Bart de Hartog:
Animal Agency and the Architecture of Differentiation: The Zoo as a Mirror for Society

This essay was written as a part of the Theory Seminar „Life at the Brink: Rethinking the Good Life in the Age of Man & Capital“, taught by Heidi Sohn at the Berlage Institute for Advanced Studies in Architecture and Urban Design at the TU Delft.


By first introducing the development of the zoological garden to the form in which we know it today[1], the human relation to the animal-other represented in the collection of exotic species is used to set the framework for problematizing this relationship. By confronting this history with the thoughts of Levinas, Agamben and Derrida – who dealt with “the question of the animal”[2]–and contemporary thinkers who try to develop this question further to help materialize a non-anthropocentric theory[3], the zoo is presented as both a commodity and an ethical instrument with animals operating as the productive agent. This thought is continued in an attempt to imagine how this could be reflected in a contemporary zoological garden.

A brief history of collecting animals
The zoo as a public project
Animals as productive agents
Facing the animal as/in the mirror
An encyclopedia with a face
Concluding statement


From the domestication of animals for agricultural purposes and the establishment of collections of exotic animals to boast the supremacy of Man over nature, to genetically engineered mice producing cancer for medicinal experiments and compassionately reconstructed habitats for the conservation programs of contemporary zoo’s; the landscape of our animal-others has changed in parallel to the way we see ourselves reflected in them as living beings. With the emergence of new realms of thought concerning the Anthropocene or Capitalocene, and the proposal of a post-humanist theory to move forward from a crisis within the different fields of humanism, the human-animal relationship is posed as a fundamental question in how we continue to distinguish ourselves from the other. The zoo as a cultural and architectural project that frames and mediates the way we encounter animals is used as an example to trace shifts in our relation to them and as a tool to imagine new possible dialogues when this distinction is either enhanced or fades.

A brief history of collecting animals

All ancient civilizations have some history regarding the collection of animals, with the practice of hunting arguably leading to the first wild animals to be caged as trophies to display the nobility of their leaders. The Egyptians had pens around their pyramids with grazing gazelle’s and antelopes, and their fascination for exotic animals led to them use cheetahs and lions for hunting and warfare. The Chinese emperors collected animals from different regions in their palaces with Emperor Wen-Wang establishing a 375 acres park
for hunting and fishing in the 9th century BC, called the Garden of Intelligence. The Greeks did not have such exquisite collections, but the larger villas would be surrounded by domesticated birds and monkeys to display their wealth.[4]

These collections developed from the 16th century when animals were kept by the nobility in seraglios and used for fighting and the display of power, often accompanied by large hunting grounds. The discoveries made on other continents and the established trade routes brought new exotic animals, displaying the power of the men who owned them along with their distinguished taste and intelligence. During the same period these animals were placed in fighting pits, where different species were confronted for the entertainment of the nobleman and his guests. An elephant fighting a rhinoceros would be considered a fair battle but as society was still very much drawn by the violence of the wars of those times, they would just as much enjoy watching a lion fighting a cow.[5]

Museums and zoos today are still based on the gathering of as many interesting objects and specimens as possible, which developed from the increased fascination by nature during the renaissance when numerous European Princes started collections of smaller objects in private cabinets of curiosity. Starting with a small number naturalia but rather filled with medals and antiquities, this gradually changed and the artificilia became of lesser importance compared to rare plants and animals–preferably embryos or curiously deformed specimen–that would display the power and variety of nature while justifying the effort put into the collection by the owner.[6]

Whereas these collections were concerned with dead animals, the menagerie was its living counterpart. Louis XIV accelerated the development of the zoological garden as a classified collection by separating the places in which different species were kept. He built a rectangular fighting pit in Vincennes surrounded by a two story building with balconies for the spectators to see what happens if the species were placed in the same space.[7] Framing animals in cages, courts, gardens, aviaries and pavilions to enhance the experience, Baroque scenography sought to bring order to how the animals were deployed in a sequence of scenes with the suitable architectural elements. By adding perspective effects according to sight lines, organizing the garden with axes and viewpoints and giving the different elements a symbolic structure; strategies that are still used in contemporary zoos.[8]

In all these cases the animal-other was used as a counterpart of its possessor, displaying power, intelligence and good taste. With an increased desire for classification and the need to understand the world around us, the bourgeoisie united in zoological societies decreasing the display of violence and the establishment of nature as a divine inspiration formed a more compassionate relation to animals. To scholarly study animals became a favorite past-time of the elite, assembling the collections and building the parks that laid the foundation of most contemporary zoos in Western Europe.

The zoo as a public project

Whereas there were many instances of travelling collections of animals in display at the circus and on other fairgrounds, the collection of rare animals had always been a private matter for the rich. The establishment of zoological societies that felt that for a city to compete with its international counterparts they would need a zoo as a symbol of national power and imperialism.[9] Throughout the 19th century they spread fast over the European continent, and to be able to pay for the expenses, new housing for the animals, staff and nutrition, the zoo became opened up to the lower classes as a source of income and for their emancipation. Although the societies opened up their memberships to get more income from stockholders, they had to go beyond the display of animals in simple cages to make it pro table, and they added restaurants and offered rides on elephants, ponies and camels. The staging of the animal-other became more important, and new residencies for the animals were built along with other attractions to create an attractive day out for everyone.[10]

This shift in representation marked the beginning of the architectural project of the zoo. Whereas formerly the animals were placed in spaces that were designed according to the style of that time with additional fences and gauzes to contain the species inhabiting it, the desire for more suitable environments arose. Studying living animals had not really picked up despite a few efforts, and the scenery of the zoo seemed so far from the natural habitat that the entrapped animals appeared as non-representative for the species.[11] In 1795 E. de Lacépède argued in favor of recreating characteristics of the natural habitat of the species like caves for foxes and big cats, plateaus for birds, trees for monkey along with ora from the country of origin. Although it took a long time for this became implemented for all animals, this is how animals are presented in most contemporary zoos which are often organized by continent or climate and include a man-made jungle, dessert, ocean or savanna.

At the same time the pavilions within the park were built to represent the original surroundings by referring to the architectural style of the animals’ country of origin, from Indian temples to African huts. In this way the collection became an illustrated encyclopedia[12] where the cages became like a stage set in which the animal was framed to appear in his natural habitat. This allowed scholars and artists to examine the animals as if they were models representing the species.[13] The next step was to take down the bars of the cage, having the animal seemingly free in his reconstructed habitat, of which the rst account is ascribed to Carl Hagenbeck–a notorious animal trader and collector–and his zoo in Stellingen, Hamburg. With the addition of arti cial rocks and moats that formed the boundary, the scenography created an illusion of an animal living free in the wilderness thus appearing more natural to the spectator.

With increased public access to exotic animal-others new forms of critique and representation entered the relationship. The commodification of the wild meant it had to be packaged to sell, while an increased interest in the well-being of the animal provided larger habitats that appeared more like the natural setting from which they originated. To be a civilized society meant that the social contract within our communities extended to the animal-others we found worthy enough to be included. Changing the frame around the captive living being in an attempt to “truly” represent its habitat, the animal was staged as pure and wild for human appropriation, while being more domesticated and acclimatized than before.

Animals as productive agents

Human beings make up one third of the total mass of animals on the planet, outnumbered by almost two-thirds of the animals that live solely for sustaining our lives, with “wild” animals ending last consisting of only 5% of the earth’s animal population.[14] In appropriating the other we have established advanced capitalism through processes of exploitation aimed at both our human- and animal-other, apart from the planet we live on, a political agent of which we are gradually acknowledging the existence. By harvesting the informational power of living matter itself, neo-liberal market forces produce a new political economy that can be mined for pro t. By appropriating and adapting existing forms of life we also neglect the classi cations that we created before, for everything is reduced to the value of the living matter.[15] As Rosi Braidotti puts it “no animal is more equal than any other, because they are all equally inscribed in a market economy of planetary exchanges that commodi es them to a comparable degree and therefore makes them equally disposable.”[16] The human is no longer distinct from the animal, for he is judged on his productive force for the market just like any other living and non-living being.

With overseas colonial trading bringing in both the money and animals necessary to establish zoological gardens, they also brought the human-other to these parks. The distinction between the different human species from the Indies and Africa was done in the same way as that of the different monkeys, elephants and birds by informing the spectator of its origin and customs on a sign next to the cage. Arguably a positive af rmation that there is no distinction between humans and animals, these collections only placed non-white, “uncivilized” human beings on display making it apparent that these living beings were not acknowledged as humans equal to their masters. While at the time these displays of imperialistic supremacy over the other led to critiques drawing a parallel from the slavery imposed on the human-other to the animal- other[17], this view did not become widely shared in the public opinion until the abolishment of slavery but arguably today does not apply to the unknown, exotic other.
By studying the other we gathered knowledge that proved valuable for the production of new technologies and commodities. In observing them we learned things about their behavior which we could then re ect on ourselves, creating a better understanding of life by distinguishing ourselves through a humanist lens that asserted us their qualities and emphasizing the apparent shortcomings that proved our superiority. Our systems of classi cation have went to the extent that we can disassemble the biogenetic structure of the animal, to re-assemble it to produce new living beings that are pro table to us. The invention of oncomouse–the rst patented animal in the world–meant a new realm of the classi cation and commodi cation of life entered our planet in both a physical and a moral/legal sense. Created purely for the purpose of research and sacri cing itself for the progress of medicines that sustains human life, the mouse produces cancer to be t for research on how to treat this disease. The contribution of such animals to the debate by visualizing how advanced capitalism is able to pro t from the bio- genetic structures of life itself, displays the contemporary relation between humans and animals[18].

Now that robots can do the farming for us were are liberated from directly engaging with the animal-others for which we have little compassion, illustrated by the pins that pierce a cows head for us so that it dies in the most “humane” way. Capitalisms’ demand for growth and the development of new consumable products turns compassion for the other into a weakness, against a mode of thought that fundamentally prioritizes the self. This includes both the human- and the animal-other, exploiting both forms of life for the pro t of a small group of individuals. The distinction between a disposable and a loved living being only exists in the construction of our relationship to it, and whether it produces a stronger rationally productive or emotional value.

Facing the animal as/in the mirror

Struggling to assign meaning to our own existence, we have projected certain characteristics on animals as a means of distinction to subsequently form an image of ourselves based on what we derive from looking at them. The presence of animal gures in our language says less about them than it does about us, for they only “exist” and are attributed with these characteristics if we acknowledge them to do so. By rendering them as more than a being that lives in the service of Man we either humanize the animal, or de-humanize ourselves, blurring the distinction. By focusing on this de-humanizing aspect, deconstructing the idea of Man at the center of thought, we can confront the boundary we have put up between ourselves and the animal and imagine new relationships.

The “question of the animal” is a topic dealt with by many philosophers, not without dif culties since the concept of the animal itself is an inadequate generalization of a multiplicity of life forms and perspectives for beings other than ourselves. In line with Levinas’ notion of ethics as “being called into question by the face of the other”, Derrida poses that animals of various sorts may have a face and are thus “able to call upon us and obligate me in ways that I cannot fully anticipate”.[19] The zoo can be considered the extraordinary space assigned to the confrontation of the human facing the animal, and arguably it has an ethical impact by facing framed instances of the exotic wonders of the “natural world” within the contemporary human habitat, allowing us to re ect our own existence on that of the other. Man, in the experience of profound boredom, has risked himself in the suspension of his relationship with the environment as a living being ... [He is able] to remember captivation an instant before a world disclosed itself .... Dasein is simply an animal that has learned to become bored; it has awakened from its own captivation to its own captivation. This awakening of the living being to its own being- captivated, this anxious and resolute opening to a not-open, is the human. -Giorgio Agamben[20]
Continuing on this track of thought, the captive animals both display the exotic grandeur of nature’s creations which we like to project on ourselves, but also our own struggles when we are caught up in a market-economy that reduces you to nothing if you don’t participate in the rat-race. We are as much imprisoned in our own modes of production as the animals we appropriated to re ect upon our own existence.

In this sense zoo animals suffering from zoochosis–the “psychological” condition from living entrapped in the cages of the zoo–appear tragic to us for we are unable to dehumanize ourselves and to see that many of our human-others live under same conditions and thus suffer from similar diseases. The amount of people that are designated as chronically ill–suffering from “diseases” like depression, ADHD, diabetes, Alzheimers and so on–increases drastically with our process of modernization
and progress. We have become equally ill, just like our planet, emphasizing how bound we are to other living beings and how our agency extends our own existence as human beings and extends to all forms of life.

If we relate this to the current popularity of both narratives about an imminent apocalypse and the rising visits to zoos globally, we could argue that either we have accepted our fate and continue producing under the ag of advanced capitalism, or that we are starting to see the results of our behavior over the last decades and are using these two commodities as tools for re ection. Whereas the rst example seems more probable, the productive potential of the second scenario can be explored by including real examples of our contemporary relationship with the animal-other in the zoological garden, in an attempt to strengthen the re ective agency of the apparent ction of these life forms.

An encyclopedia with a face

By assigning differences between ourselves and animal we constructed the humanist notion of Man, which is subsequently deconstructed in the argument on how tied we are to these animals, and not only in a patriarchal way. Our ability to construct new forms of life for our own bene t can be used to shape living beings that re ect the processes of dehumanization embedded in our contemporary modes of production. It is considered right to act humanely to your pet or demand more space for the exotic animal at the zoo while neglecting the well-being of the animal-other that ends up wrapped pre-packaged as a ready-to-use steak for dinner[21]. The contemporary animals brought to the fore by Rosi Braidotti in her text on becoming-animal contain a productive force when imaging a new zoological garden, with Dolly the sheep and oncomouse illustrating to what extend we will first alter the other to learn how we can consequently alter ourselves to ful ll our desires for survival and progress.

New animal forms are entering the domain and demand proper classification while others are disappearing through extinction caused by our own modes of production. The integration of these two species in a contemporary zoo–as a project of innovation and conservation through (re-production–can add imagery to the mirror that illustrates how we deal with the other to sustain our production. Without presenting it as a moralistic endeavor, the entrance of these nonfictional, yet mythical, creatures to the public project of the zoo can both bring in new forms of experiencing nature as it is and improve the understanding of our role in the commodification of life.
If there is any difference that can still be assigned to separate the human and the animal, it is that the intertwined practices of ethics and storytelling display our human singularity rather than our supremacy.[22] Linking it to poetics, the minimal ethics of the zoo should focus on the display of the contemporary human-animal relationship, with the premise of kinship presented right next to the productive exploitation of life in a narrative. Again we can use animals to make sense of the world and illustrate stories to transfer knowledge on to younger generations for:

It is only through relationality with what is not in us–with other living beings but also with widely conceived “environment” that consist of animate and inanimate entities and processes–that we can activate the life that moves us, and it is only through instruction in wisdom that we can learn to apprehend our own situatedness in the network of ever changing relations. –Joanna Zylisnka[23]

Not only does this allow us to imagine new extraordinary experiences, likened to many other trends in what are called “immersed experiences”, it also stresses the agency of the project of the zoo as reflection of society and a productive narrative in post-human theory. By including the reality of the contemporary habitats of most of animal-others as a result of advanced capitalism, the potential of using these settings to help narrate new stories and construct alternative options for coexistence. Research done on the value of enriched environments for the development of the brain activity–for both human and non-human living beings with brains–show that living in a habitat that challenges the inhabitant, makes living beings happy, more intelligent and less stressed[24]. By introducing elements to the habitat that help tell the narrative while adding to the living environment of the animal, the relationship becomes more productive for both the spectator and the subject.

Concluding statement

As a project of exhibition, education and conversation, the zoo displays the movement from a feudal to an advanced capitalist society that commodifies the other. If the zoo was a censored state of exception constructed for the animal-other to narrate stories of our own existence, a post-anthropocentric zoological garden has to review the differentiation in both spatial and special terms to be able to narrate our contemporary relationship.

Published via ZOO INDEX with a kind agreement of the author Bart de Hartog.

Baratay, Eric, and Elisabeth Hardouin-Fugier. 2002. Zoo. A History of Zoological Gardens in the West. London: Reaktion.
Braidotti, Rosi. “Post-Anthropocentrism: Life beyond the Species.” In The Posthuman. Cambridge: Polity, 2013.
Calarco, Matthew. Zoographies. The Question of the Animal from Heidegger to Derrida. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.
Zylinska, Joanna. “Humanity.” In Minimal Ethics for the Anthropocene. Michigan: Open Humanities Press, 2014.

[1] Zoo: A History of Zoological Gardens in the West, p113
[2] Zoographies: The Question of the Animal from Heidegger to Derrida, p5
[3] Rosi Braidotti, Joanna Zylinska among others from the course reader
[4] Zoo: A History of Zoological Gardens in the West, p17
[5] Ibid. p25
[6] Ibid. p30-31
[7] Ibid. p40
[8] Ibid. p43
[9] Zoo: A History of Zoological Gardens in the West, p80
[10] Ibid. p104
[11] Ibid. p136
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid. p137
[14] warning
[15] The Posthuman, p61
[16] Ibid. p71
[17] Zoo: A History of Zoological Gardens in the West, p113
[18] The Posthuman, p61
[19] Zoographies: The Question of the Animal from Heidegger to Derrida, p5
[20] Agamben as quoted by the author in Zoographies, p99
[21] Interpretation of Borges animals: Those we watch tv with, those we are scared of and those we eat for dinner in The Posthuman, p68
[22] Minimal Ethics for the Anthropocene, p66 [23] Ibid. p68
[24] of%20the%20Brain%20to%20Enrichment/


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