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Animals and Other People | Day 1

Victoria Strobl and Irene Zanol report daily from the European Literature Days.
auf buchfühlung (Victoria Strobl & Irene Zanol)

It’s the first day of the European Literature Days in Krems and, as usual, Walter Grond, the festival’s artistic director, welcomes the audience and introduces this year’s theme “Animals and Other People”.

Karl Wilfling, President of the Lower Austrian state parliament, emphasizes the importance of the European Literature Days in his welcome speech. He gives a special mention to the work of Eljub (European Youth Encounters) and the integration of young people into the festival.

It has long been a proven fact in science that human beings are animals. The latest findings even suggest that the characteristics, which for a long while were attributed only to humanity, such as morality, rationality, self-perception and empathy, are certainly inherent to animals, explains Walter Grond. The question of the dignity of animals and their own animal rights, which animal ethicists have focused on since the 1970s, now also concerns mainstream society. Over the next few days, we will address these questions from various perspectives in discussions, dialogues, book talks and readings.   

19:30: A dog is a dog… is a dog?

Or, why the idea of only one rationality is possibly incorrect.

Also taking a seat on the stage next to the author Michael Köhlmeier, the philosopher Anne Sophie Meincke and Katja Gasser, the moderator for this evening’s event, is the dog, Nildo. During the course of a heated debate, Nildo became a go-between.

In his novel “Matou”, published in 2021, Köhlmeier wrote in the tradition of E.T.A. Hoffmann from the perspective of a cat with a talent for language. He emphasizes that the programmatic equivalence of man and animal, which he undertakes in his novel, is only possible in literature. From the beginning, Köhlmeier argues against the theories of Anne Sophie Meincke that she seeks to demonstrate in her research on “Bio Agency and Natural Freedom”, that animals have the capacity for action, that they could choose between possibilities and therefore possess a rudimentary form of will. 

In response to Katja Gasser’s question about whether one should suspend the categorial distinctions between the human person and animal, Meincke said, “What sort of difference should that possibly be that differentiates us from all other species? Is there only one kind of rationality that WE know? In fact, are we always rational? We should learn to call into question human standards.” The contrasting positions on stage immediately become obvious from these opening statements. In assigning to animals such terms as reason and intelligence, which were defined by humans, Meincke engages in species-colonialism. Michael Köhlmeier argues that the crux of the issue, as opposed to highlighting the commonalities between animals and people, is to consider the differences.

A debate develops about anthropomorphizing and about what the insight could ultimately bring about. For Meincke, it can flag up a potential way out of our current ecological crisis, because acknowledging that we are also animals changes our relationship to nature. We are all part of the eco system, and we are not different from it. Her conclusion: the relationship between man and nature must be newly considered; animals could be a go-between in this process. Nildo shoes how that can be possible, as during the heated discussion he enjoys some pats and attention from Michael Köhlmeier.

The basic contrasting positions led to an interesting exchange of ideas, which wasn’t so easy to interrupt, as Katja Gasser conceded with a smile, “You have to raise a hand as the moderator here.”

This brilliant start ensures that there will be plenty of topics for discussion in the next few days.