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Animal Studies and Film:

An interview with Matthew Brower, professor of graduate Art History at York University

Conducted by Devin Delliquanti



Modern Mask: Can you give a brief overview of Animal Studies and its terminology for those who may not be familiar?


Matt Brower: At its root, Animal Studies is an interdisciplinary field of scholarship that tries to take animals seriously. Animal Studies draws on and engages with work in anthropology, anthrozoology, environmental studies, cultural geography, art history, history, sociology, psychology, literature, film, eco-feminism, and both continental and analyticphilosophy. Because it is an emerging area of study that has not been formalized or disciplined, there is no consensus on how this might best be accomplished. At present there are a variety of approaches and concerns operating under the name of Animal Studies. To gain some sense of the range of work in the field, I see some of the broad overlapping trends in the approach to studying animals. First, some work in Animal Studies takes as its starting point the ethical engagement with animals and questions of animal rights. Included in this ethical engagement are both explicitly activist approaches and more abstract reflections on the conditions and possibilities of ethical relations with animals. Examples of this kind of work include Carol Adamís The Sexual Politics of Meat, and Steve Bakerís Picturing the Beast. Second, other work in animal studies examines human-animal relations and animal representations to argue for the importance of animals to history, thought, culture, or society. The work of Harriet Ritvo and Erica Fudge is exemplary in the analysis of animal history. Arguing for the importance of animals to thought, Cary Wolfe suggests in hisbook Animal Rites that an engagement with animals is crucial to the development of any understanding of posthumanist theory. Third, some work in animal studies treats animals, particularly represented animals, as vehicles for human concerns. One excellent work in this vein is Cynthia Chrisí recent book on wildlife film and television, Watching Wildlife, which is largely concerned with the use of animal representation to naturalize ideological issues. Fourth, other work in animal studies tries to capture a sense of animal agency. These scholars insist that animals do things that must be considered and are not just passive sites for human intervention. For example, in a provocative piece, Susan McHugh argues that William Wegmanís early art videos are in fact collaborations between the artist and the Weimaraner Man Ray and that the videos are shaped by the dogís aesthetic agency.


The terminology of animal studies focuses on trying to reframe the relations and distinctions between humans and animals. The key question that this terminology attempts to resolve is how to account for the difference between humans and animals in light of humanityís own animality. The term anymal is sometimes used to refer to the broader category of both humans and animals. Other attempts to express this relation include the formulations humans and other animals and non-human animals. Another important term for animal studies is the concept of animality, which refers to the characteristics, or nature of animals. This is related to another important terminological distinction in the field: some scholars believe it is possible to speak of the animal (singular), or the question of the animal, while others insist on speaking only of animals (plural).


How did you first become interested in Animal Studies?



My interest in animal studies emerged from work I was doing on the representation of nature and the concept of wilderness. I wrote a paper for the Journal of Canadian Studies on the concept of nature at work in the imagery of the Canadian wildlife artist Robert Bateman. In a footnote to the paper I compared the positioning of the viewer in wildlife art to the use of the photographic blind in wildlife film. I suggested that wildlife artís presentation of an image of deep nature, in which the viewer is positioned as both being up close to the animal and completely absent from the representational space of the image, had similarities to the use of the photographic blind in wildlife cinema to authenticate its imagery as untainted by human presence. From there I began investigating the relations between animals and cameras by trying to track down the origins of the photographic blind.  This led to an engagement with broader questions of animal representation, human-animal relations, and animality.


The syllabus of your class starts with Bergerís About Looking, in particular the section ďWhy Look at Animals.Ē Why do you think we as humans look at animals in our art, particularly in film?


I begin with Berger because his argument clearly frames the case for the inauthenticity of modern animal imagery. Berger suggests that animal imagery compensates for a lost engagement with animals. He argues that an animalís look differs from a humanís in its power to confirm us. However, he suggests that in modern culture, animals are marginalized by the workings of capital. This marginalization means that we can no longer see animals and so they can no longer look back at us. Instead, we look at animal images that only reflect ourselves back to us. While Bergerís argument is powerful, I think that his focus on the question of why we look at animals is in many a ways a further marginalization of them by suggesting that animals can only be marginal in modernity. Asking why we look at animals leads to reading animal imagery in terms of its ideological content. It suggests that there is something abnormal about looking at animals, despite the fact that the representation of animals extends well back into prehistory. I think a more important question is how we look at animals. How the technologies we use to make animals visible structure our relations to them and our conceptions of them. In thinking of animals in film itís important to recall, as Jonathan Burt reminds us, that film has its origins in attempts to capture animal images. The proto-cinema of Muybridge and Marey is filled with animal bodies. Muybridgeís work began as an attempt to determine the position of a horseís legs in motion and Mareyís work was in part an attempt to capture the bodily process of animals without vivisection. The key difference is that Mareyís work abandoned vision and instead moved to creating what Lisa Cartwright has called graphical traces of animal bodies in motion while Muybridge remained focused on picturing animals. Rather than simply being a genre of film, animal film was the mediumís impetus. Akira Mizuta Lippit takes up the centrality of animals to an understanding of film in a different way in his book Electric Animal. Lippit argues that film, like all technology, is a site for the mourning of animals. Watching film is thus part of a complex working through of both our own and the animalís relation to mortality. While I am unconvinced by Lippitís argument, it does offer a provocative account of the relation between animals and film.



In your class, you have taught both Animal Studies in film and television, and Animal Studies in theatre. To see a live animal on stage can be exhilarating for an audience, because there is always the potential for the animal to break the so called fourth wall. The end of The Lieutenant of Inishmore springs to mind as an example. Can you comment on some of the differences between the use of animals in film and theatre, not just in filmís ability to digitally recreate animals, but also some of the fundamental reasons why animals appear on screen versus on stage?    


I think animals in film and theater carry a powerful affective charge, not only are they exhilarating but they can also be profoundly disturbing. We donít see animals as actors in the same way as humans. We interpret their behavior on stage or screen as the result of training and not as a performance. For this reason, Burt suggests that animals in film function as affective ruptures in the system of representation; there is always the potential for the animal body to assert its reality as animal and disrupt the immersive experience of the filmic narrative. Live animal performance is also constrained by the audienceís affective response to animal bodies. As Nigel Rothfels shows in his work on elephants, the limits of the animal performance are not the limits of animal training but of the audienceís expectations and understandings of animality. Many of the differences between the experience of animals in film and theater or performance stem from the differences between the media. The difference between live time and recorded time creates the potential for improvisation/deviation in theater, and the possibility of an event. This openness to the event in theater, which you describe as the possibility of breaking the fourth wall, gives the live animal body an unpredictability that distances the audience from it as a performer. In theater/performance thereís a phenomenological encounter with animal bodies thatís absent from film. Particularly important to this encounter is the smell of animals. In film we encounter animals in terms of sight and sound. Derek Bousť suggests that film induces para-proxemic relations with animals Ė the implied closeness of the images (inside flight or fight ranges) creates a sense of intimacy with the animals represented and gives us the feeling that we in some meaningful way know them. This pseudo-intimacy with animals in film may help to explain the affective response that attaches to filmed images of animal violence and cruelty.


Further Readings:

Matthew Brower's Animal Studies syllabus can be found at:



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