- Killing Animals
There are many ways to approach Killing Animals, a volume co-produced by the U.K.-based Animal Studies Group and edited by Erica Fudge. For scholars in this field, perhaps the most compelling way to read this book is as a model for collaboration in the study of animal life—and here more specifically death—across the humanities and social sciences. This is not to downplay the extraordinary earlier efforts of this group’s members in having demonstrated the relevance of studying animals within each of their respective disciplines (anthropology, art history, geography, history, literary studies, and philosophy), but rather to affirm how their work together in this project makes a compelling case for the development of animal studies “as an autonomous and substantive field”1 in its own right. Flouting the stereotype that scholarly interest in animals implies a homogenous politics (i.e., animal rights), the contributors’ sometimes sharply contrasting perspectives emerge in ways that ultimately underscore the critical, collective need for systematic analysis of all the diverse forms and meanings of human–animal relationships.
The introduction outlines the reasons why the group selected “killing” as the central theme of the project, and in the process elaborates the central assumption that these relations are distorted by traditional disciplinary formulations of animals as irrelevant to (or, at best, substitutes for) the study of human life. A review of current statistics underscores the rapidly growing, unprecedented global scale of animals killed annually by the billions both for immediate consumption (food, clothing, display) and no less systematically in the name of scientific experimentation, public health, and industrial progress. The argument here is that these mind-boggling levels of killing may be unprecedented, but their purposes have long served the expansion of capitalism and empire. So the contemporary mass-killing techniques behind the statistics do not render animals abject or outside of culture so much as they suggest potential for a thoroughgoing critique of power, particularly now that the killing of animals has become not only “ubiquitous and omnipresent,” touching nearly all aspects of human existence, but also “largely invisible in the public domain.”2 To interrogate this dynamic thus [End Page 181] involves overcoming both the studied avoidance and the cheapening to shock value of killing animals, requiring a complex methodology that clarifies common themes across socially and historically specific cases of killing animals. Therefore this opening chapter also frames the book in terms of a succession of interrelated topics, an approach that emphasizes how individual case studies work in tandem to trouble universalizing (especially human-centered) approaches to this shared history.
Important differences do emerge as well through the individually authored essays in this collection, and while these may be accounted for strictly in terms of politics or perspectives, what I think makes this volume so special are the ways in which they forge common ground while outlining different assumptions about the values of authorial intention, form, reception, and the role of context in shaping considerations of species life. In this way, Killing Animals offers the first conclusive answers as to why the field of animal studies does not signal the end of the identity debates (as some have recently suggested), but rather underscores the ongoing struggle to develop while still remaining critical of poststructuralist aesthetics. And, as the careful editing of this volume indicates, this point can best be demonstrated through the convergences of the contributors’ viewpoints on animal subjects.
The strongest common thread in this respect may be blood sports, which in recent years have emerged as arguably the most controversial of all the human cultural traditions centered on killing animals. Focusing on hunting as a leisure pursuit in contemporary Europe and North America, Garry Marvin shows how this nonutilitarian pursuit anchors a rare desire for a kind of animal death that holds out the possibility of eluding human volition, an argument that informs and is informed by his earlier anthropological studies of English foxhunting and Spanish bullfighting. And the wavering status in such sports of the animal as escaping or...