Academic journal article New Formations

Darwin and Derrida on Human and Animal Emotions: The Question of Shame as a Measure of Ontological Difference

Academic journal article New Formations

Darwin and Derrida on Human and Animal Emotions: The Question of Shame as a Measure of Ontological Difference

Article excerpt

Earth felt the wound, and Nature from her seat Sighing through all her works gave signs of woe That all was lost.

Milton Paradise Lost (9.782-4)


Until quite recently raising questions about the range of emotions experienced by animals (insofar as such questions were asked at all), no doubt arose largely in anecdotal accounts of companion animals in domestic life, or in reflections on the cultural realm of literature, art or fairy tales. From the seventeenth century the gradual development of the professionalisation of enquiry in Europe meant that the study of animal cognition or emotion in serious scholarship aimed to be strictly segregated from subjective regimes of affect associated with the arts, or from any sense of tacit knowledge drawn from personal encounters with animals in the domestic realm. Furthermore, the possibilities of inter-subjective communication in human-animal encounters, or the potentially more demanding question of to what extent our emotional lives might be compared to those of animals, have not generally been regarded as topics of serious enquiry.

There were certainly exceptions to this scholarly tradition, not least in the works of Charles Darwin in the nineteenth century, or in the work of such distinguished twentieth-century animal behaviourists as Jakob von Uexkiill or Conrad Lorenz. Nonetheless, there can be little doubt that the standard scientific approach has for some time privileged the view of animals as objects of study rather than sentient, or feeling subjects as such. Notwithstanding the objectification of the animal however, the question of the extent to which the privileging of rationality over other forms of experience was in itself steeped in deep cultural and theological legacies was not generally raised. Moreover, if we acknowledge recent claims by ethologists such as Marc Bekoff that to argue against the existence of animal emotions is now simply regarded as poor biology, (1) then the prevalence of techno-scientific objectifications of the animal are likely to remain a source of ethical tension.

The ethical tensions raised by the emotional life of animals objectified as items of utility in the laboratory also extend to the emotional experiences of animals in conditions of hard labour, factory farms, or slaughterhouses. Especially since the common emotional engagement with companion animals or our enthusiasm for 'wildlife' offers such a stark contrast to these other darker, yet comparably affective regimes of feeling.

Despite the fact that these kinds of inconsistencies have long been a part of the complex web of contradictions constituting human-animal relations as a condition of modernity, they have recently been thrown into heightened relief with the emerging crisis in mass extinctions and serious loss of bio-diversity. (2)

In this context of mass extinctions, the prevalence of domesticated animals (including domestic animal companions) represents inexorable environmental problems. Yet what remains visible of the use of domesticated animals in everyday life, and particularly the immediate proximity of companion animals, provides possible close encounters with animals that have the potential to reveal some of these contradictions. To be sure, our largely mediated encounters with wildlife through television, film or zoos, also offer glimpses of these wider contradictions. But it is companion animals that are in a privileged position to offer us daily encounters with animal alterity, and hence more frequent opportunity for reflections on our deep historical interdependence with animal life, or how human emotions might resemble those of other ontological states of being and becoming.


In The Animal That Therefore I Am (2008) Jacques Derrida recalled such an encounter with his small companion cat that took place in his bathroom one morning. In one of his last works, he recalled how the cat looked at him directly: the naked figure of the philosopher, and after returning her gaze, Derrida then recounted this brief interlude as a critical reflection on his sense of embarrassment and shame before her. …

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