Ventriloquists for the Powerless

Translating the revolutionary consciousness of voiceless animals is no more silly than doing the same for human beings.


Fear of the Animal Planet: The Hidden History of Animal Resistance, by Jason Hribal, CounterPunch/AK Press, 153 pages, $15.95

Jason Hribal's Fear of the Animal Planet: The Hidden History of Animal Resistance will be ignored, dismissed, and mocked. Published by the tiny and idiosyncratic AK Press and written by an obscure semi-academic, it proposes an argument that will make anyone other than the fiercest PETA activists smirk. Yet it should be required reading for all social scientists and political activists, because it perfectly demonstrates a central and enduring problem of modern left-wing political discourse: the tendency to speak on behalf of those who have not spoken.

Hribal argues that for more than two centuries, animals in zoos, circuses, and marine amusement parks not only have been "oppressed" and "exploited" but have been conscious of their oppression and exploitation, waging an intentional "struggle" for "control of production," "autonomy," "revenge," and the "dream of freedom."

It's not difficult to dismiss Hribal as a Marxist Doctor Doolittle or his social science as cartoonish. After all, he ascribes political consciousness to creatures whose thoughts cannot be known. But his claims of knowing the thoughts of animals are no more arrogant or absurd than the claims countless academics and activists continue to make about the consciousness of people whose ideas are also inaccessible. 

Most of Fear of the Animal Planet is an impressively thorough catalog of animals refusing to perform tricks, escaping their cages and enclosures, and attacking handlers and audiences. Unlike his descriptions of animals' minds, which of course are impossible to substantiate, Hribal's accounts of their behavior are supported with verifiable evidence (usually multiple eyewitness accounts). They certainly show that many animals have not done what they were trained to do.

We learn about the unruly behavior of Jumbo, a 19th-century African bush elephant who was the first animal celebrity. At the London Zoo in Regent's Park, Jumbo frequently rammed the iron doors of his exhibition cage and slammed his trainer to the floor. After he was sold to P.T. Barnum's circus in the United States, for several weeks Jumbo refused to enter the shipping container, despite numerous proddings and stabbings by trainers. These events are well-documented and difficult to dispute.

But in determining the meaning of events, Hribal, like most of the Marxist scholars who inspired him, becomes a ventriloquist. Jumbo "did not see himself as a machine," Hribal writes, and "resistance was his new thought." Another unruly circus elephant, named Janet, "hated" her trainers. Mary and Tory were not just pachyderms that walked out of a circus ring; they were "two disgruntled employees." Writing as if he had read Tyke the elephant's manifesto, Hribal claims this most infamous of circus animals crushed her trainer to death during a performance in Honolulu because she "was tired of being leased out to circuses and carnivals," "sick of the dismal and dangerous working conditions," and "through with the untreated injuries and wounds and the lack of basic healthcare."

Not only does Hribal ascribe specific ideas to his elephant "rebels" but, like communitarians who speak on behalf of masses of people, he also casts them as a part of a collective, global, trans-historical consciousness. The behaviors of Jumbo in London in 1882, Janet in Florida in 1992, Tyke in Hawaii in 1994, and Mary and Tory in Wisconsin in 2002 were all "part of a larger struggle against oppression and exploitation."

According to Hribal, the "larger struggle" crosses not just time and space but also species. Like their pachyderm comrades, the monkeys and apes that escape from zoos "know what freedom is and they want it." Likewise, the sea lions, dolphins, and orcas in marine amusement parks share this "dream of freedom." Their occasional refusals to obey commands from trainers are "strikes" that are part of "the battle over the control of production." The Sea World orca named Tilikum who in 2010 dragged his trainer to the bottom of a tank and held her there until she drowned was actually presenting "a clear, pronounced demonstration of his dislike of captivity and all that it entails: from the absence of autonomy to the exploitative relations to the ever-increasing work-load." Marine biologists do believe that orcas communicate with one another, but I doubt that any scientist has heard revolutionary jargon in their clicks and whistles.

Hribal does not merely make his finned and four-legged insurrectionists speak his political language. He has them stand in for all of their caged brethren, the vast majority of whom never tried to escape their confines or stomp a keeper. In this way, again, he is no different from many historians of human beings.

In 1988 the literary theorist Gayatri Spivak published an essay criticizing a new movement among scholars of South Asia known as "subaltern studies." The movement was an attempt to replace colonialist histories of the subcontinent with "history from below," an enterprise that had been under way among left-wing historians in Great Britain and the United States since the 1960s. What Spivak found in this new approach to South Asian history I find in the "new social history" of the United States: a widespread but largely unconscious effort to place explicitly political and collectivist ideas in the minds of historical subjects who left no record of their thoughts. Spivak argued that the objective of university academics to "establish true knowledge of the subaltern and its consciousness" was essentially a new form of imperialism —an attempt to remake the world in the image of oneself. 

Try this for an exercise: Open any book written in the last 40 years on African-American history, women's history, or labor history and count the number of times Hribal's terms describing the consciousness of animals are used to describe the consciousness of people. Then look for evidence that the people themselves used those terms. Most often, you will find the self-appointed leaders of the "oppressed" and "exploited"—abolitionists, feminists, union leaders, civil rights leaders, and political radicals—standing in for their constituents and speaking the language that left-wing historians want to hear.

It is not a defense of slavery, segregation, the denial of rights to women, or poverty to acknowledge the fact that, according to the available evidence, only a tiny portion of their alleged victims clearly thought of themselves that way. Few historians mention that a majority of the ex-slaves who were interviewed held positive views of their days on the plantation (including those who were interviewed by African Americans) or, more important, that more than 99 percent of American slaves left not a single record of their thoughts. The implication of Spivak's argument, which was applied to similar treatments of Indian peasants, is that to claim a status for all slaves as "victimized" or "oppressed" is to homogenize the attitudes, behaviors, and cultures of millions of people and to make them one's sock puppet. Similarly, the total African-American participation in the organized civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s equaled roughly 1 percent of the total African-American population of the time. We also know that many African Americans, most notably black nationalists, attacked civil rights leaders for being sell-out "Uncle Toms" and cultural assimilationists. Yet in our textbooks Martin Luther King Jr. is presented as the voice of all 20 million black people alive during his lifetime.

The most egregious political ventriloquism can be found in U.S. labor history, where the socialists and social democrats who took control of some unions are used by historians to present the American working class as having a long tradition of collectivist aspirations. My 2001 book on Jimmy Hoffa, Out of the Jungle, was the first to note that anti-socialist, strictly bread-and-butter unions like the Teamsters dwarfed the combined membership of the socialist-led unions beloved by New Left labor historians.

And the views of how many women have been represented by feminist discourse since its origins in the 19th century? Jason Hribal does to dolphins what Hillary Clinton is doing to the women of Afghanistan, but with a far more consequential intention than the razing of Sea World. Clinton and a large swath of feminists are justifying the military occupation of Afghanistan by claiming that Afghan women are current or potential "victims" of Sharia law and the Taliban. Yet only a small fraction of Afghan women have been asked in polls whether they agree with this assessment of their own lives; a majority who have been asked endorse Sharia law, and a significant percentage even endorse the return to power of the Taliban. If we liberate the women of Afghanistan, we will do so against the wishes of many of the liberated.

Speaking for the subaltern is not exclusively a practice of the left. Recently two fetuses testified against reproductive rights during a hearing of the Ohio state legislature. Lying on gurneys in the hearing room, two pregnant women were scanned by an ultrasound machine as a video monitor broadcast the images and sounds of their fetuses' beating hearts. The fetuses were there to contribute their unwitting support to the "heartbeat bill," which would ban abortions in Ohio as soon as a heartbeat could be detected, except in medical emergencies.

So let us use the apparent absurdities of this book to question our own equally absurd but also imperialistic claims about the beliefs and aspirations of those we do not know. 

Thaddeus Russell (thaddeusrussell@gmail.com) teaches history and American studies at Occidental College. His most recent book is A Renegade History of the United States (Free Press).

Bonus Reason.tv video: Watch Thaddeus Russell discuss the renegades who helped make America free.