Thursday, February 23, 2012

Species Matters

SpeciesMatters: Humane Advocacy and Cultural Theory, edited by Marianne DeKoven and Michael Lundblad (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012)

     You could argue that as a culture we have a crush on animals. That’s not saying, however, that we understand how to live together ethically and sustainably. Animals feature prominently in a number of movies, as noted recently, and testimonial books like John Grogan’s Marley and Me continue to find readers. Animal-assisted therapy is a growth field, though measuring the effectiveness of dogs, horses, and dolphins with people in need and gauging the animals' own welfare are ongoing challenges. Meanwhile, the mass production of food from animals continues to be a key part of the U.S. diet and economy, with locavore pigs and chickens a rarity. (For a send-up of the locavore obsession for a happy story behind every meal, see Episode 1 of Portlandia.)
"Animal studies” is a also rapidly growing field in colleges and universities. It crosses disciplines—ethics, philosophy, sociology, history, biology, psychology, literature, the arts—to defamiliarize what we think we know about animals, how we treat them, and why. Or to paraphrase recent books in the field, one by Hal Herzog and another by Melanie Joy, why do we love dogs and cats, eat pigs and chickens, and wear sheep and cow?
  In Species Matters: Humane Advocacy and Cultural Theory, editors DeKoven and Lundblad have assembled essays that illustrate the breadth and maturation of animal studies. The collection, as indicated by “cultural” plus “theory” in the title, is not for the casual reader or fresh undergraduate; it situates itself (the Random Animal can talk academic) in intellectual explorations of the unstable meanings of “being animal” and “being human.”  The contributors are scholars that are shaping the field through postmodern, even "posthuman," readings of nature and culture, linguistics, ethics, evolutionary theory, primatology, food production, and race and gender studies. They include DonnaHaraway, Cary Wolfe, Paola Cavalieri, Carol J. Adams, Frans de Waal, Martha Nussbaum, and Temple Grandin. The essays address the relationships among theory, animal advocacy in the lab and field, and “the cultural politics of animality and ‘the animal.’” One of the book's contributions is to distinguish between those terms. Michael Lundblad writes, “’If animal studies can be seen as work that explores representations of animality and related discourses with an emphasis on advocacy for nonhuman animals, animality studies becomes work that emphasizes the history of animality in relation to human cultural studies, without an explicit call for nonhuman advocacy.’” While the reader will encounter specialist terms of fine distinctions--"vanishing indigene,"" semiotic grille," "ontological freight," "absent referent"--the discussions also raise broad basic questions. In terms of ethics and behavior how are animals and humans the same, different? How is "brutality" entangled in attitudes about predators and human violence? Are women and minorities harmed and even destroyed by being considered animalistic or at times less worthy of "humane" care than the animal? How is the "animal question" inseparable from the big "human" ones--what is good, what is evil, and why do we value what we value?
Given our social backdrop of beliefs that range from we can do anything with animals to we should abolish all use of animals, the agendas of such disparate groups as the NRA and PETA having impact on real animal lives and deaths, Species Matters demonstrates openness to viewpoints. (Well, the NRA isn't included or the Beef Association). The editors stress that "animal studies remains a broad field with no mandatory form of advocacy and no necessary correlation with animal rights activism." They also repeat Haraway's insight that there is no single universal principle which accounts for all human/animal relations and, in her words, "No easy unity is to be found on these matters, and no answers will make one feel good for long." Wolfe notes the slippage he experiences in connecting Derrida's subtle hermenuetics to his efforts with animal aid groups. Cavalieri makes her moral stance clear in statements like "Animal welfare aims at improving the treatment of animals, but without changing their status as inferior beings. Animal liberation pursues instead the goal of a moral and legal extension of equality to nonhuman beings." She calls attention as well to the "anti-McDonald's saga" in which activists focus on "[human] health, the environment, and worker rights" with little reference to the animals slaughtered. 
       A very different view is offered by Temple Grandin, who "was hired by McDonald's to implement animal welfare audits in slaughter plants." Grandin argues that there is danger in ideological or political "abstractification," her term for "ideology and policy made by people who have no 'on the ground' experiences with the issue that they are making policy about." Grandin gives as example the law that closed U.S. horse slaughter houses but provided no alternative care for unwanted animals: "it resulted in many severe horse welfare problems. Some old horses suffered a fate worse than ending up at the worst horse slaughter plant." 
         The implications of human denial or acceptance of Homo sapiens' own animal nature dominate several discussions. The traditional paradigm that the human must conquer the impulsive and violent internal "animal" to transcend to an ideal undergoes a number of deconstructions. Philosopher Martha Nussbaum ,who has written extensively and brilliantly on empathy and social justice, argues that human beings are capable of cruel extremes unimaginable with animals: "Human compassion . . . is profoundly uneven and unreliable, in ways that make animals look, at times, like morally superior beings." She cites acts of torture and genocide intended to wipe groups of people out of existence.  (She is not the first to make these points: Jared Diamond and other interdisciplinary scientists have examined the "human" nature of mass violence in anthropological/evolutionary studies.) In illustrating the kindness of animals, however, Nussbaum's analogies are sometimes problematic. She asserts that the dog in Theodor Fontane's novel Effi Briest exhibits a superior response by longing for Effi when her parents, who married her off badly and then condemned her resulting behavior, have ostracized her and driven her to death. I'm not arguing against the idea that the dog is the better person in the story, but there's a false parallelism of moral contexts. Effi violated a flawed human code within the society of her husband and parents. Within the society of the dog, she apparently acted well and responded to the animal with affection; she did not violate a canine code. A better parallel would exist if she had abandoned the dog as well--then would the dog forgive as readily? (Probably yes.)
       Nussbaum's conclusion that "the human is the only animal that hates its own animality" points to a paradox that appears throughout the collection: when humans try to be more than human--a superior race--and try to debase different peoples as less than human, destruction ensues. Primatologist Frans de Waal sets this self-hatred in the context of outdated dualism--mind over body, superior being over animal. He argues against the dim views of failed humanity offered by Hobbes, Huxley, "Calvinist sociobiology," and Richard Dawkins, authors who can't comprehend "natural" compassion. De Waal is not saying that animals and humans have the same moral comprehension but that complex human morality is NOT a "violation of evolutionary principles." There is a non-dualistic continuum: "Thus, the child is not going against its own nature by developing a caring, moral attitude, and civil society is not like an out-of-control garden subdued by a sweating gardener. We are merely following evolved tendencies."
       Challenging animals' "accepted" status and redefining the human can stir up contentious arguments that oversimplify and shut out different viewpoints. Species Matters, while clearly advancing the possibilities for advocacy, outlines the range of activist and intellectual responses to human/animal issues. With continuing human population growth and development, those issues will become even more crucial.

A footnote: in 2010 I published an essay on the state of animal studies, "Theory: Gone to the Dogs," which is available through the 2/21/2012 post.

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