Against Human Supremacy: Thalia Field Interviewed by Miranda Mellis

A collection of work that advocates for interspecies solidarity.

Cover of the book with a parrot on it and bright colors.

Thalia Field’s new book, Personhood (New Directions), historicizes the ways in which the modern human animal has harried, exploited, and destroyed more-than-human beings and documents how this process has been underwritten by European constructions of objectivity.  “Doesn’t the very will to autonomous life grant a right not to be deprived of it?” Field writes in “Happy/That You Have the Body (The Mirror Test),” a story in the book. “Doesn’t suffering at the hand of another confer a right to be relieved of it? Don’t inflicted damages give standing, and once standing, doesn’t a form of law evolve along with every animal who stands in the shadow of those laws?”

Field investigates personhood less as a biological category than a legal remedy, something made of language. This counteracts the practice of determining the worth of animals by measuring how closely they seem to hew to human forms of being. Personhood opens with a piece called “Hi Adam!” and unfolds fields of metonymic resonance, first and foremost between the biblical Adam and a bird in a sanctuary with the same name. Adam the bird lives in an “exotic” bird sanctuary where “You’re led to think the prison-like environment is also an ambiguous form of gift,” a “last ditch” for these charismatic, wounded birds, “as beautiful as sun on water.” The ideological and material commonalities between architectures of captivity include pretenses of salvation and minimal concessions to embodiment. In the Judeo-Christian metaphysics for whom Adam is the progenitor, animals are ontological and linguistic blanks, awaiting the giver of names.

Sentimentality, too, is a danger. Animal lovers are implicated; naïve attempts to help can simply lead to more harm, including inadvertent self-harm: “Shelter volunteers are driven off in need of stitches, missing ears, chunks of cheek, lip, dangerous cuts on the neck and face and arms, crying, ‘Why did he do that!? I was just trying to take him out!’ So much wounded innocence. So many good intentions.” Field’s anti-sentimentality is central to her ethics of form. Against types of storytelling that privatize and individualize ecological crises, her modality is one of distributed cognition. Her stories refuse simplistic sentiment and the false remedy of catharsis, instead confronting the violent structures and reductionist systems that betray the lifeworld.

—Miranda Mellis


 

Miranda MellisPersonhood, and your work as a whole, bears witness to the war on animals, historicizing the ideological underpinnings of this ongoing violence. In Experimental Animals (A Reality Fiction), you demonstrate how vivisection was originally premised on the ideology that animals have no souls and don’t feel pain. In Personhood you explore the imposition of a different kind of animal test, done to make determinations about animals’ proximities to personhood which, the text speculates, may be defined as the way in which, ‘succumbing’ to the mirror, “our identity takes on its spectacle.” Personhood here would seem to be, fundamentally, a kind of narcissism. How does the history of the category of the “human” play into your work on interspecies solidarity?    

Thalia Field The nature of the animal-human problem is exactly narcissistic—and has all the props of Narcissus: the echoes, the projections, the mirrors, the self-obsession/destruction, the scorched-earth response to being challenged. Then there is the problem of the home, and the concepts that define territory and belonging. Colonialism does more than violently and manipulatively displace, it reduces home territory to forms of private property, and turns its settler mentality into a tool for thing-making out of being. We are now hobbled by this vast inability to extend belonging in the same home (neighborhood, nation) beyond kinship and kind-ship. And that home is also what we call “person.”

The confinement of the pandemic was nothing compared to what we have turned our zoo-planet into for other beings. Our religions don’t help because those stories are a mess of human specialness, masochism, shadow-play. Where are the forms of storytelling that put us right in the world? Let’s purge the world of human-supremacy and acknowledge how we’re simply players alongside other players, each looking for something like joy at surviving the simple feast of daily challenges. Biologists, economists, capitalists, theorists will explain human supremacist thinking as this or that inevitable “outcome” or they’ll apply a lot of jargon. But basically we just don’t like to share the stage, our spotlight, our frame—and thus our tantrums and plans turn annihilating.  

MM Biblical Adam stands for this anthropocentrism you describe, “raised in amorphous fantasies of extreme specialness” as you write in “Hi Adam!” the first piece in Personhood. He doesn’t know “the songs or smells of his kind, or that it’s ok to fall into flying.” In this mythos of Christian dominion, it is as if no one knows who they are until he comes along. Talk about narcissism! Vicki Hearne (a philosopher and animal trainer you studied with) taught that animals have their body languages that must be learned if there is to be harmonious communication. How has your engagement with her informed Personhood?   

TF Vicki Hearne’s book Adam’s Task, which I carried in my mind of course as I was writing the story “Hi Adam!” discusses relationships of power, and how command and obedience (seen also in the act of naming) is a mutuality between humans and our “domesticated” partners. Her work was less about learning non-verbal language than it was about the ego-centric pitfalls of “training,” and how command functions as coherent (or incoherent) syntax and grammar. 

Hearne appears in Bird Lovers, Backyard, because that collection tells stories about dogs and how we relate to wild and domestic animals in our spaces. Those stories continue in Personhood, except focused exclusively on so-called wild animals that we hold captive—literally, figuratively, psychologically, imaginatively. For example, the story “True Crime/Nature Fakers” derives from stories of literary naturalism and “the beast within”—how ultimately racist, species-ist, and ridiculous we sound when we act like latter-day Puritans calling the cops on what are really our own crimes.  

White woman with chin length brown hair, black and white photo.

Photo of Thalia Field courtesy of the author.

MM In “True Crime/Nature Fakers,” a bitterly humorous chorale of a legal thriller in which “animal crimes” expose crimes against animals, this line sang out: “Is it possible that they still thought they lived here?” Here you use brackets and numeration to create a highly kinetic reading experience. The text is like a furious dance, a carnivalesque choreography of human hypocrisy. This piece also includes strangely beautiful, poignant imagery that evoke shadow puppetry and community theater. What was your criteria for deciding what kinds of images to use in Personhood?  

TF The art in “True Crimes/Nature Fakers” is by a terrific writer and artist, Bridget Brewer. When I was asked to contribute a piece to the book, Animal Comics (edited by David Herman), I immediately wanted to use her work, especially this large-scale collage (of which the frames in Personhood are fragments). Her work illustrates the conflicted roles that animals play in our fairy tales, children’s tales, and fantasies—all those stories about “how much of the beast” are we and how somehow we must purge and deprive ourselves of our beastliness. The photographs throughout the rest of Personhood are meant more in the Barthes “punctum” mode, the shock of what was undeniably present, even in death, as in the terrible photo of Beulah the elephant taken by someone protesting her torturous captivity. The irrational irreducibility of situational storytelling is what I tried to formulate in the piece, “Irrational/Situation.” 

MMIn Objectivity, Lorraine Daston describes how the construction of objectivity goes hand in hand with the development of optic technologies. And images then also become techniques of witness, as with the image of Beulah. Objectivity and rationality have their histories. In the piece “Irrational/Situation,” as well as in “Patients” abuse is authority, dressed in a mantle of rationality. Rationality represses its own ignorance, takes the form of domination and condescension. As you write, “Rationality, for all its emphasis on the discrete, shows itself in an endless spectacle of put-down, a melodrama of beggar’s questions (circular, reasoned) practiced before a private, diminishing audience.” 

What rationality also risks occluding is that “Like irrationals, we are incommensurable, with no common measure.” Jean-Luc Nancy, relatedly, calls for “a democracy of incommensurables.” A giant squid swims incommensurably through the text, “known for being unknowable,” “without human witness,” “Gliding obscurely in the obscure rain, obscure in the thermal currents, its arguments and situa­tions dispersed in sudden inky clouds.” And math too contains its irrationals, its “clopen” sets: “Your set is clopen if and only if its boundary is empty.” Somehow there is a meeting here between the ineffable and the mathematical. Can you talk about where your background in the sciences and your Buddhist practice meet to inform your writing?

TF During the crucial period of modern experimental science that I explore in Experimental Animals (A Reality Fiction)—and the ways that living animal bodies provide the foundation of that science—scientists hoped their work would wear a sort of invisibility cloak—so they could maintain a human-as-god authority over knowledge and proof, to rise above mortal power struggles such as politics, ideology, communities, aesthetics, caring and sharing, etc. This scientistic (and particularly European) story casts nature as a she-world of secrets and mysteries who must be vivisected, analyzed, unveiled, if violently. In my piece, “Patients” we see this aggressive authority playing out at the edges of what are universal experiences for all life—birth and death.

Likewise, in “Irrational/Situation” the inheritance of mathematical rationalism forms part of a larger story about how humans control what we know and can prove even though we can’t even agree on history. But to answer your question—the form of Buddhist debate, Madhyamika, as well as Zen koan practice, provide interesting models of how to take apart too-hardened concepts and puzzle-out experience in ways that invite paradox, silence, and an exhaustion of habitual storylines. Once old habits tire out a bit, other sounds, movements, voices, latent or repressed in the situation, can be heard and felt. There are many ways to reach those places. That exhaustion can seem irrational, overwhelming, just-out-of-reach. I like that feeling—it’s uncomfortable, suddenly funny, despite the underlying devastation. Humor is ultimately where we share our communion with all beings, I think. 

MM Theatricality as well, humor and grief play out, so to speak. Play, from the Saxon plegan “vouch for, take charge of,” Old Frisian plega “tend to,” Middle Dutch pleyen “to rejoice, be glad,” German pflegen “take care of, cultivate,” which is apparently connected to the root of the word plight. Play also means to perform or act, to take a role, and includes the sense of making moves in a game, putting forth, causing to operate or bring about. Your work is playful in all these ways, acting to “take care of” and “tend to.” That is, in Personhood, and in other books by you, imbrications of play and plight come alive: courtrooms become theaters; arguments become plays; polyvocal dialogues allow “other sounds, movement, voices, latent or repressed in the situation, to be heard and felt.” During the course of our interview, in fact, you let me know that the Nonhuman Rights Project announced that “the New York Court of Appeals agreed to hear the habeas corpus case of our elephant client Happy, an autonomous and cognitively complex nonhuman animal who has been imprisoned at the Bronx Zoo for over four decades. This marks the first time in history that the highest court of any English-speaking jurisdiction will hear a habeas corpus case brought on behalf of someone other than a human being.” What are you working on now, and next?  

TF Yes! It’s good news… a weird winding tale of how one idea—habeas corpus—expands the storyline of the law to include new and varied “players” in our earth’s entire evolving cast of characters. For Happy, this could be the moment to finally be freed from such torturous confinement, at least to spend her last years in company and companionship, with a modicum more freedom of movement and autonomy. There are so many other elephants, so many other astonishing wild captives that a positive ruling, in this case, would mean the world to. Sure, the sanctuaries are not the same as living free, but they go to awesome lengths to provide a life of semi-independence, out of the glare of so much human ignorance. We should all be very grateful for the people who set up and run these sanctuaries, essentially making a kind turn toward the creatures we’ve collectively done so poorly by.

Next for me? Well… I always have a few areas of inquiry composting together. One thing is a contemporary follow-up to Experimental Animals. That, and two other projects, will keep me going for a good while I’m sure. Miranda, thank you so much for all your fascinating thoughts—I always learn so much from our conversations!

Personhood is available for purchase here.

Miranda Mellis is the author of Demystifications, out June 2021 from Solid Objects, as well as The Instead; The Quarry; The Spokes; None of This Is Real; Materialisms; and The Revisionist. She is a regular contributor to The Believer and teaches writing and ecological humanities at The Evergreen State College.

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