effect of camera vision on tiny
kittens is a disintegration of the look in favour of an emphasis on texture, furriness
and sensation. The kittens are wobbly, blind at first, and the image is filled with
rolling limbs and licking tongues. Scholars such as Jennifer Barker and Laura
Marks have emphasised the sensory qualities of cinema and Private Life imagines
the cinematic apparatus not as a human body but a cat body, offering tactile pleas-
ures of fluffiness and muscular pleasures of climbing and leaping.26 As the kittens
drink milk, close-ups create an image of rhythmic lapping, with happiness visu-
alised in the soppy texture of milky chins. As they learn to walk we oscillate
between the sensory blur of the kitten and the narrative space of the cat. The film
represents feline subjectivity not only through optical point-of-view structures but
also via this entrée into the tactile lifeworld of the kitten. Cinematic subjectivity is
not only a question of looking relations (which Hammid accurately pinpoints as
organised around the heteronormative family) but of sensory snorgling. This feline
sensorium demonstrates the proximity of the cinematic to intimate life.
This interest in cat perspective as sensory, tactile and proximate is extended in
Stan Brakhage’s cat films, which cross his career from Night Cats (1956), through

The Private Life of a Cat (1944)


Pasht (1965) to Max (2002). The best known is Cat’s Cradle (1959), which views
domestic encounters among Brakhage, his wife Jane and another couple – friends
Carolee Schneemann and James Tenney – through the viewpoint of Schneemann’s
cat Kitch. Brakhage introduces the cat very early on in the film with a close-up of
her head and blurry extreme close-ups of fur; the intersection of orangey light and
fur producing rich surface patterns and textures. Kitch is like the wallpaper, bed-
spread and painting – all patterned surfaces we see in fragments. But she also has
a POV, where the centrality of her close-ups produces a sense that she organises
our vision. Unlike Private Life, though, editing does not create explicit optical POV
and many shots imply the film-maker’s vision more than the cat’s. (For instance,
the well-known gender critiques of the film point out that Brakhage is carefully
framed lounging and looking cool while Carolee Schneemann is forced to wear an
apron and work in the kitchen.) Brakhage mingles feline and human points of
view, but it is the cat who offers what Brakhage terms the untutored eye. Whereas
those shots most implicated in Brakhage’s vision tell culturally overdetermined nar-
ratives about gendered domesticity, Kitch centres proximities of light and shade,
textile and body parts and deeply saturated colour, evoking a sensory immediacy
that refuses symbolic meaning.
In an interview conducted shortly before his death, Brakhage turned again to
a cat to explicate the untutored eye:

And all that shimmering and movement and gradations of color, imagine a world
before – this is the point – imagine a world before the beginning was the word.
[Max the cat enters] Hey that was a good entrance, cat! [laughs] Look at the
shimmering across that cat’s body … . Look at the brown blacks and the sheen of
the blue black coming up, bouncing off. Look at how he enrobes himself, Max the
cat, with the beauty of all that gradation. Without giving it a thought, how do I
know what he’s thinking. Huh? You like that Maxie-moo? All that massive,
shimmering, feathery, fragile, splintering, weaving, unweaving, revolving world in
which we move and live, I began to be aware of it in some overwhelming sense so I
could no longer disregard it.27

Cinema, for Brakhage, is uniquely able to return to us an ability to see the world
that we have lost and cats are intimately woven into this vision as both subjects
and objects. Indeed, it is their complication of the subject/object split that makes
them such compelling avatars for cinematic vision: Max evokes both awe at his
body’s ability to screen light and colour and affection for his real or imagined
thought processes.
The most sustained intersection of feline point of view and American experi-
mental film is developed by Carolee Schneemann, the feminist artist who was
unwillingly represented wearing an apron in Cat’s Cradle. Schneemann’s work has
consistently interrogated the materiality, erotics and political force of the body,
breaking down artist/model, subject/object and figure/ground binaries. But folded

Cats and the Moving Image

into this feminist deconstruction of patriarchal art practice is a troubling of the

human/animal boundary, most controversially in Infinity Kisses (1981–8), her
photo series and video of herself kissing her cat Cluny. For Schneemann, these
images of ‘intimacy between cat and woman … raise questions of interspecies com-
munication, as well as triggering unexpected cultural taboos’.28 Schneemann’s
films, and in particular Fuses (1967), locate the cat in multiple positions across the
cinematic field: Kitch is at once an avatar of the artist, subject and object of the
look, or even material, where cat hair was stuck to the thickly layered, dyed and
collaged film. Schneemann works to figure embodied desire differently and the cat,
like the woman’s body, operates as a material, desiring, kinetic field. Kitch is a
recurring presence in her films – not a marginal figure but a participant in
Schneemann’s avant-gardist breakdown of art and life.
Fuses is the first of the films I’ve discussed to credit the cat: Kitch is listed
alongside Schneemann and her lover Tenney in the opening title. The film is a com-
plexly layered meditation on female desire that presents Schneemann and Tenney
having sex as Kitch looks at them and out of a window. The cat appears early on,
as does a shot of a window, curtain flapping, that implies a feline perspective. Cats
frequently look out of windows and the film returns repeatedly to shots of trees
outside, a subject of at least equal interest to Kitch as the sexual life of her owner.
Like Brakhage, Schneemann does not labour to bind the spectator closely to a
feline point of view. But whereas Cat’s Cradle produces a tension between human
and nonhuman vision, Fuses enfolds Kitch’s perspective with Schneemann’s into a
domestic intimacy that overlays erotics, creativity and nonhuman affective bonds.
We look with Schneemann and with Kitch, and through Kitch at Schneemann. As
M. M. Serra and Kathryn Ramey put it,

Kitch is at once herself as well as the representative of the gaze, the eyes of the
film-maker/editor, and the presence of the viewer/spectator. Kitch embodies not
just the seeing eye, but also the internal eye of the artist.29

Like the mechanical eye of the camera suspended over a chair, Kitch watches the
lovers with disinterest. She is an untutored eye, but one explicitly free from
oppressive sexual ideologies. Her presence marks their lives together and Fuses
merges how she might view the world of bodies and windows and trees and
fucking with the dispersed sensorium of female sexuality. Like Private Life, Fuses
values the intimacy of the domestic, or the interior worlds that exist within the
The avant-garde discourse on the everyday meets cinematic life in Kitch’s Last
Meal (1973–6), an epic double-projection film on the subject of the cat’s death.
According to J. Carlos Kase, Schneemann expected the seventeen-year old Kitch to
die soon when she began the project of documenting her last weeks. But Kitch
lived for another three years, so that the film took on an open-ended quality
entirely in keeping with Schneemann’s diaristic practice.30 The film includes


Schneemann and her partner Anthony McCall discussing everyday things, and
Schneemann talking about women in art. Kitch’s life encompasses feminism and
domesticity but the usual organisation of human/animal relations is reversed so
that we focus on Kitch’s experience. And although Kitch dies, feline cinematicity
focuses on everyday life not death. The film is an elegy that uses the resurrective
power of cinema to bring Kitch back. We watch her playing in the yard and eating
fish, intercut with nude scenes between Schneemann and McCall. These are tran-
sient moments of a lost past, but moments that can be re-experienced as cinematic
life. Schneemann reveals the cat as a very particular type of cinematic creature. She
embodies intimacy, affection and nonhuman bonds. She bespeaks a cinematic
utopia of vision uncluttered by patriarchal morality yet open to sensation. And she
is fragile, a brief life that we must treasure for we experience its finitude.

Feline spectatorship
The idea of feline spectatorship is, at first glance, ridiculous. Surely only human view-
ers are sutured into the apparatus of cinema? But cats do watch moving images, and
humans from YouTube audiences to neuroscientists have demonstrated interest in
that vision. This twenty-first-century emergence of cat spectatorship discourse asks
us to reconsider the relationship of subjectivity to the moving image. A key feature
of the feline gaze is its activity. If cats embody cinematic life, they do so from both
sides of the screen. When cats enjoy watching screens they also paw at the image,
trying to catch the movement, often looking behind the screen for whatever has van-
ished into off-screen space. True believers in what Kracauer termed the endlessness
of the cinematic image, its implication of a world beyond the frame, cats search for
diegetic space above, below and behind the screen.31 Forever the apocryphal naïve
audience who ran from Lumière’s arriving train, cats believe in images and chase
them round the back of the screen. They offer a vision of an all-consuming pleasure
in images that is no longer available to us directly. This avid engagement is one of the
reasons that human spectators enjoy watching feline spectatorship. We like looking

The author’s cat watching nature

programmes on television

Cats and the Moving Image

at cats but we also like looking at cats looking at screens. Watching cats watching
screens is a relay that is captured by the Infinite Cat Project, a website that creates a
potentially infinitely recursive series of images of cats photographed looking toward
the computer at the previous image of a cat looking at a computer and so on. But
still photography can’t capture the activity of feline spectatorship, so the cat specta-
torship subgenre of YouTube video emerged.
There are over 11,000 YouTube videos of cats watching television screens.
Quand un chat joue aux jeux vidéo (When a Cat Plays Video Games) is exemplary
of the form. Here, a young Siamese cat watches the video game Duck Hunt and
bats energetically at the screen trying to catch the flying ducks. When the duck flies
out of the frame, the cat looks over the top of the television. This activity follows
Vivian Sobchack’s description of her own cat’s television viewing, in which she
considers ‘the representation of a moving car taken by it, perhaps, to be the pres-
ence of a moving insect’. For Sobchack, the cat doesn’t process the images as any-
thing other than motion and the screen therefore ‘does not become for my cat a
place of representation’.32 Cats certainly don’t understand the concept of repre-
sentation, but they can process representational images. My own cat only watches
animal shows on television and leaves in boredom if she sees too many shots of
human presenters. It’s big cats that excite her and, although she does walk behind
the screen to look for those elusive snow leopards, it seems clear that she can read
the image for content. Similarly, in many YouTube videos, cats hunt recognisable
images like birds and lions. There are many variants: the nonprofit sanctuary Big
Cat Rescue has a channel with videos of their cats – one shows a tiger watching
other tigers and leopards on a television just outside his enclosure. A video by
Taulep zooms out to reveal eight cats keenly eyeing a nature show on television,
squashed together on a table to get a better view. These cats stage something about
the strangeness of feline spectatorship – a nonhuman eye watching a nonhuman
eye – but also its vivacious and intimate pleasures.
The iPad has spurred an even more interactive version of this subgenre. Tablets
are designed for interactivity and paws work just as well as fingers. Thus several
iPad apps aimed at cats have been released, with Game for Cats (2011) the best
known. The game is designed with feline players in mind, not so much in the
design of the mice and fish that dart across the screen but in the relationship of on-
screen and off-screen space and the unpredictable movements of the targets. Some
cats undoubtedly enjoy playing the game but the real audience is of course their
human owners who enjoy watching feline interactive spectatorship. Popular web-
site Buzzfeed posted a cat iPad challenge, comparing several videos of cats playing
Game for Cats and ranking the cats’ performances.33 Cat-food manufacturer
Friskies also offers kitty iPad games, including Tasty Treasures Hunt (2011), based
on cat food, and You vs. Cat (2011), which bills itself as the first dual-species game
for tablets. There is another utopian vision of animal–human bonds here, more
commercialised than Schneemann’s, to be sure, but an everyday iteration of techno-
logically intersecting human and feline lives.


Popular and scientific interest in feline vision intersect in the catcam, a feline
cinematic eye enabled by the technological development of cheap, tiny cameras.
With the catcam, cats move from spectator to film-maker. Beginning with a
German DIY project to attach a small camera to a roaming cat’s collar to see
where it went, catcam is now sold as a consumer product and has recently been
turned into a documentary film called CatCam the Movie (2012). The University
of Georgia led a wildlife ecology and management study into outdoor cat move-
ment by attaching catcams to dozens of local cats and viewing their footage. Here,
although cats’ films are viewed by Sonia Hernandez and her team purely instru-
mentally, as evidence of their ‘risk behaviours’, the project’s co-sponsorship by
National Geographic and its widespread media coverage illustrates that a popular
audience also asks what cats see.34 ‘What do cats see?’ is an appealing question
because although they are domestic animals with whom we share intimate life,
their private lives are unknown and their vision, we imagine, opens onto alterity.
(We might contrast cats to dogs, whose movements we mostly control and whom
we suspect see the world in a predictable way, as imagined in Up, 2009.)
As well as asking what cats see, recent scholarship has considered how they see.
Gudrun U. Moeller et al. have studied how feline vision is different from that of
humans.35 Their experimental process involved both feline film-making and feline
(and human) film spectatorship. The process involved hooking three cats up to cam-
eras mounted on their heads and letting them roam various outside spaces. Then,
both cats and humans watched the resulting films while attached to an eye-move-
ment monitor that could record how they looked at the filmic space. Some cinematic
issues arise from this study. First, the centrality of recognisable film-making and film
viewing techniques to the experiment is notable. Moeller shows stills from the films
made by the cats as well as the cat ‘cinema’ in which they watch the films. It doesn’t
quite look like a human cinema since the cats are placed in a box to restrict their
movement but still we see a familiar apparatus with a ‘seating’ space in front of a
screen on which we see a landscape image. In order to understand feline vision, the
researchers must turn cats into first cinematographers and then into spectators.
Second, Moeller and her team have an interesting relationship to the discourse
of cinema. They call the recordings made by the cats ‘natural movies’. Does the
word ‘natural’ aim to remove the connotations of artfulness and intentionality sug-
gested by the word ‘movie’? Probably, but from a film studies perspective we are
reminded of histories of naturalism, the quest for total cinema and the many
instances of film-makers and anthropologists giving cameras to ‘natural’ subjects
in order to access primitive points of view. ‘How does the Other see?’ is a question
that has been central to cinema’s intersection with colonial thought and here it is
extended to the study of animal life. The symbolic violence of this question is lit-
eralised in the study, in which the cats were given a cranial implant that functioned
as a mount for the camera and helped fix them to the eye-movement monitor.
Although this procedure obviated the need for invasive eye surgery, it gives a whole
new life to the coercive qualities of apparatus theory.

Cats and the Moving Image

Cats are thus imbricated in cinema’s politics as much as its pleasures. Across
the spaces of feline cinematicity, from the whimsical to the experimental, we find
a recurrence of cinematic modes of vision as well as a process of reconsidering the
relationship of subjectivity to image. What cats see, how cats see and what pleas-
ures they take in the image emerge as questions for new media technologies that
can only be answered using the forms and processes of the cinematic. This engage-
ment is exemplified by Pieterjan Grandry’s Analogue Animated Gif Player (2011),
an installation that mixes the nineteenth-century technology of the phenakisto-
scope with the internet phenomenon of the animated GIF. Grandry’s device uses a
rotary disk to make an animated kitten nod its head. If the cat can mediate
between pre- and post-cinematic technologies, it is because the cat stands in unique
relation to cinematic vision. The history of cats in cinema takes us from a simple
pleasure in bodily movement to an inquiry into pleasure, affect and subjectivity.
Like cinema, cats look in a radically nonhuman way that is, nonetheless, intimately
close to our lives. It is this look, I argue, that is promised by the proliferation of
cats in online visual culture: Maru, we might say, embodies the feline cinematicity
of new media images.36

1. Quoc V. Le et al., ‘Building High-level Features Using Large Scale Unsupervised
Learning’, Proceedings of the 29th International Conference on Machine Learning
(Edinburgh, 2012) http://static.googleusercontent.com/media/research.google.com/
2. Rathergoodstuff, ‘The Internet Is Made of Cats’, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=
3. Keyboard Cat, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J—-aiyznGQ; Cat Alarm Clock,
4. Jody Berland, ‘Cat and Mouse: Iconographies of Nature and Desire’, Cultural Studies
vol. 22 no. 3–4 (2008), p. 432.
5. See for instance Radha O’Meara, ‘Do Cats Know They Rule YouTube? Surveillance
and the Pleasures of Cat Videos’, Media Culture Journal vol. 17 no. 2 (2014).
6. Jacques Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, trans. David Wills, ed. Marie-
Louise Mallet (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008).
7. André Bazin, ‘Death Every Afternoon’, in Ivone Margulies (ed.), Rites of Realism:
Essays on Corporeal Cinema (Durham, NC Duke University Press, 2003), pp. 27–31.
8. Vicky Lebeau, Childhood and Cinema (London: Reaktion Books, 2008), p. 23.
9. Siegfried Kracauer, Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality (Princeton,
NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997).
10. Ninja Cat, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fzzjgBAaWZw; Dramatic Cat,
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=plWnm7UpsXk; Inception Cat,
11. For Maru videos, see http://www.youtube.com/user/mugumogu?feature=watch.


12. Kracauer, Theory of Film, p. 28.

13. Big Box and Maru, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xdhLQCYQ-nQ.
14. Kracauer, Theory of Film, p. 28.
15. Ibid., p. 41.
16. A Box and Maru 8, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TbiedguhyvM.
17. Kracauer, Theory of Film, pp. 60, 71.
18. Mask Maru 2, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ofrSio_jZO0.
19. See http://www.walkerart.org/openfield/programs/internet-cat-video-film-festival/
(accessed 31 August 2012). The museum was at pains to point out that the festival
wasn’t part of the film and video department. However, the summer series event drew
some of the museum’s largest ever crowds.
20. Gregory L. Jantz with Ann McMurray, Hooked: The Pitfalls of Media, Technology
and Social Networking (Lake Mary, FL: Charisma House, 2012), p. 53.
21. Steve Baker, Picturing the Beast: Animals, Identity, and Representation (Champaign:
University of Illinois Press, 2001), p. 25; Jack Zipes, Breaking the Magic Spell: Radical
Theories of Folk and Fairy Tales (London: Heinemann, 1979), p. 8; Theodor W.
Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment (London: Verso, 1997).
22. Baker, Picturing the Beast, pp. 28–9.
23. Ethan Zuckerman, ‘The Cute Cat Theory of Digital Activism’, http://www.ethanzuck-
24. Adrian Danks, ‘The Cats in the Hats Come Back; or ‘At Least They’ll See the Cats’:
Pussycat Poetics and the Work of Chris Marker’, Senses of Cinema (17 September
2012), http://sensesofcinema.com/2012/feature-articles/the-cats-in-the-hats-come-back-
25. Kracauer, Theory of Film, p. 46.
26. Jennifer Barker, The Tactile Eye: Touch and the Cinematic Experience (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 2009); Laura Marks, Touch: Sensuous Theory and
Multisensory Media (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002).
27. Pip Chodorov, ‘Stan Brakhage with Pip Chodorov’, Brooklyn Rail, http://www.
28. Carolee Schneemann, Imaging Her Erotics: Essays, Interviews, Projects (Cambridge,
MA: MIT Press, 2003), p. 264. In 2010, Schneemann used an image from Infinity
Kisses as a promotional T-shirt for MIX, the New York Experimental Queer Film
Festival, with the caption ‘love the one you’re with’. Schneemann’s interspecies kiss
reminds us of the queerness of cinematicity, its ability to engender unexpected
seductions and to trigger erotics across identitarian boundaries.
29. M. M. Serra and Kathryn Ramey, ‘Eye/Body: The Cinematic Paintings of Carolee
Schneemann’, in Robin Blaetz (ed.), Women’s Experimental Cinema: Critical
Frameworks (Durham, NC: Duke University Press), p. 112.
30. J. Carlos Kase, ‘Kitch’s Last Meal: Art, Life and Quotidiana in the Observational
Cinema of Carolee Schneemann’, Millennium Film Journal vol. 54 (Fall 2011),
pp. 72–83.
31. Kracauer, Theory of Film, p. 63.

Cats and the Moving Image

32. Vivian Sobchack, The Address of the Eye: A Phenomenology of Film Experience
(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991), p. 53.
33. Josh Fjelstad, ‘Cats Playing iPad Games: Showdown’, http://www.buzzfeed.com/
34. Sonia Hernandez et al., Kitty Cams Project, http://www.kittycams.uga.edu/
35. Gudrun U. Moeller et al., ‘Interactions between Eye Movement Systems in Cats and
Humans’, Experimental Brain Research vol. 157 (2004), pp. 215–24.
36. I’d like to thank Jennifer Proctor, Andy Medhurst, Margaret Schwartz and Ana Lopez
for keeping me updated on cat videos as I researched this project; Alice Bardan and
Oona Mekas for help locating films and cats; and Carolee Schneemann for crucial
information on Kitch, the most significant cat in experimental cinema.

Adam Lowenstein

3 Buñuel’s Bull Meets YouTube’s Lion

Surrealist and Digital Posthumanisms

Something is happening to cinema (or at least the idea of cinema) in our digital,
computerised age of ‘new media’ that makes its twenty-first-century existence quite
different from what it was previously. That much most film studies scholars can
agree on.1 But what is happening, exactly? A host of discourses and phenomena
have emerged to account for what cinema is now, or what it is becoming.
Globalisation. Convergence. Virtuality. Video games. Digital production. Web
video. All of these concepts have attracted well-deserved attention within film stud-
ies, but another discourse that has flourished in the digital era has generated com-
paratively little conversation: posthumanism.
According to N. Katherine Hayles’s influential definition, ‘In the posthuman,
there are no essential differences or absolute demarcations between bodily exis-
tence and computer simulation, cybernetic mechanism and biological organism,
robot teleology and human goals.’2 Hayles is rightly suspicious of how posthuman
thought tends to valorise disembodied information systems at the expense of
human embodiment and all its complex particularities: ‘Embodiment has been sys-
tematically downplayed or erased in the cybernetic construction of the posthuman
in ways that have not occurred in other critiques of the liberal humanist subject,
especially in feminist and postcolonial theories.’3 She admits that her ‘nightmare’
is ‘a culture of posthumans who regard their bodies as fashion accessories rather
than the ground of being’, but she also holds out a ‘dream’ of the posthuman ‘that
embraces the possibilities of information technologies without being seduced by
fantasies of unlimited power and disembodied immortality’.4 Cinema is nowhere
to be found in Hayles’s study, despite the fact that science fiction films have pow-
erfully shaped popular conceptions of the posthuman for more than a century.
Indeed, it is doubtful that the most iconic posthuman figure, the cyborg, would
have nearly the theoretical and cultural resonance it does today without science fic-
tion cinema’s long line of fantastic life-forms. So where is film in the dream and
nightmare mappings of the posthuman?
I want to think through cinema’s relation to the posthuman by turning not to
the cyborg, but to the animal. My contention is that if posthumanism, as Hayles
claims, becomes most problematic when it veers toward disembodiment, then there
Buñuel’s Bull Meets YouTube’s Lion

is much to learn about the posthuman from the animal, that most thoroughly
embodied ‘prehuman’. It might even be the case that, as Cary Wolfe argues,
posthumanism should be regarded first and foremost as a ‘mode of thought’ that
engages ‘the problem of anthropocentrism and speciesism and how practices of
thinking and reading must change in light of their critique’.5 So if the issue of
embodiment – whether embraced or resisted, animalised or mechanised – is at the
heart of posthumanism, then cinema’s virtual and material essences, its simul-
taneous presence and absence, its mechanical technologies so often mobilised to
simulate and/or extend human perception, offer rich soil for growing the theoret-
ical implications of the posthuman. Conversely, discourses of the posthuman may
also help bring more precision to our understanding of cinematic spectatorship in
a digital era.
This essay presents two different examples of what I will be referring to as
posthuman spectatorship. In other words, I will compare two cases that outline the
hypothetical possibilities of interactions between viewers and film-related media at
the intersection of cinema and the posthuman. The first example comes from
YouTube, a website that launched in 2005 and has since become the most well-
known hub for short videos on the internet.6 In April 2008, a two-minute video
entitled Christian the Lion was posted on YouTube and caused such a sensation
that it was later broadcast on popular US television talk shows such as The View
(1997–) and The Today Show (1952–) and inspired a tie-in book publication. The
second example is Los Olvidados (The Forgotten Ones, 1950), Luis Buñuel’s cel-
ebrated return to the main stage of international cinema after nearly two decades
of invisibility (but not inactivity) following his surrealist masterworks Un Chien
andalou (1929), L’Âge d’Or (The Golden Age, 1930) and Las Hurdes (Land with-
out Bread, 1933). I will argue that Christian the Lion’s digital posthumanism can
be strategically challenged by returning to Los Olvidados’s surrealist posthuman-
ism, resulting in an illumination of the possibilities for posthuman spectatorship.

The animal in posthumanism

Historian of science Lorraine Daston argues that current prevailing attitudes
toward anthropomorphism (at least among intellectuals) as an impossibility, as
something taken seriously only by the childish, is dependent on formulations of
perspective as sensory experience, subjectivity and sympathy that arose only in
the eighteenth century. In medieval times, angelology posited the study of non-
human angelic intelligences in ways not dependent on these formulations, where
what we now regard as common-sense demarcations between subjectivity and
objectivity had not yet taken hold. By contrast, post-Darwinian comparative psy-
chologists of the nineteenth century adopted subjectivity and sensory experience
as central terms, thereby placing the emphasis on individuals rather than kinds,
on the impossibility of knowing any kind but your own. For Daston, reconsid-
ering anthropomorphism today should not entail dismissing or simplifying real


otherness, but searching instead for a way to connect across species lines that
moves beyond the sentiment, ‘What is it like to be an X?’7
Daston’s concerns fall squarely within the posthuman realm, but she does not
use that term. Even Donna J. Haraway, perhaps the leading theorist of the post-
human in both its cyborg8 and animal forms (her work is at the centre of bur-
geoning multidisciplinary developments in animal studies),9 feels uncomfortable
with the ‘posthuman’ label. Despite the fact that her pioneering book When
Species Meet (2008) appears in a series called ‘Posthumanities’, Haraway states
explicitly her preference for ‘companion species’ over ‘posthuman’ as her founda-
tional concept. Companion species encompasses a biological perspective that posits
all creatures as made up of their relationships with other creatures, rather than a
series of solitary species identities that do not touch:

The shape and temporality of life on earth are more like a liquid-crystal
consortium folding on itself again and again than a well-branched tree. Ordinary
identities emerge and are rightly cherished, but they remain always a relational
web opening to non-Euclidean pasts, presents, and futures.10

For Haraway, companion species resists the dangers surrounding notions of

posthumanism that threaten to repeat humanism’s errors. If humanism often
tended to drift toward racism and the exclusion of otherness, then posthumanism
risks a similar fate in its desire to transcend the human, to leave the problems of
defining the human behind. As Haraway puts it,

I never wanted to be posthuman, or posthumanist, any more than I wanted to be

postfeminist. For one thing, urgent work still needs to be done in reference to those
who must inhabit the troubled categories of woman and human, properly
pluralized, reformulated, and brought into constitutive intersection with other
asymmetrical differences. Fundamentally, however, it is the patterns of relationality
… that need rethinking, not getting beyond one troubled category for a worse one
even more likely to go postal.11

I agree with Haraway, in the sense that my own investment in the posthuman
is more strategic than doctrinaire. Posthumanism, for better and worse, collects
around itself the discourses (including those of Daston and Haraway) that I wish
to project onto cinematic spectatorship’s digital present and surrealist past. In
other words, I am not a posthumanist, but I am committed to understanding the
implications of the posthuman in this context.
Although visual media exist only on the margins of When Species Meet, it is
worth noting that Haraway mentions how the surrealist documentary film-maker
Jean Painlevé’s work can guide viewers to ‘the join of touch and vision’ occasion-
ally present in Crittercam, a 2004 National Geographic Channel television series.12
The advertised premise of Crittercam is that special digital cameras attached to the

Buñuel’s Bull Meets YouTube’s Lion

bodies of wild animals will allow spectators to experience the environment pre-
cisely as an animal does. Haraway rightly critiques the absurdity of this premise,
where Crittercam’s animals are ‘presented as makers of home movies that report
on the actual state of things without human interference or even human pres-
ence’.13 But she asserts that Painlevé’s surrealist accounts of underwater organisms
help to illuminate what is most promising in Crittercam’s footage, what exceeds
the show’s premise:

The cuts are fast; the visual fields, littered; the size scales of things and critters in
relation to the human body, rapidly switched … never is Crittercam’s audience
allowed to imagine visually or haptically the absence of physicality and crowded
presences, no matter what the voice-over says.14

For Haraway, the sheer physicality of the Crittercam footage dispels the illusion of
the show’s premise – these are not purely movies made by animals, but rather
movies that remind spectators of the interdependence of humans and animals for
their visual and haptic properties, their materialist (and indirectly surrealist) ‘join
of touch and vision’. The camera, contra the premise of Crittercam, does not
become some ‘mentalistic, dematerializing black box’.15 Instead, the camera as
material site of mediation between animal and human occupies the foreground of
the spectator’s embodied experience of the footage. Despite these moments of
embodied effectiveness, what frustrates Haraway about Crittercam is not just the
naïvete of its advertised premise, but ultimately its inability to provide something
implicit in that premise: animal experience and agency on its own terms.
Crittercam is still a ‘colonial’ project for Haraway, one that finally subordinates
animal experience to human experience despite complicated forms of enmesh-
It is possible to detect a similar frustration in Haraway’s accounts of post-
structuralist thinkers who have taken up the question of the animal. She admires
Jacques Derrida’s willingness to speculate on the philosophical implications of an
encounter between himself and the cat that stares back at his naked body, but
laments Derrida’s failure to imagine this encounter beyond human shame, his
refusal to include an animal acknowledged as ‘mutually responsive’.17 Gilles
Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s notion of ‘becoming-animal’ receives harsher criti-
cism from Haraway – she sees in it ‘little but the two writers’ scorn for all that is
mundane and ordinary and the profound absence of curiosity about or respect for
and with actual animals’.18 Part of Haraway’s disappointment with Derrida and
Deleuze/Guattari surely stems from her deeper investment than theirs in concerns
more closely associated with animal rights or animal liberation.19 However, I wish
to explore Haraway’s insistence on the ‘mundane and ordinary’, which for her is
epitomised by the touch exchanged between herself and her pet dog: ‘My premise
is that touch ramifies and shapes accountability. Accountability, caring for, being
affected, and entering into ethical responsibility are not ethical abstractions; these


mundane, prosaic things are the result of having truck with each other.’20 In this
account, Deleuze/Guattari (and Derrida, to a lesser extent) prefer abstraction to
touch, the sublime idea of the animal to the mundane existing animal, the extraor-
dinary to the ordinary.
But what does it mean for Haraway to characterise ‘touch’ primarily as a
matter of direct physical contact, the kind that occurs between humans and their
animal pets? One advantage to this approach is taking seriously an entire realm of
relationships that Deleuze/Guattari dismiss when they assert ‘anyone who likes cats
or dogs is a fool’.21 For Deleuze/Guattari, human–pet relationships can only prop
up the sort of regressive, narcissistic, fixed identities that they believe psycho-
analysis depends upon, and which they aim to replace with an alternative notion
of being as becoming, of identity as a series of deterritorialising transformations
always in flux. I think Haraway is correct to call Deleuze/Guattari on their reduc-
tive portrayal of human–pet relations, but her decision to locate her critique in the
realm of touch, of actual animals meeting actual humans, minimises those tech-
nologically mediated but also affective and embodied aspects of ‘touch’ I will
describe here as posthuman spectatorship. Indeed, Deleuze/Guattari’s first exam-
ple of ‘becoming-animal’ comes from cinema: Willard (1971), a horror film about
a young male loner named Willard (Bruce Davison) who befriends a pack of rats,
has them carry out his bidding, but then falls victim to their murderous revenge
when he betrays their trust. For Deleuze/Guattari, Willard functions as an exam-
ple of ‘becoming-rat’. His being is not fixed through human or animal identities,
but instead circulates as a series of ‘impersonal affects, an alternate current that
disrupts signifying projects as well as subjective feelings’.22
Deleuze/Guattari offer impersonal affects involving the human and the animal
without resting subjectively in either; they take shape as cinema. Haraway offers
personal affects that belong to both human and animal subjectivities; they take
shape as the touch between human and animal. But can cinema and/or new media
‘touch’ as well? Can they address and move the spectator in ways that might com-
plicate this duality between the virtual/impersonal and the actual/personal? By
juxtaposing surrealist and digital posthumanisms, I hope this essay begins to sug-
gest how we might answer such questions in the affirmative.

Christian the Lion

Christian the Lion tells the true story of two men who buy a lion cub named
Christian as a pet. Although they love him dearly, they realise they must release
him into the wild once he grows too big for them to handle. The video focuses on
their reunion in the wild one year later. They are told Christian will not be able to
remember them but, when the parties do meet, Christian embraces them with a
stunning round of joyful hugs that they return just as enthusiastically.23
The emotional appeal of Christian the Lion is easy to understand, but quite
complex in its construction. The video foregrounds its ‘true memory’ status by

Buñuel’s Bull Meets YouTube’s Lion

Christian the Lion (2008): Christian’s

joyful reunion with his human owners

beginning with black-and-white photographs that show Christian the cub at home
with his owners, engaging in playful antics like making a mess of dresser drawers
and climbing on top of a television set. The transition from still photographs to
colour film footage of the reunion does not feel like a departure from the ‘true
memory’ tone, since this footage is washed-out and obviously dated, much like a
scrapbook would be. Superimposed titles relate the story’s outlines during the photo-
graph segment, but disappear during most of the filmed reunion so that its imme-
diacy stands out. The soundtrack consists of the rock band Aerosmith’s ballad ‘I
Don’t Want to Miss a Thing’ (1998), a song that highlights themes of love, loss
and the need for physical contact (‘Even when I dream of you/The sweetest dream
would never do/I still miss you, babe/And I don’t want to miss a thing’). When the
screen goes black, a final title appears: ‘You got this video from someone who
loves you. Send it to someone you love.’
Like many other YouTube videos, Christian the Lion is a product assembled
from found footage. In fact, the video consists of material posted on YouTube as
early as 2006 – it is not the first YouTube version of Christian’s story, but it is the
most popular (viewed more than 17 million times by 2012). Many of the video’s
photographs can be found in the book A Lion Called Christian, a memoir by the
cub’s two owners Anthony ‘Ace’ Bourke and John Rendall first published in 1971
(reprinted in 2009 following the video’s YouTube exposure).24 The filmed reunion
is excerpted from the documentary The Lion at World’s End (1971), a chronicle
of Christian’s story starring Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna, the actors fea-
tured in an earlier, Academy-Award-winning film about lions called Born Free
(1966). In Born Free, Travers and McKenna play George and Joy Adamson,
whose real-life experiences with lions in Africa were the subject of Joy Adamson’s
bestselling 1960 book of the same name – the basis for the film. The Aerosmith
ballad originally appeared on the soundtrack of Armageddon (1998), a
Hollywood disaster/action blockbuster that carries familial connotations since it
stars (among others) Liv Tyler, the daughter of Aerosmith’s lead singer Steven


None of the above information on Christian the Lion’s sources appears within
the video itself. This is also typical of YouTube’s format. What does appear are a
plethora of posted responses from viewers, both in words and in images. These
responses include revisions and updates of the original video, so that multiple alter-
nate versions of Christian the Lion coexist alongside it on YouTube. Text responses
include discussions of the video’s authenticity (this video must be staged; no, this
video is real) and its emotional impact (this video made me cry; you are foolish if
this video made you cry). Although it is impossible to provide any comprehensive
sense of the text responses to Christian the Lion (as of 2012, there were more than
16,000), it is clear that many users gravitate toward issues of anthropomorphism
and cross-species feeling in their reactions to the video. One user writes, ‘Consider
my heart touched. I’m crying that changed my perception of what bonds can be
held with those who love each other.’ Another writes, ‘After this – who will say
that animals have no soul?!!’
At first glance, Christian the Lion appears to support Haraway’s companion
species model. Humans and animals connect across species lines, blurring the
boundaries between properly ‘human’ and ‘animal’ capacities for memory, love,
affection. But if it is the patterns of relationality between organisms that Haraway
wishes to recast with the notion of companion species, does Christian the Lion
achieve this? Not when it slides into old-fashioned anthropomorphism – Christian
acts like humans, or at least mimics the very best interpersonal impulses in
humans. Christian gains legitimacy not as an animal on his own terms, but for imi-
tating admirable human behaviour.
Yet Christian the Lion also presents a case where Haraway’s web of relation-
ality between species becomes a web of relationality. Perhaps the technological
format of YouTube offers possibilities for users to feel the posthuman, in an
embodied sense, that exceeds the capacity of Christian the Lion to show the
posthuman as anything other than anthropomorphism? Yes, in terms of sheer emo-
tional involvement (including crying), but the direction of this emotional involve-
ment seems geared more toward reinforcing old patterns of anthropomorphic
relationality than establishing new ones. The video’s end title underlines the lesson
of Christian the Lion as one of human love, not interspecies relationality. In fact,
the version of Christian the Lion that aired on The View uses a new end title that
makes this stance even clearer: ‘Love knows no limits and true friendships last a
lifetime. Get back in touch with someone today. You’ll be glad you did.’25
Of course, it’s one thing for a video to provide a lesson, but quite another for
the spectator to swallow it whole. Even if there is evidence at the textual level that
Christian the Lion channels its emotional power into shoring up anthropo-
morphism rather than questioning it, emotion and YouTube are both notoriously
unruly entities that may mutate in surprising ways through those experiencing
them. Browsing through the videos that YouTube flags as related to Christian the
Lion reveals earnest, detailed information about contributing to lion conservation
causes, opportunities to learn more background by accessing the films and book

Buñuel’s Bull Meets YouTube’s Lion

on which the video was based, exposure to current interviews with Bourke and
Rendall, as well as all sorts of witty and half-witty parodies that sometimes turn
the video’s lesson on its head (Christian mauling his owners, for instance). So there
are certainly avenues of interactivity open to spectators of Christian the Lion that
do not siphon all feeling into anthropomorphic life lessons, but these avenues
appear to be less well travelled.
Although Christian the Lion is just one case of the digital posthuman, its status
as one of the twenty most popular videos of all time within the sprawling ‘Pets and
Animals’ category of YouTube content (the category itself testifies to the centrality
of animals on YouTube) gives some outline of its broader significance. In fact, the
very first video ever posted on YouTube (on 23 April 2005), ‘Me at the Zoo’,
shows a young man (YouTube co-founder Jawed Karim) standing and speaking in
front of the elephants at the San Diego Zoo.26 So from the very beginnings of this
posthuman-era technology, the desire for the animal to make it real announces
itself. To consider this desire from another vantage point, one where the real
encounters its interrogators, we must turn to the surrealist posthuman.

Los Olvidados
Buñuel, cinema’s foremost surrealist, started out as an entomologist. Or at least
this was his initial ambition when he left his parents’ home in Zaragoza, Spain to
study at the Residencia de Estudiantes in Madrid in 1917. Pressed by his father to
decide on a sensible course of study, Buñuel chose entomology because ‘all living
creatures fascinate me … I’m passionate about insects. You can find all of
Shakespeare and de Sade in the lives of insects …’.27 By the time Buñuel left the
Residencia de Estudiantes for Paris in 1924, he had traded in entomology for phil-
osophy and literature, but his films reveal a continuing enthralment with animals.
Los Olvidados is no exception.
A fiction film about the experiences of poor street kids in contemporary
Mexico City, Los Olvidados incorporates many of the ethnographic impulses that
marked the documentary Las Hurdes. Indeed, Buñuel devoted several months to
social research as preparation for shooting the film – he walked the slums of
Mexico City, photographed what he saw, interviewed the people he met, consulted
with the Department of Social Services, studied hundreds of children’s case files,
and tracked down newspaper accounts of the sorts of young lives he wished to
chronicle.28 In the film, Pedro (Alfonso Mejía) struggles with his mother Marta
(Estela Inda), who resents him because of his conception during a rape by an
absent father, and his friend Jaibo (Roberto Cobo), who lures Pedro toward crime
and murder. Ojitos (Mario Ramírez), an Indian abandoned by his father, earns the
affection of Meche (Alma Delia Fuentes), a young girl who must fend off the
sexual advances of Jaibo and Ojitos’s cruel guardian, the blind street musician Don
Carmelo (Miguel Inclán). Pedro attempts to better himself, first by getting a job,
then by turning over a new leaf at the reformatory where his mother sends him,


but his association with Jaibo (whom he has witnessed in the act of killing their
friend Julián [Javier Amézcua]) spoils these plans. At the film’s end, Jaibo kills
Pedro, the police kill Jaibo, Ojitos wanders alone and Meche helps carry Pedro’s
hidden corpse past his worried mother (who now, too late, wishes to reconcile with
her son) and into a garbage heap where the body is dispatched.
The initially negative reception accorded to Los Olvidados in Mexico is less
remarkable than the lengths Buñuel went to in order to avoid, or at least soften,
that reaction. He filmed an alternate ‘happy’ ending, where Pedro survives and
returns to the reformatory, which was not used, as well as an opening prologue,
which was included.29 Some critics have assumed that this prologue was forced on
Buñuel by his producer, but the director maintains that ‘it was my idea, so that the
film could be shown’.30 The prologue appears directly after the opening credits,
which include the assertion that ‘This film is based completely upon true facts of
life. All the characters are real’ alongside a list of education and social services pro-
fessionals consulted during production. Images of New York, Paris and London
fill the screen while a narrator discusses how all of these ‘great modern cities’ con-
tain unclean, malnourished, uneducated children poised to become future crimi-
nals. ‘Mexico, the great modern city, is no exception to this universal rule’, intones
the narrator as dissolves between New York, Paris and London give way to views
of Mexico City. The narrator warns that this film is ‘not optimistic’, that it ‘leaves
the solution up to society’s progressive forces’.
One can hardly imagine a more emphatically humanist framing of the social
issues informing Los Olvidados. Mexico City is just one modern city among
others, all afflicted with the same ‘universal’ problem that can only be addressed
by vague ‘progressive forces’ belonging to a ‘society’ that is apparently as uni-
versal as the problem itself. The dissolves between the different cities (rather than
cuts), along with the preference for images of architectural icons such as the
Eiffel Tower and Big Ben (rather than people) buttress the humanist message of
equivalence and its detached viewpoint outside and above any cultural speci-
The shock for the viewer as Los Olvidados exits the prologue and enters the
film proper is heightened, not tempered, by the humanist introduction. An estab-
lishing long shot of a barren city courtyard maintains a comfortable spatial dis-
tance from the hollering boys within it, beyond the ramshackle wall that occupies
the frame’s foreground. But this illusion of clinical, literally walled-off detachment
shatters when the nature of the children’s game becomes clear: this is a bullfight,
and we are immediately implicated by watching from a position where spectators
at the ring would sit. As Buñuel cuts to closer views of the action, we realise that
this bullfight includes no bull – only a child acting as a bull. A close-up of the bull-
child emphasises his grotesque appearance, particularly his missing teeth and
buckteeth. He clenches his fists and snorts. But just as we cringe with disgust or
sigh with pity at this in-your-face image of the bull-child, eager to return to that
seat in the ‘stands’ outside the ‘ring’ or perhaps even to the god’s-eye view of the

Buñuel’s Bull Meets YouTube’s Lion

Los Olvidados (1950): the child as


prologue, Buñuel transports us even closer – behind the bull-child’s eyes. In a strik-
ing point-of-view shot, the bull-child charges another boy’s jacket and we experi-
ence the charge from the bull-child’s perspective.
Even when the bullfight disintegrates into drinking, smoking and talking, it is
difficult to shake the discomfort generated by Buñuel’s rapid modulation of social,
cultural and affective distance for the spectator during the first minutes of Los
Olvidados. The humanist promises of the prologue have been broken in so many
ways. First of all, the bullfight as point of entry suggests that Mexico City is not
just like New York, Paris and London, for bullfighting is as alien to those cities as
it is centrally identified with Mexico (via the legacy of Spanish occupation). Indeed,
the largest bullring in the world, Plaza Mexico, had opened in Mexico City just
four years earlier. Second, the humanist perspective presented in the prologue’s
words and images, from outside and above, converts quickly to one from inside
and below. We are spectators at the bullfight; then we are face to face with the
bull-child; then we are the bull-child.
The fact that we see through the eyes of a bull-child (rather than a bull) as part
of a sequence of pronounced point-of-view shifts is crucial for understanding
Buñuel’s contribution to a surrealist posthumanism in Los Olvidados. Rather than
resorting to anthropomorphism’s humanising of the animal, Buñuel chooses to ani-
malise the human with the bull-child. Of course, animalising the human in the con-
text of poor streetkids all too likely to be dismissed as inferior ‘animals’ by a
middle-class public runs the high risk of abetting reactionary, even fascistic poli-
tics. But Buñuel weighs this risk against the equally dangerous yet less offensive
tactic of humanism’s simultaneous ennobling and generalising of the downtrod-
den, where ‘universal’ problems afflict a pitiable but faceless people. As James F.
Lastra has observed, this is just the sort of ethical calculation Buñuel makes in his
representation of the poor Hurdanos in Las Hurdes: ‘Given a choice between ele-
vating the Hurdanos in an apotheosis of the ‘truly human’ and a fascist debase-
ment of them as societal waste, Buñuel adopts and rejects both in a gesture that
avoids both their appropriation and their demonization.’31


In comparison to Las Hurdes, Los Olvidados may seem almost restrained in

the arc of its swinging pendulum between elevation and demonisation. Yet Buñuel
is engaging different genres with different conventions in these two films. Las
Hurdes addresses itself to the ethnographic documentary, while Los Olvidados
speaks to the social problem fiction film and the disadvantaged child subgenre in
particular. This subgenre was very popular at the time in Mexican cinema, but
Buñuel certainly had in mind also earlier models from other countries, such as
Russia’s The Road to Life (1931) and Italy’s Shoeshine (1946).32 So Buñuel was
fully aware of how this subgenre not only tends to elevate its subjects, but how
‘realism’ tends to be deployed as the aesthetic strategy that makes this elevation
possible. Instead, he offsets elevation with demonisation and realism with surreal-
ism, all under the umbrella of an animal–human relationality I believe we can refer
to as posthuman.
The bull-child of Los Olvidados’s opening is far from an isolated figure in the
film. His counterparts come in a constantly metamorphosing array of slippages,
confrontations and reversals between humans and animals. Chickens will resur-
face again and again (along with dogs), climaxing in an extraordinary moment at
the reformatory where an enraged Pedro bludgeons several chickens to death after
hurling an egg directly at the camera. As the lens drips with the broken egg, we can
no longer see. Or perhaps, Buñuel seems to intimate, we can no longer see the way
we are accustomed to seeing, where our sense of animal–human relationality sup-
ports a humanist worldview with which we are familiar. As Buñuel reminds us here
in such a flagrantly surrealist manner, the animal is not just in the lens, it’s on the
lens – it’s part of our perceptual apparatus as spectators, intrinsic to a way of
seeing that Los Olvidados seeks to change. Indeed, Buñuel’s staging of Jaibo’s
death near the conclusion of Los Olvidados sets up the spectator for a potentially
devastating confrontation with posthuman relationality.
Jaibo’s demise occurs shortly after Pedro’s, when the police catch up with him
and shoot him in the back. As Jaibo expires, he is granted a brief dream sequence.
Although his dream is not nearly as flamboyant as Pedro’s earlier in the film, its
echoes of Pedro’s dream and the fact that it comes so near the end of the film give
it a sharp impact. Jaibo dreams of a dog coming toward him, just as Pedro’s dream
opened with the presence of chickens. The image of the dog is superimposed over
Jaibo’s face so that he and the dog must literally share the frame, each dissolving
into the other; chicken squawks and falling feathers saturate Pedro’s dream in a
similar manner. Disembodied voices speak in Jaibo’s dream, like Pedro and his
mother’s voices punctuated his. Among the voices in Jaibo’s dream is Pedro’s,
warning him that the ‘mangy dog’ is approaching. But perhaps the most striking
visual continuity between the two dreams is Jaibo’s slow-motion turning of his
head back and forth, a gesture that mirrors the movement of Julián’s head in
Pedro’s dream – blood stains the faces of both Julián and Jaibo in these moments.
These multiple points of intersection between the dreams of Pedro and Jaibo
suggest one shared subjectivity between them, rather than two different ones.

Buñuel’s Bull Meets YouTube’s Lion

The centrality of animals to both dreams similarly insists that spectators should
not read these dreams solely in terms of individually psychologised interiority,
but rather as the merging of subjective ‘humanity’ and objective ‘animality’. In
other words, these dreams that transpire during ‘sleep’ for the characters
(whether rest or death) invite a sort of posthuman awakening in the spectator.
Jaibo’s dream ends in death, a moment Buñuel captures cinematically through a
freeze-frame. In the stillness of Jaibo’s face, death’s horror and power come for-
ward for spectators in a moment of absolute presence, frozen in time and space
– a vision of posthuman relationality Los Olvidados has insisted upon from the
very beginning. The bull-child of the film’s opening meets his partner in Jaibo’s
dog-man, images that demand spectators see what Christian the Lion strives to
erase: animals and humans as companion species joined not by reassuring
anthropomorphism, but by the risk, horror and death tied to truly losing hold
on one’s sense of self.
Buñuel’s surrealist posthumanism offers important possibilities for reframing
the digital posthumanism of Christian the Lion along the axis of spectatorship.
Where Christian the Lion’s realism emphasised humanist and anthropomorphic
interpretations of animal–human relationality, Los Olvidados animalises the human
not to reproduce humanism’s abstraction or realism’s elevation/demonisation of its
subject matter, but to embrace surrealism’s challenge to animal–human relational-
ity and its role in ordering social reality. In this sense, Los Olvidados finally comes
closer than Christian the Lion to fulfilling Haraway’s vision of companion species,
with its insistence on interspecies relationships beyond anthropomorphism as the
ground of being.
Although the spectator opportunities for posthuman awakening are more
apparent in the surrealist cinema of Los Olvidados than the YouTube video of
Christian the Lion, this does not necessarily mean that film and digital media have
unequal access to the possibilities of posthuman spectatorship. But it does mean
that we cannot simply understand posthumanism as something that moves inex-
orably from human to machine, from body to virtuality, from analogue to digital.
It must also move from human to animal and back again, toward that surrealist
bestowing of sight where we can see the mutually constitutive animal/human.

1. For an introduction to these film studies debates, see D. N. Rodowick, The Virtual
Life of Film (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007).
2. N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics,
Literature, and Informatics (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1999), p. 3.
3. Ibid., p. 4.
4. Ibid., p. 5.
5. Cary Wolfe, What Is Posthumanism? (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,
2010), pp. xviii–xix.


6. For histories and analyses of YouTube, see, for example, Jean Burgess and Joshua
Green, YouTube: Online Video and Participatory Culture (Cambridge: Polity Press,
2009); and Pelle Snickars and Patrick Vonderau (eds), The YouTube Reader
(Stockholm: National Library of Sweden, 2009).
7. Lorraine Daston, ‘Intelligences: Angelic, Animal, Human’, in Lorraine Daston and
Gregg Mitman (eds), Thinking with Animals: New Perspectives on
Anthropomorphism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), p. 54.
8. See Donna J. Haraway, ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-
Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century’, in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The
Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991), pp. 149–81.
9. For an overview of animal studies, see Linda Kalof and Amy Fitzgerald (eds), The
Animals Reader: The Essential Classic and Contemporary Writings (Oxford: Berg,
10. Donna J. Haraway, When Species Meet (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,
2008), pp. 31–2.
11.Ibid., p. 17.
12. Ibid., p. 259. For a relevant sample from Crittercam, see Crittercam: Lions, available
at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VpAR4OV-9Ds.
13. Ibid., p. 251.
14. Ibid., p. 255.
15. Ibid., p. 257.
16. Ibid., p. 261.
17. Ibid., p. 23. See also Jacques Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, trans. David
Wills, ed. Marie-Louise Mallet (2006; New York: Fordham University Press, 2008).
18. Ibid., p. 27.
19. See, for example, Peter Singer, ‘Animal Liberation or Animal Rights?’, pp. 14–22; and
Tom Regan, ‘The Rights of Humans and Other Animals’, pp. 23–9. Both in Kalof and
Fitzgerald, The Animals Reader.
20. Haraway, When Species Meet, p. 36.
21. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and
Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (1980; Minneapolis: University of Minnesota
Press, 2002), p. 240.
22. Ibid., p. 233.
23. Christian the Lion, available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zVNTdWbVBgc.
24. See Anthony Bourke and John Rendall, A Lion Called Christian (New York:
Broadway Books, 2009).
25. ‘Christian the Lion – Reunited – From The View’, available at http://www.youtube.
26. Me at the Zoo, available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jNQXAC9IVRw.
27. Buñuel, quoted in José de la Colina and Tomás Pérez Turrent, Objects of Desire:
Conversations with Luis Buñuel, ed. and trans. Paul Lenti (New York: Marsilio
Publishers, 1992), p. 6.
28. See Mark Polizzotti, Los Olvidados (London: BFI, 2006), pp. 31–2.

Buñuel’s Bull Meets YouTube’s Lion

29. See ibid., pp. 75–6.

30. Buñuel, quoted in de la Colina and Turrent, Objects of Desire, p. 59.
31. James F. Lastra, ‘Why Is This Absurd Picture Here?: Ethnology/Heterology/Buñuel’, in
Ivone Margulies (ed.), Rites of Realism: Essays on Corporeal Cinema (Durham, NC:
Duke University Press, 2002), p. 209.
32. See Polizzotti, Los Olvidados, p. 33; and de la Colina and Turrent, Objects of Desire,
p. 60.

Michael Lawrence

4 Muybridgean Motion/Materialist Film

Malcolm Le Grice’s Berlin Horse

Cinema itself began not just with attempts to bring motion to pictures, but with
attempts to use pictures to reveal and study the motions of animals.
Derek Bousé1

The publication in 1887 of Eadweard Muybridge’s eleven-volume Animal
Locomotion: An Electro-Photographic Investigation of Connective Phases of
Animal Movements constituted the culmination of fifteen years’ work during
which the photographer conducted experiments developing new visual technolo-
gies to produce objective and accurate representations of the movements of
human and nonhuman animals, beginning with the stop-action images of race-
horses he produced for Leland Stanford in Palo Alto, California in the early
1870s. Animal Locomotion comprised 781 photographic sequences (almost
20,000 individual images) representing in meticulous detail the successive stages
in the movement of a wide range of animals: in addition to horses and humans,
Muybridge photographed cats, dogs, goats, pigs, antelope, buffalo, lions, tigers,
camels, elephants, racoons, baboons and ostriches walking, trotting, cantering,
galloping and jumping.2 The sequences submit these diverse subjects to a uniform
organisation or rather standardisation of animal being: the photographs (sixteen,
twenty, twenty-four) that make up each layout are arranged in a gridlike forma-
tion, to be ‘read’ by passing across each row from left to right, starting at the top;
the animals themselves are almost always photographed moving from left to right,
and are often presented in front of a backdrop divided into regular rows of
smaller squares.3 In each sequence the animal (whether human or nonhuman) is
presented as a scientific specimen, its movement presented as a measurable phe-
While Muybridge’s motion studies had an immediate impact on certain late-
nineteenth-century painters’ depictions of racehorses (for example, Edgar Degas),
they have also had a profound influence on twentieth-century artists working in
the post-war period in the West. Marta Braun has suggested that Muybridge’s
Muybridgean Motion/Materialist Film

photographs were of particular significance for the emergence of conceptualism

and minimalism in the 1960s and 70s, and states: ‘Animal Locomotion inspired a
generation of modernist artists, composers and film-makers engaged with ideas of
regularity and repetition.’4 In Avant-garde Film: Motion Studies Scott MacDonald
examines a range of American film-makers from the late 1960s for whom ‘re-
attention to cinema’s beginnings became a particular source of inspiration’.5 As the
title of his book suggests, the pre- or proto-cinematic experiments of Muybridge
were especially important: many avant-garde films, MacDonald argues, can be
described as ‘Muybridgean’ because of the manner in which their images
‘“analyse” continuous activities or motions in a manner analogous to Muybridge’s
motion studies’.6 In this chapter, I will consider Berlin Horse (1970), an early work
by the British experimental film-maker Malcolm Le Grice, which was produced
using resources at the London Film-makers’ Co-operative (established 1966), and
which, according to Michael O’Pray, ‘can lay claim to being one of the few clas-
sics of the European avant-garde’.7 For A. L. Rees, the films of Le Grice ‘seem to
leap over the history of film, and back to the experiments of Demeny, Muybrige
and Lumière’.8 Comprising original and early film footage showing horses gallop-
ing around yards and out of barns, Berlin Horse arguably demonstrates (but in
important respects diverges from) both the Muybridgean mode MacDonald
describes as well as the kind of ‘monstration’ André Gaudreault has discerned in
Lumière’s films.9 Derek Bousé has suggested that Muybridge’s photographs are
important for understanding the ways nonhuman life has been represented on film,
even though they ‘have come to be regarded by history almost exclusively as “loco-
motion studies” rather than as images of animals’.10 The Muybridgean film-
makers discussed by MacDonald are much more interested in structure and
sequence than they are in the image of the animal. Le Grice’s film is generally
understood in relation to the development of the artist’s ‘materialist’ practice – his
method and process – rather than as a representation of a horse. In the 1978 essay
‘Material, Materiality, Materialism’ he wrote: ‘In its simplest sense, the question
of materiality is seen in relationship to the: physical substances of the film medium,
the film strip itself as material and object.’11 In 1998, Le Grice recalled that the
attention given to the materiality of film ‘simultaneously disrupted illusion and
established a new basis on which artistic experiment in the medium could be built’:
this was the ‘material(ist) approach’ to film-making.12 Thus the ostensible subject
of the film is the material properties of (the) film itself, and the appearance of the
horse in the film – the horse itself – is (as it were) immaterial.
The apparent insignificance of the horse in this film might be understood in
relation to what Steve Baker has described as the attempt by artists to remove ani-
mals from human regimes of symbolism and anthropomorphism and instead
emphasise their ‘obstinate’ and ‘unmeaning thereness’.13 Indeed, materialist film is
explicitly opposed to conventional modes of making meaning – it might even be
understood as an exploration of the material ‘thereness’ of (the) film as a production
or projection ‘event’ – and thus it rejects forms and conventions which encourage


identification, including narrative, which Le Grice describes as ‘a temporal causal-

ity in the field of human (or anthropomorphised) relations’.14 While we might not
identify with the horse – particularly in the absence of any narrative – we never-
theless identify (as in establish) that it is a horse. Baker writes:

Taken out of human meaning, the animal still holds to form … . The artist’s
allowing the animal recognizable form (even if that recognition is sometimes
neither easy nor immediate) therefore constitutes a kind of respect for the
otherness of the animal, its non-human-ness’.15

In what follows, I explore how Berlin Horse grants the animal ‘recognizable
form’, regardless of whether Le Grice was motivated by the attitude Baker
describes and even though such recognition would appear in this instance to be
neither requisite nor relevant. Critical commentary on Berlin Horse has tended to
focus on the film’s form rather than its content. Jonathan Dale, for example, sug-
gests that the use of repetition and superimpositions

distance or destroy any narrative/plot concerns: rather, hooked into the circuitous
logic of the film, transfixed by both the loop structure and the saturated visual
information, the film directs attention toward the materiality of film process itself,
bringing film’s intrinsic material qualities to the fore.16

I intend to regard Berlin Horse otherwise, and redirect attention toward the mate-
rial being of the horse itself. Furthermore, I argue that the presence of the horse in
the film suggests that for the photographed animal (and indeed for all animals) an
‘unmeaning thereness’ is impossible: the animal’s material being is always also
meaningful being, and inevitably refers (us) to the historical relations between
species which have shaped that being. Elaine Walker observes:

The desire of humans to shape the world to our use has impacted strongly on the
development of the horse … . By controlled breeding, which goes back 4,000
years, humans have been able to produce horses that are more suited to pulling or
speed, more agile or athletic, taller or shorter, and to at least aim for certain
colours or markings, though nature tends to outwit the most sophisticated plans in
this respect.17

By exploring connections between the imaging of animal motion offered by

Muybridge’s photographic studies and Berlin Horse I hope to both challenge the
marginalisation of the animal in critical discussion of Le Grice’s film and offer an
alternative reading, which both attends to the filmed horses’ meaningful has-been-
thereness and emphasises the work’s relation to – its evocation and interrogation
of – the material and symbolic dimensions of historical relations between horses
and humans.18

Muybridgean Motion/Materialist Film

An image of an animal – and the methods used to produce it – can affect how
that species (and animal life in general) is regarded. John Ott has suggested that

[the] Muybridge photos encouraged viewers to imagine the horse, and by

extension, all of nature, as merely another kind of machine. Fixed within a cold,
monotonous grid of six, twelve, or twenty-four, the serial prints demanded that
viewers reconceptualise a sweaty, snorting, quivering mass of horseflesh as a
dynamo performing an endlessly repetitive sequence of actions … . It was as if the
mechanical means of gathering and reporting data had been transposed somehow
onto the subject of study.19

The horse’s corporeal or material integrity – its ‘quivering mass’ – is inevitably

destroyed as its lively motion is frozen into a series of instants, and the animal’s
meaning is transformed (as if the animal were itself both transfixed and transfig-
ured) by the technological methods deployed to record its motion. It is important
to remember, however, that many centuries of developing – of designing – various
kinds of horses for the purposes of working, or for racing, for example, means that
the horse’s material being is already hybrid: as Ann Norton Greene has argued,
‘[through] the process of domestication, horses became living machines’, with a
hybrid status as ‘biotechnology, or organisms altered for human use’.20
Muybridge’s photographs not only reflected this process, but would contribute to
the further refinement of the species: Rebecca Solnit writes that while ‘[a] horse in
1877 was … a biological technology that had been much improved with careful
breeding and such inventions as stirrups, bits and harness’, for Muybridge and
Stanford, ‘understanding the gaits of a horse in a mechanical way enhanced the
possibility of tinkering with it, through breeding, training and other forms of man-
agement’.21 The photographs of the horses thus had a direct impact on the mate-
rial being of the species: the technological methods utilised to produce these
particular images were thus in important respects continuous with the means
deployed to produce the subjects of the images.
Muybridge’s experiments photographing animal locomotion are widely under-
stood as continuous with the development of moving image technologies. Amy
Lawrence has stated:

[motion] is immanent in each layout; each layout points toward a time when the
series will be reconstituted as a loop; each loop will document a single visual
gesture; and the ‘meaning’ (which is motion) will come not only from the
photographs and their order but from the blank spaces in between. These are the
elements that make cinema possible.22

In 1879 Muybridge invented an ‘animal action viewer’ – the zoopraxiscope – with

which to project silhouettes based on his photographs so as to create the illusion
of motion.23 A contemporary account of such a projection event stated:


While the previous views had shown their positions at different stages of the
motion, these placed upon the screen apparently [were] the living, moving horse.
Nothing was wanting but the clatter of the hoofs upon the turf and an occasional
breath of steam from the nostrils, to make the spectator believe that he had before
him genuine flesh-and-blood steeds.24

The zoopraxiscope undoubtedly provided a more exhilarating representation of

the horse’s movement, but the animal remains only ‘apparently … living [and]
moving’; the images only approximate the motion of ‘genuine flesh-and-blood
steeds’; after all, images do not breathe.
Braun says of the zoopraxiscope: ‘This magical combination of technology,
photography and art constitutes Muybridge’s contribution to the birth of cinema,
the most popular and enduring of the entertainments to emerge from the new tech-
nologies of representation and spectacle.’25 But many critics – including André
Bazin, Thierry De Duve, Noël Burch and Christian Metz – have argued that
Muybridge’s photographic studies themselves were just as important a precursor
to the cinema.26 More recently, Julian Murphet has stated:

Until the mysteries of animal locomotion had been rigorously analysed down to
their smallest physical variations … cinema could not even properly be thought as
such; for cinema is what follows diligently from this, as the abstract determination
to reanimate the inanimate particulars, the stilled data of an exhaustive analysis of
the animal.27

For Murphet, the centrality of the animal to the development of modern image
technologies and cultures functions to inaugurate a biological-technological syn-
thesis of bodies and signs in which were fused ‘the very destinies of cinema (the
moving image) and that of the animal (the moving organism)’.28
The relationship between animal life and the moving image, the synthesis of
bodies and signs, anticipated by the experiments of Muybridge, requires careful
consideration: attention must be paid to both the material being of real animals as
well as the proliferation of animal images in history. As Jonathan Burt has sug-

moving animals and moving images of animals have equal status in the
biodynamics of human–animal relations; in other words, the animal image is never
external, but is just as structuring and transformative as animals out there in the

Subsequently, Burt argues, it is important to ‘see the cinematic representation of

human–animal relations as a material and integral part of those relations, and not
just a detached image of them’.30 Critical responses to Muybridge’s photographs
reveal divergent interests privileging either the real animal – the living animal being

Muybridgean Motion/Materialist Film

– or the animal figure – the sign or concept of the animal. For certain critics,
Muybridge’s animal studies should be considered in relation to the way humans
throughout history have used animals in ways that reflect extremely instrumental
attitudes toward other living beings. Randy Malamud has argued that the studies
‘profoundly perpetuate the anthropocentric prejudice that other animals exist to
serve our own higher purpose’.31 Malamud is interested in how the energy of the
animal is appropriated by the technological representation of its movement:

Muybridge’s photographs starkly alienate animals from their natural context,

exuberantly reframing them in his own amazing new technological discourse of
visual culture … . The animals are curiously reduced, caught in the mechanics, the
physics, of photography … . Their force and motion no longer seem their own, but
Muybridge’s, and ours. Something of their nature has been trapped, isolated, and
abrogated by the viewer. Although the human viewers learn much more about the
horses, I believe the horses themselves lose something in this transaction.32

Malamud is critical of Muybridge’s studies because each series contributes to a

relentless reduction of animal being, and each photograph implies an aggressive
extraction of an animal’s energy, and are thus both symptomatic and emblematic
of an instrumental attitude toward other living beings. For Malamud, ‘animals
caught in the sight lines of technological innovations suffer for the encounter, as
people come to devalue the integrity, the inherent and authentic animality, of crea-
tures who get sucked into human culture’.33
Akira Mizuta Lippit, on the other hand, is more interested in the animal that
has become sign. Describing ‘the fascination with which animals and animal move-
ment captured the photographic imagination’, Lippit writes:

What is remarkable in Muybridge’s work, what immediately seizes the viewer’s

attention, is the relentless and obsessive manner in which the themes of animal and
motion are brought into contact – as if the figure of the animal had always been
destined to serve as a symbol of movement itself.34

In Lippit’s elaboration of John Berger’s influential thesis – which argued that ani-
mals are ‘rendered absolutely marginal’ and ‘disappear’ in the modern period – the
animal becomes associated with a perpetual vanishing, but the account perpetu-
ates the logic it is describing by focusing on the virtual animal signs that move
across image cultures rather than attending to historical and material animal
being.35 If, as Lippit suggests, ‘the cinema came to determine a vast mausoleum for
animal being’, then the animal image can only ever function in a spectral or a
melancholy relation to the actual animal to which it refers or from which it is
derived, and it is melancholy signification rather than material being which is of
primary interest: ‘animals as filmic organisms were themselves turned into lan-
guages, or at least, into semiotic facilities’.36


How, then, might film (and, we might add, history) attend to the material being
of animals in ways that complicate its relationship with the semiotic or rhetorical
meanings that man has attributed to them?37 In his consideration of the status of ‘the
animal symbol or image’ – and specifically ‘the contemporary philosophization of the
concept “animal”’ – Burt refers to a general ‘arena of morbidity’, in which ideas about
loss, vanishing, disappearance, death and mourning have become ‘foundational to our
sense of “the animal”’.38 Burt is troubled by such a conceptual framework, by ‘[the]
loop of the language of morbidity’ in which ‘permutations of language and death
form, unform, and reform around the figure of the animal like partners in a waltz’,
and is so precisely due to such rhetoric’s distance from ‘the animal’s specific place(s)
in the contemporary world’ and from ‘the realities of human–animal relations’, and
so he asks: ‘How does the idea of life relate to the animal and animal representa-
tion?’39 Burt considers ‘livingness’: a ‘mode of active coexistence’ in which organisms
are ‘unavoidably co-constitutive’ (for example, in ‘relations shaped by domestica-
tion’).40 Attention to livingness, as an experience, is for Burt ‘fundamentally tempo-
ral’, and promises ‘a better sense of human–animal relations as an ongoing
emergence’.41 For Burt, moreover, ‘[film] makes livingness apparent to us in some of
its most important forms as a temporal, material state that is felt or perceived by the
intervals among beings. Indeed, it is a form of livingness in its own right’.42
Stephen Dwoskin has suggested that ‘Le Grice’s film-making aesthetic is based very
much on the technology of the film process, though the results seldom have a “tech-
nological” or “mechanical” feeling’.43 In what follows, I explore how Berlin Horse
represents animal being, how it conveys the ‘livingness’ of the horse as a ‘temporal,
material state’ by showing how (the) film is ‘a form of livingness in its own right’, the
result of improvisatory manual processes in which the film-maker directly handles and
manipulates the filmstrip itself during the film’s production, a physical activity that is
then ‘transposed somehow onto the object of study’ – in this case, the horse itself.44 In
his 1976 essay ‘“Ontology” and “Materialism” in Film’ Peter Wollen wrote:

[We] have passed from an ontology basing itself on the possibility, inherent in the
photo-chemical process, of reproducing natural objects and events without human
intervention, to the conscious exploration of the full range of properties involved
in film-making, in the interest of combating, or at least setting up an alternative to,
the cinema of reproduction or representation, mimesis or illusion.45

Materialist film emphasises not only the material basis of film, but also the inter-
ventions made by the film-maker during the production of the film. Le Grice
explains his working methods thus:

For my own filmmaking, the desire to have access to production equipment was
driven by two factors: the need to cut the cost of filmmaking – essential then to the
emergence of an independent cinema; and to reproduce the direct relationship to
the medium I took for granted in painting and music.46

Muybridgean Motion/Materialist Film

Such a practice positions Le Grice in opposition to an industrial mode of produc-

tion, and an organisation of labour that is in certain respects continuous with the
photographic experiments to capture animal motion conducted by Muybridge: as
Nicole Shukin states,

[it] was through the scientific management principles promoted by Frederick

Winslow Taylor that time-motion ideologies originating in the study of animal
bodies developed ergonomic implications for an industrial culture of moving
assembly lines requiring workers to perform repetitive motions with increased
mechanical efficiency and speed.47

If Muybridge’s photographs encouraged audiences to imagine the horse as a

machine, it is not surprising that they have been understood in relation to the
maximisation of human workers’ productivity. Mary Ann Doane, for instance,
has shown how photographic and cinematic technologies participated in ‘a
reconceptualization of time and its representability in capitalist modernity’, and
how ‘[much] of the standardization and rationalization of time can be linked to
changes in industrial organization and perceptions of an affinity between the
body of the worker and the machine’.48 For Doane, scientific management insti-
tutionalised ‘a form of mechanization of the human body that would further
support the alienation of the worker’.49 If, according to Malamud, the ‘force and
motion’ of the horses in Muybridge’s studies ‘no longer seem their own’, then
they are both emblematic of and continuous with such scientifically managed
Le Grice’s film, as I shall show, attempts to interrupt a history in which the
energy of human (and also nonhuman) beings is appropriated in this way. For Le
Grice, the materialist film-maker’s rejection of mimesis was a profoundly political
gesture. Writing in 1972, he suggested that ‘the whole history of the commercial
cinema has been dominated by the aim of creating convincing illusory time/space
and eliminating all traces of the actual physical state of affairs at any stage of the
film’.51 Several years later, he proposed:

Examination of film’s reality involves attention to its materiality/actuality as the

basis of the film experience. In this respect, apperception of the current reality
within the film viewing situation might be considered to serve as a model situation
in which materialist consciousness might be initiated … . The only art which
deserves the term realist is that which confronts the audience with the material
conditions of the work. Work which seeks to portray a ‘reality’ existing in another
place at another time is illusionist.52

I am interested, then, in exploring how the materialist film opposes a Muybridgean

approach to animal being – and at the same time opposes a capitalist regime of
image production organised around alienation and misrecognition – and with how


the film offers instead a moving documentation of the ‘livingness’ of both human
and animal being.

Berlin Horse
Berlin Horse demonstrates an attentiveness to animal being that has very little to
do with the objective or scientific analysis of animal motion associated with
Muybridge, and which results from Le Grice’s rejection of realist and industrial
film practice, and from his concern with exposing and exploring the material
aspects of film itself. Berlin Horse exemplifies Le Grice’s ideological and artistic
opposition to capitalist film culture (specifically, the industrial production of real-
ist narrative cinema, and the division of labour perfected to mass-produce enter-
tainment); the film, moreover, evokes a history (of both the technological and the
industrial development of cinema) in which real horses were utilised for the pur-
poses of producing images. If Berlin Horse is explicitly intended to demonstrate an
alternative to the capitalist production of film (and organisation of labour), then
it also (whatever Le Grice’s intentions) offers a similarly radical recording of living
animal being (both human and nonhuman), exposing and interrupting the history
of their alienation and their exploitation.
Materialist film-makers, according to Peter Gidal, must strive towards what
Annette Kuhn called a ‘radical refusal of semioticity’.53 In his 1976 essay, ‘Theory
and Definition of Structural/Materialist Film’ Gidal writes:

The structural/materialist film must minimize the content of its over-powering,

imagistically seductive sense, in an attempt to get through this miasmic area of
‘experience’ and proceed with film as film. Devices such as loops or seeming loops,
as well as a whole series of technical possibilities, can, carefully constructed to
operate in the correct manner, serve to veer the point of contact with the film past
internal content.’54

Gidal discusses the importance of the ‘nearly empty signifier’ as ‘the dominant
factor in the adequate presentation of materialist art practice’:

Signifiers approaching emptiness means merely (!) that the image taken does not
have a ready associative analogue, is not a given symbol or metaphor or allegory;
that which is signified by the signifier, that which is conjured up by the
image given, is something formed by past connections but at a very low key,
not a determining or over-determining presence, merely a not highly charged
moment of meaning … . And that low-level signifier in momentary interplay
with other low-level signifiers foregrounds a possibly materialist play of
differences … which don’t lead into heavy associative realms. The actual
relations between images, the handling, the appearance, the ‘how it is’, etc.,
takes precedence over any of the ‘associative’ or ‘internal’ meanings.55

Muybridgean Motion/Materialist Film

Animal being, however, presents a particular problem for films which seek to deny
‘semioticity’ in this way: the animal cannot occupy the position of the ‘nearly
empty signifier’ for the same reason that it cannot embody an ‘unmeaning there-
ness’. As Burt has argued:

Although the animal on screen can be burdened with multiple metaphorical

significances, giving it an ambiguous status that derives from what might best be
described as a kind of semantic overload, the animal is also marked as a site where
these symbolic associations collapse into each other.56

The animal image, Burt writes, has a ‘rupturing effect’, ‘mainly exemplified by the
manner in which our attention is constantly drawn beyond the image and, in that
sense, beyond the aesthetic and semiotic framework of the film’.57 I am interested,
then, in how animal being challenges the materialist approach to film by drawing
our attention beyond the material properties of the film image (rather than, as is
usually the case, the fiction of the narrative). Echoing Gidal’s words, Dwoskin
associates Le Grice with

film-makers who have concentrated on evolving a film which is of its own image
by breaking down any inherent symbolism or associative values of the recorded
image. The aim is to create a visual language that in no ways refers to anything
outside the film itself.58

While such a practice might appear to oppose the ‘semiotic facilities’ of animal
signs as part of its rejection of the ‘inherent symbolism or associative values’ of the
(conventional narrative) film image, the animal presents a challenge to a ‘film
which is of its own image’, because the animal will always refer to the ‘outside [of]
the film itself’.
Berlin Horse is intended as a two- or four-screen projection, combining both
colour and black-and-white versions of the film, but it can also be viewed in a
single-screen format. The majority of the nine-minute film consists of 8mm footage
shot by Le Grice in Berlin (a village in north Germany) of a horse being trained,
trotting and cantering in circles around a male trainer, who holds a long rope to
which the horse is tethered. This footage was then subjected to a succession of re-
filming processes and experimental treatments: in Le Grice’s words:

This film began as a Kodachrome 8mm film, where the horse was brown, the grass
was green, the sky was blue and the face of the man Kodak flesh tone. I re-filmed
this in various ways on black and white 16mm, then produced a positive and a
negative printing copy. Using the negative and positive materials in an old Debrie
step-contact printer, I manually pulled coloured filters through the printing
machine colouring the black and white image in its negative and positive areas
with a wide range of pure spectrum colours onto colour film stock. The results of


Berlin Horse (1970)

this were then reworked through various superimpositions and the film structured
to retain some trace of this progressing improvisation.59

For the first two-thirds of Berlin Horse, a horse trots clockwise around its
trainer, the camera following the horse as it moves from the foreground to the
background, and this brief fragment of footage is played and replayed, over and
over again. The repetition of this short fragment (showing the horse circling its
trainer once) evokes the (much longer) time it takes to train a horse, and the rep-
etition constitutive of such training. As the film loops, the horse rotates in a cir-
cular motion, like filmstrip in a camera or a projector, but the footage is also
repeatedly sped up, then slowed down and then played backwards at both
speeds. For the first few minutes the film is shimmering monochrome, but then
the footage is suddenly saturated by colour: abstract and amorphous flashes of
turquoise, pink, blue, green, orange, purple and yellow. The film’s approach to
colour (and, indeed, animal movement) evokes here the horses painted by the
German Expressionist Franz Marc.60 The form of the horse in Le Grice’s film is
alternately distinct then indistinct as the image flares and fuzzes, and it disap-
pears and reappears as the frame is suffused with tremulous iridescence, ‘a con-
tinually changing “solarization” image, which works in its own time, abstractly
from the image’.61 Superimpositions printed through the colour filters present
the horse’s negative image chasing after its positive image, its forward motion
coinciding with its backward motion. The film’s soundtrack – an original com-
position by Brian Eno – provides a sonic analogue to the visual track: an intri-
cate (but not dense) texture is produced through hypnotically patterned
repetitions of a particular gesture or movement (Eno’s simple melody, the horse’s
circular motions).62
The processes which the film privileges – those visual effects which are of more
significance than the horse itself – are described by Le Grice in ways that suggest
analogies with domestication, whereby the production of the film’s images, organ-
ised so as to emphasise the materiality of the film, has parallels with what Solnit
described above as the ‘tinkering’ with – and ‘management’ of – the species. In

Muybridgean Motion/Materialist Film

Berlin Horse (1970)

other words, the very ‘handling’ of the film itself might be said to provoke partic-
ular ‘associative meanings’, rather than forestall them (as Gidal hoped). In 1972
Le Grice suggested that the film reflected his interests in exploring ‘concerns which
derive from printing, processing, re-filming and re-copying procedures’, and in
experimenting with the ‘transformations possible in selective copying and modifi-
cation of the material’.63 For Le Grice, such work

indicates the way in which each stage in the cinematic process is a reality in its
own right, and the way in which the film is, at each stage, ‘raw material’ for new
transformation, the transformation becoming an overtly integral part of the
meaning and implication of the work.64

The words Le Grice uses evoke the terminology of domestication and breeding:
processes of reproduction organised around selection to achieve modification and
transformation. Here, the production of the film is a temporal process in which ‘at
each stage’ the results are regarded anew as ‘raw material’ to be further developed.
However, it is perhaps more productive to think of Berlin Horse as a kind of meet-
ing of the animal’s physical being and the film-maker’s own labour. Michael
O’Pray, for instance, describes Berlin Horse as ‘a complex rhythmic weaving of
images assisted by the natural rhythms of the subject matter’.65 This notion of
assistance resonates with Burt’s notion of livingness as co-constitutive biodynamic
relations, and also with Elaine Walker’s claim that ‘[the] horse has enabled many
aspects of human development, shaping physical and cultural landscapes in what
is usually seen as a supporting role’.66 The moving images presented by the film
are both a record of and a complex response to the movements of the animal in
the original footage: the horse’s livingness thus contributes to – and is conveyed by
– the film.
During the film’s final minutes, a different piece of film appears simultaneously
with the Berlin footage, and then gradually displaces it. The film is an example of
early American cinema, the Edison Manufacturing Company’s The Burning Stable
(1896), in which a fireman and assorted stablehands lead clearly panicked horses


through the door of a stable.67 In Le Grice’s film, the Edison footage is treated in
the same ways as the Berlin footage, becoming a kaleidoscopic re-presentation of
the original material. The Burning Stable can be considered an early genre or for-
mula film; earlier that year the Biograph company had made the near identical
Stable on Fire (William K. L. Dickson), in which both horses and cows were fea-
tured.68 The use of the horses to provide dramatic spectacle in The Burning Stable
reminds us that animals were for many decades treated by film-makers as props
or, to adopt Bousé’s term, ‘disposable subjects’, whose physical, psychological and
emotional welfare during and following productions was of little consequence in
an industry which regularly and ‘wilfully [subjected] animals to harm or death for
the purposes of filming it’.69 The film also reminds us of the presence of working
horses in urban spaces at the turn of the century, and thus of the relationship
between the horse and industrial capitalism (and, of course, cinema). As Ann
Norton Greene reminds us:

without understanding the impact of horses on the social and material

environment in the nineteenth century, it is impossible to understand the industrial
transformation of American society … . Horses, not steam engines, established the
material environment and cultural values that have shaped energy use in the
twentieth century.70

The physical incorporation of the Edison footage within Berlin Horse is sug-
gestive of how Le Grice’s film might evoke for audiences memories of other films
in which horses appear. As the Berlin footage is displaced by the earlier film, the
audience is invited to reconsider Le Grice’s horse in relation to a historical archive
of equine antecedents – including, of course, the horses photographed by
Muybridge. Such associations, inevitably, will be idiosyncratic: watching Berlin
Horse I am reminded of other film horses whose appearance and action on the
screen refers to a synthesis of the animal’s original being and specific cinemato-
graphic effects, such as the carthorse which appears to gallop backwards in Le

Berlin Horse (1970)

Muybridgean Motion/Materialist Film

Cheval emballé (The Runaway Horse, 1908), the eerily translucent horses from The
Phantom Carriage (1921), the galloping white horse so suddenly stilled in Man with
a Movie Camera (1929), the champion racehorse ‘Blue Boy’, cantering frantically
around and around the grand piano, pursued by, or rather in pursuit of Laurel and
Hardy in Wrong Again (1929), and the fantastic Horse of a Different Colour – first
mauve, then red and then yellow; grape, cherry and lemon gelatin was applied to
separate horses – in whose carriage Dorothy rides into the Emerald City in The
Wizard of Oz (1939). By presenting a dynamic relationship between the Berlin
footage and the Edison film, whereby the latter appears to be summoned forth by
the incantatory rhythm produced by looping the former, Berlin Horse enacts and
thus encourages such associations. In other words, the images of the horses in this
film inevitably refers (us) to what is ‘outside’ of the film. This ‘outside’ – specifically,
the history of horse–human relations, of horses being put to work, of their being
filmed – is effectively brought into the ‘inside’ of the film. Le Grice writes:

At the same time, however much the reality of the image is stressed over the image
of reality, however much the material conditions of the production of this image is
made evident, the facsimile image of photography attests to a continuum of reality
extending beyond the limits of the cinematic recording. That which is specifically
recorded, selected, brought within the frame and range of the parameters of
recording and transformed within their processing by its specificity of ‘inclusion’ as
fragment, asserts, through ‘exclusion’, the fact of a continuum (or series of
intersecting continua) of which it is a fragment.71

The ‘continuum of reality’ that extends beyond the limits of both Le Grice’s
footage and the Edison film – of which they become mere ‘fragments’ – is the his-
tory of horses’ material being, and the manipulation of this material being that has
constituted horse–human relations, in which the use of horses in the production of
moving images is continuous with the instrumental utilisation of horses in indus-
trial capitalism.

Berlin Horse (1970)


Susan J. Pearson and Mary Weismantel have argued that the field of animal
studies requires ‘a new theoretical formulation that incorporates symbolic
approaches with social and material history’ because ‘[our] relationship to animals
is … neither wholly symbolic nor wholly material; rather, it is profoundly social’.72
If relations between humans and animals are neither exclusively symbolic nor
solely material, then animals themselves, and their histories, combine the semiotic
and the material. Indeed, Donna Haraway has proposed the term ‘material-semi-
otic’ to refer to how ‘bodies and meanings co-shape one another’, to how ‘trope
and flesh [is] always cohabiting, always co-constituting’.73 Animals (human and
nonhuman) are ‘material-semiotic’ entities, in which the distinctions between mate-
riality (the literal, the concrete, the actual, the real) and the semiotic (the metaphor-
ical, the figurative, the narrative, the imaginary) are necessarily inextricable. In his
account of the London Film-makers’ Co-op, Gidal describes the importance of
members having access to all the equipment necessary to produce and project their
films, and also the impact of this access: ‘The concrete and the abstract became one
for the film-makers who handled materials’.74 In other words, the working meth-
ods at the Co-op – the physical contact between the film-maker and the ‘materials’
– encouraged the kind of co-shaping and co-constituting between the material and
the semiotic that Haraway argues define animal being. Furthermore, the direct
intervention of the human in the production of the images enables a transposition
of livingness from the film-maker to the image. It is arguably due to the film’s ideo-
logical and aesthetic opposition to mainstream commercial cinema that its images
of horses interrupt a history of the horse’s utilisation and exploitation: a material-
ist film practice which resists the denial of film’s material base that characterises
the cinema associated with capitalism enables here an evocation of animal living-
ness which opposes the denial of animals’ material being that characterises an
anthropocentric understanding of history – and particularly the history of the
moving image. If, then, the image of the horse in Le Grice’s film throbs and palpi-
tates with a quivering livingness, due to the way it is produced, and also derails the
materialists’ programmatic denial of semioticity, due to the way the animal
inevitably refers to an ‘ouside’, then Berlin Horse can be understood to evoke
horses’ material-semiotic livingness, their being (and their having always been)
both semiotic bodies and material signs.

1. Derek Bousé, Wildlife Films (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011),
p. 41.
2. For a selection of the photographs, see Eadweard Muybridge, Horses and Other
Animals in Motion: 45 Classic Photographic Sequences (New York: Dover
Publications, Inc., 1986).
3. Marta Braun discusses Muybridge’s deployment of the backdrop – which began with
his study of the ‘mulatto pugilist’ Ben Bailey in the summer of 1885 – and the device’s

Muybridgean Motion/Materialist Film

previous deployment by English ethnologists, in Eadweard Muybridge (London:

Reaktion Books, 2010), pp. 192–6.
4. Braun, Eadweard Muybridge, p. 8. For Muybridge’s influence on a range of American
artists of the 1970s and 80s, see also Tom Gunning, ‘Never Seen This Picture Before:
Muybridge in Multiplicity’, in Phillip Prodger (ed.), Time Stands Still: Muybridge and
the Instantaneous Photography Movement (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003),
pp. 263–72. Several experimental films explicitly focus on Muybridge, for example,
Homage to Muybridge (1972), Eadweard Muybridge: Zoopraxographer (1974) and
Muybridge Film (1975). ‘Movement and Time’, the first section of Austrian film-maker
Gustav Deutch’s Film Ist. (Film Is., 1998), is particularly ‘Muybridgean’, comprising
footage from various scientific films showing the movements of diverse animals,
including a cat, a dog, a chimpanzee, a human toddler and an ostrich.
5. Scott MacDonald, Avant-garde Film: Motion Studies (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1993), p. 8.
6. Ibid., p. 70.
7. Michael O’Pray, Avant-garde Film: Forms, Themes and Passions (London and New
York: Wallflower Press, 2003), p. 102.
8. A. L. Rees, A History of Experimental Film and Video (London: BFI, 1999), p. 81.
9. See André Gaudreault, From Plato to Lumière: Monstration and Narration in
Literature and Cinema, trans. Timothy Barnard (Toronto: Toronto University Press,
1999). A comparable interest in animal movement is demonstrated by Le Grice’s first
film, Little Dog for Roger (1967), which is based on fragments of 9.5mm home-movie
footage shot by Malcolm’s father. Danni Zuvela, for example, has referred to its
‘interrogation of movement’ and discerned in the film a ‘Muybridgean fixation on the
energetic bounding motions of a small dog’. See ‘Avant-home Cinema’, Real Time no.
81 (October–November 2007), p. 21, available online at www.realtimearts.net/article/
10. Bousé, Wildlife Films, p. 42.
11. Malcolm Le Grice, ‘Material, Materiality, Materialism’, Experimental Cinema in the
Digital Age (London: BFI, 2001), p. 165, originally published in 1978.
12. Malcolm Le Grice, ‘Art in the Land of Hydra-Media’, Experimental Cinema in the
Digital Age, p. 301, originally published in 1998.
13. Steve Baker, The Postmodern Animal (London: Reaktion, 2000), p. 96, emphasis in
the original.
14. Malcolm Le Grice, ‘Towards Temporal Economy’, Screen vol. 20 nos 3–4 (Winter
1979/80), p. 71.
15. Baker’s reflections here develop from his consideration of Horses, an Arte Povera
installation at the Galleria L’Attico, Rome in 1969, in which the artist Jannis Kounellis
exhibited twelve live horses tethered to the walls of an empty gallery (Baker, The
Postmodern Animal, p. 79).
16. Jonathan Dale, ‘Brian Eno: Discreet Vision’, in Graeme Harper (ed.), Sound and Music
in Film and Visual Media: An Overview (New York and London: Continuum, 2009),
pp. 482–3.


17. Elaine Walker, Horse (London: Reaktion Books, 2008), p. 64.

18. Roland Barthes describes the essence or ‘noeme’ of photography as the ça a été (that has
been): ‘In photography I can never deny that the thing has been there.’ In Camera Lucida;
Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (London: Fontana, 1984), p. 76.
19. John Ott, ‘Iron Horses: Leland Stanford, Eadweard Muybridge, and the Industrialised
Eye’, Oxford Art Journal vol. 28 no. 3 (2005), p. 414.
20. Ann Norton Greene, Horses at Work: Harnessing Power in Industrial America
(Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2008), p. 4.
21. Rebecca Solnit, Motion Studies: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild
West (London: Bloomsbury, 2003), pp. 182–3.
22. Amy Lawrence, ‘Counterfeit Motion: The Animated Films of Eadweard Muybridge’,
Film Quarterly vol. 57 no. 2 (Winter 2003–4), p. 15.
23. The device was also sometimes called the zoographoscope or zoogyroscope.
24. Article from the San Francisco Call (4 May 1880), cited in Solnit, Motion Studies,
p. 203.
25. Braun, Eadweard Muybridge, p. 159.
26. See André Bazin, ‘The Myth of Total Cinema’ (1946), in What Is Cinema?, vol. 1,
trans. Hugh Gray (Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 1967), pp.
17–22; Thierry De Duve, ‘Time Exposure and Snapshot: The Photograph as Paradox’,
October vol. 5 (1978), pp. 113–17; Noël Burch, ‘Charles Baudelaire versus Doctor
Frankenstein’, Afterimage vols 8–9 (Spring 1981), pp. 4–21, reprinted in Life to Those
Shadows (London: BFI, 1990), pp. 6–22; Christian Metz, ‘Photography and Fetish’,
October vol. 34 (1985), pp. 81–90. See also Gordon Hendricks’s biography Eadweard
Muybridge: The Father of the Motion Picture (New York: Secker and Warburg, 1975).
27. Julian Murphet, ‘Pitiable or Political Animals?’, SubStance vol. 37 no. 3 (2008),
p. 102.
28. Ibid., p. 102.
29. Jonathan Burt, ‘Morbidity and Vitalism: Derrida, Bergson, Deleuze, and Animal Film
Imagery’, Configurations vol. 14 nos 1–2 (2006), p. 167.
30. Ibid., p. 170.
31. Randy Malamud, An Introduction to Animals and Visual Culture (Basingstoke:
Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), p. 62.
32. Ibid., p. 66. By removing the horses from their ‘natural environment’ in this way,
Muybridge’s photographs evoke British painter George Stubbs’s Whistlejacket (c.
1762), which famously depicts an Arabian racehorse against a blank background.
33. Ibid., p. 68. Malamud suggests that ‘Muybridge’s complicity in his era’s … industrial
fantasies means that his photography was ultimately destructive to the animals he so
keenly observed.’ Furthermore, he argues that ‘nineteenth-century factory farming
bears an ideological affinity to the dissections of Muybridge’s motion studies’, p. 69).
34. Akira Mizuta Lippit, Electric Animal: Toward a Rhetoric of Wildlife (Minneapolis and
London: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), p. 185.
35. John Berger, ‘Why Look at Animals?’, in Why Look at Animals? (London: Penguin,
2009), pp. 35–6, originally published in 1980.

Muybridgean Motion/Materialist Film

36. Lippit, Electric Animal, pp. 187, 196.

37. For a discussion of the animal’s challenge to historiography, see Erica Fudge, ‘A Left-
handed Blow: Writing the History of Animals’, in Nigel Rothfels (ed.), Representing
Animals (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2002),
pp. 3–18.
38. Burt, ‘Morbidity and Vitalism’, pp. 157, 158.
39. Ibid., pp. 166, 158, 167.
40. Ibid., p. 169.
41. Ibid., p. 178.
42. Ibid., p. 179.
43. Stephen Dwoskin, Film Is …: The International Free Cinema (London: Peter Owen,
1975), p. 177.
44. This phrase is from Ott, ‘Iron Horses: Leland Stanford, Eadweard Muybridge, and the
Industrialised Eye’ p. 414.
45. Peter Wollen, ‘“Ontology” and “Materialism” in Film’, Screen vol. 17 no. 1 (Spring
1976), p. 11, emphasis added.
46. Malcolm Le Grice, ‘Improvising Time and Image’, Filmwaves no. 14 (2001), p. 16.
47. Nicole Shukin, Animal Capital: Rendering Life in Biopolitical Times (Minneapolis and
London: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), pp. 72–3, emphasis added. See also
Berger, ‘Why Look at Animals?’ pp. 23–4.
48. Mary Ann Doane, The Emergence of Cinematic Time: Modernity, Contingency, the
Archive (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2002), pp. 3–4, 5.
49. Ibid., p. 5. The classic account of early cinema, capitalism and labour remains Janet
Staiger, ‘The Hollywood Mode of Production: Its Conditions of Existence’, in David
Bordwell, Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson, The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film
Style and Mode of Production to 1960 (London and New York: Routledge, 1985),
pp. 87–95. For a discussion of Taylor (as well as Pavlov and Eisenstein) in relation to
cinema, capitalism, labour and animality, see Jonathan Beller, The Cinematic Mode of
Production: Attention Economy and the Society of the Spectacle (Lebanon, NH and
London: University Press of New England, 2006), pp. 101–37.
50. It is important to remember that nonhuman animals – working animals and livestock
– were integral for the emergence of capitalism, beginning in the seventeenth century.
Mary Murray has suggested that ‘the development of capitalism in England was
founded on the back of hooves, paws and claws’, or, in other words, ‘in and through
particular forms of speciesist social relationships’. See ‘The Underdog in History:
Serfdom, Slavery and Species in the Creation and Development of Capitalism’, in Nik
Taylor and Tania Signal (eds), Theorizing Animals: Re-thinking Humanimal Relations
(Leiden: Brill, 2011), p. 88. For an account of ‘the role which animals have played in
the development of the agricultural and industrial revolution’, ‘how this process in
turn impacted the lives of these creatures – both qualitatively and quantitatively’, and
‘how animals have contested their expropriation and exploitation’, see Jason Hribal,
‘“Animals Are Part of the Working Class”: A Challenge to Labor History’, Labor
History vol. 44 no. 4 (2003), pp. 435–53 (436).


51. Malcolm Le Grice, ‘Real TIME/SPACE’, Experimental Cinema in the Digital Age,
p. 155, originally published in 1972.
52. Malcolm Le Grice, ‘Material, Materiality, Materialism’, p. 170.
53. Annette Kuhn, ‘Notes for a Perspective on Avant Garde Film’ (London: Hayward
Gallery, 1977), cited in Peter Gidal, Materialist Film (London and New York:
Routledge, 1989), pp. 45–6.
54. Peter Gidal, ‘Theory and Definition of Structural/Materialist Film’, in Michael O’Pray
(ed.), The British Avant-garde Film 1926 to 1995: An Anthology of Writings (Luton:
University of Luton Press, 1996), p. 146. Originally published in Peter Gidal (ed.),
Structural Film Anthology (London: BFI, 1976).
55. Gidal, ‘Theory and Definition of Structural/Materialist Film’, pp. 152–3.
56. Burt, Animals in Film (London: Reaktion Books, 2002), p. 11.
57. Ibid., p. 12.
58. Dwoskin, Film Is …, pp. 167, 168 (citing P. Adams Sitney).
59. Malcolm Le Grice, ‘Colour Abstraction – Painting – Film – Video – Digital Media’,
Experimental Cinema in the Digital Age, pp. 264–5, originally published in 1995.
60. See, among others, his 1911 painting ‘Die grossen blauen Pferde’ (The Large Blue
61. Malcolm Le Grice, DVD liner notes, Malcolm Le Grice: Volume One (LUX, 2009).
62. For an analysis of the score, see Dale, ‘Brian Eno’, pp. 481–6.
63. Malcolm Le Grice, ‘Thoughts on Recent “Underground” Film’, Experimental Cinema
in the Digital Age, p. 15
64. Ibid.
65. O’Pray, Avant-garde Film, p. 102, emphasis added.
66. Walker, Horse, p. 89.
67. It is often incorrectly claimed that Berlin Horse incorporates refilmed footage from
the British film The Burning Barn (1900). See, for example, Paul Willemen, ‘Malcolm
Le Grice’, in Robert Murphy (ed.), Directors in British and Irish Cinema: A Reference
Companion (London: BFI, 2003), p. 371.
68. The Edison company produced many films featuring horses, reflecting the diverse
ways horses were put to work in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and
also suggesting the particular attraction of the horse for early film audiences: such
films include Bucking Broncho (1894), Mounted Police Charge (1896), Cavalry
Passing in Review (1897), Boxing Horses, Luna Park, Coney Island (1904),
Hippodrome Races, Dreamland, Coney Island (1905) and Life of an American
Fireman (1906).
69. Bousé, Wildlife Films, p. 42. As Bousé notes, ‘[the] practice of setting up an actual
killing for the cameras started as early as 1884 when Muybridge arranged at the
Philadelphia zoo for a tiger to be set loose on an old buffalo’ (ibid). See also Malamud,
An Introduction to Animals and Visual Culture, p. 68. For an account of cruelty to
animals in the motion picture industry, and the measures adopted to protect animals,
see Rebecca Hall, Voiceless Victims, foreword by Brigitte Bardot (Hounslow:
Wildwood House Ltd, 1984), pp. 117–25. Hall notes that the most common form of

Muybridgean Motion/Materialist Film

abuse has involved horses, specifically the use of devices such as tripwires to produce
‘fall effects’, p. 118). It was partly due to the public outcry over the death of a horse
during the production of Jesse James (1939) that the American Humane Association
was given permission to inspect the treatment of animals on film sets.
70. Greene, Horses at Work, pp. 8, 9. Greene suggests that the number of horses in cities
(in the US) peaked at the turn of the century (p. 171).
71. Malcolm Le Grice, ‘Towards Temporal Economy’, p. 71, emphasis added.
72. Susan J. Pearson and Mary Weismantel, ‘Does “The Animal” Exist? Toward a Theory
of Social Life with Animals’, in Dorothee Brantz (ed.), Beastly Natures: Animals,
Humans, and the Study of History (Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia
Press, 2010), pp. 17, 22. Similarly, Diana Coole and Samantha Frost have recently
argued: ‘For critical materialists, society is simultaneously materially real and socially
constructed: our material lives are always culturally mediated, but they are not only
cultural.’ In ‘Introducing the New Materialisms’, in Diana Coole and Samantha Frost
(eds), New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics (Durham, NC and London:
Duke University Press, 2010), p. 27.
73. Donna J. Haraway, When Species Meet (Minneapolis and London: University of
Minnesota Press, 2008), pp. 4, 383n11.
74. Peter Gidal, ‘Technology and Ideology in/through/and Avant-garde Film: An Instance’,
in Teresa de Lauretis and Stephen Heath (eds), The Cinematic Apparatus (New York:
St Martin’s Press, 1980), p. 154.

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Paul Wells

5 ‘You Can See What Species I Belong to, but

Don’t Treat Me Lightly’
Rhetorics of Representation in Animated Animal

Animating animals
In recent years, when watching animated films from all eras, nations and cultures,
I have asked myself two fundamental questions: in all animation featuring animals,
how far can they be understood as animals, and how much as humans in disguise,
and further, what does depicting a character as an animal enable an animator to say
or do that using a human character cannot? I first addressed these questions in a
book-length study, The Animated Bestiary: Animals, Cartoons and Culture (2009),
using a ‘bestial ambivalence’ paradigm, which I will reintroduce and refine here, but
my main preoccupation will be to look at the notion of ‘animality’ in animated
films, through the specific address of liminal and compound states of construction
in creature design and behaviour.1 This analysis, will, therefore, reveal the rhetori-
cal strategies by which the distinctive language of animation is deployed to engage
with a range of animal discourses from the mytho-poetic to the quasi-political.
Torben Grodal has noted:

Fantasy films like Fantasia …delight in the metamorphosis of form – for example,
speeding up the slow processes of animal and plant growth and transferring them
to other features of the world. These accelerated transformations make the world
less stable; objects may suddenly morph into something quite different. Fantasy
films may also create synthetic associations between sight and sound: for example,
deep tones may be linked with the motion of large animals such as rhinos, high
tones with small animals … it is also possible to create a completely fantastic
world, in which fundamental features and laws are altered so that, for example,
thoughts impact directly on the physical world … the distinction between life and
death is annihilated, or body and soul exist independently of one another … .2

Curiously, Grodal fails to acknowledge that these are not merely the characteris-
tics of ‘fantasy films’, but the fundamental conditions of animation as a form.
Metamorphosis, the manipulation of time and space, the rejection of the physics
of the material world, the narrative and symbolic signification of sound, and the
dislocation between animate and inanimate, the static and the animatic, are all

aspects of the distinctive vocabulary of expression available in animation.3 This

inevitably creates instability not merely in the illusionist worlds created in anima-
tion, but also considerable tension, ambiguity and slippage in representational
forms, too. This is also the case even in narratives that deploy more photo-realis-
tic animation seeking to reinforce more naturalistic, plausibly real worlds; the sur-
reality of figures like Hulk (Eric Bana) (Hulk, 2003), Davy Jones (Bill Nighy)
(Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, 2006), Caesar (Andy Serkis) (Rise
of the Planet of the Apes, 2011) and Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) (House of the Flying
Daggers, 2004) is seamlessly absorbed into the often fantastical logics and param-
eters of their seemingly ‘realistic’ story world.
These core elements of animation as a form inherently problematise all the rep-
resentational aspects of the image when they are measured against a nominal yard-
stick of the camera’s quasi-documentary recording of indexical reality. In
contemporary cinema, using ‘film’ is but one aspect of acquisition in the con-
struction of the image, and as film becomes inexorably closer to the condition of
animation, the terms and conditions by which any one aspect of the image may be
perceived have changed. This may be immediately understood as a formal tension
between the physical presence and materiality of a person, object or environment,
and the ways in which they have been reimagined or reinvented through the new
repertoire of digital applications. Animation – analogue or digital – has always,
anyway, sought to exploit this tension as the key element of its specificity as a
model of creative expression, constantly pointing up the space between ‘the real
world’ and its own constructed artifice. Such self-consciousness in the act of image-
making and the choreographic principles employed, defines animation as an intrin-
sically rhetorical form, both literally illustrating, and implicitly, metaphorically
commenting upon its image construction. Animation thus has a core condition of
analogy that prompts the need to consistently interrogate how the form deals with
its chosen topics and themes, since all aspects of its construction signify a tension
between received reality and its representational outcome.
When addressing the representation of animals in animation in The Animated
Bestiary, it became clear that animated film raised some very particular and criti-
cal issues because animals had almost constituted its lingua franca since the form’s
inception and development. There was some irony in the fact, though, that the lit-
erature investigating this phenomenon was scant, and a mere piecemeal or mar-
ginal aspect of a number of disciplinary studies. Further, it was important to take
into consideration the perspectives of both scholars and practitioners; the latter,
especially, because animators adopt a highly self-conscious and specific approach
to the technique of animating animals, from the hyperrealistic to the abstract.4
Consequently, as a purely representational form, using prefilmic and profilmic arti-
ficially constructed material, and not live action footage of real animals, animation
readily engages with the public discourses of animals and ‘animality’ in many com-
plex ways. In attempting to understand this complexity, I constructed a critical para-
digm – ‘bestial ambivalence’ – that I will seek to explain and develop here.

Rhetorics of Representaion in Animated Animal Narratives

Bestial ambivalence revisited

Essentially, this model of analysis sought to suggest that animation always places
any representational form ‘in flux’, and that at any time there can be fluid and rapid
shifts between what it might represent, for example, in relation to the body, iden-
tity, gender, race and ethnicity, etc. This is made more complex in the case of animal
representation because there are clearly different aspects to the understanding of
animal life and its categories, classifications and context. Consequently, I posited an
approach in which an animated animal or animated animal narrative was moving
between positions and discourses – namely the pure animal (our knowledge of ani-
mals in themselves outside human discourses), the critical human and the aspira-
tional human (when the animal is anthropomorphised to reveal positive and
negative aspects of human conduct and experience) and the hybrid ‘humanimal’
(which refers to the meanings of animals in established myths, metaphors and anal-
ogous narratives). These shifting modes might occur within singular movements or
sequences or across a whole story. One immediate example to illustrate this might
be Disney’s feature, Bolt (2008). When viewed as an animal story its pure animal
credentials are evidenced in many self-conscious scenes addressing the difference
between the ‘natural’ motion and behaviour of an animal and the consciously per-
formed. Bolt, the dog, is encultured to accept the story world of his television show
– ‘if the dog believes it, WE believe it’ stresses the director – but finds himself
increasingly alienated and challenged by the real world he escapes into, but has no
consciousness of. A particularly playful sequence uses the birds’ ways of communi-
cating in jerky head and feet movements to comic effect as they try to free Bolt’s
head when it gets stuck in railings. This issue is most directly expressed though
when Bolt leaves the safety of the artificial set and is no longer bound by the
‘trained’ aspects of his performance for the show. In the real world, he bleeds, and
hurts himself and possesses no superpowers. The critical and aspirational aspects of
measuring human conduct are played out through the symbolic functions of Bolt’s
two main companions – Mittens, the cat, and Rhino, the hamster. Mittens is a stray
because she has been the victim of human abuse and abandoned, while Rhino is
almost a case of an overcared-for pet, his domestic status representing a sheltered
context from which he is inevitably naïve about the outside world. Both, however,
are instrumental in enabling Bolt to understand the reality of the world he inhabits
– Mittens grounding him in a ‘known’ animal pragmatism of being a ‘regular dog’
(chasing thrown sticks, burying bones, letting his tongue slobber when hanging his
head from a car window, etc. and even, in her eyes, the inevitability of human
cruelty), while Rhino offers a less streetwise perspective, informed by optimism, self-
belief and the importance of friendship. The hybrid ‘humanimal’ is at the heart of
the film’s core theme, in that the narrative works as a post-9/11 engagement with
the myth of the hero; Bolt is essentially an address of the Hollywood animal icon,
and the sharp differential between the assumed powers of the celebrity/the super-
hero and the reality of actual capabilities and the capacity for survival, in a seem-
ingly corrupt and exploitative human world. Bolt and indeed, the other animals


exist caught between the fact and fiction of prescribed animal cultures. The ‘bestial
ambivalence’ paradigm reads ‘the animal’ then as a flux of discourses.
The paradigm was further contextualised within the broad parameters of def-
initions of ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ as opposed poles that, on the one hand, viewed
animals as intrinsically different and outside representation, or on the other, viewed
them as assimilated to the extent that human- and animal kind must be reconciled
as part of an inherently related spectrum of being. This, in itself, is often cited in
playful animated narratives. Aardman Animation’s The Pirates! In an Adventure
with Scientists (2012) tells the story of a Pirate Captain’s encounter with Charles
Darwin. In a drunken exchange, the Captain asks the almost identical Darwin, and
his ‘monkey man-servant’, Mr Bobo, ‘Are you related in some way?’ Throughout
the film, Mr Bobo is half-animal, half-humanised, exemplified in the comic con-
ceit of denying him verbal expression in favour of silent-film-style title cards.
Aardman’s best example of the mute but sentient animal is, of course, Gromit the
dog, from Nick Park’s Wallace and Gromit narratives – the raise of an eyebrow the
signal of a clear and responsive mind. This idea of the ‘mute’ animal serves in more
serious contexts to represent the fundamental difference/distance between animal
and humankind, while still allowing for the possibility that animals possess their
own sentience and forms of communication.
The Tannery (2011), for example, clearly delineates that it is concerned with a
critical human discourse, while allowing for a hybrid ‘humanimal’ narrative, which
posits the suggestion that animal experience might be self-conscious and regulated.
A hunter shoots a fox for its skin, which he takes back to his tannery to remove.
The ‘spirit’ of the fox survives, fleeing back into the forest, meeting the spirits of
other dead animals. He is befriended by a spirit rabbit, who he originally seeks to
devour, but it is in this act that he realises both his status as a supernatural form,
and also, his own condition as a spirit that seems in some way different from the
rabbit’s. The fox and the rabbit also have the facility to see the material world, and
observe animals being caught and eaten by other animals, and their spirits being
subsequently released. As the spirits float heavenward, these acts seem to be
accepted by the fox and rabbit as their intrinsic fate. It is as if they possess knowl-
edge of their own place in the animal food chain and this enables them to reconcile
their place in a natural order. The fox, however, becomes aware that he cannot
achieve this reconciliation and redemption, because his spirit, like those of many
other animals, is arrested in the purgatory of the tannery – in remaining somehow
part of the human world by virtue of being killed, and further exploited by
humankind in leather goods, and so forth, the animal cannot find release. This film
makes the case for an alternative pure animal world that humans are unaware of,
and which may be understood only by animals. Such laws and conditions still speak
of course, to human paradigms, but suggest at least that humankind’s brutality and
exploitation does impinge on an animal order, and that the mistreatment of animals
does not merely reflect badly on humanity, but irrevocably disrupts animal cultures
and practices, whatever they may be, observable, known or otherwise.

Rhetorics of Representaion in Animated Animal Narratives

The Tannery (2011): animal spirits as the defining principle of alternative animal cultures disrupted and
destroyed by human intervention

The idea of the pure animal culture also finds purchase in other ideologically
charged contexts. Felidae (1994), based on the 1989 novel by Turkish-German
Akif Pirincci, who co-wrote the screenplay, features a black-and-grey European
shorthair cat called Francis, who addresses the viewer, imploring ‘You can see what
species I belong to, but don’t treat me lightly.’ In the distinctly un-Tom and Jerry-
like scenarios that follow, it would be hard to do so, since a gamut of animal nar-
ratives emerges, from the brutalities of animal testing to the sexual proclivities of
mixed breeds, in a thinly veiled metaphor about Nazi ideology and the lasting lega-
cies of National Socialist thought. The narrative is essentially a detective story in
which Francis seeks to find out who is responsible for the murders of a number of
cats, who appear to have been killed in a state of sexual arousal. This fact alone
marks out the film as distinctly adult fare, but more importantly from the per-
spective of this discussion, it signals how the film wants to present the pure animal
discourse, focusing on the ways in which the animal is defined through the orien-
tations of the senses and primal actions. Francis constantly notes what he smells –
particularly in relation to the chemicals in the laboratory hidden in the old house
his owner moves into, and in regard to coital emissions – and also, what he hears
– the death cries of other cats – and what he desires – food and mating. This
engagement with the physical and sensual also chimes with the critical and aspi-
rational human themes in the film, as animal testing is viewed as both a well-
intentioned model of research to service humankind but equally as a vehicle of
animal mistreatment and mutation. It is this principle of mutation that speaks to
the metamorphoses and analogous aspects of animation as a language of expres-
sion. The nightmare Francis endures, played out to Mahler’s Resurrection sym-
phony, is a gothic grotesque showing scientist, Gregor Mendel – ‘the father of


Felidae (1994): the Anti-Aristocats plays

out ‘pure animal’ discourses of cat
behaviour in the midst of a quasi-
parable about Nazi ideology and
animal welfare

modern genetics’ – resurrecting dead and brutalised cats like a mad puppeteer, in
a sequence animated by Hayo Freitag. There is surely an echo of Josef Mengele,
the German SS officer, known as the ‘Angel of Death’, who supervised the fate of
Auschwitz detainees. This is reinforced by the idea that the eventual murderer, the
overly anthropomorphised Pascal, a computer-literate Havana Brown cat, is actu-
ally Claudandus, the original cat mutated by Mendel’s tissue-bonding glue. He has
assumed mythic power and status, and is now killing cats as a mode of selection
and cleansing in the development of his new and superior feline breed. This hybrid
‘humanimal’ agenda most obviously speaks to both the anti-Semitic Aryan moti-
vations of Hitler’s Reich, and more recently, the racist mistreatment of Turkish
immigrants in Germany. This idea of ‘species engineering’ explored in the film,
explicitly refers to complex ideas about evolution and natural selection and the
interventions of scientific practice. As Francis pertinently remarks of his observa-
tion of animal testing, performed as mythic ritual, ‘What I was watching wasn’t
exactly a scene out of The Aristocats’.

Animal evacuation
Such a self-conscious distinction between the anthropomorphic orthodoxies of clas-
sical character animation in the Disney style, and the visual imagery in Felidae not
only foregrounds the film’s status as an adult animated feature, but also points up
the ways in which family-orientated narratives largely domesticise the animal to con-
tain, repress and deny the ‘animality’ that may compromise the presumed moral,
social and archetypal certainties at the heart of such narratives. The further anxiety
that often accompanies such a view is that the very illusionism of using the animated
form per se, effectively evacuates ‘the animal’ from animal characters altogether. Such
a fear is articulated brilliantly in James Lever’s spoof memoir, Me Cheeta: The
Autobiography (2008), in which Cheeta the monkey, from the 1930s Tarzan movies
featuring Johnny Weissmuller, supposedly writes about his experiences in
Hollywood.5 In the midst of scurrilous recollections of the excesses of the stars, and
his often startling descriptions of animal mistreatment – all made extremely funny or
challenging by his own position as an untrustworthy narrator – he makes comment
about the place of a chimpanzee both in ‘the wild’ and in captivity.

Rhetorics of Representaion in Animated Animal Narratives

Cheeta stresses, ‘Sooner or later, every creature that lives in a forest has to learn
that there’s only the hierarchy and alphadom and the constant dance of death …
Everything that lived murdered.’6 He is even grateful that ‘Irving Thalberg, Prince
of Hollywood’, in assembling MGM’s roster of wild animals in different shelters
for packing and export, and ‘rehabilitation’, had changed this: ‘It was as if you’d
taken the jungle and poured the death out of it.’7 Even though Cheeta begins to
realise that the treatment he and the other animals receive is not fundamentally
caring and sometimes cruel, he remains grateful for human intervention as it pre-
vents his inevitable death at the hands of other predators. Interestingly, thereafter,
he becomes part of an alternative value system, which sees cruelty to animals made
manifest in their seemingly ‘unnatural’ participation in human entertainment; Dr
Jane Goodall championing a ‘No Reel Apes’ campaign, to ensure no animals are
used in films, and suggesting that they might be replaced by computer-generated
ones. Cheeta readily dismisses human simian actors, and is equally vexed by the
notion of CGI: ‘a collection of pixels, each distinct hair waving lightly in the digi-
tal wind, will never start coming to terms with its mother’s death on camera. And
that’s what CGI is … it’s back to the men in monkey suits.’8 While he acknowl-
edges ‘the wisecracking eyeball, the smart-aleck donkey’ (Mike Wazowski in
Pixar’s Monsters, Inc. [2001] and Donkey in Dreamworks’ Shrek [2001]), he rails
‘they’re not fucking there, are they? … That’s the real magic of movies: their flesh
and blood. Does Buzz Lightyear suffer for his art? No, and that’s why he’s no
good.’9 Lever’s playful engagement with the Cheeta story, for all its ironies, draws
attention to the animal point of view, the physical presence of the real animal –
through pain and pleasure, insight and ignorance, pure creature and quasi-human
– to resist the notion of the artificial, the illusional, the animated.

Embedded animality
Ultimately, though, even as it may be possible to read the flux of meaning in ani-
mated animal narratives, and debate the position and identity of the animal when
it is depicted in animation, this merely points up the bigger question of what
exactly ‘animality’ is, and how it is embodied (or not) in an animated animal film.
I first addressed this question when writing about Charlie Chaplin as a proto-ani-
mator in his relationship to objects and environments, and his fundamental influ-
ence on the animated characters of the pre- and early Disney eras.10 I argue that
Chaplin’s performances preserve an essential ‘animality’ in the ‘gag’, which is a
resistance to the dehumanising aspects of modernity in the machine age. Further, I
suggest, such animality – the physical existence and action of the animal – is
aligned with the plasmatic agency of animation, and that this constitutes a
common instrumental essence. A brief survey of some further animated animal
texts is offered in support of this view.
Geoff Dunbar’s animated adaptation of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi (1979) looks
at the seemingly natural processes of uninhibited ‘animality’ through the crazed


persona of Ubu, whose aspirations to power and control are not the strategic
manipulations of an authoritarian politician but the playing out of embedded
appetites and desires in literally physically driven actions. The ‘natural’ order here
is one that seems unchecked and inchoate. This is best signified in the soundtrack
in which the real cries of animals are used to suggest the immediacy of direct and
instinctive responses. In a key sequence following a brutally violent battle, Ubu lit-
erally tears a huge bear apart and consumes his bloodied flesh. There is no differ-
entiation here between the primal order of animal survival and human agency
played out through Ubu. Such an alignment of human and animal normally serves
to critique humankind. Usually, this ‘descent’ into animality serves to reveal ‘inhu-
manity’, only apparent when supposedly civilised behaviour is reduced to a purely
animal state of physical self-preservation. Such a perspective misrepresents ani-
mality, though, as its instrumental essence is revealed through Ubu’s actions, the
animation functioning to present a natural state in and of itself. This is a pure act
motivated not by the loss of rationality and conscious control but by somatic
This is related to the perspective posited in a film like Rise of the Planet of the
Apes (2011), which speaks to the real similarity and continuum between human
and ape, situating the differences as minimal; merely the evolutionary space
between the capacity for sentience and the means to express it. This ‘difference’ is
brokered through the external agency of science and technology, and is funda-
mentally concerned with the containment of the impactful powers of ‘animality’
so freely expressed in Ubu Roi. It is pertinent to draw attention here to Cheeta’s
concern about the evacuation of the animal in CGI, but the very hyperrealism of
Rise of the Planet of the Apes serves to support both the implied and explicit lin-
eage, but in this case seeks to secure the recognition of the animal by its adop-
tion/adaption of the rationalising tendencies of language. Ironically, it is only
Caesar’s intellect and ultimately his resistant use of language, which seeks to secure
the maintenance of respect for primal knowledge outside the oppressive and mis-
representative systems of the supposedly civilising process. The use of animation
is highly significant in both cases – Apes’ persuasiveness is wholly predicated on
the plausibility of humans and apes communicating on rational terms, those liter-
ally of a heightened naturalism secured by animated motion capture and computer-
generated forms; Ubu Roi’s suggestiveness in regard to the physical alignment and
elision of animality in human and bear is wholly achieved by brutalist two-dimen-
sional drawn forms, an illusionism moving beyond the literal to embrace the
metaphoric. The animal and the animation share instrumental essence, which in
turn defines ‘animality’.
Nathalie Djurberg’s Putting down the Prey (2008) is a 3D stop-motion puppet
animation that once more privileges a particular approach to the form to secure
this defining principle of animality. Djurberg enlists the Icelandic/Celtic myth of
the shape-shifting seal, the ‘silkie’, which becomes human by shedding its skin, but
inverts its theme to show a female hunter, killing and flaying a walrus, only to

Rhetorics of Representaion in Animated Animal Narratives

embody its skin and swim away in the Arctic waters. Like Apes and Ubu Roi, the
film uses animation to subvert the expectation of human/animal bonds; here the
apparent, if seemingly pragmatic brutality of the hunter, is both feminised and
revised by virtue of the act of embodiment played out by the girl. She is both
human and animal, hunter and hunted, literal and transcendent; a figure implicitly
demanding a fresh understanding of the natural order and its effects by effecting
‘animality’ as the very currency of existence. These three examples are hugely sug-
gestive in demonstrating three key ways in which animation as a representative
form may be understood as both evidence for, and a consequence of, the instru-
mental essence that characterises animality. It remains the case, though, that these
are essentially embedded examples of human/animal dynamics, and ultimately, the
three key approaches here, which might be termed complementary, continuity and
communion, are best revealed through animation’s capacity to create bi-creatures
in a curio-natural order – and will be addressed in the final part of my discussion.

Bi-creatures and the curio-natural

In both the ‘bestial ambivalence’ paradigms, and the three models of ‘animality’
mentioned above, I have sought to suggest that animation has particular qualities
that enable a more specific understanding of the relationship between human- and
animal kind. This is based on the view that the intrinsic language of expression
available in animation offers the potential of a rhetorical commentary on the issues
of representing animals, and in best revealing the primal knowledge that properly
aligns humans and animals. In my original address of animal representation I situ-
ated the discourse of human/animal as part of a dialectic between nature and cul-
ture, and implicitly, the impactful nature of technologies. It is clear that the
‘animal’ in animation can therefore always be viewed as a bi-creature oscillating
between the traits and tropes of representational orthodoxies in the construction
of fictional animals and humankind. I wish to define the bi-creature here a little
more precisely, though, as a creature that is neither human nor animal but in some
ways embodies both. Indeed, it is the function of the animation itself to reveal the
ways in which this model of embodiment is created and to suggest ways in which
meaning and affect are therefore subverted. Such subversion, however, is a method
by which to reveal more subtle truths about an essential animality and humanity,
which, as director Paul Schrader has suggested, ‘recall some greater primal knowl-
edge that is less available to us in the modern urban world’.11
This bi-creature then participates in what I am arguing is a model of the curio-
natural, at once a ‘curatorial’ view of the assembled repertoire and received mean-
ings of the ‘natural world’, and an approach which remains ‘curious’ in its
reinvention or quasi-preservation of a natural or pastoral idyll. The animated
works I am concluding this analysis with use bi-creatures in a curio-natural envi-
ronment, situating the status of the bi-creature as a discourse by which to investi-
gate, define and evaluate the coming together of human and animal discourses:


first, Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo (2008), second, the much vaunted box-office cham-
pion, Avatar (2009) and third, the more left-field, low-rent genre piece, Trollhunter
Ponyo features the eponymous ‘little girl’ who emerges from an undersea myth-
ical kingdom in the midst of an imbalance in the natural order. She is thrown on
land stuck in a glass jar as part of the waste and debris pulled from the sea by a
trawler, immediately suggesting the difference between the marine idyll and the
polluted public world. She is found by a human boy, Soskei, and initially in her
early stage of growth is reminiscent of many of the molluscs and starfish in the sea,
with no visible arms or legs, and almost the appearance of a glove puppet. Soskei’s
mother is convinced she is a fish, and certainly, remains unpersuaded she is human
but, as Soskei counters, ‘she’s not just a goldfish, she’s Ponyo’, her name appar-
ently delineating someone or something specific to its own species, or to the boy’s
own categories of understanding living creatures. Throughout the narrative,
Ponyo’s father tries to reclaim her back to the sea, but she merely becomes part of
the increasing natural ferment of deteriorating weather and incipient floods.
Ponyo’s fundamental relationship to an alternative order is confirmed, though,
when one of the old ladies at the care home that Soskei’s mother attends, views
Ponyo in a toy bucket and says ‘fish with faces coming out of the sea cause
tsunamis’. Her very age projects this view back in time; previous experience regis-
tering contact with the natural disasters endemic to Japanese culture, and seem-
ingly intrinsically related to powers beyond human experience. With each
incarnation of Ponyo, her broader relationship to the curio-natural order is made
clear, since animation’s inherent deployment of metamorphosis shows her change
from ‘fish’ to ‘bird’ to ‘mammal’ to ‘human’. She essentially reveals that she has a
continuity with the primal realm and oscillates between human and animal to evi-
dence its inherent relatedness and harmony. Though Soskei’s mother argues ‘you
can’t be human and magic at the same time’, Ponyo is exactly that; a symbolic
figure that exhibits both the mystery of nature and the qualities that help human-
and animal kind restore balance in the natural environment.
In James Cameron’s Avatar, the mineral-rich world of Pandora is home to the
na’vi, a race of humanoid blue creatures; such extraterrestrials the symbolic pro-
jection of humankind totemically embedded within a natural realm. Drawing upon
a collective mythology explored in such other literary texts as Arkady and Boris
Strugatsky’s The World of Noon (1965 onwards), Ursula Le Guin’s The Word for
World Is Forest (1976) and Poul Anderson’s Call Me Joe (1957), and films such as
The Emerald Forest (1985), Laputa (1986) and Dances with Wolves (1990),
Cameron creates a curio-natural order in which the na’vi bi-creatures constantly
demonstrate their deep relatedness to the elemental lifeblood of the organic world,
and the spirit imbued within it. This is perhaps best exemplified in the act of tsa-
heylu – the bond – in which the na’vi become physically connected to their flying
horse-styled creatures, and other animals and environments in their world. This
seemingly ‘bestial’ alignment is once more revealed by the way in which animation

Rhetorics of Representaion in Animated Animal Narratives

The documentary imperatives in Trollhunter (2010) authenticate the animality of the troll as a reflection of
humanity as a ‘species’

uses penetration to visualise the interior state of the neural connections as they
entwine to secure quasi-‘oneness’, both a physical and spiritual joining. It is this
that fully empowers former paraplegic marine, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) in
his exploration of the Pandoran culture, but crucially, it is the key aspect in which
the hybridity of the human/animal communion is expressed, and which in turn val-
idates the persuasiveness of the animated avatar itself. Humanity, in and of itself,
is proven to be alienated from its essential being, distanciated even from its
monotheistic assurances and in need of reawakening through animistic principles
– those inherently facilitated by the life-giving properties of animation. In essence,
then, Avatar, both as a text, and in regard to the very use of an avatar, promotes
animation as the most animistic of forms, in the alignment of human and animal
in an eco-centred parable.
It is Trollhunter, though, that in using the bi-creature – the troll – as a vehicle
to resist the idea of intrinsic continuity or communion between animal and human,
but to point up their complementary and parallel place, which most explicitly
defines ‘animality’. Several Volda College students embark on making a verité-style
documentary about a hunter who appears to be killing bears, but this is merely a
cover-up by the authorities, as the hunter’s real mission is to expose and kill the
variety of species of troll. As director Andre Ovredal remarks, ‘I was trying to make
an animal kingdom out of the trolls … they’re basically beastly humans. I wanted
it to be the other way round. I wanted them to be more like animals with a human
touch.’12 This shift enables Ovredal to create rhymetossers, ringlefinches and moun-
tain kings, different types of troll, all of which prompt engagement with ‘species’,
and how these might be defined and understood. Though the hunter says, ‘They are
animals. They eat, shit and mate. Eat anything they can’, the key aspect of the film,
once more, is the way in which animation plausibly fabricates the creatures, making


them believable less in the mythic sense of Ponyo, or the science fictional sense of
Avatar, but in the quasi-documentary sense of employing ‘real-world’ strategies
which define difference in the animal breed. Consequently, the hunter does not
become overwhelmed by, or imbued with, the ‘animality’ of the natural world, but
seeks to intellectually embrace it, in order to act upon his brief to regrettably elim-
inate them. This is based, then, on his perception of the trolls’ distinctive anatomy
and biology; their specific sounds and means of communication; their relationship
to other animals (‘cows, sheep, German tourists’); their scent and habitat; and the
behavioural evidence that reveals their defence and attack strategies, and their
means to secure their own well-being and safety. The hunter effectively defines the
hunted on terms by which he understands himself, and as such reveals the shared
degrees of ‘animality’ that link him to these symbolic creatures that essentially
invade the consciousness of humankind, as reminders of its own fears and anxi-
eties about its place within wider schemes of existence past and present. By ani-
mating ‘the troll’, the film has reanimated the realisation that ‘fairytales don’t
match reality’, and humankind must take more responsibility for itself, and its rela-
tionship to animal and environmental cultures.

Conclusion: ‘Donald Duck never wore pants’

In the globally successful TV sitcom, Friends (1994–2004), Chandler (Matthew
Perry) remarks, ‘Donald Duck never wore pants, but when he comes out of the
shower, he puts a towel around his waist. I mean, what’s that about?’ One might
immediately answer that it is concerned with the simultaneity of remembering the
‘nakedness’ implied in taking a shower as a human, but forgetting both Donald’s
status as a duck and as an animated character. These oscillations between
animal/human discourses are fundamental in the construction of animated animals
and suggest a range of perspectives about both the standing of ‘the animal’ in the
real world, and the tension between the promotion and evacuation of its meaning
in the representational order. I have tried to demonstrate here, though, that both
in the use of the ‘bestial ambivalence’ paradigm, and the three models of ‘animal-
ity’ – continuity, communion and complementariness – that both the animal and
the human are best revealed through rupture, and in essence, this becomes an
important agency of radical incoherence or redirection in the animated text per se.
The animal and the human seem to find their most effective representation in the
liminal states that are often the staple of animated forms and figures. In what is
probably the seminal question in this field of enquiry, Steve Baker asks, ‘Why is it
that our ideas of the animal – perhaps more than any other set of ideas – are the
ones which enable us to frame and express ideas about human identity?’13 In the
case of animation, I would argue that its intrinsic vocabulary of expression liber-
ates humans to find a fundamental essence of themselves in animal identity, and
that it is a shared ‘animality’ that enables the richest reading of the condition of
embodied life itself.

Rhetorics of Representaion in Animated Animal Narratives

1. Paul Wells, The Animated Bestiary: Animals, Cartoons and Culture (New Brunswick,
NJ and London: Rutgers University Press, 2009).
2. Torben Grodal, Embodied Visions: Evolution, Emotion, Culture and Film (Oxford
and New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), pp. 99–100.
3. See Alan Cholodenko (ed.), The Illusion of Life: Essays on Animation (Sydney: Power
Publications, 1991); Alan Cholodenko (ed.), The Illusion of Life II: More Essays on
Animation (Sydney: Power Publications, 2007); Paul Wells, Understanding Animation
(London and New York: Routledge, 1998); Paul Wells, Scriptwriting (Lausanne and
Worthing: AVA Academia, 2007); James Telotte, Animating Space from Mickey to
WALL-E (Lexington: Kentucky Scholarship Online, 2010); Ulo Pikkov, Animosophy:
Theoretical Writings on the Animated Film (Tallinn: Estonian Academy of Arts, 2011).
4. See Chuck Jones, Chuck Amuck (London: Simon & Schuster, 1990); Osamu Tezuka,
Tezuka School of Animation: Vol 2: Animals in Motion (Carson, CA: Digital Manga
Publishing, 2003).
5. James Lever, Me Cheeta: The Autobiography (London: Fourth Estate, 2008).
6. Ibid., p. 23.
7. Ibid., p. 30.
8. Ibid., p. 100.
9. Ibid., p. 86.
10. See Paul Wells, ‘The Chaplin Effect: Ghosts in the Machine and Animated Gags’, in
Daniel Goldmark and Charlie Keil (eds), Funny Pictures: Animation and Comedy in
Studio Era Hollywood (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press,
2011), pp. 15–28.
11. Personal interview with the author, June 1987.
12. Damon Wise, ‘Troll Deep Crew’, Guardian, 3 September 2011, Guide, pp. 14–16.
13. Steve Baker, Picturing the Beast: Animals, Identity and Representation (Champaign:
University of Illinois Press, 2001), p. 6.

Georgina Evans

6 A Cut or a Dissolve?
Insects and Identification in Microcosmos

There can be little doubt that human spectators commonly conceive of forms of
likeness connecting them to the animal subjects they witness in nature documen-
tary film. Laura Mulvey’s classic 1975 essay, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative
Cinema’, sets out the ways in which fiction film offers a dissolution and reimagin-
ing of the spectator’s self as they sit in the dark, permitted to ‘misrecognise’ them-
selves in the enlarged figures before them in such a way that they enjoy ‘temporary
loss of ego while simultaneously reinforcing the ego’.1 The resemblance between
spectator and subject is predicated upon a superficial similarity, residing specifi-
cally in their shared human form. As Mulvey writes:

Scale, space, stories are all anthropomorphic. Here, curiosity and the wish to
look intermingle with a fascination with likeness and recognition: the human face,
the human body, the relationship between the human form and its surroundings,
the visible presence of the person in the world.2

Mulvey’s ensuing argument about the sexual politics of visual pleasure has, of
course, been much revisited, but the question of how we recognise ourselves in fic-
tion film, in which human actors play out our innermost desires and fears, has
never lost its fascination. It is striking, however, that models of identification are
far less frequently addressed in discussion of documentary film, still less where they
concern nonhuman subjects. As Bill Nichols has noted, ‘issues of objectivity, ethics
and ideology have become the hallmark of documentary debate as issues of sub-
jectivity, identification and gender have of narrative fiction. But this divide is a
matter of aesthetic convention and historical circumstance.’3 The nature film offers
a particularly interesting place in which to extend a consideration of identification,
and the broader theme of likeness construed by the viewer. Some animal subjects
can partially fulfil the criteria of human form proposed by Mulvey, but the extent
to which they do so is largely a function of the choices made by film-makers. In
Scott MacDonald’s invaluable exploration of the subject of wildlife film, he
observes that these films have very little presence within academic film criticism,
and furthermore, even those works which have recently addressed this gap tend to
A Cut or a Dissolve?

focus on the American tradition, and to exclude ‘films that focus on insects and
sea organisms’.4 In the marginalising of these creatures, we might already detect
the difficulty of establishing a relation between human viewer and the least read-
ily anthropomorphised citizens of the animal kingdom. Indeed, in the film which
will form the focus of this chapter, Marie Pérennou and Claude Nuridsany’s
Microcosmos (1996), the challenges of encouraging an audience to engage emo-
tionally with insects as beings rather than objects were part of the project’s attrac-
tion for the film-makers. As Nuridsany remarks, there is nothing harder to relate
to than an insect ‘which has no face, no facial expressions, which you cannot
stroke or engage with in an affective exchange like a cat, or a dog, or a sheep’.5 He
explicitly states that they wished their film to provoke audience sympathy with
insects, and to transform the repugnance so often expressed in the face of their
alien anatomy into childlike wonderment at an enchanted world inhabited by
mythological ‘princes’ equipped with fantastic armaments.6 As I will demonstrate,
there are many ways in which this might be deemed a variation on an all too con-
ventional anthropomorphism. However, it is also true that the film complicates its
appeals to sympathy by recognising that likeness is in the eye of the beholder, and
not all eyes are human eyes.
In writing on wildlife documentary by film scholars, notably in the dedicated
volumes by Gregg Mitman, Derek Bousé and Cynthia Chris, some clear ortho-
doxies emerge, which govern the majority of encounters between human spectator
and on-screen animal.7 Chris summarises the three key forms of animal–human
relation promoted by wildlife film as follows:

the genre shifted from a framework in which the animal appears as object of
human action (and in which the animal is targeted as game), to an anthropo-
morphic framework, in which human characteristics are mapped onto animal
subjects, to a zoomorphic framework, in which knowledge about animals is used to
explain the human. Thus, representations of animals articulate and reinforce new
understandings of not only animal life but also human behavior. We look not only
at animals to learn about them, but we also look through animals for ourselves.8

The first of these forms is most clearly identified in early films made as a form of
‘hunting with the camera’, as Mitman describes it, although the underlying atti-
tude remains very visible in recent work.9 This is especially true in ‘making of ’ fea-
tures, in which lamentation over threat to an endangered natural world implies a
concomitant triumph in bringing back footage. This particular form of objectifi-
cation is also tied up with the idea that animal film should be science film, a record
of data gathering rather than a creative production. The persistence of this popu-
lar feeling is manifest in the furore over a mother polar bear shown in the BBC’s
2011 Frozen Planet series. British tabloid newspaper the Daily Mirror uncovered
the fact that the images of the bear and her newborn cubs were captured in a
Dutch zoo rather than the arctic terrain ostensibly presented to the viewers, and


lambasted the makers for having ‘fooled the audience into believing the footage
was gathered by intrepid cameramen in the brutal sub-zero wilderness’.10
Attenborough’s defence, ‘Come on, we’re making movies’, failed to convince,
instead being deemed ‘surprising’ in ‘comparing BBC nature documentaries to
movies’.11 This apparent zeal for a distinction between fictional ‘movies’ and
nature documentary does not necessarily extend into enthusiasm for fidelity to the
rhythm of animal life. Bousé explores the ‘pervasive media image of nature as a
site of action and excitement’, considering the fact that a truthfully ‘proportional’
representation of an African lion’s average day would result in around forty-two
minutes of relative inactivity in a fifty-two-minute documentary, which would
clearly be unpalatable to the general market for wildlife documentary.12 Bousé sug-
gests that television should be held responsible for the scenario observed by John
Berger, in which children at zoos with artificial expectations of animals are heard
wondering, ‘Where is he? Why doesn’t he move? Is he dead?’13 Nuridsany notes
with exasperation that didactic explanation of reproduction and predation have
come to be overstressed to the extent of becoming stereotypical of animal film.14
The anthropomorphism and zoomorphism identified by Chris as the two later
developments in animal film are borne out throughout criticism on the subject, and
the substantial moral and political weight brought to bear on animal subjects,
largely imposed through voiceover, has received detailed scrutiny by MacDonald,
Bousé, and Mitman as well as Chris. Using animal film to narcissistically reflect a
zoomorphising gaze back on our human selves might be seen as a natural devel-
opment in a Darwinian age. Chris cites the example of Bridget Jones, despairing at
a wildlife documentary voiceover describing lion mating as ‘brief and perfunctory’,
to illustrate how readily we assume that animal film is understood as an essentially
anthropocentric, pedagogical enterprise.15 The fact that a corpus of films has given
rise to these general truths is not, as both Attenborough and Bousé indicate, rep-
rehensible in itself, but should be acknowledged as having set parameters which
leave room for different kinds of truthful encounter with the same subject matter.
In this chapter, I want to look closely at Microcosmos as one example of a film
which manages to create a different perspective, and to open this into a considera-
tion of forms of identification which are not entirely anthropomorphising, zoomor-
phising or pedagogically motivated. The film presents us with a study in astonishing
forms of likeness, but one in which the hierarchy governing the separate elements of
that likeness is not clearly defined. We are left asking what, exactly, resembles what,
through what lens and with what significance. The discussion will call upon the writ-
ings of avant-garde film-maker and critic Stan Brakhage, and French thinker Roger
Caillois. Caillois is most often recognised for his writing on games and his associa-
tions with the Surrealists. However, his relevance here lies in fascination with the
ways in which resemblance reveals intersections between science, myth and a human
desire to become lost in a broader natural landscape. It was atomic physics which
confronted Caillois with the most emphatic statement of the world’s inherent
strangeness, but animal life which provided him with the clearest focus for his

A Cut or a Dissolve?

writing on the subject. He fell out with Surrealist leader André Breton over the ques-
tion of whether scientific scrutiny necessarily robbed nature of its enchantment. The
flashpoint in this dispute was Breton’s refusal to slice open a Mexican jumping bean,
‘because you did not want to find an insect or worm inside (that would have
destroyed the mystery, you said)’, an attitude which for Caillois indicated Breton’s
refusal to confront ‘a form of the Marvellous that does not fear knowledge but, on
the contrary, thrives on it’.16 Caillois has much in common with Nuridsany and
Pérennou, sharing a wish to articulate the coincidence of science and enchantment,
and all three at times articulate this encounter in terms of myth. In Caillois’s writing
of the 1930s, he postulates that the repeating forms of myth across cultures indicate
its biological origin.17 References to myth pepper interviews with Nuridsany and
Pérennou, for whom the idea seems to represent a determination that observable
truths of insect life need not be held apart from the pleasures of imagination. Indeed,
Nuridsany and Pérennou are nervous of the term ‘documentary’ precisely because of
its disenchanted connotations, preferring the tag ‘poetic drama’.18
Microcosmos depicts the teeming life of insects, caterpillars and molluscs which
proliferates within a meadow in Aveyron in the south of France. The directors are
biologists-turned-photographers-turned-film-makers, who describe their own
metamorphosis as that from caterpillars to butterflies.19 The extraordinary
macrophotography in the film is the result of years of technical development, a
direct development from their first book, Photographier la Nature, which itself sits
in a long tradition encompassing Eadweard Muybridge, Etienne-Jules Marey and,
further back, Robert Hooke’s 1665 work of microscopically informed illustration,
Micrographia.20 Like these predecessors, Nuridsany and Pérennou celebrate in
their book not only their animal subjects, but the revelatory optical technology that
facilitates the study. However, Microcosmos is not conceived of by its makers in
quite the same scientific terms as is their book. Whereas the book is devoted to
parallel explanation of macrophotographic technique and the behaviour of the
creatures at which the lens is directed, the film strives ‘to project the spectator onto
an unknown planet, Planet Earth’, in a way which feels more transparent.21 The
makers’ technical development work was thus directed towards enabling the use
of a familiar cinematographic language, through ‘the same tools that are used to
film actors and actresses in fiction films: traveling shots, cranes, et cetera, so as to
give the insects that stature of real characters’, all of which had hitherto been
impossible on such a small scale.22 This was followed by the building of special
sets, devised to screen the creatures from the intense lights between takes. In inter-
views, the two directors further develop this sense that the insects are entities
rather than objects, continually referring to the animals in the film as ‘acteurs’, and
giving each an individual listing in the final credits.
Rather than seeing all this as a slide into an even deeper anthropomorphism
than that already prevailing in the nature film, Nuridsany and Pérennou consider
their whole approach to Microcosmos to be an explicit refutation of the worn-out
tropes of wildlife documentary:


There was always the voice-over commentary, almost interchangeable from film to
film, that dictated to the spectators what they should understand from the images
that were presented to them. The music was often overbearing, and the editing was
there to invent an artificial story line, to create events that never actually happened
in real life.23

Nuridsany and Pérennou also assert their rejection of the ultraviolence and
improbable levels of action criticised by Bousé, preferring to document the ‘quo-
tidian’ life of their insect subjects. Although the film does resist turbulent dramatic
arcs, the structure it uses to reveal the everyday has been compared by MacDonald
to the city symphonies of the 1920s, which aimed to present a social portrait of the
typical life of a human conurbation.24 Early in Microcosmos we see a montage of
various creatures washing themselves, implying that this is the morning ritual pre-
ceding the day’s work, akin to what we see early on in Dziga Vertov’s Man with a
Movie Camera (1929). MacDonald’s reading certainly fits with the film’s original
French subtitle, Le Peuple de l’herbe (People of the Grass). The quest to present a
truth about insect life does not necessarily imply a rejection of its resemblance to
the human.
In interviews on the film, its makers speak with high emotion, declaring that
their primary aim was to communicate the enchantment with animals which they
felt as children, and which would later lead them into science. The wonder they
feel in the face of nature is one they conceive of as part of the natural response of
a child confronted by insect life, imagining what it would be like to actually be an
insect.25 In the film, this sympathetic relation with the animal subjects is demanded
of the spectator, to use one example among many, in a sequence depicting a bee,
described in the credits as being ‘amoureuse’ of a bee orchid. This description
refers to a sequence in which the film presents the bee’s fascination with the flower.
The film cuts from a close-up shot of a bee viewed from the side to a shot in which
the camera moves slowly up the stem of the orchid, finally pausing when one of
the flowers is squarely presented to the camera. This prompts a rapid shot/reverse-
shot sequence, showing first the bee head on, its eyes newly conspicuous, then the
flower in a much closer shot than the previous one, and then the bee taking off to
investigate more closely. The sound of the bee’s buzzing flows continuously over
shots of the flower, not only stressing its proximity, but enhancing the spectator’s
sense of the flower’s masquerade. This suturing of bee’s vision to human specta-
tor’s vision gives way to a fairly conventional suggestion of pathos, as the camera
now watches the bee stroke the deceitful flower with one tiny limb, in an apparent
attempt to fathom what is going wrong. While thus far the soundtrack has offered
only silence and buzzing, it now swells with wistful strings in wordless human com-
mentary on this tragedy of misrecognition. A series of shots dwell on the bee’s fran-
tic exploration of the orchid’s mysterious body, with close-ups indicating that the
bee becomes laden with pollen before finally moving on. Even though there are so
many mute appeals to our sympathy, the lack of an explicatory commentary, here

A Cut or a Dissolve?

Microcosmos: Le Peuple de l’herbe (1996)

and throughout the film, is a bold and unusual move in nature documentary.
Nuridsany and Pérennou initially recorded one, but chose to discard it. In doing
so, they were aware that they risked losing the insights that such sequences are gen-
erally intended to illustrate, but speak of the decision in terms of more important
ambitions: they found that the commentary disabled the direct address to the imag-
ination that they wanted to prioritise, remarking that

the presence of commentary tends to overwhelm films about the natural world; to
us it’s as unbearable as commentaries by tour guides during organized guided
tours of exhibitions: they limit your imagination and your sensibility, alienate your
liberty and, as far as we’re concerned, spoil your pleasure.26

The orchid does achieve its presumed biological function, in leaving a parcel of
pollen on the bee, but Nuridsany and Pérennou’s willingness to risk this going
unnoticed softens the driving narrative of purpose generally associated with such
More interesting than the appeal to emotion perhaps is the anthropomorphism
of the gaze suggested by this sequence, which moves the practice of filming insects
as if they were people a stage further. The implied shared point of view of humans
and animals is a concern for MacDonald in the context of Walt Disney’s True-Life
Adventures (c. 1948–60), which not only ‘lure children, mothers and fathers into
emotional identification’ with ‘animal characters’, but use classic point-of view
shot sequences ‘fabricated to suggest that the animals, like the spectators in the the-
ater, are interested observers of what is occurring on-screen’, thus suturing the
viewer into a false parallel.27 This mistrust of anthropocentric visual models echoes


Caillois’ writing on insects in his 1935 essay, ‘Mimétisme et psychasthénie

légendaire’ (Mimicry and Legendary Psychasthenia), in which he discounts claims
of meaningful resemblance between some creatures, deemed to play some essential
part in nature’s systems, as only the product of a human gaze. Caillois contem-
plates, among other examples, the Smerinthus occellata moth and the Caligo butter-
fly, both of which were described in turn-of-the-century scientific texts as
resembling the heads of birds of prey when adopting certain attitudes. Caillois con-
cludes that ‘it is all too clear that anthropomorphism plays a decisive role ... the
resemblance exists solely in the eye of the beholder’.28 Even if it were possible to
escape the inescapably human parameters of any such assertion of visual resem-
blance, it is not straightforwardly defensible to presume the primacy of any form
of vision in an animal subject. As Caillois goes on to indicate, much animal hunt-
ing is conducted via the sense of smell, and Nuridsany and Pérennou acknowledge
in discussion of their film that smell is part of the bee orchid’s masquerade.29
While it is certainly the case that vision appears to play a role in this encounter, the
nature of that vision is opaque to us, though film can offer us little choice but to
elide it into our own model.
The notion that the camera eye should be equated to a human eye (even when
used to produce a macrophotographic image) is explicitly suggested in Nuridsany
and Pérennou’s earlier book on close-up photography, in which the lenses used are
described as ‘perfecting the human eye’.30 This presumed correlation between the
eye of the camera and a rigidly conceived model of human vision is one which is
probed by Brakhage in his book Metaphors on Vision (1963).31 Brakhage laments
the ways in which the film image in its supposed veracity is determined by human
models of the eye, concretised through the grinding of lenses to reproduce a nar-
rowly conceived visual realism. Brakhage invites us to imagine alternative concep-
tions of the eye, models which surely must be equally available to a film technology
which has only been driven to emulate the human through force of narcissistic and
conservative habit. Brakhage considers instead the possibility of ‘an eye unruled
by manmade laws of perspective, an eye which does not respond to the name of
everything but which must know each object encountered in life through an adven-
ture of perception’.32 In the bee orchid sequence from Microcosmos, the human
viewer’s sympathies are aroused not least by the fact that the orchid is clearly not
another bee, but merely a flower which resembles a bee, an awareness through
which we might feel comforted that our powers of perception surpass those of the
insect. Brakhage asks us to desist from thinking of animal eyes as impoverished, in
terms only of what they cannot see, and exhorts film-makers to attempt to incor-
porate into their work those aspects of animal vision which exceed the limits of the

Don’t think of creatures of uncolored vision as restricted, but wonder, rather, and
marvel at the known internal mirrors of the cat which catch each spark of light in
the darkness and reflect it to an intensification. Speculate as to insect vision, such

A Cut or a Dissolve?

as the bee’s sense of scent thru ultraviolet perceptibility. To search for human
visual realities, man must, as in all other homo motivation, transcend the original
physical restrictions and inherit worlds of eyes.33

Brakhage imagines a future for film-making in which, among other things, film
technology can help to lend us forms of vision imaginable to human beings, but
not generally realisable by the human eye. In cinema he sees ‘virtually untapped
talents, viewpoints ... more readily recognizable as visually non-human yet within
the realm of the humanly imaginable’, and specifically he expresses the hope that
computer technology and technical advances will be engaged to render in motion
such things as infrared and the ‘transformation of ultra-violets to human cog-
nizance’.34 Here he echoes some of early twentieth-century science film-maker Jean
Painlevé’s enthusiasm for the cinematic possibilities of technologies such as
endoscopy and radiography, and Painlevé’s belief in science film as research rather
than simply a means through which research might be communicated.35
In Nuridsany and Pérennou’s work, there is indubitably much which implies
their investment in the human visual models Brakhage so mistrusts. However, in
one short sequence, they pay homage to the alternatives, and through digital
images they realise some of Brakhage’s ambitions. We see what is straightfor-
wardly set up as a point-of-view shot, situated as the perspective of a bee flying
over a lush green field carpeted with brilliant red poppies. However, the film dis-
solves into an alternative rendering of the scene, which offers us only a pattern of
coloured hexagons, apparently continuing the movement already described over
the field of flowers, but presenting them to the spectator in a radically unfamiliar

Microcosmos: Le Peuple de l’herbe (1996)


visual form which we can only assume mimics the compound eye, made up of
thousands of separate units or ommatidia, each detecting different colours. This
sequence was described as ‘incongruous’ by a reviewer in Nature,36 and certainly
it sits strangely with Nuridsany and Pérennou’s professions of transparency, which
include a claim to have used no special effects in Microcosmos.37 However, if it is
seen as ‘incongruous’, this can only be because it disrupts the illusion through
which we conceive of the camera eye to be naturalistic, endow insects with human
vision and suppose that merely by borrowing their small scale we become like
In this digital sequence, the absence of commentary again feels highly signif-
icant. Microcosmos presents the transformation between these two shots with-
out comment, and refrains from delivering a conventional lecture on the marvels
of the compound eye. Thus there is no distinction asserted between the deliber-
ately familiar film language so meticulously employed in the rest of the film and
this utterly unfamiliar image, which only achieves any legibility through its con-
text. The film spectator’s gaze is zoomorphised as far as possible (for we can
never see the ultraviolet which other sources tell us must be informing the bee).38
The next manoeuvre in the presumed narrative of mating, feeding and pollina-
tion is far harder for us to second guess here than it is in the bee orchid sequence.
These few seconds of hexagonal imagery are crucial to the film’s success in evad-
ing some of the most common pitfalls supposed to beset the nature documentary.
It comes early in the film, preceding the incident depicting the bee orchid, and
arguably it awakens in the viewer a self-consciousness about the human per-
spective through which everything else will be seen. It tells us that whatever we
see hereafter is effectively a translation, and any sense of identification must
always be qualified. Nevertheless, it is telling that the boundary between human
and insect vision is marked not by a cut but by a dissolve; the continuity in the
motion does allow us to suppose some continuity between these two perceptual
worlds. The compound eye sequence offers the viewer a mimicry of the insect
which, if only for a moment, collapses the distance between them at the same
time as it stresses it.
The question of resemblance, and through what kind of eye resemblance is
judged to exist, is central to Nuridsany and Pérennou’s work. They ascribe a
mythological resonance to their subject, observing that the scenes depicted in
Microcosmos are such that they are immediately transfigured by the human viewer
into a ‘wild mythology’.39 As Nuridsany indicates, many of the film’s images are
deliberately allusive, provoking in the spectator a sense that they have been seen
before, such as the example of ants circled around a tiny pool of water, which
recalls the African waterhole scenes with which wildlife film has familiarised us.40
The spectacle of a mosquito rising from the water takes on a heroic aspect in the
film-makers’ vision, as a ‘golden deity’,41 a figure bearing meaning in a world in
which ‘the sciences fulfil the role of mythology’.42 Nuridsany stresses that almost
every image in the film can be viewed in this light, with the spectator not being told

A Cut or a Dissolve?

Microcosmos: Le Peuple de l’herbe (1996)

what the image actually is, but rather being left the space to ask ‘What does that
look like?’.43
Nuridsany and Pérennou’s sense that nature’s internal echoes are closely
entwined with the patterns and uses of myth chimes with Caillois, for whom the
human fascination with insects, and the repetitious aspects of the expression of this
fascination, are testament to the biological origins of myth, as he argues through
an account of the diverse traditions surrounding the praying mantis.44 The
sequence of the bee and the bee orchid clearly reflects this concern with resem-
blance, imitation and mimicry, which we can trace through Nuridsany and
Pérennou’s earlier work, including one book explicitly on this theme entitled
Masques et Simulacres: Le Mimétisme dans la nature (Masks and Simulcra:
Mimicry in Nature, 1990),45 and in their 2004 film Genesis. Genesis makes copi-
ous use of graphic matches in its editing to insist upon organic similarities as part
of its spinning of a science-based creation myth: a mushroom cloud of white smoke
folding back on itself echoes the ethereal form of a jellyfish in dark water, and a
cut flips a stream of bubbles into a mass of microscopic round organisms. The
story of the earth’s evolution is minimally narrated in voiceover by an African
griot, but insisted upon far more schematically through the moves the film makes
from one image to the next.
The example of the orchid that looks like a bee in Microcosmos is something
of an exception among a greater number of animals that mimic plants. A series of
shots of waving grasses, with whiskery heads, bookend one of a stick insect
perched atop a dry flower head, fauna distinguishable from flora only because it
is choosing to move in a fashion that is too deliberate. A shot of a branch bearing
leaves offers a similar revelation, as one leaf strolls along the stem, not a leaf but


Microcosmos: Le Peuple de l’herbe (1996)

a caterpillar. In its characteristic wordlessness, the film gives no specific indication

of the usefulness of this camouflage, and instead allows it to simply provoke
wonder at the moment the vegetable unveils itself as animal. Here again,
Nuridsany and Pérennou resonate with Caillois. Caillois proposes that the
common arguments about mimicry in animals, which suggest that it must have
either a defensive or offensive purpose, are not sustainable in the face of numerous
examples where this result is not achieved, the most notable example being that of
the ‘wretched’ Phyllidae insects, which so closely resemble the foliage that is both
their habitat and foodstuff that they ‘graze on each other, literally mistaking other
Phyllidae for real leaves’. 46 Thus, says Caillois, we are compelled to look to an
anti-Darwinian interpretation and conclude that, far from being useful, mimetic
behaviour is a form of ‘luxury’ that is symptomatic of less utilitarian motivations
at the heart of both human and animal nature. For Caillois, non-useful mimicry
indicates a drive to become assimilated into the environment, to dissolve the figure
of the self into the ground of one’s surroundings and to let go of the singular loca-
tion at which one’s consciousness coincides with an identifiable location in space.
In humans, the expression of this as ‘psychasthenia’ is considered to be disordered,
but a similar experience of dislocation is generated in confrontation with twenti-
eth-century physics, which presents us with spatial models which leave no clear
place in which to situate the human self and instantly undermine the security of
the individual subject.47 Microcosmos’s efforts to indicate and generate uninter-
rogated resemblance, and to disrupt the laws of scale that usually govern a human
viewer’s encounter with the screen, perform something similar. Its (admittedly very
gentle) assault on the self-assurance of cinema spectators is compounded by its
fleeting incorporation of an entirely unfamiliar correlation between the visual and

A Cut or a Dissolve?

the spatial, in the compound eye sequence. In Brakhage’s terms, it examines human
visual realities by indicating others.
Certainly I would hesitate to suggest that Nuridsany and Pérennou’s resem-
blances propose that, even as cinema viewers sitting in the dark, we become sub-
sumed in a world on screen. But there is something in their refusal of the utilitarian
account of animal life, and in the commonality implied by their reverberating
visual echoes, which releases us from binaries of anthropomorphism and zoomor-
phism. The line between animal subject and human spectator can be marked by a

1. Laura Mulvey, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ (1975), in Visual and Other
Pleasures (Basingstoke and London: Macmillan, 1989), p. 18.
2. Ibid., p. 17.
3. Bill Nichols, Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary
(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), p. 156.
4. Scott MacDonald, ‘Up Close and Political: Three Short Ruminations on Nature Film’,
in Adventures of Perception: Cinema as Exploration, Essays/Interviews (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 2009), p. 158.
5. ‘Le Monde de Microcosmos: Entretien avec les réalisateurs’, in Microcosmos:
Le Peuple de l’herbe, DVD (Arcades Video, 2003).
6. Ibid.
7. Gregg Mitman, Reel Nature: America’s Romance with Wildlife on Film (Cambridge,
MA: Harvard University Press, 1999); Derek Bousé, Wildlife Films (Philadelphia:
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000); Cynthia Chris, Watching Wildlife
(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006).
8. Chris, Watching Wildlife, p. x.
9. Mitman, Reel Nature, p. 5.
10. Euan Stretch, ‘Frozen Planet Fakery Row: Polar Bear Filmed in Zoo’, Daily Mirror,
12 December 2011, available at http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/top-stories/2011/12/12
11. ‘Frozen Planet Scandal: Sir David Attenborough Defends Fake Polar Bear Footage’,
Daily Mirror, 13 December 2011, available at http://www.mirror.co.uk/tv/tv-
12. Bousé, Wildlife Films, p. 6.
13. John Berger, ‘Why Look at Animals?’, in About Looking (New York: Pantheon,
1980), p. 21.
14. ‘Le Monde de Microcosmos’.
15. Chris, Watching Wildlife, p. 123.
16. Roger Caillois, ‘Letter to André Breton’, in Claudine Frank (ed.), The Edge of
Surrealism: A Roger Caillois Reader, trans. Claudine Frank and Camille Naish
(Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 2003), p. 85.


17. This essay focuses upon Caillois’s writing of the 1930s. He would amend and expand
upon his thinking about mimicry later in his career, in Méduse et cie (Paris: Gallimard,
1960), but would maintain the central belief with which I am concerned here, namely that
the insistence on interpreting all animal behaviour in terms of utility is a form of
18. Press release for Cannes Film Festival 1996, available at http://www.filmfestivals.com/
19. ‘Le Monde de Microcosmos’.
20. Claude Nuridsany and Marie Pérennou, Photographier la Nature: De la Loupe au
microscope (Paris: Hachette, 1979).
21. Scott MacDonald, ‘Interview with Claude Nuridsany and Marie Pérennou’, in Adventures
of Perception, p. 190.
22. Ibid.
23. Ibid., p. 189.
24. Ibid., p. 192.
25. ‘Le Monde de Microcosmos’.
26. MacDonald, ‘Interview with Claude Nuridsany and Marie Pérennou’, p. 190.
27. MacDonald, ‘Up Close and Political’, p. 163.
28. Roger Caillois, ‘Mimicry and Legendary Psychasthenia’, in Frank, The Edge of
Surrealism, p. 93.
29. ‘Le Monde de Microcosmos.’
30. Nuridsany and Pérennou, Photographier la Nature.
31. Stan Brakhage, Metaphors on Vision (New York: Film Culture Inc., 1963).
32. Brakhage, ‘Metaphors on Vision’, in Bruce R. McPherson (ed.), Essential Brakhage:
Selected Writings on Filmmaking (New York: Documentext, 2001), p. 12.
33. Stan Brakhage, ‘The Camera Eye’, in McPherson, Essential Brakhage, p. 19.
34. Ibid., p. 23.
35. Jean Painlevé, ‘Le Cinéma scientifique’, La Technique cinématographique (1955).
36. Helen Phillips, ‘Sex, Flies and Videotape’, Nature, vol. 387 (1997), p. 363.
37. Press release for Cannes Film Festival 1996.
38. See, for example, Adrian G. Dyer, Angelique C. Paulk and David H. Reser, ‘Colour
Processing in Complex Environments: Insights from the Visual System of Bees’,
Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 278 (2011), pp. 952–9.
39. ‘Le Monde de Microcosmos’.
40. Ibid.
41. Ibid.
42. MacDonald, ‘Interview with Claude Nuridsany and Marie Pérennou’, p. 193.
43. ‘Le Monde de Microcosmos’.
44. Roger Caillois, ‘The Praying Mantis: From Biology to Psychoanalysis’, in Frank,
The Edge of Surrealism, pp. 69–81.
45. Claude Nuridsany and Maria Pérennou, Masques et simulacres: Le Mimétisme dans la
nature (Paris: Du May, 1990).
46. Caillois, ‘Mimicry and Legendary Psychasthenia’, p. 97.
47. Ibid., p. 100.

Cynthia Chris

7 Subjunctive Desires
Becoming Animal in Green Porno and Seduce Me

How much my life has changed, and yet how unchanged it has remained at
Franz Kafka, ‘Investigations of a Dog’

Male whitetail deer compete for opportunities to mate with multiple females, and
males losing these battles mount each other.1 (They get to have same-sex sex.) A
limpet, an aquatic snail, ‘born sexless’, attaches to a rock, and becomes female.
Other limpets cluster around her, each becoming male and mating with her. When
she dies, the closest limpet to her becomes female: the species is sequentially her-
maphroditic. A male bedbug stabs a female, ejaculating in her abdomen, in an act
known as traumatic insemination. A snake, a seahorse and a squid, in turn, engage
in sexual behaviour, coupling or cloning, singly or with another or with many
others. In the series of short films known as Green Porno and Seduce Me, these
creatures – the deer as well as the duck, the dolphin and more – are not themselves.
Each of these animals is familiar to humans from urban parks and zoos, picture
books, biology classes and wildlife films. But in these films, the animal is both pres-
ent and absent.
The creator of these films, Isabella Rossellini, occupies the very space in which
we find the cuttlefish, the barnacle or the whale. (She has always been an adven-
turer.2) Not only writer, producer and director or co-director, Rossellini also stars
in each film. She undertakes these acts – performances, transformations or becom-
ings, we are yet to be sure – in a series of eighteen very short films shot on high-
definition video. Most follow a standard format: three minutes or less, simple
props on nearly bare sets, focused on the sexual behaviours of nonhuman animals.
According to Sarah E. S. Sinwell, the project began as Sundance Channel’s experi-
mental debut on so-called third and fourth screens (computers and mobile devices,
respectively).3 The films have been screened at ‘first-screen’ film festivals and as
part of the New York-based IFC Center’s Short Attention Span Cinema pro-
gramme – essentially, as shorts before a feature; on television (the ‘second screen’)
via Sundance Channel and the Independent Film Channel; and on YouTube and
on Sundance’s own website.4

Green Porno’s first season (2008) featured mostly insects. The second season
concentrated on marine life.5 The third includes three films with a ‘Bon Appetit’
theme, taking on the impact of commercial fishing on oceanic populations, as do
photo essays on shrimp, anchovies and squid in a book version of Green Porno.6
A sequel, Seduce Me, comprises two sets of five films, with somewhat more eclec-
tic animal subjects, and more elaborate sets and costumes than Green Porno.
Occasionally, other actors appear, but none as recognisably, or as centrally, as
Rossellini herself. For example, a man’s bulging bicep represents masculine allure
in ‘Cuttlefish’. In ‘Deer’, Rossellini is one of four females hoping to be selected for
mating by the herd’s dominant male, who she refers to as ‘champ’. All the does
wear Rossellini masks, which, rather than low-tech props, are video images com-
posited using chroma key techniques.
Rossellini becomes the firefly and the salmon, among other animal others, in a
world of construction paper and puppet strings, wearing fabric wings and wiry
antennae, swollen with thorax or bursting with fins. What would it be like to live
underground or underwater, to spin a web or to light one’s own way, biolumines-
cently? Can our human selves ever really know? Sinwell situates Rossellini’s pres-
ence in these films, using the work of Judith Butler and Michael Warner as
frameworks, as performative, parodistic and political.7 However, there may be
other layers of meaning to be discerned within these films through other lenses. I
might argue that, to answer these questions, Rossellini becomes animal. Fleetingly,
knowingly, but animal nonetheless. Or – considering the terms set by Deleuze and
Guattari’s delirious sections on ‘becoming-animal’ in A Thousand Plateaus (1989)
– does she? Amid passages on ‘the fine film Willard’, vampires, the Wolf-Man and
Melville’s Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (1951), Deleuze and Guattari offer:

A becoming is not a correspondence between relations. But neither is it a

resemblance, or imitation, or, at the limit, an identification … To become is not to
progress or regress along a series. Above all, becoming does not occur in the
imagination, even when the imagination reaches the highest cosmic or dynamic level
… . Becomings-animal are neither dreams nor phantasies. They are perfectly real.
But which reality is at issue here? For if becoming animal does not consist in playing
animal or imitating an animal … [b]ecoming produces nothing other than itself.8

Within this setting, Rossellini’s Green Porno and Seduce Me performances might
be dismissed as resemblance, imitation, identification that fail to qualify as becom-
ing. Or, taking another tack through the notion of becoming, we might find that
Rossellini indeed becomes, animal or otherwise. To do so, I would argue, involves
less transmogrification than transitivity: a matter of establishing a relationship
between the transitive verb to become and its object (proverbially, here, animal).
Becoming, then, may be fundamentally grammatical: the syntactical arrangement
of components of a system (animals and humans being inextricably part of the
same system, after all). This chapter explores Rossellini’s short films, in which she

Subjunctive Desires

performs the roles of various animals, against and through the lens of Deleuze and
Guattari’s concept of becoming-animal. In Green Porno, becoming begins with a
wish, expressed in a tense as object-hungry as the transitive verb form, the future
subjunctive: ‘If I were …’. But not all becomings are knowingly desired, even if
desire proves key to all becoming.

Becoming insect
To see what becoming may be, it might pay to consider a becoming-animal under-
gone elsewhere. In Franz Kafka’s wonderful tragedy The Metamorphosis (1915),
the travelling salesmen Gregor Samsa wakes up to find that he is not quite himself.
The young man, accustomed to throwing two legs over the side of his bed, taking
his case of fabric samples in hand and rushing to the early morning train, finds that
his body has become crusty with shell and gawky with unexpected, sticky
appendages. He misses his breakfast but has a newfound taste for rot. He croaks
(‘chirping’, Kafka writes) in a voice that is, to his own ears, ‘unmistakably his own
voice’, and, to others, ‘the voice of an animal’.9 Gregor Samsa goes to bed man,
and wakes up animal – insect, that is; cockroach or beetle, Kafka does not say, and
Gregor does not seem to know himself – gnawing on the doorknob and clinging
to walls.
Kafka spares us the actual metamorphosis, so it is hard to say exactly what
happened in the night. The story begins in the morning, when Gregor finds him-
self irrevocably late for work and already changed. But we do know that as a man,
Gregor is only an object of others – his voraciously dependent family; his demand-
ing, deafened boss; his far-flung clients, to whom he migrates, shuttling about in
trains and scratching out nights in hotels. Gregor scuttles from sale to sales
prospect, returning occasionally to a home that he experiences only as the site of
debts to be paid and mouths to be fed. One might say that his species-being is
unfulfilled, in the terms Karl Marx used to describe the alienated worker in his
Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844: ‘in his human functions he no
longer feels himself to be anything but an animal’.10 That is, Gregor becomes
insect because that is the abject hull that remains when his circumstances – as
exploited labourer and as his family’s meal ticket – dessicate his humanity.
But Kafka provides ‘something more than an entomological fantasy’, as
Vladimir Nabokov argued in a lecture at Cornell University in the late 1940s.11
(Nabokov was not only a novelist and poet but also something of an insect expert
– specifically, a lepidopterist.12) While he spends some of the lecture trying to iden-
tify Gregor’s species from Kafka’s clues, Nabokov largely refuses the symbolic and
summarises the story’s other themes in formal terms, beginning with the three-
somes that echo throughout the tripartite story: ‘There are three doors to Gregor’s
room. His family consists of three people. Three servants appear in the course of
the story. Three lodgers have three beards. Three Samsas write three letters.’ If one
is tempted to find Holy Trinity in this theme, Nabokov finds only ‘aesthetic and


logical’ structure.13 Second, he identifies the theme of opening and closing doors,
an action which allows information (as well as persons and objects) to flow within
the story, literalising the notion of narrative space. Third and finally, he finds Kafka
preoccupied in The Metamorphosis with the economic ‘ups and downs’ of
Gregor’s family, its cyclical ‘flourishing’ and despair.14 It may be this tendency
toward cyclicity that prompts Nabokov to declare, ‘I am interested here in bugs,
not in humbugs’, in a section of the lecture that acrimoniously rejects a Freudian
analysis of the story as Oedipal allegory.15 Nabokov insists, and rightly so, that
there is more to The Metamorphosis than the obvious fact that the son is, literally,
squashed by the father.
Still, it is hard to keep the paternal figure that looms over Gregor entirely out
of the picture, given that the family’s periods of economic hardship and relative
comfort – which Nabokov identified as a worthy theme – alternate as the role of
breadwinner shifts from father to son and back again. (And given Kafka’s own
well-known conflicted filiality.16) In a 1934 essay, Walter Benjamin notes the
story’s fundamental reversal: it is the father who is parasitic, even if it is the son
who turns animal.17 It may just be that, from Nabokov’s perspective, too much
attention to the father–son dyad distracts from the elegantly triangulated structure
he identifies throughout the story. Yet another dyad central to the story is at least
as unavoidable: it is a woman who brings desire squarely into view.
And it is desire that holds the key to becoming. If it seems at times that in A
Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari most deftly articulate what becoming-
animal is not, in their earlier volume Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature (1986),
they explicate the concept with uncharacteristic clarity. Thanks may be due to the
rich animal territory provided by their subject. After all, the insect that Gregor
Samsa becomes in The Metamorphosis is only one member of the menagerie that
populates Kafka’s work, making music and making conversation, and often, nar-
rating these very stories. Consider the half-lamb/half-kitten of ‘A Crossbreed’
(1917), Red Peter the ape in ‘A Report to an Academy’ (1917), the unnamed crea-
ture (a mole?) of ‘The Burrow’ (1923), ‘Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk’
(1924) and the canine characters of ‘Temptation in the Village’ (1914), ‘The
Jackals and the Arabs’ (1917) and ‘The Investigations of a Dog’ (1922).18 To
Deleuze and Guattari, becoming-animal is an affronting displacement of power
and a refusal of repression – ‘where one believed there was the law, there is in fact
desire and desire alone’ – that alters the subject himself.19 ‘To the inhumanness of
the “diabolical powers”,’ they write

there is the answer of a becoming-animal: to become a beetle, to become a dog, to

become an ape … rather than lowering one’s head and remaining a bureaucrat,
inspector, judge, or judged … To become animal is to participate in movement, to
stake out the path of escape in all its positivity, to cross a threshold … .20

Becoming animal is ‘the way out’, and it is driven by desire.21

Subjunctive Desires

That is, desire is the route between Gregor’s human and animal selves. While
Marx cordoned off procreating, like eating and drinking, as an ‘animal function’,
Gregor yearns for a connection with another human that transcends reproductive
imperatives.22 Yet love proves as elusive as his labours are estranged. The object
of Gregor’s desire appears in a photograph torn from a magazine, preserved in a
frame carved by his own hand and hung on the wall of his bedroom. The woman
in the photograph is his very own Venus in Furs, unobtainable and already
wrapped in animal.23 From Gregor’s aching perspective, she is so remote, so un-
familiar, that she may as well be another species, ‘untouchable, unkissable, for-
bidden’.24 He is so close to her, yet she is so far from his reach, that he cannot bear
his desire, not for one more night. And so he rises, devoid of the heart and groin
and mouth and hands he once sported, to find himself in a body as foreign to him
as the body of the beloved but unknown woman, and as foreign to him as the body
of vermin that he would have previously dismissed as beneath knowing. He
becomes, but does not recognise, the animal he is and will be. His task after
becoming is not to assign himself to one category or another, to fret over species
as he had fretted over the corners of the picture frame, but only to learn to oper-
ate new apparatus, the sticky feet and flailing legs and steel-trap jaw with which
he finds himself newly equipped. Later, when his family clears the furniture from
his room, Gregor uses his new body to cling to the picture, as if the remnants, the
memory, of his humanity depended on it.25 I am quite sure that it did.

Becoming subjunctive
In The Metamorphosis, Gregor’s becoming-insect is no mere imitation, nor is it
allegory in which the bug is simply a symbolic pointer to the man’s fragmented and
repugnant self.26 What of Rossellini’s animal acts? Is that all it is – just an act – or
does she become animal? It might pay to consider both the boundaries of mimicry
and the beginnings of becomings. According to Deleuze and Guattari, becoming is
a matter of composition. They are instructive:

Do not imitate a dog, but make your organism enter into composition with
something else in such a way that the particle emitted from the aggregate thus
composed will be canine as a function of the relation of movement and rest, or of
molecular proximity, into which they enter … . The actor Robert De Niro walks
‘like’ a crab in a certain film sequence; but, he says, it is not a question of his
imitating a crab; it is a question of making something that has to do with the crab
enter into composition with the image.27

Again, Deleuze and Guattari hint that becoming is a kind of embodied grammar –
perhaps, a taxonomic grammar that disrespects the artificial categories wrought
by humans. Thus when De Niro crabwalks, or Rossellini worm-wriggles, each
actor makes a step toward becoming-animal. That step is largely syntactical, not


mimicry, but a reordering of that which is human and that which is animal. It is
realised when imitation (can I be like the crab?) is jettisoned and anything becomes
possible (if I were …).
Just as it is sex, or want of it and its connective externalities, that turns Gregor
Samsa animal, it is sex, or want of knowledge about it, that turns Isabella
Rossellini toward the animal. When she becomes animal – if indeed that is what
she does – she dresses the part. She mimics and swoons. She feigns ecstasy, fear and
appetite. (Is she feigning?) Her position vis-à-vis the animal is aspirational, slink-
ing and prancing in the manner of this beast or that, yet always quite obviously
herself, peeping out from a mask or sporting antlers. Unlike Gregor Samsa,
Rossellini never has to ask, ‘What’s happened here?’28 Gregor, after his transfor-
mation, cannot imagine himself, ever uncertain about his size, his shape, his
strength and to what use he might put all those legs, but Rossellini is devoted to
categorisation, to cataloguing difference species by species. She explains the animal
and herself, narrating each short scene as if to persuade the viewer that she is,
despite her recognisable face and voice, bird, fish, marine mammal, reptile, insect.
She is Adam, naming the animals; Noah, collecting them; and animal herself.
Sinwell argues that Rossellini’s animal performances are distinctively ‘scan-
dalous and queer’.29 To be sure, Green Porno and Seduce Me defy traditional bina-
ries, singular subjectivities and stable identities. Rossellini’s presence is frequently
multiple; in ‘Bee’, she plays ‘the roles of the queen bee, daughter bees, and
drones’.30 She is, in these films, ‘both male and female, heterosexual and homo-
sexual, asexual and pansexual, animal and human’.31 She challenges conventional
wisdom and giggles when normative boundaries collapse under scrutiny. It may
not make Green Porno and Seduce Me – or, for that matter, Rossellini herself –
precisely queer so much as encyclopedically non-discriminatory. But they do cele-
brate – normalise, even – non-normative sexualities. That the sexual behaviours
explored are primarily practised by nonhuman species is both the point and beside
it. Difference, in sexual and species terms, proves pervasive.
‘Snail’, from Green Porno’s first season, begins, as most of the films do, with
a medium shot of Rossellini, standing against a plain green backdrop and looking
directly into the camera. She begins, ‘If I were a snail …’. (In Seduce Me, the open-
ing narration goes Sherlock Holmes, deducing the identity of the animal subject
from behavioural cues: ‘Are they trying to seduce me? What am I?’) Cutting to a
long shot, her entire body, sheathed in a tan unitard, becomes visible, and she con-
tinues: ‘… I would have one big slimy foot.’ She raises that huge foot, and stream-
ers play the role of the sticky mucus that gastropods secrete as they move. Then
she twists and curls the costume around her, so that ‘my foot would end up at the
bottom, allowing me to crawl. My anus would end up on the top of my head.
Unfortunately.’ As green goop slides onto her cheek, she grimaces. Sound effects –
watery slurps – emerge from a subtly minimalist score by Andy Byers (who is also
the production designer) to mark those moments when the snail exudes slime or
excrement. In the next scene, Rossellini lies on the floor with her lower half

Subjunctive Desires

Seduce Me: Snail (2010)

encased by a shell; tufts of green grass, which appear to be cut from cardboard,
spurt around her. She disappears, explaining matter-of-factly, ‘I can withdraw my
entire body into my shell’, then peeks out again, adding, ‘where I can hide my
vagina and my penis. I have both.’ Her inflection shifts to coy. In the second
minute of the film, she demonstrates how snails strike at one another with calcium
darts before mating, interacting with a faceless snail costume that may be occupied
by an unseen human (elsewhere, puppets are used), diverting from strict attention
to what the snail does, to how the snail might feel (‘I love to be hurt’). Her swoon,
upon impalement, may hold an intertextual wink to fans, recalling her perform-
ance in the role of the abused and masochistic nightclub singer Dorothy Vallens in
David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986). To close ‘Snail’, she intones, ‘Sadomasochism
excites me’, before the picture cuts to black and credits roll.32
Seduce Me season one’s ‘Duck’ begins with a half-dozen male hands patting
and pawing Rossellini’s head and grasping her neck. A smile turns to a distressed
expression, as she cries, ‘Are they seducing me? What am I, a duck?’ Using only
her head and shoulders, caped with a duck costume while the rest of her body is
invisibly ‘underwater’, she interacts with two-dimensional duck puppets, and
explains that a female subject to forced copulation can avoid impregnation by an
unwanted male because of the evolution of ‘vaginal complexity’.33 As a corkscrew-
shaped duck penis enters a red and pink fabric labyrinth, Rossellini giggles and
shrieks with pleasure, ‘My vaginal structure is a twisted tunnel … I can block the
phallus. I can discombobulate the phallus. I can trick the phallus!’ Then, glancing
flirtatiously at a paper male duck, she murmurs, ‘I want you to be my husband’,
and allows him to mount, guiding his penis directly to her eggs.
Starting Green Porno videos in the future subjunctive mood, Rossellini muses,
‘If I were a fly…’, ‘If I were a barnacle …’, ‘If I were a whale …’. Searching for
anatomical corollaries, she imagines her own body in the shape of the animal, and
settles for flirtatious mismatches: ‘If I were a firefly, I would light up my ass at
night’ is Green Porno’s vivid if vague distillation of the luciferin-luciferase reaction
that produces bioluminescence in the lantern section of the firefly’s ventral
abdomen. Occupying a long, segmented pink sheath from which only her face
emerges, she begins, ‘If I were an earthworm …’, going on to explain how her
earthworm body would eat, breathe, excrete, mate (‘in the 69 position’, of course)


Seduce Me: Earthworm (2010)

and reproduce. ‘I would be both male and female’, Rossellini declares, peeping out
from her wormy pink tube (earthworms are simultaneous hermaphrodites). She is
not quite the worm, and not quite not the worm, always contingent, bound to
human subjectivity by that pesky ‘if’ that marks species-difference as too great for
the desire that seeks to become the animal Other.
It is that ‘if’ that, if Deleuze and Guattari get to make the rules, keeps Rossellini
from quite becoming. Their notion of becoming-animal thwarts the purposive per-
formance of animal as impressionistic copying, a kind of species-plagiarism that
can only be acting without knowing. Deleuze and Guattari may argue that becom-
ing is ‘a verb with a consistency all its own; it does not reduce to, or lead back to,
“appearing”, “being”, “equaling”, or “producing”.’ 34 Such a definition risks chas-
ing its own tail, until, paradoxically, it leaves room for little but fictive becomings.
But it is also, by their own admission, wildly rhizomatic. Can the rhizome of
becoming reach Green Porno and Seduce Me’s animal performances? If becoming
doesn’t involve actual metamorphosis, as in the case of Gregor Samsa, then it may
operate in an economy of ‘movement and rest … making something that has to do
with [the animal] enter into composition with the image’.35 Rossellini brings some-
thing of the animal – its shell, its posture, its glow – into the picture. She becomes
animal, and the animal becomes her.

Becoming-subject (or, a conclusion)

In this pas de deux between animal and human, Rossellini’s performances as
anglerfish, elephant seal or praying mantis, begin to look a little more like becom-
ing. So, becoming-animal is not a matter of no longer being human. Becoming
animal is an opportunity arising from recognising the animal – the animal func-
tion, anyway – alongside and within. From this perspective, Rossellini’s animal
performances are, as much as they are acts of becoming, acts of recognition. In
contrast, Kafka’s animals suffer from failures of recognition. Gregor is still Gregor
when he climbs the walls, but he no longer knows himself. Indeed, Benjamin
observed, ‘the most forgotten alien land is one’s own body’.36 Gregor dies
morosely behind a locked door, no longer recognised by others as son or brother
or salesman, and never as lover. Isabella is still Isabella when she lurks in webs and

Subjunctive Desires

glows in the dark, cloaks herself in the animal’s colours, reshapes herself accord-
ing to its parameters, aligns herself in its movements. To what end? (Or, as Deleuze
and Guatarri once asked, ‘Which reality is at stake here?’37) In ‘making of’ videos
on the Green Porno and Seduce Me website, and in numerous interviews,
Rossellini has said that she intends for the series to be both funny and informative
– and that it is really about animals, once telling a Vanity Fair reporter that after
a screening, she was asked, ‘“What do you learn about men?” and I just said,
“How do I learn about men? It was the worm I was talking about.”’38
But it is almost impossible to keep allegory out of the equation, whenever the
animal is in question. The human condition may be narcissism, after all. It may
simply be part of what I referred to earlier as the veritably grammatical entangle-
ment between the human animal and the nonhuman animal, an interdependence
which, recalling Deleuze and Guattari, is multivalently systemic and semiotic.
Accordingly, at times, Rossellini asks a question that fails, with apparent purpose,
to exclude the human, as in ‘Why Vagina’, from season two of Green Porno.
Dressed simply in a black, long-sleeved, turtleneck top and black pants, a black
headband holding shoulder-length hair away from her remarkable face, Rossellini
declaims directly to the camera, gesturing with her hands for emphasis:

Eggs are precious. Sperm are cheap … . If I were a female, any female, I would
want to protect my precious eggs. I would want to hide them in a hole and I would
want for that hole to be in a place hard to reach.

She meanders through a garden of paper shafts, as round as tree trunks and tower-
ing overhead, while she speaks, then pauses, bows her head and puts one hand on
her pubic region. The film cuts to a headshot, and she raises her head, once again
eyeing the viewer, smiling seductively and finishing the sentence – ‘Unless I want
you to reach me’ – in irresistibly breathy, honeyed tones. She identifies the struc-
tures surrounding her as penises. Why are they so different from one another?
Because vaginas also differ.

I would have a tunnel, and it would be a labyrinth, it would be intricate, it would

be unique, it would be species-specific, so that I would not be screwed by a bear …
a cozy fit, like a hand in a glove. That’s why I want my vagina.

The bear is the only animal mentioned, but it is not the subject of this particular
film. It is only a marker of difference and the boundaries of desire. (Who would
want to be screwed by a bear? Another bear, of course.) The human animal is the
subject of this particular film, even if it is not named, and even if it is found only
amid the sex of other species.
But then, to Deleuze and Guattari, becoming-animal has never meant becom-
ing nonhuman. Becoming takes place by means of ‘contagion’, proximity,
exchange.39 Necessarily, then, ‘A becoming-animal always involves a pack, a band,


a population, a peopling, in short, a multiplicity.’40 Recall Rossellini’s appearance

as queen and daughter and drone in ‘Bee’, and her becoming herd in ‘Deer’ as a
quartet of does, all angling for a buck’s attention. Thus, when Rossellini ques-
tions, explicitly, common knowledge about the animal kingdom (such as the pre-
sumption that all species reproduce heterosexually), an echo that returns the
human subject is not far behind. In fact, becoming is nothing if not the articula-
tion of a relationship between the human and the animal, a relationship that we
have only begun to understand; about which we have only begun to ask the right
A glimpse at one final film in the series may be warranted in this regard. In
‘Noah’s Ark’, she asks, ‘How did Noah do it? How did he manage to organize all
animals into couples?’ While she revisits the story of the great flood, a Bible opens,
revealing itself as a pop-up book containing an ark. Animals, each a wonder of
detailed paperwork (perhaps more akin to kirigami than more familiar origami),
are carried on a plank into the ship: elephants, giraffes, lions, monkeys, eagles,
pandas, each paired two by two. When a single earthworm is about to enter, thun-
der and lightning crack and a masculine arm points aggressively while Rossellini,
her voice exaggeratedly deepened, demands of the worm, ‘You! Why are you
alone?’ In the costume that also appears in ‘Earthworm’, Rossellini explains that
she is ‘a hermaphrodite, both male and female. To reproduce, I can mate with
another hermaphrodite, or I can segment my body and clone myself.’ So much for
heterosexual privilege. The couple recedes while Rossellini catalogues others.
Parthenogenic aphids and whiptail lizards, all female, are asked to account for the
absence of a male. Rossellini coos, ‘We simulate sex, among us girls, to start off
our hormones, and then we have daughters. No sons, only daughters.’ Rossellini
concludes by asserting the fact of diversity, despite the biblical insistence on pair-
ing. ‘How did Noah do it?’ she asks. ‘Hermaphrodite, transvestites, transgender,
transsexuals. Polygamy, monogamy. Homosexual, bisexual. How could [they?
we?] all be heterosexual?’ The operative pronoun in the final sentence is appro-
priately unintelligible. I recall Walter Benjamin’s words on Kafka’s ability ‘to pick
up the forgotten from animals’. Rossellini, too, picks up the forgotten from ani-
mals. In doing so, she may become-animal, or come close. Or perhaps she becomes
more human because of animals. ‘They [animals] are not the goal, to be sure, but
one cannot do without them.’ 41

1. A preliminary version of this chapter appeared as ‘Gregor and Isabella’ in Suzie Silver,
Jasdeep Khaira and Christopher Kardambikis (eds), Strange Attractors: Investigations
in Non-humanoid Extraterrestrial Sexuality (Pittsburgh, PA: Encyclopedia Destructica
and the Institute of Extraterrestrial Sexuality, 2012). Thanks to Jeanine Oleson and
especially Arlene Stein, and to Kathy High and Jim Supanick, who invited me to speak
in the Flaherty film series Lives of Animals on Green Porno and other animal films.

Subjunctive Desires

2. Isabella Rossellini is the daughter of Italian neorealist film-maker Roberto Rossellini

and actress Ingrid Bergman. A model and actress, she wrote the script (her first) for
My Dad Is 100 Years Old (2005, directed by Guy Maddin), a playful tribute to her
father. Recent projects include a semi-autobiographical hour-long special called
Animals Distract Me (2011, for Discovery’s Green Planet channel). Rossellini has also
raised and trained service dogs for the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind, Inc.
3. Sinwell also explores the entanglement of the celebrity body with ‘green’ marketing
and ‘greenwashing’. See Sarah E. S. Sinwell, ‘Sex, Bugs, and Isabella Rossellini: The
Making and Marketing of Green Porno’, WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly vol. 38
nos 3 and 4 (Fall/Winter 2010), pp. 118–37.
4. Sundance Channel, Green Porno, www.sundancechannel.com/greenporno. The
Sundance Channel (which was founded by Robert Redford and Showtime Networks),
the Independent Film Channel and the IFC Center are all properties of AMC
Networks (formerly Rainbow Media).
5. Rick Gilbert and Jody Shapiro co-produced Green Porno and Seduce Me; Shapiro co-
directed. Biologist Claudio Campagna of the Wildlife Conservation Society serves as
consultant on conservationist matters. He rarely appears on screen, but in the eight-
minute ‘Harem on the Beach’ (from Green Porno, season three), Campagna and
Rossellini appear in documentary footage shot in Argentine Patagonia, among
elephant seals. As Sinwell suggests, this particular film comes closer than usual to
conventional wildlife film-making (‘Sex, Bugs, and Isabella Rossellini’, p. 27), with its
penchant for presenter-hosts who are on location with animals in their own habitats.
6. Isabella Rossellini, Green Porno: A Book and Short Films (New York: HarperCollins,
7. Sinwell, ‘Sex, Bugs, and Isabella Rossellini’, p. 130.
8. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and
Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,
1987), pp. 237–8.
9. Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis, trans., ed. Stanley Corngold (New York: Bantam
Classic Reissue, 2004), p. 5.
10. Karl Marx, ‘Estranged Labour’, in Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844,
trans. Martin Mulligan (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1959). Reprinted at
11. Vladimir Nabokov, ‘Franz Kafka: “The Metamorphosis”’, in Fredson Bowers (ed.),
Lectures on Literature (San Diego, CA: Harvest/HBJ, 1982), pp. 250–84. Reprinted at
the Kafka Project, http://www.kafka.org/index.php?id=191,209,0,0,1,0. I draw on
Nabokov’s lecture as an influential analysis that comes, not coincidentally, from the
pen of an insect-hunter. Deferring to a few classics, I acknowledge that there are
volumes of criticism on The Metamorphosis that are beyond the scope of this chapter.
See, for example, Marc Lucht and Donna Yarris (eds), Kafka’s Creatures: Animals,
Hybrids, and Other Fantastic Beings (Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2010).
12. See Kurt Johnson and Steven L. Coates, Nabokov’s Blues: The Scientific Odyssey of a
Literary Genius (Cambridge, MA: Zoland Books, 2000); Matthew L. Forister et al.,


‘After 60 Years, An Answer to the Question: What Is the Karner Blue Butterfly’,
Biology Letters (22 December 2010), doi: 10.1098/rsbi.2010.1077; and Roger Vila et
al., ‘Phylogeny and Palaeoecology of Polyommatus Blue Butterflies Show That
Beringia Was a Climate-regulated Gateway to the New World’, Proceedings of the
Royal Society B (26 January 2011), doi: 10.1098/rspb.2010.2213. See also Vladimir
Nabokov, ‘Butterflies’, New Yorker (12 June 1948), pp. 25–8.
13. Nabokov, ‘Franz Kafka’, p. 283.
14. Ibid.
15. Ibid., p. 256.
16. Franz Kafka, Letter to His Father: Bilingual Edition, trans. Ernst Kaiser and Eithne
Wilkins (New York: Schocken, 1966).
17. Walter Benjamin, ‘Franz Kafka’, in Hannah Arendt (ed.), Illuminations, trans. Harry
Zohn (New York: Schocken, 1969), p. 114. See also his ‘Reflections on Kafka’, in the
same volume, pp. 141–6.
18. Red Peter may be Kafka’s second most famous animal, having been featured in the
lecture given by the character Elizabeth Costello in the novella The Lives of Animals
by J. M. Coetzee (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999). All of these stories
are collected in Franz Kafka, The Basic Kafka, introduction by Erich Heller (New
York: Simon & Schuster/Pocket Books, 1979).
19. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, trans. Dana
Polan (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), p. 49 (emphasis original).
Thinking of Gregor and the role of the woman in Deleuze and Guattari’s work, I
choose the gendered pronoun purposefully.
20. Ibid., pp. 12–13.
21. Ibid., p. 35; also, see Red Peter’s discussion of ‘the way out’ in ‘A Report to an
Academy’, in Kafka, The Basic Kafka, p. 253, which affirms that becoming is
movement, ‘right or left, or in any direction … Only not to stay motionless …’.
22. Marx, ‘Estranged Labour’.
23. I allude here to the novella Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (1870),
another tale in which a man desires a seemingly unattainable woman, and, having
gotten his chance to be alone with her, lives to regret it.
24. Deleuze and Guattari, Kafka, p. 4.
25. Kafka, The Metamorphosis, p. 34. Deleuze and Guattari make the case that Gregor’s
devotion to the portrait provokes jealousy in his sister, a turning point at which her
empathy pales, and her abandonment facilitates his messy death; see Deleuze and
Guattari, Kafka, pp. 4, 15, 64.
26. Adaptations of The Metamorphosis tend to avoid committing to Gregor’s becoming-
insect. For example, in Norith Soth’s Metamorphosis: Beyond the Screen Door (1996),
Gregor Samsa becomes Tom Gregor, a man who becomes ill, but not obviously insect.
Like Deleuze and Guattari, I take Gregor’s transformation literally.
27. Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, p. 274.
28. Kafka, The Metamorphosis, p. 3.
29. Sinwell, ‘Sex, Bugs, and Isabella Rossellini’, p. 130.

Subjunctive Desires

30. Ibid., p. 120.

31. Ibid., p. 129.
32. Rossellini is, in this case, more anthropomorphically playful than scientifically current.
It is not precisely the pain inflicted by the dart that produces receptivity to mating.
Rather, a substance in the mucus delivered by the dart may influence the female
reproductive system to respond more favourably to sperm than if the sperm were
received without dart-carried mucus, giving a reproductive advantage to snails that
successfully dart potential mates. See Ronald Chase and Katrina C. Blanchard, ‘The
Snail’s Love-dart Delivers Mucus to Increase Paternity’, Proceedings of the Royal
Society B (22 June 2006), pp. 1471–5; also, published online 14 March 2006, doi:
33. Maybe this is what Republican Congressional Representative Todd Akin of Missouri
was thinking of when, explaining his position that abortion should be criminalised
without exceptions for rape or incest, he told an interviewer that rape rarely if ever
results in pregnancy because ‘the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing
down’. In regard to humans, he was very wrong. See Charles Jaco, The Jaco Report,
Fox News 2/WTVI, St Louis (19 August 2012), http://fox2now.com/2012/08/19/the-
34. Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, p. 239.
35. Ibid., p. 274.
36. Benjamin, ‘Franz Kafka’, p. 132.
37. Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, p. 238.
38. Julian Sancton, ‘Isabella Rossellini: ‘Let’s Talk About (Barnacle) Sex, Baby’, Vanity
Fair Daily (25 March 2009), http://www.vanityfair.com/online/daily/2009/03/isabella-
rossellini-lets-talk-about-barnacle-sex-baby. Also, Ian Sample, ‘Isabella Rossellini’s
Guide to the Sex Life of the Anchovy (and the Duck, the Snail, the Dolphin …)’,
Guardian, 5 February 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2011/feb/06/isabella-
39. Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, p. 247.
40. Ibid., p. 239.
41. Benjamin, ‘Franz Kafka’, p. 132.

Lynn Turner

8 Animal Melancholia
On the Scent of Dean Spanley

What, then, is true mourning? What can we make of it? Can we make it, as we say
in French that we ‘make’ our mourning? I repeat: can we? … are we capable of
doing it, do we have the power to do it? But also, do we have the right?
Jacques Derrida1

This chapter will explore the prescription of what I call an ‘animal cure’ in the
beguiling film adaptation of Lord Dunsany’s 1936 novella, Dean Spanley (2008),
directed by Toa Fraser.2 Dean Spanley does not self-consciously extend itself to
support an ethics that would include animals, indeed it comes close to the prob-
lems we readily associate with fables or allegory (in which animals habitually
figure only as ciphers for human beings). However, as I hope to show, close read-
ing allows for some productive leeway in the relations it proposes and questions
it provokes. The animal cure in this film is not for a sick animal, or animals in gen-
eral if there were such a thing. Rather Dean Spanley enacts a cure for melancho-
lia as manifested in a cantankerous elderly man, Fisk (Peter O’Toole). Fisk’s
extremely formal relationship with his surviving son, Henslowe (Jeremy
Northam), is stymied by the unmourned deaths of his wife and other son,
Harrington (Xavier Horan). Meanwhile Henslowe becomes fascinated with the
oddly convincing stories produced by the local clergyman, the eponymous Dean
(Sam Neill), of his life as a dog when enjoying the scent of the rare Hungarian
liquor, Tokay. Realising that the dog, in whose name the Dean speaks, uncannily
recalls the lost pet of his father’s childhood, Henslowe effects his animal cure
through the means of a dinner party. From the moment that this pet, Wag, is
‘returned’ through the medium of the Dean’s apparent recollections, Fisk can begin
to cry and thus to admit grief. Yet from this moment too, the intoxication with
Dean Spanley fades: the resolution of the last scene proposes a happy Fisk accom-
panied by a new pet dog.
Dean Spanley makes a series of doubles between humans and dogs: son and
dog (Harrington and Wag), dog and Father (in the Dean and also in Fisk), and also
of dog friends and human friends (Wag’s doggy friend and Wrather the ‘con-
veyancer’ [Bryan Brown], Henslowe’s fellow conspirator in the supply of Tokay).3
Animal Melancholia

It is able to do this with the key scenes of the film too – humans assembled around
a dining table/dogs running through fields. In convening the entwined narratives
through a ritual meal, metonymised by Tokay, Dean Spanley invites reflection on
the primal feast and the legend of consanguinity between human clan and totem
animal as invoked in Freud’s Totem and Taboo: Some Points of Agrement between
the Mental Lives of Savages and Neurotics (1913).4 Ostensibly telling a tale of
reincarnation and one that is persuasively evoked through the cinematic conven-
tion of flashback, this film enables discussion regarding mourning among humans
and animals, specifically the dog as man’s best friend. This chapter will explore
these interwoven themes in light of Jacques Derrida’s investigations into the work
of mourning as related to an ethics of what he names ‘eating well’.

Totem and Tokay

The body must bear no trace of its debt to nature: it must be clean and proper in
order to be fully symbolic.
Julia Kristeva5

Most of the proliferating commentaries on The Animal That Therefore I Am

(2008) concentrate on Derrida’s encounter with the animal in or as his decon-
struction of the persistent philosophical support for human exceptionalism.6 Yet
observant readers will have noticed that, in reference to his own ‘zootobiography’
Derrida remarks that his writings have ‘welcomed’ animal differences on the
‘threshold’ of sexual differences.7 The word ‘welcome’ draws attention to an ethics
of hospitality to the other, rather than a manifesto of rights: Derrida’s transfigured
autobiographical texts welcome sexual and animal others.8 While this kind of wel-
come includes the complication of being hostage and not simply host to unknown
others, Derrida nevertheless offers a scene of hospitality that moves away from
canonical autobiographical and philosophical negation or abjection of those others
in the name of the subject that calls itself man.9
The scenes of hospitality that structure Dean Spanley, however, echo these prob-
lematic processes of negation or abjection, not least in regard to the primal feast
that Freud deduces must have occurred at the origin of culture.10 For Freud, this
feast is a ritualised exceptional event that permits the clans of ‘primitive’ cultures to
kill and to eat their totem, a specific animal with whom they assume a consan-
guinous relation (the ‘truth’ of sexual reproduction being unknown). Without this
ritual such a meal would have been strictly taboo, both murderous and cannibalis-
tic. As codified and momentous event, the ritual both breaks the law and founds it.
Interleaving numerous anthropological sources, Freud works in the present of his
clinical observation of animal phobias. His phobics exhibit ambivalence – that is
both love and hate, towards the feared animal, and Freud finds continuity between
primitive and modern cultures in support of the theory of psychoanalysis: ‘It was


the same in every case: where the children examined were boys, their fear related
at bottom to their father, and had merely been displaced on to the animal.’11
Regardless of any doubt raised by the absent question of girls, the primal meal
requires greater finesse and Freud further entrenches the father at the origin of cul-
ture by supplying a revised wish for which the primal feast is already a dilution.
Consanguinity is of no consequence: our animal ancestry is a displacement of
patriarchy (literally the father is the origin). Freely borrowing from Charles
Darwin, Freud imagines the overcoming of this primal father by the ‘company of
brothers’ who murder and eat him.12 Such is the enormity of their guilt that the
father is resurrected in name and in/as law, without even having to die since the
wish to so dispatch him would have been force enough for psychic reality. As fem-
inist scholars such as Kelly Oliver and Elissa Marder have remarked, Totem and
Taboo glosses over both modes of kinship that predate the nuclear family as well
as the scattered incoherent references to feminine fancies and maternal deities in
the rush to render the father original, necessary and human.13
Retaining the notion that affective response to criminal events found culture as
law, Julia Kristeva invokes not only the murder and cannibalism of the father, but
also incest with the mother.14 Most of the literature following Derrida on the ques-
tion of the animal has remained within his philosophical terrain, targeting the
Cartesian legacy of such thinkers as Heidegger, Levinas and Lacan, yet Oliver has
shown that female thinkers such as Kristeva also demand to be rethought in light
of the human exceptionalism that they too legislate. Thus I introduce her with cau-
tion. In Kristeva’s case, alongside the human and masculine route to language –
the abject haunting of any borders recalls not only the body of the mother –
through ‘our personal archaeology’– but also, on a wider scale, animality, expelled
as ‘representative[s] of sex and murder’, or lawlessness.15 Indeed animal and sexual
differences traverse the same horizon.
Kristeva might address Freud’s notorious blind spot regarding femininity, but
she does not offer a feminist counter model (as she herself acknowledges). The
uncertainties of Kristeva’s mother offer no ‘solace’ to the subject. Moreover,
Kristeva endorses the requirement that the social rest upon the exchange of women
between men, indexing the symbolic exchange of signs, for fear of the untutored
lawlessness of the mother.16 While the figure of the mother is not immediately in
evidence in the homosociality of Dean Spanley, the liminal nature of abjection
means that her direct representation is not the issue.17 Given the encoding of the
scene of the meal as both paternal and fraternal in Freud and Dean Spanley,
Kristeva provides a useful supplement through her attention to the abject power
of particular substances. Signally, in Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection
(1980), food as ‘the natural’ opposes the sociality of man; food as ‘oral object’
recalls the archaic relations between human and m/other.18 Food can always
Having set the table with the spectres of cannibalism and incest, I want to turn
to Dean Spanley. Thursdays tablet a dry ritual between Fisk and Young Fisk (as

Animal Melancholia

Henslowe is schematically addressed by his father). ‘Young Fisk’ arrives at his

father’s house and they address matters of fact, untouched by affective involve-
ment. Henslowe himself ironically refers to their scheduled meetings as rituals, and
ones that he wishes ‘dismantled’. An altogether more fascinating ritual transpires
for Henslowe with Dean Spanley. Underlining the displacement of father for
Father, Henslowe arranges his meetings with the Dean on Thursdays. Not unaware
of this substitution, Fisk makes his own: when they do manage to get together for
a (Thurs)day out, Fisk pointedly trips up a young boy (i.e. in lieu of Henslowe).
At first, procuring the Dean’s favourite liquor is simply to facilitate their meet-
ing and to allow for the Dean to expound upon the unlikely topic of reincarnation
(one Fisk characteristically dismisses as ‘poppycock’). Almost immediately the
Dean is implicated in that very topic as his unusual degree of pleasure inhaling
Tokay – the script positions him as ‘entirely focused in his nose’ – leads him to
wish for the ‘olfactory powers of the canine’.20 More disconcertingly, as he con-
tinues with increasingly outré remarks, his first person becomes uncannily canine.
He does not mimetically sound canine, rather his sudden marked interest in cats,
smells and the love of a master evokes the point of view of a pet dog. At this early
stage in Henslowe’s intoxication with the Dean, no images flesh out his narration
as flashback in the manner cinema habitually treats evidentially as memory. We
have to take his word for it: certainly Henslowe is fascinated. The clue to the
change in perspective comes through an unusual comparison. The Dean opines
that ‘to pull a dog away from a lamppost is akin to seizing a scholar in the British
Museum by the scruff of his neck and dragging him away from his studies’.
Making kin of the inhalation of urine and the study of books threatens the
clean and proper body (inhalation of urine is not named as such but the compari-
son follows swiftly on from the Dean’s appreciation of the Tokay consolidating
their metonymic connection). Dog and (human) scholar are made of the same stuff,
and up to the same activity. Traces of urine are read by a dog like writing is read
by a scholar.21 By implication, to urinate is to write (to leave a trace, one vulnera-
ble to erasure), to smell is to read. Metaphor assumes that the meaning of the term
of comparison anchors that to which it is compared. Here, however, the scholar is
already doglike, seized by the ‘scruff of his neck’. Later, in the climactic sequence,
it is Fisk who makes a similar comparison in which his wife calls him away from
reading Balzac, ‘rather like dragging a dog away from a lamppost’. In both cases
there is no mention of the word ‘urination’, which is tidily metonymised by the
lamppost. Even as metonymy – a relation of comparison based on proximity, the
abject contact between urine and study is finessed. In the latter scene the Dean
describes the pleasures of eating a whole rabbit, fur, bones, guts and all, waxing lyri-
cal about the smell of fear. Although by then we are regularly treated to visual flash-
backs of Dean Spanley in the guise of Wag the spaniel learning about the world
from his roguish mongrel friend (clearly meant to be Wrather), this visceral desire
is overheard by Mrs Brimley, the housekeeper (Judy Parfitt). Literally peripheral to
the proceedings, her mortification is presented as comic. She hears something that


she should not and cannot understand, unaware that she is listening to the Dean
as a dog. Dean Spanley is at pains to make sure that our guts are never turned (as
we, audience, metonymically join with the enraptured homosocial circle of
Henslowe, Fisk and Wrather). While Mrs Brimley has prepared the food (and
insisted on preparing something more special than the ‘hotpot’ to which Fisk habit-
ually constrains her), this is not the meal at stake for the assembled men. That they
eschew the tradition of leaving the table in order to enjoy port in separation from
any ladies that might ordinarily be present to remain at the table confirms which
meal is in focus. They partake of the story of downing an entire rabbit mediated
by the aroma of Tokay in order to share in the memories voiced by the Dean.
Unable to be seen, smell is elusive. It lends itself to the uncanny tale of Dean
Spanley, posing the unfathomable question of whether the Father was once a dog,
while the domestication of that dog points back to Fisk (again containing the
impure legend of consanguinity).22 The film supplements smell’s invisibility with
the Dean’s rhetorically exaggerated appreciation of the Tokay. This rhetorical
exaggeration is given clearest visual expression in the climactic dinner sequence.
There, in close-up, the Dean raises his glass to his nose, reminiscing about the deli-
cious smell of fear, the classical soundtrack swells and the film cuts to the comed-
ically rapid appearance of sheep being chased over a hill by dogs delirious with
olfaction. Becoming virtually airborne in their haste, the white clouds of leaping
sheep evoke their own scent. In his discussion of smell and Freud, Akira Lippit
refers to its paucity of visible trace as an immateriality that bars smell from form-
ing a ‘semiotic system’.23 In this view a scent could never form a sentence. In view
of current work on ‘new materialisms’ however, we might not be so quick to
assume that a) smell is immaterial, or that b) materiality guarantees signification.24
Tokay is elusive. Wrather, the ‘conveyancer’, sniffs it out, squirrelled away in
the wine cellars of the wealthy, though he soon dispenses with a finder’s fee for the
sake of a place at the table with the Dean. It is not disgusting. Even if Tokay is
rather syrupy, it is not presented as abject. One does not even have to bother the
mouth by drinking it. Tokay is taken by nose. Intoxication with Tokay is not
coarse inebriation. This rarefied liquor is claimed as ostentatiously cultural. Rather
than confirm human desire over animal need, the Dean imagines that a dog might
appreciate its aroma all the more. Perhaps the ritualised, exceptional consumption,

Dean Spanley (2008)

Animal Melancholia

the elevated palate required to appreciate Tokay protests too much and defends
against the possibility that pollution inheres in food. For Henslowe and Wrather
this liquor is instrumentally the vehicle for the Dean’s transport. Fisk blunts the
allure of the Tokay not by emphasising disgust but dismissing it as nothing more
than ‘fermented grapes’. Outright disgust would too easily register the psychoana-
lytic mode of repression. Freud famously narrates – albeit in a brief footnote itself
banished to the bottom of the page – the vertical elevation of man as coterminous
with the predominance of the sense of sight, with both verticality and visuality set
against the horizontal and olfactory order of the animal.25 Closer to the earth,
closer to the sexual and excretory organs of other four-legged animals, this plane
is one foregrounding the sense of smell. Defending against a disgusting smell then
bespeaks the desire for the sexuality it indexes.26 The Dean’s elevation of Tokay
might be read in this context, especially given the homosociality the dinners also
convene, as eliminating women and cultivating men – and male dogs. Yet for Fisk,
Tokay occupies no extreme, it is neither disgusting nor wondrous. In common with
his reduction of Mrs Brimley’s culinary repertoire to the economically descriptive
‘hot pot’ and his curt reduction of things that have ‘gone to the trouble of hap-
pening’ including the deaths of his wife and son, as ‘inevitable’, Fisk dampens
social engagement until he recognises his dog in the Dean.

Scents and sentences

For everything that happens at the edge of the orifices (of orality, but also of the
ear, the eye and all the ‘senses’ in general) the metonymy of ‘eating well’ [bien
manger] would always be the rule.
Jacques Derrida27

In the material already introduced there is a mounting sense of the sociality at

stake in the consumption of food in excess of a supposedly simple nutritional need.
While Freud has laid out the primal feast as a scene in which animality is
exchanged for (human) paternity, and Kristeva has indicated the feminine as well
as animal territory mapped by the mouth also haunting this feast, it is Derrida that
names an ethical imperative to eat well.28 Eating well does not equate to fine
dining. Rather the ‘good’ (underlined by his translator’s emphasis on the original
‘bien manger’) speaks to an ethics that for Derrida cannot be resolved into a cal-
culable formula. Sara Guyer notes that ‘un homme de bien’ is not merely a ‘good’
man, but a man of property and that ‘bien’ is connected to the Greek ‘oikos’ draw-
ing together ‘the home … the “proper” … the private … the love and affection of
one’s kin’.29 Not only are we always in a relation of ‘eating the other’ and being
eaten by them, but the ingestion the verb indicates is limited neither to food nor to
intake by mouth. In the ‘Eating Well’ interview Derrida himself exclaims, ‘What is
eating?’, having so expanded this ostensibly self-evident category, now re-posed as


the ‘metonymy of introjection’.30 Contiguous with eating, introjection names the

psychic process of identification and itself metonymises the work of the psycho-
analysts Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok on whom Derrida implicitly draws,
albeit in a modified fashion.31 For Freud, Abraham, Torok and Derrida we must
‘eat the other’ if we are to form our own ego, that is to say, our earliest identifica-
tions with others occur as a form of ingestion that we are obliged to swallow. For
Derrida, the ‘must’ here refers to an ethics of infinite hospitality – one takes in the
other but does not decide which other. At the same time there is a ‘cannot’ in that
we cannot measure or decide how much of that other to take in: the critical inter-
face of literal and figural ensure that we cannot totally appropriate the other
through this ingestion. That the ostensibly physical practice of eating and ostensi-
bly psychical process of introjection may be said to share a border not only points
to the difficulty of forming a clear succession or separation between literal and fig-
ural, but also between need and desire and thus, for Derrida, if not for Abraham
and Torok, between humans and other animals.32
Departing from the metaphysical conceptual path that orders and interlinks
these terms leads Derrida to pose the ethics of the ‘One must eat well’ as offering
an ‘infinite hospitality’.33 This infinite hospitality strikes at the ‘carno-phallogo-
centric’ heart of metaphysics in calling into question the structure of sacrifice that
it conserves.34 This mouthful of a term brings Derrida’s existing critique of the
conceit unifying the presence of the word with that of the phallus (phallogo-
centrism) into contact with a carnivorous appetite. Even ethical thinkers with
whom Derrida shares ground such as Emmanuel Levinas fall foul of the configu-
ration of sacrifice. While a ‘Thou shalt not kill’ may be invoked, even as a first
principle, Derrida draws attention to the way in which killing is managed such that
a ‘non-criminal putting to death’ symbolically and legally distinct from murder is
reserved for some beings.35 This Levinasian ethical law implicitly addresses a
human community, for whom the killing of nonhumans does not count. Explicitly
affecting animals, the sacrificial loophole for legal killing can and has been turned
on humans, frequently figured animalistically as ‘vermin’, for example. As Freud
describes, so Derrida critiques this community, which, moreover, privileges
brotherhood: the virility associated with the carno-phallogocentric subject is indeed
that of the ‘adult male, the father, husband, or brother’ demanding a sacrifice.36
Rather than legislate anew, invoking a new law on which we could always rely, the
Derridean ethics of infinite hospitality keeps the question of what it is to eat well
open. Refusing to sequester symbolic anthropophagy as a human practice distinct
from literal cannibalism committed by the untutored, animals, those who lack the
law, Derrida implies that vegetarians also ‘eat meat’ in the place where eating and
introjection touch.37 Harking back to my remarks on early identification as a form
of ‘eating the other’, there is a metaphoric carnivory at stake that is not definitively
refused by the practice of a vegetarian diet. This metaphoric ingestion is not nec-
essarily organised linguistically (i.e. it is not clear that for Derrida metaphoric car-
nivory as part of a practice of identification is not performed by nonhuman

Animal Melancholia

species).38 The contiguity between eating and introjection provokes another con-
ceptually challenging question: ‘In what respect’, Derrida asks, ‘does the formula-
tion of these questions in language give us still more food for thought? In what
respect is the question … still carnivorous?’39 The carnivory of the question is
given with the caveat ‘formulation … in language’. This question recalls the
Freudian understanding of language acquisition as the substitution of breast for
word: in the crossover between the metaphysics of presence and psychoanalysis a
suite of metonymies, milk, breast and mother, each bound to the psychoanalytic
fantasy of satisfaction, gives way to the substitution of language. The question fur-
ther opens toward a limitrophic subject – one whose borders ‘grow’ – for whom
no orifice is immune to the ingestion of the other.40 Where Levinas poses the face
as that which says ‘Thou shalt not kill’, Derrida displaces the humanism that the
face proposes with all the orifices, thus weakening the association with literally
speaking subjects.41
In Abraham and Torok’s work on mourning, framed in binary combat as
‘Mourning or Melancholia: Introjection versus Incorporation’, they distinguish
these processes in ways that lend themselves to thinking about Fisk’s abrupt dis-
missal of pain.42 In Derrida’s ‘Foreword’, called ‘Fors’ for their book The Wolf
Man’s Magic Word (1986), he warns against the ‘limitations’ of a ‘linguisticistic’
reading of their work, one easy to make since it stems from the very ‘base of the[ir]
enterprise’.43 This reading overdetermines the mouth as the privileged oral locus
of ‘verbal language’, one whose presence fills the gap left by the breast.44 Speech
comes first, and speech is presence (the metaphysical problem inherited by psy-
choanalysis). Derrida underlines the inadvertent fracture in this logic: the substi-
tution is ‘partial’, presence is a ‘figure of presence’.45 Psychic life is in mourning
from the start.
Abraham and Torok differentiate mourning and melancholia through two dif-
ferent relations to the literal and the metaphoric. Rather than introject the lost
other as a metaphor, the melancholic incorporates that lost other as an object that
thus refuses metaphoricity.46 Melancholic incorporation involves the fantasy that
one eats this object precisely ‘not to introject it, in order to vomit it, in a way, into
the inside into the pocket of a cyst’.47 This ‘cyst’ is the secret ‘crypt’ in Abraham
and Torok’s terms, into which the one for whom the melancholic fails to mourn is
squirrelled away. Secret, Abraham and Torok oppose the withheld path of incor-
poration to the sociality of introjection. For them ‘Introjecting a desire, a pain, a situ-
ation, means channelling them through language into a communion of empty
mouths’ (empty by virtue of the process of weaning).48 As Derrida writes
‘Introjection speaks … . Incorporation keeps still, speaks only to silence or to ward
off intruders from its secret place.’49 This crypt of language depends, for Derrida,
on the logic of a primary substitution for the maternal breast configured as pres-
ence. Language, cryptic or otherwise, is here caught in the logic of re-presentation.
Of course Derrida gives emphasis to the supplemental nature of the substitution of
breast by word: supplemented, the breast loses the sense of an originary completion


(without thereby falling into a logic of lack). Rather than the full presence of the
breast, metonym of the mother’s body, metonym of nature, Derrida posits an orig-
inal writing: general ‘hieroglyphia’ precedes possibility for thinking the crypt.50
This does not push the supposed ground of ‘nature’ further ‘back’ but rewrites it
as writing already.51 Thus the general writing of nature also disperses the singular
path to language as the human response to lack.
Ingestion that does not necessarily pass by way of the mouth immediately
evokes the nose for Dean Spanley, as well as the ears for his audience, while the
crisis in language summons Fisk.

Pet seminary
Fisk is blunt. He neither ‘wastes’ words by indulging their figural capacities, nor
worries about offending others. The congregated guests around the dinner table in
the climactic sequence are at first beholden to his stories, ones they have not come
to hear. We hear how his late wife dragged him from Balzac to aid their two sons,
out on a rowboat on a stormy Lake Windermere.52 Mocking her fears, the can-
tankerous Fisk addressed the storm intoning ‘Give Up Your Dead!’, as if they were
already deceased. Fisk’s disregard for emotional responses evidently predates the
death of Harrington (fighting in the Boer War, his body was never recovered). At
dinner, once the Dean has again become the focus of attention, we learn the incor-
porative extent to which Wag and Harrington share the same fate, both marked
by a ‘non-criminal putting to death’.
It is the Dean’s desire to remain at the table that again prompts the olfactory
metaphor spurring his uncanny reflections. Leaving the table would be equivalent
to having a bath ‘when one ha[d] just gotten comfortable in one’s smell’.53 Bodily,
animal, smell is thus brought into proximity with the bouquet of Tokay as a form
of clothing, troubling its primary horizontality in Freudian legend. Bathing, clean-
liness, lead to the embarrassment of nudity.54 The séance-like scene in the dark
environment of the book-lined room housing the dinner resumes. Or, in Derrida’s
neologism the ‘animalséance’ resumes: Leonard Lawlor unpacks this term as both
‘animated impropriety’ and as a ‘session of the animal’ (session having both a psy-
choanalytic and an occult implication).55 Fisk is astonished. Before he can issue an
insult, the Dean resumes his otherworldly discourse. Speaking from the twinned
crypt of Harrington and Wag, he makes casual reference to being called Wag by
the Master. Fisk is transfixed. The Dean’s ensuing stories entrance Fisk even more
than Henslowe, and in transferential style he soon responds as the Master in ques-
tion, even recognising himself as one who administered an occasional beating (to
the raised eyebrows of Henslowe).
The tales to which Fisk is party bring the whole group together. Here we gain
a clearer picture of urination as a writing practice, of the enticing smell of fear and
of friendship between dogs (the ‘unmastered’, unnamed stranger, and Wag, domes-
ticated, his species loyalty divided by a love of the Master). This picture is fleshed

Animal Melancholia

Dean Spanley (2008)

out by luscious flashbacks cinematically coded as first-person memory in that they

are attached through successive sequencing to the Dean but shot from a low angle,
from a dog’s eye view. The latter gives credence to the Dean’s story and draws
those who see these sequences – the cinematic audience – into the film through that
canine viewpoint, making dogs of us all; exuberant dogs often taking up the whole
frame, dogs in the prime of life, sometimes with a slightly self-consciously comedic
feel produced through a slow-motion close-up of wind in their coats, all suggest-
ing yes, those times were fantastic.
Fisk is particularly taken with the Dean’s assurance that, to find home, after
running unfettered through farmland with his pal, he had only need turn towards
it.56 This confidence mystifies Fisk since Wag had disappeared, like Harrington,
and no body had been recovered. Yet the dogs do not arrive home, since, as the
film shows while the Dean cannot tell, a farmer shoots them dead. Fisk is rapt. As
he stares at the Dean, the scene cuts back to that same field in the same light, but
this time with his son Harrington riding a horse across it. With the sound of gun-
shot, the scene cuts and we see Harrington lying dead in the field as the Dean nar-
rates Wag’s last thoughts of ‘home in [his] heart and the master waiting. No, no
pain.’ The Dean’s audience are visibly affected (indeed it would be hard to remain
unmoved). Fisk, weeping gently, touches the Dean’s hand affectionately. With new
consideration for the feelings of others, Fisk retires, saying that he is ‘put in
memory of Harrington’, the son whose name he uses for the first time in this film.
Finding him crying in the hallway, the surprised Mrs Brimley asks Fisk if he is all
right. ‘He was shot’, he replies, showing his pain and opening the crypt.
The personal pronoun is ambivalent as to which death it refers, Harrington or
Wag. Both shot: the dog as an animal trespassing on a farmer’s land and as an
animal that can be killed without criminal offence, indeed without truly ‘dying’,
merely perishing according to Heidegger; the son as a soldier, engaged in the lawful
practice of killing those designated ‘enemy’, is himself so killed, a casualty of war.57
The Dean’s apparent recollection gives a representation to the traumatic absence
of any such for Fisk, and one that affirms ‘no pain’. In contrast to the formerly
inexplicable disappearances of Harrington and Wag, Mrs Fisk died of grief for her
son, in emotional pain ‘enough for both of us’, in Fisk’s encrypted opinion. Yet the
film shows no engagement with Fisk’s grief for his wife – who remains nameless,
only his belated double mourning for son and dog.


‘Eating’ Wag as metaphor (by taking in the Dean’s narration) allows the name
of Harrington and sociality to resurface.58 Talking now with uncharacteristic
familiarity, Fisk hugs Henslowe, calls him by name too and volunteers to see him
next on any day of the week. ‘One moment you are running along, the next you
are no more’, a tearful Fisk utters, with the pronoun again lending ambivalence to
its reference. Substitutable, the second person could indicate Henslowe,
Harrington, Wag, Fisk himself or any other.
With the animal cure pronounced and Fisk returned to sociality and/as pater-
nity, fascination with Dean Spanley fades: this Father too has been figuratively con-
sumed. Henslowe next finds his father – not ensconced in the parlour but outside
playing with a spaniel.59 A dog has replaced the Dean. A dog comes home and
‘home’ is returned to itself. Watching Henslowe watching his father, the film
frames Mrs Brimley next to the painted portrait of Mrs Fisk. Mrs Fisk, nominally
the maternal figure in the film, is never mentioned in Fisk’s restored sense of feel-
ing, but is nevertheless symbolically assembled through this representation with
the group approving Fisk’s joy in his new pet.60 In the spirit of doubles dogging
this film, Mrs Brimley metonymises the maternal – but a maternal already in serv-
ice to the father/law. Employed as the housekeeper, she literally maintains clean
borders rather than threaten their collapse in Kristevan abjection.61 Later in the
film, talking to her late husband in the form of the chair in which he used to sit,
Mrs Brimley refutes the idea that she would ever cook anything so disgusting as a
whole rabbit.62
Is the new spaniel a substitute for Wag or Harrington? Maintaining totemic
ambivalence over whether humans and animals are distinct or consanguinous,
Henslowe’s closing voiceover suggests that reincarnation might be something to
greet with anticipation, and that, should he be reborn as a dog, he hopes to belong
to a ‘master as kind as [his] father’. Given that Fisk had affirmed that he beat Wag
(only) when it was necessary, and the Dean had spouted the colonialist view requir-
ing the colonised to love their colonising masters – characteristically confusing ser-
vant with dog – this wish too remains thoroughly ambivalent.
What is clear, however, is that not any animal could induce this cure for Fisk.
I have indicated that the animal in the Dean is domesticated rather than wild,
indexing Fisk rather than unleashed animal others. The film also deliberately repu-
diates felinity. The Dean reviles cats, berating their lack of understanding of the
sport of the chase, and Swami Prash (Art Malik) specifically expels them from
proximity to man (the generic is categorically specific) early in the film. Speaking
of reincarnation at the event that first brings the protagonists together, the Swami
vehemently rejects enquiries after a feline soul made by women in the audience. In
spite of its scenes of hospitality, Dean Spanley does not welcome animality, rather
its feminine taint and concomitant disrespect for (the law of) the master is held at
bay while the film maintains a domesticated totemism commanding masculine
descent. Derrida asks what would happen to fraternity should an animal – or a
sister – enter the scene.63 Dean Spanley splits between negative and affirmative

Animal Melancholia

readings: the symptomatic containment of the animal precisely as man’s best

friend, absorbing the dog within the discourse of friendship and ingenious point-
ers to deconstructing the conceptual hierarchy of man and animal.
Laurence Rickels has recently ascribed to the pet the role of inoculation against
death.64 A loyal Freudian, he means specifically paternal death (the primal feast is
lived every day).65 Prescribing carno-phallogocentrism anew, Rickels posits the
eating of meat as that which develops resistance to the pain of loss.66 Eating meat
is indeed an ‘animal cure’ (as food preservation). If the pet’s death is unmournable
for Rickels, this is because this classical traffic in substitution is one-way (pets
rehearse human death but no-one does so for them). Rhetorically maximising his
own ambivalence regarding pet death, Rickels refers to ‘cut[ting] their losses with
the paternal economies of sacrifice, substitution, and successful mourning’.67
Whether this means breaking from or mixing in with such economies, the prospect
of successful mourning brings me back to Derrida and to Dean Spanley.

Just desserts
I began this chapter with an epigraph from Derrida asking whether ‘we’ are ‘capa-
ble’ of true mourning. This phrasing resonates with his deconstruction of the habit-
ual framing of human response versus animal reaction.68 In The Animal That
Therefore I Am, rather than simply extend the ability to respond to animals,
Derrida questions the way in which ability is construed as the proper of the human
(the ability to speak, respond, reason, etc.) and proposes a ‘weak ability’ in the
common question ‘can they suffer?’ (i.e. are they able to suffer?).69 Here he asks
do we have the ability to mourn?70 His implication troubles the binary confidently
asserted as ‘Mourning or Melancholia’ by Abraham and Torok, a division that cir-
culates the one for whom we ‘successfully’ mourn and encrypts the one for whom
we fail to do so.
Getting to the leeway in Dean Spanley to go beyond a beguiling human narra-
tive in which dogs feature decoratively has demanded a critical engagement with
the crime that founds culture in Freudian legend, the primal feast. The sexism of
that feast required the addition of Julia Kristeva. The human exceptionalism of
psychoanalysis as linked to the metaphysics of presence brought Derrida into the
scene. At numerous junctures I have drawn on Derrida’s deconstruction of the clas-
sical methods of distinguishing man from animal to affirm ways in which Dean
Spanley departs from these methods: writing is habitually thought as the commu-
nicative medium of the human, this film invites us to think of dogs as beings who
also write; for the Dean, scent is a form of clothing with which animals – like
humans – also hide themselves. The film also modifies the cinematic convention of
the point-of-view shot to sympathetically and plausibly draw us into a canine envir-
onment. However, Dean Spanley also employs a masculinist ruse that risks fetter-
ing its departures from the discourse on ‘the animal’: when dogs are pulled back
from writing – with urine – this is at the hands of a female figure whose action is


tantamount to toilet-training; elements that might usually impart abject revulsion

– sniffing urine, eating entire rabbits – and thus bespeak the defilement of the
Kristevan mother, are elevated to ritual events. In so doing, the film risks main-
taining a virility in which man’s best friend is indeed like man, rather than fol-
lowing through on Derrida’s insight that the general condition of writing affects
the ‘living in general’ and cannot secure impermeable borders.71 Ending on the
son’s desire for a good father who will treat him, even discipline him, like a pet dog
endorses classically satisfying narrative closure. Our inability to decide how and
when we eat the other nurtures resistance to such ends.72

1. Jacques Derrida, ‘Mnemosyne’, trans. Cecile Lindsay, in Memoires for Paul de Man,
rev. edn (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989), p. 31.
2. Dean Spanley is now published as one volume containing both Lord Dunsany’s
novella My Talks with Dean Spanley and Alan Sharp’s screenplay Dean Spanley, ed.
Matthew Metcalfe with Chris Smith (London: HarperCollins, 2008).
3. Hunting for more Tokay, Wrather takes Fisk to the Nawab, who coincidently refers to
the Dean as Old Wag Spanley, referring to the name he was known by at Oxford by
virtue of his initials (Walther Arthur Graham Spanley).
4. Sigmund Freud, Totem and Taboo: Some Points of Agreement between the Mental
Lives of Savages and Neurotics [1913], trans. James Strachey (New York: W. W.
Norton and Company, 1950).
5. Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. Leon Roudiez (New
York: Columbia University Press, 1982), p. 102.
6. Jacques Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, trans. David Wills, ed. Marie-
Louise Mallet (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008). Among the best
commentaries are Matthew Calarco, Zoographies: The Question of the Animal from
Heidegger to Derrida (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008) and Leonard
Lawlor, This Is Not Sufficient: An Essay on Animality and Human Nature in Derrida
(New York: Columbia University Press, 2007).
7. Ibid., p. 36.
8. Derrida references numerous examples in The Animal That Therefore I Am, pp. 37–8,
e.g. ‘A Silkworm of One’s Own’, in Hélène Cixous and Jacques Derrida, Veils, trans.
Geoff Bennington, with drawings by Ernest Pignon-Ernest (Stanford, CA: Stanford
University Press, 2001), pp. 21–92.
9. See Jacques Derrida, Politics of Friendship, trans. George Collins (London: Verso,
10. Freud, Totem and Taboo, p. 136.
11. Ibid., pp. 127–8.
12. Ibid., p. 142.

Animal Melancholia

13. See Kelly Oliver, Animal Lessons: How They Teach Us to Be Human (New York:
Columbia University Press, 2009), pp. 248–57; and Elissa Marder, ‘The Sex of Death
and the Maternal Crypt’, in parallax vol. 15 no. 1 (2009), pp. 5–20.
14. See Kristeva, Powers of Horror, especially Chapter 3, ‘From Filth to Defilement’,
pp. 56–89.
15. Kristeva, Powers, pp. 12–13. The widespread uptake of an overgeneralised notion of
abjection as border disturbance in 1990s visual culture frequently neglected Kristeva’s
specificity regarding the maternal and animal borders of the subject.
16. Ibid., pp. 63, 61. I deconstructed the assumed stability of this structuralist conception
of exchange in Claude Lévi-Strauss and the Lacanian-inspired feminist film theory of
Elizabeth Cowie in ‘The Course of a General Displacement/The Course of the
Choreographer’, in Martin McQuillan and Ika Willis (eds), The Origins of
Deconstruction (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), pp. 50–66. The same
critique applies to Kristeva.
17. The film’s narrative of reincarnation might itself be understood as a topic invested in
minimising maternity.
18. Kristeva, Powers of Horror, p. 75.
19. Ibid., p. 75.
20. Sharp, Dean Spanley, pp. 193–4.
21. The Dean says as much later in the film, during one of the ‘animalseances’.
22. With so many doubles structuring this film, together with the uncertainty regarding
the veracity of the Dean’s memories and the status of reincarnation, Freud’s ‘uncanny’
is strongly evoked. See Sigmund Freud, ‘The Uncanny’, in Art and Literature, vol. 14
of the Penguin Freud Library, trans. James Strachey (London: Penguin, 1985),
pp. 336–76.
23. See Akira Mizuta Lippit, Electric Animal: Toward a Rhetoric of Wildlife (Minneapolis:
Minnesota University Press, 2000), p. 123. It is ambiguous as to whether Lippit agrees
with this view.
24. See, for example, Stacy Alaimo and Susan Hekman (eds), Material Feminisms
(Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2008).
25. Sigmund Freud, ‘Civilization and Its Discontents’ [1929], in the Penguin Freud
Library, vol. 12, Civilization, Society and Religion, trans. James Strachey (London:
Penguin, 1991), p. 288n1.
26. See Lippit, Electric Animal, pp. 125–7.
27. Jacques Derrida, ‘“Eating Well” or the Calculation of the Subject’, in Elizabeth Weber
(ed.), Points … Interviews 1974–1994 (Stanford, CT: Stanford University Press,
1995), p. 282. Originally published in Topoi vol. 7 no. 2 (1988), pp. 113–21; Derrida,
‘Eating Well’, p. 282.
28. Ibid.
29. Sara Guyer, ‘Albeit Eating: Towards an Ethics of Cannibalism’, Angelaki vol. 2 no.1
(1997), p. 64.
30. Derrida, ‘Eating Well’, p. 282.


31. Prior to ‘Eating Well’, Derrida had already published ‘Foreword: Fors: The Anglish
Words of Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok’, in The Wolf Man’s Magic Word: A
Cryptonomy, trans. Nicholas Rand (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 1986),
pp. xi–xlviii.
32. In an essay contiguous with the concerns of the present one, I further discuss this
problem of succession; see ‘Hors d’Oeuvres: some footnotes on the Spurs of Dorothy
Cross’, parallax vol. 19 no. 1 (2013), pp. 3–11.
33. Derrida, ‘Eating Well’, p. 282.
34. Ibid., p. 280.
35. Ibid. Levinas’s inability to think the ‘face’ as anything other than human has now been
the topic of extensive debate, e.g. John Llewelyn, ‘Am I Obsessed by Bobby?
(Humanism of the Other Animal)’, in Robert Bernasconi and Simon Critchley (eds),
Re-Reading Levinas (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), pp. 234–45; or
Simon Glendinning, ‘Le Plaisir de la lecture: Reading the Other Animal’, parallax
vol. 12 no.1 (2006), pp. 81–94.
36. Derrida, ‘Eating Well’, p. 281.
37. Ibid., p. 282.
38. This opens too huge a question to be properly addressed here, briefly: if nonhuman
animals are viewed as only eating in response to need then they might as well be
described as Cartesian animal-machines. It would be extremely interesting to pursue
the question of symbolic carnivory in nonhuman animals as yet another place in which
lines between species change rather than remain static.
39. Derrida, ‘Eating Well’, p. 282.
40. See Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, pp. 29–31.
41. Sara Guyer elaborates this point in ‘Buccality’, in Gabrielle Schwab (ed.), Derrida,
Deleuze, Psychoanalysis (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), pp. 80–1.
42. Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok ‘Mourning or Melancholia: Introjection versus
Incorporation’ [1972], in The Shell and the Kernel, trans. Nicholas T. Rand (Chicago,
IL: Chicago University Press, 1994), pp. 125–38.
43. Derrida, ‘Fors’, p. xxxvii.
44. Ibid., p. xxxvii, emphasis original.
45. Ibid., pp. xxxvii, xxxviii, emphases original.
46. Derrida redescribes this demetaphorisation as a ‘hypermetaphorization’ in ibid.,
p. xxxviii.
47. Ibid., p. xxxviii, emphasis original.
48. Abraham and Torok, ‘Mourning or Melancholia’, p. 128.
49. Derrida, ‘Fors’, p. xvi.
50. Ibid., p. xxxix.
51. Vicki Kirby is currently doing much to bring out this underappreciated vein of
Derrida’s thought; see ‘Original Science: Nature Deconstructing Itself’, Derrida Today
vol. 3 no. 2 (2010), pp. 201–20.
52. The script makes the direct analogy (Sharp, Dean Spanley, p. 243), deleted but
deducible in the film itself.

Animal Melancholia

53. Dunsany, My Talks with Dean Spanley, p. 247.

54. Nudity is very much at stake in Derrida’s The Animal That Therefore I Am, together
with clothing positioned as a form of technology. I have discussed this at length
elsewhere; see ‘When Species Kiss: Some Recent Correspondence between animots’,
Humanimalia vol. 2 no.1 (2010), pp. 60–85.
55. See Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, p. 4; Lawlor, This Is Not Sufficient,
p. 135n6.
56. Erica Fudge argues that a prime function of the pet is to ‘come home’; see Pets
(Stocksfield: Ashgate, 2008).
57. For Derrida’s critique of the difference between the proper death of Dasein and the
perishing of the animal in Heidegger, see Aporias, trans. Thomas Dutoit (Stanford, CT:
Stanford University Press, 1993), pp. 30–1.
58. Sharp’s script has Fisk also mention Wag to Mrs Brimley, but this is edited out of the
film (Dean Spanley), p. 267.
59. In spite of Fisk’s earlier protestations that he could never hope to have another dog
like Wag – one of the ‘seven great dogs’ alive at any time according to his idiosyncratic
60. Henslowe showed his own distress over her death earlier in the film.
61. The picture frame enclosing Mrs Fisk might also be read in this light.
62. Rather more jovial than the melancholic Fisk, Mrs Brimley is not unlike him in her
literality: when someone dies, that is all there is to it; she may be talking to a chair but
it was just like that when her quiet husband was alive.
63. Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, p. 12; and Derrida, Politics of Friendship,
p. 149.
64. Laurence Rickels, ‘Pet Grief’, in gorillagorillagorilla, Diana Thater ex. cat. (Cologne:
Walter König, 2009), p. 71.
65. As Claire Denis might say, ‘Trouble Every Day’, in light of her film of that name and
the cannibalism afflicting her protagonists (France, 2001).
66. Rickels, ‘Pet Grief’, p. 72.
67. Ibid.
68. Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, p. 8.
69. See Lynn Turner, ‘When Species Kiss’, p. 73.
70. Kelly Oliver reverses the stakes and asks after the now established ability of elephants
to mourn in her chapter ‘Elephant Eulogy’ in my The Animal Question in
Deconstruction (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013).
71. Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, p. 27.
72. I thank Michael Lawrence and Laura McMahon for their assiduous editorial advice.

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Julian Murphet

9 King Kong Capitalism

The animal moves:1 it is, in itself, a kind of ‘movement-image’,2 defined against its
environment by the rootless and apparently arbitrary trajectories it traces in a com-
plex quest for food, sexual coupling, shelter, seasonal relocation, territorial dispute
or even play. Rivers, ocean currents, winds and airs, vegetable life, atomic parti-
cles, the earth itself and the heavenly bodies, all may ceaselessly change position;
but even this cosmic congeries of motion serves merely as a background and foil
to the aleatory deliberations of the humblest slug as it leaves its slimy trail behind
it on the garden path. The animal moves; everything else is in motion or at rest,
relatively speaking. Even when it does not move, it moves; its breath and heart-
beat, digestion, the twitching of its limbs, the constant circulation of its plasma, all
attest to the grounding of this being in movement, and to movement’s exorbitant
investment in the animal, reaching truly epic proportions in those sublime mur-
murations of starlings, migrations of wildebeests and vast schools of fish which
seem to set an existential limit on our capacity to comprehend movement as such.
Movement is animal, or at least its image is.
What, then, is techne? Applied to the greater history of human development,
the term can be defined as a kind of cognitive motion capture, according to which
an otherwise complex and opaque system of goal-directed human movements is
rationally disarticulated into its component part-images, in order that it may be
passed down as a tradition, a knowledge, a craft.3 For as long as crafts and guilds
maintained a monopoly on techne, the movements associated with human labour
were the collective property of those responsible for productive activity. However,
with the rise of capitalist relations of production, and the progressive rationalisa-
tions of the division of labour, one of the definitive conditions of modernity clari-
fied itself as the sequestration of techne from the operators of laborious motion,
and its alienation to the owners of the means of production. Modern technology
existed apart from its operators.4 Techne’s new role in the dispensation of modern
capitalism was as an instrument for breaking apart the immemorial integration of
conception and execution in the labour process: ‘The managers assume … the
burden of gathering together all of the traditional knowledge which in the past has

been possessed by the workmen and then of classifying, tabulating, and reducing
this knowledge to rules, laws, and formulae … .’5 Taylor’s blunt axiom clarifies
the stakes: those who execute movement at work will henceforth be divorced from
its conception. Techne thus arrives, in its complete and autonomous form, as the
wedge that divides movement’s consciousness from its enactment, the shadow that
falls ‘Between the conception/And the creation’.6
One of the critical cultural conditions for the collective acceptance of this cap-
italist division of labour, intriguingly, was the technical development of means of
representation of movement itself; machines of motion picture manufacture and
mass production in which, in a symptomatic homology, erstwhile organic and
aleatory movements were first disassembled into frozen corpuscles of rationally
analysed motility (whether these were pixels, drawings or photograms), and then
reassembled mechanically into a semblance of their original dynamism. As
Benjamin put it, film’s dialectical formula is that ‘Discontinuous images replace
one another in a continuous sequence.’7 In what clearly serves as a proto-allegor-
ical template for cultural modernity as such, the kinetoscope and all its progeny in
the art of motion pictures have consistently (and automatically, invisibly) separated
movement from itself, and, according to a technical set of ‘rules, laws, and for-
mulae’ far beyond the ken, and behind the backs, of virtually all their subjects,
reintegrated its reified cellular forms into commodities for sale on the marketplace
for cultural goods. Motion pictures are the apt popular form taken by the disinte-
gration of the traditional labour process; they are that disintegration repackaged
as entertainment, and as a ‘complex kind of training’ for the worker who is no
longer expected to ‘make use of the working conditions. The working conditions
make use of the worker.’8
As a last introductory word, we may now comment on the role of the ‘animal’
in all of this. If, as we have speculated, movement’s image is itself animal, and if
animals played a formative and irreducible role in the evolution of both Marey’s
and Muybridge’s chronophotography, then what function did their image have in
the progressive alienation of knowledge from productive human movement, and
in the general conquest of non-poetic techne over any more ‘ecological’ model of
human labour? The questions are simply too vast, and this chapter will only tug at
some loose thread in their hems; but a few initial points can be made. First, we
need to attend to what Akira Lippit has called the ‘mnemonic’ function of moving
animal images as regards the rapid extirpation of wild creatures from human habi-
tats at the same time that Taylorised industrial relations and urban growth
expanded.9 The compensatory and utopian function of moving images of animals
now far distant from everyday life, as well as their openly ideological and manip-
ulative effects (moral personification of beasts, demonisation, exoticisation, etc.),
requires much more extensive work than has currently been done. Second, it is
well worth meditating on what Nicole Shukin describes as the genesis of assem-
bly-line technology and industrial Fordism in the stockyards and ‘bovine city’ of
Chicago – vast abattoirs equipped with all sorts of mechanical movement

King Kong Capitalism

designed to disassemble living beings into meat products, leather materials and
other byproducts of animal slaughter (one of which was the gelatin used to fix and
distribute film itself).10 Third, and finally here, as we are about to see, cinematic
animation requires special philosophical attention as a procedure internal to the
development of film technology, yet possessed of unique ideological energies that
cut against the grain of outright accommodation and collective adjustment to a
new regime. As Esther Leslie among others has pointed out, stop-motion anima-
tion, whether of hand-drawn cells or manually animated puppets, not only excelled
in giving dynamic and perverse form to the structures of modern life, it did so often
in animal guise; as if animals were the most fitting figures available for a life lived
in absolute separation from any idea; such that Mickey Mouse, Felix the Cat or
Donald Duck were more representative bearers of alienated human movement
than any but Chaplin himself.11

It is one of the salient contradictions of capitalism that, in it, what is most
advanced and rational, is simultaneously what gives onto (and draws from) the
most primitive and atavistic layers of social and psychical life. In Capital Marx
writes of the radical division of labour in manufacture that, even as it leads to
higher levels of productivity, also drives the wage-labourer further away from that
well-rounded set of competencies that defined the older handicrafts, and towards
the stunted one-sidedness of an otherwise useless narrow specialisation. It was of
such a palsied state of unskilled labour-power (in the Pennsylvania steel mills) that
F. W. Taylor was notoriously to write, in Principles of Scientific Management, that
‘This work is so crude and elementary in its nature that the writer firmly believes
that it would be possible to train an intelligent gorilla so as to become a more effi-
cient pig-iron handler than any man can be.’12 This moment of devolutionary in-
decision between man and gorilla is typical of a mode of production which ensured
that, ‘as craft declined, the worker would sink to the level of general and undif-
ferentiated labour power, adaptable to a large range of simple tasks, while as sci-
ence grew, it would be concentrated in the hands of management’.13 Here, nature
and capital entertain an asymptotic relationship of convergence, in the sense that
the higher the level of economic development, the lower, the more ‘natural’ the
level of humanity required to make it move. Socially, ‘hand and brain become not
just separated, but divided and hostile, and the human unity of hand and brain
turns into its opposite, something less than human’.14
Antonio Gramsci was haunted by Taylor’s quip about the semi-skilled simian.
Like Lenin a stalwart admirer of scientific management, Gramsci half-heartedly
maintained that

purely physical labour does not exist and that even Taylor’s term ‘trained gorilla’ is
a metaphor to indicate how far one can go in a certain direction: in any physical


work, no matter how mechanical and degraded, there is a minimum of technical

skill, that is, a minimum of creative intellectual activity.15

But the metaphor is a jarring one, as Gramsci well knew, since its function was to
illuminate how

to develop the worker’s mechanical side to the maximum, to sever the old
psychophysical nexus of skilled professional work in which the intelligence,
initiative, and imagination were required to play some role, and thus to reduce the
operations of production solely to the physical aspect.16

Again, it appears as if the maximal development of the ‘mechanical side’ of the

labour process leads to such a haemorrhaging of labour’s ‘intelligence, initiative,
and imagination’, that the result is a metaphor dangerously on the verge of actu-
ation – a generalised, social ‘trained gorilla’ possessed of some ‘bare minimum of
creative intellectual activity’, but otherwise bereft of any human coordinates or
world. A perfect creature, neither beast nor man, of Fordism.
At an altogether different level, capitalism and ‘the primitive’ were connected
by another twisted cord of implication during the period of Taylor’s conquest of
industrial management. So-called ‘natural economies’ like those preserved in the
pre- and non-capitalist zones of the peripheries, and increasingly drawn into cap-
ital’s maw through conquest, pillage and trade, are not simple ‘externalities’ or
incidental phenomena of that mode of production. If imperialism was, as Lenin
put it, the ‘highest stage of capitalism’, then it tended to operate according to a
dialectical logic of primitive incorporation, nowhere better outlined than by Rosa

Non-capitalist organizations provide a fertile soil for capitalism; more strictly:

capital feeds on the ruins of such organizations, and although this non-capitalist
milieu is indispensable for accumulation, the latter proceeds at the cost of this
medium nevertheless, by eating it up. Historically, the accumulation of capital is a
kind of metabolism between capitalist economy and those pre-capitalist methods
of production without which it cannot go on and which, in this light, it corrodes
and assimilates. Thus capital cannot accumulate without the aid of non-capitalist
organizations, nor, on the other hand, can it tolerate their continued existence side
by side with itself. Only the continuous and progressive disintegration of non-
capitalist organizations makes the accumulation of capital possible.17

Note that this is not simply a question of the raw materials out of which com-
modities are then industrially produced in the core countries; nor of the institution
of political and military control over such tropical source locations, increasingly
restructured to produce exclusively one or two types of product. It is veritably a
question of the systemic incorporation of primitivity and underdevelopment (itself

King Kong Capitalism

produced) as such, as a motor engine of expansion and growth. It is a motor,

indeed, whose distinctive property it is to endow its user with the characteristics
of the very thing it is assimilating:

imperialism grows in lawlessness and violence, both in aggression against the non-
capitalist world and in ever more serious conflicts among the competing capitalist
countries. But the more violently, ruthlessly and thoroughly imperialism brings
about the decline of non-capitalist civilizations, the more rapidly it cuts the very
ground from under the feet of capitalist accumulation.18

Freud’s model of the modern subject, a fragile isthmus of civility and enlight-
enment protected by a wall behind which the darkest pulsions and forces lurked;
and Conrad’s artful rendition of Casement’s harrowing dispatches from the
Congolese ‘heart of darkness’ itself; both coincide with a systemic truth of con-
temporary capitalism: that its most modern and progressive aspects went hand in
hand with barbarity, mass murder and the catastrophic destruction and depletion
of the natural world. The assembly line, a triumph of technical ingenuity, was also
a conga line of ‘trained gorillas’. The disappearance of the animal from lived
human habitats dovetailed with Freud’s dispiriting reanimation of the Hobbesian
law of homo homini lupus to characterise present-day human affairs.19 The Great
War itself was to have unleashed itself ideologically in so many reckless and unjust
animal figurations, none so savage as that enshrined in the well-known enlistment
poster for the US Army.
Even as industry turned more and more on the ‘trained gorilla’ of mass labour,
the world economy at large battened on and emptied the native habitat of actual
gorillas, and projected its fiercely competitive, nature-soaked self-image onto the
screen of the competing capitalist countries themselves: the gorilla is meant to
‘move’ here in various capacities, articulating a contradictory image of monopoly
capital as a simultaneity of progress and regress, science and brute labour, civility
and bestiality. The end result is that what is most ‘natural’ is now capital itself, an
ineluctable law of being-in-the-world, about which it is as redundant to ask ‘why?’
or ‘how?’ as it is to hesitate over taking up arms to slay the simian brute with the
blonde maiden in its grip.
As a rule, of course, the effort to naturalise capital is redundant. It is capital-
ism’s innermost tendency as a system ceaselessly to efface both its future and its
past; and to institute an existential plenum of repetitious presentism that appears
as natural as sunlight or the taste of honey. The ‘eternal virginity’ that capital
secretes for itself is as innocent of ends as it is of origins; just as the former are
eclipsed by the addictive highs of profit, so the latter are subsumed within that infi-
nite iteration of ‘mere repetition’ we know as exchange. ‘This is’, writes Fredric
Jameson, ‘the way in which the present of capitalism as a system “extinguishes”
its seemingly constitutive moments and elements in the past. This is the sense in
which capitalist production is an infernal machine, an autotelic system’ as ‘eternal’


as the movements of the heavenly bodies.20 What is true of time is as true of space:
so that the pre- or non-capitalist ‘dark places of the earth’ are willy-nilly converted
into nodes of the primitive accumulation of capital the moment they come into con-
tact with their positive term. As Marx more or less shows, capitalism could not have
evolved piecemeal; but having come into being (like language, all at once), it so
reconstructs reality around it that it almost as certainly could never not have been.
And yet, despite the seamless virtuality of this enclosed and worldless world
(something like the endless day of a Vegas casino), there have always been determi-
nate moments when the machine ceases to function properly, and suddenly – the way
Heidegger’s equipment, the moment it stops working, elicits the anxious state of a
conspicuous unreadiness-to-hand 21 – , as Marx puts it apropos of faulty products,

our attention [is brought back to] their character of being the products of past
labour. A knife which fails to cut, a piece of thread which keeps on snapping,
forcibly remind us of Mr A, the cutler, or Mr B, the spinner.22

At moments of systemic crisis, the towering edifice of capital’s perpetual present

begins to crumble and give evidence of its having been produced. What has been
‘extinguished’ returns to haunt that in which it was extinguished. It is at such
moments that the ‘naturalness’ of capitalism is radically compromised, since if it
now appears that that very quality was a kind of product in its own right, the game
is effectively, for the time being, up. In moments of crisis it becomes possible to
imagine things otherwise, a feat that had been more or less unimaginable up to the
very moment that the screen wobbled and the soundtrack separated asynchro-
nously from the spectacle. It is only with Toto’s unmasking of the Great Oz, the
exposure of the wires, ducts and smoke machines, that what seemed insuperable a
minute before not only begins to look frail and mortal, but replaceable. Crisis sets
the frozen naturalness of capital’s narcissistic self-image in motion again; the high-
strung web of infernal self-evidence gives way to the drama of spider and fly.

It was Fredric Jameson who many moons ago stipulated, after Ernst Bloch, that
any product of mass entertainment was bound to deliver as much in the way of
collective utopian wish-fulfilment as it did of manipulative emotional engineer-
ing.23 In the midst of a crisis such as the stock market crash and Great Depression
of 1929–36, what we are interested in determining is to what extent the privileged
medium of Taylorism, film, participated in the production of a collective fantasy
flexible and amphibious enough both to re-naturalise the collapsing legitimacy of
bourgeois ideology at its moment of maximum objective precariousness, and to tap
into the awakening political energies lying dormant in the systemic separation of
manual from mental labour. Since the specific case study we are building towards
is precisely the fantasy of a gigantic gorilla,24 it will be useful to take a quick look

King Kong Capitalism

at how the chief spokesman of a negative herneneutics of industrial culture first

drew the links between the ‘trained gorilla’ of capitalist productive relations, and
the giant gorilla of Hollywood fantasy. Midway through his Minima Moralia:
Reflections on a Damaged Life (2005), Adorno reflects on the recent discovery of
a preserved mammoth:

Mammoth. – Some years ago American newspapers announced the discovery of a

well-preserved dinosaur in the state of Utah. It was stressed that the specimen had
survived its kind and was millions of years younger than those previously known.
Such pieces of news, like the repulsive humoristic craze for the Loch Ness Monster
and the King Kong film, are collective projections of the monstrous total State.
People prepare themselves for its terrors by familiarizing themselves with gigantic
images. In its absurd readiness to accept these, impotently prostrate humanity tries
desperately to assimilate to experience what defies all experience. But the imaging of
primeval animals still living or only extinct for a few million years is not explained
solely by these attempts. The desire for the presence of the most ancient is a hope
that animal creation might survive the wrong that man has done it, if not man
himself, and give rise to a better species, one that finally makes a success of life.25

This passage, for all its bilious contempt, will repay a closer reading in order to
determine the true function of popular ‘collective projections’ in a time of crisis. In
the first place, Adorno assimilates the fantasies about enormous extinct creatures
to a defensive psychic preparation for the inevitable political consequences of a
crisis: enhanced state powers, the ‘monstrous total State’ whose fascist form dic-
tated the terms of Adorno’s traumatised wartime imaginary. At this level, the craze
of the ‘trained gorilla’ for King Kong (1933) is simply the preparation for further
terrors and assaults on that bare minimum of human being that Taylor had
allowed in the modern worker. There is, however, another level to Adorno’s cri-
tique, at which the craze for Kong translates into something much more profound.
Here, the Fordist worker’s ‘becoming-animal’, his ‘primative’ bare life or zoe, finds
utopian magnification and release in the dimension of an evolutionary longue
durée; Kong is, at this level, the ‘trained gorilla’ made epic and heroic, a subject of
metahistory and a promissory note on a ‘better species, one that finally makes a
success of life’. If crisis engenders terrors of totalitarian capture, the elimination of
all traces of human depth and difference, so too it triggers this utopian dimension
of species hope and the collective overcoming of subdivided specialisations. As
Adorno wrote later in Minima Moralia, allowing himself one utopian thought,
which was also an animal image:

Rien faire comme une bête, lying on water and looking peacefully at the sky,
‘being, nothing else, without any further definition or fulfillment’, might take the
place of process, act, satisfaction, and so truly keep the promise of dialectical logic
that it would culminate in its origin.26


So much, for now, for the workers’ craze for ‘the King Kong film’, a film that, in
various ways, adopts a position in manifest sympathy for the alienated gorilla who
discovers himself ensnared in a capitalist concrete jungle, positioned as a hapless
generator of capital, and is then set loose to wreak havoc on the forces exploiting
him. We need now to come to terms with what King Kong meant for its produc-
ers, specifically David O. Selznick, appointed to Head of Production at RKO just
as the Depression really began to affect the industry in 1931. The story of
Selznick’s corporate strategies is a long and complicated one; suffice it to say here
that RKO’s specific needs and difficulties, as ‘the most vulnerable’ of the majors,
required ingenious industrial adjustments.27 RKO was, of course, ‘a child of the
radio industry’,28 a spinoff of RCA (the Radio Corporation of America), which
owned the radio network NBC, many of the key radio patents, the Victor Talking
Machine Company and its affiliated products (victrolas, phonographs), and was
an early pioneer of television technology. The move into motion picture produc-
tion was precipitated by The Jazz Singer’s (1927) successful use of synchronised
sound, and motivated by the excellent electronic resources at RCA’s disposal to
develop its own sound-on-film technology, the RCA Photophone; RKO was duly
incorporated with the Keith-Albee-Orpheum chain of theatres, and feature pro-
duction got underway in 1929, just months before the crash.
Investing heavily in fixed capital (theatres above all) even as the economy fal-
tered, RKO rapidly stockpiled debts; these were unbalanced by significant box-
office success beyond its peak summer season of 1930, and exacerbated by the pur-
chase of Pathé pictures, profligate production costs and a costly stable of stars.
Selznick’s appointment in late 1931 was intended to correct a deeply inefficient
business model (losses of $5 million that year proved this), and his first task was
to restructure the mode of film production itself: dismantling the central producer
system in favour of devolved, lower-cost production units. Pivotal to this, in the
language of industry puffery, was the relative ‘emancipation’ of the director as a
locus of artistic meaning. ‘Under the factory system of production you rob the
director of his individualism’, Selznick argued, ‘and this being a creative industry
that is harmful to the quality of the product made.’29 Directors like George Cukor,
Merian C. Cooper and eventually Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock, were given
exceptional authority over individual projects at RKO, thanks to Selznick’s restruc-
turing. The hard edge of Selznick’s reforms, however, is less often trumpeted:
‘Selznick evaluated all RKO personnel. Many studio employees were fired or laid
off, and those who weren’t had sixty days to prove their worth to the company.’30
And yet, despite a relative recovery of critical fortunes after a string of memorable
Cukor pictures, the studio’s finances were in a disastrous condition in early 1932.
Going into receivership thanks to a 40 per cent drop in attendance and no real
box-office successes, things looked bleak.31
One of the projects underway on the studio lots was a looming financial dis-
aster under the direction of Willis H. O’Brien, contracted from First National after

King Kong Capitalism

the success of The Lost World in 1925. This project, ‘Creation’, a human drama
set among prehistoric creatures, was already over a year old and $120,000 down
in expenses, with little more than twenty minutes of footage and an unfilmable
script to show for RKO’s excessive investment. It was a clear candidate for can-
cellation under Selznick’s new broom; and his newly appointed executive assis-
tant, Merian Cooper, duly advised just that. No project, to be sure, could have
resonated more with Adorno’s critique of ‘the repulsive humoristic craze for the
Loch Ness Monster’ – O’Brien’s unfinished project was to have been the summa
of a collective fantasy about preserved prehistoric gargantuan life forms. It was
perfect ‘crisis’ material, in the abstract. What it lacked, simply, was a star and a
credible story. These it was Cooper’s own destiny to provide, since one of the key
reasons he agreed to Selznick’s offer to return to the movies after starting up
Trans World Airlines (TWA) was the guarantee that he could work up his idea for
a ‘gorilla picture’ as a producer in his own right at RKO. Seeing in O’Brien’s pio-
neering use of stop-motion photographic techniques an affordable ready-made
stage on which to set this ‘gorilla picture’, Cooper simply rewrote the terms of
O’Brien’s contract so that he was now a technical assistant on Cooper’s own pro-
ject, King Kong. Kong

was easily the most ambitious RKO project initiated during Selznick’s regime, and
it was virtually the only prestige picture that Selznick left alone once it was
approved and under way. Cooper later commented that Selznick ‘never interfered,
never tried to tell me what to do’.32

The investment and faith in an otherwise unsaleable idea paid off: ‘Produced at a
cost of $672,000, King Kong grossed close to $2 million during its first release
and saved the studio from going under.’33 Having shredded dozens of studio con-
tracts, put as many men and women on the breadlines, cancelled and absorbed an
astonishingly ambitious independent project and ridden roughshod over the press
and studio bosses, Selznick and Cooper got what they wanted out of their ‘gorilla
picture’: the vindication of capital. If, in the three years following the crash, ‘an
average of 100,000 workers were being discharged every week’, and if ‘Unskilled
laborers, particularly blacks, were the shock troops’,34 then this Great War on the
home front, in which the ‘trained gorilla’ lost his last grip on the means of pro-
duction, could be re-engineered to chase those same unskilled jobless back into
the cinemas to watch their own distorted self-image: a movement-image of an
animal so large and so powerful that it momentarily became a self-sustaining
desiring-machine. ‘Kong celebrates as it disavows not repression but the subli-
mation, the rendering sublime, of desire in the form of spectacle.’35 This is what
Selznick and Cooper had banked on: that desire would supersede political
thought, and pull America out of Depression by the force of its subjection to this
new machine, the new monolithic State of which Adorno said Kong was the
jungle-born avatar.


We now need to come to grips with Kong’s very peculiar animal movement-image,
and so begin to tie the threads of our argument together. To do so, we need very
concretely to comprehend the signature technique, the application of techne, of
which he is the spectacular product. Stop-motion photography animation is, of all
the ways to make a moving picture, by far the most labour-intensive, and, at the
time when it reached these great heights in 1933, entirely an in-house craft secret.
One of the unexpected effects of Selznick’s dismantling of central authoritative
transparency in RKO’s studio panopticon, and of Cooper’s formal subsumption
of O’Brien’s workshop, was to have secured within the folds of a ruthless capital-
ist corporation something like a living fossil of guild-style handicraft. O’Brien’s
soundstage, so firmly shut to the prying eyes of the press that no image exists of
him at work on Kong, staffed by hand-picked and specially trained technicians and
craftsmen – men like Marcel Delgado, Mario Larrinaga and Linwood Dunn – who
made all of their own materials and models on the premises, constituted something
like a feudal ‘fold’ within the breakneck industrial efficiency of most Hollywood
production. A single sequence such as the fight between Kong and the Allosaurus,
amounting to less than three minutes of screentime, must have taken the team no
less than seven weeks to film. Not even the Disney studios would have accepted
such an absurdly protracted labour process.
Stop-motion animation, as we have suggested, is an allegory in nuce of the frag-
mented and subdivided Fordist labour process that, for the time being, had stum-
bled on a crisis of accumulation. Recall that Taylor’s path-breaking development of
time-and-motion studies at the workplace had exploited the contemporary photo-
graphic motion-capture experiments by Frank and Lillian Gilbreth on productive
movement: their chronophotographic photostrips taken of real workers mercilessly
exposed all lapses of efficiency, and served as instruction tools in the improvement
of speed and best practice. Film’s application to labour was radical, and labour
responded to film as a mode of discipline and control. O’Brien’s staff effectively
mimed in reverse that whole motion-capture process: using an 18-inch, handbuilt
scale model (a steel-and-aluminium armature coated with cotton wadding and a
skin of rubber and rabbit fur), they painstakingly mimicked imaginary gorilla move-
ments (most often enacted by the men themselves) and reconstructed them, one rei-
fied pose at a time, at twenty-four frames per second. The result is an extremely
touching image of animal movement: lacking the natural fluidity and grace of an
actual gorilla, Kong proceeds, relentlessly, in spasmodic hiccups of motion and
stasis, with a sensible pulse just beneath the surface of perception. For all his erratic
discontinuities of natural movement, however, Kong absorbs from his handlers the
haptic qualities of a discernible tenderness and care, visible not least in the con-
stantly changing, otherwise inexplicable ‘grain’ of the rabbit fur that covers his back
and arms, stroked by the invisible hands of O’Brien as he slightly alters his puppet’s
position between each frame-take. What Benjamin had written of Charlie Chaplin’s
staccato movements can be applied ipso facto to Kong:

King Kong Capitalism

The innovation of Chaplin’s gestures is that he dissects the expressive movements

of human beings into a series of minute innervations. Each single movement he
makes is composed of a succession of staccato bits of movement. Whether it is his
walk, the way he handles his cane, or the way he raises his hat – always the same
jerky sequence of tiny movements applies the law of the cinematic image sequence
to human motorial functions.36

So it is of Kong. The innovation of Kong’s gestures is that they are, literally, the
product of a laborious handicraft whose ‘staccato’ bits of movement are (like the
Gilbreths’ filmstrips) moments of stasis arrived at by the producers’ expert techne.
Kong’s ‘jerky sequence of tiny movements’ is distilled exactly from the ‘law of the
cinematic image sequence’ of which it is the expressive product.
Here, then, the alienated labour of Taylorisation attains to something like an
aesthetic moment of mimesis and redemption. It is as animal movement, not
human movement, that this aesthetic redemption takes place, and that has its logic
too. At the level of the filmed movement-images of which this film is composed,
we quickly realise that the gap between those involving human beings, and those
involving Kong and his world, is ontological: these beings, divided not only by
species but by scale and evolutionary period, move differently and in different
orders of world. The movement of the animals in this film is all of a piece with that
of Kong – evidently artificial, jerky, innervated, clumsy, unnatural and the result
of some unspecified techne, it is thanks largely to the sound department and Max
Steiner’s didactic score that we take any of it for what it purports to be. The
motion of the humans is like that in any other Hollywood film of the period: phys-
ically stolid, mannered and emphatic in every gesture, but recognisably ‘ours’ in a
way that the movement of the beasts simply is not. And yet the paradox immedi-
ately affirms itself at the level of pathos and affect: as soon as these two logics of
movement come into contact, we have always already sided with the creatures so
obviously not of our world. It costs us nothing to witness the routine eating, crush-
ing, smashing, hurling and monstrous dismantling of ‘our own’ kind, while the
shooting and slow death of the stegosaurus, the ferocious killing of the Allosaurus
and, above all, the demise of the mighty Kong himself, impart an emotional power
out of all proportion to the scale models and painstaking work that produced these
images. The opposition is duly deconstructed by the Venture’s cook’s pet monkey,
Ignatz, who regards the human world to which he is abandoned with a horrified
rictus of incompossibility – as if to say that free animal movement will simply not
coexist with ‘man’ as currently defined. Iggy’s chained, frantic hopping and excru-
ciating grimaces constitute a black hole of species-being out of which the gargan-
tuan pre-Cambrian excesses of Skull Island then, as if on cue, emanate.
Ignatz’s dream, if that is what King Kong is – a monkey’s long Freudian wish-
fulfilment of physical engrossment, prize female conquest,37 violent defence of ter-
ritory and destruction of the enemy’s redoubt – assumes the cryptic form of a
displaced corporeal counterpart: the ‘trained gorilla’ that capital has made of the


working class. In the zone of indiscernibility opened up between species here

(between a fantasmatic tropical world and the urban world of accumulation) is the
habitat of that Freudian ‘thing’ that Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) defines as
something ‘neither beast nor man, something monstrous, all-powerful, still
living’,38 which will explode onto screen in a nocturnal proscenium formed by the
torches of Indian Ocean ‘natives’ played by African American extras and actors,
‘shock troops’ of unemployment and discrimination, many of them dressed in
makeshift gorilla costumes.39 It is they who conjure Kong’s thunderous appear-
ance. Denham (a specialist in animal movement-images, who makes ‘moving pic-
tures in jungles and places’, ‘with those darling monkeys and tigers and things’;
who would have got ‘a swell shot of a rhino’ once in Africa if the cameraman
hadn’t ‘got scared’40) goes to the tropics to bring back a moving picture of this
animal ‘thing’, neither beast nor man, in order to charge rent on that image in per-
petuity, at 10c a ticket, from a witless ‘public’ who only thinks it wants ‘romance’
and ‘a pretty face’. In the event, obliged to rescue his hired ‘pretty face’ from the
clutches of this ‘mad brute’, like the counter-revolutionary and anti-Bolshevik mer-
cenary that his model Merian Cooper was, Denham seizes hold of the Real itself
to bring it home as raw material, something ‘more in the nature of a personal
appearance’, ‘worth more than all the movies in the world’, that he can charge $20
a ticket for and make $10,000 on in a single evening. Only, the supposed ‘Real’
that this rapacious capitalist (‘We’re millionaires, boys!’) expropriates by force
from its native environment, turns out to be an aestheticised image of his own
world’s labour process, itself neither beast nor man. Iggy’s dream perversely yields
to Denham what is due to Denham: an image of the ‘trained gorilla’ who makes
monopoly capital possible, conjoined with the fantasy of a ‘natural economy’ that
capital must ‘corrode, assimilate and disintegrate’ in order to become such in the
first place. It is just that, unstable as such a superimposed image must be, it proves
violently uncontrollable.
What is then properly utopian in Kong is precisely his movement as such, the
sheer physical exhilaration of exploiting a titanic muscular power: uprooting trees,
leaping gorges, dumping a dozen pursuers into a chasm, wrestling and killing giant
predators, hurling massive objects, smashing down Cyclopean walls, destroying an
entire village, tearing himself out of chrome steel chains, tossing aside marquees,
kicking away automobiles, scaling hotel walls to find his love, demolishing an
entire section of elevated train tracks and pulverising a packed train car, before
mounting the tallest building in Manhattan and taking out a couple of biplanes,
all with his bare hands. And then there is his reflective side: toying with Jack
Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) in his cliff-wall cave like a kitten, playing in dumb fascina-
tion with the ruined jaws of the dying Allosaurus, peeling away the diaphanous
layers of Ann’s clothes and sniffing his fingers, and, in his last moments, simply
being, with the whole world of capital spread out before him like a broken dream.
There has been, Milton’s Satan aside, nothing in the annals of human culture to
compare with the unbounded physical liberty of Kong’s on-screen career, no single

King Kong Capitalism

body so given to movement in a utopian key, so prodigious and melancholy and

grand. That it is, all, entirely the deliberated product of laborious hand-animated
craft, out of sight and out of mind, does not, pace Susan Buck-Morss, make it out-
right reprehensible – Buck-Morss writes that ‘what cannot be seen remains mis-
understood. The fact that the means of production of a cultural commodity is
invisible is the trademark of capitalist spectacles. They are phantasmagorias that
seduce the senses, a shadowland of the fulfillment of desire.’ 41 To be sure,
Cooper’s and Selznick’s complicity in keeping O’Brien’s process hidden from
public view is consistent with the logic of commodity production in general, and
with their own marketing strategy in particular. But Kong’s movement, his irre-
pressible ‘animal spirits’ and dynamism, are hardly to be circumscribed by the
terms of this critique. For what we see in his movement is the uncanny cohabita-
tion of the same body by artisanal labour, Taylorised labour, the cellular cinematic
law of motion, colonial political rage, and an imaginary animal movement
refracted by each of these social and technical phenomena.
It is the unnaturalness, the manifest artifice, of this movement that preserves
it against the charge of simple commodity fetishism – that something about it
‘doesn’t work’, that it is imperfect and often clumsy, means that it resists the
spell of the fetish in its innermost constitution as an image. No doubt such
fetishism (indeed, iconicity) is constantly, even aggressively being attributed to
it, in the film’s diegesis and marketing campaign; but in itself, Kong’s more com-
monly graceless movements emanate other signals, and are possessed of a very
different kind of charm. This charm, which it shares with most naïve art and
with amateurism and pre-capitalist modes of production more generally, is irre-
ducible to the purpose for which the film that it animates was conceived and dis-
seminated. It exerts a counter-spectacular force in the very tissues of the
spectacle. A simple thought experiment should bring the point home. Imagine
that Kong had been greenlighted prior to the formal subsumption of O’Brien’s
‘Creation’ soundstage, and that Selznick had funded Cooper’s initial conception
of its production: a trip to Africa to gather several wild gorillas, followed by a
trip to Komodo, where Cooper would stage various live ‘battles’ between his
captive primates and the native ‘dragons’, which he would later artificially mag-
nify for effects of gigantism. The horror of that conception scarcely needs ampli-
fying. The point is that in this case, real animal movement would have
underwritten a spectacle of manipulation and degradation, a nauseating epic with-
out grace or charm. As against this, O’Brien’s efforts ensured not only that ‘no
animal was harmed during the making of this film’, but that, after the two shots
involving Ignatz, no animal would even appear that was not a special effect, a
product of deliberative manufacture. The animal movements that impel this film
forward, mercifully displacing the witless human ‘drama’ about primitive accu-
mulation, are each of them the exhaustive results of untold hours of labour time –
not unskilled, undifferentiated labour, but labour undertaken more or less at its
own pace, expert artisanal labour in which conception and execution are one, and


whose ‘management’ is unscientifically obliged to adopt a patient, hands-off

approach. What moves us in Kong is precisely this image of unalienated labour,
preserved like a fossil within the intestines of a vicious capitalist machine; and it
is in that sense that the argument around atavism makes most sense. Buck-Morss
writes that Kong is an ‘atavistic residue from a past era, a return of the
repressed. … [Kong] embodies the force of our own desire to find a romantic
dreamworld solace for the industrial civilization that brutalizes the physical ani-
mals all of us remain’.42 But that romantic dreamworld is nothing other than the
world of handicraft and guild mastery, dimly remembered from a pre-industrial
era, which has here and there been preserved amid modernity’s uneven develop-
ment like a prehistoric residue. Kong’s sublime, haltering movement is its index
and trace.

If Kong depicts ‘Hollywood’s already Promethean sway over the public imagina-
tion’,43 if it is a delirious projection of an endangered ‘corporate identity’ as robust
and larger than life in a time of ruinous crisis,44 if its substitution of ‘a gorilla for
an African or African American body reflects the worst kind of Spencerian
Darwinism’,45 if it ‘was escapist entertainment for a public in the throes of the
Great Depression, channeling antisocial forces into romance and adventure while
showing the animal symbol of the crowd as defeated definitively’,46 and if ‘the
repulsive humoristic craze for the Loch Ness Monster and the King Kong film, are
collective projections of the monstrous total State’,47 then none of this even begins
to account for the extraordinary effect of Kong’s animal movement as such in this
monstrous (and evidently self-damning) spectacle. The almost myopic stupidity of
so much Kong criticism, one-dimensionally attuned to the ‘careful symbolic con-
tainment structures’ that defuse and defang the ‘fantasy content’ of an aroused and
limitless liberty of movement,48 suggest a systematic repression of what that con-
tent really is: an image of unalienated labour in the guise of animal movement. It
pays simply to recall that, for the millions of Fordism’s ‘trained gorillas’, let alone
the starving unemployed lumpens that the Depression made of them, the
paralysing hell of the Taylorised workplace consisted first and foremost of a total
foreclosure of the freedom of movement as such. To be consigned to a fixed place
on the assembly line, restricted to two or three of the most basic, repeated opera-
tions ten hours a day is, as Marx wrote of a much earlier mode of exploitation
under manufacture, to be ‘mutilated’, turned into a fragment of oneself, a ‘crippled
monstrosity’, ‘divided up and transformed into the automatic motor of a detail

The habit of doing only one thing converts [the worker] into an organ which
operates with the certainty of a force of nature, while his connection with the
whole mechanism compels him to work with the regularity of a machine.’50

King Kong Capitalism

What was true of late eighteenth-century manufacture was a fortiori true of Ford’s
labour process, as Chaplin’s performance at the beginning of Modern Times
(1936) proves at the bar of eternity. Gramsci’s notorious propositions regarding
the mental ‘state of complete freedom’ that adaptation to such mechanical move-
ments might foster bear repeating as evidence of a utopian imagination gone sour
in a fascist prison cell: ‘Physical movement becomes totally mechanical; the
memory of the skill, reduced to simple gestures repeated with rhythmic intensity,
“makes its home” inside the bundles of muscles and nerves, leaving the brain free
for other occupations.’51 Gramsci continues, absurdly:

American industrialists have understood this very well. They realize that the
‘trained gorilla’ still remains a man and that he thinks more, or at least has greater
opportunities for thinking. … Not only does he think, but the lack of direct
satisfaction from work and the fact that, as a worker, he has been reduced to a
trained gorilla can lead him to a train of thought that is far from conformist.52

No; what ten hours of nut-tightening does to a man whose every gesture and act
has been meticulously prescribed by a ‘scientific management’ is precipitate dreams
of free animal movement – all his muscles and nerves at liberty to bear the whole
man forward as a complete movement-image, instead of partial operations endlessly
reiterated. Kong is that dream pressed through the scrim of artisanal labour, and
projected ironically on behalf of the monstrous State and corporation. His move-
ments are those of the ‘trained gorilla’ himself, minutely subdivided down to the
subliminal limit of twenty-four poses per second, and yet inflated to the scale of a
two-island-straddling behemoth – free if only in fantasy to break from the fetters of
an impossibly constraining labour discipline, and develop its powers and potential-
ities on the other side of a ‘humanity’ unworthy of its name. In Kong, the ‘trained
gorilla’ catches a glimpse of ‘animal creation [surviving] the wrong that man has
done it, if not man himself, and [giving] rise to a better species, one that finally
makes a success of life’.53 This species, neither man nor beast, but both, is the pure
product of a capitalism that must devour its own conditions of possibility in order
to thrive. Kong is the avant-garde of its collective gravedigger, his movements cryp-
tic traces of the Bolshevik beast that Cooper himself spent months as a mercenary
shooting out of the skies, just as he was to do again in Kong; his on-screen cameo
as a US Army pilot has the beast of the proletarian apocalypse firmly in his sights.

1. ‘All animals move alike, four-footed and many-footed; in other words, they all move
cross-corner-wise.’ See Aristotle, The History of Animals, Part 5, at http://classics.
2. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara
Habberjam (London and New York: Continuum, 1986).


3. ‘Techne belongs to bringing-forth, to poiesis; it is something poetic.’ In Martin Heidegger,

‘The Question Concerning Technology’, trans. William Lovitt and David Farrell Krell, in
David Farrell Krell (ed.), Basic Writings (London: Routledge, 1993), p. 318.
4. ‘[T]he revealing that holds sway throughout modern technology does not unfold into a
bringing-forth in the sense of poiesis’ (ibid., p. 320).
5. F. W. Taylor, Principles of Scientific Management (New York: Harper and Brothers,
1914), p. 36.
6. T. S. Eliot, ‘The Hollow Men’, The Complete Poems and Plays (London: Faber and
Faber, 1969), p. 85.
7. Walter Benjamin, ‘The Dialectical Structure of Film’, in Howard Eiland and Michael
W. Jennings (eds), Selected Writings, 1935–1938, vol. 3, trans. Edmund Jephcott,
Howard Eiland and others (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University
Press, 2002), p. 94.
8. Walter Benjamin, ‘On Some Motifs in Baudelaire’, in Howard Eiland and Michael W.
Jennings (eds), Selected Writings 1927–1934, vol. 2., trans. Edmund Jephcott, Howard
Eiland and others (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002),
p. 328. The latter phrases are quotations from Marx’s Capital.
9. ‘And thus while animals were disappearing from the immediate world, they were
reappearing in the mediated world of technological reproduction.’ In Akira Mizuta
Lippit, Electric Animal: Toward a Rhetoric of Wildlife (Minneapolis: University of
Minnesota Press, 2000), p. 25.
10. See Nicole Shukin, Animal Capital: Rendering Life in Biopolitical Times (Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press, 2009), pp. 87–130.
11. Something that Eisenstein himself was not far from thinking. See Esther Leslie,
Hollywood Flatlands: Animation, Critical Theory, and the Avant-Garde (London and
New York: Verso, 2002). But see also Norman Klein, Seven Minutes: The Life and
Death of the American Animated Cartoon (London and New York: Verso, 1996).
12. Taylor, Principles of Scientific Management, p. 40.
13. Harry Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the
Twentieth Century (New York and London: Monthly Review Press, 1998), p. 83.
14. Ibid., p. 87.
15. Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, vol. 2, ed. and trans. Joseph A. Buttigieg (New
York: Columbia University Press, 2011), p. 200.
16. Ibid., pp. 215–16.
17. Rosa Luxemburg, The Accumulation of Capital, 2nd edn, trans. Agnes Schwarzschild
(London and New York: Routledge, 2003), p. 397.
18. Ibid., p. 426.
19. Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, trans. James Strachey (New York and London:
W. W. Norton, 2005), p. 104.
20. Fredric Jameson, Representing Capital: A Reading of Volume One (London and New
York: Verso, 2011), pp. 106–7.
21. Mulhall elaborates the spell that is otherwise cast on ‘everyday’ praxis by

King Kong Capitalism

Average everyday Dasein relates to its work by forgetting itself, entirely

subordinating its individuality to the impersonal requirements of its task. So it
represses its pastness rather than repeating or recovering it … average everyday
Being-in-the-world is a making-present which awaits and forgets.

See Mulhall, Heidegger and Being and Time, 2nd edn (London and New York:
Routledge, 2005), pp. 171–2.
22. Karl Marx, Capital, Volume One, trans. Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin, 1990),
p. 289.
23. Fredric Jameson, Signatures of the Visible (New York and London: Routledge,
2007), pp. 11–46.
24. Which has reappeared, with the unflagging logic of a symptom, at or around each of
the major crises in capitalist accumulation since 1925: 1933, 1976 and 2005.
25. Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life (London and
New York: Verso, 2005), p. 115.
26. Ibid., p. 157.
27. Tino Balio, Grand Design: Hollywood as a Modern Business Enterprise, 1930–1939
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), p. 16.
28. Mark McGurl, ‘Making It Big: Picturing the Radio Age in King Kong’, Critical
Inquiry vol. 22 no. 3 (Spring 1996), p. 418.
29. Janet Staiger, ‘Part Five: The Hollywood Mode of Production, 1930–60’, in David
Bordwell, Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson, The Classical Hollywood Cinema:
Film Style & Mode of Production to 1960 (London: Routledge, 1985),
p. 321.
30. Thomas Schatz, The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio
Era (London: Simon & Schuster, 1989), p. 128.
31. Balio, Grand Design, p. 16.
32. Schatz, The Genius of the System, pp. 129–30.
33. Balio, Grand Design, p. 305.
34. Ibid., p. 13.
35. Sean Cubitt, The Cinema Effect (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004), p. 176.
36. Benjamin, ‘Dialectical Structure of Film’, p. 94.
37. Iggy ‘likes [Ann Darrow] more than he does anyone else on board’, much as his
gargantuan avatar will later.
38. Denham is here channelling Cooper’s hero Paul Du Chaillu, who wrote that the
gorilla is a ‘hellish dream creature – of that hideous order, half-man, half-beast’. See
Mark Cotta Vaz, Living Dangerously: The Adventures of Merian C. Cooper, Creator
of King Kong (New York: Villard, 2005), pp. 14–17.
39. Of note here is the fact that Cooper’s lifelong inspiration as an adventurer, Du
Chaillu’s 1861 book, Explorations & Adventures in Equatorial Africa, remarks how
‘some natives’ believe that mountain gorillas contain the ‘spirits of departed
negroes’. See Stuart and Elizabeth Ewen, Typecasting: On the Arts and Sciences of
Human Inequality, rev. edn (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2008), p. 426.


40. In this, of course, he was true to his real-life model, Cooper, whose practices were

Leopards and tigers were captured in traps for the movie [Chang: A Drama of the
Wilderness (Cooper & Schoedsack, USA, 1927)] and forced to fulfill their
‘malevolent’ roles in the script. Several were killed on camera. Kru and his fellow
tribesmen were given rifles and were then directed to dispense with the ostensibly
marauding cats, but given the Laotian’s taboo against killing tigers, the cats were
executed by Merian Cooper off camera. … The mythical elephants were rented for
thirty thousand dollars from the private herd of the King of Siam. (Ewen and Ewen,
2008, p. 425)

41. Susan Buck-Morss, Dreamworld and Catastrophe: The Passing of Mass Utopia in East
and West (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002), p. 180.
42. Ibid., pp. 179–80.
43. Ewen and Ewen, Typecasting, p. 429.
44. McGurl, ‘Making It Big’, p. 417.
45. Paul Young, The Cinema Dreams Its Rivals: Media Fantasy Films from Radio to the
Internet (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), p. 117.
46. Buck-Morss, Dreamworld and Catastrophe, p. 180.
47. Adorno, Minima Moralia, p. 122.
48. Jameson, ‘Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture’, in Signatures of the Visible
(London and New York: Routledge, 1992), p. 33.
49. Marx, Capital, vol. 1, pp. 481, 482.
50. Ibid., p. 469.
51. Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, p. 219.
52. Ibid., p. 219.
53. Adorno, Minima Moralia, p. 123.

Robert McKay

10 Animal Life and Moral Agency in Post-war

Velma Johnston, Marilyn Monroe, Arthur Miller
and John Huston’s The Misfits

Marilyn noticed that the trussed horse was bleeding from a cut in his chest. Arthur
Miller told her the horse had cut himself on the fencing of the temporary corral,
and Marilyn fell completely into character as Roslyn by asking John Huston if he
wouldn’t just let the horse up and forget the scene that was being shot.
James Goode, reporting from the set of The Misfits in 19601

In one of these pictures is a yearling colt with his entire chest open where he had
come in violent contact with wires [of a corral]. The wound was never cared for,
and the pictures were taken on the sixth day.
Velma Bronn Johnston, speaking before congress on 15 July 1959 2

The Misfits, written by Arthur Miller and directed by John Huston, had the mis-
fortune to appear as an artistically conceived film, and with a big theatre name
on the credit to boot, just as debates about the integrity of film art were at their
hottest; so it is not surprising that when they saw it contemporary critics reached
for the vitriol. I want to begin by focusing on three of the best of these – Stanley
Kauffmann, Arlene Croce and Pauline Kael – specifically because I am interested
by the consistency in what they do not like about The Misfits. Broadly speaking,
this is the film’s desire for political, social or moral influence, an effect of what
Kauffmann and Croce disparage in turn as Miller’s ‘generally orthodox and
socially utilitarian’ and ‘functionalistic concept of art’.3 The general drift of the
criticism here is that overt interest in social agency, the heart on the sleeve, indi-
cates failure in post-war cinema. Such commitment, with its utopian yearning, is
evidence of both moral and creative puerility, or ‘callowness’, as Croce puts it.
Kael locates the epitome of this failure of proper artistic virility in the figure of
Marilyn Monroe, but as a telling case of a more general problem. The ‘admira-
tion and sympathy and “understanding”’ asked of the public by Monroe’s early
1960s public image as much as by her ‘uncontrollably nervous’ performance as
Roslyn Taber in The Misfits are simply the extension of the misogynist derision
displayed by ‘junior-high-school boys’ interested in ‘nudie-cutie magazines’.4 For
Kael, the potential of film to occasion an aesthetically rich encounter between

The Misfits (1961)

artists and viewer is now the debased fantasy of the art-house audience: ‘wish ful-
filment in the form of cheap and easy congratulation on their sensitivities and of
their liberalism’.5
This all might tell us much about early 1960s critics’ hopes for what film art
might be (after all, the preference for formal complexity over political expression
is not unusual in post-war cultural criticism). But I am interested specifically in
what Croce, Kael and Kauffmann do not want us to see as worthy of serious
consideration in The Misfits. If we turn to how their critical stance affects their
response to the film’s narrative content, then, it is interesting to note that Croce
would prefer the ‘three [male] characters presented as a straight vocational
study’. Echoing Kael’s belief that social purpose in film can be equated with a
certain excess of femininity, she thinks this could have delivered the kind of ‘dry,
hard-swallowing, mutely effective kind of movie John Huston used to make’; ‘a
good film about the decline of mustanging’.6 This would be so much better than
the film she thinks we do have, which resolves, through Monroe’s portrayal of
Roslyn as ‘something of an intuitive genius with an innate sympathy for the suf-
fering of others’ (both humans and animals, that is), towards what Croce wither-
ingly calls ‘a starlit, and conceivably vegetarian future’.7 Kael similarly satirises
the tendency towards moral conviction in Monroe’s portrayal of Roslyn ‘with
the sure instincts of the faithful dog, and the uncorrupted clarity of the good
clean peasant’.8 Kauffmann cuts closer to the bone, suggesting that even within
the film’s own (for him, failed) artistic terms Roslyn’s moral purpose does not
make sense. He writes:

and how does she effect a resolution in Gay? Through her extreme revulsion
against pain – specifically against hunting. [When] she learns that the mustangs are
to be killed for dog-food she becomes so frenzied that Gay gives up the hunt and
hunting and decides to change his mode of living.

And yet, Kauffmann continues, ‘her hysteria is not persuasive’ in having this effect:
‘she would presumably have been equally hysterical in 1850 if he had been killing
deer to feed himself and her. Her outburst is unrelated to the modern debasement
of his mustanging, as such.’9

Animal Life and Moral Agency in Post-war Cinema

Kauffmann is referring to the contemporaneous humanitarian objection to the

hunting of wild horses in the US, a cause that took shape through the second half of
the 1950s, propelled in the main by a woman who can be seen as the forerunner of
the film’s critique of animal abuse in the character of Roslyn. Velma Bronn Johnston
was a Nevadan ranch owner who orchestrated a nationwide publicity campaign
through the second half of the 1950s, prompting many hundreds of letters to con-
gress, and worked to lobby federal legislation into statute. At national level, H.R.
2725 – a bill known as the ‘Wild Horse Annie Act’ after the moniker embraced by
Johnston – was passed in August 1959, about a year before The Misfits began shoot-
ing. Much of the public and congressional debate aimed, in the words of the bill, ‘to
prohibit the use of aircraft or motor vehicles to hunt certain wild horses or burros
on land belonging to the United States’ for slaughter as pet food.10 That is, its focus
was specifically the mechanisation and commercialisation of hunting to serve a
recognisably new consumer market (the post-war explosion in pet keeping). This,
then, is the peculiarly modern debasement of mustanging offered by post-war
humanitarianism; Kauffmann refers to it as the issue which (he believes) Roslyn mis-
construes in the ‘hysteria’ of her indiscriminate revulsion against pain and hunting.
Coming back to Croce, she parses this point about Roslyn as ‘Miller’s insistence on
Life [which] has the table banging desperation of liberal evangelism down to its last
Big Idea’.11 Here, then, we finally see the complex of artistic priorities that these crit-
ics’ understanding of film aesthetics explicitly disavows. It is the idea of cinema not
only as a moral encounter with the problematics of modernity but precisely as an
attempt to redress the wider problems of social and ethical detachment that (for
Miller at least) characterise post-war life. More profoundly still, the film is an indict-
ment of the violence against both human and animal life, which is not exclusive to
modernity but nevertheless become ever more present in it.
As a way to frame a reading of the film in these terms, I would like to draw out
the impact on animal life of the modernity that it takes as its critical object. In
common with the post-war economics that massively intensified all food produc-
tion, the pet food economy was itself driven by vigorous commercial investment
that linked technological development with the recruitment of health profession-
als (veterinary dieticians) actively to promote commercially produced meat prod-
ucts as the best route to the ideal of animal health. In this light, hunting horses for
canning is only a late phase in the passage towards a fully industrialised and lat-
erally integrated food production in the post-war period which was aided by the
application of extrusion technology to pet food manufacture, developed by
Ralston-Purina in 1957.12 Post-war animal life (both pets and meat animals) is
thus taken over into what Michel Foucault terms biopower, in which biological
life is produced and shaped by political, economic and technological means.13 If
the mustang hunt has a peculiarity in this economic history, it is only that by
requiring non-routinised manual labour – the quality all three key male characters
stress in their obsessive claim that the hunt is ‘better than wages’ – it retains the
flavour of a pre-industrial agricultural arrangement of human–animal relations. In


this, it is a synecdoche of Kauffmann’s 1850 world of an untroubled compact

between humanity and the natural world, in which animals’ lives and freedoms are
sacrificed in the achievement of human domesticity. Of course, The Misfits will
make clear that the memory of such a world can be no more than vestigial when
the mustang hunt requires mechanical capability (Gay’s truck and Guido’s plane)
and results in trading for slaughter and industrial canning. So much is revealed in
Gay’s (Clark Gable) final disconsolate recognition about his cowboy life, that ‘they
smeared it all over with blood’ – his melancholy attachment to an obsolete hero-
ism is captured well by the desperate need to personify the faceless systematic his-
torical conditions of post-war life.
If sacrifice is the word that names the anthropocentric fantasy of animal killing
without violence, then it is an eventual purpose of the film, or rather of Roslyn’s
embracing of life – and with it her attack on suffering and killing per se – to point
up the violence within this foundational biopolitical ideal. It is, of course, a much
harsher truth than the one posed by an environmental-humanist critique of indus-
trial modernity, which would celebrate some restorative engagement with the wild
(of the sort that motivates the movement for wilderness protection, which was
being debated in congress at the same time as the wild horse legislation). It is to
take seriously a genuine critique of the foundational violence inherent in animal
use, something that cannot be imagined by Kauffmann and is explicitly compro-
mised away by animal welfare-focused humanitarians like Velma Johnston. One
of the most powerful aspects of her statement to the House Judiciary
Subcommittee offers up an attack on the support given by the Federal Bureau of
Land Management to the ‘private interests [which] have again won in their
demands for the monopolistic use of the ranges to the exclusion of everything that
is not commercially profitable’.14 Precisely foreshadowing Roslyn’s commitments,
Johnston states:

nothing will ever eliminate cruelty to animals completely. We are dealing with …
individuals to whom a life means nothing. Even an animal life. It has no part in
their way of life. It seems to me that the fast dollar will always have a sadistic

Here, the critique of capitalism, giving way to a basic attack on greed, voices a fun-
damental challenge to animal killing. And yet, the more troubling reality of this
position is Johnston’s vision of a calculated biopolitical control of animal life in
which ‘the horses [will] be placed under the strict ownership and control of the
government, with skilled custodians to periodically dispose of the inferior animals
by shooting’.16 The enthusiasm shown for such measures by witnesses Johnston
marshalled on the humanitarian side may have been largely tactical, to ensure
smooth passage of the bill. Still, this position clearly harbours an unresolved ten-
sion between the sympathetic respect for all horses’ lives that propels it and the
various deathly interventions it licenses.

Animal Life and Moral Agency in Post-war Cinema

There are a number of scenes in The Misfits in which Roslyn and Gay discuss
the morality of humans’ power to kill animals, thus making the political nature of
relations between the species unusually explicit, and the crucial force of compet-
ing ideas about violence in Roslyn and Gay’s relationship becomes clear. In one,
Roslyn challenges Gay’s righteous fury (and his reaching for a rifle) when rabbits
infiltrate a lettuce patch he has planted while renovating the derelict house owned
by Guido (Eli Wallach). Miller’s script sets in motion a key antinomy in the film:
Roslyn’s capacious sense of justice, which radically extends across species lines,
fights against Gay’s (equally radical) defensive conservatism.

GAY: What have we here now? Just plain old rabbit. I’m gonna get ’im!
ROSLYN: It’s just one lettuce; maybe he won’t do it anymore?
GAY: No ma’am, once they’ve zeroed in on that garden it’s them or us. There
won’t be a thing left inside of a week.
ROSLYN: Couldn’t you wait and see? I can’t stand to see anything killed, Gay.
GAY: Honey, it’s only a rabbit!
ROSLYN: But it’s alive and it doesn’t know any better, does it?

Rather than attempting to resolve the politico-moral questions here – is it right to

kill competitors for food? What is the value of a rabbit’s life? – both Gay and
Roslyn instead demand that the other capitulate as a show of the respect that
would prove romantic love. For Gay this is nothing less than a patriarchal right;
but for Roslyn having to plead for a basic recognition of her feelings shows that
her relationship with Gay has not obviated the problems that caused her divorce
(which opens the film). The argument itself shows how intractable is the test that
human–animal relations pose for morality and power, but it is rerouted and dissi-
pated when the ground crucially shifts to personality.
As with many determined attempts to take the status of animals seriously within
a wider sociopolitical context, the scene cannot but risk bathos; not least because
Gay’s desperation to patrol the domestic space so clearly plays out the paranoid
political posturing of the Cold War by reworking the basic narrative setup of the
Warner Bros. Bugs Bunny cartoon (1940–), with himself as Elmer Fudd. But per-
haps the tone is right when the scene is framed by Guido, the redundant bomber
pilot, flying over the garden – probably (as Gay points out) hired by sheep ranch-
ers to shoot predatory eagles, paying no mind to their national symbolic status. It
is a topsy-turvy society in which American ideals are emptied out of authentic sig-
nificance and comfortably sacrificed in service of post-war agricultural priorities.
What is fascinating about the shape of this scene, though, is its suggestion that the
morality of human–animal relations is as inextricable from the interpersonal pol-
itics of gender and romantic love as they both are from the wider sociopolitical
dynamics of post-war America. For it is within this complex of ideas that we can
find the beginnings of Miller’s and in turn the film’s exposition of Monroe’s moral


The unresolved tension over the ethics of human–animal relations is one of sev-
eral elements in the film’s second act that compromise the rural idyll it tests out as
an ideal post-war environment. As Guido’s debased new use for his piloting skills
attests, these play out as increasingly desperate traits of masculinity. Gay’s contin-
ued and often discomfiting objectification of Roslyn – shown on the one hand by
what Kauffman calls the ‘lubricious peering’ of Huston’s camera and on the other
by Gay literally sizing Roslyn up in relation to his daughter – fails to alleviate his
melancholy about having abandoned his children. Equally, Gay’s enthusiasm for
the performed machismo of the rodeo is shown to be little more than a corrupt and
ersatz paternity as he nurses Perce (Montgomery Clift) (a man whose own father
was accidentally shot by hunters) to ready him for another painful fall. Roslyn sees
here nothing but violence to both men and horses. When Guido shows her the
application of the flank strap that ‘grabs [the horses] where they don’t like it’, he
suggests the incorrect but widely held belief that it is applied to the genitals of male
horses and claims there could be no saddle bronc contest without it; but Roslyn
counters him bluntly: ‘then they shouldn’t have a rodeo’. Monroe delivers the line
compellingly, with a frustrated anger that melts into powerless pity and fear. At
this point, however, as the restorative ideal of Western rural domesticity and leisure
is shown to be empty, Roslyn has little scope to alter the narrative’s redemption-
seeking logic, which pushes with the men towards an ever more violent encounter
with horses on the alkali flats.
The crisis of masculinity, then, offers up many examples of the inauthenticity
corrupting a film built on the image of a fifty-nine-year-old Clark Gable as the
cowboy reduced to selling horses into an urban pet economy. Miller’s inspiration
for the first composition of ‘The Misfits’ as a short story for Esquire in 1957 was
a surreal meeting outside Reno with two rodeo men turned mustang hunters who
passed their time reading ‘Playboy and its clones and Western stories’. For them,
‘the movie cowboy was the real one, they the imitations. The final triumph of art,
at least this kind of art, was to make a man feel less reality in himself than in an
image.’17 It is almost certain that these two men – the inspirations for the Western
roper Gay Langland and the Italian-American pilot Guido DeLinni – were in fact
Hugh Marchbank and Bill Garaventa, mustang hunters who feature in just these
roles in a satirical portrait of Reno life published in the New Yorker by A. J.
Liebling in 1954.18 If so, this would establish the most direct of connections
between The Misfits and the 1959 legislation. Photos exemplifying the cruelty of
the hunt with which Johnston accompanied the submission that convinced con-
gress to ban the hunt were taken secretly on a mustanging trip in 1951 that was
led by Garaventa.19
As Miller develops the short story, its meaning is profoundly shaped by his
experience as a writer of the Cold War. Living in England with Monroe for the
filming of The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), Miller is approached by a provin-
cial policeman who delivers him to be gently questioned by a British Foreign Office
official about his plans. The scene plays out like a cross between Franz Kafka and

Animal Life and Moral Agency in Post-war Cinema

the Boulting Brothers. After it is made tacitly but firmly clear that he must return
to the US, Miller is chauffeured home. He writes:

no wonder it was so difficult to name the real, to touch it, and to feel one’s bedrock
authenticity … I had my twin in the car with me, an impersonator whose face I
shaved every morning … but who apparently had only the barest resemblance to
me, else how could I have been imagined a candidate for flight from the United
States, a country I loved as much as my twin was reputed to hate it.20

For Miller, this psycho-political splitting is a dehumanising of the self, an existen-

tial duplicity that bespeaks a broader Cold War reality: ‘the worst war in history
only a decade past, the two main allies against Hitlerism were at each other’s
throats, or almost. Pointlessness was life’s principle, and it spread its sadness.’21
The duplicity of the Cold War, by shaking the sure grounds of individual authen-
ticity, results in politico-ethical negativity in the form of depression, enervation,
and pessimism. He senses that this negation has a profoundly destructive, indeed
violent, effect on American society. Putting this in the terms of the ‘The Misfits’,
he writes: ‘three men who cannot locate a home on earth for themselves … for
something to do, capture wild horses to be butchered for canned dog food’.22
The optimistic humanism of Miller’s response to this vision of Cold War social
reality is recognisable in his insistence that alienation can be counteracted by a
renewed personal authenticity. On the one hand, this takes the form of an attempt
to reawaken an environmental ethic. Miller says when he is developing the story
into a novel in 1959 that it ‘is concerned with the intimate relationship between
people and nature, our responsibility towards natural things, animal life, that does
exist however deep it may be buried, and which must be reasserted’.23 His focus
on redemptive intimacy coupled with responsibility for life is a characteristic state-
ment of post-war environmental humanism. As the garden scene shows, however,
reasserting responsibility for animal life in the context of interpersonal relations com-
plicates this fuzzy and generalised environmentalist intimacy by dramatising moral
conflict over particular animals’ lives. And for Miller, an awakening to intimacy goes
hand in hand with the reimagining of heterosexual romance. Thus, the alternative
the story proposes to the cowboys’ displaced destructiveness is embodied by Roslyn:
‘a woman as homeless as they, but whose intact sense of life’s sacredness suggests
a meaning for existence’.24
This, however, is one of his autobiography’s eponymously time-bent moments.
Although the context for these reflections is Miller’s writing of the original short
story in early 1957, he has clearly shifted his thoughts to the film. In the story,
Roslyn only appears in characters’ thoughts and with none of the characteristics
Miller mentions. It is clear that the key figure shaping the optimism of his imagi-
nation at this point is Monroe herself. He offers an interpretation of her character
that allows him to reframe political morality in terms of both vulnerability and
sensitivity, and through these towards an extensive commitment to ‘life’ that


compels compassion in others. This aspect of character given to Roslyn is, Miller
says, explicitly learned from Monroe. He mentions, for example, an incident from
around the time that the film was conceived, in which he feels obliged to intervene
to stop Monroe ‘working the shoreline until she dropped’ rescuing by-catch dis-
carded on a beach by local fishermen.25 ‘Whatever Marilyn was she was not indif-
ferent’, he writes; ‘her very pain bespoke life and the wrestling with the angel of
death. She was a living rebuke to anyone who didn’t care.’26
In Miller’s characterisation of Monroe as a moral agent here, there is a seman-
tic linkage of ethical concern with personal pain and of this pattern with the valu-
ing of life itself. Monroe challenges the political disaffection resulting from
post-war duplicity and compromise. This challenge appears not in the form of con-
ventional political speech or action but in that of an inarticulate and, crucially,
living rebuke. Moral opprobrium is portrayed as coterminous with Monroe’s very
being, rather than a detached or intellectualised moral rationality. In its very inar-
ticulacy and direct connection with life, Monroe’s moral force enacts the authen-
ticity that Miller sees everywhere destroyed in the post-war period. It is an
authenticity in which ethical or political existence is no longer separated from a
social self (as are Miller and his ‘twin’); a form of moral honesty that counter-
mands the deleterious sociopolitical effects of the Cold War.
Jacqueline Rose argues that the problem with this characterisation of Monroe
is that Miller allows her only a pain that must bespeak its rebuke rather than the
voice that might actually speak it in an act of social or political agency.27 This is
because, Rose argues, his attitude recapitulates the wider fantasy of Monroe in
post-war America, which seeks a kind of redemptive grace through her supposed
innocence (a synonym for authenticity in this context) in the form of its obsession
with her quasi-mythical natural beauty. Rose broadly accepts Miller’s diagnosis of
the Cold War, in which ‘America was in yet another of her reactionary phases and
social consciousness was a dying memory’, and continues:

in this context, Hollywood escapism takes on a whole new gloss. Political hope
fades and the unconscious of the nation goes into national receivership, with one
woman above all others – hence, I would suggest, the frenzy she provokes – being
asked to foot the bill, to make good the loss.28

Rose is certainly right to challenge the fetishism that idolises Monroe, or indeed
Roslyn, in terms of the psychosocially restorative power of moral purity or authen-
ticity; with this she is extending a line of critique also found in both Kael’s and
Croce’s responses to the film. And there is certainly plenty of evidence in Miller’s
autobiographical writings for just this position. However, a crucial but often over-
looked scene in The Misfits – the meeting of the romantic leads – suggests that a
much more self-reflexive reading of Monroe’s force on screen is possible; this
focuses precisely on the questions of authenticity and celebrity and links these to
responsibility to animal life. The scene unfolds as an ironic reworking of the

Animal Life and Moral Agency in Post-war Cinema

conventional meet-cute trope, in which the romantic leads encounter one another,
especially in some socially awkward or otherwise flawed way. This trope functions
in classical Hollywood comedy to announce simultaneously both the uniqueness
and the fatefulness of the romantic encounter. As such, it countermands the danger
that a romance played by two recognisable stars must necessarily be somehow
generic or unreal, instead offering the relationship a kind of transcendental neces-
sity that is all the better underscored by star status. It is the simultaneous effect of
these two characteristics, uniqueness and fatefulness, that allows the generic trope
of the meet-cute to produce the effect of authentic and genuine romance.
Conventionally enough, Gay’s dog Tom Dooley occasions the meeting when
Roslyn spots him in a bar, but she proceeds to ignore Gay’s obvious attempt to
seduce her in order to feed table scraps to the dog. Whereas this misfiring should
ordinarily act as a feint that silently signals a more profound romantic connection,
this element simply stalls as Monroe plays the scene (against Miller’s stage direc-
tion) by keeping her focus intently, at times joyously, on feeding Tom Dooley.29
Her performance undercuts the generic code that performs authenticity in excess
of celebrity. It does so by portraying a responsive and physical attention to an
animal’s living being that is diametrically opposed to the murderous pet food econ-
omy of which mustanging is the film’s exemplar.30
The power of The Misfits comes, I am suggesting, from the film’s ability, in the
character of Roslyn, to embrace life by staring down the fantasy that animal killing
is a life-giving sacrifice rather than plain death dealing. I want to offer two further
examples of this by interpreting a key moment for animal ethics in the film, in
which Roslyn runs into the distance and indicts the men: ‘Murderers! Killers!
Murderers! You liars! All of you Liars! You’re only happy when you can see some-
thing die? Why don’t you kill yourselves and be happy! You and your God’s coun-
try! Freedom … I pity you!’ For Rose, this scene is one in which the restricted
moral vision of the three hunters is confirmed by a camera that views Roslyn from
their perspective. She writes:

Going against the screenplay, Houston [sic] does not bring her back into close-up
for these words, but keeps her writhing and screaming at a distance, so when Gay
[sic] says ‘She’s crazy,’ the camera tells him [sic] he is right.

The Misfits (1961)


[Monroe] was furious. ‘I convince them by throwing a fit… not by explaining

why it’s wrong. I guess they thought I was too dumb to explain anything. So I
have a fit. A screaming, crazy fit.’ She couldn’t bear that her character was not
allowed to be mentally equal to the ethical task she is allowed, only screaming,
to perform. [...] It could have been one of the most radical moments in her film
career, the occasion where she offers up her diagnosis, explains what’s wrong
with America[.] 31

Rose’s central claim is that the tragedy of Monroe’s celebrity in the post-war
period is that she is forbidden to speak in the voice of political rationality. This is
a worry that Johnston certainly shared, understanding precisely the rhetorical con-
trol needed to manage gendered expectations in the political arena. Speaking after
her testimony, she explained that ‘because it is expected of a woman’ she had long
avoided ‘the luxury of sentimentality’ so that she ‘could meet any opposition to
our legislation with an objectivity that has commanded respect, if not agree-
ment’.32 A hysterical Roslyn, on the contrary, may not participate in the liberal
democratic (that is, humanist) ideal of reform in which the best index of moral
rigor and action is the progressive revelation or explanation of truth.
The problem with this ideal – or rather with the way that it follows Monroe’s
portrayal of a choice between the innocent-hysteric and the reasoning political
agent – is shown up by one of two important mistakes in Rose’s analysis of the
film.33 Roslyn furiously responds to Guido when he offers to stop the horse hunt
only if she gives him a reason (that is, by offering herself to him romantically): ‘a
reason? You, a sensitive fellow … so sad for his wife. Crying to me about the
bombs you dropped and the people you killed. You have to get something to be
human?’ Misattributing the moment to an attack on Gay – and thus as part of a
moral schema in which Gay is the problem and Roslyn the solution – Rose does
not discuss its heaviest of ironies. By turning on the word ‘reason’, Roslyn’s
response points up a fundamental risk in the ideal of morality, in which ‘reasons’
– that is, unprejudiced convictions – should provide the basis of moral duty. This
logic, however, is easily perverted when moral action is made conditional on some
pragmatic or self-centred benefit that stands as such a reason. In this case it is
Guido’s hope of sexual reward, but the film is full of Gay’s corrections of Roslyn’s
wilful idealism with rationalisations of animal killing – not least that it beats wage
labour. In this context, rather than a principle of calm rationality that might well
have a lot in common with a realism that condones killing, it is precisely the
scathing sarcasm of Roslyn’s response to Guido that grants a broader power to her
explanation and critique of the kind of self-interested rationalising that is used to
limit moral responsibility. And alongside this, Roslyn’s outrage offers a simulta-
neous expression of her demand for a properly limitless ethical response that com-
mands an end to killing. Indeed, Miller reports that Monroe especially decried
what she called ‘“lallygagging”, temporising, the absence of strong and even mirac-
ulous liberating blows’.34

Animal Life and Moral Agency in Post-war Cinema

In the long quotation above, Rose also misattributes the assertion that Roslyn
is ‘crazy’ to Gay instead of Guido; doing so, she cannot account for the extent to
which this moment in the film works to institute a break in the hunters’ associa-
tion. If all three men do watch Roslyn in the distance, they do not all see the same
thing. Indeed, far from being confirmed by the camera, Guido’s misogynistic par-
rying of Roslyn’s attack marks just the moment that his alienation from Gay is
assured. The tracking close-up, which frames Gay on the privileged left of the
screen, portrays Guido’s petulant, misogynist complaint as the irrelevant counter-
point to the true moral action of the scene. This is Roslyn’s impact on Gay, which
is aligned with the literally touching empathy between the horses at whom Gay
looks down.
Rose indicts Huston’s portrayal of Roslyn, affirming Monroe’s anger about it
as well as her assumption that moral agency must take the shape of rational con-
viction to exist at all. And yet, I think we mistake the radical possibilities in
Monroe’s portrayal of Roslyn if we insist on an opposition in which only reason-
able articulacy equates to the properly political, in turn relegating to the realm of
misogynist fantasy the idea of moral concern as a bespeaking of ‘life’. For, as the
veiled threat of rendition Miller experienced in the UK makes clear, one ought not,
in a culture of Cold War paranoia, to retain faith in the liberal ideal of a public
sphere that can deliver moral clarity through reasoned argument and articulate
expression. Seen through the critical lens of Miller’s humanism, post-war America
has been perverted by political cant; bureaucratic technocracy; culture reduced to
either trash or dogma; creeping commodity fetishism; and the simulation of iden-
tities in place of authentic lives. In this context, the ideal that agonistic democracy
might offer moral clarity hosts an apolitical fantasy – a world in which agreement
can be assured without violence – just as much as does Miller’s myth of Monroe
as an ethical ‘living rebuke’.35 Moreover, even if it were the case that explanation-
as-truth-telling generally carries the moral-political force that Rose believes it does
in the non-cinematic context of American society, it does not follow that it carries
the same force on screen, at whatever point and in whatever cinematic form.
Would that not be – at root – an argument for didacticism over art?
During the filming of the mustang roundup, Huston’s camera cuts between
Guido’s plane in flight and the horses galloping away from it, seen from the per-
spective of the pilot. Huston films the horses from a truck, though; in reality, the
plane Guido is flying (a hubristically named model, the Meyers ‘Out To Win’)
cannot fly slowly enough to drive horses in this way. By using editing technology
to countermand the reality of aviation technology here, Huston’s camera works
anthropocentrically, not only to effect the illusion of audience participation with
Guido in a hunt, but, more profoundly to present the roundup itself in terms of a
‘hunt’. Editing shapes the repeated aerial passes required to round the animals up
into a chase, a more recognisable form of conventional dramatic excitement.36
By contrast, in the crucial moment in which Roslyn indicts the hunters, an-
thropocentrism is radically undermined by what is for Huston a very uncharacteristic


moment of modernist direction. Whereas Miller’s script repeatedly calls for long
shots of the characters, intending to evoke a sense of existential abandonment, this
is the only proper example of such a shot that Huston allows. ‘The effect’, as J. M.
Coetzee puts it in his essay on The Misfits, ‘is disturbing.’ Against the convention
of narrative cinema, the camera does not present Roslyn’s apostrophe in close-up
shot/reverse-shot/two-shot (what Coetzee calls ‘an opportunity for acting in an old
fashioned sense’).37 This would be to frame her words as the fundamental expres-
sion of her moral self – with Roslyn emerging as an authentic human being in the
moment of expressing to the others her sympathy for animals and showing her
rage against violence and its incorporation into society. Such would be the tech-
nique of a humanist cinema, portraying Roslyn’s indictment of mustang hunting
as a humanitarian ethical event that emerges only within the human constituency
that it would thereby ensure. Instead, Huston offers an all-too-brief assemblage of
camera, character-actor, listeners-audience, landscape and the horses that inhabit
it. Running away, like the horses from the hunters, Roslyn’s moral agency is
embodied in space as much as it is articulated in words; it is therefore commensu-
rate, precisely, with her expression of affinity for animal life. This makes perfect
sense as a portrayal of Roslyn’s fundamental attack on a humanism that is in the
broadest sense founded on violence against animals.
But a recalcitrant problem exists in the mythic parcelling out of moral agency
in the film narrative overall into the realm of ethical recognition and influence on
the one hand (Roslyn) and human impact on the world more broadly on the other
(Gay). This means that the only effective recognition of human violence – a recog-
nition in which moral influence is internalised and becomes properly authentic
action – emerges in and through another violent human encounter with nature.
This is the virtuoso three-minute climactic sequence in which Gay catches and then
subdues the wild stallion that has been released by Perce; he does this only to
release the mustang in an act designed to confirm his ultimate authority: ‘I don’t
want nobody making up my mind for me, that’s all.’ If the long shot of Roslyn’s
indictment is a moment when cinema offers a posthumanist critique of anthropo-
centric animal killing, then here is the paradoxical limit-point of Miller’s human-
ist imagining of moral agency in the script. It is caught in a mythic replaying of
violent domestication in which Gay (and only Gay) with ultimate irony must risk
his own body in the violent domination of a horse so that he can assume the moral
authority to release it. The fact that such principles are so clearly gendered is
another complicating factor in this parcelling out of agency as we look to the
restorative significance of romantic resolution in the film. For to the extent that
Roslyn finally aligns herself romantically with Gay, reaffirming him as the romance
hero, her moral influence becomes subsumed into his larger moral heroism. The
apparent completion of this resolution is signified when Gay stops the truck in
which he is driving Roslyn back to the city so that she can fetch the dog, Tom
Dooley. Roslyn is able to do this on her own terms: he is no longer a harbinger of
death, but a figure of shared life. Coupled with Roslyn’s apparent willingness to

Animal Life and Moral Agency in Post-war Cinema

bear Gay’s child, then, taking in the dog enacts the film’s trust in the possibility of
social renewal. But it remains a tentative, ambivalent ending in which the symbol-
ism of a hoped-for domesticity is overdetermined by the resonances of alienation
and an unknown futurity. Roslyn’s influence has put a possible new life into
motion; but for all that she has brought him to a masculinity that abjures violence
and destruction, it is Gay that drives them through the empty landscape.
Here it is crucial to return to my epigraphs – to Monroe herself and to Velma
Johnston and to the reality of human violence against animals that their pity for
horses allowed them to see and forced them to reject. For these moments simulta-
neously exceed and shine a critical light on the compromises of humanist/humane
action in post-war politics and cinema. I have suggested that The Misfits achieves
its combined artistic and socio-ethical purpose – that is, its cinematic meaning – by
insisting through its affirmation of Gay’s climactic encounter with the stallion that
post-war morality must only emerge in the paradoxical acceptance and rejection
of violence. And yet, the precondition of that climactic point is Monroe’s portrayal
of Roslyn, which points up the reality of humanity’s violence towards animal life.
In this collapsing of heroic action and moral influence we must not overlook a slip-
page between the real and represented moral worlds of the production. Precisely
because of its complex recognition of the sacrificial logic of post-war morality, the

‘Wild Horse Roped to Tire’, Gus Bundy (courtesy of Special Collections, University of Nevada, Reno


United Artists production The Misfits cannot escape the (considerably quieter)
indictment that Monroe’s concern for the bleeding horse offers of the production’s
own violence. Her presence in the film insists that violence against horses cannot
be rationalised as a necessary sacrifice to non-alienated labour; to masculine
prowess or pride; to a coherent national identity; to community leisure; to the need
for pet food; nor, finally, to film art. If this is the case, then the film’s artistic revi-
sion of post-war morality cannot license its animal trainer Corky Randall’s
recourse to violence in forcing a stallion to rear up in order to capture a close-up
for that climactic final scene. This is something Randall did, despite the presence
on set of one Colonel Paul Ridge of the ASPCA, by firing his air rifle into the nose
of ‘Boots’, a seasoned actor with twenty years of work behind him, who doubles
for the wild horse.38 Neither, more generally, can the film be absolved of uneasy
complicity with the very business whose abusive nature it so effectively calls to
account. For the production relied on a large team of wranglers led by Randall’s
former boss, Bill Jones at Republic Studios, to capture and ‘break’ no fewer than
thirty wild horses from the Nevada mountains and hire dozens more animals from
the rodeos of the Midwest.39 What happened to these displaced cast members after
filming wrapped is nowhere recorded.
How, then, might cinema work to resist not only this kind of sacrifice of ani-
mals but its very basis: the supposedly rational necessity of human violence toward
animal life? This remains the challenge of The Misfits.

1. James Goode, The Story of the Misfits, (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1963),
pp. 237–8.
2. US House. Subcommittee No 2. of the Committee on the Judiciary. Transcript of
the Hearings of […] Subcommittee […], 15 July 1959 (Washington: Government
Printing Office, 1959), p. 34.
3. ‘Across the Great Divide: Arthur Miller’s The Misfits’, New Republic (20 February
1961), http://www.tnr.com/article/film/across-the-great-divide; Arlene Croce,
‘Review of The Misfits’, Sight and Sound vol. 30 no. 3 (1961), pp. 142–4, 142.
4. Pauline Kael, ‘Fantasies of the Art-House Audience’, in I Lost It at the Movies:
Film Writings 1954–1965 (New York: Marion Boyars, 2007), pp. 31–43, 37.
5. Kael, ‘Fantasies of the Art-House Audience’, p. 31.
6. Croce, ‘Review of The Misfits’, p. 143.
7. Ibid.
8. Kael, ‘Fantasies of the Art-House Audience’, p. 37.
9. Kauffman, ‘Across the Great Divide’.
10. See US House. Subcommittee No. 2 of the Committee on the Judiciary. Report of
[…] Subcommittee […], 15 July 1959 (Washington: Government Printing Office,
1959), pp. 22–36. See also David Cruise and Alison Griffiths, Wild Horse Annie
and the Last of the Mustangs (New York: Scribner, 2010).

Animal Life and Moral Agency in Post-war Cinema

11. Croce, ‘Review of The Misfits’, p. 144.

12. Lew Olson, Raw and Natural Nutrition for Dogs: The Definitive Guide to
Homemade Meals (Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2010), pp. 3–7.
13. See Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, trans. Robert Hurley, 3 vols,
Volume 1: The Will to Knowledge (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990), pp. 135–45.
14. US House. Subcommittee No. 2. of the Committee on the Judiciary, Report, p. 29.
15. Ibid., p. 55.
16. Ibid., p. 31.
17. Arthur Miller, Timebends: A Life (London: Methuen, 1987), p. 382.
18. Elmer C. Russo also makes this claim in the introduction to his A. J. Liebling:
A Reporter at Large (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2000), p. xix.
19. The archive of Gus Bundy, including the 1951 photos of Bill Garaventa’s hunt that
were used by Johnston at the committee hearings, is held at the library of the
University of Nevada, Reno.
20. Miller, Timebends, p. 438.
21. Ibid., p. 439.
22. Ibid.
23. Kenneth Allsop, ‘A Conversation with Arthur Miller’, Encounter vol. 13
(July–December 1959), pp. 58–60, 59.
24. Miller, Timebends, p. 438.
25. Ibid., p. 457.
26. Ibid., p. 439.
27. Jacqueline Rose, ‘A Rumbling of Things Unknown’, London Review of Books
vol. 34 no. 8 (2012), pp. 29–34.
28. Ibid., pp. 32–3.
29. See the shooting script from September 1959, in George P. Garrett, O. B. Harrison,
and Jane R. Gelfman (eds), Film Scripts Three (New York: Irvington, 1989),
pp. 202–382, 224.
30. The dog as an ambivalent symbol of both death and life: Tom Dooley is the name
both of a nineteenth-century murder ballad that was a popular hit for the Kingston
Trio in 1958 and of a widely known doctor working in Laos and Vietnam (who
also happened to be a CIA informant): see James T. Fisher, Dr America: The Lives
of Thomas A. Dooley, 1927–1961 (Boston: University of Massachusetts Press,
31. Rose, ‘A Rumbling of Things Unknown’, p. 34.
32. Representative Baring, ‘Velma Johnston Feted by Defenders of Wildlife’,
Congressional Record 105, 16 July 1959, p. A6164.
33. These errors are repeated in her Women in Dark Times (London: Bloomsbury,
2014), pp. 133–4.
34. Miller, Timebends, p. 467.
35. Ibid., p. 439.
36. In this case, the coincidence of anthropocentric technique and animal suffering is
unavoidable: in ‘Making The Misfits’, part of the Great Performances series


broadcast on PBS (dir. by Gail Levin, 2002), it is claimed that a horse was struck by
the plane during the shooting of this scene which the unit director, Tom Shaw, had
encouraged to fly as low as possible.
37. J. M. Coetzee, ‘Arthur Miller, The Misfits’, in Inner Workings: Literary Essays 2000–
2005 (London: Harvill Secker, 2007), pp. 222–7, 225.
38. Goode, The Story of the Misfits, pp. 195–7.
39. Ibid., p. 198.

Nicole Shukin and Sarah O’Brien

11 Being Struck
On the Force of Slaughter and Cinematic Affect

How might we approach the visceral copula of cinema and slaughter? While seem-
ingly incomparable in their workings, slaughter and cinema – the former weighted
with the material gravity of death, the latter in the lively business of moving images
– can in unexpected ways be seen as sympathetic and continuous. Numerous critics
have probed the material-historical relationships between moving images and the
killing of nonhuman animals by observing, among other things, that ‘shooting’ with
a camera sublimates the violence of hunting with a gun (Sontag); that in their linear
progression and direction slaughter and cinema follow uncannily parallel lines (in
describing tours of slaughterhouses, Noëlie Vialles remarks that ‘seeing round an
abattoir in the opposite direction would be like watching a film backwards’); that the
early photochemical development of moving images is literally contingent upon the
rendering of animal remains (Shukin); and that as post-industrial cineplexes come to
occupy old abattoirs in many urban centres, the spectral economy of moving images
turns the material space of slaughter on its head (Brantz).1
In what follows, we initiate a different approach to the biopolitics of moving
images and slaughter. It is one that draws attention to traces or residues of the sov-
ereign power of slaughter in the aesthetic registers of cinema and, more specifically,
in its powers of affect. Following Foucault, we understand sovereign power as ‘the
right to take life or let live’, although Foucault has only humans in mind when he dis-
cusses those subjected to this form of power. Complicating film philosophies and
practices that associate the affect excited by moving images with positive critical or
transformative force, we propose that it is when artists calculate affect’s power to
move bodies – when cinema’s aim is aesthetically and biopolitically formulated as
making feel – that its methods unexpectedly evoke those of slaughter. Expanding
upon Foucault’s definition of biopower as the power ‘to “make” live and “let” die’
(in contrast with sovereign power), we explore how the instrumentalisation of
cinema’s power to make feel marks a site where the taking and the awakening of life
paradoxically share techniques even as they dramatically differ in their material
We examine the resemblance between techniques of slaughter and cinematic
affect via readings of two films that explicitly deploy affect to political ends. The

first, Sergei Eisenstein’s seminal early film Strike (1925), compels analysis of how
dialectical montage as a technique that collides images toward the communication
of maximum affect is formally modelled upon the delivery of the stunning blow
that fells an animal.3 We ourselves are struck by the image and idiom of ‘striking’
in Eisenstein’s film as it marks the site of an unexpected continuity between
humans’ sovereign power to take animal life and cinema’s aesthetic power to make
feel. Far from an isolated example specific to Eisenstein’s philosophy and experi-
mental practice of montage, we suggest that political cinema across the twentieth
and early twenty-first centuries, and particularly the charged genre that Jonathan
Burt terms ‘pro-animal film’, represents an intensifying paradox to the extent that
its aggressively directed affect re-enacts the sovereign force – paradigmatically exe-
cuted in the human slaughter of animals – against which it agitates.4 The 2009
documentary The Cove can in this sense be read in genealogy with Eisenstein’s
Strike, despite the historical distance and profound differences separating
Eisenstein’s vision of a socialist, revolutionary cinema from The Cove’s quasi-para-
military mobilisation of cinematic capital in a documentary designed to expose the
scandal of slaughter.5 We seek to amplify the contradictions in The Cove between
its ends and its means, that is, between its political aim of moving spectators to
feeling and social protest against an annual slaughter of dolphins in Taiji, Japan,
and its own morally justified use of cinematic affect as a striking tool.
If ‘striking’ as a filmic idiom and technique implicates the visceral force of cine-
matic affect in the death blow of slaughter, drawing attention to it not only com-
plicates the politics that disparate films like Strike and The Cove attach to their
techniques of making feel, but has ramifications for how the larger relationship
between aesthetics and politics is conceived at the intersection of cinema and
animal studies. The imbrication of cinema in slaughter prompts further analysis of
cinema’s relation to what Jacques Rancière calls the ‘distribution of the sensible’
(partage du sensible). The distribution of the sensible is Rancière’s term for an aes-
thetic ordering of perception that partitions bodies, knowledges and abilities into
the times, spaces and activities to which they ostensibly belong, apportioning cer-
tain shares or parts in the political community to some members while excluding
others. As Rancière writes, the distribution of the sensible ‘is a delimitation of
spaces and times, of the visible and the invisible, of speech and noise’.6 He even
describes it as ‘an a priori distribution of the positions and capacities and incap-
acities attached to these positions’.7 For Rancière, the aesthetic practices of litera-
ture, theatre, painting, photography and cinema name relationships between the
visible/invisible and sayable/unsayable, thus holding a potential to propose new
relations between them. It is this potential that Rancière sees as the dissensual
essence of politics. As he writes, ‘cinematic images are … relations between the
sayable and the visible’.8 Moreover, Rancière reads cinema within the historical
framework of an ‘aesthetic regime’ that introduces democratic possibilities for dis-
sensus into the given distribution of the sensible. As Jean-Philippe Deranty elabo-

Being Struck

the task of political action … is aesthetic in that it requires a reconfiguration of the

conditions of sense perception so that the reigning configuration between
perception and meaning is disrupted by those elements, groups or individuals in
society that demand not only to exist but indeed to be perceived. A partage du
sensible is thus the vulnerable dividing line that creates the perceptual conditions
for a political community and its dissensus.9

Yet despite his concern for those parts that are excluded from common life,
Rancière fails to address the ‘vulnerable dividing line’ between humans and other
animals. Although Rancière hints at the possible interruption of a community of
sense by nonhumans in his complex theorisation of a ‘‘‘dumb” art’ that allows for
‘the silent speech of things’, he routinely presupposes that the subject of politics is
the ‘human animal’ who possesses a capacity for speech and, collectively, ‘a com-
munity between human beings’.10 We will refer to this partition that itself subtends
the work of Rancière as a distribution of the species. Foregrounding the partition-
ing of species that goes unquestioned within the very concept of the distribution of
the sensible, we simultaneously draw upon Rancière’s study of cinema and note its
limits as we trace the unexpected continuity between the sovereign power of
slaughter and an aesthetic power of cinematic affect.
Even when its political objective is to excite social action against slaughter, how
might cinema protect an intransigent distribution of the species that reveals the
limits of the aesthetic politics ascribed to it by Rancière, among others?

Striking tools: moving images and making feel

In Strike, Eisenstein sought to deploy techniques of cinematic montage to startling
effect by crosscutting shots of a bull’s stunning and slaughter with shots of a brutal
suppression of striking factory workers. This particular image sequence begins
with a series of long shots showing hundreds of insurgent workers scrambling over
an escarpment. It cuts to three shots which, in three flashes, condense the scene of
the bull’s slaughter: a hand thrusts a pole-axe in a downward motion, the weapon
strikes the bull’s head and the animal instantly collapses. There is a cut back to the
woods, where the militia is shown closing in on the workers, then a cut back again
to the bull with a staggered series of shots of its bloodletting.11 The sequence closes
with several long shots of workers who have been slain by gunfire, a closing which
suggests that the images of slaughter are emotionally instrumental, finally, to a
socialist cinema agitating not against the plight of animals but of workers.
Eisenstein calculated (overly optimistically, as it turned out) that the dialectical
montage generated by the collision of shots in this image sequence would be syn-
thesised by his spectators into a form of revolutionary consciousness, spurring
socialist movement against the deadening conditions of capitalist labour.
For Eisenstein, the affect produced by the editing technique of montage was a
precise, well-aimed striking tool. Not unlike the pole-axe that stuns the bull in the


Strike (Stachka, 1925)

piece of found footage used in this particular image sequence, and not unlike the
gunfire with which soldiers cut down the mass of striking factory workers in the
simulation with which it is crosscut, Strike itself fired images as affective projec-
tiles designed to strike with scientific precision and ballistic impact upon specta-
tors’ senses. Eisenstein was committed to a cinema that could deliver ‘a series of
blows to the consciousness and emotions of the audience’.12 As Jonathan Beller
notes, ‘Even Eisenstein himself was interested in the force of his films far more than
in their particular contents.’ Beller identifies the paradigm shift effected by films
like Strike as a shift from the representational content to the form (and force) of
the image, or from ‘meaning to stimulation’. In other words, Eisenstein is credited
with inaugurating a modern cinema in which ‘meaning recedes before pure
affect’.13 As Rancière describes it, the new aesthetic regime in which Eisenstein par-
ticipated sought the ‘becoming-life of art’, perceiving images not in terms of
mimetic resemblance but in terms of the ‘affective power of sheer presence’.14
The calculative rationality that Eisenstein brought to bear upon animal death
– scientifically gauging the power of its affect to viscerally agitate human specta-
tors – challenges any temptation contemporary critics may feel to view the
slaughter–strike sequence as mutually politicising of both of its subjects. Rather
than presenting the violence of animal slaughter as reprehensible by formally cross-
cutting it with the bloody quashing of a workers’ uprising, a sympathetic relay of
another sort is arguably effected by this famous sequence in Strike. This relay

Being Struck

involves the way cinema affectively, formally and historically takes up, as in the
passing of a baton, the pre-industrial force of the pole-axe as a metonym for the
modern ‘cine-fist’, as Eisenstein described the aggressive hand of cinematic mon-
tage.15 Eisenstein’s laconic method is one of the things announced by the film’s title,
which in Russian (Stachka) reads as both verb and substantive (‘to strike’ and ‘the
strike’). Strike does not mince words: in fact, the film less represents and more
demonstrates or performs montage to be a laconic method, namely, a method that
delivers an affective blow as tersely as possible. Beller contends that Strike is less
interested in ‘speaking’ about revolution than it is intent upon the very ‘transferring
of revolutionary movement’ through the energy of its colliding images.16 The laconi-
cism of Eisenstein’s method replicates the non-sentimental efficiency of the pole-axe,
the economy of slaughter. As Beller writes, ‘the film [Strike] is itself conceived as a
tool’.17 Yet Beller views this tool as the third of ‘three belts’, the first consisting of
the belts of the assembly line on which workers labour, and the second of the pants
strap with which one of the workers hangs himself. We propose, instead, that the
tool-likeness of Eisenstein’s method triangulates with the power of the pole-axe and
the rifle to deliver a physical blow. This reading enables us to shift critical attention
from the plight of the worker, to the way the film forwards an anthropological rite
in which humans execute a power of death over other animals.
This canonical sequence in Strike suggests, in other words, that the technology
of montage is developed in formal sympathy with the power to stun and fell ani-
mals. While filmic images of slaughter are deserving of representational analysis,
we are most interested in how they divulge something about cinema’s formal tech-
niques, and about its continuation rather than break with a sovereign use of force
and distribution of the species. Images of slaughter compel one to ask how prac-
tices of cinema might themselves partake in an unequal allotment of parts and
powers to humans and other animals. And as we see it, ‘striking’ marks one of the
spots where slaughter’s unequal distribution of the species is transposed into the
language and techniques of early cinema.
The species distribution at stake might be further described as an anthropol-
ogy of sacrifice, that is, a culture in which ‘man’ assumes the right to slaughter
other animals with impunity. ‘Striking’ indeed resonates with what Derrida
describes as a culture of carno-phallogocentrism centred around a ‘virile figure
who accepts sacrifice and eats flesh’. A carno-phallogocentrism that Derrida traces
back through two centuries of Western culture – the impunity that surrounds the
sacrifice or ‘non-criminal putting to death of animals’ – is the sovereign sense
whose trace or residue we’re arguing can be glimpsed within a practice of cinema
that rationalises the power of making feel.18 However, in the domain of cinema,
the spectator takes the place of the animal body that receives the blow – and the
blow, moreover, is aimed at rousing the spectator to feeling and action rather than
at stunning and felling.
The executive power of the pole-axe is thus emblematic of both this power to
deliver a blow and of the key artistic precept advanced by the tradition of political


cinema we’re sketching: that cinematic affect abolishes the gap between image
and action. In their affective immediacy, images should function not as represen-
tations that mean but as intensities that move bodies with an emotional-physical
force. Slaughter appears to function as the raw image of this ideal simultaneity of
image and action, cause and effect. But to associate this cinematic precept with
the pole-axe, with slaughter, complicates how we understand the part of the spec-
tator in Eisenstein’s work. On the one hand, the slaughter–strike sequence
arguably constitutes a momentary resurgence of an earlier ‘cinema of attractions’
(1895–1906) theorised by Tom Gunning.19 In Gunning’s view, the cinema of
attractions involved spectators who were neither naïve nor passive, but active and
self-conscious subjects who avidly sought out impactful attractions.20 In other
words, the cinema of attractions, and by extension Eisenstein’s montage of attrac-
tions, appears to give the spectator an intelligent and agential share in cinema’s
distribution of sense. On the other hand, the language of the cine-fist and the
strike suggests that the equality of the spectator is a more ambivalent matter in
Eisenstein’s cinema, given that this idiom positions them on the receiving end of
an attraction whose efficiency and force models slaughter. Even as Eisenstein
abhorred the idea of a passive spectator subordinated to screen meanings, then,
his techniques continued to presume an animal body that would receive and
realise the calculated effects of a blow. This distribution of the species is not easily
undone in the aesthetic order of cinema, despite celebrations of the inhumanity
of cinema’s mechanical eye, its indifference to species distinctions, and its equal-
ity effects.
Eisenstein’s techniques of montage evoke slaughter in other respects, as well:
besides the image of the pole-axe, consider the resemblance between what
Eisenstein calls his ‘cutting table’ and the killing floor, suggesting that the technique
of editing and that of butchering an animal demand a space in which the skilled
human hand wields an (ideally) absolute power over its material. Unlike the
butcher, of course, the editor cuts and combines ‘contrapuntal’ images in the cause
of making feel. Eisenstein describes the force of attraction that his leftist cinema
has in common with an ‘agitational’ theatre:

An attraction ... is any aggressive moment in theatre, i.e. any element of it that
subjects the audience to emotional or psychological influence, verified by
experience and mathematically calculated to produce specific emotional shocks in
the spectator.21

In one sense, the director would appear to redistribute the sensible by cutting into
the mimetic relationships of resemblance that for Rancière constitute the regime of
representation. Yet Rancière locates the redistribution effected by cinema not in
the active hand of the auteur but in the equality of the subjects shown by the pas-
sive eye of the camera. Eisenstein at his cutting table is, finally, an auteur sharpen-
ing a montage of attractions that will deploy not just disjunctive visual images to

Being Struck

stimulate feeling, but ‘conflict’ between the visual image and the aural (thanks to
the emergence of sound technology in cinema in the years following Strike). The
‘contrapuntal conflict between the visual and aural overtones’ of images, as
Eisenstein puts it, will generate a (mathematical) sum greater than its parts, which
he describes as ‘the filmic fourth dimension’ of feeling:

For the musical overtone (a throb) it is not strictly fitting

to say ‘I hear.’
Nor for the visual overtone: ‘I see.’
For both, a new uniform formula must enter our
vocabulary: ‘I feel.’ 22

With Eisenstein, we have a science of cinematic affect whose methods remain sov-
ereign despite the ‘positive’ causes of feeling and social equality which they pur-
port to serve.
Other film theorists like Anat Pick suggest that a prohibition on the editor’s
power to cut – a prohibition on montage – may be one condition of a ‘creaturely
cinema’, a cinema that realises an equality beyond the distribution of species that
we’ve been tracking in Eisenstein’s film practice.23 For Pick, a creaturely cinema
makes visible the material necessity, finitude and contingency to which all creatures
are subject, a category of vulnerable life in which species no longer holds as a
meaningful or relevant category. Pick invokes André Bazin’s ‘The Virtues and
Limitations of Montage’, in which Bazin’s argument for a realist cinema involves
placing a ban on the powers of montage that have been of such a piece with the
anti-naturalist aesthetics of modern cinema. ‘When the essence of a scene demands
the simultaneous presence of two or more factors in the action,’ writes Bazin,
‘montage is ruled out.’24 Following Bazin, Pick favours a cinema that more impas-
sively records ‘the precariousness inherent in the cohabitation of heterogeneous ele-
ments’ within a scene, a passive cinema in which the editorial power of the human
artist to purposively direct the scene or try to determine its effects is suspended.25
Eisenstein believed that in the methods of montage there was a ‘formula for
pathos’, a formula powerful enough to induce an ‘emotional seizure’.26 Yet while
aiming to strike spectators to paroxysms of life, his methods paradoxically resem-
bled slaughter’s incapacitating blows.

Being struck
In this section, we turn our attention more closely to the part given the animal and
the spectator in order to ask how being on the receiving end of the blow – how
‘being struck’ – relates to the cinematic distribution of activity and passivity, look-
ing and labouring, humanity and animality.
The etymology of ‘to strike’ is instructive when it comes to unpacking the dis-
tribution of species underpinning Eisenstein’s sense of the spectator as mouldable


‘material’.27 After all, this action word traces back to a processing of animal hides
or skins; animal hides are ‘struck’, that is, smoothed, scraped and stretched out, in
the tanning process (OED). ‘To strike’ also etymologically relates to the process of
materially coining a piece of currency, ‘to stamp with a stroke’ or ‘to impress (a
piece of metal, coin)’ (OED). These two senses are among half a dozen usages that
denote the production of uniform, homogenised materials. For instance, just as
sand, grain and joints are struck (made level), so candles, tiles and bricks are struck
This etymology supports our sense that a significant contradiction dogs
Eisenstein’s pursuit of a cinema that stimulates spectators to life, given his con-
ception of images as actions that are stamped or impressed upon a homogenous
material that is evenly receptive. The history of industrial slaughter has been read
as a progressive series of attempts to strike animal bodies with the same efficiency
and regularity as coins and candles are struck.29 Although not neatly analogous,
the spectator in the genealogy of cinema we’re tracing from Strike to The Cove is
also assumed to be universally bared or amenable to ‘being struck’.
Eisenstein conceived of the spectator as a trainable organism – a bundle of
receptors that could, through the science of cinematic affect, be psycho-physio-
logically stimulated to become human (in the image of a socialist humanity). That
a distribution of species underpins the place of the spectator in Eisenstein’s system
is made clear by the debt his experimental techniques of montage owed to the
experiments of his Russian contemporary, Ivan Pavlov. Pavlov’s scientific experi-
ments sought to prove that predictable reflexes could be programmed in animals
(think of the infamous dog salivating at the sound of a bell). Eisenstein effectively
put human spectators in the place of Pavlov’s animal subjects and sought to craft
a cinema that would likewise condition human behaviour; among other things, he
biometrically timed shot sequences to the rhythm of a beating heart in order to vis-
cerally communicate at the level of the organism. Noting the influence that
Pavlov’s behaviourist reflexology had on Eisenstein’s techniques, Beller observes
‘the goal of reflexology was to understand the organism by bypassing subjectiv-
ity’.30 The goal of cinema, for Eisenstein, was similarly to trigger predictable, even
automatic actions through a well-aimed bombardment of cinematic affect (target-
ing cardiac or cortical receptors). His work embodies a rational, formulaic deploy-
ment of moving fragments scientifically calculated to electrify a species body,
unobstructed by the singularity of an individual human subjectivity. Again,
Eisenstein’s methods betray a deep ambivalence when it comes to the humanity or
animality of the being on the receiving end of his cinema; he objects to the reduced
humanity of the capitalist subject yet his own techniques address the worker and
spectator on the generic and biological level of a trainable species.
In addressing the human as an organism with the universal ingredients neces-
sary for manufacturing humanity (through the catalyst of cinema), Eisenstein’s
techniques are clearly more than aesthetic; they are resolutely biopolitical. Beller
glimpses this when he proposes that the films of Eisenstein inadvertently served to

Being Struck

turn workers into spectators whose training in ‘attentional biopower’ would sup-
port capitalism’s shift in the twentieth century to a cinematic mode of production.
Indeed, Beller contends that a dramatic redistribution of activity and passivity, pro-
duction and reception, is effected by Eisenstein’s cinema. The spectator, far from a
passive consumer of moving images, is conscripted by Eisenstein’s Strike into a
new attentional mode of production in which ‘to look is to labour’.31 ‘In spite of
its intentions,’ writes Beller, ‘The Strike, like capital itself, participates in produc-
ing a new regime of the sensorium.’32 The pleasure of consuming images masks the
work, in Beller’s view, of realising the value of images within a system of cinematic
capital that vampirises the social, immaterial labour of human attention and affect.
For Beller, Eisenstein’s vision of the spectator’s affective labour is in fact realised,
but in the service of the very system of capitalism that Eisenstein hoped to over-
However, what the biopolitics of ‘striking’ finally reveals is a cinema that aims
to determine the human, to strike the human out of a material that does not yet
fully qualify. Making feel through techniques of cinematic affect is ultimately a
project of making humans, a humanity that is realised and authenticated when
spectators react with the appropriate feeling and action to the force of images. As
we turn to examine The Cove, we’ll see that to be a member of homo sapiens and
not be moved by the force of cinematic affect is to have one’s humanity placed
under question, to be at risk of inhabiting the place of the ‘dumb’ animal.

Being struck dumb

We read The Cove in lineage with Strike even though we grant that Eisenstein
would be appalled by the association: in many respects his experimental, non-
naturalistic techniques of montage could not be more at odds with the naturalis-
tic, blow-by-blow techniques deployed in The Cove. Before elaborating on their
connection, then, let us point out just one, economic, incommensurability. The
Cove’s power to represent dolphin slaughter with extreme fidelity is contingent on
the significant capital backing it; the film was funded by Netscape founder and bil-
lionaire Jim Clark, directed by a National Geographic photographer, and made in
consultation with top-level industry experts such as Kerner Optical (formerly
George Lucas’s Industrial Light & Magic). In contrast, Eisenstein’s laconic cinema
is rooted, as Nadia Bozak points out, in a post-revolutionary economy of material
scarcity in which not only film-making supplies (cameras, film stock) but also text-
ual meaning were at a premium. The signature marks of frugality in Eisenstein’s
films (shot repetition, found footage) must be read, in this light, as a means of both
rationing material resources and maintaining editorial control.33
Despite their differences, however, the aggressive techniques of affect deployed
in The Cove can be read as reshaping and extending the grasp of Eisenstein’s cine-
fist. Whereas the pole-axe stands as a literal emblem for the force of cinematic
affect in Strike, the fishermen’s harpoons do so in The Cove. Yet rather than being


struck by a deadening/enlivening blow, the film’s animal subjects and human spec-
tators are ensnared in a prolonged, multisensory exposure. As a killing tool, har-
poons materially bind hunter and prey, often for extended durations. We discern
congruent techniques of binding in, first, the way the film’s ‘heist’ narrative hooks
the spectator and, second, in the way its visual and sound technologies capture the
sensuous distress of dolphins to affectively impact spectators.
The Cove typifies Burt’s definition of pro-animal films as unified by a quasi-
religious belief that ‘conversion automatically will follow simply from exposure to
this film’; indeed, it expresses this belief in overtly self-reflexive terms, harnessing
its own work of revelation as the driving force of its narrative.34 The film locates
the ground zero of Japan’s interlocked trade in captive dolphins and dolphin meat
in a hidden lagoon outside Taiji, a whaling town south of Osaka known for its
annual dolphin drive. Each year in the lagoon, fishermen hammer on submerged
metal poles flanged to their boats to create a terrifying wall of sound that herds
hundreds of passing dolphins towards shore. Tellingly, the fishermen’s method is
echoed by the film’s own sound techniques, inasmuch as it uses distressed dolphin
cries to affectively drive agitated spectators toward the goal of protesting the
slaughter. The corralled dolphins are sorted at the entrance of an inlet: trainers pick
out a few young, female bottlenoses to take back to their marine parks, and the
fishermen drive the remaining dolphins into a smaller concealed cove where they
are slaughtered.
The film is as much about its own daring quest to obtain and disseminate
shocking cinematic footage of the moment in which these animals are made into
spectacle and meat as it is about the dolphin’s plight. To narrativise this quest, The
Cove appropriates the conventions and archetypical three-act plot of the classical
heist genre. In the first act the director, Louie Psihoyos, places himself in front of

The Cove (2009)

Being Struck

the camera to lead what is, in his words, an ‘Oceans Eleven-style’ team of ‘rock-
star’ experts (conservationists, film technicians and free divers). The team plans a
covert installation of high-definition cameras and other state-of-the-art devices in
the rockface around the lagoon. The second act executes this plan: in cover of
night, the crew sneaks into the cove’s craggy shoreline and stashes hidden cameras
and sound-recording devices that will capture, in the language of the heist, ‘the
goods’: the sights and sounds of the slaughter slated to take place the following
morning. Shot with infrared handicams, this sequence is not yet the culmination
of the heist. The carrying-off of the goods happens in the third act, as a prolonged
act of display: the spectator is directly exposed to the recorded sights and sounds
of slaughter, but also indirectly watches others being exposed to the raw footage,
including key players in the whaling industry and unsuspecting members of the
public. This spectatorial structure of watching others react (or not) to the footage
and judging their humanity on the basis of their affective responses is crucial, as
we’ll see, to the other covert work the film does under cover of its animal cause:
that of determining the human.
The instigator of The Cove’s mission, famed dolphin-trainer-turned-activist
Richard O’Barry, is entrusted with the final, climactic act of exposure. If Psihoyos
is the film’s mastermind, then O’Barry is its heart. In fact, O’Barry personifies the
ideal instantaneity of image, affect and action that ‘striking’ pronounces: the three
are unified in his person. He also functions as the measure of humanity, certified
by his affective and activist response to the dolphin slaughter. In the documentary’s
concluding sequence, he strides into a meeting of the International Whaling
Commission with a portable video screen strapped to his chest and battery packs
looped to his belt. The camera follows him as he makes a slow, deliberate circuit
of the conference room, pausing intermittently so that commission members and
a growing queue of photojournalists and videographers can see the screen. From
the palpable sense of discomfort in the room and the orangey-pink glow of the
screen viewers understand that he is screening the same graphic images of slaugh-
ter captured in the film’s second act.
The activist is next shown at a crowded intersection in a Japanese city. O’Barry
now stands in the middle of the street, the screen still strapped to his chest. Crowds
flood past him, their hurried disinterest heightened by the use of fast-motion cine-
matography. In the final shot, passers-by form a small group around O’Barry; they
appear to be momentarily struck by the scene of slaughter on his chest, then the
film cuts to black. The Cove’s activist gesture of taking film out of the theatre and
into public space – of making a surprise attack on an unsuspecting (potentially
unconsenting) public – is one way we read the film’s extension of the power to
strike. And accompanying the right this scene exemplifies to affectively strike with
impunity, there is the film’s implicit power to determine who is human on the basis
of their feeling or unfeeling reactions to the footage, and to incriminate the inhu-
manity of those who fail to react ‘properly’. A distribution of the species can be
glimpsed in the film’s interest in discriminating between the human (a category


The Cove (2009)

which is not reserved for homo sapiens but excludes some humans even as it
includes some animals, such as feeling cetaceans) and nonhuman.
Within the almost paramilitary scope of The Cove’s covert operations (its ar-
senal of infrared cameras that detect ‘anything with a heartbeat’, its cetaceous
drone-blimp), O’Barry assumes the form and function of a mobile assault weapon,
moving through the city and striking bystanders with the gruesome sight of animal
slaughter; in this regard, his screening closely resembles the eruptive force of
Eisenstein’s ballistic montage. Yet his monstration ups the biopolitical ante; he lit-
erally binds his body to the screen in a manner that suggests he is willing to put his
own life on the line. On the one hand, O’Barry’s monstration functions as a
moment of catharsis that lets spectators off the hook for any action beyond view-
ing the film. Up to this point, the spectator has been tightly tethered to the illicit
collection of the evidence of slaughter. Yet the activist’s performance of fusing this
evidence to his body, his life, has the possible effect of cleansing or purging the
anger and apprehension that the spectator has accumulated in the duration. This
cathartic moment seems to confirm Beller’s thesis that ‘to look is to labor’, in that
looking becomes an end in itself. Watching The Cove – that is, bearing witness to
and viscerally feeling the film’s index of slaughter – would appear to be response
enough to the mass killing of dolphins. Yet the biopolitical image the film gives of
a human exemplar who puts their life on the line for other animals could also be
read in an opposite way, that is, as demanding the same of the spectator and subtly
indicting those who are not willing to respond with equally extreme affect and
While The Cove’s affective power to ensnare human spectators appears highly
calculated from the outset, its relationship to its animal subjects initially appears
less assured. Indeed, the film intimates possibilities for dissensus – for cinematic

Being Struck

forms that open new relationships between the visible/invisible and sayable/
unsayable – that would trouble the distribution of species. Principally, it locates
sound as a potential site of sensual opening that would give voice to animals within
the political community. In early moments of expository narration, the film sets
out two roughly similar theses or aims. The first accrues to O’Barry’s assertion that
‘nobody has actually seen what takes place back there. And so the way to stop it
is to expose it.’ The second accrues to Psyihoyos’s declaration:

I wanted to have a three-dimensional experience of what’s going on in that lagoon.

I wanted to hear everything that the dolphins were doing, everything that the
whalers were saying … .You want to capture something that will make people

Whereas O’Barry uncritically expresses the faith in exposure-as-conversion that

Burt links to the genre of pro-animal film, Psihoyos suggests that just showing is
not sufficient; cinematic affect may be more effectively excited through sound
exposure. In calculating that the sounds as well as sights of slaughter may be
needed to move spectators to action, Psihoyos exercises cinema’s more total power
to bare animals’ experience of pain and death and to strike human spectators. Yet
in the moment Psihoyos articulates his plan, its outcome in the film is not yet
given. This project’s potential for dissensus lies, in large part, in the film’s align-
ment of its interest in dolphin sound (language) with biologist Roger Payne’s 1967
discovery and dissemination of the singing of humpback whales. The film even
includes archival footage of protesters in Trafalgar Square in 1971, listening to
Payne’s recording of whales. Payne’s recordings recognised whales as ‘acoustic
creatures’ and attempted to meet them on the grounds of their primary sensuous
experience of the world – the aural. The Cove would seem to initiate a similar
effort to make dolphin ‘speech’ hearable within the political community. However,
it soon becomes clear that unlike Payne’s project, The Cove’s pursuit of an equal-
ity that extends beyond humans is undercut by methods that keep the sovereignty
of the human in place.
The director is particularly invested in high-fidelity sound technology aimed at
reproducing ‘a three-dimensional experience of what’s going on in that lagoon’. To
this end, the titular cove is configured as a submersion tank, with the film’s goal
being to immerse the spectator in a dolphin sensorium where they will be pierced
by sounds of distress (affectively harpooning the spectator). In a key scene, the film
shows the crew sitting in a hotel room and listening to the sounds captured by their
submerged recording devices. O’Barry listens to the sound of dolphins fearfully
communicating with one another in the moments leading up to their slaughter; the
spectator both hears these chilling sounds, and watches O’Barry’s affective
response to them. This scene not only uses sound as a potent striking tool, it again
deploys the spectatorial structure noted earlier whereby the viewer looks for signs
of another’s humanity in their affectability.


The Cove (2009)

In troubling contrast to the figures of Western humanity that it features, the

documentary presents numerous shots of Japanese fishermen and officials obstruct-
ing the crew’s efforts and ‘unfeelingly’ guarding their annual tradition. While we
certainly don’t want to condone a right to slaughter animals that, as we’ve been
arguing throughout, is paradoxically reiterated in cinema’s justified use of cine-
matic affect, it’s important to critique the way the film arouses racist stereotypes
of the unfeeling Asian, and more specifically, how it establishes certain criteria of
being human that exclude the Japanese. Again, in this distribution of the species it
isn’t necessary to be a member of homo sapiens to qualify as human, but it is nec-
essary that one demonstrate a capacity for feeling. While The Cove has the poten-
tial to interrupt a carno-phallogocentric distribution of sense by proposing that
dolphin sounds politically count as ‘speech’, it undermines this potential by
empowering a handful of certified humans to deem Japanese fishermen and offi-
cials unfeeling (effectively excluding them from the community of humans), while
at the same time elevating a class of feeling cetaceans into the community of
humans. Although some humans and animals switch hierarchical places in the
affective economy of The Cove, an underlying partitioning of human and animal
remains in place that codifies all those who can be provoked to feeling as ‘human’,
and all those who can’t as ‘animal’.

In seizing upon the image and idiom Eisenstein gives us of ‘striking’ to examine the
way cinema perpetuates the sovereign power of slaughter in its forceful communi-
cation of cinematic affect, have we perhaps attributed to the techniques we’ve
traced more force than they in fact possess? After all, neither Strike nor The Cove

Being Struck

excited the social change they aspired to through the force of their cinematic affect.
Unlike the blow that unmistakably fells an animal, isn’t the affective strike far
more uncertain in its results despite the scientific rationality with which Eisenstein
sought to determine its effects? Strike and The Cove inadvertently show that the
relay between image, affect and action is far from assured, and that shadowing
political cinema’s ideal of their immediacy there is always the possibility of a dis-
connect, a failure. Rancière would say that it is precisely when cinema is not able
to direct the relation between cause and effect, image and action, that the poten-
tial for dissensus – and politics – opens up. The cinema that finds a model for the
force of its affect in slaughter is hopefully, in this sense, at once a sovereign and an
incapacitated cinema.

1. Susan Sontag, On Photography (London: Penguin, 1977), p. 10; Noëllie Vialles,
Animal to Edible, trans. J. A. Underwood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
1994), p. 53; Nicole Shukin, Animal Capital: Rendering Life in Biopolitical Times
(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), p. 104; Dorothee Brantz,
‘Recollecting the Slaughterhouse’, Cabinet vol. 4 (2001), p. 123.
2. Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the Collège de France
1975–1976, trans. David Macey (New York: Picador, 2003), p. 241.
3. Strike (Stachka), directed by Sergei Eisenstein (Goskino and Proletkult, 1925; Kino
International 2011), DVD.
4. Jonathan Burt, ‘A Day in the Life of a Massachusetts Slaughterhouse’ (review), Society
and Animals vol. 13 (2005), p. 347.
5. The Cove, directed by Louie Psihoyos (Diamond Docs, 2009; Lionsgate, 2009), DVD.
6. Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, trans.
Gabriel Rockhill (New York: Continuum, 2006), p. 12.
7. Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator, trans. Gregory Elliott (London and
New York: Verso, 2009), p. 12.
8. Ibid., p. 6.
9. Jean-Philippe Deranty (ed.), Jacques Rancière and the Contemporary Scene (New
York: Continuum, 2012), p. 96.
10. Jacques Rancière, The Future of the Image, trans. Gregory Elliott (London and New
York: Verso, 2009), pp. 14, 13; Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator, pp. 10, 58.
11. Eisenstein indicates that he took the footage of the bull’s slaughter from a
manufacturing newsreel. See Serge Eisenstein, ‘The Problem of the Materialist
Approach to Form’, Sergei Eisenstein, Selected Works Vol. 1: Writings, 1922–34,
trans. Richard Taylor (London: BFI, 1988), p. 62.
12. Serge Eisenstein, ‘The Montage of Film Attractions’, in ibid., p. 39.
13. Jonathan Beller, The Cinematic Mode of Production (Lebanon, NH: University Press
of New England, 2006), pp. 91–2, 96.
14. Rancière, The Future of the Image, p. 17.


15. Eisenstein, ‘The Problem of the Materialist Approach to Form’, p. 64.

16. Beller, The Cinematic Mode of Production, p. 103.
17. Ibid., p. 98.
18. Jacques Derrida, ‘“Eating Well”, or the Calculation of the Subject’, in Elizabeth Weber
(ed.), Points: Interviews, 1974–1994, trans. Avital Ronell (Stanford, CT: Stanford
University Press, 1995),
pp. 280–1, 278.
19. First formulated in the mid-1980s in collaboration with André Gaudreault, Gunning’s
cinema of attractions challenged the received view that early filmgoers were simply
artless naïfs terrorised by a newfangled medium. This cinema emerges ‘at the climax of
a period of intense development in visual entertainments’ (magic theatre, amusement
park rides) and is met by spectators primed to partake in the ‘conscious delectation of
shocks and thrills’. See Tom Gunning, ‘An Aesthetic of Astonishment: Early Film and
the (In)Credulous Spectator’, in Linda Williams (ed.), Viewing Positions: Ways of
Seeing Film (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1995), pp. 116, 120.
20. Ibid., pp. 114–33.
21. Eisenstein, ‘The Montage of Attractions’, p. 34.
22. Sergei Eisenstein, ‘The Filmic Fourth Dimension’, Film Form and Film Sense: Essays in
Film Theory, trans. and ed. Jay Leyda (Cleveland, OH and New York: Meridian
Books, 1967), p. 71.
23. Anat Pick, Creaturely Poetics: Animality and Vulnerability in Literature and Film
(New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), p. 117.
24. Andre Bazin, ‘The Virtues and Limitations of Montage’, What Is Cinema? Vol. 1,
trans. Hugh Gray (London: University of California Press, 2005), p. 50.
25. Ibid., p. 116.
26. Sergei Eisenstein, quoted in ‘Introduction’, Nonindifferent Nature, trans. Herbert
Marshall (New York: Cambridge University Press 1987), p. xiii.
27. Eisenstein, ‘The Montage of Attractions’, p. 34.
28. Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. ‘strike’, www.oed.com.
29. Vialles, Animal to Edible; Brantz, ‘Recollecting the Slaughterhouse’.
30. Beller, The Cinematic Mode of Production, p. 119.
31. Ibid., p. 115.
32. Ibid., p. 89.
33. Nadia Bozak, The Cinematic Footprint: Lights, Camera, Natural Resources (New
Brunswick, NJ and London: Rutgers University Press, 2011), p. 57.
34.Burt, ‘A Day in the Life of a Massachusetts Slaughterhouse’, p. 349.

Laura McMahon

12 Screening Pigs
Visibility, Materiality and the Production of Species

A 2010 promotional video for TOPIGS, a global company specialising in pig

breeding, moves seamlessly from live piglets being stacked in crates to the labora-
tory analysis of pork cuts, passing via images of artificial insemination technolo-
gies and an animated DNA sequence.1 As the lives of pigs are elliptically reduced
to a sterile series of statistical data, genetic models and slabs of pork, the TOPIGS
video highlights the uses to which moving images can be put in order to negotiate
a particular relation between biopolitics, representation and the economics of meat
production.2 Such a relation requires careful ideological management, particularly
in the case of pigs. While slaughtered for meat on a mass industrialised scale, pigs
share a striking set of affinities with humans, foregrounded not only by physio-
logical similarities but by levels of intelligence and sociability. As Brett Mizelle sug-
gests, our relation to pigs thus embodies a specific, guilt-ridden tension between
disavowed kinship and unremitting exploitation.3 The pig is, as Susan McHugh
puts it, ‘the consummate “threshold creature”’.4 Hovering between identificatory
lure and instrumentalised flesh, pigs are visually and conceptually ambiguous in
ways that the commodifying logic of the TOPIGS video works to disavow. Yet
what the video inadvertently reveals through its own representational suppressions
is how the ambiguity of pigs – or, rather, our ambiguity about them – may act as
a potentially unruly force within visual and biopolitical epistemologies.
I wish to examine here the specific role of the moving image in its various modes
of engagement with the lives and deaths of pigs. I argue that film – in its attentive-
ness to materiality and facticity, movement and duration – offers particular forms
of temporal and spatial presentation that both register and shape the threshold
status and fluctuating embodiments of porcine beings. As Jonathan Burt suggests,
moving images of animals play a decisive role in the ‘biodynamics of human–animal
relations’: ‘the animal image is never external, but is just as structuring and trans-
formative as animals out there in the “world”’.5 Mapping this ‘structuring and
transformative’ role entails close attention to material, durational entanglements of
animal lives, biopolitics and the moving image. Historically, pig species have been
shaped by human intervention, through domestication, breeding and, as signalled
by the TOPIGS video, genetic modification. How do film practices both continue

and interrupt these historical, biopolitical, anthropocentric processes of species

construction? How might moving images allow us to envisage – and relate to – the
pig anew?
Focusing on the pig as a particularly unstable embodiment of being, this chap-
ter explores, against the background of the TOPIGS video, two documentaries that
work to question the place of the pig within biopolitical economies of representa-
tion. Jean-Michel Barjol and Jean Eustache’s Le Cochon/The Pig (1970), an exam-
ple of ‘Direct Cinema’, confronts the viewer with the brute facticity of pig
slaughter – dismemberment, evisceration and conversion into meat – in order to
mark a durational, affective engagement with the death of the animal. Jean-Louis
Le Tacon’s Cochon qui s’en dédit (1978) – which translates idiomatically as ‘it’s a
done deal’ and literally as ‘he who goes back on his word is a pig’ – worries at the
border between the pig and the human, both through surreal images of cross-
species coupling and, in line with the tradition of militant cinema to which this film
belongs, through a reflection on a mutual (though not equivalent) positioning of
farmer and swine within regimes of capitalist production.6 Set in different contexts
(pastoral; industrial), both documentaries consider the pig’s habitual role as meat
animal, pointing to ways in which the pig – as singularity and as species – may be
radically reframed by the moving image.
My examination of filmic representations of the pig as a meat animal may seem
politically limiting: as Burt suggests, we need to account for ways in which animals
(in film) can be figured as more than a ‘passive partner or victim’.7 In line with a
broader history of violent reification by the human, the place of the pig in cinema
has so often been one of deathly subjugation: one thinks, for example, of the docu-
mentary deaths of pigs killed on screen in Weekend (1967), L’Albero degli zoccoli
(The Tree of Wooden Clogs, 1978), Benny’s Video (1992), La Rabia (Anger, 2008)
or off screen in Japón (2002). Cinematic expressions of porcine agency, in works
as varied as Buta to gunkan (Pigs and Battleships, 1961), Babe (1995) and The
Legend of the Tamworth Two (2004), are rare. Yet I want to suggest that attention
to the visual and biopolitical economies of meat production allows for a tracing of
counterhegemonic lines of nonhuman resistance precisely at the points at which
any such possibility for resistance would appear to be denied.8 I am interested here
in how on-screen manifestations of what McHugh calls ‘eruptions of nonhuman-
agency forms’ open up possibilities for reconsidering taxonomies of species being
within the space of cinema, specifically – and paradoxically – in connection with
the lives and deaths of pigs.9
Central to my consideration of the biopolitical and visual management of pigs
are the historical and carnal connections between cinema and animal slaughter. In
Animal Capital: Rendering Life in Biopolitical Times (2009), Nicole Shukin ana-
lyses a material genealogy of animal traces that link what she calls ‘three early
time-motion economies: animal disassembly, automotive assembly and moving pic-
ture production’.10 Observing that slaughterhouse technologies of animal disas-
sembly were replicated in the first assembly-line production of cars in 1913,

Screening Pigs

marking the birth of Fordism, Shukin also suggests that the animal disassembly
line – and the recreational tours that took place in slaughterhouses at the end of
the nineteenth century – anticipated structures of cinematic movement and film
spectatorship. As Shukin contends: ‘Both in the visual consumption of the rapid
sequential logic of the moving line that they encouraged and in their stimulation
of affect, slaughterhouse tours arguably … helped to lay the perceptual tracks for
cinema.’11 But Shukin mines a further connection here between cinema and the
slaughterhouse, pointing to the use of gelatin – ‘a protein extracted from the skin,
bones, and connective tissues of cattle, sheep, and pigs’ – in the production of cel-
luloid film stock.12 Film thus carries the material traces of animal slaughter,
through a form of rendering that enacts ‘a transfer of life from animal body to
technological media’.13 In a death-dealing exchange, animal slaughter gives life to
film’s images. As cinema moves into the digital age, it distances itself to some
extent from this literal relation to the facticity of animal bodies. But traces of this
deathly relation inevitably remain, haunting the history of film. What I draw from
Shukin’s analysis in particular is her excavation of what she calls ‘a network of ide-
ological and material exchanges’ that entangle the meat industrial complex and
cinema as biopolitically encrypted sites of ‘animal capital’.14 However, Shukin does
not compare filmic representations of any one particular species of animal, nor
does she elaborate on the moving image’s potential for articulating nonhuman
agency: indeed, her critique of capitalism’s rendering of animals as ‘simultaneously
sign and substance of market life’ tends to limit the possibilities for a considera-
tion of animal life beyond a passive positioning within biopolitical networks of
exchange.15 Building on Shukin’s thesis, I seek to address the pig as a specifically
ambiguous site of representation and as an animal occupying fluctuating positions
of agency across diverse examples of moving image practice. In what follows, I
ask: how does the pig emerge not only as ‘sign and substance’ but also as agent
within cinema’s (varied, distinct) biopolitical economies of animal rendering?

Rendering (in)visible
The TOPIGS video foregrounds the circulation of global animal capital. Though
the video states that the company is based in the Netherlands, it is narrated in
English and shot mostly in unidentifiable locations, in a bid to transcend national
specificity. Informing the viewer that the company is ‘a global leader in pig breed-
ing and artificial insemination’, the opening sequence shows the TOPIGS logo
floating through outer space to converge with a rotating image of the globe. The
background is partitioned by images, showing an aeroplane, a litter of piglets, a
business meeting. The overlaying of images in this opening sequence signals the
carnal, semiotic and genetic trafficking of pigs across national boundaries, in con-
solidation of transnational animal capital. In the video’s representational economy,
as in the process of pig breeding itself, pigs are reduced to signs – to data, diagrams
and genetic models – and are, above all, converted into capital. The visual grammar


at work here speaks to Shukin’s concept of ‘double rendering’, through which the
animal is instrumentalised as both sign and substance, foregrounding what Shukin
calls the ‘complicity of representational and material economies in the reproduc-
tion of (animal) capital’.16 As the video makes clear, the meat industrial complex
functions not only through the biopolitical management of animal life but also
through a rigid control of regimes of visibility. For the clinical ease of movement
between images of pigs both living and dead in this video relies on a key structur-
ing absence – the scenes of slaughter that remain off screen. (Indeed, this repre-
sentational elision speaks more broadly to the sequestering of modern
industrialised slaughter from public view.)17 While images of live pigs, meat, tech-
nologies and DNA models operate as talismanic signs of global capital, the messy,
material violence of slaughter is contained and displaced. The video’s smooth flow
of carnal and virtual exchanges relies on what Shukin calls the ‘invisibility’ of
modern rendering.18
The video is structured further through connections between biopower – ‘the
right to make live and let die’, as Michel Foucault puts it – and efficiency, com-
pounded by images of technologies and technologies of images.19 Over a scene of
newborn piglets suckling a sow, the voiceover states: ‘Fast genetic progress means
improved technical and financial results for the pig producer.’ The sequence cuts
to a lab worker looking through a microscope and then to a view through the
microscope, before cutting to a rotating image of a model of DNA. The sequence
plays out what Jackie Stacey describes as the three structuring desires of the
‘genetic imaginary’: ‘to imitate life in both science and the cinema; to secure iden-
tity as legible through screening technologies; and to anchor embodied difference
by making it stable, predictable, and visible’.20 The sequence functions as a display
of biopower: porcine life is rendered intelligible, reproducible, endlessly malleable
and perfectible. Asserting bureaucratic and biopolitical control through a staging
of technologies of vision and knowledge, the sequence ‘anchor[s] embodied dif-
ference’, as Stacey puts it, and safeguards the border between the human and the
pig. At the same time, however, this explicit investment in genetic malleability inad-
vertently invokes the instability of species identity; in this sense, the video under-
mines its implicit project of maintaining a distinct boundary between the human
and the pig. Yet, the ideological stakes of the video remain clear, as its fast-paced
representational linkages between genetics, technologies and profit enact a form of
‘double rendering’ in line with the ineluctable present of animal capital, discon-
necting the cuts of pork featured here from any notion of material history or
porcine agency.
By contrast, Barjol and Eustache’s Le Cochon lays bare the materiality of
cinema’s rendering of animal life. As such, it refuses the representational elisions
of the TOPIGS video, as well as the illusions of early trick films such as Louis
Lumière’s La Charcuterie mécanique/The Mechanical Butcher (1895), in which a
pig is instantaneously converted into sausages. Fifty minutes long and shot in black
and white, Le Cochon dwells, without voiceover commentary, on the slaughter of

Screening Pigs

a sow by a small group of farmers.21 Following the pig’s dismemberment, eviscer-

ation and conversion into meat, the film shows the farmers and their families feast-
ing and singing in celebration. Made in Auzon, where Barjol (who initiated the
project) had grown up, Le Cochon functions in a nostalgic mode; though released
just two years after the political unrest of May 1968, it is embedded in national
and rural tradition. Its careful documentation of the transformation of every part
of the animal into food speaks to a specific celebration of the pig in French culi-
nary culture (as indicated by the proverb: ‘Dans le cochon, tout est bon’
[‘Everything in the pig is good to eat’]).22 Rather like John Berger’s romanticisa-
tion of a premodern relation between the peasant and his pig, the film shores up
an ideal of pastoral community, in ode to a disappearing rural culture.23 Rémi
Fontanel describes the film as a ‘patrimonial document’; he points to ‘the fully
choreographic dimension of the ritual’; the murmured, often unintelligible
exchanges between the farmers lend ‘a musicality that brings a sensitive, even
poetic, dimension to this highly regulated ceremony’.24 Fontanel’s emphasis on the
patrimonial and ceremonial dimensions of the film is suggestive of the links
between national identity, ‘imagined community’ and animal capital explored by
Shukin, whereby the image of the animal functions fetishistically as both life-form
and ‘iconic symbol’ to connote ‘organic national unity’.25 In Le Cochon, the
integrity of familial and patrimonial ties is articulated fetishistically via animal dis-
memberment, through the ceremonial rendering of the pig as both substance and
However, the form of the film itself works both with and against this privileg-
ing of the human. While the film dwells upon the ritualistic gestures of the farm-
ers, it allows for an attention to materiality, to the fragile facticity of a nonhuman
life, to exceed the ceremonial impetus identified by Fontanel. Recalling Georges
Franju’s Le Sang des bêtes (Blood of the Beasts, 1949), which documents the prac-
tices of two slaughterhouses in Paris, Le Cochon confronts the viewer with images
of animal death in affective, visceral terms. Death comes early in this film, in the
first five minutes. We see the sow cornered by a group of male farmers; she tries to
wriggle from their collective grasp. Her resistances and refusals are corporealised
through stubborn gestures, snorts and squeals. But these flickerings of porcine
agency are shortlived: the pig is held down, her throat slit. Blood spills, steam rises.
The scene speaks to what Akira Mizuta Lippit, in his discussion of animal death
in film, calls an anti-metaphor or animetaphor – ‘a metaphor made flesh’, that
‘marks a limit of figurability’, mobilising an excess of affect.26 At the same time,
the visceral charge of the scene recalls Shukin’s description of the violent senso-
rium of protocinematic spectatorship in the slaughterhouse.27 Here cinema revis-
its its carnal, affective animal origins.
In place of the ahistorical present of animal capital, Le Cochon privileges a
chronological unfolding of events. Following the scene of death, we see the pig
slowly, manually, turned into cuts of meat, sausages and offal. We see the body
decapitated and the head hung on the wall, limbs severed and placed in buckets,


the heart removed and strung up, blood collected in bowls, bones hammered
down, the bladder washed and emptied, intestines removed and laid out on the
kitchen table, the filling and casing for sausages prepared. The ‘material uncon-
scious’ of cinema surfaces uncannily in these images.28 The pig is rendered as an
array of material products, not only by and for the farmers but also by and for the
film.29 The visual economies of cinema and biopolitics intersect here: Le Cochon
stages carnal control of the ‘hidden structure’ of the animal – the ‘buried organs’
and ‘invisible functions’ – exhibiting what Foucault sees as the penetrative work-
ings of biopower.30 Yet, in contrast to the TOPIGS video, Le Cochon refuses the
invisibility of modern rendering, slowing deconstructing the carnal and symbolic
contours of the pig. A privileging of the long take signals an investment in dura-
tional attentiveness. Close-ups of glistening entrails invite a mode of spectatorial
engagement that is material, visceral, affective. Here cinema registers the time of
becoming-offal, and images of animal disassembly bring into focus celluloid’s dis-
avowed material traces. In this sense, Le Cochon reflects on cinema’s consumption
of animal life and death, and on the facticity of animal disassembly that haunts
film’s matter and its history.
Yet it is perhaps the moments between death and dismemberment that fore-
ground the pig as a particularly troubling, ambiguous site of embodiment. Before
dismemberment, the sow is washed, scrubbed, scalded and scraped. In its dura-
tional attentiveness, the film allows for a dwelling on the interplay and contrast
between the inanimate subject-turned-object at its centre and the liveliness of
human activity around it. There is something deeply affecting about this still body,
this obdurate materiality, amid a flurry of human action. (Striking too are the
images of dogs looking on; these canine spectators remind us of the nonhuman
hierarchies also at stake here.) The activities of washing, scrubbing and lifting tem-
porarily reanimate the body of the pig, intimating a potential resurrection of the
animal, an uncanny hesitation between life and death that threatens momentarily
to reverse the ‘elusive passage from one state to the other’ described by André
Bazin in his discussion of animal death in film.31 The possibility of human–animal
identification also hovers here (an identificatory relation carefully managed – that
is, repressed – by the biopolitics of slaughter, as Shukin suggests).32 As the dead
sow is positioned on her back, four limbs in the air, and scrubbed across her belly
and between her legs, morphological resonances – between the human and the
animal – come into play, potentially inducing anxieties about the human becom-
ing meat.33 As Gilles Deleuze suggests in his reflections on the fleshy, tactile figures
of Francis Bacon’s paintings, ‘[m]eat is the common zone of man and the beast,
their zone of indiscernibility’.34 Le Cochon offers a glimmer of cross-species iden-
tification in this liminal zone between death and dismemberment, when the pig is
on the threshold of becoming pork.
Yet, ultimately, if the pig is only affecting in her death, as obdurate materiality
or as identificatory lure, the film leaves little room for a consideration of porcine
agency, and of the pig as a political being.35 Given the speed with which the pig’s

Screening Pigs

life is despatched (so early on in the film), the ethical and political risk of Barjol
and Eustache’s documentary is that it ends up privileging the labourer over the pig:
as we have seen, this ‘patrimonial document’ dwells on a ritualistic celebration of
human work and community. Though women are present in the film – as specta-
tors to the dismemberment of the pig, and as participants in the preparation of
food – this ‘patrimonial document’ is one that privileges masculinity above all.
Consolidating the ‘patriarchal control of animals’ diagnosed by Carol J. Adams,
Le Cochon stages the bloodsoaked communion of a masculine community around
the flayed body of a sow.36 Here meat ideologically encrypts, as Shukin suggests,
the ‘masculinist virility’ of the ‘national body’.37 In his discussion of the film’s cere-
monial dimensions, Fontanel compares Le Cochon to Eustache’s La Rosière de
Pessac (The Virgin of Pessac, 1968/1979), two films documenting an annual festi-
val in which a girl elected by the town as the ‘most virtuous’ remains silent
throughout the ceremony. Fontanel does not acknowledge the gender politics of
this intertextual connection. But in The Virgin of Pessac, community is staged
through the simultaneous silencing and celebration of a female body, much as it is
through the slaughter of the sow in Le Cochon. In the latter, asymmetrical gen-
dered power relations intersect with species-based hierarchies: the hypostatisation
of masculine community stands more broadly for a ceremonialisation of the
human. The film thus remains largely anthropocentric, in spite of its refusal of the
invisibility of animal rendering and its brief documentation of porcine resistance.
Despite the focus of the film’s title, the real subject of Le Cochon is the farmer
rather than the pig.

Cochon qui s’en dédit, by contrast, complicates its anthropocentric investments.
An experimental ethnography, shot on Super 8 and running for thirty-seven min-
utes, the film charts the daily labour of Maxime, who owns a pig farm in Brittany.
We see Maxime engaged in calculations, planning, statistics and reports, in bio-
political regulation of the pigs he breeds. As he recounts in a quiet, soft voice the
challenges of his work, including a set of insurmountable financial difficulties, the
film gradually deconstructs the market logics idiomatically signalled by its title
(which can be translated as ‘it’s a done deal’, as noted above). In the tradition of
le cinéma militant, and the Medvekine group in particular, which brought together
young workers and film-makers in France in the aftermath of May 1968, Cochon
qui s’en dédit documents the alienating conditions of Maxime’s labour and seeks
to allow the farmer, as Le Tacon puts it, to ‘write’ the film himself.38 A former stu-
dent of Jean Rouch, to whom the film is dedicated, Le Tacon draws on Rouch’s
concept of ‘shared anthropology’, describing the film as ‘in complicity with the
farmer’ – a complicity underscored by the intimacy enabled by the use of the hand-
held Super 8 camera.39 Before shooting the film, Le Tacon worked with Maxime
on the farm – an experience that further informs the film’s intimate recording of


labour. As Maxime is shown routinely feeding, monitoring and cleaning the pigs,
the film allows patterns of repetition to emphasise the seriality of his work and,
increasingly, to problematise the agency of the human.
Cochon qui s’en dédit asserts that both human and pig are brutally instru-
mentalised by the biopolitical workings of capitalism, or by what one review of the
film calls the ‘machine of death’.40 The closing sequence cuts between an interview,
in which Maxime and his wife recount the financial difficulties leading to their
abandonment of the farm, and images of a headless pig, a dog eating the pig’s head
and the mangled flesh of the head (in close-up). Particularly striking here is the cut
from Maxime – as he explains that another young couple are interested in taking
on the farm – to the image of disintegrating flesh. This cut speaks to the horror of
repetition, and to the mangling of further lives – of both future workers and pigs
on the farm. While this closing sequence signposts its debt to le cinéma militant, it
gestures more broadly to a history of political cinema’s formal investments – not
only through a dialectics of (Eisensteinian) montage but also through a Surrealist
aesthetic of juxtaposition that aligns the film with Franju’s Blood of the Beasts.41
Cochon qui s’en dédit echoes moves made by Blood of the Beasts between horror
and the everyday, as well as Franju’s focus on the rationalised violence of indus-
trial modernity.42 Like Blood of the Beasts, Le Tacon’s documentary poses ques-
tions dialectically about the exploitation of both the human and the animal,
articulated emphatically here in the closing sequence. Yet this sequence also
reminds us of a brutal hierarchy of species: pigs are not only consumed by humans
but also by dogs (recalling the nonhuman hierarchy at stake in Le Cochon).
Thus while Cochon qui s’en dédit draws connections between human and
porcine suffering, it claims no parity between these experiences. The film perpetu-
ally draws our attention to the intolerable circumstances in which these pigs live,
breed and die, setting up a space of complicity not only with the farmer but also
with the pig. As such, the film displaces the implicitly anthropocentric focus of the
tradition of le cinéma militant and opens Le Tacon’s ‘shared anthropology’ to the
place of the animal. As the film attacks the violent conversion of pigs into capital,
we see the animals in cramped conditions, piglets castrated (and their teeth clipped
and tails docked), piles of diseased and dead pigs, and flesh ravaged by maggots.
(One particular image recalls the close-up of maggot-infested meat in Eisenstein’s
Battleship Potemkin [1925] – a referential gesture that simultaneously extends
beyond the anthropocentrism of its cinephilic debt.) In one sequence, Maxime
describes the brutalising conditions imposed upon sows in order to maximise the
production of piglets: each sow is separated from her young as early as possible
and deprived of food and water – conditions designed to cause stress and to induce
the sow more quickly into season again; after five or six cycles of reproduction, the
sow is sent to the abattoir or the knacker’s yard. This last detail is recounted over
footage of a sow barely able to walk (her legs have collapsed). Maxime hits her on
the back to force her to move. The film’s own response to the violence of this
unremitting cycle of (re)production finds itself articulated in one hallucinatory,

Screening Pigs

Cochon qui s’en dédit (1978)

slow-motion sequence, in which Maxime throws dead piglets over a fence and they
return (from off-screen space) towards him. Locked in a nightmarish loop of repe-
tition, the piglet corpses fly back and forth, as the film evokes the deathly surplus
of animal capital.
This ungovernable surplus is evoked further through the film’s focus on waste.
As Maxime narrates his daily struggle to clear the never-ending barrage of faeces
produced by the pigs, the film tips momentarily into the realm of horror, cutting
abruptly to an accelerated, red-tinted sequence accompanied by droning synths.
Handheld images usher us down a walkway in the pighouse and then behind the
stalls to reveal gathering piles of faeces. Cutting back to the more habitual colour
tone of the film, the sequence visually mimes Maxime’s obsession (‘You become a
maniac … . If you let it get out of control, you’re really in the shit’) by including
close-ups of faeces overflowing, in a sequence influenced by Salò (1976).43 Image
and sound function here to figure a horrifying, unruly, bodily surplus that exceeds
the biopolitical management of life. As waste erupts within the visual field, Cochon
qui sans dédit destabilises any logic of ‘double rendering’, staging an unravelling
of what Shukin sees as the ‘complicity of representational and material economies
in the reproduction of (animal) capital’.44 While these scenes of excess stand in
direct contrast to the clinical aesthetic of the TOPIGS video, they also counter-
mand Le Cochon’s consolidation of human/masculine/communal identity around
the use value of the pig. If in Le Cochon porcine capital underwrites national iden-
tity through an appeal to agricultural and gastronomical tradition (in which noth-
ing goes to waste), Cochon qui s’en dédit posits a form of material animal excess
that ruptures (with) that tradition and throws human agency – and a particular
idea of patrimonial sovereignty – radically into question.
Against this backdrop of the contested agency of the human within the field of
the biopolitical, Cochon qui s’en dédit draws uncertain kinships between the
human and the pig that further destabilise the anthropocentric. Over images of
Maxime patting sows and sitting astride one of them, he explains his role in assist-
ing breeding (‘you jump on top to see if she remains immobile …’). The film cuts


abruptly to an image of Maxime, naked, standing behind a sow, as though about

to mount her; the status of this image as hallucinatory is marked out by its sudden
intrusion, punctuated by the squeal of a saxophone, and the dark lighting (in com-
parison to the rest of the film). The film immediately cuts back to two pigs having
sex, with Maxime now standing behind, monitoring them (the lighting here reverts
to that of the majority of the film’s images). In voiceover, Maxime reflects on his
role in the breeding process: ‘you ask yourself who is fucking who, if it’s the breeder
who fucks the sow or what …’. He explains how he manually assists in the process
by guiding the boar. From this, the film cuts to another hallucinatory sequence,
accompanied by electronic sounds, of disjunctively edited images zooming in on
Maxime, naked, lying in bed with a pig. Disjointed, rotating camera movement
around the bed shows us the limbs of human and pig entwined, in a scene of tender
coupling. Following a cut to an image in which one sow nuzzles another from
behind, Maxime’s voiceover continues: ‘From my point of view, it’s more when two
sows seek out one another that I feel something. I’ve never liked the phallic side of
things [laughs softly]; I’d identify more with a sow at that moment.’
This sequence works first to foreground the human regulation of sexual inti-
macy between pigs, making manifest a set of speciesist technologies of power. In
Foucault’s terms, the sequence stages nonhuman sexuality at the intersection of
‘anatomo-politics’ (the disciplining of individual bodies) and biopolitics (the reg-
ularisation of species).45 Yet it also articulates an intriguing set of identificatory
slippages and queer kinships across species lines. Maxime identifies first with a
boar mounting a sow – an identification that the film articulates both verbally
and visually – and then with a sow ‘[seeking] out’ another sow – an identifica-
tion verbalised but not visualised. By refusing visualisation, the film preserves a
space of the unseen for this hesitant, exploratory queering of human–porcine
relations. Articulated by Maxime in the conditional tense (‘I’d identify …’), this
space of identification and intimacy remains nonappropriated by the scopic
regime that reigns elsewhere in the film. As this sequence metonymically suggests,
the lives of these pigs are subjected to a regime of anatomo-political surveillance

Cochon qui s’en dédit (1978)

Screening Pigs

and biopolitical regularisation that the film mimes by unflinchingly showing every-
thing – birth, illness, mating, faeces, corpses. Yet in resistance to this generalised
logic of the visible, the film allows for Maxime’s tentative self-positioning as a sow
to remain off screen and to reside in the space between image and sound, between
the scene of two sows together and Maxime’s libidinal investments in voiceover.
Indeed, despite Maxime’s own framing of these investments in identificatory terms,
the logic of inbetweenness ushered in by this particular conjunction of image and
sound articulates cross-species feeling as something more akin to ‘becoming-
animal’ – that is, ‘a zone of proximity and indiscernibility’, a non-identificatory,
‘nonlocalizable’ resonance between intensities.46 Here the interval between image
and sound allows for a deterritorialisation of cross-species contact.
By drawing attention to an image of sexual intimacy between two sows, the
film also creates space for a consideration of nonhuman, nonheteronormative
agency. The image is not easily legible – the nuzzling action borders on the aggres-
sive, yet the dynamic between the sows resists categorisation in terms of active/
passive. This suggests ways in which the moving image can bear witness – without
appropriation – to the complex interplay of nonhuman agencies or what Burt calls
the ‘livingness of bodies’ in coexistence.47 As Burt suggests elsewhere, we cannot
necessarily make any assumptions about animal subjectivity or interiority from
such images; agency registers here as ‘a play between the surface of bodies’, made
visible and tangible by film’s capacity to focus on what McHugh describes as
‘embodiment, surfaces, and exteriority’.48 Yet this image of nonhuman, non-
heteronormative exchange works against the logic of industrialised farming, a
biopolitical process that relies upon the strict imposition of norms on the (sexual)
behaviour of animals as part of a broader system of extreme objectification that
seeks to deny any animal agency.49 In placing emphasis on an instance of same-sex
intimacy between pigs, the film momentarily subverts the industrial meat com-
plex’s reification of life and regulation of intraspecies sex, and allows for recogni-
tion of the queer agency of pigs.
This space of non(re)productive intimacy (between pigs, between human and
pig), enunciated upon the threshold of the visible, challenges the otherwise relent-
less movement of animal capital enacted by the industrialised farming process,
causing this movement to stutter in a moment of queer excess that connects with
the film’s foregrounding of questions of surplus and waste. As Maxime explicitly
frames his erotic attachments as non-phallic, the film implicitly reframes his affec-
tive connection to the pigs in terms of a potential subversion of what Jacques
Derrida calls ‘carno-phallogocentrism’, or a dominant logic of ‘carnivorous viril-
ity’.50 Though remaining unseen, this queer flickering of noncarno-phallogo-
centric intimacy across species lines momentarily offers a glimpse of a mode of
‘being-with’, as Derrida puts it, beyond the (re)productive norms of agribusiness’s
investment in animal capital.51 And all this is mediated by the hallucinatory images
of Maxime and the pig in bed. Maxime’s nakedness, the interlocking of limbs and
the disjunctive editing allow for a degree of visual ambiguity that renders human–


animal divisions indistinct. It is not clear if the pig in bed is male or female. By per-
mitting such ambiguities to reside around the gender of Maxime’s porcine partner,
the scene enacts a further queering of human–pig relations, opening another space
of porcine agency and cross-species intimacy that takes place outside the hetero-
normative, carno-phallogocentric regime of pig production. At the same time, it is
not clear if the pig is alive or dead. The possibility that the pig may be dead limits
the claims that can be made here for the animal as agent within this cross-species
exchange.52 Yet, though the status of the pig is unstable, this oneiric sequence
offers a poetic reimagining of cross-species relationality, animating something rad-
ically other to the generalised system of reification at stake in the film.
In suggesting forms of cross-species affinities and intimacies, Le Tacon’s film
renews ways of seeing and reinvigorates forms of attunement to the ‘livingness’ of
coexisting, co-constitutive beings in contact.53 While Le Cochon represses the iden-
tificatory lure of the pig, Cochon qui s’en dédit positively invites it. These moments
of cross-species intimacy and identification are figured in surreal terms, as hallu-
cinatory surplus to the capitalist instrumentalisation of both human and pig. While
Le Cochon affirms a masculine community that coalesces around the flayed body
of a sow, masculinity is problematised in Cochon qui s’en dédit, as the film figures
a zone of ‘becoming-animal’ and a queer crossing of gender and species border-
lines. As we have seen, Le Tacon’s film also creates space for a consideration of
nonhuman, nonheteronormative agency. Here the carno-phallogocentric identities
of both human and pig are radically destabilised and opened up to another. In line
with Giorgio Agamben’s notion of the anthropological machine as an optical
device that produces the human through a dynamic of recognition and difference,
Le Cochon qui s’en dédit reminds us of the ways in which the moving image con-
structs and destabilises species identities, both animal and human.54
In each of these examples, pigs are cinematically figured as threshold beings
around which speciesist boundaries are both articulated and redrawn. While the
TOPIGS video functions via a double logic of animal rendering, instrumentalising
the pig as both ‘a carnal and a symbolic currency’, the two documentaries exam-
ined here re-envisage the pig within biopolitical regimes of representation, either
through a refusal of the invisibility of death – as in Le Cochon – or through a
resistance to the reification of life – as in Cochon qui s’en dédit.55 Yet the TOPIGS
video more readily represents our genetically modified present and the relentless
contemporary movement of transnational animal capital; indeed, the ‘intensifica-
tion and globalization of the pork industry’ has contributed to the disappearance
of the small-scale practices documented by Le Cochon and even Cochon qui s’en
dédit.56 In the context of the global trafficking of porcine life, the asymmetrical
power relations of slaughter and the biopolitics of agribusiness, the destabilising
force of the documentaries explored here may seem minimal. However, through a
durational attentiveness that gestures to the entwined material histories of animal
and film in Le Cochon, and through a reimagining of cross-species relationality
and an opening to porcine agency in Cochon qui s’en dédit, these documentaries

Screening Pigs

allow for counterhegemonic lines of porcine resistance to be traced within cinema’s

relation to animal capital. Such examples suggest a transformative focus on the
place of the pig both on screen and off, inviting broader reflection on the role
played by moving images in the (re)framing of species being.57

1. See http://www.thepigsite.com/video/single/128/.
2. Following Michel Foucault, biopolitics is understood here as the biological
regularisation of life as species or population, in contrast to the disciplining of
individual bodies associated with ‘anatomo-politics’. See Foucault, Society Must Be
Defended: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975–76, trans. David Macey, eds
Mauro Bertani and Alessandro Fontana (New York: Picador, 2003), p. 243.
3. Brett Mizelle, Pig (London: Reaktion, 2011), pp. 120–2.
4. Susan McHugh, ‘Clever Pigs, Failing Piggeries’, Antennae vol. 12 (Spring 2010), p. 19.
5. Jonathan Burt, ‘Morbidity and Vitalism: Derrida, Bergson, Deleuze and Animal Film
Imagery’, Configurations vol. 14, nos 1–2 (2006), p. 167.
6. Florence Maillard briefly compares and contrasts Le Cochon (‘beautiful’; ‘simple’) and
Cochon qui s’en dédit (‘nauseous’; ‘a living nightmare’). See Maillard, ‘Porcherie’, Cahiers
du cinéma vol. 664 (2011), p. 64. Translations are my own unless otherwise stated.
7. Jonathan Burt, Animals in Film (London: Reaktion, 2002), p. 31.
8. On considering meat animals in particular as (social) agents, see Susan McHugh, ‘The
Fictions and Futures of Farm Animals: Semi-living to “Animalacra” Pig Tales’, in
Animal Stories: Narrating across Species Lines (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota
Press, 2011), pp. 163–209. McHugh emphasises ‘a sense of social power as irreducible
to the human subject form’, underlining the importance of decoupling ‘the concept of
agency (the social movement or impact attributed to an agent of social power) from
identity (the humanist form of subjectivity through which an agent is understood to
have a history, in the broadest sense)’ (p. 13).
9. Ibid., p. 14.
10. Nicole Shukin, Animal Capital: Rendering Life in Biopolitical Times (Minneapolis and
London: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), p. 90.
11. Ibid., p. 100.
12. Ibid., p. 104.
13. Ibid.
14. Ibid., p. 45.
15. Ibid., p. 12. Shukin gestures productively to the question of animal agency, yet this
question remains relatively underdeveloped:

I can only point to the importance of also developing histories of animal agency. For
the rendering of animal capital is surely first contested by animals themselves, who
neither ‘live unhistorically’ nor live with the historical passivity regularly attributed to
them. (ibid., p. 130)


16. Ibid., pp. 103, 51.

17. As Shukin points out, this sequestering extends to the containment (and neutralisation)
of the smells and sounds of slaughter too (ibid., p. 63).
18. Ibid.
19. Foucault, Society Must Be Defended, p. 241.
20. Jackie Stacey, The Cinematic Life of the Gene (Durham, NC and London: Duke
University Press, 2010), p. 11.
21. Ermanno Olmi’s The Tree of Wooden Clogs includes a similar scene, meticulously
documenting the slaughter of a pig held down by a group of farmers.
22. Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson, ‘A Cultural Field in the Making: Gastronomy in
Nineteenth-century France’, in Lawrence R. Schehr and Allen S. Weiss (eds), French
Food: On the Table, On the Page and in French Culture (London and New York:
Routledge, 2001), p. 40.
23. John Berger, ‘Why Look at Animals?’, in About Looking (London, Berlin and New
York: Bloomsbury, 1980), p. 7.
24. Rémi Fontanel, ‘Cochon (Le)’, in Antoine de Baecque (ed.), Le Dictionnaire Eustache
(Paris: Léo Scheer, 2011), p. 67.
25. Shukin, Animal Capital, p. 227. Shukin borrows the term ‘imagined community’ from
Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of
Nationalism (London: Verso, 1983).
26. Akira Mizuta Lippit, ‘The Death of an Animal’, Film Quarterly vol. 56 no.1 (2002),
p. 10; Electric Animal: Toward a Rhetoric of Wildlife (Minneapolis: University of
Minnesota Press, 2000), pp. 165, 163.
27. Shukin, Animal Capital, p. 95.
28. Ibid., pp. 89–92.
29. Fontanel compares the careful gestures of the farmers – measuring the length of the
intestines, folding and cutting – to those of a film editor. As such, ‘[t]he flesh of the
film and the flesh of the pig end up resembling one another …’ (Fontanel, ‘Cochon
(Le)’, p. 67).
30. Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (New
York: Pantheon, 1970), p. 277, cited in Shukin, Animal Capital, p. 8.
31. André Bazin, ‘Death Every Afternoon’, trans. Mark A. Cohen, in Ivone Margulies
(ed.), Rites of Realism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press), p. 30.
32. Shukin, Animal Capital, p. 96.
33. I am grateful to Jackie Stacey for this suggestion. For a fascinating reading of meat as
a radically unstable signifier, see Rosemary Deller, ‘Dead Meat: Feeding at the
Anatomy Table of Gunther von Hagen’s Body Worlds’, Feminist Theory vol. 12 no. 3
(2011), pp. 241–61.
34. Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, trans. Daniel W. Smith
(London and New York: Continuum, 2003), p. 23.
35. Burt, for example, critiques a tendency in philosophical thought (by Jacques Derrida
among others) to configure the animal in deathly, melancholy terms. See ‘Morbidity
and Vitalism’.

Screening Pigs

36. Carol J. Adams, The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory,
20th edn (New York: Continuum), p. 29.
37. Shukin, Animal Capital, p. 227.
38. Patrick Leboutte and Jean-Louis Le Tacon, ‘De l’art et du cochon’ (filmed discussion)
(2010), Cochon qui s’en dédit DVD extras, Editions Montparnasse (Le geste
39. Ibid.
40. Vincent Jourdan, ‘Cochon qui s’en dédit de Jean-Louis Le Tacon’ (date unknown),
41. Adam Lowenstein, ‘Films without a Face: Shock Horror in the Cinema of Georges
Franju’, Cinema Journal vol. 37 no. 4 (1998), pp. 37–58.
42. See Anat Pick, ‘Scientific Surrealism in the Films of Georges Franju and Frederic
Wiseman’, in Creaturely Poetics: Animality and Vulnerability in Literature and Film
(New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), pp. 131–50.
43. Jean-Louis Le Tacon in Leboutte and Le Tacon, ‘De l’art et du cochon’. Though not
mentioned by Le Tacon during this discussion, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Porcile/Pigsty
(1969) also seems a possible influence.
44. Shukin, Animal Capital, p. 51.
45. Foucault, Society Must Be Defended, pp. 251–2.
46. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, trans. Brian Massumi (New
York and London: Continuum, 2004), p. 323.
47. Burt, ‘Morbidity and Vitalism’. p. 169.
48. Burt, Animals in Film, p. 31; McHugh, Animal Stories, p. 12.
49. This is complicated, though, by the possibility that this is a scene of tail-biting – an
example of (pathological) behaviour that can occur among intensively farmed pigs.
Read in these terms, the scene of contact between the two sows, framed erotically by
the voiceover, functions as a fantasy image through which the film disavows the
suffering of the pigs. I would suggest, however, that the possibility of reading this
scene in terms of queer porcine agency remains, and that these readings coexist in
tension. (My thanks to Brian Brock for prompting me to think further about the role
of fantasy in this film.)
50. Jacques Derrida, ‘“Eating Well”, or the Calculation of the Subject’, trans. Peter
Connor and Avital Ronell, in Derrida, Points …: Interviews, 1974–1994, ed. Elisabeth
Weber (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995), p. 280.
51. Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, ed. Marie-Louise Mallet, trans. David
Wills (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), p. 10.
52. Such questions also arise, for example, in Kira O’Reilly’s performance piece,
inthewrongplaceness (2005–9), in which she enacts a slow dance with a dead pig.
53. On the ‘co-constitution’ of ‘embodied cross-species sociality’, see Donna Haraway,
The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness (Chicago,
IL: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2003), p. 4.


54. Giorgio Agamben, The Open: Man and Animal, trans. Kevin Attell (Stanford, CA:
Stanford University Press, 2004), pp. 26–7.
55. Shukin, Animal Capital, p. 88.
56. Mizelle, Pig, p. 80.
57. I am grateful to the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland for a grant that
enabled research for this chapter to be carried out.

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Anat Pick

13 Animal Life in the Cinematic Umwelt

From the beginning, we have no doubt that an enclosing world is present, out of
which each animal cuts its dwelling-world. As superficial appearance teaches us,
each animal encounters in its dwelling-world certain objects with which it has a
closer or more distant relationship.
Jakob von Uexküll1

A system does not regulate everything. It is a bait for something.

Robert Bresson2

This essay explores the idea of cinematic dwelling-worlds in which human and
nonhuman animal lives unfold. Linking Bazinian realism to the biological theory
of Jakob von Uexküll, in particular his concept of Umwelt, I argue that cinema’s
framing of different lives can be profoundly zoomorphic. Bazin was struck by life’s
sheer diversity and formal inventiveness. Both at the level of form and at the level
of perspective, Bazinian realism is non-anthropocentric. I call this ‘zoomorphic
realism’, by which I mean cinema’s aptitude for showing the creaturely universes,
or ‘life-worlds’3 of human and nonhuman beings.
The most direct expression of Bazin’s creaturely imagination is, as a number of
commentators have shown, his interest in (and love of) animals.4 But films with no
animals are still zoomorphic if they treat the human world as part of nature:
embedded in materiality, subject to the forces that govern and modify human life.
Italian neorealism, for Bazin, achieved this particularly well since neorealist films
pertained to both the material and historical/social forces that engulf human exis-
tence. Another Bazinian favourite, early scientific cinema, pioneered new cine-
matographic technologies and allowed viewers to glimpse creatures and worlds
unavailable to the naked human eye. The 1903 Cheese Mites, for instance, was
more than a microcinematographic sensation; it made possible a new understand-
ing of the concept of ‘life’. Both neorealism and scientific cinema, then, are exam-
ples of a zoomorphic, creaturely cinema. If elsewhere I approached creatureliness
and cinematic realism as universalising principles that acknowledge the vulnera-
bility and perishablity of all living bodies, whether human or not, my purpose here

is different.5 I am interested in films that engage with interior animal worlds, ren-
dered, as far as possible, from the perspective of the creature itself. Zoomorphic
realism, then, asserts the multiplicity and situatedness of worlds. It does not, by
definition, aspire to some otherworldly objectivity that subsumes particular worlds
under the single entity of Nature. It aims to explore the meaning of the perceptual,
behavioural and ontological specificities of life by observing animals’ subjective
experience, and reflecting on the ethical stakes of such radical biodiversity.
To move from one definition of realism to the other, from realism as external
law to the ‘inner real’6 of the individual animal, I explore two different cinematic
dwelling-worlds: Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped (1956), and Claude Nuridsany
and Marie Pérennou’s insect documentary Microcosmos (1996). Under the rubric
of zoomorphic realism, each bio-cinematic enclosure raises questions about what
it means for a being to have a world. As Uexküll’s philosophical biology suggests,
there is no living being without a world, and no world that does not correspond
to the being that inhabits it. Uexküll named the relationship between an animal
and its environment Umwelt, a concept that speaks not only to film theory, espe-
cially realism, but also to our thinking about animal, by which I also mean human,
life on screen.

Zoomorphic realism
In one of the most beautiful passages in ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’
André Bazin provides what some would regard as a credulous reading of the

The aesthetic qualities of photography are to be sought in its power to lay bare the
realities. It is not for me to separate off, in the complex fabric of the objective
world, here a reflection on a damp sidewalk, there a gesture of a child. Only the
impassive lens, stripping its object of all those ways of seeing it, those piled-up
preconceptions, that spiritual dust and grime with which my eyes have covered it,
is able to present it in all its virginal purity to my attention and consequently to my

Three key concerns of cinematic realism emerge in the passage: the supposed objec-
tivity of the external world, the ‘scrupulous indifference’,8 as Bresson described it,
of the camera’s ‘impassive lens’ that can ‘lay bare the realities’, and the film-
maker’s (and subsequently the viewer’s) subjective investment in images, the mys-
tifications of something like ideology – habits, belief systems, personal histories
and so on – that orient one’s ways of seeing. Realism, I want to suggest, purports
to find in cinema (perhaps in art more generally) the formal interweaving of these
perspectives. It asserts the reality of the world as a more-than-subjective projection
while insisting on the situatedness of the real: reality as the relation between the
world, the observer and the observing apparatus.

Animal Life in the Cinematic Umwelt

Bazin’s faith in images reflects his faith in reality, and in the notion that the
image, by virtue of its ontology – its link with the world – can deepen our
encounter with reality by wiping clean the ‘spiritual dust and grime’ of ideology. If
ideology reduces the ‘complex fabric of the objective world’ in the service of one
vested interest or another, Bazin’s view of cinema, despite its idealism, pays life’s
complexity its dues. His realism avoids both a simply noumenal view of cinema’s
ability to show things ‘as they are’, and a thoroughly subjectivist one that submits
cinema to the whims of industry, technology or the auteur.
As a number of recent reappraisals of Bazin have argued, a nuanced view of cine-
matic realism eschews strict indexicality.9 Realism emerges instead as a three-point
(Trinitarian?) relation between the ‘photographer’s mind’, the ‘scene before the
camera’ and the ‘photographic negative inside the camera’.10 As Raymond Durgnat
explains in ‘The Negative Vision of Robert Bresson’, for Bazin, ‘the essence of pho-
tography is not some coldly objective camera-eye scrutinizing its subject from a dis-
tance, in a mechanistic or voyeuristic way. But neither is the artist’s subjectivity
projected unto the world, in an anthropomorphic, fantasizing way’.11 The camera
is not distant, detached, or objective; it is reactive, that is, in a continuum with the
world it captures. Moreover, the subjective dimension of the triangular structure
of film-maker–camera–world makes the encounter a passionate one: ‘Photography
– or, more exactly, the “photorealism” that concerned Bazin – is a loving interac-
tion, an amorous anxiety, about Creation’.12 Christianity infuses Bazin’s realism
as a form of loving attention. Durgnat, in fact, designates Bazin’s theory ‘Christian
realism’.13 Creation is observed amorously and anxiously – amorously, because, as
the opening lines of Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star (1992) boldly declare,
‘Everything in the world began with a yes. One molecule said yes to another mol-
ecule and life was born’,14 anxiously, because the persistence of injustice and suf-
fering reflect Creation’s fallenness and, to a Christian, the ‘ravages of God’s
“Absences”’.15 ‘Bazin’s transcendentalism’, Durgnat claims, ‘is affirmative, but not
optimistic’,16 which is one way of thinking about realism’s general orientation:
sticking with the founding ‘yes’ of Creation without ignoring the tragedies and fail-
ures of material, social and political life. Christian realism speaks of a world empty
of God where every object, no matter how small or insignificant, reverberates with
God’s absence and becomes – or rather, the act of observing becomes – sacramen-
tal, a testament of love for the world, an assertion of that primordial yes.
Yet, how many worlds are there? When Bazin writes that cinema ‘lays bare the
realities’, in the plural, we can take this to mean slices, or parts, of reality captured
in time. But ‘realities’ may alternatively suggest the copresence of different spatio-
temporal worlds, and their corresponding film-worlds. In life, as in film, there is
not one but a proliferation of worlds, since what a world is can be thought as a
relationship between the perceiving being and the world it perceives. There is, then,
the world (space-time) of the dog, of the beetle or of the human being, which
cinema can attune to and attempt to convey.


Realism, like reality, is a construction and a point of view that denote a mode
of involvement. As Francesco Casetti puts it: ‘for Bazin cinema’s realistic basis
derives from the possibility of participation’.17

Bazin never said photorealism was the only way to understand the world. … Its
relative ‘transparency’ was not ‘failure to edit,’ not ‘naïve realism,’ but an
exploration, a showing-forth. It refrains, not from ‘artifice’ generally, but from
certain habits of artifice.18

The world is not ‘out there’ to be captured by mechanical means. Reality is always
artificial, or virtual, insofar as it is crafted between subject and object, not an entity
but a procedure: the creative process of ‘showing-forth’ coauthored by subject and
object. Understood in this way, realism designates an overcoming of the
subject/object divide by alluding to it instead as a seamless continuum.

Umwelt and animal life

A conception of worlds as the unfolding correspondences between subjects and
their respective perceptual environments is at the heart of two, interrelated, scien-
tific fields: the Umwelt theory of Estonian-German biologist Jakob von Uexküll
(1864–1944), and biosemiotics.19 The German word Umwelt is thought to have
been coined by the nineteenth-century Danish poet Jens Immanuel Baggesen and
means ‘surrounding environment’. In Uexküll’s use, the term indicates the totality
or network of relations between an animal and its environment. The Umwelt is not
the objective world an animal inhabits; it is made up of those elements within the
animal’s perceptual field that are intelligible to it and constitute what Uexküll
refers to as the animal’s ‘functional cycle’.20

Most of Uexküll’s work was devoted to the problem of how living beings
subjectively perceive their environment and how this perception determines their
behavior. In the book Umwelt und Innenwelt der Tiere (Environment and Inner
World of Animals, 1909) he introduced the term ‘Umwelt’ to denote the subjective
(subjectivized, meaningful) world of an organism.21

As Brett Buchanan explains in Onto-Ethologies (2008), Uexküll wanted to distin-

guish biology from physics and chemistry by moving from invariable, general laws
to the individual organism. In so doing, he positioned himself against Darwin’s
mechanistic view of life that sees nature as operating causally on chance mutations.
Through natural selection, successful mutations survive by passing on their
genes, while others die out. This view reveals nature as essentially planless.
Uexküll was troubled by what he saw as the implicit nihilism of the Darwinian
position, and argued instead for a teleological view of nature. Instead of focus-
ing solely on the accidental evolutionary mechanism of natural selection, Uexküll

Animal Life in the Cinematic Umwelt

turned his attention to particular animals as subjects whose behaviour, he claimed,

is not strictly mechanistic.
By exploring an organism’s subjective interplay with its environment Uexküll
was able to argue a number of points: nature, perceived as a single object that
functions according to physical law, does not exist, since, as Kant’s second
Copernican revolution suggested, there is no world outside of the subject who per-
ceived it.22 Next, Uexküll insists that not only humans but animals too are active
perceivers of their world. An animal’s perceptual world is hermetically sealed –
Uexküll likens it to a soap bubble23 – but some Umwelten touch and overlap.
Umwelten can be simple or complex, but the organism in each case both receives
and acts upon environmental signs – this is the semiotic principle which Uexküll
believes sustains living systems – endowing the Umwelt with meaning. ‘Each envi-
ronment’, Uexküll writes in A Theory of Meaning, ‘forms a self-enclosed unit,
which is governed in all its parts by its meaning for the subject’.24
Uexküll’s most famous example is the female tick, whose Umwelt is minimal-
ist (she is deaf and blind and her world consists of the senses of smell of butyric
acid from a mammal’s sweat, of temperature, which allows the tick to recognise
the mammal’s warm body, and touch, with which she feels her way to a conven-
ient spot where she can burrow and drink the mammal’s blood).25 The tick’s
Umwelt does not exist outside of this exclusive relationship. Though simple, in her
Umwelt the tick must engage in the exchanging of meaningful signs with the sur-
rounding environment; the tick and her surroundings together create meaning (or
function) and so are mutually conversant in a kind of ‘duet’.
Uexküll makes even the unpopular tick’s world seem worthy. In The Open:
Man and Animal (2004), Agamben calls Uexküll’s writing on the tick ‘a highpoint
of modern antihumanism’.26 In her imperviousness to elements in her immediate
area that mean something to other animal species (including the taste of blood,
which the tick does not notice), the tick’s world may seem, as Heidegger would
have it, deprived. And yet, ‘[T]he example of the tick clearly shows the general
structure of the environment proper to all animals’.27 In his 1929–30 lectures The
Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude, Heidegger
defined animals as ontologically ‘poor in world’.28 Poverty in world (Weltarmut)
consists for Heidegger in the animal’s ‘captivation’ (Benommenheit) by those
meaningful perceptual cues that furnish its Umwelt.29 The animal is caught up in
its environmental relations, which in turn remain concealed from its grasp. By con-
trast, humans are free to access their world and be ‘world-forming’ (weltbildend).
The animal is absorbed in its environment, while Dasein stands apart, taking in the
world and actively shaping it. Thus, the world qua world is never given to animals
as it is to man; it is as if animals melt into their surroundings, whose discrete beings
are never disclosed. To a lizard sunning itself on a rock, the rock is given as a
‘lizard-thing’, but ‘is not accessible to it as a rock’.30 The animal is in the world
without this world ever being revealed to it. This is the animal’s essential poverty.
Heidegger takes his cue from Uexküll, who insists on the internal wholeness of


animal worlds.31 For Heidegger and Uexküll alike, worlds are not hierarchically
organised, some richer than others, but are intrinsically complete (which, inciden-
tally, supports new ways of thinking about disabilities, not as diminished states,
but as environmental relationships in their own right). But in finding the lizard
deprived of the relation to the rock as a rock, all Heidegger shows is that the lizard
does not participate in the human Umwelt. Heidegger may reject humanism, but
he remains anthropocentric.
In the tick’s case, worldly confinement is even harsher. What is most heartrend-
ing in Uexküll’s description of the tick’s Umwelt is how unshareable and cut off it
is from other animal worlds.32 As Buchanan puts it,

The moon, weather, birds, noises, leaves, shadows, and so forth do not matter to
the tick. They may belong to the Umwelt of other organisms that live in the midst
of the tick, but they do not carry any meaning for the tick itself. The external
world (Welt) is as good as nonexistent, as are the general surroundings
(Umgebung) of the organism. Both are theoretical references to contrast with the
meaningful world of the Umwelt. What does matter to the tick, however, is the
sensory perception of heat and sweat from a warm-blooded animal, on which the
female tick feeds, lays its eggs, and dies.33

‘The Umwelt might be considered akin to a microcosm’,34 and since each unit
is ‘meant for’ a particular animal, there is not just one but multiple animal worlds.
Together these Umwelten form a weblike edifice Uexküll compares to a symphonic
orchestration. Although self-contained, the

Umwelten of organisms are therefore not simply closed spheres, as if locking the
organism within a self-concealed and isolated container. The animal is not an
object or entity, but a symphony underscored by rhythms and melodious reaching
outward for greater accompaniment. Individual Umwelten are necessarily
enmeshed with one another through a variety of relationships that create a
harmonious whole.35

Uexküll’s biological theory of meaning and his musical analogy resist the clichés
about nature’s indifference because animal worlds are internally and externally
linked through biosemiotic processes, the exchanging of meaningful signs, that are
mutually non-indifferent and harmonious.
Every element in a living system is described by Uexküll as a ‘carrier of mean-
ing’.36 Both the organism and its surrounding objects assume their identities in
their formative relations to one another. Outside of the relationship an object has
no meaning, and neither does the organism. ‘When framed in this way’, writes
Buchanan, ‘an organism is never just one’,37 since it depends on its environmental
counterparts for its identity. The Umwelt is thus radically intersubjective. Indeed,
Buchanan suggests that Uexküll’s is ‘an intersubjective theory of nature’,38 making

Animal Life in the Cinematic Umwelt

him, perhaps, biology’s Levinas. While essentially meaning-carrying (so non-

indifferent), worlds are also separate and, in this sense, lonely. And loneliness, too,
is not indifferent. Uexküll’s insistence on the melodious arrangement of worlds and
his efforts to render visible for us the variety of animal Umwelten – in Georg
Kriszat’s charming illustrations in Foray – convey the urge to overcome solitude as
neither just human or animal, but as if inherent in nature itself.
Uexküll removes the ‘dust and grime’, as Bazin put it, of anthropocentrism that
sees the world solely through human eyes. As will become clear in the following
section, Umwelt works well to encapsulate the various discrete environments that
films depict, from prison’s carceral space in Bresson’s A Man Escaped to the popu-
lous undergrowth in Nuridsany and Pérennou’s Microcosmos. But Umwelt does
much more than this. Cinematic Umwelten open our eyes and minds to the vari-
ety and expressiveness of animal lives. Living systems, then, are inherently cultural.
They give rise to variations in behaviour, new forms of expression, new relational
trajectories. We think of animals as belonging to nature, and of peopl