Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Susan McHugh reviews Critical Animal Studies: Thinking the Unthinkable

John Sorenson. Critical Animal Studies: Thinking the Unthinkable. Toronto: Canadian Scholars' Press, 2014. 346 pp. Paperback $79.99.

Review by Susan McHugh

From a handful of groundbreaking books published in the 1980s, animal studies has emerged as a field that overwhelmingly remains open and welcoming, which partly explains why it has grown so rapidly in recent decades, and despite a pervasive prejudice in academic professions that, outside the natural sciences, animals are bad object-choices, in the old psychoanalytic sense.

A quarter-century into the field’s development, the rise of critical animal studies or CAS might be seen as not simply a backlash against but more importantly a revisionist history of animal studies. However inadvertently, John Sorenson’s edited collection Critical Animal Studies: Thinking the Unthinkable illustrates this point through deeply mixed contributions that at times register individuals’ dissent about the field’s past and present status, yet together assert that the vibrant future of animal studies as a political project depends on maintaining openness to difference. And they do so sometimes quite explicitly against the editor’s stated interests.

Taking its cue from animal-abolitionist philosopher Gary Steiner’s contribution “Animals as Subjects and the Rehabilitation of Humanism,” Sorenson’s introduction identifies the enemies within as “postmodernists working in animal studies [whose]…type of mainstream animal studies effectively serves the status quo [by]…dismiss[ing] as polemecists those who take an explicitly ethical stance in support of animal liberation” (xix). The only examples that he mentions to illustrate such a bold claim are Jacques Derrida and Donna Haraway. Where exactly they embrace postmodernism—or, as Haraway notes elsewhere, even embrace each other—remains unstated.  Perhaps this is because what they say is not as important to Sorenson as their combined theoretical power to undermine moral certitude.  He asserts, “The influence of Derrida and Haraway is especially pernicious because…their arcane writing and irrationalism is largely meaningless, as it is dissociated from popular struggles and undermines activism” (xix).

One might expect Sorenson’s position to find strongest support among nonacademics, yet curiously in this volume it is the longtime animal activists who apply the work of these and other theorists to advance more nuanced positions.  For instance, PETA’s first Executive Director Kim Stallwood critiques how “the animal rights movement at present behaves more like a moral crusade than a social movement” (304). Rather than more rigid lines between “fundamentalism and realpolitik or abolition and regulation,” Stallwood echoes another contributor and longtime activist Carol J. Adams, whose essay even more explicitly credits Derrida’s positive influence in concluding that “both are needed to help the other achieve the change they seek” (314).

Quite apart from the problem that activists do not appear to share Sorenson’s anxiety of influence, there emerges through the volume a more immediate concern for animal studies practitioners, which is, as Tobias Linné and Helena Pederson phrase it, “how to create a space and a language in academia…to speak about, and work to change, the situation and experiences of animals in human society” (269). Taking up this challenge means resisting the moral solace of choosing any one of the ways of doing animal studies that seem possible now, and in turn to allow for the possibility of better ways to come. 

Thus the book raises more questions than it answers. Whose interests are served (and whose are compromised) by the critical without the critical within animal studies? Can animal studies scholarship be simply—rather, “critically”—enlisted in the service of advocacy? If what is needed are more complex senses of the potentials for academics and advocacy, then why not work together to advocate for animal studies as a legitimate route for critical inquiry?