Editors’ Introduction: Sloth Vol. 3 No. 2

We are pleased to present the latest issue of Sloth, once again bringing together some very exciting and high-quality work by young scholars in human-animal studies with critical essays on topics encompassing fundamental issues of representation, agency, ethics, and politics in human-animal relations.

The essays by young scholars Hannah Strode, Anisah Spahn, and Jessica Secmezsoy-Urquhart explore the ways in which animals are portrayed in language, historic texts, popular media, and conservation organizations. In her study of popular representations of dolphins, Spahn calls for more accurate portrayals of dolphin behavior. She problematizes their perceived friendliness, and the idea that their intelligence is measured by human markers, in familiar stories of Flipper and A Dolphin’s Tale, calling for a greater recognition of their “animality.” While Spahn locates much of the distortion in the media, Strode finds fault with polar bear representations generated by conservation organizations. To employ polar bear charisma in the service of conservation, Strode argues, robs polar bears of their agency and ignores diversity in ecosystems. She draws upon Jamie Lorimer’s critique of conservation discourse in the Anthropocene, arguing that this needs to be reworked around two insights: firstly a recognition of the importance of the pain and suffering of real living animals; and secondly a companion species ontology of hybrid becoming, in which an emotional fellowship with nonhuman animals extends beyond the ‘saviour complex’ aimed at ‘charismatic megafauna’, to encompass ‘the entire breadth of the multispecies Anthropocene’.

If the animals selected to become the focus of conservation campaigns are wild animals deemed to inhabit spaces of ‘nature’, they find their categorical opposite in wild animals inhabiting spaces defined as human, where they often become perceived as an unwanted and transgressive presence, hence as ‘pests’ and much maligned ‘vermin’. In her essay Secmezsoy-Urquhart traces Western attitudes towards species such as insects, wolves, and foxes that interfere with human agriculture and other interests. Her astute linguistic study illustrates the embeddedness of attitudes within language. Most intriguingly, Secmezsoy-Urquhart acknowledges the agency of vermin – an agency to which humans react with normal methods like traps and poison, as well as in the extraordinary practice of ecclesiastical vermin trials meant to hold the pests accountable for their actions. Along with ‘vermin’, another major social category of animals that are routinely denied agency is farm or agricultural animals. Fabiolla Lorusso’s essay also discusses animal agriculture, but focuses on the potential of virtual reality technologies to disrupt the biopolitical regime that underpins the normalization of intensive animal agriculture, factory farming, and meat consumption. Drawing upon James Stanescu’s work on the biopolitics of factory farming, Lorusso examines the case of iAnimal, the virtual reality technology that enables people to become fully immersed in the processes of an intensive pig farm, effectively experiencing that environment from the pig’s point of view. This has great potential to destabilize the subject/object and human/animal boundaries and to promote a revaluation of the ethics of factory farming, she suggests, but ultimately, ‘in order to end speciesism, we will need to redefine the human subject’. This means acknowledging that humans are not separate, sovereign individuals distinguished from animals by rationality, but beings constitutively entangled with nonhumans in a process of co-becoming in which the boundaries of self and other are fluid and porous. For Lorusso this means a more radical change that goes beyond rights and ethics and into a radically reformulated politics that enables ‘the objects of government to also be governors’.

Moving from the biopolitics of production to the ethics of consumption, Jana Canavan’s intriguing essay extends Melanie Joy’s influential notion of ‘carnism’ to analyze the stated rationales of those who prepare raw, flesh-based dog food in their homes. Joy defines “carnism” as “the invisible belief system or ideology that conditions people to eat certain animals”, but whereas she is centrally concerned with humans eating animals, Canavan explores humans feeding animals other animals. Examining justifications given by participants on two popular online discussion forums, Canavan argues that they manifest three kinds of ‘neocarnism’, all of which are attempts to respond to criticisms of carnism: (i) biocarnism, the idea that meat-eating is natural and necessary for dogs; (ii) ecocarnism, the view that locally produced or hunted meat is sustainable and not a part of the animal industrial complex, and is therefore justified; and (iii) compassionate carnism, the notion that feeding dogs other animals is permissible provided that certain animal welfares for livestock are met. Canavan argues that, much like carnism itself, neocarnistic raw-meat feeding practices lack adequate justification, and at least insofar as we continue to keep dogs, that we ought to provide them with vegan, nutritionally adequate diets.

Taken together, this outstanding collection of essays by emerging scholars explores cross-cutting themes around the complex interrelationship between our ways of seeing, representing, and speaking about animals, and our treatment of animals in diverse practices and across multiple sites and social institutions. These are relationships that not only interweave politics and ethics, knowledge and values, but which are also inescapably about our conceptions of ourselves as human, our own nature, and our place in the world vis-à-vis other living beings.

Kelly Enright, Richie Nimmo, and Joel MacClellan

Back to Sloth, Volume 3, No. 2


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