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.
 Personal correspondence.