On the History of Critical Animal Studies: Setting the Record Straight

“Hitherto, philosophers have only interpreted the world; the point, however, is to change it.” Karl Marx

“The capacity to contain and manipulate subversive imagination is an integral part of the given society.” Herbert Marcuse

The essay attached just below — “The Rise (and Fall) of Critical Animal Studies” — is a 2012 revision of a controversial essay I originally published in 2007, entitled “The Rise of Critical Animal Studies: Putting Theory Into Action and Animal Liberation Into Higher Education”. It was the first manifesto and detailed statement of a new subgenre of animal studies and radical theory generally which I co-founded and termed “critical animal studies” (CAS). View the essay here:

“The Rise (and Fall) of Critical Animal Studies”

In contrast to the tepid, abstract, and academic-bound nature of mainstream animal studies, CAS was meant to be a radical and politically charged theory/politics, which was resolutely anti-capitalist, explicitly supportive of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), and other social liberation movements, in an uncompromising vision of total liberation. But this was too much for mainstream academics and seminar-room posers more concerned more about their academic careers than social revolution.

My first provisional definition of CAS in 2007 took the form of ten key theses (titled, “Introducing Critical Animal Studies”) which I subsequently fleshed out in my first statement of CAS, “The Rise of Critical Animal Studies: Putting Theory Into Action and Animal Liberation Into Higher Education.” This latter essay has been scrubbed from many websites and is near impossible to find online. The revision of this essay was motivated by developments themselves. On my way out the door of the increasingly reformist institution I co-founded, I was told: “Social movements need plurality — you can be the Malcolm X of CAS and we will be the Martin Luther King, Jr.” To my dismay, but not surprise,  CAS immediately became co-opted by academics and its conferences and journals became platforms for launching boring academic careers. My initial optimism for the subversive possibilities of a truly systemic and radical philosophy were quickly quelled. Hence, the shift in title from “The Rise of Critical Animal Studies” to “The Rise and Fall of Critical Animal Studies” is significant and indicates my response to the co-optation of CAS by academic careerists on a promotional fast-track.

In particular, many academics interested in critical animal studies resisted the framework if it entailed a risky support for the Animal Liberation Front — a position perhaps as difficult to accept as another original commitment of CAS: clear, compelling, jargon-free writing! (It’s a skill and art form, folks.) This revised “Rise and Fall” essay, attached above, is also near impossible to find online and I include in this post for the historical record (that is ebbing and fading) and because so many internet searches for “critical animal studies” turn up “Introducing Critical Animal Studies,” which was only an initial sketch for what I later sketched out in fuller form and which others with their own ideas about CAS have used in countless books, essays, and conference talks. The essay discusses a key dynamic of capitalism and the inherently normalizing, disciplinary, and conservative institution of academia — the ability to subvert, co-opt, and defuse revolutionary ideas.

One key critique that emerged in response to my polemics — first against mainstream animal studies, then against critical animal studies itself — was that I was overly anti-theoretical and reductive, and failed to sufficiently appreciate the complex dialectic between theory and practice, and the true importance of theory to politics and social change. I consider myself anti-esotericism, not anti-theory, for theories (e.g., Marxism, feminism, anti-racism) at their best are tools with which to understand and change the world. The modern concept of animal rights was spawned and developed by philosophers, and theorists like Richard Ryder, Peter Singer, and Tom Regan, and have indeed changed the world. But of course, animal rights is not merely a theoretical or philosophical position, it is also — and above all — a practical imperative to liberate animals from human oppression and abolish the most destructive mentalities, practices, and institutions that humans have ever unleashed on this planet. In a world in deep social and ecological crisis, poised on the verge of collapse and unimaginable horrors, my problem is not with theory, but with theory-for-theory’s sake. I stand completely behind what I wrote in 2012, far more so as the global social and ecological crisis continues to rapidly accelerate.

The field of animal studies generally has made important contributions to the history, philosophy, sociology, anthropology, and psychology of human-nonhuman animal relations, but typically betrays the true interests of its subject — suffering animals. I leave it an open question where one might draw the line between (1) a self-indulgent, rhetorically elitist, hyper-abstract, jargon-addicted, non-committal, politically-useless theoretical position on something so brutally concrete — animal exploitation, human supremacism, speciesism, species extinction, and the destruction of ecosystems — now unfolding in a world of runaway climate change, and (2) an analysis which is truly informative, communicative, comprehensible, and facilitates rebellion and radical social transformation.