Category Archives: Critical animal studies

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.

Parsing rights and captivity: the problem with dignity and autonomy

(This video is only tangentially related to my post – but Tyson’s cautionary tale about nonhuman animal communication informs most of the following discussion on autonomy and dignity.)

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about why I seem to be approaching animal studies from a different angle than most of the (largely abolitionist) animal-related blogs I follow. It’s probably mostly because I’m a stubborn contrarian who runs like hell from anything resembling groupthink. But I’m also a pragmatist who is loath to apply rights claims willy-nilly without thinking about implementation; a secularist who is skeptical of the idea that rights claims, whether human or nonhuman, are ever inherent rather than instrumental; a reformed Kantian who thinks, with some caveats, that Enlightenment reason has been unfairly pummeled by critical theory, but that ‘humanism’ is perniciously anthropocentric; and a Rawls-leaning semi-egalitarian who is reluctant to throw the capitalist baby out with the bathwater of inequality.

All of which is to say: the language of domination and liberation is not my preferred vocabulary, and nor is the language of inherent rights. So This essay by Anat Biletzki from the NYT Opinionator’s the Stone column (Boghossian’s “The Maze of Moral Relativism” has also been getting a lot of attention) caught my eye. A previous post, by Lori Gruen on the ethics of captivity, from the National Humanities Center’s ‘On the Human’ project, is also worth a read. I’d like to address an issue raised indirectly by Biletzky and directly by Gruen–the centrality of one’s view of ‘dignity’ and autonomy as it relates to rights claims for both human and nonhuman animals.

I haven’t done much research on the ‘dignity and rights’ subfield, but my impression is that dignity, when used in the human context, is too often a catch-all term that rapidly becomes void of specific meaning. I guess this is the consequentialist in me coming out, but I think it’s more useful to refer to the specific harms caused to an individual when its dignity is violated, and, where no such harms can be tallied, to look at what we’re really talking about when we talk about dignity (to re-paraphrase Raymond Carver). In some cases, I can see the point of dignity-speak (to take Gruen’s example: the assaults on dignity suffered by humans who have been incarcerated can be tallied using other language, but some of the less tangible psychological harms may be difficult to quantify), but it too often degrades into things like defending the dignity of a collection of cells in an embryo, which, to be blunt, makes very little sense to me. Bernie Rollin’s view on telos, which is closer to Nussbaum’s virtue ethical capabilities approach referenced by Gruen, strikes me as a better approach.

On autonomy, Gruen rightly points out that the term means different things to a neo-Kantian contractarian and to those who, like Gruen, adopt a broader definition that encompasses various forms of preference satsifaction. (This also gets us into Dennett/Frey/Cohen territory, all of whom deny, to various degrees and on various grounds, that it’s really “like” anything to be a bat–to use Nagel’s famous case–but I’m not going there right now). She also distinguishes between autonomy’s instrumental and inherent values:

Freedom or liberty is sometimes thought to entail acting autonomously and making our own choices and being in a condition in which there is an absence of arbitrary interference. Depriving someone of her freedom is also thought to be one of the things that can make a life go badly for that individual. There are two ways that denying individuals their liberty may negatively impact the quality of their lives. If we understand liberty to be an instrumental value then respecting an individual’s liberty is important because it is conducive to other things that are valuable, like pleasure and well-being. Doing what one wants, being free to make choices and to act on them, following the desires one wants to satisfy, and not being interfered with in the pursuit of one’s desires are all freedoms that are important, because they contribute to making an individual’s life go better by allowing that individual to satisfy her desires. Individuals who are confined, restrained, or subordinated cannot act freely upon their desires and live their lives as they want. But liberty can also be thought of as an intrinsic value, a value that in itself, regardless of anything else, is constitutive of living a good life.

Setting aside for a moment my view that what we call inherent values can just as easily be formulated as meta-instrumental values using a rule utilitarian metric, I think this paragraph both captures the nuance of Gruen’s piece (after all, all she’s arguing is that “Denying [captives] the freedom to exercise their autonomy by keeping them under captive control is…ethically problematic.” This seems to me unarguable.) and what I perceive to be one of its key shortcomings.

In the case of nonhuman animal captivity, the distinction between quality-of-life and autonomy is often very different from the same distinction in the case of human captivity. (Again, how one views this distinction will depend on one’s view concerning the scope of autonomy.) (One of) the reason(s) autonomy is perceived as inherently valuable in human society is precisely because it forms the backbone of the system of rights and property from which so many of our institutions emanate. In the case of, say, a farm animal, I think there’s a reasonably strong argument to be made, following Rollin on telos, that the animal in question has a different set of relevant parameters in determining its quality of life. A broiler chicken would not thrive in the forests of its genetic ancestors. Again, Gruen acknowledges this distinction when she says that we have to live with the structural legacy of nonhuman animal captivity–hence my guardianship of our research veteran beagle, Rodney…

Oppression-speak and myopic “clarity”

This interview with UChicago’s Robert Pippin got me to thinking about the effects of seeing the world through oppression-tinted lenses, especially after rereading (for class) Jeff McMahan’s recent piece (from which the image above is lifted) on the desirability of mass predator eradication. Setting aside the fascinating discussions on Hegel, art, and modernity, I want to narrow in on how Marx famously ‘turned Hegel on his head’, and the effects of viewing the world through zero-sum oppressionscopes. Viewed in such a light, various complex symbioses can immediately be reduced to hierarchical power differentials of oppressors and oppressed. But is this accurate, and would ‘liberation’ lead to a better world? I’m going to have to equivocate: sometimes symbiosis is indeed mere parasitism, but sometimes it’s commensalism and sometimes it’s mutualism. We want to shoot for mutualism. (Duh.)

(Full disclosure: I’m a graduate of Wesleyan University, and although my major–the ‘dead white men’ College of Letters–set me on its own course, the PCU-ness of many of my classes left an undeniable mark. Personally, I loved being able to study a core of ‘great books’ while being challenged by a range of broadly ‘left’ disciplines in my coursework. While my gripe at the time was more with what I perceived as the nihilist tendencies of postmodernism (we’ve since come to terms, albeit cautiously), the idea that hierarchy and inequality were categorically unjust seemed an unquestioned axiom of many of my peers.)

I’ll start by saying that some forms of human-animal relations are, indeed, pretty overtly zero-sum in this respect. Battery cage egg production comes to mind, as this blog post rejecting incrementalism points out, but this is as much because of the economics of “commodity” production in an age of economic globalization as because of anything inherently wrong with animal husbandry. (There’s a whole literature rejecting ‘humane livestock’ and what Francione terms ‘new welfarism’, and others neocarnism, that would reject animal agriculture as inherent parasitical. I don’t want to get in to that argument right now, other than to say that I think it’s logically coherent–indeed, with the exception of some nutritionally vulnerable groups, we’re not obligate omnivores–but ignorant of “the way the world actually is”. In other words, yes, I’m an incrementalist.)

Maybe it’s because I’m a Rortyan pragmatist who cringes when I hear single-premise constructs about ethics and policy (hence the contradictory ‘myopic clarity’ schtick). Especially in the case of food politics, I don’t see the other 98% of the world agreeing with the vegan ethic’s principle of harm avoidance overriding all of our other distinct moral premises anytime soon.

Maybe I’m cynical, but I’m cynical in the sense that nobody, not even the most dedicated vegan, is truly “cruelty-free”, especially those of us urbanites who live under what Marx accurately termed alienation from the means of production. This even follows from the second law of thermodynamics and the nature of ecological pyramids: in order for us to live, other living matter must die. This is true for any organism that is not an autotroph…so until we start figuring out how to photosynthesize or chemosynthesize, we have to remove energy from the world to live. So yes, we should all endeavor to eat and live lower down on the resource/food web. But these kinds of ethical concerns are distinct from harm/care/suffering, and they need to be balanced against each other.

And I don’t say this as a cheap rhetorical tactic (to merely prop up counterarguments as if they somehow changed the reality in question: see the Dawkins elevatorgate (just Google it) for a primer on how not to say “your issue is unimportant because other important issues exist.” Which often descends into the caricature: “Why care about animals? Kids are starving in Africa!”)

I guess all I’m saying is that I think we live in a tragically configured moral universe (as Sandel said of Isaiah Berlin’s views), and while I’m not a conservative, I have a lot of respect for the Burkean idea that social engineering projects don’t take you where you think you want to go (cue the ecological nightmare that would be mass predator eradication). Then again, if I see compelling evidence that we can restructure the global food system–or global predator-prey interactions–to bring about a broadly sustainable vegan future, I’m down. I mean, if the Vulcans do it…But large-scale veganic agriculture without massive synthetic fertilizer use (and resultant dead zones) and backbreaking stoop labor is not on the near-term horizon. (This also gets us into a whole other debate: the Vandana Shiva small-scale future versus the Economist techno-sustainable large-scale future. Again, I don’t want to go there right now.)

That said, I think the rich world needs to start eating about 90% less meat and dairy, and I think serious policy efforts need to be made to keep the rapidly developing world–especially China–from following in our dietary footsteps. But things aren’t looking good. But just looking at all animal husbandry as equally illegitimate is to paint with a comically wide brush. But I guess that’s why I’m a welfarist. (It’s also because I don’t believe that rights–whether human or animal–are anything other than a(n enormously useful) social construct)…but that’s a topic for another post.)

It’s a stretch to say that the best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity, but, sadly, Yeats was on to something.

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.