Tag 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.

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.

Thinking about the “Thinking About Animals” conference

My wife and I took a road trip to Ontario last weekend (a 16-hour round trip!) so I could check out the Thinking About Animals conference, put on by Brock University’s sociology department and the Institute for Critical Animal Studies. I felt a bit like a welfarist fish in an abolitionist pond, but it was great to see academic-level discussions on animal ethics and to meet lots of interesting people. Here are some of my impressions.

I had forgotten how different my last five years of graduate education and teaching are from the world of critical theory. Dan Drezner quipped jokingly that lightning should have struck me down for mentioning Foucault in a class I took on International Law and International Relations with him and Joel Trachtman, and my current gig teaching undergrads at UMass Lowell tends not to spend much time on the intricacies of Knowledge-Power, interlocking oppressions, essentialism, and the other. If anything, many of my students at UML tend towards libertarianism, and even objectivism.

I also realized that I had never taken any sociology courses, either as an undergrad or at my two Master’s programs. In hindsight, this is probably too bad, because I think a lot of what I want to do as a PhD student would fit nicely in a sociology department, but I’ll admit that I have trouble getting beyond the power/hierarchy/oppression language that so dominates the field. Haidt’s recent study on political bias in academia also makes a good deal more sense to me now, as do the dangers of groupthink he was pointing out.

That said, there was lots of engaging material to mull over. Here are some snippets from some of the talks I attended.

  • Jodey Castricano, “The Fifth Discontinuity: Animal Rights, Posthumanism & When ‘Thinking About Animals is Unthinkable”
    • On Derrida’s concern re. ‘extending rights to animals’: “rights discourse has a way of configuring hierarchies… [and] repeat[ing] the exclusionary logic of the cartesian subject” through “epistemological structures that reify the logic of domination”
  • Craig McFarlane, “Critical Animal Studies”
    • Espousing an “anti-speciesist, anti-anthropocentric, anti-humanist” ethic by critiquing Regan & Singer as “still focusing on the ethical priority of humans”.
  • Eric Jonas, “When Species Part”
    • Focused on Derrida’s concept of hospitality to the other (to paraphrase: letting the other be the other in its particularity and singularity, and not subsuming it onto categories)
    • “The alterity of the other is the indefinite nature of its identity”, so “each experience of hospitality must create a new language”
  • Valery Giroux, “Toward Animal Equality: The Impossibility of Morally Justifying the Exploitation of Nonhuman Animals”
    • Using Aristotle’s principle of equality (treat like things alike, and different things differently), a conception of rights as “thick barriers of protection”, and a blend of Isaiah berlin on Positive Liberty and Alasdair Cochrane on negative liberty.
    • “This charity [of companion animal guardianship] is not justice…It is the power that allows us to treat well…there can be no real justice as long as there are real inequalities between sentient nonhuman animals.”
  • Kristen A. Hardy, “Cows, Pigs, and Whales: Rhetoric of Fatphobia & Logics of Human Exceptionalism”
    • Critiquing the use of the word “dehumanizing in critical fat studies by looking at axes of inclusion and exclusion (social, cultural, religio-ethical, philosophical, political), and by questioning “blanket declarations that food choices are out of bounds”.
    • Methods: photos of “silenced, headless fatties”, person-absent rhetoric (‘the overweight’ and ‘the obese’), and fatness as excessively bound to physicality and animalistic desires.
  • Andrew Murray, “In Vitro Meat: A New Development in the Ongoing Industrialization of Animal Bodies.”
    • On the role of substitutionism and ethical biocapital in New Harvest’s ongoing in vitro meat project, which is a “technical rather than anthropological fix” to the problem of farm animal use.
    • On the role of “the Michael Pollan obstacle” (i.e., that this is food science, not real food) and overcoming “socionatural obstacles”.

In the comments to Murray’s talk, a few people mentioned their concern that in vitro meat would “further estrange and disconnect people from their foodways”, and I mentioned that this has the potential to be the ultimate disruptive technology to the Tysons and Smithfields of the world. This last talk brought together a lot of key animals, food and society issues for me. As with vertical farming, these industrializations of food production (continuous rather than batched) raise concerns of further alienation from our means of production as we live in ever-more urban settings, but in vitro meat’s potential benefits from reduced environmental externalities to bypassing CAFO suffering to addressing world protein demand with functional foods (i.e., loaded with Omega-3s, or whatever’s nutritionally ‘hot’) are enormous.

I also thought that piece on fatphobia was excellent, as it highlighted an issue I notice all too often–when one marginalized group accuses a dominant group of ‘dehumanizing’ them (usually rightly), only to thereby reinforce potentially unjustified forms of speciesist exceptionalism.

Of all the talks, I had the most trouble with Valery Giroux’s, although it was well structured and cogently argued. I don’t agree with the idea that all forms of human-nonhuman interaction are categorically exploitative and therefore morally unjustifiable. I think this is one of the key places where my welfarism comes into conflict with the anti-hierarchical bent of most sociology and pretty much all critical theory. I don’t see why the symbiosis need always be parasitic, when human-animal relations have historically demonstrated all kinds of mutualist (or, at the very least, commensalist) bonds. This is, of course, not to underplay the fact that humans do unjustifiably exploit nonhuman animals on a massive scale every day. We do. But this is different than calling for a complete abolition whereby all canids and other domesticates would eventually revert to wildness. And even if I didn’t have problems at the level of theory, I can’t help but feel that this credo of total non-interference would actually be a death sentence for much of the world’s wild animals, whose habitat is increasingly threatened by myriad factors (hence the depressing line from Dale Jamieson’s “Against Zoos” “If zoos are like [Noah's ark], then rare animals are like passengers on a voyage of the damned.”)

All in all, it was a great opportunity to meet new people and hear interesting talks. And we got to see Niagara Falls.