Friday, April 18, 2014

REVIEW: Defining Critical Animal Studies (2/2)

***This is the second half of the review ***
Please see the first half for a discussion of CAS as an alternative form of research and education than HAS and the Posthumanities.

VEGANISM as part of CAS
Veganism (and vegan education) is a critical component of CAS that most explicitly distinguishes CAS from HAS and the Posthumanities, wherein veganism draws sympathy, but, not uncommonly, also rolling eyes. So significant is veganism that Glasser and Roy recommend adding a twelfth principle of CAS to the original ten that (more-or-less) requires those in CAS to practice vegan in order to be accountable to their research subjects: "scholars must not abuse, injure, degrade, exploit, cage, denigrate, or kill humans, nonhuman, animals and the earth."(p.)

However, just because CAS appraises veganism does not mean it is (ironically) uncritical of the politics surrounding it. While editors call it a "moral baseline," they acknowledge that structural conditions such as a lack of geographic, financial, and educational access obstruct many people from practicing veganism (p. xx). Along these lines, Grubbs and Loadenthal also raise judgement of mainstream veganism, following Dr. Harper, as a “providence of a moneyed minority who can afford expensive foods in which "sizist, racist, and classist discourse [...] replace ideological critique with green capitalism" (p. 187).

In Chapter 4, Stephanie Jenkins and Vasile Stanescu likewise critique "vegan lifestyle" discourse which complicity operates within the neoliberal framework of privatizing moral problems through markets and placing full moral accountability on individuals rather than institutions and social structures:

Boycott veganism conflates conspicuous consumption with ethical action and political change… limiting activism to an economic boycott undercuts the moral force of veganism by reducing it to an individual lifestyle. (p. 78)
Richard White and Erika Cudworth alternatively conceptualize veganism as a micro-resistance, through French anarchist Elisee Reclus' theory of "microgeographies" which privileges practice in the "here and now" (p. 203). Jenkins and Stanescu call this "engaged veganism":

[E]ngaged veganism refuses complicity with and symbolically disrupts the instrumentalization and hierarchialization of animal life [necessitating] a micro-political revolution at the level of embodied perception, aesthetics, taste, and affective responses (p. 76)
Engaged veganism is thus similar to what I have previously called social veganism (as opposed to diet, lifestyle, boycott, pragmatic, and ethical veganism), an alternative to what I call consumption veganism.
I understand veganism as a social modality, an affiliation and solidarity with others beyond (species) boundaries, in which animal others are regarded as someones, not somethings... Exploiting animals may not terminate conversations absolutely, but enables and is enabled by an emotional [ignorance] to their resistance whenever it becomes inconvenient to using them.
In other words, veganism is an embodied perception of animals as fellow social creatures whom we have an inherent curiosity for and permeating compassion for through our nature as social beings. Veganism is a recognition of something already there, not an additive ideology or identity politics.
Critically, Adam Weitzenfeld and Melanie Joy state that the consumption of nonhuman animal bodies, far from a matter of personal choice, is at the heart of speciesist narratives and institutions:

Of all the ways humans are subject to speciesism, carnism—the unrecognized ideology that legitimates the killability and edibility of animal others—is arguably the deepest, most pervasive and catastrophic in modern Western cultures. Vegan praxis is one means of embodying critical animal theory and challenging the hegemony of speciesist institutions and anthropocentrist ideology that keep the human-animal binary and hierarchy alive. (p. 1-2)
As a result Weitzenfeld and Joy, recommend shedding light on flesh-consumption practices as not "normal, natural, and necessary," but a biased schema (a way of perceiving the world) in order to expose carnistic affects as social and political intuitions. While carnism is based upon post-hoc disavowals of animal subjectivity and personal accountability for the consequences of choices, veganism is "based on empathy, authenticity, reciprocity, justice, and integrity—the principles that underscore true freedom" for nonhumand and human animals (p.25).
Decolonization and CAS
As the above quote implies, Critical Animal Studies is not only committed to animal liberation, but human liberation. CAS scholars argue that one cannot be had without the other for both liberations are obstructed by the violent construction of human identity as "something superior and opposed to animals and animality" (p. 3).

According to Weitzenfeld and Joy, the violence of the human-animal dualism occurs at the level of the body, perception, and state. First, by dividing humans into mind and body, privileging the former over the latter, human beings are alienated not only from themselves (their "animality") but also nurturing relationships to nonhuman animals and the Earth. Second, by classifying all nonhumans as animals, humans have facilitated ignorance of their similarity to and difference from other species, as well as an understanding of nonhumans on their own terms. Finally, humans have reduced animals to mere life to be known through science, managed by the state, and sacrificed for the economy, resulting in not only an animal holocaust, but human holocausts wrought by the very same technologies and exclusionary politics (p. 8).

The violence against human and nonhuman animals in the name of humanity lead Weitzenfeld and Joy to conclude "[H]uman being is not so much a value-neutral biological fact as a violent political fiction" (p. 8):
[T]he concept of what we now call “the human” has been selectively, adaptively, and partially defined according to a particular form of embodiment and culture against others… [reflecting] a particular group of elite men’s perception of themselves in opposition to those they ruled over and classified as their others... [T]he “cult of humanity” function[s] to maintain the market and cultural imperialism of white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy through people’s complicity with and celebration of its technological, globalizing “progress.” (pp. 8-9)
Citing Matthew Calarco, they advocate challenging human supremacy (anthropocentrism) as a tactic for all liberation movements as it is “always one version or another of the human that falsely occupies the space of the universal and that functions to exclude [others]… from ethical and political consideration” (p. 10).

In Chapter 2, Amy Fitgerald and David Pellow position CAS as a cutting-edge field of research converging with well-established normative methodologies including multiracial- and eco-feminisms, critical race theory, environmental justice, green criminology, and animal theory. What all these bodies of research have in common are an understanding of what Kimberle Crenshaw calls "intersectionality," a recognition that identities have been historically co-constituted through asymmetric, binary power-relationships.*

Further, these fields also recognize that capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy and human supremacy are central organizing principles of (Western) nation states and cultures, and thus liberation for some people is not achievable without the liberation of all.
The power and role of the state in classifying and producing racial, gender, and humanist categories for centuries… The state has managed, included, excluded, homogenized, and controlled humans and nonhuman natures for the benefit of a small elite. (p. 37)
Fitzgerald and Pellow thus argue that the metaphor that racist policies that disadvantage blacks is "the canary in the coal mine" for future harm to others (e.g. working class whites) needs to be taken literally:
[In recognition that the] direct and indirect result of the exercise of human privilege, humans themselves have and will continue to suffer from the effects of harm to ecosystems and nonhuman animals.. We argue for extending that metaphor literally to include the miner, the canary, the mine itself, and the ecosystem in which all three are situated. (p. 37)

In Chapter 2, Sarat Colling, Sean Parson, and Alessandro Arrigoni do the most in depth work of positioning CAS in historical and political context as well as prescribing three general political principles: revolutionary decolonization, groundless solidarity, and a relationship framework. These three principles translate into opposition to neoliberal competition, assimilation, and ownership.

The authors begin by recognizing the limits of forerunners of CAS who extended advocacy for liberation to some while excluding others and then lay out an instructive history on liberation movements beginning with Fanon as a champion of decolonization to those he influenced in the 1960s:
Black Panthers, Young Lordes, Chicago Brown Berets, I Wor Kuen, and the American Indian Movement, and groups led by poor and working class whites such as JOIN Community Union, the Young Patriots, and Rising Up Angry in Chicago, White Lightening (p. 60)
Before moving onto the "post-materialist" movements of the 1970s (wherein gender, ethnic, and environmental identity become recognized as interrelated sites of struggle), the authors highlight vegans and animal advocates among the ranks of radical people and organizations including John Africa’s MOVE back to the land, Angela Davis, Coretta and Scott King, Ashanti Omowalli Alston, Alice Walker, Food Not Bombs, and the Clamshell Alliance. Most of these people and groups were skeptical of the state and it's criminal justice system and police force if not outright hostile toward them.

In belief that “any freedom that involves negotiated settlements and economic dependency on a neoliberal system is pseudo-freedom," the authors reject crypto-colonial strategies of foreign powers to appropriate and assimilate lands and bodies through market forces (p. 57). They cite Franz Fanon's Wretched of the Earth as a foundational revolutionary text, and conclude that since “[c]olonization is a violent process, and likewise so is decolonization because many of those who benefit from it will violently uphold their positions of power and privilege” (p. 59).**

The authors appraise the Zapatistas, a local autonomy affinity group within Mexico, as well as allies such as the Latin American Solidarity Movement for their revolutionary decolonization and groundless solidarity.
Groundless solidarity is a realization that there is no ground to a claim that one form of oppression is central and others merely peripheral… all resistance to domination is essential and necessary.  (p. 64)
Following Christian anarchist, Peter Kropotkin, they perceive humans having an intuitive affinity for aiding nonhuman animals in need as coming out of a biological and historical evolutionary favoring of mutual aid. Further, the authors cite Black Cherokee, Zainab Amadahy, to see mutual aid not as joyless obligation but as "as inherent to enjoying life experience" (p. 68).

Finally, of course, nonhuman animals, too, have been been colonized. The very biopolitical movements and technologies that have been imposed upon them, such as vivisection and eugenics, have later been applied on devalued humans including Jews, Gypsies, queers, those with disabilities, people of color and indigenous people (p. 67).  To be even more succinct
[t]oday’s animal enterprises exist in direct continuity with the Western European colonial project of slavery, genocide, and environmental destruction. (p. 70)
Like the decolonial politics of Corman and Vandrovoca's position that we must understand ourselves as allies of nonhuman animals rather than their heroic saviors, the authors advocate facilitating the self-rule of nonhumans and the land they are a part of:
[O]ne does not to attempt to take power and impose a hegemonic mindset on others, but instead create a space for others to have autonomy. This means that we must embrace and recognize the need for solidarity with nonhumans and struggle to help them create spaces where they can flourish and develop their own organic relationships and communities. (p. 68)
However, while the connection between animal liberation and decolonization can be quite clear, mainstream animal activists often do not make the connection, whether out of ignorance or indifference to decolonization. Rather than enabling animal liberation, the narrow concentration on “animal rights” has failed all three principles of groundless solidarity, mutual aid, and revolution.

In Chapter 1, Weitzenfeld and Joy analyze the reasons underlying these limits of mainstream (or liberal) animal advocacy, explicating the liberal humanist origins of anti-speciesism. Although humanism has traditionally provided strong ideological support for human supremacy (e.g. human exceptionalism and self-determination), variations have simultaneously offered the greatest resistance (e.g. advocacy for freedom from arbitrary power and prejudice). Because anti-speciesism’s origins have been tainted by human supremacy, its advocates have not been immune from bias toward humans. As a result mainstream animal advocacy often merely extends value to nonhuman animals based upon their proximity to Western, male, able-bodied humans.

CAS scholars, however, are suspicious of not only such biases, but also the hegemonic values and institutions they arise from
the demand for the logical consistency of present thought and politics insufficient. A radical transformation in thought and politics, [CAS scholars] believe, is necessary for challenging the dominant and dominating ways of conceptualizing humans, animals, and morality that…[have] historically served to justify the subjugation of animal others" (pp. 10- )
Anti-speciesists do not always attend to animal others ‘on their own terms;’ occasionally they project their humanist aspirations for consistency and full autonomy upon them (p.)
There are several general critiques of liberal anti-speciesism. First is the fantasy that individuals can somehow transcend social and ecological influence and dependency, pitting individuals against one another in a shared struggle of self-interest. This fantasy often does not acknowledge the labor of others (e.g. women, the working class, and nonhuman beings) and respect the materiality and vulnerability of bodies, while at the same time participates in exclusionary and (mis)representational politics.

Second, it attempts to ground morality in the universal principles, abstract from any situation via the idea of reason. This alienates us from and subordinates the embodied moral experience we share with other animals, as well as overestimates our ability to articulate our moral values and ridicule those who cannot. Third, liberal anti-speciesism assumes a civilization-wilderness dichotomy that fails at addressing our relationship to non-domesticated animals, whether it be liminal animals who enter into human-dominated spaces or wildlife conflicts which cannot be resolved by abolishing the property status of animals. Finally, it often assumes a patronizing attitude whereby only humans have been (and can be) historical agents, and nonhumans have been mere passive, victims.

A significant reason for the pervasiveness of these liberal assumptions is no doubt their cultural hegemony. However, hegemony has not stopped animal advocates preaching animal equality. Another reason, surely, is what Glasser and Roy call “the Ivory Trap,” whereby people advocate without collaborating with others in the struggle for human and animal liberation. Academic and lifestyle vegans are thus conceptually and politically limited in defending nonhuman animals since they lack feminist, political, and decolonial theory and support.

The liberal anti-speciesist discourse of “animal rights” and giving “voice to the voiceless” unsurprisingly overlaps with the neoliberalist strategies of defending animals through vegan consumption and criminalizing proletarian animal abusers. Through sacrificing the illusory short-lived vegan conversions and criminalization of people of color, as well as a collaborative struggle with other movements, animal advocates have only to benefit in the long-term.

Below is a compilation of the most cited authors in Defining Critical Animal Studies. Although this book represents only a portion of those in CAS and has a particular research focus, I believe the frequency of these references confirm the legacy of these authors' contribution to present and future CAS scholarship. While I wish to avoid canonizing such authors and texts, I believe it would be beneficial for those being introduced to CAS to be encouraged to read some of these texts due to their founder effect on the field.
  • Adams, Carol  (Sexual Politics of Meat, Animals and Women, Animal Care Ethics Reader)
  • Best, Steven ("The Rise of Critical Animal Studies," "The Killing Fields of South Africa")
  • Birke, Linda (Taming the Shrew, )
  • Benson,
  • Bierne, Piers (Green Criminology, )
  • Crinshaw, Kimberlee ("Mapping the Margins")
  • Freire, Paolo (Pedagogy of the Oppressed)
  • Gerard,
  • Harper, Breeze (Sistah Vegan)
  • Hribal, Jason (Fear of the Animal Planet, "Animals and the Working Class")
  • Nocella, Anthony (Terrorist or Freedom Fighters?, Igniting a Revolution, )
  • Noske, Barbara (Beyond Boundaries)
  • Plumwood, Val (Feminism and the Mastery of Nature, Environmental Culture)
  • Pederson, Helena (Animals in Schools)
  • Recluse, Elisee (The Earth and it's Inhabitants)
  • Twine, Richard (Animals as Biotechnology, )

*[Women, people of color, and animals have been co-defined and devalued by their lacking of maleness, whiteness, and humanness. Any pretense that there is a monolithic black or lesbian experience (for example), is to alienate people from the fact that their identity occurs at an intersection (black-lesbian) and is not a matter of mathematics (woman+black+gay). Further, to ignore the intersections of identity and social position is to default to defining blackness on male terms and femaleness on white terms. By privileging the idea of blackness and femaleness over historical and sociological reality, one only reinforces the status quo through other means and privileges competition over solidarity. The same is true of animal activists who privilege the idea of animality over the historical, sociological, and geographical animalization of women, working class, disabled, and people of color as well as the prolific and shifting formulations of the feminization, instrumentalization, disableism, and orientalization of nonhuman animals]

**[Although they cite an abstract of a conference paper of mine (that I have yet to make available online) critiquing and appraising Fanon's discourse on species, my interpretation of Fanon's writings "On Violence" in the book is quite different. Although he was sympathetic toward revolutionary violence, I believe Fanon was also critical of it, considering it animalistic, fearing the reactionary impulse would not allow for the fluid, inclusive, and reflexive "new humanism" that he envisions at the end. Part of Fanon's species discourse was on solidarity, of "species coming apart," as opposed to violently clashing. Further, I disagree on a deeper level with the projection of a Hegelian dialectical logic upon history which existentialists such as Sartre valorize in the Algerian uprising in the prologue. While I am not absolutely opposed to violence as a means of self-defense, I am very concerned with the consequences of believing such violence is an inherently natural and/or necessary part of decolonization.]

Thursday, April 17, 2014

REVIEW: Defining Critical Animal Studies (1/2)

[H]uman being is not so much a value-neutral biological fact as a violent political fiction. (p. 8)
[T]he concept of what we now call “the human” has been selectively, adaptively, and partially defined according to a particular form of embodiment and culture against others… [reflecting] a particular group of elite men’s perception of themselves in opposition to those they ruled over and classified as their others... [T]he “cult of humanity” function[s] to maintain the market and cultural imperialism of white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy through people’s complicity with and celebration of its technological, globalizing “progress.” (pp. 8-9)
-Weitzenfeld and Joy 2013

Just before the eve of 2014, Peter Lang International published the first anthology explicitly dedicated to "Critical Animal Studies." (See my resource list for some close predecessors). Given I have yet to see a review of the book online and that many CAS folk across the world are interested in the book but may not have temporal, geographic, and financial access to the book, I've decided to write one myself!

To be transparent, I'm a contributing author of the book, however, I do not pretend to be an objective evaluator. Of course, even if I had no personal stakes in the book, I would still not pretend that such an objective position actually exists. My purpose, however, is not to judge the book so much as reflect upon and reorganize its themes around questions concerning what CAS is, why it is a significant site of resistance in the university, and what it can contribute to animal advocacy beyond the university.

Fittingly, the book opens with a Forward by David Nibert, author of the canonical text Animal Rights / Human Rights, and a Preface by Ronnie Lee, co-founder of the Animal Liberation Front. In a matter of a several pages, Nibert and Lee concisely provide the historical and political context for the value of Critical Animal Studies. Historically, writes Nibert, the domination of human and nonhuman animals have gone chain-in-chain. Since the institution of animals as property,

[t]he possession of large numbers of these other animals became a sign of wealth and dominance, and elite male’s treatment of them as property was extended to women and devalued people. (p. ix)
The result of cattle ownership? Thousands of years of military invasion, cultural destruction, human slavery, zoontic disease, gender warfare, and more. Even the contemporary military and animal industrial complexes function interdependently, with military expenditures and campaigns to capture more animal capital in Latin America (and elsewhere), and the exploitation of animals in military training and testing.

So how does one respond to these twin industrial machines of violence? The Animal Liberation Front may have been an appropriate response to the industrialization of animal exploitation in the 1980s and 90s, however, after spending nine years in prison, Ronnie Lee has suspicions that its efficacy has declined.

Although it is my belief that ALF actions have contributed significantly to a huge reduction in the fur trade and a  big decline in animal experimentation here in the UK, I now have doubts as to the value of this type of activity in terms of bringing about widespread animal liberation. (p. xiii)
Under new legislation such as the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act and state Ag-Gag initiatives, ALF, if it were to ever achieve more influence, would be crushed by the State. In addition, despite its success, such direct action bypasses the public rather than engaging with it to transform its consciousness and behavior. Without transformation and solidarity, change will not be sustainable. Critical Animal Studies thus serves as a conduit for understanding the interdependence of liberatory movements and the value of education as a vehicle for transformation and resistance to oppression. 

Beyond serving as a conduit of knowledge production and dissemination, why is the university an important site of resistance for nonhumans and their allies?
Universities are incorporated in the animal industrial complex, providing space, funding, technology, and training to present and future generations of animal exploiters and the innovation of new forms of torture and massacre. As Glasser and Roy state,

the university is a space hostile to nonhuman animals, who are welcomed onto campus only insofar as they are used for food, research tools, or to assist the disabled. (p. 90)
It is thus not surprising that those who research and advocate the animal liberation movement's tactics and actors are surveyed, requested to reveal the identities of anonymous research subjects, prevented from accessing public documents on those who dissent to animal exploitation, and even fired and barred to enter foreign countries. Animal activists live in countries whereby decent has become criminalized (what Will Potter calls the Green Scare), and scholars and students are not somehow removed from this public situation because of their private pursuits (p. 184). Recent legislation such as AETA demonstrate a convergence of “the institutions of speciesism, the protection of private property, and the state’s regulation of dissent” (p. 193). CAS thus provides a site of resistance not only for nonhuman animals incarcerated by universities, but also human allies (and humans generally) incarcerated within the prison industrial complex (p. xxx). 


Given the magnitude of human-induced animal suffering and the complicity of the university, the founders of Critical Animal Studies sought to create a distinct field of study from less political orientations to "the animal question," Human-Animal Studies and the Posthumanities. In the introduction, the book editors argue that just as nonhuman animals are objects callously and physically cut apart for the sake of knowledge in the natural sciences ("animal studies"), so nonhuman animals are symbolically dissected in the humanities. The editors suggest that many in "mainstream animal studies" may very well earn the title "theoretical vivisectors" (p. xiv).

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Critical Animal Studies in 2014

Welcome to 2014. We have yet again an exciting year of cutting edge books on animal advocacy and theory.

Outlined below is the third annual Animal Reading List. This follows 2012's exciting lineup of books challenging conventional approaches to animal ethics and advocacy and 2013's posthuman bonanza. The Animal Reading List of 2014 is organized into four categories: Critical Animal Theory, Human-Animal-Machine, Ecology, Geography, Effective Advocacy for Animals, and Coffee Table books.

Critical Theory
With the release of two anthologies defining the field, 2014 is a significant year for critical animal studies. In Defining Animal Studies, new and veteran contributors to the field elaborate on the ten principles of critical animal studies from deconstructing the human-animal binary to bridging academics and advocacy to building multi-movement coalitions for total liberation. The Rise of Critical Animal Studies alternatively focuses on the theoretical grounding, challenging methodologies, and effective application of critical animal studies. Finally, Ecofeminism returns attention to two distinguishing themes of ecofeminist theory -- affect and context -- exploring the interspecies phenomenon of joy and grief as well as animal advocactes' complicity with white, class, and gender privilege.

Several books listed present ontological questions regarding the callous implosion human, animal, and technological natures. In The Silence of Animals, John Gray challenges human exceptionalism and progress, prescribing a Buddhist-like appreciation of our animality including a disciplined suspension to let the world be. Animals and War presents the bloody consequences of human aspirations to compete against others to order the world according to their wills and self interests: exploiting animals as vehicles in war, as test subjects of weapons and medics, as ecological casualties, and as combatants and weapons themselves. Emily Anthes studies the latest violation of body integrity in Frankenstein's Cat, exposing the science fiction realities of remote controlled animals for surveillance, bioenginered pets for profit, and more.

Geography and Ecology
Animal others are, of course, more than the object of ethics and theory as well as the anithesis and prey of technology. Animal others are inhabitants of cherished and forsaken places. Julie Urbanik in Placing Animals draws the most comprehensive map of the spatial arrangements and meanings humans share with animals from the farm, to the woods to the lab, including an introduction to the sub-field of animal geography. Trash Animals is dedicated to the egregiously misunderstood realities of "mis-placed" species, animals who receive little advocacy yet reap a large proportion of violence for being "filthy," "invasive," and "worthless."

Ronald Sandler gives to us a much overdue in-depth discussion of the value of species in his The Ethics of Species, treading controversies over restoration, assisted colonizations, hybrid animals, engineered species, and human "enhancement." Centering Animals in Latin American History is the first of its kind to delve into contested intra and interspecies power relations in Latin America, teetering between posthuman recognition of animals as historical agents and postcolonial critique of market and state domination through animal protection. Last but not least, Andrew Lindzey's Global Guide to Animal Protection collects synopses of nearly two hundred animal rights causes including amphibian conservation, sanctuary work, habitat restoration, living with predators, sabotaging hunts, combating poachers, managing feral cat populations, and animal law.

Effective Words and Images
Animal activists have another collection of books this year that may very well improve their advocacy. In the first, Russ Mead lays out laws and policies in Nonprofit Animal Law spanning across risk management, fundraising, employment and volunteering, animal disaster response, nonprofit structure, tax exemption, animal cruelty, intellectual property, animal transport, public events, privacy laws and more. Arguments about Animal Ethics is another over-due book from the field of communications containing fascinating essays inclusive of interspecies communication, inner dialogue, analysis of sexualized and racialized rhetorical strategies in advocacy,  and critique of the biomedical backlash of said advocacy. Finally, there are the statistics-heavy entries, one on the externalized economic costs of animal flesh production by David Simon in Meatonomics and the other on the efficacy, demographics, myths, and cognitive processes of vegans and omnivores in Nick Cooney's Veganomics.

After the release of We Animals, a book by Jo-Anne McArthur, star of Ghost in the Machine, I've decided to include a new category for less academic and verbose texts, specifically one dedicated to the power of visual art. McArthur's We Animals, Sue Coe's Cruel, and Daniel Imhoff's CAFO are certainly more than coffee books, but they have a heightened accessibility because of their provocative images. Accompanied by anecdotes and essays, all three books provide an opportunity for a reader to witness the popularly unperceptive marginalization and violence against animals.

If you are interested in reviewing a book or film for this blog or in the Journal for Critical Animal Studies, please send me an email.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Food Justice: Revisiting HEALTH

HEALTH is an organizational paradigm for Food Justice
HEALTH has now been up and running for 5 years. Yay!

Okay, now that I've gotten the obligatory anniversary announcement out of the way, I want to draw attention back to a topic deserving of its own post:

What is "health"? What work does the acronym HEALTH perform?

In this post, I will elaborate a little bit on how I understand HEALTH after many additional years of life experience as an educator and activist, and why this understanding is preferable to the accepted definition and practice of "health." First, I will discuss the evolution of HEALTH from an organization to a blog to an experimental paradigm for coalition building. Second, I will juxtapose the self-centered normativity of "health" to the socialist politics of HEALTH. Third, I will break down HEALTH into several prerequisites and organizing points. I will conclude with acknowledging the difficulties of navigating this comprehensive vision of HEALTH and invite y'all to chime in with comments as to whether advocating HEALTH is as useful and un-problematic as I suggest.

1. The Evolution of a Vision (2005-2008)
Way back in 2005 I founded an organization on my college campus dedicated to addressing the intersections of oppressions. The club existed, on the one hand, to operate as an independent project for a course on Sustainable Buildings, and, on the other hand, to provide a much needed outlet for animal advocacy on campus. According to the original constitution submitted on April 5, 2005:
H.E.A.L.T.H. is dedicated to ecological sustainability and conservation, the adoption of compassionate and ecologically responsible lifestyles, and global awareness through activism and education. The club will work to develop an environmental taskforce for Beloit College, create and enforce environmentally sound policies, and educate the campus and community about ways to live more harmoniously with the Earth, nonhuman animals, and humans in developing countries. H.E.A.L.T.H. will be involved with nonviolent, grassroots environmental and animal activism 
HEALTH was founded upon ecofeminist philosophy, which I had begun studying independently a year before. Ecofeminism, in a nutshell, is a body of work that purports that the domination of nature (at least in the Western tradition) are entangled with the domination of women (as well as poc, working class, queers, and animals) historically, materially, conceptually, and mythologically. Ecofeminists valuably demonstrate, like other radical theories, that the oppression of humans and nonhuman beings mutually reinforce one another, and that liberation is only possible when all are free of injustices. HEALTH was conceived of this intersectional analysis.

Originally designed to address the unhealthy relationships between humans, animals, and the Earth, HEALTH would take on new meaning as an acronym during research for my interdisciplinary capstone project when I discovered the work of agrarian writer Wendell Berry and ecofeminist Chris Cuomo.

Wendell Berry's essays exemplified what thinkers like Fritjof Capra and David Orr called systems thinking. Systems thinking took into account the process, relationship, dynamism, wholeness, and complexity of "problems" (in contrast to mechanistic thinking which addressed problems by dissecting them into static, discreet parts with simple, predictable, linear cause and effect relationships. The problem with mechanistic thinking (in modern, industrial science, economics, politics, and technology) is that it often creates new problems and so it doesn't "solve for pattern."

In "Health is Membership," Berry wishes we return to the etymological root of  "health" as the whole-ness of belonging:

The word "health," in fact, comes from the same Indo-European root as ‘heal,’ ‘whole,’ and ‘holy.’ To be healthy is literally to be whole; to heal to make whole... our sense of wholeness is not just a sense of completeness in ourselves but also in a sense of belonging to others and to our place; it is an unconscious awareness of community, of having in common. (144)
[The contemporary] view of health that is severely reductive. It is, to begin with, almost frantically individualistic... One may presumably be healthy in a disintegrated family or community or in a destroyed or poisoned ecosystem.” (146)
In another essay, "Solving for Pattern," Berry discusses more concretely the destructive logic of providing health care for one group of a system at the expense of others who belong to that community in agriculture:
Our dilemma in agriculture now is that the industrial methods that have so spectacularly solved some of the problem of food production have been accompanied by ‘side effects’... the irony of agricultural models that destroy, first, the health of the soil and, finally, the health of human communities. (267)
The real problem of food production occurs within a complex, mutually influential relationship of soil, plant, animals, and people. A real solution to that problem will therefore be ecologically, agriculturally, and culturally healthful... [I]t is impossible to sacrifice the health of the soil to improve the health of the plants, or to sacrifice the health of plants to improve the health of animals, or to sacrifice the health of animals to improve the health of people. (269, 274)
Chris Cuomo provided more depth to Berry's arguments, in part by coming out of an ecofeminist tradition critical of the pastoral romanticization of the heteronormative family and settler colonialism. Cuomo offered an alternative route to addressing ecological ethics that wasn't based in mechanistic utilitarian, individualistic deontological, and apolitical care ethics. Cuomo proposed an eudaimonian ethic, based on the ancient Greek concept of flourishing, but applied to community as a social and ecological construct.
Humans cannot flourish without other humans, ecosystems, and species, and nothing in a biotic community can flourish on its own. Likewise, communities (both social and ecological) depend on the existence of other communities. Ethical objects therefore flourish as both social and ecological entities. To be extracted from community, human or otherwise, is to lack relationships and contexts that provide the meaning, substance and material for various sorts of lives.[*]
My ambition to build a coalition between clubs on campus and develop a sustainability taskforce, however, did not materialize. Several years organizing campus events and actions brought me to appreciation of how difficult it was to put this holistic perspective into practice. Such a comprehensive message and focus was naturally complex to deliver and we HEALTH spread itself thin attempting to address issues such as animal liberation and indigenous sovereignty (which I had come to appreciate after studying in Australia). Under the lack of general interest in and availability for advocacy on campus, HEALTH could not sustain itself after I graduated.

2. The Evolution of a Vision (2008-2013)

South Central Farm (1994 - 2006) was the largest urban farm and CSA in the USA.
When I returned home from a summer working as an educator at an animal sanctuary, I was inspired to keep my holistic vision and advocacy alive by creating a blog. Having learned from the past of how difficult it was to manage an organization that had potentially infinite possibilities, I narrowed the focus of HEALTH to a food justice blog that would encompass not only food sovereignty (which I learned the importance of through a sustainability project in my community), but also ecological sustainability, and animal liberation. The devotion of HEALTH to food justice seemed a natural fit since food is a site at which so many discourses of health (e.g., bodily, animal, ecological, communal, national) collide.

The original mission statement for HEALTH was posted on September 8, 2008:

HEALTH advocates ecological and social justice through campaigns in which the intersection of multiple oppressions in the production, distribution, and consumption of “food" can be addressed simultaneously... Health in its fullest sense cannot be achieved alone.
Over the next year, I would compile an array of resources, spanning form introductory web sites, documentary videos, peer-reviewed articles, academic journals, non-profit organizations, blogs, and books covering animal, agricultural, ecological, and social justice. Although I attempted to avoid doing so, the blog has admittedly leaned harder on the animal justice side of things. In the first two years, however, I did address matters of gender, race, class, and sexuality injustices in food production, consumption, and distribution.

One post I'm particularly fond of is "Skinny Bitch and Bulimic Vegetarians" published in April of 2009. Of all my posts, this one most directly addressed the limits of advocating personal "health" (or at least the superficial performance of health). After diagnosing the fat-shaming elements of vegan outreach (particularly the aesthetic appeal of Skinny Bitch and the PETA's campaign media), I shared my perspective on "health":

HEALTH cannot be achieved by individuals alone; true health is the consequence of an entire community flourishing mutually together. Modern reductionist approaches to health define "health" as something that can be achieved independent of Others and often at the expense of them (e.g., (over)fishing to consume more fish oil, enslaving people to pick tomatoes, wiping out wildlife to grow organic leafy greens, "curing" diseases by giving them first to millions of "animals"). Within this outlook, veg*n outreach that promotes veg*nism as good for "one's health" is playing into the liberal, antagonistic discourse of self-interest.
Since HEALTH must be achieved together it ought not, as much as possible, come at the expense of the health of Others. In this sense, appropriating mainstream means of advertising (i.e. using the promise of becoming a conventionally sexy and beautiful women) so as to exploit common insecurities over body-image (o)pressed into the minds of young women is not healthy. Exploiting, and thus perpetuating, oppression as a means to a "good" end can never be healthy, even if it promotes "health," because it ultimately subordinates the health of Others.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Re-Assessing Animal Rights: Resources

I've been thinking about the state of the animal defense movement* quite a lot after attending four conferences on organizing this summer. Perhaps for the better, the Animal Rights 2013 conference was not one of them. The conferences I attended were either organized by and for grassroots activist or were nearly silent on the status of animal others. Never have I learned so much and been inspired more. There I was exposed to alternative interpretations of the history and politics of the US and the modern world, and there I realized how white and superficial the analyses and strategies of mainstream animal activists often are.

This post is dedicated to providing resources to those open to re-assessing the history, politics, organization, tactics, theories, and language of the animal defense movement. I intend to write more about the presentations and drama I witnessed at these conferences, but for now I want to share some essays and presentations that have really challenged and inspired me to re-think my assumptions and history of abstract theorizing that is valued in academic settings, especially in philosophy.

Re-Assessing Animal Defense

The History and Politics of the Animal Defense Movement
With the rise of the vegan movements, the politics of animal defense have become increasing personal that many activists have forgotten that vegan-consumption is just one strategy, and not even the most important. On the other hand, large nonprofits have taken to reforms that do not challenge the source of animal oppression: their status as commodities. Yet still, animal defense is often interpreted from the perspective of those who have made careers at nonprofits and universities--what of the history of the grassroots?

The Limits of Vegetarian Outreach
Vegetarian outreach has been a staple of the nonprofit animal defense movement since the 1990's when activists realized that over 95% of animals were killed and exploited by agribusiness. While there is much debate over how to best "sell" vegetarianism, critiques of the sufficiency of veganism as a "baseline" has been less frequent. Is vegan education our most effective tactic? Is "veganism" sufficient for animal liberation?

The Problem with Analogies to Human Oppression
Some animal activists draw logical analogies between the institutional violence against nonhuman animals and oppressed humans. The presumption is that the public will have a logical breakthrough that violence against nonhuman animals is unjust like violence against oppressed humans. Have the articulation and performances of these analogies bore the breakthroughs as activists hoped, or only further alienated them from their cause?

Critiques of Non-Profit Campaigns & Conferences
The hegemony of corporate non-profits have "hijacked" the strategy, language, and tactics of animal liberation. Non-profits generate funds and publicity for animals, however, they have also been notoriously conservative on matters of class, race, and gender in their organizations and campaigns. Their collusion with State power, capital, and white supremacy has built a large funding base, but are they building a movement upon the marginalization and oppression of humans?

The Intersections of Human and White Privilege in the ADM
The animal defense movement has continued to be the whitest social justice movements in the US for decades, despite that people of color are no less compassionate and no less likely to be vegetarian. We've already looked at colonial campaigns, analogies that alienate, under-representation in leadership, and complicity in racist law enforcement. What analytic tools, strategies, and language can whites adopt and support to build coalitions across racialized experiences?

How to Disrupt Oppression
Once equipped with more sophisticated theory and more supportive of people of color and queer leadership and projects, animal activists are on their way to building a movement that reaches beyond the single-issue identity politics of "animal rights." This is, of course, easier than it sounds. Because nearly all of us in the US have been colonised by white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy, it will take some effort on our behalf to challenge its "common sense" built into our brains-and-flesh. How can we resist these old habits?

Critiques of Ally, Intersectionality, and Privilege
Over the last ten years as the internet has made it easier to "call-out" animal activists for their complicity with racism and other oppressive systems, some mainstream organizations and many white activists have adopted the language of anti-oppression. Have white activists' identification as allies, acknowledgement of their privileges, and references to "intersectionality" transformed their activism or obscured privilege and power?

Are there any essays, talks, and books that have changed your advocacy for animals? Please share in the comments. I may add them to the list!

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Animal Theory Unleashed in 2013

One year ago, in recognition of a turn in animal theory over the last several years I created a post called "Animal Theory, Going Feral in 2012." The most exciting trend included advocating for animal others from critical (Critical Theory and Animal Liberation), ecofeminist (Social Lives with Animals), and citizenship theory (Zoopolis) as matters of interspecies justice in contrast to moral rights. In addition, a collection of more nuanced explorations of the ethics of human-animal relations (Animal Kind, Beyond Animal Rights, Animals in Context) as well as an unprecedented piece on plant ethics (Plants as Persons) joined the ranks of the rigorous, groundbreaking classics (Animal Liberation, Case for Animal Rights), but arguably outdated, abstract approaches.

Innovative explorations and comprehensive presentations of human-animal relations are still a comin'. The last half of 2012 and the first half of 2013 may prove to be just as rewarding as the last few. I'm particularly excited about Margo DeMello's Animals and Society, which from a glance over the table of contents seems to map a brilliant trajectory for thinking through the history, social context, and ethics of human-animal relations. Another well-welcomed book is Ryan Hedinger's Animals and War, which touches on a much neglected subject in critical animal studies: the fraternal [sic] participation and subjection of animals as agents in human warfare. Likewise, Juliet Clutton-Brock's Animals as Domesticates seems like refreshing and comprehensive examination of the history of domestication which dos not reduce animals to the role of hapless object in the popular narrative of monolithic human domination favored by advocates and adversaries of animal rights.

In addition, several books explore the construction of the modern human subject and contemporary political systems through the non-criminal violence against animal others and biopolitics of demarcating who is a proper (human) political subject. In Animalia Americana, Colleen Glenney Bogg's tracks the construction of humanity throughout American history from bestiality trials to slave narratives to contemporary feminist theory. Karl Steel's How to Make a Human excavates the violent making of "humanity" in Medieval Europe in contrast to the larger body of literature on the emergence of "humanity" in Ancient Greece and Modern England and France. There is also Cary Wolfe's work, Before the Law, which ought to attract the attention of those interested in continental political theory. And before one assumes deconstructing the border between human and animal is sufficient, consider checking out two more books dedicated to the value of plants, from Daniel Chamovitz's fascinating presentation of plant abilities in What a Plant Knows to Michael Marder's challenging Plant-Thinking.

After so many years mucking through dense theory that doesn't offer itself to political action, I'm enthusiastic for upcoming contributions on tying lived experience with animal advocacy. More than any other animal book this year, I'm highly anticipating Defiant Daughters. The book, edited by Kara Davis and Wendy Lee, focuses on a diversity of women's relationship with a diversity of animal others, including those of queers, differently abled women, and women of color. Norm Phelp's e-book, Changing the Game, genuinely addresses the inherent challenges (and differences) of advocating on behalf of animal others as well as "the rising economic, political, and cultural power of nations such as China, India, and Brazil." Finally, if you missed it, Nick Cooney's Change of Heart might be well worth a read for its presentation of empirical evidence on how to be an effective agent for change.

If you are interested in contributing a book summary and review to be posted on this blog or in the Journal for Critical Animal Studies, please send an email or comment below.

Also, please check out the updated Critical Animal Studies Resource List!

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Limits of Vegan Consumption

Juan Karita / AP
When you transform a food into a commodity, there's inevitable breakdown in social relations and high environmental cost - Tanya Kerssen

A gluten-,soy-, GMO-free, complete plant protein. Half of the world's quinoa export comes from Bolivia, where 90% of the crop is grown organically, mostly on small family farms, and where growers' unions protect their livelihoods from the appropriation by multinational corporations. Beyond being an allergen-free, fairly traded, nutritional powerhouse, the increase in demand on the global market is funneling wealth into one of the poorest regions in South America. Families are being able to purchase new technologies that can reduce the stress and increase the efficiency of their farms as well as afford to send their children to university. Superfood indeed!

As successful as quinoa has become as a replacement for grains and a go-to answer to "where do you get your protein?," its success is beginning to come at a cost to indigenous ecological and cultural sustainability. In a Time article published earlier this year, Jean Friedman-Rudovsky reported a breakdown in community, "the traditional relationship between llama herding and soil fertilization," and children's SOLE food consumption.

With its entrance into the global market, quinoa has become a force of globalization. Globalization isn't merely a process that attracts wealth, it's also a process that creates an entry for western culture and technology--the good, the bad, and the ugly. The expanse and intensification of quinoa on the Andean high plains disrupts the communal grazing land of llama's, a cameloid who nourishes the harsh earth with their nitrogen-rich guano. Farmers are now competing to establish plot ownership over what has for millenia been 90% communal grazing land, with the result of seasonal kidnappings and violence as well as an increase in soil erosion and use of finite water sources. The rising affluence from the crop also leads to access to media and food once unavailable, corresponding to a change in food preferences away from the indigenous crop toward processed, malnutritious commodities. Further, the tripling of quinoa's market value may make this once local, nutritious, "mother grain" less accessible to locals not directly reaping the economic benefits.*

(Quinoa is of the most benign "cruelty-free" foods when compared to palm oil and chocolate)

"Beyond Veganism"
These less than ideal consequences that trail the otherwise mutual benefits of the global consumption of quinoa is no reason to cut the crop out of vegan diets, but it does offer an opportunity to reflect upon the limits of a consumption-centered vegan ethic (a discourse primarily about what we eat and don't eat rather than the restoration of the social responsibility we feel with all sentient beings).

While the institutional killing of chickens in the US and llamas in Bolivia go against vegan values, so perhaps too does the undercutting of food sovereignty and and biocultural diversity. There is no need to conclude that US vegans ought to condemn international food ways, nor should they finger-wag at the desire of people in the global South to share in modern technologies and western culture. What is important is to be critically engaged with the real impact our lives have on (human and animal) others, to understand that foods do not fit naturally and firmly into categories such as "good" and "bad."

The just production, distribution and consumption of certain foods vary by the methods, the place, and the time for each food. For instance, rice may a have smaller water-footprint when grown in southeast Asia and a than in California; the carbon-footprint may be higher for growing tomatoes in a local greenhouse than on a farm in Florida, but Florida tomatoes may be picked by wage slaves; people living in tundra and desert often depend upon the exploitation and killing of animal others, but by advocating an animal-free diet would force them into dependency on expensive and/or malnutritious outside food and undermine their food sovereignty. In the case of quinoa, a internationally-desired food that at first provided great benefits to Andean farmers may turn into a food that comes at the expense of the local ecology and culture.

Food is complex. General rules (like eat vegan, seasonal/local, fair, permacultural, and organic food) are important for keeping us sane, productive people. But not everyone has the privilege of living in a California vegan cooperative where SOLE food is accessible and abundant year-round. If you live in a food desert or an isolated part of the world unconductive to sustainable agriculture, one is institutionally constrained into prioritizing certain food values over others (such as cost-effectively meeting one's caloric needs with non-toxic food). Rather than simply asking those with less privilege to work towards a vegan practice, vegans can work in solidarity with other people to transforming present food systems away from not only a species hierarchy, but also class, gender, race, and national hierarchy as well. As I wrote before, "[v]eganism will have limited success so long as it remains a luxury reserved for those with privilege, independent of human liberation movements."

Food Empowerment

Friday, August 10, 2012

Confessions from a Sanctuary

I've never shared impromptu thoughts and feelings on this blog before, but tonight is not like all other nights.

HEALTH originated out of a desire to continue my scholarship and advocacy outside of the university. While in graduate school it then became an outlet for personal research and stuff that wouldn't make it into a philosophy term paper. Presently, I've been out of school for eight months. The main difference between now and then (four years ago) is that I became burnt out between teaching apathetic students, struggling as a grad student, frustrated as a scholar, and devastated as a friend and a domestic partner. After the final brutal semester of grad school, I decided I needed new direction, one that centered around creativity and embodiment.

Six months later, I've completed a two month excursion across the West through nine of the USA's National Parks and several of its most exciting cities. Just a month ago, I arrived at an animal sanctuary whose vision is that of reciprocal healing (whereby "people" heal "animals", the animals heal people, and both heal the land). When I found it in a catalogue, it sounded like a perfect opportunity to learn more about animal care taking, therapy, and an alternative to incarceration etc. Unfortunately, this has not been so much the case. I'm going to bite my tongue on this topic and instead share something I've experienced that is much more profound and unsettling.

I. Moral Monsters
If you're on the listserve or email trail of some large animal nonprofit, you are well exposed to brutal narratives of animal cruelty. Upon seeing people kick and torment the animals, one is instantaneously engulfed in moral outrage and perhaps tears: "Those sick monsters! Those evil fuckers are going to hell! They deserve to be treated just like they've treated those poor, innocent animals!" These are just some of the reactions I've seen posted  in response to new investigative footage. For a compassionate and righteous person, these attitudes are expressed effortlessly; one must exercise willpower to hold them back.

Those bearing witness are wounded by these recorded testimonies. The trauma they experience is utter powerlessness. The powerlessness and woundedness they experience are their exposure to a will-less identification with the animal others. What makes these narratives so traumatic is the lack of mercy for those perceived as having so little power. Humans have so much power, the animals have so little, and what an injustice it is to see the abuse of human power over animal innocence.

As much as people generally identify with the animals undergoing abuse, few identify with the perpetrators of the violence. Although the purpose of these videos is to evoke empathy for the animals and consequentially political action on their behalf, the disturbing truth is that those committing the injustices are human, those bearing witness are human, and those bearing witness are often financially supporting the companies that employ these "monsters." To realize this would perhaps be another trauma, one that would move one who cared generally down one of two paths: to recognize one's participation and become veg*n or to experience intense cognitive dissonance and convince oneself that everything will be better once one of these monsters is behind bars.

Neither witness, however, is likely to place themselves in that worker's circumstance and potentially risk confronting a terrifying truth about their own nature. I would (hesitantly) agree that many of the folks in these videos who practice the most wanton cruelty are moral outliers in our society. A recent study by Amy Fitzgerald concluded that of all industrial workplaces, packing plants had the greatest rates of crimes per capita in their communities. Fitzgerald speculated her finding is based on the kind of desensitizing work of the slaughterhouse and/or the type of people who are attracted and willing to work there. Regardless, in no way should environmental conditions or personality type excuse such behavior and guard people from responsibility.

It's difficult imagining myself--an 8-year anti-speciesist from an affluent suburban background with a graduate degree--as one of these animal abusers. With all the sympathy I have for animal others, with all the theory I have learned, without any history in domestic (animal) abuse, and with experience at animal sanctuaries, identifying with these detested human beings would be a stretch. At least, so I thought until recently.