Designing engagements with animals to find, imagine, or emphasize non-speciesist practices
The word ‘speciesism’ (pronounced species-ism), is still not a widely used term, but actually has been around since the 70s. When academics or animal activists mention this term it usually refers to the oppression and exploitation of animals justified on the grounds of belonging to a certain species. I wrote about this notion earlier on this blog as well as in the form of an entry in the critical posthumanist genealogy. The latter opens as follows:
“The term ‘speciesism’ […] refers to discrimination on the grounds of belonging to a certain species. Thus, speciesism includes the assignment of different values, rights, or special consideration to individuals based solely on their species membership. Continuing the analogy to discriminatory practices like racism, sexism, classism, and others, the term was further popularised by philosopher Peter Singer in his 1975 book Animal Liberation. Since then, the term ‘speciesism’ has been usually appropriated with regard to practices of human domination over animals and the exclusion of all nonhuman animals from the rights and freedoms that are granted to humans.”
Over the last decades, the field of Critical Animal Studies, animal activists, as well as scholars from other fields (including post-humanism and eco-feminism) have articulated a large body of work that critically analysed speciesist practices, norms, and understandings that problematises the way in which other animals are treated in our societies. The two links in the first paragraph of this post are a great starting point for those of you that want to understand this further. What is important here is that people who problematise speciesism are interested in challenging the basic assumptions that underly the normalisation of animal exploitation. This makes it fundamentally different compared to, say, advocate for treating animals better within their current environments. Anti-speciesists are therefore often (but not always (!)) anti-capitalist and/or pro-vegan.
One of the most pressing questions, I find especially crucial with regards to design, is to try and understand what the opposite of speciesism can actually mean. In fact, this is a question that became the driving curiosity for my PhD research. Researchers and activists often focus on articulating the meaning of terms like non-speciesism, anti-speciesism, or post-speciesism, but also notions of post-humanism, post-colonialism, or post-anthropocene. This is all very helpful in understanding the major issues of our time, but these words say nothing about what such worlds contain, besides saying what they are not.
Earlier I made a quite simplified analogy about the difficulties in designing or imaging a non-chair. What I meant is that it is philosophically impossible to design or imagine something by only trying to describe what it not. To be able to design particular worlds – worlds that we want to bring into being – we need to actively and continuously create those concepts that fit with the unfolding perspectives that embody and inhabit those worlds. With regards to this challenge, the notion of non-speciesism is counter-productive, and even paralysing, because rather than creating a new concept to think-with, in only offers a break-down (non-) of the problematised concept (speciesism).
So what concepts can we actually use instead? And is it even possible to put non-speciesist interactions into words if they are so scarce in our societies? And can we create or use a concept that can allow for a flexible and ever-evolving understanding (rather than a reductive or too definite notion that attempts to describe something we have a hard time imagining in the first place).
During this PhD project, I went on a two year quest to find the right words and discovered something odd: many people that problematise speciesism do not know the answer to this question. This is to say that they do have very clearly developed intuitions towards the kinds of respectful and compassionate relationships they (intend to) have with other animals, but they are not sure what words to use to describe these interactions. So, many people know quite well how to live these worlds in practice, but do not describe them as a concept.
There are some terms to discuss here. For example, terms like ‘animal liberation‘ or ‘animal justice‘, have important functions in animal activism as they advocate for liberating animals from their current oppressors or granting justice to victims of oppression. These terms, however, point towards the actions that should be undertaken to end a perceived injustice (for example through protest, civil disobedience, laws, or sanctuaries). All of these are crucial stages towards creating a non-speciesist society, but do not describe such a society itself.
The term ‘ethical veganism’, is sometimes also used to describe post-speciesist societies, but this term usually refers to a consumption ideology: vegan shoes are made without animal body-parts, vegan milk is made out of plant-based ingredients, etc. The term was originally coined by Donald Watson in 1944 to differentiate the ‘Vegan Society’ from vegetarianism, to indicate a specific diet (The Vegan Society n.d.). When extending this to every-day encounters and interactions it would be unusual to say that I just had a vegan encounter with a squirrel, perhaps confusingly implying that we did not eat each other. The term also presupposes that eating another animal or their products is by definition excluded from a world that is not speciesist. Imagining a society beyond dietary habits requires a concept that can account for the variety of relationships that can be formed between animals in a non-speciesist society.
Other terms, like ‘animalism’ or ‘sentientism’ – derived from a broadening of a ‘humanist’ ideology – imply an expansion of anthropocentric modernist traditions of humanism towards zoo-centrism, merely raising the status of other animals, creating a new moral boundary at the question of what counts as ‘sentient’, as well as maintaining a modernist idea of higher versus lower entities that are ‘animal-like’. These ideologies tend to get stuck with questions like ‘what about plants, bacteria, fungi, and artificial intelligence?’, maintaining that, in order to be included into a framework that are offered serious moral consideration by humans, entities need to have certain ‘sentient’ (or human-like) characteristics.
Lastly, some other notions from post-humanist perspectives that generally aim to de-centre the human, such as eco-feminism, ecosophy, and bioethics, aim much more broadly at deconstructing the category ‘human’ as something unique, distinct, and at the centre of the world. Although a non-speciesist framework might fit into these concepts, these categories are so broad that they do not sufficiently focus on our relationships with other animals in a way that includes a firm rejection of speciesism. In the abstractions and philosophies of the scholars engaging with these terms, the focus is often returned to the meaning of being human within these worlds, while I am more interested in conceptualising the relationships between humans and other animals.
In my thesis, I started to use a placeholder to refer to non-speciesist engagements with other animals and called it ‘multi-species-isms‘, or as an adjective ‘multispecies worlds‘, and I have grown an attachment to these terms. With these words, I wanted to fabricate a concept that can account for multiplicity, while still sticking to the idea of ‘species’ as a useful reminder of the violence that is inflicted upon other animals. Without going too deep into my ecofeminist (Harawayan) interpretations of ‘worlds’, ‘species’ and ‘multiplicity’ here, I want to stress that there is no one-way definition that can be pinned down by humans, but many different ways in which mutually meaningful relationships between animals can be formed.
‘Multi-species-isms‘, I argue, can be used to identify the actual (rather than negating) ingredients of worlds that are respectful towards other animals (rather than speciesist). ‘Multispecies‘ does not only mean that multiple species are involved (and that it is often impossible to separate these living entities from each other), but is further expanded to include a multiplicity of perspectives in which all the involved entities are making worlds and influencing other worlds all the time.
This is all rather complicated, so some examples would be helpful. Ecofeminist philosopher Anna Tsing describes the world making of other organisms by saying that beavers make worlds by re-shaping streams, plants live on land because fungi made soil by digesting rocks, bacteria made our oxygen atmosphere while plants maintain it: in other words, each organism changes everyone’s worlds as they overlap (Tsing 2015: 22). Donna Haraway (in her 2016 book ‘Staying With the Trouble […]’) then uses the term ‘multispecies worlding‘ to describe a practice (or perhaps more like a kind of life-skill) in which we should be paying more attention to how humans and other animals continuously make, share, break, and give form to worlds, especially with regards to mundane every-day life. And not only in terms of suffering, but also – and perhaps most importantly – for finding ideas to continue worlding in other, more desirable [and definitely less speciesist], ways.
About 1,5 years ago I started to create annotated illustrations of the encounters I experienced, or learned about through stories of other people, that I think could be examples of already existing ‘multi-species-isms‘. I’m sharing some of them in this post and many more will be part of the PhD thesis when it’s ready (expected in September 2020). Feel free to use and share these illustrations, but please don’t forget to credit or cite. :)
I think it is crucial for researchers and activists to be able to further articulate their thoughts on the kinds of futures they find desirable, instead of only focusing on what they are against. With regards to speciesism, this is very difficult, because speciesist practices initially seem to be everywhere. Creating repertoires of ‘multi-species-isms‘ is therefore particularly important for future oriented forms of thought in fields such as design or arts, as well as for practices of community building and policy making. I hope that these drawings, rather than prescribing certain ways of living, most of all allows you to relate to these stories with your own imaginations, and figure out their meanings for yourselves. Because it is up to everyone to negotiate these stories further and find inspiration to contribute your own ideas as to how less speciesist futures can be given form.
Despret, Vinciane. (2016). What Would Animals Say if we Asked them the Right Questions? (Buchanan, B, (Tr.)) Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Haraway, Donna. (2016). Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Powers, Richard. (2018). The Overstory. Portsmouth, NH: William Heinemann Ltd.
Singer, Peter. (2009). Animal Liberation. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.
The Vegan Society. (n.d.). ‘History’, retrieved May 14, 2019 via https://www.vegansociety.com/about-us/history
Tsing, Anna. L. (2015). The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.