I’ve been reading a bit about museums as performative spaces, particularly in the ways that visitors behave and interact, both with objects and each other. This notion has been borrowed from the French concept of the flaneur. The word apparently translates to mean someone who strolls about, though in the museum (and I think more broadly, in the cultural studies) context, the flaneur is someone who sees and wants to be seen.
It seems that humans are innately performative creatures. I’ve also been reading an interesting book by John Simons on the representation of animals in text (it’s worth noting that this post-structuralist concept of ‘text’ extends beyond the written word, to encompass things like films and exhibitions). He distinguishes human from non-human animals, not through definitions based on physiology or consciousness, but through the idea of performance. Simons claims that:
It is performance that defines and enables us, to some extent and on some occasions, to escape the seemingly overwhelming deterministic influences of history and culture. If we cannot escape them we can, at least, exercise some choice in the nature of our determination, much as prisoners on Death Row in some American states are given the choice of how they wish to be executed.*
In contrast to this, animals do not perform their animalism. Sure they can be taught how to do tricks, but that’s not the same thing. In fact, it might be that an animal that has been trained to perform reinforces this idea – it is performing, both literally and figuratively, a human idea of its animal-ness.
This concept becomes particularly interesting when combined with ideas about anthropomorphism. If, for the sake of this blog post, we accept that we can never really understand the consciousness of a non-human animal, then it might be argued that all animal perfomance is anthropomorphic – ie we are just projecting our own ideas of what the animal is onto the tasks we are asking it to perform.
So in this light, I started considering how ideas of ‘the horse’ might be being performed and borne out in our society. In the discipline of dressage, which has its origins in equestrian war manoevres, the natural gaits and movements of the horse have been refined (or perhaps exaggerated) to a particular set of standard moves. Have a look at this video of Lipizzaner stallions performing for an awe-inspiring demonstration. Showjumping is the same – in fact, every equestrian discipline could be seen as an example of the horse being ‘performed’, and as such could also be demonstrated to be anthropomorphic.
One of the arguments that racing enthusiasts give when the sport is criticised is: ‘But horses love to run – they are just doing what comes naturally.’ I think this reasoning definitely fits within the category of performance as anthropomorphism. We, as naturally perfomative beings, are conceptualising behaviours within a human framework. While the galloping gait is indeed natural (as are many of the prancing and leaping movements of dressage), racing’s comparison to natural behaviour that the horse loves is a bit of a stretch.
This could easily be demonstrated if you removed the jockey/equestrian off the back of any racehorse/dressage horse/showjumper, and observed what happened. The horse would cease galloping/prancing/jumping, thereby ceasing to perform our ideas of the horse. That’s not to say that you wouldn’t find a horse demonstrating any of these behaviours in moments of high spirits, but these acts would remain the horse’s own. The perfomance of ‘the horse’ is revealed only in its interactions with humans.
John Simons, Animal Rights and the Politics of Literary Representation, Palgrave, Hampshire, 2002
* I put forth Simons’ view while recognising that issues of power in a global context are NOT what this is about, and that conceptualising issues of power in human-animal relationships may be the perspective of a particularly privileged group in this historical period – that is, primarily white, western, and middle-class.