Cosetta Veronese, July 2017
As a researcher in English and Italian literature, who, for many years, has delved into the work and reception of Giacomo Leopardi, one of Italy’s greatest poets and thinkers, I am a newcomer to environmental issues. As a matter of fact, it was Leopardi’s relentless critique of anthropocentrism along with his relativistic and sceptical stance, which first elicited my interest in enviromental issues, and brought me closer to that area of the Environmental Humanities, which is known as “Animal Studies”. I believe it happened because, since my years as an undergraduate and an avid reader of poetry, I have always been haunted by one question: where does the power of language end? Because it does have an end. An end which swallows logic, grammar and linear semantics. There is a space, that of emotions and feelings, far greater than language. To me this is the paradox of poetry: poetry works by eventually abdicating its power, it accompanies you to the threshold of inexpressibility: as you take the final step, words become powerless, and communication begins to mean something other than words. The same happens with animals.
A recent project has prompted me to research into the meaning and possibility of accessing non-human – i.e. animal – cognition and language. Some of the relevant questions I have asked myself include the following: can humans presume to know how non-human animals think and feel? How does communication between human- and non-human animals occur? Is it possible for humans to conceive forms of linguistic communication, which are non-linear and non-logic, in the same way as they have conceived or invented the language of computers? What does “empathy” mean, and on what basis can non-verbal communication (emotions) function as a ‘shared language’ between humans and animals? Are emotions (e.g. affectivity, anger, fear) the only point of contact between them and us, or are there other ways to communicate? It is arguably easy to interact with, for example, a chimp, a dog, a dolphin or even a bird; but how about a red-fish, or insects, such as butterflies and ants?
I feel that these questions challenge the very notion of Environmental Humanities.
True it is that environmental problems require a ‘knowledge’ (i.e. an epistemology and a language), which is different from the language used to identify them (science). But it might be a knowledge we do not yet have, and to devise a solution seems to be more problematic than to measure the problems. This is because – I feel – there is much more at stake than just the difference between the language of the humanists and that of the scientists, or the rift between the scientific identification of problems and the elaboration of solutions, or the issue of constructive interaction with stakeholders and policy makers. The problem is not only a matter of finding an ‘alternative language’ (methodologies, perspectives, and all that goes with it). An alternative language will probably need to become a ‘transferrable language’ because, if it remains alternative, it will always be ‘other than’, and maintain – rather than mend – the chasm between the sciences, ‘other’ studies and the operating fields (politics). How to do this remains regrettably an open question. Yet, I would dare to suggest that there is another, more important, point. An epistemological change is required first.
According to environmental humanists, environmental problems are intrinsically human problems. That these problems have been brought about by the human exploitation of the environment and that only (human) institutions (political, economic, social, academic) can do something to change the situation, goes without saying. Yet, this is a problematic stance for whom, like me, welcomes animal activism in all its forms. Non-humans are also suffering. In consideration that the instinct for survival is the first, basic, essential, fundamental, raw instinct which joins not only humans and animals but all exhistents, the fact that endangered animal species exhist, for example, makes the risk of extinction first and foremost their problem. So, strictly speaking, this particular issue is not only intrinsically human. By pushing things even further, one might argue that the lable “Environmental Humanities” is itself problematic: in my understanding of the term, it makes the environment relate primarily (if not exclusively) to a human / humanistic sphere; it almost suggests that the environment is, as it were, a function of man, rather than man a function of the enviroment. It seems to imply that the consequences of environmental changes are, in the first place, relevant to humans (regardless of where they are geografically located, and whether they belong to minority, exploited or under represented cultures) rather than equally important for the rest of the living world. What this reading of the term suggests is that humans are both perpetrators and victims of environmental problems and that, like bacteria, they tend to damage and eat up the cells of the organism they have entered, which by being destroyed, destroys them too.
Thanks primarily to the work of Italian zoo-anthropologist Roberto Marchesini, some of the issues I have been musing on during my research revolve around the seemingly inextricable humanism rooted in alleged animal studies. Most of the philosophical (let alone legal and political) debate on animals is ensconced in anthropocentrism: it is conducted from the viewpoint, the interests and the means of apprehending the world (i.e. the language), which is human-centred and human-focused. As Marchesini explains, it is rooted on the lasting assumption of an ontological gap between humankind and the rest of the living world, what he calls the principle of “purity” of human identity. Also, it has prioritized animals which, for one or another reason, can be apprehended as ‘closer to humans.’ Pro-animal discourses, for example, have largely revolved around animal (ab)use in labs, for entertainment, for the food and fashion industries – I ignore whether the debate has also extended to animals working in the fields of social security (police dogs) and social assistance (dogs for blind people). Regardless. In essence, pro-animal debate has focused on farm animals, pets and other big mammels, whose degree of proximity to the human species (both from a philogenitic and a social viewpoint) is greater than that of other animals. Significantly, pet therapy is traditionally conducted with the support of horses, dogs, cats, pigs, rabbits, even chicken, and dolphins, all animals, who share with us emotional expressiveness (the fact that their emotions are recognizable) and parental dispositions (they take care of their offspring).
I don’t think that the dream of a return to a more, as it were, primitive and less industrial or technologized world could be of any benefit to ecology. In fact, the modern concept of ecology was born thanks to technology. We have incorporated technology, it has framed the way in which we think and speak, and any utopia of a going-back, is, I think, an anachronistic delusion. By means of provocation, I would even argue that from the viewpoint of animal rights and animal liberation a return to the past would be anything but an appropriate response to mass industrial meat production: it would probably simply express itself in a so called “eco-friendly” re-dressing of the exploitation of animals for human benefit.
In general I feel that only just to enable the creation of a space for truly and purely environmental – as opposed to humanistic discourses – requires a shift of perspective that remains difficult to conceive. Indeed, if we think that about 60 billion farm animals are slaughtered every year for food production, to conclude that a lot of patience is required in order to reshape people’s way of behaving and seeing themselves in the environment, would be blindingly self-evident. What is needed is a radical epistemological change, a change in the way we understand and know the world. But how can we think animal? Is this possible at all? Perhaps a reflection on the means of communication of the most abstract arts (music in particular, which, incidentally, is the language of birds and, one could argue, of dolphins too) could help us move in the direction of reflecting about different non-human ways of approaching, relating, experiencing or understanding the world. Epistemological changes are the slowest ones to come about: psychologists and neorologists deem that to change a pattern of thought requires about 6 months – 6 months multiplied 6 billions….