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  • A Parrot Might Talk Back. A review of Vinciane Despret, What Would Animals Say If We Asked the Right Questions?
  • Ellie Anderson (bio)
Despret, Vinciane. What Would Animals Say If We Asked the Right Questions? Trans. Brett Buchanan. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2016.

Vinciane Despret’s lively book offers an introduction to issues relevant to the field of animal studies. Interdisciplinary in nature, What Would Animals Say If We Asked the Right Questions? incorporates a wide variety of approaches, including scientific studies, anecdotal reports from animal breeders, caretakers, and trainers, as well as insights from ethology, anthropology, sociology, and philosophy. The playful style and structure of the book make for an engaging read that succeeds in unsettling assumptions about anthropomorphism, the treatment of animals in a variety of clinical and non-clinical settings, and the possibilities for responsible relations between humans and non-human animals. What Would Animals Say joins recent scholarship that focuses on community between humans and their animal others as well as on the epistemological and ethical issues that arise from interspecies relationality. In the wake of the first wave of animal studies, which largely centered on utilitarian arguments valorizing the similarity between humans and non-human animals on the basis of shared capacities, much scholarship in the past decade has pivoted toward more poststructuralist approaches that insist not on showing in what ways animals are like humans, but rather on respecting differences between humans and animals while also emphasizing their interdependence. A series of questions then arises, which include: Can people understand animals on their own terms? Can we feel for and with animals, or does this always entail assuming that they are just like us? Originally published in French in 2012, the English translation of Despret’s book participates in scholarly discussions about these timely questions, joining Donna Haraway’s When Species Meet, Kelly Oliver’s Animal Lessons: How They Teach Us to Be Human, Cynthia Willett’s Interspecies Ethics, Lori Gruen’s Entangled Empathy: An Alternative Ethic for Our Relationships with Animals, and Jane C. Desmond’s Displaying Death and Animating Life: Human-Animal Relations in Art, Science, and Everyday Life.

Despret’s book topples several prejudices about relations between animals and humans, especially by demonstrating that the amateurish and anecdotal are among the richest sites for conceptualizing these relations. Anecdotes from “lay amateurs”—that is, non-scientists who work with animals, including animal breeders, caretakers, and trainers—are often discounted by science for their purported unreliability and overdetermination by anthropomorphic frames of reference. According to scientists, the anecdotes offered by amateurs hastily interpret animal behavior through the naïve lens of anthropomorphism. For instance, Despret mentions Portuguese cow breeder Acácio Moura, who claims that his cow behaves like a “diva” during contests by preening for the camera, and the well-known elephants of northern Thailand who make paintings with their trunks. Scientists accuse amateurs of making unjustified assumptions about the intentions of these animals while interpreting their behaviors on models of human capacities and needs. Does the cow mean to show off for the photographers? Does the elephant mean to paint a work of art, or is she being manipulated by her caretaker who tugs on her ear to solicit each stroke? Such questions are, for Despret, not the ‘right questions’ to which the title of the book refers (2). They rely on outdated models of individual agency and willfulness that in fact hold neither for humans nor for non-human animals. Despret encourages her readers instead to consider these animal activities in light of agencements: relational agencies between individual beings that are inseparably interwoven with those of their companions and that render the question of intention useless. In this regard, Despret’s work has intersecting poststructuralist, sociological, and pragmatic undertones. In discussing a debate about whether or not a viral photo on the Internet showing chimpanzees in Cameroon “mourning” the death of one of their own attested to “real” mourning, Despret dismisses this line of thinking as misguided. The right question, she says, citing William James, is not “is it really mourning?” but rather, “what does this mourning ask of us?” (170). That is, Despret is not looking for clear...

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