05 July 2010

A favorite (and least favorite) moment from the )((ECO(LANG)(UAGE(READER))

A favorite: this from an exchange between Brenda Iijima and Tyrone Williams:

Brenda: "'As we talked of freedom and justice one day for all, we sat down to steaks. I am eating misery I thought, as I took the first bite. And spit it out.' From am I blue? by Alice Walker. How do you respond to this provocative, powerful statement?"

Tyrone: "I won't pretend to be familiar with the current arguments around the "problem" of sentience vis-a-vis animals and artificial intelligence (or its analogue in debates over abortion and the "beginning" of life), but Walker's statement only reinforces what I wrote above: anthropomorphism is inescapable the moment one believes one is communicating with an other (human or animal). Hence the controversy over issues concerning "freedom" (see Adorno's Messages in a Bottle, for one critique), "justice" etc. Put another way, Walker's ability—and, why not, her privilege, our privilege—to eat "misery" must be respected no less—but no more—than the impoverished Rwandan, for example, who may never get to eat misery, much less "spit it out" in a gesture as ethical as it is narcissistic. I'm more convinced by ecological arguments—reducing the consumption of meat as a contribution to improving the environment for all animal and plant life—than the ascription of moral and ethical foundations—really, just mirrors and lamps—to others."

My least favorite moment is from Marcella Durand's "Spatial Interpretations: Ways of Reading Ecological Poetry," in which she dubs animal rights activists "an oblique and certainly more prickly branch of the ecological activist family" who are "often inarticulate and sentimental, or even misanthropic and violent," and whose behavior is complicated (according to Durand) by their desire to "speak for animals" (see part III, "Reading Tina Darragh," pp. 205-207). I immediately bristled at this claim, not so much because of the years I've spent working next to my wife who made a hard-earned living in animal welfare (in my opinion, one of the toughest and dirtiest and thank-less jobs around) of which I am very proud, but because it is a blanket statement meant to speak for the thousands of people who care for animals everyday (and in an urban area like Oakland, that means experiencing a level of cruelty towards animals that I didn't think was possible). There are certainly individual examples in the animal welfare community to give Durand's claims credence, but hanging from any branch of the "ecological activist family tree" one is bound to find the prickly, the inarticulate, the sentimental, the misanthropic, the violent (and this could be true if we take the long view to include many other forms of activism, and maybe all forms of labor!). While there are certainly some high profile cases of extreme militancy in the animal welfare world, it would be a huge mistake to summarily dismiss the folks who are responding to, say, the unthinkable violence of dog fighting rings, puppy mills, etc. etc. I'm reminded here, for instance, of Scalapino's reference to Lewis MacAdams chaining himself "to a rock in the bottom of the canyon that would be filled (with water)" (76) in order to stop a damn from being built in southern California. That seems pretty "prickly" to me...


  1. Word up! It sounds as if Marcella Durand is making the common mistake of lumping together groups like PETA (which thrives on misguided theatrics) with individual shelters and animal welfare groups who invest blood, sweat, and tears into rehabilitating society's (literally) throw-away animals. It's true that once you've pulled a three-legged kitten out of a dumpster, or taken in a pregnant dog with a stab wound in her groin, or found an emaciated pit bull with maggots in his ears, or put down a beautiful chihuahua with half her fur missing and terminal kidney failure (by the time she came to you, it was too late), you tend to grow "prickly." However, making such broad negative declarations about everyone who advocates for animal welfare is inaccurate and insulting. Check yourself, Marcella Durand.

  2. Thanks Michael and Katja for pointing out that what I meant as a kind of constructive critique came off as overly negative. I didn't mean to lump together animal rights activists and animal welfare advocates, and I'm sorry if it came off that way. As someone who worked in the companion animal field for some years, I have only the greatest respect for those who work in shelters, and absolutely agree it's awful, thankless, despairing work--which is why there's an extremely high burnout rate.

    However, that said, I honestly did find the language of many animal rights activists--and even animal welfare advocates--problematic. It's a subject already implicitly loaded with sentimentality, so when animal activists sign off letters with (to draw from real examples) "purrs," or purport to speak from the animal's point of view, or cut and paste little pictures of puppies and kittens into correspondence, it allows media and politicians to continue to dismiss animal welfare issues as the domain of "cat ladies" or lunatics.

    Also, it's true that the ecological family tree has its share of, uh, nuts, but animal rights as relating to shelters and medical experimentation (leaving aside vegetarianism) truly can seem like a distaff branch, without always an obvious link to environmentalism. Occasionally, there will be some discussion of factory farming as related to production of cat and dog food, or feline impact on songbirds, but there seem to be significant differences in the philosophical investigation underlying animal rights, as opposed to Deep Ecology or other ecological strands of thought. I'm certainly not saying it couldn't be useful to loop animal rights philosophy back into the ecological discussion by investigating the idea of the "other" or wilderness as brought to us by domesticated animals.

    Anyway, I think this is a bit of what I *meant* to say....