Subjectivity and the privilege of time

I was recently prompted to reflect on my interest in animal question. This led a to a revisiting of my narrative, the why behind my interest. The why behind two decades of social justice activism, and my parallel intellectual-academic interest going back more than a decade.

A little over 10 years ago I was interviewed by Lauren Corman, on Animal Voices in Toronto, for a program about vegan blogging. I thought that listening to what I had said back in 2006 — beyond providing a refresher into my motivations — might provide some interesting insights and potential contrasts to my current perspectives, attitudes and approaches to the animal question. It was quite illuminating.

In drafting the requested piece of writing over the last few days, I also revisited my previous post here, in which I reflected on the question of why I became a vegan. I am asked this from time to time, and it seems to be a little more often of late: an intersection of both people becoming aware that I am vegan, and an awareness of having my 20 year veganniversary a few months ago.

Central to both is the formative impact that Henri Safron’s (1976) Australian film Storm Boy had on me when I was very young. It is my earliest cinematic memory. In seeking to put into words the impact this film had on me, beyond what I outlined in my previous post here, I went back to Lauren Corman and Tereza Vandrovcová’s chapter in Defining Critical Animal Studies (2014). I am fortunate enough to know both of them, and my perspectives have been influenced by their ideas, research and words. Of specific note here, I was looking for a way to express the formative significance of Storm Boy, and in particular the portrayal of Mr Percival (a pelican) in the film.

Mr Percival was presented as someone rather than something. It is without doubt that their presence was also fundamentally on their terms — and I think this also goes a long way to reflecting some of the ideas Lauren and Tereza engage with in their chapter. What is very clear is that Mr Pervical had a voice, a subjectivity, their own ‘social, culture and emotional’ life and experiences (Corman and Vandrovcová 2104: 139). The Director clearly intended for this.

To return to my revisiting of the Animal Voices interview, two key themes stood out for me. The first in many ways reflects a tendency in Critical Animal Studies (shaped by patriarchy and other social relations more broadly) and one which I think is specifically being addressed in the scholar-activist community. When being asked about my (intellectual-academic) interests around the animal question, I referred to male scholars only. This intrigued my a little as my ideas are significantly informed by ecofeminist scholarship (for some time before I had read the works of these two men). Alongside reflecting on my patriarchal obliviousness at the time (something I continue to seek to identify unpack in myself and my lived experiences of privilege), this also highlighted a broader tendency in the academic field to afford credit to men for doing the work that women had been doing for some time — effectively disappearing their work. Fortunately there has been a significant and intentional shift in CAS over recent years. Carol Adams and Lori Gruen’s (2014) Ecofeminism: Feminist Intersections with Other Animals and the Earth provides a substantive body and forms part of this shift.

In revisiting the interview, my focus on the work of these two men (I was seeking to highlight a tension) with the associated non-acknowledgment of the important and influential work of women also highlighted the other key theme which stood out to me. I noted that I often present ideas without unpacking them as much as I perhaps should. It is most glaring and significant with regards to this above example, as it has broader and negative connotations. Specifically, the disappearing of foundation and important voices of women, and a reification of notions of men as central to everything.

What I was able to identify in revisiting the interview was the basis of my approach. This is an approach I still embody elements of today and have taken on as something I need to continue to address and refine.

More-so in my teaching and conference presentations, I seek to present ideas to foster dialogue, to prompt questioning. I do not fully unpack ideas, rather seek to leave somethings a little open and create opportunities for others to interject, to question, to become involved in the discussion. In part this embodies an an assumption that the knowledge I have is (relatively easily) available to others. This is rooted in my lived experiences. I have a working-poor background and this is identified by the Australian University sector as ‘first-in-family’, which simply means the first person in an entire genealogy to attend university. Rooted in this experiences is an assumption that if I can know something, others must be able to as well. What this can lose site of (and I this recently came out in discussions with a colleague who I am supervising through their dissertation) is the value and benefit of time. I have had the privilege of time. The time required to find, to read, to think, to be exposed, to reflect on a range of ideas. To put these together, to share them with others, to be critiqued, to critique, to learn, to engage. This is something not available to many, and disproportionally impacts to the working-poor ( a little irony here?)

My approach to not fully unpack ideas came from this well-intentioned assumption. However it is one that has implications and consequences. In seeking to reflect on this more broadly, I am also trying to inform my approach to activism and social change outside of engaging with those already on the trajectory towards a more fair and just world. I feel that I need to be less dismissive (even when people say really fucked up and racist shit, and when men ooze with patriarchal arrogance), to listen, and to be more strategic in my responses. We all have our narratives which in themselves are shaped by our contexts, our lived experiences. Whereas my working-poor background was its own struggle, I have also been afforded significant — and in a number of ways unearned — privilege (I was the only male and second eldest of four children). I have had time, opportunities. My narrative, my subjectivities, have prompted and afforded some of the necessary spaces and questions needed for me to learn, to shape my trajectory and desire to see a more fair and just world.

All of our subjectivities are differently formed and informed. They need their own time to develop, to evolve. Perhaps I need to further reflect on (the impacts on me of) Mr Percival being afforded the rare space to illustrate their subjectivity?

As a side note, I am working my way though Dinesh Wadiwel’s (2015) The War against Animals. Alongside and extending on the central theme of Jason Hribal’s (2010) Fear of the Animal Planet: the Hidden History of Animal Resistance, Dinesh presents on way in which humans can challenge to war against animals as through exposing the resisting practices of other animals (pp. 167-8). Alongside acknowledging Mr Percaival’s subjectivity in Storm Boy, another clear example would be Gabriela Cowperthwait’s (2013) documentary Blackfish.

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