the animal turn issue

In December 2003, American anthropologist Sarah Franklin invented the term animal turn in the convention of the Cultural Studies Association of Australasia (Armstrong and Simmons 2007). The expression quickly entered current usage and academic vocabulary to define a renewed interest in animal entities, in their dichotomy and relationship with humans. This interest related to a new critical paradigm is directly connected with the wider cultural phenomenon of the crisis of traditional humanism, named posthumanism. It may be said that the animal turn is a direct consequence of this ontological crisis to which an interest in non-human species is connected. The progressive blurring of borders between mankind and the Other generated a hiatus that gave possibility to non-human entities – animals, vegetables, environmental and cosmic processes – to enter the debate with full dignity (Braidotti 2014). We are thus witnessing an effective paradigmatic turn. Animal entities, often repressed and demonised, have always represented the Other for humans. Late 20th century post-structuralist and postmodernist analysis may have seen in the analysis of the Other the possibility of initiating a series of fertile discourses concerning race, gender and nationality, but it is the contemporary approach that fully embraces this issue. After all, animal studies have influenced and transformed post-humanist thought, enriching it with issues concerning human limits and cultural construction, reorienting in turn the issue of the ‘affects’ (Gregg and Seigworth, 2010) and of the body, giving them higher ethical and political momentum (Nayar, 2014: 79).
That animal studies have been a part of post-humanist theory may be deduced by considering Donna Haraway’s thought on the matter: she already presented its foundations in Primate Visions (1989). It is, however, in A Cyborg Manifesto (1995) that this topic becomes a major element of her revolutionary proposal. Haraway highlights three fundamental traits of post-human times driven by this ‘collapse of the borders’. They concern the relation between humans and animals, between organisms and machines, and between the physical and the non-physical (Haraway 1995)[1]. It seems that Haraway anticipated the emerging animal studies by summing up the post-humanist project, questioning and deconstructing the systems of classification that lead to considering animals as an inferior life form.
Although Haraway simply cannot be viewed as a representative of post-humanism, the development of her thought  shows a shift in the conceptual axis of post-humanism itself.

Kari Weil (2010: 12), who has conducted important research on the topic of the relationship between humans and animals, states that the animal turn contributed to a ‘counter-linguistic shift’ against the structuralist dimension typical of the early 20th century. This shift encouraged an attempt at going beyond the confining, exclusive focus on language and at opening up to different approaches to reality, alterity and humanity itself (Weil, 2010: 4). Language, indeed, has always been a distinctive human sign and the alleged lack of it marked the inferiority and exclusion of the Other and of the non-human. Therefore, post-humanist decentralisation also involves a decentralisation of language and of its exclusivity. Weil (2010: 13) also suggests that counter-linguistic commitment is in itself an ethical act as it pays attention to the ineffable, which turns to the body and its ‘affects’[2]. This entails a heavy ethical charge that leads animal studies towards new ways to answer  and new forms of responsibility.
Doubtlessly  each of the different currents of the post-humanist universe entails an ethical and political project of its own; however, the animal turn has favoured the development of further emphasis on ethics, giving new meanings to concepts such as subjectivity, alterity andagency. Having reached this point, the trajectory of Haraway from cyborg to ‘companion species’ may again be considered as an indicator of a renewed interest on interspecies ethics. Human decentralisation matches a questioning of humanist ethics, of who or what matters as a subject and which duties and responsibilities there are towards others. The animal turn contributed to this domain by widening the category of subjectivity, and from the very beginning animal ethics has questioned the exclusivity of human subjectivity. Focusing on non-human animals breached humanist limits of alterity and ethical consideration. Weil states (2010: 17) that authentic post-human ethics should deal with ‘an unknowable or “incalculable” other’, hence it should relate to non-human animals; this is because, as added by Derrida (2006: 90), animals represent the absolute alterity. This rearrangement of the fundamental ethical categories needs a qualitative change of the terms and ways of the ethical debate.
Ultimately, supporting the vital bond between human beings and other species is not only necessary, but also useful, despite the fact that anthropomorphising animals in order to bestow principles of moral and legal equality on them too  confirms the binary distinction between human and animal and fully denies animal specificity. Therefore, it is possible to state that post-humanist ethics have to go beyond the limits of traditional ethics and open up not only to new forms of subjectivity and alterity, but also to new ways and modes of relation and action. This shows that overcoming humanism requires full, constant attention and a continuous re-examination of terms to avoid settling for easy results.

[1] Cit. “The last beachheads of uniqueness have been polluted if not turned into amusement parks language tool use, social behaviour, mental events, nothing really convincingly settles the separation of human and animal. And many people no longer feel the need for such a separation […]. The cyborg appears in myth precisely where the boundary between human and animal is transgressed. Far from signalling a walling off of people from other living beings, cyborgs signal disturbingly and pleasurably tight coupling. Bestiality has a new status.” (Haraway 1995)

[2] For further details on the concept of Affect Theory in philosophy, see, for example:
Flatley, J. (2008) Affective Mapping: Melancholia and the Politics of Modernism. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: Harvard University Press
Gregg, M. and Seigworth, G. J. (eds.) (2010) The Affect Theory Reader. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press


Philip Armstrong and Laurence Simmons, Bestiary: An Introduction, in L. Simmons e P. Armstrong (a cura di), Knowing Animals, Brill, Leiden, 2007, pp. 1-24.

Rosi Braidotti, Il post-umano. La vita oltre l’individuo, oltre la specie, oltre la morte, trad. it. di A. Balzano, DeriveApprodi, Roma, 2014, pp. 73-75.

Jacques Derrida, L’animale che dunque sono, Ed Jaca Book, Milano, 2006, p. 47.

Donna Haraway, Manifesto cyborg. Donne, tecnologie e biopolitiche del corpo, trad. it. di L. Borghi, Feltrinelli, Milano, 1995, p. 43. Cfr., inoltre, Ibidem, p. 62.

Pramod K. Nayar, Posthumanism, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2014, p. 79.

Carlo Salzani, Dal postumano al postanimale. Il postumanesimo e l’animal turn, in “Liberazioni” n. 37, giugno 2019, pp. 4-18.

Kari Weil, A Report on the Animal Turn, in “Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies”, 2010, vol. 21, n. 2, p. 12.