Sunday, March 28, 2010

More on being against all cages

I am currently traveling, and will have random and infrequent access to the internet (so, sorry I haven't responded to comments, I will hopefully do so shortly). However, I wanted to share an article I meant to share with you all from my post on animal and prison abolition. The article, "Ask Shamu: The US tortures both human and animal prisoners," draws the obvious and under-remarked connection between the sea world killer whale incident and issues of solitary confinement, both towards other animals and humans. More of this, please.

Thursday, March 25, 2010


Sentience is a weird word. It both refers to the ability to sense something, but also the ability to have consciousness, self-awareness. And it seems self-awareness in a particularly human way. Thus, if someone says of an alien being, "Don't kill it, it's sentient" they do not mean, "It has the capacity for pleasure and pain." Rather, they are claiming it is intelligent, to be included as part of the human community.
Now, obviously non-human animals are (for the most part) sentient in both senses. But I am curious how a word that means responsive to pain and pleasure comes into a metaphysical term for the capacity of humanness? (If anyone has access to the OED and wants to see if it has an answer, I'd appreciate it).

Also, the linguistic confusion frequently makes my life harder.

UPDATE: I ask, and Peter delivers. Click here for the OED entry of sentient.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Animal Abolition and Prison Abolition: An historical perspective.

Over at the Animal Law Coalition, there is a post concerning a bill that will greatly expand prosecutors abilities in animal cruelty cases for GA. Considering I am still registered to vote in GA, I took my time to make some phone calls on behalf of this bill (if you are registered to vote in GA, you might want to take some time do the same). And while I think this change is important, I was somewhat uncomfortable at the same time. It goes to a broader conflict I have with the increasing police-ification of the animal rights movement.

As many of you know, not only am I am abolitionist when it comes to viewing animals as property, I am also a prison abolitionist. You know, I'm generally for empty cages, for everyone. So, it obviously bothers me that many animal abolitionists often support stronger prison sentences, and tend to get gleeful about locking up individuals. Now, I get it. When you think people are murderers and torturers, it's hard not to want them to get their just deserts, and we live in a society that makes you think that means prison. Or course, we also live in a society that makes most of what we do to animals not count as murder or torture. Rethinking some of these societal norms is probably a good idea, especially for the animal abolitionist.

It also bespeaks a great deal of privilege to think that increased presence of police and illegality leads to more justice and protection. Practically speaking, that's seldom the case. As Angela Davis phrases it in one of the better passages from Are Prisons Obsolete?
Why were people so quick to assume that locking away an increasingly large proportion of the U.S. population would help those who lived in the free world feel safer and more secure? This question can be formulated in more general terms. Why do prisons tend to make people think their own rights and liberties are more secure than they would be if prisons did not exist? (p. 14)

Now, there are many animal abolitionists who come from either an anarchist tradition or a tradition that means prisons and cops don't make you feel more secure. But such people are marginal within a still relatively marginal movement. What is interesting is that this dynamic with an animal rights movement is not new.

I recently read Leela Gandhi's absolutely wonderful book, Affective Communities. I highly suggest it to anyone, especially the chapter on "Meat." In there, Gandhi distinguishes between two different turn of the century animal welfare movements occurring within the British metropol. On the one hand you had the socially semi-disgraceful group centered mainly around The Vegetarian Society, composed of anticolonial agitators, anarchists, socialists, feminists, gay activists, etc. On the other hand you had the respected animal welfare group centered mainly around the RSPCA (the royal part certainly indicts their level of social respect). This second group of mainstream animal welfarists were able to pass some of the first legislation on animal welfare.
These efforts finally bore fruit in 1822, when a historic bill, introduced into the Commons by Sir Richard Martin, member for Galway, succeeded in extending protection to "Horses, Mares, Geldings, Mules, Donkeys, Cows, Heifers, Bull Calves, Oxen, Sheep, and other Livestock." Henceforth anyone having charges of these creatures and caught wantonly beating, abusing, or ill-treating them was liable for a fine of between ten shillings and five pounds, or imprisonment for up to two months. (p. 88)

Many of the laws suggested or passed by the English Parliament about animals welfare, were dedicated to the bloodsports and pass times of the poor and working classes (and indeed, most of our laws about animal welfare in this country follow a similar model). The laws were meant not to (just) protect animals, but also instill into the poor and working class a examples in order to make them "better." Or, as the the RSPCA put it in their original meeting, their purpose was not only "to prevent the exercise of cruelty towards animals, but to spread among the lower orders of people.. a degree of moral feeling which would compel them to think and act like of a superior class." (quoted in Gandhi, p. 93) And if these laws, therefore, resulted in more policing and interference among these classes, well it wasn't an accident but a purposeful by-product discussed as much among the members of Parliament.
In this case the relationship between the respected animal welfarists and the early utilitarians does not come across as an accident. Rather, we see in utilitarianism a similar desire for hierarchical forceful obedience in order to produce a people that followed certain mores and norms (governmentality, in other words). We can see this in Bentham's involvement with prisons and James and John Stuart Mill's involvement and support of British colonialism.
And while I am not sure I would ascribe the obvious defects of the classical animal welfare movement to the people fighting for animal rights today, I would say that the modern penal system carries with it the indelible marks of its origins: those of coloniality, racism, and classism.
Those of us in the animal abolition movement have a duty to tread carefully around these legal instruments, and to refuse to support, at least more often than not, anything that expands the present prison industrial complex.
Which I guess brings me back to the GA bill. I'm not sure about this bill, but I also believe it is important to get other animals out of situations of neglect and abuse that doesn't currently exist. Which is why I think it is probably something to be supported. But I certainly won't hide the fact that such issues are complex, and I that I could be wrong.

As sort of an asterisk on the discussion of utilitarianism. I want to say that not only do I think we've seen a change the current animal rights movement, I think we have as we have as well in the current utilitarian philosophy, as well. It is also worth noting that Bentham supported a good number of liberal, even radical positions in his day. So, I think utilitarianism, especially the ways it was originally formulated were deeply messed up. I also sometimes think it gets a bum rap. But I don't have much to say (at this time) on this last point.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

My probable last post on health care reform

As you know, health care reform was signed into law today. This will probably be my last post about health care reform, so those of you who didn't like that aspect of my blog can celebrate as well.

I was trying to think of what sort of post I should make. A retrospective explaining what happened? How we got here? A post on what in contained in the bill?
Well, if anyone wants that, they can ask for them. Otherwise, I am going to make a post about what is to come.

But before I do, I want to address the concern that has come up by a few people that at the last minute women were thrown under the bus to get health care passed. I'm not happy by what happened, but that is certainly not what happened. So, to recap: When the original House health care bill passed, it passed with severe restrictions on women being able to get insurance that would support abortions. The senate passed a health care bill, and it contained language that restricted federal money going to pay for such insurance products, but did not limit the ability to get those insurance products through the exchanges. This senate bill, in effect, maintained the status quo on abortion. For those of us who believe the status quo is too restrictive on a woman's ability to get an abortion, that is obviously a disappointment. However, we should clearly admit that what was being maintained was the status quo, not some sort of regressive restrictions. Well, then we ended up in the situation where the House had to pass the senate bill, with restrictions on what changes could be made to the senate bill. That was pretty good in this case, because from a pro-choice standpoint the senate bill was easily superior than the house bill. The problem was, the house was having trouble assembling the votes for passage. The pro-life group, led by Stupak, were originally leveraging to get some level of increased restrictions on abortion in exchange for there votes. After some going back and forth, someone (Pelosi, at the very least, maybe aided in this move by Obama, it is unclear) laid down the law. No way were abortion restrictions going to be added. Then Stupak et al's best option was that Pelosi was going to be able to find the votes elsewhere. Which she was unable to do. So, Stupak and his gang were in an awkward position. They clearly wanted health care to pass, but had made public statements taht would make it hard to support. So, Obama agreed to pass an executive order that basically says, we will enforce the senate bill's stance on abortion. That gave Stupak the political cover to vote, and the rest is quite literally history.
Now, I don't like the optics of Obama seeming to give his stamp of approval on the status quo, but that is all that happened. And moreover, no new restrictions were added that were not already in the senate bill. Part of the outrage comes from the over the top response from NOW. I don't understand what inspired that statement, and I have both sympathetic and unsympathetic ideas. Anyway, if you read the statements released by both NARAL and Planned Parenthood, I think you get a better idea of what happened (you can read all three statements here).

So, now to what comes next. The senate has to pass the reconciliation package, but that seems very likely. Also included in that reconciliation package is a overhaul of the student loan system, another failed initiative from the Clinton years. It hasn't been getting as much attention, for the obvious, but is still important. Republicans are talking about repealing it, but the electoral math just isn't there. This bill will have to be very unpopular (more than it even is right now), and stay that way for a while in order for the republicans to really be able to repeal it. I obviously don't think that will happen. The lawsuits are already beginning. They seem unlikely to go anywhere. The objections of telling the states what to do seem unlikely to move the supreme court (if no other reason they don't want to give up their ability to tell state courts what to do), and the individual mandate is covered well by existing law (not only the interstate commerce clause, but more particularly Congress's ability to control tax law). For the supreme court to repeal this, would require a level of absurdity far beyond the Bush v Gore fiasco. I guess what I am trying to say is that we will have far bigger problems than health care reform it the Court repeals it.

The things that can improve the reform the most are better subsidies, better caps on out of pocket expenses or controls to lower deductibles even more, and federal regulation of the exchanges. Sadly those cannot go through reconciliation. What can go through reconciliation is a public option. A strong public option never had the majority votes in the house, or majority votes in the senate. But a weak (level playing field) public option just might, assuming the dems still control the house after midterms.

Outside of health care, there are some legislative goals that seem possible in the nearish future. A national broadband plan is possible (see this and this), some sort of movement on carbon pricing is still possible, but it always seems unlikely, tax reform, and Chris Dodd's financial regulation bill has made it out of committee and will be proceeding to the floor after senate takes up health care, but that seems like a long shot of passing. Harry Reid has also promised to work on filibuster reform (assuming he is still part of the senate) at the beginning of next congress, which will probably be necessary to get any of these through.

And that is kinda that.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Health care passes

It passed. Just in case you haven't heard. I might try to write a longer post on this tomorrow. If you are curious about anything, put it in questions and I will try to respond to it when/if I make a post on this tomorrow.

Health Care Vote

Today is the debate (on-going) and vote on health care bill. It is close, but it looks like the votes are there for the bill to pass. The actual vote is being scheduled between 6pm and 10pm et tonight. You can watch the debate on cspan live.
It isn't really interesting, except that everything we know about how a bill becomes law is just wrong. Schoolhouse rocks, West Wing, my civics class, my AP gov class, etc did not teach me anything about how the bill becomes law.

Friday, March 19, 2010

A movie about Animal Liberation and the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act

Bold Native, a movie written and directed by Denis Henry Hennelly, is a fictional story centered direct action animal liberationists and the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA). While I don't know a lot about this movie, it looks great. If you want more information, check out the webite Bold Native. I will let you all know more information as I know.

Friday, March 12, 2010

They write posts!

So, I should write more rambling posts. Other people do the work of making them interesting. In this case, Levi has a great post up, and Peter has three (3) posts. See here, here, and here.

I don't have time to respond right now, but go read them all.

On another note, I have no clue why you read my blog and not be reading Levi's and Peter's blogs. I link to them out of blogger etiquette. But, seriously, for the one or two of you who read mine and not theirs, go fix that right this second.

Punch an animal in the face if you love humanity! (Or, I promise, I don't hate humans).

One of the more peculiar charges made against those advocating for the liberation of animals, particularly those who advocate for animal rights, is that we somehow hate humanity. That our desire for animal welfare, animal emancipation, etc., is based on an animus to humans. This is something I come across all the time, but let me just highlight three of the more philosophical versions of this argument.

José Ortega y Gasset, Meditations on Hunting, p. 103

It is inconceivable that no study from the ethical point of view has even been made of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, analyzing its standards and actions. I bet one would find that English zoophilia has one of its roots in a certain secret English antipathy toward everything human that is not English or Ancient Greek!

Elisabeth Roudinesco, in her dialogue with Derrida in For What Tomorrow..., p. 67.

What strikes me about such an excessive claim [that Great Apes deserve rights] is that it would establish a sort of division between what would be human and what would be nonhuman. To bring great apes into the order of human rights, it would be necessary to exclude the mentally ill.

And just a page later.

Just as, from a psychoanalytic point of view, the terror of ingesting animality can be the symptom of a hatred of the living taken to the point of murder. Hitler was a vegetarian.

And last up, Roberto Esposito, in his Bios, p. 130.

More than ‘bestializing’ man, as is commonly thought, it [Nazism] ‘anthropologized’ the animal, enlarging the definition of anthropos to the point where it also comprised animals of inferior species. He who was the object of persecution and extreme violence wasn’t simply an animal (which indeed was respected and protected as such by one of the most advanced pieces of legislation of the entire world), but was an animal-man: man in the animal and the animal in the man.
Before I get any further, I was wanted to share with your Derrida's wonderful reply to Roudinesco, p. 68.

The caricature of an indictment goes more or less like this: "Oh, you're forgetting that the Nazis, and Hitler in particular, were in a way zoophiles! So loving animal animals means hating or humiliating humans! Compassion for animals doesn't exclude Nazi cruelty; it's even its first symptom!" The argument strikes me as crudely fallacious. Who can take this parody of a syllogism seriously even for a second? And where would it lead us? To redouble our cruelty to animals in order to prove our irreproachable humanism?

As absurd as that last line is, in a way it is
Ortega y Gasset's position. He argues that hunters show both the authentic form of respect of humans and other animals!

I've never understood these arguments against animal liberationists. I once compared it to the arguments that people make that extending the same rights to homosexuals in our society is passing special rights for homosexuals. It doesn't make any sense, but is often repeated. It is, therefore, somehow effective on an intuitive level for many of the people making the arguments. Because I don't share these intuitions, these sorts of arguments confuse. Like Derrida, I wonder how such an argument could be taken seriously, even for a second! But not only are they taken seriously, they are repeated, again and again, by serious people. What is it about these absurd arguments that are so effective, so appealing to people?

I really don't have a good answer. On some level, it seems as evidence for both Foer and Derrida that we are at war with other animals. If we are at war, than supporting animals is giving aid and comfort to the enemy.

That has a certain elegant appeal for me, but I don't honestly think that is all (or maybe even most) of what is going on. The real desire is for human exceptionalism. And there is some sort of linkage that I miss between human exceptionalism and human well-being. To attack the doctrine of exceptionalism is seen, therefore, as an attack on the human as such. (Ditto on the weird arguments against same-sex marriage). But it is that weird hidden linkage that makes no sense to me. Why do we need an exceptionalism?

One last hurrah on TAing.

Peter has a response up on the issue of TAing. If you are too lazy or too loyal to click the link (though both would be weird outlooks on life), here is the single most important thing he had to say in that post, perhaps ever on his blog.

[A]nd just try not to make the jokes so corny that your significant other mocks you when you think you’re repeating a great laugh you had in class.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

What can we do to better support TAs?

Peter Gratton has a response up to my post on the CHE articles (he also should be winning an award for best use of my name).
He is absolutely right that for the most part that one learns by doing, especially with teaching. But, as he admits, there are things we can do to also better support our teachers, especially the TAs. I'm just thinking out loud here about some things I think that would be relatively cheap for the university and important for new teachers.

(1) A guide for navigating the institutional resources that your university has on hand. For example, you have a student you expect of a learning disability, what do you do? What tutoring is available, both for students with LD and other students? What different kinds of tutoring exists? You need to a reserve a classroom for some reason, how do you do this? You need a piece of equipment not in the room you are using, where do you go? There is a scheduling error with your course, who do you contact? And etc. (these were all chosen from personal experience, most of them occurring for the first time in the first semester of teaching).

(2) Assign mentors. Most pre-collegiate schools assign mentors to new teachers. A similar system would be very helpful for new TAs. The way I answered most of the questions above, is the first course I taught I had taken over from a grad student who was still around, and so I just asked him. Now, sometimes he didn't give me perfect advise, but I cannot imagine the nightmare if he hadn't been around. So, assign an older more experienced TA to mentor new TAs, one hopes the mentor even taught or is still teaching the course the new TA is teaching. Also assign a faculty mentor. Now, most new TAs will devise these systems themselves, informally. I cannot tell you how many discussions at the bar I have had with other grad students about teaching issues. But it strikes me that a formal system is probably helpful, as well.

(3) Formal evaluations and help. It is true that one learns to teach by doing, but like most of those practices, coaching helps (I should remind people that I probably have a more significant background in coaching, than I do in educating). There was a scene in the CHE series where a professor evaluates the author's teaching. She writes a scathing letter, and when she calls him in to talk about it, he basically just shrugs. Now, obviously both behaviors are absurd. If a professor calls you in, and you are having problems, rather than shrug, maybe try to turn that into a productive conservation about what you should be doing. But also, if you see a new TA failing, reach out and help. Evaluations should include discussions about what was effective, what was not effective, how to implement things in the future.

Anyway, nothing we do will prepare new teachers, of course not. But the current situation for most TAs at most universities seem inexcusable. I didn't have a horrible time teaching (well, my first semester was a nightmare, but that had to deal with a lot of issues, it being my first semester teaching not even being in the top five), but I also think there are fairly practical steps we could take to make the new TAs life slightly more bearable.

Academia's own Catcher in the Rye

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently published a five part series on being an English graduate student at a prestigious university, entitled "Academic Bait and Switch". The author, the university, the people mentioned in the articles, are all pseudonymous (what are we, the DC press corps?). I wanted to talk about the parts of the series that I think were important, before I talk about what bothers me about this series.

The article talks about how graduate students are thrown into the position of educators with little help or guidance. This is doubly problematic if, like the author or myself, you come from an undergraduate education without TAs and with relatively little understanding about how their role is in a classroom. One example the author gives is when he has a student who is clearly struggling in his class, despite working very, very hard. When he asks one professor what to do, the professor indicates basically he should fail him rather than help him. The author thought this student needed to go to the writing center for tutoring, but he had given them the max referrals (which is itself rather odd). Now, it is unclear, but it sounds very much that if we have a bright student who works hard and cannot get things like grammar, we are probably dealing with some issue of learning disability. Now, universities have people hired to deal with learning disabilities, to get extra tutoring help, and other help. However, such bureaucratic navigation is not provided to almost any graduate student.
Moreover, the bias against pedagogy and educational theory and practice that is obviously held by the professor charged with teaching these graduate students how to teach is a disgrace.
I was lucky in that I both grew up in a family of educators and had a small background in teaching before I started teaching classes as a graduate student. I was further helped along by having an adviser that took my questions about pedagogy and bureaucracy seriously. I agree with the author that universities need to take actually educating students more seriously, and part of that includes proper support for TAs.

Many of the other complaints seem to focus on the petty personal power politics, the fragile egos, the backstabbing and sucking up, and the general mendacity that seems to define any culture of a hierarchical institution. I guess it is important to understand that the academy is just as bad as anywhere else with this sort of thing.

However, the series in general really annoyed me. And it wasn't just the anonymous nature of it all (seriously though, anonymous rants are meant for your personal blog, not trade journals). But the real annoyance with the series is I feel that the pseudonym shouldn't be Henry Adams, but should rather be Holden Caulfield. Seriously, we have five parts, coming in at around 7,717 words, and everyone described in it is a phoney, a jerk, a sycophant. In his entire time at grad school, he never had a professor that he found insightful? In his years teaching undergraduates as a TA, he never had a student that who surprised and delighted him? I'm glad that in general the author seems to like several of his fellow graduate students (though they are often too sycophantic for him. He remains the only truth teller, the only academic dare devil), and most of the positive intellectual benefits you get out of grad school comes from your peers.
I don't want to go too far into all of this, but I think it's all rather distorted. Phoney, if you will.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Ranciere and Fish

I know I have been just letting this blog sit here for a bit. Sorry, I am still sending off applications to have funding to finish my dissertation next year. So, really, I am working on the long term stability of this blog.

Anyway, I wanted to link to this i.t. post about Ranciere on the internet and wikipedia. But this reminded me of a dream I had last night.

I know, I know. No one wants to hear about your dreams unless they were in them. Hopefully this will be an exception for the crowd that already reads my blog.

In the dream I was writing a chapter of the dissertation on fish. Now, there isn't a planned chapter about fish in the dissertation, but my dream self makes a pretty good argument that should be changed. In the dream I was making an argument about the logos/phone dyad as it is articulated in Ranciere's Disagreement. In this way I was agreeing with Samuel Chambers, who reads an anti-anthropocentrism in Ranciere's work. That Ranciere's work discovers an anthropocentric rip or tear in the classical conception of language (See Chambers article, here).I doubt this is an intentional argument by Ranciere (though if any of you are ever in the position to ask him about animals and anthropocentrism, I’d appreciate it). Anyway, I was working on this, and I was setting up the problem of the fish. The fish doesn’t even have (traditional) access to phone. I was doing this to ponder on why so many people call themselves vegetarians but still eat fish, and why some people might argue that fish cannot feel pain, and other nonsense. Kazez recently had a post where someone who identifies as a vegetarian not only eats fish, but claims they cannot feel pain (this might be a conceptual issue of what counts as fish. But if we mean fish as opposed to all forms of sea life, that seems totally nonsensical).
As Jonathan Safran Foer argues in Eating Animals:
As I came to see, war is precisely the right word to describe our relationship to fish-- it captures the technologies and techniques brought to bear against them, and the spirit of domination. As my experience with the world of animal agriculture deepened, I saw that the radical transformations fishing has undergone in the past fifty years are representative of something much larger. We have waged war, or rather let war be waged, against all of the animals we eat. This war is new and has a name: factory farming (p. 33).

This is where the dream stops being really useful (and the quotation of course wasn't exact in the dream), but I wanted to set up a distinction between the war against beings stuck between the dyad of logos and phone, and the war against those beings who exist outside of that dyad. But that is pretty much as far as I got before I woke up.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Call for Book Proposals

Call for Book Proposals

We are pleased to invite proposals for a new book series, Critical Animal Studies, to be published by Rodopi Press, one of Europe’s premiere academic presses. The main goals of the series, which differentiates it from the pre-existing series in the field of animal studies, are that we are particularly looking to publish works that:

(a) focus on ethical issues pertinent to actual animals (as opposed to animals as only metaphors, tropes, or philosophical concepts); i.e. work with a certain normative value;

(b) adopt a broad critical orientation to animal studies, including (but not limited to) work that investigates and challenges the complex dynamics of structural, institutional, and discursive power formations that organize life conditions, relations, and experiences of animals, humans, and the environment alike; work that explores diverse forms and sites of human/animal resistance; work that contributes to current global debates by contextualizing critical animal issues within, for instance, processes of globalization, climate change, and biotechnology; work that intervenes in the animal economy of the production, science, service, experience, and culture industries; as well as work that critically analyzes ideologies, practices and effects of the current animal welfare movement;

(c) bridge boundaries between academic/activist knowledge, between theory/practice, as well as between existing disciplines. Based on this commitment to interdisciplinarity, all work published must be in language that is as clear and accessible to as wide an audience as possible;

(d) contribute to creative, bold, innovative, and boundary shifting knowledge development in critical animal studies.

If we can be of any further help or assistance in discussing projects please do not hesitate to contact either of us via email. Further information and submission guidelines are found on the book series website:

Sincerely yours,

Dr. Helena Pedersen
Senior Co-Editor

Malmö University

Vasile Stănescu
Senior Co-Editor

Stanford University