Thursday, March 3, 2011

Thinking about Anthropomorphism and Social Justice Movements Part 1

In working on an essay about anthropomorphism, I keep returning to the damage the concept has done in terms of relationships among humans. I began the essay because I was thinking about anthropomorphism of the Deity and the animals, but I can’t ignore how as a concept and a practice it has patrolled human beings. This may seem strange at first since anthropomorphism is defined as “attribution of human form or character.” Yet, think about it: what is that “human form” and who says?

Anthropomorphism was first used about God, according to the Oxford English Dictionary: “ascription of a human form and attributes to the Deity.” It was only 150 years ago that it was used to label certain descriptions of animals. Animal activists and animal-friendly cognitive ethologists are accused of anthropomorphizing when they argue that animals possess intellectual capacities such as cognition and belief; emotions (happiness, sadness, dejection, anger, frustration, anxiety, awe), and the ability to enjoy relationships and make choices. (Indeed, the term “anthropomorphobia” was coined to point out that the failure to acknowledge these possibilities for the other animals is problematic.)
The traditional definition of anthropomorphism ignores that we use anthropomorphism toward human beings—usually non-dominant individuals. Post-humanist studies have begun to show us the burden and problem of holding to some idea of what is “human” and what the “human form” is. Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto” began to capture the spirit of this idea: what is human anymore? And as Cary Wolfe says, responding to the issue of approaching the animal oppression from a “most like us” perspective “only ends up reinforcing the very humanism that seems to be the problem in the first place.”2

It is safe to say that the notion of the ideal or the normal human form has been used to define who is a “normal” human. Traditional charts that show the “Evolution of ‘Man’” reveal precisely the body (morph = form or shape) we see as being “anthro” (human-identified): a white male, and if we examine many of these charts we also see signs that it is a middle- class white male.

My friend Susan Schweik’s The Ugly Laws, an incredibly powerful book, shows what is at stake with this normative view of the human body: Laws were passed “to control the movement of disabled people,” to forbid begging by disabled individuals, and prohibit conduct (such as limping or crawling) that might identify you as disabled. Because we have already anthropomorphized what we believe to be human, we excluded from justice many who did not appear to conform to that. If “they” don’t look like “us,” “they” aren’t entitled to equality. This doesn’t just deprive someone of justice and endanger their lives; it denies individual beings of the right to be themselves.

These laws often were anti-begging laws, and Sue says to understand the laws “we need to think about poverty and class, labor unrest and capitalism.”3  She also shows how “gender, race, sexuality, religion, and national identity are inexorably intertwined with disability and class in the culture(s) of the ugly laws,” recognizing identities that were connective not additive, intersectional not analogous. (p. 141). Schweik cites the work of Clare Sears who studied laws regulating cross-dressing (allowing the arrest of individuals in the “wrong” clothes).4   Sears shows the ways in which they resembled “ugly laws” through spatial regulation. Sears found that cities used strategies to “contend with what she calls ‘problem bodies.’” These strategies included “removal, exclusion, confinement, concealment, distribution, modification, and transparency.” (summarized by Schweik, p. 162). What bodies could move freely through city streets and what could not? If you consider the normative anthropomorphized body, you will be close to an answer of who had the freedom.

Fiona Kumari Campbell’s Contours of Ableism: The Production of Disability and Abledness identifies “ableist regulatory norms”. Campbell writes: “An Abled imaginary relies upon the existence of a hitherto unacknowledged imagined shared community of able-bodied/minded people held together by a common ableist homosocial world view that asserts the preferability and compulsoriness of the norms of ableism.”5  She continues, “Compulsory ableness and its conviction to and seduction of sameness as the basis of equality claims results in a resistance to consider ontologically peripheral lives as distinct ways of being human least they produce a heightened devaluation.” Contained within in this incredibly powerful sentence is the fact that anthropomorphism (the seduction of sameness) has never functioned to acknowledge “ontologically peripheral lives as distinct ways of being human.”

Laura Hillenbrand in her new book Unbroken, refers to the pseudo-science of eugenics during the 1930s and its “promise of strengthening the human race by culling the ‘unfit’ from the genetic pool.” Among those who were targeted were “girls whose genitals exceeded certain measurements.” Question: How did any “expert” know what was too big versus what was “normal”? Answer: Because they followed an anthropomorphic notion of what “girls” and “boys” should look like. Operations on babies and children that “fix” their sex because their genitalia do not adhere to the dominant notion of two sexes also adhere to defining anthropomorphic notions of “girl” and “boy.” Dominant cultural attitudes that maintain a belief in two sexes and then enforce this solution deprive individuals of the right to make choices about their own bodies.

Patrolling and maintaining rigid notions of identity, in which the dominant view of the anthropomorphized human being prevails is life-denying and spirit-killing: just consider the terrible costs of apartheid and segregation.

Certainly, it contributes to xenophobia, where we begin literally patrolling “national” boundaries because we have already rigidly apportioned ideas of who the “citizen” is. In an analysis of language about Latinos in newspapers, animal metaphors were found to be the predominant imagery applied to them. Researchers found metaphors of immigrants as animals that were lured, pitted, or baited, animals that can be attacked and hunted, animals that can be eaten, immigrants as pack animals, and immigrants like rabbits, needing to be ferreted out.6

After showing The Sexual Politics of Meat Slide Show (probably version 3.2; I laughingly say I am now on version 7.1), a trans activist and I had an interesting conversation.

In that version of the slide show, I discussed the way the West organizes itself into dualisms (human-animal, male-female, white/people of color, culture-nature, etc.). Both ecofeminists and posthumanists have identified such binaries. (Please note, it is interesting that ecofeminists who critique this worldview have been labeled essentialists, even when they are standing against these dualisms; but posthumanists who also critique these rigid ordering of the world are not labeled as essentialists.)

In this earlier version of the Sexual Politics of Meat Slide Show, I referred to the dominant side of the dualism (i.e., human, male, straight, culture, etc.) as the “A” side. And the nondominant side (i.e., animal, female, people of color, nature, etc.), as “Not A.” The activist said, “But you see, I was not ‘A’ (I wasn’t on the dominant side) and I was not ‘Not A.’” It’s an important point that shows how anthropomorphism forces and pummels people into restrictive categories that are false.

It’s one reason activists for justice benefit from a transpecies framework that decenters the human form. And it requires making connections—racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, xenophobia, and speciesism are interconnected, intertwined. My goal is not merely to valorize the not-A side of the dualism (that is, the animal, female, people of color, nature, etc. side). Such a reversal adheres to a dualist worldview that is antiquated and harmful.

A five-year old report on a conversation that occurred more than 10 years ago that accuses me of transphobia has its own life on the Internet. I have read it; I remember it differently, and there was no intended harm or disrespect.

I think we do not even know how deeply anthropomorphism shapes our views of others, how it imbricates what we believe about what we know, and how we know it. How many experiments on the other animals arise from deeply held beliefs about socially-constructed notions of sexual orientation and sexual identity? As Anne Fausto-Sterling in Sexing the Body points out, late twentieth-century studies of homosexual behaviors in rodents declared “A lesbian rat is she who mounts; a gay male rat is he who responds to being mounted.”7

The world we are working for is not “one size fits all.” Many scholars cite Levinas’s concept of “the face” exploring a politics of nonviolence. Judith Butler does this extremely well: “To respond to the face, to understand its meaning means to be awake to what is precarious in another life or, rather, the precariousness of life itself. This cannot be an awakeness, to use his word, to my own life, and then an extrapolation from an understanding of my own precariousness to an understanding of another’s precarious life. It has to be an understanding of the precariousness of the Other. This is what makes the face belong to the sphere of ethics.”8  But what if that face has no eyelids? (a point raised by Eva Heyward in Sweden at the “Meet Animals Meat” Conference). Is the reason it is hard to recognize the precarious life of a fish is because fishes have no eyelids? Their faces are not like our faces.

This is why I have worked toward a feminist ethic of care, a politicized ethic that asks, “what are you going through?” and is willing to listen to the answer, understanding the answer may not come from a conventionally-assumed human form.

Note: part 2  will discuss what comes after the critique of dualism, (that is, what the positive--non-essentialist, non-exclusive--ontology and ethics that I envision is).

  1Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminist in the Late Twentieth Century,” in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991), pp. 149-
2Cary Wolfe, Animal Rites: American Culture (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2003), p. 192.
3Susan Schweik, The Ugly Laws: Disability in Public (New York: New York University Press, 2009), p. 59.
4Elizabeth Reis’s Bodies in Doubt: An American History of Intersex says that “laws regulating cross-dressing in New York City was first imposed in 1845. Nan Hunter has suggested that these laws focused on gender fraud and targeted women who sought male advantages, such as emloyment.” (p. 174). Clare Sears (in “Electric Brilliancy: Cross-Dressing Law and Freak Show Displays in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco, WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly, vol. 36: no 3 & 4 (Fall/Winter 2008), pp. 170-187), sees cross-dressing laws as ways to police who “belonged” in public spaces.
5Fiona Kumari Campbell, Contours of Ableism: The Production of Disability and Abledness (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), p. 4.
6Otto Santa Ana, Brown Tide Rising: Metaphors of Latinos in Contemporary American Public Discourse. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press. pp. 82-94.
7Anne Fausto-Sterling, Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality. (New York: Basic Books, 2000), p. 14.
8Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London: Verso, 2004),  p. 134.