Featured image: Escaped serval in Otter Point, BC
By Rosemary-Claire Collard (Concordia University)))
A walk on the rocky shores of southwest Vancouver Island can always surprise. Often, there are carcasses: once, a skate skeleton; another time, bald eagles feasting on an enormous rotting sea lion whose body lasted for weeks lodged at the tideline. The dried out bones of a giant grey whale who washed up on shore in the 90s are now strung together with invisible wire and hang in my former high school’s foyer like a ghost. From the beach, seals and river otters peer at you across the waves; minks scamper over the rocks. Tidal pools teem with crabs, clams, starfish, anemones, mussels, limpets, barnacles. Other humans stalk the high tide mark for treasures. Black bears sniff their way along the coast. Every year hundreds of turkey vultures amass to form their airborne bodies into a swirling vortex, flying in circles up and up in a towering cyclone with enough momentum to take them altogether across the Salish Sea to Washington State. Sea otters might soon return after almost a century of localized extinction.
It was on my way home from a shore walk recently that something especially surprising happened. A passing neighbour told me a cougar was in the region; another neighbour had snapped a photo the day before and posted it on the bulletin board next to the mailboxes. This was not the surprising part; cougars are more densely populated on Vancouver Island than anywhere in North America. But I was surprised when the photo revealed not a cougar but a serval, a species of medium-sized African wild cats who have become popular exotic pets. I recognized it because I had recently spent several months doing research at exotic animal auctions across the US, where I watched many servals bought and sold, leashed and paraded in front of audiences of thousands. Inquiries around the neighbourhood confirmed that several months earlier a woman had “lost” her pet serval. And here the animal was, remarkably now making its own way along the rocky shores.
These shorelines are meeting places that mirror the world: at once composed of infinite difference, inescapable entanglement, and cyclical life and death. They are not classically understood “wilderness” – they can never be quarantined from human presence and influence. Long home to the Coast Salish First Nations, the shores are not the imagined untouched Nature that, divided from culture, satisfied colonial desires and mapped onto other Enlightenment dualisms like human/animal, male/female, and so on (Plumwood 1993). Impossible visions of Nature have come under justifiable scrutiny in recent decades, largely due to their starring role in ongoing land dispossessions worldwide (Cronon 1996; Thorpe 2012). Recently, deconstructing wilderness as an academic and political project has morphed into a broader recognition of the mutual constitution of not only culture and nature, but also human and animal. Led by feminist thinkers like Donna Haraway, Val Plumwood and Deborah Bird Rose, the human/animal dualism has rapidly gone from a naturalized starting point for intellectual thought and activism to hotly debated, if not centrally implicated in our crises-ridden times.
Intellectually, scholars are responding to these shifts with relational accounts of multispecies worlds like the everglades (Ogden 2011) and rainforests (Braun 2002; Tsing 2005) – accounts in which there is no place for purified wilderness. Amid the enthusiasm for pointing out humans’ ever-present entanglement with nonhuman worlds, however, it is important that we cultivate a simultaneous recognition of others’ spatial and subjective requirements. Control and invasion also proceed relationally, through attachment. In some conservation circles, the disintegration of wilderness as an ideal is proving to license escalated global managerialism of and intrusion into nonhuman lives (Collard et al. 2015). The recognition of entanglement is not on its own adequate to orient us toward a world that is more life-giving. The former pet serval had been deeply entangled with its owner, but this entanglement took the form of forced dependence and confinement. On the island shoreline, animals of all kinds mingle in meaning- and matter-making, but this mingling looks different than it would at a zoo. Animals on the shoreline depend on each other in infinitely complex ways, but they can go about their business. And some beings ranging the beach prefer to maintain some distance from each other to avoid death. How to conceive of these conditions of distance or independence in a world of inextricable entanglement?
For this, we need a post-wilderness concept of wildness. A wild life is characterized by openness, possibility, a degree of choice, and self-determination, in which beings are understood to have their own familial, social, and ecological networks, their own lookouts, agendas, and needs. In other words, wild lives are lived by “uncolonized others” (Plumwood 1993). Such a notion of wildness can be a critical tool within a broader politics of human-animal relations, particularly as a radical alternative to the totalizing narratives of the Anthropocene or of animal rights, and to the ever expanding and intensifying reach of capitalist exploitation, whether within the booming exotic pet trade, the industrial food system, or scientific testing labs. A wild politics can be one that does not depend on making animals proximate or similar to humans, but rather one that extends our greatest ethical obligations to those farthest and most distant and works to resist domination (Derrida 2009). In this way wildness can act first, as a condition of possibility: namely relational autonomy. Second, wildness can work as a spatial politics, specifically of anti-enclosure. In both cases alliances can be found with feminist and Marxist struggles.
William Cronon (1996, 89) has been a key figure in dismantling wilderness, yet he is careful to distinguish it from wildness, which he calls “the autonomy of the other.” Expanding from Cronon, autonomy’s conceptual usefulness extends from its invocation of not only self-determination but also Marxist and feminist resistance against capitalism and patriarchy. Critically, though, the resistant “self” is not a bounded, discrete self. In response to poststructural and posthumanist critiques of the self, a specifically relational view of autonomy has become a well-established concept in feminist thought (Mackenzie and Stoljar 2000), Marxism (Pickerton and Chatterton 2006), and environmental ethics (Heyd 2005). Here, the “oneself” (the “auto”) of autonomy is decentered and autonomy is understood as “a collective project, fulfilled only through… relations with others” (Pickerton and Chatterton 2006, 4). Equally, relational autonomy is a pointer to an ongoing and emergent condition of possibility, “a relational tendency rather than a possession” (Pickerton and Chatterton 2006, 8; DeFillipis 2004), and never an imposed state of being. Wildness is, then, understood as a set of relations within which animals live autonomously, becoming wild together (Kirksey et al. under review). The commonplace equation in which a wild life is de- or un-humanized (i.e. Palmer 2010) therefore no longer holds. Instead, a wild life is made possible by collectivities (which may or may not include humans) that facilitate freedom of movement, play, social life, and the ability of animals to work for themselves.
For most animals, these wild collectivities have distinct spatial requirements. The notion of a wild life thus feeds into to a politics of anti-enclosure that is arguably more urgent now than ever. As Michael Watts (2000, 293) writes, “the relation between animals and modernity can be construed as a gigantic act of enclosure” – an act of “confinement, incarceration, discipline and subjection” (295). This enclosure, whose exemplars are the zoo and the industrial food system, is for Watts tied inextricably to the assimilation of the peasantry into capitalist waged labor through the enclosure of common lands both historically and today. For many feminist theorists, connections must also be drawn between a devaluation of animal life, global enclosure processes, and capitalism’s appropriation of female bodies in the service of reproducing and accumulating labor (Federici 2004). Resistance to enclosure thus comes from diverse places, and there are distinct possibilities for a politics of wildness to join in. Together with feminists and Marxists, multispecies theorists might resist and transform “the logic of the competitively produced commodity” and by doing so “endorse a certain sort of collectivity and therein lies a resistance to enclosure” (Watts 2009, 24).
This call is deeply relevant in our current context. Control and domination over animal life is rapidly escalating through bodily and spatial enclosures. The exotic animal auction is a prime example (Collard and Gillespie 2015, sound clips here and here). Animals are bodily enclosed: teeth or claws are removed, or wings are clipped, and tracking tags are inserted under the skin. They are spatially enclosed in cages, pens, chutes, and trailers. These bodily and spatial practices foreclose the possibility of wild lives. A politics of wildness, in demanding conditions of relational autonomy, can resist enclosures like the cage, the pen, the auction, and propertied animal life.
A walk on the rocky shores of southwest Vancouver Island can always surprise because the animals living there – the serval, the otters, the eagles – are able to work for themselves, to pursue their own experiments (van Dooren, forthcoming), their own agendas. They are not only able to look back; they are able to disappear from sight. They are not mere animal mirrors polished “so we can look for ourselves” (Haraway 1991). As John Berger (1980) has famously said, the zoo, on the other hand, cannot but disappoint. Captive, dominated, controlled worlds leave little room for open endings. To counter a world of enclosure, of deadening and growing sameness, wildness is a means to more multiple, lively and open ends.
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