Catherine Oliver: Covid-19, ‘more-than-human’ research, and the reproduction of interspecies violence.

Emerging narratives from more-than-human scholarship are revealing how the beyond-human causations and implications of Covid-19 rely on ‘the paradox of simultaneous over-exposure and disappearance of the human … within the very notion of the present’ (Braidotti). Covid-19 has revealed a deep investment in the continuation of “the human as usual” for many scholars of the beyond-human in all its guises in the face of a global crisis. Covid-19 has revealed the porosities between human and animal bodies, our immutable constitution of one another, and the consequences of interspecies violence not as interpersonal, but as world-transforming. ‘And even while the virus proliferates, who could not be thrilled by the swell of birdsong in cities, peacocks dancing at traffic crossings and the silence in the skies?’ (Arundhati Roy). Even as the return of animals to our temporarily slowed and suspended lives reveals care for nature and animals (see Searle and Turnbull), the moment of openness to ethico-political worldly transformation is wilfully erasing animal subjects in ‘more-than-human’ narratives. In refusing to acknowledge the violent dispossessions and destructions already undertaken when animals are killed and consumed, there is a reinforcement of human supremacy against optimistic conceptions of different possible multispecies futures.

As Stephanie Eccles writes for Animals in Society, ‘we must resist this erasure, the collapse of life that Covid-19 is claiming as it kills the most vulnerable people and animals in society’. The absence of analysis of ‘how we might want to radically alter our practices post-pandemic to make space for animals who clearly want – or are at least willing – to use more space than they are allotted’ (Taylor, 2020) demands that we are ethically and politically obligated to infuse this present with radical reconstitutions of the future. As increasing numbers of humans witness the consequences of the inescapable entangled intimacies of humans and animals, the future is open to exposing these violent exploitations and offering caring alternatives.

The violent white, Western human is wilfully ignorant of the deaths, abandonments and destructions that have already been enacted upon animals, whose bodies and lives are being instrumentalised and erased in attempts to theorise and end the pandemic. Simultaneously, the romanticising of animals’ return to the world denies the specificities and histories of violence we have inflicted and that are on the horizon post-Covid (and animals were always there, although pushed to the margins of human’s domination of the realm of the lively and alive). As people turn towards more-than-human conceptions of the future, there is a wider acceptance of subjects beyond the human having the capability to disrupt our lives, but a widespread investment in the continuation of this violent human-as-usual has also been revealed.

In June, an outbreak of Covid-19 at a slaughterhouse in Guetersloh County, Germany, with hundreds of infected workers and 1500 community cases led to a regional lockdown. Earlier in the pandemic, moral outrage and disgust was performed online over Chinese wet and wildlife markets – much of this fuelled by sinophobia – but similar reactions have not been invoked in these more recent European outbreaks. In the white, Western world, moral outrage is being reserved for distant and Othered ways of life, rather than attending to the spaces of violence at home, so to speak, and investigating the ethics, politics and futures that are being realised there. The contexts and subjects drawing critical attention reproduce concern not for animals in wet markets or slaughterhouses, nor for Chinese ways of life, but rather for a repositioning of European and American practices as morally superior (see, for example, Karen Morin’s 2018 book Carceral Space, Prisoners and Animals). This ignores that killing and consuming animals anywhere is a threat to human health everywhere and simultaneously reproduces not only human supremacy, but racial and colonial power.

What we can see, then, is not an ethico-political transformation being desired for animals in this outrage, but rather a desire for the continuation (even expansion) of the white, Western human-as-usual. The more-than-human concerns in this pandemic are thus twofold: first, a concern for animals is being bound up in objectifying and generalised constructions of otherness and, second, that this concern is materialising as political only when human life is threatened and even then only particular white, Western lives and ways of life. This is not divorced from longer histories and presents of leftist and environmentalist attitudes towards animal activism that refuse the serious ethical and political goals of veganism. Prior to Covid-19, the left was already faced with the inescapability of ‘the animal question’ as entangled with resisting environmental degradation, capitalist extraction and exploitation, and human rights. The left’s scepticism and dismissal of animal activism as ‘non-political’ becomes politicised in contexts of human repercussions: high unemployment, polarization between rich and poor, and human rights abuses (Benton and Redfearn, New Left Review) as we have seen in Covid-19. This coalition thus makes animals’ political consideration conditional upon these rights furthering of the human-as-usual, or the liberatory goals of, here, class politics.

This uneasy relationship of human supremacy has also been reproduced in the environmentalist movement’s clashes and refusal to centre veganism as part of combatting the climate crisis. Veganism itself has opened its embrace to environmentalist concerns since its inception as an organised ethico-political movement; in the early days of the Vegan Society, this was concerned with soil degradation and, in the post-war decades, served as an antidote to continuing global anxieties of food scarcity (Hawk, 2004, PDF). Contemporary veganism centres planetary concerns, alongside health and animal concerns, as essential to its tripartite goals (see, for example, The Vegan Society’s 2020 Vegan for the Environment (PDF link). This relationship has not, however, historically been reciprocated from environmentalist organisations and activists (Werkheiser, 2013). Hannah Battersby calls attention to the ecological injustice of Covid-19 as twofold, for farmed and wild animals: in the present increased suffering during live export and transport, euthanasia and lab experiments, and for future generations of animals, in ecosystem destruction and environmental harms.

More-than-human analyses of Covid-19 that aren’t promoting anti-speciesist and anti-capitalist transformation are part of long lineages of crises that reinforce ‘human-as-usual’ violence towards animals. This conditional caring invisibilizes animals and cedes their plight to human supremacy. Illuminating and critiquing the intentions of more-than-human narratives that ignore animals are not questions, as often called, of moral purity. Rather, these critiques emphasise that is only with genuine investment in imagining and creating transformative worlds for and with other animals that we can imagine and (re)make meaningful relationships after the pandemic and in the context of ever-emerging collapses and violence beyond the human. Where critical animal studies and vegan scholars have already been imagining, theorising and practicing these alternatives, it is our ethical and political responsibility to continue to develop, diversify and advocate this work within and beyond Covid-19 by continually drawing attention to the reproductions of interspecies violence that threaten truly transformative futures.

Catherine Oliver is a postdoctoral researcher on the ERC project Urban Ecologies at the Department of Geography, University of Cambridge. Her research interests lie in vegan geographies; human-chicken relationships; and multispecies ethnographies. During lockdown, unable to visit the ex-battery hens she normally spends time with, Catherine has been getting to know the birds, squirrels and insects that visit her garden. 

Guest artwork by Hartmut Kiewert, Lazy Afternoon II, 2017, oil/canvas, 120x150cm.


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