Why Look at Animals?

I’ve been reading Why Look at Animals, a slim collection of essays by John Berger, published in the Penguin Great Ideas series.  I think Berger is the only living thinker represented in the series.  The title essay explores how the ancient relationship between man and nature has been broken in the modern consumer age, with the animals that used to be at the centre of our existence now marginalized and reduced to spectacle in zoos.

Berger first discussed the relationship between humans and animals in Ways of Seeing, the 1972 book and TV series. There, he argued that animals – especially those depicted in oil paintings – were symbols of capital. Cows in an elegant 18th century landscape were ‘furniture with four legs’. Berger was asserting that the animal had become assimilated into the bourgeois culture of object desire and possession. In this essay, first published in 1977, Berger presents a cultural history in which there has been a denaturation of the world. Animals have lost their magical, ritual value; they have, like humans themselves, been reduced to economic units in capitalist society.

Chauvet cave horse paintings

The 19th century, in western Europe and North America, saw the beginning of a process, today being completed by 20th-century corporate capitalism, by which every tradition which has previously mediated between man and nature was broken. Before this rupture, animals constituted the first circle of what surrounded man. Perhaps that already suggests too great a distance. They were with man at the centre of his world. Such centrality was of course economic and productive. Whatever the changes in productive means and social organization, men depended upon animals for food, work, transport, clothing.

Yet to suppose that animals first entered the human imagination as meat or leather or horn is to project a 19th-century attitude backwards across the millennia. Animals first entered the imagination as messengers and promises. For example, the domestication of cattle did not begin as a simple prospect of milk and meat. Cattle had magical functions, sometimes oracular, sometimes sacrificial. And the choice of a given species as magical, tameable and alimentary was originally determined by the habits, proximity and ‘invitation’ of  the animal in question. […]

During the  20th   century, the internal combustion engine displaced draught animals in streets and factories. Cities, growing at an ever increasing rate, transformed the surrounding , countryside to suburbs where field animals, wild or domesticated, became rare. The commercial exploitation of certain species (bison, tigers, reindeer) has rendered them almost extinct. Such wild life as remains is increasingly confined to national parks and game reserves.

In the first stages of  the industrial revolution, animals were used as machines.  As also were children. Later, in the so-called post-industrial societies, they are treated as raw material. Animals required for food are processed like manufactured commodities. […]

This reduction of the animal, which has a theoretical as well as economic history, is part of the same process as that by which men have been reduced to isolated productive and consuming units. Indeed, during this period an approach to animals often prefigured an approach to man. The mechanical view of the animal’s work capacity was later applied to that of workers. F.W. Taylor who developed the ‘Taylorism’ of time-motion studies and ‘scientific’ management of industry proposed that work must be so ‘stupid’ and so phlegmatic that he (the worker) ‘more nearly resembles in his mental make-up the ox than other type’.

Berger’s theme is the marginalisation of animals. He explores the ancient relationship between animals and humankind: an ‘unspeaking companionship’. Today, by contrast, the caged creatures in zoos have become ‘the living monument to their own disappearance’ from culture.

Everywhere animals disappear.  In zoos they constitute the living monument to their own disappearance. […]

The marginalization of animals is today being followed by the marginalization and disposal of the only class who, throughout history, has remained familiar with animals and maintained the wisdom which accompanies that familiarity: the middle and small peasant. The basis of wisdom is an acceptance of the dualism at the very origin of the relation between man and animal. The rejection of this dualism is probably an important factor in opening the way to modern totalitarianism. […]

The zoo cannot but disappoint. The public purpose of zoos is to offer visitors the opportunity of looking at animals. Yet nowhere in a zoo can a stranger encounter the look of an animal. At the most, the animal’s gaze flickers and passes on. They look sideways. They look blindly beyond. They scan mechanically.  They have been immunized to encounter, because nothing can any more occupy a central place in their attention.

Therein lies the ultimate consequence of their marginalization. That 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.   Looking at each animal, the   unaccompanied zoo visitor  is   alone.  As for the crowds, they belong to a species which has at last been isolated.

This historic loss, to which zoos are a monument, is now irredeemable for the culture of capitalism.

A terrible sense of sadness runs through all the pieces in this volume.  Berger is concerned by the loss of a meaningful connection to nature, a connection that can now only be rediscovered, he asserts, through the experience of beauty: ‘the aesthetic moment offers hope’.  Animals are like us and not like us, he writes.  In the simple act of looking at animals, we are in a way looking at ourselves. And in the act of representing animals in art, we are representing, metaphorically and metaphysically, something about us.

One of the pieces in the book is a poem, ‘They Are The Last’, in which Berger writes:

Each year more animals depart.

Only pets and carcasses remain,
and the carcasses living or dead
are from birth
ineluctably and invisibly
turned into meat.


Now that they have gone
it is their endurance we miss.
Unlike the tree
the river or the cloud
the animals had eyes
and in their glance
was permanence


The buzzard circled
biding his everlasting time
as repeatedly
as the mountain.

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