Queering the human-animal bond
- Published: 12 June 2010
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There’s nothing queerer than humans who love and identify with animals – and it’s this radical form of love that has the power to completely transform society, writes Carmen Dell’ Aversano.
The category of queer has established itself as a powerful tool of social criticism and political action. Questioning and crossing identitarian barriers, and drawing attention to the ways to which non-normative identities are repressed by mainstream culture is queer’s central theoretical vocation.
What makes queer so productive as a category is its structural elasticity, its definitional indeterminacy. Because of its fluid nature, of its being unaligned with any specific identity category, queer has the potential to subvert accepted ways of thinking on any issue.
Historically, queer’s primary aim has been to draw attention to incoherencies in the allegedly stable relations between chromosomal sex, gender and sexual desire, and to question the dominant model of heterosexuality, demonstrating the impossibility of any “natural” sexuality, and calling into question even such apparently unproblematic terms as “man” and “woman”.
Theoretically, though, it is vital to note that queer is about sex only incidentally: the real topic of its polymorphously transgressive reflections is identity; the fundamental – and most productive – idea in queer is that identity is not an essence but a performance, exacted through a pervasive matrix of assumptions and expectations, and that subjects themselves only come into being as products of performances.
The theoretical and political point of my involvement with queer is to extend its application by considering the case of humans who cross the most entrenched identitarian and performative barrier upheld by all human societies and in the whole course of history by identifying with non-human animals.
The main analytic and hermeneutic device queer uses in its subversive enterprise is denaturalization, a radical and ruthless ability and willingness to question all assumptions of individual and social identity.
A queer analysis of human-animal relations can easily point to incoherencies which question the stability of “natural” identities and of taken-for-granted relations between species, with the limits they impose on feelings (of proximity, affection, empathy...), on political consciousness (of the routine oppression of other species by our own) and, consequently, on action (above all on the refusal to further participate in this oppression).
In the case of animal queer, the dominant normative model to be questioned is of course the assumption of a “natural divide between species”. Just as heteronormativity grotesquely maintains that any member of the “opposite sex” is more appropriate, suitable and attractive as a sexual partner than any member of one’s own, humanormativity maintains that all members of one species (homo sapiens) have more in common with one another than any of them can have with any member of any other species.
Demonstrating the fraudulent basis of the obligatory assumption of an unconditional “natural” similarity and solidarity among humans, and exposing the violent and manipulative means which are routinely employed to enforce it, a queer analysis of human-animal relations cannot but end up calling into question even such apparently unproblematic terms as “human” and “animal” and, consequently, subjecting the identities they engender, and the performances they exact, to a radical critique.
In the performance of human “identity”, animals are routinely used to bring into existence in every human society a space for a class of sentient beings to which no rights are ascribed, and for a form of murder which escapes both sanction and notice.
Thus human-animal relations are the training ground for any other form of oppression, and the practice of violence that humans, by virtue of the performance of human identity which is exacted from them, get in their relations with animals is a precondition for the possibility of every other form of violence.
The subversive vocation of animal queer hinges on its replacing sameness with otherness as the criterion of inclusion; because it is defined by love for the irreducible, unassimilable other, radicalism is a constitutive aspect of animal queer.
I will start by considering a fact which has so far inexplicably escaped the attention of queer theory. Some humans’ most primitive instinct, deepest need and most heartfelt conviction is to identify prioritarily with non-human animals, to form their most lasting and most vital bonds with non-human animals and to empathize with and support non-human animals in preference to human ones.
These people dare (or cannot help but) cross the most stable and most entrenched barrier regulating the flow of emotions towards socially sanctioned objects in all human cultures and societies and in the whole course of documented human history; by all definitions of the word, this makes them queer.
What makes them even queerer is the repression, abuse and oppression to which they, as humans who, in feeling, political consciousness and action, dare to cross the boundary separating their species from other ones, are ruthlessly and systematically subjected.
Human love for animals is ridiculed, marginalized, despised and repressed with a violence that easily escalates to murder even more than same-sex love between humans in the most homophobic societies.
Modes of political consciousness which question the legitimacy of the routine and murderous oppression of other species by our own are delegitimized as political positions and denied hearing in the political arena. Political action aimed at correcting, or at least at granting visibility to, the gratuitous cruelty of human behaviour towards animals is dismissed as extremistic, extravagant, irrelevant or crazy.
I use the term “animal queer” to refer to the cluster of perceptions, feelings, modes of consciousness, actions and theoretical orientations which are defined by a prioritary emotional and existential commitment to empathy with non-human animals.
Even though they may never have heard of queer, humans who identify prioritarily with non-human animals, who make this identification the core of their perceptual, emotional, cognitive, philosophical and political identity, and who maintain it in the face of continuous and violent societal disapproval show the category of queer to be productive, both existentially and hermeneutically, far beyond what its original proponents ever envisioned.
It is probably unnecessary in this context to point out that in animal queer genital activity is not the point. Like lesbian feminism, animal queer is about political choice and emotional preference much more than about what heteronormativity construes as “sex”.
And like lesbian feminism, animal queer, by the simple fact of its existence, can question and jeopardize the deepest foundations of society, can expose humanormativity and its multiple facets of more or less subtle or violent repressions for the fraud that it is. This is the reason why it must not and cannot be allowed to speak, to be acknowledged, to exist.
The repression of animal queer is even more thorough and systematic than the repression of other forms of queer.
One important aspect of this repression should be dealt with because of its relevance to the very possibility of a queer analysis of the human-animal relationship: the fact that language does not allow for the distinction between sex and gender to be translated into human-animal terms.
An individual belonging to the human species is assumed, by the way language works, to identify primarily with the human species, to feel emotions and loyalties coherent with this identification, and to act accordingly.
The possibility of queering the divide between the sexes is often referred to, at least with terms of abuse; the possibility of queering the divide between our species and the others is not even acknowleged linguistically.
Accordingly, certain kinds of political, ideological and emotional alignment which do not follow the lines separating the species cannot be allowed to exist: compassion for human suffering can and should lead to political action; compassion for animal suffering must not; rape, as something that one does to another’s body without their consent, must be condemned and prosecuted; meat-eating, which can be defined in exactly the same terms, must continue.
One must not feel for any animal more than one feels for the even most distant or hateful “fellow human”. Everything which makes human society human and dictates what humans are and how they must live together conspires to make animal queer “the love which cannot speak its name”.
I would like to propose that the terms “biological species” and “species identity” be used as analogues to “sex” and “gender” respectively in animal queer discourse.
Accordingly, my biological species is human, but my species identity leads me to identify with the species that the species I biologically belong to oppresses, tortures and murders, much like a human can be biologically male but identify with any of a number of different genders, and loathe and fight their oppression by normal heterosexual discourse and by some other humans with whom he may share his sex.
One of the assumptions of queer is that identification and desire can cross the societal boundaries separating sexes, genders and sexual identities, and that, indeed, these boundaries have been set up largely to tame and to segregate love and empathy, to enforce a conformity of emotion resulting in a conformity of behaviour.
Up to now, queer studies have neglected one fundamental boundary which is enforced in an even more totalitarian way than any with which queer critique has dealt with so far, but which is nevertheless crossed every day by currents of empathy, fondness and love: the boundary separating humans from animals.
From earliest infancy, we are taught to discount both our own feelings for animals and the feelings of animals themselves.
Learning to eat what in most of the world is considered a “normal” diet implies being indoctrinated in an attitude of callousness towards physical and psychological torture, pain, fear and ultimately murder; it implies repressing feelings of empathy, of compassion, of justice and protectiveness for innocent and weaker beings.
Like transgressive feelings of same-sex love, transgressive feelings of empathy and affection towards animals are initially repressed through ridicule; but sometimes ridicule is not enough.
The repression of “unnatural” feelings for animals and the enforcement of the “natural” divide separating the species which has the right to kill from those which exist to be killed can take a form as extreme as any that have been devised in the history of repression of human-to-human queer love: that of having the transgressor participate in the ritual murder of the object of her “unnatural” affection.
Innumerable children have been served their pet lamb or duck for dinner, or have been forced to abandon their puppy or kitten at the beginning of the holiday season. A few have reacted with permanent shock and horror; most have yielded to societal pressure, and have learned to regard their most authentic and deepest emotions as nothing more than childish “squeamishness”.
In all its horror, this is, in the experience of many of us, the moment in which our identity is founded and constructed as “human” in contrast to the “non-human”. And the “non-human”, embodied in the corpse, maimed beyond recognition, of the being we loved the most, is the locus of a multitude of meanings: it is the place where an absolute and capricious power may be wielded, where the suffering and the life of others do not count, where no other subjects can exist. Thus, it is both the primal site, and the most effective training ground, for any form of murderous violence.
But it is important to remind ourselves that there is nothing “natural” or “spontaneous” about this violence: it is something we have to be indoctrinated into. Our “humanity”, no less than the “animality” of animals, is a performance forced on unwilling actors, kept up both by what we as humans do to differentiate ourselves from animals, and by what we compel animals to do in order to keep them as radically separate as we can from us.
That the animals are unwilling is evident from the physical means of coercion, and the violence up to and including murder, that are used to exact the performance from them; but we humans are no less unwilling.
Most of us have simply forgotten what we felt: getting back in touch with our own emotions is the first step towards deconstruction of the binary model of species relationship and towards a change in the relations between our species and other ones.
In animal queer the dichotomy between liberation theory and civil right politics has no substance: crossing the line dividing our species from the other ones means eradicating the very categories of thought needed to conceive of inequality and injustice.
If the definition of queer politics is radical opposition to the established social order as such, and the measure of success of queer political action is the extent to which it smashes the system, then animal rights activism is the queerest possible form of political action, because it is structurally incompatible with continuing to live the way the system expects us to.
The reason why animal queer is structurally and intrinsically subversive, and why it is perceived as radically threatening, and is, accordingly, ruthlessly marginalized, by all forms of cultural and political discourse, is that it replaces sameness with otherness as the criterion of emotional, social and political inclusion.
Whoever supports animals, fights for animals, loves an animal loves, supports and fights not for the self but for the other, and knows in advance that no middle ground will ever be found, no assimilation will ever be possible, that in one, one hundred or one million years animals will be just as puzzling, as foreign, as alien to all that we can be and understand as they are now.
This is why animal queer has the potential not to reform society or to facilitate social “progress” but to replace it with the unthinkable, with something radically contradicting all assumptions, expectations and definitions, to create the possibility of a happiness we can’t even imagine, because to fathom it we would already have to be different from what we are, to have moved beyond ourselves.
Queer can never be tame or predictable; the moment it becomes respectable, it will have betrayed itself and sold its soul to academic irrelevance. The reason why queer was born of homosexual critique is not because of any exclusive affinity with same-sex desire, but because initially gay liberation and lesbian feminism advocated a wholesale sexual revolution; it was only later that they consolidated themselves as civil rights movements, intent on securing equality for marginalised minority groups.
The ultimate point of queer is radical and uncompromising critique of the very notion of the natural, the obvious and the taken-for-granted, and political action in which compromise is not an option.
In my opinion one of the most profound reasons why a radical rethinking of human-animal relations is centrally pertinent to the category of queer is, for reasons both practical and theoretical, that no compromise is, nor ever will be, possible in animal queer: an animal rights movement entails a wholesale revolution, starting from the most mundane and pervasive everyday habits (what are you going to have for dinner?) and moving to the most intimate feelings and emotions, because the very fact of having one’s deepest emotional bond with an animal calls into question the foundations of human society as it has been defined since its inception.
If love could liberate itself, it would have nothing to do with species distinctions. As every being who ever felt love intuitively knows, love is an intrinsically revolutionary force because it refuses to follow established lines of loyalty and carves out queer and unpredictable ones on the basis of attraction, empathy and desire.
In and of itself, love is intrinsically queer. And the coherent and radical acceptance of the love of animals, of animal queer, with all that it entails in emotional, ethical, political, identitarian and ontological terms, is the next step towards the goal of direct experience of a world of which the only thing we can know for sure is that it is indeed, as biologist J.B.S Haldane put it, “queerer than we can suppose”.
This is an edited version of a much longer academic paper ‘The Love Whose Name Cannot be Spoken: Queering the Human-Animal Bond’ by Carmen Dell’ Aversano, published in the Journal for Critical Animal Studies Volume VIII, Issue I/II (2010).