"Cachorros mortos": Biopolitics of Human-Animal Conviviality
Global Convivial Forum
Jörg Dünne (Humboldt Universität zu Berlin / Mecila Senior Fellow 2022)
Brazilian artist Nuno Ramos’ work exemplifies how biopolitical exclusion enables interspecific conviviality and makes unseen aspects of urban life visible.
Both Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s anthropological studies on Amerindian perspectivism and Philippe Descola’s Non-Western ontologies claim that the ways of associating human and non-human forms of existence in “animistic” collectives differ fundamentally from those in Western “naturalism”. But are such alternative forms of collectives equally relevant for contemporary urban (and rural) forms of interspecific coexistence? And how can different possibilities of constituting collectives between humans and animals be described, even under the conditions of naturalism and its consequences?
In contrast to animism, where the association of the human and the non-human takes place on the level of interiority, naturalism according to Philippe Descola attributes to humans and animals a common bodily substrate. This can also be described as zoé, in Giorgio Agamben’s terms. “Naked” biological life, according to Agamben, is split off from social life (bios) in the modern Western model of thinking human-animal relations. Around 1800 at the latest, but perhaps earlier, biological life becomes an object of political action. This is the beginning of what Michel Foucault calls “biopolitics”.
Biopolitics is also the starting point of Gabriel Giorgi’s reflections on alternative interspecific forms of coexistence under the conditions of biopolitical regimes. In Formas comunes: animalidad, cultura, biopolítica (2014), Giorgi assumes that such alternative forms of proximity between animals and humans, which are not limited to metaphorical relations of resemblance, are present to a great extent in contemporary art and literature in Latin America. According to Giorgi, however, biopolitical regimes, contrary to what one might expect, do not necessarily contribute to reinforcing the “naturalistic” animal/human distinction but rather draw boundaries that deconstruct the nature/culture distinction from within. Thus, even within the framework of what anthropologists like Descola would call the ontology of naturalism, new alliances of humans and animals can be conceived, which, with regard to the classification of animals, lie beyond the opposition of cultural “domestication” on the one hand and supposedly natural “wildness” on the other:
[L]a oposición ontológica entre humano y animal, que fue una matriz de muchos sueños civilizatorios del humanismo, es reemplazada por la distribución y el juego biopolítico, es decir arbitrario e inestable, entre persona y no-persona, entre vidas reconocibles y legibles socialmente, y vidas opacas al orden jurídico de la comunidad (p. 30).
With Roberto Esposito, Giorgi argues in this context for an “affirmative” understanding of biopolitics, “donde se imaginan y se piensan formas de vida que eludan la complicidad o la colaboración con los regímenes de violencia que dictan esas jerarquías al interior de lo viviente” (p. 27). The question is how such spaces for alternative forms of life can be described and what function art and literature have in this context.
A possible answer to this comes from Jens Andermann in his reflections on contemporary “bio-art” in Latin America. In order to take into account the permeability of the human/animal opposition and, at the same time, the nature/culture distinction, Andermann proposes the notion of the “unspecific” (lo inespecífico), which he understands in a double sense. Just as it makes no sense in the face of modern biopolitical regimes of the living to maintain fixed boundaries between different species and to insist on the demarcation of human life from other forms of the living, so too art must renounce its autonomous differentiation of specific genres or formats, and itself become “unspecific” in a way that combines, for example, bioscientific experimentation and artistic installation. Andermann gives an example of what such a conception of art can look like in the animal labyrinths of the Argentine artist Luis Fernando Benedit, who designed exhibitions in the late 1960s and early 1970s that resembled scientific experimental arrangements with living animals.
Following Andermann, one can describe a “vector de inespecificación” that serves to question existing collectives between human and non-human life forms. However, such an aesthetics of the “unspecific”, which is closely connected to basic ideas of New Materialism regarding the “activity” of matter, possibly gives away the chance to describe historically shaped constellations of certain interspecific relations, e.g. between dogs and humans, on the one hand, and on the other hand certain literary or artistic formats and genre traditions (such as the picaresque), in which this constellation is shaped into scenes of particular conciseness. Therefore, as an alternative to following Andermann into the aesthetics of the “unspecific”, it could be equally promising to deal with the interspecific aspect of human-animal relations and with some quite specific aesthetic and especially literary forms and formats that such relations can assume.
To remain for a moment with artistic explorations of the interspecific relations, I would like to return to a scene of the relationship between people and dogs, as examined in Gabriel Giorgi’s commentary on the work of a Brazilian contemporary artist, namely, Nuno Ramos’ Monólogo para um cachorro morto. This is a performance (and later also an installation artwork in the museum) in which the artist delivers a kind of funeral speech recorded on a tape for a dog that has been run over on a busy street in São Paulo. To play the recording, he goes (not without taking the risk of being run over himself) in situ, i.e. to the street itself, where the dog’s dead body is lying.
By not speaking directly to the dog, however, and instead letting a recorded voice speak to it, Ramos introduces an interruption of the “proximity communication” between two living beings communicating with each other. At the same time, this shift of communication to a repeatable form that can be shared with others (as seen in the exhibition of this performance in the museum installation) may also present animistic features through the invention of a ritual of mourning for a non-human companion.
According to Giorgi, this unusual way of mourning for a dog in Nuno Ramos’ Monólogo mostly makes the common biopolitical treatment of the relationship between life and death visible. Here, a corpse is mourned whose life is not usually deemed worthy of grief under the prevailing biopolitical regime because it is not considered part of a social bios. Another expression of the ungrievability of naked life, where the corpse of the street dog is paradigmatic, is that it is an animal without a name or other individualising features. Usually, such living beings do not leave the sphere of gender-neutrality designed in the English language by the pronoun “it” (instead of “he”/”she” for pet dogs or other domestic animals who have a name, an individual biography, and whose sex is known); neither do they usually have the right to a funeral which also presupposes a name that can be attached to a process of memory. Thus, Ramos’ mourning for a nameless street dog renders this cachorro not only a specified but a specific living being. Therefore, these are primal scenes of interspecific conviviality that, together with other scenes like sharing food, playing together, but also guarding etc., could be considered constitutive of a common history of humans and dogs as “companion species”, in Donna Haraway’s terminology.
As Giorgi’s analysis also points out, not only after its death, but already during its lifetime, the cachorro morto in Ramos’ performance/installation quite obviously lacks a place of its own in the city: “Desde el límite del animal, su presencia espectral y fuera de lugar, sin espacio propio, se ilumina la ciudad como dispositivo de gestión de movimientos, y por lo tanto de relaciones entre cuerpos y entre modos de relación” (p. 236).
Ramos’ Cachorro morto thus encourages us to perceive the ephemeral presence of a huge number of street dogs that inhabit urban space. From the perspective of an observer who has their own more or less fixed place in the city, such an ephemeral presence is expressed, for example, in the choice of a certain designation attributed to these dogs, namely the qualification as cão vadio (Portuguese) or perro vago (Spanish), i.e. as roaming dogs without a fixed place – or, alternatively, in such places for which the French language reserves the term terrain vague, that is, a terrain without a clear shape (from the Latin vagus) or that is empty, unoccupied (vacuus). The indeterminacy of such urban non-places where the cães vadios or perros vagos stay is constituted, as with humans, by the normative expectation of a fixed residence and an accompanying registration at a particular address or with a certain owner. Those who do not meet this expectation become, again, according to Giorgi, an opaque, indeterminate form of life in the biopolitically organised urban spaces – this is also a possible meaning of vagus.
Yet, in line with Giorgi’s thesis, it is precisely these urbanist-biopolitical processes of exclusion that can also potentially lead to new interspecific processes of association; and to the constitution of collectives that affect not only dogs but also people living on the “opaque” side of urban spatial orders. Thus, there seems to be a solidarity of the “placeless”, i.e., unhoused people who live with dogs on the street, sometimes developing such fixed forms of conviviality that often seem more important than being admitted to a homeless shelter, where dogs are not allowed.
Without describing this as a positive model for conviviality in a normative sense, this example shows how de facto biopolitical exclusion processes make interspecific practices of conviviality possible. They thus produce alternative – and quite specific – collectives between humans and dogs in contemporary biopolitical regimes, which create visibility for the forms of urban life that otherwise often remain opaque.
Cover image: Nuno Ramos, Monólogo para um cachorro morto, 2008, 2010.
Note: The following reflections are the slightly revised version of an entry in my research blog Quiltro Chronicles during my fellowship at Mecila in 2022 where I am working on a project on “Street Dogs and Interspecific Convivialities in Latin America”. I would like to thank Joaquim Toledo Jr. for encouraging me to publish it in the Mecila weblog and Puo-An Wu Fu for correcting the text.
Giorgio Agamben (2003): The Open: Man and Animal, trans. Kevin Attell, Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Jens Andermann (2018): Tierras en trance: Arte y naturaleza después del paisaje, Santiago de Chile: Metales pesados.
Philippe Descola (2005): Par-delà nature et culture, Paris: Gallimard.
Gabriel Giorgi (2014): Formas comunes: animalidad, cultura, biopolítica, Buenos Aires: Eterna Cadencia.
Donna Haraway (2003): The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness, Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.
Thiago Köche (2020): O afeto e a rua (documentary), Porto Alegre, 15’.
Nuno Ramos (2008/2010): Monologo para um cachorro morto.