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.

an ongoing, troubling, journey

Over recent months I have reflected on the musings penned and shared here, the significant periods without words, and how life has intersected. These periods have reasons, and before I
ponder these it is the content and approach-style of what I have shared—and how these have transformed over time—over the last ten years which have prompted some thoughts.

Contrasting with a prescribed aim of my space here — reflecting on intersecting oppressions, life experiences and thoughts on appropriate-effective responses — I have noted in the collection of musings an array of contradictory elements. In particular the language embodies — rooted in hegemonic masculinity that is often unmarked — key societal aspects I seek to challenge. The language and tone in anyways illustrate my own unquestioned (at the time) manifestations  of patriarchal confidence and arrogance. The language and tone is at times (overly?) aggressive and adversarial, even when I have sought to expose and challenge this in others.

I do hope, and can see indicators of this, that as I have continued to reflect on life, love and all things in between in a world mediated by capital that the content and approach-style of my musings have become more aligned with the vision of an egalitarian society across species, gender and ability — as my experiences and active attempts to grow as a person continue.

My outlook is of course shaped by my experiences, and these are responsible for what I pen and share, and at the same time the periods without words. I have had a long history of precarious employment. At times, some very enjoyable periods. I have had rolling contracts for three years now, without any periods of unemployment between (and recently transitioned to an ‘ongoing’ role). I find myself in the position of having secure employment for the first time in my life, albeit in a role that is not something I am overly passionate about — like a vast number of others.

I find moments and spaces where I am able to promote and achieve socially-positive outcomes, amongst a milieu of bureaucracy and redicularity common to many roles. The milieu — alongside time put to community work and other activities undertaken in seeking to find employment more aligned with my values — is largely responsible for these periods.

With developing experience, I am creating-finding more spaces for life in work. In part, the wellbeing which emerges are planting seeds as well as a hope for emergent personal and (however small) social benefits of sharing my musings…

the wondrousness of a smile

My friend Sherbs time came to an end today, after living with breast cancer for a few years. This has struck me in myriad ways, some quite unexpected and at times a little overwhelming —irrespective that it was expected any day, after her move into hospice care a week or so ago. I am struggling a little with words, and some feel just wrong. For example, in trying to describe Sherbs’ wonderful smile — which light up rooms, what comes to mind is ‘infectious’…

In part, an awareness of how I need to work on processing aspects of life (and death) has come to the fore again. These words here are an attempt to reflect on this moment, provide a (future) time capsule perhaps. Be a part of my process, and perhaps in some small way provide some insight for others??

I have long thought that in the wake of death, what transpires is much more about those still living than the one whose time has passed. Family, friends, associates. This is very clear to me today, and this time I am seeing it in my own responses — and find it a little uncomfortable as how I am reflecting is very much about me, my recollections, my own wellbeing. I have felt the need to pen some words, even though doing so is very much about me.

Quite a few people are openly posting their thoughts on social media, sharing their condolences, their memories. In coming days and weeks, I am sure I will reflect on this more, from a different space, a different context, perhaps with a contrasting interpretation. Whilst such public displays are not something I engage in, the insight and perspective I have has imbued an ability to reflect and perhaps understand a little similar insistences I have come across that I am quite removed from. Another plus, is that someone has referred to this person smile as ‘gleaming’ which is a much more apt, and less ‘wrong’ descriptor.

A lot of pictures have been shared, many I have seen before, which reminds us all of our memorable experiences with Sherbs. I went back through my own photo’s this morning looking for pictures — in part to help with recollections and memories, and to re-stimulate my feelings and connections. I want to dig a l little deeper here, not to reciprocate, enunciate or provide my own account of how wonderful, selfless, and inspiring Sherbs and my moments with her memories are. That said, in my searching I found quite a lovely one photo — and times like this remind me of the value of having them (I have far from anywhere near enough). It very clearly reminds me of the day it was taken, and all of the other good times we had. What we shared, experienced (I did not take the photo, and can’t recall who did).

When I first heard that Sherbs’ had cancer — the first of my friends (in contrast to family members’ friends) — I did not know how to respond. It was not a lack of words, rather just not knowing how. My experiences growing up with a father who did not seem emotionally available and relatively introverted when it comes to feelings may be a factor here. It may also be more broad, existing in a world where men are consciously and subconsciously reminded that emotions are a feminine thing, not something for real men; that men can’t reach out to other men for emotional support. These sit with stark contrast to the many men I know who have moved beyond such limitations and have developed quite constructive emotional capacities. My lack of process is still evident.

By way of example, I was at work when I that Sherbs had passed. When a shared this with a colleague, I found myself fighting back tears and hiding my face so as not to be seen to be emotionally impacted in any way. Even following this awareness of my friends and colleagues, I did not say anything more for a kind of fear that I would not be able to contain my emotions, that tears would flow. And where I work is filled with many wonderful and supportive people. Governmentality  at its finest!

As Sherb’s has lived with cancer over the last few years, I found myself not reaching out to her — when she needed it. I felt did not know how. I felt I did not know what to say. I felt II did not know how to be. Even in the last weeks, and especially when she was moved into hospice, I continued to struggle, to have doubts. I can’t see this as anything but selfish in impact, which makes it even more difficult to process.

Shortly before Sherbs was diagnosed, I had moved (back) to the other side of the world. In some ways this made it both harder and easier to process, to avoid having to process. I could not physically be there, to visit, to create and share memories. I think this would have been much easier (for me), just the physical presence. It does not require words in the same way as other forms of communication. Sometimes our body language conveys what we cannot (emotionally) through words. Our body can reveal joy, pain, sorrow. Often when we don’t want it to. Sometimes when we need it to.

I am running out of words, partly due to being distracted by others whilst trying to put these words down on paper — given that I am ‘at work’ and shirking my responsibilities. As small, potentially inconsequential and perhaps broadly unread as these musings may be, they seem in this moment to have more value than mundane and even somewhat valuable work tasks…


postscript

I have, and continue to have, similar struggles in reaching out to a friend living with breast cancer for the last 2 years. Only yesterday I crossed paths with their partner and one of their daughters. I think it is the (differently) visible pain in their bodies as they survive through this everyday that impacts me most. Which reinforces  my apparent inability to relate, to be able to (comfortably) reach out. I still relish and look forward to the moments I share with them… perhaps I will pen reflections on those another time.