Animal Agents or Automatons? The Muddy Context of Animal Agency.

The question of the ‘animal’ has been a central one in a broad array of sociological, philosophical, religious and psychological conceptualizations of what it is to be human.   The story goes something like this – animals and humans are different because animals cannot feel pain and humans can (thus justifying horrific practices of vivisection and experimentation). Animals do not care for their future for they cannot conceive of it like humans do (thus rearing them for the flesh to eat is unproblematic). Animals and humans are different because animals cannot speak nor think beyond their own functioning as biological beings (thus being limited to pure biological urges of eating, defecation and reproduction). Whilst these conversations are still taking place in one way or another, there is another conversation taking place – that is of the question of whether animals have agency.

Because of the above-mentioned ideas it has often been assumed that animals do not show any “real” kind of agency: their actions are merely instinctive. According to some, “Man is the only animal, capable of breaking the closure in and through which every other living being is. [The imagination of other living beings is] subservient to functionality and given once and for all [whereas for human beings] it is defunctionalized and perpetually creative”. Taking this position one must then assume that animals do not exhibit agency of any kind – they are “subservient” to nature. Humans on the other hand seem to have been liberated from “natural” constraints – creatively freed from the burdens of functionality. There are a number of problems with this argument, not in the least that it treats humans as non-animal, but that it also treats animals as if our understandings of them are not constrained within a cultural system that has intentionally bred animals for docility in order to farm them on a large scale.

The argument can also go to the other extreme. That is that even in the most extreme oppressive state (such as the laboratory) animals still exhibit agency.  The factory-farmed pig can choose to die rather than succumb to the process of becoming-bacon. Or the lab rat can choose to not cooperate. Maybe the rat might express her or his agency by dying before the experiment is over, or producing a different result than intended, thus thwarting the scientist’s attempts at full domination. The animal for Haraway can be conceived of as a part of the workforce of the workplace that is the laboratory just as the human scientist is considered a worker. This is the kind of direction that Donna Haraway takes in her conceptualisation of animal agency in several publications. In her Companion Species Manifesto she goes as far to tell us that dogs can express agency even when they are completely dominated in relations of power where intentional training strategically ensures that humans determine the limits and structures all possible options for that dog to take part in. Never mind that if these animals in question choose not to cooperate or choose to express their agency in other ways it’s likely to lead to their death. Agency is agency after all. Or is it?

If these arguments are insufficient, the next step might be to conceive of animal agency as something that sometimes happens, but not at other times. Or that in some contexts it’s possible, yet in others not so likely. This seems to me, for the time being, to be the most promising conceptualization of animal agency. This perspective is one that grants animal’s agency, but does so without ignoring important structural, political and social reasons for this agency not being realized. It is also a middle road that realizes that whilst animal agency might not be synonymous with human agency, it can be considered, and indeed is, animal agency nonetheless. Erika Cudworth in her book Social Lives with Other Animals offers a pathway in this direction. She argues that whilst animals can and do exhibit agency, it is always done so in relation to complex systems of hierarchy and power. In this context, Haraway’s laboratory animal cannot be conceptualized as a worker, for the concept worker takes into account agency in relation to consent. Slavery is not work just because a slave can express her or his agency by not cooperating (and then likely starving or facing execution).

In this way dying from exposure to the elements or the sow stall before your body can be used for meat is not an expression of agency. They are consequences or effects of systems of power applied to a pig’s body. Deciding to bite the hand of the farmer feeding her, however, at a stretch might be considered agency, but not without it being situated in the relations between two unequal agents where choice is severely diminished for one, and power disproportionately given to the other. In the same way, the fact that many animals may not explicitly show their agency in ways that we understand within the contexts in which we view them does not logically lead to the conclusion that animals do not have agency. We may have “trained” animals into a specific repertoire of behaviours (as in Haraway’s dog taking part in an agility course), or “bred” many into docility (like the farmed agricultural animal), but this is not to say that in other circumstances these animals would express themselves very differently.

The question of agency is much muddier than simple explanations can account for. This is why there is potential in Cudworth’s analysis of agency that situates any kind of actions within complex structures of power and hierarchy. The same behaviour in one instance could be considered agency, whilst in the very next can be seen as a functional response to external stimuli. The context of which any social action – animal or human – takes place cannot be ignored or erased in defining what does and does not constitute animal agency.

Author: Mel Jackman



One thought on “Animal Agents or Automatons? The Muddy Context of Animal Agency.

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  1. What a fantastic article. It does much to address important questions I have had about animal-worker designations (especially in the cases of lab rodents). I appreciate the heads up regarding Cudworth’s work, as I have always sensed that the ethics (or lack thereof) lie in an animal-human conflict-theory nature. Hierarchy certainly does exist – even when it comes to the various species of animals in question.


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