Thinking About Animals: Domination, Captivity, Liberation
Reviewed for H-Animal by
Lauren Corman (firstname.lastname@example.org)
As the season teetered on the cusp of spring, an enthusiastic group of academics and activists gathered for the "Thinking about Animals: Domination, Captivity, Liberation" conference at Brock University, March 15-16, 2007. Co-sponsored by Brock University's Department of Sociology and Niagara Action for Animals, with the assistance of Brock's Department of Social Justice & Equity Studies, Sociology Professor John Sorenson spearheaded the conference, with additional organizing efforts provided by Stacey Bryne and a handful of generous volunteers. "Thinking about Animals" was part celebration -- Brock recently created a new Concentration and Minor in Critical Animal Studies -- and part continuation of a burgeoning tradition: Sorenson has organized two other successful animal-themed conferences over the past four years ("Representing Animals," 2003; "Two Days of Thinking about Animals in Canada," 2005). These conferences fit within Sorenson's aim of fostering engaged scholarship directed towards social justice.
At once a space to critically reflect on the state of the animal movements and animal studies, while also a chance to examine broader political, social, and ecological contexts and their relationships to animals, "Thinking about Animals," offered a rare opportunity for sustained and interdisciplinary conversation between academics and advocates. As animal-based work can be isolating, there was a collective sense of relief that animals would be taken seriously at the conference.
Presentations spanned two days, and included thirty-six participants within thirteen main sessions, twelve of which were split into six concurrent panels. Jonathan Balcombe, a research scientist with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) gave Thursday's opening keynote address, while John Sanbonmatsu provided Friday's keynote lecture and closing remarks. The conference hosted a significant number of Canadian scholars, such as Keri Cronin (Department of Visual Arts, Brock University) and Rod Preece, (Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Wilfrid Laurier University), and many American scholars, including David Nibert (Department of Sociology, Wittenberg University) and Julie Andrzejewski (Department of Human Relations & Multicultural Education, St. Cloud State University), with one Australian presenter, Colin Salter (Ph.D. Candidate, Faculty of Arts, University of Wollongong).
Animal advocates were also represented at the conference, both through organization tables that lined the back of the airy main conference room and also within many sessions. For example, Farm Sanctuary provided a table and Harold Brown, the organization's Outreach Coordinator and former cow farmer, spoke on "Examining the Dynamic Between the Animal Industry and the Animal Movement." Also, United Poultry Concern's (UPC) Founder and President Karen Davis presented on "Procrustean Solutions to Animal Identity Problems," and shared information with conference participants at the UPC table. Local grassroots advocacy groups, including Niagara Action for Animals (NAfA), tabled and also recorded many of the sessions. The recorded presentations will air at future NAfA meetings, further extending the conference ideas and presentations beyond the University.
The intermingling of scholars and advocates (not always discreet groups, by any means) was a strength of the conference, which John Sanbonmatsu described as a "synthesis of theory and practice" in his closing remarks. While debates continue about what role advocacy should play, if any, within "animal studies" or "human-animal studies," advocates within the context of the conference seemed to help ground many of the post-presentation discussions, as they asked speakers to reflect on the practical implications of their work. Additionally, many advocates seemed excited to engage even with the potentially less accessible and academic topics presented throughout. For example, one advocate remarked to me that his group is currently mired in some reoccurring philosophical questions, and he hoped that some of the scholarship at the conference would provide fresh ways of addressing these issues.
Conference Themes and Presentation Summaries
I was unable to attend all the sessions due to the concurrent panel structure of the conference. Consequently, the following themes discussed below are necessarily distilled from a partial sampling.
Two of the most prevalent and frequently overlapping conference themes centred on animal advocacy and education (often framed by the abolition versus reform debate) and animal representation (frequently focused on visual representation). It seemed that not only were the activists concerned with questions of advocacy, but many of the academics also addressed advocacy-related issues within their presentations. Both groups asked challenging abstract and practical questions about how to address animal abuse and oppression, and/or how to integrate animal issues with other social justice and environmental efforts.
Regarding the first theme, animal advocacy and education, a number of conference presenters grappled with the efficacy of animal welfare measures and discussed the tension between rights and reform, alluding at times to the controversial work of lawyer Gary Francione. For example, both David Sztybel and Valéry Giroux directly engaged with Francione's ideas through their presentations "Animal Rights Law: Fundamentalism versus Pragmatism" and "Toward Animal Equality: the Impossibility to Morally Justify the Exploitation of Nonhuman Animals," respectively. Abolition and welfarism also served as motifs within Harold Brown's and Rod Preece's talks.
Surprising to some, Brown strongly argued against welfare initiatives throughout his "Examining the Dynamic Between the Animal Industry and the Animal Movement" presentation, despite his affiliation with Farm Sanctuary, an organization that many would consider welfarist. Focussed on rhetoric and strategy, Brown posited that some aspects of the animal movements are effectively being manipulated by agribusiness corporations to believe that there are "win-win" possibilities for advocates and industrial agriculture. Concomitantly, the industry adeptly positions the "radicals," who challenge the foundations of exploitation, including the property status of animals, as extremists. At once allying themselves with some aspects of the movement, while excluding others, the industry wards off meaningful critique as it heralds itself as a champion for animals through the enactment of what some consider minimal, or largely cosmetic, "welfare" improvements.
Though somewhat indirectly, Preece also addressed the welfare versus abolition debate through his analysis of vegetarian advocacy from seventeenth to the late eighteenth century, to illustrate how "real progress may emerge in strange ways." In "Flesh-Eating Vegetarian Advocates: The Curious Case of the Literary Luminaries," Preece examined the often untold history of meat-eating vegetarian advocates, such as Pope, Goldsmith, Voltaire, who preached one message while they practised a very different one. He maintained that, nonetheless, as a result of their arguments, by the early nineteenth century "principled vegetarianism" had become much more widespread. Thus, rallying against ideological purity, he called for greater understanding by advocates on both sides of the welfare and rights debate: "Each treats the other as at least as great an enemy as those whose behaviour is explicitly opposed to animal interests.... Perhaps we should be less concerned with our steadfast purity and recognize the values of principled pragmatic compromise."
Sztybel considered potential animal welfare legal scenarios, particularly regarding farmed animal welfare, and contended that some welfarist measures in the short term, under certain circumstances, may promote animal rights, thereby challenging Francione's argument that these types of measures are futile or immoral. Sztybel contrasted "animal rights fundamentalism" with "animal rights pragmatism," insisting that the principle of moral rightness should be accountable to sentient beings (pragmatism), not to animal rights in the abstract (fundamentalism). In support of his position, he discussed some of Sweden's welfare laws, including the banning of battery cages, as examples of meaningful welfare measures. In the following presentation, Jennifer Friedman, Legal Counsel for the OSPCA, provided a comprehensive survey of the Ontario SPCA Act, outside of the rights or reform debate. Her detailed information highlighted the parameters of the Act (and its new amendments) and its ability to confront cruelty against companion animals. Taken together, the combination of an abstract and philosophical presentation with a concrete and specific one provided a somewhat discontinuous, but still complementary, set of presentations.
Conference attendees again encountered Francione's arguments later in the day, but this time without direct reference to his critiques of welfarism, as Giroux explored the principle of equal consideration of interests, which entails that equal interests be treated equally, irrespective of characteristics that are not logically connected to the treatment. She concluded by stating that, morally, the principle involves "...abandoning the property status of all nonhuman sentient beings, to extend to them the fundamental right not to be tortured, not to be killed and not to be appropriated, and to follow Francione with his requirement [to] attribute them the status of person." Again echoing Francione, she called for individuals to practice veganism as part of an ethics oriented toward ending animal exploitation.
Also outside of reference to the welfare and rights debate, Julie Andrzejewski, Keri Cronin, and Kathie Jenni, among others, discussed animal advocacy and its relation to social or political (and to some extent environmental) issues. Andrzejewki's interactive presentation "Interspecies Education," elaborated upon on Selby's (1995) understanding of critical interspecies education, an holistic learning approach in which all life is interpreted as interconnected and interdependent. She then solicited feedback about the content and direction of her upcoming collaborative book chapter, which will include standards for "interspecies education" as a part of a larger anti-oppression educational project.
Cronin's "'Light in Dark Places': The Role of Visual Culture in Nineteenth-Century Animal Welfare Campaigns" provided a fascinating historical account of artists' graphic rendering of animal cruelty, and the shifting class critiques embedded within such depictions. Some pictures featured a collection of varying types of animal abuse, all within a single frame. These depictions offered a potent visual onslaught, through the portrayal of suffering animals and their human perpetrators. From my perspective, in contrast with much of today's animal rights imagery that tends to emphasize photographic or film representations, the differing visual impact of these earlier examples was palpable. In the following panel, Kathie Jenni's "Images, Empathy, and Moral Motivation" analysed contemporary images of animal abuse, which provided an interesting comparison to Cronin's presentation.
In particular, Jenni argued in favour of the use of animal rights films, which she claimed help inspire viewers because of the empathetic responses they tend to provoke. Indeed, she argued that we have a moral responsibility to continually confront such images, even as they disturb and trouble us. The psychological effects of viewing may be great, but Jenni contends that "by stirring us to service, awareness of animal suffering makes possible one kind of deeply serious, but happy life." Her presentation initiated an invigorating discussion about questions of truth and authenticity, emotional and psychological burnout, and the appropriate use of graphic animal rights footage within a society already rife with violent images.
The second major theme, clearly also reflected in Cronin and Jenni's scholarship, dealt with representation of animals, specifically their visual representation. For example, Traci Warkentin and Emily Porth, who both presented after Cronin, shared astute and engaging scholarship, incorporating photographs of animals to illustrate their points. In "Captive Audience: What Do People Really Learn at an Aquarium?" Warkentin critiqued whale and dolphin representation, and investigated phenomenological encounters between human and animals within the context of aquariums. In one of the most poignant moments of the conference, she played a video clip of children and a baby orca moving their bodies in a kind of curious, almost mirrored, dance, thus drawing attention to the inter-subjective meaning of gesture and movement, while further opening questions of epistemology and ethics. Unsurprisingly, the presentation prompted inquires about whale and dolphin advocacy.
Equally compelling, Porth examined the representation of animals within natural history museums. Displaying a wide range of photographs, she argued that museums endeavour to educate the public about their regional and natural histories, yet simultaneously fail to acknowledge that this education is, ironically, predicated upon killing animals. Concluding with a discussion of viable public education alternatives, including the use of robotic animal models, Porth further confirmed her overall conclusion that "the use of taxidermy in such exhibits is related to the idea of 'authenticity' in museum collections, and to a tradition of dominating 'the other' through exhibition."
From a different vantage point, Vanessa Holm offered a textual analysis of vegetarian and vegan representation within the Canadian Newsstand database, as a means of understanding the portrayal of vegetarianism in the media, and to explicate how representations of vegetarianism resonate with new social movement theory. Her central research question, "Can being vegetarian be considered a political decision and is it associated with animal rights and/or the environment in news stories?" was tackled through her study. Among her findings, she noted that news stories with the term "vegetarian" in the headline primarily referred to lifestyle issues, such as food preparation and/or consumption. Holm stressed that the media's de-politicization of vegetarianism is a pressing issue, especially as the media informs the texture and growth of social movements.
Also laudable, though somewhat adjacent to the themes discussed above, Stephen D'Arcy and John Sanbonmatsu shared deeply philosophical and rigorous academic presentations. In "Deliberative Democracy and Animal Rights Activism" D'Arcy explored the ways in which animal rights activism collides with recent deliberative democracy theory, and broader deliberative democracy processes. As he noted, animal rights activism relies more on pressure than persuasion, employing cost-levying rather than typically deliberative gestures (Humphrey and Stears, 2006). Given that the animal rights movement has richly contributed to democratic politics, he affirmed that theories of democracy must account for such alternative modes of participation.
Sanbonmatsu's stirring "Animal Liberationism: Rethinking the Foundations of Social and Political Thought" placed critical theory in conversation with animal liberation, and troubled the legacy of humanism, while promoting the reinvigoration of its positive aspects. Indeed, despite humanism's disavow of "the animal," it has also enabled critique of its very underpinnings and myriad justifications for human domination. Through the presentation, critical theory, and its inherent pursuit of social change, was positioned as ultimately compatible with animal liberationism. Indeed, the so-called "problem of the animal" strikes at the heart of many other forms of domination, continually invoking the spectre of "the animal" and "animality" through its variant practices and discourses.
Below I have included a short summary of two presentations, by Jonathan Balcombe and David Nibert, that I particularly enjoyed. Jonathan Balcombe, author of Pleasurable Kingdom: Animals and the Nature of Feeling Good, gave an inspiring keynote presentation, "Animal Sentience and Human Ethics," setting a collegial tone for the entire conference. His friendly style, blended with powerful visuals and ethnological studies, foregrounded the experiences and sentience of animals. Relying primarily on scientific data, Balcombe argued against reductionism, in which animals are perceived as motivated solely by evolutionary drives. Initially, he posed the question, "Why do I spice my food?" Because spices help ward off harmful germs or microbes, or because it tastes good? As Balcombe convincingly demonstrated, the answer is both.
Throughout his presentation, Balcombe emphasized that evolution and experience are compatible not only for humans, but also for animals. To exclude one from the other is to create a false dichotomy, one too often made by the scientific community. Concentrating on pleasure, Balcombe described multiple studies that clearly indicate the many ways animals seek out and experience pleasure, including through food, sex, Funktionslust, play, among others. Keeping in mind the individual differences among animals, Balcombe pointed to the continuity between humans and other animals; experience and evolution are wedded. The ramifications of his thesis were obvious: Humans have an obligation to not only protect animals from pain and suffering, but also to not deprive them of pleasure. According to Balcombe, animals -- "they, like us, are individuals," -- have not only a biology but also a biography.
Later, David Nibert, author of Animal Rights / Human Rights: Entanglements of Oppression and Liberation, focused on the historical roots and growth of the cattle industry. In "Cows, Profits and Genocide: The Oppressive Side of 'Beef' Consumption," Nibert began with the argument that human and animal oppression is underlaid by economic gain, which is justified through elite-serving state ideology. In this way, his presentation applied the theoretical frameworks discussed in Animal Rights / Human Rights to a detailed history of the "beef" industry. Throughout his presentation, he illuminated the central role cow exploitation played within European colonization: growing cow populations helped create a wealthy elite and intensified social stratification and heirachies, which in turn, promoted capitalism. Colonization and capitalism continued to spread, swallowing up more land, accumulating more captive cows, and decimating Native American populations, as "cattle kings" emerged in this brutal wake.
In an insightful discussion of transportation, Nibert explored the use of "cattle cars" and "livestock ships," and the abominable conditions faced by animals through both. Indeed, from 1888 to 1891, more than two million cows sailed on steamers bound for Britain. The cows were forced to stand in cramped and unsanitary conditions, often enduring broken bones and lesions, or succumbing to death. According to Nibert, shipment of live cows continues today, as does the entanglement of oppression between humans and cows, most obviously in Brazil and the Darfur region in western Sudan "where murder and displacement are tied to the expansion of the profitable 'beef industry.'" As the major 'beef' supplier to the Middle East, the Sudan ships cows through the Red Sea ports. Nibert ended with a call for socialism, which he claims will not automatically end oppression, but represents a necessary precondition.
Like Sanbonmatsu, Nibert brings an economic critique to animal issues, while he also deftly merges a deep concern for animals with a sustained analysis of human oppression and a desire for social justice. His scholarship betrays a historical record rich with a multitude of perspectives; it takes only the will and empathy to entertain the experiences of those who have not written the history books, but who nevertheless have left traces and greatly shaped the present as well as the past. His conference presentation helped shift the conversation away from animals in general, to the lives of particular animals during particular periods. Continually demonstrating that the oppression of animals is closely bound to the oppression of people, Nibert humbly asks us to confront the heavy layers of exploitation that at times may feel too much to bear, but necessarily warn of a similar future if we refuse to pay attention.
As both a scholar and advocate, I am heartened by the recent swell of research and critical dialogue about these issues both inside and outside of the academy and movements, which were so well reflected at the Brock "Thinking about Animals" conference. No longer only the domain of biology and ethology, the study of animals' lives, particularly a concern for their perspectives and experiences outside of purely anthropocentric agendas, is gaining popular currency and rigour within the social sciences and humanities.
In the midst of these conversations, I believe it is our responsibility not to lose sight of the particular, as Derrida cautions, not only across species but also among individuals in both animal and human communities. Informed by a sense of profound humility, may we continue to approach animals with a respect for sameness, difference, and radical Otherness. Clearly, what is important and meaningful is not just how animals figure into human cultures, but also, as scholars such as Balcombe and Warkentin powerfully assert, the richness of their own cultures and worlds which are at once both intermingled and beyond our own. Also, may we continue to be accountable to the real, material existences of animals, and the human-driven threats that jeopardize them.
Further, as the important welfare and rights debate continues to develop, I hope that discourse about animals does not become trapped within a potentially stagnant and polarized dualism, which, in my opinion, has the danger of smacking of so much Western thinking. The work of the movements and animal studies necessarily encompasses and also transcends that debate, as was evidenced throughout the Brock conference.
Review of "Thinking about Animals: Domination, Captivity, Liberation" Conference
Date Published: May 8, 2007