Theses Doctoral

The Sport of Spectatorship: Exploring the Agency of Animals through Literature

Lerer, Isabel

In recent years, there has been an undeniable shift in how we think about nonhuman animals. A growing philosophical literature on animal rights has encouraged a deep consideration of the moral status of animals, while scientific research has simultaneously confirmed the fact that many animals have complex cognitive, emotional, and social capacities that strongly mirror our own. Although there is still disagreement about what all this implies in terms of our responsibilities to animals, the idea that animals can experience physical or emotional pain or pleasure is the starting point and not the conclusion of the present inquiry. Many species of animals are sentient beings who possess a viewpoint from which they experience and act in the world around them - and hence may be said to be agential.
My dissertation explores what it means for us to extend, conceptually and morally, agency to animals. I address this "extension of agency" predominantly from an aesthetic perspective, although in doing so I in no way intend to limit the range of related philosophical concerns. On the contrary; to extend agency to animals, I argue, calls for a revised understanding of our habitual spectatorial stances--how we look at animals. To grasp these stances, I investigate how animals have been looked at in literary works of art. Does the literature show our spectatorship to extend agency to animals or do we objectify them so as to deny their capacities as agents altogether? My dissertation focuses on excerpts from three significant works of literature--works by Nathanael West, Ernest Hemingway, and Leo Tolstoy--each of which stages a specifically athletic engagement involving animals, in this way bringing focus to the issue of our spectatorship. Each excerpt serves as philosophically illuminating material and as an exemplary case regarding humanity's willingness or refusal to extend agency to animals.
I am particularly interested in the role of animals in human-engineered sports, and in how extending agency to animals in sports changes or ought to change the way we watch sports that involve animals. Within the philosophy of sport, the accepted approach has been to liken animals to sporting equipment or tools, and thus to make no substantive distinction between animal and non-animal sports. This, I argue, reflects a refusal to extend agency to animals, which has led also to an oversimplification and mischaracterization of sports involving animals in the first place.
Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust takes up cockfighting, Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises centers around bullfighting, and Tolstoy's Anna Karenina includes a memorable, emotionally stirring, steeplechase episode. In addition to investigating what I refer to as the "extension of agency" to animals in these literary works, I revise some of the basic assumptions that have recently guided the burgeoning subfield of the philosophy of sports. I argue that we must acknowledge that there exists a fundamental difference between the modes of spectatorship that accompany sports that only involve humans, and those that involve animals. For to extend agency is to extend the moral domain to that or those who are "other" than ourselves.
Once animals are introduced into a sport, they imbue the sport with all the aesthetic complexities that come with looking at an animal outside of sport: the unique exotic beauty of the animal body and its fitness to function, but also its vitality, wild autonomy, expressiveness, and reciprocity of gaze. This means that our interactions with animals, even in the case of organized sport or performance, are not purely aesthetic in a formal artistic sense; they are also expressive and communicative. The concept of the formal aesthetic that many employ when talking about art - the formal qualities that we attribute to the arts - is not sufficient to accommodate sports that involve animals and a spectatorship of animals. Animals are expressive, and this expressiveness is fundamental to correctly understanding our spectatorship of them. Animals are far more than our equipment. The aesthetic of animal sports must, I conclude, accordingly incorporate expressiveness and empathy, such that we see animals in fellowship with us as participants in sports. Extending agency to animals is the core concept of a morally inflected aesthetic of inter-subjectivity.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Goehr, Lydia
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
April 20, 2015