Julia Bodenburg

Dr. Julia Bodenburg, Germanistisches Institut, Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster



Tier und Mensch. Zur Disposition des Humanen und Animalischen in
Literatur, Philosophie und Kultur um 2000.

Published by Rombach Verlag Freiburg,

My dissertation deals with the relationship between animals and human beings and their conceptualization in contemporary discourses. It also enquires into how this relationship and its concepts may develop in the future. At the beginning of the new millennium, the intersections of various disciplines – microbiology, micro-economics, genetics, reproductive medicine, philosophy and ethics – caused our understanding of what differentiates animal from human life to erode. Once clearly delineated, the boundaries between these two life forms became blurred. This development has also challenged literary studies to re-think its
established ways of conceptualizing the relationship between animals and humans. In my project, I define the relationship between animals and human-beings as a ‘disposition.’ I thus suggest that the relationship between animals and humans is not a given – not natural and normative – but, instead, a discursive construction. Donna Haraway, Giorgio Agamben, Peter Sloterdijk and Peter Singer are to name as influential representatives of philosophical negotiations concerning the contemporary animal-human-relationship. The first chapter deals with these philosophical debates. The relationship turns out to be the object – and the result – of scientific, ethico-political, and cultural negotiations. It is one of the occasions on which scientific and literary discourses are set in productive exchange. My engagement with this topic was twofold: I did not only ask if scientific concepts were mentioned in the literary texts that I investigated, but also how literary texts reacted to these concepts. So do literary texts develop specific strategies that are influenced by the sciences? How does literature, in general, reflect the strategies with which scientific knowledge is produced? Do writers, in corresponding to scientific discourses, develop new literary strategies? – These are some of the questions which I set out to answer and which I think are of general interest. Molecular biology, genetic technology, and the heated debates about the cloned sheep Dolly – these are only a few examples for scientific debates in relation to which literature and their writers have had to position themselves. The literary texts that I examined (Günter Grass: Die Rättin; Michel Houellebecq: Elementarteilchen, Die Möglichkeit einer Insel; Marcel Beyer: Kaltenburg; J.M. Coetzee: The Lives of Animals; Disgrace) all make obvious reference to debates like the above. They do not only deal with some of the insights and methods of the natural sciences, but also make reference to various philosophical approaches to animal life. They thus combine both scientific and philosophical debates. One of the contemporary German authors, Günter Grass, outlined the prophetic capacity of literature in his work Die Rättin (1986). It seems that the rat’s function in the novel is to articulate the dangers of genetic engineering. In fact, it could be read as the aesthetic corrective of scientific progress. French author Michel Houellebecq also resorts to this idea. In his so-called ‘clone-novels’, Elementarteilchen (Elementary Particles, from 1998) and Die Möglichkeit einer Insel (The potential development of an Island, from 2005) Houellebecq envisions a new concept of man – the genetic engineer. Modeled on the example of ‘Dolly,’ he ‘invents himself’. In this context, the popular and established idea of evolution as a linear process is replaced by the concept of infinite replication. By abandoning the concept of linear evolution, also other central characteristics of human life are abandoned, for example mortality, randomness, and reproduction through sexual intercourse. In Houellebecq’s novels, the clones mourn the loss of this ‘old’ humanity. The idea of humanity is thus not relinquished, but rather, Houellebecq’s novels inquire cynically into the very nature of humanity and encourage the readers to think about their own readiness to embrace the model of the genetic engineer. A third example is the novel Kaltenburg (2008) by the German writer Marcel Beyer. The novel draws on the field of Comparative Behavioral Science. In particular, the novel reflects critically on the potential of Konrad Lorenz’s controversial approach, which suggests one should directly compare the behavior of animals and humans. Kaltenburg indicates that certain socio-cultural and political circumstances – for example, those of the Third Reich – may create a situation in which a clear distinction between man and animal is no longer valid. Another point is that the method of transferring which is prominent in Comparative Behavioral Science structures the novel: transferring and translation are both literary and scientific practices – think of metaphors as literary practice. In J.M. Coetzee’s novels animals have the function to reflect about ethical questions. Furthermore I analyzed the architecture of a Zoo, ZOOM Erlebniswelt Gelsenkirchen, and Werner Herzog’s documentary Grizzly Man, with focus on visual structures that form human-animal-relationship as well. The intention of my project was to make a valid contribution to the field of Knowledge Poetry, which explores the interactions between the natural sciences and literature. With regard to cultural discourses, I aimed to promote a research perspective that would focus upon the relationship between animals and humans, and specifically one which would exemplify the social relevance of literature: writers do not only react, but they actively shape scientific discourses by providing aesthetic spaces which allow them and their readers to assume meta-positions towards scientific knowledge.