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Animal Spaces, Beastly Places

Reviewed by Lisa Uddin, University of Rochester

Philo, Chris and Chris Wilbert, eds. Animal Spaces, Beastly Places: New Geographies of Human-Animal Relations. London: Routledge, 2000. 310 pages. ISBN: 041519847X

In his important 1980 essay “Why Look at Animals?” critic John Berger lamented the marginalization of animals in modernity. Animals, he argued, have been rendered invisible within modern capitalist society. We can no longer see, neither conceptually nor perceptually, the authentic animality of animals, for it has slipped out of our view. A reductive human relation to the animal world has transformed them into commodities, degraded them as members of the bourgeois family unit, contained them in national parks, game reserves and – most tragically – zoos. How to get these invisible animals into view? How to put animals into the center of modern social life?

Though not a direct response to these questions, Chris Philo and Chris Wilbert’s edited volume Animal Spaces, Beastly Places addresses the legitimate, though somewhat nostalgic, problem of the marginal animal with theoretical sophistication and a lively set of case studies. Animals may have their assigned marginal spaces, but they also have a history of troubling those spaces, of constituting various kinds of “beastly places” that call that marginality into question. The implications for an understanding human-animal relations are compelling, inviting us to rethink notions of human control, animal agency and the spatial dynamics that simultaneously shape both forms of life.

With great breadth, Animal Spaces, Beastly Places explores the placement of animals by humans; how we locate the animal. Some authors take up this question by privileging physical location, like Griffiths, Poulter and Sibley’s study of feral cats in urban environments. Other work focuses on the location of nonhuman creatures in the social and cultural imaginary, such as Wolch, Brownlow and Lassiter’s focus group study of low-income African American women in Los Angeles and their knowledge and perceptions of animals. Wisely, all essays attend to the ways in which animals’ physical space inform imagined space and vice versa. Gruffudd’s article on modernist design at London Zoo in the 1930’s is an exceptional example. There he considers how architect Berthold Lubetkin constructed animal exhibits that reinforced animal identities. The sanitary, streamlined space of the Penguin Pool, for instance, not only signaled an emergent concern over animal health, but also reproduced the species’ penguin-ness, making the animals move like penguins should (229).

In addition to a treatment of the animal’s place, this volume examines the multiple ways in which these material and imagined locations are challenged, disrupted and otherwise highly unstable; how animals respond to human placement through the formation of “beastly places”. This possibility of animal-centric, animal-constructed locales is one of the more provocative claims made by Philo and Wilbert, suggesting as it does that animals have a kind of agency.

Michael Woods’ essay on the fox and the deer in recent British hunting debates elaborates on the suggestion. Exploring how the animals have been represented by both hunting groups and animal rights advocates, Woods includes a fascinating discussion on the problem of speaking for nonhumans. Rather than understanding this problem as one of the animals’ incapacity to participate in the debate, and consequently having no agency, Woods mobilizes Actor Network Theory to figure agency along different criteria. This perspective, advanced most notably by Bruno Latour, define agency as an effect brought about through various configurations of human and nonhuman, organic and inorganic actors in a network: “Thus there emerges a peculiar agency without intentionality” (199). More, agency-as-effect emerges in spatialterms, when an actor disturbs the physical or imagined space in which it is placed: “by the fox attacking a chicken-house and disrupting an agricultural network of production; by the deer swimming a river vainly trying to escape pursuing hounds, disrupting the image of the countryside as a space of nature” (200). Such unruly behaviors impact the representation of the animal itself; the animal is portrayed either as foe or victim. Shifted representations, in turn, serve as catalysts for legislative change. This, Woods maintains, is how animals “participate” in parliamentary politics without requiring a conscious intentionality or being entirely subjected to human control.

Less provocative is the overarching aim of the these writings to make more room for animals, or as Wolch, Brownlaw and Lassiter phrase it, “to forg[e] pathways towards human-animal coexistence and strategies for sharing space. . .” (71). While this will strike most as a responsible agenda, what becomes problematic are the assumptions that inspire some of those pathways to coexistence – which is to say, assumptions of an animal’s lost space that ought to be restored.

Reminiscent of Berger’s melancholia for the invisible modern animal, Davies’ essay on the production of virtual animals in electronic zoos is a case in point. Analyzing the status of animals represented in these filmic and digital spaces, Davies argues that the animals of electronic zoos are disadvantaged compared to the embodied animals of traditional zoo displays: “The electronic zoo offers a different kind of space, one where we are relieved of coming face to face with the subjugation of animals, and one perhaps where we are relieved of considering them at all” (262). The argument in favor of “real” zoos is refreshing, but risks becoming as wistful as Berger’s yearning for an earlier time when animals had better spaces in which to live.

Another essay in this collection, however, does an excellent job of questioning this very sense of an animal’s lost space by historicizing the loss itself. Considering the reintroduction of wolves into upstate New York, Alec Brownlow’s asks why and by what social and cultural means this place is considered “ecologically appropriate” for wolves to “return to”, and moreover, the historical circumstances that produced this need to return the wolves at all. The effect is to make suspect any appeals to the rightful place of these animals, and what it means to make more space for animals generally.

As relevant as the question of animal spaces for animals may be, it is also fair to ask how research into animal spaces help us understand and negotiate human to human relations. How do animal spaces function as locations through which human concerns about human things are played out? This line of inquiry – the inquiry into anthropomorphism – remains in the margins of Philo and Wilbert’s book, perhaps to its detriment. In an attempt to reposition animals alongside humans, the editors may have overstated the case, opening up a political can of worms at the expense of a still crucial, if less innovative, way to make sense of animal space.

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