Welcome to our series, ‘Why Animal Studies?’ The aim of the series is to have scholars across the ideological spectrum (i.e., human-animal studies, critical animal studies, anthrozoology) reflect on why they locate their scholarship in the field. We will be featuring pieces from PhD students, established and early career scholars as well as established scholars from other areas who are increasingly interested, and working, in the field. If you would like to contribute to the series please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
In this piece, Richie reflects on his partial and often messy and confronting relationship with animal studies.
It would be tempting to rationalise my self-identification as a human-animal studies scholar – or more precisely, my current engagement and partial connection with human-animal studies – in terms of some overall intellectual, ethical or political logic, or with reference to some sort of personal epiphany. There are several ways that I could tell a ‘just so’ story, where everything would ultimately make sense in a narrative arc of self-justification. However, perhaps I am jaded (it has been suggested!), but I confess I am tired of these kinds of stories. The sociologist in me suspects that such identity-work would have more to do with my current self-presentation and sense of ontological security than my real trajectory. Moreover by presenting overly coherent, rationalised and apparently finished academic identities, I am not sure such stories are particularly helpful to those outside or newly engaging with human-animal studies, who may feel pressure to aspire to the same when perhaps in reality they are negotiating their own complex, problematic and partial connections to the field. Nor is it necessarily good for the quality of scholarship in human-animal studies to discourage those whose interest is not necessarily driven by some sense of an overarching mission or personal commitment from critical engagement in the field. I also can’t shake the feeling that there is something of the whiff of marketing about this kind of academic self-presentation, the pressure to make one’s work and one’s self into a consistent and distinctive brand, the more easily recognisable and citable. I continue to balk at this, and to prefer less coherent and less marketable stories.
So what would make such a story? Perhaps one that is messier, which resists the temptation to smooth away the contradictions, tensions and partial connections of lived intellectual trajectories. In this spirit, the reality for me is that I came to think of my work as partly located within – or in ongoing dialogue with – human-animal studies due to the coming together of multiple contingent factors. It was not a destined pathway, and things could easily have been otherwise. Nor is my relationship with human-animal studies a perfect fit, or necessarily permanent. Where to begin then? If my students are any indication then the starting point for my initial interest in human-animal relations was a very conventional one, in that it was underpinned to a significant extent by my consumption practices and my identity as a vegan. I had begun to practice veganism shortly before beginning university as an undergraduate, as a logical extension – as I saw it – of my long-term vegetarianism, and this personal ethical commitment helped me to begin to recognise pervasive anthropocentrism and to think critically about human-animal relations in modern societies. At the time I was unaware of human-animal studies as a field as such, and to my knowledge there were no human-animal studies courses at British universities, nor had I ever heard the term ‘intersectionality’, but my undergraduate dissertation was conceived as ‘A Historical-Sociological Analysis of Animal Exploitation in Relation to Structures of Class and Gender’. It drew upon Keith Thomas, Harriet Ritvo, Carol Adams and Adrian Franklin, among others, as well as rather a lot of Althusser and Marx!
During my Masters, via a detour involving Wittgenstein’s lion, I encountered Bruno Latour’s work and actor-network theory more widely, and this significantly influenced my subsequent thinking, so that by the time I came to frame my PhD proposal, my interest was not just in nonhuman animals and human-animal relations conceived in a broadly structural-sociological sense, but humans vis-à-vis nonhumans more broadly, as well as the great modernist divides of society/nature, subject/object and meaning/materiality. In retrospect, my orientation had become more philosophical, and I began to think more critically about sociology as a discipline, to identify its characteristic oversights and to problematise the ontological politics of its established ways of knowing. I also began engaging with critiques of humanism and anthropocentrism that were not implicitly subordinated to given frameworks of practical ethics but more concerned with ontology, epistemology, ontological politics and political epistemology as significant in their own right; though I retained a conviction that human-animal relations occupied a privileged or unique position within the broader relational field of more-than-human assemblages.
The PhD was therefore framed as an historical socio-material analysis of dairy milk in the UK. It drew upon Foucaultian genealogy and actor-network theory in order to trace the transformation of milk from its widespread perception as an impure, often adulterated and risky substance into a pure and nutritious staple food, which was as much a socio-technical and material accomplishment as a cultural and symbolic reinvention. This was later published as Milk, Modernity and the Making of the Human: Purifying the Social, which explored how the technical and material purification of milk was at the same time a work of ontological purification in which ‘the social’ and ‘human’ were inscribed as separate from ‘nature’ and ‘nonhumans’, and in which these purified domains were simultaneously made knowable and governable. Animals, and especially cows, were a constant and pivotal but often implicit presence in the book, which was essentially a critique of modernity worked though the prism of milk.
A vegan researching milk? Nothing particularly surprising there. But actually this is where the story gets messy, because mid-way through the PhD I took the conscious decision to stop practicing veganism, or even full vegetarianism, and in fact I have eaten dairy, fish and poultry since 2006. The mixture of reasons for this and the influence of the research process on the decision could take up a blog post or two in their own right. I won’t go into them here because despite being largely beside the point they would inevitably become the main focus and detract from what I am trying to say. So I’ll limit myself to simply saying that the conventional story whereby one’s engagement in human-animal studies research continually reinforces one’s personal ethical commitments and vice-versa, does not reflect my own experience. It also tends to implicitly prescribe a correspondence relationship between scholarly-intellectual enquiry and one’s everyday life that I think is rather simplistic, even if it provides a compelling narrative. What is more pertinent for the purposes of this blog however is the ways in which this shift in my practices and identity has and has not changed the nature of my interest and engagement in the field.
It would be crude to imply a one-way linear causation, but I would say that this shift has gone hand in hand with a changing attitude towards the nature and purpose of scholarship. In retrospect I tend to think that, previously, though my ethical self-identity opened up a range of ways of thinking that were central to my engagement with human-animal studies in the first place, it also curtailed my thinking since all of my critical questions were ultimately always tacitly designed to reconfirm my prior commitments. Therefore, though I called my early work ‘critical’, in the sense that it explicitly challenged the status-quo in human-animal relations, it was uncritical in the sense that it was not fully open-ended critical enquiry prepared to question anything and to follow the arguments wherever they might lead. The starting points and conclusions were always aligned and never really destabilising, ambivalent or discomfiting. Everything fitted together and confirmed me in my identity and view of the world, and my research was really an extended footnote on why this was all correct and right.
But a human-animal studies scholar who is not a practicing vegan or at least a full vegetarian, and who does not conceal the fact, inhabits a more difficult space, where things do not fit together so coherently, or at least not in terms of narratives that are so well worn, easily explained and quickly understood. To some extent it is even a ‘spoiled’ identity, and when obliged or inclined to disclose it, or perhaps just weary of concealing it by omission, I have encountered a range of reactions from confusion to suspicion through disdain to overt hostility. In certain human-animal studies circles I sometimes find – to my bemusement – that I am the matter which is out of place, the face that does not fit, the transgression that must be policed or delegitimised! So my relationship with the field is now a messier and more troubled one than before, as I am both insider and outsider. I do not complain however (or at least not much!), since for me at least – and I do not seek to generalise here beyond my own experience – this liminal location has paradoxically given me a lot of intellectual freedom and taken my interest in human-animal relations and my engagement with human-animal studies in new and productive directions, as I have sought to go beyond restatements and reassertions of core beliefs.
What I have increasingly come to appreciate about human-animal studies is less the self-defined ‘critical’ stance of some of the work being done under its rubric than the degree to which – as an emergent interdisciplinary field – it affords the opportunity for genuinely un-disciplined, boundary-crossing, intellectually novel and challenging work. I sometimes feel that, although new terminology for old ideas abound, there are actually few new ideas in the social sciences and humanities, which are forever reinventing and renaming the wheel. But in human-animal studies there really is fertile ground for genuinely innovative and transgressive thinking. Motivated by this, I am drawn to the zones of overlap and interference between human-animal studies, posthumanist thought, and also science and technology studies – particularly actor-network theory and its successor projects, which taken together furnish a potent set of tools for thinking against and outside the engrained assumptions of humanist ontology in all its complex manifestations. I must confess that I only ever fleetingly manage to actually see and experience the world differently, as such moments of insight seem almost inevitably to fade into reified conceptualisations, which in their form if not their content are already tacitly reincorporated back into modern, humanist, representationalist ways of seeing and thinking. Even if I continue to talk the talk, or write the words, the altered living perception soon eludes me. Nonetheless, these moments of seeing and experiencing the world and myself differently are what I strive for, what keep me in human-animal studies and what give me purpose.
In light of this, what would I like to see in terms of the future development of human-animal studies? For me it is important that the field retains its genuine intellectual openness, pluralism and diversity, but without fragmenting too much into subfields that operate as self-reinforcing intellectual silos. There are many embryonic developments that could potentially interfere with this. In particular, there is in some quarters an ongoing attempt to enforce a prescribed relationship between personal ethics and scholarly work almost as a criterion of legitimate involvement in the field, which I do not think is a positive development. While I accept and welcome the fact that personal ethical commitments will continue to be one of the factors driving human-animal studies scholarship for many, I also believe that it would be detrimental to the intellectual development of the field as well as its institutional proliferation if it is allowed to slide more generally into the perceived or actual role of simply providing the academic counterpart and ideological apparatus of a specific ethico-political agenda or movement. I understand the notion of scholar-advocacy and do not have a narrowly liberal view of academic work, but I am sometimes perturbed by the extent to which some research in human-animal studies appears to be wholly and transparently shaped by the researcher’s personal ethical and lifestyle commitments, especially where these sometimes seem to displace properly academic criteria for judging the quality of such work. I believe that for a field of intellectual enquiry and scholarly endeavor to flourish over time it must ultimately be autonomous in the sense of establishing its own academic identity and set of core concepts, concerns and quality-criteria that are independent of heteronomous agendas.
Richie Nimmo is a Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Manchester. You can learn more about him here.