Critical Animal Studies has a race problem

BY M. Shadee Malaklou

This is an excerpt from a forthcoming article in the Journal of Critical Animal Studies.

Despite an avowed commitment to reject human ways of being and doing and knowing in favor of Other life-sustaining hermeneutics, even the most exciting scholarship to emerge from Critical Animal Studies (CAS) does not address animality as a humanist construct that is also or especially a race/ist and un/gendering cut. As Zakiyyah Iman Jackson argues of CAS and of similar moves to think the nonhuman,

Given that appositional and homologous (even co-constitutive) challenges pertaining to animality…have long been established in thought examining the existential predicament of modern racial blackness[,] the resounding silence…with respect to race is remarkable, persisting even despite the reach of antiblackness into the nonhuman—as blackness conditions and constitutes [every] nonhuman disruption and/or displacement they invite. …According to Man’s needlessly racially delimited terms, the matter of racial being purportedly does the work of arbitrating epistemological questions about the meaning and significance of the (non)human in its diverse forms, including animals, machines, plants, and objects …Whether machine, plant, animal, or object, the nonhuman’s figuration and mattering is shaped by the gendered racialization of the field of metaphysics. …Thus, terrestrial movement toward the nonhuman is simultaneously movement towards blackness, whether blackness is embraced or not, as blackness constitutes the very matter at hand (216, original emphasis).

Jackson suggests that CAS’s academic and/as political-ethical project has not thought about how black social and/or material death is the pivot for animal social and/as material death. Nor has CAS addressed how humanism’s species cut is ‘contrapuntally’ (Radhakrishnan) born from its race/ist cut. Nor has CAS spoken to how humanism’s species-cum-race/ist cut discards with black and animal nonbeings alike as un/gendered, fungible flesh.

When race/ism is invoked in CAS scholarship, it is, as Jackson implies, to reify black social and/as material death in order to make animal social and/as material life legible, and in this way, instrumentalizes black death. Indeed, while CAS claims to do away with humanist epistemology and, with it, the ‘-isms’ that Man has erected (Wynter 24) to divide human beings from nonhuman animals (and from each other), it is also true that CAS has yet to critically examine the humanist underpinnings that make black and animal nonbeings coeval. Specifically, CAS has yet to interrogate the humanist lore that racially black persons like nonhuman animals lack the capacity for rationality and reason and, therefore, for self-possession which, rather than auxiliary attributes of Man, are at the essence of his (and increasingly, her, and their) being.

It is for this reason that Jackson’s Becoming Human: Matter and Meaning in an Antiblack World (2020) and similar scholarship by Joshua Bennett (2020) and Benedicte Boisseron (2018) are published as black studies texts and are not catalogued as interventions in/as animal studies. Their interventions demonstrate that even CAS’s revisionisms—like those offered by Matthew Calarco (2015) and others who fear that an indistinction between the human and the animal will “ultimately transform [animal] beings into an undifferentiated mass beyond conceptual understanding” (55)—absent any kind of analyses of who among us have also been turned into “an undifferentiated mass beyond conceptual understanding,” or—Hortense Spillers suggests—made into un/gendered flesh. Carol Adams’ The Sexual Politics (1990), representative of CAS’s (white) feminist re/visionisms, is similarly problematic, not least of all because it imagines fleshiness as an unmarked female characteristic and not (also) as a racial one—to say nothing of the intersectionality whereby black women and femmes are especially un/marked. Jackson and the black femme(inists) with which she, Bennett, and Boisseron are in conversation remind us that the nonbeing sign-posted by un/gendered flesh properly belongs to black qua animal Others who are denied corporeal schemas with recognizable (to say nothing of respectable) boundaries and, therefore, who have no access to what Frantz Fanon describes as “ontological resistance” (110). As matter that does not matter, they have no inalienable right to life—hence why civil society as an instrument of humanism does not respond to black peoples’ pleas that they cannot ‘breathe’ (Wilderson 2003).

While he doesn’t address the specificity of (anti)blackness or the contrapuntal construction of racism and speciesism that I describe, Cary Wolfe’s observation that “as long as it is institutionally taken for granted that it is all right to systematically exploit and kill nonhuman animals simply because of their species, then the humanist discourse of species will always be available for use by some humans against other humans as well” is instructive in this regards (8). My analysis departs from Wolfe’s in important ways, however. Wolfe’s boundary between the human and the animal risks a colorblind critique that flattens the human’s (presumably) ‘intra-species’ differences, obscuring the specificity of antiblackness as the lever of Man’s ‘-isms’. Taking my cue instead from the Combahee River Collective’s now-famous 1977 Black Feminist Statement—in it, they argue that when black women (and femmes) are free, the rest of the world will be free, too—and Spillers’ suggestion that black women (and femmes) are the “zero degree” of Man’s “social conceptualization” (67), I propose that black femme(inist) liberation can act as the pivot for the ‘intra-species’ conflicts and antagonisms that Wolfe describes as well as the liberation of nonhuman animals.

As Jackson et al. suggest, this approach makes possible new directions in CAS that do not think unidirectionally about the im/possibility of liberation, in other words, which do not subordinate the liberation of sexed, gendered, and raced minorities to animal liberation. In thinking instead about how the two—the antiblackness of speciesism and the speciesism of antiblackness—are co-constitutive, a black femme(inist) approach to CAS accounts, finally, for both sides of humanism’s coin (or, cut, as it were).


Works Cited

Adams, Carol J. The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegan Critical Theory (Bloomsbury, 1990).

Bennett, Joshua. Being Property Once Myself: Blackness and the End of Man (Harvard University Press, 2020).

Boisseron, Benedicte. Afro-Dog: Blackness and the Animal Question (Columbia University Press, 2018).

Calarco, Matthew. Thinking Through Animals: Identity, Difference, Indistinction (Stanford Briefs, 2015).

Combahee River Collective, “A Black Feminist Statement.” Home Girls, A Black Feminist Anthology, ed. Barbara Smith (New York: Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, Inc., 1983)

Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Charles Markmann (Pluto Press, 1986).

Jackson, Zakiyyah Iman. Becoming Human: Matter and Meaning in an Antiblack World (Duke University Press, 2020).

Jackson, Zakiyyah Iman. “Outer Worlds: The Persistence of Race in Movement ‘Beyond the Human.’” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 21.2-3 (June 2015) 215-218. Special issue, “Queer Inhumanisms,” eds. Mel Y. Chen and Dana Luciano.

Radhakrishnan, Rajagopalan. A Said Dictionary (Blackwell Publishing, 2012).

Spillers, Hortense. “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” Diacritics 17.2 (1987) 64-81.

Wilderson III, Frank B. “Gramsci’s Black Marx: Wither the Slave in Civil Society?” Social Identities 9.2 (2003) 225-240.

Wolfe, Cary. Animal Rites: American Culture, the Discourse of Species, and Posthumanist Theory (University of Chicago Press, 2003).

Wynter, Sylvia and Greg Thomas. “PROUD FLESH Inter/Views: Sylvia Wynter.” ProudFlesh: New Afrikan Journal of Culture, Politics, and Consciousness 4 (2006).

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