Critical Terms for Animal Studies
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Critical Terms for Animal Studies

Lori Gruen, Lori Gruen

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Critical Terms for Animal Studies

Lori Gruen, Lori Gruen

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Animal Studies is a rapidly growing interdisciplinary field devoted to examining, understanding, and critically evaluating the complex relationships between humans and
other animals. Scholarship in Animal Studies draws on a variety of methodologies to explore these multi-faceted relationships in order to help us understand the ways in which other animals figure in our lives and we in theirs.Bringing together the work of a group of internationally distinguished scholars, the contributionin Critical Terms for Animal Studies offers distinct voices and diverse perspectives, exploring significant concepts and asking important questions. How do we take non-human animals seriously, not simply as metaphors for human endeavors, but as subjects themselves? What do we mean by anthropocentrism, captivity, empathy, sanctuary, and vulnerability, and what work do these and other critical terms do in Animal Studies?Sure to become an indispensable reference for the field, Critical Terms for Animal Studies not only provides a framework for thinking about animals as subjects of their own experiences, but also serves as a touchstone to help us think differently about our conceptions of what it means to be human, and the impact human activities have on the more than human world.

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Claire Jean Kim
Abolition is the interminable radicalization of every radical movement.
My thanks to the participants and speakers at the Race and Animals Institute held at Wesleyan University in June 2016 and to my coorganizers, Lori Gruen and Timothy Pachirat. Conversations held at the institute enriched this chapter in numerous ways.
The giant exhibition panel, titled “Enslaved,” featured two photographs side by side: one of a black person’s naked leg chained around the ankle, and the other of an elephant’s leg, similarly shackled. This panel, along with others that extended the comparison between racial slavery and animal exploitation (“Branded” and “Sold Off”) and still others that pulled the comparison forward into the era of lynching and Jim Crow (“Hanging,” “Experimented On,” and “Beaten”), made up People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals’ (PETA’s) exhibit “We Are All Animals” that toured the United States in 2005. When civil rights groups expressed concern, PETA apologized, inserted new panels featuring other nonwhites and white women and children (presumably with the thought that diluting the focus on blackness would dilute the outrage of black viewers), and eventually canceled the tour. But they were not quite done. After moving the exhibit online for a time, in 2012 they launched a new traveling exhibit (“Glass Walls”) that resurrected the slavery analogy. At the same time, PETA sued Sea World, charging that the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, ratified at the close of the Civil War to formalize the end of slavery, prohibited the theme park from keeping orcas. It was as if there were a truth that PETA could not not speak: Animals are the new slaves.
Granting PETA’s penchant for spectacularizing animal suffering through shocking publicity stunts, in this instance the organization merely sought to amplify a theme that has become increasingly central to the project of animal liberation in the United States in recent years. If we think of the modern US animal movement as composed mostly of “welfarists,” or those seeking to reform institutions in order to improve animal welfare, the radical remainder are “liberationists,” who embrace an uncompromising view and call for the wholesale dismantling of animal exploiting institutions. It is the political imaginary of the latter that has come to rest upon the conceptual linchpin of “animal slavery,” with many liberationists describing themselves as “abolitionists” and self-consciously locating themselves in the tradition of the nineteenth-century abolitionists who took on the institution of racial slavery.1
The allure of this analogy stems from its unique resonance in Western political culture and its singular capacity to endow the contemporary animal rights movement with an aura of world-historical significance, moral urgency, and historical possibility. In liberationists’ long-range struggle against powerful industries (including those involved in “animal agriculture” and biomedical and pharmaceutical research) and the machinery of repression deployed by a state beholden to those industries—in their struggle, that is, against neoliberal forces on neoliberal terrain—there is obvious value in a symbolic frame that distinguishes good from evil, elevates the dignity of life over profit accumulation, and provides a moral justification for lawbreaking to boot. As corporate and state interests escalate their rhetorical and legal war against animal liberationists, whom they now officially designate “terrorists,” the latter can counter that they are, rather, “abolitionists” or “freedom fighters” (Best and Nocella 2004).

The Absent Presence in Animal Abolition

Animal abolition, however, proliferates a certain kind of danger. The briefest acquaintance with antebellum public discourse in the United States reveals that likening black people to animals—to apes in the jungles of Africa, to “livestock” animals such as oxen and horses, to savage “brutes”—was a central, perhaps even indispensable, ideological practice for enacting and stabilizing the institution of slavery. For proslavery ideologues, drawn to the stark distinctions of polygenesis under the pressure of abolitionism, the black was more animal than man and thus properly enslaved (Jordan 1968; Frederickson 1971). For abolitionists, the very crime and sin of racial slavery was that it treated the black person, a human made in God’s image, as a beast (Sinha 2016). If we consider that defenders of slavery sought always to narrow the distance between slave and animal while abolitionists sought always to enlarge it, the dangers of PETA’s exhibit—whose title is “We Are All Animals” but whose content says “black people are animals”—are thrown into relief. With its insistence on blurring the line between “human” and “animal” through the specific mechanism of the historically freighted slave-animal analogy, PETA can escape the charge of reproducing the logic of slavery only to the extent that black people have been entirely reincorporated into the “human” and are thus able to serve as nondescript exemplars of this category—a conclusion that animal abolitionists assert but that is, to say the least, contestable.
No wonder, then, that some animal abolitionists proffer their arguments with trepidation. Consider the title of Marjorie Spiegel’s book, The Dreaded Comparison: Human and Animal Slavery (1988).2 Spiegel wants us to know that she recognizes the taboo against invoking the slave-animal analogy and that she does not violate it lightly. She hesitates, as decency requires, but in the end she must take the risk and articulate the comparison. Juxtaposing slave and animal images, as PETA will do nearly two decades later, Spiegel provides very few captions or explanatory comments to go along with the images, as if we need only see the images in close proximity to understand what they mean—that these are analogous oppressions, two variations on the same phenomenon. The female slave in the scold’s bridle and the muzzled dog; the male slave in a spike collar and the rabbit immobilized for cosmetics testing; the pilloried slave and the monkey in a laboratory restraint.
Like all visual images, however, Spiegel’s images are unruly, jumping the interpretive frame and subverting the “message.” Slaves were put in scold’s bridles, spike collars, and pillories not as a routine part of extracting their labor but specifically as punishment for daring to defy the master or overseer’s authority—for speaking out or running away or disobeying—and what was intended here, in addition to physical immobilization, was public humiliation, the shaming and debasement of the slave, as well as the instillation of terror in the hearts of other slaves who observed the punishment. These images of slave punishment, in other words, even as they highlight the similarities in technologies of control between racial slavery and animal exploitation, also highlight the slaves’ distinctively human forms of transgression, their distinctively human vulnerabilities to certain types of psychic as well as physical sanction, and their distinctively human potential for challenging their conditions and participating in their own liberation.3 Slaves knew themselves to be human and indeed declared their freedom through the revolutionary language of humanism. And even as slaveholders derided the revolution in Saint Domingue as the rampaging of wild beasts, they grasped, if only through the fog of negrophobic anxiety, the possibility that their own captives would follow the Haitian example. Indeed, a good portion of the slaveholder’s psychic energy was devoted at all times to preventing slaves from gathering, sharing information, aiding each other’s escapes, and plotting rebellion.
As a project that analogizes the animal to the slave, then, animal abolition represses (and is therefore haunted by) a series of disjunctures and contradictions between the status of the slave and that of the animal. How the difference between slave and animal was imagined and understood, say, in the nineteenth century, how recognition of this difference was built into law and practice, and how this shaped the forms of violence and coercion inflicted on slaves and animals, respectively—these are the questions Spiegel’s juxtaposed images bring to mind even as her analogical frame forbids them. All we need to know about the slave from the vantage point of animal abolition is that she was treated like an animal or a thing.
And that she is no longer a slave. To keep animals center stage, animal abolition relentlessly displaces the issue of black oppression, deflecting attention from the specificity of the slave’s status then and mystifying the question of the black person’s status now. According to animal abolition’s narrative of racial temporality, black people at some point (variously, emancipation, Reconstruction, the civil rights movement) moved demonstrably from slavery to freedom, from the outside in, from abjection to inclusion. They were resutured into the “human.” Animals, by contrast, remain in their original state of abjection. Spiegel (1988) writes,
Most members of our society have reached the conclusion that it was and is wrong to treat blacks “like animals.” But with regard to the animals themselves, most still feel that it is acceptable to treat them, to some degree or another, in exactly the same manner. . . . A line was arbitrarily drawn between white people and black people, a division which has since been rejected. But what of the line which has been drawn between human and non-human animals? (Spiegel 1988, 19–20)
Here Spiegel is borrowing from Jeremy Bentham, whose famous passage she quotes a bit later:
[Slaves] have been treated by the law upon the same footing as in England, for example, the . . . animals are still. . . . [Some] have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may come one day to be recognized, that the number of legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum, are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate. (Bentham [1789] 2007, 311n, quoted in Spiegel 1996, 32).
The angel of history moves with extensionist purpose down the rungs of the Great Chain of Being—or outward, if one prefers a different spatial metaphor, toward the farthest rings of the concentric circles of moral considerability. But crucial to the success of what she is about to do (liberate animals) is what she has already done (banish racial slavery). Animals can be recognized as the “new slaves” only if the “old slaves” have vacated their position.
Animal abolition takes as an operating premise the putative resolution of racial slavery as a problem of history. This can be seen in the writings of Gary Francione and Steven Best, respectively, the two scholars most closely associated with animal abolition as a specific political stance. Francione, unrestrained by Spiegel’s diffidence, has branded his approach in several books (2009, 1996, 1995, Francione and Charlton 2015, Francione and Garner 2010) and a website (, forthrightly claiming the mantle of nineteenth-century abolitionism. The title of his book Rain without Thunder: The Ideology of the Animal Rights Movement (1996), for instance, references a famous speech in which escaped slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass expounded on the necessity of social agitation and unrest in the antislavery cause. In his most recent book, Animal Rights: The Abolitionist Approach (2015), Francione and coauthor Anna Charlton condemn welfarism, which, the authors explain, undermines the animals’ cause by sanctioning their property status, touting “humane” reforms, and telling the public that they can have their beef and eat it, too. Abolitionism, for Francione and Charlton (2015), is the refusal to succumb to these lies, the insistence that immoral institutions must be opposed utterly: “We would all agree that beating one’s slaves less is better than beating one’s slaves more, but the institution of slavery is still morally wrong. . . . No one would promote the ‘humane’ treatment of slaves as something that would eradicate the injustice of the institution of slavery” (24).
The front cover of Animal Rights: The Abolitionist Approach (2015) features an image designed by artist Sue Coe. Several enchained figures encircle the earth, on which rests a banner proclaiming “ABOLITION” in large red letters (the only color in an otherwise black and white image). The figures—which include a cow, a lamb, a duck, a turkey, a rooster, a goose, a pig, and fishes—are all animals bred and raised for human consumption, except for the two humans at the bottom: a black woman slave holding a small banner featuring a picture of an enchained black fist, and a kneeling male slave with shackled wrists outstretched.4 The latter is immediately recognizable as a replication of the engraving by potter Josiah Wedgwood that became the iconic image of eighteenth-century abolitionism but with one difference. Coe reproduces the image of the enchained, kneeling slave but not the caption that always accompanied it: “Am I not a man and a brother?”
The absent presence of the caption reminds us of what Coe, Francione, and Charlton would have us forget: that those fighting racial slavery in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, including slaves themselves, framed their appeals in the humanist discourses available to them and that these discourses specifically sought to resuture the “human” against the “animal.” Abolitionists’ insistence that black people not be treated like animals, in other words, functioned ideologically to reinscribe animal abjection. This is not to deny that abolitionists of that period recognized and discussed commonalities between the slave’s plight and the animal’s (Douglass 2013; Gossett 2015; Keralis 2012; Quallen 2016) or that many abolitionists were involved in welfarist advocacy for animals (Beers 2006; Li 2000) but only to suggest that animal abolition draws our attention to the very things it depends on repressing—namely, the nonfungibility of slave and animal and the commitment of abolitionists to bringing slaves back into the “human” fold.5
Consider Sue Coe’s artwork on the back cover of Animal Rights: The Abolitionist Approach. The front cover, as described above, depicts the misery of a world afflicted by slavery. The back cover, on the other hand, depicts the joy of a liberated world. Unchained animals encircle and embrace the earth, and the banner that used to say “ABOLITION” now says “Vegan.” The sun rises red and strong in the upper right corner, signaling the start of a new day, and the lit sky is strewn with stars. The two black slaves, however, have disappeared. In a new world where liberation is defined as universal veganism, they cannot be depicted. To show them as before would highlight the fact that veganism did not secure their liberation. To show them standing free and unbowed would raise the unanswerable question of how veganism secured their liberation. Once again, an absent presence reminds us of what is not accounted for. In response, we might ask: What is animal abolition if it does not include liberated black people in its emancipatory tableau? And what could animal abolition be if it did?
Like Spiegel, Francione and Charlton (2015) are less interested in exploring the character of racial slavery than in pronouncing it dead and naming animal slavery as its successor:
We now accept that every human being—whatever their level of intelligence, talent, beauty, etc.—holds a pre-legal moral right not to be treated as p...