There are few things as meaningful for a writer as seeing their words travel and make new connections. I would like to express my deep and sincere gratitude to Aleksandar Kostić, Katherine McNally, Marshall Kramer, and Rebecca for their thoughtful readings of Animal Intimacies as well as to Parker Hatley and others at Society for Anthropology of Work (SAW) who organized this book forum. It’s been five years since Animal Intimacies was published, and it is truly a gift to revisit it through the engagement of four such sharp and generous scholars. I am especially thankful for the ways in which they raise questions about connection, difference, and incommensurability that remain as urgent, vexed, and meaningful to me now as they did when I first wrote this book.
In particular, all four responses highlight the productive challenges of attending to how affinity and difference shape the political possibilities and limits of relatedness. Aleksandar, Katherine, Marshall, and Rebecca all turn to the story of the pig who went wild as an example of how “animals act in ways that overflow the symbolic containers humans have made for them”. Importantly, her liberation (which literally involved her dramatic escape from an experimental lab) intersects with and fuels human struggles for liberation from caste, patriarchy, and colonialism. Katherine terms such unpredictable convergence a politics of “friction” that contains within it the possibility of “renewing worlds” and “moving forward” through an interstitial tangle of “fetishization and familiarity.” I found this framing particularly productive when following responses to a recent news story about three orcas who have sunk multiple sailboats off the coast of Spain and Portugal. Reflecting the widespread understanding that these acts are deliberate and meaningful, news reports proclaimed that they were driven by a “vengeful killer whale called Gladis” who, being “hell-bent on revenge” after getting hit by a boat, was now “teaching gangs of orcas to attack yachts around Gibraltar.” On Twitter, Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò asked: “what are their demands?” Hundreds of Twitter users argued that what the whales were demanding was no less than the “end of capitalism.”
Some might argue that such readings of the whales’ behavior are anthropomorphic in that they “narcissistically project human intentions and behavior onto other animals.”
But, as I argue in Animal Intimacies, a critical anthropomorphism might decenter human exceptionalism and actually open up new political possibilities such as a multispecies anti-capitalist movement (#ImwithGladis). Indeed, as Rebecca notes, an “ethnographic attunement” to the lives and desires of other-than-human subjects permits us to “imagine”, build, and inhabit “other possible worlds”. This politics of solidarity and struggle across difference is what Marshall calls a “feral” politics, one that can “reshape futures” by bringing human and nonhuman animals together in challenging structures of oppression.
And yet there is also a danger to romanticizing a more-than-human politics of solidarity and liberation at a time when oppressed people are struggling to establish the sanctity of human life in political contexts like contemporary India where Hindu supremacists have weaponized questions of animal welfare to legitimize violence against Muslims whom they regard as sub-human. While I appreciate the efforts of certain animal rights-activists to challenge this cynical appropriation and call for a genuinely “secular movement of animal rights”, I find myself wondering if some projects of human and animal liberation in India might (at least for the moment) be incommensurable, in the sense that Unangax̂ scholar Eve Tuck and Wayne Yang (2012) outline in “Decolonization is not a Metaphor”. An ethic of incommensurability, they argue (Ibid: 31), recognizes that different political projects of liberation are not always “parallel, nor shared equally... and cannot be resolved”. This does not mean that there are no “opportunities for solidarity” but that political solidarity needs to be reimagined as that which lies “in what is incommensurable rather than what is common across these efforts” (Ibid: 28). Perhaps the possibility for a genuine solidarity between different movements for political justice in India lies in the recognition that working towards liberation for all “neither reconciles present grievances nor forecloses future conflict" (Ibid).
Aleksandar also raises questions about the limits of anthropomorphism and solidarity although those concerns are a little different than what I have raised above. Aleksandar asks if a critical anthropomorphism rooted in the shared instinct of human and nonhuman animals breaks down when it encounters the “non-animal parts of more-than-human assemblages?” What of plants, for example, with whom humans might not share “animal instinct”? Can the work of botanists be “meaningful ethnographic material”? Aleksandar’s question brings to mind a recent study which found that “drought, a shortage of water or a sudden wound” could cause plants to “emit more ultrasonic sounds than usual”. Such stories, which resonate with people’s situated knowledge of plants are sentient, communicative agents, might encourage the practice of what Natasha Myers calls “rooting”, that is, “learning a deep sense of accountability” to the multispecies communities we live in and growing “livable worlds rather than entrenching ourselves in the ruins of the Anthropocene”.
Once again, I am immensely grateful to Aleksandar, Katherine, Marshall, and Rebecca for their thoughtful engagement with Animal Intimacies and for giving me an opportunity to reflect anew on the questions and commitments that have fueled my work over the last decade. The generosity, care, and sharpness with which they have approached my work has left me humbled and in their debt.
Tuck, Eve and Wayne Yang. 2012. “Decolonization is not a Metaphor”. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education, and Society. 1(1), pp. 1:40.