Avian Consciousness in Don DeLillo's The Body Artist

Author: Karnicky, Jeffrey

Source: Anthrozoos: A Multidisciplinary Journal of The Interactions of People & Animals, 1 March 2009, vol. 22, no. 1, pp. 5-18(14)


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The Body Artist, DeLillo's 2001 novel, focuses on a character who, through the mediating forces of language and sensory perception, enters into a space little explored in DeLillo's fiction—the consciousness of a bird. The novel continually pays close attention to the groups of birds that frequent the feeders that the title character has placed in her yard. The sensory experience of birds, and its differences from human sensory experience, gets much attention in the novel. The Body Artist, while investigating literary language and human perception, invents a way of bridging the distance between human and animal consciousness that helps an interspecies awareness to emerge. One of the founding scientists of cognitive ethology, Donald Griffin, writes that “the challenging scientific question is, how widespread among animals is conscious awareness?” This question undoubtedly has scientific import, but it also has import in a broader sense of how humans live in the world as they interact with other forms of life, and in how we read and understand literary texts. Differences in ways that humans see the world can lead to differences in ways that humans act in the world. This difference can lead to questions of ethics, conservation, and otherness. Griffin writes that: “Our ethical judgments about how we should treat members of other species are strongly influenced by what we believe about their consciousness.” If we believe that blue jays and other birds have a consciousness that is more similar to our own than previously thought, in what ways might human behavior change? How might human interactions with differently-conscioused beings—birds—change? How might our reading practices change? The Body Artist suggests some interesting possibilities that could lead to a rethinking of human–animal relations.


Document Type: Research Article

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.2752/175303708X390437

Publication date: March 1, 2009

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