The Philosopher's Eye

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Hypatia Symposium: “The Animal” and “The Feminist” by EMILY CLARK

In Hypatia 27.3, a special issue on “Animal Others”, leading feminist animal studies scholars, Lori Gruen (author of Ethics and Animals: An Introduction) and Kari Weil (author of Thinking Animals: Why Animal Studies Now) present exciting new work on the intersections of sex, race, gender, and species. As co-editors of the special issue, Gruen and Weil invited six scholars to reflect on some of the lively debates occurring within this burgeoning new field of scholarship. Join the discussion.

Title: “The Animal” and “The Feminist”


PhD Graduate Student, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Read the full special issue here

Download a PDF of this Symposium

In the Fall of 2011, I attended a day-long animal studies symposium at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. One of the presenters, an anthropologist, began his talk by projecting onto the screen behind him a black-and-white photograph of a kitten. The kitten was hanging crucified from a wire, completely disemboweled, with a cigarette butt sticking jauntily out of its very dead mouth. The presenter proceeded to speak for more than twenty minutes without mentioning a single word about the image. Instead, it loomed from the screen behind him, silently willing us audience members to look at it, and to look away from it. In the final minutes of the panel’s Q and A, in what I can only describe as the tone of someone “willing herself to be calm,” a female graduate student asked the presenter what I am certain was on all of our minds: why that image? His response was to nod knowingly, and state that although he knew it was a “provocative” image, it perfectly encapsulated the tenets of his talk (loving, being, and killing animals), and so he had dared to show it, hoping it might provoke discussion.

It did not. Perhaps a more daring audience would have raised the issue of the image at the beginning of the Q and A, hijacking the time that had been allotted to discuss three presenters’ work. Perhaps a more daring audience member (and I regret that it was not I) would have interrupted his presentation directly and demanded some account of this body, some accounting of his use of this body to accessorize his work. Instead, we remained silent, as did the body on display. In those moments, two kinds of violence happened: a redoubled violence on the body of the kitten, whose body was splayed open and displayed, at first literally, and then spectatorially, but also the violence against the audience there seated.

It is moments like these that reaffirm my belief that animal studies needs feminism. Feminist scholars understand that what we say about bodies and how we say it matters; they hold the speaking voice accountable for the effects it produces, both those intended and otherwise. By explicitly marrying questions of sex, gender, and feminism with questions of species and animal studies, the contributors and editors of this issue center attention on species within feminism. They also validate feminist animal scholarship to more general feminist readers. Both of these moves are necessary; many feminist scholars do not yet take animals, animal studies, or speciesism seriously.

I know this because I have been called to account for my work by a range of feminist scholars, from tenured faculty advisors to undergraduate students, whose responses to animal studies range from resentment, dismissal, disbelief, to not-so-passive aggression. The implicit (and sometimes explicit) critique is: “why are you wasting time with animals when there are so many human problems?” or “what do animals have to do with gender?” Greta Gaard notes similar feminist responses in her historiography of ecofeminism and its silencing (Gaard 2011). Although the theoretical and political connections between species difference and sexual difference seem obvious to me now, they have not always, and certainly are not obvious to many of my colleagues, mentors, and students. Therefore, I frequently invoke “the human” to justify this work. I’m not the only one.

In much of the work on animals and species writ large, and certainly in feminist and ecofeminist work, analyses of our treatment of animals, attitudes toward and about animals, representations of animals, and framing of the world along a human/animal divide are necessarily conceptualized alongside the figure of the human. The organizing logic is this: what we think about (some) animals helps us understand what we think about (some) humans. Or, when animals suffer, humans suffer. Or, within feminism more specifically, the status of animals has both direct and indirect implications for the status of women. Connecting the human and the animal is a practical and generally effective way to begin to address the concerns and demands of a feminist audience unconvinced of animal studies’ intellectual relevance or ethical demand. Indeed, connecting these dots makes sense: human and nonhuman animals’ lives are bound up together to a degree that is, frankly, unfathomable in its scope. But perhaps more important, the uninitiated humanist will likely find animal scholarship much more palatable and necessary when she sees it as connected to the lives of humans.

This strategy seems necessary and is certainly useful; it labors to convince feminists to take species seriously. This needs to happen in large part because feminism is perhaps best positioned to take on questions of the animal. This is manifest in feminist theory’s commitment to the materiality of the body, to attending to those bodies most vulnerable to abuse, to exposing the logic of exclusion and the politics of abjection, and perhaps most important (and to return to that image of the kitten), in its commitment to thinking about, and critiquing its own participation in, the ethics of representation and “speaking for” others. In both theory and practice, feminism has the greatest capacity to take on what is one of the most ethically and intellectually challenging issues of our time. Part of the challenge is that there are no clear-cut answers here. Another part of the challenge is that this is perhaps the most extreme case possible of “speaking for” others, and as Kari Weil has pointed out, the call for “‘us’ (we who have language) to speak for those who do not (‘we are their voices’ an ASPCA campaign suggests) … risks having us reassert our sovereignty over them” (Weil 2006, 96). Feminism’s extensive history dealing with the messy problems of patriarchy, and its practitioners’ rigorous work to undo both binary and universal conceptualizations of the world, along with its self-reflexive attention to its own power, are some of feminism’s greatest strengths. Along with its intellectual and political rigor, feminist theory unremittingly comments on itself, critiques itself, takes itself as an object of inquiry, and holds itself ethically accountable, a methodology that is absolutely necessary when dealing with bodies, like that of the kitten, that are in so many ways at our mercy.

To restate: animal studies needs feminism, and feminism needs to take animal studies, and speciesism, seriously. While certainly a means toward this end, I would now like to consider what else might be produced by coupling “the animal” and “the feminist.” Certainly there are epistemological and political benefits, such as clarifying the ways in which human and nonhuman bodies are bound to each other, and troubling the human/animal divide, along with those I’ve outlined above. But I wonder, what might be lost when animal studies and attention to species are framed or shadowed by the human? When I, or other feminist animal scholars, must always justify, or explain, or ground our work with attention to the human, and with a ready answer to the question: “What does this have to do with gender?” What might be gained by thinking or at least attempting otherwise? Can we imagine feminist animal scholarship that does not invoke the good of the human, or women, in its attention to the animal, and if so, what might that scholarship look like? Toward this end, my argument is this: feminism as a field and mode of inquiry and being is constitutively and strategically suited to work on speciesism, but this interrelation should be implicit rather than explicit. The condition of “women” and the condition of animals needs to be decoupled. Feminist work on speciesism and within animal studies should be done regardless of humans and regardless of issues of sex/gender. Essentially, feminism needs to detach itself from two “isms”: humanism, and to a certain extent, feminism itself.

Feminism and in particular feminist animal scholarship needs to incorporate a more sustained critique of the human and humanism. It is not sufficient to add a concern for animals to a concern for humans, or to justify work on animals by showing how such work bears on humans. Failing to question feminism’s own humanism reinforces speciesism and rehearses a well-worn political strategy in which disenfranchised others are allotted some small stake in a constitutively oppressive, hierarchical system, rather than challenging the system itself. We need to be able to pursue and produce scholarship that takes an ethical and political commitment to animals and to combating speciesism as goods in their own right, regardless of the human, and in some cases in spite of the human. This kind of scholarship would begin (and sometimes end) with the question: “what’s in it for the animal?” Such a move requires a rejection or at the least radical critique of humanism and a decentering of the human figure within feminism. This is happening in some intellectual and geographical spaces, but it needs to be more thoroughly and constitutively incorporated into mainstream feminism as well as feminist animal scholarship.

Along with humanism, feminism needs to be decentered within feminist animal studies. I would like to distinguish here between taking a feminist approach to animal studies (which I strongly advocate) and feminist animal studies that takes feminism itself as an explicit point of analysis. This became clear to me when I participated in the Sex, Gender, Species Conference held at Wesleyan University in late February 2011. The overwhelming majority of the work presented was excellent, and very much in line with what I imagine feminist animal scholarship might look like with a greater attention to speciesism informing it. There were, however, a number of presentations that either took as their main argument or offered as a secondary argument perceived slights to or rejections of feminism itself. A number of presenters mentioned Cary Wolfe’s oft-reiterated claim that contesting speciesism “has nothing to do with whether you like animals” (Wolfe 2003, 7), suggesting that it is indicative of his attempt to distance himself from the feminine and feminism. Gaard’s historiography of ecofeminism was a particular case in point; the larger, important point that Gaard made was that ecofeminists have been silenced by other disciplines and by feminism, and that, problematically, “human-centered (anthropocentric) feminism … has come to dominate feminist thinking in the new millennium” (Gaard 2011, 32). This point, however, is rather ancillary to much of the rest of Gaard’s analysis, which seems most concerned with asking whether the silencing of ecofeminism, and the recent success of other fields in articulating many of the same insights as ecofeminists, without citing them as such, is “a form of antifeminism, a feat of prestidigitation that simultaneously appropriates and erases feminist scholarship? Is it intellectual dishonesty? Is it simple ignorance of the work that has been done?” (42). Although she does not spend much time addressing these questions, it appears that she leans toward the first point. I do not find this argument particularly productive, in that justifying the usefulness and value of feminism or documenting the ways in which it continues to be slighted becomes both an end in itself and a kind of conceptual albatross. “The animal” in feminist animal scholarship is here obscured, or made irrelevant by attention to feminism itself.

The question of feminism’s role within feminism extends beyond feminist animal scholarship; in Becoming Undone, Elizabeth Grosz critiques the pervasive force of intersectionality within feminist studies, arguing that it is now functioning to dilute scholarship. She argues for a future of feminist theory in which “the reign of the ‘I’” be displaced, the “I” being that of the subject, but also of identity politics, including the identity of feminism. As such, feminism “cages itself in the reign of the ‘I’: who am I, who recognizes me, what can I become? (Grosz 2011, 84). Essentially, Grosz argues for a feminism that freely creates rather than confining itself to feminism for both its inspiration and its research. This is not groundbreaking work; Virginia Woolf, in A Room of One’s Own, calls for a similar move: not that women abandon their sexual difference, but that they make use of it to open up new forms. Grosz asks: “What is feminist theory at its best? What is its continuing radical promise? How is it to be located relative to the other disciplinary forms, other fields of knowledge?” (75) I maintain that feminist animal scholarship “at its best” would affirm the value of studying species and critiquing speciesism on its own terms and not as necessarily connected to the status of women. Feminists would work on species not (only) because they are women or feminists and therefore invested in the implications of species for issues of sex and gender, but because as feminist scholars they are uniquely and strategically positioned to do this work. This work would not be bound by “the human” or “the feminist” but rather make use of them at will, and would also be free to detach from them.

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