Interesting Animals
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Interesting Animals
What Would Animals Say If We Asked The Right Questions? Vinciane Despret Brett Buchanan, trans. University of Minnesota Press 249 Pages; Print, $30.00

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What Would Animals Say If We Asked the Right Questions? is a series of twenty-six short essays—from "A for Artists: Stupid like a painter?" to "Z for Zoophilia: Can horses consent?"—in which Vinciane Despret encourages us to "hesitate" before claiming knowledge about other species. In "Y for YouTube: Are animals the new celebrities?," Despret attributes the ever-increasing popularity of animal videos to viewers' fascination with non-humans as "talented beings, remarkable for their heroism, sociality, cognitive and relational intelligence, humor, unpredictability, and inventiveness." Yet even as we marvel at their behaviors and abilities, humans continue to underestimate these beings who cannot plainly tell us what they think, feel, want, or know. For Despret, a Belgian "philosophical ethologist," accurately understanding other species depends on our willingness to ask the right questions, to think carefully about how best to ask them, and to think flexibly when interpreting the animals's responses.

Trained in both philosophy and psychology, Despret practices a "version" of ethology—the science of animal behavior—"in a way that returns it to its etymology, ethos, and the manners, customs, and habits that tie together beings who share, that is, create together, the same ecological niche." In his laudatory foreword to What Would Animals Say, Bruno Latour describes Despret as an empiricist—"interested in objective facts and grounded claims"—and, more specifically, an "additive empiricist," one who seeks not to "eliminate alternative accounts" but "to add, to complicate, to specify,…to slow down and, above all, hesitate so as to multiply the voices that can be heard." Inspired by thinkers like Latour, Donna Haraway, Isabelle Stengers, and Michel Serres, Despret performs an important role of the philosopher: questioning science's methods and assumptions in order to open overlooked or unforeseen paths of inquiry.

The most prominent of translator Brett Buchanan's recent efforts to introduce English-speaking audiences to Despret, What Would Animals Say If We Asked the Right Questions? originally appeared in French as Que diraient les animaux, sion leur posait les bonnes questions? Buchanan's translation lives up to the high standards set by its predecessors in the University of Minnesota Press's Posthumanities series (edited by Cary Wolfe), which for the past decade has offered some of the most exciting, provocative, and inventive writing in animal studies, post-humanism, media theory, and the scientific humanities. In this tradition, Despret writes to facilitate substantive conversations between the sciences and humanities, academics and amateurs, theory and practice, and—above all—between humans and animals.

Despret insists that animals become more interesting to humans—research scientists, animal handlers, and amateurs of all stripes—when humans spend more time asking what interests animals. For instance, "M for Magpies: How can we interest elephants in mirrors?" re-opens the case of mirror-recognition experiments conducted with magpies and elephants; though the researchers concluded that only some individuals can recognize themselves, Despret reframes the issue in terms of interest rather than capability, asking "what might have interested these self-recognizing magpies and elephants in the test…and why aren't the non-self-recognizing animals interested?" By underestimating the animals they study, researchers unwittingly overlook a number of variables, in spite of (and often because of) their earnest efforts to rigorously "control" the experiment and avoid influencing the results; whether in the field or lab, researchers impose artificial conditions that affect the animals in ways that may circumscribe their responses. Thus, in "C for Corporeal: Is it all right to urinate in front of animals?," Despret argues that the conventional approach to fieldwork—such that a primatologist among a pack of baboons should act as if she is invisible to them—is "doomed to fail" because it is "based on the idea that baboons will be indifferent to indifference." Instead, Despret advocates that observers should be "responsible" (after Haraway) and "politely accountable" to their animal hosts. By emphasizing that individual animals may respond to us with...