An Interview with Akira Mizuta Lippit
(February 12, 2008)
“When we kill an animal, we recognize something immediately that we have to erase from our consciousness with this phrase, ‘It’s only an animal.’”
Dr. Akira Mizuta Lippit, author of Electric Animal: Toward a Rhetoric of Wildlife (University of Minnesota Press, 2000), explores how the concept of “the animal” has become central to modern understandings of human subjectivity. Lippit considers the disappearance of real animals and their concurrent appearance in various conceptual and material uses, particularly noting the ways in which the conjoined notions of humanity and animality figure into and through cinema. The animal, he argues, haunts the foundation of Western logical systems. Yet, despite the fact that humans and animals suffer under the discursive weight of the signifier, Lippit is careful to note the increasing instability of the human-animal boundary and what might be done to realize more just relationships among both humans and other animals.
Lauren Corman: Why did you bring questions about animals into your film scholarship?
Akira Mizuta Lippit: My book Electric Animal was initially written as my doctoral dissertation, and at the time, I was thinking in particular about the moment at which cinema appeared in the late 19th century. There are all kinds of imaginary birthdays of cinema, but generally people agree that in 1895 cinema appeared as a set of technological, aesthetic, and cultural features, and as an economic mode of exchange. People bought tickets and attended screenings.
I was thinking about what it must have felt like at that moment to experience this uncanny medium. There are various reports of early film performances and screenings, some of them apocryphal and inventive and embellished and so forth, but I think the kind of wonder that cinema evoked among many early viewers had to do with its uncanny reproduction of life, of living movement, and the strange tension that it created between this new technology, and its proximity to life and the movements of bodies. This was in the middle of the industrial revolution which saw the advent of all sorts of technologies and devices and apparatuses. I began thinking that the principle of animation was critical. To make something move, to make something breathe, to make something live.
What struck me, in this Frankensteinian moment, was the sense that something had come to life, and the key seemed to be about how people understood, conceived of, and practiced, this notion of animating life through a technology. I started to hear a resonance between animals and animation. I started to think about the way in which animals played a role, not only in early cinema and in animation and the practice of the genre, but leading up to it in the famous photographs of Edward Muybridge and Étienne-Jules Marey. They produced moving images of animals that were produced serially, as well as “chronophotographs” that rendered animal motion. It occurred to me that there was a reason to pause and think about what role animals were playing at that moment in history.
As I began to read, and as I began to collect materials and to think through this question of the status and function of the animal, what animality meant, it took on its own set of values. Electric Animal ended up being a kind of preamble, or an introduction, to a book that I haven’t yet written, because I only reach at the end of the book, and in a very perfunctory manner, the advent of cinema. So in a sense, this book, and this question, about what an animal meant for generations before, at that moment and in successive generations, became its own subject, one I still think is critically linked to the question of cinema, and the force of cinema throughout the 20th century.
Lauren: Cocteau wrote that in the cinema we watch death at work, but on the other hand the reproduction of movement is memorializing. Could you comment on the theme of death and the animal in cinema?
Akira: The discourse on death and the uncanny, and the idea that something appears to be there in the form of a ghost or a phantom, already existed in discussions of photography throughout the 19th century. Photography forges a material connection to the photographed object. This idea reappears frequently in discourses on photography. When you look at a photograph you are not simply looking at a rendering, like an artist’s interpretation in a painting or sculpture, you are actually experiencing a kind of carnal, physical contact with the persons themselves, or with an object. This creates a real excitement, but also fear.
The photographic effect of being in the presence of the thing itself is enhanced by the addition of movement, because with movement, you have the feeling that this being is not just there, looking at you perhaps, but also moving in its element, in its time, whether (and this is very important to the discussions of photography) that person is still alive or not. I think that gap is produced at the moment of any photograph, and perhaps in any film. The person who appears before you, who seems to be alive, may or may not still be alive. So it produces, among those who thought in this way, a sense of uncanniness, something is at once there and not there.
Where I think that this is particularly important in this discussion of “the animal,” and as I began to discover in doing the reading (I should add that I am not a philosopher, I don’t teach philosophy, but I am a reader of philosophy; I read it sporadically, I read here and there wherever my interests are) is that with very few but important exceptions, there is a line of Western philosophy that says animals are incapable of dying. On the most intuitive level this seems nonsensical. Of course animals die. We know that animals die. We kill animals and we see them die. But the philosophical axiom here—which begins with Epicurus, but is repeated over and over, by Descartes most forcefully, and in the 20th century by Martin Heidegger—is that death is not simply the end of life, but it is an experience that one has within life, a relationship with one’s own end. The claim that is made over and over again, is that animals don’t carry death with them the way humans have. Animals know fear, they know things like instinctual preservation and seek to survive, but they don’t have death as an experience. Heidegger argues in the most callous way that they simply perish.
It struck me that this was not a problem of animals, but rather a problem for human beings. If human beings don’t concede the capacity of animals to die, then what does it mean that animals are disappearing at this very moment, in the various developments of industry, in human populations, in urbanization and because of environmental destruction? Animals are increasingly disappearing from the material and everyday world. Where do they go, if we don’t, as human beings, concede or allow them death? (Of course this is only in a very specific, and one might argue, very small, discursive space in Western philosophy. Many people have pointed out that this is not the case in religious discourses, in a variety of cultural practices, and in various ethnic and cultural communities. This is a certain kind of Western ideology that has been produced through a long history of Western philosophy.) So the particular form of suspended death that photography and cinema introduced appeared in response to a crisis in Western critical discourse that denied to animals the same kind of death that human beings experience. There is a convergence of two death-related problems at a time when these issues were particularly important.
Lauren: What purpose does the denial of animal death serve?
Akira: The point at which I was writing Electric Animal gave me the ability to look back at developments in the history of ideas throughout the 20th century, and it became clear with the significant interventions of the late 1960s, that the question of human subjectivity, its stability and absoluteness, had already been in question. This question is slowly working its way toward a radical re-evaluation of the status of, the value of, and ultimately the confidence that human beings place in their own subjectivity. There are many, many influences around questions of gender and sexuality, race and identity, and in crimes like genocide. All of these developments contribute to this reevaluation, but one could argue that at this moment, in the late 19th century, there was already a sense that what had been insisted upon as an absolutely unique form in itself – the human subject – required a whole series of exclusions and negations for it to survive.
One such exclusion is to claim language as properly human. What makes a human being human is the potential for language, and through this faculty, the capacity for death. As many philosophers argue, only human beings can name death as such, because language gives us the capacity to name not just objects around us, but those things that do not appear before us. These would be the traditional philosophical objects: love, death, fear, life, forgiveness, friendship, and so on. While animals communicate various things within their own groups and between groups, they don’t have language as such, which means they can’t name those things that are not before them or around them.
At the turn of the century, with the appearance of Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution, and with other disruptive thinkers like Sigmund Freud and the advent of psychoanalysis, there is a great sense of uncertainty regarding these edifices of human subjectivity: language and death. In Electric Animal this moment is particularly rich with such shifts and instabilities. Psychoanalysis plays an important role in indicating, at least speculatively, that we are not in control of language to the extent that we would like to believe.
Lauren: What are the consequences of this process in Western thought, where the subject is conceived through an exclusion or a negation of the animal? What are the implications for humans, and for animals? I know that is a large question.
Akira: It is a very important question. One could argue that the consequences of a certain practice, let’s say, of the politics of the subject, have been disastrous, certainly for animals, but also for human beings. If you take one of the places where the form of the human subject is created, it would be Descartes’ Discourse on Method. When everything that can be doubted has been doubted, what is left to form the core? This is his famous quote: “Je pense donc je suis,” I think therefore I am. If you read the Discourse on Method, this occurs via a process of exclusion: I exclude everything that I am not in order to arrive at the central core of what I am. The process he follows leads him to believe that it is his consciousness, his self presence with his own consciousness, that establishes for him, beyond any doubt, his existence. This is somewhat heretical, it is a break from theological discourses of the soul; it represents a form of self-creation through one’s consciousness.
But consciousness is a very complicated and deceptive thing, because what I feel is not always the way things are. Looking at a series of important shifts that have taken place during the modern period, one finds a number of assaults on the primacy of consciousness. Freud names one as the Copernican revolution, which suggested that the earth (and its human inhabitants) was not the centre of the universe. The Darwinian revolution suggested that humans beings were not created apart from other forms of organic life, and that human beings shared with other animate beings, a common history. And Freud (he names himself as the third of these revolutionaries), is the one who suggested that consciousness itself is not a given at any moment, or available at any moment, to us as human beings. What constitutes our sense of self, our consciousness, is drawn from experiences that we no longer have access to—interactions with others, influences and wishes passed onto us through our parents or other influential figures early in our life. Our wishes, desires and dreams are not always known to us, and in fact can’t be known, because they might be devastating and horrifying. They might tell us things about ourselves that we couldn’t properly accept or continue to live with.
By the time we enter the 20th century the discourse of the subject is no longer holding. It is no longer serving its original purpose; it is generating more anxiety than comfort. Key historical events, World War I, for example, are producing enormous blows to the idea of Western progress, humanism, Enlightenment values and the cultural achievements of the West. Hegel, for example, a 19th century philosopher, is very explicit about this. The values that were supposed to have created a better world for human beings come from the Enlightenment, the pursuit of knowledge, science, medicine, religion and so forth. And yet, by the mid-twentieth century, many of these beliefs were exposed as illusions, especially after the advent of death camps. These were camps created for the sole purpose of producing, as Heidegger himself says, producing corpses, a factory for corpses. It’s not a place where people happen to die. This is an entire apparatus designed in order to expeditiously, efficiently, and economically, create corpses out of living human beings.
Similarly, with the first use of the atomic bomb on humans beings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. This was a machine, a science, a technology, a weapon, devised for maximizing, efficiently and economically, the destruction of human beings. I think what this created for many thinkers, philosophers, writers, artists, activists, and citizens around the world was a sense that what had helped to create these catastrophic results was not a matter of totalitarian regimes and bad politics, but something more fundamental: a belief that I have the right to take life from others. And how is that achieved? By first denying that those others are like me. So the discourse on Jews practiced throughout Nazi Germany is in fact even more extreme than that of the discourse on animals; in fact, as many people have pointed out, many Nazis were famous for their love of animals, some were practicing vegetarians; they outlawed animal experimentation. In a sense animals were more like Aryan Germans, than Jews were.
A series of rhetorics allow you to cast the enemy, the Other, at a distance from your own subjectivity, and in order to achieve this you have to deny them any form of subjectivity. They are not just culturally estranged, they are radically and absolutely unlike me. And I believe that as many people began to think about this condition (Adorno has a very famous passage in which he talks about this), it became clear that one of the sources of this, is in fact the very ideology of the subject, which insists on an absolute autonomy, singularity, and distinct mode of existence from that which is not the subject, not any subject, the Other.
Adorno, in a passage he wrote in a book titled Minima Moralia, which is a collection of aphorisms and observations he wrote during and after World War II, offers an observation I quote in Electric Animal. He titles it “People are looking at you.” He says there is a moment in a typical hunting scene where a wounded animal looks into the eyes of the hunter as it dies. It produces at that moment an effect that is undeniable. This thing, that is alive, that I have wounded and which is now dying, is looking at me. How can I deny that it is alive, that it is there, that it exists in the world, with its own consciousness, its own life, its own dreams, and desires? Adorno says that the way you shake this off is to say to yourself, “It’s only an animal.” He then links that gesture to the history of racism, and what he calls the pogrom, or genocide, against other human beings. You transfer this logic. So the ability to say to an animal that you have killed, “It’s only an animal,” becomes the same logic you apply to other human beings when you harm or kill them. It’s a very profound observation because it suggests that in fact there is no line that separates the killing of animals from the killing of human beings. At the moment we kill an animal, we recognize something immediately that we have to erase from our consciousness with this phrase, “It’s only an animal.”
Lauren: This statement is both erasure and perpetual haunting. But the moment of the kill also carries the possibility of resistance, it might be possible to recognize in that instant an animal’s subjectivity.
Akira: Absolutely. Adorno’s phrase and the passage describing that scene, as well as his pessimistic observations about the state of human culture, are written in a state of deep anguish at the end of World War II. As he says in this very brief aphorism, we never believe this, even of the animal. When we tell ourselves, “It’s only an animal,” we never believe it. Why? Because we are there and we see in the presence of an Other a life that is there. For him, it is important that the gaze, as he says, of the wounded animal, falls on the person who has perpetrated the crime.
Your phrase “haunting” is really important because it suggests that a phantom animal becomes the crucial site not only for animal rights, but for human ethics as well. The ability to kill is something we human beings never properly achieve. We never truly believe, “It’s only an animal.” We tell ourselves this, we insist upon it, try to protect ourselves through this mantric repetition of a phrase, “It’s only an animal,” “It’s only an animal.” Yet we never believe it. And as such, we are haunted by it. I think the crisis in human subjectivity, in discourses on the human subject that arrive in the late 1950s, has everything to do with this kind of haunted presence. Human subjectivity is now a haunted subjectivity, haunted by animals, by everyone that has been excluded, by women, by people of different races, different ethnicities, different sexual preferences. And in fact the convergence of civil rights, critical theory, animal rights, feminism, the gay and lesbian movements, all of these things really shape—to use Foucault’s term—the episteme in which the primary political focus for many philosophers and theorists erupts in a critique of the subject.
Lauren: Without getting you to offer something prescriptive [both laugh] about where to go from here, I guess I want to ask about where to go from here? Because our audience is made up of people turning on their car radios, or making lunch, what did this mean for them? These shiftings of Western history and the blurred boundaries between humans and animals seem like a terrible juggernaut, not to mention anxiety-provoking. Where are there potentials for (I think your phrase is) “remembering animals”? Is that the best can we can do?
Akira: I think that a certain ability to exist with an Other—an Other that may not share the same language that I speak, but certainly exists in a world that is as valuable, authentic, legitimate, as my own—will be the goal. I’ll introduce a phrase by Jacques Derrida. Somebody asked him, what does justice mean? What would justice be? He says justice is speaking to the Other in the language of the Other. I find this to be a very beautiful and optimistic expression. It is not my task to exclude from my world those that I don’t understand; but it is my responsibility, or it is the practice or task of justice, to learn the Other’s language, which is to give the Other that capacity for language, to assume that there is in the Other, language. Language is that which is traditionally denied to the Other. “I don’t know what you mean when you speak.” “Women speak emotionally.” “Animals don’t have any language.” “The language that less-developed cultures speak is not as articulate or precise as the language that I speak.”
The other thing I will add is that the development of a field that some have called, perhaps temporarily, provisionally, “Animal Studies”, is absolutely critical. I think there was a time when Animal Studies would have meant zoology, or the pursuit of animal rights. Animal Studies is not merely a community of scholars and academics; they are artists and performers who engage in expressive and creative actions, activists who are committed politically, activists who are engaged in their daily lives and daily practices, and also a wide range of scholars in a variety of fields (feminists, literary scholars, historians, historians of ideas, philosophers, and so forth). There is an understanding that “the question of the animal,” as it’s been called, or “of animals,” or “of animality,” is not something that is restricted to the well-being of animals, it affects everybody. I think this kind of realization and community, let’s say, ex-community of people, who are in the field but also outside of their fields, is another way in which much of what has been established can being critiqued, rethought, unthought, reformulated, toward a viable existence for all forms of life on this earth, and elsewhere.
Lauren: It’s interesting how you point to these different marginalized groups. My own experience comes from Women’s Studies. My concern is that as marginalized groups fight for inclusion, they also learn to exclude in the same old ways. Animals are still left out.
Akira: That’s a very difficult situation that traditionally marginalized groups have had to address. When you have been denied very basic civil rights, for example, one of the immediate and legitimate goals of any movement is to make sure that one secures those rights for one’s members, and at the same time to make sure that the pursuit or achievement of that right does not reproduce the exclusion of others. That’s why I think the role of animal rights is so important, because the animal is perhaps the place where life as such has been most excluded in the history of human cultures. And as such it is the place where this rethinking has to begin. There will be all sorts of differences, and all sorts of different objectives and agendas, but when this discussion is practiced rigorously and in good faith, I think ultimately it will be productive. Remember that most of those whom we now think of as the great thinkers were often marginalized in their time; many endured marginalization, ridicule, hostility. It’s part of the task, and I think one of the comforts we can draw in these situations is that the process is ongoing and one makes a contribution where one can.
Lauren Corman hosted the weekly radio program Animal Voices on CIUT FM 89.5 from 2001-2009. Mark Karbusicky did the technical work for her and Nadja Lubiw-Hazard for two years. She is currently working in the sociology department in Brock University as the first animal studies professor in Canada!
Akira Mizuta Lippit is a Professor of Comparative Literature, East Asian Languages and Cultures and Cinema Television at USC College. His teaching and research focus on four primary areas: the history and theory of cinema, world literature and critical theory, Japanese film and culture, and visual cultural studies. Lippit’s published work reflects these areas and includes two books, Atomic Light (Shadow Optics) (2005) and Electric Animal: Toward a Rhetoric of Wildlife (2000). In addition to his two completed books, Lippit is presently finishing a book-length study on contemporary experimental film and video, and has begun research for a book on contemporary Japanese cinema, which looks at the relationship of late-twentieth and early twenty-first century Japanese culture to the concept of the world.