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From Feminism to Speciesism and Back Again or How We Are Becoming and How We Collaborate...

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artmix - sztuka, feminizm, kultura wizualna

Introduction or how does it work?

It has been thirty five years by now that the famous Peter Singer's book Animal Liberation1, was published. The book, introducing the notion of speciesism into common discourse and critique (yet, not everywhere in the world since we are discussing it right now), has become a bible for animal rights acitivists and movements, as Animal Liberation Front for instance. However the term of speciesism itself was coined in 1973 by a British psychologist Robert D. Ryder. He defined it as "a prejudice against non-humans based on morally irrelevant physical differences"2 and "the widespread discrimination that is practised by man against other species ... Speciesism is racism, and both overlook or underestimate the similarities between the discriminator and those discriminated against3."

The discussion on speciesism seems problematic from the very beginning. I am not going to dive into moralistic polemics with some still-alive advocates of the reasonable, autonomous human subject (most likely characterised by some more features: white, male, capital-owning, etc.). Nonetheless, I would like to look closer at what it consists in and how it operates. Speciesism has its logic. First you have to take a being as a non-human in order to be "entitled" to violate him/her/it with impunity. For it is only human that deserves respect and dignity. That is precisely why animal suffering and rivers of blood from slaughterhouses all around the world are almost non-existent (of course except for animal rights movements). The same, quite simple logic functioned in cases of slavery or Holocaust. Once blacks were taken as "beasts of burden" every cruel enslaving practice (primarily used towards nonhuman animals) was used on a regular basis. Accordingly, the same goes for the Nazi genocide, which drawing a border line between humans and sub-humans (or non-humans - it suffices to remind Nazi propaganda, in which Jews were called and visualised as vermin), automatically gave permission to the extermination of those who appeared below this line. Moreover, in all these and similar situations that have been taking place up till now, any moral or ethical questions were rather vanished since - in some opinions - moral status is not necessarily about nonhumans4.

Lisa Jevbratt: Lisa Jevbratt Collaborative Form: Limbic Resonance, 2009, Digital Drawing/Print, 8 X 6 inches, dzięki uprzejmości
Lisa Jevbratt: Lisa Jevbratt Collaborative Form: Limbic Resonance, 2009, Digital Drawing/Print, 8 X 6 inches, Courtesy of the artist

If we take into account postcolonial or feminist theory (and movements) for instance, they precisely point out how those positioned as "others" of the "reasonable human subject" (Western, white, male, capital-owning) have been always defined as closer to nature and animals (or as animals). Although various gestures of racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of discrimination do take place both in theory (academia) and in practice (everyday life), the above-mentioned emancipation movements claims are quite obvious. Nevertheless, the enormous amount of suffering and oppression of animals go almost unheard. They just form a part of "normal" landscape. Moreover, any attempt of comparison or analogy between animal suffering e.g. in slaughterhouses to black slavery or Holocaust usually awaken indignation or at least evoke some sort of protest, also from those who themselves were fighting against dualist logic labelling them as the "Others" of the human subject. Actually, such objections appear to be only one more expression of speciesism.

In order to understand this phenomenon more thoroughly, I will look closer at a more philosophical, yet essential issue, namely the question of ontology. Strictly speaking, my brief reflection will elucidate the complexity of theoretical problem, which nonetheless has quite earthly implications. Furthermore, I will attempt to point out some theoretical and practical solutions - the latter illustrated by the project of a Swedish born internet and new media artist and an associate professor at the University of California, Lisa Jevbratt. The project, originally being a result of the course taught by Jevbratt in 2006 and 2009, is entitled "Art 185 - Interspecies Collaboration".

Michael Walter Lambert and Dog(s) - Painting, life guarding, and soccer with Mac
 Michael Walter Lambert and Dog(s) - Painting, life guarding, and soccer with Mac

Towards transspecies zoontology

As I mentioned earlier, a comparison between on the one hand animal suffering and struggles for animal rights, and racial or sexist oppression (not even mentioning genocides) on the other, may sometimes appear as controversial. Yet, in my view even more controversial is the fact that protests are often raised by those who personally fought the ideology of the Western, white, male subject, which has always been the core of the Enlightenment Humanism. Theoretical aspects I will draw upon right now are much more subtle. They have significant, practical implications, though. In other words, they underlie the way the world functions and how it appears to us. Following Jami Weinstein's proposition I will briefly sketch a project of a truly adequate, fundamental and liberatory ontology that arises from zigzagging feminist theory and the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari.

Traditionally understood ontology - no matter if in a version of ancient Greek philosophers or in a Heideggerian project of a fundamental ontology - has always been focused on the "One", the "Same", the monadic and unitary "being". In fact it has been a patriarchal and phallocentric model according to which everything was structured. That is why language, all forms of knowledge, science, representation as well as other symbolic, social and economic structures are coded as masculine (that means not so universal as it seemed), where woman remains as untheorised lack5. Accordingly, ontology acknowledged in such a way forms also the basis for Enlightenment Humanism with its inherent anthropocentrism and the universal, reasonable human subject. It is in this context that Luce Irigaray proposed her own vision of a fundamental ontology, which has formed also the basis for sexual difference theory. Irigaray's fundamental ontology is the ontology of (at least) Two - "where woman and man are irreducible others". Although such an ontology appears to be an invaluable step forward, it is only a first step to acknowledge what it means "to be a human", and furthermore, "to become human", as Weinstein argues. I would rather say: what it means "to become", without this literal reference to human.

I would like to stop here for a second and look a bit in what way Deleuze and Guattari may help to get away from the spectres of anthropocentrism. First, let us focus on how they treat philosophy in general. For Deleuze and Guattari philosophy is the creation of concepts. Concepts are always related to certain problems. They are not fixed, immutable and lifeless. The other way round. A philosophical concept is "the configuration, the constellation of an event to come"6. In other words, philosophical concepts with their related problems already contain (virtually) in themselves a possibility to think them through and move further, to "push [them] to the limit" and go beyond them, to find new events. It may seem quite abstract. However, if we take now "sexual difference" as a concept in the above sense, we may notice that thinking THROUGH the concept of sexual difference can bring us new concepts (more adequate to the problems we encounter, e.g. the problem of speciesism), new ideas and new solutions. What Weinstein suggests is to "undo sexual difference" in order to gain a more inclusive and relevant fundamental ontology than Irigarayian ontology of (at least) Two. The idea of sexual difference (if we think for a while about goals and gains of the second wave feminist movements) has helped us a lot, e.g. in the struggle with various forms of sexism. Nonetheless remaining with such take on ontology means arriving eventually at the repetition of the binary opposition between the Self (the One, the Subject, namely Man and Woman - the Human) and the Other (the Nonhuman). Thus, it is the nonhuman that appears as an untheorised lack (it suffices to remind silent animal suffering in slaughterhouses or scientific laboratories for instance), and the emancipatory theory (and practice) starts to repeat a discriminatory gesture. In other words, man/woman indifference characteristic to the logic of the One (and Enlightenment Humanism) is just transposed to another level: a human/nonhuman animal indifference7. Furthermore, in a commonly accepted binary opposition: human - animal, the notion of "the animal" (or as Derrida presents this problem: the general singular of "the Animal"8) appears to cover the whole multiplicity of different species and in this way it is simply speciesist. The multiplicity of humans (recognised through the theory of sexual difference) as opposed to the multiplicity of animals cannot be reduced to the opposition of singular human versus singular animal.

However, if we acknowledge the achievements of sexual difference theory (although there is still A LOT to be changed), we may start to think how to "push it" further. Weinstein's "undoing sexual difference" does not mean at all getting back to the old monolithic ontology of the oppressive One. The other way round. What she suggests is to follow the Deleuzian and Guattarian idea of a fluid multiplicity, the traces of which may be virtually found in the concept of sexual difference (according to the idea of philosophical concept as a "centre of vibrations"9). To put it more simple, a Deleuzo-Guattarian ontology is not organised according to any hierarchical structure (whereas the ontology of the One is for sure); it consists of not fixed entities (thought as singularities) merged in a rhizomatic network of relations among them. Such an ontology is monist in a sense that does not divide between matter and spirit (or representation), the Same (the One) and the Other, body and mind, human and nonhuman, etc. Moreover, what Deleuze and Guattari focus on is "becoming" instead of traditional "being". Indeed, every entity changes, it is not fixed. While living with different nonhuman animals, we co-shape and co-constitute each other, we are "becoming with" (as Donna Haraway put it10). The same goes of course for other humans. Overall, having acknowledged sexual difference theory, thinking it through and pushing it further, we finally arrive at a truly fundamental - because non-anthropocentric (inclusive and relational) - transspecies zoontology, as Weinstein suggest. Such an ontology genuinely eschews any speciesist tendencies as well as continues and fulfils initiated by sexual difference theory struggle with the Enlightenment Humanist ideology of "neutral", "universal" and reasonable subject.

Now your question probably is: what is this whole, rather abstract analysis for? As I mentioned before, an account of ontology always forms the basis for ethics, politics, the way we understand the world and how we act. Hence, once we get rid of the anthropocentric aberration at a theoretical level, we will be able to think and act in a different way. The issues of cruelty to animals, animal suffering and animal rights are in fact utterly entangled in the problems of the devastation of natural resources and exploitation (in general), as well as the logic of profit. They are intertwined, implicated in each other. Acknowledging this and abandoning anthropocentric constraints may open the way to a specific politics of alliances. Within such a politics various progressive and emancipatory social movements will have to include animal welfare (and vegetarianism/veganism) issues in their agendas, and animal rights activists will have to eliminate any sexiest, racist or other discriminatory traces that may appear in their movements. It is only through such alliances and collaboration in the long term that a true struggle for social justice may take place. Nonetheless, I would like to proceed now to the question how artists deal with the obstacles of speciesism and anthropocentrism, namely, to the solutions they propose.

Lisa Jevbratt, 2006 to present
Lisa Jevbratt:, 2006 to present website, Courtesy of the artist

Interspecies Collaboration

From 5 September 2009 until 6 February 2010 UCR Sweeney Gallery in Riverside (California, USA) is hosting a group exhibition entitled "Intelligent Design: Interspecies Art", which is generally aimed at exploring interactions and relationships between human and nonhuman animals. One of the projects that grasps particular attention is Lisa Jevbratt's "Interspecies Collaboration". It is an outcome of the course taught by Jevbratt at the University of California in Santa Barbara and a very dynamic website, where students and other contributors (actually, everyone may participate in it) upload the materials documenting their own projects. "Interspecies Collaboration" is a collective, relational artwork aiming at exploring and facilitating the possibility of working together of humans and nonhumans on particular art (and at the same time research) projects. Jevbratt wants to "make us acutely aware and respectful of the ever-presence of a multitude of parallel experiences of the world, and to generate new knowledge about it by experiencing it together, with and through profoundly different beings"11. Moreover, on the website one may find regularly updated documentation of the processes in which these projects emerge as well as rich section on resources (books, articles, films, websites) examining, discussing and illustrating issues important for Interspecies Collaboration. One of the links on this website brings us also to Jevbratt's "Artistic Interspecies Collaboration Field Guide"12, which gives a broad view on how to prepare, develop and carry out the project, and - as we can see on the cover - how to "become more sensitive to other species; become more respectful of other species; learn about the world we share together with our non-human companions; have a richer experience with wildlife; deepen your connection with your pets". What is essential to repeat, the artist emphasises in her teaching and writings as well as in practice the absolute necessity of ultimately respectful and non-anthropocentric, non-oedipalised attitude to nonhuman collaborators, sensitivity to their thresholds and the study of their senses, establishing trust, openness to change, working from questions but not expecting answers, and being receptive to collaborators. One must never disturb or harm a nonhuman animal in the pursuit of collaboration. Lisa Jevbratt: Masha Lifshin and Mixture Spatial Practices, 2009 Still, dzięki uprzejmości artystki
Lisa Jevbratt: Masha Lifshin and Mixture Spatial Practices, 2009 Still, Courtesy of the artist

Jevbratt finds interspecies collaboration as a great field to investigate how we may conduct (artistic and scientific research) in collaboration with somebody whose "experiences, sensations and communications are not well understood"13. Furthermore, as she points out, art and science has been always "using" animals (in every possible - and not optimistic - sense). Interspecies Collaboration gives an opportunity to discover how to make a transition from "using" to "collaborating". It challenges a common opinion about nature/culture divide as well as the role of art in general. Jevbratt claims the emergence of a new(ish) paradigm today, according to which art equals "creative modifications, interactions or disruptions of systems allowing its participants and audience to experience the systems in a new, questioning, amplified, expanding, empowering way"14. Moreover, new collaborative methods in the case of artistic interspecies collaborations mean that "we don't need to know the intention of another to collaborate, and we don't need a common goal"15. Jevbratt reminds those who engage in the projects not to limit their ideas of what is creative and aesthetic about nonhuman animals. Instead of looking for their mark-making or vocalisations, she suggests to "look for signs of system art, performance art and conceptual art and try to imagine the art-forms only they could do. We need to put ourselves in the animal's position (zoomorphism), imagine other senses and the creative realms of those. For example, what ‘sculptures' would one make if one used sound to understand ones spatial surroundings, like dolphins, and bats do. We need to consider other species in all aspects of the art generating process, as inviters, as invitees, and as audience."16 That sounds a bit similar to Deleuzo-Guattarian "deterritorialisation of the human". Such interspecies collaboration, according to Jevbratt, may help one to find the intersections and overlaps of human and nonhuman animals different cosmologies and to learn "how to live together well with other who we truly don't understand"17. That is why the essential aim is also to produce knowledge.

Leona Chen and Rat(s) - sculptural project: Rat Collaboration
Leona Chen and Rat(s) - sculptural project: Rat Collaboration

However, what is precisely understood under the term of "interspecies collaboration"? How might it look like? In the brochure "Field Guide" I mentioned above, Jevbratt suggests various possibilities and methods, e.g. making a protocol (or a rule system that formalises the interaction between human and nonhuman animal), reaching a sort of "limbic resonance" (an experience as if ideas flow between collaborators' brains), entering into communication with a nonhuman collaborator or making an interference pattern illustrating the overlap of different experiences (the one of a human and of a nonhuman). Since the sense of Interspecies Collaboration does not consist in reaching a goal set at the starting point of a project, an outcome may frequently differ from the one assumed, due to various unexpected circumstances (e.g. building trust, which depends on the kind of nonhuman animals one engages with: domestic or wild ones, etc.). For instance, one of the students in her project "By the spermophilus beecheyi", attempted to enter into contact with squirrels living on a scarp near the ocean (without much success). It was almost the end of the course, when finally she found (what she called later "a squirrel city") a huge pile of compost from the university restaurant populated by squirrels and some other species. Due to large supplies of food and (that is why) plenty of leisure time, these squirrels were much eager to get in touch with her. Although the project never evolved into an interspecies collaboration, the student shot an amazing video of "intense interspecies play" between a squirrel and a white rat. Students who engaged with pets, usually did not encounter unexpected shifts in their projects. Another student with her acquaintance's dog collaborated in the project entitled "Doggie Derive" which consisted in long walks with the dog mapped out by GPS, and turned out to be a sort of psychogeography since the mappings visualised the dog's and student's "personal response to the environment they walked through".

Lisa Jevbratt: Kevin Saddi and Squirrels Concept & Location: Goleta Slough, 2006, Performance/Installation/Sculpture, 10 x 1
Lisa Jevbratt: Kevin Saddi and Squirrels Concept & Location: Goleta Slough, 2006, Performance/Installation/Sculpture, 10 x 10 feet, 10' by 10', Courtesy of the artist

Students and others who contributed to the "Interspecies Collaboration" project and website arrived at extremely various forms of outcomes and documentation: protocols, sculptures, films, photos, paintings, installations, etc. Nonetheless, in each case there has arisen a chance to experience another Umwelt18, to enter into a zone of proximity (either physical, spatial or mental), and that has required going beyond the anthropocentric perspective and spectre of speciesism. Every encounter brings a new experience and produces a new knowledge.

Connie Hwang, Cat(s) and Dog(s) - project Scratch Scratch Revolution... The Itch Be Gone!!!
Connie Hwang, Cat(s) and Dog(s) - project Scratch Scratch Revolution... The Itch Be Gone!!!

Indeed, Lisa Jevbrett's project appears to be an interesting and instructive attempt to break the wall of speciesist thinking. It is a significant shift of perspective within the field of art, the one taking (although unwittingly) Weinstein's transspecies zoontology as its premises. By and large, it is also an expression of interspecies solidarity, a specific form of politics of alliance and ethics of care, which remain as a glimpse of hope in these not too merciful times.

  1. 1. Singer, Peter. 1975. Animal Liberation. New York: New York Review/Random House.
  2. 2. Ryder, Richard D. "All beings that feel pain deserve human rights: Equality of the species is the logical conclusion of post-Darwin morality.The Guardian, 6 August 2005.
  3. 3. Ryder, Richard D. 1975. Victims of Science: The Use of Animals in Research. London: Davis-Poynter, p.16.
  4. 4. The mechanism is quite well presented in Giorgio Agamben's tetralogy Homo Sacer, where he discusses the figure of "homo sacer" (the sacred/cursed man), who possesses only "bare life", the life which is stripped of any legitimacy, right to be protected or to human (legal) identity. The latter means also that he may be killed with impunity.
  5. 5.  It is explicitly visualised by Jacques Lacan's diagramme of sexual difference; the website briefly explaining the diagramme: (15.01.2010)
  6. 6. Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. 1994. What is Philosophy? Translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell. New York: Columbia University Press, pp. 32-33.
  7. 7. See: Weinstein, Jami. "Introduction Part II". Deleuze and Gender. Deleuze Studies, 2008: 20-33, p. 28.
  8. 8. Derrida, Jacques. "The Animal That Therefore I Am (More To Follow)". Translated by David Wills. Critical Inquiry, 28/ 2 Winter 2002, 369-418 , see especially pp. 408-409. There he writes: "This agreement concerning philosophical sense and common sense that allows one to speak blithely of the Animal in the general singular is perhaps one of the greatest, the most symptomatic idiocies [bêtises] of those who call themselves humans." (409)
  9. 9. See: D&G 1994.
  10. 10. See: Haraway, Donna. 2007. When the Species Meet. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press.
  11. 11. (15.01.2010) 
  12. 12. (15.01.2010)
  13. 13. Ibidem.
  14. 14. (15.01.2010)
  15. 15. Ibidem.
  16. 16. Ibidem.
  17. 17. Ibidem.
  18. 18. Jakob von Uexküll's term meaning "environment", "surrounding world" or "self-centred world" particular for each organism.