Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Critical Animal Studies and the cocktail party test

Ian Bogost recently had a post about self-branding and doing interdisciplinary work. The first suggestion was to have a name for the work you do. It is in that mode that I have embraced the term critical animal studies. Now, I recognize that to some degree it is a non-sense phrase, but the ambiguity seems necessary at this point to make a large enough tent. Though I tend to share Craig's mistrust of the over use of the term critical, I find the term critical tends to decrease confusion from the phrase animal studies (which tends to lead people to think I do ethology or something of the sort). Regardless, I usually tell people I study philosophy, so the name isn't such a big deal.

The real problem with the cocktail party (which I've almost never been to, so I use this to mean any light conversation gathering with mostly strangers) discussion is you can't tell people you are writing a dissertation in philosophy without them asking what the dissertation is on. Now, the problem isn't that I cannot describe my work to non-philosophers, even non-academics. This is when I am jealous of Bogost and wish I could say I was working on video games. The problem is that my work is naturally polarizing. And the point of cocktail parties is to keep things light, fun, and happy. Not focusing on massive forms of violence that we are all complacent in, and a good chance the person I am talking to is invested in denying that violence. Now, that means I either need to mislead the person about what I do ("I work on the distinction between humans and other animals"), or I try to tell them what I do in broad strokes that aren't as controversial ("Factory farms are bad, mmkay").
Ultimately my problems aren't like what most interdisciplinary people have. The real problem is the controversy and sadness that surrounds my work once people actually figure out what I do.