restricted access The Borrowed Voice of Animals
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The Borrowed Voice of Animals

Animals have the gift of ubiquity. They can be what they are and they can be what they represent, and even more, they can be anything the two possibilities suggest. I’d like to give a series of examples linked to this ubiquity, examples that are not always related to each other, which means that this exposition will be a bit fragmented. But a line of reasoning like mine—founded on the hospitality of animals in permitting diverse meanings and senses—will necessarily seem partial and limited. Between the pulsating flesh about which little is known and the forced conduct of automatons and the possessed, animals occupy overlapping positions on a spectrum that runs from the natural condition to artificial life. I will take up several moments and scenes without attempting to generalize much from them.

My premise is that literature lacks realist moorings now that previous categories of reality have been replaced by documentary modes. The documentary no longer appears in narration as the proof of verity or veracity or objectivity but rather as a sign that models the idea of fiction and representation with new limits. On the other hand, the idea of nature persists as a fundamental problem of literature since its unrepresentability evades direct consideration. Beyond the exhaustion of discursive forms linked to the natural (whether celebratory or elegiac), nature as such, in its wild state, can only be presented as utopian inspiration. In this context, animals would seem to be the only ones capable of assuming a sort of alternative emulation of nature—in the [End Page 131] manner of those emissaries of remote and nearly abolished civilizations—and of contributing to fictions ambiguously rooted in the documentary mode, in large measure thanks to the fact that animals are their own proof.

Animals are the part of the world most colored by indetermination. This makes them unique as agents of signification. When it comes to animals, this indetermination stems logically from our struggle to distinguish between species and individual and (to a greater extent) between instinct and will. Animals have a sort of lingua franca. They are, paradoxically, elements of a common language. And as occurs with all language, this language’s elements lack predetermined relationships with meaning. Animals are used to say many different things.

In one of the photos near my desk, a man carries five swine, slaughtered and positioned head down. The photo is taken from behind. In his free hand, the man carries a delivery notebook, and he is surely on his way to some nearby butcher shop. It’s typical for me to be sidetracked by this image, not only because I recognize this part of Caracas, which I ended up visiting quite a bit, but rather because these pigs, mute in their inert condition, take on a voice loaned to them in the first place by the deliveryman who carries them and in the second place by the one who took the photograph. (It is by Esso Álvarez and is included in the 2006 calendar from the Jacobo Borges Museum in Caracas.)

I start looking at the photo, and even though I look at it often, there is always a confirmation that imposes itself. Nobody was expecting any special transcendence from these animals. Least of all the one who photographed them; I suspect, at least, that he didn’t choose them because they were themselves (because he knew them, we might say) but rather because of what they formed together: a bunch of nameless, sacrificed pigs hanging across an equally anonymous back. Once the photograph was taken, beyond whatever the photographer might have sought to express, these animals assumed an ambiguous presence; they continue in their anonymity but their short-lived existence has been registered even if it remains undifferentiated. To the inertia of this dead weight is added the inertia of the image that reveals them, although the two inertias might move in opposite directions. One could say that the episode is inscribed in the long iconic tradition that refers to farm animals (live or dead), beasts prepared to adorn banquet tables, scenes...