Peterstransmedia’s Blog

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of animals and men

While traveling to Basel ten days ago, I finally found time to read Vinciane Despret and Jocelyne Porcher’s Etre bête (Actes Sud, 2007).

This is a very dense, and very important book, not just for what it suggests about its subject — the light which farmers can shed on the relationship between men and animals — but because in the process it proposes a small but extremely significant methodological revolution for social science field work.

Despret and Porcher’s previous work — on the sociology of industrial farming, and on the emergence in the 19th century of scientific approaches both to the study of animals in general, and to livestock farming in particular — led them to believe that they might learn more about the difference between men and animals by talking to farmers who raised pigs and cows, and interacted with them on a daily basis, without scientific suppositions. After all, the science of animal production constructed itself through the denial of knowledge to peasant farmers, whose proximity to, and affinity with, their animals was seen as anti-scientific. What might it be that farmers know which science does not know, and does not want to know?

To find out, the authors interviewed 23 livestock farmers in France, Belgium and Portugal. But instead of simply asking them what the difference was between men and animals, they instead invited the farmers to help them define the problem they were trying to solve. Their question thus took the form of asking the farmers whether this question of the difference between animals and men, with which scientists and researchers are highly preoccupied, was interesting to cattle farmers, and how they themselves, as stockmen, would advise them to formulate the question so that other stockmen would find it interesting, and might give them an interesting answer.

By thus approaching the people they were interviewing, not as objects of study, but as experts on the question that interested them (i.e. as equals, and even more that equals), they led them not only to help them formulate the question better, but also to give them answers which they might not have received otherwise. The result was a form of collaborative research, led by the farmer, rather than the researchers. They invited the people they met to think with them, rather than in front of them, and placed themselves in a position of explicit trust in and reliance on the other person.

(This approach is extremely suggestive, both in its method and in its results, not only for sociology and related disciplines, but also for documentary film making, where the relationship between the people behind and in front of the camera is often not only concealed, even when exhibited — perhaps most so when exhibited — but also totally mystified in the violence with which it predetermines the “subject”‘s behaviour, thus transforming a real person into an actor in someone else’s fiction. Just posing the issue in this way points out the huge chasm separating the work of, say, Jean Rouch from that of, say, Fred Wiseman.)

By approaching the question in this way, Despret and Porcher discover a world of trust and mutual communication, in which animals are themselves seen as experts in certain domains, and in particular in the domain of intentionality. For as one farmer says, “The animals know what we want, but we don’t know what they want” (p.55).

The implication that comes back time and again in the course of their conversations is, therefore, that society is not a given, but a creative process, and that this process of creation happens, in these cases, between animals and men. Researchers studying dogs in a laboratory make the dog stupid by treating it like a machine. Stockmen invite their animals to collaborate with them, to trust them, and even to talk to them. Just as children enter into intentionality because we anticipate this capacity in them, so the farmers’ animals cease to be predictable because they give them the opportunity to surprise them.

Thus the question that the authors learned to ask became , not how do men and animals differ, but, how do animals learn skills? And how do men learn to see these skills and encourage them? And the answers they received were never about animals in general, but about this animal in particular. Or in other words, what interests farmers is not how men and animals differ, but how his animals differ from another farmer’s animals. For, as one farmer says to them,

“How can you ask a stockman this question [about the difference between animals and men]? It’s obvious, it bothers him to be asked this question. I mean, it’s not rude, that’s not what bothers him, but it disturbs him, somehow. Because, let me tell you: there’s not a lot of difference between them.” (p.97)

Or as another farmer suggests: “What would be without our animals? That’s the question you ought to pose…” (p.109).

I only skim the surface of the matter covered here — just as the book itself leaves one with the impression that it only skims the surface of the wealth of material uncovered in Despret and Porcher’s interviews.

How does this feed my own work — beyond having encouraged me to pick up and run with the idea that there is something here to look for, that the way men and animals work together is rarely at the center of films about men who work with animals, and that this means that there is something very important about these men that is missing from those films?

I don’t have an answer to this question yet. For now, I simply add one suggestion of my own to the many suggestions which pour off the pages of this book.

The authors’ were given the idea of exploring the parallel between how we raise children and how farmers raise animals by Isabelle Stengers. And they follow this thought to the idea that animals and men as they were until recently, and in some places still are, are perhaps both the outcome of millennia of co-evolution, in which their essence was defined not against each other, but for each other. But many myths of creation and foundation of our societies tell not of co-evolution, but of humans who are descended from animal ancestors, or who are nursed and nurtured by animals (Asena, Romulus and Remus, …). And even Adam and Eve acquired their capacity for moral judgement only at the instigation of a snake.

What if it is not animals who continue to learn intentionality from humans, but humans who once learned intentionality from animals? Who had to learn it from them, because there was no one else to show them the way?

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