GABBLER RECOMMENDS: Animal agents by Amanda Rees

“Self-aware animal protagonists have always existed within the human world. Usually, however, they’ve been imaginary, and mostly they’ve appeared in the pages of children’s stories. Characters such as the talking animals in The Chronicles of Narnia (1950-56) by C S Lewis, for example, were relatively simple. For all their animal appearance, their thoughts, actions and emotions were largely indistinguishable from those of humans. Other stories have exploited differences in human and animal experience to teach moral or ethical lessons, by precept or example. In some cases, this involved close exploration of the inner lives of animal protagonists – the gradual civilisation of the wolf-dog in Jack London’s White Fang (1906), for example, or the mature suffering of the horse in Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty (1877). But more often than not, the author’s aim was to use the animal to explore the human, and humane.

Many other aspects of human-animal relationships have now been scrutinised by historians, sociologists, linguists, geographers and anthropologists: the emergence of the pet industry; the changing appearance and functions of zoos; or the continuing significance of hunting and fishing to industrialised urban societies. Their results throw light on changing relations within and between human societies, as well as on the ethical and moral issues they posed. It is in short order becoming plain that human history has depended – in any number of ways – on the contribution of different animal species.

But does this mean that animals can be considered agents of history? Their contribution, after all, wasn’t planned or deliberate. Rats, for example, despite the best efforts of poison manufacturers to portray them as such, are not an invading army. And while the European colonisation of the Americas might have depended on the contribution made by livestock animals, those animals were not themselves conscious of their role. In this sense, the humanities’ turn towards animals has merely rendered human histories more inclusive. The subject matter has expanded, rather than a new perspective emerging. At most, such stories chart the way that humans have made use of animals, or those aspects of their lives that have interested human observers. Recovering, or accessing the lived experiences of nonhuman, nonverbal animals, and writing animal-focused histories, still seemed impossible.

Nonetheless, some scholars tried. As with the efforts of scientists to see the world from the animal’s perspective, scholars have drawn on ethology, on evolutionary theory and physiological studies, in a sustained attempt to write histories – or, with Sandra Swart, ‘horse-stories’ – from an animal perspective. They’ve called for a combination of methods (archives, experiments, their imaginations) to put themselves in the place of the embodied other. What if sound was tasted, or felt, as much as it was heard? What would social life be like, if meetings were haunted by the olfactory presence of absent friends (or enemies)? Alongside these attempts to record animal experiences, the question of intent and deliberation continues to cloud debates about whether animals can, in fact, be agents of their own history. Animals might have shaped human history, and might make their own history, but, especially in the age of the Anthropocene, they seem to do so under circumstances of human choosing.

For those of us who share our lives with pets, companions or working animals, managing our daily lives depends on recognising not just the needs, but the intentions, capacities and capabilities of the nonhuman – not least the extent to which we rely on such qualities. For the past century or so, these commonsense, lay understandings of animal agency have been marginalised as examples of sloppy anthropomorphism. It is now past time to take this tacit, non-expert knowledge seriously. By adopting a new approach to animal agency, we can develop new ways of thinking about multiple, distributed agencies and the way that they are remaking the world. In the age of the Anthropocene, we cannot afford to assume that these changes will always and forever be under conscious human control.”

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