Animal deliberation: on taking animal agency seriously in political thought and material practice, the example of a mobile milking robot
Even though the well being and suffering of (a variety of larger) animals is increasingly the subject of political debate and public policy making, these animals in political discourse and thought figure merely as passive recipients of human attention. Even the most radical calls for inclusion of animals in our moral community can be said to do no more than granting animals ‘the right to remain silent’ (Oliver 2009). Representative rather than deliberative democracy is all they can possibly achieve, a situation in which animal interests are bargained for on their behalf by social movements calling for their protection and animal scientists reporting on their capacities. Actively involving animals in political processes even sounds ridiculous in the dominant traditions of political thought: By definition they have no voice; and politics can only be discursive in nature (cf. Law and Mol 2006), thereby defining ourselves as the exclusive political animal (Wadiwel 2002). Since animals cannot speak, there seems to be no need to reconstruct their preferences, to respond to their behaviour, and to develop an appropriate response-ability (Haraway 2008).
This paper argues for a form of active animal politics not merely as bargaining and negotiating, but as deliberation: as an ongoing collective process in which subjectivities of both humans and animals are delineated, in which animal behaviour is continuously interpreted as either being a meaningful expression of desires and preferences, or dismissed as mere outcome of (the ‘false consciousness’ produced as part of) taming, domestication and breeding, or as a lack of adaptive ability in case of animals living in the wild. This is not a call for a (probably ludicrous) form of granting certain formal political rights to animals – the right to convene, to vote, to be elected – but an argument starting from an empirical claim, on how in numerous practices in effect animals play a prominent role and are taken serious in ways that could be interpreted as political. These types of processes, in which animals can be and are understood as political subjects by behaving in politically relevant ways, can for instance be found in nature conservation practices in which humans and animals learn to live together (Whatmore 2002), in the development of zoo management practices (Acampora 2010), and in animal science research that uses revealed preferences of animals. But the implicit acknowledgment of animal political subjectivity is especially salient around the development of new technologies in which animals are involved.
As an example of this type of process, this paper presents an ethnographic description of a group of farmers, agricultural researchers and cows in developing a milking robot to be put out on pasture with the cows. In this innovation process not only new roles of farmers and cows come to be defined, but also their subjectivities (re-)emerge as part of a process of reflexively demarcating and isolating external factors and intrinsic features, in such a way as to interpret what are good cows, good farmers, and good robots. The process of tinkering by farmers and technologists to re-cohere their practice in new ways around the new system was not a one sided affair. It can be found to take place as part of a continuous process of experimental interaction between farmers, cows, and material arrangements. This back and forth, of changing elements in the farm system and observing the response of the animals, can be considered to amount to a dialogue between farmers and cows, with the robot, the feed, the pasture, and the management of the system as media of communication. A shifting practice in which also the moral subjectivity and identity of the humans involved are at stake. Hereby the paper explores the extent to which this process of mutual learning can be understood as ‘deliberating’ with cows. The paper ends by reflecting on the wider potential as well as problematic of envisaging animal political subjectivity.