Academic journal article New Formations

Learning from Temple Grandin, or, Animal Studies, Disability Studies, and Who Comes after the Subject

Academic journal article New Formations

Learning from Temple Grandin, or, Animal Studies, Disability Studies, and Who Comes after the Subject

Article excerpt

Of the various contemporary fields of interdisciplinary cultural studies that have emerged over the past decade, two of the most philosophically ambitious and ethically challenging, I would argue, are Animal Studies and Disability Studies. Both often are taken to be the latest chapters in the academic assimilation of the so-called 'new social movements' (civil rights, feminism, environmentalism, gay and lesbian activism, and so on) that have fundamentally reshaped the study of society and culture over the past thirty years or more. Part of what makes these newcomers significant is that they pose fundamental challenges, as these earlier movements have, to a model of subjectivity and experience drawn from the liberal justice tradition and its central concept of 'rights', in which ethical standing and civic inclusion are predicated upon rationality, autonomy, and agency. And that agency, in turn, is taken to be expressive of the intentionality of one who is a member of what Kant called 'the community of reasonable beings'--an intentionality that is taken to be more or less transparent to the subject itself.

Now my aim here is not to offer, as I have elsewhere, a detailed discussion of this model of the subject, which I have glossed here, of course, far too schematically. (1) Rather, it is to suggest that both Animal studies and Disability studies show us something about the limitations of this model, and in doing so they call upon us to rethink questions of ethical and political responsibility within what I have sometimes characterised as a fundamentally posthumanist set of coordinates. (2) As a result, what we are compelled to confront in this new work is not so much a 'new and improved' theory of the subject (as rights-holding agent) as what comes after the subject (to borrow the title of a well-known collection of essays). (3) And it is in the wake of this 'after', I believe, that new lines of empathy, affinity, and respect between different forms of life, both human and non-human, may be realised in ways not accountable, either philosophically or ethically, by the basic coordinates of liberal humanism.

Interestingly enough, both of these fields--animal studies and disability studies--have intersected in what has recently emerged as a small subfield of its own: authors who claim that their disability has enabled for them a unique understanding of non-human animals and how they experience the world. The most famous of these is probably Monty Roberts, the famed 'horse whisperer', who was born with a severe form of colour-blindness called 'achromatopia' which allows him to see only blacks, whites, and a remarkably subtle scale of grays. (4) For that very reason, however, he developed early in life a keen perception of movement that has allowed him to read the body language of horses with amazing subtlety and precision. (5) And then there is the case of Dawn Prince-Hughes, a sufferer of the form of autism known as Asperger's Syndrome, who claims that her disability enabled her to have an unusually keen understanding of the nuances of the social interactions and communications of a group of zoo gorillas. And as with Monty Roberts, this was crucial for the evolution of her own self-understanding, enabling her to move from being 'a wild thing out of context', living on the margins of society, to completing a Ph.D. in anthropology, and eventually to becoming an author and editor. Gorillas, she says, 'taught me how to be civilized'. (6)

And then, of course, there is the case I will discussing here, Temple Grandin, who reflects on her life with autism in three books published over the past nineteen years. Grandin--an animal science Ph.D. who has designed one third of all the livestock-handling facilities in the US--insists that her experience with autism and its specific characteristics (the intensely visual rather than verbal quality of her mental life, the acute sensitivity to tactile stimulation, and so on) has given her a special understanding of how nonhuman animals experience the world, one that has enabled her to design animal holding and processing facilities that are far more humane for the animals involved. …

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