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Friday, 12 September 2014

Abstract: "Animal agency in politics and eco-existentialism"

Today I have composed the abstract rendered below, for the 2nd research seminar of the Norwegian-Estonian research project "Animals in changing environments: Cultural mediation and semiotic analysis", which will take place at University of Stavanger Friday October 24th.

Animal agency in politics and eco-existentialism 
Morten Tønnessen 
Associate professor in philosophy at Department of social studies & Department of health studies, University of Stavanger, Norway  
What is animal agency? And how are various notions of animal agency explicitly or implicitly presented in different kinds of texts? 
In this presentation I will start out by summarizing a survey conducted in the biosemiotic community on the notions of ‘agent’ and ‘agency’ (Tønnessen, forthcoming), with regard to animal agency. I will also briefly outline the semiotics of animal representations as a field of study (Tønnessen and Tüür 2014). 
Next I will share observations made in my analysis of mentions of animals in Norwegian political party programs for the parliamentary period 2013–2017 (Tønnessen 2013). One of the findings is that animals are in these documents predominantly described in terms of economic resources, not as sentient beings endowed with subjective experience. Even though animal welfare is now addressed by several (particularly small) parties, even most of the parties that are the most positive to improving animal welfare speak of animals in very anthropocentric, reductionistic manners whenever animal welfare is not the topic. 
I will furthermore analyse the essay “The Last Messiah” (1993 [1933]), written by the Norwegian eco-existentialist and mountaineer Peter Wessel Zapffe (1899–1990), with the notion of animal and animal agency in mind. For Zapffe, human compassion with suffering animals is central. But unlike in the case of human beings, he claims, the suffering of animals is limited to their own, more or less immediate, suffering. Likewise animals too feel anxiety, but only human beings can “fear life itself”, or fear their own being. Even though human beings are unique in some respects, including when it comes to relating to death, I will argue that many animals too are in some situations aware that they are mortals. 
This work has been carried out thanks to the support of the research project Animals in Changing Environments: Cultural Mediation and Semiotic Analysis (EEA Norway Grants/Norway Financial Mechanism 2009-2014 under project contract no. EMP151).  
Tønnessen, Morten 2013. Analyse av partiprogrammer for 2013–2017 – utført for Dyreetikkonferansen 2013 [Analysis of political party programs for 2013–2017 – conducted for the Norwegian Animal Ethics Conference 2013]. Oslo 2013: Dyreetikkonferansen. Available online via, ResearchGate (DOI: 10.13140/2.1.3693.1203),, Scribd. 21 pp. 
Tønnessen, Morten, forthcoming. The biosemiotic glossary project: Agent, agency. Forthcoming in Biosemiotics 8(1) (April 2014). 
Tønnessen, Morten and Kadri Tüür 2014. The semiotics of animal representations: Introduction. In Kadri Tüür and Morten Tønnessen (eds), The Semiotics of Animal Representations (Nature, Culture and Literature 10), Amsterdam/New York: Rodopi, p. 7–30.  
Zappfe, Peter Wessel 1993 [1933]. The last Messiah [Den sidste Messias, 1933]. Translated by Sigmund Kvaløy and Peter Reed. In Peter Reed and David Rothenberg (eds): Wisdom in the Open Air: The Nor­wegian Roots of Deep Ecology, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, p. 4052.

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