It is through the cage that we – the human – encounter parts of our nature which we are most uncomfortable with: our animality and our inevitable captivity. The cage is defined as “a structure of bars or wires in which birds or other animals are confined” . Inherent in this are both captivity and animality; it is through the lens of the cage that we are made to confront our concept of freedom and our separation from the animal. The idea of freedom defines humanity in the Western world and defines us as other from animal; this freedom is elusive, perhaps even illusory, and therefore a question that puts at risk our perception of the world. Questioning of captivity and freedom is a common theme in literary works, and is most poignant when viewed with the human-animal relationship in mind, as can be seen through the discussions of man and animal in The Open by Giorgio Agamben.
The question of the animal with respect to man remains paradoxical and ill-defined. We find ourselves, as human, in a state of unease with our relationship to animals due to our fear of the questions we may have to answer when facing them. If we assume ourselves to be in a post-historic world, as discussed by Agamben in The Open, we have completed the tasks to assert ourselves as other with respect to animals, but it is in this world that we may also take for granted this relationship. Zoos or more specifically, cages, represent an example where we are unable to deny the question of human and animal. Animal cages in their varying forms reveal our insecurity with our own freedom and captivity; they bring into question our own definition of ourselves as other from the animal and as free beings. Through the cage, Western society comes to a moment of crisis and instability with respect to the world view on which it stands.
To discuss these topics of man and animal, freedom and captivity and their relationship to one another further, two cages serve as examples of their typologies: Boone’s animal fighting cage, and Hagenbeck’s panoramas. Both with historic and anecdotal qualities, these cages serve throughout the discussion to demonstrate how animals in architecture pose the question of our humanity and reveal our uncertainty of our own nature. The cage is an important tool as a heterotopia – a real place where the unreal is able to be experienced. The critical question it poses puts our identity at risk, causing a crisis with respect to how we see the animal and ourselves; the animal has never at once been as other nor as indistinguishable from the human as it is in the western post-historic world, that we find ourselves in now. The “anthropological machine” as defined and described by Agamben proves and defines our humanity, but as this machine idles for the post-historic human we abandon the question, no longer proving ourselves as human. It is when we begin to re-pose this question, especially with respect to the caged animal, that we fail to have a clear answer for it, putting our existence as we know it at the verge of collapse.
To begin the discussion of captivity and its role in our current humanity, I use Agamben’s post-historic man as a base point. The tasks of work and negation have been completed and we are free to be happy . This is the state in which we find ourselves, and consequently the condition we take for granted. It is also part of our Western world view to see the human as being free . We pride the freedom that is granted through our political systems, as well as the sacrifices humanity has made in its name, and are thus horrified by the concept of captivity. This freedom is questioned using Agamben as an example; have we been made free by our post-historic life, or have we accepted captivity and simply wish to deny it in order to keep secure the order we have come to believe in? Humanity’s current attitude towards the caged animal is both paradoxical and revealing in this regard.
Animals in cages bring us to question the humanity and freedom we take for granted; when we see an animal in captivity we see ourselves looking at the animal and the animal looking at us, thus the anthropological machine is set in motion again. Boone’s animal fighting cage represents the cage in its most raw form. A cage designed specifically for the barbaric spectacle of blood creates an increasingly rare moment where a passive and comfortable encounter is difficult to maintain. In 1895 an American circus owner was posed with the dilemma of needing to euthanize his “man eating lion” . The story, pieced together through newspaper reports, represents a sensationalized version of the physical form we imagine a “cage” represents. Boone constructs a cage in order to create a spectacle and profit from the misfortune of his dangerous lion, Parnell. It is in this cage of steel bars that Parnell, a 550 pound African lion, and Ramadan, an 800 pound American grizzly bear, would fight to the death. The cage allows an encounter that inspires fascination from the audience, and that could never otherwise occur. Indeed, by assuming the meeting of these animals in this cage assures a fight to the death indicates a certain assumed knowledge of the animals’ nature, as well as a notion of what this nature is. It is due to the assurance of the animal as other from human, that a spectacle of their deaths is able to be created. It is also the bare-cage setting which causes the most violent form of questioning of this assurance, and exposes the paradox in the current human-animal relationship; the animal as truly other has no morality or capacity for choice, animal rights contradict this otherness, a contradiction brought out by the bare-cage.
In the spectacle of the caged animals we activate a process of seeing and recognising the animals where it is necessary to see them as truly other to fully partake in the enjoyment of it. In the absence of that which gives both the lion and the grizzly their respective lion-ness and grizzly-ness - their natural environment – the bare-cage allows a new understanding and a re-questioning. A sense of pathos develops, empathy can be felt for the animals, and doubt of their otherness materializes. It is in fact the cage that plays a pivotal role in this breaking down of the respective places of the human and the animal.
The legend of this battle of the beasts does not end with death, as advertised in the newspapers of the time, but with both the lion and the grizzly recognizing each other, and ending their battle of their own will without the loss of life . Here the cage allows the animals’ nature to be revealed to us in yet another way: need is stripped to its bare essence, and the animals show their desire to live, and their ability to understand and react, even to learn. Animals in captivity allow us to better understand them and their nature; revealing again a closeness which has led to our current paradoxical relationship of assured otherness in conjunction with an acknowledgement of sameness inherent in the notion of morality and animal-rights- an inclusion of the animal in the political system.
The cage brings us to develop new answers to the human-animal question, and thus we are unable to continue as before, but also unable to accept ourselves as non-human or as equal with the animal. We can see, in this context, the human desire to remain other - our current existence depends on our otherness from the animal - but we also cannot deny the unease felt in seeing the captive animal. Similar to the problem identified by Agamben of the possibility of separating human and animal life is “only because something like an animal life has been recognised and separated within man” ; the idea of freedom depends on that of captivity, but when a freedom is achieved new boundaries are made visible.
The cage as a heterotopia provides a space to encounter and question the human-animal relationship in new ways. The animal is removed from its usual place, but it still remains itself. This removal allows us to see the animal on a more equal level; the cage allows a closeness otherwise impermissible and it is here that human and animal see each other. We know each other, and it is in this knowing that we not only see the animal as being indistinct from the human, but also the human being indistinct from the animal. Through modern science and the “mastery of nature” we have “opened the human mind to the idea of the nonhuman mind” . In addition to this, Darwin’s The Origin of Species altered our view of the Chain of Being – “creatures were neither higher nor lower” - the cage causes us to re-question the notion of the Chain that we have simultaneously rejected and accepted. The mystery between man and animal is removed through knowledge, but by knowing the animal and our likeness we are aware of our mutual shame and guilt. Now not only the human, but also the animal must be redeemed . The animal becomes, like us, neither animal nor human. It is here where the conflict between our humanity and animality as well as our need of captivity for freedom, as seen through the cage, causes a shift in both western society’s language and aesthetic.
The modern zoo has shifted from the iron bar cages that force the most violent reaction from the viewer, to animal habitats : “A fashion for more naturalistic zoo settings instead of steel-barred cages may seem to alleviate the unpleasantness inherent in the display of caged animals” The cage still exists, but its form has been altered to represent the animal as seeming more true to its nature. Nature here is used not to represent the essence of the animal’s being, but to represent the environment we would like to see the animal as living in. This environment is important for allowing a psychological distance between the animal and the human. The animal keeps its animality for the viewer by being engaged in activities we are taught to expect from it. This differs from Boone’s fighting cage by creating a fiction of the animals that matches our preconceived notions, allowing for the animals to seem more bear-like and lion-like. In this way the human-animal separation is able to exist more easily while creating a sense of greater morality. The language used also indicates a sense of freedom granted to the animal, giving us in turn this same freedom from the violent questioning brought on by the bare-cage.
The pioneer of this shift was Hagenbeck with his zoo panoramas. Interestingly Hagenbeck uses visual tricks to create a scene of freely roaming animals, the viewer is allowed to create this fiction of a genuine natural encounter with the animal, even if they know the staged quality of the scene. It is this natural encounter that is used to put the viewer more at ease with respect to their position in relation to the animal. We are able to conceive the possibility of the animal being unaware of its captivity, something which is more difficult to imagine in the case of the bare-cage. The animals may behave in a manner that is expected, we may observe rather than see them.
The modern zoo exists in the name of science, and of knowledge, but as the modern human simulates a greater likeness to a natural animal, our ability to know the animal decreases. The animal becomes merely an image of what we expect of it, or a spectacle to enjoy passively. The lens through which we see the animal is altered in the habitat cage, we no longer have a need to focus on the animal as a captive being, but can accept a notion of freedom for the animal. This in turn allows the tension that arises in our question of morality, or more specifically in our question of what separates human and animal, to be appeased. The explicit contradiction of accepting the animals’ otherness in displaying it in a zoo, and in recognizing its deserving of rights is more easily overlooked, and the accepted order unaltered. The habitat-cage does not remove the chance of serving, like the bare-cage, as a tool for questioning humanity, but it does serve to allow a greater passivity in the questioning. Agamben points out Linnaeus, “the founder of modern scientific taxonomy” who was not ready to concede easily to the notion of animals and human being other; he is noted to having said that “surely Descartes never saw an ape.” By allowing the viewer to not be required to see the animal, they are able to distinguish themselves from it through an inherited notion of the Chain of Being .
In the current state where politics has become simply a bio-politics we have made a case for the care of bare-life as being of utmost importance. This bare-life is defined our creaturely life that coincides with that of the animal. Agamben’s position that we are in a state of bio-politics raises the question of whether as humans we can find fulfillment from a life that is neither human nor animal . This is the same question that is posed when seeing the caged animal that has all its needs satisfied – The caged animal is no longer animal, just as we are no longer human, putting our respective assumed places in nature at risk. The cage as an artifact may be a means to pose the question of humanity and to know and to accept the true nature of both human and animal.
It is also through this bio-politics that we cannot simply deny the blurring of our concept of human and animal, nor the hypocrisy of our assured otherness. We may however, come to see the zoo and the cage as an essential means to question this assurance, and either come to know our likeness to the point of deeming the concept of the zoo and cage as immoral, similar to the historic caging of human-beings in zoos, or we may come to know our likeness and value of bare-life to the point of an acceptance of captivity as a means to fulfill our freedom. In a third case, we may continue to distort the cage typology to avoid the question of human and animal altogether, eventually moving to a zoo typology that objectifies the animal to the point of no longer needing the animal at all, and of then losing the ability to know the animal altogether.
We can see these scenarios as what Agamben has described as versions of the “saved night” ; the Cage allowing a knowledge of the animal and of the human to offer deliverance to both. While the third scenario can be seen as being “the post-historical man […] that seeks to take it on [his own animality] and govern it by means of technology.” In the first two cases, the human abandons and accepts, and in the third humanity closes itself by opening all aspects of its animality. The cage as an artifact is critical in the human-animal question.