Animal Advocacy and the Politics of (Un)happiness

30 June 2016
By Dr Seán McCorry

This was initially presented as a conference paper at Academia and Affect 2016. Please email for more information.


This blog article is my attempt to work through two related sources of discomfort (or, more productively, two sites of disruption) that I have encountered in my scholarly and activist work on behalf of nonhuman animals. The first of these concerns the place of animal studies in the academy, its legitimacy as an area of scholarly inquiry, and the possibility of being taken seriously (or not) as a researcher who centres violence against animals in their work. The second involves the relationship between advocacy for animal justice and existing sites of social and political struggle.

I should say from the start that my commitments in this area are those of the perennially unpopular political vegan. My doctoral research involved animals only obliquely, insofar as they were deployed as meaning-laden figures by postwar intellectuals struggling to make sense of the perceived failures of humanism in the years that followed the Second World War. While I stand by this work, I now realise that my shift away from more explicit questions of animal justice represented an unconscious concession to the anxieties that I will try to sketch in this blog article. More recently I have been working to reconnect my scholarly and activist commitments. To be clear, then, I consider the abolition of animal agriculture (and more broadly, the abolition of the status of nonhuman animals as property to be bought and sold) to be the minimum demand of any coherent politics of animal justice.


In March of this year, editors of the journal Totalitarianism and Democracy fell victim to an academic hoax which saw them publish a fraudulent article on German Shepherd dogs, Nazism, and Cold War Germany. The authors of the article claimed that they intended to satirise the “animal turn” in the humanities, identifying it as symptomatic of a dangerous “anti-humanist trend in philosophy”. As the hoax demonstrates, taking animals seriously means risking the charge of having made a poor intellectual object choice. When the intellectual project of Animal Studies is combined with a more explicitly activist orientation that seeks an end to violence against animals, further charges inevitably follow. Depending on one’s existing political investments, scholars who advocate for animals are likely to be read as bourgeois, misanthropic, Eurocentric, or as suffering from a failure of basic humanist solidarity that leads them to neglect more pressing issues of social injustice between humans (and I should point out that these charges are certainly true for at least some animal advocates; I’ll return to this shortly).

I want to engage with the anxieties that such accusations can produce in scholars who, like me, are committed to ending violence against animals. Without dismissing the charges outright, I want to read them as symptomatic of a desire to safeguard and securitise a certain definition of the human, even when the price of this is the tacit (or sometimes explicit) endorsement of industrialised killing and consequent ecological devastation. Drawing on Sara Ahmed’s work on the politics of happiness, I suggest that Critical Animal Studies scholars must embrace the political potential of grief and anger rather than accommodate themselves to the intellectual and ethical consensus which sees critiques of violence against animals as either unserious or dangerous.

Consider the question of Animal Studies’ place in the academy. Over the last fifteen years or so, Animal Studies has grown from a handful of isolated researchers to a major area of scholarly inquiry with its own organisations, international conferences, and prestigious book series. This seems to point towards at least a limited acceptance of animals as objects of intellectual analysis, though with some important limits, I would suggest. As we have seen, though, some humanities scholars view any animal-oriented research as unwelcome and dangerous symptoms of an anti-humanist political malaise.

While the police function of this sort of compulsory humanism has been weakened as Animal Studies has gained ground, the existing scholarship on animals has tended to favour a relatively narrow set of approaches to animal questions. Affectively rich encounters with charismatic animals have been foregrounded (lions, gorillas, dogs, cats), and theorisations of mutually enriching human-animal relationships (principally with ‘companion species’ – pets) have been encouraged. Attempts to critique the more nakedly violent aspects of human-animal relationships are regarded as lacking ‘nuance’ or intellectual sophistication, as though coming to terms with violence is a necessary part of maturing as a scholar. Even within Animal Studies, then, radical varieties of animal advocacy are often treated with suspicion or outright hostility.

I wonder whether Animal Studies’ focus on enriching encounters with animals might be understood as a kind of affective-political work designed to install a certain notion of happiness at the centre of human-animal relationships and scholarship. Undoubtedly, animals can be a source of great joy and delight. I worry, though, that centring Animal Studies scholarship on these experiences means (and indeed requires) the marginalisation of scholarship which takes on the thoroughly joyless task of critiquing the violence that we do to other animals, including our violence towards so-called ‘companion species’.

As the affect theorist and feminist philosopher Sara Ahmed has shown, ideals of happiness can be deeply coercive. They are often affiliated with a moral imperative to be happy, and tend to foreclose any critique of the limits of conventionalised forms of happiness. “Happiness,” Ahmed says, “is sustained by erasing the signs of not getting along.” For anyone who possesses even a passing familiarity with contemporary animal agriculture, it is abundantly clear that humans and other animals are indeed not getting along, though this is only marginally reflected in the scholarly literature. With Ahmed, I prefer to insist on the importance of political work that can only be carried out under the banner of unhappiness, whether in the form of anger, grief, or shame. To be blunt: I am unhappy. And when I attend conferences that celebrate the richness of human-animal relationships while serving animal bodies in the lunch break, I am angry. In what remains of this post I want to work through some of the political uses of unhappiness in activist as well as academic contexts.


In her truly excellent article ‘Feminist Killjoys (and Other Wilful Subjects)’, Ahmed begins with the image of the table as a space for discussion. “Around this table,” she says, “the family gathers, having polite conversations, where only certain things can be brought up.” In order to hold open this space of hospitable conviviality, certain discursive rules apply which police conversation so that at least a façade of happiness can be maintained. In scholarship – around the academic roundtable, say – this restricts the choice of possible research topics, so that scholars professing radical critiques of violence are often unseated by their would-be hosts, the intellectual gatekeepers who control the dominant positions in the disciplinary mainstream. Often we reconvene around tables of our own making, though typically in some dingy, easily overlooked corner of the academy.

In activist and social movement spaces we do similar work, building new spaces of solidarity from which to contest the dominant culture’s racism, misogyny, and the rest. Ahmed again points out, though, that “if we are unseated by the family table, it does not necessarily follow that we are seated together.” Feminist activists are not always successfully anti-racist, and vice versa. For animal advocates, gaining a seat at the table typically requires repressing the question of animal politics altogether. In some senses this is unsurprising, given the appalling racism and misogyny of many highly visible animal organisations. In another sense, though, this requirement works to reassert compulsory humanism, as though concern for social justice between humans is fundamentally incompatible with a critique of violence against animals.

If activist spaces are not exactly dedicated to happiness, they remain committed to a notion of community of sorts, however fractious and provisional. When animal justice claims are made in these spaces, the possible boundaries of these communities are challenged, often in unwelcome ways. As Ahmed says:

To be unseated by the table of happiness might be to threaten not simply that table, but what gathers around it, what gathers on it. When you are unseated, you can even get in the way of those who are seated, those who want more than anything to keep their seats. To threaten the loss of the seat can be to kill the joy of the seated.

When gaining a seat at the table requires the tacit endorsement of what can only be described as human supremacism in the name of keeping the social peace, we should instead begin to embrace the disruptive potential of our politics. To quietly acquiesce to speciesism in our activist spaces means forfeiting the possibility of critiquing the conditions under which we convene around the table, as well as the violence done to those who gather on it.

With this in mind, I want to gently critique some of the political-organisational norms in activist spaces, principally the notion of ‘safety’ as it occurs in discussions of safer spaces. I am uncomfortably aware that the last two years or so have seen an unwelcome profusion of right-wing, masculinist critiques of the notion of safer spaces, particularly with reference to university settings, and it is very far from my intention to add to this oppressive chorus here. My critique, then, should be understood as coming from a desire to strengthen, rather than undermine, this project.

My refusal of human supremacism again draws me back to Ahmed’s notion of the table as an (always fraught) space of hospitality and welcome, and as Jacques Derrida’s work on hospitality has shown, the space of welcome is always delimited by an often tacit exclusion of those who are emphatically not welcome. The activist context brings to mind the image of the table as a space for meeting and discussion with a view to forming communities of solidarity, where discussion is (rightly) informed by an explicit mode of discourse ethics that we have come to know as safer spaces policies. But what happens when, for instance, food is served in these spaces of political solidarity? For an animal advocate, there is something deeply jarring about political discussion taking place under the banner of safety around a table which is strewn with corpses. The question remains: safety for whom, and at what cost?

I confess that I’m not sure where to go from here. Do we once again build our own tables, or do we struggle for a seat without compromising our politics? I don’t know. Optimistically, I would like to think that we could at least get a fair hearing for our views at the existing activist and academic tables. To be comfortably seated, though, you have to accommodate yourself at least partially to the existing political frameworks in the communities you hope to join. Nobody, activists included, wants an ill-mannered guest at the table. When for the animal advocate something as almost comically benign as a cheese sandwich signifies an erased history of reproductive violence, child abduction, and industrialised killing, realistically you are not likely to make for a happy dinnertime companion. But then, maybe happiness isn’t the point.