Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Fear of the Animal Planet, Jason Hribal

…Topsy had no choice but to continue to resist. Her final act was charging after a group of Italian construction workers. A week later, several ‘very matter-of-fact electricians from the Edison Company’ arrived at the park and began setting up for the execution...On the afternoon of January 4th, Mr. Edison’s executioners attached electrodes to the elephant’s feet. At 2:45 pm, they flipped the switch. ‘There was a bit of smoke for an instant’, a New York Times reporter noted. ‘Topsy raised her trunk as if to protest, then shook, bent to her knees, fell, and rolled over on her right side motionless’. Two minutes later, she was declared dead. (43)

This is a radical book. It should make most readers, if they can get past the fact that the cover quotation is from the president of PETA, see things in a radically new way. By no means is this to say it’s a perfect book. The criticisms in the Amazon ratings are largely accurate: It needed (much better) proofreading and editorial guidance. Far more importantly, neither the fascinating preface by Jeffrey St. Clair ("Let Us Now Praise Infamous Animals") about the history of animal court trials nor the text itself contains any footnotes at all. You could say that it’s a polemical work, a pamphlet of sorts, so strict academic standards don’t apply, but such a work is far more effective when well and carefully documented. Even the most skeletal standards of scholarship require quotations to be sourced. (Disappointingly, it doesn’t contain any photos, either.)

Nevertheless, Hribal’s sad account of animal resistance is compelling. It tells the stories of animals – elephants, primates, and sea mammals - and their acts of, I’m convinced, defiance and resistance. Its approach poses problems for those visions of animal welfare or cross-species understanding that present nonhuman animals as mute or passive objects. (It doesn’t seem strange to speak of these as patronizing after reading the book.) It speaks to epistemic injustice, especially in the all-too-brief sections on proposed explanations for the animals’ angry, willful, and often ingenious actions. It speaks to moral progress.

It’s a seditious history from below, in the spirit of the histories of oppressed human groups (really - read that link); indeed, Hribal often talks about the animals as workers and discusses their acts in the same terms as we talk about labor struggles. This is a key element: most of us can recognize individual animals’ acts against specific people as something more than instinctual, but this book leads us to consider them in terms of (sometimes effective) patterns of resistance to systemic violence and exploitation.

Some of the stories I’d heard on the news or read about, but seeing them from a vastly different perspective elicited a different emotional reaction. In some cases, I found myself cheering them on in their acts of escape, sabotage, and even violence.

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