The Exceptional Animal

Friday 6 September 2013, Oxford Brookes University


  • Alastair Hunt, Portland State University
  • Robert McKay, University of Sheffield
  • Anat Pick, Queen Mary, University of London
  • Tom Tyler, Oxford Brookes University

Context and aims

Much has been said concerning the exceptional nature of the human being, and these celebrations have, in turn, attracted considerable criticism. But what, exactly, is “human exceptionalism” – a term of very recent coinage – and how does it articulate with broader forms of anthropocentric thought? How has this exceptionalism manifested, and been contested, within literary and cinematic texts, particularly those concerned with nonhuman animals and their treatment? And what are the ethical, political and personal stakes involved in any engagement with questions of human exceptionalism.

This one day symposium will bring together new work on these matters by Alastair Hunt (Portland State University), Robert McKay (University of Sheffield), Anat Pick (Queen Mary, University of London) and Tom Tyler (Oxford Brookes University).


Tom Tyler, The Exception and the Norm: Dimensions of Anthropocentrism

Anthropocentric thinking assumes or argues that humans are Nature’s “most prominent object”, that animals are means to humanity’s ends, or perhaps that human beings are an inevitable or necessary axis for reflection. The grounds of these claims for human-centering have been many and varied, but two key themes can be identified. On the one hand, it is frequently asserted that humanity is exceptional; on the other, that it is the norm. Within these themes, it is useful to distinguish six separate dimensions of anthropocentric thought: humans have been understood as the highest point on a spatial hierarchy; as the culmination of a temporal sequence; as absolutely different in kind; as a physical standard or measure; as a mental mode of apprehension; and as a self-evident identity.

Robert McKay, Read Meat: Species Exceptionalism in Michel Faber’s Under the Skin

Under the Skin is the story of Isserley, a woman who escapes a socially and ecologically ravaged planet by working secretly in remote Scotland for an opaque corporate concern. In an astonishing reversal of species fortunes, she captures human males who are prepared underground and slaughtered as meat to be consumed by a social elite at home. Faber’s careful focalization of this story through Isserley allows for a subtle, ambiguous and counterintuitive inquiry into the nature of anthropocentrism and human exceptionalism. The science fiction genre of the novel delivers a plot that commands the human reader to sympathize with a protagonist who enacts murderous views about humans that are analogous to ideas that underpin human use of animals. It is gradually revealed that a commitment to species exceptionalism is Isserley’s flawed vision of enlightenment, her protection against the social degradation that has blighted her life. Eventually, though, she comes to sense that subjection, alienation and bodily vulnerability align her with the human animals she kills, and she finally stops. Via the play of genre and form, then, Under the Skin offers a narrative of the ethical recognition of nonhuman species that exceeds significantly the established story of principled and reasoned recognition of their rights.

Anat Pick, Criminal Animals: Animality, Vulnerability, and the Biopolitics of Film

This paper considers early cinema as a biopolitical apparatus that produces the “attraction” of the vulnerable animal body. Early film’s close connection to the life sciences makes it a compelling case for thinking through the ways in which human and nonhuman lives and rendered visible. Cinema, then, is a privileged realm for considering the vulnerable body’s place in regimes of power, as well as the ethics and politics that govern the body’s production, regulation, and consumption. While “vulnerability” has been mobilized to challenge human exceptionalism, it remains a highly ambivalent term. Its dual nature, as an ethical foundation and as an invitation to violence, suggests that the vulnerable body, whether human or not, be thought through its imbrication in specific mechanisms of power, of which cinema is one example.

Cinema and biopolitics share terms like exposure, capture, and framing, at the heart of Cora Diamond, Judith Butler, and Cary Wolfe’s work and post-anthropocentric politics and precarious life. Cinematically, vulnerability is a double exposure: the exposure of bodies, and the exposure of the filmstrip, the capture and framing of bodies by the camera, and the place of those bodies in the mise-en-scene.

I pursue the biopolitics of film – the production and management of life in moving images – through examples of early films by three cinematic pioneers: Thomas Edison, Alfred Machin, and Luca Comerio, and in the recuperative archival work of contemporary filmmakers Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi who recycle footage by Comerio and Edison to critique cinematic biopolitics.

Alastair Hunt, The Politics of Personification

Before the law, all human beings are recognized as “persons,” subjects of legal rights. So, oddly enough, are corporations. Animals, however, are not, and have no legal rights. All such attributions and denials of legal personality are assumed to depend on whether the entities in questions possess certain properties, such as cognitive capacities or species-identity. A close reading of the works of political theorist Hannah Arendt and literary critic Paul de Man, however, suggests that legal personality is actually a principle of appearance or legibility that takes as its defining condition, the figure of speech known as personification. Personification does not tell us who is really a person. But insofar as it makes all claims to personality, including those by human beings, possible, it renders all denials of personality based on human exceptionalism rather debatable.

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