Picturing the Beast - By Steve Baker
I have finished my first book from cover to cover with all the notes written from it. 30 odd pages of A5 scrawl shall now be condensed in this rather boring yet necessary essay.
To start with I bought this book as the book ‘How to look at animals’ by John Berger gave me some thoughts to mull over about how we actually view animals and what we think of them, as well as how we represent them. The title of this book and the review on amazon made me believe this book would help find these questions out. The book was divided into 6 chapters so I wrote an analysis of each chapter and I will rewrite these. Then, as a whole entity, I will try and work out what I exactly got from this book.
When we look at animals we don’t really view them. We see what they are, identify their species and then see the stereotypes that we associate with them rather than view the animal in its own right. This in itself isn’t a bad thing as everything really and truly has a semiotic value, prescribed by society. This chapter simply questions whether these are the correct evaluations and whether they work for both us and animals.
This chapter took the idea of representation and applied it to national animals. National animals have a strong history of semiotics and these were used strongly in the early part of the 20th century as was seen in propaganda posters. These animals however, lose their national integrity every time they are used. Each individual use of the national symbol takes the abstract representation and puts it to a specific incident and this then muddies the interpretation of the national symbol. This has led to a rejection of the national symbol by many national programmes, as the connotations are no longer clear and can be misinterpreted quite easily.
Chapter 3 tried to look at why we view animals as different to us. It states that we have a fundamentally different view of ourselves and all other animals. Being sentient we have created a divide between us and nature and this divide causes the difference that we then instil onto animals. This distance that we have created also means that we have created a derogatory view towards animals, generally using animal terms as either insults or as purely physical endowments (fast as a cheetah etc.). These views are then reinforced from childhood through generations and therefore we have this view of animals as beneath us.
Chapter 4 played close to my heart, it talked about narratives and animals and I found this incredibly useful as It talked about how animals can mess up a narrative. As we create a narrative centred around animals it becomes almost impossible to distance oneself from the protagonists and therefore we run into problems. We imbue animals with these human traits that find conflicts in reality and these can cause conflict in the narrative. This was highlighted in the MAUS narrative (which I have now ordered) where the mice have human bodies yet animal heads and this caused huge outcries of racism etc considering the topic. Personally I think the idea behind the book is brilliant and it was a shame the author was bullied into having to defend his choices.
This chapter looked at the misrepresentation of animals in the popular culture. It looked at neoteny and saw how the objectification of animals has made them into a fetish, where cute animals are sold because they somehow create this eternally young ideal which people buy into and try and live vicariously through. This practice of ‘cuteness’ also reinforces the stereotype that animals are juvenile, which makes society ignore the problems of animals all the more, thinking it is beneath them.
It also spurred on a thought that we enjoy animals because we never really see them age. We see them die yes, but we never see them deteriorate because we cannot tell this the same way as we can with humans unless you study animals closely. This ‘immortality’ is something we leach onto as we see animals as these strong and everlasting creatures, defiant before extinction and we seek to vicariously absorb this power. Just an idea but an interesting one.
Finally, chapter 6 looked at how we deal with these representations from a proactive side. It implies that when we conserve animals and try and protect them we take ownership of these animals, implying they are not free and that they are no longer self sufficient. To really give animals their identity back we should completely leave them alone. This approach however is idealistic and, with our current intervention we cannot leave them be because we’ve messed up the natural cycle far too much.
It states that the best idea to help animals as well as give them their own identity is to represent them as victims. For humans to be repulsed at what we have done to them and then leave them be or support them from afar, which will stop human intervention. These shock tactics work better than cute images of animals because it stops the objectification of animals as cute commodities.
This book proposed quite a few questions to me and has helped me understand my own work, as well introduce me to other practitioners and theorists. Ultimately the book states that the animals cannot really be represented by us because we anthropomorphise them whenever we think about them and therefore any conservation or thoughts should really be subjective to your own personal tastes. This being said, objectification isn’t really bad as classification is part of human nature.
In the sense of narrative I really liked this idea of the distress caused by the clash between humanity and animality and i really want to explore this awkward juxtaposition. It has also helped me with representing animal images in the subtlety that is implied in how we show the animal stance and condition and, in general I think this book will be instrumental in my dissertation proposal.