Vinciane Despret – Experimenting with Politics and Happiness – through Sheep, Cows and Pigs

Event Date 14 June 2011
Flett Lecture Theatre
Natural History Museum
Cromwell Road (Exhibition Rd Entrance)
London SW7 5BD


Unruly Creatures: The Art and Politics of the Animal

The London Graduate School is holding a one-day conference at the Natural History Museum on June 14 2011 entitled ‘Unruly Creatures: The Art and Politics of the Animal’. Its purpose is to analyse and discuss the numerous ways in which animals have been used in contemporary art and the humanities, the political and philosophical implications of this use, and, especially, the manner in which animals have also resisted such employment. With examples taken from philosophy, fine art, and recent films by Phillip Warnell and Vinciane Despret, we will examine whether there is an art, politics, and thinking that is peculiarly ‘animal’.

Vinciane Despret (l’Université de Liège/l’Université Libre de Bruxelles) –
Experimenting with Politics and Happiness — through Sheep, Cows and Pigs

In a letter to Engels in 1862, Marx wrote:

‘It is remarkable how Darwin rediscovers, among the beasts and plants, the society of England with its division of labor, competition, opening up of new markets, “inventions” and “Malthusian” “struggle for existence”. It is Hobbes’ bellum omnium contra omnes and is reminiscent of Hegel’s Phenomenology, in which civil society figures as an “intellectual animal kingdom”, whereas, in Darwin, the animal kingdom figures as civil society’.

This kind of critique is quite common amongst sciences studies scholars when they examine natural history. But there are other ways by which animals may be said to be political actors. When primatologist, Thelma Rowell, claims that there is a ‘hierarchical scandal’ among animals – as when she asks whether primates are ‘actually “more intelligent” than others’, ‘we have given primates multiple chances; we know just about nothing about the others’; or when she addresses sheep with the same the questions hitherto only addressed to chimps – I would suggest that she is entering sheep into politics. She experiments with politics through sheep. The same may be said about new areas of research that aims to make certain animals – ravens, wolves, pigs, or cows, more interesting, and sometimes happy. All these animals are experiencing interesting evolutions that enabled them to break away from their position in this ‘hierarchy’. All, to some degree, attest to how the political role of animals studies can be redefined: as a new social sciences that includes animals as ‘social beings with us’ and that explores the conditions for new ways of organizing ourselves.







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