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For Better or Worse

Published onAug 16, 2023
For Better or Worse

In Animal Intimacies Radhika Govindrajan (2018) explores the everyday intimacies of human-animal lives that are knotted together “for better or worse” (3). Govindrajan’s approach to multispecies ethnography builds on the insights of feminist kinship studies, showing through her ethnographic description how “love and relatedness…constitute the terrain on which animal being and becoming unfold.” (181). Though Govindrajan’s theoretical interventions are sophisticated, her ethnographic writing is accessible to undergraduates and graduate students and would make a great addition to syllabi in animal studies, environmental anthropology, and the anthropology of kinship and relatedness.

Govindrajan’s initial chapters deal directly with the fraught entanglements of interspecies relatedness and the labor of care. Her introduction and Chapter 2 meditate on the complicated everyday ethics that emerge in caretaking relations that result in killing. She compares this form of love with the love of cows espoused by the cow protectionist movement in chapter 3. In her attention to questions of scale across these chapters she explicates how despite how these forms of love are both decidedly uninnocent “it matters immensely where one is situated within the terrain on which it emerges” (179). Situated love emerging from “everyday embodied entanglements” with cows differs dramatically from love for cows as a metaphor for mothers of the Hindu nation that can “serve as the locus of a violent religious nationalism.” (179).

Her analysis of translocated Rhesus monkeys in Chapter 4 troubles conventional notions of human-wildlife conflict. Widening the temporal scale of analysis from the event of conflict reveals the historical disruptions in Rhesus Macaque troop structure and generational trauma caused by their capture for sale to US biomedical industries. Additionally, particular forms of structural exclusion shape how Pahari villagers contextualize their observations of differences among monkeys. In Chapters 5 and 6, Govindrajan combines stories and ethnographic observation to imagine “the latent possibility of another world” (123). She argues that the origin stories of wild boar that unsettle conventional narratives about wilderness suggest an otherwild in which animals “come to interspecies relationship as beings whose histories, though linked to humans, are not exhaustively contained by them” (123). Her discussion of queer stories of bear love in chapter 6 that surprisingly align with bear reproductive biology suggests that imaginations of other possible worlds are “in fact rooted in a lived present.”(171).

This work offers a generative provocation within the genre of multispecies ethnography that ethnographers should ground “theoretical insights about the capacities of animals in the lives of actual, real animals, both singular and collective” (21). Throughout her chapters, Govindrajan stays with the challenge of writing incommensurate worlds partly by choosing other-than-human subjects that are accessible to her capacities for ethnographic attunement, and also through her unapologetic incorporation of a broad range of biological, ecological, historical, and ethnographic knowledges. Perhaps Govindrajan’s approach has already answered John Hartigan’s (2021) question in “how far can [multispecies ethnographers] go and remain anthropological?” (1). Animal Intimacies will no doubt come to be read as a foundational text in both multispecies ethnography and the anthropology of relatedness.

Works Cited

Hartigan, John. “Knowing Animals: Multispecies Ethnography and the Scope of Anthropology.” American Anthropologist 123, no. 4 (December 2021): 846–60.

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