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 outside the strictures of Hegelian sublation; they become “surfaces opened up as meat-canvas-sensual flesh and are jostled alongside other paper and flesh and human and animal surfaces” (p. 30). The chapter links this frenzied state to Nietzsche’s satyr, whose revelry “annihilates the individuals and opens them to an abyss between ecstatic truth experienced in the rituals and their mundane realities” (p. 31).
Broglio returns to this frenzied alogic in the fifth chapter’s discussion of Marcus Coates’s shamanistic performance pieces. Linking Coates’s work to Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s idea of a minor art, he argues that when Coates assumes the identity of a mythic seal-man in Finfolk or channels multiple animal identities in Journey to the Lower Realm, his behaviors “do not signify ‘like’ the animals,” but instead offer a “glimpse at the unintelligibility of the Other and a wonder at its wandering” (pp. 111, 112). In this manner, Coates sheds light on animal phenomenology by “flatten[ing] meaning”—distilling it to its immanent surface.
The third and fourth chapters transition from the affects surrounding human/animal rituals to more sustained attempts at charting the biosemiotic realm of animals. The third chapter begins with a summary of Jakob von Uexküll’s seminal 1934 monograph A Foray into the World of Animals and Men, recently republished in the same Posthumanities series. While Uexküll’s work operates from an anthropocentric perspective, Broglio maintains that this early model of animal phenomenology offers several “lessons” for mapping the productive interface between the sensory “bubble” that constitutes an animal’s environment and the equally distorted bubble of our human environment (pp. 66, 70). Because this interface is most easily glimpsed in spaces shared by humans and animals, the bulk of the chapter is devoted to art projects like Bryndis Snæbjörnsdóttir and Mark Wilson’s exhibition a(fly), which presents a series of photographs of human dwellings taken from the perspective of household pets—for instance, a view of a home from a dog bed, a fish bowl, and so on. By transporting animals from the position of objects to the position of subjects (they must be intuited by perspective and are absent from the photographs themselves), the exhibit “animaliz[es]” [End Page 118] human spaces and “complicates our own sense of place and sense of identity, of what it means to be a human animal” (p. 71).
Along similar lines, the fourth chapter considers the work of British artists Olly and Suzi in which animals participate in the creation and reception of art by directly interacting with the surface of paper and canvas. For example, Anaconda on Painting is a series of photographs in which the undulating snake leaves a muddy track as it travels over white paper. In Derridean language, Broglio frames this track as a “trace” that bears witness to, but cannot fully capture the “event” of the animal’s passing (pp. 96–97). This failure, in turn, creates a human/animal “pidgin” art that simultaneously highlights the workings of animal agencies and human/animal alliances and sets limits on our ability to make animals present to us as objects.
As my chapter descriptions suggest, Broglio’s characterization of his argument in the opening chapter does not always agree with how his argument actually proceeds. If, as he maintains, the visual arts reveal aspects of animal phenomenology that surpass conventional modes of human inquiry, such aspects are often made legible in the later chapters only when they are framed within the kinds of knowledge systems that they are purported to surpass. This aspect of the work is not necessarily a weakness; in fact, it reminds us of the suppleness of Deleuzean, Nietzschean, and Derridean frameworks, which Broglio uses to great effect in his innovative readings.
In sum, Surface Encounters will be an important resource for any scholar positioned at the intersection of the posthumanities and animal studies. By illustrating the creative exchange between the visual arts and contemporary theories—and, of equal value, by calling attention to the fascinating work of important new artists—Broglio illuminates new pathways for the ongoing interdisciplinary project of animal studies.
Raymond Malewitz is an assistant professor in the School of Writing, Literature, and Film at Oregon State University. His essays have appeared in PMLA, Contemporary Literature, and Configurations. His current book manuscript, titled The Practice of Misuse, examines the politics of object repurposing during the contemporary period.