In the latest episode of The Animal Turn, I spoke with Dinesh Wadiwel about violence, an important concept in political theory that is largely under theorized in animal studies. For Dinesh focusing on animals allows us to understand debates about violence is in different ways. While there are different levels at which violence operates its goal is usually to achieve some form of domination and the experience of violence is “the experience of a radically non-consensual act.” Because violence involves deeply non-consensual acts, Dinesh argues that it is politically imperative to call relations of violence what they are, violence, even when institutions and the status quo would prefer other, more euphemistic, language.
In The War Against Animals, Dinesh looked at humans’ systematic relations with animals and how they are premised on wide-scale violence, coercion, and domination. Dinesh notes that there are at least three different ways to think about violence directed at animals. There is individual or intersubjective violence where, for example, one individual hurts another. There is structural or institutional violence where the individual is less in focus, but establishments work to systematically control individual actions and options. The third form is epistemic violence. This is related to how animals are known and hierarchized within knowledge systems. When animals are portrayed as enjoying what could plainly be described as “a living hell” Dinesh argues that we are entering the territory of epistemic violence.
“Our knowledge systems have to change, if we want change” – Dinesh
While domination is often the goal of violence it is not always immediately obvious. Domination can appear benign, hidden by undertones of care. Pets are a good example. Despite loving them, humans systematically control their pets. This includes managing their movement, using strict reproductive control, constraining their sexual lives, and forcing medical interventions. Because of their property status, when pets’ die is even the decision of their owners. These are all acts of violence and coercion that could be described as domination. During the interview, Dinesh said he finds Iris Marion Young’s definition of domination most useful:
“Domination consists in institutional conditions which inhibit or prevent people from participating in determining their actions or the conditions of their actions. Persons live within structures of domination if other persons or groups can determine without reciprocation the conditions of their action, either directly or by virtue of the structural consequences of their actions.” Iris Marion Young, Justice and the Politics of Difference, 2011, 38.
If one is not clear as to whether the human-animal relations they are witnessing or a part of are violent, Dinesh encourages one to think about the technologies used in those relations. The invention of some technologies (like cages and leashes) indicate that animals do not consent to those relations and would prefer to engage in different ways.
Stepping away from structural forms of violence, especially epistemic violence, is extremely difficult but it crucial to creating different kinds of human-animal relations. As Dinesh explains, anthropocentricsm pervades our societies and invisibilizes animals as subjects of violence. Anthropocentricsm perpetuates the use of violence and its epistemic underpinnings might make it appear as though such violence is acceptable, normal, and even natural. It is for these reasons that Dinesh believes it is politically imperative to call violence what it is, violence.
Dinesh Joseph Wadiwel is Associate Professor in human rights and socio-legal studies at University of Sydney. He is author of Animals and Capital (Edinburgh UP, 2023), The War against Animals (Brill, 2015) and is co-editor, with Matthew Chrulew of Foucault and Animals (Brill 2017). He is also co-editor of Animals in the Anthropocene: Critical Perspectives on Non-Human Futures (Sydney UP). He is a member of the Multispecies Justice research group at the University of Sydney, and Chair of the Australasian Animal Studies Association. In addition, Dinesh is a disability rights researcher, and has recently been part of a team of researchers who have produced two reports for the Australian Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability.
Disclaimer: This post may contain affiliate links. If you make a purchase, I may receive a commission at no extra cost to you.