Academic journal article New Formations

Modernity, Humans and Animals-Tensions in the Field of the Technical-Industrial Imaginary

Academic journal article New Formations

Modernity, Humans and Animals-Tensions in the Field of the Technical-Industrial Imaginary

Article excerpt

A Militia major is driving along when he sees a militiaman standing with a penguin.

'Take him to the zoo', he orders.

Some time later the same major is driving along when he sees the militiaman still with the penguin.

'What have you been doing?' he asks. 'I said take him to the zoo'. 'We've been to the zoo, Comrade major', says the militiaman, 'and the circus. And now we're going to the pictures'. (1)


In modernity humans constitute their relations with nature, including the animal world, from the perspective of an industrialising imagination and technical regimes of control. I want to explore this technical-industrial imaginary and its crisis potential not only from the vantage point of scientific or instrumentalist rationality, in the manner of Horkheimer or Adorno or Foucault, but also from the perspective of humans' interactions with the animal world, which can be used paradigmatically to throw the image of technical mastery into relief. This latter perspective begins with a history longer than modernity that includes the animal imbedded as a 'natural' extension to the human world, and a shorter one that at first only incompletely incorporates non-human animals into a technical-industrial imaginary, yet later fully incorporates them as 'non-natural' beings that are constituted through a self-referencing system of signs. Yet the industrial-technical imaginary with its image of technical mastery does not exhaust the ways we may constitute our relations with non-human animals. In the last two sections of this essay I will discuss ways that this technical mastery is viewed as a problem that can be purportedly managed, before turning to some alternatives to both the technical and managerial relation of humans over non-human animals. (2)



Everyday life, as well as technical specialisation and functional and status divisions in human societies, can be reconstructed for any civilisational history of humankind from the perspective of the domestication of animals and livestock. From this perspective, there was not only the grain revolution of the Neolithic period (from 10,000 BC onwards, but more conventionally from between 6-5000 years BC), but as importantly revolutions in the shaping of sheep and goats, cattle, pigs, horses, asses and mules through the techniques not only of pastoral containment and new forms of ownership, but also taming, and where possible--for dogs, sheep, cattle, horses--selective breeding. One could also speak of an equine revolution (and in other parts of the human world, bovine, camelidaen, or elephantidaen revolutions) in which power for transportation and labour came to be provided by the horse, the ox, camel or dromedary, or elephant. In this sense, this is a history of millennia, rather than decades or hundreds of years. Leaving to one side the paleo-history of human's relation with canines, the training of cattle (oxen), horses, camels and elephants for transportation, labour, ceremony, war and hunting occurred from approximately 7000 BC with full domestication of the horse and the invention of specialised riding equipment at approximately 4000 BC. (3)

This non-human animal and human relationship includes not only material life, but also, and as importantly, the diverse and rich cultural formations or social imaginaries that humans have produced and through which they understand themselves and project this understanding. It is through this cultural production that animals have been incorporated into the human world, as both material 'objects' for slaughter and for use, as well as representation. Animal representations may have taken the form of aesthetic representations, of animals depicted in paintings or sculpture, for example. Alternatively the living animal may be imbued with a specific sacred and symbolic dimension through which it may be venerated, adored, abhorred, and even sacrificed. …

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