Go to Semiotic Review of Books Home Page
Go to SRB Highlights
Go to SRB Archives


SRB Archives

This editorial appeared in Volume 6 (1) of The Semiotic Review of Books.

Editorial: Animal

by Akira Mizuta Lippit

In May 1994, the University of Toronto sponsored an international conference purporting to address the subject of the animal in the post-Cartesian era, "Animals: A Reappraisal. The Post-Cartesian Vision of Animals in Art, Science, Education, Ethics and the Law." The conference, organized by the Semiotic Review of Books, assembled a diverse consortium of scholars from countries in Africa, Asia, Europe, and North and South America, representing a wide spectrum of academic disciplines. Aside from providing an invaluable wealth of information from the represented disciplines - anthropology, biology, critical theory, environmental studies, law, literature, popular culture, philosophy, primatology, psychology, religion, semiotics, and zoology, to name only the broadest fields - it exploded the very notion of a discrete disciplinarity with regard to the subject of the animal. As the meeting quickly revealed, the figure of the animal comprises a number of critical trajectories that cannot, in the end, be reconciled to a singular body of thought. In this light, the animal can be seen as figuring an exemplary corpus of multiplicity; it is radically and irreducibly other, resisting the fixating impulses of disciplinary praxes. The figure of the animal, then, became both the occasion and sestination for a critical reevaluation of not only the classical subject of the animal but also of the conventions, methodologies, and conceptual premises with which its investigation has been traditionally undertaken. For if we are to take the call for a truly interdisciplinary practice seriously, then we must reconfigure our projects in such a manner that the very notion of a stable discipline is called into question. "Animals: A Reappraisal" marked the urgency of addressing an embattled intellectual climate, of resisting the external pressures that sought to push the ideal of an unbound contemplation into the margins of the academy.

"Animals: A Reappraisal" brought into the open the institutional orthodoxies concerning our conceptions of the animal, many of which have their roots in western institutional practices. In particular, three discursive moments in the history of modern western epistemology figured in the conference dynamic: the work of Descartes, Darwin, and Freud influenced directly and indirectly the presentations. Questioning the terms of a historical epoch initiated by the Cartesian cogitatum, the Toronto conference challenged the ontological thresholds asserted by Descartes in his 1637 Discours de la Méthode, which insists on an absolute divide between human and animal being. According to Descartes, consciousness and the language that it engenders form the borderline of being between mankind and the animal. Not only "do the beasts have less reason than men," writes Descartes, "but they have no reason at all" (Descartes 1637:45). The lack of reason, defined by the apparent absence of language in animals, determines for Descartes an animal ontology apart from that of human beings. Animals are, in the Cartesian world, likened to automata, capable of mimicking speech but unable to engage in the dynamic of an authentic language that sustains consciousness. In banishing the animal to the underworld of consciousness--to the unconscious--Descartes not only commences the momentum of modernity and its humanist mythologies, but he inadvertently lays the groundwork for future excavations of the unconscious. Criticizing Descartes's suppression of the animal from the realm of Consciousness, for example, semiotician Charles/Sander Peirce states: "Descartes was of the opinion that animals were unconscious automata. He might as well have thought that all men but himself were unconscious" (Peirce 1901:234). The ramifications of Descartes's segregation of the human and animal worlds extend beyond the immediate confines of philosophy, implicating the discourses of cognition and communication in a variety of scientific and social disciplines. The impact of Descartes's essential duality persists today.

Historically, the advent of Darwinian evolution struck at the stability of the Cartesian taxonomy. The notion of a continual flux, a continuum of organic life, in many ways eroded the catastrophic edifice of Descartes's ontology. While fraught with scientific as well as ethical problems. Darwin's work nonetheless had the immediate effect of tearing down, in Freud's words, "the barrier that had been arrogantly set up between man and beast" (Freud 1924:221). Darwin's invocation of instinct and genetic adaptation opened the possibility of another site of communication. The idea of a perpetual becoming that informs Darwin's thought questions the origin and integrity of biological species and influenced a generation of theorists who incorporated the Darwinian dynamic into their thought, including most notably Freud, Dewey, and Bergson. And while evolution did not resolve the Cartesian dilemma, it added a dimension to the debate concerning animal ontology. It also facilitated a dialogue between philosophy and biology, metaphysics and natural science.

The interdisciplinary line of communication continued in and traversed the papers at "Animals: Reappraisal," frequently redressing the role of language and its ethical and conceptual effects in the post-Darwinian episteme. Darwin himself, it should be noted, sought to restore language to the organic order, claiming in The Descent of Man:

Languages, like organic beings, can be classed into groups under groups: and they can be classed either naturally according to descent. or artificially by other characters. Dominant languages and dialects spread widely and lead to the gradual extinction of other tongues. A language, like a species, when once extinct, never ... reappears. The same language never has two birth places. Distinct languages may be crossed or blended together. We see variability in every tongue, and new words are continually cropping up; but as there is a limit in the powers of the memory, single words. like whole languages gradually become extinct. As Max Moiler has well remarked that struggle for life is constantly going on amongst the words and grammatical forms in each language" (Darwin 1871:60).

Darwin's "naturalization" of language reintegrates the function of communication into the exigency of being, suggesting the finite vitality of language in determining the contours of existence. In fact, Darwin's claim returns the conception of language or logos, to its classical origins in philosophy. Jacques Derrida alerts us to the essential connection between logos and zoon in Plato's Sophist where, Derrida explains, "logos is a zoon". "Logos, a living, animate creature, is thus also an organism that has been engendered ... in order to be 'proper', a written discourse ought to submit to the laws of life just as a living discourse does. Logographical necessity (anangke logographike) ought to be analogous to biological, or rather zoological necessity" (Derrida 1968:79). Derrida argues that the origins of logos are embedded in zoon and that one cannot entirely eliminate the trace of life (zoon) from the materiality of discourse (logos).

The appearance of Freudian psychoanalysis and its unconscious topographies at the end of the nineteenth century signals a critical point of contact between the human and animal worlds. Freud acknowledges his debts to Darwin's findings, incorporating evolutionary thought in his attempts to articulate the properties of the unconscious: "biological research (has) robbed man of his peculiar privilege of having been specially created, and relegated him to a descent from the animal world, implying an ineradicable animal nature in him" (Freud 1915-17:296). For Freud, the radical alterity of the unconscious exposes mankind to its ineradicable animal nature, dissolving the sovereignty of the human subject. The powers of hypnosis, which Freud and Josef Breuer emphasize in their 1895 Studies on Hysteria, can be traced to is origins in Athanasius Kircher's and later Anton Franz Mesmer's experiments in "animal magnetism." The meta- linguistic communication with which animals are believed to be endowed travels in the psychoanalytic idiom from magnetism, to hypnosis, and ultimately to transference, determining a type of affective or unconscious communication that circumvents the trajectories of language and opens a direct line to the other. It facilitates a contact with the unconscious. And what is repressed in the unconscious, according to Freud, returns inevitably to the animal: "Perversions." Freud writes, "regularly lead to zoophilia and have an animal character (Freud 1897: 223).

The Freudian intervention, whose effects are still being absorbed, led to a revolution in the conception of language. No longer a mere representation of consciousness, language in the wake of psychoanalysis came to be seen as a form of consciousness that carries with it an intrinsic unconscious dimension. Rather than establishing the divide between human and animal being, language now introduced the ineradicable trace of the animal into the human world. This, in turn, profoundly affected the practice of literature, evoking the repressed relation between logos and zoon. Speaking to the irrepressible animality that explodes in the corpus of Franz Katka, for example, Walter Benjamin writes: "Because the most forgotten alien land is one's own body, one can understand why Kafka called the cough that erupted from within him 'animal.' It was the most advanced outpost of the great herd" (Benjamin 1934:132). in Toronto, the participation of literary scholars from a range of theoretical perspectives attested to the continued significance of the figure of the animal in literary studies.

The presentations at "Animals: A Reappraisal" far exceeded the brief theoretical sketch offered here. Specific discussions of animal communities, the legal and ethical foundations of animal rights, the function of animality within religious, feminist, and cultural studies expanded the figure of the animal into the farthest reaches of the epistemological universe. The truly interdisciplinary nature of the conference-- hybridic, heterogeneous, and at times incoherent-- underscored the resiliency of the animal as subject and pointed to the immense semiological work that still remains to be completed. Perhaps most revealing, however, was the extent to which discussions of the animal and its ontology formed the axiomatic bases of so many intellectual fields. One can only hope that conferences such as this will continue to provide a forum for the encounter and exchange between the numerous disciplines that address the elusive semiotics of the animal.


Benjamin, Walter, 1934. "Franz Kafka: on the Tenth Anniversary of His Death," in Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken,1969.111-140.

Breuer, Josef and Freud, Sigmund. 1895. Studies on Hysteria. Trans. James Strachey. New York: Basic, n.d.

Darwin, Charles, 1871. The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981.

Derrida, Jacques, 1968. "Plato's Pharmacy," in Dissemination. Trans. Barbara Johnson. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,1981.61-171.

Descartes, Rene. 1637. "Discourse on the Method," in Descartes: Selected Philosophical Writings. Trans. John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff and Dugald Murdoch. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,1988.20-56.

Freud, Sigmund. 1897. The Complete Letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess: 1887-1904. Ed. and trans. Jeffrey Moussaleff Masson. Carnbridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1985.221-23.

---. 1915-17. A General Introduction to Psycho-Analysis. Ed. and trans. Joan Riviere. New York: Doubleday,1920.

---. 1924. "The Resistances to Psycho-Analysis," in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Ed. and trans. James Strachey. 24 Volts. London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho Analysis,1961.

Peirce, Charles Sanders. 1901. "Minute Logic," in Peirce on Signs: Writings on Semiotic by Charles Sanders Peirce. Ed. James Hoopes. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press,1991.231-38.

Akira Mizuta Lippit is an assistant professor of film studies and critical theory in the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. His work has appeared in Afterimage, Assemblage, Camerawork, Criticism, and M.L.N.

Go to Semiotic Review of Books Home Page
Go to SRB Highlights
Go to SRB Archives