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Blog of the Centre for Invention & Social Process, Goldsmiths

Reflections From the Third CISP Salon: Human-Animal Relations


On 9th April, CISP Salon members met to discuss texts by Giraud & Hollin (2016) and Despret & Meuret (2016) in order to reflect on care in the context of human-animal relations. Below, Dr. Fay Dennis shares her thoughts on the session.

So far in the series, care has proved a productive and lively concept to think with that has taken us from historical forms of injustice and the possibilities of another science to the ethics of gay partying and queer politics, and this week, to human-animal relations. For me, one thing that has become clearer in light of these most recent discussions is the extent to which care – as a practice of knowing and doing – is always already politically, socially and materially entangled. Care has a past and an inherited politics that makes some ways of being and knowing more possible than others. For this session, there is an assumed and powerful hierarchy between humans and animals that is difficult to shift.

Following care as a reciprocal act of maintenance in more-than-human worlds (Puig de la Bellacasa, 2017), and taking up the articles by Giraud and Hollin (2016) on laboratory beagles and Despret and Meuret (2016) on sheep herding, we ask: How can we care for animals if they are instrumental in our scientific experiments (in the case of beagle handling) or food production (in the case of sheep herding)? Without this reciprocity, can this kind of reliance ever be care, which raises the questions again of what care is. Both papers, in different ways, attempt to move beyond the problematization of care as an ethical practice in opposition to its instrumentalization. So then, we ask: Can care be instrumentalised and ethically-materially productive?

For Giraud and Hollin, this relationship is at the very heart of the problem with care – ‘in certain contexts care is precisely what enables the instrumentalization of life, in being used to gain knowledge about entities that can be exploited for the purpose of control’ (pg. 31). Although posed negatively, an instrumentalized care that is also ethical seems oddly more possible in Giraud and Hollin’s case of the beagle-experimenters than in Despret and Meuret’s case of the sheep-herders. One might imagine a more caring beagle laboratory under a mantra in which the dogs are better exercised, fed, socialized etc., but could the same kind of care be applied to Despret and Meuret’s sheep-herders?

Care, in Despret and Meuret’s case, is a mode of intervention where both human and animal have learnt from, and, crucially, I would say (echoing Bryan Lim’s thoughts on ‘being invested’ from the last session), are interested in, learning from each other. So, could the kind of care that Despret and Meuret are identifying as a becoming-together or ‘composition’ of humans and animals ever exist if those sheep were brought back into their sheds? We think not.

Perhaps because I am a daughter of a sheep farmer (before sheep, in this region of the UK, became too expensive to rear), I find this particularly compelling as I have witnessed these human-animal attachments and losses to selves and community in these detachments from livestock. Despret and Meuret write in a way to aid these compositions. Like the shepherds, they take on first person language in becoming with the sheep. This difference in writing style provoked heated debates on whether we can ascribe intention to animals, how to talk/write about animals without projecting human qualities, how to think and feel with animals without assuming a hierarchy of sentient beings (e.g. would we feel so bad for the beagles if they were mice or ants or mosquitos?).

Towards the end of the session, we looked again at the different modes of care being paid attention to and tried to imagine what the care in the sheep-herding would look like if extended to the beagle-handling – Would we let the beagles go free? Could they survive? Is there such a thing as freedom from human contact? With this, we reflected on notions of responsibility, non-intervention as intervention, and how ‘needs’ become enacted in practice.

Entangled historically (as the beagles’ cages disturbingly reminded us) and enacted in the moment (through attuning or ‘tinkering’), both papers helped us to imagine care as a navigational tool for moving through inequitable worlds. This is what Anna Tsing calls the ‘arts of living on a damaged planet’, which is exactly what the next Salon hopes to explore further through embodied art and film.


CISP Salon Readings:

  • Giraud, E., & Hollin, G. (2016). Care, Laboratory Beagles and Affective Utopia. Theory, Culture & Society, 33(4), 27–49.
  • Despret, V., & Meuret, M. (2016). Cosmoecological Sheep and the Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet. Environmental Humanities, 8(1), 24–36.

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