Of Lobsters, Laboratories, and War: Animal Studies and the Temporality of More-Than-Human Encounters

By Johnson, Elizabeth R. | Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, April 2015 | Go to article overview

Of Lobsters, Laboratories, and War: Animal Studies and the Temporality of More-Than-Human Encounters


Johnson, Elizabeth R., Environment and Planning D: Society and Space


Abstract. For over two decades, geographers concerned with undoing what Judith Butler has referred to as 'the conceit of anthropocentrism' have brought animals in from the margins of thought. Geography's contributions to animal studies have been diverse, but a key consideration has been a retreat from thinking with animals toward a plural, more-than-human analysis. A recent privileging of 'spaces of encounter' with nonhuman others challenges the significance of animals altogether, equating them to other nonhuman entities--along with nonliving processes, the movement of molecules, viruses, forces, and affects that circulate and connect in 'events' and 'sites'--on the terrain of ethical and political conflict. There is much at stake here in terms of how geographical methods are carried out and how response, analysis, and political action proceed. In what follows, I reflect on field notes from an ethnographic encounter with lobster experimentation in a neuroscience laboratory to contrast thinking 'with animals' and 'with encounters'. I assess the implications of each for transforming who and what we consider in ethical and political terms. I find that while the encounter moves beyond the limitations of more traditionally defined animal studies, a corresponding focus on the present loses sight of wider temporal and spatial relations--including the political economies--that are relevant to the elements in any encounter. Drawing on Boaventura de Sousa Santos and Astrid Schrader, I argue for a geography of the encounter that 'expands the present' rather than residing in it, with consequences for the 'new materialism' movement. In the case of the lobster experiment, this leads me to consider how scientific practices with animals are also immediately a part of ongoing trends in the US that 'militarize' biological life. In conclusion, I argue that concern for animals in the laboratory ought to expand to include concern for past and future political conditions of life, death, and the production of knowledge.

Keywords: encounter, event, new materialism, animal studies, ethics, militarization

"Pleasant is it also to behold great encounters of warfare arrayed over the plains, with no part of yours in the Peril." Lucretius (De Rerum Natura 1975 [1924], page 95) (1)

1 Introduction

How ought we live with creatures whose bodies, forms, and functions are alien to our own? Or, as Kathryn Yusoff has recently put it, how are we "to relate, to write, to sense, and to make intelligible that which is beyond [us]?" (2013, page 209). These questions are not merely academic: how we answer them grounds our political and ethical commitments to the world and those with whom we share it. As we begin to recognize the troubling conditions of the ' Anthropocene', it seems increasingly imperative that we reconsider our commitments to what Judith Butler has called "the conceit of anthropocentrism" (Butler, quoted in

Antonello and Farneti, 2009, no page number). To that end, geographers have taken up the task of 'making intelligible those beyond us' in part by drawing nonhuman animal life in from the margins of scholarship (for example, Bingham, 2006; Davies, 2013; Greenhough and Roe, 2011; Philo and Wibert, 2000; Whatmore, 2002; Wolch and Emel, 1998). As Henry Buller's recent progress reports in Progress in Human Geography demonstrate, however, centralizing nonhuman animals often raises more questions than it answers (2013; 2014). Among a number of conceptual difficulties is the fact that attempts to dismantle assumed species hierarchies often reify others. As Myra Hird has noted, for example, the vast majority of animal studies texts prioritize organisms that are 'big like us' (Hird, 2009). As a consequence, and as Cary Wolfe (2013) has demonstrated, many of the frameworks driving much of the work in animal studies employ--and reinforce--violent logics of biopower in spite of themselves, recasting some lives as sacred while others are rendered killable all over again. …

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