Marking Territories

Claire Molloy*



From the Homeric gods of Ancient Greece to the digitally rendered mouse in Stuart Little (1999), cultural narratives have been saturated with anthropomorphised entities. Not restricted to textual form, the practice of anthropomorphism pervades widespread cross-cultural activity from religious worship to the study of nonhuman animal behaviour attracting significant critical attention. The first appraisal of anthropomorphic practice is found in Fragments where Xenophanes’ (c. 560 – 478 B.C.E.) scathing critique of the Homeric texts argues:

But mortals suppose that the gods are born (as they themselves are), and that they wear man's clothing and have human voice and body.
But if cattle or lions had hands, so as to paint with their hands and produce works of art as men do, they would paint their gods and give them bodies in form like their own-horses like horses, cattle like cattle.
Homer and Hesiod attributed to the gods all things which are disreputable and worthy of blame when done by men; and they told of them many lawless deeds, stealing, adultery, and deception of each other. (Xenophones, Fragments, 5-9).

Xenophanes’ claims articulate an early dissatisfaction with the practice of attributing nonhuman entities with human characteristics, an aspect of anthropomorphism that gains particular resonance in subsequent historical and discursive contexts. As such, the capabilities of anthropomorphic activity to complicate simple binarisms of human/nonhuman or human/inhuman, mean that anthropomorphism often emerges in discursive struggles to preserve ontological security and the taxonomic privilege of the category ‘human’. Predicated upon the notion of particular ‘characteristics’ being uniquely human, anthropomorphism is then inextricably linked to discourses of humanness, its conduct located within spaces of cultural anxiety and ambivalence at the breach between human and nonhuman boundaries.

At particular historical moments ‘humanness’ has evinced major discursive shifts where the ‘proper human’ has been exposed as a problematic category and entities on the margins of humanness have elicited cultural anxiety. In a contemporary context the relationship between ‘humanness’ and the body offers liminal spaces where competing discourses expose hybrid entities, disrupt the category of ‘human’ and anthropomorphism becomes apparent. This article attempts to map one such area of liminality, at the moment when the human body is in crisis and examine the relevance of the discourse of anthropomorphism in relation to cultural anxieties about contemporary nonhuman animal bodies suggesting that certain technocentric discourses articulating the dissolution of boundaries between ‘previously incompatible systems of meaning’ (Balsamo, 1995, p.215) exacerbate a schism between human and nonhuman animals.

The intent here then is threefold; to offer an assessment of the contemporary conduct of anthropomorphism as a discourse predicated upon notions of humanness; to propose anthropomorphism as a liminal discourse unrecoverable into simple binarisms and thus offering resistance to, and supporting traditional anthropocentric hierarchies; to problematise the rhetoric of recent technologically focussed discourses. This article is not an attempt to recover anthropomorphic activity into debates on proposed merits or limitations but rather to examine the contemporary conduct of anthropomorphism underpinned by two notions relating to ‘discourse’. The first draws on Michel Foucault’s conception of discourse as a potentially ambivalent construction. Foucault writes:

Discourses are not once and for all subservient to power or raised up against it, any more than silences are. We must make allowances for the complex and unstable process whereby discourse can be both an instrument and an effect of power, but also a hindrance, a stumbling block, a point of resistance and a starting point for an opposing strategy’ (Foucault, 1990, pp.100-101).

Articulating the multiple engagement of discourse in power/knowledge relationships, Foucault implies the possibility for discourse to resist and support particular dominant strategies. As such, anthropomorphism oscillates between a disruption to the uniqueness of a discourse of ‘properly human’ whilst offering possibilities for the restitution of the category through the reconstruction of anthropomorphism as ‘erroneous’. This article begins by accepting that, despite contrary assertions of postmodernism, myths of objective rationality underpin a continuing modernist logic informing broader Western socio-cultural understandings of both human and nonhuman animal. These entities are, at least in part, constituted by sets of scientific knowledge. Accordingly, certain scientific disciplines1 inform a general Western understanding of anthropomorphism as erroneous, primitive or ‘unscientific’. This characterisation of anthropomorphic activity echoes negative appraisals from early Greek theological debates including Xenophanes’ and, later, Platonic critiques of Homeric anthropomorphism. Furthermore, the Platonic critiques evinced a shift from anthropomorphic activity located in a theological context, to an articulation of anthropomorphism as an aspect of children’s fictional narratives, further compounding the negative associations of attributing human characteristics to nonhuman entities.2 Platonic concerns about the fictional status of anthropomorphism underwrote a set of broader anxieties about the status of morality, its relationship to democracy and political reformation of the Athenian state. Thus anthropomorphism can be seen to emerge historically at the intersection of multiple discourses embedded in the politics of Ancient and Classical Greece and attempts to disrupt Homeric authority.3

The notion of ‘locating’ a discourse of anthropomorphism introduces the second concept underpinning this account that adopts a notion of ‘outside’ developed by Homi Bhabha in The Location of Culture. From this, it is possible to articulate the context within which anthropomorphism can be seen to emerge accompanying moments of anxiety or trauma. Bhabha argues:

‘How are we to understand the notion of falling ‘outside’ in relation to the discourse of panic? I want to suggest that we understand this ‘outside’ not in simple spatial terms but as constitutive of meaning and agency. The ‘outside event’ could also be the unacknowledged liminality or ‘margin’ of a discourse… where meaning is undecideable, and the subject of the discourse split and doubled…’ (Bhabha, 1997, p.206).

Accordingly, the anthropomorphic offers the ‘nonhuman other’ agency by reconstituting ‘animal’ or ‘god’ as an active subjective agent on the margins of a discourse of ‘humanness’. The disruptions to boundaries between human and ‘nonhuman animal other’ expose the limits of discourses, problematising systems of meaning, initiating ‘panic’ and cultural anxiety. Within contemporary circulating discourses the anthropomorphic occupies a liminal space, offering possibilities for the reiteration of traditional boundaries by appropriating a modernist anthropocentric logic articulating the erroneous nature of anthropomorphism and the rebel politics of ascribing agency to nonhuman animals.4

In marking out the contemporary territory of ‘human’, discourses of posthumanism and the technologically driven rhetoric of the ‘cyborg’ threaten traditional notions of consciousness or corporeal distinctiveness. These technocentric discourses have complicated the category of ‘properly human’ revealing margins of exclusivity based on notions of corporeal ‘normality’. As Jane Goodall (1999) notes, once these boundaries are breached, cultural concerns about the historically ‘naturalised body’ emerge; ‘The prospect of tampering with natural selection in the human is one heavily invested with cultural anxiety’ (Goodall, 1999, p. 150). ‘Tampering’ with the body in posthuman and cyborg discourses implies some use of technology that may be considered as a joining of biological and technological. Anthropomorphism emerges at this juncture articulating both the possibility of shared human/machinic characteristics but also reasserting traditional anthropocentric notions of the category of ‘animal’. Homogenising nonhuman animal and human into the cybernetically defined ‘organism’ has emerged as an erasure of the category of ‘animal’ in subsequent discourses substituting instead the simplified binary of human/ machine. Anthropomorphism problematises this reductionism and so it is argued here that, whilst discourses of posthumanism disrupt the boundary of human, complicating the notion of anthropomorphism and distinctly human characteristics, posthumanism also re-establishes the dominant category of human as distinct from ‘animal’ by collapsing both classifications into the category of ‘organism’ which is then necessarily re-written as ‘human’ within the discourse.


The anthropomorphic problem

‘Goethe has epigrammatically remarked that “man never realises how anthropomorphic he is,” and the positive scientist who is supposed to regard all tendencies to anthropomorphism as relics of savage thought is probably no exception to this general rule… The “ taint” of anthropomorphism is therefore upon them, but such a realization may merely lead the scientist to be thankful “that he is not as other men are”’ (Wheeler, Anthropomorphism and Science, 1916, p.12).

There exists, in Western culture, a tendency to avoid anthropomorphism as it implies an irrational or ‘un-scientific’ understanding of phenomena. The term is frequently appropriated as a ‘blanket’ negation of actions, comments or assertions that imply or attribute ‘human characteristics’ to nonhuman entities. In certain areas of Western culture, to anthropomorphise is considered a ‘systematic categorical mistake’ (Spada, 1997, p.38), ‘an obvious, major error’ (Kennedy, 1992, p.159) or ‘a form of intellectual laziness’ (Davis, 1997, p. 336). Criticisms and debates concerning the anthropomorphic tendency stem from areas of study such as philosophy (Spada), anthropology, psychology (Davis) biology and behaviourism (Kennedy) where the validity, nature and legitimacy of anthropomorphism is closely scrutinised. Whilst particular scientific discourses find the ascription of human characteristics to nonhuman entities interminably fallacious, anthropomorphism also emerges where taxonomic legitimacy of the classification ‘human’ is under threat.

Anthropomorphism breaches contemporary Western ontological security and ‘specieist’5 determinations of boundaries between human and nonhuman animals whilst retaining overtones of childishness, primitive animism and a lack of cultural sophistication. Fisher (1990) elaborates on the careful avoidance and embarrassment attached to the anthropomorphic statement and the obligation to evade any allegation of attributing cognitive or emotional states to nonhuman animals claiming ‘Even those who favor animal rights try to avoid being accused of it’ (Fisher in Bekoff and Jamieson, 1990, p.96). In other words, it is implied, and on occasion made explicit, that anthropomorphism invalidates the political legitimacy of certain social groups.

The extent to which anthropomorphism assumes a link with primitive systems of belief is considered briefly by Fisher (1990) and Caporael (1986) who relate its theological context to the separation of Christian doctrine from pagan religions and erroneous causal explanations derived from attributing ‘natural’ phenomena such as the wind, moon or stars, with human characteristics (Fisher, 1990, p96-97) (Caporael, 1986, p.215). Caporael asserts there is a commonly held belief that anthropomorphism is a relic of archaic civilisations now overcome by ‘the complex functioning of contemporary technological society’ but continues saying that, whilst finding few proponents, anthropomorphism pervades many areas of contemporary culture to such an extent, there is widespread failure to recognise activity as anthropomorphic (Caporael, 1986, p215-216).

The clandestine nature of anthropomorphism elicits great concern within the field of animal behaviourism. J.S Kennedy (1990) argues that due to a lack of awareness there is an increased susceptibility in the discipline toward an activity that has been considered ‘scientifically disreputable’ (Dunbar cited in Kennedy, 1990, p.5). In offering an explanation of the tendency for humans to anthropomorphise nonhuman animals, Kennedy argues it is innate and culturally prescribed whilst being scientifically proscribed. Proposing that anthropomorphic thinking is culturally instilled during childhood,6 Kennedy also suggests it is part of the ‘hereditary make-up’ that has allowed humans to predict and control nonhuman animals (Kennedy, 1990, p.5) adding that this so-called ‘nature and nurture’ induced tendency toward anthropomorphic interpretation ‘is a drag on the scientific study of the causal mechanisms’ (Kennedy, 1990, p.5). Kennedy’s arguments present two tenets of anthropomorphic criticism; the first asserts the non-neutrality of language thus compounding the anthropomorphic ‘threat’, the second criticism isolates positivistic methodology thus exposing anthropomorphism as a categorical mistake. This argument implies a distinction between observational and theoretical language attributing amorphic positioning to particular theoretical discourses whilst observational language is plagued by the spectre of innate anthropomorphism, further exposing a tension in the relationship between discourses of science and those of ‘common language’. This point is expounded by Eileen Crist (1999) who examines linguistic mediums and the rendering of nonhuman animal life, arguing that a paradox exists between ‘ordinary’ and ‘technical’ language constituting nonhuman animals as either acting subjects or natural objects (p.1-2). Crist claims that through comparative studies of language use in the behavioural sciences, portrayals of nonhuman animal life can ‘produce extremely different effects on the reader’s understanding’ (p.3) further claiming that everyday language is a language of purposive human action. When used with regard to nonhuman animal life, everyday language introduces features of human action to the realm of nonhuman animals. This, Crist proposes, introduces subjectivity to the nonhuman animal world and constitutes actions as ‘meaningful, authored and continuous’ (p.4, emphasis in original). Nonhuman animals are represented, through ordinary language, as sharing meaningful action with the human world with an underlying implication of nonhuman animal mentality. Crist and Kennedy offer differing accounts of the relationship between nonhuman animal agency and narrative, however both rely on an underpinning theme of the Western cultural privilege afforded to forms of mentality or consciousness.

Denied intellectual respectability in many quarters, Western culture has determined and constructed the limits of a discourse of anthropomorphism. According to Asquith (1997), the limits of the discourse depend upon culturally prescribed definitions of humanness and resultant taxonomic systems.7 Asquith suggests that the relationship between language- metaphorical, ‘ordinary’ or ‘scientific’ (Asquith, 1999, p.23)- and humanness continues to propose the legitimacy of rational Cartesian logic. However, as Diana Fuss (1996) maintains, contemporary notions of what it is to be human have never been more difficult to define as the category of ‘human’ becomes increasingly fragile in the light of ‘posthuman’ debates and proposed obsolescence of the material body. Fuss adds:

‘The political stakes of this pre-eminently philosophical question today pose themselves with special urgency, as debates over the significance of genetic surgery, virtual reality, reproductive technology, artificial intelligence, and other forms of “posthuman” reconstruction dramatically disorganize traditional Enlightenment conceptions of the human.’ (Fuss, 1996, p.1)

The lines of distinction between human and ‘other’ are no longer easily drawn by Cartesian assertions, as challenges to what were previously rigid taxonomies underwrite a threat to anthropocentricity. It would appear that, despite a Western commitment to rational thought and objective reasoning, anthropomorphising nonhuman entities is a pervasive cultural activity that technological advancement appears unable to stem. Recent progress in the areas of Artificial Intelligence (AI), robotics, organ transplantation8 and body modification have effectively muddied the waters of human distinctiveness. Language, consciousness, rationality or possession of a ‘soul’ have entered contested arenas of the uniquely ‘human’ and, without a definitive category of ‘humanness’, singularly human characteristics have become ambiguous at best.

When boundaries, whether physical or metaphysical are breached, there is often a perceived threat to safety. It has been argued (Bhabha, 1994) that the moment when conflicting discourses touch and find hybrid form, there is a moment of panic whilst, similarly, Fuss (1996: 3) claims that it is the state of being ‘almost human’ that causes the greatest anxiety. The disturbance caused by hybridity, the disruption incited by the boundary entity or the insecurity induced by the unclassifiable have opened up a plethora of dialogues on the nature of cyborgs, women, slaves, children and nonhuman animals (Fuss, 1996). The discourse of anthropomorphism is constructed through identical cultural ambivalence as mutations of the category ‘human’ lock anthropomorphic activity into a complex multiplicity of discursive states. Anxieties surrounding ‘otherness’ collapse into equivocal states of similitude and difference when expropriated from simple binarisms of ‘human’ and ‘nonhuman’ in the anthropomorphic moment. Anthropomorphism is thus situated in the spaces between categories of human and nonhuman animal, human and machine, human and object, human and god. Where these classifications touch, cultural anxiety reveals the extent of social unease felt at the erosion of traditional taxonomic positions. As part of a broader set of Western cultural attitudes,9 anthropomorphism presents itself here as a problematic discourse, promising both the restitution of existing category definitions and the possibility of their further dissolution. The anthropomorphic statement is employed in the service of rationality as a category mistake, the principal opposition being in the methodological inaccuracy of attributing human characteristics to nonhuman entities. However, anthropomorphism, as a practice, is played out in cultural ambivalence toward nonhuman animal bodies, symptomatic of contemporary notions concerning the crisis of the human body.


The ‘body’ problem

The territory of humanness has become heavily contested in recent years as boundary entities, such as the cyborg, have problematised traditional taxonomies of the organic and technological. Socialist-feminist critiques offered a radical rethink of technological bodies and postmodern theory further challenged Cartesian authority disputing claims to the universalism of rational knowledge. The ‘body’ emerged thus from critical discourses of the late twentieth century as a complex social, cultural and natural entity. Discussions of difference have not been limited to technological/biological considerations but have drawn into focus the previously established discourses of ‘animal otherness’. Uniquely endowed with rational thought, the Cartesian separation between human and nonhuman animal had declared that the ‘perfection of the human mind’ distinguished the human species from the ‘brutes’ (Descartes [Haldane & Ross], 1997, p.72). However, human/machine and human/’animal’ dichotomies found a ‘common denominator in the cybernetic paradigm, and more recently, the cyborg discourse.

In the ‘Manifesto for Cyborgs’ Donna Haraway (1991) argued for pleasure in the destruction of boundaries claiming that whilst the cyborg disrupted and disturbed the dualism of organism and machine, it offered the opportunity of liberation from a gendered politics of domination and oppression. Haraway contested that the cyborg entity emerged at the biologically-deterministic classificatory disruption between human and nonhuman animal. ‘The cyborg appears in myth precisely where the boundary between human and animal is transgressed’ (Haraway, 1991, p.152). The cyborg entity promised to dislocate the boundaries between technological and biological that had been strongly coupled to a mind/body hierarchy, forcing the privileged category of human to redefine its borders. Haraway’s contention that the distinction between human and nonhuman animals had collapsed only to emerge as an object of knowledge classified by biological and evolutionary theory as ‘organism’ does not attest to an uncontested boundary across the sciences, or in wider social discourses. Whilst Haraway argued ‘Movements for animal rights are not irrational denials of human uniqueness; they are a clear-sighted recognition of connection across the discredited breach of nature and culture’, the discourse of animal rights is clearly resisted by industrial practices of ‘meat’ production and medical experimentation in advanced capitalist societies of the West. Furthermore, the politics of animal rights tends, in its efforts to avoid anthropomorphism, to reproduce morality as a specifically human characteristic effectively undermining Haraway’s notion of a human/nonhuman animal connection. The conceptual understanding of the ‘organism’ as an object of knowledge in specific scientific discourses may have collapsed the distinction between human and nonhuman animal however, the material social relationships between human and nonhuman animal remain fraught with territory disputes. From the cyborg discourse the ‘body’ does, however, emerge as both a conceptual and material entity and it is the peculiarity of rewriting the body within contemporary society that reintroduces the liminal spectre of anthropomorphism.

Haraway is not alone in suggesting human and nonhuman animal boundaries lack relevance in post-Darwinian eras. Species continuity has become a feature of cyborg rhetoric distilling the reductive cybernetics discourse, with reference to Norbert Weiner’s theories of communication and control, to statements of ‘human’, ‘animal’ and ‘machine’ informational similitude. Arguing for recognition of the revolutionary and often utopian aspects of the cyborg, critical assessment of the cybernetic paradigm has not reproduced traditional distinctions between human and nonhuman animal, but erased the ‘animal other’ altogether. This paradigmatic shift has maintained taxonomic exclusivity in cultural theory as the developing discursive articulations of post-human embraced the human/machine schism at the expense of the classification ‘animal’. N. Katherine Hayles points out that the Macy Conference on Cybernetics witnessed

a theory of communication and control applying equally to animals, humans, and machines… The result of this breathtaking enterprise was nothing less than a new way of looking at human beings. Henceforth, humans were to be seen primarily as information-processing entities who are essentially similar to intelligent machines’ (Hayles, 1999, p.7).

Cyborgian cultural rhetoric, whilst embracing the ontological revelation of cybernetics has tended to offer an impoverished human/machine dualism, rewriting Weiner’s- already reductive- tripartite schema. The nonhuman animal is extinguished or, at best, an implied category within the ontological classification of ‘organism’.

Technologically inspired categories of humanness have emerged during the latter part of the last century defined by socially and culturally determined conditions of embodiment, and modifications to the material body. Emerging from mainstream technological practices and theoretical critiques, ‘humanness’ became embodied, culturally inscribed and socially regulated, disorienting the division between nature and culture. Anne Balsamo claims that the contemporary human body has been ideologically situated as a boundary concept ‘to reassure a technologically over-stimulated imagination that culture/man will prevail in his encounters with nature’ (Balsamo, 1995, p.216). Whilst human and nonhuman animals are both ‘things of nature’, technological bodies are ideologically managed into traditional hierarchical categories reaffirming the privilege of humanness. Management of the human body through technological regimes10 has distilled a distinction between human and nonhuman animal that pivots on an axis of technological appropriation. From this tripartite matrix of relations, anthropomorphism emerges in the liminal space between human, nonhuman animal and technological entity. Complicating categories still further, latterly humanness has become disembodied, as the erasure of the material body has been proffered by recent posthuman debates (Hayles, 1999) (Featherstone & Burrows, 1995) as the final logic of an information society.

The category of posthuman proclaims the erasure of the material body as, in the final act of cybernetic theatre, it becomes possible to ‘download’ human consciousness or celebrate the experience of disembodied subjectivity in cyberspace. These notions have been criticised by Sobchack (1995) who reminds potential cyborgs of the material reality of the lived-body and the misplaced fascination with ‘erotic technophilia’ (Sobchack, 1995, p.206). The failure of cyborg logic rests, at least in part, at the dissolution of boundaries between the organic and reductive informational similitude between human and nonhuman animal. Whilst cybernetics may claim that information feedback systems consolidate continuity between human, ‘animal’ and machine, cyborg rhetoric treats as interchangeable consciousness and information as constituting subjectivity. Hayles claims ‘In fact, a defining characteristic of the present cultural moment is the belief that information can circulate unchanged among different material substrates’ and later continues ‘In the posthuman, there are no essential differences or absolute demarcations between bodily existence and computer simulation, cybernetic mechanism and biological organism, robot teleology and human goals’ (Hayles, 1999, p.3). However, conscious machines and nonhuman animals, raise the spectre of anthropomorphism and the wider implications of a threat to a capitalist market where the human ‘exploitation’ of both entity forms relies upon a non-anthropomorphised view of nonhumans. The notion of a shared subjectivity as a complication to individual agency would appear to offer certain utopian possibilities for continuity between human and nonhuman animal, however the material reality of dispersed subjectivity exposes the limits of a discourse of human exclusivity. The liminal spaces between human, nonhuman animal and machine reproduce anthropomorphism as a contingent category, implied in the utopian possibilities of the posthuman and cyborg discourse by the homogenous category of ‘organism’. This classification gives way to cultural anxieties about hybrid entities (the cyborg), problematises the very notion of the category ‘human’ and suggests the erasure of an embodied subjectivity.11 At the juncture of these anxieties, anthropomorphism is engaged in the restitution of traditional categories through articulations of human/’animal’ difference and their dissolution by offering the possibility of nonhuman animal ‘agency’ and species cohesion. Oscillating between competing discourses however, anthropomorphism is faced with the continuing problem of lived social relations beneath the anthropocentric sign of global capitalism12 and disparate industrial interests.


The post-‘animal’ body

Paralleling the rise of the human technobody and the disappearance of the material in posthuman discourses are cultural narratives of nonhuman animal bodies. Nonhuman animal bodies have disrupted the order of nature and culture as technological entities, such as Dolly the sheep and OncoMouse®, question the rigidity of defined boundaries between human, nonhuman animal and technological entity. The nonhuman animal body has become a contested site that, once reconstituted back into ‘nature’, disappears through technologically driven processes of extinction or the erosion of ‘natural habitat’. Other discourses articulating the control and surveillance of the nonhuman animal body have emerged during the late twentieth century; the political re-categorisation of dangerous ‘animal’ bodies such as domestic canines by the UK Dangerous Dogs Act and industrially farmed bovine bodies through European BSE-related legislation. Contemporary European legislature effectively reintroduces the human/’animal’ schism by providing ‘political protection’ to human bodies from the threat of diseased or aberrant nonhuman animal bodies.

The authority of institutionally determined human/’animal’ difference is threatened in the presence of hybridity. Bhabha argues that hybridity is not the third space between competing discourses but rather it is the ‘effect of uncertainty that afflicts the discourse of power’ (Bhabha, 1994, p.113). Hybridity, apparent in cultural forms, destabilises dominant discourses rewriting the hybridised human/nonhuman animal as an anthropomorphised entity within cultural narratives thus exposing culture as a site of conflict and anxiety. A recent abundance of anthropomorphised nonhuman animals continue the tradition of Lassie, Flipper, Mickey and Minnie presenting hybridised entities that, whilst not signifying overtly corporeal amalgamation, such as that of The Fly, unsettle controlling anthropocentric discourses occupying a liminal space between categories of human and nonhuman animal.

Stuart Little complicates simple binarisms beyond that of a human/’animal’ dichotomy as the film tells the story of a mouse adopted by a human family who also own a cat as a family pet, problematising not only the division between species (human/’animal’) but also between categories of human (child/ adult) and classifications of nonhuman animal (pet/non-pet ‘animal’). As an archetypal liminal entity the mouse features in cultural narratives as a nonhuman animal that is neither inside or outside, tending to occupy the liminal wall space of human houses, recreating the ‘home environment’ on the margins of the human domestic space. The mouse moves between the private space of domesticity and the public space of ‘outside’, as the ‘wall’ offers a material boundary constituted of outside, inside and liminal space. The ‘mouse in the house’ articulates a further actualised spatial separation between ‘pet’ and ‘pest’. Accordingly, the spatial separation of human and nonhuman animal has delineated the domestic space as unsuitable for nonhuman animals unless recategorised and controlled as ‘pets’. Nonhuman animals entering the domestic space may be classified as ‘pests’ and subject to different forms of ‘control’.13 However, these traditional culturally prescribed narratives are disrupted by Stuart Little as neither pet nor pest, ‘he’ signifies a new category of humanised nonhuman animal. As a site of cultural anxieties about humanness and the human body, Stuart Little is the cultural realisation of OncoMouse® offering reassurances and resistances to and about dominant anthropocentric discourses. Underwriting the difference between Snowbell the pet cat and Stuart the mouse is the acquisition of language and an ability to communicate meaningfully with the human family. Whilst Stuart, the liminal entity, can ‘speak’ to both ‘animal’ and human (family and pet cats) other nonhuman animals are denied access to language thus locating the specificity of humanness at the level of language. Judith Kiriazis and Con Slobodchikoff (1997) have argued recently that the Cartesian link between language and rational thought still informs debates on the linguistic exclusivity of humans (p. 365). This maintains a distinction between human and nonhuman animal classifications such that the boundary is defended and dissolved within Stuart Little as the hybridised entity unsettles the classification of human and ‘animal’ by appropriating language whilst simultaneously perpetuating the notion of language as a uniquely human characteristic providing ‘him’, as an anthropomorphised creature, with entrance to the sanctified realm of the human family.14

Arising from converging discourses, Stuart Little is at once the anthropomorphised ‘animal other’, the hybrid human/nonhuman animal and a technological entity as the product of advanced computer generated visual effects. The limits of each classification- ‘human’, ‘animal’, technological- lay exposed and unsettled in the impossibility of this cultural entity that offers restitution and dissolution of traditional taxonomies rewritten as dominant anthropocentric discourses. Anthropomorphic discourse opens and occupies the liminal space emerging at sites of cultural anxiety surrounding the classification of humanness and the contemporary crisis of the human body.

Whilst posthuman and cyborg discourses articulate the uninterrupted informational similitude of organisms, the rhetoric of these discourses offers the restitution of traditional hierarchical assumptions of human superiority. The location of hybrid entities is thus the site for emerging anthropomorphic concerns oscillating between competing systems of meaning yet unrecoverable into simple binarisms. As such, contemporary anthropomorphic activity is employed in the struggle for traditional taxonomic legitimacy whilst simultaneously articulating nonhuman animal agency, the possibilities of species equivalence and unsettling the category of human.



1 Widespread resistance to anthropomorphism across a range of disciplines is discussed in Fisher, . (1990) 'The Myth of Anthropomorphism' in Bekoff, M & Jamieson, D, (eds) (1990) Interpretation and Explanation in the Study of Animal Behavior: Volume 1: Interpretation, Intentionality, and Communication, Westview Press, San Fransisco and Oxford.

2 Communication, Westview Press, San Fransisco and Oxford. Socrates, in Plato's Republic, objects to Homer and Hesiod by asserting poetry as lacking the status of truth and commenting on the unsuitability of such deceptive stories in his ideal state (Plato, 1987, p.132). In the context of childhood education two types of stories are distinguished; true stories and fiction (Plato, 1987, p.130). Privileging the development of mind over the body, Socrates asserted the deceptive nature of fictional stories told to children implanted unacceptable ideas that continued into adulthood and by extension he criticised, as morally ignorant, adults who accepted Homeric stories as truthful accounts: Then it seems that our first business is to supervise the production of stories, and chose only those we think suitable, and reject the rest… The greater part of the stories current today we shall have to reject… The stories in Homer and Hesiod and the poets. For it is the poets who have always made up fictions and stories to tell to men. (Plato, 1987, p.131) Both Plato and Xenophanes attempted to remove theological authority from the poetry of Homer and Hesiod by discrediting the depicted moral status of the gods and assuming to re-write godly characteristics as 'good' and by extension their writings legitimated with the status of truth. In contrast, Homeric gods were deceitful and therefore the poetry fictional, potentially corruptive and untrue. According to Socrates the ideal state depended, in the context of educational reform, on a defined moral code regulated and controlled through narrative censorship and the unification of the concepts of truth and goodness. Resolution of theological incongruity centralised anthropomorphism as a measure of truth and falsity, good and evil. At the root of Plato and Xenophanes' critique is the lack of truth in the anthropomorphic statement and the consequential attribution of 'bad' characteristics to the gods.

3 For a fuller account of Homeric authority in the Greek city state see Harwick in Emlyn-Jones, C., L. Hardwick & J. Purkis (eds), (1992) Homer: Readings and Images, Duckworth, London, pp. 227-248

4 This does not imply any dispute about the possibility of agency afforded to anything other than 'human' being constituted as a rebel politics (for example the sentience of AI), however it is outside the scope of this piece to deal with this issue in any depth.

5 Specieism is now a widely accepted term that articulates a prejudicial attitude toward nonhuman animals in the same way that racism and sexism indicate subordination of particular groups on the basis of race or gender. Richard Ryder (1989) explains 'Using the word 'animal' in opposition to the word 'human' is clearly an expression of prejudice' (p.2). Ryder also explains that the term 'nonhuman animal' is appropriate as it expresses a kinship between 'those of my species and others' (p.2).

6 The location of anthropomorphism within children's fictive narrative becomes a repeated trope in discussions of anthropomorphism, thus aligning anthropomorphic activity with immaturity.

7 This does not imply that practices of defining humans as different from nonhuman animals are limited to Western cultures, however it is beyond the scope of this article to deal with cross-cultural comparisons.

8 I refer here particularly to donor organs being 'harvested' from non-human animals.

9 Pamela Asquith (in Mitchell, R. W., Thompson, N. S., & H. L. Miles, 1997) articulates the notion of culturally prescribed access to reality through language, with science considered as part of a broader cultural politics in which a Western scientific discourse, based on suppositions of rationality as the foundation of humanness, dominates the global scientific community. Cultural difference brings with it alternative conceptions of human/ nonhuman animal difference with contrasting Japanese and Western accounts of nonhuman animal behaviour being based, in part, upon the level of importance attributed to rationality as a uniquely human characteristic. Asquith asserts this cultural disparity results in Japanese accounts being anthropomorphic and considered unscientific by Western scientists.

10 I refer here to technological-surveillance regimes of medicine and health that categorise bodies as unhealthy, deviant or unnatural.

11 This article takes the view that the possibilities for disembodied subjectivity and hybrid 'bodies' have been overly utopian and ill conceived. However, it is beyond the scope of this piece to deal with this issue at length.

12 Marx claims that anthropomorphism is analogous to commodity fetishism in Capital, Volume 1.

13 I refer here to the notion of 'pest control' or the eradication of undesirable nonhuman animals from human spaces.

14 Only a brief analysis is offered here but a more extended work on anthropomorphised entities is included in The Discourse of Anthropomorphism (forthcoming).



Asquith, P. J. (1997) ‘Why Anthropomorphism Is Not A Metaphor: Crossing Concepts and Cultures in Animal Behaviour Studies’ in Mitchell, R. W., N. S Thompson & H. L. Miles (eds) (1997) Anthropomorphism, Anecdotes and Animals, State University of New York Press, Albany, pp.22-36.

Balsamo, A. (1995) ‘Forms of Technological Embodiment: Reading the Body in Contemporary Culture’ in Featherstone, M. & Burrows, R. (1995) Cyberspace, Cyberbodies, Cyberpunk: Cultures of Technological Embodiment, Sage, London, p.215-238.

Balsamo, A. (1995b) Technologies of the Gendered Body: Reading Cyborg Women, Duke University Press, Durham.

Bateson, P.P.G & P. H. Klopfer (eds) (1997) Perspectives in Ethology, Volume 9: Human Understanding and Animal Awareness, Plenum Press, New York.

Bekoff, M & D. Jamieson (1991) ‘Reflective Ethology, Applied Philosophy, and the Moral Status of Animals’ in Bateson, P.P.G & P. H. Klopfer (eds) (1991) Perspectives in Ethology, Volume 9: Human Understanding and Animal Awareness, Plenum Press, New York.

Bhabha, H. (1997) The Location of Culture, Routledge, London.

Caporael, L. R. & C. M. Heyes (1997) ‘Why Anthropomorphize? : Folk Psychology and Other Stories’ in Mitchell, R. W., N. S Thompson & H. L. Miles (eds) (1997) Anthropomorphism, Anecdotes and Animals, State University of New York Press, Albany.

Caporael, L. R. (1986) ‘Anthropomorphism and Mechanomorphism: Two Faces of the Human Machine’ in Computers in Human Behavior, Vol. 2, pp. 215-234.

Crist, E. (1999) Images of Animals: Anthropomorphism and the Animal Mind, Temple University Press, Philadelphia.

Davis, H. (1997) ‘Animal Cognition versus Animal Thinking: The Anthropomorphic Error’ in Mitchell, R W., Thompson, N. & H. L. Miles (eds) (1997) Anthropomorphism, Anecdotes and Animals, State University of New York Press, Albany, pp. 335-347.

Descartes [trans. Haldane & Ross] (1997) Key Philosophical Writings, Wordsworth Editions, Hertfordshire.

Fisher, J. A. (1991) ‘Disambiguating Anthropomorphism: An Interdisciplinary Review’ in Bateson, P.P.G & P. H. Klopfer (eds) (1991) Perspectives in Ethology, Volume 9: Human Understanding and Animal Awareness, Plenum Press, New York.

Fisher, J. A. (1990) ‘The Myth of Anthropomorphism’ in Bekoff, M & Jamieson, D, (eds) (1990) Interpretation and Explanation in the Study of Animal Behavior: Volume 1: Interpretation, Intentionality, and Communication, Westview Press, San Fransisco and Oxford.

Foucault, M. (1990) The History of Sexuality Volume 1: An Introduction, Penguin, London.

Foucult, M. (1992) The Use of Pleasure: The History of Sexuality, Volume 2, Penguin, London.

Foucault, M. (1990b) The Care of the Self: The History of Sexuality, Volume 3, Penguin Books, London.

Foucault, M. (1997) The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, Routledge, London.

Featherstone, M. & Burrows, R. (eds) Cyberspace, Cyberbodies, Cyberpunk: Cultures of Technological Embodiment, Sage, London.

Fuss, D. (1996) Human, All Too Human, Routledge, London.

Goodall, J. (1999) ‘An Order of Pure Decision’ in Body & Society, Volume 5, No. 2-3, pp.149-170.

Ham, J. & M. Senior (eds) (1997) Animal Acts: Reconfiguring the Human in Western History, Routledge, London.

Hayles, N. K. (1999) How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics, University of Chicago Press, London.

Haraway, D. (1991) Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, Free Association Books, London.

Hardwick, L. (1992) ‘Convergence and divergence in reading Homer’ in Emlyn-Jones, C., L. Hardwick & J. Purkis (eds), (1992) Homer: Readings and Images, Duckworth, London, pp. 227-248.

Homer [Trans. E. V. Rieu] (1952) The Odyssey, Penguin Books, Middlesex.

Homer [trans. E.V. Rieu] (1952) The Iliad, Penguin, Middlesex.

Kennedy, J. S. (1992) The New Anthropomorphism, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Kiriazis, J. & Slobodchikoff, C. N. (1997) ‘Anthropocentrism and the Study of Animal Language’ in Mitchell, R W., Thompson, N. & H. L. Miles (eds) (1997) Anthropomorphism, Anecdotes and Animals, State University of New York Press, Albany.

Lippit, A. M. (2000) Electric Animal: Toward A Rhetoric of Wildlife, University of Minnesota Press, London & Minneapolis.

Macnaghton, P. & Urry, J. (1998) Contested Natures, Sage, London.

Mitchell, R W., Thompson, N. & H. L. Miles (eds) (1997) Anthropomorphism, Anecdotes and Animals, State University of New York Press, Albany.

Plato [trans. D. Lee] (1987) The Republic, Penguin Books, London.

Ryder, R. (1989) Animal Revolution:Changing Attitudes Towards Speciesism, Blackwell, Oxford.

Sobchack, V. (1995) ‘Beating the Meat/ Surviving the Text, or How to Get Out of This Century Alive’ in Featherstone, M. & Burrows, R. (eds) (1995) Cyberspace, Cyberbodies, Cyberpunk: Cultures of Technological Embodiment, Sage, London, pp205-214.

Spada, E. (1997) ‘Amorphism, Mechanomorphism, and Anthropomorphism’ in Mitchell, R W., Thompson, N. & H. L. Miles (eds) (1997) Anthropomorphism, Anecdotes and Animals, State University of New York Press, Albany, pp. 37-49.

Tester, K. (1991) Animals and Society: The Humanity of Animal Rights, Routledge, London.

Turner, B. S. (1997) The Body and Society, Sage Publications, London.

Turner, B. S. (1991) ‘Recent Developments in the Theory of the Body’ in Featherstone, M., Hepworth, M. & B. S. Turner (eds) (1996) The Body: Social Process and Cultural Theory, Sage, London, pp. 1-35.

Turner, B. S. (1997) ‘What is the Sociology of the Body?’ in Body & Society, Volume 3, No. 1, pp. 103-108.

Weiner, N. (1989) The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society, Free Association Books, London.

Wheeler, O. (1916) Anthropomorphism and Science: A study of the development of ejective cognition in the individual and race, Allen & Unwin, London.


*Claire Molloy is a lecturer in Film and Television in the Department of Media and Communications, Edge Hill College of Higher Education, Ormskirk, Lancashire, UK.

Back to contents

Back to homepage