Muybridge ‘undercut the horse’s essential horseness’

From The Chronicle of Higher Education (online) comes this:
June 27, 2010
Eadweard Muybridge, Thief of Animal Souls

By Randy Malamud

“….my research in anthrozoology (human-animal studies) draws me primarily to Muybridge’s animals, and inclines me to be suspicious of both his perspective and his motives in capturing these creatures’ animating force. If Muybridge’s contextualization of his human models reifies the prevailing notions of gender, his animal studies even more profoundly perpetuate the anthropocentric prejudice that other animals exist to serve our own higher purposes.

Some American Indians believe that to take someone’s image involves actual usurpation of the living spirit.

But do these images displace the actual movement of the actual horse? Have we taken motion from the animal? Having penetrated the animal’s secret, its force of speed, do we exert some kind of control over it? The animals are curiously reduced, caught in the mechanics, the physics, of photography. They are composed not of flesh and blood and hair, but of silver albumen and paper. There were so many of them in the Corcoran Gallery that I couldn’t really see them at all. I certainly couldn’t hear them, or smell them, or feel (as I do in proximity to a real horse) awesomely dwarfed by them. Broken down by Muybridge and his apparatus, they don’t do anything but run, and run. Their force and motion no longer seem their own, but Muybridge’s, and ours. Something of their wildness has been trapped, isolated, and abrogated. Although the human viewers learn much more about the horses, I believe the horses themselves lose something in this transaction.

…..representations that imaginatively or literally rip animals out of their worlds and resituate them as subalterns, or fetishes, or “resources” in our world spell trouble for our fellow species. Muybridge’s complicity in his era’s expansionist and industrial fantasies means, in my judgment, that his photography was ultimately destructive to the animals he so keenly observed. In seeing a horse as a vehicle to make railroads more palatable, he undercut the horse’s essential horseness.”

Randy Malamud is a professor of English at Georgia State University. He is author of Reading Zoos: Representations of Animals and Captivity (New York University Press, 1998) and Poetic Animals and Animal Souls (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), and editor of A Cultural History of Animals in the Modern Age (Berg, 2007).

The Comments are interesting.

hanoch – June 28, 2010 at 09:48 am

“I found the premise of this essay ridiculous and fantastical….. Mr. Malamud has taken Muybridge out of his context….

I think it’s an unjustified stretch to make the taking of a photograph as the stealing of the essence of horses or or of other beings. We still have horses and very often in our lives have the pleasure of seeing them in real life, riding them, grooming them, and nurturing them. In all their physicality and in emotional and caring relationship to them. Do we reduce our family members by taking their pictures? Is looking at the picture of our deceased mothers and fathers, their pictures our legacy of them, a reduction of them or an abuse of them? What foolishness!”

mottgreene – June 28, 2010 at 10:44 am

“I understand the desire pour épater le bourgeois, but one wonders if the author was engaged in a self parody .. the anthropology – stolen souls – is a part of urban legends, not amerindian ethnography … ‘The assertion of fear of soul stealing was actually an imperial legend helping to describe the childishness of primitives to justify conquest.'”

fputnam – June 28, 2010 at 12:02 pm

“@mottgreene: I agree -this must be a parody, although (I fear that) its prominence in the Chronicle suggests not.”

princeton67 – June 28, 2010 at 08:53 pm

“Ah! Retroactive morality – combining the 20-20 vision of hindsight with an anachronistic morality to damn the dead.”

The article is well written and covers a lot of ground – worth reading, part-parody or not.

Posted here by Stephen Herbert