Academic journal article Framework

Why Look at Dead Animals?

Academic journal article Framework

Why Look at Dead Animals?

Article excerpt

Th is article recasts the subject of John Berger's "Why Look at Animals?," an essay that, for over three decades, has shaped the discussion of animals in visual culture. Th e short answer Berger gives to his titular question is that we look at animals because that is the only relationship late capitalism aff ords us; more to the point, we look at compensatory images of animals (stuff ed animals, cartoon animals, animals on display at zoos) because we no longer live with them. As a result of the profound social and material ruptures introduced by modernity, the beings that once "constituted the fi rst circle of what surrounded man" now linger in a state of perpetual vanishing.2 And as animals recede into images, they can no longer return our gaze: "Th erein lies the ultimate consequence of their marginalization. Th at look between animal and man, which may have played a crucial role in the development of human society, and with which, in any case, all men had always lived until less than a century ago, has been extinguished."3

What about dead animals and images of dead animals and animals dying? Do we look or should we look at them any more or any less-or any diff erently? In quantitative terms, the elimination of animals from Western everyday life that Berger mourns can only indicate a commensurate increase in dead animals; in fact, the "industrialization [. . .] of the production for consumption of meat" and related practices means that animal death in the twentieth and twenty-fi rst centuries has proliferated on a scale that is unfathomable.4 Th ese shift s have coincided with the development of cinema, a medium deeply bound up with animal movement and the cessation of animal movement. Th is article considers why and how cinema turns, if not with consistent frequency than with remarkable intensity, to the extinguishment of animal life. It asks whether cinema, in documenting animal death, tamps out the look between humans and animals.

Indexical images of animal slaughter appear in a small yet oft en important corpus of (mostly) documentary fi lms set in and around slaughterhouses.5 Th e most notable examples include Le sang des bêtes/Blood of the Beasts (Georges Franju, FR, 1949); Meat (Frederic Wiseman, US, 1976); Killer of Sheep (Charles Burnett, US, 1977); American Dream (Barbara Koppel, US, 1990); and Unser täglich Brot/Our Daily Bread (Nikolaus Geyrhalter, DE/AT, 2005).6 Sponsored fi lms-institutional or industrial fi lms that speak on behalf of a corporate interest-also use images of animal slaughter for purposes such as educating consumers, training workers, and encouraging reform or abolition.7 Images of animal slaughter are to be expected in documentaries and even in dramas about meat production; aft er all, they defi ne the mise en scène. In a more perplexing phenomenon, images documenting the slaughter of animals crop up in fi lms that oft en have very little to do, subject-wise, with animal slaughter. Among the most oft -remarked of these fi lms are Stachka/Strike (Sergei Eisenstein, RU, 1925); La Règle du jeu/Th e Rules of the Game ( Jean Renoir, FR, 1939); Unsere Afr ikareise/ Our Trip to Afr ica (Peter Kubelka, AT, 1966); Andrei Rublev (Andrei Tarkovsky, RU, 1966); Week-end ( Jean-Luc Godard, FR, 1967); Touki Bouki (Djibril Diop Mambéty, SN, 1973); Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, US, 1979); Cannibal Holocaust (Ruggero Deodato, US, 1980); Sans soleil/Sunless (Chris Marker, FR, 1983); Los muertos/Th e Dead (Lisandro Alonso, AR/FR/NL/CH, 2004); and Caché/Hidden (Michael Haneke, FR/AT/DE/IT/US, 2005).8 Th ese fi lms leverage the metaphoric weight of slaughtered animals, compelling them to stand in for analogous images of dead and dying humans.

My primary aim in this article is to explain why the medium calls on animal bodies to evidence death, and then to consider how these reasons inform the ethics and politics of viewing violent animal death on screen. Before undertaking my account of cinema's recurrent documentation of animal death, it bears noting that, just as "animals" constitute a category so large as to be meaningless (beyond "not human"), the categories "animal death" and "animal death in fi lm" risk smoothing over many important diff erences. …

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