Vii issue 1 2009 Journal for Critical Animal Studies

Contributions of Mainstream Animal Studies

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Contributions of Mainstream Animal Studies

In many ways, the international, transdisciplinary, and pluralist field of animal studies defies easy categorization and generalization. It is still, moreover, a young and emerging framework (even as it congeals into theoreticism and apoliticism), and retains a kind of “Wild West” anything goes approach, which helps partly to account for its broad appeal. Animal studies is everything to everyone -- including welfarists, carnivores, speciesists, pro-vivisectionists, and sundry human supremacists and animal exploiters.
While a rich variety of animal studies approaches abound, we can identify some broad orientations, some of which rely on a clear empiricist style of writing and argumentation, while others take a far more esoteric, hermeneutic, and postmodern approach. These include: empirical and socio-psychological viewpoints; feminist/ecofeminist methods; the Continental/postmodern theory school; and posthumanist outlooks. Whether embedded in assumptions or brought to the fore, the political biases and orientations of MAS also are diverse, and may tend toward welfarism, rights, or abolitionism/liberationism. Among official animal advocacy organizations and academic-affiliated groups, however, CAS is unique in its defense of direct action tactics, its willingness to engage and debate controversial issues such as anti-capitalism, academic repression, and the use of sabotage as a resistance tactic; its emphasis on the need for total liberation stressing the commonalities binding various oppressed groups; and the importance of learning from and with activists.
The term “animal studies,” in fact, is a misnomer that impedes understanding from the start, for the field is not about nonhuman animals in isolation from human animals, but rather about human-nonhuman animal relations. Animal studies examines how our lives, identities, and histories are inseparably tied to other sentient, intelligent, communicative, and cultured beings in ways that human animals (in Western cultures above all) have systematically denied. Various writers and thinkers have thereby erased the fundamental, constitutive role nonhuman animals have played in the biological and social development of Homo sapiens, as human beings have of course for the last ten millennia domesticated and controlled every fact of every useful animal, an exploitative power now extended into systematic manipulation of animals’ genomes.
Following the lead of historicists, poststructuralists, postmodernists, feminists, and others who challenged and dismantled (via the method of “”deconstruction”) binary oppositions pivotal to Western ideology and hierarchical rule, animal studies theorists have rearranged the conceptual furniture in the house of humanism. They have called into question the essentialist and dualist assumptions underpinning false views of humans and other animals alike. In doing so they have exposed the vain attempts to separate mind and body, the rational and the emotional, culture and nature, men (the masculine) and women (the feminine), and so on. These critical theorists reject Platonic metaphysics and notions that natural, human, and conceptual realities are grounded in or reflect some unchanging substance or essence.
Whereas postmodernists have deconstructed the numerous binary oppositions humans have created throughout Western history, many took apart everything but the Berlin Wall dividing human from nonhuman animals.5 Animal theorists take it to the next level to dismantle the bifurcation between the “human” and “animal.” Consequently, animal theorists show that humans constructed their own “natures” and that of other animals as well principally through fallacious dualisms and the distorting lens of speciesism; this effectively prevented philosophers and scientists from grasping biological and social evolution in terms of a unity in difference and a difference in unity. It produced a theoretical mystification that both overestimated the fetishized “rationality” of humans and underestimated the amazing forms of intelligence found throughout virtually every animal species (such as specifically explored by the revolutionary field of “cognitive ethology” or “ethology,” which could be said to emerge with Darwin in the later part of the nineteenth century, was revived with the work of Donald Griffin in the 1980s, and was subsequently advanced and popularized by scientists and writers such as Roger Fouts, Frans de Wall, and Marc Bekoff).6 CAS argues that the “animal” includes all sentient beings, including humans, and thus “animal liberation” cannot be properly formulated and enacted apart from “human liberation,” and vice versa; it argues in addition that species survival is dependent upon a flourishing environment and global ecology, and thus animal, human, and Earth liberation are inseparably intertwined in the politics of “total liberation.” CAS is a critical human studies, and analyses how the discourse of the “human” has been constituted in dualistic, speciesist, racist, patriarchal, and imperialist terms.

“The question of the animal,” writes philosopher Matt Calarco, is now being used by many scholars to highlight “the notion that humanist and anthropocentric conceptions of subjectivity must be called into question.”7 Such a discursive approach would analyze, for instance, how the Western world fractures the evolutionary continuity of human/nonhuman existence by reducing animals to (irrational, unthinking) “Others” who stand apart from (rational, thinking) human Subjects. Animal studies can show, moreover, that the same discourses used to devalue other sentient beings as “animals” – mindless, “savage,” disorderly “beasts” to whom humans have no moral obligations and treat as they sit fit – are used to exploit and massacre human groups (e.g., Jews, women, and people of color) once they are dehumanized and reduced to “animals” themselves. Thus, the connections between human oppression of other animals and of themselves are deep and profound.

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