The project was able to support the attendance of a number of early career researchers at each workshop. These event reports were submitted by these attendees, as part of the conditions of their bursaries.
The relationship between animal welfare and critical posthumanism is not straightforward. Critical posthumanism has often taken an approach that looks to radically reconceptualise species relations, arguing for an ethics that is attentive to species difference but not predicated on a hierarchal worldview in which the human is placed at the top. In contrast, animal welfarism might be understood as being more politically pragmatic, interested in improving the living conditions of animals within the institutions and systems that exist in the present moment. Whereas posthumanism follows in the wake of poststructuralism’s challenge to Western philosophy’s entrenching of human reason and rationality, animal welfare looks to extend the morals, ethics and rights established by Western philosophy to nonhuman beings. At least, this was my view going into a workshop which, bringing together researchers and advocates from both approaches, looked to establish a dialogue between these two ways of thinking about animal life.
Almost immediately, however, the distinctions and differences that I had imagined separated a posthumanist from a welfarist approach were put under pressure. Danielle Sands’s opening remarks suggested that both posthumanism and animal welfare might be seen as similarly invested in interrogating who, or what, is usually left out of questions of moral and ethical concern. Moreover, Sands suggested, both are interested in urgent questions of the current limitations to the way individuals and institutions think and behave towards animals. Both are deeply invested in thinking about how the humanities might work with, as well as intervene in, the sciences. And, perhaps most importantly, both are alert to the high stakes of the questions they are asking.
These concerns that run along the lines of posthumanism and animal welfare led to a workshop in which interests and ideas flowed across boundaries that, all too often, are rarely seen as permeable. A genuine sense of cross-disciplinary collaboration was established from the start, sustained by lively discussions and informative presentations.
The first session of the day focused on the lives of lab animals, beginning with a talk from Gail Davies, Professor of Human Geography at Exeter university, member of UK Animals in Science Committee and participant in the project ‘The Animal Research Nexus: Changing Constitutions of Science, Health and Welfare’. Drawing examples from her committee work and research, Davies raised questions about welfare might mean for animals whose genetic composition means they might not adapt to life outside the lab (such as in the case of nude mice). Such questions, Davies suggested, needed conceptualising through harm-benefit analyses (the legal ethical duty of scientists working with lab animals) that are open ended rather than narrowly reductive in their focus. Penny Hawkins, who heads the Research Animals Department at the RSPCA, spoke next, highlighting the difficulties encountered in monitoring lab conditions, as well as the necessity of compromise when it came to policy making and advocacy. Foregrounding the way in which policy changes are often framed around ‘legitimate interests’, Hawkins’s talk echoed what Davies earlier described as the need to question ‘what ethics means from the animal’s perspectives’.
While questions of interests, legitimacy and morality are areas in which posthumanism might have some answers, the morning continued by emphasising the questions of political and social efficacy needed for producing change. Phil Brooke, from the animal welfare charity Compassion in World Farming, gave a presentation that made clear how both education and compromise were necessary for change, speaking on the way in which a discourse of animal welfare offers more immediate gains than that of animal rights. This was followed by a presentation by Dr Manuela Rossini, co-director of the Critical Posthumanism Network, who spoke about the Swiss One Health initiative, which looks to improve public health through an approach to medical care that takes into account both humans and their companion species (for instance, the mass vaccination of street dogs as a means of lowering human risk of diseases). One Health was a clear success story in at least one regard: thinking about human-animal relations in lateral rather than instrumental terms.
After lunch, proceedings switched to more theoretical and aesthetical concerns. Derek Ryan, lecturer in English literature from the University of Kent, spoke about the ‘unique representation’ of animal life that we find in literary works, arguing that the animals we encounter in our reading might offer forms of understanding that can translate into new forms of knowledge. These animals might remain ‘imaginary’ but they have the ability to transform species relations and reorient ethics. This approach to reimagining animal relations was further developed by the artist and early career researcher Olga Koroleva. Through a mixture of video art, personal reflection and theory, Koroleva outlined what an idea of inter-species care might look like, but, also, brilliantly, showed how such care can become toxic (this was followed by a lively discussion around the ethical implications of the rise in ‘support animals’ in nursing homes, hospitals and university campuses in recent years). Philosopher Jonathan Birch from the London School of Economics also raised challenges around animal ethics, looking at species whose levels of sentience made them ‘borderline cases’ for moral consideration. Drawing on the example of crustaceans, Birch argued for the necessity of a ‘precautionary principle’ when it came to ethical consideration but also raised the question, much discussed by this point in the day, as to what extent comprise was needed for effective welfare measures.
By the end of the day, the workshop had made clear the importance of thinking about how theory might translate into practice (and vice versa), and this was concluded with two talks that wonderfully synthesised theoretical concerns and social realities. Erika Cudworth, Professor of Feminist Animal Studies at the University of East London, discussed what a feminist posthumanism might bring to bear on cultural values around meat production and consumption. In contrast, Henry Buller, Professor of More-than Human Geography at the University of Exeter and member of the UK Farm Animal Welfare Committee, spoke about his work as the chair of the DEFRA Welfare at Killing group that advised on policy around animal slaughter. As Buller made clear, whatever our theoretical position, questions around the ethics of meat eating are far from settled and, in the short term at least, require an approach that can balance the insights of theory with a practical insight into the way animals are currently raised and killed.
Throughout the day’s presentations, questions and discussions, one of the hardest knots to disentangle was the question of whose welfare was being considered at any given moment. Questions about animal interests were inevitably followed with discussions on the necessity of compromise and, although never explicitly articulated as such, the limitations to what is possible when it comes to animal ethics. Here, it was clear that posthumanism and animal welfare might productively be brought into dialogue as a means of revealing each other’s blind spots. To what extent, for instance, might posthumanism be too detached from political possibilities? Or conversely, how might animal welfare challenge the dominant conceptual frameworks that it necessarily works within? While talk of limitations might perhaps sound pessimistic, it was, in the course of the day, enabling. Bringing together researchers, policy influencers and advocates who don’t always speak to one another, the workshop made clear the gains to be made in talking across and beyond disciplines. It felt, to me at least, like only the first conversation in what will be an on-going dialogue.
In March 2019, I attended the first of three British Academy workshops, on Posthumanities: Redefining Humanities for the Fourth Industrial Age. This was one of three workshops held at Royal Holloway, University of London, that covered the themes of Animal Welfare, Bioethics, and Artificial Intelligence. The focus of our workshop was Animal Welfare, and throughout the day we heard from a range of speakers, both academics and practitioners, on how critical thought emerging from an array of (inter)disciplines associated with the posthumanities might be useful for re-imagining animal ethics in the Anthropocene – the era in which humans have become a planet-changing force.
At the outset of the workshop, project leader Dr Danielle Sands reminded us of Hannah Arendt’s powerful remark that science moves faster than politics. From here, a range of critical discussions opened up as to how we could use the critical posthumanities to bring science and politics, knowledge and understanding, closer together in responsible and ethical ways.
A key idea that emerged from the workshop was the plurality of the posthumanities and the concept of posthumanism(s) itself. I opt here for posthumanisms rather than a singular posthumanism deliberately to reflect the plurality of approaches and claims (ontological, epistemological, and ethical) that were made by the workshop’s contributors. While any attempt to try and isolate or schematise core commitments of this rapidly moving field risks oversimplification, it seems uncontroversial to claim that posthumanisms are united by:
- a critique of traditional humanisms,
- a critique of anthropocentrisms that define humans in separation from the non-human realm,
- a critique of forms of dualistic or binary thinking, for example the divide between nature and culture, and
- a commitment to a new kind of ethics arising from an awareness of our profound relationality and interconnectedness.
Throughout this thought-provoking day we heard from an array of speakers on diverse topics including: laboratory animals; animals in literature; the entanglement of the One Health paradigm with critical posthumanism and political theory; an academic’s experience of policy-making; farm animal welfare and strategies to end factory farming and cruel transport; animal sentience and crustacean cognition; the language of animal welfare; veganism and in-vitro meats; and the role of film in interspecies care. It is beyond the scope of this short report to outline each speaker’s fantastic contribution in detail, so I turn to a few in particular to more broadly reflect on the workshop and the posthumanities.
Professor Gail Davies began the day by discussing how laboratory animal research may be inflected by the posthumanities to offer insights into mitigating the harms done by such research to animals. Take, for example, the lab mouse that cannot survive outside of laboratory conditions. How might we engage the posthumanities to rethink the traditional notion of the human as separate from ‘Nature’ when human-animal interactions like this overspill the categories of human and animal/Nature that have historically been deployed to justify harm to the nonhuman world and marginalised groups of humans?
Care for animals was a core concept running through many of the talks. Following the theme of Animal Welfare, we deconstructed what we mean by ‘welfare’, how we measure it, and the strategies for moving towards it. But Phil Brooke cut to the core of the animal welfare question in the twenty-first century by asking, ‘how much science do we need to know that something is cruel?’ Our discussion tended towards the existing and inevitable use of animals in farming and industry today and the ways in which they may be done more carefully. But perhaps a reflection on the abolition movement (as proposed by Gary Francione) could have provoked further reflection on the concept of animal welfare itself and the (un)potential it has for advocating more radical change.
I chaired a session that included Professor Erika Cudworth and Professor Henry Buller, two academics who have been extremely influential in my own PhD research and theoretical framing of the animal. Professor Cudworth outlined how animal welfare is an inherently intersectional issue, something that the posthumanities is well-positioned to speak to. She introduced feminist animal studies to the conversation and pointed out the elephant in the room by encouraging us to make connections between the posthumanities and political economy, forcing us to consider the role of capitalism in the entangled exploitation of human and animal bodies that results from the capitalist mode of production. This spoke to the work of Dr Penny Hawkins who had earlier reflected on her work as an academic with the RSPCA, urging us to think of the entangled nature of human and animal care. She suggested that caring for the human workforce was a necessity if animal workers are to care for the animals they work with.
Professor Buller then highlighted the importance of language in issues surrounding animal welfare and noted the inherent posthumanism in animal welfare science. Highlighting the use of terms such as killing, slaughtering and euthanasia in relation to animals, Professor Buller here alluded to the importance of affect in communicating animal welfare science and research to the public. Moving beyond the humanist versus anti-humanist debate in philosophy, this style of thinking pushes back against the rational arguments concerning animal welfare that do little to acknowledge empathy and emotion as meaningful for those involved with animal industries, policy-making, and research.
The overarching theme of the workshop, then, was to ask what the posthumanities and their specific modes of inquiry at the intersection of philosophy and science offer to contemporary animal welfare discourses in the Anthropocene? Posthumanist thought has contributed to the deconstruction of the human as a separate material entity and has highlighted our inseparability from Nature. At the same time, it has also helped make sensible the nonhuman partnerships that allow the healthy functioning of our bodies. These perspectives can help to elucidate a politics which recognises the existence and agency of the innumerable nonhuman forces, bodies, and materials that populate the webs in which we are enmeshed. They offer a refreshing take on what is often painted as a dark future and encourage an introspective humility that has been missing under the aegis of humanistic tendencies in philosophy. We have always been, and always will be, posthumans; a truth that our philosophies, politics, and (animal welfare) policies should always reflect.