Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Marti Kheel: A Remembrance, Looking Forward

On April 1, 2012, Lori Gruen and I participated in a Memorial Service that celebrated the life of Marti Kheel, who died on November 19, 2011. This November 9-10, Wesleyan University is hosting a conference “Finding a Niche for All Animals: A Conference Honoring the Ecofeminist Work of Marti Kheel.” 

As we look forward to the gathering of many wonderful panelists addressing a variety of ecofeminist theoretical and activist issues, we also look back, remembering the gift of Marti’s life.

Here are the words we spoke on April 1:

Carol: Marti was someone who loved to be in dialogue, to discuss, to argue, to work out ideas, to learn what others had to say, so we decided we would present some of what we learned from Marti in a dialogical form. We know that we aren’t the only ones here, who learned in this way from Marti, and we know that we are a part of a larger community, with many of her activist and scholarly friends here today. We are grateful to be here honoring Marti’s ideas. I am Carol Adams and I knew Marti since 1989.

Lori: I’m Lori Gruen, I first met Marti in the mid-1980s and her ideas have deeply informed my philosophical thinking about women, animals and nature ever since.  Marti wrote: “A holist ecofeminist philosophy … is a ‘way of life,’ or a mode of consciousness that invites us to be ‘responsible,’… in the literal sense of developing the ability to respond.”

C: Marti said, “Ecofeminist philosophy never transcends or denies our capacity for sympathy and care, our most important human connection with the natural world.”

L: With her writings, since the 1980s, Marti made an important intervention into philosophy. She wrote to communicate and to try change the world; her words were gifts she left to us as she knew she wouldn’t be around forever.

C: She was meticulous with her writings, bringing a care to her each and every word. She believed words matter.  And with them, she created challenging and inspiring ideas.

L: One of the most important ideas Marti gave us is how to recognize and reconstitute truncated narratives.  In some ways I think she wouldn’t like this dialogue, as it is necessarily a truncated narrative (and also because Marti liked to argue and often she disagreed with us, but always to push us to better places).

C: And in some ways, Marti might have laughed with us as she watches us follow her example and work so hard to say so little. Lori—truncated narratives. That’s a very complicated idea.

L: Marti thought that many questions about what we owe to others aren’t properly framed. We tend to look forward in a somewhat linear direction and we often don’t look backward or sideways or way up ahead.  In her words “Wrenching an ethical problem out of its embedded context severs the problem from its roots.”  Marti was interested in getting to the roots of problems.

Say you see a homeless woman and her dog on the street and you wonder what you should do, you may ask yourself, “what do I owe her, how do I respond or what is my responsibility here?”  Maybe you decide to put $10 in her basket and carry on.

What Marti would have us do is first to ask, is there a homeless shelter for her and her friend, but also ask the larger, broader questions.

Why is this woman and her canine companion homeless and on the street? Is she here because the woman’s shelter doesn’t accept dogs and she can’t just leave her companion behind? What are the social and cultural forces that created this situation and can my $10 really do any good or does it just make me feel like I’m doing something heroic?

The truncated narrative also sets it up so that you don’t see that the person who comes to the rescue might also have been part of the cause of the problem.

C: Marti believed there was a way to discovering how these problems emerge, and if we can discover that, can’t we prevent these problems from emerging in the first place?

Marti’s insight was that we need to look at ethical problems from a variety of perspectives and in context and not frame them in a limited way that keeps them private and individualized which is part of a masculine conception of agency and responsibility.  As she said “The patriarchal mind has managed to look, but not see, act but not feel, think but not know. “

L: Constructing bigger stories and avoiding truncated narratives involves listening to voices that have been silenced and imagining the voices of the voiceless, Marti believed we could hear nature. She wrote, “Nature is telling us in myriad ways that we cannot continue to poison her rivers, forests, and streams, that she is not invulnerable, and that the violence and abuse must be stopped. Nature is speaking to us. The question is whether we are willing or able to hear.” She thought only when we begin to hear and see more clearly can we begin to adequately respond.

C: We both know we’re being theoretical here, but these are important insights and one of Marti’s gifts to the world was the willingness to think so carefully and thoroughly in order to engage in a kind of preventative intervention. Marti wrote, “If ecofeminists are sincere in their desire to live in a world of peace and nonviolence for all living beings, we must help each other through the painstaking process of piecing together the fragmented world view that we have inherited. But the pieces cannot simply be patched together. What is needed is a reweaving of all the old stories and narratives into a multifaceted tapestry.”

Once you step away from a truncated narrative and see it in its full context, then you see how everything is woven together and it becomes not just understandable but inevitable that she would helped to form feminists for animal rights. Anyone who worked with her in feminists for animals rights was touched by her.

Many of us were lucky to become good friends.

We probably don’t even know all the people who Marti be-friended around the world.

Lori: Marti enabled friendships. She brought people together

She also opened the possibility of understanding our relationships with other animals as friendships, animals are also family – she framed these as loving relationships, not relationships of use.

In an important correlative way, Marti said that when we destroy other animals and parts of nature, we are destroying parts of ourselves and that’s why prevention is so important. She thought we shouldn’t just fix what’s been damaged, or restrain the impulses to destroy the natural world and the more than human beings that live in it, but we must also work to try to prevent the impulses.

C: You try to prevent it, and Marti made several concrete suggestions for what this involved, to begin with, veganism. Veganism is an important way of befriending animals, but Marti’s understanding of veganism goes beyond that to think not just of the animals who are used to become food, but all of the animals that are effected in food production.

L: Humans and other animals live together in nature, but nature isn’t something that is just out there. It is something that individuals live in, but it also lives in us.

C: Marti wrote: “A holist ecofeminist philosophy … is a ‘way of life,’ or a mode of consciousness that invites us to be ‘responsible,’… in the literal sense of developing the ability to respond.”

L: This way of life is what Marti worked at living and expressed not just in her writing but in her friendships, because to Marti you couldn’t break apart how you lived, who you loved and cared about, and what you felt and believed. These were always integrated for her.

C: As we live in this world after,

L: but with Marti, let us try to act

C: and feel, think

L: and know. And Marti invites us to care.

C: And she invites us to care.


  1. I only learned about Marti Kheel recently when I was reading her "License to Kill" essay. What a remarkable and wonderful person she was!

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