Panel 3: Feral Biopolitics (1)

Belonging here: Feral/community cats in Australia
Emeritus Professor Jean Hillier
School of Global Urban and Social Studies 
Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology

Canine TANATOcommerce or the political-ethical dilemma of merchandise / The Bio-unlawfulness of Being: Stray dogs
Berenice Olmedo Peña
Visual Artist

Endangered Ferals
Dr. Anna Boswell
School of Humanities
University of Auckland 

Comments 12

  1. Thanks to Jean, Berenice and Anna for a set of fascinating presentations that cohere amazingly well! Your common analysis of the way that policies focused on policing (pun intended) different feral species follow a biopolitical logic is both convincing and disturbing. One thing to which your analyses seem to point is that policies targeting such species for eradication often also follow a capitalist logic in the sense that species are eliminated if they cannot be profitably harnessed in the interest of accumulation. Foucault was quite clear that biopolitics was partly about regulating bodies for capitalist production even given his overall critique of the Marxist project. So are these policies targeting feral nonhumans most fundamentally biopolitics in the service of capitalism? Or are there different logics driving these policies?

    1. Thanks Robert for your comment.
      I agree that Foucauldian biopolitics can be an appropriate analytical frame for critically exploring the categorization of ‘feral’ and ‘pest’ and for attempts at exterminating those who fall into such categories (and ‘weeds’ too). There are definitely many organisations and people who make economic profit out of non-humans deemed ‘pest’ in this manner. It is in their interests, for instance, to continue to manufacture and persuade the public, politicians and others that 1080 (sodium fluoroacetate, FCH2CO2Na) is ‘humane’ when much science indicates otherwise. 1080 is banned internationally except in Australia and New Zealand (and as a rodenticide in Mexico, Korea, Japan and Israel) due to the way in which affected creatures die and the multiplier effects on other species and the environment. The West Australian government who holds the patent for 1080 and manufactures it , is at pains to suggest that FCH2CO2Na occurs ‘naturally’ and hence many species are immune to it. This may be so for some local herbivores, but not for carnivores, such as native cats/quolls.
      Similar stories can be told re ‘Roundup’ and plants.
      Capital may not be the only logic in play, but it plays a definite role in the selection of means for biopolitical control in Australia.

  2. A second question for the panel: discussions of anmal agency like this always make me think of research demonstrating that in some parts of premodern Europe animals seem to have been attributed more agency and political subjectivity than at present to the extent that they could actually be tried for crimes such as murder. If we are to acknowledge animals as having more moral and political agency today, would this then mean that they should also again be held accountable for crimes against other individuals and species? Should cats be made to answer for eating birds? Birds for eating worms? If not, where and how do we draw the line between political rights and political obligations/accountability in the human-nonhuman spectrum?

    1. Interesting question!
      The French philosopher (and right-wing politician) Luc Ferry discussed medieval animal trials in a scathing manner. Many trials seem to have been held in Europe between the 13th and 19th Centuries. Indeed, residents of Hartlepool in the UK are nicknamed ‘monkey hangers’ after hanging a monkey as a French spy.
      More recently, Antoine Goetschel was the animal lawyer in Zurich.
      As Dr Seuss asked, ‘who speaks for the trees?’

      Your question opens up the issue of anthropocentrism and morals. Can non-human animals have moral views? Can they distinguish between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’? (Some probably can perhaps.) Should they be subject to human moral codes for doing something like eating to survive? After all, it’s us who have moved into their habitats.
      I am currently working on the topic of ‘less cute’ nonhumans who are typically regarded as pests – mosquitoes. In many ways, all species of mosquitoes are held responsible for transmitting pathogens when in fact, only females from a few of the c3500 species do. But we dont stop to look at the mosquito on our arm – we just swat it. Malathion is frequently used for spraying by organisations. Malathion is an acetylcholinesterase inhibitor, a diverse family of chemicals that includes sarin (as used in gas attacks on humans eg Tokyo subway) and carbaryl. It attacks the nervous system and the mosquitoes die in agony. (I know, it’s all relative, but it’s agony to them.) There are other ways to live with mosquitoes.

        1. But we can work on preventing malaria by other means – see Uli Beisel et al. Whether techno-modified mosquitoes, provision of nets and repellents, water management etc etc as many African and South American etc countries are trying. They have just declared Townsville in Australia free of dengue fever after releasing Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes.

  3. Kia ora koutou,

    A great panel, thanks everyone for your talks.

    Jean, I really liked the way you used Foucault to discuss the operation of the environment as an apparatus productive of different kinds of control and lives (both human and non-human). I was wondering too with respect to Robert’s question regarding the ethical and political implications of recognising the agency or perhaps action of non-humans. I appreciate your responses. What was interesting about yours’ and Anna’s presentations was the way in which taxonomies of ‘feral’ and ‘native’ species work to obfuscate the role of settler colonialism in significantly disrupting the ecologies of Australia and New Zealand. What do you think about Mark Davis’ presentation on ecological novelty? Does this resonate with your arguments?

    Berenice, thanks for a fascinating account of the policing and biopolitical control of dogs. Given that you outlined the economy of killing dogs that is sanctioned in particular ways by the state, I was wondering if you encountered any opposition or criticism of your alternate economy for dog carcuses?

    Ngaa mihi,

    1. Many thanks for your comments Holly.
      I totally agree with Mark Davis regarding novel ecosystems and sincerely hope that this paradigm will outweigh the invasion paradigm soon in Australia where invasion biology appears to reign supreme. Of course, the invasion biologists overlook the fact that non-Indigenous Australians are all invaders too and have done most of the ecosystemic damage.
      I think that a functional and broader view with regard to ‘feral’ cats would think through trophism: dingoes predate foxes and cats; foxes predate cats and rabbits, cats predate rabbits and so on. Reintroduction of dingoes could help. I recognise that the difficult area is the more arid zone where there are far fewer rabbits. Yet some cats are found to have starved because they wont eat reptiles.
      Nevertheless, resorting to 1080 is inhumane.
      I’m currently working on urban fringe novel ecosystems to highlight how town planning may be responsible for much ecosystemic harm through poor planning, design and implementation. Researchers are just beginning to estimate the ‘kill rate’ from bulldozing and urbanising areas of fringe ecosystem.

      This panel is about to close, so I thank you and everyone else involved for a great carbon-neutral conference.

  4. Thanks again to all presenters for a stimulating discussion, and especially to Jean Hillier for her ongoing thoughtful engagement with the comment feed. We look forward to continue to discuss these issues in the weeks ahead!

  5. Hi Jean,

    Thank you for your presentation. An analysis of the New Zealand situation would come out very similarly, although to my knowledge Australia has not reached the levels of absurd zealotry in the poisoning of animals that have led us to declare that we will try to poison rats to extinction by 2050. It is an easy sell, they have not done so well on cats here but are trying.

    I think it is right on the mark to point out the public relations (I am being polite, it is propaganda) that is being generated by the actors driving these toxic conservation wars. We are damaging the minds of our children and making of them intolerant environmentalists and killers.

    Willy Cameron

    1. Hi Willy,

      Thanks for your comment. I guess that in NZ, possums are the cat equivalent!
      I’m just reading Lori Gruen’s book “Entangled Empathy”. I think that if humans could understand the relative amount of agony and suffering in human equivalent terms that some of the non-humans go through as a result of human-inflicted pesticide, insecticide, toxic bait and Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease, there might be more empathetic understanding. Eg, a human ‘rabbit’ would spend about 1.5 years haemorrhaging before death. There could be an argument that children should see it?


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