Displaying Death and Animating Life Human-Animal Relations in Art, Science, and Everyday Life
by Jane C. Desmond
University of Chicago Press, 2016
Cloth: 978-0-226-14405-4 | Paper: 978-0-226-14406-1 | Electronic: 978-0-226-37551-9
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226375519.001.0001
ABOUT THIS BOOKAUTHOR BIOGRAPHYREVIEWSTABLE OF CONTENTS

ABOUT THIS BOOK

The number of ways in which humans interact with animals is almost incalculable. From beloved household pets to the steak on our dinner tables, the fur in our closets to the Babar books on our shelves, taxidermy exhibits to local zoos, humans have complex, deep, and dependent relationships with the animals in our ecosystems. In Displaying Death and Animating Life, Jane C. Desmond puts those human-animal relationships under a multidisciplinary lens, focusing on the less obvious, and revealing the individualities and subjectivities of the real animals in our everyday lives.

Desmond, a pioneer in the field of animal studies, builds the book on a number of case studies. She conducts research on-site at major museums, taxidermy conventions, pet cemeteries, and even at a professional conference for writers of obituaries. She goes behind the scenes at zoos, wildlife clinics, and  meetings of pet cemetery professionals. We journey with her as she meets Kanzi, the bonobo artist, and a host of other animal-artists—all of whom are preparing their artwork for auction. Throughout, Desmond moves from a consideration of the visual display of unindividuated animals, to mourning for known animals, and finally to the marketing of artwork by individual animals. The first book in the new Animal Lives series, Displaying Death and Animating Life is a landmark study, bridging disciplines and reaching across divisions from the humanities and social sciences to chart new territories of investigation.

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY

Jane C. Desmond is professor of anthropology and gender and women’s studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is the author of Staging Tourism, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

REVIEWS

“This is a wonderful book. Desmond’s writing moves between the scholarly and the personal, between the well-trained curiosity of the anthropologist and the deeply felt concern of an intimate friend in order to examine a range of practices from blockbuster exhibitions to marginalized memorials that address and engage interactions between human and non-human animal lives. In those practices she seeks to understand, and sometimes to change, the ways that non-human lives are and are not rendered meaningful, are and are not granted subjectivity. Indeed she reveals how animals are stripped of potential meaning and individuality in the human directed performances and displays of their bodily or species being and death.”
— Kari Weil, Wesleyan University

“The boundaries between humans and other animals have themselves many boundaries, many margins, places where what counts as proper animal life—and death—is contested and uncertain. In this spellbinding book, Desmond takes us to the odd ends of taxidermy, to the limits of human mourning for animal companions, and to the edges of dominant sensibilities about animal aesthetic expression. Displaying Death and Animating Life promises to rearrange dominant definitions and deliberations about the matter of animal agency.”
— Stefan Helmreich, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

“Desmond’s fascinating book focuses on our engagement with animals in the practices of everyday life and death. With a remarkably accessible writing style that will appeal to a broad readership, she takes up some of the most important but rarely investigated topics in our relationship with other animals, including death mourning practices, roadkill, and exhibitions. Displaying Death and Animating Life makes a valuable contribution to animal studies and the legitimization of the multispecies family as a social unit and will provoke much discussion on the myriad ways human and animal lives are intertwined in co-constitutive worlds.”
— Linda Kalof, Michigan State University, author of Looking at Animals in Human History

“An important and moving book. Reading it is a bit like catching an unexpected glimpse of yourself in a reflection and being worried about what you see. How is it that we remain, as a culture, so largely unreflective about animals and their place in our lives?”
— NPR

“This book is a unique source of ‘food for thought’ about the comparative value of human and nonhuman lives, and ultimately, the appropriate and inappropriate ways of displaying animal deaths. Through a series of selected anecdotes and case studies, the author takes a multidisciplinary approach to understudied areas within human-animal relationships, including museum exhibitions, burial and mourning practices, and artworks made by animals. A critical aspect of this work is the careful analysis of the various emotional and artistic expressions of animals’ afterlife across different human societies. . . . The overarching implications of this book are extensive, as they address the meaning of a diverse range of lives. Recommended.”
— Choice

TABLE OF CONTENTS

- Jane C. Desmond
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226375519.003.0001
[animals;animal studies;taxidermy;roadkill;kniship;animal mourning;animal art]
In the book’s introduction, Desmond explains the terminology she will use to describe relations involving humans and animals and provides an overview of the book’s tripartite structure. She discusses the challenges and particularities of the academic and scientific field of “animal studies”, as well as the functionality of experience and her own anxieties about what “animals” are actually involved in animal studies. Desmond wraps up the introduction with a general statement about the book’s purpose, and her hopes that it will help us understand how so many arenas of everyday life unfold in an embodied concert with animals. (pages 1 - 24)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Jane C. Desmond
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226375519.003.0002
[body displays;taxidermy;exhibitions;animal studies;postmortem exhibitions;museums;Body Worlds Exhibitions]
In this chapter, Desmond compares the phemomena of dead human and dead animal body displays and explores which aspects of the conventions of taxidermy are carried over into Dr. Gunther von Hagens’s Body Worlds exhibitions of plastinated human cadavers. She suggests that even though both display bodies in aesthetically framed ways, the Body Worlds exhibit is a form of “antitaxidermy” and this distinction is key to the exhibit’s success. Through her analysis, Desmond shows how notions of human specificity, universality, and social differentiation are inscribed in or on the body in ways that are fundamentally different from those of nonhuman animals. She also discusses taxidermy, which she argues is a distinctive way of human relating with dead animals that melds uniqueness and genericism. (pages 27 - 52)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Jane C. Desmond
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226375519.003.0003
[animals;exhibitions;animal studies;taxidermy;postmortem exhibitions;museums;Body Worlds Exhibitions]
In this chapter, Desmond analyses the Body Worlds exhibit and the Animal Inside Out exhibit at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry in terms of the arguments they present and their potential effects on viewers. She asks what is different between displays featuring human cadavers and those featuring dead animal bodies. Desmond argues that just as the human Body Worlds exhibits were, the animal exhibit is built on a series of omissions that construct its ultimate argument, but that these omissions differ from those that were essential to the human shows. Additionally, she discusses how the materialization of this newest exhibit takes place under a set of specific conditions of possibility, and those conditions are different for the human and the animal exhibits. (pages 53 - 78)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Jane C. Desmond
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226375519.003.0004
[mourning;pet cemeteries;ritual;grief;animal death;grievable lives]
In Chapter 4, Desmond discusses pet cemeteries and argues that we should regard them as sites of improvisatory, creative acts of mourning that draw on available ritual forms and social and political discourses, yet reconfigure them to chart new territories of public behavior. She suggests that this improvisation and creativity are both required and enabled by the marginalized status of those cemeteries and of the type of grief that they materialize, and argues that taking the actions of grieving pet lovers seriously helps us better theorize intersecting notions of human and animal subjectivities. People that bury their pets in cemeteries, Desmond asserts, are making the statement that animals are subjects with grievable lives of their own. (pages 81 - 100)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Jane C. Desmond
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226375519.003.0005
[grief;burial;cemeteries;animals;death;pet cemeteries;kinship]
In this chapter, Desmond explores the underlying beliefs enabling and constraining expressive grief in the contemporary United States. Focusing on concepts of grievability and the politics of burial practices and burial real estate, she argues that cemeteries, usually thought of as conservative, perpetual spaces, are emerging as a frontline battlefield in the war over changing notions of cross-species kinship and familial configurations. Desmond suggests that instead of merely writing history and political change in the granite of tombstones, we are also writing it in the upturned earth of graves. She asserts that by examining a recrafting of grave sites, we find a new politics of value articulated through the geographies of death and burial that occasionally even crosses the species line dividing humans and nonhumans. (pages 101 - 124)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Jane C. Desmond
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226375519.003.0006
[pet obituaries;obituaries;pets;mourning;animals;pet death]
In this chapter, Desmond analyses contemporary US debates over publishing pet obituaries in newspapers. She suggests that these obituaries raise multiple issues about the “appropriate” objects of mourning, the “right” to mourn publicly, and the ways that such public mourning both legitimates social relationships and writes individual lives and relationships into history. Pet obituaries, Desmond argues, are in fact assertive political acts because they contest denials of value, both of the animals whose lives are being remembered and of the humans wishing to engage in public acts of remembrance. Desmond discusses how these obituaries are also part of a wider context rearticulating human understandings of animal subjectivity across multiple realms. (pages 125 - 140)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Jane C. Desmond
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226375519.003.0007
[roadkill;animals;animal subjectivity;wildlife;artists]
In Chapter 7, Desmond examines roadkill, or the destruction of “wild” animals by automobiles. In contrast to the practices of mourning and remembrance described in previous chapters, humans engage in an immense process of forgetting when it comes to roadkill. Desmond questions why the conspicuous presence of roadkill is absent from public discourse, and unpacks the rhetorical strategies and ideologies used to render this enormous amount of animal carnage invisible. Desmond draws on ecological studies, anecdotal evidence, ecological writings, roadkill food sites, artists’ renderings, and popular publications to suggest that the status of roadkilled animals and of human relations to those animals is undergoing a shift. She argues that roadkilled animals are beginning to be accorded subjectivity, and publicly and privately grieved by some, especially artists. This process requires humans to attribute a notion of individuated life to wild animals. (pages 141 - 170)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Jane C. Desmond
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226375519.003.0008
[animal art;animals;artwork;art market;art value;zoos]
Chapter 8 investigates the phenomenon of “art by animals” as a counterpoint to the first part of the book, which focuses on the display of dead bodies and the tensions that emerge in social practices meant to attribute subjectivity to only some of those bodies as a prerequisite for mourning. Rather than focusing on dead bodies as before, Desmond examines the traces left by living animal bodies, activated and captivated in the transnational market for “art” by animals. In particular, she examines items that get designated as “artworks” when they record the physical trace of a specific animal body, such as the imprint of fish scales on paper. Desmond sketches the transnational contours of the market for this type of animal art and the implied continuum that positions the value of artworks along a scale of increasing capacity for “intent” demonstrated by the species producing the works, including seals, birds, and elephants. (pages 172 - 199)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Jane C. Desmond
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226375519.003.0009
[animals;animal art;artwork;primates;art value;apes;language;Kanzi;Koko]
In this chapter on “art” produced by nonhuman primates and its transnational market, Desmond explores the issues of representational art and how that categorization is used to raise the bar in humans’ evaluation of nonhuman animals’ intellectual capacities and our resultant moral obligations to them. Desmond retains an emphasis on understanding the creation, reception, and circulation of animal art products within the context of a specifically European-derived notion of art making and its contemporary linkage of notions of individual creativity, subjectivity, and visual skill. She cites the post-World War II rise of abstract art and abstract expressionism as a key prerequisite for the expansion of the animal art market overall. Special attention is paid to works produced by primates involved in human language studies, such as Kanzi and Koko. (pages 200 - 226)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Jane C. Desmond
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226375519.003.0010
[animals;animal studies;animal subjectivity;kinship]
In the conclusion, Desmond recounts the story of Blueboy, a stray parakeet she adopted, and ties her own experience to a discussion of the pet industry. She explores the ways in which pets have shaped her domestic life and have influenced her to modify her own behaviour in order to better accommodate them. Desmond offers these narratives as reminders that human relations with animals are highly individuated. She underscores the necessity of excavating the historical, social, and epistemological underpinnings of knowing, valuing, articulating and enacting human relations with nonhuman animals and closes with a suggestion that humans should seek to develop our capacity for granting subjectivity to nonhuman beings in order to transform our future relations with them. (pages 227 - 244)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online