ShARC Reading Group: mid-year summary

2 March 2021
By Charlotte O’Neill

As the current organiser of ShARC’s reading groups, I wanted to provide a summary of our activities so far this year, what we’ve been reading and what we’ve discussed. If you would like to receive regular updates and invites to our reading group, please email me at to be added to our mailing list. If this post sparks your interest in hosting a future reading group, please also feel free to get in touch about doing so, it’s great fun!

We kicked things off in November with a special session on What Comes After Entanglement? Activism, Anthropocentrism, and an Ethics of Exclusion, by friend of ShARC Eva Haifa Giraud. This theoretical work engages with entanglement, a popular concept in contemporary Animal Studies and ecocriticism which challenges anthropocentrism by emphasising the imbrication of human and nonhuman animal life. Giraud’s titular question points towards an impasse which such theory can lead to, however: a critical emphasis on relationality and complexity can arrest practical animal rights interventions, which may be deemed anthropocentric, sentimentalist or paternalistic.

Giraud’s book inspired the formation of the current reading group, as I found that it offered a welcome engagement between pro-animal theory and practice, and a form of purchase on a concept which often feels too ubiquitous and overarching to specifically critique. Giraud uses her experience with fast food activism to elucidate a logic of constitutive exclusions informing animal rights practice, where in order to facilitate ethical actions, it is necessary to make decisions about excluding particular strategies, entities, and ways of being. Activism thus makes visible the exclusions which undergird everyday life, and which can be obscured by an overarching theoretical emphasis on enmeshment.

In our discussion and Q&A, we spoke about our own experiences with the term entanglement and debated its usefulness in critical thought; instead of abandoning the concept wholesale, like Giraud, we discussed the need to inject this usefully descriptive term with appropriate critical specificity. We discussed being honest about exclusions as a form of ethical accountability, which is applicable within both theory and practice. We also discussed the role of affect within Giraud’s work, and how the critique of embodied care ethics within Chapter Five of the book calls into question theoretical approaches which emphasise affective relations between laboratory animals and their researchers, often obscuring the exploitative power dynamics at play. Thanks again to Eva for joining in with what turned out to be a brilliant discussion!

In December, we read from Dangerous Crossings: Race, Species and Nature in a Multicultural Age by Claire Jean Kim, who spoke at our ShARC Tales research symposium in 2018. The book explores three examples of controversial public debates about how racialised or racially marginalised groups use nonhuman animals in particular cultural traditions, centred in the US. The longest section explores a fierce cultural and legislative debate which took place in San Francisco’s Chinese and animal welfare communities regarding live animal markets and whether they should be banned on the basis of animal cruelty.

In our discussion, we spoke about the merits of the book’s documentary approach to each of the ‘impassioned disputes’ it explores, picking apart the history of the events and using interviews with activists and other key political actors to illuminate social contexts and community dynamics which are often hidden from view. We discussed the relevance of Kim’s remarks on anti-Asian sentiment in light of the SARS pandemic to current debates around COVID-19. Continuing our discussion about tensions between theory and practice, we discussed the difficulties of extrapolating overarching theoretical frameworks from specific, nuanced historical examples. In the text, Kim resolves this by using these disputes to advance a theoretical call for a ‘multi-optic vision’ which would consider and foreground shared subjugation between racialised groups and animals and agitate against neoliberal capitalist power.

In our meeting at the New Year, we turned from theoretical Animal Studies texts to look at some of the group’s favourite animal-themed poetry. Josh suggested the poem ‘Clam’ by Mary Oliver. In light of Kim’s analysis of the live animal market dispute, which revealed animal activists’ lack of cultural and political leverage regarding the ethical considerability of crustaceans, we enjoyed this mollusc-themed poem for its subtle appeal to consider the liveliness of clams, without compromising their distinctive clam-ness through excessively anthropomorphic rendering. We also had a brilliant discussion on ‘House Mouse’ by Mimi Khalvati, suggested by John. We discussed the intimacy of the poem and its microscopic lens, which captures the delicacy of holding a tiny being in your hand (and reminded some of us of ourselves as children doing just this, or our own children!)

John also suggested ‘Deer’ by John Burnside. There was some debate around the poem’s representation of fantasies about being an animal, and we explored layers of irony and facetiousness within the poem. We discussed Burnside’s wider thought on the decreasing experience of wild animal encounters, and the mediation of these encounters through cars and domestic windows. We finished with Laura’s suggestion, ‘Why Dogs Stopped Flying’ by Ken Brewer. We read this wonderful poem as both a speculative, whimsical flight of fancy around the pre-human history of dogs, and a poignantly melancholic reflection on the domestication of canines and the inadequacy of human understandings of their lives.

In our February session, we engaged in a spirited discussion about My Octopus Teacher, a 2020 documentary (dir. Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed) about a filmmaker who develops a bond with an octopus in a South African kelp forest. We also examined some interesting debates around the film’s representations of interspecies relationships. Sophie Lewis, a writer on sex and ecology, wrote a Twitter thread in response to the film, where they argue that it depicts Craig Foster’s ‘lifechanging erotic relationship with a female octopus.’ They use philosopher Amia Srinivasan’s survey of the scientific, cultural and philosophical meanings of octopi for the LRB, ‘The Sucker, the Sucker!’ to suggest ‘the intrinsic queerness of octopus epistemology-cum-embodiment.’

Lewis’s viral thread was controversial, drawing editorial responses and Twitter replies which deemed their application of a sexual framework to the octopus as an inappropriate misreading of the film. However, many members of the group agreed with the thread, especially Lewis’s comments on the film’s gender dynamics between the female octopus and Craig Foster, the male filmmaker at its heart. Many felt that octopus becomes a tool for Foster’s anthropocentric journey of self-realisation, and their emotionally inflected, intimate relationship is legitimised through persistent appeals to masculinist scientific discovery. We discussed the significant rift that this controversy indicates between public and academic perceptions of sexual and gender dynamics within the realm of nonhuman animality, which could be a fruitful topic for a future session.

In our next session, taking place on Friday 5th February, we will be reading from Being Property Once Myself: Blackness and the End of Man by US poet Joshua Bennett. This theoretical work examines the relationship between blackness and animality, looking at examples of the use of particular animals in the work of Black authors including Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison and Richard Wright. It looks to be a great discussion, so please do drop me an email using the address above if you would like to join this or any further reading groups, and I will send you some further information. I hope you will be able to join us!