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  • Writer's pictureClaudia Hirtenfelder

Thinking about Animals and Politics


In the latest grad review two early career researchers joined me on the show to discuss some of the main themes to emerge in Season 6 “Animals and Politics.” Darren Chang has a background in animal activism and is currently undertaking his PhD at the Sydney Environment Institute. Virginia Thomas is a postdoctoral researcher with the “From Feed the birds to do not feed the animals” project who explores how food and feeding shape human-animal relations. Coming at politics from different directions we had an engaging and fruitful discussion.





This post unpacks two of the themes we discussed: The first relates to the various scales at which “animals and politics” operates and the second focuses on the conceptual space needed to develop more just relations.

 


Thinking Across Various Political Scales


Politics is diverse and involves varied relations, so when talking about animals, one naturally finds themselves thinking across different scales. One questions, for example, how animals are included and excluded in the policies and practices of groups, nation states, and multinational organizations. For Gary Francione and Cory Lee Wrenn it is important to think about how animals are included the campaigns of welfare organizations whereas for Andrea Schapper and Angie Pepper it is vital to think through how animals are excluded from international politics and cosmopolitan thought. Considering animals and politics requires, then, thinking through the levels at which actions are mobilized.  

 

The multi-scalar notion of politics does not, however, end at the places where decisions are made. It extends to how animals are represented in policies and practices and the levels at which they are made visible. For instance, animals are often conceived of in laws at the species level, instead of at the individual level. As Virginia notes there are always trade offs and “what might be the right decision for a species might not be the right decision for an individual and vice versa.” Furthermore, privileging species over individuals can have material impacts for the animals involved.  For instance, in 2014, Marius, a healthy, 18-month giraffe at Copenhagen zoo was killed and publicly dissected  because he was deemed unsuitable for breeding due to the small gene pool among giraffes in European zoos.

 

While Season 6 of The Animal Turn Podcast, was primarily concerned with how politics happens on behalf of animals, Will Kymlicka reminds us that this is only one way to frame “animals and politics.” He suggests that legitimate authority, collective decision making, and politics can be thought about across at least three different registers: politics on behalf of animals, politics by animals, and politics with animals. Our failure to think about politics by and with animals in this season is perhaps also reflective of the general crisis of imagination, when it comes to thinking through how animals might feature within and be part of our political systems and futures.





A Darren reflected in the Grad Review, one of the main strategies animal activists employ is the promotion of veganism at the individual level. While this is certainly important, there is an urgent need to expand activism so that it helps reimagine what our future societies might look like. For Dinesh Wadiwel, the epistemological erasure of animals in our political thought and scholarship persists the violence directed at them. 






There is productive power in the concepts we use and if animals are not positioned as agents or subjects then their needs are not really being considered. To achieve a more just future it is imperative that animals are no longer constituted as property or commodities, but how to include them within politics as subjects will require room to develop new ways of doing things. To drive this point home, Darren read a quote from Wadiwel’s most recent book “Animals and Capital”:

"To an extent, because prevailing knowledge systems make animals appear as raw materials and consumption commodities, this produces an epistemic effect which hides their active role as labourers: ‘we’ perceive that production processes act upon animals in order to produce value, rather than the reverse: that animals act within production processes in order for value to be produced. At base this attitude, which assumes their passivity, might be traced to a particular form of anthropocentrism which haunts how many of us, including animal advocates, look at animals and perceive them and their power…It is precisely this hierarchical anthropocentrism that haunts conceptions of animals in production, which results in framing these beings purely as raw materials, rather than as agents within production which animate productive processes through their creative labour. Certainly, managers of agribusiness imagine that animals are merely resources that are worked on in order to become ‘products’. But it is disarming to recognise that many animal advocates implicitly imagine animals in this way too: as simply beings who are forced to become raw materials in order to produce food, rather than active subjects who have created, through their labour (forced or otherwise) the world that we see." - Dinesh Wadiwel, Animals and Capital (2023), p. 12.

Better positioning animals as political subjects and agents will require, however, creating the conceptual space from which to do so.


Creating Conceptual Space

 

While there is a general lacuna regarding how animals can be included within political thought and actions, an increasing number of scholars are trying to create spaces of imagination – spaces in which animals’ experiences can be understood and more egalitarian, multispecies politics can be achieved. In Season 6, three suggestions emerged for how this imaginative space could be achieved: through disagreement, through the development of novel concepts, and through storytelling.  


While there are more calls for animals to have rights, there is disagreement about what those rights should be as well as the strategies needed to achieve them. For Gary Francione, animal welfare actively undermines the radical ideas presented by animal rights and abolition. Cory Lee Wrenn would, generally agree with this sentiment but would caution against viewing disputes as inherently negative. Factionalism, Wrenn argues, is the space where innovation can happen. Infighting is responsible for promoting veganism and resisting problematic practices like euthanizing healthy animals. Her call to embrace these tensions is a call to accept space in which difficult ideas can be thought through.




 

Some scholars are also actively trying to create theoretical concepts that help us think differently. For Steve Cooke this is imperative if we are to foster a moral imagination that is inclusive of animals. Cooke, consequently, puts forward the concept of “habitat rights” through which animals and their environments can be politically conceived. Unlike conservation, which is concerned with questions of biodiversity and species extinction, habitat rights are interested in the needs of individual animals. It is premised on the idea that individual animal’s environments need to be protected through enforceable means that are important for the animals involved.  

 

Krithika Srinivasan’s concept of “re-animalization” also challenges us to think differently. There is, she argues, a need for compromise and to reflect on what humans’ political status means, to question how, for example, the elevation of human well-being and development have resulted in unequal burdens and benefits. This might, she contends, require humans to move away from conceiving of themselves as “more-than-animal” to instead becoming “more-animal.” While we are not yet at the stage of discerning the practical ramifications of what concepts such as habitat rights and re-animalization are, they offer openings for thinking the unthinkable and stretching the limits of imagination.





Storytelling offers a third means through which the conceptual space needed to think through multispecies politics can be developed.  Storytelling can take many forms including – but of course not limited – to text, narration, and photos. Jo-Anne McArthur spoke about the power of animal photojournalism in illustrating the violence and abuse experienced by animals. Work done at We Animals Media brings to the fore how animals personally experience structural levels of violence while also driving home the urgency for doing things differently.  

 

Considering spaces of disagreement, conceptual development, and storytelling as generative spaces from which animals’ and their experiences can be better politically positioned will indeed help to foster more just relations. Relations that position animals as subjects, beings, and agents who have their own wills and purposes, a point made clear by the quote Virigina chose to read:


“We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with the extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings: they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.” Henry Beston, The Outermost House: A Year of Life On The Great Beach of Cape Cod

 

Engaging with ideas related to animals and politics requires scholars to be flexible, to think across scales and take imaginative and conceptual leaps that are both challenging and exciting. They are challenging because thinking about politics is exceedingly complex with numerous disagreements but it is also exciting because there is so much theoretical and methodological work to be done. Above all else, this work is important because it helps to make the previously unthinkable thinkable and, hopefully with time, enforceable.


 
 

Darren Chang is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology and Criminology, and a member of the Sydney Environment Institute, at the University of Sydney. His research interests broadly include interspecies relations under colonialism and global capitalism, practices of solidarity, kinship, and mutual aid across species in challenging oppressive powers, social movement theories, and multispecies justice. Through political (and politicised) ethnography at animal sanctuaries, Darren's PhD research project explores potential alignments and tensions between animal and other social and environmental justice movements. The multispecies dimension of this project also considers the place, positions, and subjectivities of nonhuman animals in relation to anthropogenic social movements.


Virginia Thomas is an environmental social scientist with a PhD in Sociology. She is interested in people’s interactions with their environment and with other animals. Virginia’s work explores the social and ethical questions in human-animal relationships. She is currently a research fellow on the Wellcome Trust funded project ‘From Feed the Birds to Do Not Feed the Animals’ which examines the drivers and consequences of animal feeding. This leads on from her previous research which examined human-animal relations in the media (as part of zoonotic disease framing) and in rewilding projects (in relation to biopolitics and human-animal coexistence). You can connect with Virginia via Twitter (@ArbitrioHumano).


 

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