Beyond the Vanishing Point

BioPresence is about making space for animals

Rick Livingston


The One University Framework Plan lays out a vision for how OSU will occupy the campus over the next fifty years or so. It proposes ways to manage the physical environment responsibly and sustainably: limiting new construction, consolidating around a densely-­populated core, reworking our relationship to the Olentangy River, preserving open space on what it calls “the Western Lands.” Central to the Framework is the idea of stewardship: “People and programs make a university great,” the Plan declares, “but that success is not possible without the support of the sometimes invisible systems that power our buildings, connect us to our community, and organize the spaces that form our experiences.” Electrical systems, heating and cooling, clean water, transportation: the essential background. And what about animals?

“The eyes of an animal when they consider a man are attentive and wary. The same animal may well look at other species the same way. He does not reserve a special look for man. But by no other species except man will the animal’s look be recognised as familiar. Other animals are held by the look. Man becomes aware of himself returning the look.”

John Berger’s great and melancholy essay “Why Look at Animals” is built around an exchange of looks. Seeing that we are seen by an animal, Berger suggests, brings us to self­-consciousness. In that gaze we recognize familiarity and difference, kinship and human distinction (“by no other species…”). Other animals are held captive: what meets the eye is Man. Paul Shepard’s book The Others: How Animals Made Us Human spells out the argument.

Berger’s essay pivots fiercely on the drama of the Look. Written in the mid-­1960’s, it is part of a mounting wave of critique–­­of pets and photographs, zoos and slaughterhouses–­­culminating in Peter Singer’s call for Animal Liberation. The stakes are high­­–Man’s death and life, no less­­but shadowed by the loss of opportunities for such existential confrontation. “Everywhere animals disappear,” Berger writes, “In zoos they constitute living monuments to their own disappearance.” Where animals are made systematically visible, open for inspection, they are already effectively dead, reduced to mere illustrations of themselves.

I find Berger’s argument compelling, his rhetoric troubling and over-insistent. It’s tempting to dismiss it as outdated, except that the essay itself is so keenly aware of how readily ideas of modernity and claims of obsolescence are mobilized as political weapons. Has the status of animals improved since Berger wrote? have they become less marginal in the intervening years? Or more so? When Columbus Metroparks celebrates the birth of a baby bison (three to five more are expected) at Battelle Darby Creek, does it enlarge our sense of ecological community or mark the marriage of biopolitics and Imagineering?

If there are ready answers to these questions, they’re probably wrong.

Still, there is a world of difference between 1968 and 2014, and I want to push back on Berger’s formulations on two fronts. No need to rehearse rote feminist objections to the universal Man. Instead, I’d linger over the implicit individualism in Berger’s scenario­­–the singularity of the encounter­­–and its decisiveness. One man, one beast, one look: the abyss opens.

In the allegory of Man and Animal, each one is solitary, joined only to the other. Brought face-­to-­face, their relationship is confrontational, each primarily embodied in the force of the gaze. If there is recognition, however, it is one­-sided: “Other animals are held by the look. Man becomes aware of himself returning the look.” The animal may not reserve a special look for man, but Man gains self­-consciousness–­­awareness of otherness, difference, consciousness, identity, in that order­­–of his own species from the exchange. The animal’s look becomes special, becomes a Look, by being caught up in the human drama. Berger takes pains to distinguish the power of the looking animal from the gaze of another human being: “always its lack of a common language, its silence, guarantees its distance, its distinctness, its exclusion, from and of man. Just because of this distinctness, however, an animal’s life, never to be confused with a man’s, can be seen to run parallel to his. Only in death do the two parallel lines converge.” Berger’s Animal is brought into visual focus by the vanishing point of a common mortality, its destiny linked inextricably to Man’s.

What happens, though, if we back off a bit, relaxing the tension that has Man confronting The Animal on the horizon of Death?. Suppose our awareness turned less on riveting moments and more on subtle choreographies, a heightened attention as we move through common spaces? We might then imagine different sorts of relations with different kinds of animals, complex ties of kinship and coexistence rather than final showdowns. Rather than an existential abyss cleaving our world into Humans and Others, we could envision ongoing negotiations and mutual accommodations, gradual adjustments, compromise-­formations, adaptations. “…What I want happens,” writes Robert Hass

not when the deer freezes in the shade
and looks at you and you hold very still
and meet her gaze but in the moment after
when she flicks her ears & starts to feed again.”
(“Santa Lucia”)

[I note here–­­it’s my literary training–­­the way the three “ands” pile up, then relax into the logogram “&”].

Rick Livingston is Associate Director of the Ohio State University Humanities Institute and Senior lecturer in the Comparative Studies Department. His current work focuses on the cultural dimensions of sustainability.