Zoos in Postmodernism: Signs and Simulation
Stephen Spotte

About the Author :
Stephen Spotte was born and raised in West Virginia. He was formerly curator and later director of the Aquarium of Niagara Falls, curator of the New York Aquarium, and director of the Mystic Aquarium. He has been a research scientist in marine biology at the Marine Sciences and Technology Center, University of Connecticut, and is currently an adjunct scientist at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida. Spotte has a BS degree from Marshall University, a PhD from the University of Southern Mississippi, and is author and coauthor of more than eighty scientific papers. He has published eleven books, including two works of fiction.




In his provocative new book, Zoos in Postmodernism: Signs and Simulation, marine biologist Stephen Spotte lumps together public aquariums and zoological parks (which he collectively calls zoos) and treats them as cultural derivatives assessable using semiotics (the study of signs and their meanings) and Baudrillard’s models of simulation. He concludes that only modernist zoos can exist in postmodern times, making captive animal displays anachronistic. Today’s zoos are thus reminiscent of an era generally agreed to have ended with the 1950s. Unable to evolve and compete with contemporary entertainments, they can only be spectacles viewed passively.

Zoos in Postmodernism offers a startling new perspective in which animals are reduced to secondary status by their own images. Spotte argues that zoos can never be representative of Nature, partly because wildness, or “the Other,” exists separately from humankind. The sign, having been decoupled from Nature (its referent), transforms zoo animals into semiotically real objects, their status as living beings unable to impart to them a greater reality. Strangely, nothing about zoo animals in “real.” Consequently, whatever zoos claim to be, they can teach us nothing about Nature.

In Spotte’s metaphysics, zoo exhibits represent Baudrillardean “first-order” simulacrums (i.e., attempts to counterfeit Nature). The animals themselves, if bred in captivity, are “second-order,” the equivalent of factory production items. Baudrillard’s “third-order” simulacrums, exemplified by the dinosaurs in the film version of Jurassic Park and Disney’s robotic crocodile, occupy the rarefied world of hyperreality. Here Spotte agrees with semiologist Umberto Eco that captive animal exhibits are like wax museums in their inability to attain hyperreality and gain a place in the postmodern world.

Postmodernism is driven by images and other simulations of reality that make the exhibition of living animals passé. In shopping malls and theme parks, captive animals are transformed into their own images, becoming symbols of indirect commodification, objects of visual consumption for the postmodern flaneur. Window-shopping and a visit to the zoo have much in common.

The putative missions of zoos – education and conservation – yield doubtful results, education because its information relies on description and exposition instead of narrative, conservation because only a few large, showy vertebrates receive most of the effort. By controlling reproduction and restricting evolution, zoos reduce animals to artifacts – unattached ecological fragments – and ultimately revoke their ontological status as part of the natural world.

Spotte’s argument assumes manifestations that impinge on contemporary theories of art, film, literature, photography, and science, the whole anchored securely by the twin poles of semiotics and simulation. This willingness to grapple with high-level theory – and to take intellectual risks – sets Zoos in Postmodernism apart from other treatments of zoos in contemporary western literature.


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