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)
-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 access to the book or time to read it, I've written one myself!

My purpose 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. The review is divided into four sections: (1) why CAS is an important field, (2) what CAS research and teaching involves, and CAS's commitment to (3) veganism and (4) decolonization.

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).

While such a harsh title strikes me as hyperbolic, I empathize with the heaviness of the moral commitment behind the condemnation. As Lara Drew and Nik Tyler write in Chapter 8, those who evade, obscure, and over-complicate the values inherent in the research questions, analysis, and conclusions of HAS and the Posthumanities are not innocent voyeurs, but complicit participants of the status quo.

[W]hile there are those in [mainstream animal studies] who approach human-animal relations critically, there are also those who seek to study human-animal relations safely... [Mainstream animal studies] allows us to adopt the ‘safe’ approach of individualizing and pathologizing animal abuse rather than seeing it as a deeply entrenched issue requiring far more radical solutions. (p. 164)
Thus, animal activists in the social sciences who study animal abuse and animal therapy, and those in the humanities who study art and philosophy may challenge relatively socially unacceptable practices while overlooking more culturally sanctioned practices and the social structures that underlie them all. The positivism that frames their research further contributes to the "internalization of passivity," elitism, and social control by alienating the research subject from their world, and the research subjects and general public they (arguably) are accountable to (p. 167). Thus
an important task of CAS is to criticize the workings of those who appear to be apolitical… Those who appear neutral or independent are those who tend to exercise political violence obscurely (p. 168).

In one of the book's strongest chapters, Carol Galsser and Arpan Roy diagnose the missed opportunities to hold Human-Animal Studies accountable to is research subjects, general public, and social movements as "The Ivory Trap." Glasser and Roy identify five barriers between the collaboration between academics and social movements: "(1) inaccessibility, (2) a fallacy of objectivity, (3) methodolical hierarchies, (4) disciplinary boundary policing, and (5) marginalization” (p.  107).

First, mainstream academics work is geographically inaccessible (when locked up in selective libraries), financially inaccessible (to those who are not enrolled or belong to a university or pay independently for databases), and cognitively inaccessible (to those without a specialized education in jargon and those who are uninformed about the resources that exist and how to navigate them). In such, Glasser and Roy propose that CAS scholars
produces knowledge that is not only relevant to social justice issues, but is also accessible to those whom through research can benefit (p. 97)
Second, due to cultural hegemony, corporate and State funding, and personal commitments, the pretense that a researcher can be objective is a fallacy. As Drew and Tyler write, what is considered objective (and the supreme value placed on objectivity itself) is based on “rationalized, masculinist, liberal humanism" favoring "white, Western, human-centered ways of knowing the world" (p. 160). Third, the methodological hierarchy of impersonal quantitative research over qualitative studies of individuals and structures, as well as speaking to past research over "venturing into the unknown intellectual territory" obstructs collaboration beyond disciplinary, university, and species boundaries (103). Fourth, the policing of disciplinary boundaries contributes to the inaccessible jargon, ideology of value-neutrality, and conservative attention to past research. Fifth, those who defy these conventions in academia are marginalized, especially when they push the advocacy and species boundaries: The neoliberal university, they suggest, has become the "imperial university," in which “[f]ear of repression and fear of the inability to secure tenure drives may scholars to moderate their own work” in what can be best described as a panopticon (p. 102).

Glasser and Roy propose abolishing the ivory trap through open-sources such as social media--referencing Dr. Breeze Harper's Sistah Vegan project--, clear and explicit commitment to values that motivate our research, methodologies that produce knowledge to achieve liberatory goals, interdisciplinary collaboration--what Kim Socha and Les Mitchell call rhizomatic research ("and and and")--, and resistance against marginalization and policing. Most emphatically, they stress that researchers and their subjects must collaboratively build research models and goals rather than collect data for its own sake, "being more about and not for the movement" (p.105). This entails more humility by academics and recognition that non-degree folk, activists in particular, are more knowledgeable on certain subjects. In contrast to those in mainstream animal studies, those in Critical Animal Studies must be motivated by justice and revolution over institutional politics and promotion (p. 108).

While professional intellectuals' modus operandi is to publish papers and compete for tenure and prestige, the critical animal scholar and student seek to abolish animal exploitation on campuses and create space for advocacy (p. xxix). In chapter 9, Jennifer Grubbs and Michael Loadenthal label the former approach as "academic capitalism": "the transformation of students into consumers, teachers into producers of knowledge, and knowledge itself as a commodity" (p. 191). The former, they critique, involves emotional and social compartmentalization under the pressures to conform to the market, a symptom itself of the hegemony of neoliberalism in our countries today. CAS, in opposition, embraces a value-centered approach to "the quesiton of the animal" that invites collaboration not only between professional in academy, but academics and activists (thus, the multi-authored chapters spanning five continents).

In Chapter 7, Lauren Corman and Teresa Vandrovcova explicate a general methodological strategy for instructing critical animal studies courses. Most critically, just as women's studies curricula “stress resistance, agency, and richer forms of subjectivity that do not position women strictly as victims,” CAS must do the same to position nonhumans as subjects and humans activists as (potential) allies (p. 137). Positioning nonhuman animals as subjects entails point out that "the abuse they endure is also psychological and emotional” as "their families and their social  and cultural bonds are broken" (p. 139).
[T]he world is shared with nonhuman others... [who] possess their own unique worldviews... It is paramount for students to learn about  nonhuman animals’ societies, cultures, and emotional capacities… This can deepen understanding of nonhuman animal oppression by demonstrating the harm enacted through objecitifcation is not only physical but psychological and emotional. Further, when students recognize animals resist, conversations shift from discourses of charity and human heroism... to more humble orientations of potential ally and partnership... (p. 151)
Instructors should consider CAS in the context of Paolo Freire's dialogical education in which teachers and students collaborate in knowledge production (as opposed to the authoritarian banking education in which teacher is subject and student is object). Just as nonhuman animals can resist, they can also be our teachers--hence, the value of real interspecies encounters outdoors and at sanctuaries. Collaborative relationships with encountered (as opposed to theoretical and analytic animals) nonhumans also has the benefit of generating mindfulness to the uniqueness of not only each species, but also of each singular being within a species.

Corman and Vandrocova also provide advice when using graphic, visual materials in the classroom. While powerful conduits of transformation, graphic images also risk reifying conservative attitudes and habits. First, graphic images may trigger anxiety, depression, shame and anger which could then trigger defense mechanisms set to justify the violence in order to relieve cognitive dissonance.  Further, the more emotionally and cognitively stressed people are over a subject (due to its moral weight and political complexity), the more likely they are to intentionally avoid learning about that subject in the future. On this matter, Richard White and Erika Cudworth also warn against “overwhelming statistics" which  "negate the reality of the abuse [of nonhuman animals] by encouraging greater distance and detachment” (p. 204).
[V]iolence is neither disembodied nor abstract; it occurs.. somewhere to someone. (p. 205)
I addition, people will also resit the message and subject matter if they feel they are being manipulated to conform to an agenda. This especially true when only one or two sides are advocated on a position in which the audience already takes a strong position, for they will favor their own side.

Corman and Vandrocova thus advocate introducing such powerful images only after students are familiarized with the subjectivity of nonhuman animals, as well as providing space and time afterwards for discussion in which the instructor assists students in recognizing when they ‘minimize, distort, deny, or intellectualize’ their feelings. Finally, instructors must be available to support students after showing the video, including at times in which students can discuss their feelings in private.

READ MORE (Part 2/2: Veganism and Decolonization in Critical Animal Studies)


awkwardatparties said...
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Lauren said...

Thanks for your thorough review!