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The Person Problem


A harrowing series of stories on NPR have featured the plight of farmworkers operating in grain bins. Over 500 have died of suffocation in silos over the past 40 years, with 2010 being the worst year on record for such accidents. One of the appalling aspects of this situation is that criminal prosecution of the companies and bosses responsible are rare, and any fines levied are typically reduced to inconsequential amounts.

In trying to convey the scope of injustice here, reporter Howard Berkes resorts to a cross-species analogy. But this one is literal rather than metaphoric (as in the racial trope of construing black men as an “endangered species”). Here the question is contrasting forms of valuing life in legal terms.

BERKES: Almost never, even in the worst cases. And that’s because, you know, egregious and willful behavior that results in the death of a worker in this country is only a misdemeanor under federal law and it carries a maximum jail time of six months. So, you know, no federal prosecutor is going to make a career on misdemeanor cases, you know, with little jail time like this.

And, you know, if you took an endangered species into a grain bin and it drowned in the grain, that would be a felony with more jail time.

As with race, hypotheticals are always risky and may obscure more than they reveal. In that sense, this is similar to saying, “if a white person was…”, and then fill in the blank with any kind of discriminatory scenario. The difference is that there is a statutory issue: life forms are differently valued by law. Surprisingly, perhaps, it’s the human form that is devalued, only warranting a misdemeanor in the case of death. It would be a more severe crime if you could manage to get an endangered species into a silo and it died.

Michael Carriethers (et al) has posed and addressed the question, “Can a Species Be a Person?” (Current Anthropology, 52:5, October 2011), arguing that “the species as person trope” has developed “to support action on behalf of human-distant species.” The function of this trope is “both to alter understandings and initiate commitments to action…” Largely, it involves the extension of value onto the nonhuman. What’s striking in Berkes’ usage—and what his comparison illustrates—is that this kind of cross-species parallel is a two-way street. The contrast shows the limits by which human life is valued, particularly in terms of class. Deaths of agricultural workers hardly register as significant, in sharp contrast to the legal safeguards around certain forms of nonhuman life. How does this lead us to rethinking personhood, both as it is delimited among humans (in terms of class and race, where differential life expectancies so clearly illustrate the mortal impacts of social inequality) and as it is extended selectively to nonhumans?

Watching Ice Age 4

Ice-Age-4_01

It’s amazing how many current multispecies fables are circulating in public culture. Two movie franchises stand out: Madagascar and Ice Age, two of the top-grossing animated series. These films variously frame the crisis of species collapse for very young audience, via the ever renewing medium of animated animals. Unlike earlier forms, like Bugs Bunny, Yogi Bear, or Foghorn Leghorn—or any number of singular, individual animals-as-comics—these films feature a variety of species locked in relations of mutual dependence and peril. Also, fundamentally, humans are absent. There are any number of ways of criticizing the films, of course, but they do provide a useful template for 1) grasping the cultural imaginary in which the “species turn” is unfolding, and 2) considering some of the theoretical and philosophical challenges of multispecies perspectives. Lets start with care and personhood.

Care is at the core of culture (Latin, cultūra: care, cultivation) and one of the questions with multispecies inquiry is how culture, as an analytic, can be deployed across species boundaries, as well as whether anthropologists can expect to find cultures on the other side. These films confront care via the projection of personhood; I’ll just focus on Ice Age 4, which I just watched over the holidays.

The creature characters are enculturated in various ways but perhaps most intensely by demonstrating over and over that they care for one another. Partly this is through the projection of familial structures—nuclear and extended families—onto their relations, but it’s arguably most evident in the facial features. The narrative—unfolding across purposefully current landscapes of melting ice—is powered by care; from care of the self to (ethical) care for others. The argument for personhood is articulated through caring and also the demonstrated lack of care by the “bad guys”; pirates, of course, keeping up with another enormously successful franchise. The cultural spectrum spanning care and disregard is the centerpiece; the implicit theory of mind and affective states realized on the visages of each character puts flesh on the skeletons.

Projections of personhood onto animals is, of course, quite ancient (Ingold 2000) and constitutes the core dynamic of interspecies fables. The question of species versus individual and the evolutionary emergence of the self are in the background here. But I was struck by how difficult it was to kill off the main pirate, the simian Captain Gutt, who in classic elastic fashion seems immune to any form of death. Certainly, this kept the plot going, as it does commonly with horror films (e.g., Terminator, Friday the 13th, etc), but it also nicely illustrated the burden of personhood, at least in contemporary American culture: you have to be a “good person.” This kept any of the caring characters from finishing off Gutt at a variety of opportune moments. A singularly nonanthropomorphic figure of a clam takes care of that. The fable suggests that care is active and defining in the absence of humans and can be fully realized in nonhuman form, but that there remains a fault line beyond which care does not pertain—across this line lays a range of life forms that may not easily find a purchase in such multispecies imaginaries. So what do nonhuman forms of care look like? ©