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.

the question of effectiveness

I think many (most, all?) of us are troubled by the question of how effective what we do is. And that this question exists outside of specifics about what it is exactly that we do. I was challenged on this recently, resulting in this reflection. Reflection is something we should all do, regularly and repeatedly, as long as such reflection is not crippling.

More than the last 15+ years of my life have had working for a more just world as their precursor. What actions I have taken, being many and varied, have all emanated from this maxim. The first question which arises is how do we define, label and seek to categorise effectiveness. Can we even answer such a pejorative? Who and what is the arbiter?

I have engaged in actions across various situations, circumstances and ‘playing fields’ in search of what I feel and perceive as the most effective for myself (covert, civil disobedience, and other). Reflection on what is most effective ‘for me’ continues to not just occupy my brain space. Such thought is, and should be(?) haunting…

I have been fortunate. I have not had my ‘liberties’ confiscated by the state to any level near that of so many others. I have not had my life completely defaced by the state. As someone who falls within the socially constructed category of a white person, I fall within a privileged category that affords me a number of benefits.

All this aside, what constitutes effective activism?

Is this ‘working’ 100+ (or 148) hours a week on grassroots campaigns, 40/60/80 hours or more a week for a non-prof (and quasi-non-prof) or other organisation, or working 60+ hours working in education sectors? Is it utilising all of ones ‘spare time’ outside of (benign, meaningless, soul destroying) paid employment working on issues? How do I/we respond to such questions. Are our responses valid and appropriate? Are our actions effective?

These are valid question. We will likely come up with different responses (not answers). My point here is not to get (uncritically) postmodern, accepting of ‘all’.

Actions have value. Value for those taking the action. Perceived value for those taking the action. Value for those ‘benefiting’ from the actions taken. Social value for taking action.

Value is socially constructed, itself predicated on values we ascribe (individually and socially).

I continue to reflect on such questions, and my current thoughts are direct and indirect. Beyond how much my actions directly influence individuals and society (and the self), do my actions potentially influence others to influence others (and society)? These questions we cannot answer, yet hope to tailer our actions towards maximising. In our own mindsets, contexts and perceptions, I feel this is what should should be what we aim for…

companion animal adoption and vegan diets

After giving away most of my material possessions, saying good bye to family and friends, and moving to the other side of the this planet** I am in place (in the broad sense) to consider fostering (possibly adopting) a cat from a shelter. I am still trying to get my head around/resolve some concerns and a moral conundrum. In reflecting on these, I share some concerns that the words of others have helped me to gain perspective on — to a point which I feel I can make an informed decision.

I am opposed to the notion of a ‘pet’, of animals being chattel property. That we can walk into a store and buy an animal, that this animal becomes ‘ours’ and that we have a number of legal rights to do what we wish (within differing limits, depending on where we live) is predicated by and on human chauvanism. There are many others who have provided clear expressions of the why behind this, so I will not expand on that here.

I also have concern with keeping companion animals locked up. The most clear example being birds in a cage (I am horrified how many Australian bird species I have seen as ‘exotic’ pets in other stores and homes in other countries). I also have issues with dogs in yards, cats indoors, etc, etc. To me a cage is a cage irrespective of size. This has been one of two significant issues that have played a significant role in my not adopting an animal in the past (my transient status, and not feeling that I could provide enough care/attention, what I would consider adequate are also significant concerns/barriers). My thoughts on the housing of companion animals (in specific circumstances) have since been influenced by people who someone I meant earlier this year.

To put it simply, keeping an animal locked up is preferable to an animal being kept in a shelter, and most likely euthanised because of how fucked up our society is.

The numbers of companion animals euthanised every day is astounding (in the order of 10 million in the USA, based on 1997 figures) — all because of the manifestations of anthropocentrism, subset by notions of what is considered cute and the whims of animals as accessories.

In light of this, I feel that I can do at least something to improve the life an an animal whose suffering is no fault of there own, rather our species’ outrageous non-consideration and selfishness. In such a context, restrictions on freedom (i.e. some level of a ‘cage’) are not as significant as issue. Notwithstanding concerns that I may not be home enough, I feel that I can do something here.

My main stumbling block is a moral conundrumºº that I have struggled with for more than a decade. It is a conundrum as there is not an ideal outcome. To frame this directly, how can I justify killing one animal to keep another alive? I am aware, and have discussed the issue of vegan cats with a number of people at length — many of the stories have been fraught with concern and struggles seeking to ensure health and well being. Serious health (urinary tract) issues have emerged with many people who have rescued cats and sought to feed them a vegan diet — even those commercially available and advertised as 100% nutritionally complete.

To be clear, I do not have issue with cats being carnivores. My issue is the farming of animals by humans to feed other animals. We should not be farming animals at all. The moral conundrum is rooted in a moral disconnect at best, and a moral schizophrenia at worst.

I guess what emerges from this is that I need to do more research on the suitability of vegan cat food…

** There is much I am still coming to terms with, which has prevented me from posting any thoughts here for some time — though these will come.

ººThis moral conundrum is something I have reflected on for many years.