Exploring the human and greater-than-human world

Saturday, 23 March 2013


The last day of the conference began with a keynote address by Kenneth Shapiro: “Whither Human-Animal Studies?”  Dr. Shapiro began by talking about the history of the field according to which disciplines chronologically engaged with human-animal studies.  Philosophy was noted as one such first discipline, then Social Science, Humanities, and finally Natural Sciences.  He then went on to detail the publishing history of human-animal studies, beginning with a plethora of journals and book series (incredible resources to stumble upon for a junior scholar such as myself).  I’ll note just a few here: (journals) AntennaeHumanimaliaJournal for Critical Animal StudiesJournal of Animal Law and Ethics, and Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science; (book series) Temple University PressUniversity of Chicago / Reaktion PressUniversity of Minnesota PressColumbia University Press, and Rodopi Press.

Considering this history, Dr. Shapiro went on to address a key dynamic at work in the field of human-animal studies (which we were about to explore in many different names and emphases): are we tending toward fragmentation or unity within the diversity of being such an interdisciplinary-engaged field?  To work with this key question, we went through the various names and faces of “human-animal studies” – I list and describe them below, albeit in shorthand and with a smudge of naïveté to some:

Anthrozoology – started by chemist in South Africa ~1987

Human-animal studies  – social science to humanities; relationships; encourages advocacy

Animal welfare science – ethics theory applied to welfare of animals; enrichment of animals

Companion animal benefits – AAT; very human centered; nonadvocate for animals

Ecofeminism – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ecofeminism

Animal studies – humanities; early name 1960s-1970s pre-clinical studies; continental thought / posthumanism; esoteric, high language to learn

Critical animal studies – Steve Best, Richard Cline, etc.; institutional critique; unpack praxis for capitalist base; liberationist

Trans-species psychology – applying human psychology to animals; neo-Darwinian; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trans-species_psychology

Animality – claim: animal studies too limited by good for animals; need good for humans too; social construction of animals, ie “jungle”

Animism – Graham Harvey

Dr. Shapiro then fielded questions and comments from the audience of scholars.  A general theme ran through all the reactions to his keynote: what is the future of the university, and where would animal studies, etc. fit within it?  Many recognized that the current structure of universities – namely with stand-alone departments – was slowly changing as technology was allowing for students to “attend” more classes online, watch lectures from professors at other universities, and so forth.  Would such a burgeoning academic climate further foster the fragmentation of interdisciplinary fields such as animal studies, or would interdisciplinary fields be better adapted to such “flipped” classrooms?


After the morning keynote address, the conference broke into various panels and I attended one entitled “Contradictions.”  Here, I listened to (and Tweeted about) presentations ranging from circuses refashioning themselves as vehicles as elephant conservation (Jessica Bell), questioning the “natural” in “horsemanship” (Ann McKinnon), and the link between commercial horse slaughter and rodeo horse cloning in North America (Jeannette Vaught).

Using critical discourse analysis on articles about elephants in circuses from 2007-2012, Bell critiqued the “New Naturalization” – the process of justifying a cultural practice by claiming it as natural – she saw evident in circus discourse about the captivity and treatment of elephants.  Citing Jane Desmond, Bell pointed out that the boundary between humans and animals is never as innocent as some would believe or want it to be.  An amateur Dressage rider based in the Okanagan region of British Columbia, McKinnon too troubled the human-animal boundary, this time exploring the question of communication vs. coercion in the Dressage training of horses.  Lastly, and most fascinating to my own research, Vaught presented from a chapter in her thesis on the relationship between veterinary medicine and the sport of rodeo focusing on the cloning of a particular barrel-racing horse and its link to commercial horse slaughter.  An American Studies Ph.D. candidate at the University of Texas at Austin, Vaught honed in on the figure of mares’ ovaries as the “site” of connection.  And this connection wasn’t just between species or spaces, it was also that between ideologies and technologies: economic worth, patriotism and citizenship, scientific progress, and humane management of equine pain.


Next up was the panel I was on.  Moderated by Brett Mizelle, Dr. Mizelle kicked off the presentations with his paper “Killing Animals in American History: Celebrating Butchers and Slaughterhouses in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century.”  Most memorable, and almost inconceivable given present-day transparency (or lack thereof) of industrialized animal slaughter, was Mizelle’s coverage of U.S. slaughterhouse tourism in 1903.  For me, the image that summed up one of Mizelle’s points that “what was once common sense is now unthinkable” was a print of a little girl sitting on railing overlooking the slaughter of pigs (which happen to be Mizelle’s “animal” much like horses are mine).

After Mizelle’s presentation I was up with my paper: “Living and Dying with OTTBs: Redemptive Capital and Thoroughbred Ex-Racehorse Rescue in Kentucky’s Bluegrass.”  In this paper, I detailed my thesis research at two fieldsites and how they cope with the specter of horse slaughter in the horses they care for: the Maker’s Mark Secretariat Center (formerly run by the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation) and the horsemanship or “Second Chances” TRF program for inmates at Blackburn Correctional Complex.  If you would like a copy of this paper, complete with the images I used in my presentation, please contact me via my Academia.edu profile. (I also got a nice shout-out from Dr. DeMello in her blog here.)

After my presentation, Karen Raber gave a fascinating talk on early Renaissance anatomy art featuring horse dissections, “Equine Bodies, Equine Subjects in Carol Ruini’s ‘Anatomia del Cavallo.’”  Perhaps most compelling in her presentation was the link she made between Da Vinci’s “Rage Horses” and Ruini’s use of the (anatomized) aesthetics of the Rage Horse.  As Raber argued, taking the strength of the warhorse – the violence, strength, and agency associated with it – and presenting it flayed and held open with human hands (the Vesalius “godlike hands”) only helped to work against the naturalization of violence and animal struggle that vivisection practices counted on at the time.

To conclude the panel, Julia Schlosser (co-convener of the conference as well) explored the artworks of Craig Stecyk and Steve Baker.  The unifying figure in these artists works was the “roadkill” animal and the unifying theme was a critique of the impact roads (and all their ideological auras) were having on nonhuman animal life.  Stecyk’s work consisted of first finding dead animals on the road, skinning them, bronzing their innards (he had a portable caster in the back of his pick-up truck), re-furring them, and then adhering them back to the road.  Baker’s work consisted of juxtaposing photographs he took of dead animals on the road with fragments of images reproduced from famous, Western works of art.


This being the last panel of the day and weary from presenting my own work, my scant coverage of the papers presented in this panel was marked more by my fatigue than any lack of interest or enthusiasm in the presentations given.  First up was Susan Shaffer, Ph.D. student in the Religion and Nature program at the University of Florida, sharing her initial ideas about her forthcoming research on wild horses and feminist ethic-of-care theories (Shaffer has shared a copy of her paper with me and it would be most ideal to read it and give synopsis of it here at a future date).  Next was Karin Bump’s presentation on “A Perspective on Views of the Legitimacy of Living and Working with Horses.”  Using a three-tiered model of legitimacy – pragmatic, moral, and cognitive – Bump argued that the history of human-horse relationships in the past 100 years has evolved such that respect for horses needs to be more than pragmatic (what needs they serve for humans, and vice versa) and moral (which can still hold horses at an idealized distance) but elevate to the level of “cognitive legitimacy.”  What I took this to mean is that horses need to be understood and present in more facets of human social life as their roles have evolved away from work/pragmatic horses to… What are horses to us today?  What could they / should they become?


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