Who comes first people or animals


Roman Bartosch

Jun.-Prof. Dr. Roman Bartosch studied English, German, psychology and pedagogy and has been junior professor for "Didactics: Literatures and Cultures of the Anglophone World" at the University of Cologne since October 2017.

Perspectives in human-animal studies

There have always been stories and depictions of relationships between humans and animals. Is it possible that it was through these relationships, which are reflected in art, that humans have actually become human in the modern sense?

Lascaux: "The world of images from the Ice Age", exhibition in the small Olympic Hall, Munich Olympic Park. April 16, 2019 (& copy picture-alliance, Martin Hangen)

For as long as there has been art, there have been narratives and depictions of relationships between humans and animals; and the questions around which these narratives and images revolve persist surprisingly. After his visit to the Lascaux caves, Pablo Picasso is quoted as saying: "We haven't learned anything" (Oetker / Podeschwa 2015: 13). This statement refers to the recurring interest of art in the essence of animals and humans, their relationships and mutual dependencies, which are characterized by exploitation and violence, but also by respect and, last but not least, love (cf. McHugh 2019). One reason for this comparability, given all historical and cultural differences, may be the long history of the genealogy of these questions: artistic exploration of the relationship between humans and animals and the limits and transgressions of such relationships have existed in the world since modern humans have existed, as the art of Lascaux impressively shows.

A question discussed in this context in current research therefore also concerns the possibility that the human being has only become human in the modern sense through these very relationships that are reflected in art. From this point of view, it was not humans who domesticated the wolf. Rather, the modern incarnation is the result of mutual co-evolution. Indications for this are the social and hunting behavior of wolves, which can be viewed as a blueprint for successful human-animal synchronized hunting, as well as the evolutionary advantages that resulted from a mutual learning and adaptation process (cf. Schleidt / Shalter 2003).

Regardless of how the question of co-evolution is answered by anthropologists, historians and biologists, it can be said that the relationship between humans and other animals, which is so important for the human understanding of self and the world, is a fundamental characteristic of another, perhaps the most human Behavior is: The telling of stories and the narrative opening up of the world. Studies on folklore and early myths refer in this context to central, cross-cultural motifs - such as that of the "swan woman", who enters into a relationship with a person and as a shapeshifter takes on sometimes human, sometimes animal form - or narrative patterns that are reflected in the motif of a To suppress marriage between humans and animals and much more (cf. Sax 1998, Sax 2013). Even in German-speaking countries, in translated fables and European house fairy tales, there are numerous moments of cross-species relationships, for example when the king's sons in "The Six Swans" have to take on animal form for their own protection, when in the fairy tale "From the fisherman and his wife" an enchanted one A prince in the form of a fish has to fulfill the increasingly far-reaching wishes of a fisherman's wife - and of course when Little Red Riding Hood meets a wolf, which in the end it is difficult to tell apart from its own grandmother.

In general, the relationship between or the repeatedly trespassed border between humans and wolves is a frequent topic also in contemporary literature. Based on the stories of werewolves and other shapeshifters, for example, horror motifs - both in the gruesome splatter film, but also in rather sweet romances such as the successful Twilight series -, in human-animal relationships and their cultural frameworks and dimensions of meaning (cf.Bartosch / Caruso 2017). Other species allow other borderlines: insect narratives say something about notions of statehood and order, the horses in Gulliver's Travels comment on the rationalism of the Enlightenment and the white whale in Melville's Moby-Dick can tell as much about the human idea of ​​a struggle against nature as it does about it the whaling and oil industries of the 19th century (see Armstrong 2008). Because of this dimension of animality, which has always been strongly culturally reshaped, it is sometimes spoken in research that "the animal" should actually be understood as literary fiction (Ortiz Robles 2016) or at least as a "material metaphor" that refers to both linguistic-cultural, but also always refers to material realities (Borgards 2015, Haraway 2008).

Lately this narrative imagination space has been supplemented by texts and films that address the increasingly virulent problem of species extinction in times of climate change. Often times, human-animal relationships are key to understanding these literary attempts at crisis and disaster: in thrillers like Jurassic Parkwhere dinosaurs brought back to life illustrate the worries and fears of human hubris in the context of attempts at so-called de-extinction processes, or in science fiction literature, for example Philip K. Dicks Do Android's Dream of Electric Sheep (cf. Heise 2003). Literary fiction - like Julia Leighs The Hunter or Amitav Ghoshs The Hungry Tide - Often the balancing act succeeds in making a fundamentally more abstract, statistically comprehensible problem such as the extinction of species emotionally understandable: Readers focus on individual animal individuals or the relationship between a human and an individual animal.

In light of these considerations on the fundamental importance of animals and human-animal relationships in art and literature, it is perhaps astonishing that a dedicated field of research in animal studies in literary and cultural studies has only been established for some time. Based on the intention of being able to "say something about cultures by means of animal studies and say something about animals by means of cultural studies" (Borgards 2015: 76), this field of research not only examines animal motifs and their occurrence in fables, allegories or literary narratives, but also tries to "to trigger a fundamental reflection on one's own scientific methods and theories" (ibid., 78, cf. also Wolfe 2009 and this text by Gabriele Kompatscher). This reflection touches on very fundamental analytical and conceptual areas, such as the interpretation of a certain form of representation as "anthropomorphizing": As Tom Tyler notes, the concept of anthropomorphism already presupposes "a number of uncritical assumptions about human beings" as the measure of all things (Tyler 2012: 59, translation RB), which cannot be held up without argumentative difficulties, neither philosophically nor in terms of cultural studies.

If one asks about the origin of this critical approach to "the question of the animal" (Wolfe 2009) and the manifold relationships between humans and animals, the impulses often mentioned are the sociological work of Bruno Latour in the area of ​​actor-network theory (Latour 2007 ) or the science and technology studies associated with the name Donna Haraways (see Haraway 2008). Another central impulse comes from the philosophy of Jacques Derrida, who analyzes the already described dual nature of the animal as a linguistic-cultural as well as material phenomenon and justifies his interest in it with a personal experience: in his influential work L’animal que, donc, je suis (2006), which is called So the animal that I am (2010), Derrida reports of his surprise when one morning his cat looks at him in the bathroom and is confronted with fundamental questions about the relationship between philosophy and animality. These questions revolve around looking and looking, the possibility of responsiveness and, last but not least, the fact that animals also play a rhetorically central but analytically neglected role in philosophical argumentation. Derrida asserts in this context that the cat he encounters, in contrast to the "philosophical animals" of the history of philosophy, is a real, not an allegorical or symbolic cat, and that the challenge of philosophy and the history of ideas is to accept the fundamental mutuality that has grown out of it reflect: "The animal looks at us and we stand naked in front of it. And maybe this is exactly where thinking begins" (Derrida 2010, 54).

A stronger focus on species, not individuals, can be found in cultural studies sustainability research, for example in Ursula Heises According to nature. Species extinction and modern culture (2010). The scientifically verifiable biodiversity crisis is on the one hand historically and rhetorically classified in narrative patterns of decline and decay, but without fundamentally calling into question the alarming results of biodiversity research itself. Instead, the extinction of species should be understood as a "basic component of thinking about cultural development, especially about modernization processes" and especially the extinction of individual, culturally significant animal species should be located as a "historical turning point in the social relationship to nature" (Heise 2010: 10-11 ). It is noticeable, for example, that often individual, "charismatic" animal species (so-called flagship species or charismatic megafauna such as polar bears, tigers or elephants) "represent the whole [of nature]" in their function.

Such research is particularly fruitful when it goes beyond the narrow framework of literary fiction and innovatively applies one's own analytical tools to modern texts and discourses that play central roles in the biodiversity debates. One example is the investigation of the functions and meanings of electronic databases that are intended to catalog and monitor the (estimated) number of individual animals and plants. Because with this inventory comes the challenge of naming animals and species appropriately (a literally "biblical" challenge without exaggeration!). In addition, the complexity of ecological networking poses a difficulty when electronic inventory should help to map the situation of threatened species and to decide on protective measures (cf. Heise 2010: 88). Because of the range and practical impossibility of attempting a complete mapping, Heise speaks of an "epic enterprise" for databases of this type (ibid.). The reference to the literary epic is no coincidence: "The epics of different cultures - from the Gilgamesh epic to Homer's Odyssey and Virgil's Aeneid to the Finnish Kalevala, the Indian Mahabharata and the Popol Vuh of the Maya - always sought the entirety of the world known to them and in this sense the databases are to a certain extent the ecological epics of our present "(ibid .: 88-89). Understood as "a new cultural genre that articulates ecological risk perception" (ibid .: 95-96), databases and red lists are, from this point of view, new media tools for self-understanding in a world that is becoming more ecologically unstable.

Last but not least, the fact that these databases can also question the fundamental difference between humans and other animals, because Homo sapiens is also listed in individual lists - although currently still as "not endangered" - indicates the sometimes hesitant human self-identification in the own classification system and thus refers to current and connectable debates that are named with the catchwords of posthumanism (cf. Wolfe 2010) and the question of shared creaturality (cf. Santner 2006, Pick 2011). Above all, however, in times of climate change the question arises as to the aesthetic and ultimately also educational function of literature to develop visions of a society that consists equally of people and other living beings, which is one of the concerns of literary and didactic multispecies studies ( cf. van Dooren / Rose 2012, Heise 2016, Bartosch 2021). What these approaches have in common is the attempt to inscribe a more-than-human perspective on different ways in which coexistence is narrated, examined and shaped, so that relationships between humans and other animals are recognized as constitutive - not of secondary importance. Last but not least, this raises the question of mortality (or extinction at the level of genera and species): Anthropology, for example, is currently developing approaches to the topic of dying, which can be summarized under the heading of an anthropology of extinction (cf. Sodikoff 2012 ). In the context of cultural studies sustainability research, this represents an impetus, but also a challenge, especially in the application-related fields of sustainability education and the area of ​​global learning (cf. Matthewman 2011, Misiaszek 2019). Because here the main interest is the agency of individuals who are to be enabled to critically and actively deal with the current crisis phenomena and to change their actions according to the resulting insights. How can such an educational ideal be realized in times of uncontrollable anthropogenic climate change and against the background of extensive extinction of species? Which pedagogical and didactic answers have to be found to experiences of increasing loss and growing despair, which have been emphatically articulated in recent climate strikes and biodiversity demonstrations, for example? These urgent research questions are still open.


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Bartosch, R. / Caruso, C. The Good, the Bad, and the Ubernatural: The Other (ed) Werewolf in Twilight. In: McKay, R. / Miller, J. (eds.): Werewolves, Wolves and the Gothic. Cardiff, 2017.

Bartosch, R. "Telling Animals": Didactic Perspectives on Sustainability. In: Mattfeldt, A. / Schwegler, C. / Wanning, B. (eds.): Nature - Culture - People. Linguistic practices around ecological sustainability. Berlin, 2021.

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