What animals teach us about politics, by Brian Massumi (2014). Durham and London: Duke University Press. ISBN 978-0-8223-5772-8 (cloth), 978-0-8223-5800-8 (paper). 137 pp.
Two wild dogs, cast in bronze, stand poised against each other, seemingly engaged in combat. Upon closer examination, however, this sculpture by South African artist, Nola Steele, portrays two animals not fighting, but rather playing. The scene perfectly captures the ‘ludic gesture’ (4-5), central to Brian Massumi’s rich and dense text. For Massumi, playing is ‘combat-esque’, which distinguishes it qualitatively from combat. The suffix ‘-esque‘ indicates that it is as if in combat, ‘but with a little something different’ (9). Combat and play are the same, with subtle but important differences: they are both part of a continuum in the same way humans and animals are both part of a ‘continuum of nature’ (17). The reciprocal participation in play on the part of a human as well as an animal creates ‘zones of indiscernibility’ (6) and ‘mutual inclusion’ (4) between human and animal. This is a conceptualisation that paves the way for exploring ‘what animals teach us about politics’.
While the concept of play is central to this book, it never goes so far as to engage in language play himself. Given his interest in the ‘-esque’ of language, one might have expected Massumi to have ventured, if even briefly, into the burlesque, following upon the subversiveness of play, especially given its tendency to ‘surpass the given’ and play’s ‘excess’. Massumi is perhaps conceptually too serious to play upon that form of ‘-esque’, which includes, amongst other things, self-ridicule and extravaganza, which is very much absent in this conceptually rigorous book.
In relation to the centrality of play, it is interesting furthermore to note that this author does not make use of, nor does he in any way refer to, some of the important ethological work being done on play in the animal world such as that of Marc Bekoff (2007; and with Jessica Pierce, 2010; a delightful children book, 2008) or his earlier work with Byers (1998). This may help explain why Massumi’s text does not radiate the kind of sheer fun, gaiety and light-heartedness that play gives rise to in human and non-human animals alike (Haraway, 2008; Goode, 2015). It fails to elicit the kind of fun that, for instance, Helen Macdonald (2014: 113) successfully captures in her detailed description of training a goshawk:
I pull a sheet of paper towards me, tear a long strip from one side, scrunch it into a ball, and offer it to the hawk in my fingers. She grabs it with her beak. It crunches. She likes the sound. She crunches it again and then lets it drop, turning her head upside down as it hits the floor. I pick it up and offer it to her again. She grabs it and bites it very gently over and over again: gnam gnam gnam. She looks like a glove puppet, a Punch and crocodile. Her eyes are narrowed in bird-laughter. I am laughing too. feathers on her forehead are raised. She shakes her tail rapidly from side to side and shivers with happiness’.
While Massumi devotes a large section in the index to play, he notably does not provide any space for laughter.
This short text and supplements fits in very well with the current trend in (human-)animal studies across various disciplines – ranging from philosophy to neurosciences to the social sciences. Coming myself from an anthropology background, I find it interesting not only to see what the various disciplines contribute to this relatively new field of study but also how they all, mine included, seem in a way to try and ‘appropriate’ the animal, and cut it into sizes that match and fit the particular discourses of their discipline. ‘The animal’ is tamed, moulded and domesticated to the discursive whims of a discipline in ways that often lead to a situation where the material and physical animal cannot be recognized anymore as such, let alone his or her play behaviour.
Massumi suggests that his work is grounded in ethology by referring to the important work on animals of Nico Tinbergen in the 1950s and 1960s (15-18). Despite the fact that Tinbergen was awarded a Nobel Prize for this pioneering work in ethology in 1973 (together with Konrad Lorenz and Karl von Frisch), his work is now very much dated. Massumi thus completely ignores more recent advances in ethological work that are increasingly able to show how play and morality are evolutionarily linked (see De Waal with Macedo & Ober, 2009; and De Waal, 2014; or Allen & Bekoff, 2005) or any other more recent research for that matter (see Drickamer & Dewsbury, 2009). The choice to relate to the rather dated ethological research by Tinbergen and his school leads to an interesting twist in Massumi’s argument and positioning in the current academic hype in (human) animal studies. This becomes most clear when we look at the end the essay, where he suggests 14 ‘propositions’ about what animals teach us about politics. In the tradition of Tinbergen, this formulation assumes a distinction between ‘us’, humans, and ‘them’, the animals, but it is a distinction that seems to fit in far less with the current trend in transdisciplinary (human-)animal studies, where it has even been suggested that ‘we could simply let the human-animal distinction go’ (Calarco, 2008, pp. 149, italics in original). Distinctions between human and animal are more and more considered ‘differences in degree’ rather than ‘differences in kind’, and morality is no longer considered uniquely human but considered as part of the evolution of all life on earth
If this makes any sense, one can all of a sudden understand Massumi’s second proposition (38, italics in original): ‘(a) politics that re-establishes ties with our animality (…) cannot be based on a normative ethics of any kind’. In its Machiavellian splendour, it shows how it is rooted in Tinbergen’s version of ethology and does not try to link up to more recent ethological research as described above. In so doing, Massumi implicitly critiques contemporary animal rights and animal justice approaches that attempt to blur the boundaries between human and non-human animals (which Massumi does not explicitly touch upon in his book even once). Although Massumi does away with the human-animal distinction (‘mutual inclusion’, as Massumi calls it, page 6, or ‘zone of indiscernibility’, page 7), he grounds it ethologically in research done over half a century ago, a time when animal rights were not yet even around the corner, let alone informed ethological practice. As a result, he is pushed into answering his main question about what animals can teach us about politics by stating that it would free us from ‘a normative ethics of any kind’.
It has to be said though that the book’s sixth proposition does state that ‘although non-normative (…) politics is not without criteria of evaluation’ (41) and that ‘(t)he main criterion available (…) is the degree to which the political gesture carries forward enthusiasm of the body’ (ibid.), thus leaving human language as we know it out of the equation. If Massumi had rooted this argument in more recent ethological research, he would perhaps have been directed to quite another answer to his question of ‘what animals teach us about politics’. Based on the non-verbal and ‘the event’s corporeality’ (28) of recent ethological research, what animals teach us most about politics is humanity – which recent longitudinal research on elephants, for instance, has shown us rather convincingly (cf. Bradshaw 2009; Moss et al.).
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