HONG KONG REVIEW OF BOOKS 香港書評

HKRB BOOKS: Mongrel Rebellion

Unlike other sites, the HKRB Books series runs extracts of as yet unpublished books by authors around the world. The series continues with the introduction to Lukasz Muniowski’s ‘Mongrel Rebellion’, an exploration of the relationship between animals and political resistance. Anyone interested in working with Lukasz on the project can contact the author at: lukasz.muniowski@gmail.com.

Political or social resistance through animals is nothing new. Ancient Romans resisted the expansion of Christianity by throwing believers to the lions. Granted, they could have just slaughtered them – but this symbolic act of violence, of being forced to fight a wild predator, was to instill fear in the hearts of those that considered joining this new and dangerous religion. In less specific contexts, men have used farm animals to resist hunger or horses to resist being conquered by their enemies.

In contemporary society there are other kinds of strange animal-human relations in which men use animals as a form of resistance, for example those who relate to animals to resist a threat to masculinity that is taking place. Youtube channels like Epic Meal Time or restaurants like Heart Attack Grill half-jokingly enforce the notion that a man is only a man when he eats meat. It is not my intention to address how both hide animal suffering behind a humorous facade, however, I would like to just highlight the idea of masculinity being something achieved through such a trivial activity as eating. One no longer needs to prove his masculinity through traditional models of chivalry or bravery, but rather through consuming a Quadruple Bypass Burger and living long enough to tell everybody about the  unpleasant experience of digesting it.

Another way of preserving masculinity through animals is by hunting them. Although modern hunters tend to claim that hunting is a hobby which they participate in to spend time with like-minded men, their final objective is nevertheless to kill animals.[1] In Poland hunting is not for everyone – you have to be recommended by a relative or a friend. Exceptions to this rule are only possible when one possesses acute knowledge of where to find animals to kill or enough capital to financially contribute to the development of the organization. What is at stake here is social position. Hunting can be understood as a social game, on an adequate field and with specific stakes, which makes it worthy of an analysis with the tools provided by Pierre Bourdieu and Loic Wacquant.[2] Through hunting, men resist the impulse of growing up, so spending time with their families and providing for them, remaining boys playing with other boys. At the same time they feel they are participating in a manly contest, since lives – the lives of animals – are at stake in this game.

In these examples animals serve as inanimate tools, objects which help men resist certain impulses with, or by, their death. Since animals are no longer used at farms to pull carriages, they are useful only because of their meat, milk or eggs. In such contexts, a live animal is a useful tool of resistance only if it is about to die.

But what of pets? This book makes a case that animals can be a form of resistance which is much more radical and politically useful from a progressive perspective than those just discussed.

Of course, a pet rat can be used to fight the oppression that you are suffering on the hands of your older sister once released onto her bed when she is asleep, but on a broader scale, can pets be useful as active tools of human resistance? Can they assist us in acts of transgression, subversion or resistance and serve as more than companions or feet warmers? The first question that begs asking here is: why and what might we want to resist in the first place?

Image for the HKRB by Hazel Lai

Prevailing neoliberal capitalism, which has been implemented by governments of countries as various as the USA, China or India, creates the impression of inclusion. Thanks to this supposed tolerance neoliberalism should be perceived positively, if it was not for the fact that this ideological tolerance is not intact with its performative aspects, which enforce a certain way of acting on all of its subjects.[3]

Formed as an answer to the economic situation of the 1970s and the Nixon Shock of 1971, neoliberalism was validated by the Miracle of Chile – a term coined by the man who inspired it, economist Milton Friedman. Furthermore, two founders of neoliberalism, Friedrich von Hayek in 1974 and Friedman in 1976 received the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences.

The economical sphere influences both the political and the social. In the neoliberal economy, citizens are subjects, personally responsible for the proper functioning of the economy by the imperative of constant production and consumption. When said subjects fail to keep the system functioning, they are the first to suffer the consequences of crisis. Marxist anthropologist David Harvey claims that “the neo-liberal insistence upon the individual as the foundational and essentialist element in political-economic life” actually contributes to the failure of the full realisation of concepts of “equality, democracy and social solidarities.”[4] In the end, in neoliberal economy one is dependent solely on himself or herself, while society exists in rare instances, like when it is pressurized to spit out unproductive and unreliable subjects.

Henry A. Giroux connects neoliberalism with the idea of biopolitics and proclaims it is the second coming of the Gilded Age. The latter, through unregulated capitalism, allowed the rich not only to flourish, but to exercise and exhibit power, in its truly Foucauldian sense, over the bodies of the workers. The abuse suffered by the workers at the hands of the employers was a direct consequence of biopolitics being used on such a large scale by economical rather than political forces. Neoliberalism is the extension and consequence of the gradually rising increase in power of a group which was then referred to as Robber Barons, and is now known as the One Percent. In this economy everyone is a subject, forced to accept following, official orthodoxies:

the public sphere, if not the very notion of the social, is a pathology; consumerism is the most important obligation of citizenship; freedom is an utterly privatized affair that legitimates the primacy of property rights over public priorities; the social state is bad; all public difficulties are individually determined; and all social problems, now individualized, can be redressed by private solutions.[5]

How might pets serve as a rebellious response to a situation like this? How is obtaining a dog or a cat not simply the result of capitalist ideology and marketing? Is taking a mutt from a pound not just another form of co-option?

First of all, I propose here that solidarity – as opposed to charity, the division between the two I discuss in the last chapter of this book – is an act that resists being subsumed into the capitalist market. Surprisingly, solidarity can produce a rather unpleasant feeling, making everyday existence unbearable, preventing one from falling victim to egotism and entitlement. Second, I will propose that since dogs are so closely attached to people, it is only fitting that out of all the domesticated animals they can be really helpful in resisting neoliberal capitalism.

Dogs have been domesticated for something like 30 thousand years. They have developed from disposable to desirable and are now often treated as family members. Pręgowski and Włodarczyk write that: “dog as a domesticated animal […] presents the arbitrability between nature and culture, simultaneously showing the fears associated with the blurring of the line separating the two”[6] – a topic to undergo further analysis in the first chapter of this book. By being on the border between these two worlds, the dog serves as a perfect creature to teach us about resistance. After all, it was dogs (along with other animals) that reminded soldiers of their humanity during major conflicts.[7]

While nowadays we do not rely on dogs as we used to, as they have transformed from free-roaming guardians to couch-cuddlers, their intelligence and emotional capability can still be very helpful in us reaching everyday balance. Florence Nightingale noted that dogs that carried mail during the Crimean War of 1853-56, and apart from their primary function, they sped up physical and mental recovery of soldiers. The founder of modern nursing was so appreciative of the pets, that she herself came back to England with a puppy.[8] The therapeutic abilities of dogs have been known and used since the 19th century, but did not develop into dog therapy as we know it today until the second half of the 20th century. One might assume that only full-breed dogs should be used in therapy, but Sipowicz, Najbert and Pietras dispute that claim, as all dogs are different and a proper training can easily turn a ‘mongrel’ into a therapist.[9]

In When Species Meet Donna J. Haraway stresses that even though in his analysis Marx neglected to take into consideration any other animal apart from man, “dogs are commodities, and commodities of a type central to the history of capitalism.”[10] This would apply primarily to purebred dogs, whose value is decidedly higher. Eric Baratay writes that since 1970s buying is the primary way people obtain dogs, whether from puppy mills (where pets live in horrific conditions) or from licensed breeders. The cause of this development, apart from the aforementioned perception of breeds, is the increase in median household income, urbanization and a constantly decreasing number of strays.[11] Baratay makes such observations in regard to France, but the same can be said about Great Britain or USA, where caught stray dogs are put down if they fail to find a home.

Sylvie Tissot notices that one of the first signs of gentrification in a certain area is the rising population of family dogs, like retrievers, as opposed to poorer neighbourhoods, dominated by more aggressive breeds of dogs.[12] In his book on the subject Łukasz Drozda considers the possibility that an increase in the amount of dogs of any breed  – as opposed to cats which do not need as much time and attention to maintain – can serve as an important indicator of gentrification taking place in a specific area.[13]

The latter observation is hard to back up, as the more conscious owners tend to keep their cats inside, afraid that the animals might hurt themselves on the outside. The former might be true in the United States and other countries that prefer putting dogs down rather than keeping them alive in shelters for as long as possible. In Poland the shelters are overpopulated by mutts, mongrels or mixes and this is the most dominant “breed” in the country. Partially because a common misconception about breeds.

The common assumption is that dog breeds are predictable, posses certain characteristics one can expect, while mongrels are comparatively unorganized, random and unpredictable. Further, while purebred dogs carry cultural capital, mongrels do not. As pointed out by Susan McHugh, mongrels almost miraculously escape “eugenic hygiene” and successfully avoid “improvement.”[14] Mongrels are problematic, because they are a by-product of “dog production.” They stand as proof that dogs are more than things, beings we can influence. More so, McHugh points out that “canine strays, like indigent humans, have been long identified as symptoms of social problems.”[15] Their existence questions social order. In some cases, it is even transgressive.

Keeping such dogs alive at all costs in shelters can be characterized as naive, even cruel, when said dogs seem in immediate need to be put down. However, such evaluation is always problematic. Is its failure to find a home a good enough reason to euthanize a dog? Is a lack of a paw or being old sufficient justification? Haraway asks the same questions when discussing a Washington Post article about caring for an old dog: “How does a companion animal’s human make judgement about the right time to let her dog die or, indeed, to kill her dog? How much care is too much? Is the issue quality of life? Money? Pain? Whose?”[16] There are no easy answers to these questions.

To explore these questions I will discuss  a variety of questions that arise in the political and social relationships between man and animal, ranging from my own experiences with animals through the philosophy of animal studies to the work of animal charity work. Finally I address the division between charity and solidarity, as expressed by Srecko Horvat in The Radicality of Love. The Croatian philosopher distinguishes between the two on the basis of mercy and love. Charity is a singular act, ideally containing mercy, while solidarity is a genuine and continuous string of acts of love.[17] I discuss whether certain forms of radical solidarity – with animals rather than humans – might be a genuine is an act of resistance to the neoliberal imperative of constant productivity. Certain acts committed by humans towards dogs might escape a smooth logic of neoliberal productivity and offer a solidarity that can be concieved as a geuine form of political resistance to the conditions of contemporary capitalism.

 


Łukasz Muniowski is a doctoral student at the Institute of English Studies, University of Warsaw, Poland. In addition to digital game criticism, he has published articles on Michael Jordan, Allen Iverson, Hubert Selby Jr., and Jack Kerouac. His doctoral dissertation focusses on the achievements of leading NBA players after Michael Jordan.

He has previously written for the HKRB on the politics of animals.

The featured image on this post is by Hazel Lai. Hazel is an undergraduate student of English at HSMC, Hong Kong. Her art can be seen at her Instagram page.

Please support the HKRB and look out for more essays, interviews and reviews by following our Facebook page and Twitter account. You can check out our colleagues the LA Review of Books here.


References

[1] Dotora Rancew-Sikora. Sens polowania. Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Naukowe Scholar, 2009.

[2] Bourdieu, Pierre and Wacquant, Loic J. D. An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology. Cambridge: Polity, 1992.

[3] Łukasz Moll. “Neoliberalizm i gra w klasy.” Ed. by Wojciech Józef Burszta, Piotr Jezierski and Michał Rauszer. Zwodnicze Imaginarium. Gdańsk: WN Katedra, 2016, 53.

[4] David Harvey. Spaces of Neoliberalization. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2005, 38.

[5] Henry A. Giroux. Youth in a Suspect Society. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009, 153.

[6] Michał Piotr Pręgowski, Justyna Włodarczyk. “Trzecia Rzeczpospolita Czworonożna.” Ed. by Michał Piotr Pręgowski, Justyna Włodarczyk. Pies też człowiek? Gdańsk: WN Katedra, 2014, 17.

[7] Eric Baratay. Betes des treanchees. Des vecus oublies. CNRS: Paris, 2013.

[8] Lynn McDonald, Florence Nightingale. The Crimean War. Collected Works of Florence Nightingale. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2010.

[9] Kasper Sipowicz, Edyta Najbert, Tadeusz Pietras. Dogoterapia. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN, 2016, 140.

[10] Donna J. Haraway. When Species Meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008, 52.

[11] Eric Baratay. Zwierzęcy punkt widzenia. Gdańsk: Wydawnictwo w Podwórku, 2014. Polish translation, 247.

[12] Sylvie Tissot. Good Neighbors: Gentryfing Diversity in Boston’s South End. New York: Verso 2015.

[13] Łukasz Drozda. Uszlachetniając przestrzeń. Warsaw: Instytut Wydawniczy Książka i Prasa, 2017, 125.

[14] Susan McHugh. Dog. London: Reaktion Books, 2004, 128-129.

[15] McHugh, 130.

[16] Haraway, 50.

[17] Srecko Horvat. The Radicality of Love. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2016.