Where Does Paint Figure in Posthumanist Thinking and the Emerging Field of Critical Animal Studies? (part 4: Posthumanism, identity and the animal ‘other’)

Posthumanism, identity and the animal ‘other’


Fig. 1.

Paulus Potter, Young Bull, 1647



Damian Hirst, The Physical Impossibility of Death In The Mind Of Someone Living, 1991

Throughout paint’s history, humans have been placed at the centre of the known universe.  This anthropocentric bearing has remained unchallenged across genres and other mediums for much of the history of animals in art; from Paulus Potter’s The Young Bull, 1647 (fig. 1) to Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death In The Mind Of Someone Living, 1991 (fig. 2) animals have played a subsidiary role in the portrayal of human concerns and values.

Posthumanism has emerged through philosophy’s attempts to redefine humanity’s identity by repositioning humans within technology and biology, in which the human is but one life form among many, whether natural or artificial.  Its tenet is to decentre the human in relation to evolution, ecology and technology as well as oppose established humanist dichotomies such as male-female, nature-culture and human-animal.  In his book What is Posthumanism? Cary Wolfe explains that these binary concepts are typically humanist in that they reflect humanity’s tendency to dogmatically divide the universe into opposites.  He refers to his own sense of posthumanism as being in opposition of ‘the fundamental anthropological dogma associated with humanism and invoked by [French philosopher Étienne] Balibar’s reference to the humanity/animality dichotomy’.[1] Wolfe’s definition of posthumanism suggests that human identity is realised by the avoidance or repression of animal origins in evolutionary and biological terms as well as by transcendence from bonds of materiality and embodiment.[2]

This concern with the devaluing and deconstructing of anthropocentric views has in part arisen due to post-colonialism and the ideas arising from the sense of ‘the other’.  In his book Art and Animals, Aloi states ‘the animal has insistently sneaked through the pages of key continental philosophers’ in reference to the way thinkers such as Jacques Derrida, Donna Haraway, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari all challenge the notion of humanity as being world-forming.[3]  The concepts initially postulated by philosophers such as Slavoj Žižek and Michel Foucault are now debated in these contemporary circles of thinkers while science and technology open up the opaque world of animal phenomenology.  We can now investigate and reveal animal communicative and cognitive abilities, or perceive things using wavelengths of sound or light that were previously denied to us as another species, resulting in a challenge to our hierarchical relationship with non-humans.  This propagates a multitude of other questions about how we should interact with or regard animals in modern society, particularly at a time when other species are marginalised and exploited by humans more than ever before and on a global scale.

At present, posthumanism is hard to define.  Neil Badmington in his introduction Approaching Posthumanism states that ‘the use of such a term is, of course, far from straightforward’[4] while Wolfe also mentions that ‘the term has begun to emerge with different and sometimes competing meanings’[5] referring to the elements of the subject which branch into transhumanism (enhancing the human using technology and biology, particularly in reference to Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto) and anti-humanism (a more radical outlook that sees humanity as amoral, narrow-minded and blameworthy of ecological destruction). While it is beyond the scope of this essay to explore such terms, it is important to establish a point of reference for this discussion.  This essay allies with Wolfe’s definition, particularly concerning the humanity/animality dichotomy as well as its postmodern connections:

My sense of posthumanism is thus analogous to Jean-François Lyotard’s paradoxical rendering of the postmodern: it comes both before and after humanism: before in the sense that it names the embodiment and embeddedness of the human being in not just its biological but also its technical world, the prosthetic coevolution of the human animal with the technicity of tools and external archival mechanisms (such as language and culture)…after in the sense that posthumanism names a historical moment in which the decentering of the human by its imbrication in technical, medical, informatic, and economic networks is increasingly impossible to ignore.[6]

It goes without saying that the subject of posthumanism is extremely sensitive, not least because it is still in its infancy as an emerging mode of thought, but more so for its upheaval of values which have been central to our self-identification as a species.  The problematic situation for artists concerning posthumanism is that in extending their artistic and ethical consideration out towards the non-human ‘other’,[7] they ironically adhere to humanist principles.  This complicates the subject for artists in terms of what to represent as much as how to represent it.

But the proposal here is that just by representing animals differently, we create the potential to discover more about ourselves and redefine that identity of ‘the human’.  Steve Baker proposes that the ‘ideas of the animal…enable us to frame and express ideas about human identity’,[8] while according to Ron Broglio of Arizona State University, ‘animal worlds set a limit to human knowledge’ and the human can no longer be regarded as a starting point when forming ideas about the status of non-human animals in society.[9]

The role of artists, and specifically for this discourse, of paint, in the wake of posthumanist questioning is a crucial one and for the representation of animals in paint to be productive in the 21st century against this posthumanist backdrop, certain conditions for its employment as a medium as well as choice of and depiction of subject apply.

What is meant by the term ‘productive’ is the avoidance of depicting animals in an anthropocentric manner while simultaneously advocating positive shifts and alterations in human attitudes towards animals.  This text has presented a historical context on which to frame reasons for depicting animals, revealing that in the past animals in art have been represented as God, food, trophy or possession.  Unlike the painters of the late 19th century, today’s artists are encouraged to avoid sentimental, romanticised imagery in their works as such attributes are now considered patronising towards other species and only serve to perpetuate the aforementioned humanist binary concepts.  The posthuman world must appreciate animals for their capacity to think, act and communicate, whether this is at an inter-species level or an intra-species level, and more so for the latter.  Posthuman thinking in the realm of animal studies is also about respecting diversity and universality.  Artists can highlight an appreciation of the world on non-human terms, such as recognising individuality among other species that transcends taxonomy or emphasising that the ethical standing of at least some non-human animals is taken for granted.[10] For artists wishing to highlight the discrimination, injustices and marginalisation of non-human species, the imagery decided upon should ideally provoke discussion about such matters without denigrating or sentimentalising the animal subject.

[1] Cary Wolfe, What is Posthumanism? (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010)  p.xiv-xv.

[2] Wolfe, p.xv.

[3] Aloi, Animals preface p.xix.

[4] Neil Badmington, ‘Introduction: Approaching Posthumanism’ Posthumanism (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2000) p.1.

[5] Wolfe, p.xii.

[6] Wolfe, p.xv.

[7] Wolfe, p.167.

[8] Steve Baker, Picturing the Beast: Animals, Identity and Representation, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993), p.6.

[9] Ron Broglio, Surface Encounters: Thinking with Animals and Art, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011) p.xxiii.

[10] Wolfe, p.145.


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