The “Thinking About Animals” conference, held at Brock University in Saint Catharines, ended yesterday. It was very well-attended, ranging from teenagers to senior citizens, although the skin-tone was overwhelmingly white. (This issue came up in the last panel I attended when Jason Nord tried to argue that all social justice struggles are animal rights struggles. The argument struck me as extremely specious and overwhelmingly colonial. The title didn’t help: “Ain’t I an Animal?” A straight white male co-opting bell hooks? Really? One man of colour raised the issue and I found the responses somewhat disappointing. Jenny Grubbs seemed to push the issue aside–after complaining about how she is treated as a token in her own department–by saying that Breeze Harper, a black woman, won an award from ICAS.) Setting aside the unsatisfactory responses to a genuine and legitimate critique, the conference was fairly well-done. It was, however, a victim of its own success. There were, at times, six concurrent sessions. If this is to be the scale of the conference in the future, then it must be held over more than two days or organizers must be more ruthless in vetting submissions or there must be semi-annual conferences. Thursday was also too long: 8:15AM to 9:30PM. Perhaps it is just me and being prematurely old, but that is more than I can handle in a day!
Three papers stood out as especially excellent. Although, I should disclaim, that the papers that I thought were excellent were also highly scholarly and this likely doesn’t well represent the interests of many of the attendees. All the same, in order of presentation, I though that the following were the best: Stephen T. Newmyer’s “Some Ancient & Modern Views on the Expression of Grief in Animals,” which compared classical sources on animal emotions to modern cognitive ethology, Don lePan’s ‘Your sufferings, sinless things’: Changing Attitudes Towards Non-Human Animals and the Cattle Plague of 1865,” on the, as the title suggests, the cattle plague and various conflicting responses to the plague (religious/scientific, germ vs. miasma, and so on), and Vasile Stanescu’s “Paper Tigers: Nonviolent “Terrorists” & the Danger of the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act,” on the genealogy of legislative efforts to police animal activism. Michael Loadenthal’s paper on terrorist labelling and Carol Glasser’s paper on changes in the structure of the major institutional actors in the animal movement were suggestive, but require some development. More quantitative analysis is needed in critical animal studies.
Other than one participant–whose antics I sadly missed–constantly yelling out “citation!” and failing to understand discursive norms in philosophy papers and the occasional reference to PETA–which never ceases to upset everyone–the sessions all ran smoothly. For my part, I didn’t enjoy the standard format adopted by the sessions. That is, fifteen minute paper followed by five minutes of questions/discussions. I much prefer the standard academic conference format of the three papers followed by general discussion for the second half of the session. This preference may be entirely idiosyncratic, however.
I was overwhelmed with the response to my own presentations (the full text of which I’ll post later once I edit them to reflect what I actually ended up saying). Both sessions were very well attended. The second session, first thing in the morning on Friday, was standing-room only, with people spilling out into the hallway. I was pleased to see the number of people not from an academic background at my first paper, on the conflict between the OSPCA and the Toronto Humane Society–there were representatives from various dissident groups in Toronto, some young women involved in feral cat work in the Niagara and Western New York region, and an older gentleman from Florida who runs a high volume spay/neuter clinic. (Unfortunately, the PETA derailment to which I referred above happened during this session.) The second presentation, on my ongoing critique of the theoretical basis of critical animal studies, went very well as well. The session was eloquently introduced by David Clarke, of McMaster, and featured papers from Eric Jonas of Northwestern University (and Deconstruction, Inc.) and Valery Giroux of the University of Montreal. I was surprised by two sets of comments on this paper. First, why would I bother wasting time criticizing Peter Singer and Tom Regan? Second, why won’t I write a take-down of Gary Francione?