Aaron M. Moe

Assistant Professor of English at Saint Mary's College, Notre Dame

The Agency of Animals

IMG_2905[Note: this is an early grappling with animal agency. In Zoopoetics: Animals and the Making of Poetry, I further explore animal agency and bring these preliminary ideas to fruition.]

I am currently working through a review of the rhetoric of animals, and the process has led me to one question. Why do we doubt that animals have agency? To put it another way, why do we question the conscious intentionality of animals in their abilities to vocalize and gesture, with a purpose, to another animal (human or nonhuman)? Even Aristotle saw that animals “possess traces of the characteristics to do with the [human] soul” (57); moreover, he recognized that animals don’t just “hear sounds” but can “distinguish the differences between the signs” (215). He spends a significant portion of time exploring the rhetoric at work in the “great complexity” of a hive of bees (335; 333-369). He sees animals as participating in rhetoric, but he is hesitant to interpret his observations. Though his work tends towards animal agency, I have not found a place where Aristotle clearly ascribes agency to animals.

Let’s go back further. The author of Job penned the well-known lines concerning the leviathan and the horse. The descriptions of these robust creatures emanate agency. The whole point is that the animals have so much agency, humans cannot harness it.

Let’s jump ahead. Darwin argued in The Descent of Man that “there is no fundamental difference between man and the higher mammals in their mental faculties” (798). Concerning the ability of animals to participate in rhetorical situations, he gives a close reading of the vocalizations and gestures of monkeys and of the nuances of a dog’s many barks (808). He sees a thought process at work in the way “animals may constantly be seen to pause, deliberate, and resolve” (804). Darwin, here, does what Aristotle didn’t. He speaks of the remarkable capacities of animals in a way that ascribes agency to those animals.

In “Instinct vs Reason—A Black Cat,” Edgar Allan Poe, too, argues that the “line which demarcates the instinct of the brute creation from the boasted reason of man, is, beyond doubt, of the most shadowy and unsatisfactory character (477). He provides a close reading of his cats ability to problem solve—to open a door—and concludes that she “must have made use of all the perceptive and reflective faculties which we are in the habit of supposing the prescriptive qualities of reason alone” (479).

And yet, thinkers within my field (myself included) feel compelled to have to “prove” that animals have agency (see Philo and Wilbert). Somehow, the misplaced notion that animals only respond, by a mindless instinct, to their surroundings has become so pervasive and entrenched that it will take one helluva heave to eradicate such thinking.

From the author of Job, to Aristotle, Darwin, Poe (to name only a few), animals have been depicted in a favorable light, but still, as a culture, we don’t readily ascribe agency to animals. Philo and Wilbert, though, provide a tremendous amount of traction to do so.

Back to Poe. I like how he draws on anecdotal evidence. With the framework of agency, though, I think Poe could have gone further. I see my cat in a much clearer way when my starting point is agency. I have been able to discern close to ten distinct vocalizations, depending on her purpose and her audience. I feed her each morning due to her initiation. She won’t quit meowing, circling my feet, arching her back, pressing her head into my shin until I do. After she eats, she finds my lap and kneads my thigh. This doesn’t have to do with “filling a primal urge to eat.” No. She is a social creature. Social creatures maintain a bond through a reciprocity of vocalizations and gestures. These vocalizations and gestures are what rhetoric is all about.

I know at least one reason why our culture hesitates to ascribe agency to animals. We eat them. Billions of them. We wear them. Billions of them. They are a resource, or a pet, or a pest, or a machine. If we saw them as they are—capable of imagination, rhetoric, agency, etc.—we would have to own up to the relentless and massive zooicide we have grown numb to. It is much more difficult to eat meat when that meat comes from a being who once possessed conscious intention.

Works Cited

Aristotle. History of Animals, Books VII-X. Ed & trans by. D. M. Balme. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1991. Print.

Darwin, Charles. From so Simple a Beginning:  The Four Great Books of Charles Darwin. Ed. Edward O. Wilson. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2006. Print.

Job. King James Version. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1996. Print.

Philo, Chris, and Chris Wilbert. “Animal Spaces, Beastly Places: An Introduction.” Animal Spaces, Beastly Places: New Geographies of Human-Animal Relations. Ed. Chris Philo & Chris Wilbert. New York: Routledge, 2000. 1–34. Print.

Poe, Edgar Allan. Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe, Tales and Sketches, 1831-1842. Ed. T. O. Mabbott. Vol. 2. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1978. Print.


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