Working through John Berger’s “Why Look at Animals”

“The cultural marginalization of animals is, of course, a more complex process than their physical marginalization. The animals of the mind cannot be so easily dispersed. Sayings, dreams, games, stories, superstitions, the language itself, recall them. The animals of the mind, instead of being dispersed, have been co-opted into other categories so that the category animal has lost its central importance. Mostly they have been co-opted into the family and into the spectacle.”


This quote proved rather troubling to me. Although I wholly agree with Berger’s comments about pets, especially the interesting transition from “useful” to unnecessary, but ever more important. The problem I had with the above quote is that I don’t believe that all animals fit into these two black-and-white categories. The most glaring example, to me, is that of a cow or chicken being killed for meat. Whether by a small-town farmer or a large-scale industrial farm, an animal being killed for human’s food does not fit into either of these categories. The idea of a person being able to kill their “family” is completely ingrained in our culture as wrong; the thought of watching in wonder at the death of an animal is also incredibly taboo.

I understand that Berger’s point was probably to say that these situations, with the death of an animal to further humans’ situations, is so far removed from our lives that we do not even recognize it as a part of the circle of life, nor as a significant portion of the animals on our planet. This point got me to thinking about the incidence of animal death in a  zoo. Of course, if a family pet were to die, this would be considered a tragic loss, with the possibility of a funeral or memorial service for the animal. But with Berger’s assertion that zoo animals are seen as spectacles, how would this convergence be handled by the public? While I am sure a zoo animal’s death (especially an untimely one) would be seen as a horrible loss, I think there is a possibility that the public would even begin to hurt for this animal, as if it was a pet. This possible convergence of Berger’s two categories is, to me, very interesting. Further dissection of Berger’s quote proved to me how fluid these two categories can be, allowing for the human population to  feel compassion and companionship when it is “socially necessary,” but to also easily put the rights and welfare of animals out of their mind when needed.  


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

One response to this post.

  1. Posted by al002 on November 17, 2011 at 10:36 am

    I agree that it is very hard to say that animals can either be categorized in column A or column B because as you mentioned the example of the cow that is being slaughtered. It doesn’t matter who is doing the slaughtering like you mentioned the “small-town farmer or a large-scale industrial farm” the cow is getting slaughtered. This got me thinking well watch about the circus? Most entertainers consider the animal they share an act with as a pet, how would Berger explain the blending of both of his categories? Also wouldn’t there be a third use of animal like you mentioned that involves animals as resources? For instance animals such as cows for their milk, chickens for their eggs, sheep for their wool how does this play into Berger’s pet and spectacle theory. I think it is very important to consider and glad that you brought it up.

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