Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Reading John Berger's "Why Look at Animals" (1980)

Amazingly, I have only just realised that I had been missing an incredibly well-qualified contributor towards the influences of my intended essay, and view of the Peregrine. In the 1970s, John Berger produced some of the most significant articles in support of vulnerable and exploited women, virtually at the height of the early feminist movement. Women were historically and previously seen as "objects" in the arts, ostensibly by men, and Berger's famous documentary produced by the BBC entitled "Ways of Seeing" (published in 1972 as a book to accompany the series of three films, by Penguin books) was game-changing. The series was based on seven separate essays, repositioned through critical questioning of many historical and archaic notions of art, bringing a new dimension of public understanding.

Berger went on to write about and support other repressed, oppressed and displaced beings in addition to humans, and turned his attention to animals imprisoned in zoo environments. In 1977, he wrote an essay called "Why Look at Animals" which would later appear on a collection of further essays entitled "About Looking" published in 1980, by Pantheons books, London, part of Random House publishing. It is this essay, "Why look at Animals" that is of interest to me here.

The essay opens with a historical re-cap on our [human] relationship with animals, the interdependence that we had with many creatures. For example, in western and eastern cultures with horses, as working colleagues to pull the plough, provided fast transport, milk and meat, together with clothing at times and our respect built over millennia.

Cattle too for instance initially were not considered as food sources, but instead, as still displayed in certain religions such as Hinduism, cows were found to be holy, or magical. There many cults and religions that believe that individual cattle have capabilities of transcendental knowledge and awareness far beyond their human hosts.  Most world religions have a 'bull worship' element of practice at some stage of their development: in the Christian, the story of the Golden Calf being just another example.

Our relationship with animals has however completely changed over the past 150 to 200 years, and the notions we once had, of creatures sharing our world, with a type of mutual respect, has virtually dissolved.

Berger remarks upon how animals look at humans, and he considers how they might view other creatures too. In this sense, he refers to how people also look at animals and in an almost uncanny way, they returned they gaze. It is as though there is a mutual "non-comprehension" and the massive gap lies between us. He goes on to explain that language, that human characteristic, helps to join men together, even though they may not speak the same dialect or language. (Berger, in Kalof, L. and Fitzgerald, A. (2007) pp253). Whereas, he assumes that this language, (which I have begun to call a vehicle for mutual rapport), is unbridgeable between human and animal?

Interestingly, Berger also identifies how companionship with animals and humans has shaped our human development. He calls this an intercession, which I think is an accurate description, and he points out the notion that it is people who have failed to continue to make efforts to communicate with animals in their own language. He cites mythical characters such as Orpheus who were able to communicate and develop a rapport with other creatures for mutual benefit.

The influence of animal deities from prehistoric times continued through ancient Egyptian and Greek history, some of which I've already discussed in previous blogs, and the anthropocentric habit of adopting individual animals to exhibit human traits and vice versa through anthropomorphism is also scrutinised. This is particularly interesting in regards to the parallels of my own research findings.

Berger goes on to talk about how it seems that domesticated animals and man were running parallel through time. Death brings them together. Does that mean that generally the killer and the killed join at some point? He touches on this in the common global beliefs "of the transmigration of souls" (Ibid. pp253).

Dualism and parallelism with our relationship with animals have however been lost is already discussed. Animals and their significance as metaphors in human language are also explored through the writings of Rousseau. Commonalities between creatures and humans have long been a source of wonder and explanation. We humans saw in animals similarities and desired attributes, as well as unfavourable and distasteful connections, amongst all our differences. Berger's intercession and observations of our own human origins are also made through metaphors and analogies of earlier writers and commentators. Way before Aristotle, before close scrutiny in the methodical, stringent and analytical ways of the Greek Academy, texts such as those of Homer, such as the Iliad, remark upon symbolic metaphors and semiological signifiers through the use of unemotional recounts of the death of both animals and humans on the battlefield. There is little distinction between the two as death is treated in just the same way for both. In a way, animals and humans are treated entirely equally (Ibid. 254).

Berger goes on to identify "anthropomorphism was the residue of the continuous use of the animal metaphor. In the last two centuries, animals have gradually disappeared. Today we live without them. And in this new solitude, anthropomorphism makes us doubly uneasy." (p255).

This observation is of particular importance because of its timing, in the mid-1970s. During that time there was much intellectual debate about the conditions that animals, both domesticated and those kept in the Zoological Gardens were being confined in. Moreover, creatures that were wild and free were also being recognised as subjects of persecution. Berger points out that Descartes and his division through dualism of the mind and the body, the division between the soul and the physical human body, led the way forward that as animals could not, therefore, have a soul, then they were nothing more than physical automatons like machines. The parallelism, the perceived mutual interconnected respect between animals and humans, and more importantly the actual connectedness understood by humans to animals, dissolve at this point.

Our assumed human elevation and dominance over animals, by "conquering" their individual powers, has been the general story for the last 250 or so years. References to animal behaviour and observations of their existence have become, what Berger terms "nostalgia", manifested as a development since the period of enlightenment. (Ibid. p255). It is only since the mid 20th-century that things have begun to change.  This concurs with Baker's observations and other early alarm sounders such as Rachel Carson, together with very many contemporary writers of the 1980s onwards.

In the next section, Berger starts to discuss the more modern phenomenon of the keeping of domestic pets. Originally, as already described, domestic animals invariably had some kind of particular product, whether it was meat, milk, eggs, fur or wool, or another useful by-product. Domestic pets, however, serve merely as companionship for the most part.  They perform little more than to establish the owner with a sense of control over another being (especially, I believe with dogs and their owners).

Rounding up the concept that humans have lost touch with animals as kinds of equals within the world, phenomena with which I also concur with Berger, that he says has only occurred over the last 150 or so years.  He demonstrates the disconnection between humans and animals by exploring the way that humans look at zoo animals.  Those imprisoned creatures that have been marginalised by humans to such an extent that when we look at them, they are unable to look back at us in any way approaching how they might look at us if they were truly wild and free.  Instead, they have been so conditioned to be looked at that their stereotypical behaviours of pacing at the edge of their domains become so repetitive (through acute boredom no doubt) that they have lost the capacity to either view us as potential prey or potential threat.  The whole experience for us humans, therefore, has become one of theatre or 'museum'.  He likens the zoo to an art gallery in this respect too, in that viewers pass along a conveyor of gaze in each animal enclosure, similar to the somewhat blank gaze of many visitors observing art objects and paintings.

Berger finishes off with a declaration that I interpret as 'the human to animal - animal to human' connection that we once had, is now irretrievably lost.


  • An excellent source of writing and reflection.  
  • The synergies with some of my own thoughts are more than apparent, and I will use this reference to greater effect within the essay.
  • A text of vital importance and widely recognised, its contents are as valid today as they were forty years ago when they were first written.


Berger, J. (1980). Why Look at Animals from About Looking, Berger, J. (1980). Pantheon Books, A division of Random House, London.   Cited in whole in Kalof, L. and Fitzgerald, A. (2007) The Animals Reader, pp 251- 261.  Retrieved from Google Scholar, 4th July 2017. At  https://itp.nyu.edu/classes/interspecies/texts/johnBerger.pdf
Berger J. (1972).  "Ways of Seeing" (Originally published in 1972, London, Penguin Books, 2008, Penguin Design Series edition).

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