Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Giving Up Control: Narrative Authority and Animal Experience in Coetzee and Kafka

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Giving Up Control: Narrative Authority and Animal Experience in Coetzee and Kafka

Article excerpt

Recent studies in ethology and neuroscience differentiate between primary consciousness and secondary consciousness in animals. Scientists have developed this distinction as a means of moving beyond "accurate report" studies that base animal consciousness on the "capacity for accurate report of conscious contents" (Edelman 476). Primary consciousness, what these researchers assign to animals, "entails the ability to create a scene in the 'remembered present' in the absence of language" (476). This marks a move in animal consciousness studies away from a privileging of a direct analogy with humans, and therefore a concentration on language, to what is referred to as an approach that uses "humans as a benchmark" (476). The emphasis for consciousness studies must now be "based causally on neural properties rather than on indirect behavioral report" (482). The possibility of consciousness without language is thus being explored. Jacques Derrida's recently published seminars chart similar ground by unsettling an age-old distinction between man and animal in philosophy that rests on the distinction between the symbolic and the imaginary. Derrida describes this opposition in terms of "the specular capture of which the animal is capable and the symbolic order of the signifier to which it does not have access" (Beast 120). He deconstructs this opposition because he suggests that our approach to the animal should be one of "wondering whether what one calls man has the right, for his own part, to attribute in all rigor to man, to attribute to himself, then, what he refuses to the animal, and whether he ever has a concept of it that is pure, rigorous, indivisible, as such" (130). It therefore becomes a question of right and authority. Derrida suggests that writers such as Kafka "understood this better than philosophers or theorists did" (127). Such studies in science and philosophy can therefore work in conjunction with literary narratives that strive to enter into the "mind" of animals; they raise questions in regard to the linguistic representation of animal consciousness by such writers as Franz Kafka and J.M. Coetzee.

The "reflections" published alongside J.M. Coetzee's novella The Lives of Animals by, among others, Peter Singer and Barbara Smuts challenge treatments of animals that deny them consciousness, awareness, and the potential for friendship with humans. Smuts's anthropological "reflection" argues that humans must privilege the notion of "social subjectivity" in dealings with animals. In failing to honour the personhood of animals, she argues, it is humans who are diminished (114). She offers useful advice for scientific and fictional investigations of animals: "Relating to other beings as persons has nothing to do with whether or not we attribute human characteristics to them" (118). She argues that "the possibility of voluntary, mutual surrender to the dictates of intersubjectivity constitutes the common ground" that philosophers have ignored. For Smuts, such surrender to "other beings" can be experienced only by "giving up control of them and how they relate to us. We fear such loss of control but the gifts we receive in return make it a small price to pay" (118). She also questions the capacity of literature to grant access to "the animal": "Encounters with animals have less to do with the poetic imagination and more to do with real-life encounters with other animals" (120). This essay examines whether Coetzee and Kafka convey a sense of "giving up control" when they describe animal experience, and it investigates how important narrative authority is for this feigning of "the animal."

Because the shadow of death hangs over animals--Derrida writes that "a thinking of the human subject" that has for so long situated "the possibility and necessity of sacrifice at the heart of its ethics, fails to feel concerned [...] by the animot" (Animal 106)--the encounter with animals alerts humans to an ever-present potential for violence and suffering. …

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