Thoughts on John Berger's Why Look at Animals? (2009)

Updated: Dec 5, 2018

For one, the conclusion of Chapter 1 made me sad to be an inside-pet owner, keeping my pet from enjoying the freedom of outside; albeit for good personal reasons. Berger says when animals are caged for commoditized viewing at zoos “what was central to their interest [is] replaced by a passive waiting for a series of arbitrary outside interventions” (25). Though acquired with purpose, I have left New Girl’s (1) life devoid of meaning in the cage that is my house. Berger says that animals' environments, with fake props positioned to recreate their natural habitat is an illusion that they cannot escape so consequently, they retreat to the edges of their confinements with empty gazes; visualizing the now inescapable marginalization of these animals thus answering to the reason for dissatisfactory visits to the zoo. This reminds me of the aquarium scene in Happy Feet (2006) where the protagonist penguin Mumble, unfamiliar with his environment, becomes depressed with the once present meaning or interest in his life (tap dancing) stripped from him until he is reminded by a meaningful arbitrary outside intervention (2); this circumstance in that the human is both the being to strip away and restore Mumble’s livelihood puts itself in a similar position to the white savior complex. The “Dancing for Aliens” scene (3) where the humans return Mumble back to his habitat, aware of his ability to tap dance and make music (i.e. existence as a sentient being), perfectly alludes to Berger’s earlier mention of the relationship between man and animal with man’s desire to be seen by the animal, or experience the returning gaze.

Note: It is interesting that Happy Feet premiered before the release of this book, which usually isn’t the case when I make connections to media, which is to say perhaps Happy Feet influenced John Berger’s analysis of seeing animals.

This passage also draws connections to Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You (2018) critique of capitalism, modern slave labor, and race relations. In a brief summary, Berger explains how Industrialization further propelled this equation: animal - soul = machine. More explicitly, he says “nearly all modern techniques of social conditioning were first established with animal experiments” (13). In this sense, Sorry to Bother You comes full circle in inserting animals back into the human social conditioning of capitalism. In the film, *spoiler alert* the CEO of a rising, though already popular company using pseudo-prison labor to manufacture commercial goods is interested in furthering the production of his business. Overzealous (and quite maniacally), he creates a snorting powder that transforms the bodies of men into beast in order to increase man-power to that of the strength of horses. Berger says “nature is a value concept…[that is] opposed to the social institutions which strip man of his natural essence & imprison him. (17)” In this same regard, the film eliminates the idea of nature or any natural element, only providing the cold, harshness of work and factory environments with no escape. This film uses satire and surrealism to hypothesize the limits to which humans will do perpetuate capitalism, all the while creating the same existential dualism we’ve imposed on animals for ourselves merging the venn diagram of our differences.


1. New Girl is my female cat, named after the FOX show New Girl because my mom and I were binge-watching it and she was the new girl in the house.

2. Watch here:

3. Watch here:


#JohnBerger #Animals #HappyFeet #SorryToBotherYou

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I recently received and accepted an internship to work at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture. The position, beginning in February 2020—the onset of Black History