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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Book Review: Pigeon Trouble and Wild Dog Dreaming

 [First published in Cultural Anthropology]

Holding together a pair of texts by a dog lover, and a self-confessed bird phobe, I found entangled themes and threads of argumentation:  about being with others in a world of intersubjectivity, a world in which sentient subjects face each other, where scenes of deadly commotion might suddenly erupt with cycles of terror spinning out of control.  Hoon Song uses his own “opaque madness”, a fear of the cold flinty beaks and sewed-in button eyes of pigeons, as a route to circumspectly approach the delicate theme of whiteness in rural America.  Intimate knowledge of the irrationality of the former, Song suggests, might illuminate the same in the latter.  Deborah Bird Rose reckons with madness of white settler colonialism in Aboriginal Australia.  Campaigns by ranchers to poison dingoes have generated what Rose calls “double death”, a process that uncouples life and death, diminishing life’s capacity to offer intergenerational gifts, and diminishing death’s capacity to turn the dying back toward the living.

The mass death of birds in the rural Pennsylvania community of Hegins, the site of Hoon Song’s Pigeon Trouble, was once bound to an ethos of charity and communal solidarity amongst humans.  In the early 20th century the residents of Hegins began staging Labor Day Pigeon Shoots—big communal fests where well-to-do citizens killed birds and donated them as food for the poorest farmers in town.  Song describes how the gaze of Others—animal rights activists, journalists, and academics like himself—began to prevent the pigeon shooters from being totally themselves.   As legions of activists came to protest and document the Labor Day Pigeon Shoot, the event became an annual frenzy of killing by hooligans, a celebratory theatrics of flamboyant lynching.

Mutually invoked misunderstandings threatened to spiral out of control as Song (who hails from Korea) went about conducting fieldwork in this rural white milieu haunted by the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis.  Meeting the gaze of racists, and enduring occasional death threats, Song found himself thrust violently into a terrifying vortex.  “My fear...took the form of a precipitous anticipation of what scene of commotion might transpire in our encounter; it was not only fear of [the racist] but, shall we say, fear for both of us” (p. 14).  Song’s “ornithophobia” is much like his intersubjective experience of racist xenophobia.  Legions of birds perched on electric wires, reflect and multiply his fears.  “It is as if my fear of them is never in the present tense...What is so dreadful is the imminent prospect of...uncontrollably spiraling into a mutually invoked eruption of convulsive panic” (p. 9).

Song sees “a certain cruel beauty” in the relationship between birds and their executioners, where “helpless victims find comfort in the sure grip of confident and thick-skinned handlers” (p. 25).  In the “apprehensive and timid” hands of animal rights activists, each clad in a pair of rubber gloves, wounded pigeons put up all kinds of struggle, according to Song, on their way to a Wounded Bird First Aid Station set up outside of the Labor Day Shoot.  “What kind of prudent ‘love’ is this?” he asks, “Love that fears, and fears for both the subject and object?” (p. 39).

Deborah Bird Rose argues for an ethics of love and care that does not exclude death.  “An ethical response to the call of others does not hinge on killing or not killing,” she argues.  Whereas Song navigates a liminal space betwixt and between social worlds, refusing an easy alliance with activists who are uncomfortable touching animals or with hooligan executioners, Rose clearly casts her lot with Aboriginal Australian ways of being in the world.  Dwelling with people who inhabit the realm of Dreaming, who live within multispecies kin groups traceable back to creation, Rose found that dingo people and dingo dogs take care of each other—watching out for each other’s interests, defending against outsiders.  She also carefully documents tactics used by outsiders, her own white countrymen, to disrupt indigenous lifeways and ecologies.

Dingo extermination campaigns by white Australians have, at times, involved grotesque spectacles of violence.  Rose describes trees strung up with the “strange fruit” of dead dingoes.  Quoting cattle-ranchers, she recalls the massive police actions, uncontrollable scenes of panic, in Aboriginal villages during the 1940s: “As the bullets flew past them the women screamed in fright, dragging their animals ever faster behind them.  Pandemonium broke loose.  A dog yelped suddenly, leapt into the air, and rolled kicking in the dust.  Another followed, and another...At last [the Mounted Constable] put down his rifle and looked around him.  No dogs in the camp now, only a bunch o’ niggers scared half out o’ their wits.”  Looking into an emptiness that used to be dogs, Rose sees not departures that could be twisted back into life, but one-way trips into nowhere (p. 23-4).  In coming decades, wild dingo poison-baiting programs instigated broader waves of death in the lands of Australian dreaming.  Poisoned dingoes became agents of double death in the afterlife—living things who came for sustenance, who ate the dead as food, were harmed or killed by the poison as well.

Song describes a parallel trajectory in the United States: the advent of pest poisoning campaigns in urban areas and the use of lead shotgun shells in rural areas began to transform how people were thinking about pigeons.  If pigeons were once a wholesome food, emergent killing technologies made them into pests and outcasts.  While the Labor Day Shoot initially turned dying back toward generous forms of productive life, as the birds became inedible the event became an instantiation of double death.  Bird corpses began piling up in the land of the living (cf. Rose, p. 92).  Animal rights activists also inadvertently played a role in helping turn pigeons into vermin.  Spreading fears about interspecies contact and contagion, the campaigners who tried to stop the Labor Day Pigeon Shoot mobilized biomedical experts, who testified about the epidemiological dangers of handling birds.
At gun clubs in hidden backwoods hollows, Song discovered people who were intimately handling pigeons despite the alleged epidemiological risks.  If “barn birds” used in the Labor Day shoot were regarded as vermin, and confined the realm of killable “bare life” (zoe), the daily training of pigeons, or “brushing”, brought them into the realm of bios, with legible biographical lives (cf. Agamben 1998:2).  Fed with a special diet, and treated with the utmost care, brushed birds were enlisted in an existential dance with humans and phantom hawks.  Brushing involves tying a auditory simulacrum of a hawk—a whistle, bottle cap, or bell—to the tails of prized pigeons.  Daily training with these “hawks” makes these pigeons evasive fliers, better able to outmaneuver shotgun blasts during private head-to-head shooting matches among competing gun clubs.

Writing about avian existentialism, Song suggests that brushing also makes pigeons think that “the hawk’s look is always ‘on’. “  Building on Jacques Lacan’s notion of the gaze, he suggests “the hawk’s look can function as a condition of possibility for the pigeon’s look only insofar as the former does not appear in the latter’s purview as another look but only as something whose presence is suspected” (p. 189).

Hoon Song’s own fears and anxieties proliferate, at several points in the book, when he becomes trapped in a gaze of mutual-recognition with pigeons.  “The creatures regard me in sidelong glances of apprehensive familiarity,” he writes, “there is a sense of my being primordially given to their recognition—the recognition of none other than a birdphobe in me” (p. 9).  Perhaps Song becomes animal himself during his first contacts with pigeons—his terror of the birds generates frenzies of creaturely violence (cf. Deleuze and Guattari 1987:265; Haraway 2008:28).  Reckoning with his fears by becoming the apprentice of a respected bird brusher, Song eventually becomes a careful student of bird behavior with an ethologist’s eye for detail.

The source of the pigeons used in the Labor Day Shoot was a closely held secret amongst his interlocutors who feared persecution by Outsiders.  Following the animals, and adopting clever methods for divining their origin, Song noted birds that were unfamiliar with the territory.  In contrast to the fast flying and flock-forming “brushed birds”, which were grounded in the topos of territory (cf. Derrida 1994: 82; Kirksey 2012), he spotted small groups of birds flying slowly around the Hegins Valley area in the weeks after the shoot.  When Song scattered a bagful of peas—feral pigeons’ favorite diet—he found “no apparent pecking dominance, no sign of heavier-looking birds occupying the central position of the feed spread.” (p. 106).  Deducing an unstable and improvised social formation from these pecking behaviors, Song concludes that they were clearly displaced birds, likely carted in from cities for the Labor Day Shoot.

In Wild Dog Dreaming Rose also explores the fragmented social formations amongst dingoes who survive massive extermination campaigns.  She describes interspecies relations of love, where “people were burying their kin, and as they did so they looked into a death space in which not only their loved ones, but the future generations of their loved ones, had been exterminated” (p. 25).

Departing from the work of Emmanuel Levinas, who pulled ethics away from abstractions and located ethical call-and-response within the living reality of the material world, Rose accounts for interspecies responsibilities that are up-close, face-to-face, in both life and death.  If Levinas ultimately rejected obligations to animals, creatures he regarded as lacking a “face”, Rose develops her idea of ecological existentialism to think about how responsibility and accountably works across the species interface.  “Ecological existentialism pulls together two major shifts in worldview: the end of certainty and the end of atomism.  From certainty the shift is to uncertainty.  From atomism the shift is to connectivity” (p. 2-3).  Whereas the uncertainty of intersubjective connections generate fear and anxiety for Song, these same dynamics prompt Rose to assert the need for life-affirming awareness.

Offering a rare and intimate account of anxieties that can proliferate in encounters with animal Others, Pigeon Trouble will certainly become a canonical text in the emergent interdisciplinary tradition of multispecies ethnography (for a review of other foundational texts, see: Kirksey and Helmreich 2010).  Song betrays an existentialist loneliness, a sense of cosmic isolation, against which Rose offers an antidote.  “Ecological existentialism,” in her own words, “proposes a kinship of becoming: no telos, no deus ex machina to rescue us, no clockwork to keep us ticking along” (p. 44).  Situating ourselves in this rich plentitude, with all its joys and hazards, offers a route to biocultural hope.

Hoon Song. Pigeon Trouble: Bestiary Biopolitics in a Deindustrialized America. 2010. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 262 pp. ISBN: 978-0-8122-4242-3

Deborah Bird Rose. Wild Dog Dreaming: Love and Extinction.2011. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.  169 pp. ISBN: 978-0-8139-3091-6

Agamben, Giorgio
                1998       Homo Sacer. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.
Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari
                1987       A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. London: Athlone Press.
Derrida, Jacques
1994       Specters of Marx: the State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International. New York: Routledge.
Haraway, Donna
                2008       When Species Meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Kirksey, S. Eben
                2012       Freedom in Entangled Worlds. Durham: Duke University Press.
Kirksey, S. Eben, and Stefan Helmereich
                2010       The Emergence of Multispecies Ethnography. Cultural Anthropology 25(4):545-687.

Select Publications

Select Publications

SHAPIRO, N & E. Kirksey (2017) "Chemo-ethnography: An Introduction" Cultural Anthropology 32(4): 481-493.

KIRKSEY, S. E. (2017) "Lively Multispecies Communities, Deadly Racial Assemblages, and the Promise of Justice" South Atlantic Quarterly 116(1): 195-206.

KIRKSEY, S. E. (2015) "Species: A Praxiographic Study" Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 21, 758-780.

KIRKSEY, S. E. (2014) The Multispecies Salon, Duke University Press: Durham.

KIRKSEY, S. E. (2013) “Interspecies Love” in Lanjouw and Corbey (eds) The Politics of Species (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 164-77.

KIRKSEY, S. E., N. Shapiro, M. Brodine (2013) "Hope in Blasted Landscapes" Social Science Information, 52 (2): 228-256.

KIRKSEY, S. E. 2013 “A Messianic Multiple: West Papua, July 1998” in Bryan Turner (ed.) War and Peace: Essays on Religion and Violence (Anthem Press), pp. 37-59.

KIRKSEY, S. E. 2012 "Living with Parasites in Palo Verde National Park" Environmental Humanities, 1: 23-55.

KIRKSEY, S. E. 2012 "Thneeds Reseeds: Figures of Biocultural Hope in the Anthropocene" in G. Martin, D. Mincyte, and U. Münster (eds.) Why Do We Value Diversity? Rachel Carson Perspectives vol 9: 89-94.

KIRKSEY, S. E. 2012 Freedom in Entangled Worlds, Duke University Press: Durham.

KIRKSEY, S. E. & S. HELMREICH. 2010 "The Emergence of Multispecies Ethnography", Cultural Anthropology, 25 (4): 545-576. Full Special Issue (48.8 MB)