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When Animals SpeakReview - When Animals Speak
Toward an Interspecies Democracy
by Eva Meijer
Routledge, 2019
Review by Josh Milburn
Dec 17th 2019 (Volume 23, Issue 51)

Animals speak, if only we would learn to listen – and learning to listen to them is a crucial first step to taking them seriously in democratic politics. That's the the claim of Eva Meijer's When Animals Speak: Towards an Interspecies Democracy, published in 2019 as the first instalment of Animals in Context, a promising new book series from NYU Press. If we take a Wittgensteinian approach to language, Meijer argues, we can see that the practices of animals can constitute languages. And, Meijer claims, shared languages mean shared worlds – whether that's a world shared by a troop of baboons negotiating Kenyan wilderness or a world shared by a dog and a human learning to play fetch.

When people advocate for animals politically – in scholarship, activism, or party politics – they generally aim to speak, or propose a speaker, on behalf of animals. What they seldom do, and what Meijer would like to see, is theorists, activists, and politicians listening to animals, and letting animals' own voices influence politics. To do this, of course, we have to learn their languages. And if we're serious about listening to animals, we cannot simply dictate what our interspecies political structures and policies should look like, even if we do so with the best interests of animals at heart. To do so would be to marginalise their voices. Indeed, as we are yet to seriously spend time listening to animals, we can't even know what interspecies decision-making and deliberation processes could or should look like. But if we start now, we can learn. Meijer offers some very practical, very specific suggestions of how to start small – for instance, shortly before the book's conclusion, she revisits her chapter-length case study of the political tensions caused by the geese near Schiphol Airport, offering suggestions for how the political agency of the geese can be taken seriously.

That Meijer spends time on these very practical and decidedly non-ideal matters is important, and her own political vision is deeply radical. For example, animal rights – though little-mentioned – are almost taken for granted. This sharply separates her from some of the animal-studies scholars with whom she shares ideas (for example, Donna Haraway) and puts her more firmly with animal-rights theorists like Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka (authors of 2011's Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights). Meijer engages carefully with the latter, and the closeness of her ideas with theirs shines through in, among others, her discussions of the place of dogs in an animal-respecting community. However, Meijer is also very clear about where Donaldson and Kymlicka go wrong – for example, in failing to properly consider animal language, and in taking only the first steps towards a serious consideration of animal agency. She is thus, in a sense, much more radical than they are, but perhaps also readier to engage with the messy, pragmatic, non-ideal reality of real-world politics than they have been in their work to date.

Trying to summarise the argument of When Animals Speak is difficult for three reasons. The first is that much of its argumentative strength (and real readability) comes from the carefully selected, deeply understood, and elegantly presented case studies. These include the chapter-length cases (the aforementioned geese and Meijer's own experiences with an adopted dog) and the countless examples each offered anything from a sentence to a few paragraphs. These are drawn from personal experience, the popular press, ethology, social science, and more. The richness of these examples reflects Meijer's own eclectic background: Academic philosopher, novelist, artist, activist, author of popular non-fiction – the list goes on. Second, and relatedly, Meijer engages with a very wide literature. In the introduction, she characterises the book as analytical liberal political philosophy meeting empirical ethology meeting phenomenology and post-structuralism. When these meetings are successful, it makes for impressive work, but it also comes with challenges; I confess I struggled with parts of the book (such as a discussion of Lyotard towards the end) and found other parts a little dry (such as a discussion of Derrida towards the start). And third, Meijer often does not offer premise-premise-conclusion arguments for her claims. Instead, she invites readers to join her in considering concepts in a different way. Meijer's methodology is ground-up; she starts with actual (putatively) political interactions, and then asks whether concepts from liberal politics might be useful for understanding the interactions. We thus find appeals to reconsider not just language and politics, but any number of other concepts; to take one set of examples, a clever section on animal resistance asks whether we might usefully apply the concepts of resistance, foot voting, occupation, squatting, and deliberation to animals' actions. Meijer isn't asking whether animals (for example) squat in just the same way that humans do. Instead, she is interested in extending (and learning more about) the concept by considering it in the light of animals' actions.

Has Meijer convinced me to join her on her journey? Meijer has produced a rich, imaginative, and deeply readable book. It is one that I will come back to again and again, and one that I have had numerous conversations about with others – academics and non-academics, and (Meijer will be pleased to hear) humans and non-humans. The arguments in the book display not just intelligence, knowledge, and understanding, but great wisdom. However, I remain unsure whether Meijer is really right to say that animals are political agents in the rich sense that she imagines. Much of the political agency that she attributes to them seems to be more a case of things changing because of their presence – and not them intentionally acting to change political structures and relationships. Take her example of the agency of her rescue dog, Olli. Olli influenced Meijer's research, and was able to challenge assumptions about Romanianstreet dogs by his presence. Can the 'sheer presence' (125) of Olli really constitute an expression of Olli's political agency?

Meijer is aware of this kind of challenge, and engages at length with the (unpublished) work of Angie Pepper criticising Donaldson and Kymlicka's expansive understanding of the political agency of animals. I do not have the space here to go into the details of this sophisticated and important back-and-forth, but my impression is that – though Meijer offers a great deal of value in this discussion – Pepper's challenge still has merit. Among other things, Pepper argues that while the sheer presence of animals can have an effect on political decision-making, so can the sheer presence of (say) the sea, or thunderstorms. Thus, the sheer-presence model of political agency commits us to saying that plants, or inanimate objects, or climatic events are political agents. Meijer counters that there is a morally significant difference between the actions of orangutans and the 'actions' of thunder. That may be so, but orangutans' actions could be morally salient without being expressions of political agency. Meijer allows that there is a difficult line-drawing activity when it comes to identifying which animals can be political agents, and which actions are expressions of political agency. Strikingly, her explicit examples in this discussion are relatively conservative: great apes, dogs, and rabbits. The trouble is that Meijer draws a much 'lower' line when it comes to the kinds of beings who can engage in language and/or political agency elsewhere in the book. Worms, bees, and snails are all mentioned.

In fact, worms are more than merely mentioned. There is something deeply admirable – even beautiful – about including a chapter called 'Worm Politics' in a book of this sort, but I remain unconvinced that worms are political actors whose agency should be respected – even if they may be beings with some moral status or worth, or even beings to whom we have duties of justice. In trying to offer a defence of the humble worm, Meijer argues that even if they are non-sentient (sentience – the capacity to feel pain – is a line often drawn by animal ethicists) they may be owed certain kinds of respect. In doing so, she nods towards Spinozism and Jane Bennett's vital materialism, but embracing these visions will open the door to a conception of political agency far broader than the one that Meijer defends – one that may well be happy to call the sea, or plants, or thunderstorms political agents. Meijer concludes that worms are political agents owed respect, and perhaps even, though she doesn't use the word, rights: We cannot kill them for our own benefit, we cannot breed them to be more useful in our experiments. But I'm not certain that Meijer is able to commit to this without also embracing more radical (and, I think, less interesting) conclusions about how all kinds of non-animal forces/individuals/collectives possess agency, unless she can clearly show what it is that worms have that these others do not. One way to go, of course, would be to endorse the claim that they are sentient, or some kind of precautionary principle – they may be sentient, and this is enough. This, though, might be too conservative for Meijer, who does genuinely seem to want respect for worms whether or not they are sentient. In this chapter, then, she seems to have one foot in animal ethics, and one foot in environmental political theory, and it isn't clear how compatible these approaches are. Her comments on worms are provocative and praiseworthy, but her question is, I think, far from resolved. In turn, this leaves a question mark over her wider political-philosophical contributions; just how far does Meijer want us to go?

When Animals Speak will, I hope and predict, be widely read: philosophers, political theorists, animal-studies scholars, animal activists, and perhaps the broader public (drawn by Meijer's other work) will pick it up. Thus, I suspect it will be a lot of things to a lot of people. A different reader, for example, might make much more of Meijer's Derridean and Foucauldian influences than I – and perhaps less of her Wittgensteinian and liberal influences. I remain unconvinced by some of what Meijer has said. But maybe I just need a little more time. After all, she is asking us to think differently about some of the ideas most central to our politics, and even our conceptions of ourselves as human. Meijer wants us to do things differently – very differently. However, she is not seeking to antagonise. The sincerity of her beliefs, arguments, and goals is plain to see. It is then apt, perhaps, to finish this review with the book's final lines, which echoed in my head long after I had finished: 'We can begin again. We should begin again.'

 

© 2019 Josh Milburn


Josh Milburn is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Sheffield. https://josh-milburn.com/


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We feature over 8300 in-depth reviews of a wide range of books and DVDs written by our reviewers from many backgrounds and perspectives. We update our front page weekly and add more than twenty new reviews each month. Our editor is Christian Perring, PhD. To contact him, use one of the forms available here.


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Metapsychology Online Reviews
ISSN 1931-5716