Possibilities beyond cages

GWS 133AC, Blog Entry for 3 December 2013

Closing blog post

Read the Introduction as well as one additional article of your choice in the “Prison and Animals” Special Issue of Journal of Critical Animal Studies, accessed online: http://www.criticalanimalstudies.org/volume-10-issue-2-2012/


As the final subject matter of the course, I found the “Prison and Animals” readings to be a provocative engagement that left with me with many unfinished threads. As the United States stands at the forefront of highest rates of imprisonment globally, the conversation about mass incarceration has never been more important. Combined with the heavily disparate ways in which persons of colors and those of lower socioeconomic status are criminalized and imprisoned, the injustice (or “neo-slavery”) of the penal system is flagrant. The critical animal and prison studies tradition is expanding this conversation to include the millions of animals who too are kept behind cages until death for medical or otherwise experimentation, food consumption, or entertainment purposes. The overlap between these forms of imprisonment are not wholly congruent, but nonetheless reveal important affinities between the language that justifies the imprisonment of both human and non-human animals.

In Amy J. Fitzgerald’s essay, “Doing Time in Slaughterhouses: A Green Criminological Commentary on Slaughterhouse Work Programs for Prison Inmates” this relationship between incarcerated human and non-human animals is probed through the lens of slaughterhouse work programs. In both the United States and Canada, there are programs which are meant to offer rehabilitory opportunities to prison inmates. This programs are supposed to give inmates experience working, discipline, and important structure that will enable them to be “productive,” “good” citizens upon their re-release into society. However, one such program puts inmates directly into slaughterhouses where they themselves are slaughtering and “processing” the animals. Fitzgerald calls upon the theorizing of Piers Beirne (2004) by saying, “violence perpetrated against them [non-human animals] might affect the perpetrators, even when the violence is socially approved of” (19). In this way, this practice not only does not function in any kind of rehabilitory way but also is a violence to both the human inmate and the non-human animal. Contrary to numerous studies that demonstrate the positive benefit of non-human animal relationships within prisons, this kind of work directly affects the psyche of the inmate who is mandated to work in slaughterhouses. The connection and exploitation of both non-human animal and human inmates demands a much more comprehensive exploration, including thinking through what the possibilities of a re-imagined criminal justice system could be in the United States.

The disconcerting unpredictability of the hybrid

GWS 133AC, Blog Entry for 26 November 2013

Transspecies engagements, interior and exterior


Mei Zhan, “Civet Cats, Fried Grasshoppers, and David Beckham’s Pajamas: Unruly Bodies after SARS”

Octavia Butler, Fledgling


This week’s readings were among my favorite from the entire semester. Reading Mei Zhan’s, “Civet Cats, Fried Grasshoppers, and David Beckham’s Pajamas: Unruly Bodies after SARS” alongside Octavia Butler’s Fledgling opened up space for interesting rumination on the notions of hybridity and liminal identity. Zhan defines hybrids as entities which, “reshuffle and realign the boundaries and contents of nature and culture through unruly behaviors” (33). She looks at the examples of “wild animals” in post-SARS China, who are made and unmade at the intersection of neoliberal ethos and economic practices. When the “zoonotic origin” of SARS was identified, the “wild animal” became a figure of contested meaning. On one hand, it was feared and vilified as a detrimental public health hazard, with the Chinese government banning the consumption of nearly all wild land animals. Contrastingly, the Chinese culinary tradition, which includes the consumption of various “wild animals,” was grasped onto as an important symbol of culture by both Chinese individuals and exoticized narratives of “what Chinese culture is.” This blurry positioning of the “wild animal” (itself a blurry category, as demonstrated by Zhan) within Chinese and global narratives speaks to the notion of the hybrid.

Within Butler’s Fledgling, Shori is indeed a hybridian and cyborgian protagonist. She is the product of an experiment in genetic modification, in the attempt to make the Ina species impervious to sunlight. This experiment made her the only dark-skinned Ina (vampire), the rest of which are light-skinned. This manifest difference incites persecution and numerous attempts to murder her by other Ina who are disconcerted with her creation. Here, Shori is a hybrid of Ina and genetic modification, an identity that is marked as perverse in its transgression of boundaries. The “transitional identity” of Shori, as well as the “wild animal” in China, offer important challenges to the way that boundaries, or delineations of difference, are made and policed. This is not offered in the foolish belief of homogeneity. Rather, I think that by inquiring into boundary work, or questioning whom or what is involved in their enforcement, it becomes possible to identify, and perhaps ameliorate, the violence of this practice of containment.

The traffics of indigenous cosmologies and Western science

GWS 133AC, Blog Entry for 19 November 2013
Indigenous sovereignty vs. nonindigenous aesthetics of the hunt


Jonathan Goldberg and Noenoe Silva, “Sharks and Pigs: Animating Hawaiian Sovereignty Against the Anthropological Machine”

Michael Pollan, “The Modern Hunter-Gatherer”


Jonathan Goldberg and Noenoe Silva’s “Sharks and Pigs: Animating Hawaiian Sovereignty Against the Anthropological Machine” offered a deeper analysis of last week’s readings about the mobile categorizations of “invasive” or “pest” non-human animal species. Specifically, their text addresses the contesting positions of fear and reverance incited by sharks in Hawaii. Goldberg and Silva explicate how the shark emerged as a kind of blood-hungry predator, leading to campaigns for killing sprees. In parallel with the kangaroo hunts of Australia, at the moment that the shark is deemed to be a threat to humans it becomes morally permissible to kill them en masse. In contrast, the Kanaka Maoli of Hawai’i do not have a distinction of human and animal within their cosmology. Further, the shark or mano is viewed as being an essential and respected part of family. They are not feared, but deeply respected for their place in ancestral and contemporary Maoli culture. Over and against the hegemonic fear narrative that has arrived and increased in post-colonial Hawaii, sharks remain a crucial part of Maoli cosmology. Similarly, Goldberg and Silva trace how the pig figures prominently in Maoli cosmology and culture. The Maoli/pig relation has an extensive history of pig hunting as an act of indigenous sovereignty. Here, interestingly, Maoli livelihood practices align with external interests of environmentalism and are encouraged by environmental groups to continue hunting as a means to control feral pig populations. The juxtaposition of external response to Maoli relations with the shark and the pig reveals that indigenous cosmology in Hawaii seems to be validated if and only if it is in accordance with external wishes. The act of swimming with sharks as an expression of indigenous sovereignty is beyond comprehension, while the hunting of pigs is more than understandable but lauded. This distinction becomes legitimated through scientific practices, such as conservation biology, which emphasize that the pig is dangerous to biodiversity and should be controlled (as opposed to a genuine recognition of Maoli sovereign livelihood practices). This point is salient for further consideration of how colonial positioning of the inferiority of indigenous cosmologies alongside Western science is still widely enacted and re-produced contemporarily.

Questioning the “pest”

GWS 133AC, Blog Entry for 12 November 2013
Sexuality/animality, animality as “pest”


Mel Chen, “Queer Animality”

Boom et al, “‘Pest’ and ‘Resource’: A Critical History of Australia’s Kangaroos”

Alec Brownlow, “A wolf in the garden: Ideology and change in the Adirondack landscape”

Our readings and conversations this week dealt with several fascinating case studies of animality, identity, and “place” being intimately linked. I was particularly provoked by the shifting meaning of kangaroos in Australia, from “pest” to a national identity marker. As Boom et al. illustrate, the category of “pest” is not fixed, but rather constructed and pliable through time. In Australia, there is an extensive legacy of “Kangaroo Management” programs which have including violent population control tactics of mass killings. This violence response was incited because the kangaroo has been imbued with narratives of being hyper-reproductive animals who threaten livestock and agricultural production. As such, their deaths were not only inconsequential, but necessary for the fitness of the human species. This conversation reminded me of a book I read for another class this semester, Alien Ocean by Stefan Helmreich. In one section, Helmreich explores the categories of “native” and “alien” or “indigenous” and “invasive” plant species on the Hawaiian islands. He argues that the category of invasive in contemporary biological conservation projects in Hawaii fails to consider how even in pre-colonial Polynesian history, plant species were being continually “introduced” and taking root in Hawaii. Thus, the plants now prized as “endemic” to Hawaii were so too once invasive, begging the question of when an entity can be thought of as “native.” (interesting place to further explore immigration experience, and correlation between the rhetoric of the invasive and anti-immigration rhetoric).

In Australia, like in Hawaii, the category of “pest” is not so clearcut. Over time, the kangaroo has become a part of Australian heritage, or the Australian national symbolic. Though  very sadly this has not wholly stopped the widespread slaughter of kangaroos, it’s an interesting point to consider how the sedimented meanings of animals can morph over time and even figure prominently in nationalistic sentiment. I was reminded of Barbara Barnes’ lecture wherein we discussed the correlation of grizzly bears with the “Wild Frontier.” Like kangaroos, grizzly bears have similarly been alternatively condemned and revered in the United States. Today, they are emblematic to the ruggedness and wildness of U.S. backcountry “nature,” with heavy connection to the trope of “lone white man in the wilderness.”

We have never been only human

GWS 133AC, Blog Entry for 5 November 2013
Racism and citizenship


Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

        Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is both one of my favorite science-fiction novels as well as a provocative text for thinking through the question of “what defines a human?” This monumental question has indeed preoccupied philosophers from Socrates to Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel to Bruno Latour. Throughout this extensive intellectual genealogy, the notion of an essentialized “human nature” has been broadly asserted and challenged and deconstructed. Within the post-apocalyptic world of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the most essential quality of “humanness” is believed to be empathy. Empathy drives the plot of the entire novel, and is expressed and defined in interesting and contradictory ways. At one part, the protagonist, Rick Deckard, confronts the Voigt-Kampff test that is meant to measure empathy, and thus prove whether the test-taker is human or android. This evaluation is based on the test-takers’ responses to questions like: what would do if there was a wasp crawling on your arm? Though this question is incredibly open-ended, to the standards of the Voigt-Kampff test, to kill the wasp would be an un-empathetic answer, and thus, an android answer. If proven to be an android, the test-taker in question would then be killed, an irony that should not be disregarded. Though Deckard’s dystopian San Franciscan landscape is fiction, it nonetheless acts as an important mirror to our own world. As explored through many previous readings, human exceptionalism rests on the idea that there are distinct qualities that separate humans from non-human animals. These qualities include language capacity, opposable thumbs, and the ever-revered rationality, and have justified the continued exploitation and domination of non-human animals (as well as promoted discrimination of specific human groups AND non-human entities). While reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, I was called to consider how this definition of “humanness” would be received by someone like Temple Grandin who advocates for expanding the parameters of how a human can acceptably see and interact with the world. Considering that empathy would not be defined or expressed identically by each “human” makes clear the dangerous possibilities of using this quality as the determinant for “humanness.” This argument can be extended to non-human animals who do not express “empathy” in a way that is deemed legitimate (but is nonetheless legitimate). It is through troubling these kinds of queries that I have arrived at my belief that the category of “human” is indeed too unstable to take at face value.

Beyond Rationalist Moral Reasoning

GWS 133AC, Blog Entry for 29 October 2013
Natural Control, Landscapes, and Pet Discourses

J. Donovan, “Animal Rights and Feminist Theory”

Heidi Nast, “Critical Pet Studies?”

Josephine Donovan’s “Animal Rights and Feminist Theory” challenges both Peter Singer and Tom Regan in their rationalist, utilitarian approaches to animal rights debates. The utilitarian position posits that all sentient beings that are capable of feeling should be extended equal rights and respect. As Donovan explicates, both the core components of this position, sentience and capacity for suffering, necessarily entail an external, scientific rubric for measurement and evaluation. It mandates that suffering be empiricized, enumerated, and quantified for it be legitimate. This “rationalist, calculative mode of moral reasoning” (358) fails to consider numerous important points as well as reinforces the very system of reasoning that justifies violence against non-human animals in the first place. Firstly, within this mathematic model of morality, there is a negligence of actors and actants that do not express sentience or capacity for suffering in a way that is legible to humans. Entities like a river or a redwood tree, which cannot be evaluated on the same rubric as a human or non-human animal, would be excluded from Regan and Singer’s “inclusive equality.” This system of evaluation also calls into question even human animals who may not be able to express sentience or capacity for suffering in recognizable forms. Further, this privileging of rationality as the barometer to which rights should be allocated is, in fact, the same system of logic that has historically justified the domination of non-human animals. In extending this same net of epistemology only slightly wider, similar epistemic violence is enacted onto non-human actants/actants. Donovan offers the model of cultural feminism to address the failings of this scientific epistemology. Cultural feminism confronts this historical employment of scientific, Western, and patriarchal knowledge to the domination of both women and “environment.” As Donovan states, “Patriarchy is an ideology founded on the assumption that man is distinct from the animal and superior to it. The basis for this superiority is man’s contact with a higher power/knowledge called god, reason, or control.” (369). In challenging rationality and science as objective and unquestionable, cultural feminism begins to unwind the systems of domination that are at play within the becoming-world.

To elaborate later: Enumeration functions as science “without a scientist” (Bourdieu)

Latent Prejudices within Notions of “Equality”

GWS 133AC, Blog Entry for 22 October 2013

 Peter Singer, Animal Liberation (excerpt)
Tom Regan, Empty Cages: Facing the Challenge of Animal Rights (excerpt)
Lawrence Buell, “Ecocriticism: Some Emerging Trends”

      Peter Singer’s seminal book, Animal Liberation, extends various philosophical underpinnings of minority liberation movements to a re-examination of human/non-human animal relations. Specifically, Singer draws from the rhetoric of Black Liberation, Latino, and feminist movements of the late twentieth century to argue that concepts of “equality,” “egalitarianism,” and “universal rights” should not stop at their inclusion of oppressed humans, but rather should and must include non-human animals. Singer deconstructs numerous arguments defending both the inequity between human groups, as well as the violence and inequity of human/non-human animal relations. In response to the refrain of “not all humans are made equal” (the predecessor to the Conservative party’s “well sorry, life’s not fair!”), Singer states, “the principle of the equality of human beings is not a description of an alleged actual equality among humans: it is a prescription of how we should treat humans” (150). In restated terms, Singer is arguing that irrespective of difference (perceived or otherwise) amongst individuals or groups, each human being deserves equal treatment and rights. From this platform, Singer develops the argument that irrespective of difference, every being, human or not, deserves the “basic principle of equality” (149). He stresses, “our concern for others ought not to depend on what they are like, or what abilities they might possess” (151). I am reminded once again of Sunuara Taylor’s piece, where precisely this argument is asserted: it is both an ableist and speciesist act to assign value to human or non-human animals’ lives based on perceived ability. However, Singer’s piece is not one of the critical disability studies tradition and herein is where I took most issue with his argument. In deconstructing an alleged, intrinsic dignity of humans (used to justify the subjugation of animals), Singer “concentrates on permanently retarded humans” to argue that if these “mentally deficient” humans are offered dignity though they “quite clearly are below the level of awareness, self-consciousness, intelligence, and sentience, of many non-humans,” then “why should there be any fundamental inequality of claims between a dog and a human imbecile?” (155-156). Though I understand that critical disability discourses were not yet part of academic settings at the time of writing, this devaluing of disabled humans to argue that dignity should be extended to non-human animals creates the precise hierarchy or relative valuing of beings that Singer is purporting to dismantle. Though many of Singer’s ideas continue to be relevant and crucial in critical animal studies, I strongly hope this posturing of disability has evolved over the past twenty-five years. As Singer said himself, “latent prejudice in our attitudes to particular groups [is difficult to see] until this prejudice is forcefully pointed out” (148). (necessary for further conversation: a parsing out/deconstruction of “utilitarianism”)