- Surface Encounters: Thinking with Animals and Art by Ron Broglio
As the seventeenth monograph in the University of Minnesota’s Posthumanities series, Ron Broglio’s Surface Encounters: Thinking with Animals and Art contributes to the growing body of scholarship that decenters the human in discussions of bioethics, animal studies, ecology, and technology studies. The book’s opening questions fit comfortably within this movement: “What is an animal phenomenology? What does it mean to be an animal, not as observed from an objective perspective of natural history, but from the fur of the beasts themselves?” (p. xv). While readily admitting that these questions cannot be answered (at least by humans), Broglio proposes that they are nonetheless good to think with, because they remind us that any encounter with an animal is an occasion to explore the limits of human knowledge and the sensory horizons of absolute animal alterity. The study confirms the value of this enterprise; in lucid prose, Surface Encounters offers not only a new perspective on the challenges of thinking about animals, but also a sound introduction to the ways that posthumanist discourse contributes to animal studies.
The monograph’s title alludes to its central precept: the inversion of the depth/surface binary that places animals in a position subservient to humans. Conceding, as figures like Martin Heidegger suggest, that animals cannot critically reflect upon the nature of their being and the being of the world, Broglio argues that productive encounters with animals must take place on their phenomenological terrain—on the “surface” of things, in the unstable, alogical “contact zone” between human and animal worldviews. To produce this surface thinking, he combines discussions of the animal by critics like Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, and Friedrich Nietzsche with works by international visual artists that explore similar themes. The artists, he posits, create sets of “opaque objects” that elicit an “infectious wonder at the animal world on the other side of human knowing” (p. xxiii). This wonder, in turn, can be enlisted in a transdisciplinary project of thinking through, together with, and beyond preexistent models of animal phenomenology.
The opening chapter outlines the difficulties of experiencing wonder in a culture grounded in the metaphysics of presence. For Broglio, the great philosophical traditions of Baconian empiricism and Hegelian idealism converge on the body of the animal, which both discourses attempt to open up—either literally through dissection or conceptually through sublation—and that leaves in the [End Page 117] place of the animal Other an object for human consumption. To think through the violence of both processes, Broglio pairs these theories with Damien Hirst’s major artworks, which display animals either segmented into bands of flesh or preserved whole. While his earlier artworks like Mother and Child Divided—a segmented cow and calf—clearly represent animals “opened for interrogation,” later artifacts like The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living—an intact fourteen-foot tiger shark preserved in formaldehyde—call attention to this investigative violence through their “resistant flesh.” Although this artwork seems designed to preserve the shark’s “animal interiority,” shortly after its debut its body began to decay, clouding the tank in which it was housed. In a fascinatingly counter-intuitive analysis, Broglio argues that the “shark’s innards bore witness to the inaccessible interior of the animal . . . that [Hirst] intended to protect from the view of spectators. Yet it is this preservation of the interior of the animal that could not be preserved” (p. 17).
The remaining four chapters explore modes of performance that destabilize subject/object frameworks to better evoke the mystery of animal interiority. The second chapter uses work by performance artist Carolee Schneemann to show how humans might experience animality at the eroticized interface between human and animal bodies. In Schneemann’s Meat Joy, for example, a woman introduces the flesh of chickens, cattle, pigs, and fish to a group of intertwined performers. As human flesh mingles with animal flesh, the performers enact a Dionysian ritual that frames animal encounters...