Our way (as humans) to behave towards animals tells us a lot about ourselves.I will use for my article the essay “Why Looking at Animals?”, part of the anthology About Looking published in 1980 by the British critic John Berger (who is also a painter, a teacher, a filmmaker and a novelist). The latter has, for me, particularly well described the human’s behaviors towards animals in capitalist societies.

He highlights different aspects of human-animal relationship and shows how animals have been marginalized through history, mostly due to the development of capitalism, as he explains by saying that “the reduction of the animal (…) is part of the same process as that by which men have been reduced to isolated productive and consuming units”.

The deep belief that animals as living species express emotions and have feelings have been called into question, especially with Descartes’s assertion of divide of body and soul: “the decisive theoretical break came with Descartes”. Since then it was made possible for some people to consider animals as “machines” (they are considered, unless humans, as “soulless”), and so remove from them their ability to have, as independent living entities, feelings, emotions, and needs. By far and against this statement, the critic shows that humans and non-human animals share much in common, from a biological (“Animals are born, are sentient and are mortal”) and also a historical point of view. Differences between humans and animals are variation in degree rather than kind.

For example the animals’s inability to speak is seen through a different angle than usual in Berger’s work: it should not be considered as a lack, but much more we should study and try to understand the means used by animals to express their feelings and communicate, as part of species. The use of language, a human characteristic, should not let us think of a given superiority of humans. Animals have typical features of their own, which we are not necessarily prone to understand. This refers also to the idea presents in Donna Haraway’s work When Species Meet (2008) that we should not define someone or something by a lack.

Then John Berger assumes that in modern societies men can no longer encounter with animals. He has also a main argument about the look: when there used to be a silent relationship between the two living species, the marginalization of animals and their confinement into zoos are the ultimate proof of it. We can no longer meet with animals, for a lot of them they live in artificial environment, they cannot either encounter with other species in their closed cages. Same with pets, which is a recent phenomenon. The development of companion animals brought with capitalist ideology. Before we used to rely on them for specific purposes (“guard dog”, “haunting dog”…).

In short, their essence is denied from them, and thus thanks to Humans whom, at one point in history, succeeded to make themselves above every other specie.



“Why Looking At Animals?” by John Berger

When Species Meet by Donna Haraway (2008)