Vinciane Despret / Walls & Bridges

October 14-18, 2013
Vinciane Despret © Catherine Helie / Gallimard

Vinciane Despret was born in Anderlecht, Belgium and grew up near Liège, where she still lives today. Initially a philosophy student, “which led me straight to unemployment” she says with a smile, she quickly went back to school to study psychology. Shortly thereafter she discovered ethology, the study of animal behavior, and gained a passion for the humans who work with animals. By sheer coincidence, once she earned her psychology degree, she was hired by the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Liège. Her only question then was whether she could combine her two subjects of predilection. Her career vacillated between human psychology and ethology and, wanting to combine them, she became interested in what she calls “the political consequences of our theoretical choices.” She then began studying both “how to live” with animals and the issues—which she considers strictly political—raised by human psychotherapeutic practices.

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Que diraient les animaux, si... on leur posait les bonnes questions ? [What Would the Animals Say If We Asked the Right Questions?]
(La découverte, 2012)
Is it customary to urinate in front of animals? Do monkeys know how to act like a monkey? Do animals see themselves as we see them? What interests rats in experiments? Why do we say cows don’t do anything? Etc. This book asks twenty-six questions that reveal our preconceived notions about what animals do, want, and even “think.” They provide a context for recounting funny or astonishing adventures that animals have had with the researchers working with them or with those who raise them, from zookeepers to trainers. Reading these hilarious accounts, one might well wonder if animals have their own sense of humor: they sometimes seem to find it funny to create situations that can surprise even the most knowledgeable specialists, who must then posit risky new hypotheses and, as always, observe that animals are not so dumb after all. The reader will delight in these incredible stories, which make us do a little ethology and philosophy as we go.

Proposed Lecture (In French or English)

1. Agencies and subjectivities in animals’ worlds
In recent years, some scholars working in the field of animal studies have reoriented their research by trying to take into account the « point of view » of the animals they observe. The studies originate mostly in primatology, but other field workers followed the trend with - among others - ravens, babblers, elephants, or even, surprisingly, sheep. Some of them seek to let their animals tell them “what is important” or, in some cases, try to see the animals from their own “perspectives”. Cognitive ethologists like Donald Griffin express the same intention, and define, in their own practice, each animal as a “way of knowing”. Among them, Mark Bekoff writes, for example « When I watch coyotes I try as hard as I can to adopt a coyote-centric view of the world so that I can come to a deeper understanding and appreciation of these awesome beings. »
There are many ways to construct another “point of view”.
I will however not explore all these ways; rather, I would like to consider the specific paths that lead from “perspective” (considering a given animal as a viewpoint upon the world) to “agency” (the animal, through the recognition of it being the subject of a perspective, gains agency).

2. How observing makes animals more real: the case of Arabian babblers
“Arabian babblers” have been observed in the Neguev desert for more than 40 years. These birds live in cooperative groups. They offer presents to feed each other; they endanger themselves by mobbing raptors or by coming to the rescue of group members. They play and often dance together. All these behaviors have been given various and controversial interpretations in scientific literature. In following current fieldwork, one may observe that these interpretations are closely linked to the way scientists observe the birds, or even deal with them. Different practices not only construe but actually “produce” different birds. To put it roughly, some of the observers take a “subjectivist” stance and interact with the birds, while others take an “objectivist” stance, and keep their distance from them. Each of these practices has different effects, on the birds, and on the theories. The identity of the birds, therefore, seems to change according to the ethologist who observes them.

3. Do animals work? Creating pragmatic narratives
Do animals work? The way we answer this question may bear either the best or the worst consequences for animals. Herein lies the pragmatism of such an inquiry. Acknowledging the cooperation and involvement of lab animals in the workload, as proposed by pharmacologist Michael Robin Chance in the 40s, could have changed the entire story. But what does “work” mean? Donna Haraway defines “work” as a process that crafts identities and “response-abilities.” She writes: “animals as workers in labs, animals in all their worlds, are response-able in the same sense people are; that is, responsibility is a relationship crafted into intra-action through which entities, subjects and objects, come into being.” Sociologists and anthropologists have been reluctant to consider the idea that other beings might claim to work, apart from a few specific cases such as herding dogs, guide dogs, etc. The French sociologist Jocelyne Porcher believes that breeding animals actively collaborate with their breeders. In her previous surveys, she heard anecdotes that suggested that cows and pigs deliberately ease the workload, taking initiative and subjectively getting involved in the work. However, when questioned on the issue, breeders adhere to common beliefs that only humans work, not animals. Looking deeper into the issue, we have discovered that the answer to this question fluctuates depending upon the way the question is posed and to whom the question is directed.

4- L’éthologie comme science des bons usages (in French)
Les éthologistes cognitifs ont inventé une très jolie définition des animaux, une définition qui rend honneur à l’intelligence de leur pratique : « chaque animal est une manière de connaître le monde ». Je voudrais étendre cette conception à la définition de l’éthologie en proposant que chaque être fait exister un usage du monde. L’éthologie serait alors la science des usages du monde. Chaque créature, animal humain ou non humain, fait exister un usage du monde, qu’il prolonge un usage transmis, qu’il le transmette à son tour, qu’il le rende possible ou qu’il l’invente : chaque créature crée un usage du monde, pourrait-on dire si le terme créer ne signifie pas que cette créature en soit l’unique créateur, mais bien celle qui mène cet usage à l’existence.
Cette définition insiste sur le fait que chaque être vivant se définit alors comme pris dans des rapports, car il n’y a pas d’usage qui ne soit mise en rapports d’un être avec d’autres usages, avec un milieu, avec des partenaires,  avec ceux qu’il mange et ceux dont il peut être la proie, avec d’autres créateurs de rapports. Et c’est dans ses rapports qu’il doit être étudié, dans les diverses manières dont chaque être « se rapporte » à d’autres. Ceci complique encore un peu la définition, puisqu’elle nous conduit à considérer l’éthologie comme « la science des usages des êtres en tant qu’ils créent des rapports », ou en d’autres termes, la science des usages des êtres en tant qu’ils se rapportent à d’autres.

5-Les animaux modèles: modèles de qui? (in French)
Lorsqu’on demande à l’animal de constituer un modèle, qui est modèle de qui ? De qui raconte-t-on l’histoire ? Qui cette histoire concerne ?
Qu’est ce qu’un modèle ? Je proposerais une définition simple: le modèle est une mise en rapport d’un être avec lui-même par l’entremise d’un autre. Si, par exemple, l’on pense que l’organisation des babouins est un modèle de l’organisation naturelle qu’ont connu les premiers hommes (ce qu’on a longtemps pensé), on demande donc aux babouins de rendre lisible quelque chose de la nature humaine (c’est donc un rapport d’un être avec lui-même, l’humain avec son fond de nature) en passant par un être non-humain. Mais ceci présuppose déjà une première mise en rapport : pour supposer que les humains sont comme les babouins, il faut d’abord supposer que les babouins sont comme les humains. Ce qui veut dire que les babouins ne sont pas un des deux pôles d’une comparaison à deux termes ; ils sont quelque part au croisement de plusieurs trajectoires comparatistes. Une analyse de plusieurs observations de terrain ou d’expériences de laboratoire— les babouins,  les rats infanticides, les animaux menteurs et ceux qui se reconnaissent dans les miroirs— nous montre que la question du modèle est bien plus compliquée qu’elle n’apparaît. Et qu’elle engage de très nombreux problèmes, épistémologiques, éthiques, et politiques.

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Dates already booked
-Thursday Oct. 17th: Walls and Bridges, New York

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