Thursday, July 3, 2014

Thinking the Unthinkable: Highly Recommended

A terrific interdisciplinary anthology!  HAPPY WARNING: This is the animal studies anthology your mother warned you about!  It offers a serious challenge to "those apolitical and obscurantist academics who produce dense works of 'theory' that do not engage with the material world, remaining 'safe' and, therefore, ineffectual."  It also asks the rest of us to consider our own practices in real, everyday life.

YAY to a real Critical Animal Studies.  Care and compassion matter.  Trivializing and ridiculing animal suffering only compounds the problems.   Distancing ourselves, with just the occasional gesture toward, only furthers the plight of animals who are more desperately in need of our help than ever. 

 July 3, 2014

What happy rescued pigs free to run around and do their own thing look like.  And here's a happy rescued  pig with two happy rescued goats:

Pigs raised for food  in factory-farmed gestation crates

After spending Sunday  up close with  five gorgeous rescued pigs and three rescued goats at a sanctuary for farmed animals in Southern Indiana, and then heading on Monday  to the Bloomington Animal Shelter a with a friend who was picking up the kittens and mama cat she is so kindly fostering, I was reminded yet again, for the umpteenth time,   how impossible it is  to separate my own body, and its  sufferings, joys, pains, desires, hungers, thoughts, and vulnerabilities from those of our non-human kin.  What I mean is, we all have an interest in living, we all have  inherent value, and an interest in bodily integrity, we all know pleasure and pain, we all have emotions (thanks to our limbic brains),  we are all sentient animals, and we are all mortal. 

My free desk copy of this excellent anthology (loving the subtitle)  arrived the other day, despite my dread that this would be yet another academicky  "animal studies" book written for university courses that would remain only mildly provocative, if not "overly-theorized,"  and full of jargon and only mild gestures toward the realities of animal suffering, and certainly not openly critical of many of the major U.S. universities' own complicity in that suffering (everything from the corporate connections  and industry funded research that not only justifies the studies that support those industries but also almost always ensures silence of any critique).  For many who perform research on animals, there  is an unbridgeable gap between human animals and non-human animals, and that anyone who points out this false justification for mistreatment and cruelty is sentimental, unrealistic, and irrational (a feminizing position--and we all know how hysterical and emotional women can be)....


Apparently because I advocate for animals and teach an animals and ethics class, a fellow faculty member involved in the sciences  recently informed me that a "few scientists" at my institution  are scared of me because they think I am an animal terrorist. My first reaction was to burst out laughing at the absurdity. Then I became concerned.  In a professional setting, particularly, that's a serious charge. But I should have seen it coming. One of the guest speakers I had invited early on to my animals and ethics class to help fill in some information on our brief section on animals used  in research instead  proceeded to  tell the students they should all get used to killing mice, which prompted a  horrible story about a mouse-killing in a lab, and repeatedly added the caution that "animal terrorism is illegal."  Then he left.   Note: I have been unable to find anyone who experiments on animals who is willing to come talk to my class.

There are others who teach and write about animals at my institution, but mostly it's "academic writing" that keeps a safe distance from animals themselves, their lives, their plights and focuses on clever analyses and lots of theory. I frequently review submitted articles for three different academic journals on animals, and while often the writing is good and the ideas are smart, there is little evidence of advocacy, and what I call "the vanishing animal."

So I am extra high on this anthology, which is published by Canadian Scholars' Press,  and is chock full of smart writing.  The  Table of Contents alone sends me over the moon (right along with the cow that jumped),  but an additional plus is that  I can flip to almost any page and find a phrase or sentence that makes me wanna holler.

Here's an inter-title that brought tears of joy to my heart (and, by the way, I like Donna Haraway as a person very much, and think she's one heck of a  brainy gal, even if I disagree with her animal politics): "The Haraway Effect: The Fetishization of Hybridity and Boundary Dissolution." And why?  Because you can't theorize away animal suffering or ignore the horrors of what we inflict just because we believe animals owe us their lives and bodies.  Theorized hybridity, celebrating some kind of collapse of  borders translates to refer to  transgenic animals and animals bred specifically for pharmaceuticals and mass-produced pigs whose organs are used in xenotransplantation, etc.---they are no longer animals, they are no longer real, they are no longer sentient, and therefore they can be exploited

And this is my biggest fear, "losing the animal," as more and more academic writing postulates and theorizes the animal into oblivion. In fact, I have a forthcoming pedagogical essay in a Routledge book on posthumanism that expresses this concern in more detail.

But back to this fabulous anthology.  If you can spare another minute,  allow me a few quotes just from the intro (the photos are ones I've chosen for this blog, not part of the book):

1. "... the violence directed at non-human animals ... 56 billion land-based animals killed each (uncounted numbers of water-dwelling).  .... millions more killed in the vivisection and clothing industries, sport hunting, and other forms of animal exploitation ...."

2. "Exploitation of non-human animals has intensified in scope over the last century, and each year moutning numbers of individual beings are subjected to unspeakable cruelties and death.  The scale of suffering and violence is almost incomprehensible."

3. "Efforts to protect these animals, what is broadly termed 'animal rights', are widely disparaged and dismissed.  ... the ethical issues surrounding our use of animals are profound and significant.  They are linked to matters of the most urgent concern, not just for those we victimize, but also for ourselves, since the animal exploitation industries are major factors in a global environmental crisis that is pushing many species toward extinction and creating dangers for human survival, especially for the world's poorest people.  Exploitation of non-human animals in the context of global capitalism has created unprecedented environmental destruction and biodiversity loss and is a threat to our own survival."

(As many of you already know, the  Animal Welfare Act does not cover rats, mice, or birds.)

AND, for my academic friends, who know well the pitfalls of postmodernism if you're not a straight white guy, here's the gorgeous kicker that made me practically leap  for joy out of my ergonomic seat in my Ballantine office.

4. "The field of animal studies now includes a substantial body of work that examines how our ideas of other animals and our treatment of them are socially constructed. Some of this work is of considerable historical interest; however, many academics in this field take inspiration from the work of French deconstructionist philosopher Jacques Derrida (please see my earlier blog post on Jacques and his cat) and American postmodernist Donna Haraway, neither of whom offers much to animals, not even a commitment to vegetarianism.  It is difficult to understand how either Derrida or Haraway has gained prominence within the field of animal studies.  Haraway's work is actually opposed to animal advocacy. She has expressed her antipathy toward the idea of animal rights, rejecting the very concept of oppression of animals as a social justice issue analogous to colonialism, racism, and sexism." (May I insert here that I don't analogize oppressions but the rhetoric and structures and interlinking historically of the treatment of people deemed "animal" because we care so little for the suffering of either.)

5. "The influence of Derrida and Haraway is especially pernicious because, as Noam Chomsky notes of postmodernism in general, their arcane writing and irrationalism is largely meaningless, as it is dissociated from popular struggles and undermines activism.  Deliberately vague and apolitical, postmodern animal studies avoids any direct commitment to animals or to serious criticisms of their exploitation.

My one complaint so far is that though the book does acknowledge, it  doesn't look closely enough at interconnections (race, gender, etc.).  BUT, it's not a downer. It's a wake-up call. It reminds  us all that it's not futile to care, it's not wimpy to have compassion, and we must not fear our own feelings or get overwhelmed by the enormity of it all, nor succumb to normalizing institutional conventions of apathy and and a media that often are complicit in reinforcing the status quo.

The goal of cruel practices and policies is not simply a straight arrow to the conclusion that people just enjoy being cruel.  Most people aren't immune to suffering and pain, and most people don't enjoy inflicting it on others. Animals make money. Period.  And in order to keep the cycle going, those doing the profiting must work hard (lobbyists, legislation, etc.) to keep us at arm's length so we don't have to deal with the realities.

People often deflect with humor; it's a kind of macho,  arch, clever, I'm not a wimp strategy:  "I was shampooing my hair in bunny tears" is not a joke, when you consider  the thousands of caged rabbits in labs who have needlessly suffered through the pain of being held down while   having chemicals forced into their eyes, blinding many of them.  And of course the jokes about eating animals: "knock  the hooves and antlers off  those deer and put them out on the grill."

 As Gary Steiner concludes in his essay in the book, "Only by acknowledging that we human beings are a certain kind of agent, one that can formulate and act in accordance with principles like justice and morality, can we ever begin to embrace the responsibility toward animals that we have too long ignored. It is for this reason that I think we should resist the lure of postmodernism and be willing to be humanists just a little bit longer."

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