Zoocriticism and the Postcolonial

Throughout western intellectual history, civilisation has consistently been constructed by or against the wild, savage and animalistic, and has consequently been haunted or ‘dogged’ by it. The wild man of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries lurked at the dangerously liminal fringe of a consolidating European Enlightenment civilisation; and if, during the eighteenth and in the early nineteenth centuries, slavery, and its accelerating racism, both necessitated and enabled Europeans to exile the animalistic to Africa and the New World, this was to return at the end of the nineteenth as the terror of a primordial Heart of Darkness: civilisation, it was feared, might be no more than a veneer over a still savage European ‘inner man’. Theories of European degeneration in both metropolis and colony, and the capacity of European visitors and settlers to ‘go native’ in the tropics, seemed to bring such reversions home; but it was also in the second half of the nineteenth century that the impending disappearance of the wild – in the form of wilderness – became imaginable through the American experience, leading to the 1864 establishment of Yosemite Valley as the world’s first national park.

While the Enlightenment trajectory of humanist essentialism demanded the repression of the animal and animalistic in all its latent and recrudescent forms, it is not until our own century, in the urgent contexts of eco-catastrophe and the extinction of many non-human species, that a radical re-drawing of this foundational relationship has occurred. Contemporary humanity, having materially destroyed vast areas of wilderness – and many other animals – is now routinely configured as spiritually hollow, as lacking the essence of the human through the repression, withdrawal, destruction or absence, rather than latent threat, of the ‘inner wild’. This repression is expressed, in both literal and spiritually refractive terms, as a result of the all too successful extermination of that earlier Heart of Darkness; and so it is that what had initially been banished by the Enlightenment in order to constitute human civility – the animal and animalistic – is now paradoxically being returned as its essence, its inner core.1

In such current reconfigurations of both outer and inner relations, postcolonialism is well positioned to offer insight. Postcolonialism’s major theoretical concerns: otherness, racism and miscegenation, language, translation, the trope of cannibalism, voice and the problems of speaking of and for others – to name just a few – offer immediate entry points for a re-theorising of the place of animals in relation to human societies. But dominant European discourses have expressed that dominance by constructing others – both people and animals – as animal, both philosophically and representationally. The history of western racism and its imbrication with discourses of speciesism; the use of animals as a basis for human social division; and, above all perhaps, the metaphorisation and deployment of ‘animal’ as a derogatory term in genocidal and marginalising discourses – all of these make it difficult even to discuss animals without generating a profound unease, even a rancorous antagonism, in many postcolonial contexts today.

Following on from this, we want initially to consider four examples of the ways in which serious consideration of the status of animal seems to be fundamentally compromised by the human, often western, deployment of animals and the animalistic to destroy or marginalise other human societies. First, human individuals and cultures at various times have been and are treated ‘like animals’ by dominant groups, and both human genocide and human slavery have been, and in some cases continue to be, predicated on the categorisation of other peoples as animals. In condemning human genocide and slavery, we are thus almost inescapably colluding – albeit obliquely or implicitly – in the idea that it is acceptable to treat animals cruelly, but not to treat people as if they were animals. And in so doing we are also colluding in the fiction that the species boundary2 is a fixed one. This fiction of irreducibility is reproduced through the language we use in spite of our knowledge that some peoples considered ‘human’ by some have been dubbed ‘animal’ by others; and in spite of our awareness that the species boundary is not fixed at all, but always temporally and politically contingent, continually constructed and policed by the processes of representation itself.

Animal categorisations and the use of derogatory animal metaphors have been and are characteristic of human languages, often in association with racism and sexism: ‘you stupid cow’; politicians with their ‘snouts in the trough’; ‘male chauvinist pig’. The history of human oppression of other humans is replete with instances of animal metaphors and animal categorisations frequently deployed to justify exploitation and objectification, slaughter and enslavement. It is thus not surprising that human individuals and societies reject animal similitudes and analogies and insist instead on a separate subjectivity. To offer a particularly pertinent example: any direct or metaphorical connection between the treatment of Africans as slaves and the treatment of animals today is a politically dangerous one to argue, whatever the obvious analogies. In her 1987 book The Dreaded Comparison: Human and Animal Slavery Marjorie Spiegel confronts this difficult issue. That Spiegel was well aware of the minefield she was entering is evident in the title (The Dreaded Comparison), as well as in the inclusion of a preface by Alice Walker, without whose endorsement Spiegel’s comparison, by the usual terms of the racism/speciesism nexus, would probably have been dismissed as outrageous. But as Walker writes:

Marjorie Spiegel tellingly illustrates the similarities between the enslavement of black people (and by implication, other enslaved peoples) and the enslavement of animals, past and present. It is a comparison that, even for those of us who recognise its validity, is a difficult one to face. Especially if we are descendants of slaves. Or of slave owners. Or of both. Especially so if we are responsible in some way for the present treatment of animals – participating in the profits from animal research (medicine, lipstick, lotions) or animal raising (food, body parts). In short, if we are complicit in their enslavement and destruction, which is to say, if we are, at this juncture in history, master. (Spiegel 1988: 9)

Spiegel’s comparison is hardly new, but her book when it first appeared in the 1980s entered a world much more conscious of the material consequences of representation and of the multiple uses made of the species boundary in racial genocide and racial vilification – uses that had created an even greater scepticism towards the comparison than before.

A second problem arises when, as in so many contemporary instances, humans are pitted against animals in a competition over decreasing resources. Peoples forced off their land to provide game parks for foreign tourists (or sometimes more insidiously included in ‘native’ displays as part of the local flora and fauna) understandably resent not just the implicit ‘animal’ comparisons, but also the physical presence of animals themselves. They are also likely to be particularly unsympathetic to western conservationist attempts at protecting endangered species from destruction, particularly so where conservation initiatives are in conflict with traditional indigenous hunting practices. But western exploitation, both past and present, has resulted in the murder, displacement and impoverishment of people, animals and their environments; and it has also generated apparently ‘either/or’ situations in contexts of land and resource scarcity or degradation. Emel and Wolch cite as one contemporary example the establishment of a reserve in Sulawesi, ‘which entailed the eviction of some seven hundred families from the area, many of whom were indigenous Mongoneow who had (already) been forced into the highlands because of pressure from the resettlement and migration of other Indonesians’ (10).

The third category of difficulty inherent in any attempt to interrogate the species boundary in postcolonial  contexts concerns the ways in which the treatment of animals that have special status in one human society is used to vilify, incriminate or marginalise other human groups – for example, immigrants in western societies – that regard those animals differently. Elder, Wolch and Emel (1998) cite the state-wide furore and anti-immigrant sentiment evoked in California by the beating to death of a puppy by a Vietnamese man whose wife was very ill, and who believed he could restore her health in this manner. Cruel though this custom is, such ‘animal-linked racialisation’ (Elder, Wolch and Emel’s phrase: 73–74) works to sustain power relations between dominant groups and to subordinate immigrants, since, as the authors put it, ‘violence done to animals and pain inflicted on them are almost inevitably interpreted in culturally and place-specific ways’ (74). Such racialisations are both inappropriate and hypocritical in a society with abattoirs, scientific experiment, and commercial exploitation, and it is consequently ‘both difficult and inappropriate to characterise one type of harm or death as more painful or more humane than another’ (73–74). But as the authors also note, ‘this does not imply that animal suffering, agony and death are mere social constructs; they are only too real’ (74; emphasis theirs). Elder, Wolch and Emel’s critique of such ‘animal-linked racialisations’ is thus directed at ‘a profound rethinking of all “savage practices” toward animals’, as well as towards all those who are ‘othered’ under the sign of the animal (74).

All of the previous examples explicitly or implicitly invoke questions of priority. Crudely put, a fourth objection contained in such instances is this: why worry about animals when children are starving, or when other people are still being killed, raped and abused? The answer to this goes back to the point with which our argument began: that while there is still the ‘ethical acceptability’ (Wolfe 1998: 39) of the killing of nonhuman others – that is, anyone represented or designated as nonhuman – such abuses will continue, irrespective of what is conceived as the species boundary at any given time. Nor are these ‘either/or’ matters. As African women writers in the 1970s reminded their male colleagues, some of whom wanted to prioritise anti-colonial nationalism over antipatriarchal feminism, there is no political purchase in such issues being addressed by a ‘first-things-first’ approach. They must proceed together.3

Turning to the question of representation, since it is the representation of animals, rather than the animals themselves, which has historically resonated as racism and which – along with consumer capitalism – continues to determine and sustain the species boundary to the present day. This boundary is shifting and contingent, but most of us are still given to act as if it were obdurate, continually re-drawing the line between humans and simian primates or, in an opposite move, including domestic animals with ourselves as farm animals (Fiddes 1992; Fudge 2008). And because, as Steve Baker (2001) argues, ‘our’ animals are represented as domestic or wild, good or bad, savage or tame, brave or cowardly, there are further orders of classification within the primary category ‘animal’ that subtend or even violate the first. It is tempting to conclude that the collective term ‘animal’ is absurd, incorporating as it does anything not recognised as human, from orang-utans and elephants to grasshoppers and bacterial forms.

Our representation of animals, especially in the present, is characterised by blatant and unresolved contradiction (Baker 2001). Baker clinches his point by considering what he calls the ‘glaringly contradictory’ figurations of animals and the animalistic in adjacent articles in the popular press (167). He discusses the ironic placement of two such items: ‘Sex Beast Caged’ and ‘Shake on It, Old Friend’. The first item concerns ‘the return to jail of a man who had been “freed to prey on little girls”’, while the second is about ‘“Tripper the Wonder Dog” who had recently saved the life of his “master”’ (167). In accordance with the ‘conventions of the popular press, the dog’s praiseworthy actions are automatically humanised (and its image correspondingly anthropomorphised) while the sex offender can only be comprehended as beastly’ (167).

Such representational anomalies are indicative of our attempts to reconcile, and thereby come to terms with, the contradictory attitudes to animals that most human societies harbour. For example, in the contemporary western world a fundamental disjunction often occurs between our eating habits and our objections to cruelty to animals. Butcher shop windows decorated with printed borders of lambs dancing across a green meadow, a display of chops behind, or cheerful chickens beckoning customers into fast food outlets are images that help to naturalise the incarcerations of industrialised agribusiness and the pandemic slaughter of animals, even though we scrupulously avoid applying such incriminating terms. While torture, killing and eating are the actual processes involved, we routinely dissociate slaughter involving animals from that involving humans, and our eating of animal flesh from human flesh, confirming such dissociations in the everyday language we employ.

Representation has also proved crucial in the destruction of animal species, and is central to the contemporary preservation of others. As the fate of the now extinct ‘Tasmanian Tiger’ demonstrates, this small and relatively harmless carnivorous marsupial’s designation, particularly in the popular press, as a ‘wolf’ or ‘tiger’ only helped to hasten its extinction (Paddle 2000; Freeman 2005). The logo of a 1999 Tasmanian exhibition4 makes the point by depicting, against the background of the rising moon, a huge upstanding and howling wolf-like shadow for a creature represented in the foreground as small and frail with a pathetically hangdog head. This image prefigures the ‘tiger’s’ fate at the hands of humans; its representation as a dangerous carnivore effectively sealed its fate.

While cruelty, death or extinction are not the necessary results of the human representation of animals – many such representations are sympathetic or benign – it is difficult for animals to escape anthropocentrism because they exist in modern cultures much more in representation than in ‘the real’ (Baker 2000). Conservation legislation, and/or the treatment of particular species, often depend on public response to representation rather than to the animals themselves or their environments since, for most urban-based voters, there has been little or no experience of the ‘real thing’. Moreover, our training in ‘reading’ animals, from childhood on, tends to ensure that we interpret texts of all kinds about animals anthropocentrically, trapping them in distinct representational categories, e.g. animal-specific literary genres. Above all, most animals – though some more obviously than others – exist for modern-day populations as primarily symbolic: they are given an exclusively human significance, a ‘whole repertoire of metaphoric associations’ (Mitchell 1998: 67), the primary and often only referential context and field of purchase of which is ‘man’.

1 Sections of this introduction have already appeared (in slightly different form) as ‘Unjust Relations: Post-Colonialism and the Species Boundary’ in Greg Ratcliffe and Gerry Turcotte (eds) (2001) Compr(om)ising Post/Colonialism(s): Challenging Narratives and Practices, Sydney: Dangaroo pp 30–41.
2 The term ‘species boundary’ refers to the discursive construction of a strict dividing line between ‘human’ and ‘animal’ in terms of the possession (or lack thereof) of traits such as speech, consciousness, self-consciousness, tool use and so on. It is not being used in the strictly scientific sense (still arguably discursive) of Darwinian species differentiation based on the ability of individuals within a particular group to produce fertile offspring.
3 For an account of and comments on this debate see Kirsten Holst-Petersen, ‘First Things First: Problems of a Feminist Approach to African Literature’, 1984.
4 ‘The Tasmanian Tiger: The Mystery of the Thylacine.’ The image for the exhibition was Patrick Hall’s. For more on the connections between representation – both written and pictorial – and extinction, see Robert Paddle, The Last Tasmanian Tiger: The History and Extinction of the Thylacine (Cambridge UP, 2000), and Carol Freeman, ‘Is this picture worth a thousand words? An analysis of Harry Burrell’s photo of a Thylacine with a chicken’, Australian Zoologist, 33.1:1–16. (A later debate between Freeman and Paddle can be found in Australian Zoologist, 34.4:459–70 and 271–75.

Source: Postcolonial Ecocriticism Literature, Animals, Environment by Graham Huggan and Helen Tiffin Routledge 2010.


Categories: Eco Criticism, Ecofeminism, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Postcolonialism

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