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Social Anthropology

Comment on Carrithers, M. ‘Can a Species Be a Person?'

For Michael Carrithers' original article, and the published version of this comment, see: This article traces an emergent trope in current environmental discourse: the equation between non-human species and individual human persons. This trope allows “rhetorically disadvantaged” species like the unfortunate pearl mussel, who are individually poorly equipped to be recognised by humans as intersubjective partners, to emerge nevertheless as the collective recipients of what, quoting Tim Ingold, the authors term “a caring, attentive regard, a 'being with'”.  This account of rhetorics in motion challenges the static image of westerners’ distancing, instrumental relations with a nature ‘out there’, which, despite caveats and misgivings[i], is still used as a foil in anthropological descriptions of alternative ontological engagements with non-humans. However, I will argue that while it exemplifies Westerners’ ability to achieve new, unexpected modes of ‘being with’ non-human animals, the article also, paradoxically, carries the seed of a reframing of the meaning of ‘being with’ itself.

The revival of anthropological interest in non-human animals in the past decade has heralded a move away from treating animals as “good to think with”, towards a view of animals as “here to live with” (Haraway 2003:5), as actual participants in human sociality. Against this background, the present article might at first sight seem low on accounts of actual interaction, of sensorial, fleshly-material, technologically mediated entanglements between humans and pearl mussels – of ‘being with’, in other words. Granted, pearl mussels have no face and won’t play, but one could still imagine an ethnography of the encounter which shows how different “creatures, with all their perceptual grappling hooks, transplant rousing knowledge across species divides” (Hayward 2010:581; Hayward’s article focuses on cup corals). How have the officers of the pearl mussel project come to care for the animals in the first place? Has this changed at all through greater exposure to the animals themselves? In other words, seen from within the frames of the emergent ‘multispecies ethnography’ (Kirksey & Helmreich 2010), this article might seem to belong to an anthropological tradition concerned with humans thinking and talking about animals, rather than with human-animal relations themselves.

But this would in an important sense be missing the point: this article prompts us to attend to the transformative effects of rhetorics upon interspecies relationships themselves.  By contrast, emphatic calls to study “human interactions and relationships with animals rather than simply human representations of animals” (Knight 2005:1, original emphasis), paradoxically risk amplifying the mysterious gap between mere representations and real relationships. The tropes identified here are not ‘simply representations’ (is there such a thing?) – they fund research and intervention, they respond to DNA testing, they enable powerful affects and moral suasions. Changing tropologies of personhood and shifting languages of moral commitment must surely matter to (indeed, form part of) the texture of interspecies relationalities[ii].

Recognizing that modes of interspecies relation are informed by a shifting multiplicity of rhetorics of personhood, unsettles the primacy of face-to-face intersubjectivity as the ground of authentic interspecies relations. For instance, Knight critiques Ingold’s equation of individual relationships between humans and animals, with the “depersonalized” relations between an individual hunter and a prey species which are no more than “substitutable tokens in a class” (Ibid.:4-5). Yet this article illustrates the easy slippage in practice, between registers of individual and collective concern (“poor animals”): from population thinking, through a loose sense of ‘fellow feeling’ for one’s metaphorical nebenmenschen, all the way to linking a loved one’s name to that of a species.

One might ask – empirically – what biological, material, affective experience is needed to translate, say, nebenmensch-feeling into mitmensch-feeling; just as one could ask which day-to-day forms of disciplined practice might enable the “analogous extension of sympathy and moral responsiveness from fellow citizen to animal” to actually “engender a quite distinctive and finely differentiated moral responsiveness to the animal, as vets, or farmers, for example, have developed”. But as for a critical attempt to isolate a more authentic ‘being with’ behind the rhetorical multiplication and interweaving of tropes – that attempt is already preemptively subverted here. Through its form of analysis as much as through its subject matter, the article reminds us that accounts of immediate, authentic, intersubjective relationality are themselves rhetorical – while insisting there’s nothing ‘mere’ about that.




[i] See for instance Ingold (2000:63)

[ii] It is true that the agency in this particular story lies squarely with the humans – no actor-networks here. But the authors might reply that crafting new ways of registering non-human agencies (including through ANT-inspired or multispecies ethnography) is itself a work of rhetoric. Chicken, meet egg.



Anderson, B. 1991. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso.

Candea, M. 2010. '"I fell in love with Carlos the Meerkat": engagement and detachment in human-animal relations'. American Ethnologist, 37(2), 241-258.

Haraway, D.J. 2003. The companion species manifesto : dogs, people, and significant otherness. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.

Hayward, E. 2010. 'Fingeryeyes: Impressions of Cup Corals'. Cultural Anthropology, 25(4), 577-599.

Kirksey, E. & Helmreich, S. 2010. 'The emergeance of multispecies ethnography'. Cultural Anthropology, 25(4), 545-576.

Knight, J. 2005. 'Introduction'. In Animals in Person: Cultural perspectives on human-animal intimacies, (Ed, Knight, J.). Oxford: Berg. pp. 1-13.