In their Dialectic of Enlightenment, 1944, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer discuss the difference between an ‘animal representative’ and an ‘animal specimen’. A rabbit in a laboratory does not, according to the authors, represent its own kind in the same way as, say, a zoo or a wild animal does. It may stand in for its species but only after it has been stripped of all its individuality. In the attempt to describe this peculiar mode of life-forms, the authors bring in the notion of ‘universal interchangability’. Here, the life journey of an animal specimen is compared to that of a commodity. Under the zeal of the laboratory any rabbit will do, as it receives its value from being subject to exchange.
The analogy between the animal specimen and the commodity is oddly echoed in a recent product advertisement by the internet retailer ‘thecheeky.com’: real taxidermied piglets turned into actual piggy banks, hollowed out rather than stuffed, then finished off with coin storage units and cork plugs. At first it looks like a joke; a poor one for sure, but still a joke. But to the scrutinising eye it appears to be real. The mere existence of this object then begs the question: How would it feel to have a thing like that sitting in one’s living room? Is there a difference between our relationship to this object and to, say, a leather sofa? These are questions that inevitably open up to new ones which cannot be answered here. The retailer assures us that the piglets have died of natural causes. Yet, the final product is an uncanny reminder of the alienation of animals within society at large.
‘Animals Are Passing From Our Lives’ is the wonderful title of one of Philip Levine’s poems which recounts the story of pigs being let to the slaughter and tells of ‘consumers who won't meet their steady eyes for fear they could see’. But how exactly may a dead, hollowed out piglet stare back at us? Sold for the sum of $4000 ‘Piglet Bank’ is a product for the few and financially privileged. So, to echo a famous children’s rhyme, this little piggy did indeed go to market. Yet, this little piggy also came home in the guise of a consumer fetish waiting to be filled with money. In the end, the question this object poses is not whether there is a difference between a ‘real’ piggy bank and a leather sofa, but how we might deal with or ‘face up to’ the animal killings we participate in. The thought of dead animals coming back to haunt the home is, of course, not new. Here, one needs only to remember that to Freud, the animal (specifically the crocodile) exemplified the uncanny or unhomely per se. ‘A very specific smell begins to pervade the house’ he wrote, as a vague animal form is seen ‘gliding over the stairs’ and ghostly creatures appear to ‘haunt the place’.But the main question, however, is really about the seriality of life proposed by the notion of ‘universal interchangability’ which makes it possible, even easy, for animal lives (and deaths) to enter into general economic circulation.
Rikke Hansen, 2010.