Animal Voices, October 11, 2013 radio interview with Layla AbdelRahim, an anthropologist, writer, researcher and public speaker who holds a PhD in comparative literature from the University of Montreal, Quebec:
Q: First I wonder if you can define for us domestication, what it is, and why humans domesticate other beings, what’s behind that, tell us the story.
A: Domestication, the term itself, implies sedentary relationships, domestic is from the dome, from the home, it defines humans in terms of sedentary settlement. If we look at the history of humanity, most animals, in a larger extent, usually have to be nomadic, there has to be movement, part of the definition of life is movement, so domestication as an epistemological concept… the minute you define a certain territory as belonging to one species, and you look at everything in that territory and then surrounding it, the environment, as existing as resource for that entity, we’re entering into unjust unequal relationships of power, of who consumes whom, of someone getting defined dehumanized or depersonalized, because being a human resource, animal resource, living or nonliving resource, existing for the needs of consumption, pleasure or whatever of that who possesses that space and the resources in that space. So then relating to the world in this way implies violence, appropriation, and then dispossession of those who are violated, depersonalized, appropriated. For me the history of domestication begins with human appropriation of the reproduction of crops and human and nonhuman animals for their needs of colonizing that space for their own use. And so domestication then not only depersonalizes the living entities. Paleontology and history shows us that it was crops like barley and certain types of wheat were colonized in the middle east in the fertile crescent. You colonize them, you need to reproduce more of the same in order to appropriate it, so you enter into monocultural relationships based on rape as well, because you appropriate the reproduction of the other species for your needs. So rape comes in there. Violence, because then you consume those, because those who are defined as your resources, they exist solely for your purpose, they do not exist for their own purpose of life and movement, which are completely interconnected. So you enter into these relations of agriculture, which is part of domestication, you need more and more resources so you have more settlements, growing settlement cities, and constant growing colonization of those who are defined as your human and nonhuman resources. And again it’s only in civilized thinking epistemologies, how we construct knowledge, how we think about the world, in that thinking, then you reproduce these dehumanizing, alienating relationships of violence and rape, and also maximizing the reproduction of these resources. So this insane growth of human population as human resources, but also of monocultural crops, and monocultural domestic animals, that completely overpopulated the world, and it’s not viable. We’re coming to a point where it’s a really critical situation. So that’s my definition of domestication.
Q: I wonder if we could get a little more personal and talk about your relationship to wildness and wilderness, and what draws you to this kind of work and philosophy.
A: It’s a personal journey before it became thoroughly thought through, I don’t like the word theory, but we need it in a way to theorize our experience, so it became my theoretical position as well. Now as an adult having gone through my life the way I did, I came to the point of, Ok well, if there is this violence and domestication and civilization, what’s the alternative? What’s the viable way of relating to the world? So I started observing. First I had these experiences in the wild, and then reading up on the literature of ethologists or people who study wilderness, and comparing notes, so to speak. That’s why I’m comparative, because I constantly compare cultures, I compare my own experience to what’s out there. This is what I observed. As a child, I started speaking late. I’m born in Russia, my most formative childhood experiences were with my Russian grandfather in this tiny village south of Moscow, and at the time in the 60’s there was still wilderness, there was still a forest, there was actually kind of the last frontier that forests were during the war. And my grandfather fought in that second world war, where the Germans stopped coming to Moscow. My grandfather was one of the last parties on, he was actually wounded eight bullets in his body. He was lying in that forest and he survived. To him that forest was a pilgrimage of both life and death. He almost died there, but at the same time he was very aware. He was the one who showed me, before I could speak I could see. He would show me how animals lived and how they felt and how they thought He was very loving. There was a swan wounded by a hunter, he picked him and he showed me, Look his mate is not flying away even though its autumn, we bring him back to life because now its two lives depend on this life. In my silence, I absorbed this incredible intelligence of life, and that it needs other life, this empathy, compassion, cooperation. My father was from Sudan, so part of my childhood, he was a geologist in geological camp for more than half a year in the savannah in Darfur before it was all ravaged by mining and war and the mining industry, so part of it was seeing how some of the tribe that survived colonization and were still untouched, human tribes lived with nonhuman tribes. I could see this incredible harmony. Predation was outnumbered by mutuality and herbivores and frugivores. This relationship of wilderness I saw required mutuality, required respect, and required this constant adaptation to forces of life. In this then I formulated my position that relationships of wilderness require diversity and require adaptation to life, not in the Darwinian sense of the struggle of life to adapt to a world that is implicitly hostile, that you need to struggle, the competition in terms of offspring. It’s not that that was highlighted in these relationships. It’s the adaptation to life in its variety, in its flourishing. and that’s where life our life comes from, otherwise there’s stagnation, there’s monoculturalism, and there is death. And this is how I came to formulate my critique of civilization and my theory of wilderness.
Q: Thanks for that. Now I wonder if you could talk a bit about, from that beautiful vision of wilderness, I know you’re encouraging people to move back from that and look within, and that wilderness isn’t just out there. Can you talk about the process of domestication? What does it take to domesticate wildness and what’s at work to turn wildness into something civilized?
A: First of all, in spite of the ten thousand years of civilization and domestication, you start looking at when the first crops, and nonhumans, and then humans of course women first, started getting domesticated in the middle east, it was like 10,000 years ago, there were different efforts of civilization around the world, but this was the most lingering kind of affliction. If you look at that history, the most significant weapon it seems, is the epistemological and ontological one, which is if you convince people to work for this project of defining the world in terms of resources, in terms of hierarchal food chain, and who has the right to consume whom, you enter in to this mode of relating. If you can educate resources to think of themselves as resources, and if they in turn could have a little less resources than whom you serve as a resource, that you don’t have the right to go and consume resources because they don’t belong to you because you’re in that niche, in that food chain, it’s a very convenient kind of ponoptican, what Focault called ponoptican works, that disciplines you from within your own convictions that someone is watching. So you start watching yourself more effectively and efficiently, than if there were a whole system of control and punishment from the outside, The inside belief is the most significant and most effective. What we have then is the birth of the project of education, and education in the sense of how do you convince your resources to comply, and at the same time to reproduce this knowledge. Throughout the 10,000 years of civilization, the fact that we still need this epistemology to constantly be constructed and constantly reiterated and reproduced artificially in situations of education and pedagogy shows that deep inside, we know that if we are to live, this is not the way. That we are born wild in spite of it, that after domestication we can go feral much quicker than the years it takes to domesticate us into civilization. And these years are extending because the more impossible it is, the more rebellion, the more dropouts the more intensive is, instead of reducing schooling, it’s now extending. Together with graduate school you can be in school until like to 35- 50 years old. Which shows that there’s a kind of urgency in the civilizing project itself that it knows it’s kind of eating itself up. To me, all modes of resistance to this narrative and to the structure that domesticates us, to successful result of demolishing these walls that keep us from each other, from the other resources whom we feed or off of whom we feed, apart from that it’s really important to demolish the inside walls, the inside epistemology that allows us to accept docilly that Well this is the way of the world, animals are there to die, the earth is there to be dug and explored and excavated, you need rocks to build homes, you need petroleum to run the whole thing, etc., you need coal, you need metals. It’s inside that we have to realize, what is this epistemology that drives this narrative that we have the right to do this? Are we that different than coal that we excavate? Life came from the earth. We share the same essence, even if we are talking geological chemistry, we share the same essence with the earth.
Q: For animal rights advocates and for ethical vegans, who are working to help people hear the voices of other animals who are suffering and maybe trying to liberate other animals, it sounds like you’re calling for a more holistic view of liberation, and calling for people to look within to their own domestication, and our own ways we’re not free.
A: Yes exactly. For example, it’s totally great when animals are freed, but the encroachment of the colonized space, there’s no space for them to live. We were just discussing recently with a friend, who says her friend works with rescuing dogs in Spain and then shipping them around Europe to be adopted as pets. How about rescuing wilderness and leaving that wilderness for itself so that these dogs can have a viable canine existence on their terms, not as resources of comfort and pets for somebody who can afford to ship them from one country to another.
Q: I see in your book that the last chapter is called In The End And Toward A Feral Future…