New Geographies of Animal Subjectivity

By Martin Mahony

Rat, Mole, Toad and Badger from Wind in the Willows by Paul Bransom (Image:Wind in the Willows (1913).djvu, page 326) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The identity, experiences and and behaviour of animals – in short, their subjectivity – has been a topic of great media interest of late. The scandal over the discovery of horse meat throughout the European food chain has raised serious questions not only about the seeming opacity of the meat industry, but also about our cultural relations to particular species. The illicit substitution of meat from one herbivorous quadruped for that of another has produced outrage of both a political and ethical kind, pointing towards particular culturally-embedded understandings of animal subjectivities. Likewise, the debate about the culling of badgers to prevent the spread of bovine tuberculosis in the UK has often proceeded through contrasting framings of badgers as vicious pests and as lovable woodland critters. These framings, in turn, can be traced back to literary presentations of badgers of works such as The Wind in the Willows – as the BBC’s Roger Harrabin reports in his interview with Angela Cassidy of Imperial College, London.

These themes of human-animal relationships have long been of interest to geographers. Agriculture and the food industry are interesting spaces where human-nature relationships are played out in a variety of material, economic, scientific and ethical ways. The field of ‘animal geographies’ has interrogated the networks which tie humans and animals together in ways which transcend conventional dualisms of ‘human’ and ‘nature’ and which pose challenging questions to the distinction between animals as economic or scientific objects, and animals as conscious, feeling subjects.

As reported by Connie Johnston in a new paper in Geography Compass, the recent evolution of the question of animal subjectivity has been an important feature of the farm animal welfare debate. Animal welfare has become an object of state regulation in the EU and US, with new branches of regulatory science interacting with forms of animal rights activism to construct new categories of animal subjectivity and emotion. Drawing on the geography of science literature, Johnston suggests that we need to trace the knowledges and norms of animal welfare through various spaces of knowledge production – from geopolitical units such as the EU, through the immediate living environments of farm animals, to the very ‘location’ of animal subjectivity, such as neuronal architectures. Johnston hints at sources of difference in how animal welfare is governed in the EU and US, such as different legal landscapes and economic priorities, and argues for further research to clarify and explain the different ways in which animal subjectivity is constructed in different places.

As the recent cases of badgers and horses show, animal subjectivities – or rather, human constructions of them – are deeply cultural affairs. Attempts to determine an absolute ‘essence’ of animal subjectivity often founder, and thus geographical scholarship has the potential to contribute to our understandings of how such categories are constructed, and the political and ethical work they do for us in highly charged debates about our food and about our relationship with the nonhuman.

world_icon Horsemeat scandal: the essential guideThe Guardian, 15th February 2013

world_icon Badgers: Splitting opinion for more than 200 yearsBBC News, 11th October 2012

books_icon Connie L. Johnston, 2013, Geography, Science, and Subjectivity: Farm Animal Welfare in the United States and EuropeGeography Compass 7 139-148

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