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Animality: slippery stuff

What is animality?


I’ve been grappling with this for many years.


‘Animality’ is an elusive term. It evades attempts at being pinned down to any solid or meaningful description. But consensus suggests it refers to characteristics, clusters of features or sets of behaviours that are relative to different nonhuman animals. These include their essence, temperament, character, habits, instinctive qualities, skills and capabilities, creativity and resourcefulness, knowledge or knowing, and social nature, for example.

‘Animality’ is akin to personality, although it avoids personification or anthropomorphism. Its slippery nature creates space for artists to explore and examine nonhuman perspectives and other ways of knowing and being in the world.

Grasping animality


My use of ‘animality’ in my art is as an all-encompassing term that refers to both nonhuman and human animals alike. In my opinion, it is the instinctual – the common denominator that is inherent in all animals, including humans. It connects us all. Jacques Derrida saw animality as an overarching term for ‘the life of the living’ (Derrida, 2008. p.49) that is distinguished from the inorganic. He defines animality as having an ability to be in tune with the senses; a capacity to be affected by external stimuli and an ability to respond to these stimuli. It is a consciousness which allows the subject to adjust to its situation or environment; a capability for spontaneous movement. Derrida talks about this as:


sensibility, irritability, and auto-motricity, a spontaneity that is capable of movement, or organising itself and affecting itself, marking, tracing, and affecting itself with traces of itself. This auto-motricity as auto-affection and relation to itself is the characteristic recognised as that of the living and of animality in general. (Derrida, 2008. p.49).


In my view, this sums things up nicely.

So, animality vs rationality?


Animality’s contradictory nature and its constant evasion of definition means that it may be thought of as having some form of rationality, a domain that is typically thought of as human. After all, it is well documented and evidenced that some animals have an ability to remember specific events and can utilise tools. 


When considering the broad spectrum of nonhuman species both in natural ecosystems and in a domestic context, the term ‘animality’ encapsulates the expansive variety of animal ways of being; the differences between species and individual animals; and their varying cognitive capacity. For me, the term ‘animality’ also places human beings squarely in the mix, on a par with all other living species – and back inside nature. There is no hierarchy involved in ‘animality’. Rosi Braidotti reminds us that the nature and culture continuum ‘was dismissed with colonial arrogance as “animism”’ (Braidotti, 2020. p.29), at a time when binary distinctions, central to European thought, came about during the Enlightenment. And now, in the face of a climate emergency, Braidotti rightly urges us to recognise how ecologically interconnected all life is – interwoven through multiple connections ‘starting from the same planetary milieu’ (Braidotti, 2020. p.30).



Animality occupies a broad spectrum of sensibilities and is a means through which knowledge is gathered and experienced. Research shows us that, like humans, some nonhuman animals are sentient beings, having a capacity to feel a wide range of emotions including embarrassment, jealousy, love, anger and compassion (Bekoff, 2000). And, according to an article in the journal Frontiers in Psychology (Amin et al, 2017), emotions substantially influence and shape cognitive processes such as perception, attention and problem solving. 


There’s so much to say about animality – see next week’s blog for more …



Amin, H.U, Malik, A.S, Saad, M.N.M, Tyng, C.M (2017), The Influences of Emotional Learning, [Internet] Available at:  [Accessed: December 2022].

Bekoff, M (2000) Animal Emotions: Exploring Passionate Natures: Current Interdisciplinary Research Provides Compelling Evidence That Many Animals Experience Such Emotions As Joy, Fear Love, Despair and Grief – We are Not Alone. Bioscience, [Internet] Available at: [Accessed: January 2022].

Braidotti, R (2020) “We” may be in this together, but we are not all human and we are not one and the same. Utrecht: Ecocene. [Internet] Available at: [Accessed: November 2022].

Derrida, J. (2008) The Animal That Therefore I am. New York: Fordham University Press.






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