What do we actually know about animals and how can we assess our relationship to them? A conversation with Animal Studies expert and literary scholar Roland Borgards.

Professor Borgards, animals have now entered the realm of cultural studies and social sciences. In the Anglo-Saxon world, the subject area of “Animal Studies” explores our image of animals, often interdisciplinary. You founded the research network “Cultural & Literary Animal Studies” back in 2011. Why do you not want to leave the study of animals to natural sciences alone?

We have contact with many, many animals. You could even say our culture is constitutively dependent on this contact with animals. Hence the way in which various cultures have dealt with animals at various times is always a sign of the way in which the culture in question is organized, of the power relationships within it. When I have understood the role animals played in a specific culture at a specific time, then I’ve also understood the culture. Thinking about animals in a culture is therefore always a reflection on culture and thus on its people.

You describe animals as giving order to a society. What exactly do you mean by that?

There are some species in which the ordering function of animals becomes quite clear. Dogs and apes are particularly important here: To a certain extent dogs have made humans their allies. In the history of political theory, time and again dogs have been imagined as creatures with whose help humans are able to defend the terrain of “culture” against that of “wilderness”. One therefore takes an animal out of the wilderness in order to assimilate it into one’s own culture. It is precisely here that a change is currently underway: Dogs are seen less and less as defense animals and rather as a contact with nature, through whom I can form a connection with it.

Thinking about animals in a culture is therefore always a reflection on culture and thus its people.

Prof. Dr. Roland Borgards
Roland Borgards

First of all that sounds rather placatory.

Not at all. After all, Cultural and Literary Animal Studies are primarily about understanding the mechanisms of this domination. Let’s take the example of mass livestock rearing, of grinding up chicks: These sorts of actions are only possible on the basis of a long-ingrained cultural differentialism, which is based on the assumption of anthropological difference, a categorical difference between “human” and “animal”. This sort of difference, however, is not simply there, but rather is practiced politically and culturally practiced. And ultimately that can be placatory again, since behind all these findings there is nevertheless the hidden utopia of a better coexistence. There are such rich relationships and forms of contact; interesting, smart, nuanced, inspiring interactions between humans and animals, the utopian potential that just needs to be made recognizable.

Can you give an example?

Let’s take the example of feeding the birds during winter, which represents an old, tradition-steeped cultural technique in Europe. What’s new is the idea that people should feed birds in summer too. The cultural history is full of texts in which the pleasures and advantages of feeding birds are presented. This places specific attention on birds, yet is also a reciprocal process: How specific people approach specific birds and, vice versa, how specific birds approach specific humans. Perhaps you’ve always fed a couple of pairs of blackbirds, and suddenly one of the birds no longer appears – this makes you sad. We individualize the blackbird, and have the feeling that we almost know this individual animal. The incorporation of the individual animal into one’s own “circle of acquaintance” is something Donna Haraway, an important theorist in this area, also describes as manufactured kinship, for example. We seek our families for ourselves, and animals might be part of them. In sociology one talks about “mixed societies”.

Yet even that can’t hide the fact that we are dealing with an ambivalent relationship: There is an animal that I provide for, I nevertheless don't care about the species itself.

Exactly, it is ambivalent. Hence precisely this example of the bird: to a great extent a bird can decide for itself whether it comes to the location of the encounter or not. This is in contrast to pets – dogs, cats, guinea pigs and so on – or the bird in the cage. So there are animals that seem to have their own interest in becoming members of this mixed community. So, unlike some animal rights activists, I don’t believe that the best thing for animals is for us to break off contact with them completely.

There are many people who see animal welfare discussions as entirely a luxury problem of the Western world. When you look at how and where livestock are treated, and when discussions arise about their welfare, then it’s not hard to see that this only becomes relevant for many people when there is a certain level of economic prosperity. Is animal welfare something you have to be able to afford?

[Thinks for a moment] No, I don’t think so. And I say that for two reasons: First, the discussion about animal welfare, about the right way to treat animals, is much older than prosperity. These discussions of welfare are in fact as old as philosophy itself, but of course – and this is the second point – we can see an increase in the discussions on this topic. I don’t think this is at all due to the fact that only now can we afford to think about such things, but rather that all prosperous societies rely on the massive exploitation of animals. The problem is therefore getting bigger and more visible. To this extent, the discussion about animal welfare issues is indeed a consequence of a prosperous society – but indirectly, since it is prosperity that first creates the problems which we then have to address.

The story of “Chico,” the fighting dog who was put to sleep because he bit his owner and the owner’s mother, who was sitting in a wheelchair, to death and was therefore considered a danger to society, triggered an astonishing wave of hatred, particularly against humans. Sometimes it seems that an extreme love of animals is primarily a vent for misanthropy. The animal serves as an excellent projection screen and can easily be held up as supposedly the better human.

It is wrong to think that reversing the situation would improve it. And I don’t believe that animals are better creatures than humans. If the argument of loving animals eventually ends up in violence against humans, then you have forgotten that humans are animals too. And why shouldn’t we treat the human animal well, too? This principle of the reversed circumstances is indeed an age-old theme: We have the pig that suddenly becomes a butcher, the fish that hooks the human. The “reversed world” makes social circumstances visible, it is a medium of reflection on how we shape our relationship with animals, but is not itself the solution.

We seek our families for ourselves, and animals might be part of them. In sociology one talks about “mixed societies”.

Prof. Dr. Roland Borgards

Presumably we won’t be able to shake off the human perspective all that quickly: Whatever the efforts towards neutrality, the conclusions we draw from the behavior of animals are linked to us as human beings. Hence we choose to consider ravens or weaver birds the most intelligent bird species depending on the criteria one attributes to intelligent behavior.

The primatologist Franz de Waal wrote a good book on this question: “Are we smart enough to know how smart animals are?” With our human concepts, we undoubtedly reach our limitations quickly here. Some researchers therefore define the intelligence of animals as their efficacy in relation to others. Thus they avoid the old concept of the subject. This efficacy or “agency” can also unfold in art, where there have been various attempts to see animals as co-artists. In performance art this is immediately obvious, such as in the iconic works by Joseph Beuys or Marina Abramovic. In literature, however, animals have only mediated agency, of course. The most famous example of a work co-authored by an animal is “The Life and Opinions of Tomcat Murr” by E.T.A. Hoffmann, who had a real cat that was actually called Tomcat Murr. And when Tomcat Murr died, Hoffmann ceased writing the novel. Here it’s clear even from the negative perspective that the cat actually co-produced the novel.

Would you say that so unequivocally?

I would indeed! It’s a complex matter, but ultimately I would see it that way.

When you talk about animals, you probably mean the fraction of all species that count as vertebrates, and therefore a fraction that is already biologically closer to human beings – in short: a specific selection of mammals. Is that right?

That is generally the case, that’s true. In my work, I examine animals and apes in literature, while in a research group we are dealing with “Moby Dick” and thus also a large vertebrate, as well as other so-called “iconic animals”. However, these now also include bees, around which an enormous public discussion has been triggered. So we are already onto insects here, but of course you’re touching on an important point: We deal mainly with animals that are most similar to humans. It is therefore a task for cultural-scientific animal researchers to apply the same attention to all animal species and also to seek out the animals that are otherwise not a focus: the small, unremarkable, ugly, annoying ones. That’s why, for example, I’m now looking at parasites…

That is actually a very different and at the same time very tangible dimension of the human-animal relationship…

Parasites are animals that you simply cannot think of independently of their environment. This applies to all animals of course, but for parasites it is part of the definition. They live on their host animal. And there are certain species that are linked to humans. Here, for example, I look at their dissemination during the early stages of globalization in the 15th and 16th centuries: how they slowly spread across the entire world with the beginning of global trade, on the ships of traveling merchants. Which parasites are transported where and when? Using parasites, you suddenly have an entirely new history of globalization: how they pursued colonization along with humans, as imperial animals. The research here talks about “colonial animals”. For cultural-scientific animal research, therefore, all species are interesting, vertebrates or not. There are as many questions to research as there are animals. And tackling these questions has only just begun.

There are as many questions to research as there are animals. And tackling these questions has only just begun.

Prof. Dr. Roland Borgards