Axolotl

Axolotl
. Transparency in light box. 48 x 72 x 6in (122 x 183 x 15cm). 2002. Collection of the artist.

Queering the Non/Human

Noreen Giffney and Myra J. Hird
Reproduced from Queering the Non/Human
Edited by Noreen Giffney & Myra J. Hird. Ashgate. 2008
Extract from the Introduction


Non/Human

Allow us to direct your attention to the front cover of this book – its face if you like. What do you see? A buoyant smile and a pair of large eyes staring eagerly back at you? What affects does the appearance of such an image engender in you? Does your own mouth fashion a smile in return, for example? Is the image before you human? What critical registers are you using to determine such a response? What does the term ‘human’ and its so-called inverse, ‘nonhuman’, mean to you? How have you come upon such knowledge? What cultural resonances, in other words, inform your views?

At this stage you might be wondering what queer theory has to do with all of this. It is in this moment of wondering – of wondering about wondering – that queering the non/human begins because ‘queering’, as Jeffrey J. Cohen reminds us, ‘is at its heart a process of wonder’ (2003, xxiv. 1). The above questions are central to this book’s engagement with a range of issues regarding identification, categorisation, normativity, relationality, ethics, and practices of theorising. Two questions underpin the authors’ work, namely: what might it mean to queer the non/human? By extension, what effects might such an act have on our conception of the figure of the Human; on queer theory’s relationship with such a category and its exclusions, limits and excesses; and on understandings of the ‘queer’ and ‘theory’ in queer theory?

Axolotl by Karl Grimes is an image of a dead salamander, preserved in alcohol. the image forms part of Grimes’s collection, Future Nature, a photographic and filmic compendium of animal embryos and foetuses in glass jars, originally used in scientific and medical experiments and later discovered by the artist in research collections in the Tornblad institute in Lund, the Hubrecht Laboratory in Utrecht and the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin. Although reproduced in black and white here, Grimes employs a sumptuous array of colours to lavishly illuminate his subjects, a ‘highly colourful carnival of animals’ in his words (2006). Taking tiny specimens, Grimes transforms them into ‘larger than life’ prints set starkly against the clinical white walls of the art gallery.

Future Nature marks the continuation of the artist’s engagement with discursive categories, such as nature, culture, science, art, temporality and the human. describing the exhibition as ‘both requiem and genesis’, Grimes brings together life and death in this image through his attendance to animals that are ‘constantly on the verge of becoming … yet frozen in time and death’ (2006). Relationality is tantamount for Grimes. He revitalises what have been forgotten as mere scientific remains, turning former objects into present subjects in his ‘photographic portraiture’, inviting viewers to meditate on matters pertaining to ethics and representation (2006).

One cannot help but notice, what Grimes terms, ‘the anthropomorphic allure’ of Axolotl achieved ‘through details of gesture and expression’ (2006). it is almost as if the salamander is moving towards us, about to speak. face to face as it were. ‘How can an animal look you in the face?’ Jacques Derrida asks (2002, 377. 2). While naked he is prompted, by his cat gazing at him, to think about the place of the animal in the Western philosophical tradition, the violence of naming and what it might mean to respond as opposed to react to an animal. What then are we to make of this almost-address by a dead salamander? ‘The animal looks at us, and we are naked before it’, writes Derrida, ‘Thinking perhaps begins there’ (397).

And so it begins here. Through its anthropomorphic potential, Axolotl moves viewers to reflect on boundaries in its challenging of binaries pertaining to nature/culture, living/dead, beautiful/grotesque, desire/ disgust, subject/object, presence/absence and human/nonhuman. Is this simply putting the animal to use for the purposes of poring over the ins and outs of the Human, thus reinscribing by default the Human at the centre of this very meditation? Perhaps. Yet in its irreducible difference, Axolotl insists that we respond to it on its own terms – partly ascribed by Grimes certainly – but also set down by the animal voluptuously appearing before us, resplendent in its cacophony of contradictions; a signifier of the différantial relation between the Human and the nonhuman (Derrida 1973)...

Noreen Giffney and Myra J. Hird

1 Cohen, J.J. (2003), Medieval Identity Machines (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press).

2 Derrida, J. (1973), ‘Différance’, in Speech and Phenomena: And Other Essays on Husserl’s Theory of Signs (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press,1973).
Derrida, J. (2002), ‘The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow)’, Critical Inquiry 28(2): 369–418.


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The Sunday Tribune. February 24, 2002

The Irish Times. February 8, 2002

CIRCA , Summer 2002. Issue no 96.

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