Doing the Work:Taxonomies of Animal Study and the Labor of Love
As animal studies work continues to engage with the theoretical turn of the early twenty-first century, volumes like Jeff Karnicky's Scarlett Experiment introduce fresh literary histories and historicist readings of biology and naturalist approaches that reveal the deep roots of a careful thinking about the animal. The field has no shortage of readers and introductions by now—too many to list or to choose from—yet was in need of a brief, accessible account like Matthew Calarco's recent Thinking Through Animals. Together, these two books demonstrate a field constantly spreading its wings and reconsidering its fundamental intentions and assumptions. Both of these works also achieve a legibility that critical theory is not always accused of. While the difficulty of theory might be defended as the very point of critique—if it were any easier, perhaps it would simply be ideology, a power point, capitalism itself—Karnicky and Calraco reiterate a key ethical project at the hearts of both critical theory and animal studies. The fields are key interlocutors with a mutual interest not in "practical application" but in practice and care. Both strive to defend this old-fashioned sincerity, and both are convincing.
In a simple, disarming dedication, Jeff Karnicky summarizes a self-deprecating style of sincere work on behalf of the nonhuman: "For the birds." 2018 marks the one-hundred-year anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which makes this an especially appropriate year to commemorate animal protection efforts in North America. Karnicky's book thinks about the repercussions of that law to birding culture, hunting, and general animal interest in North America on, literally, every page. The title itself is taken from an Emily Dickinson poem. Karnicky notes that Christopher Cokinos had taken another Dickinson line—"hope is a thing with feathers"—for his own book. But Karnicky chooses scarlet experiment "as a marker of all the birds killed in America since the nineteenth century as a direct result of human actions" (p. xvi). He reads Dickinson's lines about understanding birds through their subjection to human-nonhuman interaction as a premonition of the administrative biopolitical status of life and death in contemporary American contexts. By this, he means the databases tracking and managing populations, the state apparatuses responsible for both the thriving and [End Page 237] the mere survival of the bird species he considers, and the myriad outcomes of "the human experiments on birds" (p. xix). He chooses "experiment" for its multivalent potential, and he focuses especially on the term's obscure meaning as "a practical acquaintance with a person or thing; experience" (p. xxi). And so it is that Karnicky begins to seamlessly meld recent theoretical animal studies with his "practical" ornithological familiarity with bird worlds and birds in-the-world that cognitive, conservationist, ecological, and other frames we might deem basically "biological" articulate.
The theoretical turn in animal studies, as Karnicky notes, is generally traceable to the arrival of Jacques Derrida's translated seminars on the animal in the early 2000s. Karnicky cites Cary Wolfe's explanation of Derrida's influence. Wolfe himself is a central figure in approaches to the animal through philosophical frames perhaps most familiar as posthumanism. One of the important tasks of these approaches to animals—and the inextricably human, cultural inflection of animals or any attempt to ethically regard them—is the decentering of the human subject. This is the critique of anthropocentrism that, as Karnicky notes, Donna Haraway has employed in her reading of Derrida's animal theory. Haraway criticizes Derrida because "right from the start, he stops short of engaging an animal's otherness" (p. 51). The task of thinking the human-nonhuman experiment is thus to recall that it cannot access "what it is like to be" any other (he never specifically cites the work of Thomas Nagel), but also that this basic gesture of empathy sparks the work that does, at least, what can be done. Karnicky shares with Haraway and Wolfe a basic skepticism about separating humans from animals. In his review of this human/animal binary and his analysis of Don DeLillo's conscious blue jay in The Body Artist, Karnicky writes that "a world without animals cannot be thought" (pp. 24–25). But he stresses that, in fact, it can be conceived of and, frankly, that it must be considered, in line with how Rachel Carson's influential work on bird species loss due to anthropogenic forces, Silent Spring, mobilized the real risk of species loss and enacted real change.
Karnicky uses his own field notes from birding expeditions to open the chapters, which inaugurates the book's cross-genre experiment as an intricate field guide to this difficult, "post-practical" crosswork. Karnicky apologizes too willingly that "this is not a birding memoir" in the opening pages—that is not a negative criticism (p. xiii). This qualification of daily practices and reflection is symptomatic of calls to theorize, materialize, diversify, and "rethink." Ecocritical work has been especially troubled by the anthropocentrisms of critique, going so far to craft ever-vaster scales of that centrism by assigning the entirety of geological affect a human name (the Anthropocene). Animal studies builds catalogues of critters feeling, thinking, emoting, loving, remembering, planning. The complexity of articulating these facts without "translating" into human, which any reader might know what it is like to be, drives nearly constant rethinking and decentering. The strains on language and cognition as they accommodate the ethical impulse reveal fresh ways of doing the work.
Meanwhile, birds and humans get in each other's way. But humans are obstinate, captive observers—the potency of visual arrest is one problem Karnicky considers in the book—who seem incapable of not looking, not doing something. Akin to Farley Mowat's "gonzo" nature writing, Karnicky is there in the shot as a benevolent cataloguer of the natural world. Birders, like some hunters, pay a lot of attention to animal habitats and can be some of the most knowledgeable riparian zone students around. Obsessive, even. One might be reminded of birders' unique fixations if they were to drive across the I-80 causeway near the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area in Northern California, for example, where they pull over unexpectedly for the perfect shot even if it means backing up traffic for several miles (it does). This intermingling is especially appropriate for Karnicky's meditations on the crosswork of humans, birds, and spaces. [End Page 238] This critical birding memoir does the looking that renders birds as the very counts and populations his biopolitical critique is suspicious of in other parts of the book, but it refuses to permit that frame to endure.
This tension attacks the "binocular vision" by which field guides taxonomically objectify the birds they so love and would protect. The book's conceptual pairings anticipate specific bird species in a sort of dialectic: "Emotion and Intelligence: The Blue Jay," "Interpellation and Interiority: The European Starling," "Capital and Conservation: The Red Knot," "Nuisance and Neighbor: The Canada Goose," "Confusion and Classification: The Black-Crested Titmouse or Tufted Titmouse." But, echoing perhaps Claire Jean Kim's recent work in Dangerous Crossings on oppositions between animal rights and cultural sovereignty, these pairings are not disavowals and are instead what she terms "mutual avowals" mediating presumptions on either side of the pairing, making space for complexity, and working toward broader communities of experience and subsistence. In Karnicky's chapters, these terms reveal historical presumptions (such as the interior subjectivity of lives worthy of consideration and defense) that give way as part of the same material historicity they reflect. Each presents a unique case study in thinking the animal and also in considering the specific habitats and histories of the birds in question. For example, "blue jays are one of the few species of indigenous birds of North America that has thrived, in part, because of human alteration of habitat" (p. 2). Furthermore, Karnicky presents Dickinson's poetry about the jay and shows how it "embodies the virtues of civic-minded nineteenth-century American citizens, and Dickinson's poetic speaker enjoys watching them for just this reason" (p. 4). In the same breath, Karnicky complicates this anthropomorphism and returns to the problem of representing the animal through human attributes.
In his chapter on the starling, Karnicky's readings of Audobon, Deleuze and Guattari, and Sherman Alexie probe how Louis Althusser's concept of interpellation both does and does not address relations between species. He writes that birds are subjected to becoming subjects at all only due to the human impulse to hail—to call out—the other and situate that object within a set of relations and social structures (pp. 39–40). To revise these structuring behaviors, Karnicky employs Deleuze and Guattari's Three Ecologies and a radical empathy that listens to the starling's "existential refrain" to produce an "ornithological biography" worthy of attempts to approach, describe, and care for the bird's point of view without commandeering it. Karnicky shows throughout that human comportment—in habits of viewing, classifying, and protecting the animal—especially needs what theory has to offer. The theoretical turn revises the human not merely in a recentered subject perfection but because of the material status of humans' destructive, administrative dominion over the instrumentally objectified world.
Through his comparative studies, Karnicky reveals deep alliances between recent theory and natural history. Particularly in his elegant readings of Audobon, as in the chapter on the starling, Karnicky reveals how open sociation as coexistences, delineated by Deleuze and Guattari, permeates North American bird literatures that already understand that "all living things can be said to have an existential refrain" (p. 61). This earns Karnicky's literary historical findings some of their most important value: It is Dickinson's "bird citizen" and Audobon's moral bird subject that introduce anthropomorphic judgment of world to begin with. The negotiation of human dominion over what the animal even could be is a material, historical process in and of itself. Karnicky's is a cultural history of animal study.
One chapter that is especially curious about the vast potential to care about the bird-as-citizen is "Nuisance and Neighbor: The Canada Goose," which also raises the question of native species, home and visitor, migration and settlement. The human [End Page 239] experiment modified the Canada goose so that it no longer migrates at all (p. 108). This relationship between human activity and bird identity is a recurring target for Karnicky—the blue jay adapting to human construction, the starling arriving in 1890–1891 as an endearingly quaint Central Park release of 160 to become the most common bird in North America, the red knot a fulcrum between inseparable levers of capitalist abuse, birding, and conservation. This last example presents his clearest articulation of the neoliberal management of life itself, including the bureaucratic nexus of bird database and conservation metrics. The bird count, and the marketability of recovery narratives—of ethics themselves—can be put into tension with the relative population health of a food source or another bird species in regional proximity, for example. The Red Knot careens toward extinction, but other species thrive and grow (p. 104). Here the nuisance of the Canada goose stands in stark contrast to the endangered, fragile, exceptional species. The Canada goose, however, is tracked through inventories of euthanasia and managed, specifically, as a threat to local habitats and native species. Such sections in the book negotiate the intention—and the good—of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act as an origin of the wildlife management apparatus that now catalogues and governs birds as populations. This relatively recent iteration of animal study thus "was not inherently conservationist; it was primarily regulatory" (p. 116). The geese are a cost analysis, which Karnicky dutifully aligns with Foucault's concepts of biopower, but then geese and humans alike "are subjects of/to governmentality" (p. 135).
This macrolevel interpellation (Karnicky does not use the term at this juncture, however) articulates Karnicky's striking concept of interspecies community as capitalist material. This is a particularly generative case of the coexistent thought between critical theory and animal studies, though not at all the first time since Marx that capital's telos subsumes all life forms and ecologies. But it seems virtually impossible to separate cultural critique from concern for the animal at this point, and vice versa. Mutual subjection and suffering necessitate critical revision. Karnicky continues in the subsequent chapter by addressing "the philosophical problem of the species concept," in which he assesses Rohini Balakrishnan's history of species distinctions and deems the "pluralist" approach to conceptualizing species to be the proper way to avoid anthropomorphic and -centric pitfalls (pp. 143–147).
As he discusses variegation in species identification—is it the "Black-Crested" or the "Tufted" titmouse?—Karnicky also reminds one of Vicki Hearne's pioneering work on the historical-classificatory violence human nomenclature has enforced upon animals, as in the case of the pit bull. While Karnicky does not always note every possible, seemingly natural methodological and thematic interlocutor with his book, he is in clear allegiance with that deep tradition of "pre-theoretical" biological, historical, and in-the-field animal studies work. His engagement with classic naturalists and other thinkers-of-the-world like Audobon, Carson, and E. O. Wilson plants the book squarely on the poles of practical and theoretical work that so often seem in tension, opposed, even irreconcilable. Karnicky proves that they certainly are not. To suggest exactly how much work he has done in what would otherwise be a simple period-specific literary study, it is worth considering further the density of approaches to thinking through animals Karnicky marshaled here. To this end, Matthew Calarco's new brief synopsis of that thought suggests a three-zone development from the subjective interiority Karnicky considered and toward the plural equity of experience Karnicky draws primarily from the work of Deleuze and Guattari: Identity, Difference, and Indistinction.
Calarco's slim volume is designed to provide "a brief account of some of the central theoretical and philosophical trends in the rapidly expanding field of critical animal studies" (p. 1) and announce the plural yet particular animal studies to come. Calarco [End Page 240] expressly affirms "critical animal studies" because it is "more explicitly and radically political" (p. 2) than other animal ethics and animal studies approaches. Within, the field is revealed to have a thoroughgoing preoccupation with "upgrading" human thought about both humans and nonhumans—even when striving to elide unjust structures of differentiation. The field is dynamic by definition, open to radical otherness as its opening premise. But now, Calarco intends, it could be more open to the comportment that is more just by not presuming to be an adequate judge of otherness or even of openness. The book will be useful to any reader already feeling overwhelmed by a vast animal studies literature seeking a legible rubric of subtle, fundamental critical theoretical moves in the contexts of animal concern, liberation, and further thought. It is also a welcome stepping stone onto the next wave of non-human thought that takes seriously the diversity Calarco gestures to in his final two footnotes, each a long list of further reading that is again only—but graciously and urgently—an introduction to more. To get there, Calarco walks readers from early moves to establish the equal status of animals and humans to an openness that might work toward justice and equity without the equipment of identification and differentiation altogether.
The first step is Identity, which Calarco explains in terms of the shared capacities of living beings. The early pages move quickly through Aristotle, Descartes, and Kant to delineate some of the ways that animals and humans have been separated according to traits and abilities in the past. Humans and animals are then equated by frames such as sentience and an interest in avoiding suffering in now-classic twentieth-century ethical explications by Peter Singer and Tom Regan, as well as their important differences and subsequent elucidations by Paola Cavilieri on the matter of intentional agency. In short, this is the branch of thought that establishes calls for specific rights based upon how animals have been found—increasingly so with seemingly every new animal behavioral study—to have rational capacities and rich emotional lives, for example.
Calarco notes their collective "stress on evolutionary continuity" (p. 19) and their work against, for example, the speciesism Singer's argument famously asserts in Animal Liberation. The assumption is that justice and equal consideration are already agreed-upon moral goods, particularly at the time of their earliest expression immediately in the wake of the US civil rights movements. This is a crucial historical context for the beginnings of academic animal studies in the ethical tradition associated with the Identity iterations, and it serves as a good reminder of the linked histories of habits of power, oppression, and exploitation. It is equally important to resist any assumptions that they are thereby equated or aligned. The tensions between animal studies and counterhegemonic cultural studies will be the next horizon of certainly the former field, and quite possibly a generative horizon for the latter. But this is a contestable claim, and it is not quite where Calarco ends up even as he definitely closes with an invitation to find out what more awaits the field through such thinking.
The turn to Difference, the second chapter of the book, explicates the radical ethics in such a move, a move that recuperates this critical position while striving to avoid the pitfalls of logocentrism. Here Calarco gathers together theorists who "develop a pro-animal ethic and philosophy based not on similarity, continuity, or identity but instead on an appreciation of the manifold differences that exist between and among human beings and animals" (p. 28). This chapter may be the most familiar ground for those who arrived to the field after the first English translations of Derrida's work. If readers have not yet considered Calarco's early review of that work, including its fraught revision and publication history, it is well worth revisiting it on the Humanimalia journal site, in the very first issue of the journal. [End Page 241]
According to Calarco, the Difference approach works to mitigate "how rights and political protections based on identity tend to create unforeseen exclusions and marginalizations" (p. 44). This concern runs parallel to the limits of openness and touches on the emerging discussion of, for example, plant ethics: Judith Butler's figure of precarious life might not make space for an ethical obligation to plant life, Calarco writes. He also suggests that Wolfe agrees with this and that both dwell on the "who" of ethics—a "responsive subject." This fairly narrow summary of two radically post-identitarian theorists seems to suggest an Identity rubric like Tom Regan's classic evaluation of moral agents and moral patients. Calarco does not pursue this possibility, but it still seems an excellent illustration of the lineage of ethical thought inflecting animal studies as an inclusive, critical endeavor. Readers will find several opportunities for further comparative readings of Identity within Difference, or Difference within Indistinction, and Calarco's footnotes, once again, help mitigate the occasional sense that this "brief" is a bit too brief at times. Calarco also stresses the importance of working through these dense, generative theoretical works—chewing them over, as we say—and takes every opportunity to, in effect, invite readers away from the book they are reading to chase after the rich fullness of the field's engagement with critical theory.
Finally, in Indistinction, Calarco lays out what he calls an emergent discourse on "sensibilities that can be found in a number of important and long-standing movements and that circulate widely among critical animal studies theorists and radical pro-animal activists" (p. 48). Calarco rehearses the benefits of the Difference approach—"it doesn't limit consideration to anthropocentric capacities" (p. 50). Calarco also presents a critique of Derrida that was not part of the prior chapter: multiplying and thickening difference is an important revision of identitarian exclusions, and the "proper of man" Derrida defends, like the proper or "essential" of any category or identity whatsoever, still must contend with the anthropological difference inherited from the purity of human subjectivity. Instead, could such "complicating" inquiries simply be put to the side? Calarco, in this section, summarizes Giorgio Agamben's critique of the "anthropological machine," which has recently been an occasional animal studies tool for thinking about how systems of thought become ontological realities. Calarco notes that animal studies is intrigued by Agamben's work while also unsatisfied with how it serves the ceaseless improvement of the perfect human thinker. Humans thinking better by rethinking how they rely upon a false "industry" of distinction does nothing for the animals humans have supposedly rethought. Calarco next turns to the work of Gilles Deleuze on "becoming animal" and the "zones of indistinction" Karnicky also has in mind, aligning species as "exposed, vulnerable, meaty bodies" so that all become inedible not via an ethical consideration of the other so much as a totalizing similarity that renders meat-eating cannibalism (pp. 57–59). The final chapter also includes a lengthy explication of how critiques of capitalism address the domination that relegates all beings to fungible objects—this is where Karnicky's analysis begins, more or less. If there is one thinker who deserves a firmer place in such a generatively initiatory overview text as this or in Karnicky's work, it is Theodor Adorno and his explications of administered life. But Calarco certainly notes Adorno in strong ways at times, and readers seeking more have recent work to consider by Christina Gerhardt, Eduardo Mendieta, and this reviewer.
What Calarco arrives at finally, and what indeed gathers all of these approaches together decisively, is the assurance that mutual alliances and avowals across justice movements rely upon the open comportments and critical inquiries coursing throughout the history of animal studies. This vital architecture of critical animal studies suggests that it is well positioned toward collaboration with the disciplines and fields that reject many of the philosophical assumptions surveyed in the text as a fundamental [End Page 242] intellectual and political action. This cannot simply be asserted, and the assured "criticality" of critical theory has long since shifted toward the cultural critique that renders animal studies critique problematic precisely because of its deeply entrenched philosophical origins and unsettled chauvinisms. One can easily set up a beginning discussion of such tensions with this work and a variety of readings in, for example, race and species, including essential works by Claire Jean Kim and Zakiyyah Jackson. Some may not recognize the justness of any calls for animal liberation prior to the liberation of human subjects and a true equity within (or after) settler-colonial, racist, patriarchal, and capitalist systems.
Animal studies is broadly considerate of inequality and suffering, radically so in decentering the human as the measure of valuable life. But the claim on such decentering comes from within the very same philosophical traditions—critically revised though they may be by posthumanism, for example—that have yet to be dealt with sufficiently by a multitude of oppressed and unjustly categorized "others." The project of de-othering is not to improve an agreed-upon human subject, and certainty is not the progress of some grand "humanity" (another issue Adorno has written decisively on). This question of what we even mean by any version of "animal studies" is in fact an even more contested issue than Calarco lets on, and so his choice to stake out in the beginning the ethical call of the field as he sees it will instruct the new reader quite clearly on the field's origins and ongoing trajectories. But Calarco is addressing also the ways in which those open and critical traditions still miss crucial reconsiderations of the shape and voice of thought in the field.
Thinking Through Animals thus presumes a major focus on the insufficiencies of "Western" reason and its common objectifications. In a brief overview text like Calarco's, which is introductory by design, his invitation to "get inside—to inhabit—each perspective in an open and charitable manner" (p. 3) seems perfectly placed for the three rubrics of the subtitle. Each has room to breathe, and the book covers the field's important ethical foundations especially well. On the other hand, the broad range of complications, compromises, impurities, and animal studies frames beyond the philosophical and the theoretical approach could not possibly all fit into a "brief" (the volume is in the Stanford University Press "Briefs" series). Calarco, mindful of the format, also includes his suggestion that the chapters be read in order, "as they build on each other in important ways" (p. 3). For example, calls to undo or revise the human subject and its anthropocentrism, even in a considerate gesture to expand the circle and recognize the animal as not merely an other or a lesser to the human, may begin as a project within hegemonic (Western, white, straight, male, rational, etc.) frames that still have not been negotiated properly and that still have not ceded any authority whatsoever to, for example, indigenous inquiry and a vast plurality of livelihoods. Calarco's call to collaborative political work imbricates the radical traditions of animal liberation activism, which works to free nonhumans from human exploitation across food, pharmaceutical, and all other industries, with "the kinds of intersectional groupings currently being formed between animal activists and activists in queer, disability, environmental justice, food justice, feminist, indigenous, racial justice, and alter-globalization movement" (p. 69). The book itself does not engage with the work being done in these areas, however, and the final two notes (in the final paragraph) acknowledge this by virtue of lengthy bibliographical lists for further reading. Readers will want to know: this is a good text for an overview of the field as it has developed, as it currently stands on specific questions of status and consideration, and also as it has been challenged of late to converse beyond its white Euro-American shape.
What is immediately clear, after reading a work on the breadth and history of animal studies like Calarco's and a specific critical study like Karnicky's, engaged in both [End Page 243] literary period approaches and in theoretical explications of material conditions, is how precise modes such as Identity, Difference, or Indistinction do not actually stand separate from one another but instead track historical emergencies in ways similar to the material record of taxonomy-conservation-coexistence, in Karnicky. And both books call upon the lithe conceptual work of the human, in critical theory especially, to in effect manage that dominant species a bit more effectively in the future. As such, both risk enacting the managerial subject and both require a central authority of some sort. This old problem for animal studies typically must return to the "best practices" or ethical consideration frame to justify any action at all. Realizing an intention in an instrumental objective is still telos, after all, and so the critique itself always returns its latest results to critique. Karnicky, in establishing the threat of experiment and articulating the nuance of the world, all under the meticulous, wondrous specificity of a naturalist's expertise that does not trust itself, thereby realizes the critical intent of Calarco's field guide. This model of nonhuman concern and, quite simply, love, is doing the best it can, which perhaps is always a sort of second best. That is also a very old philosophical hegemony, but it at least has never meant that we quit doing the work. If the managerial contemporary wants to "work smarter not harder," labors of love like these two books refuse that easy way out for us humans.
Ted Geier lectures in American studies at the University of California, Davis and is an assistant professor of communication arts (literature/film) at Ashford University. He is the author of articles and book chapters on ecology, theory, film, nineteenth-century British literature and culture, world literature, meat, and labor in the Anthropocene, as well as two books: Kafka's Nonhuman Form: Troubling the Boundaries of the Kafkaesque (Palgrave, 2016) and Meat Markets: The Cultural History of Bloody London (Edinburgh University Press, 2017).