Electric Animal: Toward a Rhetoric of Wildlife

Akira Mizuta Lippit


Differentiation from animals helped to establish the notion of a human being, but the disappearance of animals now threatens that identity. This is the argument underlying Electric Animal, a probing exploration of the figure of the animal in modern culture. Akira Mizuta Lippit shows us the animal as a crucial figure in the definition of modernity—essential to developments in the natural sciences and technology, radical transformations in modern philosophy and literature, and the advent of psychoanalysis and the cinema.

Moving beyond the dialectical framework that has traditionally bound animal and human being, Electric Animal raises a series of questions regarding the idea of animality in Western thought. Can animals communicate? Do they have consciousness? Are they aware of death? By tracing questions such as these through a wide range of texts by writers ranging from Friedrich Nietzsche to Jacques Derrida, Sigmund Freud to Vicki Hearne, Lewis Carroll to Franz Kafka, and Sergei Eisenstein to Gilles Deleuze, Lippit arrives at a remarkable thesis, revealing an extraordinary logical consensus in Western thought: animals do not have language and hence cannot die.

The animal has, accordingly, haunted thought as a form of spectral and undead being. Lippit demonstrates how, in the late nineteenth century, this phantasmic concept of animal being reached the proportions of an epistemological crisis, engendering the disciplines and media of psychoanalysis, modern literature, and cinema, among others. Against the prohibitive logic of Western philosophy, these fields opened a space for rethinking animality. Technology, usually thought of in opposition to nature, came to serve as the repository for an unmournable animality-a kind of vast wildlife museum.
   
A highly original work that charts new territory in current debates over language and mortality, subjectivity and technology, Electric Animal brings to light fundamental questions about the status of representation—of the animal and of ourselves—in the age of biomechanical reproduction.

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