Book review - Why are animals funny?

Taking a post-modern look at modern politics.

Andreja Zevnik
12 May 2014

EDA Collective, Why are Animals Funny? Everyday Analysis: Volume 1

Zero Books, 136pp, £9.99, ISBN 9781782793915

What is Everyday Analysis, or EDA, and what does it offer? EDA, as the authors describe it themselves, is a collective project based in Manchester and London. In their writing, the collective takes objects, ideas, practices, languages, images we engage with everyday, as their main objects of analysis and in an analytical and often funny way expose how taken-for-granted reality is fractured, contested and full of contradictions and inconsistencies. Even the most banal practices and conventions – how we sign off emails or why we judge books by their covers, and why we shouldn’t – hide social pathologies and EDA is here to expose these pathologies. With their first book, Why are Animals Funny?, the collective offers an intriguing insight into the symbiosis of theory and practice in the everyday; and precisely that symbiosis is at the heart of EDA’s brilliance. Aware of the dangers of theory in popular writing, the collective manages to make use of sometimes awfully complex ideas and concepts without losing much of their nuances. This book is thus a delightful example of the importance of theory in understanding the everyday, and a perfect testimony of Slavoj Žižek’s statement on the importance of theory: ‘life without theory is gray, a flat stupid reality – it is only theory which makes it “green”, truly alive, bringing out the complex underlying network of mediations and tensions which makes it move’. Unsurprisingly (although not solely), it is Lacanian psychoanalytic theory that features most prominently in this book; and it is a smooth and unforced marriage between politics and psychoanalysis where this book is at its best. Political and theoretical revelations come naturally, as if they have always been there, as if they only needed picking up and being served to a knowledge- and fun-hungry reader.

This books also comes as a proper refreshment to the current academic environment which, at least in social sciences (and one would venture a guess that humanities are not far behind), is more and more driven by funding and impact agendas, by a cut-throat competition as to who is to come closer to the holy grail of power and, as an expert, become new politicians’ best friend. In the days when intellectual curiosity and critique seems to be losing ground to government-supporting agendas, EDA collective sheds light not only on the conduct of politics, but with its collective writing practice (crowd-writing), the ethics of sharing ideas and the non-existent questions of ownership, puts up a mirror to their peers and invites them to consider their policy-driven endeavors in light of what academic profession is supposed to be. Is academia – especially social sciences and humanities – about education, research, teaching and cultivation of a critical mind or is its ultimate purpose a spin-doctor type consultancy enterprise competing for the attention of those in power?

I wish politics people – those in office or perhaps, even more, the others/experts who are sitting in their academic ivory towers whispering in their masters’ ears – would read this book and open their eyes and minds to a different kind of politics; a politics which perhaps underlies their unchallenged faith and trust in knowledge that is squeezed out of the public by forms of survey-type number-crunching. Perhaps there is more to politics than what public polls, opinions, and statistical modeling can show, and, just perhaps, that more can explain and predict the unforeseen outcomes and changes in a wider political spectrum better than the aforementioned statistical gymnastics. An essay on 2010 UK general elections shows why political agendas should not (solely) be placed in the hands of numbers; the Liberal Democrats, after what was a well-foreseen success at the elections driven by a promise of a different politics and aided by a general dissatisfaction with the (New Labourite) politics of an average Briton, lost their political momentum. Instead of capitalizing on their success, the party (Nick Clegg) got scared of their perceived and potentially transforming power. To turn to psychoanalysis, they became the phallus par excellence – this being a form of power, which in the process of exercising its potential, castrates itself. And what else did Nick Clegg do, but castrate himself and the party? The most powerful politician in the country, as essay 14 nicely explains, is bound by being only able to ask himself the one question: who must we choose to render our party impotent? And Clegg chose the impotence well; scared of the power to start and to end the alleged coalition-driven crisis, he rendered himself powerless. Let’s not forget that after the winner-less elections the media was preparing the British public for a monumental political breakdown that was to come in a form of a coalition-government and the alliance of the strongest party with one of the back-runners; or worse, with an unimaginable coalition between the two back-runners. The UK, after-all, can barely stand a coalition government, but a coalition where the winner remains in opposition is simply unimaginable. A prisoner of political conventions and institutional memories, Clegg refused the received power. And perhaps that would never have been surprising, if the title of another essay is to be taken seriously, ‘On the Impossibility of Judging the Book by Its Cover. Two books on Joyce, as the essay reveals, while very different in content, bear the same cover-page photo. In politics, what comes under a similar yet inverted banner are party manifestos. Speaking to the same electoral bodies, party manifestos are allegedly distinct – a different leader is attached to them – yet in reality not too different. But if Liberal Democrat’s front-cover initially emerged as distinct and somewhat different, to follow the essay’s logic, can one entertain the thought that once faced with power, the party lost any sense of difference? Clegg as a face attached to a different cover-page took himself out of a political game and in this action exposed the same-ness of their manifesto; after all, it might not be all that different to that of their coalition partners.

Politically inspired revelations continue in numerous other essays. For example, the reader is faced with the well-instated and popular liberal practice of charity. EDA invites us to ask the question for whom charity works best. Their unsurprising answer is of course for those who give to charity; and that, not only because, as again Žižek somewhere else wrote, with charity, ‘we’ – comfortably-living Western individuals – buy out our bad conscience of consuming more than we need, but because charity avoids conflict and maintains status quo. It surpasses and further delays asking the most important question, that is: how charity became necessary in the first place? And how its causes might be addressed by changing the system? Or further, the reader is confronted with questions of death – why are deaths almost aestheticised when they are far off? The representation of death and suffering turns into a profitable business, but only for as long as it is far removed from its viewers. Imagine, as EDA asks us to do, that instead of suffering bodies in the Vietnam War, starving children in Africa or the portrayals of de-humanised workers in Bangladesh, the factory accident in Ellesmere Port is described in the same aestheticised and de-humanised way. What would our reaction then be?

Written in clear opposition to a growing academic practice where knowledge control, gate-keeping and intellectual property have become key assets, Why Are Animals Funny? is a serious book that deserves close consideration by those interested in the possible futures of political, social and cultural criticism. It is a serious book that is fun to read and perhaps even a book with an unexplored didactic purpose: try introducing your students to postmodernism and critical thinking through this book and see what happens, I suggest. As Mladen Dolar put it, it’s a real grook!


EDA Collective, Why are Animals Funny? Everyday Analysis: Volume 1

Zero Books, 136pp, £9.99, ISBN 9781782793915

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