ASA14: Anthropology and Enlightenment

(P50)

Social animals and us: anthropomorphism and animal utopias

Location Appleton Tower, Seminar Room 2.11
Date and Start Time 22 June, 2014 at 11:00

Convenor

Rebecca Marsland (University of Edinburgh) email
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Summary

Social animals are an exception to the Enlightenment separation of humanity from nature. Both political and natural scientists draw on metaphors of animal political organisation and community. In this panel we seek to unpack how this shapes our beliefs about what it means to be human.

Long Abstract

What is it about social animals and insects that provides such a rich pool of inspiration for thought about human nature and society? Studies of human-animal relations often focus on the hierarchy drawn up between humans and other species - in which humans are almost inevitably placed in a position of superiority. This is conventionally attributed to the history of Western thought, for example Enlightenment thinkers often viewed animals as inferior because they saw them as machines with no soul or feeling. Social animals provide an interesting exception. Apes, meercats, elephants, even killer whales appeal to us because of their anthropomorphic qualities. Their communities seem familiar - they seem to have family relationships, hierarchies, and social organisation. Some insects - bees or ants - have been held up as exemplars for human utopias: as communists, capitalists, democrats and environmentalists.

Social studies of science show that the natural sciences are political discourses, so what does it mean when biologists or ethologists describe animals using political or social metaphors? How have social animals inspired or repulsed us in our ideological formations, how are they embedded into our societies, communities and polities and how are we embedding ourselves into theirs? How do they inspire us to reflect on virtues such as love, cooperation, and social organisation? Or on vice and failings such as aggression, violence, selfishness and theft? In short, how do the stories that we tell about social animals shape our beliefs about what it means to be human?

Discussant: Matt Candea (University of Cambridge)

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

Critical anthropomorphism: looking for an animal-Daisen

Author: Roberto Marchesini (Centre Study for Posthuman Philosophy)  email

Summary

The paper wants to investigate the role of critical anthropomorphism in order to delve into deep animal awareness. Using it whit the rights coordinates, we can speak of an animal-Dasein or animal as creator-of-worlds.

Long Abstract

According Von Uexküll each species is immersed in its world-context. Moreover, this immersion is not only sensorial but it is based on: 1) motivations; 2) emotions; 3) knowledge; 4) specific cognitive functions. We would be wrong believing that the different umwelt are separated (as expressed, for example, by Nagel in What is it like to be a bat?). The different umwelt are overlapping, in fact, there are large areas of sharing between species, which allow us a correct identification into another umwelt. The projective anthropomorphism is certainly wrong but, however, some similarities cannot be ignored or mystified. We speak of "critical anthropomorphism" when we admit: 1) the "universal" or common features which are basilar for all animals, as "sensitivity", the amodal completion, the perspective, the simulation of trajectories; 2) "homologies", common characters for phylogenetic legacy; 3) the "analogies" or similarities for adaptive convergence, achieved by the same selective pressure and that are greater the more two species share the same lifestyle or environment. From these shared and sympathetic areas between human and nonhuman animals - where anthropomorphism is applicable in a critical way - it is possible to move on in order to know the differences or specie-specific peculiarities: something we could not do if the nonhuman animal were totally different from us. Actually each subject interprets its "here and now" moment under which it is related to the context which makes the animal protagonist and inventor of its presence in the world. We can speak of an animal-Dasein or animal as creator-of-worlds.

Livestock species as companion species: revisiting the place of the ‘good to think’ and the ‘good to eat’ in the anthropological imagination

Author: Samantha Hurn (University of Exeter)  email

Summary

The contemporary treatment of animals categorised as ‘livestock’ in the UK owes much to post-Enlightenment systems of classification. Cows, pigs and sheep are good to eat, but are not deemed appropriate companion animals. This paper seeks to challenge such a speciesist distinction.

Long Abstract

While anthropologists have long been concerned with the use of other animals as metaphors for human action, contemporary discussions have moved beyond Levi-Strauss' over-cited maxim that they are good to think, recognising that the other-than-human animals involved in social relationships with humans are also active subjects in their own right. Donna Haraway for example has written extensively about human bonds with those she terms ‘companion species'. However, Haraway has been criticised for failing to consider the predicament of other social animals with whom humans co-exist, most notably the those classified as ‘livestock’. The category ‘livestock’ allows post-Enlightenment humans to distance themselves from other living beings. Such separation enables immoral actions to be overlooked but also makes it difficult for positive and close associations to be made. There has been much anthropological interest in livestock as they feature as staples in the diets, religious activities and economies of human societies the world over. Pigs for example appear in the ethnographic record as sacrificial offerings, symbols of disenfranchised female labour, classificatory anomalies and units of production. In the contemporary UK there is a growing trend for keeping pigs as pets. Like dogs, pigs are highly intelligent, social animals with a complex emotional repertoire yet unlike traditional companion animals, pigs are subjected to extensive legal restrictions. Drawing on ethnographic examples where humans live companionably with animals classified as livestock, this paper will question the value of ‘species’ and ‘livestock’ as classificatory categories, and consider the implications of current speciesist legislation.

Wolf

Author: Christopher Davis (SOAS)  email

Summary

In this paper, I would like first to observe the transition of the wolf from predacious “matter of fact” to contemporary “subject of concern”. Then, I'd like to ask what happens to us if we take wolves as subjects seriously.

Long Abstract

In portrayals of the social/animal, the wolf is always the outsider. Almost always alone, an unwelcome intruder, the wolf, it seems, carries the burden of recreating the social by demonstrating first society's abiding vulnerabilities and then its conclusive triumph and reconstruction through the use of lethal force. This, at least, is the European mythic form. In this paper, I would like first to observe the transition of the wolf from predacious "matter of fact" to contemporary "subject of concern". What are the conditions of possibility that allow the wolf as social subject to exist? How are these comparable to processes by which other moral and political boundaries are reconstituted? Then I'd like to ask what might happen to our concept of society if we take seriously the idea of including in it wolves (and others) as non-domesticable subjects. What would happen to our thinking if we took the view that wolves do have opinions to which as social fellows we must attend?

Chimeras, monsters, and friends: GMOs as metaphors for contemporary global health

Author: Alex Nading (University of Edinburgh)  email

Summary

As monsters, animal and microbial chimeras shock us into looking afresh at old relations. In particular, their novelty forces us to ask what is not new about animal-borne diseases.

Long Abstract

In this paper, I engage Stefan Helmreich's (2009) provocation that human relations with microbes "have social consequence, even ethical import." I show how scientists who study dengue fever have interacted, directly and indirectly, with a quasi-animal form, a chimeric dengue virus developed as part of a vaccine design project. Scientists with whom I worked found the chimera, a molecularly engineered microbe in which nonstructural dengue proteins were spliced into a yellow fever virus backbone, to be a convenient signifier for global health itself. Global health, too, was comprised of an unruly "three-headed" assemblage of capital, humanitarian, and security concerns. Drawing on the trope of the "monster" as elaborated in feminist science studies and in classic anthropological discussions of ritual, I argue that the advent of the GM virus did not create a wholly new moral landscape. Instead, the GM virus caused scientists to reflect on the way they and others already related to the non-GM version. As monsters, animal and microbial chimeras shock us into looking afresh at old relations. In particular, their novelty forces us to ask what isn't new about animal-borne diseases.

Apotheosis of the snake: structures of fantasy in the South African lowveld

Author: Isak Niehaus (Brunel University)  email

Summary

My presentation seeks to provide insight into these diverse meanings by deploying the concepts of ‘structure’ and ‘fantasy’, and by drawing upon the results of ongoing fieldwork in the Bushbuckridge region of the South African lowveld.

Long Abstract

Snakes have proven particularly rich in meaning and 'good to think with'. This is particularly true of sub-Saharan Africa, where snakes exhibit 'simultaneous multiplicity'. They inspire both awe and fear and are at once, life-promising and life-threatening. Snakes feature in creation myths, but are also omens of death. My presentation seeks to provide insight into these diverse meanings by deploying the concepts of 'structure' and 'fantasy', and by drawing upon the results of ongoing fieldwork in the Bushbuckridge region of the South African lowveld. At a structural level, I suggest that snakes mediate between realms beneath and above the earth. This anomalous location illuminates their association with the fertility of the soil, bodies of water that constitute a portal from and to the underworld, with deceased persons and with precious minerals; and also with the hidden agency of witchcraft. At the level of collective fantasy, stories of snakes have enabled people to grapple with major transitions in conditions of life in rural South Africa, such as creeping commercialization and lust for money.

The elephant as a holographic condensation of social change in Sri Lanka

Author: Wim Van Daele (University of Oslo)  email

Summary

I argue how for the rural inhabitants of Sri Lanka the elephant constitutes a holographic condensation of issues of development, inter-species competition, and ultimately excessive desire as components of social change.

Long Abstract

Nearly each conversation in rural Kiribathgama in Sri Lanka mentions elephants: whether they have again raided a paddy field, destroyed a house, or even killed someone. The fear for elephants also constrains the free movement of villagers during the evenings. Hence, elephants are viewed very negatively since they compete with villagers for both space and food. Villagers express in these conversations a sense of escalation and blame a nearby large-scale development project to exacerbate things. Besides that, they agree that decreased respect for elephants due to social change detrimentally affects these animals well-being and their relation to human beings. Yet, villagers attribute these different explanations for the human-elephant conflict to a deeper common root cause: greed. Both elephants and human beings are seen as smart and greedy, both in everyday parlance and in mythology. Both have a history of a Fall into a degenerate state owing to their excessive desires that subjects both to the suffering from their 'burning stomachs' and greed. This greed explains the tough competition that has emerged between the species and the more direct explanations that villagers give for this. As such, the elephant becomes connected with these heterogeneous components that it condenses into its being as a hologram or three-dimensional miniature of these issues, several of which pertain to processes of social change.

Industrial anthropomorphism and the American "factory" farm

Author: Alex Blanchette (Tufts University)  email

Summary

Based on workplace ethnography in American “factory” hog farms, this paper traces dimensions of class politics underlying efforts to industrialize animal instincts in a post-industrial United States.

Long Abstract

The American "factory" farm could be described as a project of industrial anthropomorphism. In workplace planning and practice, it often figures as an explicit attempt to translate historical aesthetics and imaginaries drawn from manufacturing sectors onto the body, behavior, and mind of the pig. Based on two years of ethnographic research in some of the world's largest pork corporations, which annually raise and kill seven million hogs on the Great Plains, this paper examines attendant class struggles over porcine vitality and sociality. While working the insemination line in a breeding barn - engaging in repetitive techniques of touch designed to make sows draw in semen - laborers in these operations are tasked with using their hands to imitate the instinctual actions of sow-boar mating, realizing standardization by performing the allegedly fixed patterns of animal nature. These modes of building fixed labor practices through biomimicry - of acting out and embodying the instincts of swine - transform ideological impressions of animal instinct into a material terrain of human labor, and results in managerial attempts to make worker practices and ethics become "instinctual". While tracing the politics underlying this animalization of human social relations, the paper delineates utopian aspects of instinctual life on the factory farm, including surprising hopes for the "machinic" porcine species' ability to rekindle dream forms of industrial stability in a post-industrial United States.

Beenotes: the national hive and the top bar hive

Author: Rebecca Marsland (University of Edinburgh)  email

Summary

What is it about honey bees that causes us to reflect on, and draw inspiration for, our own social organisation? In this paper, I will explore this question by examining how humans collaborate with bees to produce different kinds of beehive, and alternative ideal societies.

Long Abstract

From Virgil to Mandeville, and most recently Seeley, honeybees and their social organisation have given us pause to reflect upon our own societies. Bee society has been lauded as an ideal form of monarchy, republicanism, consumer society, and democracy. In this paper I will explore how beehives exemplify the qualities which humans often admire: unity, orderliness, productivity and obedience. The beehive itself has served as a model for architects , and increasingly architects have been designing urban spaces for bees. I will examine how humans collaborate with bees to construct ideal societies by making use of "bee notes" (von Uexküll 2001), that is the sensory world of bees, when they design hives for bees to live in. I will focus on two different kinds of beehive widely used in the UK. First, the National Hive makes use of the "bee space" (popularised by Langstroth in 1851) to create a site in which the bee exemplifies the industrious producer of honey. Second, the Top Bar Hive, relies on honeybee architecture to create a dwelling which promotes bee health, and biodiversity. I argue that these two beehives offer two alternative social visions - one commercial and industrious; the second environmentalist and anarchist.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.