Writing Literature to Benefit Nonhumans
This is the first post in a monthly column about animal rights and critical animal studies.
Because I’m a poet and essayist some of my posts will move beyond the strict scope of animal rights philosophy and will concern literature specifically as it relates to nonhumans, veganism, and zoopoetics.
Zoopoetics is a new movement in literary theory and practice that treats nonhumans as individuals with agency, as conscious world-having individuals worthy of moral consideration. Think Kafka, Coetzee, D. H. Lawrence. Think Oni Buchanan and Aracelis Girmay, Les Murray and John Kinsella, Gretchen Primack and Ashley Capps, among countless other innovative writers and editors actively helping to reconceive our relationships with nonhumans.
Zoopoetics is markedly different from ecocriticism, ecopoetics, ecopoetry, and ecological literature in general. Such movements are not concerned with nonhumans as individuals; rather, they are concerned with animals as populations. When they do concern themselves with nonhumans, the essays and anthologies in these genres typically express disquiet about threatened favored populations of animals in the wild — wolves, eagles, bison, monarch butterflies — and rarely if ever mention the plight of farmed animals or question the practice of enslaving, killing and eating the bodies and secretions of nonhumans. The animal in these works is aestheticized and collective. Terry Tempest Williams, for instance, might protest the killing of prairie dogs and owls in the Utah desert, as a part of the general “subjugation of women and nature” in her book Refuge, but think nothing of lauding the hunting of rabbits by her family only a few pages later as a practice integral to her family’s sacred (her word) relationship with nature. Dozens of poets in a collection of essays on ecopoetics will rail against damage to the environment and the loss of connection to the animal world and nature caused by human hubris but never once mention a slaughterhouse, the practice of meat eating, or the fact that animal farming is not only predicated on human supremacism but is also the single greatest driver of climate change and the chief ecological threat to rivers and aquifers worldwide. Forewords, prefaces, and introductions to recent anthologies of ecopoetry and the postmodern pastoral won’t mention the slaughterhouse at all, though the bodies of dead nonhumans are universally eaten and worn, and CAFOs are scattered across countrysides everywhere.
The idea that literature should be written to benefit nonhumans is new. We see no hint of this in western letters prior to now. Book X of The Republic maintains that the only permissible literature is that which praises gods and famous men. Aristotle remarks in Book IV of The Poetics that literature’s purview is the imitation of the actions of men and gods. Sidney’s Defence holds that literature’s purpose is to improve the character of a gentleman. Shelley, Lessing, Schiller all declared that the intent of literature should be to improve humanity. In fact it’s been a broadscale and sustained note since the advent of humanism: the project of literature is humanity’s improvement. Full stop.
Writing literature for the improvement and benefit of nonhumans isn’t some boutique issue, especially when we consider how animal farming is altering our climate and damaging our health and environment. Even for those who cannot intrinsically value nonhumans as ends in themselves, they should recognize that our fate is bound up firmly with their well-being.
A human future that does not acknowledge the injustices done to nonhumans cannot be rosy. Thankfully, a growing body of thinkers, literary and non-literary alike, is increasingly in agreement with political theorist John Sanbonmatsu who writes,
“A Left or socialist politics which does not place our enslavement of other beings at its center, conceptually and politically, cannot possibly succeed: ‘speciesism’ is not merely one more ‘ism,’ but in fact lies at the root of every form of social domination.”
Indeed, Giorgio Agamben goes so far as to insist that the ways we conceive of nonhumans has for centuries been at the heart of all political oppression.
As with the rest of mainstream culture, there is in this eco-centric literature a general disavowal of the suffering of nonhumans despite the seventy billion who are killed each year (trillions if we consider the annual slaughter of sea creatures) for meat, jackets, fur collars, handbags, watchbands, hats, shoes – all commodities unnecessary for, and in fact detrimental to, our health and mental well-being. The rare animal who rises to the status of an individual by such authors is generally a domestic pet or a rescued farm animal.
Rather than coldly expressing concern over animals as populations, we should, in the words of philosopher David Sztybel be “’hot’ for the individual animal.” This new literature does this. And none too soon. Now that we are living through the sixth mass extinction since multicellular life rose on the earth a billion years ago, an extinction caused in great part by animal farming, an extinction, what’s more, that is nearly invisible to us, it’s time we begin to think of literature as a force that can benefit nonhumans too. A zoopoetic literature, which is sometimes straightforwardly veganic, is being written for the benefit of all sentient beings, not just as populations but as individuals, as individuals with bodily and mental sovereignty.
Such a literature will correct our received notions about what it means to share a lived sense of mutual vulnerability with nonhumans, to be one among many, not first among a few, of sovereign and suffering beings, each of whom, like us, is surrounded by the causes of death. Such a literature will also help us understand that humans need no longer be one of those causes.
(photo by Elige Veganismo of cow in restraining device for slaughter)
 The term zoopoetics was introduced by Jacques Derrida in his 1997 The Animal that Therefore I Am, but it has recently been more carefully inflected by Aaron Moe in his book Zoopoetics: Animals and the Making of Poetry (Lexington 2013) as a counter to, and a clarification of, ecocriticism and ecopoetics.
 This broadscale disavowal of animal farming and slaughter by a discipline that one would think would try to look this issue squarely in the face isn’t a problem intrinsic only to ecology-centric literature; it can also be seen even in the field of new materialist thought about biopower. See my essay, “Ecopoetry, Speculative Ontology, and the Disavowal of the Slaughterhouse: Some Notes on Ethics and Biopower” in Matter.
 Personal correspondence.
2 thoughts on “SENTIENCE MATTERS: ANIMAL RIGHTS & LITERATURE”
I am interested to see where this will lead in relation to beings that are non-sentient, or if they will be a part of the conversation. As you note, “A zoopoetic literature, which is sometimes straightforwardly veganic, is being written for the benefit of all sentient beings…” I wonder where plants, bacteria, etc. fit into this picture? How is their omission justified? Isn’t decrying speciesism while leaving “kingdomism” in place problematic, as it leaves this discourse in tact for any who would use it to justify prejudice? I think that disability studies might have something to say in relation to this, as many have argued that people with serious mental disabilities are not sentient. How is this term, “sentience,” being defined?
To clarify, I don’t mean this as a criticism. I say it with genuine interest.
Thank you for your note. I do understand your intention is genuine. So thank you for that.
Yours is a very common question when confronted with the idea that animals do not deserve to be enslaved and killed. The thinking behind your question (and I don’t mean to be presumptuous but I’m trying to imagine why the question is asked) might go something like this?: if I value life so much, why don’t I value the lives of plants as equally?
The answer is more or less this: plants do not have nerves; they cannot feel pain. If they felt pain, they would have evolved to run away. I know you will find quacks who will say they can hear plants scream, or people who will insist that plants must have nerves, and if not nerves then some kind of unobservable agency, because they grow toward the sunlight and must therefore have some form of consciousness. But there is no scientific data to support those suppositions as to the consciousness of plants despite decades of meat eaters trying to prove that plants also have nerves, can feel and scream and even think. They do this in order to make a case for moral equivalence. Because if all is equivalent, then all is permitted. (Which, as an argument, even if it were true that plants had nerves, is illogical).
Notice that we don’t need any fancy arguments and intellectual machinations to see — even anecdotally — that nonhumans can remember, think, plan, escape, and suffer pain and discomfort and grief. Anyone who’s lived with a dog knows that a dog can feel pain, sorrow, anger, fear, surprise, happiness and joy. Anyone who’s lived with a cat. Anyone who’s seen or heard a pig scream. Anyone who really knows chickens. Anyone who’s seen a rabbit run from a car in an alley knows what they are thinking and feeling.
What we know — scientifically — in our post-Darwinian world (meaning this is borne out by biology in general and modern neuroscience specifically) is that all vertebrates (yes, fish too, and even some invertebrates [the octopus, eg]) exist in very similar worlds: all beings with brains feel pain, sorrow, joy, discomfort, fear, anger, surprise, and envy very similarly to one another. Modern neuroscience now tells us that all vertebrates (including some nonvertebrates) — ALL, not just mammals — have very similar neuroanatomy and very similar neurotransmitters and almost identical neurons. They also all have oxytocin, aka the “love hormone.” Darwin proposed in 1873 in his book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals that there is a continuum of emotion and thought and sense perception in the animal world, of which we are just another part. And most important among those sense perceptions is suffering and grief and joy and hope. We used to think we were “projecting” emotions onto animals when we would observe them in nonhumans — this is what German empathy theorists of the 19th Century thought, among whom Nietzsche can be counted: he thought we were only projecting narcissistically onto nonhumans when we would see fear and grief in them. But in our post-Darwinian understanding we know that we are not projecting when we see these emotions and thoughts in them, we are observing kindred minds. (See the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness — http://fcmconference.org/img/CambridgeDeclarationOnConsciousness.pdf)
We know for instance that the chicken, not the pig, might be the most intelligent and empathic animal people eat. Birds offer an astounding case of parallel evolution of consciousness in brain anatomy, according to modern researchers. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BGPGknpq3e0 Crows also devise hooks and other tools. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OYZnsO2ZgWo
And, too, many are now recognizing we need to look further than just not eating creatures who are like us (who have an intelligence like us) — and just full on stop discounting the mental sovereignty of those who have minds different from ours. As it’s becoming increasingly obvious we need to understand that we can and should extend our circle of consideration to include the worlds of other more distant minds (and plants don’t have nerves so they can’t have minds). Where we draw that line does get fuzzy after a point: certainly all vertebrates shouldn’t be harmed, but are mollusks to be included? Just to be sure, I don’t eat any mollusks.
And what about eggs and dairy? Well, we know that to make eggs in modern life, all but a few male chicks are ground alive, and then those roosters are also eventually killed. And to make milk and cheese, all male calves are either shot on the spot and rendered or put in veal crates and then cut up (with a few living for a few years to be seed bulls until they too are killed). And all female cows are also eventually killed — after their children are taken from them, a harrowing experience especially for mammals and birds (the veracity of the term “mother hen” is evident to anyone who’s seen a mama hen). Paul D. MacLean said, “The rise of mammalian life is the rise of family life.” Anyone who has seen a mama cow bellowing because her calf has been taken will recognize what she is crying out about. So, animal food products all involve substantial suffering — the extremest suffering that can be endured — the theft of their lives and children. And no theft and no killing is humane. We know anyway that the term “humane killing” is not just an oxymoron but an outright myth perpetrated by the industry and our innate wish not to cause harm.
We have no need to eat animal products. The ADA (American Dietetic Association) — not a liberal organization — has declared a vegan diet healthy for all ages, including infants and old people. If we have no need to kill conscious creatures, then we are left with reality that the only reason people are allowing themselves to directly participate in this killing is for pleasure, for the pleasure of taste. And to cause death for pleasure is beyond sadistic. It’s my feeling that if we cannot feel our own sadism, we are not living well, to say the least.
Tastes change. Mine did. Now the thought, even the smell, of meat and eggs is repugnant to me. And never for me has a feeling of repugnance been more pleasant.
Anyway, thanks for your post. If you’d like to continue the conversation I’d be happy to.