At first encounter, Aleksei Kazantsev’s Relaxing Chamber strikes the viewer with an ambiguous title. From a layperson’s point of view, the phrasemight suggest a space designed for ordinary relaxation: a spa steam room or massage chamber to release muscles tense from the stresses of life. One might think that the book somehow seeks to put the viewer at ease, to help in mindful meditation to relieve anxiety and seek inner peace. The title is, however, a clever ruse: relaxing chambers are used to release the rigor mortis of dead insects in preparation for photography and/or display.
The question of the fact of animal consciousness matters for its own sake and interest, but even more so because of its ethical consequences.
The book in fact seeks to address a weighty topic of immense interest: animal consciousness. Something we call consciousness is, of course, one of the characteristics, if not the characteristic thought to define the human being. However, whether animals are conscious, and if they are, what their consciousness is like, are issues that have exercised philosophers and scientists for millennia. And not for nothing; the stakes are high. The question is about our relationship to a vast part of the world around us: are we and animals similar to each other and to what extent? The 19th-century form of the question would have been, are we animals? Or are we somehow more than animals—more than other animals? Are we superior to them by virtue of our presumed levels of consciousness? But if we and other animals are in no significant way different, what follows?
Kazantsev is tackling something extremely significant here. The question of the fact of animal consciousness matters for its own sake and interest, but even more so because of its ethical consequences. Consciousness commands ethical status. And in human beings, it also, together with the presumption of a free will, underwrites ethical responsibility. We tend not to ascribe ethical status to inanimate and inorganic things, because they seem to lack consciousness. But as soon as any entity—e.g., animal or machine (remember the fast development of AI, and the prospect of us crossing the uncanny valley)—qualifies as conscious or even potentially conscious, ethical implications abound: how can and must such an entity be treated; what should our relationship to it be like; what can and must be expected of it in its actions and relations to other beings, including us?
Kazantsev’s title thus seems to speak of Homo sapiens as a sinister manipulator of the rest of the animal kingdom. It also implies the role that art and photography have had in depicting dead—killed—animals in studies of biological morphology and taxonomy. The title reminds us that we kill animals for our own purposes, even for pursuits not related to our basic needs of survival, such as for food or clothing/warmth, but for our own education. We kill them for our own desire to increase our consciousness of the world. Imagery, photography of those killed animals contributes to the circulation of knowledge that we collectively seek to increase.
Whatever earlier philosophers and neurologists have said, human beings and non-human animals share the capacity for subjective perceptual, affective, and even intentional states and self-recognition.
Visually the book is strongly marked by a theme of darkness matching the sombre note set by the title. Starting with the black velvet cover fabric, almost the whole book is essentially black: dense black-and-white images mostly printed on black paper (mostly; there is a final section of lighter paper—more about that soon), with blank black spreads and some with text so dark grey that it hardly stands out from the background. In terms of its design, the book looks like it really carries the weight of its topic.
The photographs are visually seductive in their concentration on details of animal parts. We are invited to observe what look mostly like close-ups of varying degrees of definition from the totally blurred to the almost pin-sharp; tentacles, animal skin, eyes, plumage, clawed legs, teeth, unrecognisable parts of all sorts and so on. In many cases it is impossible to recognise the species of animal at issue (for me, this holds for most cases, but a well-trained zoologist might see more in these images).
Between the non-human animals, there are mostly blurry Homo sapiens faces, some with eyes closed, some looking askance, some possibly with tears in their eyes, some with downcast eyes, some with a wide open mouth, apparently taking a deep breath suggesting an overwhelming emotion. The representatives of Homo sapiens in the book are probably there to explore the human capacity for feeling, affective states.
The textual component written by Dr Christian Tudorache of Leiden University is useful in anchoring the book in its conceptual topic of animal consciousness. The text, broadly speaking, underlines the current scientific/philosophical view that animals are sentient beings, whether or not their neurology has all the parts of human structures. Whatever earlier philosophers and neurologists have said, human beings and non-human animals share the capacity for subjective perceptual, affective, and even intentional states and self-recognition.
… how could a medium like photography ever manage to make an effective representation of as interiorised, inward a phenomenon as consciousness?
This is where the book makes me struggle a little—I am not sure I understand it as a whole. The interplay of often unrecognisable animal parts and depictions of fairly complete, certainly recognisable human faces might in fact end up visually emphasising the difference between Homo sapiens and the rest of the animal kingdom. The non-human animals in the book often appear almost as dissected fragments where the species, or even a single wholebeing is no longer recognisable. After all, consciousness is something subjective, something the qualities of which are accessible to the subject mostly as its own awareness. To visualise it might mean encountering it as holistically as possible—not reducing subjects to parts selected by the photographer. Seeing reptilian skin or, e.g., beautifully layered plumage of a bird of prey in isolation from the rest of the animal might reduce the individual being to a curious fragment or specimen. This is all the more striking when the fragments are juxtaposed with human individuals represented by one of the body parts most richly expressive of their subjective states, viz. their faces. Animals of course express emotions in varied ways, such as through their skin—so do we humans, after all—but it is difficult to work this out from photographs, at least when there is no specific explanation for the images.
But maybe the problem is not so much with Kazantsev’s particular photographic attempt to think about animal consciousness as with the very medium of photography in general. As has been noted many times, this is a medium of, to borrow Abigail Solomon-Godeau’s words, ‘brute exteriority’ characterised by a ‘depthlessness’ and inability to penetrate beyond surface appearances. Put this together with philosopher Thomas Nagel’s (referred to in Kazantsev’s book) suggestion that it is impossible to inhabit the consciousness of another being: we simply cannot experience the world from the viewpoint of another animal, such as a bat, no matter how much we might emulate their behaviour by sleeping upside down and using sonars to perceive objects. We would still experience this behaviour as human beings with human neurology. If this is the case, how could a medium like photography ever manage to make an effective representation of as interiorised, inward a phenomenon as consciousness?
… we have to seek to understand the experience of others (for otherwise, all hope of decency vanishes), but always remember that we will never fully succeed.
Perhaps, then, Kazantsev’s animal photographs coupled with portraits of humans and their emotions are a good photographic representation of the difficulty of attempting to enter another being’s consciousness, their innermost experience. Perhaps the book reads well as a reflection on the ultimately impossible but also ethically necessary struggle to seek understanding of how other beings—human and non-human—experience and understand things. Perhaps the book says to us that we should be under no illusion: we have to seek to understand the experience of others (for otherwise, all hope of decency vanishes), but always remember that we will never fully succeed.
This reading is to an extent enforced by the last part of the book—the section with the white pages. It is, at first sight, an odd addendum that recounts Kazantsev’s childhood memory of getting his first camera and using it to shoot animals caged in a travelling zoo. The story also includes an experience of a deceitful promise made to Kazantsev.
The photographs he took several decades ago have never been printed until this supplement to the otherwise coherently dark book. One might ask, what changed—why print them now? Why break the coherence of the book? Is this Kazantsev in a confessional mode opening up about what has for long felt like youthful naïveté?
Maybe the appendix is there to tell us that Kazantsev has struggled with questions of ethics, photography, and our relationship with animals for a long time (e.g., lying promises have been archetypal ethical problems at least since Kant). If so, this book is certainly not a spa steam room for inner peace. It is an argument to take ethics seriously, despite the world developing in an increasingly troubling direction, and stick with it even when the results lead to apparent contradictions. We just need to work harder to understand each other.