- 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...