More about the project

We will pursue selected aesthetic practices and transformations of animals in different places along the time axis 1600-2000.

First, we will examine the aesthetic processes that are involved in the standardisation and presentation of animals through text production, preparation of specimens, display technologies and breeding methods.  

Second, we will examine the locales where such transformations take place. These may include scientific institutions such as museums and laboratories, commercial enterprises where animals are transformed into trophies, the private spheres where they are displayed, as well as texts and pictures that circulate between these places.

Third, we will examine the changed role of animals as cultural signs during this period.

In total the project will answer the following research questions:

What connections do we find between standardisation and the visualization of animal natural objects, birds and mammals within scientific practices and everyday life? What role does aesthetics play in these practices, and which fields are the ideals taken from? Which conflicts are connected to the transformation of nature into cultural representations, and to which extent does aestheticization contribute to diminishing, neutralising or elevating such conflicts? How has the aestheticization of animals influenced their appreciation, both historically and in contemporary society?

To illuminate these issues culturally and scientifically we will analyse a wide range of sources: Natural history specimens, trophies, pictures, architectural drawings, manuals, minutes from meetings, annual reports and scientific and literary texts. The theory framework is taken from cultural analysis, literary theory and actor network theory.  

Relevance


By analysing empirical material taken from natural history museums and literature, as well as from everyday life, we will first explain the processes that render animals representations for scientific purposes as well as for social practices. Second, we will look for connections between natural history representations and the aestheticization of animals that occurs in everyday life. Here principles and ideals for the form that is the basis for the transformation of animals into objects will be a key area of study. Third, we will take a critical look at the aestheticization of animals to determine how this affects our appreciation of animals. This leads from a focus on form to a focus on power and control. By using aestheticization of animals as our path to demonstrating connecting lines between nature and culture that have for the most part been ignored in research, the project will promote dialogue between the natural science subjects and cultural subjects.

Background and knowledge status


In the 1700s the Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico wrote a thesis claiming that we can only have certain knowledge about man-made products because we ourselves have created them, while nature remains alien to us, and from this idea comes the many boundaries have been drawn in history and disciplines (Berlin 2000). Bearing this tradition in mind, the humanities have defined nature and natural science as their “Others”. The object of the humanities is man-made culture, the object of the natural sciences is nature. The humanities interpret meaning while the natural sciences discover and explain laws. In the field between these two traditions countless hybrids have arisen, as a number of phenomena must be understood as both culture and nature (Latour 1993, 2004). This project dealing with animals as objects and signs historicizes concepts of culture as well as of nature and their mutual relations. By focusing on aesthetic transformations of animals we intend to challenge the understanding of both cultural history and science history of their object fields, thus re-examining and questioning the self-understandings of both these academic fields. With this as our point of departure, the two disciplinary standpoints of cultural history and natural science history will meet in this project with the animals and their aestheticization as the common lens.

Animals are deeply incorporated in the culture and ways of the West, and they are part of a number of overriding practice fields, such as medicine, agriculture, aquaculture and nature husbandry. Historically, mankind's relation to animals can be studied as a lived empirical relation and by studying animals as symbols and representations in art, literature and popular culture. In the humanities and social subjects this has become a separate international research field (Becker and Bimmer 1991, Franklin 2006, Kete 1995, Ritvo 1987, Rothfels 2002a, Thomas 1986). The history of natural science has for its part increasingly moved from studying the hard natural science disciplines to becoming concerned with the cultural aspects of botany and zoology, as well as collection practices connected to these two disciplines (Daston 2004, Findlen 1996, Haraway 1989, Ogilvie 2006, Secord 1994). The meeting between the cultural history and natural science traditions will in our project contribute to our questioning of the obvious division of what is cultural and what is natural, what is the domain of the humanities and what is the domain of the natural sciences.

The theoretical premise behind the project is that social and cultural conventions influence how we sense and understand nature and natural objects (for example Jardine, Secord and Spary 1996), and conversely that nature and natural objects help constitute what we call culture.

Natural science historian Lorraine Daston has developed the thesis that nature was disenchanted as a function of modernity (Daston 1998). Animals lend themselves well as the objects of study to demonstrate new enchantment processes because they have been made into apparently neutral scientific objects, while they also have preserved their ambiguity as cultural representations. Consequently nature did not become neutral and free of values when it was illuminated by modern science, but how it was made into a cultural object changed.

Mankind's delimitation in relation to animals has constituted what should be human. This delimitation gains importance in several ways. Where we draw the line for our understanding of animals also determines how human culture must be understood. Does the line go at soul versus soulless, sensitivity versus cruelty, thought versus instinct? Where the boundaries are drawn will also determine how mankind deals with animals ethically, politically and financially. They will also decide which aesthetic transformations animals can be subjected to. The physiology of animal bodies has been the raw material for thinking about the inner human landscape, and has been explored and invested with expectations about finding cures against illnesses or the sources of life itself, from the vivisection of animals in the 1700s to today's industrial production of standardised experimental animals.

The transformations of animals into natural history objects, whether as zoological specimens, as
elements in dioramas or as illustrations in natural history books, teach us to see animals as natural and detached from their symbolic content. However, since the later most familiar transformations were often performed by artists with knowledge of nature, a category that includes the craft of taxidermy, or artistic natural scientists, they may also be characterised as an aesthetic practice whose result is that the animals appear as both nature and as cultural signs (Hart-Davis
2004, Mezzalira 2002). Literature scholar Christoph Irmscher's (1999) close reading of central North American pre-Darwinist natural histories has shown that these express a poetry that enables us to uncover how contemporary cultural values and preferences left impressions in natural science. Bearing this in mind, the project will examine how social and cultural issues have affected apparently natural presentations of animals and in turn influenced the appreciation of the animals.

Live animals also have a cultural history that shows that they have been changed and directed, appreciated and discarded based on changing aesthetic preferences. The staging has first been undertaken by means of architectonical facilities such as aviaries, menageries and zoological gardens (Baratay and Hardoin-Fugier 2002, Rothfels 2002). Second, the animals themselves have been changed and designed by systematic selection and breeding with species that have been highly appreciated on the basis of aesthetic criteria (Ritvo 1987, Svanberg 2001, Thorsen 2001). Such aesthetic design of live beings means control and the exercise of power (Tuan 1984). The aim of the aestheticizing practice connected to, for example, the breeding of dogs, cats and poultry has been to breed the highest number of different breeds, at times at the cost of the animals’ ability to survive as a species. The opposite applies to laboratory animals, where the aim is standardisation of the species (Rader 2004).

Natura morta and natura viva in art history designate genres that display renditions of dead or alive animals and objects from the plant kingdom. The distinction between what is alive and what is dead is not absolute here, as live nature has been used as contrasting elements in natura morta compositions and vice versa (Gregori 2003, Koslow 1995). In a similar way, by having a focus on the aesthetic transformations of animals into natural objects and signs, we will examine and question where the line is drawn between live and dead animals: the stuffed lion depicts life, the poodle with the lion-cut has been reified.

The aestheticization of dead animals points to the nature the live animal represents, its natural habitat, and the many cultural interpretations the same animal may be part of. The aestheticization of the live animal problematizes mankind's control of and manipulation of nature.

Research questions


The aim of the project is to examine relations between nature, culture and aesthetics. Through five subprojects we will examine aestheticization in fields where it is not expected to be found, and we will look for moral, ethical and political conflicts that are inherent or triggered by such aesthetic trans­formations.

We will pursue selected aesthetic practices and transformations of animals in different places along the time axis 1600-2000. First, we will examine the aesthetic processes that are involved in the standardisation and presentation of animals through text production, preparation of specimens, display technologies and breeding methods. Second, we will examine the locales where such transformations take place. These may include scientific institutions such as museums and laboratories, commercial enterprises where animals are transformed into trophies, the private spheres where they are displayed, as well as texts and pictures that circulate between these places. Third, we will examine the changed role of animals as cultural signs during this period. In total the project will answer the following research questions:

– What connections do we find between standardisation and the visualization of animal natural objects, birds and mammals within scientific practices and everyday life?

– What role does aesthetics play in these practices, and which fields are the ideals taken from?

– Which conflicts are connected to the transformation of nature into cultural representations, and to which extent does aestheticization contribute to diminishing, neutralising or elevating such conflicts?

– How has the aestheticization of animals influenced their appreciation, both historically and in contemporary society?

To illuminate these issues culturally and scientifically we will analyse a wide range of sources: Natural history specimens, trophies, pictures, architectural drawings, manuals, minutes from meetings, annual reports and scientific and literary texts. The theory framework is taken from cultural analysis, literary theory and actor network theory.

Selected bibliography


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Thorsen, Liv Emma 2001: Hund! Fornuft og følelser. Pax Forlag: Oslo
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Published Mar. 17, 2010 10:46 AM - Last modified June 11, 2010 1:52 PM