Conference Season: Animal Movements, PhD Movements

It’s conference season, and I have had no shortage of them this year. After presenting one paper at The Left Forum in New York City and at the American Comparative Literature Association in Vancouver, BC, (both of these papers on animals in the Rwandan genocide) I’m off to present two more papers in Fredericton, NB this weekend. The first will be an analysis of animals and postcolonial resistance in Robinson Crusoe at ACCUTE and the second will be a new piece I’m working on, “Animal Movements and Postcolonial Geographies.” You can check out that one at the following link:

I have been lucky enough to have been selected for the Graduate Plenary with my friend Jessie Forsythe, so that should alleviate some of the stress of presenting before some intimidating but incredibly inspiring names in Canadian Postcolonial Literature. I wish both her and the other presenter, Amanda Perry, who I look forward to meeting, a sincere “good luck!”

I’m pretty excited about this paper and hope that it gets finished in time. I sent in the proposal when I was still doing a lot of work with Philip Armstrong’s Essay, “The Postcolonial Animal.” Unfortunately, that was last October, and my thoughts on this piece have become more complicated — almost to the point where, now, I want to leave it behind for awhile.

My work has dealt a great deal so far with focusing on the discursive construct of “the animal” and its potential to signify in ways other than those set out by imperial discourse. I wanted to look at how, within African cultural criticism and theory, we could approach the animal as something other than a figure of racialization, bestiality, unreason, primitivity, subhumanity, etc. And certainly, this is important and necessary work that will continue to inform me as I navigate the rocky ethical terrain of postcoloniality and animality. I have written a number of papers — most of them inspired by fictional literature — on ways that a number of African writers rupture the hierarchical discursive paradigms that structure our interspecies relationships, the ways that these literatures help us construct more ethical ways of being-in-the-world with animals, and the way that certain texts are changing the way we view the animal.

But, important as this work is, I feel as though I’m developing what Sarah Ahmed might call a sort of psychic repetitive stress injury where I recognize the tired reiteration of familiar buzzwords in my writing. “Discursive paradigms,” “figures of animality,” and “anthropocentric narratives” all come to mind. It’s not that these words aren’t vital to any study of animality or (especially) postcoloniality/globalization, but it strikes me that something is missing, something that hit me when I began doing research on animal populations in the Rwandan genocide, game reserves in Sub-Saharan Africa and the often violent, militaristic economy of environmental conservation. I’ve been enacting a sort of linguistic erasure of animal corporeality by focusing almost exclusively on “discursive” and “ideological figures of animality” (RSI, anyone?).

I returned, once again, to Armstrong’s “Postcolonial Animal” if only to ruminate on where postcolonial studies has moved in terms of animal studies since its publication (the answer: not very far). In it, he writes a passage that foregrounds the resistant potential of animal movements. He first touches on the ways that animals have been wielded by Englightenment philosophy and colonial thought in ways that deny them being, subjectivity and agency, but then addresses an alternative view of the animal: “in other ways,” he suggests, “the animal has tended to disrupt the smooth unfolding of enlightenment ideology. Defined as that bit of nature endowed with voluntary motion, the animal resists the imperialist desire to represent the natural – and especially the colonial terrain – as a passive object or a blank slate ready for mapping by Western experts” (415). Every time I read that bit of his essay, I’m astounded by an image of an actual animal making actual movements. I experience a similar reaction when I read Derrida’s The Animal That Therefore I Am and he feels the gaze of his (actual) cat — before he wanders through the detritus of philosophical history, ruminating on the animal-as-figure, the animal-as-philosophical-category. Where did his cat go? And, as for Armstrong, does his argument hold up in the reality of the ways that animal bodies are instrumentalized, controlled, and eliminated in certain “postcolonial” settings? His argument is certainly compelling and useful, but what can we bring to it now?

It is not merely that certain work is unimportant or dealing with an idealized figure of the animal that bears no resemblance to actual animals. It is more that, if we are (or I am) going to work with the case of various African nation-states, we need to reconcile our work with the realities of animal lives within Africa. Certainly, animals may perhaps lie outside the interpellative linguistic call to citizenship and, thus, may not move through postcolonial geographies in the same ways we do. As Derrida’s The Beast and The Sovereign might put it, they are viewed as in a state of “being-outside-the-law.” However, that does not erase the ways that nation-states and other border-drawing bodies control and restrict animals’ bodily movements, especially as they become commodities for consumption by tourists and objects for ownership under the paradigm of certain game reserves.

So that, my friends, is what the CACLALS paper will deal with. It’s about the movements of animals, certainly, but it’s also about where the fields of postcolonial/globalization theory might consider moving, and how we move animals’ bodies in very real and sometimes detrimental ways. But also, it is about how they move and will hopefully continue to move us in new directions?


PS: I’m giving a shout out to Wayne, Erin and Sune for their commentary on post #1 — the latter of whom gave me some new directions to *move* in.

First Steps Toward Tracking the Postcolonial Animal

I’ve finally done it! I’ve entered the wonderful world of blogging, which came as much as a result of my good friend Erin urging me into this online abyss as from my need to somehow organize my upcoming research on postcolonial animality.

The project I’m embarking on might need some explaining since my research interests took a turn toward the animal following a few years of focusing on race, gender and sexuality — always within the scope of Southern Africa. Any number of interests brought me here: I’ve been a vegan for two years and a vegetarian for six; I’ve been concerned with questions of animal rights for longer than that, however inadequate that discourse can be sometimes; I have had animal companions my entire life, and have recently begun to think through the violence of domestication alongside the ways I try to cultivate animal love; I became interested in ecocritics who tried to engage with the animal on its own terms rather than as a tired literary metaphor for subhumanity, madness or wayward sexuality. Moreover, given the overwhelming metaphorical presence of the animal — or some bestial figuration of it — in postcolonial criticism, I began to question the extent to which the animal forms an often-ignored part of the general postcolonial project.

Indeed, the animal, animality, questions of human/animal relations and questions of whether we can/should show concern for animals might all be concepts that ask us to drastically rethink what we have hitherto conceptualized as “the postcolonial project.” Of course, numerous critics have suggested we move beyond the term “postcolonial.” Diana Brydon in particular addresses the sort of hauntological claim that the term holds over criticism devoted to non-Western areas and asks us to consider whether the postcolonial moment has passed. Given that one of the field’s projects is to interrogate colonial legacies and the various discursive mechanisms through which neocolonial ideologies and practices continue to circulate, perhaps we are moving into an era where our criticism will refine to the extent that this term will be left behind. I remain skeptical, especially given the challenges that animals pose to our field. Certainly, continuing to interrogate violence committed against humans is a necessary part of our field. But, following Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation, “[i]f we wish to avoid being numbered among the oppressors, we must be prepared to rethink all our attitudes to other groups, including the most fundamental of them” (xxii). Philip Armstrong also criticizes postcolialism for being a primary humanist field of study. He suggests, “[c]oncerned as it is with the politics of historical and contemporary relations between ‘Western’ and other cultures since 1492 or thereabouts, postcolonial studies has shown little interest in the fate of the nonhuman animal,” which he attributes to “the suspicion that pursuing an interest in the postcolonial animal risks trivializing the suffering of human beings under colonialism” (413). If we confront the notion that certain forms of life, especially animals, have been overlooked by postcolonial studies, perhaps we also need to confront that the postcolonial moment has not passed. We might need to realize the extent to which Western imperialist attitudes toward and treatments of animal life continue to dominate presumably postcolonial scenes. In this sense, at least, the animal both compels us to think through previously underexamined ways that non-human animals have been and continue to be oppressed by colonialism, and carries the potential to expand our conceptions of what the postcolonial field’s fundamental assumptions and theoretical paradigms are.

Given the above questions and postulations, I embark on the project that will inform the next three years of my life. If I’m really lucky (ie, lazy, depressed, overworked, burnt out), it might be six years! My project will be about violence, in particular those situations where violence done to humans and violence done to animals converges. Bearing in mind the notion that showing concern for animals is often much easier in certain Western institutions than in, for example, the war-torn Mozambique in which I grew up, I question the ethics of showing concern for animals in post-conflict nations. For example, can we show concern over the lives of animals that were killed in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide without disservice to the overwhelming toll these events took on human life? Is such concern ethical? How do we even come to a place where asking this question enters our conceptual framework? Perhaps a good place to start is to redefine those terms that we may have accepted too hastily until now: “human,” “animal,” “ethics,” “violence” and, of course, “postcolonial.” What happens, in other words, to the term “postcolonial” when we place “animal” beside it? And what happens when we envisage the human suffering created by colonialism with non-human animals’ suffering beside it?