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.

Coalesences & parrots

Alongside sporadic thoughts, on occasions I am asked what led me to become vegan. I had narrowed it down to a handful of memories which I think planted seeds and laid foundations for later coalescences, intersections. These are memories stretching back to my youth. I consider my first to come from watching the Australian film Storm Boy, released in 1976 (I can’t recall when I first saw the film, though it was quite a few after its release). Storm boy also exposed me to what might be my first recollections of Aboriginal people, and the immense talent of David Gulpilil (a story for another time)… This morning, a pair of King Parrots flew overhead whilst I walked to my office — which brought forth a memory and an associatio:  reflections on society, anthropocentrism and human chauvinism that are also foundational to why I am vegan and see the importance of intersectionality.

I am fortunate to work in a location that has a significant number of open spaces that provide habitat for a range of species. Birds appear to take the most advantage of this, and a number are quite comfortable with the humans that constantly walk by — whether the are in the trees and bushes, or doing their thing on the ground (the birds, that is!). It is one of the most enjoyable aspects of my work-workplace, one that I note and value every day — with my reflections on seeing a pair of King Parrots this morning being an indicative example.

In Storm Boy, based on a children’s book (which I have never read: now might be a good time), a young boy comes across some newly hatched Pelican chicks. Hunters have shot their parent(s). The young boy takes care of the three before releasing them. One of the Pelicans, Mr Percival forms a relationship with the boy and returns. Spoiler alert: He is subsequently shot by hunters. Recalling the film now fosters a similar level of profundity to when I first saw it. Before I draw directly links with the film and my experience this morning — the connections to which are coming to light as I write this — two other memories which have directly shaped my everyday existence and becoming vegan are prudent.

Much later than Storm Boy, two distinct events shaped my outlook: French nuclear testing in the Pacific, and the Canadian seal hunt. More specifically, protests agains these. The former was influential given the complete disregard for life that such weapons of mass destruction are founded on, and their central role in a culture of war. The latter was more a gateway to inherent anthropocentrism and human chauvinism for socially constructed human vanity (i.e. fashion): seal pups, at times only days old are killed for their fur.

In many ways, as the examples above are, my journey to becoming vegan is about me. The same can be said of my experience this morning, and the connections I am making now. Whereas it can be argued these are anthropocentric, perhaps partial anthropocentrism is a more appropriate moniker. I like to think that my veganism is not about me, in that it emerges from a concerns for other species. I do not seek credit for being vegan, or promote being so for my own benefit. Rather, I see it as a the right thing to do, as justice. Much in the same way that my opposition to racism, sexism and homophobia is similarly about justice for all. Am I tied up in these, most certainly. It can also be (not too difficulty) argued that I benefit from my everyday practices and activism confronting these.

My experience this morning, in seeing a pair of King Parrots and reflecting on the simple beauty, even nonchalance of their existence, their everyday — it is very likely that I was not even a passing thought of theirs — recalled a memory. This memory was evoked in wanting to share my sighting with someone. It is someone I have talked with about the why and what led me (vegan) question in recent times. The memory is not a good one.

In secondary school in Australia, all students participate (or at least did so when I was one) in a work placement (unpaid) for 1-2 weeks. At the time, I was interested in being a vet (which can be read into). I had arranged to undertake this a local small animal surgery (i.e. companion animals). A few days prior to starting, my school had realised that their was a mixup: myself and another student were misconstrued into being one person. In short, they had inadvertently agreed to both of us, thinking it was one person inquiring. As a result, my placement was transferred to a pet shop with a lot of animals. I was informed that they cared about animals, and I would receive some hands on experience. Little did I or the school know what the latter would come to.

During my time there, a ‘shipment’ of King Parrots arrived and were placed in a number of adjacent cages. These were not small — the shop was in an semi-industrial area and was on the larger side. There were also cages, so limited in size. The birds call fly from one side to the other. Not full flight by any means, though much larger than the cages they would likely have ended up in when purchased.

The following morning, on arriving at work, I was asked to clean these cages out. I can’t recall how many of the birds died overnight — it was either all of the three dozen plus the store had received, or all but two or three. The owner hinted that they had likely died of shock. Irrespective of why, I was horrified.

The value of Other life is what I drew from this. Instrumental, anthropocentric value. Vanity. These birds (I viewed them as majestic, though their lives were of no more value than any of the Other species in the pet shop and beyond) had died on speculation. Their deaths were factored into the retail value. Some losses would occur.

At the time, I did not directly link the exploitation of Other animals to relations of capital. It did plant seeds for my later emergent understandings. In reflecting now, based on the recollections emergent through my sight of pair of King Parrots merely doing their thing this morning, this experience — a horrible one — was also foundational for my becoming vegan. Intertwined with class, the essential nature of intersectionality in an analysis of social relations within and across species was also central.

In future recountings of the why and what, this, far from pleasant, experience will likely be included…

Image credit: Male King parrot (Alisterus scapularis) feeding on the seeds of Coastal Wattle (Acacia longifolia), October 31, 2009. Photo: Doug Beckers (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Anthropocentrism, bushfires, class

Australia has quite a (recent) history with bushfires. Some of them very tragic, with significant loss of human life. Of note, the lives of animals rarely rate a mention, unless they are cute — pictures of a koala seeking/receiving water from a human — South Australia 2013; 2015; Victoria 2009 — or there is significant economic loss to a farmer — the death of untold numbers of ‘livestock’. The human impacts of fires, more-so at this time of year, are very much a part of mainstream media and community discussions here. Responses are routinely anthropocentric, both oblivious and willfully ignorant. The fires around the Great Ocean Road on December 25 & 26 added another level for reflection.*

On my mind are reactive calls for further clearing of tree-land around housed, specifically forested land land adjacent to private property (including public and protected lands such as state forests and national parks). Most of the fires in recent years, especially those with loss if human life (at times exceeding 100), have been followed with significant discussion about the ‘necessity’ of such clearing. A small number of associated comments about the appropriateness of living in and adjacent you forested areas are quickly set aside, re-centring anthropocentric assumptions and attitudes. In short, (public and protected) land should be cleared to protect property. The increasing normativity of such attitudes is perhaps most clear in proposals for single homes and multiple housing sub divisions designed with an expectation that trees and other vegetation will be cleared (buffer zones for fire safety) outside of the respective private property. As in, on public and protected lands.

There is no discussion here about the impacts of clearing land on other animals, on ‘private’, public and protected lands. Whereas this is quite normative, those who live and actively chose to live in areas adjacent to forested areas regularly claim a level of affinity with ‘the land’ above and beyond those in more urban-city areas. The level of nonconsideration is quite astounding.

The proverbial ‘elephant in the room’ is the population question. Inherently linked, if slightly different, to the nonconsideration above, it is an issue the ‘left’ ignores effectively as much as the ‘right’. Without exploring it further here, it is much more an (pressing) issue for the west in the light of consumptive practices

The ‘other level of reflection’ spurred by the Great Ocean Road fire on December 25 & 26 is that the homes lost were almost exclusively ‘holiday’ homes. As in, homes owned by well-to-do people, second homes, which are ‘lived’ in for a small portion of the year. Of note, they are not cheap cabins or small houses: a search of current real estate listings includes many (which now, likely, no longer exist) for well in excess on $1 million.

Whereas I find myself with little sympathy for those who have lost these $million + holiday homes, I am certain this would change if lives were lost. Herein lies some of my own hypocrisy. How many livers of other animals were lost and largely nonconsidered in these fires.? How many other animal livers were lost or displaced (and subsequently directly-indirectly lost) in these fires?

The larger question and ongoing issue is the continual displacement of other animals (including direct and indirect loss of life) for further expansion of ‘civilisation’…

* I wrote this as holiday makers were in evacuation centres…