Question 1: Berger Quote

“In these books the zoologist, Desmond Morris, proposes that the unnatural behavior of animals in captivity can help us to understand, accept and overcome the stresses involved in living in consumer societies.” (Berger 26)

In the text “Why Look at Animals” Berger makes an argument about the historical intersection of man and animal as significant in the development of language and expression. He extends this by focusing on the moment of “the look”, the shared gaze between man and animal, as responsible for a kind of self-awareness which would otherwise be impossible for humans. This awareness can be likened to an understanding of agency and autonomy separate from the individual, as it exists within those others which surround him/her, thus reflecting back onto him/her a new understanding of these concepts. In other words, through the evaluation of the animal as an other—with subjectivity which differs from the individual— this allows for a greater understanding of self. However, as Berger’s argument continues he explains what is threatened by a society which has no room for this moment of intersecting gaze. And, what this signifies.

The quote on page 26 is in reference to the zoo as a site of enforced marginalization, where the captives are idealized by an audience, but necessarily disappoint. What is at stake in this critique is the idea of what is being looked at as: “rendered absolutely marginal”, based on the manufactured setting. If we compare this to the stresses of a capitalist society, and allow the metaphor of a zoo to extend past man/animal interactions, it is possible to indict consumerism as a manufactured environment. In this reading there is a complicated dynamic of spectacle and spectator: both the poor and wealthy are idealized, but the poor are the ones which exist on the margins. However, it can be argued that perhaps the group which exists as the spectacle is the poor, serving as a warning for what exists outside of the capitalist construct. In this way, much as the wild animals in the zoo represent savagery contained— the domination of society over wilderness— poverty is similarly contained. In both situations, what is presented to the spectator is an idealized form of the other, the marginalized.

Berger, John. About Looking. InternationalCH./Art: Why Look at Animals? p. 3-28. Pub. Vintage Sept 1991



2 responses to this post.

  1. The sentence that really stood out to me was “consumerism as a manufactured environment.” How true. And first-world countries get more and more control over living situations, the more that life seems more and more manufactured. The raw vibrance and vitality is missing. I find it interesting, also, that when traveling in 3rd-world countries, I note that people tend to stare and really look at each other in the eyes – even absolute strangers. But in 1st world, it’s “rude to stare,” but what I feel is, “it’s rude to connect”! “Eyes are windows to the soul” is true of any species of life, I feel. And when we make eye contact with animals, there’s a certain rawness there, an “otherness” that cannot be manufactured. But as 1st world countries tame animals more and more, I sense that gazes between animals become more numb, and even gazes between humans.

  2. Posted by etrotta on November 17, 2011 at 2:18 pm

    I really like your analysis of this quote and the response above me. The more we try to control our environment and the animals that live in it, the less we see animals as separate beings. Our society has created a big split between the natural world and civilization which doesn’t allow us to encounter and experience wild animals on our own in an uncontrolled environment. A personal example of this is with alligators. Growing up in South Florida I’ve been to many different zoos and Everglades safari establishments. Some of them let you hold or pet small alligators that have their mouths taped shut and have been handled by people every day since birth which makes them “tame” while they are small. Holding and petting those alligators always feel very unsatisfying because the state of the animals and the environment that I was encountering them in was 100% controlled and “safe”. However, my freshmen year here I went fishing with one of my friends at night at Orange Lake, which is 20 miles south of Gainesville, and we accidentally hooked a 2ft. alligator. Holding that alligator is an experience I’ll never forget because it was a truly wild alligator and it was in its natural environment meaning no zookeepers or alligator wranglers were there to control the situation. Living in our society prevents events like this from happening for the majority of the public which is a shame because most people go through life disconnected from nature and animals.

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