According to the OED, “zoography” refers generally to the description of animals and specifically to both the scientific classification (zoology) and the pictorial representation of animals; the latter meaning also can stand for pictorial art in general. [1] Taken directly from ancient Greek, its first written usage was back in 1593, referencing early work in scientific description and, it seems, the whole of known animals in general. It was not used in writing to refer to pictorial representation of animals until 1656. [2] The former meaning seems to have remained the same throughout history, though its usage has become quite rare in the past hundred years. [3]

However, using “zoography” to refer generally to the pictorial arts has seen something of a revival in media discourse, a usage pioneered by Derrida in Of Grammatology. In the midst of discussing Rosseau’s essay on the origin of language, Derrida digs up the archaic term zoography to emphasize a certain violence done to our perceived reality in both writing and painting, as argued by Rosseau. The following quote makes this clear:

“Here painting—zoography—betrays being and speech, words and things themselves because it freezes them. Its offshoots seem to be living things but when one questions them, they no longer respond. Zoography has brought death. The same goes for writing. No one, and certainly not the father, is there when one questions. Rosseau would approve without reservations. Writing carries death. One could play on this: writing as zoography as that painting of the living which stabilizes animality, is, according to Rosseau, the writing of the savages… Writing would indeed be the pictorial representations of the hunted beast: magical capture and murder.” [4]

Though Derrida uses zoography simply to explore Rousseau’s theory of writing, which cannot be assumed to be Derrida’s, he does the term in an unusual way, suggesting that media involves the “capture” of reality and that its subsequent stasis outside of context equals a “death” of reality. He also makes clear Rousseau’s assertion that word and image are both founded in this problematic mimesis, and this foundation is found in the “primitive” cave art that uses animals as its sole subject/media of representation. It’s also worth noting that Derrida identifies his usage of “zoography” as actually that of the ancient Greeks; he quotes the dialogue Cratylus and its judgment “writing is unfortunately like painting (zoography)” and formally references it before applying the term to Rosseau. [5] Thus, Derrida makes the term “zoography” relevant to media theory through its connotative link between word and image in their fundamental limitations and inherent “violence,” one that is as old as Western philosophy itself.

More recent media theory has utilized zoography in a more historical context. W. J. T. Mitchell references Derrida’s use of zoography and its connotations of imperfect mimesis in the chapter “Surplus Value of Images” in his book What Do Pictures Want? In his discussion of the origins of mimesis, he mentions “zoographic” images as both the source of writing and the subject of the very first paintings, citing Derrida’s use of zoography as the source of the term and concept; however, he focuses more on the place of animals in the history of images and culture rather than its connotations of both physical and metaphorical violence. [6] Also, Hermann Kalkofen mentions zoography in his essay “Irreconcilable Views,” a study of the use of contradictory, multiple views in perspectival pictures. An art historian, Kalkofen is interested in zoography as a historical artistic discipline that concerned itself solely with the depiction of living beings and was separate from painting of inanimate objects, or scenography, until the third century BC in Ancient Greece. [7] He goes on to discuss the disparate perspectives of subject, a living being, and background within Renaissance painting through the terms “zoography” and “scenography.” [8] It is clear Mitchell and Kalkofen consider zoography more of a historical focus on a specific period of painting and do not consider it an inherent judgment of media as Derrida seems to.

Unlike Derrida, Mitchell, and Kalkofen, Akira Mizuta Lippit’s piece of film criticism “The Death of an Animal” posits zoography as a metaphysical perspective on “animal,” implicitly rejecting its specificity to a particular type or period of painting. Lippit’s essay concerns the portrayal of animal death throughout the history of Western cinema, scrutinizing both graphic depictions of butchery and hunting and mainstream fantasy of animal death embodied in the disclaimer “No animals were harmed in the making of this film.” While discussing a segment from Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil, he proposes a dichotomy of zoography and ethnography, as related in the following quote:

“In this scene from Sans Soleil, Marker’s partition functions not only as the divide between differing views of life and death, animal and human being, East and West, but also between the rhetoric of zoography and ethnography. Like the children that “stare through the partition,” Marker’s look blurs the lines that separate humanity from animals: children mourn the animals as if they were people; a hunter kills a giraffe like a condemned man, as if it were guilty. The exchange of human and animal features takes place across the threshold of the imaginary partition. [9]

By attaching the term “zoography” to a cultural/semiotic understanding of human and animal nature independent of pictorial and cinematic mediation, Lippit abstracts zoography and its twin connotations of visual (or in this case cinematic) representation and scientific categorization and applies it as a critical tool for the analysis of media. Zoography the method becomes zoography the mindset, a metaphysical outlook in which animals must be rounded up and killed in order to preserve humanity’s imaginary “difference” that produces a long narrative of pictorial and eventually cinematic representations of animal death, usually at the hands of humans. What Derrida alludes to in Of Grammatology to describe the mimetic “violence” of symbols Lippit fashions into a theory of the Western human-animal relationship.

Following Lippit’s reasoning, zoography can describe, or rather explain, any symbolic representation of animals, from cave painting to poetry to computer animation, that identify “animal” as other and use the “violence” of mimesis to maintain this metaphysical divide. This usage of zoography strays from its etymological roots as defining a general practice of painting living things, for it can be presumed that Lippit would consider any representation of animals that does not exhibit this philosophy would be considered as not of zoography despite their fulfillment of the term’s most basic requirements. However, it also can be argued that his usage marks the culmination of its semiotic development within the narrative of modern media theory, or at least an equal of its discourse.

To conclude, zoography symbolizes something different for every media theorist that has utilized it. Though its fundamental definition, the pictorial representation of living things, remains essentially the same for Derrida, Mitchell, and Kalkofen, save its placement in a historical and theoretical framework, Lippit sees it as such a framework. Derrida uses zoography to stand for both a historical genre of painting and writing as well as an abstract action of mimetic violence against reality, while Mitchell and Kalkofen consider zoography only as a focus of painting specific to a historical period. Lippit rejects historical and medium specificity and abstracts it into a constructed metaphysical division preserving “humanity” through symbolic destruction of “animality.” Yet in spite of such disagreement, all four theorists use zoography to invoke a visceral reaction to life and reality hardwired into the fundamental nature of Western art. Whatever the theoretical structure attached to zoography, it is always the ur-art, the first and fundamental that shaped the semiotic and metaphysical peculiarities of Western culture.

Matthew Landback
Winter 2007


1. The Oxford English dictionary : being a corrected reissue with an introduction, supplement, and bibliography of A new English dictionary on historical principles / founded mainly on the materials collected by the Philological society. Edited by A. H. Murray, et al. Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1933. Vol. 13.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Trans. Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. Baltimore, ML: The John Hopkins University Press, 1967. Pg. 292.

5. Ibid.

6 Mitchell, W. J. T. What Do Pictures Want? Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 200. Pg. 88.

7 Kolkofen, Hermann. “Irreconcilable Views.” Looking into Pictures: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Pictorial Space. Ed. Heiko Hecht, et al. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003. Pg. 364-6.

8 Ibid.

9 Lippit, Akira Mizuta. “The Death of an Animal.” Film Quarterly, Vol. No. 36, Issue no. 1. Berkley, CA: University of California Press, 2002. Pg. 18.