What is Critical Animal Studies?


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Think critically

In a video in which he explains his understanding of CAS, Vasile Stanescu - who, along with Helena Pederson, edits Brill’s book series in Critical Animal Studies with Rodopi Press - has argued that Critical Animal Studies is critical in at least five ways:

1. "Critical" in the sense of understanding and employing ideas from "critical theory." So, for example, Peter Singer is both vegetarian and hopes to enact actual change. However, since he uses "analytic" and not "critical" theory, he might not be considered as doing critical animal studies.

2. "Critical" in the sense of critical of the rational (human) subject: Of course, we don't only mean that an author does, or does not, use some specific author; we also mean that they employ some basic ideas that most "critical" theories believe in. Perhaps the most important one is the idea that rationality should not be the litmus test for inclusion in the moral community. So, for example, we might view something like the Great Ape project as "humanistic:" it claims that certain animals "get in" because of how similar they are to humans. We might be critical of those ideas and argue that animals should matter--not because they are similar to humans--but on their own, and for their own reasons.

 3. "Critical" in the sense of "critical of [some examples of] animal studies." So, for example, Donna Haraway certainly understands critical theory and writes about animals. However, since we don't see her as working to prevent the death of actual animals, we'd see her as doing "animal studies" or, even more precisely, "posthumanism"—a distinction she would likely agree with. In particular, we might criticize her for not dealing with what we believe is an ethical imperative in dealing with the suffering and death of animals. So...critical of animal studies in the sense that it doesn't include a kind of ethical or activist core that we believe is important for this kind of work.

 4."Critical" in the sense of self-critical or reflective. In other words, critical in the sense of (what has been termed) intersectionality--how do the ideas of animal studies "intersect" with other issues of social justice: gender, class, race, colonialism, ableism, etc?

 5. "Critical" in the sense of vital. As in--animal studies is critical. "Critical" as in needing to happen now. The world is burning down around us. How to theorize when humans are killing billions of animals and the environment is rapidly passing the point of no return?

Vasile goes on to argue that “the basic idea is expressed in the well-known quotation by Marx: ‘Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.’ Likewise, that is our goal in critical animal studies: We don't want to just understand what is happening to animals (or the environment, or human animals)—We are going to change it.”

The North American Association for Critical Animal Studies, like its sister society, the European Association for Critical Animal Studies, is a forum for scholars and activists to present work that is critical in the ways described above. In sum, it is an association that promotes work whose aspiration is to change the world for animals—including, without prioritizing, human animals.

For another discussion of what Critical Animal Studies is, watch postcolonial feminist and animal law scholar Maneesha Deckha’s lecture on the topic: https://vimeo.com/314888064 (start at 3:05).

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If humans killed each other at the rate we kill other animals, we’d be extinct in 17 days.