Jahreskonferenz des Forschungszentrums Historische Geisteswissenschaften, in Verbindung mit dem ATTRACT-Projekt Ästhetische Figurationen des Politischen der Université du Luxembourg

28-30 November 2013, Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main

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Animals as symbols/images of sovereign power:

From the very beginning of political theory, the border between man and beast has been symbolically deployed to represent the limits of sovereign power or political participation. Outside of the polis, Aristotle claimed, there were only animals, gods and idiots. This traditional distinction between man, the zoon politikon, and the animal world has come under pressure in recent years. Despite their symbolic exclusion from the realm of political action, animals have been at the centre of political thought from its very beginning, mainly in the form of metaphors and symbols, and the cultural history of political zoology knows great numbers of animal comparisons. Classical heraldic animals like the lion or the horse draw on certain iconographic and metaphoric traditions; in essence these constitute the (pictorial) conventionalization of cultural narratives whose semantic field stretches from the Sphinx of Gizeh which represents the pharaoh with the body of a lion, to the symbolism of Leviathan (the sea monster which is traditionally represented as a whale), to Machiavelli’s exhortation to the prince to act like a fox, to the symbolic potential/potency  of the wolf (not only in Hobbes).

Animal collectives and human communities:

While the iconographic tradition of animal comparisons has been well researched in recent years, the imagery of animal collectives for human communities has as yet all but escaped scholarly attention.  The relation of animal and human collectives can take different forms. It can appear as

- a relation of opposition, in which participation in political communities of any kind remains a privilege of the human, resulting in political exclusion for the ‘animal part’ of the comparison (as in traditional interpretations of the zoon politikon), or a reversal of this constellation, in which it is a characteristic of the animal world to live in communities and of the human to individualize (as in Hobbes’ use of the wolf metaphor);

- a relation of correspondence in which animal and socio-political communities are analogized with the effect to naturalize, but also to critique forms of power and political order;

- a relation of equivalence, which interrogates the political nature of the relationship of man and animal.

All of these negotiate the anthropological issue of how to differentiate between man and beast (with its implications for questions of agency and the respective values of rationality and emotion, mind and matter, individualism and civic virtue) in the arena of collective thought and action.

The conference wants to focus on the structural affinities between zoological imagination and the political sphere. We are especially interested in the second form of relating human and animal communities. Traditions here reach from pastoral notions of the Shepherd and his flock, to Mandeville’s use of state building insects in The Fable of the Bees, to the metaphor of the swarm in recent notions of swarm intelligence (i.e. non-hierarchical forms of organization in today’s net culture). As the examples make clear, animal comparisons can serve as utopian models for a communitarian way of life just as they function as dystopian deterrents arguing against loss of individual agency and autonomy.

The conference will focus on the following topics:

1) Animals as sovereigns/ animals as mass phenomenon: which forms of government and political order are represented in animal imagery? Which historical concepts of mass society, collectivization or state building are represented? Which analogies are drawn between biological/ zoological and socio-political forms of order? What is the value of self-organisation?

2) Animals and gender: which specifically masculine or feminine imaginations inhabit our political bestiarium? How does gender interact with political animal images such as the bee queen, the lone wolf, the lion king etc.? What is the role of gender in animal communities? Are we to describe these as intersectional instances of othering?

3) Medialisation of political animals

In literature and cultural narrative: which narrative models exist to represent political animals? How are monarchs and peoples represented in the genre of the fable as the classical ‘animal narrative’? How is animal imagery used in the poetic imagination: as  allegory, metaphor, emblem?

- In caricature, comic, graphic novel and animated movie: what is the function of animals here, between entertainment and subversive potential (from Disney’s Jungle Book to Art Spiegelman’s Maus).

- In feature films and TV productions (e.g. The Birds, USA 1963, Planet of the Apes, USA 1968; Phase IV, USA 1974, Arachnophobia, USA 1990, Starship Troopers, USA 1997, Antz, USA 1998). How and why are animals represented as collective bodies? In how far can the non-individualisation of animals be read as a political metaphor, and which ideals and fears are articulated? How do these productions imagine the relation of man and animal?


Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main


Dr. Martin Doll (Luxembourg), Dr. Oliver Kohns (Luxembourg), Prof. Dr. Susanne Scholz (Frankfurt am Main)



s.scholz[at]em.uni-frankfurt.de (http://www.fzhg.org/)