The Non-Human Gaze: Mutual Vision and the Fatigue of Injustice 

Honours Research Fellow Hal Conyngham reflects on the concept of Weltschmerz, a sense of melancholic pain precipitated by witnessing, and writing about, violence and injustice towards non-human animals.

Image by Erin Hervey, via Unsplash

At the beginning of the year, a friend said she’d decided not to write her thesis on nonhuman animals—largely because she cared too much, she said, and that was in some sense inapposite with academia. My response was along the lines of “if anything, there should be more passion in philosophy!” But as time went on I became more sympathetic to her worries. During the winter break, I opened my laptop to find:

Animals are anally shocked to death, drowned, suffocated, or gassed, so as not to damage their furs for fashion garments… [others are] confined in dark, windowless warehouses for efficient meat production after being routinely castrated, de-beaked, and de-toed without anaesthesia…1

I walked out and didn’t come back for a fortnight. The lives of many domesticated nonhuman animals are so horrific that much of the work which engages in their current conditions includes some such anecdotes. Perhaps ‘anecdotes’ is too gentle a euphemism. And reading about them day after day feels like balancing on some sort of precipice: on one side, falling into the dispassionate and analytic state of mind in which we’re often required to write; on the other, experiencing a kind of Weltschmerz—melancholic pain precipitated by the ubiquitous injustice and suffering in the world.

Nonhuman animals are routinely erased. While there is rightly outrage when it comes to the treatment of some nonhuman animals, most of the urban human population is removed from the realities of industries and the lives involved. Knowledge is kept quite separate from the cognisance of the metropolitan public, and even for those of us who are epistemically aware of these practices, empathy and compassion are nonetheless shackled. The lack of media coverage, the spatial distance between us and factory farms, the use of ‘beef’ and ‘pork’ rather than ‘cow’ and ‘pig’, and the fences and walls and guards surrounding abattoirs and slaughterhouses, are all barriers to our seeing their lives and deaths.

Even when these visual barriers are overcome—nearly always through media—the act of seeing does not constitute a dyadic relationship. My interactions with companion animals are affected not only by my side, but rather both sides of the equation. Jacques Derrida becomes ashamed when the cat observes him naked, but especially,

[I]f the cat observes me frontally naked, face to face, and if I am naked faced with the cat’s eyes looking at me from head to toe, as it were just to see, not hesitating to concentrate its vision—in order to see, with a view to seeing—in the direction of my sex.2

The focus here is not only on vision, but on mutual vision: Derrida is especially ashamed when he sees the cat seeing. If the cat does not see him, or if he does not see the cat, the shame is lessened if not erased. The gaze of the nonhuman animal is the major cause of shame, and of intersubjective emotion. There is little of this mutuality in our rare encounters with farmed animals. We don’t see them being, as Julio Cortezar puts it, “witnesses of something, and at times like horrible judges”; we don’t “feel ignoble in front of them”.3 The barriers obscure both our vision: we cannot see each other, and we also cannot see the other seeing us. And this is totally the case in reading, and much of the case in eating. And even more so if, as I did, you turn away.

The trigger for many of these thoughts about witnessing, about Weltschmerz and detachment, was an event I worked which involved a whole deer carcass being harvested for her parts. We were asked whether we wanted to be positioned elsewhere, and I agonised over the email before replying ‘yes’. I’m still unsure whether or not this was the right decision, having turned away for the second time in a short time: the first from a paper, the second from a deer. The concept of witnessing plays a key role in the activism of the Save Movement, one of the more fascinating animal advocacy groups. Based around ‘bearing witness’, it was to some extent inspired by Tolstoy:

When the suffering of another creature causes you to feel pain, do not submit to the initial desire to flee from the suffering one, but on the contrary, come closer, as close as you can to him who suffers, and try to help him.4

The Save Movement’s main avenue of activism is holding ‘vigils’, standing and watching nonhuman animals as they’re transported to the slaughterhouse. Not only bearing witness, but allowing themselves also to be witnessed by the soon-to-be-dead passengers. There’s a clear distinction between this kind of dyadic visual relationship, and Voiceless’ activities, and also the academic reading from which I turned away. When disobeying Tolstoy’s command and leaving the office there was no Derridian shame for me; only my own upset and weariness. Perhaps refusing the impulse to turn away, and staying instead in the same room as the killed deer would have been different; perhaps a mutuality of existence and gaze would have recast the sentiment. But perhaps not; her head was severed.

1. Ani B. Satz, “Animals as Vulnerable Subjects: Beyond Interest-Convergence, Hierarchy, and Property”, Animal Law 16, no. 65 (2010): 69–7.
2. Jacques Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, ed. Marie-Louise Mallet, trans. David Wills (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), 4, his emphasis.
3. Julio Cortazar, ‘I Am an Axolotl’, trans. Paul Blackburn, Vogue 149, no. 4 (1967): 125.
4. What Is Bearing Witness?”, The Save Movement.

Hal Conyngham is an Honours student in the University of Sydney’s philosophy department. Her thesis examines the political issues surrounding working animals, and explores the possible paths to creating an ethical framework for animal labour. Hal’s research interests include the intersections of animal studies and political philosophy, climate change in the context of international relations, and youth voting. She co-facilitates Reading Environments, and is a member of the Multispecies Justice HDR group.