In his meticulous history of how whales went from hunted floating oil barrels to the most loved and protected of megafauna, D Graham Burnett comes across two macabre and thankfully unrealized plans for cetacean aquaculture just before the ecopolitical turn in their favor in the 1960s. One involved a factory ship inspired by sausage machine technology that would have processed whales completely out at sea—slicing and separating unusable from usable parts fit for commodification (like perfume and gasoline). The other involved the conversion of Pacific atolls into vast whale farms filled with “captive rorquals fattened on artificial plankton blooms”—a plan arriving complete with conservational arguments from cynicism that pits the exploitation of bodies against the resulting lifting of them out of endangerment by mass breeding.1 These proposals represent the two logics of intensive agriculture in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries: the factory farm and the concentrated feed lot. Coupling the efficiency and speed of processing farmed bodies with the augmentation of the scalability of carceral confinement, these have had devastating consequences and should be understood as a planetary historical injury.
That these projects did not come to pass is a reflection of the conjoined success of ethological knowledge and the messy procedures of political will. This was still, presumably, a time when the majority of politicians in the United States listened to scientists. Burnett demonstrates how ethology, in the form of cetology, played a crucial role. It is arguable the whales’ success he traces is due not only to their minded proximity to humans but also to their alienness—mysterious underwater songs and big-brained aquatic intelligence. For while there have been comparable ethological breakthroughs regarding more mundane animals—cows, pigs, and chickens—public disgust and ecopolitical will have yet to reach similar critical mass. Though animal welfare and rights movements have gained a modicum of public traction, especially in relating the problem to global warming, at no point in human history has animal exploitation been as intensive as now. Lamentably, it is only accelerating. Perhaps this is due to the timeless veneer that accompanies nonhuman domestication, at least in those societies habituated to it. Had whale consumption been a long-established part of the majority of Western human societies and economies—as indeed it is in certain places in the world, such as Japan and Norway—cetaceans might have remained exploited even after novel and ethological discoveries retroactively reassessed their minds and forms of being. Here, then, we reach the limits of ethological research: it is only with great difficulty that new knowledge about nonhuman animals will actually erode entrenched traditions, symbols, and economic activities that depend on their exploitation. Tweaking Upton Sinclair’s well-known truism, we might say that it is hard to get humans to understand something the more their profits and pleasures depend on their not understanding it. Admittedly, this phrase is all too faithful to the enlightenment program and has difficulty dealing with its two very powerful nemeses: ignorance and cynicism. This is part and parcel of the dialectic of entitlement that has accompanied historical “progress,” especially capitalist “progress,” which means especially Western colonial and imperial “progress.”2 These notions of progress continue to be widely predicated on the subordination of nature in favor of gross domestic product in what is increasingly shared as a planetary neocolonialism.
Once deconditioned as no longer dumb brutes or mindless machines, and once attempts have been made to enter their minds through speculative and sympathetic imaginings, and yet still nonhuman animals remain prey to widespread human violence and immiseration, something more is needed. Ethology is not enough. Social, political, and aesthetic coalitions have to be forged to act alongside its knowledge. What is needed is a political critical ethology, one that sheds ethology’s past dubious political associations with social engineering, state biology, and any other nonplastic reductions of life. A number of progressive avenues might be envisioned, but here I offer three and elaborate on them with examples. (1) We need an ecopolitics of representation for nonhuman animals to be seen and show themselves. For all the well-trodden debates about representation, this is a must. A firm contrast will have to be made with human self-representation, since humans have more capacities and autonomy within the symbolic spaces of political claim making, even if these remain lamentably unequal. These mediated forms of self-representation—which can come through images, through words, or in real life—can only be coherent if they remain nonexploitive. (2) We need to show how human societies, especially those in the Western capitalist mold, can be reimagined for the better by differing relations with the nonhumans around them. This may remain within the dialectic of entitlement, which has fueled human history through pharmakological self-benefits, though now it would take into account entities beyond the human. (3) We need to show how nonhuman animals already impact and partake in human politics and history—and, even better, demonstrate how they have already been accorded this place in many non-Western epistemologies that might serve as a model, without fetishizing these non-Western worldviews as inherently pure or less violent toward nature, since all worldviews have operational constraints.
Imagine an artist, a particularly transgressive one committed to animal rights, who wants to expose the extractive realities of animal exploitation to the public. Having been given a commission from MoMA to show her work in its central atrium, which is often reserved for contemporary art projects, this artist decides to install a fully functioning factory farm. This could be countless pigs, as in Miru Kim’s The Pig That Therefore I Am (2010), though, rather than documenting a performance with exploited nonhumans in situ, taking the intensive agriculture to the white cube. Or the work could comprise a sea of debeaked chickens futilely pecking at each other in close confinement, as well as small battery cages stacked high atop each other. This factory farm as readymade might also be participatory. Over the course of the installation, the audience could be encouraged to pick up monocrop feed from a postminimalist pile on the floor to throw at the birds. The artist would also include a discursive element in the form of a small, digestible pamphlet detailing recent ethological discoveries about chickens: the odd bird out of avian ethology, chickens have episodic-like memory, show empathy, live within social individuation, show deductive reasoning (even chicks can do basic arithmetic), and see more ranges of colors than human eyes—in short, chickens are as cognitively and emotionally complex as many birds and mammals.3 Furthermore, as a form of institutional critique, the artist would point to the museum’s own restaurant menu, implicating similar and perhaps even more problematic forms of violence toward animal bodies. In this way, our transgressive artist would show in a direct and visceral way the wrongs of our industrial foodways, all while dealienating the lived capacities of the “food animals” caught up in these foodways.
It is unclear what aesthetic merit such an installation might hold, but certainly this work would be deeply hypocritical. It would redouble the very activity it hopes to critique. Judging from the Guggenheim scandal in 2017—which admittedly centered around a far more cherished species for most humans, canines—this installation would also be scrapped well before its execution.4 It only remains viable as a hypothetical (perhaps one day Banksy could do it, echoing Picabia, using a sea of stuffed animal chickens rather than real birds, as he did in his Silence of the Lambs , a refurbished slaughterhouse truck). This does not mean that displaying a chicken in a gallery is a priori wrong or unethical, though there are serious constraints and conditions with respect to the type of life chickens represent. We could equally imagine another artist with sympathetic ethological knowledge illegally rescuing some battery hens and providing them temporary sanctuary from slaughter in an art installation. They would have proper shelter and would only appear of their own volition. Crucially, once the work went down, the ultimate destination would be an animal sanctuary. The installation would function as a way station for safety and extended life. This sort of work aside, however, it has to be said that mediating nonhuman self-representation in art is highly fraught when very real and fragile bodies are directly involved and displaced within a white cube for which evolutionary adaptations have provided little preparation.
But then there is nothing keeping yet another artist from coming along and opening an animal sanctuary as a work of art, again counterculling animals from exploitive foodways. Smithson-like, this artist could display nonsites that index this sanctuary. An example of this can be found in D Rosen’s practice and their Idolatry III (2019): salt lick sculptures formed by goat tongues on a farm sanctuary, which the artist displays in a gallery setting, encouraging humans to touch in turn. Then there are numerous other avenues of mediated self-representations in words, in paint, and, perhaps most potently—since indexicality remains a powerful force of mediated attestation—in photography and moving images. Nick Brandt’s photo series This Empty World (2018) is an interesting example. The photographer fabricated various sets near the Amboseli National Park, which spans the Kenya–Tanzania border. These include gas stations, bus stations, constructions sites (especially of highway overpasses), burning charcoal production, and dry riverbeds. Once these sets were built and flooded with dramatic nighttime lighting, local communities, including indigenous Maasai people, were invited for a photo shoot. They appear in various group poses of waiting, working, and gathering in long lines staring at glowing portable devices. Afterward, the sets were left empty for local fauna to explore at will, such as elephants, lions, hyenas, rhinoceros, and gazelles. Once they made an appearance, which could take weeks, they would be photographed from the same angle as the human photo shoot, resulting in a composite print of two different moments melded into one—as if human and nonhuman activity took place simultaneously. Here photographic trickery creates impossible scenes of conviviality and mutual precarity in desultory landscapes and industrial impositions. This series is not mere trickery, however, as local communities play themselves in staged self-representation (albeit uneasily performing the role of necropolitically exposed bodies), while the nonhumans involved really did appear of their own volition and curiosity. In light of such work, nothing keeps us from widening, for example, Ariella Aïsha Azoulay’s civil contract of photography to include nonhuman claimants as attesting to themselves via indexical images in ways that are distinct from human claimants—and indeed, if we retain the striated but handy concept of species, there will be as many claimants as there are forms of life vulnerable to violence. As long as the human and nonhuman claims are not in direct opposition to each other, a nature–culture civil contract of photography is eminently possible.5
Brandt’s staged photographs superimpose human and nonhuman worlds that are already in real proximity with each other on Maasai land, both falling outside political and legal security—one on the neocolonized periphery, the other just outside the Amboseli National Park reserve, which would otherwise offer nominal protection. Both are forced to deal with global economic impositions and environmental degradation. This is something my hypothetical artist using the factory farm as readymade at MoMA neglected to frame, that is, the precarious human communities forced to deal with the fallout of intensive agriculture. Were the artist to somehow pan out from her specific installation toward MoMA’s global complicity with the animal–industrial complex (think of Mark Lombardi–like visualizations), we would find an enmeshed global network of slow and fast ecological violence toward certain classed humans living near certain classed species whose living and dead bodies strain the environment. The 2018 flooding from Hurricane Florence in North Carolina made this toxic proximity acutely visible, as manure lagoons seeped everywhere and dead pig bodies bloomed from their confines like dirty pink balloons. The deleterious impacts of these industries on the human world are wide ranging: zoonotic illness (from both Western and non-Western modes of animal confinement and killing, as well as extractive “spillover”), deforestation, species extinction, dead zones, methane, and global warming. Incentives to cease treating nonhuman bodies as equal parts consumable and disposable abound. Using an old Freudian opposition, these incentives would necessitate a mass overriding of the pleasure principle in favor of the reality principle, which in my most pessimistic moments concerning our pleasure-bundled species strikes me as daunting. This would also entail an overriding of capitalist impulses, though echoing Frederic Jameson’s oft-repeated line, it is easier to imagine the end of the world—of which animal exploitation is playing a sizable role—than the end of capitalism. We would need to jam not only the anthropological machine, as Agamben has argued, but also the dialectic of entitlement that is currently somersaulting us toward autoimmune destruction.
There are, however, ways of positively framing the role of nonhuman animals in human society and culture without necessarily guilting the masses into turning on their reality principles. Breakthroughs in ethological knowledge are useful not only in retroactively exposing the capacities of systematically exploited animals. They can also serve to show the ways in which nonhuman minds, bodies, and communities can live alongside and contribute to human well-being. Here the mobilization of ethological knowledge is crucial. Jennifer Wolch’s essay “Zoöpolis” makes this claim—in short, that recognizing nonhumans within city and urban planning can reenchant these spaces.6 The political philosophers Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka have taken their cue from Wolch’s essay in their Zoopolis (2014), an important rethinking of animal rights theory with not just negative but positive rights in mind. This text is a serious advance in animal rights discourse, offering a tripartite frame of consideration through citizenship theory—namely, domesticated animals, who are wholly dependent on human interaction and care, denizen animals, who are only partly dependent on human interaction, and wild animals, whose sovereignty depends on very limited interaction with human communities.7 This sort of multilayered kinship thinking dislodges anthropocentric dwelling, especially in design and architecture that is reactive to the positive rights of nonhumans.8
Intensive animal exploitation cannot be limited to ethical and ecological concerns alone, leaving the question of democratic politics untouched. For this reason, there is another crucial missing step in my hypothetical artist’s installation at MoMA: she would need not only to pan outward to reveal global environmental complicities but also to somehow reveal superimpositions of human and nonhuman worlds in order to disclose contact points—contact points that already and inherently affect the political in both beneficial and deleterious ways. In this specific case, she would need to show how animal industries have and continue to alter human political destinies. A prime example can be found in the Brazilian context, home to the largest meat producer in the world, JBS, which has played a key role in Brazil’s recent antidemocratic turn and whose historical provenance is colonial and neocolonial.9 Arguing that the demos includes the multitude of currently loved, abused, and ignored nonhuman bodies—who neither vote directly (though David Wood has argued that they do vote with their bodies10) nor use human symbols but nonetheless affect political systems in both psychic and physical infrastructures—is a major task that lies ahead. Eva Meijer’s ambitious program in When Animals Speak: Towards and Interspecies Democracy (2019) is an important contribution to these debates, employing ethological knowledge to question the operational exclusion of nonhuman life in political philosophy.11 Western political thought will also finally have to learn some lessons from non-Western politics of expanded conviviality, formerly deemed primitive in the long “civilizing mission” of colonialism and imperialism. Echoing a non-Western disposition toward the nonhuman world, Wood claims that we have “advanced when we think of the world not as a container, nor as a collection of things, but rather as a space of significance.”12 This statement is not only anticapitalist (since one does not extract significance but learns from it) but also invokes an ethology of wonder, in which the natural world is no longer a site of experimentation and control but is filled with sundry forms of disparate communiqués.
On September 24, 2020, members of the Lummi Nation, or the Lhaq’temish, which means “people of the sea,” traveled to SeaWorld Florida to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the capture of orca Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut, known to the aquatic theme park’s public as Lolita (ecofeminists can rightly have a field day with the literary history of this moniker). She was abducted in 1970 when four years old off the shores of Lummi territory in the Pacific Northwest. The ceremony, which was livestreamed on Zoom and Facebook, is described as a sacred obligation to qwe’lhol’mechen, or “our relations under the water,” better known colloquially in English by a very different associative timber: “killer whale.” The legal and political struggle to return Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut to her native waters is ongoing, a restitution that is expressly analogized to legal and political struggles of the Lummi themselves. As one of the leaders, Squil-le-he-le (Raynell Zuni), expressed it, “she was taken from her family and her culture when she was just a child, like so many of our children were taken from us and placed in Indian boarding schools.”13 It is only within a Western paradigm of pejorative animalization that this analogy could prove offensive. For the Lummi, as with so many other non-Western ontologies and epistemologies, solidarity with fellow earthling cultures is a positive identification—and an ecopolitical one. Not so long ago, from a Western scientific perspective, this sort of thing would have been considered primitivist naïveté or laughed at as new age nonsense. Many of us are no longer laughing. And in fact, even from a Darwinian perspective and genomic research, finding kinship in nonhumans is now verifiable, even if non-Western perspectives, and what is pejoratively called “folk psychology” in ethology, did not need to wait for this verification. The Western view of nature is so clearly corrupt that alternatives are no longer deemed escapist or backward. As Heidegger said, science does not think—but orcas and so many other nonhuman animals do.
To see nonhuman animals as part of human politics opens up many interpretive possibilities, what Wood names a “critical hermeneutics of nature,” which might steer us away from automatic separation and debasement toward existential solidarity on this planet.14 Thus, in a work like Yang Fu Dong’s powerful six-channel video work East of Que Village (2007), set in in rural Hubei, China, we encounter numerous wild or semidomesticated dogs trying to carve out their existence. The resources appear limited, and the interaction with humans is slim, leading to fights and a general sense of bleak desperation. In watching this work, it is all too easy to fall back on a reading of these dogs as vicious ciphers for a Hobbesian reality or a nature inherently red tooth in claw, yet this reduces the dogs to a one-dimensionality that is undercut by some of the gentler scenes in Yang’s work—for instance, the young puppy with a damaged back leg who inspects a trip of goats with apprehensive curiosity. The Hobbesian take is also reductively naturalizing, as if only humans have social, economic, political, and historical contexts. These dogs are nonhuman denizens thrown into a twenty-first-century China in an agrarian village largely left behind by a changing global economy, which has affected all its inhabitants, human and nonhuman, if in distinct ways. Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook’s work, by contrast, shows hospitality to dogs in installations that lend warmer tones of conviviality. In her Treachery of the Moon from 2012 at Documenta 13, she sits on a mattress with her two dogs—Bite and Sugar—watching Thai soap operas on a television in a room that is otherwise flooded with projected moving images showing civil unrest and violence in their native Thailand. Here nonhumans play a therapeutic role of comfort and are inherently part of the domestic-democratic body politic prey to antidemocratic forces—not only in friendship but also in the deeper material entanglements of the body and mental well-being through mutual affectivities and investments.
In a sadly unfinished work, In March 2016 I went to Israel to search for wolves but only found dogs that think they are cows, Martin Roth began exploring a different type of ecopolitical investment with dogs, one patently nationalistic: Israeli cowboys in the occupied territory of Golan Heights employing Turkish dogs to protect European cattle from Syrian wolves, which were inadvertently reintroduced when minefields in the military zone between the Syrian and Israeli border de facto cleared away human presence. Here patriotism, militarism, occupation, and agriculture all intertwine in various totemic identifications. Works such as Yang’s, Rasdjarmrearnsook’s, and Roth’s are only the tip of the iceberg when speaking to the prodigious human and nonhuman animal entanglements and investments that condition the democratic body politic. These also include more hidden, subterranean ways in which animal life (and of course plant life) conditions human political existence. Rivane Neuenschwander’s work with invertebrates—the likes of snails in Carta faminta (Starving Letters; 2000) or ants in her collaboration with Cao Guimarães, Quarta-Feira de Cinzas/Epilogue (2006)—offers compelling examples. If the human–animal divide has become untenable, it follows that as a central node in the history of Western epistemology and ontology, this corrupted binary breaks down numerous other domains and disciplines. This includes the idea that politics are only on the side of the human animal, unaffected by nonhuman animals, who nonetheless condition the democratic body politic in all sorts of ways—and even, as Meijer has argued, hold their own democratic forms of deliberation on their futures, both as collectives and as individuals.
As I have argued throughout this study, the corrupted human–animal divide complicates ethological knowledge that maintains a strict divide between human and nonhuman. This can now be understood as part of the larger project of decolonizing and deimperializing knowledge and worldly relations. Aníbal Quijano argues that the power relations of Western imperialism run on the subject–object divide in its subordination of nature and other peoples, a divide that was foundational for colonial ethnology and anthropology.15 Western ethology was similarly founded on this asymmetrical relation of power between subject and object, observer and observed, and in the Anthropocene, the residues of imperial ethnography, anthropology, and ethology need to be critiqued in tandem. I hope the steps in this book offer some methodological contributions to this much larger project of decolonizing knowledge. If this last chapter is shorter than the previous, it is for a simple reason. I want it to illuminate possible paths for future work—both multidisciplinary scholarship that reconsiders a past artistic practice through a method of critical political ethology, research that constructively plays the operational constraints of its disciplines, and much-needed contemporary art practices that consider nonhuman animals in ways that go beyond the tired, standard, and default human thinking that has conditioned and corralled animals for so long. From the deconditioning of tired creaturely historical tropes to the speculative daring of stepping into nonhuman minds and perspectives to the solidarities that can be forged in allowing nonhumans a place in the demos, we will be better equipped to take the foundational role of animality on this planet seriously—for all of our sakes.