“What kind of relationships they may desire to have with us? And how can we, collectively, find new ways of co-existing?” These were among the questions in the Call for Papers of a short conference I attended last week, on Animal Agency: Language, Politics and Culture. It was the most interdisciplinary conference I ever attended – with speakers from Art History, Cultural Geography, Philosophy, Linguistics, and more fields. It was organized by Eva Meijer, who, during her PhD research on Political Animal Voices is very active to organize exchange among those working in some way or other with questions around our relations with animals. I learned a lot. About the history of certain cows in Urugay, who were brought early on by the Spanish, turned wild and reached 48 million and then were killed off for industry and trade when the country became more populated. It was the research by anthropologist Maria Fernanda de Torres Alvarez, currently working in Montpellier, which taught me that. Another researcher, Mihnea Tanasescu, working in Brussels, enlightened us about the Nazi history of the rewilded Aurochs that is prominent in a Dutch rewilding project, the Oostvaardersplassen. And there was more, on animal language, on painting elephants, on animals in poetry…
I had undertaken the experiment, for my presentation, to try to not talk about animals, but to let an non-human animal have the word. But how to do that? I chose to use the method that is common to writers of novels, when they embody a person from another sex, age, or culture. It is comparable in a sense (although the setting is different) to the method used by traditional shamans, who enter a trance state to communicate with (a.o.) the spirits of animals. The animal invited to ‘speak’ uses my knowledge and language (that is why he sounds as a philosopher), but I have tried to suppress my point of view of the world, to let his shine through. The first one to come forward was an old crocodile. Just a few quotations:
“As the spirit of crocodile, I call myself ‘grandfather’, because you think that my genetic structures were earlier than yours, and we left some of ours, through the course of species-transformations, behind in your body and mind. So if I call myself grandfather, you can 1) understand our relationship, as you understand it biologically and 2) it will bring you (I hope) to have respect for me – as you should towards your human grandfather, even if he has no teeth anymore and spends his days in a boring home for elderly people.”
(when asked why he eats us)
“I am sorry, but how can you ask that – without being aware, the moment that you speak, of what you have done to us? You have not only eaten us, and continue to do so to this day. Look it up, please, on your internet – you can even buy, for instance in the UK (imported from South Africa), crocodile burgers – 2 for 3.99 pounds. So you eat us. But more, you have made shoes and bags from our beautiful skin. You have used our body for medicine. Considering me to be your grandfather – those are rather cannibalistic acts, aren’t they? And you have done more – you have discriminated against us, called us names. You have called us primitive and cruel. You speak about our heritage as ‘crocodile brain’ – and that is not meant as an honorable adjective, as I understand it!”
(telling something about himself and about us)
“I am the master of fearlessness. I lie still, sure of myself, that I will have to die, and having accepted that as long ago as I can remember. […] I lie and wait, still, very still, to be able to come into action in a split-second – with all the forces I master in my body, to catch what was coming toward me from eternity. I have a hard time believing you are the superior race, running around and mastering nothing, not even your own forces, not even your own body, or your mind. But what can I say. I didn’t see you coming, so I coudn’t catch you and kill you before it was too late. You came to destroy our habitat and kill without remorse. But now you have somehow grown strong in your foolishness, and I don’t know what to do about it…”
I slightly reworked these passages from my paper, and they will be reworked more as I hope to publish them somewhere else in the future.
After the conference I learned even more, as several contributors were so kind to send me materials connecting to my paper presentation. Certain of those will certainly be read more intensively by me in the future – the works of Australian environmentalist philosopher Val Plumwood, who lived through an attack by a crocodile, and we are lucky to be able to read what she learned from that. Not to hate crocodiles, that’s for sure, but to view our own species differently – “as part of the food chain – eaten as well as eater.” More about that another time perhaps.