Sep
21

Poster Session? Check!

I didn’t expect it to be, but the poster session felt like a really big deal for me. It was the first time I had really looked at my work as a whole and thought about it in terms of big, streamlined, ideas, instead of being lost in deep detail of individual sections of my research. Honestly, it was really exciting.

I had been feeling worried that I didn’t have enough of a solidified idea of what to write about, but making this poster really helped me realize that I actually have a pretty clear idea of how my research comes together!

Perhaps the most fun part was that, because of the marginal nature of my subject matter, I’ve gotten to develop a couple terms to better discuss my work (so far these terms are animalhood and deanimalization).

For those who missed it, here are the sections of text from my poster:

 

Farmed Animals

The Plight of Farmed Animals

Americans as a group consume more meat per person per year than almost any other country. (Barklay 2012) There is a general aversion to “unnecessary” cruelty, but this is offset by the trend that “as long as a particular animal use is considered legitimate, then anything that facilitates that usage will be deemed under the law as ‘necessary’”. (Francione 1996:2) For example, chickens in battery cages (the majority of egg-laying American chickens, per the HSUS) live their lives in approximately 67 square inches, where the wire cuts their feet and they are crushed by and defecated on by the animals above and around them, in order to reduce the amount of space needed for egg farming. (Feor 2009:47) 80% of pregnant American sows are kept in gestation crates that prevent basic mobility, in order to prevent property damage in the form of piglet-trampling – in itself created by confined factory spaces that prevent normal sow behavior. (Feor 2009:170,183-185) Cattle are bled out and butchered mostly while alive, and often while conscious, in order to ensure maximum efficiency in blood-draining. (Feor 2009: 230-233)

“Brute” Commodification

For farmed animals, this commodification is what I call brute commodification. In this severe form of commodification, the animals are seen as purely property, and as products and the sources of products. They do not have value as individuals, and their experiences are only considered when it is financially advantageous. This is commodification based in the physical use of animal bodies as opposed to use or possession of an animal as a living being, for emotional or other softer purposes.

Deanimalization

The animal counterpart of dehumanization, deanimalization is the human process of stripping an animal of its animalhood. This is generally a psychological precursor to and/or justification of commodification. Deanimalization detaches one’s image of an animal or animal product from the animal’s lived experiences, capabilities, and existence as a sentient and emotional being. A prime example of deanimalization is that we call cow meat “beef”, the cow picture showing the cut is always a silhouette not a portrait, and most Americans never meet or even see the animals they eat until they are fully butchered and wrapped in plastic.

 

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Pets

Privileges and Disadvantages of Pets

For the purpose of this research, I categorized “pets” as any domesticated or at least tamed animals (such as birds and reptiles) that are seen as pets by the interviewee. Because of this distinction by perception as opposed to by species, there are many instances in which different individual animals of the same species fall into each of the three categories I defined among domestic animals (farmed animals, working animals, and pets). This dynamic will be explored further below and in the Working Animals section. Pets are the most likely animals to be granted personhood, but this personhood is very much flexible and context-dependent. Additionally, this personhood often comes at the cost of lost animalhood. For example, a family may treat its dog like a family member, keeping him inside the house, buying him clothes, letting him sleep in the bed, and so on. This is seen as a kinder and more responsible life than that of a dog that roams the neighborhood without an owner. However, in gaining the personhood that stray dog is deprived of, the pet dog is frequently stripped of animalhood, in the form of being prevented from performing natural, species-specific behaviors such as digging, barking, following prey, and other behaviors humans see as undesirable in pets. Additionally, pets are especially vulnerable to softer forms of commodification. Pets are bought and sold in massive quantities as consumer goods, a process that proves deadly to a great deal of them, especially “exotics” such as pocket pets and animals sourced from puppy or kitten mills. Animals are also often commodified as status symbols and cared for poorly then discarded, such as is the case in the rampant celebrity pet trends that plague LA. Finally, pets serve as emotional commodities, used by us to make ourselves happy, more fulfilled, etc, often at the cost of their own health or wellbeing.

Personhood

Personhood is a very nebulous term with a variety of interpretations. For the purpose of this thesis, however, personhood will have two dimensions. The first I will call inherent personhood. This is derived from the inherent/transcendentalist school of thought, and is the idea that a being has personhood if it is its own sentient, thinking and feeling entity: a being in itself. Its experiences and self have inherent value, unrelated to any purpose it might serve. Personhood is sacred, and confers an ethical status. A person is worthy of care and respect simply for being a person. It is the position of this thesis that all animals have inherent personhood. The second dynamic of personhood, however, is the main focus of this project. This I will call social personhood, and is the idea that personhood is constructed and maintained in a social environment. This emphasis, then, will bring the focus of the thesis to what animals are perceived and valued as, as opposed to what they are. In other words, social personhood is the idea that you are a person if others say you are, and you are not if they don’t. For animals, social personhood also often entails being valued as a part of human social structures, such as the family. If not specified, assume I am speaking of social personhood.

Flexible Personhood

The idea that personhood, as constructed within an external social context (what I called the social dimension of personhood above), can be granted and rescinded. Thus personhood is not inherent to a being’s self, but a social status that can be gained or lost according to circumstances and the whims of others whose personhood is more secure. This can occur to individuals or groups, and is not exclusive to animals, but animals are in arguably the most perilous position. The likelihood of being granted personhood and the security of this status varies greatly by species, culture, and circumstance. Personhood, in this framework, is minimally affected by the being’s own capabilities or characteristics, or by what I labeled above as inherent personhood. This term was created by Dafna Shir-Vertesh, in her 2012 article called “Flexible Personhood”: Loving Animals as Family Members in Israel – the write-up of her longitudinal study of pets in Israeli families. A prime example of flexible personhood is the common scenario in which a dog is considered a child by a young couple, granted personhood and treated accordingly, then is relegated back to some form of lower status or even commodification following the birth of a human child.

 

Animalhood

Animalhood is the set of an animal’s species-specific experiences, capabilities, desires, and needs. An animal always has animalhood, but can be forcefully separated from it by human lack of recognition, respect, or consideration for its animalhood. For example, we deny our pet hamsters a great deal of their animalhood when we keep them isolated in a small space with minimal entertainment or foraging opportunities. Additionally, even when animalhood is recognized, it is often devalued and is rarely respected or prioritized. Acknowledging that an animal’s value is independent and inherent, and is not contingent upon the degree to which that animal replicates humanness or preconceived notions of personhood conveys animalhood. To respect animalhood, one must respect an animal’s animalness, and allow the animal to express the behaviors and characteristics that are natural for its species. Animalhood and personhood are not mutually exclusive, but nor do they guarantee each other. In fact, acknowledgement of personhood, through conflation of personhood and humanness, is often accompanied by the denial of animalhood.

 

“Soft” Commodification

Put simply, commodification means to treat as a commodity. In its practical application for this thesis, commodification means to treat a being as if it were a thing, and to assign value based on purpose and usefulness, as opposed to granting inherent value to the being’s life and wellbeing, external to any and all uses the being may or may not serve to others. For pets, commodification can be and often is economic, as in pets as consumer goods, but it can also be emotional and/or social, such as pets as companions, bringers of joy, identity constructors, and/or status symbols.

 

 

Working Animals

The Bizarre Case of Working Animals

Working animals occupy a limbo space between the worlds of farmed animals and pets. Working animals can be of any species, and are distinct from farmed animals in that their bodies or direct excretions are not products themselves, rather they create product and/or value with their labor. Thus they have economic value in themselves as living beings, including in their personalities and lived experiences, but they are distinct from pets in that they do serve some purpose that is neither emotional nor social in nature. The unique position of working animals places them at an intersection of privileges and disadvantages, as well as creates unique benefits and challenges that affect them alone. For example, working animals experience a safety level similar to that of pets, but like farmed animals, their conditions of living are generally only what is required to allow them to continue to function economically. Additionally, a working animal may be denied or granted animalhood, depending on how well its natural instincts align with its job. Of the working animals, perhaps the most interesting case is the horse. The same horse can be a working animal, a pet, and perhaps even a farmed animal over the course of its life, or even for the same person. Additionally, horses have coexisted with humans in close contexts since the beginning of their history. Thus their relationship with us is often closer than the relationship between, say, a human and a cow. In this way they are more petlike. However, due to their size and living requirements, they exist in a farm context despite their frequent petlike status.

Comments

  1. Thank you! And I’m sure yours was great, too!

  2. Thank you! Yeah, it’s pretty crazy that nobody (at least that I’ve found) has done ethnography on this before! I think that just illustrates my point: that we don’t think and care about animals nearly as much as we should! Honestly my biggest trouble has been trying to narrow down my topic. Once you start digging into this stuff, there’s just SO MUCH you can do with it! For example, so far my research has revealed everything from racist and classist biases within animal rescue to the historical role of collars in the relationship between human and dogs. Picking one thesis worth of work to draw from that is going to be really hard!

  3. This is so exciting! I got a chance to see your poster and I am amazed that no one has done in depth work into this before. Have there been any obstacles with defining your own terms or deciding your research path?

  4. I know how you feel! I was very nervous about this poster session as well. I didn’t feel like I had sufficient data to present to people let alone explain to them what I was trying to do! Nevertheless, I’m glad you had a great experience. Keep up the great work!

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