Abstract

The emerging field of animal studies builds on ethical insights from the animal rights philosophies that involve an analogy between racism and speciesism, or discrimination based on species. Analyzing recent works addressing human-animal relationships in Black studies, this essay contends that it has been necessary for emerging scholarship on race to transcend this analogy in order to confront the persistence of anti-Black racism and contemporary environmental crisis.

In her book Becoming Human: Matter and Meaning in an Antiblack World, Zakiyyah Iman Jackson argues that the emerging interdisciplinary field of animal studies often views “race as a by-product of prior negation of nonhuman animals.” As such, animal studies and other new posthumanist fields of inquiry in the humanities and social sciences “are slowly advancing the thesis that human-animal binarism is the original and foundational paradigm upon which discourses of human difference including, or even especially, racialization were erected.”1 In justifying the importance of considering the lifeworlds, histories, and social and cultural significance of nonhuman animals (emphasizing nonhuman, as these fields assert that humans are one among many animals), animal studies research advances an ethical project via comparisons to racial oppression and violence.

Although there are indeed lengthy histories of racialized images and writings comparing colonized peoples from Africa, Asia, and the Americas to animals,2 the fact that posthumanist fields of inquiry, including animal studies, appear at times to conceive of species differentiation as the foundational conceit for racism may be surprising if we look at the animal-activist genealogy of the term speciesism. The term, which signals that differences among species are subject to hierarchies of social value akin to racism and sexism, is a key ethical term underlying the institutionalization of animal studies at universities in North America, Australia, and England—and increasingly in other countries, including France, South Africa, India, Brazil, and Mexico, where animal studies is beginning to grow as an academic interest. As I argue in this short essay, earlier writings in the utilitarian philosophical tradition that articulate speciesism as a concept in fact accomplish the opposite of what Jackson suggests is happening in animal studies work today: they argue that the critique of racism (and, secondarily, the critique of sexism) allows critics to witness an expanding universe of liberal ethical concern that, in progressive fashion, begins to incorporate nonhuman animals as sentient, feeling beings with interests and agency. If the utilitarian animal ethics that helped launch the animal liberation movement around 1970 figured the critique of racism as foundational to the critique of speciesism, why would the institutionalization of animal studies as a field around the year 2000 need to reverse the proposition, viewing speciesism as foundational to racism?

In this essay, I argue that this shift in emphasis coincident with the institutionalization of animal studies in academic institutions reflects two epistemological currents: (1) an antihumanism that reconfigures universal ethical claims for animal rights as sites of critique of human/animal linguistic and political distinctions, and (2) an institutional logic that exaggerates the influence of Black studies as the foundational ethical project of the humanities and slavery as the recognized core of modern violence. As such, the comparison between racial slavery and human domination of animals becomes a critical component of the field imaginary of animal studies, depicted as an underrepresented site of humanistic inquiry. To understand these developments, I analyze the formation, methods, and futures of animal studies as a field along three lines of discussion. First, I describe how the utilitarian tradition of animal ethics is reconfigured as a posthumanist cultural studies project in a key text of animal studies method, Cary Wolfe's book Animal Rites. Second, I describe how Wolfe's approach that has centered ethical claims about the relationship between racism and speciesism emerged in tension with some preexisting approaches to research on human-animal relationships, including among feminist scholars writing in the traditions of socialist feminism, feminist care ethics, and ecological feminism. Third, I discuss how three recent Black studies texts interpret the foundational linkage of race and species in animal studies and reorient the field's methods to engage with present-day contexts of police violence and environmental racism that form the backdrop of rising right-wing racial governance.

Whereas humanistic research on human-animal relations is characterized by a variety of different methods, disciplinary influences, and critical discourses, one of the strongest currents informing the field's institutionalization has been the use of an analogy between human and nonhuman oppressions in order to situate animals as proper objects of study. In his field-defining 2003 book Animal Rites, Cary Wolfe outlines an approach to the critical study of human-animal relationships through an analogy between species and other forms of difference, including race, gender, sexuality, and class. The first words of this book associated with the consolidation of disparate research on animals into an interdisciplinary field called animal studies thus draws on a comparison between forms of structural violence affecting human and nonhuman beings:

Much of what we call cultural studies situates itself squarely, if only implicitly, on what looks to me more and more like a fundamental repression that underlies most ethical and political discourse: repressing the question of nonhuman subjectivity, taking it for granted that the subject is always already human. This means, to put a finer point on it, that debates in the humanities and social sciences between well-intentioned critics of racism, (hetero)sexism, classism, and all other -isms that are the stock-in-trade of cultural studies almost always remain locked within an unexamined framework of speciesism. This framework, like its cognates, involves systematic discrimination against an other based solely on a generic characteristic—in this case, species. In the light of developments in cognitive science, ethology, and other fields over the past twenty years, however, it seems clear that there is no longer any good reason to take it for granted that the theoretical, ethical, and political question of the subject is automatically coterminous with the species distinction between Homo sapiens and everything else.3

In tension with this dismissive characterization of the “isms” analyzed by cultural theorists as a sort of interchangeable academic currency, Wolfe wishes to include speciesism among the list of intersecting forms of oppression in the critique of the subject. The fact that his polemic makes a nod to interdisciplinary fields—cognitive science and ethology—that examine the capabilities of animal minds through methods from the biological sciences suggests the relative conservatism of humanistic fields such as critical race and ethnic studies, which Wolfe sees as “repressing” attention to interspecies ethical and political questions. As such, there is a sense of linear moral progress that Wolfe integrates into academic field imaginaries: just as cultural studies once transcended traditional disciplines' repression of questions of human difference in representation (schematized in the elliptical presentation of different “isms”), the humanities writ large must now stretch its ethical imaginary beyond the figure of the human in order to continue this progress in expanding socially just criticism.

While comparisons among racism, sexism, and discrimination based on species have long been denounced in the public responses of antiracist and feminist activists to international animal rights groups such as the US-based People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, they have an even longer history in political theories and discourse in the North Atlantic. The deep history of such comparisons similarly presents attention to the interests of nonhuman animals as a kind of emergent property of expanding political consideration within Anglo-American colonial liberalism.4 Wolfe adopts the term speciesism from Peter Singer's 1970 book Animal Liberation, which in turn draws on the utilitarian philosophy of Jeremy Bentham to argue that the capacity for suffering, rather than for language, reason, or other capabilities normatively attributed to the human, provides the ethical basis for rights.5Animal Liberation begins with a reference to British author Mary Wollstonecraft's 1792 Vindication of the Rights of Woman. The best-known response to Wollstonecraft's early feminist manifesto was an anonymously published tract called A Vindication of the Rights of Brutes, which parodied the idea of women's rights by analogy to rights for animals. For the author, raising the issue of expanding legal equality to include nonhuman animals suggested that such expansions of rights had no logical conclusion—that moving the bar to include women could theoretically lead the law in the future to further expansions that seemed absurd precisely because they included beings whose differences erected significant barriers to equal treatment. Singer reverses the parodic rhetoric of A Vindication of the Rights of Brutes to make a direct case for animal rights based on rights for women and African Americans. Singer thus appeals for rights to bodily autonomy that would free nonhuman animals from forms of institutionalized violence in medical labs, factory farms, and other institutions where animals are systematically excluded from legal protection as intentional, feeling beings. For Singer,

the title of this book [Animal Liberation] has a serious point behind it. A liberation movement is a demand for an end to prejudice and discrimination based on an arbitrary characteristic like race or sex. The classic instance is the Black Liberation movement. The immediate appeal of this movement, and its initial, if limited, success, made it a model for other oppressed groups. We soon became familiar with Gay Liberation and movements on behalf of American Indians and Spanish-speaking Americans. When a majority group—women—began their campaign, some thought we had come to the end of the road. Discrimination on the basis of sex, it was said, was the last form of discrimination to be universally accepted and practiced without secrecy or pretense.6

If Singer reversed the rhetorical appeal of A Vindication for Brutes in order to make a case for animal rights in the late twentieth century, Wolfe makes a different kind of reversal in adapting Singer's appeal for animal liberation in the early twenty-first. Whereas Singer stressed the need for articulating the moral poverty of racism and sexism to clarify why speciesism was similarly unethical, Wolfe expresses a kind of exhaustion with the iterative elaboration of categories of social difference within the human to posit a more fundamental repression of the ethical question of what ethical objects lie beyond the human. This subtle difference, identified in the statement I quoted above from Jackson's book, is significant. For Wolfe, the relations between race, sex, and species initially seem analogical, but as he develops his argument, species becomes a foundational category from which forms of human differentiation are derived. Unlike Singer's approach, which required a critique of race and sex to articulate the critique of species—suggesting a possible solidarity among feminist, antiracist, and animal liberation movements—species becomes a fundamental difference from which differences internal to the human can be molded and turned into regimes of power: “The humanist discourse of species will always be available for use by some humans against other humans as well, to countenance violence against the social other of whatever species—or gender, or race, or class, or sexual difference.”7

Wolfe's ethical claim for species critique in the humanities has been significant in articulating new publishing and institutional formations around what he, following Jacques Derrida, calls “the question of the animal”—most notably in Wolfe's Posthumanities book series.8 This series includes work that more broadly engages with the human/nonhuman distinction in humanistic research, focusing on topics ranging from object-oriented philosophy to environmental politics. Such works engage with philosophical antihumanisms that attempt to deconstruct the human/animal binary without advocating for the type of humanist ethical universal advocated by the utilitarians. As such, posthumanist discourse as a cultural studies project involves assembling archives of literary, film, and philosophical texts that configure human/animal difference as foundational. One of the first works that Wolfe takes on in Animal Rites is that of Toni Morrison, whose reflections on the white supremacist structure of the US racial order in Playing in the Dark for Wolfe reflect a dismissal of consideration of human domination of animals in the plantation economy. This characterization spurs Alexander Weheliye to note how “the comparative analogy” of human and animal slavery “is brandished about in the field of animal studies,” concluding that “black liberation struggles serve as both a positive and negative foil for making a case for the sentience and therefore the emancipation of nonhuman beings.”9 In recent work on the relationship of the politics of race to species, Claire Jean Kim in fact argues that animals are regularly pitted against African Americans in US public culture, reifying the analogy between race and species in ways that both protect anthropocentric assumptions about species and promulgate anti-Black sentiment.10

While the scope of Wolfe's book series makes clear that new scholarship in human-animal studies is part of a broader set of trends in European and North American humanities and social sciences toward considering environmental, technological, and biological issues, the relationship between ethical discourses in animal studies and more established areas of interdisciplinary social theorizing—gender and sexuality studies, Black studies, and postcolonial studies, to name a few—has been fraught. Given that the articulation of Singer's utilitarian animal ethics as the basis for animal rights theorizing came about at the moment that neoliberal trade policies were reshaping animal agriculture industries as export oriented, scholars focusing on colonial and postcolonial relations have had a distinct set of debates about how to address the animal question. Such criticisms have concerned the politics and geography of knowledge, as ethical claims for considering animals are often built on notions of subjectivity divorced from attention to how humanitarian sensibilities and representations of animal suffering have historically been built into colonial logics of control.11 In turn, new work in the field has focused on the exclusion of attention to traditions of thought and representation of human-animal relationships in Africa, Asia, and Latin America;12 a flurry of books and journal issues that consider the historical itineraries of human-animal relation in locations outside of the United States and Europe;13 and attention to emergent political formations in the global South that have articulated new forms of rights for animals and nonhuman natural systems.14 Meanwhile, Indigenous studies scholars have developed important discussions of how the articulation of a new animal ethics and new versions of materialism in humanistic research are belated attempts to revalue nature after lengthy colonial warfare that has obliterated native ecologies, countless species, and Indigenous forms of relationality to nonhuman forms of life.15

The development of animal studies as a cultural studies project based on the Benthamite tradition of animal ethics has perhaps been most controversial in gender, sexuality, and feminist studies, where there is a complementary history of theorizing human-animal relationships that invokes different philosophical lineages based in feminist care ethics and socialist feminist analyses. In their introduction to the 2012 “Animal Others” double issue of the feminist philosophy journal Hypatia, Lori Gruen and Kari Weil argue that utilitarian animal ethics influencing Singer's and Wolfe's comparative ethical framework has long been critically evaluated by feminists focusing on the gendered and sexual dimensions of human exploitation of animals and the environment. In work on feminist care ethics and ecological feminism dating to the 1980s, US feminists, including Marti Kheel, Josephine Donovan, and Carol Adams, raised at least three fundamental challenges to the schemas of difference on which the comparative framework of human and nonhuman oppressions rests: (1) they invoke an abstract, individuated, and interchangeable notion of the subject; (2) they fail to substantively explore the nature of the power relations inherent in systems of species differentiation; and (3) they invoke a form of ethical reason that is “disembodied and cut off from emotion and affect.”16 This last criticism is critical for Gruen and Weil, who argue that abstract moral propositions about suffering tend to “oversimplify moral problems, actions, agents and relations” to the detriment of understanding social complexity and structural forces underpinning inequality and violence.17 This connection between affect, structural inequalities, and species was also generative for feminist texts that interrogate how forms of gender and species power interrelate in capitalist processes of extraction and labor. Carol Adams's book The Sexual Politics of Meat  analyzes how objectification of both factory-farmed animals and gendered human bodies constellate Anglo-American consumer cultures, while Donna Haraway's “Cyborg Manifesto” characterizes animal rights protests as reasoned critiques of the divides between human and nonhuman coincident with new modes of technological control of gendered labor under capitalism.

Some of the most generative work exploring the limits of the comparative approach in animal studies has come from scholars in Black studies, whose critiques of posthumanist theories have come at a time of intensifying public attention to anti-Black violence promulgated by police, prisons, and other state institutions in the United States and elsewhere. Three key recent literary and cultural studies books by Zakiyyah Iman Jackson, Benedicte Boisseron, and Joshua Bennett investigate the intersection of animality and Blackness. Published amid the emergence of what antiracist activists in the United States have widely called the “multiple pandemics” of police violence, border imperialism, and COVID-19, these books suggest the significance of the connection between racial and environmental crises and representations of human/animal difference structuring contemporary modes of state power and social violence. These books grapple with the influence of a key US text of the animal rights movement, Marjorie Spiegel's Dreaded Comparison: Human and Animal Slavery, which utilizes photographs of industrial uses of animals to compare practices of control of humans and animals, such as branding, chaining, natal alienation, and vivisection. Published with a forward by Pulitzer Prize–winning author Alice Walker, who claims that “animals . . . were not made for humans any more than black people were made for whites or women for men,”18 Spiegel's book influenced a number of other public images in the United States that appropriate the visual iconography of African American enslavement to argue for animal liberation. These have been most visible in advertisements by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals that compare circuses to plantations, but they also appear in other works, such as the illustrations of zoos as prisons by artist Sue Coe, and in the “abolitionist” vegan philosophy of Gary Francione.19

The new works in Black literary and cultural studies engage with “animality” as a relation of embodied existence and representation that configures ideas about both social difference and the human relationship to the natural world.20 For Boisseron, the ubiquity of Spiegel's comparison in animal rights and animal studies discourse poses the question, “Is the animal the new Black?” Arguing that the turn toward animals in humanistic scholarship follows the lead of postcolonial interventions in the humanities in the 1980s, Boisseron's book Afro-Dog situates the rise of animal studies as drawing on the critical energies of Black studies and especially Black feminist discourses of intersectionality. Such discourses, which argue for the necessity of understanding the complexity of interrelations of race, gender, sexuality, class, and other arenas of social difference in accounting for power relations, may invite forms of knowledge that bring together disparate types of difference into a singular model. While intersectional analyses may thus invite certain types of analogical comparison, Boisseron warns that applying such tools in this case risks “obstructing the idiosyncracies” of specific forms of difference and universalizing the content of oppression.21 As such, Boisseron's book draws instead on W. E. B. Du Bois's linkage of racism and representations of dogs to underline a kind of double consciousness that exists around Black experiences of animalization. Analyzing the use of dogs to control enslaved peoples in the history of the Atlantic slave trade, Boisseron argues that contemporary dog cultures—including those involving the recent use of dogs as weapons against Black and Indigenous activists—are thoroughly marked by the relationships of Blackness to animality that have been historically developed through colonial relations.

Whereas Boisseron generally suggests an appropriative relationship between animal studies and Black studies, she notes one key exception to this trend. Discussing the recent rise of Afropessimist theories that stress how anti-Black racism is both an exceptional form of racism separating Blackness from the human and a critical foundation of post-Enlightenment metaphysics, Boisseron takes note of how Afropessimism may in fact reverse the appropriation, using the figure of animal subjection to describe the existential condition of Blackness. Discussing Frank Wilderson's analysis of the Chicago slaughterhouse of the early twentieth century, Boisseron notes that Wilderson views the exploited worker as still part of civil society, while Black people are figured in the position of the cow, subject to property and noncriminal killing.22 In such a move utilizing the idea of the pure abjection of animals under the machinery of modern violence, Wilderson appears to confirm Wolfe's configuration of species violence as a foundational trope of modern racial violence—if only applying it to a Blackness radically separated from other figures of racial difference.

The potential for such a reversal is a problem carefully handled by Jackson's book Becoming Human, which argues forcefully for finding alternatives to the dehumanization paradigm for understanding race. For Jackson, this is in part necessary to resist responses to racism that, by advocating representation as and inclusion within the human, reify the conceit of liberal humanism's transcendence of race. Moving against the operation of the racial as a kind of object sorting strategy, the book focuses on how Black diasporic literature and visual arts highlight the plasticity of Blackness, the potential for transformation of bodily form that at once critiques racism and mobilizes animal figures to creatively envision Black futurity. This means not discarding the lessons of animal studies or other posthumanist critical projects but tracking how such critical projects offer specific insights or ideas that can be mobilized for making sense of Black critical discourses. Plasticity is one such concept developed in the biological sciences to describe the ability of an object or system to change form while simultaneously maintaining function; it is used to describe some animals' processes of bodily development or transformation, as well as for cells' or whole ecological systems' adaptations to changing environments. For Jackson, following the historian of slavery Stephanie Smallwood, this concept is useful for thinking about the history of anti-Black forms of colonial governance that use “black(ened) flesh” for experimenting with the possibilities of “disciplining the body” to its limits without “extinguishing the life within.”23 Central to this plastic control of racialized flesh is the work to manage reproduction and gendered distinctions, as gender/sex coordinates of anti-Black thought configure Blackness as a site of necessary labor reproduction, as well as racialized sexual threat. Although plasticity is thus mobilized in the fashioning of Black flesh according to forms of white supremacist rule, plasticity also has creative potentials that are mobilized in Black arts: “Plasticity's telos, I argue, is not optimization of life per se but the fluidification of ‘life’ and fleshly existence.”24 Highlighting how plasticity appears as a site of critique and speculation in art by Wangechi Mutu and literature by Octavia Butler, Audre Lorde, Nalo Hopkinson, and others, Jackson interprets images of bodily transformation and interspecies connection as a site for theorizing Black flesh as a site of potential and becoming.

If the specter of anti-Black violence ensures that Boisseron's and Jackson's texts resolutely distinguish themselves from the genealogy of post-Enlightenment liberal humanism, Joshua Bennett's reading of animal figures in African American literature in his book Being Property Once Myself makes room for a more humanist sense of relationality, one in which there is a “deep sense of commonality and even comradeship” between human and animal, even in the context of both being configured as “living property.”25 Through close readings of scenes of animals appearing in works by Frederick Douglass, Richard Wright, Lucile Clifton, Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, and others, Bennett pursues interpretations that envision the possibility of “black feeling” and identity out of historical situations and literary scenes in which Black life is placed in uncomfortable proximity to animal life. Although Bennett's aim “is not to place chattel slavery and the exploitation of nonhuman animals side by side as a means of means of highlighting the ostensibly undertheorized plight of nonhuman animals,” he nonetheless seeks out literary passages opening into moments of shared recognition, affect, and even love of the flesh throughout the African American literary canon.26 Whether such a move can meet the challenges of the inability of humanism to redress anti-Blackness and other forms of racial violence, on the one hand, and the risks of analogy, on the other, remains to be seen. Today's racial and environmental crises raise the issue of how to build solidarities out of scenes of mass infrastructural breakdown and social friction. In an era of Black Lives Matter uprisings, of pandemic governance that locks down borders and domestic spaces, of growing racialized inequalities of life outcomes, and of growing fascistic forms of control by racial states, feminist and Black studies scholarship explores the interrelation of human social inequalities, technological control of bodies, and forms of infrastructural and environmental change that require the development of complex methods for thinking about human/animal divides. The critiques of animal studies' comparative frameworks by scholars such as Bennett, Boisseron, and Jackson thus address urgent questions about how power is structured by racial states, as well as within academic discourse. Such writings model a future for animal studies scholarship that can engage racialized social and political dynamics in the context of growing forms of environmental and political crisis.

Notes

4

For a more recent invocation of this vision of animal ethics as a project of moral expansion of liberalism, see Nussbaum, Frontiers of Justice.

17

Ibid., 479.

22

Ibid., xviii.

24

Ibid., 11.

26

Ibid., 11; see also 9, 12.

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