Critical Animal Studies and the work of Decolonizing (Academic) Anthropocentrism

That a post-colonial analysis and framing was pivotal to the work of the late ecofeminist philosopher Val Plumwood is sometimes neglected. Her now classic 1993 text Feminism and the Mastery of Nature was heavily influenced by the work of French-Tunisian Albert Memmi’s The Colonizer and the Colonized originally published in 1957. Her later essay Decolonizing relationships with nature was published in the volume Decolonizing Nature: Strategies for Conservation in a Post-colonial Era (Adams & Mulligan 2003). In that essay she begins by discussing Eurocentric colonisation, pointing out that “it is usually now acknowledged, the lands of the colonised and the nonhuman populations that inhabit those lands were often plundered and damaged, as an indirect effect of the plundering of the peoples who own or belong to them. What we are less accustomed to acknowledge is that the concept of colonisation can be applied directly to non-human nature itself, and that the relationship between humans, or certain groups of them, and the more-than-human world might be aptly characterised as one of colonisation” (p.52). I might take issue with the notion of it being an ‘indirect effect’ – it was purposeful and the plunder of nonhuman animals, plants and the land was ultimately more lucrative than that of the commodification of humans into slaves. Nevertheless it is now accepted that colonialism was directed at nature generally – perceived as external to the human – though inclusive of de-humanized human beings which colonialists deemed to fall outside categories of culture, rationality and the human. Indeed it would now take an especially vulgar history of capitalism to exclude colonialism and the re/production and expropriation of the more-than-human from its very consitution.

Later Plumwood adds “The ideology of colonisation.. involves a form of anthropocentrism that underlies and justifies the colonisation of nonhuman nature through the imposition of the colonisers’ land forms in just the same way that eurocentrism underlies and justifies modern forms of european colonisation, which understood indigenous cultures as ‘primitive’, less rational and closer to children, animals and to nature”. In the remainder of the paper Plumwood moves onto a close discussion of colonialist naming practices and the possibilities of renaming as decolonization especially related to her Australian context. It’s a discussion that is highly relevant to the long overdue upsurge in decolonial politics during 2020, that included the empowering toppling of the statue of 17th century slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol last June – and the related contestation of the whitewashing of British history.

If anyone doubts the appropriateness of framing anthropocentrism within the colonial project and targetting it in the politics of decolonisation I would direct them to the 4-part TV series Enslaved narrated by actor Samuel L. Jackson. The first episode explains why there are elephant tusks (!) lying at the bottom of the English Channel, left there from a shipwrecked slave ship returning from the West coast of Africa on which everyone died. Just one of many examples in which colonisation and slavery were accompanied by the slaughter and expropriation of nonhuman animal species. I would also recommend reading Kathryn Yusoff’s A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None which outlines how the history of geological knowledge was very much embedded in capitalist colonialist extractivism, scientific knowledge that helped secure natural ‘resources’ for European powers. Contemporary critical animal scholars (e.g. Claire Jean Kim, Maneesha Deckha, A. Breeze Harper, Aph Ko, Syl Ko, Bénédicte Boisseron, Joshua Bennett, Omowale Adewale) are increasingly examining interconnections of racialisation and nonhuman animal exploitation. And the climate crisis makes clear the perpetuation of colonialism and the need for anti-colonial politics within calls for climate justice – a point underlined by Black Lives Matter. Last year also saw the landmark publication of the edited volume Colonialism and Animality – Anti-Colonial Perspectives in Critical Animal Studies. Such varied histories and contemporary analyses serve to underline the interdependency of colonialism and anthropocentrism.

As a concept so central to critical animal studies it is worth looking more closely at what anthropocentrism is. My first detailed reading of the idea took place in 1996 when Val Plumwood wrote ‘Androcentrism and Anthrocentrism: Parallels and Politics‘, providing one of several important conceptual pathways of influence from ecofeminism in the 1990s to the emergence of (critical) animal studies in the first two decades of this century. Subsequently there have been several other explications of the concept such as Tom Tyler’s CIFERAE: A Bestiary in Five Fingers (2012) or Eileen Crist’s 2014 work with Helen Kopnina, Unsettling Anthropocentrism. Furthermore, in recent years the field of critical animal studies has developed to the extent that key concepts books have now been published. Alongside Readers and Handbooks (of which there are also now several), key concepts books symbolize some degree of maturity in the field, not to mention being rather useful for critical animal pedagogy. The two such books that have appeared surely merit an extensive double review in a journal rather than a blog posting. Not surprisingly anthropocentrism appears as a key idea in both. They are Matthew Calarco’s sole authored Animal Studies: The Key Concepts (2021) and Lori Gruen’s earlier edited volume Critical Terms for Animal Studies (2018). The latter features a far longer entry on anthropocentrism written by Fiona Probyn-Rapsey but for reasons of blog brevity I will turn to Calarco’s more succinct understanding of the idea.

Calarco defines it as follows, “Anthropocentrism is the view that human beings (in opposition to animals and other nonhuman beings) are of supreme importance in ethical, political, legal, and existential matters…. Among the primary characteristics of anthropocentrism are: (1) a narcissistic focus on human exceptionalism; (2) a binary account of human–animal differences; (3) a strong moral hierarchy that ranks human beings over animals and other nonhuman beings; (4) a tendency to de- and subhumanize certain populations; and (5) institutions that aim to protect and give privilege to beings deemed fully human” (2021: 18). Anthropocentrism is thus dualistic and normative, but usefully Calarco also ties it to dehumanization and conveys it as shaping institutions. This is important firstly because it gives the concept historical and sociological utility. For example, he later (p19) embeds (4) within an historical appreciation of the exclusionary (e.g. racist, sexist, classist, ableist) idea of the human – a mainstay of ecofeminist, posthumanist and animal studies discourse. Additionally, he connects (5) to the concept of the animal-industrial complex (Noske 1989; Twine 2012) as an overarching framework for considering how institutions commodify and expropriate nonhuman animals. This Calarco definition is important secondly because it provides clear avenues in which to understand its entanglements within capitalism and colonialism.

One such anthropocentric institution of vital importance is of course academia. Contesting anthropocentric knowledge production has been one of the key foci of (critical) animal studies scholars. Often this takes the form of questioning a particular discipline or sub-discipline for its centering of the human and its omission of nonhuman animals, and its normalisation of human exceptionalism. Reflecting on this foci forms the main theme of the forthcoming EACAS conference in June 2021 and a recent paper of mine is exactly in this tradition, in this case asking why there is so little attention to nonhuman animals in the sociology of climate change.

Once we see anthropocentrism as historically bound up in and constitutive of the development of capitalism and colonialism it can change how we frame such omissions. If the dualistic and anthropocentric heritage of academic knowledge production – persisting even today inspite of the animal turn, in spite of the rise of posthumanism – is a clearly identifiable and definitional part of the development of capitalism and colonialism it has several significant consequences. Firstly, it asks deep and serious questions of academics who perpetuate such anthropocentrism; historicising their omissions and delegitimising their perspectives. Secondly, it allows a framing of this work of contestation as part of a much broader project of decolonization. Thirdly, it means that this decolonisation work is inescapably entangled with that broader project, and so, as CAS scholar-activists, and the ecofeminists which preceded them have long realised, is as much concerned with (anti) capitalism, fighting racism and colonialism, and with the creation of feminist societies.

Overcoming anthropocentrism is also better science. For example, in the case of my own discipline Sociology, to now attempt to define ‘society’ by conflation with the human may still be assumed by many, but it has also been thoroughly critiqued and is gradually losing credibility. Anthropocentrism has held back progress in social science. Similarly the One Health paradigm which emerged in 2011 seeks to understand health via the intersection of human health, animal health, and ecosystem health. This paradigm has its own major issues with anthropocentrism but at least starts to theorise entanglements and interdependencies. What now seems obvious had been missed for so long. I’m sure when Covid-19 emerged many One Health practitioners were having a ‘we told you so’ moment.

So although working in critical animal studies, like several other allied fields, is to inhabit a pre-figurative politics, it is useful to try and situate such work within broader trends and meaning. Contesting deep rooted anthropocentrism, being part of a larger movement of decolonization, and providing foundations for better science, are not bad places to be, or bad places to start.

Richard Twine

Co-Director, Centre for Human-Animal Studies