Without a Word for “Animal”

As previously quoted, Kathleen Jamie has written that “there was a time…when there were no wild animals because every animal was wild”.  Her point can be extended by suggesting that there have been times and places where there were no “animals” at all because all animals were individuals (or at least representatives of particular species). A koala wasn’t an animal but was simply a koala nor was a raven an animal but rather simply a raven. A koala and a raven are clearly very different individuals and haven’t always both fallen under a homogenizing term such as “animal”.

In Creatures of Empire, Viriginia DeJohn Anderson notes one such time and place when this was the case. She writes that:

“Although Europeans placed all nonhuman creatures into a genuine category of animals, Indians may instead have conceived of animals only as distinct species.”

Anderson is speaking specifically of Algonquin-speaking Indians in New England and the Chesapeke region of colonial America.

She continues explaining that:

“Colonists who compiled lists of native vocabulary recorded names for many kinds of animals, but no Indian word for “animal” itself…The absence of a clear equivalent for animal is striking, since compilers of native lexicons typically recorded words in common use and it seems unlikely that the term never came up in conversation. If this linguisitic peculiarity represented a genuine conceptual difference, it suggests that Indians did not conceive of the natural world in terms of a strict human-animal dichotomy but rather as a place characterized by a diversity of living beings.” (18)

The same point has been made on a theoretical level by Jacques Derrida.  In The Animal That Therefore I Am, he explains that humans use this “catch-all concept”:

“in spite of the infinite space that separates the lizard from the dog, the protozoon from the dolphin, the shark from the lamb, the parrot from the chimpanzee, the camel from the eagle, the squirrel from the tiger or the elephant from the cat, the ant from the silkworm or the hedgehog from the echidna”. (402)

He suggests that:

“Animal is a word that men have given themselves the right to give. ..They have given themselves the word in order to corral a large number of living beings within a single concept” (400)

And that the term is applied to:

“all living things that man does not recognize as his fellows, his neighbors, or his brothers” (402)

The “catch-all concept” is not without its consequences:

The confusion of all nonhuman living creatures within the general and common category of the animal is not simply a sin against rigorous thinking, vigilance, lucidity, or empirical authority; it is also a crime. Not a crime against animality precisely, but a crime of the first order against the animals, against animals.” (416)

Given that Derrida describes this as a crime “against animals” it is important to point out that the culprits are not limited to those we may consider to be paradigmatic knife-wielding, animal exploiters. The concept animal is (perhaps out of necessity as we are not free to create our own language from the ground up) obviously employed by those working toward animal liberation. On one level this may be deemed trivial as it is seemingly a mere choice of words which can be pragmatic; so long as we don’t forget who we are talking about there is little chance of harm.  But can we realistically avoid such forgetting when employing a term that necessarily suggests that chimpanzees and spiders belong to one category while human beings to a distinct (and more elevated?) category?  Can we avoid having our minds warped with speciesim given language that we seemingly have little alternative but to employ?

What if we do forget who we are talking about when we say “animal”? What if we forget that “animal rights” involves so many diverse beings that there is no uniform set of interests for such rights to protect? There can be no animal rights per se but, at best, species-specific rights that are more-or-less applicable to particular individuals.  Yet even this approach will mask the diversity of interests of individuals belonging to the same species. It is obvious that not all humans have the same interests and that attempts to posit rights almost inevitably end in conflict and yet the same thing is seemingly not so obvious when applied to nonhuman animals where the range of diversity is many times greater.

For example, there are some who would favor genetically eliminating carnivores so as to spare prey animals much suffering.  Would this safeguard certain rights or violate certain rights (both? neither?)? Does it benefit animals or harm animals?  How ought animal rights activists respond?

It may be impossible to simply discard the word or the concept of “animal” but at a bare minimum we would be wise to continually remind ourselves that there are no animals but only “a diversity of living beings” of which we are a part.

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A World Without Domesticated Animals: Veganism’s Endpoint

“There was a time—until very recently in the scheme of things—when there were no wild animals, because every animal was wild; and humans were few.” –Kathleen Jamie, Sightlines (2012)

After my recent post on Rod Coronado, it occurred to me that part of the reason that Coronado is not universally embraced by the animal rights movement is that his efforts have largely been on behalf of wild animals and that the interests of wild animals are not given a significant amount of attention by those in the AR movement. Consequently, efforts on behalf of wild animals do not count for as much within the movement.

The fate of domesticated animals clearly dominates within the movement with anti-hunting campaigns probably being the most notable exception. Yet I would suspect that hunting is generally not the greatest threat to wild animals; I would suspect that parking lots, shopping malls, subdivisions, and agriculture represent significantly greater threats.

At first glance, this emphasis on domesticated animals (and animals raised for food even moreso) may appear to make sense.  Domesticated animals certainly appear to be the primary victims of human exploitation.  Every aspect of their lives from birth to death is dictated by human interests.  The very fact that they are domesticated means that they have been manipulated in profound ways; ways that are generally to their detriment such as by being bred to gain weight at an incredible pace or to have aesthetic features that score well in dog shows but may inhibit natural functions such as breathing. In contrast, wild animals clearly do not face the same degree of confinement, do not have their food so severely adulterated, and can seemingly live in the social arrangements natural for their species.  Furthermore, much of the harm suffered by wild animals—such as predation—does not appear to be at the hands of humans and therefore may not motivate human intervention.

But the over-emphasis on domesticated animals is problematic in part because, at least from my perspective, one goal of the animals rights movement needs to be a world without domesticated animals…that is a world with no cats, no dogs, no cows, no chickens, no mail order catalogs full of genetically manipulated mice available for purchase.  This is part of the vision that should not be shyed away from even if it is counterintuitive or unpalatable to the general population. Despite the slogans printed on t-shirts, the lives of animals are not saved by your decision to go vegan.  When somone adopts a vegan diet, there is no truck that transports a fixed number of animals from factory farm to idyllic sanctuary. The decision to go vegan, at best, saves animals from the fate of ever being born (which is no small thing given that, at present, domesticated animals are born into an “eternal Treblinka”).

Ignoring wild animals creates a situation where people participate in the movement with no long term goal other than perhaps universal veganism or an end to a particular variety of exploitation.  And the tactics adopted may be counterproductive.  Tactics need to be consistent with or at least not contrary to a world without domesticated animals.  Furthermore, an explicitly anti-domestication position also creates the possibility for much-needed alliances with radical environmentalists, green anarchists, and those engaged in indigenous struggles.

“[T]he driving back of the human species to pre-invasion boundaries,” as Ronnie Lee says, needs to be a priority.  This means that as a defensive measure, habitat preservation needs to be a priority and, as an offensive measure, human claimed terrain needs to be returned to the animals who once occupied it.  Too often, matters of habitat preservation are left  for environmentalists to address on their own as if an animal could be severed from her environment without being harmed in the process.  The current activist division of labor that puts individual animals (primarily domesticated animals) within the sphere of the animal rights movement and habitat preservation (and species level interests) within the sphere of environmentalists is dysfunctional.

As a final point, I would extend the idea of no domesticated animals even further–probably leaving the AR movement at this point–and suggest that the vision to pursue is one where even humans are no longer domesticated animals but are once again themselves wild.