On the Road to Animal Publics: Emotions, Empathy, Activism

Fiona explains how the road trip on the way down to a conference tells us a lot about human-animal interactions

I have just returned from a fantastic conference, Animal Publics: Emotions, Empathy, Activism,  the 6th Biennial Conference of the Australasian Animal Studies Association (AASA), held at the University of Melbourne. Each day began and ended with a keynote speaker – Jeffrey Masson, Erica Fudge, Timothy Pachirat, Anat Pick, Una Chaudhuri and Harriet Ritvo, with about 150 papers in between. All had something to say about the importance and the difficulty of entering into relationships with non-human animals beyond instrumentalism, beyond the ordinary violence of everyday consumption of animal life and animal feeling.  Common themes emerged around the dehierarchisation of the senses, from Una Chaudhuri’s brilliant exploration of the ‘felt rejection of human exceptionalism’, Anat Pick’s call for vegan cinema (a non-exploitative looking), Timothy Pachirat’s examination of the limitations of the politics of sight, to Erica Fudge’s analysis of cruelties that cannot be rendered emblematic.  The lectures, workshops, discussions and presentations focused our attention on the need to refine our critical tools, to re-calibrate and adapt human-centred methodologies to account for the task of making public the wildly contradictory forms of human-animal interaction (from love to/in violence, domination in/and resistance).

We all find our way into conferences in a way that reflects the tuning of our interested ears. For me, at the moment, it means that I am more attentive to discussions that highlight how violence is distributed across different animal spheres (the domesticated and the ‘wild’, for instance) – and how our emotions and empathetic skills are strained and distributed unevenly across domains that are sometimes placed in competition with each other.   Animal Publics was full of papers that helped to tease out the nature of these mixed feelings and so when I had the chance to listen well (I confess that I was sometimes scribbling notes for the next Association activity on my agenda…), I found many points of connection across a number of papers (and fields, for that matter).  But the point about mixed feelings and their unequal distribution across domains is better illustrated by the road trip on the way down to the conference.

There is something about the sensation of driving that highlights the sensorium of vision as memory; we look forward (to what is to come), backwards (to what we have left) and into the present (immediacy).  I’ve driven down the M31 (Hume Highway) to Melbourne many, many times over the last two decades. It’s a fast dual carriageway that bypasses small rural towns and the need for gear changes, bisecting agricultural land and remnant forest, and which signposts the nervous traces of an invaded landscape in the carelessly named places we pass over: ‘blind creek’, ‘broken creek’, ‘seven mile creek’, ‘six mile creek’, ‘five mile creek’ and so on, a nonchalant catalogue of settler possession.  The road is framed by thin strips of tall, wide eucalypts and corymbias whose role seems to be to signal what has gone missing in the mostly agricultural, sickly green fields behind them.  My passenger is one of the keynotes, Timothy Pachirat, ethnographer of the institutionalized violence of the slaughterhouse. In his keynote on Tuesday morning he will talk about the politics of the sight; how political manoeuvers that promise to invisibilise or visibilise are both exhaustible, both readily co-opted.  I have promised a road trip to see something of the country, (at least something wider than an airport lounge).  Without giving it too much thought (isn’t that always where things go wrong or very right?), I start him on a task  (perhaps too casually), of counting the dead – something I have done in the past when driving between Sydney and Melbourne, counting the contorted bodies of the road side dead: wombats (7), kangaroos (11), foxes (8), wallabies (3) etc.  Why? Because they are there, unburied, and because counting them is something like acknowledging the present and something like acknowledging the past too. The biggest category of the road-side dead is the one that I usually have to give up counting; the ‘unidentifiable’, differently sized bloodied mounds pummeled and tracked into the road itself.  My niece Saskia in the backseat complains that she keeps missing seeing the dead I am counting – but she dutifully takes down the numbers as I call them out. What form of crazy tourism is this? What is it about the road that makes this death so public (a roadside zoo-wake) and yet so easy to speed by?

Looking beyond the roadside we are within ‘sheep country’  – vast areas of land tense with barbed wire, the sort that funnels others into blinding headlights.  The sheep and the cattle we pass should also be counted amongst the dead. To the list of 7 wombats, 11 kangaroos, 3 wallabies and 8 foxes I could add a million sheep and half a million cows, to the left and the right and up ahead on billboards advertising wool products, burgers and pies. The roadscape is a heady mix of the massified and the rare and endangered: many die ‘every twelve seconds’[1], some die every 12 kilometres, and hopefully some slip through fences. Like the slaughterhouse, the roadscape should remind us that our relationship to animal life is violent by design, rather than ‘by accident’. The road is our ‘freeway’, our ‘highway’; human entitlement bitumenised and concretised– bisecting both country and the animals that we contain, fence off, both from each other and from ourselves.  In this we are quite ‘public’, quite open about the need for segregation, confinement, through our displays of the dead and to the soon to be dead – and yet our pastoral myths and car advertisements turn our heads from these everyday scenes.  This is a tension inherent in the juxtaposition of the conference themes: emotions, empathy and activism. How are we to move, to make movements, to move others, to shift from private to public and back again in a way that does not trade off, bisect and mistake the interests of others for obstacles?  Animal Publics was a great place to discuss and elaborate on these tensions – it has seeded many conversations to come and parameters for animal studies in the future.  It will be, as Siobhan O’Sullivan quite rightly pointed out, a tough act to follow.


On behalf of the AASA Executive team, sincerest thanks to the conference organizers, Barbara Creed, Siobhan O’Sullivan, Lynn Mowson, Caroline Wallace, Denise Varney, Clare McCausland, Jennifer McDonnell and Peta Tait for hosting us all, and to the University of Melbourne for turning up the heat and keeping us warm (literally and figuratively).


[1] Timothy Pachirat, Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialised Slaughter and the Politics of Sight, Yale University Press, 2011.


Image: Benjamin Jakabek via Flickr Commons