Category Archives: animal symbols

Food, identity, and gender

Okay, so this ad is as much about Latin chauvinism and machismo as it is about gender–I imagine you can get the point even if you don’t speak Spanish. Another ad I saw at the gym recently is less overtly offensive, but it plays on one of America’s foundational food-and-gender stereotypes: the meat-grilling men. For a broader selection, Sociological Images has compiled quite an assortment. (And see here for more, on ‘suicide foods’) This last one is, well, ludicrous.

This recent NYT profile of Simon Doonan’s Gay Men Don’t Get Fat got me thinking about the topic…Doonan acknowledges that his gay/straight food distinction is a sweeping generalization, but I think this kind of essentializing is unnecessary and damaging, if obviously tempting to advertisers.

(edit, 2/7/12: So apparently Snickers has ads like this in English, too, or so my Food Politics students tell me – this is what I get for not having a TV at home…)

Upcoming conferences

The PhD application and grading marathon is winding down, and I’ve been remiss in posting recently–so here are some of the upcoming events that will be on my radar in the Spring.

Call for Papers and/or Abstracts

Minding Animals – Utrecht, 4-6 July 2012. Abstracts open until Jan. 15. I’ll probably be traveling with family in Spain during this conference, but it looks interesting, especially to the critically minded animal studies folks (as in, it’s sponsored in part by the Institute for Critical Animal Studies, and as such is less welfarist in scope than, well, me.)

-Also due Jan 15 are abstracts for general-audience-ish papers on Planet of the Apes and philosophy. Cool…if only our separation-anxiety beagle would let me and my wife out to see movies in the theater, I wouldn’t have to wait for Netflix on this one.

-Partially coterminous with the Minding Animals conference is a conference at the Central European University on the scope of distributive justice. Abstracts due Jan. 30.

Other Conferences

-NYU is having a Conference on the Moral Brain from Mar. 30-Apr. 1. that looks super-interesting. Registration is free but full; I’m on the waitlist, and am kicking myself for not signing up when I first heard about it.

-The University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee’s “The Nonhuman Turn in the 21st Century” looks broad-ranging and fascinating, and it will be running from May 3-5. Technically the call for abstracts is still open until Monday, but I don’t have enough expertise in any of the mentioned topics to submit anything. I’d love to go, if I can swing it, though.

[edit] This upcoming University of Tennessee symposium, “Animals, Ethics, and Law” also looks really good. I’d be especially interested in hearing Clare Palmer’s talk on the scope of our ethical obligations to wild animals. Hopefully I can make the longish trip down there after class on March 2-3.

And now for something completely different: “I hate balls”. Lots of fascinating gender politics going on here. Huh. . .And this PBS video, “My Life as a Turkey”, is pretty great. Enjoy.

Oh, and this is Rodney, who we adopted as a retired research dog – he’s got the tat, neuroses, and sweetness to prove it.

The human, the subhuman, the nonhuman

This piece  by Art Spiegelman in the NYRB (which features both of these images) is a handy locus for the discussion of symbolic representations of the human and nonhuman. As Berger and others have described, since modernity we’ve increasingly lived without animals, so we find ways to reintegrate them as family and as spectacle. But the result can often be quite curious. The ‘cheezburger empire’ actually says quite a lot about modernity, alienation, and the longing for meaningful relationships between species, but I’d like to focus here on the role of human-nonhuman animal comparisons and what they say about the state of humanism and its discontents.

The most obvious recent incident here would be PETA’s suing SeaWorld for the constitutional protection of Orcas’ 13th Amendment rights. There’s an interesting institutional backstory here–I think some of PETA’s tactics have to do with keeping the Tilikum incident in the public memory, and capitalizing on that crisis–but many would respond with a kneejerk anthropocentrism. (And this controversy goes back to Marjorie Spiegel’s The Dreaded Comparison and beyond…) But the symbolism in question hinges on how human persons perceive nonhuman persons.

As the images above attest, symbolic representation can serve multiple purposes–in both cases, the human is being depicted as a less-than-human, inferior animal. This narrative works only when the dominant discourse is unflinchingly anthropocentric, as it arguably still is; this is one domain where the potential for speculative fiction to shift our discourse is ripe. I’ve been reading a lot of specfic recently–I’m currently on John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, which baldly anthropocentric, masculinist, even realist, but is otherwise a fun jaunt–and I think the works of people like China Mièville and Ursula le Guin can do a lot to reconceptualize our vision of what constitutes the human. Whether humanity 2.0 becomes transhuman, posthuman, or something else is another question.

The strength of symbols

Richard Adams’ Watership Down was one of the first books I remember reading–it’s also one of the few books where the film rivals the original for artistic merit. The film also probably traumatized its fair share of kids…it’s got lots of violence and adult themes, and I think I saw it when I was around 10.

But some of the core messages–about agency, coping with death, political identity, and the scope of the moral community–have stuck with me. This book doesn’t engage with animal ethics nearly as directly as The Plague Dogs, but its oblique approach is all the more powerful for its subtlety, especially when compared to the banality of Disney’s anthropomorphic sidekicks.

“Animal lovers” and the limits of (speciesist) empathy

[Picture, from boingboing, mostly unrelated…but for some reason it reminded me of this post.] I was talking to someone recently about what kinds of students my animal studies class draws, and I noticed that they had framed “animal lovers” as a distinct (and clearly preferable) category against “animal rights activists”. In light of David Brooks’ new column on the limits of empathy, this got me to thinking about ‘who counts’ and the impact of structural violence on nonhuman animals.

Broadly, the animal lovers/activists split could be said to correspond to the welfarist/abolitionist divide, but I think the comparison can only take us so far. I feel that ‘animal lovers’ implies supererogation, while ‘animal rights activists’ take the ethical debate into the uncomfortable terrain of basic rather than optional obligations. (This minefield is probably why many people I know call themselves ‘animal advocates’ instead…) And I think Brooks’ op-ed misses the point when it comes to nonhuman animals: empathy can help us move beyond a frame where animal interests are merely supererogatory goods.

Regarding empathy, we seem to be at a curious historical moment. On the one hand, academics are aflutter with empathy-related efforts (although Pinker’s vision, unlike Rifkin’s, has a heavy dollop of Hobbesian contractarianism). On the other hand, Tea Party America verges on the embrace of cruelty, not empathy (but hopefully debate outcries–regarding capital punishment, health care, and DADT–are the exception, not the norm).

The core of Brooks’ argument here is that focusing on empathy gets us “feeling good without doing good”. As far as this argument goes, it’s a reasonable one. But the argument for extending protections beyond the domain of the anomalous and universally egregious (which, arguably, is all the dominant anti-cruelty ethic protects against) is predicated upon our ability to empathize with other living, sentient beings.

But the argument that “empathy is a sideshow”–and that we should focus instead on moral codes–runs too great a risk of defining nonhumans out of the policy cycle at the definition stage. Yes, animal advocates are often particularly vulnerable to confirmation bias, and yes, over-reliance on empathy could muddle the rigor of animal ethicists’ arguments a la Dennett. But we need to guard against the dangers of an exclusivist and speciesist empathy that lock the doors behind the species wall, as some supererogatory ‘animal lovers’ arguably do.

Autophagy and alienation

Justin E.H. Smith has a good new post on the advertising history of animals eating themselves. There’s even a whole blog dedicated to this macabre-fest: Suicide Food. So where does alienation enter in? I broached the topic of in vitro meat to my students last week, and while we were parsing the pros (health, environment, animal pain) and cons (feasibility, disgust), one of the bigger shortcomings seemed to be that such a food production transition would be yet another step in our alienation from the forces of production (in this case: the food we eat). Either way, the phenomenon of food offering itself up for our consumption is all kinds of messed up. ‘Yuck factor’ indeed.

Symbolism redux and posthumanism(s)

“Why does Hollywood make animals act like humans? As The Atlantic’s James Parker has pointed out, the answers lie in philosophy. The French film critic André Bazin wrote of our relationship to onscreen animals as an “ontological otherness”—a connection with an outside world that reminds us of ourselves—or what’s also been called the “human gaze” by animal ethicist Randy Malamud. We’ve become accustomed to seeing “animals doing silly things for the audience’s amusement—things they don’t usually do, and have no reason to do,” Malamud argues. When we see Free Willy’s whale flip through the sky, it’s not for his entertainment so much as ours. The same is true of a cute YouTube video of a hamster eating broccoli or a LOLcat pleading for a cheeseburger, an amusingly discomfiting image. It’s also funny to see Zookeeper’s animals talking on a cell phone—or, at least, it’s supposed to be.” (from this article, on Zookeeper, Project Nim, and animal symbolism)

John Berger pointed out in “Why Look At Animals” that the pervasiveness of nonhuman animal symbolism inversely correlates to the presence of actual nonhuman animals in our lives. I haven’t seen Zookeeper, and, given the controversy surrounding the treatment of its captive animals and the mediocre-at-best Kevin James, I don’t really plan to. (Project Nim, on the other hand, I look forward to.) But this caustic article posted on Minding the Campus (a generally conservative counterpoint to the Chronicle of Higher Ed’s Brainstorm — or at least that’s how I parse it) got me to thinking.

Mary Grabar’s “Literature Professors Discover Animals” ranges from Foucault to the Institute for Critical Animal Studies (ICAS) to Steve Best to posthumanism (as against transhumanism – see this post at IEET for the distinction). The audience, apparently, is supposed to know why such studies are “ominous”, because she never explains her position. She is also lumping together two related but distinct things–posthumanism and critical animal studies–about which I have two different opinions.

As this muddled and contested Wikipedia page indicates, the term posthumanism (like the field of animal studies) means different things to different people. I’m ambivalent about the term, but I still can’t accept the bald anthropocentrism of humanism, much of which I otherwise agree with.

Critical animal studies, on the other hand, tends to specifically embrace the post-Marx continental philosophy in which all of reality can be viewed as a hierarchical power struggle of otherness, alterity, exploitation, and domination. This is, of course, an oversimplification, but I’ve been to both CAS conferences and to the HSUS’ TAFA, and the two are very different in scope and sensibility. One is broadly welfarist, the other abolitionist. At this stage in the social movement for animals, I think we need both movements, just as we need both PETA and the ASPCA, ADI and IFAW. The two are, indeed, distinct, sometimes even mutually hostile (which is unfortunate, but not surprising).

My reaction to Grabar’s piece, then, is threefold: 1) she lumps a range of different material under the same header, leading the reader to assume that all academic work in animal studies is Foucauldian, etc.; 2) she presumes her argument to be so obvious that it doesn’t need mentioning (why, exactly, is this an ‘ominous’ development, and what’s so great about the existing Judeo-Xian ethic?), which it isn’t, and it does; and 3) the result is that this ends up resembling an ‘ivory tower hit job’ in which posthumanism becomes anti-human, which it needn’t be, and where animal studies becomes, falsely, nothing more than CAS.

Animalism and philosophy

(Images source) The recent piece “The animal you are” by UCL philosophy prof. Paul Snowdon was most striking to me for what it left out; for a piece on animality, there sure was a lot of focus on one particular animal. None of the arguments for or against “animalism” (the idea that the human animal is the same thing as the person, or self) even began to engage with nonhuman animal cognition, let alone the people calling for nonhuman animal person for great apes and/or cetaceans.

Setting aside whether ‘person’ is the right word for chimps and dolphins, who clearly have at least some level of self-consciousness and use of reason (these are the criteria listed by Locke and repeated by Snowdon), I think any discussion of mind/body dualism has to seriously engage with the similarities and differences between human and nonhuman animal minds (the Sapolsky video in my first blog post is a good example of this). Snowdon writes that “if we are prepared to allow there might be entities which merit being described as persons who are not human – say God, or angels, or Martians, or robots, – then animalism should not rule them out.” It’s disturbing to me that hypothetical and probably fictional characters are presented to play the role of potential nonhuman persons, when actual, existing animals aren’t even granted a mention in passing. (I’m reminded here of the common line in popular bioethics where human genetic chimeras are abomination–but hey, do whatever the heck you want with other animals–or of the fetishization so common in Japan and elsewhere of robot intelligence and of drafting declarations of the rights of robots, with the irony of cetacean slaughter of existing sentient life continuing unchecked.)

I enjoyed reading this piece, and my comments here aren’t getting into the merits of any of the substantive questions raised, but still: for a piece called ‘the animal you are’, I was expecting more animals. I need to learn more philosophy of mind, if only to unmask some anthropocentric shibboleths.



“To endow animals with human emotions has long been a scientific taboo. But if we do not, we risk missing something fundamental, about both animals and us.” (Frans de Waal)

Views on anthropomorphism run the gamut, and three recent pieces do a good job of highlighting the terrain of this discourse: 1) Barbara Ehrenreich’s review of recent human-animal studies books in the Los Angeles Review of Books, 2) Michael Sims’ piece on anthropomorphism and E.B. White in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and 3) Marlene Zuk’s analysis of ‘animal cams’ in the LA Times. (And see here for an orthogonal post on animal symbols, Pieter Hugo, and Beyonce.)

Sims’ article on E.B. White captures the tension at the core of the debate over anthropomorphism: “Paul Theroux complained in Smithsonian about White’s anthropomorphism. “White’s is not just a grumpy partiality toward animals,” he wrote; “rather, his frequent lapses into anthropomorphism produce a deficiency of observation. And this sets my teeth on edge, not for merely being cute in the tradition of children’s books, but (also in the tradition of children’s books) for being against nature.” White would probably be as surprised to find himself described as “against nature”…It’s true that “this boy,” as White wrote of himself in childhood, “felt for animals a kinship he never felt for people.” But after spending a couple of years immersed in his writing, I disagree that his anthropomorphism resulted in a deficiency of observation. I think that, contrary to Theroux’s indictment, for White personification was a form of empathy—his way of bridging the gap between self and other—that made him more aware of other creatures’ reality, not less.”

Zuk’s piece on animal cams raises a similar point to Theroux’s: that the eagles, etc. on live cams are “just like us” leads us to biased and thus erroneous views of animal behavior. Ehrenreich’s review is more broad-ranging, but her concluding paragraph is of particular value here: “Are we in danger, then, of a widespread, coordinated, animal revolt? Given the rate at which humans continue to exterminate, enslave and gobble up the habitats of other animals, the answer is probably no. Nor, I should reassure anxious readers, is there any evidence yet of cross-species coordination against human hegemony. But we should definitely relinquish two cherished human views of animals: both the Cartesian idea that they are simple biological automatons, devoid of consciousness, and the more recent animal-liberationist notion that they are gentle, innocent victims of human greed and cruelty. They are different from us — each species, perhaps each individual, alien in its own way. But they are capable of premeditation, reasoning and moral outrage. And, it should never be forgotten, some of them are our ancient antagonists, the carnivores who once ruled the world.”

Ehrenreich is right to caution us against both the Cartesian ‘animal machine’ model and the Liberationist-left ‘exploited and innocent victim’ model, but we should also keep in mind that these are both caricatures. In light of a quarter century-plus of work in neuroscience and ethology, the view that all forms of emotion are necessarily anthropomorphic (i.e., human) is absurd–some of our characteristics are indeed uniquely human, but many others are primate, mammalian, and so forth. To say that an otter plays or a chimp mourns isn’t anthropomorphic, it’s merely descriptive.

On the other side of this coin, we should be wary of painting the nonhuman animal world a Marxian red with the brush of hegemony, hierarchy, and oppression–in other words, of adopting the left-social scientific vocabulary in which all relationships are hierarchical and exploitative. To ascribe revolutionary consciousness to other animals clouds our vision of their realities.

To return for a bit to Sims’ and Zuk’s pieces, I think a middle ground can be found between Theroux/Zuk’s view of anthromorphism as subjective and thus problematic and Sims’ embrace of the power of empathy–using the vehicle of anthropomorphism–to reveal moral truths. To say that this is a difficult circle to square, though, is putting it mildly.


Animal Symbols

I teach a class at UMass Lowell on animal ethics, and one of my favorite classes to prepare for is on John Berger‘s “Why Look at Animals”. His essay traces the process by which animals were marginalized in modernity, from mythic companion to Cartesian machine to Taylorist commodity. Just as “animals were the first symbols” when they were ever-present in our lives, “In the last two centuries, animals have gradually disappeared [, and] today we live without them. And in this new solitude, anthropomorphism makes us doubly uneasy.” (Berger 9) The irony, of course, is that animal imagery surrounds us, and this new symbolic anthropomorphism bestows animals with an unwelcome human nature: Berger traces the progression that begins with Grandville’s animals and “ends with the banality of Disney”:

DONALD: Man, what a day! What a perfect day for fishing, boating, dating or pcnicking — only I can’t do any of those things!
NEPHEW: Why not, Unca Donald? What’s holding you back?
DONALD: The Bread of Life boys! As usual, I’m broke and its eons till payday.
NEPHEW: You could take a walk Unca Donald — go bird-watching.
DONALD: (groan!) I may have to! But first, I’ll wait for the maiman. He may bring something good newswise!
NEPHEW: Like a cheque from an unknown relative in moneyville? (Berger 13-14)

Fast forward 50 years and we’ve taken the banality to a whole new level.  Think for a moment about this cartoon, where a collection of animals visit the zoo. Children grow up in a synthetic wilderness where animals are co-opted as family, as spectacle, and as simulacra, and adults escape the monotony of wage labor (Berger was a Marxian critical theorist, after all) by inventing a ‘language’ for cats. And I’m not  even getting in to Berger’s attack on zoos, other than to cite his view that they are “a monument to the impossibility of (genuine human-animal) encounters,” because “you are looking at something that has been rendered absolutely marginal.” (Berger 23-24)

The irony here is that such embedded symbolism might even play into scientism’s over-broad rejection of anthroporphism, leading to the claim that empathy for nonhuman suffering or identification with mammalian or other behavioral characteristics are merely anthropomorphic, when in biological fact they are much deeper.

Is there any way out of this maze? . Claude Lévi-Strauss famously (well, famously in animal studies circles, at least…) said that “animals are good to think.” The representations I’ve shown so far have been just the opposite: animals have been press-ganged into the human world, such that their ‘think value’ is lost. As Berger, dissecting Grandville’s animals, puts it: “The vulture as landlord is more dreadfully rapacious than he is as a bird. The crocodiles at dinner are greedier at the table than they are in the river.” (Berger 17)

But all it takes to look at the relationship anew is to look with a critical eye. Pieter Hugo has done fascinating work on the complex web of human-animal interdependence in his photoessay, “The Hyena and Other Men”.

Others invert our traditional childhood expectations, fostering a disruptive cognitive dissonance that may jar us out of anthropocentric complacency (okay, this may be a stretch). And many more representations are clearly and openly anthropomorphic, but not necessarily in as culturally harmful a way as Berger describes. And some arguably go beyond banal to shine a light on our species’ peculiar eccentricities. But then again, apparently lots of people still think it’s okay to tattoo live pigs (because hey, he’s a vegetarian!).

And finally, there’s this.