Series: ‘Why Animal Studies?’ with Drew R. Winter

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 nik.taylor@flinders.edu.au

In this piece Drew considers why we might want to bring together Anthropology and Animal Studies.

From Drew:

Cultural anthropology may seem an unlikely lens for studying other species—what with “anthropos” right there in the title. But, anthropology is becoming increasingly attuned to nonhuman elements as multispecies ethnography, posthumanism, and the “ontological turn” rise to prominence. Furthermore, the discipline is well situated and has a strong, though sometimes overlooked, track record of breaking down barriers between our species and others. But for all of these exciting and important developments, animal studies spaces are where I feel most comfortable discussing the components of my research that deliberately de-center the human.

I became interested in anthropology first and foremost to study animal activists—how they organize themselves in action and in thought, where they see the world going, and where they would like to steer it otherwise. I considered this a related but separate endeavor from my interest in understanding animals themselves. But the more I learned, the more I saw that anthropology’s forays into alternative epistemologies—some radically so—offer us useful tools for thinking beyond human/animal. This may be the case despite, perhaps especially because of, their divergence from the categories and ethical systems currently occupying hegemonic positions within the animal rights/liberation movement. I also determined that if I was to ask the questions I wanted to ask about activists or animals, I was going to have to investigate both.

My doctoral dissertation addresses the multiple valences that comprise the pig amongst the various stakeholders in Denmark, including farmers, meat industry workers, chefs, animal activists, and environmentalists. The pig operates within the Danish imagination as simultaneously rights-bearing subject, a vector of greenhouse gases, raw material for food, a financial asset, and—importantly—a symbol of Danish heritage. Understanding how these various meanings travel and relate helps illuminate the complexities, contradictions, and sites of value that make up current debates about topics as varied as animal welfare, climate change, national identity, and economic policy that cannot be disentangled from each other without a certain loss of fidelity.

For example, the carbon footprint of meat is seen by some animal rights groups as a reason to condemn pig consumption, prompting organizations to highlight the value of vegetarianism. However, poultry has a smaller carbon footprint than beef and pork, which may prompt an increase in chicken consumption, rather than a shift to vegetarianism. Since less meat is produced from a single chicken than a single cow or pig, the result of an eco-conscious shift towards more chicken meat could, as a result, cost the lives of more farmed animals and put the interests of animal advocates at odds with concerns about environmental issues. Alternatively, while Denmark’s 2014 ban of halal and kosher slaughter on grounds of “animal rights” can be regarded as progress by some activists, it is widely regarded as a move by nationalist politicians to galvanize anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiments.

The commitments held by consumers and producers of meat are not matters of simple nutrition, but historically and culturally grounded. Yet this is not part of the debate surrounding meat’s effects on local and global ecosystems. Omitting history and culture from campaigns on meat may be part of the reason that worldwide reductions in meat consumption have gained little traction. Addressing such factors would draw our attention to food studies and ethnographies of food that punctuate a meal’s importance to individual and social identity.

In my work, this attention to cultural practices around food manifests in the contested meaning of animal bodies between various actors, mapping the contradictions between, say, Faroese whalers and Sea Shepherd crew members. But to render the political issue of the Faroese Grindadráp as an epistemological conflict between Faroese citizens and international activists—though a valid approach—leaves the whales themselves out. Analyzing these two groups and their various differences keeps the animals in the realm of food, sustenance, and symbol—an anthropological tradition that goes back as far as the discipline itself.

But what if we thought about the pilot whales as actors, with their own frame of the world? What happens when we acknowledge the pilot whale pods as their own communities, and how does that affect our thinking about their relationship to the Faroese who hunt them?
My doctoral research examines meat as a cultural object, but I aspire to include the pigs themselves as they exist on Danish farms and in slaughterhouses. Rather than simply observing them, I want to interact with them as interlocutors, exploring the nature and limits of their own agency at various pork farms in Denmark.—
How do pigs move in the world, express themselves, and interact within an environment that treats them as commodities, beyond what has been written by those who think of them as such? What forms of communication have they developed—as species, group, or individuals—that I could learn to comprehend?  Of course, pigs do not use language, but we in the social sciences know that it is not always a reliable source, and as Franz De Waal recently argued, it is hardly that important for thought.

How exactly I will accomplish this is an ongoing methodological puzzle that I draw on anthropologists like Gregory Bateson, Eduardo Kohn, and Eduardo Viveiros De Castro to help answer. But despite this and other groundbreaking work anthropologists still, perhaps understandably, tend to place our animal-oriented discussions in orbit around anthropos. Conversely human-animal studies spaces allow me to de-center Homo sapiens sapiens without worrying that I am straying too far from the interests of my colleagues. As a result, I am always eager to connect with scholars across the disciplines who share my desire in making relationships with nonhumans, and the nonhumans themselves, front-and-center. For HAS scholars, crossing the species boundary is not a novelty or a springboard for something else, but the very stuff of interest and importance. To have such a space—and colleagues—with whom to share this interest, enables us to follow trails that often do not (yet) double as scholarly career paths in their own right, and, with time, to blaze them ourselves. For my part, I hope the line between anthropology and HAS continues to blur through cross-pollination.

I want to be posthuman, and therefore I want to understand myself and my species, in relation to.

Drew Robert Winter is a PhD student in the Department of Anthropology at Rice University, and a scholar with the Center for Critical and Cultural Theory (3CT). He contributed to Humans and Animals: A Geography of Coexistence, to be published in October 2016. He can be reached at dw31@rice.edu.

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