Scholars clarify activists’ paths

Readers, my apologies: technical problems prevented me from posting the following jottings last night.  I’ve decided to remain here in Uppsala, Sweden for a few days after the current conference ends, to catch you up on my findings.  Thanks for sticking around!  From yesterday:

Horses driven through Prague with a tourist carriage

I am rolling out of Dresden on a quiet train, halfway between Prague’s ICAS conference on “Reconfiguring the ‘Human’/’Animal’ Binary” and Berlin, where I’ll spend a night before flying to Sweden for tomorrow’s “Zooethnographies” papers.  It has been a gorgeous weekend, filled with sun and busty wood pigeons.

In the old, wood-and-light-filled Faculty of Arts at Prague’s Charles University, most of the 50+ presenters directly addressed the meeting’s theme: finding more nuanced and constructive new ways to look at human-animal relationships.

Existing “binary” notions like master-pet, hunter-quarry, consumer-resource, and intellectual-instinctual, were dismantled or dismissed for many of the same reasons that Gender Studies scholars have fought against the limitations wrought by using crude dichotomies like “virgin/whore” to define a person.

The quotation marks inside the conference’s title nod to the imprecision of defining ourselves in opposition to animals, as many doctrines have done, when we in fact are animals.

Czech philosopher Radim Belohrad gave a particularly lucid challenge to the idea that our most “essential” defining traits are those that distinguish us from other animals, in his paper titled “Are We More Than Animals?  In Defense of the Biological Theory of Personal Identity.”  While we can continue to exist even after losing our human qualities like language or self-reflection, he argued, if we lose our animal qualities like life and metabolism, we cease to exist.  According to Belohrad we are essentially animals–and people only incidentally.

Within the conference’s loose framework of questioning the human-animal boundary, I heard two specific themes arise, both of which aimed in different ways to clarify the work of animal protection activists.

Several scholars tried to build coherent arguments for why animal activists should either intervene or step away, when they see violence among other animals.   And many others sought a key to unlock the mystery of human indifference to animal cruelty.

Responding to violence in “nature”

“Innocent Threats and the Moral Problem of Carnivorous Animals” was philosopher Rainer Ebert’s relentless sequence of logical syllogisms, which aimed to poke a hole in animal rights pillar Tom Regan’s claim that we are obligated to protect prey animals.  Ethicists Cátia Faria and Beril Sözmen wrestled with the same problem in their joint paper “Resisting Violence in Nature,” given their commitment to intervene on behalf of both humans and animals in any other situation of violence.

And after a gruesomely fascinating discussion of the arguments for technological “animal enhancement” in the service of humans (like the human-milk-producing cows debuted by the China Agriculture University this summer), tech ethicist Arianna Ferrari examined one philosopher’s call to attack the other end of violence, by engineering pain-free humans and animals.  Ferrari’s work was titled “Resisting the Rhetoric of Animal Enhancement.”

On human indifference to violence

The efforts to understand indifference/complicity in violence toward animals were so dense and challenging for me, that I will list those papers now, but return later in the week to revisit my video footage and try to understand how the insights of these three talks may bear on one another:

“How is it possible to explain people’s indifference towards the violence against animals?”  by Marcel Sebastian

“Affective Dimensions of the Animal Industrial Complex in Derrida’s ‘The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow)'” by Richard Twine

“Discursive Analysis of the Objectification of Laboratory Animals in the Czech Republic” by Teresa Vandrovcová.

Signing off from Uppsala,


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