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John Berger's "Why Look at Animals?": A Close Reading

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This article is a close reading of John Berger's highly influential essay "Why look at animals?" and its implications for thinking about animals in modernity. Berger analyses the alienation of human and animal as a consequence of nineteenth-century capitalism, and contrasts it with an earlier period when human-animal relations were more integrated. Despite the power and simplicity of Berger's argument, which has been taken up uncritically by a number of writers, both his historical analysis and his conception of human-animal relations in modernity are highly problematic and need substantial revision. Furthermore, the consequences of his thesis paradoxically reinforce the very processes he is criticising. Inadequate notions of the place of animals in public visual culture, and a more general bias against visual imagery in favour of text-based notions of the animal, create obstacles to theorising human-animal relations and welfare related issues in the contemporary world. The article suggests other perspectives for understanding what it means to look at animals.

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