Eye of the beholder

The idea of “animal subjectivity” has elicited three broad responses. The first denies its very possibility and/or usefulness for understanding animal behaviour. Animals are “machines”, their behaviour—at best—being explicable entirely in terms of stimulus-response mechanisms and punishment-reward type trials.
The second does not deny that animals may have subjectivities.

It denies merely that we (human beings) can ever fathom these, can ever know “what it is like to be” a particular animal. The third response is perhaps the commonsensical one. It acknowledges that animals have subjectivities every bit as rich as our own that, albeit largely unmodified by language, render possible not only feelings of love, kinship, compassion and companionship, but also—and importantly, at least in some enlightened consciences—a strong sense of their moral significance, worth and equality.

It is in this third kind of response that Wendy Woodward, professor in the English department at the University of the Western Cape, locates her research. She investigates the representations of “the animal gaze” by a number of Southern African writers, such as human acknowledgement of “subjective kinship with animals, and what potential emerges” (p 3) from such acknowledgement. In so doing she distinguishes between “instrumentalising” accounts that “colonise” the animal—such as those that attribute (imagined) subjectivity or agency only in relation to the human him-/herself (p 5)—and “shamanism”, which challenges anthropocentrism and ontological/ethical hierarchy by postulating “an entirely egalitarian relationship between the shaman [human] and aspects of nature, particularly animals” (p 4).

In the latter regard Woodward mentions “African knowledges” and “indigenous spiritualities” (chapter 1; also see the reference to Umlando on p 51). Perhaps this first chapter contains some of the most contentious ideas here. The notion of “African knowledge(s)” is not obviously plausible and cannot be taken for granted, as Woodward does. (Do “ancestor worship” and the postulation of the “Otherworld” constitute knowledge—or superstition?) Second, there is plenty of evidence that traditional African world views are no less anthropocentric than their occidental counterparts—despite the protestations of Credo Mutwa and others to the contrary. The chief difference, of course, is that—coupled with occidental technology—such anthropocentrism produces daily, institutionalised animal genocide.

In the course of her investigation Woodward critiques eco-tourism, the pop-spiritualism of “wilderness discourse”, and other forms of what might be called “shallow environmentalism”. Apart from animal experimentation and the meat industry, she takes on some of the well-known aberrations of Southern African “wildlife management”: invasive film-making and canned hunting. This book works on two levels—and it does so exceptionally well. In its philosophical and cultural-theoretical orientation it aims to persuade the reader to reflect on his/her own lifestyle (such as eating habits) to reconsider his/her relations with non-human nature, particularly animals. On a literary-theoretical level the book provides rich insight and detailed (but never tedious) discussion of a considerable number of pre-1994 and post-apartheid narratives, both fictional (chapters 1, 3, 4, 5 and 6) and non-fictional (chapters 2 and 3)—of both fictional representations and authentic experiences of “the animal gaze”.

By way of criticism of her analysis it might be pointed out that Woodward is perhaps a little too generous towards postmodernist jargon (especially Deleuze and Guattar’s pompous prose) and “deconstructionist discourses”. I also consider her one-line dismissal of Ruth Ozek’s All Over Creation as “an ecological novel in which the narrative is overwhelmed by didacticism” (p 176) to be unfair. Woodward’s verdict does not even begin to do justice to Ozek’s narrative skills and careful development of a cast of characters whose interaction is profoundly moving.

But in the final analysis this is an enlightening book that is difficult to put down once one has begun reading. All cats are grey only in the dark of our ignorance. Woodward’s study (like Michelé Pickover and Jacklyn Cock’s recent books) provides a welcome and timely torch to aid us in our nocturnal gropings towards “sympathetic imagination” and—indeed—towards understanding.

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