What Animates? Imaginations of the Lifelike

I would like to set the tone by drawing on a phenomenon that exemplifies the difficulties of conceptualizing life as a reality or entity or concept that may be usefully distinguished from nonlife. Let me begin by invoking a ghost story set on Dartmoor, known as the mystery of the Hairy Hands.[1] This mystery involved a series of incidents that took place a century ago on the B3212 road on Dartmoor. First cyclists, then cars ended up in a ditch along the road. Survivors reported that a pair of hairy hands had gripped their bike’s handlebars or their car’s steering wheel and forced them off the road. Upon investigation, engineers found that an adverse camber to the road could have caused the crashes. The road was subsequently repaired, whereupon incidents stopped.

Now, this story could be construed as a classic tale of the irrational making way for the rational, of folk belief versus scientific knowledge—distinctions that anthropology has sought to problematize ever since it began to firmly ground its enquiries in ethnographic evidence.[2] But the story holds some potential too in terms of questioning the distinction between life and nonlife at issue here. We are presented with two lines of evidence, oral tradition and technical enquiry—different explanations for a specific phenomenon grounded in different takes on the mechanics of causality, the one finding a causal factor in something seemingly alive, the hairy hands, the other in nonlife, the road. But the road itself was built by living humans, so we are already running into problems here. What we are able to highlight is that these two explanations arise and exist as a result of human experience, imagination, and practice. In fact, life and nonlife are implicated in this tale through human imagination and creativity: something, both in the case of the hairy hands and in the case of the road tarmac, comes alive, is alive, through human imaginative action sparking practical action, a fertile combination that animates, that is, breathes life into, both an idea and inert matter. This will be key in my argument.

The story of the Hairy Hands appeals to me in another way as well because of the ethnographic evidence I will present to make my case against any firm distinction between life and nonlife in anthropological thinking. I will draw from my ongoing ethnography of taxidermy as skilled practice to show that taxidermists’ insistence on the ‘lifelike’ and their marrying of organic and artificial matter provoke an analytical collapse of life and nonlife.

But first things first: what are we actually talking about when we draw a distinction between life and nonlife? These concepts could be considered anthropological analytical constructs and categories, but—if we abstract for a moment from the arbitrariness of linguistic signifiers—they are, of course, realities as well; and perhaps more importantly, they are also folk constructs and categories with shifting and permeable boundaries. Life is ethnographically salient, that is, cross-cultural evidence suggests that people do tend to value life as something special—and I would be the last to argue with this.

I could say that any distinction between nonlife and life is a mere problem of classification and that this alone is a reason for anthropology to discard it—or at least, to begin by discarding it. We all know by now that categorizations of, for example, the animate versus the inanimate—a pair that may intuitively map onto the life versus nonlife distinction—differ cross-culturally. But we could also argue that binary oppositions are good to think with and should be kept in anthropological theorizing precisely for analytical purposes. However, we also know that binary oppositions have no unambiguous equivalent in lived reality. In fact, neat distinctions are a matter of human perception and analysis rather than existing a priori in the world (cf. Leach 1970, Chapter 2). Yet again, one could argue that this is precisely why distinctions should be kept in anthropological theorizing, because, other than philosophers or ‘hard’ scientists, anthropologists are at least as interested in perceptions as we are in empirical realities—moreover, perceptions are realities, too. On analytical grounds, then, it is possible to argue both for keeping and for discarding the distinction. But importantly, from a methodological point of view, we can also argue that the mere assumption of any clear distinction between life and nonlife conditions us to think from a specific ontological perspective rather than keeping our options ethnographically open, thus obscuring our theorizing rather than enriching it, which is another way of arguing against keeping the distinction—which I take to be my task here.

But I am again getting ahead of myself. To get some grip on what a distinction between life and nonlife might amount to, I will draw on philosopher Henri Bergson’s stimulating attempts in this matter as put forward in his Évolution créatrice  (2007; originally published in 1907 and translated as Creative Evolution in 2002). Bergson distinguishes between the world as it is perceived by human intelligence, and a world that is much harder to pin down and is understood through instinct or intuition perhaps, rather than intelligence. The first such world, he maintains, results in an ‘artificial system’ cut up in analytical bits to make analysis easier, while the second produces a ‘natural system’ characterized by continuity and contingency rather than consisting in a patchwork of discrete parts. It is this latter natural system-in-movement, which cannot be captured in mechanistic or finalistic explanations, that he considers ‘life’.

Bergson suggests that science tries to force life into recurring patterns and reduce it to discrete elements. For the sake of argument, I take his suggestion to pertain to human perception and analysis, more generally. According to Bergson, this is a problem of intellect versus intuition. Paradoxically, then, we could say, Bergson suggests that living minds constitute what becomes an artificial world (2002: 185). What we perceive and what we act upon, Bergson writes, is “cut out of the stuff of nature by our perception” (ibid: 177)—it is not the natural world itself. Writing in French from a dualist perspective, Bergson opposes vie and élan vital (an original creative force that eludes determinism) to matière inerte. He concludes that “life is … a tendency to act on inert matter” (ibid: 201), implying that what is inert is nonlife. Interestingly, however, inertia is the tendency of objects to keep moving; it is defined as resistance to a change in an object’s state. So there is activity on the part of the inert too, which already troubles the distinction between life and nonlife that Bergson tries to make.

Bergson seems to suggest that it is exactly through resistance that things manage to come into being and that life thus shapes nonlife—but why, then, would the part doing the resisting and trying to continue be considered nonlife? This question is pressing in particular because Bergson insists that life is characterized by continuity (ibid: 184). Duration, in fact, is of the essence in Bergson’s conception of life: “life,” he writes, “is like a current passing from germ to germ through the medium of a developed organism. It is as if the organism itself were only an excrescence, a bud caused to sprout by the former germ endeavouring to continue itself in a new germ” (ibid: 184; italics in original).[3] Life shows an élan vital that marries great complexity to straightforward function, as he argues with the example of the eye and of movement (2007: 89ff). Generally, Bergson seems to assume a basic distinction between the organic and the inorganic, which appears to map neatly onto life versus nonlife. And yet life in Bergson’s conception is ultimately an organic whole that eludes any mapping or patterning on the part of human intellect—which collapses nonlife back into life.[4]

In order to expand on the difficulties involved in Bergson’s articulate and elegant but doomed-to-fail attempt to distinguish life from nonlife, I will elaborate questions raised by the Hairy Hands story by drawing on fieldwork I have conducted since 2011 amongst taxidermists in Britain and on the European continent (Belgium, the Netherlands, and Switzerland).[5] I am interested in taxidermy as a skilled practice of cutting up and re-patterning dead organic specimens that tries to convey a sense of life. In terms of life and nonlife, taxidermy seems to insert itself between the two rather straightforwardly as a kind of salvage job that aims to turn once-alive materials into something resembling life. But things are rather more complex than this—which requires a short explanation of the evolving role of taxidermy in science and art, with an emphasis on recent developments in its appreciation.

With the rise of the natural history museum in the late nineteenth century, taxidermy became an important epistemic tool both in scientific enquiries and in an urban public’s conceptualization of nature (cf. Star 1992). Following WW II, museum taxidermy declined as mounted animals became associated with western imperialism and domination and were made obsolete by alternative modes of display. Over the past decade or so, a renewed focus on materiality and an interest amongst contemporary artists in animal mounts has gone hand in hand with a re-appreciation of taxidermy collections in museum spaces, not only as repositories of social history but also as potential ‘actors’ in cautionary environmental story-telling: preserved animals are increasingly made to play a role in an ecology of life (e.g., Poliquin 2008; Alberti 2011). Taxidermy’s story-telling role in museum contexts is often enhanced by artistic interventions, where specimens are rearranged in installations, disrupting conventional taxonomies, or even taken outside of the museum to re-engage with landscapes in which they used to dwell (e.g., Patchett, Foster, and Lorimer 2011). In artistic circles, taxidermy is embraced for its material and symbolic contingency with the living world, which makes it eminently suitable to convey statements about life and death.[6] As a peculiar expression of human-animal relations and of materiality that has become increasingly visible in north western European public and private spaces, taxidermy has also caught the scholarly limelight, resulting in a wealth of publications addressing the phenomenon from historical, artistic, and occasionally social science perspectives (e.g., Purcell 1999; Asma 2001; Snaebjörnsdóttir and Wilson 2006; Henning 2007; Alberti 2008, 2011; Patchett and Foster 2008; Poliquin 2008, 2009, 2012; Lange-Berndt 2009; Marvin 2010; Milgrom 2010; Morgan 2010; Morris 2010, 2013; Eastoe 2012; Patchett e.a. 2012; Fuller 2014; Patchett 2015; Aloi 2018).

The mounts that result from different practitioners’ efforts are epistemically rich from a material culture perspective—a perspective that has recently gained significant ground in anthropology – by showing convincingly that seemingly non-living things, matter, and materials are intricately bound up with life. Animal mounts in particular may be seen to move into and out of different relations and conceptual categories, from the animate to the inanimate to the reanimated, from living animal to hunting trophy to art object to kitsch.

Mounted animals not only shed light on practices of classification and on entanglements of the symbolic and the material in human boundary-making through their own artefactual trespassing, but they also trouble taken-for-granted distinctions between, for instance, kin and non-kin, nature and culture, and indeed, life and nonlife. Through different kinds of human engagements with organic materials, then, different (scientific, affective, realistic, provocative) categories of animal-objects get instrumentalized, and keep being made.

In my ethnography of the phenomenon, I found that artists in Britain were eagerly seeking to learn the craft from professional taxidermists by becoming members of the UK Guild of Taxidermists.

Session on owl taxidermy led by Mike Gadd. Annual Conference of the UK Guild of Taxidermists, Derbyshire, April 2014.

Interesting tensions remain, however, between artistic aspirations and the standards maintained by professionals. Very schematically, the professional taxidermists I met emphasize continuity of life, striving for realistic ‘lifelike’ naturalness in their mounts (recalling Bergson’s duration), while artists using taxidermy tend to emphasize decay and the ephemeral (recalling Bergson’s buds). In both cases, the resulting ‘still lifes’ draw our attention to life, with the former group of practitioners seeking to dissimulate death, the latter highlighting its threat.

My ethnographic evidence here might seem to address rather straightforward ambiguities concerning permeable boundaries between life and death, but this would not do justice to the issue at stake in this paper; namely, the question whether life can be usefully distinguished from nonlife. A distinction between life and nonlife by no means equals a distinction between life and death. Death is more closely associated with life than with nonlife, particularly if life connotes the organic, as Bergson implies.

So let me elaborate on the role of ‘life’ in taxidermy as an engagement with organic matter and a variety of natural and synthetic materials.

Materials for taxidermy. Annual Conference of the UK Guild of Taxidermists, Derbyshire, April 2011.

The professional taxidermists I met in Britain and on the European continent seek to breathe life into dead specimens and in doing so, they claim to extend the lives of these animals (into a ‘second life’). A considerable amount of skill goes into this process, not only in terms of stopping putrefaction and decay but also in terms of making the mounts look alive—or at least, lifelike. What is essential in achieving lifelikeness, according to my discussion partners, is knowledge of anatomy and morphology of living animals.

One method of getting to grips with animal bodies is by thinking through one’s own living body. In my discussions with professional taxidermists, I have been struck by the bodily analogies that they make between themselves and the animals whose lives they seek to prolong. Bird taxidermists in particular take their own body as a point of reference, both in teaching others and in mounting specimens themselves. They use their own bodies both to find their anatomical bearings around the dead piece they are working on and to imagine how the skin would sit if it were animated by a breathing, fleshed-out torso such as their own. Moreover, taxidermists are constantly striking poses, referring to their own body and its appendages, seeking attunement with both the dead bird and the emerging model they create, imitating bird posture, movement, and even mannerisms. In this attempt to achieve the lifelike, a choreography of knowledge and memory is performed.[7] Life is being passed on into something that could be considered nonlife, or at least no longer alive, through the process of making it lifelike—dead animal objects are animated through human skill. In grooming or feathering a bird, taxidermists use their fingers, with their oils substituting for the dead bird’s preening oils. If it looks messy, I was told, it does not look alive. If it turns out too symmetrical it will look ‘dead, even stuffed’.

This cross-bodily attuning resonates with Gregory Bateson’s cybernetic, holistic conceptualization of life as he attempted to understand humanity’s role in the universe as a total living system. In Mind and Nature (1979), Bateson asked, “What pattern connects the crab to the lobster and the orchid to the primrose and all the four of them to me?” (8). He wondered what enables humans to recognize such things as being (or having been) alive. Bateson found clues in morphology and homology: the likeness in structure between parts of different organisms. It is the crab’s repetitive articulations that make it appear as something that once lived. Bateson spoke of ‘appendages’ on living creatures that show rhythmical repetition and point to a kinship of life.

In my ethnography, I found that professional taxidermists tend to have a specific perspective on life deemed suitable for re-animation: they associate the lifelike with an ideal representation of a perfect specimen.

Striving for lifelike taxidermy – preparing to photograph specimens submitted for judging. Annual Conference of the UK Guild of Taxidermists, Derbyshire, March 2019.

Bergson would consider this an example of a living (human) being associating a specific kind of order (in this case, aesthetically pleasing harmony) with life. This, according to Bergson, constitutes an affective choice rather than a real understanding of the élan vital that animates matter (cf. Bergson 2007: 232-38). In contrast, Bateson, as an anthropologist reasoning from human perception, appreciates life as morphological harmony recognized as a result of the human capacity to draw analogies. Life, in Bateson’s conception, becomes the pattern which connects—an outward extension that is reminiscent of Bergson’s excrescences and buds in on-going life. At the same time, Bergson’s excrescences and buds extend, I suggest, to these animal-objects, cut out of life through human practice (Bergson’s artificial) and yet imaginatively reconnected with life (Bergson’s natural)—again, through human practice.

Bergson’s distinction between the natural and artificial seems to collapse in re-animated animal-objects—which comes out even more strikingly in a series of animal artefacts that I would like to discuss in closing. As I mentioned above, taxidermy enjoys renewed popularity as a technique and a material in contemporary art in European and North American art circles. Artistic expression speaks to human perception and experience and thus to what it means to be alive. Paying attention to artworks, then, is not only an anthropologically astute tactic as such (cf. Gell 1998; Ingold 2013) but may also afford insights that can nourish our discussion here.[8] As part of my research on taxidermy I collaborated with textile artist Anthea Walsh in organizing a small exhibition at Kendal Museum (Autumn 2013). In realizing Approximating Animals, she made several art pieces combining embroidery with taxidermy.


Anthea Walsh. Unfurl (2013). Hand embroidery and vintage taxidermy on linen, cotton thread, polyester thread, sequins, beads, wool felt, ready-made embroidery hoop. 28cm diameter.


Anthea Walsh. Plumose (2013), detail. Hand embroidery and vintage taxidermy on linen, cotton thread, polyester thread, sequins, wool felt, ready-made embroidery hoop. 27cm x 22cm.

The taxidermy in these pieces came from parts of an old decommissioned museum specimen of a green woodpecker. Walsh dismantled the bird and used wings, head, feet to create separate pieces that, perhaps ironically, seem to express Bergson’s élan vital.[9] Feathers and down are supplemented by stitches and beads, in a rhythmical encounter of ‘natural’ bird remnants and human pattern making. The artist used a mixture of natural and synthetic materials in her embroidery, combining the organic and inorganic.[10] Something lifelike was captured in a skillful narrative told through natural and human-made materials. It reminded me of the explanatory yet elusive presence of the Hairy Hands, living in and acting through human imagination, the animating force at work.

I suggest that Walsh’s pieces serve as expressions of the unbreakable connections between life and nonlife; as illustrations of Bergson’s conception of the interweaving of natural and artificial systems that in fact cannot and must not be pried apart. Each of Walsh’s creations may be considered an “excrescence, a bud caused to sprout,” as Bergson called it – a result of the artist’s expert animation. Each can continue itself in a new germ, becoming caught up in life through its contagious élan vital, sparking new pieces. In the artwork for Approximating Animals, an attempt at ‘artificial’ attunement with more-than-human life may be discerned, evident in the way each surface is divided into manageable chunks through cutting and stitching. But human imagination is also capable of perceiving the analogies between feathers and stitches, between Hairy Hands and adverse camber—as it is capable of crossing or even ignoring lines between the living, the dead, and the lifelike. Keeping nonlife separate from life becomes counter-productive as the artificiality of the systems that Bergson denounces for cutting up life not only spring from but re-engage with life.

The recent and rich scholarship on materiality demonstrates how landscapes and objects are embroiled in kinship, knowledge, and affect, suggesting that entities associated with nonlife have an impact on human life. In the particular case of taxidermy, dead organic matter comes alive, is animated, is enlivened, through human imaginative and practical action. By drawing attention to particular animal-objects that play on life and death and to their resurrection in the lifelike, I suggest that, firstly, a distinction between life and nonlife is too categorical to be useful, as it allows for only two possible categories—thus inviting a troublesome dualistic ontology that closes off alternative avenues in categorization. This ontology is troubled here by the taxidermic emphasis on the alluringly lifelike, which is contingent on the organic and seeks to re-engage with patterns that connect. But secondly and much more fundamentally, taxidermy speaks to Bergson’s intuition, which he tried to resist, that matter, whether organic or inorganic, once alive or inert, is caught up in life—life, which is ethnographically salient, which is what living beings make of it, which is far more than human or even biological, and which has no need to be distinguished from nonlife.[11] Humans are classifiers—and declassifiers. They draw analogies and they pry apart. Life is a matter of imaginative, practical, and classificatory relatedness—classifications need to emerge from ethnography, which may lead anthropologists to question, trouble, or even maintain the distinction between life and nonlife. Insisting on a distinction between life and nonlife to begin with, however, falls within an ontological, not an anthropological, remit. This is why, on deontological disciplinary grounds, the distinction must be discarded.[12]


[1] I am grateful to Iain Hart for making me aware of this story. It can be enjoyed in Barber 2008.

[2] The debate about the human capacity for knowledge-making through categorization harks back to Lévy-Bruhl’s perplexity at Bororo calling themselves parrots, to Lévi-Strauss’s reflections on primitive thought resting on a bedrock of myth, and to Functionalist rationalizations of magic. Particularly stimulating more recent work on this theme is Colin Scott’s exploration of the intertwining of metaphorical and literal levels in human knowledge-making, grounded ethnographically in Cree hunting practice (Scott 1989, 1996).

[3] These ideas have been taken up by Tim Ingold in approaching life as growth and movement (Ingold 2011).

[4] Another avenue I would have liked to explore, if space had allowed me to, would have been Eduardo Kohn’s recent (2013) conception of life as semiosis. Kohn privileges life’s capability of giving off signs, offering a different perspective from Bergson’s, which focuses on life’s grappling with matter. Kohn’s project, drawing on Runa animism, lies in an attempt at a rapprochement between human and non-human life, as he argues that both humans and non-humans engage in processes of representation, which he considers unique to life. Duration is important in Kohn’s definition of life, as it is for Bergson: “any entity that stands as a locus of aboutness, within a lineage of such loci that potentially extend into the future, can be said to be alive” (Kohn 2013: 77). Kohn excludes ‘things’ from life, and yet art forms, for example, could be said to involve lineage as well (cf. Gell 1998 on distributed personhood), complicating the sought-after distinction between life and nonlife in this case also.

[5] For an analysis based on ethnographic fieldwork primarily with members of the UK Guild of Taxidermists, including participation in the Guild’s annual conferences, interviewing in workshops in England, Scotland, the Netherlands, and Belgium, and hands-on experience in bird and mammal taxidermy courses, see Kalshoven 2018a. For an archival and museum study combined with interviews with taxidermists / model makers in England and Belgium seeking to revive extinct specimens, see Kalshoven 2018b. For taxidermy as replication, see Kalshoven 2019 forthcoming, and for taxidermy as concerned with surfaces, see Kalshoven 2020 forthcoming.

[6] Cf. Poliquin (2008: 127): “the thingness of taxidermy rests in the recognition that this animal-object on display was once a sentient creature.”

[7] See Kalshoven 2018a for a detailed discussion.

[8] Bergson suggests that artistic practice, as a vital process extending in time, is closer to the natural, that is, to life, than to the artificial (2007: 339-40). As I suggested above, artworks, as expressions of human skill and imagination, may be particularly apt at troubling any distinction between life and nonlife.

[9] In the comments book we left for museum visitors, some comments made reference to the artwork’s lifelikeness, including: “Fascinating, amazing talent, inspiring, unusual… slightly macabre … wonderful interweaving of the natural and man-made and of the dynamic and static (almost performance art)” and “This is a creative and living way to preserve natural forms” (my italics).

[10] The art pieces were made using “a combination of natural and synthetic in the embroidery threads, the sequins and beads … The ready-made embroidery hoops [are plastic], with a metal clasp at the top. The embroidery is on dyed natural linen (the dye is synthetic…) and the wool felt under the linen supporting the structure is industrial felt and probably has some synthetic content in the mixture of fibres” (Anthea Walsh, personal communication).

[11] Cf. Bergson (2007: vi): “En vain nous poussons le vivant dans tel ou tel de nos cadres. Tous les cadres craquent.”

[12] I was particularly stimulated by Jean-Marc Audrin’s provocative remark in reading Bergson with me: “et si le vivant n’était autre chose que cette matière à penser … la matière ?” (“and what if life is precisely a matter of thinking the material?”; personal communication). Many thanks are also due to my Manchester colleagues for a stimulating discussion of an earlier draft during a Research Away Day in May 2015, and to the editor and guest-editors of Somatosphere for their helpful comments.

Works Cited

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Alberti, Samuel J.M.M., ed. 2011. The Afterlives of Animals: A Museum Menagerie. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press.

Aloi, Giovanni. 2018. Speculative Taxidermy: Natural History, Animal Surfaces, and Art in the Anthropocene. New York: Columbia University Press.

Asma, Stephen T. 2001. Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads: The Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

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Kalshoven, Petra Tjitske. 2018b.  ‘Piecing Together the Extinct Great Auk: Techniques and Charms of Contiguity’. Environmental Humanities 10[1]: 150-170.

Kalshoven, Petra Tjitske. 2019 forthcoming. ‘Replication as a play on categories: the case of taxidermy’ in Re-Enactment Replication Reconstruction, eds Sven Dupré et al, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

Kalshoven, Petra Tjitske. 2020 forthcoming. ‘Re-Animating Skin: Probing the Surface in Taxidermic Practice’ in Surfaces: Anthropological Transformations of Body, Materials and Earth, eds Cristian Simonetti and Mike Anusas, London: Routledge.

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Patchett, Merle, Kate Foster, and Hayden Lorimer. 2011. The Biogeographies of a Hollow-Eyed Harrier. In The Afterlives of Animals: A Museum Menagerie. Samuel J.M.M. Alberti, ed. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press. Pp. 110-133.

Patchett, Merle, K. Foster, L. Gomez, A. Roe. 2012. Ruffling Feathers: Exhibiting the Monstrous Geographies of the Plumage Trade. Antennae: The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture: 27-54.

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A cultural anthropologist at the University of Manchester, Petra Tjitske Kalshoven (Ph.D. McGill University, Montréal, 2006) explores skilled manifestations of human curiosity and play. She is the author of Crafting ‘the Indian’: Knowledge, Desire, and Play in Indianist Reenactment (Berghahn Books, 2012), an ethnography of a contemporary amateur practice in Europe predicated on expert performance and replication of Native American life worlds from the past. More recently, her research has centred on hunting and taxidermy as lenses for thinking through human – animal relations. She currently pursues her interest in expertise, materials, and landscapes with an ethnography of nuclear decommissioning in West Cumbria.

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