Julie Urbanik’s Placing Animals was, in many ways, a reiteration of many themes we’ve come into contact with over the course of the semester. Chief among these themes is the exact relationship between humankind and the natural world. Nevertheless, I would contend that this book suffers from relying in part on a flawed theory. This theoretical notion is that of hybridity, defined as recognizing that “the ability to act or effect change– is multidirectional and does not come from humans alone” (Urbanik 44). The fundamental problem facing this methodological approach to human-animal relations is rooted in what hybridity is: a human-forged model. Indeed, the only way we can conceptualize animals is through the lens of human reason, and most models will be inherently anthropocentric for that reason. Our attempts to understand and interpret animals will always be through the lens of human experience. Thus, although Descartes’s overly mechanistic account of animals is incorrect, he was on to something when he attached importance to animals’ inability to speak (Urbanik 23).
A clear example of how apparent hybridity is covertly anthropocentric can be found in the case of animals and religion. As the book notes, some religions like Hinduism directly elevate animals to a literally divine, in the case of Ganesha, or semi-divine status (Urbanik 55). Although this is speculative, it would seem that a deification of animals, be it in India or Ancient Egypt, says much more about humanity’s relation to itself than to animals. In our attempts to understand animals and gain valuable human knowledge, we have tried to place animals and their behavior within the wider cosmos, our cosmos rather. Both Ganesha and Bastet are animal-human fusions that connect human interpretations of animal behavior, understood within a human context, to humans themselves. Even though it might seem like the ultimate reverence for animals to place them in a pantheon, we’ve only situated them as such because of humanlike interpretations of their behavior, which is an intrusion of anthropocentrism.
Another example of this process is in the case with the domestication of animals as pets. Though this is an outwardly symbiotic relationship, it is anchored in anthropocentric ideas. As the book documents, a type of affection for pets emerged during the Victorian era; however, this was really no more progressive than a view of them as utilitarian beasts. The moment we begin to empathize with pets is the moment we assert our dominance over them and over any possible understanding of them. We cannot begin to conceptualize animals in-and-of-themselves. Their minds are noumenal to us, for any attempt to speak about them is situated within the limits of our human reason. Obviously, domesticated beasts of burden are hardly better off. In this case, the unilateral power dynamic between humans and animals is most apparent. An exemplary case that Urbanik mentions is how the shorthorn cow was selectively bred to produce desired traits for economic purposes (Urbanik 99). In this variant of domestication, anthropocentrism is rampant as humans intentionally use and shape animals for their own devices.
Ultimately, I thought that Urbanik’s book was fascinating, yet I think it paints too rosy of a picture where human-animal relations are concerned.
Recently, the Department of Energy has introduced a plan to subsidize about 90 coal and nuclear power plants, with a cost to taxpayers of over ten billion dollars a year. Ostensibly, this subsidy is supposed to support these plants for their dependable contributions to our electrical grid. Nevertheless, it has come under fire for propping up dirty forms of energy, and it has been chastised for potentially interfering with market efficiency given the declining costs of renewable energy and natural gas.