Some Thoughts on Anthropocentrism

By Rick Elmore and Jon Elmore

ANIMAL-AGENCY-1Recently, while composing an essay on animal perception in H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau, we had the pleasure of encountering Philip Armstrong’s book, What Animals Mean in the Fiction of Modernity (2008).  In this text, Armstrong argues that the stories we tell about non-human animals in modern fiction are closely aligned with the framework of modernity and, particularly, the modern subject.  In this sense, Armstrong’s work takes its place alongside a number of recent texts such as Kelly Oliver’s Animal Lessons: How They Teach Us to Be Human (2009), which argues that non-human animals have been fundamental to our conception of the human in ways that have gone previously unacknowledged.  It’s an important point and worth repeating.  However, one of the things that struck us most forcefully in Armstrong’s book was a claim he makes about anthropocentrism.

A few pages into the introduction, Armstrong notes that in general to speak of non-human agency is to invite the charge of anthropomorphism: “Surely such a notion imputes to non-humans a capacity—traditionally considered unique to human beings—for conscious planning, decision-making, and choice” (3).  It is commonplace when thinking about issues of animality to assume that any claim to non-human agency must be fundamentally anthropocentric, insofar as such claims seem to attribute aspects of human agency to animals.  Although Armstrong here only addresses claims to animal agency, one sees this kind of critique in other aspects of animal studies, positing the notion that any thinking about other animals cannot help but engage in a violent “humanizing.”  Behind such claims is the assumption that to begin from a human standpoint dooms us to the all too human limits of that standpoint.  This logic is not unrelated to the basic ethos of Speculative Realism, insofar as there too the question (or one of them) is to what degree starting from a human or correlationist standpoint necessarily taints one’s analysis in an anthropocentric or correlationist way.  There are, of course, good reasons to worry about anthropocentrism and about the potential for violence in our thinking about animals (and the rest of the world for that matter).  Although Armstrong is certainly not the first thinker to challenge this kind of blanket concern over anthropocentrism, he questions it in an interesting way.

For Armstrong, following the work of Jonathan Burt, Chris Philo, and Chris Wilbert, the basic problem with this charge of anthropocentrism is that it assumes that “agency” is a fundamentally human concept.  Yet speaking of animal agency does not necessarily suggest “assumptions about what specifically constitutes animal subjectivity or interiority” (3).  There seems no reason to assume that all agency, subjectivity, or interiority need be human or similar to the human.  In fact, it seems far more plausible that engaging with non-human animals challenges rather than reinforces our conceptions of agency, subjectivity, etc.  Hence, these questions, “turn[s] the charge of anthropomorphism on its head, asking instead whether evidence of animal resistance in cultural texts and practices might not destabilize taken for granted assumptions about how agency works in the first place” (3).   For Armstrong, the notion of animal agency, thus, leads not so much to anthropomorphism as to a critique of anthropocentrism. 

Armstrong’s point is that, in principle, the claim to animal agency remains anthropocentric only so long as one assumes that the notion of “agency” being discussed is somehow related to human agency.  Yet, this need not be the case; rather, the possibility of exploring other forms of agency challenges the hegemony of “human” agency.  Hence, Armstrong’s analysis of non-human agency and its implications for our understanding of anthropomorphism and agency leads him to a kind of call to action: “A reconceptualization of agency […] might facilitate a mode of analysis that does not reduce the animal to a blank screen for the projection of human meaning, and might offer productive new ways of accounting for the material influence of the non-human animal upon humans, and vice versa” (3).  This is, of course, no easy matter, and he spends the rest of his book working through such “modes of analysis” in literary studies, exploring some of the most well-known, non-human animals of modern fiction: the whale in Moby Dick, the creature in Frankenstein, the Houyhnhnms in Gulliver’s Travels, and so forth.  However, what we found so interesting in Armstrong’s analysis is the way in which it points to a certain anthropocentrism at the very heart of the concern for anthropomorphism.

One of the interesting insights springing from Armstrong’s argument is that the charge of anthropocentrism rests, ironically, on a profound privileging of the human.  The notion that all human engagements with the world must always entail the “humanizing” of the world posits the world as something that cannot but conform, in some basic sense, to the human.  In such a worldview, every engagement with the world is always already “human” in a way that forecloses in advance the possibility of access to any truly non-human world.  Hence, in a somewhat strange turn of events, the worry over anthropocentrism ends up positing a remarkably anthropocentric world, a world in which every statement, analysis, experiment, and fact about the world ultimately figures the human.  There is, of course, much that can be said about this kind of worldview, but the very first thing that must be said, it seems to us, is that it just can’t be right.   

Image Credit:
Borjan Bonaque, http://www.borjabonaque.com/portfolio/animal-agency/

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1 Comment

Filed under Affect and Ecology, Environmental Ethics, Humanities and Ecology, Objects, OOO

One response to “Some Thoughts on Anthropocentrism

  1. Christine Skolnik

    So my stepson’s dog will say hello for a cookie and parrots can identify objects with human language vocalizations and other primates can learn sign language . . . so what’s the essential difference again? Knowledge of our own mortality? Unless of course we’re wrong about that . . . that animals don’t know they will die (how do we know they don’t know again?) or about our mortality . . . which could be something more like metamorphosis (how do we know it’s not?).

    And from Randy’s latest photo post: I just learned that my stepson’s dog can say hello and sing along with a harmonica. When he starts singing though, I invariably start laughing and can’t continue to play. Are there any human/nonhuman musical ensembles out there? Anybody . . . ?

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