Table of Con­tents | http://​dx​.doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​7​7​4​2​/​I​M​A​G​E​.​C​R​.​1​0​.​1.6 | PDF

Tracking Love in the Wild: from San Diego to Athens, Greece and Beyond1

Alexan­dra Halkias

Abstract: The ani­mal is a bor­der guard; pro­duced social­ly and his­tor­i­cal­ly in ways that work for an array of (neo)colonizing state-build­ing projects. Here I attempt to desta­bi­lize ‘the ani­mal’ while track­ing path­ways for a form of rela­tion­al­i­ty which reveals it as a polit­i­cal instru­ment that is pow­er­ful and dead­ly. Of inter­est is a state of being where­in rela­tion­al­i­ty between human and non-human ani­mals becomes a force that is trans­for­ma­tion­al. A state of being where­in the human is the feline; where­in humor is not exclu­sive­ly human. A new pol­i­tics of vision is at stake. This paper-col­lage seeks to open up this ground.

Résumé: L’animal est un garde-fron­tière dont la pro­duc­tion sociale et his­torique con­tribue à un éven­tail de pro­jets de con­stuc­tion d’état (néo)colonial. Je tente ici de désta­bilis­er ‘l’animal’ tout en traçant des voies vers une forme de rela­tion­al­ité qui le révèle comme un instru­ment poli­tique puis­sant et mor­tel. On notera l’intérêt d’un état dans lequel la rela­tion­al­ité entre ani­maux humains et non-humains devient une force de nature trans­for­ma­trice. Un état dans lequel l’humain est le félin, et l’humour n’est pas exclu­sive­ment humain. Une nou­velle poli­tique de la vision est en enjeu. Cet essai-col­lage tente d’ouvrir cette voie.

The ancient rocks have faces that sneer at me.”
- Arthur Koestler, The Call Girls (1972)

Huge vis­tas of human inex­pe­ri­ence are gov­erned by norms that pul­sate under­neath a thin dis­cur­sive lay­er of spon­tane­ity. These norms—little clus­ters of nar­ra­tives or oth­er sig­ni­fi­ca­to­ry praxis—are the prod­uct and the tool of pow­er rela­tions in spe­cif­ic his­tor­i­cal and cul­tur­al con­texts. They extend out to all sur­faces, potent­ly col­o­niz­ing and re-col­o­niz­ing rela­tion­al­i­ty. What is nat­ur­al is one of their aces. The call to obey is very often issued in these terms.

This seem­ing­ly sub­tle gov­er­nance of rela­tion­al­i­ty is in many ways an impe­ri­al­ist project, with the call to com­ply being issued in terms of what is deemed nat­ur­al even in the far­thest reach­es of what is com­mon­ly rec­og­nized as pow­er. Inti­mate crevices of social­i­ty are sat­u­rat­ed with an intri­cate mix of reg­u­la­to­ry ideals, cap­i­tal­ist appetite, and biopo­lit­i­cal manure. Sex­ism and racism reign supreme here. Queer the­o­ry and prac­tice have devel­oped over the decades as a potent tool of resistance—all their human and cap­i­tal­ist short­com­ings, the grow­ing lure of homo­nor­ma­tiv­i­ty, sen­ti­men­tal­ism, and oth­er nation­al­ist dynam­ics notwith­stand­ing.2 So too has Indige­nous prax­is in assort­ed sites around the globe. The vic­to­ry of the Stand­ing Rock Sioux tribe protest against the Dako­ta Access Oil Pipeline (NoDAPL) is but one exam­ple, if ten­u­ous under the Trump pres­i­den­cy, of how assort­ed dis­rup­tions of the dom­i­nant ver­sion of what is nat­ur­al can work to empow­er minori­tar­i­an artic­u­la­tions that are increas­ing­ly dis­pos­sessed. How­ev­er, even at these sites of knowl­edge and resis­tance, the human vs. non-human bina­ry typ­i­cal­ly escapes unscathed.

On anoth­er lev­el, in a much small­er space, the rela­tion­ship I devel­oped with a cat I called Myrra helped sharp­en my vision and cri­tique of pow­er fur­ther. Cer­tain­ly, I was a veg­an for sev­er­al years before I met her. Also, I fol­lowed ani­mal-rights strug­gles and move­ment to pro­tect ancient trees way before she was a glim­mer in my eye. But my 19-year-long rela­tion­ship with her is well beyond par­tic­i­pa­tion in said prac­tices in terms of edu­ca­tion­al wealth. This paper-pho­to essay draws from there and also takes mate­r­i­al from oth­er inter­species rela­tion­ships in an attempt to work with and ren­der vis­i­ble rela­tion­al­i­ties that are dif­fer­ent, firm­ly crit­i­cal of human suprema­cism and adver­sar­i­al to the “civ­i­liz­ing” pre­texts of assort­ed vio­lences. The aim is to con­tribute to an intel­lec­tu­al desta­bi­liza­tion of the human vs. non-human bina­ry under­ly­ing all this.3 “Sub­jects, objects, kinds, races, species, gen­res, and gen­ders are the prod­ucts of their relat­ing,” says Har­away (7). Indeed. Key to my project is a rethink­ing of the fig­ure of the ani­mal in tan­dem with what Dave pith­ily refers to as a “break­ing [of] the fic­tion of sov­er­eign sub­jec­tiv­i­ty” (qtd. in Alli­son Pre­car­i­ty).

The ter­rain thus con­sists of instances where­in rela­tion­al­i­ty between non-human and human ani­mals is such that the very dis­tinc­tion, as well as its hier­ar­chi­cal qual­i­ty, is occlud­ed or even erad­i­cat­ed. Glim­mers of that pos­si­bil­i­ty can be seen too in instances of rela­tion­al­i­ty between ani­mals-in-gen­er­al and plants, or also, in some cas­es, liv­ing forms and geo­log­i­cal mat­ter such as rocks. Moments of such rela­tion­al­i­ties are like cracks in time where­in much held as com­mon­sense is reversed and bina­ries that are cor­ner­stones of mul­ti­ple con­tem­po­rary projects of dom­i­na­tion are faced with a pow­er­ful agent of dis­so­lu­tion.4 The pho­tos used here relate to this in their depic­tions of a cer­tain flu­id­i­ty of form. Rocks trans­mo­gri­fy into human or non-human faces, shad­ows form fig­ures on anoth­er plane, posi­tioned in the same scene. Per­haps more con­crete­ly, moments such as those artic­u­lat­ed here can do the work of expand­ing notions of both what is non-human and what is human. Famil­iar map­pings of the social are called into question.

1. Sto­ic Goril­la with Talk­a­tive Woman
2. Faces, Black Cat Watching

Also, on a more prac­ti­cal lev­el, a clear sight­ing of such moments might block or at least frus­trate the cir­cu­la­tion of pow­ers that are inter­est­ed in dom­i­na­tion in late moder­ni­ty. For exam­ple, if we agree that the incar­cer­a­tion rate of the Unit­ed States, and its spe­cif­ic man­i­fes­ta­tion in terms of pris­on­er demo­graph­ics, hinges at least in part on a spe­cif­ic under­stand­ing of “the ani­mal,” which is sys­tem­i­cal­ly, if qui­et­ly, ascribed to par­tic­u­lar ver­sions of human ani­mals, then what would hap­pen to that rate if dom­i­nant under­stand­ings of the ani­mal lost their grip?5 Also, how would the annu­al rate of police shoot­ings of non-white Amer­i­cans change if, when con­front­ed with non-white agency, police offi­cers no longer had recourse to neg­a­tive con­cepts of ani­mal­i­ty or cul­tur­al des­ig­na­tions of the ani­mal as infe­ri­or, less sen­tient or intel­li­gent, and inher­ent­ly more dan­ger­ous? More specif­i­cal­ly, would it be pos­si­ble to trans­fer peo­ple who have been arrest­ed with limbs tied in hand­cuffs and wear­ing no seat­belt in the back of a met­al van over cir­cuitous bumpy road routes?6 More gen­er­al­ly, what would hap­pen to racism if com­mon des­ig­na­tions of the ani­mal were decon­struct­ed in this way?

3. Head on Serpent’s Plat­ter (black-and-white)

Set­ting these ques­tions for­ward as anoth­er point of depar­ture for an inquiry into crit­i­cal rela­tion­al­i­ties might seem arbi­trary or even incom­pre­hen­si­ble. After all, war, slav­ery, and human traf­fick­ing are also all prac­tices con­tin­gent on see­ing some human ani­mals as less human than ani­mal. Cer­tain­ly, the issue of human vio­lence against non-humans, and the plan­et more gen­er­al­ly, should in itself be enough rea­son to set forth. How­ev­er, I take as sig­nif­i­cant the co-inci­dence of the high­est incar­cer­a­tion rate in a coun­try con­sid­ered one of the most advanced in terms of the pro­tec­tion of human rights, in tan­dem with the demo­graph­ics of that rate. I take as also sig­nif­i­cant soci­o­log­i­cal data the fact, relat­ed, that in the Unit­ed States, for exam­ple, in 2015 “police offi­cers fatal­ly shot near­ly 1,000 peo­ple (…) accord­ing to The Wash­ing­ton Post’s ongo­ing count. Fur­ther that, halfway through 2016, police have shot and killed 506 more” (LaFrance). Two years lat­er, under Trump’s pres­i­den­cy, in 2018, that fig­ure was 1165 for the year (Har­riot). Also impor­tant is the fact that both police shoot­ings and the incar­cer­a­tion rate more gen­er­al­ly seem to tar­get spe­cif­ic cat­e­gories of sub­jects.7 To be mean­ing­ful and have polit­i­cal pur­pose along with the schol­ar­ly, any inquiry into crit­i­cal rela­tion­al­i­ties, whether same-species or inter­species, must reck­on with the social field with­in which it is embed­ded. The hypoth­e­sis is that this social phe­nom­e­non is in fact vis­cer­al­ly con­nect­ed to how “the ani­mal” is con­struct­ed social­ly and his­tor­i­cal­ly in ways that work for an array of col­o­niz­ing or neo-col­o­niz­ing state-build­ing projects. The ani­mal is a bor­der-guard.8 As it is pop­u­lar­ly con­fig­ured, “the ani­mal” patrols a rich field of priv­i­lege as prop­er­ly and exclu­sive­ly human, pre­cise­ly as it is not uni­ver­sal­ly so. The objec­tive is to con­tribute to a desta­bi­liza­tion of this con­struc­tion while track­ing path­ways for forms of rela­tion­al­i­ty that reveal it to be a polit­i­cal instru­ment that is var­i­ous­ly pow­er­ful and dead­ly for both non-human and human ani­mals.9

4. The Ferocious

The pop­u­lar rel­e­ga­tion of “the ani­mal” to a sub­or­di­nate posi­tion, even as it is used to sig­nal max­i­mum “nature” if not also wild­ness, works to demar­cate a very spe­cif­ic sphere of social­i­ty as prop­er­ly human. In this sphere, the vio­lence exhib­it­ed by police offi­cers in the Unit­ed States, renewed in recent years with the shoot­ings that Lafrance refers to in The Atlantic as above, by the sheer incar­cer­a­tion rate10 of a coun­try oth­er­wise con­sid­ered an exam­ple of civil­i­ty and respect for human rights, and by the preva­lence of what amounts to forced labor with­in the prison sys­tem, are all some­how cleansed of their bru­tal­i­ty. That is, the con­sen­su­al under­stand­ing of non-human ani­mals as always unique­ly and inher­ent­ly wild beings, sit­u­at­ed just beyond the ground of human rela­tion­al­i­ties, is what allows state-sanc­tioned human vio­lence to be jus­ti­fied as civ­i­lized in some way.

Of course, call­ing on this divide also con­sti­tutes a strat­e­gy for humans tar­get­ed by state vio­lence. The call issued by pris­on­ers engaged in forced labor with­in the U.S. prison sys­tem is, for exam­ple, “we are humans, not ani­mals.”11 But this project con­tributes to a tra­jec­to­ry of cul­tur­al and polit­i­cal work aimed at break­ing the con­nec­tion between “ani­mals” and “nor­mal­ized vio­lence.” That is, I am inter­est­ed in desta­bi­liz­ing the cul­tur­al frame where­in vio­lence against “ani­mals” is not reg­is­tered as count­ing on the same scale as does vio­lence per­formed against sub­jects rec­og­nized as humans.12 This might result in the loss of a pow­er­ful dis­cur­sive weapon in strug­gles involv­ing the vio­la­tion of assort­ed “human rights.” The hope is that it would also erode the very ground that feeds these vio­la­tions however.

5. Ser­pent with Bird (black-and-white)

In fact, it isn’t at all cer­tain that fur­ther illu­mi­na­tion of human to non-human crit­i­cal rela­tion­al­i­ties would suf­fice for much at all to hap­pen to any of the above “social prob­lems” at the end of the day. Racism and oth­er entrenched pat­terns of pow­er are remark­ably inno­v­a­tive. But even the slight trou­ble that might be caused to these is an impor­tant addi­tion­al incen­tive for such projects. Also, explo­rations of affec­tive cir­cuits of love, friend­ship, and desire between sub­jects of dif­fer­ent species or life­forms are impor­tant in order to trans­form cur­rent under­stand­ings of the self and the oth­er and of the social and the nat­ur­al, be they sci­en­tif­ic or lay. Mak­ing our sight­ings of such unortho­dox forms of rela­tion­al­i­ty more acute, bring­ing them out of the shad­ows and into the light of pub­lic and sci­en­tif­ic dis­course, pro­duces new forms of sub­jects, human and non-human alike. This vision has the poten­tial to gen­er­ate pol­i­tics that are new.

What is of inter­est here, more specif­i­cal­ly, is a state of being where­in the human is equal to the feline; a state of being where­in rela­tion­al­i­ty becomes a pro­duc­tive ener­gy that trans­forms the social world, at times trans­form­ing even the mate­r­i­al one—a state of being where­in even killing can at some time emerge as an imper­a­tive in order to live and to love ade­quate­ly. This is a state of being where­in humour is not a trait that is exclu­sive­ly human, in fact. Life, as death, is dif­fer­ent here. Vio­lence, too. Gen­der is flu­id, when it is at all. This is a state of being where­in the dis­tinc­tion non-human could poten­tial­ly refer to a state of supe­ri­or­i­ty. Or even cease to make sense at all. This paper-col­lage is an attempt to assist in the open­ing up of this ground. The method is of neces­si­ty piece­meal. The tool I pre­fer is an inter­min­gling of forms of analy­sis; relat­ed schol­ar­ly work along with ver­bal and non-ver­bal images, dare I say stud­ies, of such rela­tion­al­i­ties. So far I have sketched a pic­ture of how stereo­typ­i­cal fig­u­ra­tions of “the ani­mal” serve as a trope facil­i­tat­ing forms of vio­lence that are state-sanc­tioned, if not always spon­sored, against spe­cif­ic types of human ani­mals in the con­text of one nation, even as the same fig­u­ra­tions are mobi­lized in strug­gles of resis­tance. The focus then turns to the zone of con­tact between human and non-human ani­mals. The spe­cif­ic inter­est here is in forms of rela­tion­al­i­ty that are crit­i­cal of those sup­port­ing afore­men­tioned vio­lences. “The ani­mal” fig­ures dif­fer­ent­ly here.

6. Cat Tree, Woman, in Gold

Moira (pro­nounced Meer­ah) is the word for fate in Greek. Myrra, lat­er Myrrel­la and occa­sion­al­ly Myrra­bel­la, was a kit­ten I adopt­ed from a woman liv­ing in a man­sion in San Diego who had turned one of the tow­ers of her home into a cat­tery for strays that she col­lect­ed and cared for until they were adopt­ed. Myrra’s ori­gin sto­ry was that she was found in a plas­tic bag on the shoul­der of the high­way con­nect­ing Tijua­na to San Diego, on the U.S. side. There were two oth­er kit­tens in there, both dead. The woman with the cat­tery, whose name I don’t remem­ber, turned her over to me, once I chose her, com­plete with shots, an ear­ly ster­il­iza­tion oper­a­tion that was then pio­neer­ing at the Yale Vet­eri­nary School, and, of course, “papers.” Her papers. She was 4 months old then. I was intro­duced to forms of relat­ing and lov­ing I could nev­er have imag­ined in the 19 some years that fol­lowed. Dur­ing our time togeth­er we lived in San Diego, New York, Boston, and Athens, Greece. Dur­ing the last part of her life she had kid­ney fail­ure. Lat­er she had paral­y­sis of one hind leg, and blind­ness lat­er yet. We lived there too. I dare not say “togeth­er” for there.

Facets of what it means to see life from the per­spec­tive of a form of rela­tion­al­i­ty that is not sanc­tioned by the state, nor con­doned by many fel­low human ani­mals, are not easy to con­vey. These range from the soft and gleam­ing to the mun­dane and grit­ty. An exam­ple of the first are the mil­lions of moments of sheer love being com­mu­ni­cat­ed between two sets of eyes belong­ing to beings that can­not talk to each oth­er. An exam­ple of the lat­ter, when on a trans-Atlantic flight I took her car­ri­er to the bath­room with me in order to let her out and stretch her limbs, only to find her jump­ing and perch­ing on the top of my head, hiss­ing and grab­bing my hair with her nails as the plane hit tur­bu­lence and the engines roared in the met­al cage of the airplane’s small bath­room. Or, also, when based on research I did, I had decid­ed not to put her through the rou­tine series of shots required by the state of Mass­a­chu­setts and I real­ized, in effect, that she (-I) was ille­gal there. The sub­se­quent thought that I could some­how be forced to inoc­u­late her result­ed in a plan for us to escape such cir­cum­stances with­out any con­sid­er­a­tion at all.

While I assumed full respon­si­bil­i­ty for Myrra’s care, from the onset there were many domains of our rela­tion­ship with­in which she was clear­ly the supe­ri­or. I don’t mean this in the sense that is pop­u­lar with­in var­i­ous West­ern micro-worlds of “pets” and their “own­ers.” Rather, even with regard to her care, there were assort­ed ways that she showed me what she need­ed or was good for her. The prob­lem was that I wasn’t always an astute enough lis­ten­er. One of the most remark­able instances of this occurred near the end of her life, when I had found that she would at least put up with eat­ing yoghurt. Yet she would not eat all the yoghurts I would pick up from the super­mar­ket. I thought she was being finicky. After her death, a cou­ple of years lat­er, a doc­tor told me to only eat dairy prod­ucts based on sheep or goat milk as cow’s milk can be dam­ag­ing. As I shopped for yoghurt that evening, I real­ized, look­ing at the yoghurts, that the ones Myrra wouldn’t eat were those based on cow’s milk.

7. For­est Totem, Seeing

There were moments when I saw things about real­i­ty that oth­ers did not pure­ly as a result of my love for her. For exam­ple, when she first start­ed drink­ing a lot of water and I had an allo­path­ic vet in Athens see her, he claimed I was mis­tak­en when he asked her age and I told him she was, then, 14 years old. He said that was impos­si­ble as cats do not live over 8 years of age. After he phys­i­cal­ly exam­ined her he said, quite loud­ly as he stood next to her, that she had kid­ney fail­ure and would like­ly die with­in three months. He also want­ed to do blood­work. I was ret­i­cent. If you think you have a diag­no­sis, I said, what do we need the blood for? Is there some treat­ment we can then do? He said no, the only thing is kid­ney trans­plant, which is very expen­sive and dif­fi­cult. There­fore, I said, why do the blood exam? He was insis­tent that it would give us nec­es­sary information.

I final­ly decid­ed to go for­ward and held Myrra, who did not like the entire process at all, as he drew some of her blood. The next day the vet called me to tell me some­thing incred­i­ble had hap­pened, that it had nev­er hap­pened before, and he apol­o­gized. Appar­ent­ly, as he was tak­ing her vial to his lab, the vial fell and broke. He was clear­ly upset and said he would take the blood again, he offered to come to the house to do so, for no addi­tion­al charge. I decid­ed on the spot that no, we will just have to do what we can with­out this information.

After that I found a home­o­path­ic vet, remem­ber­ing how her first one, Dr.Tapp, had saved her from car­diomy­opa­thy when she was young and we were liv­ing in Boston. Some­thing we were able to do part­ly because that vet had lis­tened to me when I said I had seen an image of a heart as a bal­loon when I sat with the then ail­ing 3 yr. old Myrra one after­noon try­ing to fig­ure out what to do to help her get bet­ter. With phone appoint­ments to the new vet, Dr.B., now here in Athens, along with a nat­ur­al diet and a phos­pho­rus-bind­ing agent added to the meat cats need in order to sur­vive, Myrra lived anoth­er 5 years to the age of 19. We nev­er did anoth­er test­ing of blood. Only in the last few months of her life was there any vis­i­ble impair­ment of her health.

Anoth­er exam­ple of see­ing new aspects of real­i­ty thanks to my rela­tion­ship with her has to do with sound. From when she was still a kit­ten, I became very attuned to sounds in the hous­es that we lived in because abrupt nois­es, even if they weren’t loud, were dis­turb­ing to her and would result in hours of her hid­ing under a bed. I also acquired an acute sense of how care­less many of us humans are with our bod­ies, quite clum­si­ly car­ry­ing our­selves through space and unthink­ing­ly mov­ing too close or too jagged­ly to oth­er beings, human or not. More gen­er­al­ly, see­ing us through her eyes, I grew to under­stand how humans have lost touch with their bod­ies in a very fun­da­men­tal sense. Phys­i­cal­i­ty seems to be a zone of life not explic­it­ly nur­tured or devel­oped beyond very spe­cif­ic cou­pling or friend­ship repertoires.

There were also moments when Myrra saw things about real­i­ty that oth­ers did not, and she showed them to me. An exam­ple of this is the abil­i­ty of cats to adjust to blind­ness which the home­o­path­ic vet had told me of. But the actu­al wit­ness­ing of her learn­ing how to nav­i­gate our apart­ment in Athens just three days after she lost sight was an expe­ri­ence that was remark­able. She would go up to the door­way of the room she slept in, push her shoul­der around the frame and then turn down the hall­way, repeat­ing the same thing with any door­way of a room she want­ed to go into. When the blind­ness first occurred, both I and var­i­ous oth­er peo­ple I talked to all con­sid­ered that euthana­sia would be inevitable. How can a blind cat find her food and lit­ter box, or move around in gen­er­al? Her first attempts had been painful to watch, as she bumped into chairs and lost her bear­ings. Yet here she was prac­ti­cal­ly breez­ing through most of the apart­ment in less than three days lat­er. A few days after that she also walked slow­ly to the bal­cony door, basi­cal­ly ask­ing for her usu­al after­noon sun­bathing in the breeze. We went out togeth­er and as she set­tled on the bal­cony, her new­ly blind self, she slow­ly adjust­ed her posi­tion and moved her head towards the trees she would always like to gaze at. In short, being with her helped show me fur­ther vis­tas of how sanc­tioned norms col­o­nize the real and of how tiny what we call human today can be.


8. Lum­ber­ing Ashore, Girl Watching

My part­ner sits with a friend of his in front of the latter’s com­put­er. He lives in Psir­ri, a down­town area of Athens that used to be work­ers’ homes and now is increas­ing­ly home to bars, cafés, and restau­rants. Our friend’s house is spa­cious and bright, if with­out heat. The two of them are order­ing parts to con­struct a new com­put­er for us, now that our old one sim­ply ceased to work one day. Next to the table with the com­put­er is a bed cov­ered with cush­ions resem­bling a couch. As the two men sit in front of the com­put­er, our friend’s feline com­pan­ion, Fio­gos (bowtie in Greek) lum­bers over towards them and sits on the bed next to them. Fio­gos is 17 yrs old, some­what plump, and black. The two of them talk as our friend types and moves from site to site look­ing for the right pieces from which he is going to build a new com­put­er for us. Fio­gos lifts his paw, ever so gen­tly, bring­ing it down on the arm of our friend. As our friend types, and the two of them con­tin­ue to talk, Fio­gos’ paw moves up and down, firm­ly plant­ed on his arm. Every so often, Fio­gos’ paw is equal­ly gen­tly lift­ed off this human arm and put back down in front of Fio­gos. Every time, a cou­ple of min­utes lat­er, the feline paw returns to the human arm. After a few times of this, our friend lifts him up and puts him in his lap. Fio­gos con­tent­ed­ly seats him­self so he can watch the screen along with the two of them.

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In the fall of 2016, after hav­ing lost touch for a cou­ple of years, I met with a good friend who gave birth to a baby boy a few months ago, via a sperm donor in Den­mark. Eleni is of Greek-Amer­i­can back­ground, like myself. Her part­ner, let’s call her Athena, a “Greek in full,” also had a baby, this time a girl, a lit­tle before that, using sim­i­lar meth­ods, also in Den­mark. Den­mark was impor­tant because they found it to be the only place in Europe where the child lat­er has the right to learn the iden­ti­ty of the sperm donor. Arti­fi­cial insem­i­na­tion and sperm dona­tion became nec­es­sary, Eleni told me, because after try­ing with sperm of sev­er­al friends and rel­a­tives, which tests proved to be inad­e­quate, they came to the real­iza­tion that good qual­i­ty sperm is hard to find. I thought this was fun­ny and told her so. Even today, Greek lay atti­tudes towards het­ero­sex­u­al cou­ples hav­ing dif­fi­cul­ties get­ting preg­nant tend towards the belief that it is the women’s bod­ies that have some prob­lem that pre­vents conception.

As we sipped our cof­fee in the gen­tri­fy­ing area of Athens called Kouka­ki, where they rent their home, Eleni filled me in on oth­er major events I had missed. She had stopped work­ing as a “cre­ative play” babysit­ter a few months in to her preg­nan­cy. So too had Athena, who worked in a co-op café that she part­ly owns. They now lived on the rent each col­lect­ed on an apart­ment each one owned thanks to their fam­i­lies of ori­gin. Eleni told me, her dog, Bon­nie, who had been a mem­ber of their house­hold since she and Athena start­ed liv­ing togeth­er, had died. She devel­oped can­cer, Eleni told me, and they took care of her for a long time, with remis­sions and oth­er ups and downs. Then, final­ly, it was clear, she was going to die and they brought the vet to the house to do euthanasia.

9. Ques­tion Mark in Reverse

Hav­ing gone through a sim­i­lar process with Myrra a few years ago, I lis­tened care­ful­ly and empathized with the dif­fi­cul­ty of what she was shar­ing. For me, this deci­sion was one of the most dif­fi­cult in my life. For Eleni, how­ev­er, the euthana­sia deci­sion was not the focus. As she con­tin­ued the sto­ry, she empha­sized that the euthana­sia took place less than a week before Athena gave birth. So much impend­ing hap­pi­ness and so much sad­ness at once was basi­cal­ly the gist of the sto­ry. I sym­pa­thized ful­ly. Though I nev­er real­ly want­ed to have a child of my own, I could under­stand the con­fu­sion and the inten­si­ty she allud­ed to. Also, there was some­thing about the tim­ing that I sensed, though we didn’t dis­cuss it. I had final­ly made the deci­sion for euthana­sia for Myrra and sched­uled it (yes) for the day before my niece’s 6th birth­day. It is oth­er aspects of Eleni’s sto­ry, how­ev­er, that work to shed an almost glar­ing light on zones of crit­i­cal rela­tion­al­i­ties between human and non-human ani­mals. She went on to tell me how what hap­pened was that even after the first few weeks of their baby’s life, their pre­dom­i­nant feel­ing was that they had lost a child. Her way of describ­ing this was very vivid. I lat­er men­tioned this project and asked her if she might be will­ing to briefly write me the expe­ri­ence, as she had told it to me.13 This is her response:

Hmmm well I don't know exact­ly what you are think­ing about bc I think I said a lot about my sweet Bon­nie … so here it goes a brief repeat.

When Bon­nie was ill (or rather when we real­ized she was ill) it was such an emo­tion­al time. On one hand, we were prepar­ing and look­ing for­ward to our much antic­i­pat­ed birth of our baby and on the oth­er hand we were des­per­ate­ly try­ing to keep our oth­er one alive. We final­ly let her go a week before Athena gave birth and it was a real­ly beau­ti­ful last day we all spent togeth­er … friends came and said good­bye and even though she was so sick and weak she stood up when each vis­i­tor arrived. The next day we wan­dered Athens cry­ing and griev­ing and shell-shocked. 5 days lat­er Athena gave birth in our home while 5 days ear­li­er we said good­bye to our oth­er baby in our home. 2 months lat­er I gave birth. We admit­ted to each oth­er a cou­ple months after H. [the baby Eleni gave birth to] was born that we almost loved them as much as we loved Bon­nie and then some months after that we agreed that we loved them as much as we loved Bonnie.

How could we love them imme­di­ate­ly the same as Bon­nie? We already had a long rela­tion­ship with her…they were new in our lives. She was an equal mem­ber of our fam­i­ly … we were a three­some. Even though we have a crazy house­hold now full of love and noise and laugh­ter from babies, the house still feels like there is a void … some­thing is miss­ing … our Bon­nie. The oth­er day Athena was real­ly sad because she was think­ing about how much she loves F. and H. and how she hon­est­ly loved Bon­nie just as much and how much she miss­es her. So F. is turn­ing 1 on Dec 27th and as amaz­ing this is and how we can't believe it and what a cel­e­bra­tion we will have, I have just as a strong feel­ing of still shock and sad­ness that our Bon­nie has been gone for almost a year. She was def­i­nite­ly our first child. I don’t think the pain ever gets any less, I just don't think about it as often …

Part of what is very impor­tant in Eleni’s map of crit­i­cal rela­tion­al­i­ties is the way in which the dis­tinc­tion between human and non-human is firm­ly ren­dered mute. This nar­ra­tive high­lights the dis­parate incred­i­bly rich forms of rela­tion­al­i­ty that can devel­op between human and non-human ani­mals as well as tracks the process-based aspect of their devel­op­ment. Pow­er­ful­ly desta­bi­liz­ing pop­u­lar stereo­typ­i­cal images, the new­born human babies are inscribed as lim­i­nal sub­jects in terms of the fam­i­ly, if very wel­come and loved ones. Their full ascrip­tion on what emerges as a hier­ar­chy of “our child” takes a cou­ple of months. The sta­tus of “our child” who is loved, more­over, “as much” as Bon­nie, took yet anoth­er few months to be attained. The aged and ill dog is an unequiv­o­cal kin sub­ject rat­ed, in fact, at the high­est lev­el of “our baby.” More­over, her depar­ture from life is clear­ly mourned.14

In this way, Bon­nie emerges as a sub­ject that at once over­comes essen­tial­ist des­ig­na­tions of both species and age. Sim­i­lar­ly, strong kin­ship rela­tion­al­i­ty and ties of fam­i­ly are inter­wo­ven here between an inter­est­ing assem­blage of sub­jects: human and non-human sub­jects with no genet­ic tie; human sub­jects who have no genet­ic tie to one anoth­er, as are the two adult women and the two human babies; and those who have “half” a genet­ic bond, as do the babies born to each of the women with that spe­cif­ic woman. Final­ly, this sto­ry also shows how the deci­sion to end the life of Bon­nie, albeit a sub­ject so deeply loved, was accom­pa­nied by both sad­ness and hap­pi­ness, in thus hav­ing the occa­sion to say a prop­er good­bye. Both these feel­ings, more­over, are rep­re­sent­ed as liv­ing on way beyond Bonnie’s death.

Eleni end­ed her e-mail mes­sage to me thus, cap­i­tals in the orig­i­nal: “SO MUCH FOR BRIEF … I HOPE YOU FIND IN THERE WHAT YOU WERE LOOKING FOR!!!” If we queer our lens just slight­ly, this com­ment can be seen as very telling. It can be seen as a com­ment towards con­ven­tion­al approach­es to fam­i­ly. That is, it is as though Eleni’s com­ment is call­ing on “Soci­ety” with its nor­ma­tive notions of what is real fam­i­ly, as in based both on species sim­i­lar­i­ty and specif­i­cal­ly genet­ic ties, here is what you need to mea­sure up against. Can the com­mon essence of blood bonds that you favor cre­ate what we have here? More­over, no doubt, can I or Eleni find in this mess of charged and nuanced affec­tive life bonds between the var­i­ous sub­jects described, the sense of fam­i­ly we are look­ing for? The sto­ry itself stands as the pithy response: You bet. Thus, in one fell swoop, essen­tial­ist des­ig­na­tions of famil­ial kin are decen­tered, even as they are par­tial­ly rein­scribed, and effec­tive­ly ren­dered moot. This all brings to mind Haraway’s com­ment about method in try­ing to fur­ther fem­i­nist the­o­ry in the con­text of the coevo­lu­tion of naturecul­ture in late moder­ni­ty. Of her choice to focus on dogs and rela­tion­al­i­ties with them, she says, “I risk alien­at­ing my old dop­pel­ganger, the cyborg, in order to try to con­vince read­ers that dogs might be bet­ter guides through the thick­ets of tech­no­biopol­i­tics in the Third Mil­le­ni­um of the Cur­rent Era.” (9-10).

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10. Nun, with Box­ing Gloves

Pre­fer­ring mon­keys and vio­lence for his angle on the larg­er project I too am try­ing to con­tribute to here, Adorno firm­ly states that “[t]he con­stant­ly encoun­tered asser­tion that sav­ages, blacks, Japan­ese are like ani­mals, mon­keys for exam­ple, is the key to the pogrom”; he con­tin­ues with the expla­na­tion that the (human) thought which he names “after all, it is only an ani­mal,” in fact “reap­pears irre­sistibly in cru­el­ties done to human beings, the per­pe­tra­tors hav­ing again and again to reas­sure them­selves that it is ‘only an ani­mal’ because they could nev­er ful­ly believe this even of ani­mals” ([1951] 2005:105, my empha­sis). In full align­ment with this rea­son­ing, the basic idea I am pur­su­ing here is the fol­low­ing: state-sanc­tioned vio­lence, such as the mass incar­cer­a­tion sys­tem of the Unit­ed States or the more indi­vid­u­al­ized shoot­ings of non-white, racial­ized peo­ple by police, becomes pos­si­ble at least in part thanks to one sim­ple cul­tur­al and supreme­ly polit­i­cal move. That is, an equa­tion of some human ani­mals, some sub-cat­e­go­ry of these, with non-human ani­mals. Giv­en that non-human ani­mals are not con­sid­ered equal beings in many social sur­faces of the globe, whether or not they are deemed equal­ly sen­tient or equal­ly intel­li­gent, acti­vat­ing this equa­tion works to suck more ani­mals, of all sorts, into the tar­gets of assort­ed human vio­lence.15 If we can doc­u­ment forms of rela­tion­al­i­ty through which non-human ani­mals emerge as equals, if not supe­ri­or, then this might work as a road­block of sorts to the bar­bar­i­ty aimed at all sorts of ani­mals. But any such doc­u­men­ta­tion will only be as strong as is com­mon the premise that it makes sense to talk about any human and non-human qual­i­ty as being on a par at all.

Anoth­er tac­tic is to show how dis­parate forms of geno­cide, aimed at human or non-human ani­mals, are self-destruc­tive because such vio­lence nar­rows the range of bio and social diver­si­ty and thus impov­er­ish­es the plan­et, mak­ing the long-term sur­vival of any life­form more dif­fi­cult. But this tack rests on the assump­tion that humans care about what hap­pens after their own lives are over. This assump­tion is also not always safe. Even though such care is typ­i­cal­ly indexed as one of the char­ac­ter­is­tics prov­ing human supe­ri­or­i­ty over non-human ani­mals, it is not borne out by the evi­dence. Cli­mate cri­sis is but one exam­ple of a devel­op­ment that refutes this claim directly.

A method that I think holds more promise, in terms of its polit­i­cal effi­ca­cy, is to explore the field of rela­tion­al­i­ty gen­er­at­ed by the inter­min­gling of the human with the non-human. This path­way has the advan­tage of chal­leng­ing notions cur­rent­ly gov­ern­ing the pro­duc­tion of knowl­edge and pol­i­cy and thus, at least, of pos­si­bly open­ing up ground for new ways of imag­in­ing not only the human and the non-human but social­i­ty itself. If the easy dis­tinc­tion between the two can be desta­bi­lized via the adop­tion of a per­spec­tive that rec­og­nizes spe­cif­ic forms of life-sus­tain­ing rela­tion­al­i­ty between them where­in the hier­ar­chi­cal mean­ings ascribed to their pre­sumed as nat­ur­al dif­fer­ence lose impor­tance, or even dis­ap­pear entire­ly, then all social and polit­i­cal uses of “the ani­mal” to shore up vio­lent hier­ar­chies among human ani­mals might lose their grip and become more eas­i­ly avail­able to cri­tique as polit­i­cal moves rather than des­ig­na­tions of nat­ur­al truths.

Key to the estab­lished under­stand­ings of human social life is a cer­tain rel­e­ga­tion of the mate­r­i­al, and mate­ri­al­i­ty itself, to a fixed and rel­a­tive­ly inert qual­i­ty. The rich vein of work done on new mate­ri­alisms aside, this remains a rel­a­tive­ly per­va­sive cul­tur­al belief across the globe. One more step it is thus impor­tant to make involves under­stand­ing nature that is itself some­thing that is done. Nature acquires its sig­nif­i­cances and uses, indeed its form in many cas­es, via actions tak­en by human and non-human life forms alike. I wish to include plants and stones here as well. There is now ample evi­dence that the com­mon belief that humans act upon nature, as though it is some­how pas­sive or inert, needs to be cor­rect­ed. A vivid exam­ple of how this works can be seen in the inter­dis­ci­pli­nary study of how earth­worms exist in var­i­ous con­texts (Bertoni). The impli­ca­tions of this way of see­ing nature are pro­found. As Fil­ip­po Bertoni puts it:

We began this arti­cle won­der­ing how many natures there were, but, as soon as we start­ed look­ing for an answer, natures began to mul­ti­ply like a Ler­naean Hydra, and we lost count. Such a ques­tion, we dis­cov­ered, has no answer. Hack­ing was right: count­ing natures is real­ly an impos­si­ble task. But a rel­e­vant one, nev­er­the­less: it reminds us that hav­ing one, uni­tary Nature is an achieve­ment and not a nat­ur­al fact. (Bertoni Charm­ing Worms 77)

11. Secret Meet­ing, Boy with Smashed Jaw (black and white)

See­ing nature as an achieve­ment in this way—much as gen­der and sex­u­al­i­ty are seen in the light of thou­sands of Fou­cauldean cross-cul­tur­al and com­par­a­tive his­tor­i­cal analy­ses--does not place the human in a firmer posi­tion of con­trol. It is not that we humans “write” nature on a blank slate. Nor, cer­tain­ly, is it that in “dis­cov­er­ing” its con­struct­ed­ness, it sim­ply goes away. The oxy­gen we breathe in order to stay alive, the water we drink, and the plants and ani­mals many of us eat are evi­dence enough of a lay­er of mate­ri­al­i­ty that is per­sis­tent and stub­born in some way. Rather, what emerges is a view of nature where­in we are able to rec­og­nize that nature is indeed achieved and that this is done as the prod­uct of the inter­play of assort­ed agents: human, non-human, and oth­er typ­i­cal­ly con­sid­ered inert mate­ri­als. Whether trac­ing earth­worms through the dif­fer­ent sites in which they occur, stones through their spe­cif­ic loca­tions and his­tor­i­cal uses (Rein­ert) or the for­est as a being that thinks with and with­in human thought (Kohn),16 the knowl­edge gained reveals the lim­i­ta­tions of dom­i­nant epis­te­mo­log­i­cal par­a­digms and encour­ages us to broad­en our lens­es in study­ing and try­ing to under­stand the human differently.


I chose Myrra because she was a black cat and because she was the only cat who did not come up to me in some ver­sion of a greet­ing. I remem­ber my first sight of her clear­ly. She kept away from the meow­ing fuss that greet­ed me as I kneeled down in the La Jol­la cat­tery. Peer­ing through the var­i­ous swerv­ing tails, I saw her in the dis­tance. She stood back, quite far back, sim­ply look­ing at me through the for­est of swing­ing tails of oth­er kit­tens and cats who had enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly run up to greet me.

Mira is also the Span­ish word for look. A friend told me this as I was look­ing for a name. Hit­ting upon Myrra, for the sound as well as the Greek mean­ing of the word, I was wor­ried because I didn’t like the “nation­al­ist” con­no­ta­tions of call­ing a black cat owned by a Greek-Amer­i­can woman the word for fate. I did like the dou­ble wham­my cos­mic dare involved, how­ev­er. As too the insub­or­di­na­tion indexed by a 26-year-old woman hav­ing a black cat called fate. But the nor­ma­tive “Greek­ness” was a minus, even if it indexed a “bad” thing. The Span­ish worked per­fect­ly. She her­self was of the Mex­i­can bor­der­land after all. For the next 19 years, when I intro­duced her to a human of Greek ori­gin, with just a bit of glee I would add that “it means ‘look’ in Spanish.”

12. Woman’s Torso

Joy was easy to read. Always. Even though Myrra was not a mad­ly purring kind of cat. Indeed, I think it was a year or two into our rela­tion­ship when she decid­ed she might enjoy sit­ting in a human’s lap. Her favorite posi­tion when she was young was perched on a shoul­der. When we lived in Boston, I am pret­ty sure that her favorite thing was when I would open the one room stu­dio apart­ment door after mid­night and let her out into the long-car­pet­ed cor­ri­dor of the “pets not wel­come” build­ing we lived in. She would furi­ous­ly race up and down that long cor­ri­dor as I made con­grat­u­la­to­ry sounds in a loud whis­per and our neigh­bors slept. That was hap­pi­ness. So too was her bat­ting a crum­pled-up piece of orange paper all over the floor, what­ev­er city we lived in. Her friend Jonathan, anoth­er human, had first shown her this game. Most of all, per­haps, so too was her curl­ing up in the sun­shine of a win­dow to sleep.

Pain and unhap­pi­ness I can­not be sure of. I nev­er was. That was my fear dur­ing the end of her life and that was what final­ly helped me to let her go. I came to the belief that part of my respon­si­bil­i­ty to her was to do what­ev­er I could so that she would not expe­ri­ence seri­ous pain. In a state of kid­ney col­lapse and assort­ed oth­er prob­lems, the odds were tremen­dous that this would hap­pen if she did not die in time. It was against this prospect that I weighed the days or pos­si­bly weeks she, and us togeth­er, might have left. I stalled, asked her for signs and felt she gave none. Scared of the prospect of her suf­fer­ing seri­ous pain, I sud­den­ly decid­ed I need­ed to let go of the pos­si­bil­i­ty of days or even weeks remain­ing and arrange for euthana­sia, if I real­ly meant the love.

13. The Feline, Relief in Gold


Also fore­ground­ed in the light of the dis­parate ways that nature is done is at once both the resilience and vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty, or pre­car­i­ty, of dis­parate forms of life. This ter­rain can yield an “emer­gent social­i­ty” made up of new ways of belong­ing and being (Alli­son Greet­ing the Dead 20). Focus­ing our lens in this way, clos­ing in on the zones of tenac­i­ty and of destruc­tion that make up both the human and the non-human,17 brings pre­vi­ous­ly unknown inter­ac­tions and con­ver­gences to the fore. As Anne Alli­son puts it, though with regards to the human specif­i­cal­ly, “One can sense, if one sens­es opti­misti­cal­ly, an emer­gent poten­tial in attempts to human­ly and col­lec­tive­ly sur­vive pre­car­i­ty: a new form of com­mon­wealth (com­mon­ly remak­ing the wealth of social­i­ty), a biopol­i­tics from below” (Pre­car­i­ous 18). If this view is broad­ened to include non-human agents as well, rela­tion­al­i­ty can be trans­formed acquir­ing more depth and a polit­i­cal val­ue that is tremen­dous, potentially.


Works Cited

Abram, David. The Spell of the Sen­su­ous: The Per­cep­tion of Lan­guage in a More-than-Human World. New York, Ran­dom House, 1997.

Adorno, Theodor. Min­i­ma Moralia: Reflec­tions from Dam­aged Life. Transl. E.F.N. Jeph­cott. Lon­don and New York,Verso, [1951] 2005.

Ahmed, Nabil. With images by Gau­ri Gill, Rajesh Chaitya Van­gad. “Neg­a­tive Moment: Polit­i­cal Ecol­o­gy in the Twen­ty-First Cen­tu­ry.” South as a State of Mind, Issue 8 (doc­u­men­ta 14 #3), 2016, pp.36-53.

Alli­son, Anne. “Greet­ing the Dead:” Social Text, vol.35, no.1.130, 2017, pp.17-35.

---. Pre­car­i­ous Japan. Durham and Lon­don, Duke Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2013.

---. “Pre­car­i­ty: Com­men­tary by Anne Alli­son,” Curat­ed Col­lec­tions, Cul­tur­al Anthro­pol­o­gy web­site, 13 Sep­tem­ber 2016, https://​culanth​.org/​c​u​r​a​t​e​d​_​c​o​l​l​e​c​t​i​o​n​s​/​2​1​-​p​r​e​c​a​r​i​t​y​/​d​i​s​c​u​s​s​i​o​n​s​/​2​6​-​p​r​e​c​a​r​i​t​y​-​c​o​m​m​e​n​t​a​r​y​-​b​y​-​a​n​n​e​-​a​l​l​i​son.

Broad­wa­ter, Luke. “Records show city police had long urged seat belt use in vans: Before Fred­die Gray’s death, police waged cam­paign urg­ing seat belt use in vans,” The Bal­ti­more Sun, 17 Octo­ber 2015 http://​www​.bal​ti​more​sun​.com/​n​e​w​s​/​m​a​r​y​l​a​n​d​/​p​o​l​i​t​i​c​s​/​b​s​-​m​d​-​p​o​l​i​c​e​-​s​e​a​t​b​e​l​t​-​a​u​d​i​t​s​-​2​0​1​5​1​0​1​7​-​s​t​o​r​y​.​h​tml.

Ben­nett, Jane. Vibrant Mat­ter: A Polit­i­cal Ecol­o­gy of Things. Durham, Duke Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2010.

Bertoni, Fil­ip­po. Liv­ing with Worms: On the earth­ly togeth­er­ness of eat­ing. 2016. Uni­ver­si­ty of Ams­ter­dam. Ph.D.dissertation. <dare​.uva​.nl/​s​e​a​r​c​h​?​i​d​e​n​t​i​f​i​e​r​=​a​5​5​7​4​e​a​5​-​6​d​9​2​-​4​2​2​0​-​b​9​3​6​-​7​c​c​a​d​4​6​a​8​4f9>.

Charm­ing Worms: Crawl­ing between natures.” Cam­bridge Anthro­pol­o­gy, vol.30, no.2, 2012, pp.65-81.

Bertoni, Fil­ip­po and Biesel, Uli. “More-than-Human Intel­li­gence: Of Dol­phins, Indi­an Law and the Mul­ti-Species Turn.” Soci­ety and Space, 22 Novem­ber 2013. <soci​etyand​space​.com/​m​a​t​e​r​i​a​l​/​c​o​m​m​e​n​t​a​r​i​e​s​/​m​o​r​e​-​t​h​a​n​-​h​u​m​a​n​-​i​n​t​e​l​l​i​g​e​n​c​e​-​b​y​-​b​e​r​t​o​n​i​-​a​n​d​-​b​e​i​s​e​l​?​i​f​r​a​m​e​=​t​r​u​e​&​p​r​e​v​i​e​w​=​t​r​ue/>.

But­ler, Judith. Pre­car­i­ous Life: The Pow­ers of Mourn­ing and Vio­lence. Lon­don, New York, Ver­so, 2004.

Cohen, Jef­frey Jerome, edi­tor. Ani­mal, Veg­etable, Min­er­al: Ethics and Objects. Wash­ing­ton D.C., Oliphaunt books, punc­tum books, 2012.

Dave, Nais­ar­gi. “Wit­ness: Humans, Ani­mals, and the Pol­i­tics of Becom­ing.” Cul­tur­al Anthro­pol­o­gy 29, 2014, no. 3: 433–56. https://​jour​nal​.culanth​.org/​i​n​d​e​x​.​p​h​p​/​c​a​/​a​r​t​i​c​l​e​/​v​i​e​w​/​c​a​2​9​.​3​.​0​1​/​309.

Fou­cault, Michel. Abnor­mal: Lec­tures at the Col­lège de France 1974-75. Transl.Graham Burchell. Lon­don and New York, Ver­so, [1999] 2003.

Halkias,Alexandra. “The Tur­tles in the Gulf of Mex­i­co and Human Embryos.” About Ani­mals [in Greek]. Edit­ed by Anna Lyda­ki and Gian­nis N. Basko­zos, Athens, Psy­hoyios Press,2011, pp.126-129.

Hal­ber­stam, Judith. “You are trig­ger­ing me! The neolib­er­al rhetoric of harm, dan­ger and trau­ma.” Bul­ly Blog­gers, 5 July 2014. <bully​blog​gers​.word​press​.com/​2​0​1​4​/​0​7​/​0​5​/​y​o​u​-​a​r​e​-​t​r​i​g​g​e​r​i​n​g​-​m​e​-​t​h​e​-​n​e​o​-​l​i​b​e​r​a​l​-​r​h​e​t​o​r​i​c​-​o​f​-​h​a​r​m​-​d​a​n​g​e​r​-​a​n​d​-​t​r​a​uma>.

Har­away, Don­na. The Com­pan­ion Species Man­i­festo: Dogs, Peo­ple and Sig­nif­i­cant Oth­er­ness. Chica­go, Prick­ly Par­a­digm Press, 2003.

Har­riot, Michael. “Here is How Many Peo­ple Police Killed in 2018.” The Root. 1 March 2019. https://​www​.the​root​.com/​h​e​r​e​-​s​-​h​o​w​-​m​a​n​y​-​p​e​o​p​l​e​-​p​o​l​i​c​e​-​k​i​l​l​e​d​-​i​n​-​2​0​1​8​-​1​8​3​1​4​6​9​528.

Har­touni, Valerie. Visu­al­iz­ing Atroc­i­ty: Arendt, Evil, and the Optics of Thought­less­ness. New York and Lon­don, New York Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2012.

John­son, Lind­gren. Race Mat­ters, Ani­mal Mat­ters: Fugi­tive Human­ism in African Amer­i­ca 1840-1930. New York, Rout­ledge, 2018.

Kim, Claire Jean. Dan­ger­ous Cross­ings: Race, Species and Nature in a Mul­ti­cul­tur­al Age. Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2015.

Mur­der and Mat­ter­ing in Harambe’s House.” Pol­i­tics and Ani­mals, vol.3, 2017.pp.1-15.

Kohn, Eduar­do. How Forests Think: Toward an Anthro­pol­o­gy Beyond the Human. Berke­ley, Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia Press, 2013.

Lafrance, Adri­ane. “Death by Police.” The Atlantic, 7 July 2016. <www​.the​at​lantic​.com/​t​e​c​h​n​o​l​o​g​y​/​a​r​c​h​i​v​e​/​2​0​1​6​/​0​7​/​m​o​n​i​t​o​r​i​a​l​-​c​i​t​i​z​e​n​s​h​i​p​-​t​e​c​h​n​o​l​o​g​y​/​4​9​0​286>.

Markovitz, Jonathan. Lega­cies of Lynch­ing: Racial Vio­lence and Mem­o­ry. Min­neapo­lis, Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta Press, 2004.

Nation­al Asso­ci­a­tion for the Advance­ment of Col­ored Peo­ple. “Crim­i­nal Jus­tice Fact Sheet.” Vis­it­ed 16 March 2019. https://​www​.naacp​.org/​c​r​i​m​i​n​a​l​-​j​u​s​t​i​c​e​-​f​a​c​t​-​s​h​e​et/.

Povinel­li, Eliz­a­beth A. Economies of Aban­don­ment: Social belong­ing and endurance in late lib­er­al­ism. Durham, Duke Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2011.

---. Geon­tolo­gies: A requiem to late lib­er­al­ism. Durham, Duke Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2016.

Rein­ert, Hugo. “About a Stone: Some Notes on Geo­log­ic Con­vivi­al­i­ty.” Envi­ron­men­tal Human­i­ties, 2016, vol.8, no.1, pp.95-117.

Schep­er-Hugh­es, Nan­cy. “Whose Vio­lence? Death in America—A Cal­i­for­nia Trip­tych.” Social Anthro­pol­o­gy, vol.16, no.1, 77-89.

Spross, Jeff. “Why no one knows about the largest prison strike in U.S. his­to­ry.” The Week, 18 Octo­ber 2016.

Stanes­cu, James. “Species Trou­ble: Judith But­ler, Mourn­ing, and the Pre­car­i­ous Lives of Ani­mals.” Hypa­tia, vol.27, no.3, 2012, pp.567-582.

Stol­berg, Sheryl Gay and Jess Bid­good, “Fred­die Gray died from ‘Rough Ride’, Pros­e­cu­tors Assert.” New York Times, June 9 2016 http://​www​.nytimes​.com/​2​0​1​6​/​0​6​/​1​0​/​u​s​/​c​a​e​s​a​r​-​g​o​o​d​s​o​n​-​t​r​i​a​l​-​f​r​e​d​d​i​e​-​g​r​a​y​-​b​a​l​t​i​m​o​r​e​.​h​tml.

Wash­ing­ton, John. “This Week may see the Largest Prison Strike in US His­to­ry.” The Nation, 7 Sep­tem­ber 2016. https://​www​.then​ation​.com/​a​r​t​i​c​l​e​/​t​h​i​s​-​w​e​e​k​-​m​a​y​-​s​e​e​-​t​h​e​-​l​a​r​g​e​s​t​-​p​r​i​s​o​n​-​s​t​r​i​k​e​-​i​n​-​u​s​-​h​i​s​t​o​ry/.

World Prison Brief. 2018. http://​www​.pris​on​stud​ies​.org/​c​o​u​n​t​r​y​/​u​n​i​t​e​d​-​s​t​a​t​e​s​-​a​m​e​r​ica.

Image Notes

Halkias, Alexan­dra.

  1. Sto­ic Goril­la with Talk­a­tive Woman
  2. Faces, Black Cat Watching
  3. Head on Serpent’s Plat­ter (black-and-white)
  4. The Fero­cious
  5. Ser­pent with Bird (black-and-white)
  6. Cat Tree, Woman, in Gold
  7. For­est Totem, Seeing
  8. Lum­ber­ing Ashore, Girl Watching
  9. Ques­tion Mark in Reverse
  10. Nun, with Box­ing Gloves
  11. Secret Meet­ing, Boy with Smashed Jaw (black and white)
  12. Woman’s Tor­so
  13. The Feline, Relief in Gold


  1. I would like to thank the edi­tors of this issue, Kim Tall­Bear and Angela Wil­ley, for the inspi­ra­tion offered in their call for this spe­cial issue and for help­ful com­ments in devel­op­ing this pho­to-essay. I also thank the two anony­mous review­ers for their close read­ings and inci­sive com­ments. I thank Gian­ni Gkolfinopou­los for the care­ful read­ing and crit­i­cal dis­cus­sion of the ideas pre­sent­ed here. I thank Jonathan Markovitz for his help­ful sug­ges­tions. Much grat­i­tude too to “Eleni,” for per­mis­sion to use a con­ver­sa­tion that took place in the con­text of our friend­ship and for unwit­ting­ly giv­ing me impor­tant val­i­da­tion for the hypoth­e­sis of the broad­er research this piece is a part of. Thanks too to Adri­anne Kalfopoulou for invalu­able sup­port in per­sist­ing with carv­ing out space to write “for our­selves.” Final­ly, many thanks to Hille­vi Ganetz and the Gen­der Stud­ies Pro­gram at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Stock­holm for invalu­able schol­ar­ly research resources.
  2. For a con­cise overview of the cur­rent twist in this edge-blunt­ing dynam­ic, and an inci­sive argu­ment against it, see Jack Hal­ber­stam.
  3. The method is, in a sense, to trou­ble habit­u­al forms of per­ceiv­ing the nat­ur­al world, along some ver­sion of the lines of what David Abram delin­eates as the more-than-human (The Spell).
  4. In this regard, my project has direct con­nec­tions to that of Jane Ben­nett (Vibrant Mat­ter), out­lined col­lec­tive­ly by Jef­frey Jerome Cohen and sharp­ened with Eliz­a­beth Povinelli’s cri­tique of pow­er as geon­topow­er (Geon­tolo­gies). That is, the analy­sis this pho­to-essay advances, includ­ing the exper­i­ment unfold­ing with the images pre­sent­ed here, stand in firm oppo­si­tion to “[t]his habit of pars­ing the world into dull mat­ter (it, things) and vibrant lives (us, beings) [which] is a ‘par­ti­tion of the sen­si­ble’…” and to “[t]he quar­an­tines of mat­ter and life [which] encour­age us to ignore the vital­i­ty of mat­ter and the live­ly pow­ers of mate­r­i­al for­ma­tions…” (Ben­nett 1). The empha­sis of my con­tri­bu­tion is specif­i­cal­ly on an inten­si­fi­ca­tion of crit­i­cal rela­tion­al­i­ties via change in the pol­i­tics of vision, in both lit­er­al and metaphor­ic sens­es of the lat­ter. In anoth­er reg­is­ter, my objec­tive is to fuel dis­rup­tion of the “optics of thought­less­ness” which Har­touni (Visu­al­iz­ing Atroc­i­ty) inci­sive­ly iden­ti­fies, fol­low­ing Arendt, as an ongo­ing cul­tur­al force and visu­al prac­tice enabling life-effac­ing polit­i­cal projects.
  5. For a nuanced map of how dis­course “ani­mal­izes black bod­ies” in the con­text of lynch­ing, cir­ca 1840-1930, as well as for analy­sis of the trap anti-lynch­ing rhetoric fell into by draw­ing from “tra­di­tion­al” ani­mal wel­fare dis­course, see Lind­gren John­son (Race Mat­ters). For the his­tor­i­cal fig­u­ra­tion of black men specif­i­cal­ly as “beasts,” see also Markovitz (Lega­cies). For inci­sive track­ing of sim­i­lar cul­tur­al pol­i­tics in three more recent cas­es, and demon­stra­tion of the com­plex racist con­se­quences of cul­tur­al­ly spe­cif­ic artic­u­la­tions of the human vs. non-human bina­ry, see Kim (Dan­ger­ous Cross­ings). Pub­lic respons­es of “hor­ror” towards the live ani­mal mar­kets of San Francisco’s Chi­na­town in the 1990s, the con­vic­tion of NFL Michael Vick for charges of dog­fight­ing, and the deci­sion of the Makah tribe to resume whale hunt­ing in the Pacif­ic North­west are the focus of this study. Analy­sis shows how race and species become tight­ly inter­twined in the U.S., thus con­nect­ing “the ani­mal” and “the black man,” along with “the Chi­nese immi­grant” and “the Indi­an,” in racist thought. Kim sug­gests the need to “see beyond” a par­tic­u­lar “optics of cru­el­ty and dis­pos­abil­i­ty” in order to iden­ti­fy the cul­tur­al pol­i­tics that link non-white pop­u­la­tions with cru­el­ty and ani­mal­i­ty. For a sin­gle close read­ing of the con­nec­tions between a demo­nized view of ani­mals in the human vs. non-human bina­ry and the con­sti­tu­tion of racist under­stand­ings specif­i­cal­ly of black men, see Kim’s “Mur­der and mat­ter­ing in Harambe’s house.” Here, analy­sis of “the zool­o­go-racial order” shap­ing the events result­ing in the mur­der of the goril­la Harambe with­in the Cincin­nati Zoo (May 28, 2016) con­tributes to the project of “expos­ing the cir­cuits of unremit­ting vio­lence that go into mak­ing the black, the ani­mal, and their near­ness to one anoth­er” (11). Kim’s inves­ti­ga­tion of how the deci­sion to kill the goril­la was arrived at fore­grounds the cul­tur­al grid involved in state vio­lence against black humans, includ­ing the demo­graph­ics of the incar­cer­a­tion rate.
  6. See Broad­wa­ter “Records show city police had long urged seat belt use in vans: Before Fred­die Gray’s death, police waged cam­paign urg­ing seat belt use in vans.” Also see Stol­berg and Bid­good, “Fred­die Gray died from ‘Rough Ride,’ Pros­e­cu­tors Assert.”
  7. Accord­ing to the Nation­al Asso­ci­a­tion for the Advance­ment of Col­ored Peo­ple, “African Amer­i­can peo­ple are incar­cer­at­ed at more than five times the rate of whites.” Also, Har­riot notes that in 2018, “black peo­ple were three times more like­ly to be killed by police than were whites.”
  8. What many think of as ‘the ani­mal’ is a bor­der-guard enlist­ed on the side of assort­ed vio­lent human endeav­ors. Think­ing on this mat­ter, with the work of Kris­te­va, Fou­cault and But­ler, Stanes­cu writes:

    the philo­soph­i­cal and sci­en­tif­ic ques­tions we use all involve some for­mu­la­tion of “what makes us human?” rather than “what makes us anoth­er ani­mal?” … we invest a vast amount of intel­lec­tu­al work in try­ing to fig­ure out what sep­a­rates and indi­vid­u­ates the human species, rather than in what makes us part of a com­mon­al­i­ty with oth­er lives. This sep­a­ra­tion pro­duces a val­oriza­tion of those traits that we believe are unique­ly human—rationality, pro­duc­tion, what have you—rather than val­oriz­ing those traits we obvi­ous­ly share with oth­er lives—we are finite, inter­de­pen­dent, embod­ied, capa­ble of plea­sure and pain, vul­ner­a­ble, born to, and one day will, die. The intel­lec­tu­al work to make the human unique results in a devalu­ing of traits we share with ani­mals. (569-570)
    That is, I sug­gest, to make the ani­mal to serve as a bor­der guard of (par­tic­u­lar) human priv­i­leges. The ani­mal is fig­ured in such ways as to both police the porous bound­ary where human and non-human ani­mals meet and to pre­vent leak­age of priv­i­lege towards those fig­ured as less­er humans. Put pith­ily, if some­what inac­cu­rate­ly, Fou­cault notes, as Stanes­cu also empha­sizes in his piece, “From the Mid­dle Ages to the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry… the mon­ster is essen­tial­ly a mix­ture. It is the mix­ture of two realms, the ani­mal and the human” (Fou­cault 63 qutd. in Stanes­cu 581).

  9. Though not going so far as to address the role of the ani­mal per se, focused on the divi­sion between West and Islam, But­ler points out that “The term and the prac­tice of “civ­i­liza­tion” work to pro­duce the human dif­fer­en­tial­ly by offer­ing a cul­tur­al­ly lim­it­ed norm for what the human is sup­posed to be. It is not just that some humans are treat­ed as humans, and oth­ers are dehu­man­ized; it is rather that dehu­man­iza­tion becomes the con­di­tion for the pro­duc­tion of the human to the extent that a “West­ern” civ­i­liza­tion defines itself over and against a pop­u­la­tion under­stood as, by def­i­n­i­tion, ille­git­i­mate, if not dubi­ous­ly human.” (my empha­sis) In short, “The ques­tion of who will be treat­ed humane­ly pre­sup­pos­es that we have first set­tled the ques­tion of who does and does not count as a human” (91).
  10. The Unit­ed States has the largest prison pop­u­la­tion world­wide. At the end of 2016, this amount­ed to 2,121,600 peo­ple. Accord­ing to the US Bureau of Jus­tice data, in 2010, 500 of 100,000 are in prison. At the end of 2016, 655. In addi­tion, the con­di­tions of incar­cer­a­tion for pris­on­ers in the U.S. are inad­e­quate and often bru­tal. Protest planned for Sep­tem­ber 9, 2016, on the 45th anniver­sary of the Atti­ca prison upris­ing, aimed to bring this to the cen­ter of pub­lic debate in the nation. As not­ed by John Wash­ing­ton in The Nation (Sep­tem­ber 7 2016), “the actions of Sep­tem­ber 9 (2016) will shed light on the often decrepit con­di­tions suf­fered by the 2.4 mil­lion peo­ple in what is the largest carcer­al sys­tem in the world. They will also mark a new point in the fight against mass incar­cer­a­tion, and like­ly stand as a har­bin­ger for fur­ther actions and strikes to come. Malik Wash­ing­ton, an inmate in the H. H. Coffield Unit in Texas and the chief spokesper­son for the End Prison Slav­ery in Texas move­ment, wrote to me in a let­ter: ‘Pris­on­ers in Amerikan pris­ons are sick and tired of being degrad­ed, dehu­man­ized, and exploit­ed’.”
  11. For one exam­ple, note the rhetoric cit­ed in response to media query con­cern­ing one of the largest U.S. pris­on­ers’ strikes by Jeff Spross: “Almost two-thirds of the pris­on­ers who work under these con­di­tions are not white, ver­sus just 30 per­cent of the Amer­i­can pop­u­la­tion as a whole that's non-white. The IWOC has clear­ly con­nect­ed the dots between mod­ern prison labor and America's shame­ful past use of slav­ery: ‘Over­seers watch over our every move, and if we do not per­form our appoint­ed tasks to their lik­ing, we are pun­ished,’ the union's announce­ment read. ‘They may have replaced the whip with pep­per spray, but many of the oth­er tor­ments remain: iso­la­tion, restraint posi­tions, strip­ping off our clothes, and inves­ti­gat­ing our bod­ies as though we are ani­mals.’” (my empha­sis).
  12. For this rea­son too, I find unsat­is­fac­to­ry excep­tion­al­ist moves to include spe­cif­ic species of non-humans in the cat­e­go­ry of per­sons and accord them pro­tec­tion, rights, and sov­er­eign­ty. One such exam­ple is India’s Cen­tral Zoo Authority’s 2013 recog­ni­tion of cetacean species as “non-human per­sons.” For a brief analy­sis of how the pol­i­tics of “care” for a spe­cif­ic species can trans­late into license for fur­ther onslaught of the envi­ron­ment it depends upon in the case of the Kemp’s Rid­ley tur­tle which lives only in the Gulf of Mex­i­co, see Halkias. For an expo­si­tion of a strong argu­ment prob­lema­tiz­ing such deci­sions, see Bertoni and Uli Biesel.
  13. The text that fol­lows is a direct copy of the response sent to me via e-mail by “Eleni” on Mon­day, 21 Novem­ber 2016. Our face-to-face con­ver­sa­tion had tak­en place in a café in Athens a few days ear­li­er.
  14. Eleni’s nar­ra­tive is a vibrant illus­tra­tion of how “Mourn­ing both cel­e­brates and grieves our pre­car­i­ous lives. It seeks con­nec­tions, dis­cov­ers secret kin­ships, and rec­og­nizes inter­sub­jec­tive rela­tions” (Stanes­cu 580). The chal­lenge for a fem­i­nist and queer ani­mal stud­ies, Stanes­cu con­tin­ues, is to “open up our prac­tices, paths, and pro­to­cols of mourn­ing in ways that can escape the nar­row con­fines of anthro­pocen­trism” (580). In effect, “… we might have to risk our own coheren­cy so that we can demand that cer­tain lives be social­ly intelligible”(580).
  15. Study­ing the con­nec­tions between dif­fer­ent types of vio­lence, Schep­er-Hugh­es refers to her con­cept of a “con­tin­u­um of vio­lence” as “one capa­ble of link­ing the ‘sen­si­ble’ vio­lence and right of the state to wage war (even a dirty war) against its’ ene­mies with the ‘sense­less’ vio­lence of ‘irra­tional’ youth pro­tect­ing their turf and/or their dig­ni­ty” (79-80). More specif­i­cal­ly, she notes, “Peace-time crimes such as prison con­struc­tion sold as eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment to impov­er­ished com­mu­ni­ties in the moun­tains and deserts of Cal­i­for­nia (Gilmore 2007) or the evo­lu­tion of the prison indus­tri­al com­plex (Davis 2003) into the lat­est ‘pecu­liar insti­tu­tion’ for man­ag­ing race rela­tions in the Unit­ed States (Wac­quant 2006) are the ‘small wars and invis­i­ble geno­cides’ to which I am refer­ring here.” Though she does not make ref­er­ence to non human ani­mals per se, she con­tin­ues “Iden­ti­fy­ing mis­recog­ni­tion [of deaths] is cru­cial as is pay­ing close atten­tion to vio­lence hid­den in the minu­tia of ‘nor­mal’ social prac­tices. These force us to con­sid­er the links between the vio­lence of every­day life and polit­i­cal ter­ror autho­rized by the state” (86).
  16. Kohn specif­i­cal­ly dis­tin­guish­es life­forms from stones, not­ing, “To rec­og­nize liv­ing thoughts, and the ecol­o­gy of selves to which they give rise, under­scores that there is some­thing unique to life: life thinks, stones don’t” (100). Yet the objec­tive, as he goes on to explain, remains sim­i­lar in that “The goal here is not to name some essen­tial vital force, or to cre­ate a new dual­ism to replace those old ones that sev­ered humans from the rest of life and the world. The goal, rather, is to under­stand some of the spe­cial prop­er­ties of lives and thoughts, which are obscured when we the­o­rize humans and non­hu­mans, and their inter­ac­tions, in terms of mate­ri­al­i­ty or in terms of our assump­tions (often hid­den) about sym­bol­i­cal­ly based lin­guis­tic rela­tion­al­i­ty” (100).
  17. Impor­tant to note here, “The Anthro­pocene the­sis claims that humans have become a geo­phys­i­cal force oper­at­ing on the plan­et, as if humans were an undif­fer­en­ti­at­ed whole. But which humans, to be more pre­cise? Among the epis­te­mo­log­i­cal fallacies—and dangers—of the con­cept of the Anthro­pocene is that it ren­ders the human abstract in the process of geol­o­giz­ing human agency, what Don­na Har­away might call an exam­ple of the “god trick” (Ahmed 40).