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.

action post-Foucault – directionless or inspirational & challenging?

The writings or, or reference to them, of Michel Foucault have occupied much of my mental space for several months now. I increasingly have tried to grapple with a shift in perceptions and understandings of power relations from a Marxist towards a less monolithic (a view I always held even when benefiting from the teachings of/discussions with dogmatic Marxists) view encompassing agency and structuralist underpinnings. This shift towards such a perspective, and away from a prescriptive Marxist model of revolution has been – and still continues to be quite challenging.

The opportunity to rub shoulders with Judith Revel and Antonio Negri this week. At the first event, in which Judith presented some of her research, Biopolitics and the crisis of modernity I managed to spark a disagreement between her and Antonio regarding the recent uprisings in France and its provisional (according to Judith) existence as challenging state/capital from ‘outside’ relations as opposed to reflecting, reifying and perpetuating/legitimating the oppressive basis embodied in it. The second event about Foucault’s biopolitics and multitude, whilst very heavy and abstract, tied things together well. The question and answer session really consolidated things for me: my (non prescriptive) views on how we can achieve positive change.

With Foucault being non prescriptive and oft labelled as not a good/anti revolutionary – which I would agree with to an extent, albeit with a differing interpretation (a positive one) – and his ‘anti disciplinary politics’ as ‘merely rhetoric and posturing’, a transition from a Marxist perspective can leave one asking many questions. And this is a good thing – it is the lack of perceived direction that is the challenge. The notion of needing, and being able to, attain knowledge (i.e. truth) is at the core of western society and emanates from the Enlightenment project (and religion prior to this). Based on this and the loss of a prescribed direction in this shift from a Marxist to a Foucauldian understanding of power relations, having a prefigurative approach with hope – and here I refer to hope in the sense the Derrick Jensen postulates: hope is a longing for a future condition over which you have no agency – one can be at a loss for action for change.

It is in this form of stasis that I have found myself positioned. In critically and reflexively engaging with my own actions and attempting to improve on them prefiguratively (based on my mediated white existence) I have struggled to do little more than provide constructive criticism for past/present actions. This clearly contrasts with having a grass-roots revolution (of whatever form) that is enmeshed in a Marxist perspective. Whilst I still do not have prescription, and I should not need it, I know have a basis for direction beyond what I had. This has come about through both listening to Antonio Negri and reflecting on what he said to pose questions – the answers to which coalesced as I was attempting to construct the questions. To explain this, I need to outline the crux of what was presented by both Judith Revel (last week) and Antonio Negri (today).

Judith referred to a multiplicity of singularities that form communities as the source of resistance that can (provisionally, or more?) exist outside of merely reflecting the embodied power relations with the state/capital. Antonio referred to the subjectivities created by via the biopolitics of post-modern society and the dynamics of the power relation with the populace (power only exists if it is resisted – Foucault). He stated that it is not only the state/capital that can create subjectivities, rather that resistance can create them in their own right. Within and alongside this dynamic equilibrium is the basis for the possibilities of change emanating from this resistance. The subjectivities created can and do provide for existences outside of the state/capital modes of operation. This is where the potential for change lies.

Whilst articulating this has provided me with a renewed optimism, it still does not, per se, provide a clear direction – again a good thing as prefigurativeness is incommensurate with prescription. The last question posed to Antonio during the seminar provided for a means for some: what to do for the left. After critically challenging the left and referring to it is a parasite of capitalism, Antonio provided a response I had not come across before. What is needed is a reconceptualiseation of how we see exploitation at the core of state/capital relations. Whereas labour was previously the basis of exploitation, this has shifted to intellectual exploitation (i.e. knowledge). This needs to be clarified as I heard someone outside denigrating this – with the ability to do so being it taken clearly out of context (or based on a misunderstanding) I have a similar initial response.

Antonio Negri is not implying that it is now the intellectual classes who are the oppressed via current state/capital relations, rather the exploitation emanates from the social relations in the minds of the workers rather than as a direct action of the state/capital. I find this very interesting, given the context of a recent seminar of Derrick Jensen’s (where the hope reference is also located). In this seminar, Derrick refers to ‘rich’ people have more bits of paper than other people. The bits of paper mean nothing, it is the social relations that we accept. This ties back to hegemony, and thus agency and/or consent.

To surmise (also for my own benefit) the subjectivities created through resistance, specifically the aspects of the subjectivities that transcend state/capital relations is where the potential for radical change is located. It is not revolution, to again refer to Foucault, that we want to pursue – we do not want to replace the state – we want to dismantle the state. It is abolition that we seek.