On grief and other hard things: A visit with the (environmental) humanities

Posted on Aug 24, 2016 in Fieldnotes

As part of my sabbatical, I recently spent two weeks with the exceptional researchers in Environmental Humanities at UNSW. My hope was to encounter ideas that would inspire me to reinterpret my emerging research findings and, later this year, re-engage in more fieldwork. In terms of thinking differently about my research, I honestly don’t know if I could have found a more appropriate place! And my visit was even more transformative (and challenging) than anticipated.

Spending a period of time amongst people for whom vegetarianism and veganism are not just normalised but dominant compelled me to intimately engage with those who are completely opposed to animal agriculture, and who see every instance of livestock death as completely avoidable and therefore a cause for sadness. This is a philosophical position to which I don’t subscribe, but the single most important thing I learnt from these encounters was that grief needs to find a stronger place in what I’m doing. I thought I had already done that, but in retrospect I think I was just taking it for granted.

A few conversations stand out in my memory as real turning points. But most of all I remember being told to allow myself the possibility of not killing the lambs–the lambs that hadn’t yet been born when I gave my talk, but who were described as destined for homekill and our table. Of course I’ve always told myself they don’t have to be killed, and I certainly don’t consider it a necessary part of my researching homekill and practices of care. But in that moment, for perhaps the first time, I realised that refusing to kill the lambs I will help raise wouldn’t necessarily mean that I’d betray myself or my research participants… but could ‘simply’ be an expression of my grief.

Grief, or grieving, is a difficult thing. The OED’s first definition is listed as having fallen into disuse, but I don’t think we can afford to lose it: grief as “hardship, suffering; a kind, or cause, of hardship or suffering” and to grieve as “to burden; to make heavy.” Other, perhaps more familiar, definitions of grieving include affecting with deep sorrow or mental pain, as well as bringing physical injury or harm to someone or something. The latter definitions position grief as something that is done to us, or brought our way by outside forces. I also think they encourage us to recognise oppression of others and place blame for damage done. The former definition, in contrast, describes something that must be carried, and something we might even choose to carry. Importantly, its sense of hardship gives us another word to use instead of shame or punishment, and equally, instead of atonement or redemption.

In researching how people might care for animals as they kill them, I’ve also been charged with caring for my research participants, and for myself. I hear a lot of stories that make me cry. I have bad dreams. I’ve had people share stories with me that are so painful for them that they are used to explain why the person simply can’t participate in my research. I’ve been told that the stories are too painful or too private to share at all. And now I’m trying to graciously accept these stories, to carry the burden of what I can’t share with dignity, because I figure this is the least I owe the people who grieve so that everyone else who eats meat doesn’t have to.

I don’t mean to romanticise the act of killing. Not everyone feels this grief, hardship or burden. And even if they do, it inevitably means different things to different people. My point is that very little research, and almost no public discourse, allows for the possibility of many different kinds of grief. Put more bluntly, the vegan and the farmer and the meat-eating researcher can all grieve the killing of livestock without blaming–or shaming–anyone else. We don’t need to compete over whose grief is more painful; we need to recognise any and all grief.



Some days I feel trapped by my research. No matter what position I take on livestock killing, there will be someone who will feel it does them or someone else (including animals) grievous harm. And it’s too easy–if not simply unethical research–to say their perspectives should just be ignored. But I don’t believe that all forms of critique are equal, and I need to be able to articulate the kind of critique I want my research to make. I’m not quite there yet, but I’ve got some ideas.

I don’t follow the modernist critical tradition of scholarship that treats ‘reality’ with doubt and suspicion, or seeks to ‘enlighten the masses.’ And I don’t believe that focussing on forces of oppression and exploitation is the best (or only) way of interpreting, and responding to, inequality and suffering. First, these positions cause me to lose all hope for life on Earth, and I get really depressed. Second, assuming we all still have to live together, I find them entirely too moralising. I was doing journal research the other day and found a dozen articles on topics of interest, but each abstract read as some variation on “Let me tell you the terrible ethical consequences of your actions and beliefs…”. Part of me wanted to ignore it, but another part persistently and irritably wondered when scholars had been replaced with clergy! Moral righteousness is not the expertise I wish to claim.

I think this all stems from what queer theorist Eve Sedgwick (1995/2002) called a “paranoid reading” of a text or culture, which she related to Melanie Klein’s “position of terrible alertness to the dangers posed by the hateful and envious part-objects that one defensively projects into, carves out of, and ingests from the world around one” (2002, p. 128). Sedgwick goes on to explain:

Paranoia is anticipatory.
Paranoia is reflexive and mimetic.
Paranoia is a strong theory.
Paranoia is a theory of negative affects.
Paranoia places its faith in exposure.

Patti Lather (2008) explains that Sedgwick’s proposed alternative–a “reparative” reading of the world–is “a more generous critical practice, a practice that is more about love than suspicion and that draws on rich phenomenological accounts of embodied experiences, feeling, and intimacy. This is about difference without opposition, differences that are expanded rather than policed or repressed or judged. She associates such a critical practice with the work of consolation and making whole, of love and political hope, an ethic of giving up authority to the otherness of the wholly other, a more ‘slip-slidy’ sort of effect than the confident mastery of the more typical paranoid model of critique” (p. 56).

But Sedgwick was well aware of what this would mean for researchers: “The vocabulary for articulating any reader’s reparative motive toward a text or a culture has long been so sappy, aestheticizing, defensive, anti-intellectual, or reactionary that it’s no wonder few critics are willing to describe their acquaintance with such motives” (1995/2002, p. 150). In other words, no ‘respectable’ researcher would say they work from a position of love! After all, one’s more “critical” colleagues are quick to point out they aren’t willing to overlook injustices or avoid passing judgment. Okay. But I don’t overlook injustices; and I’m not able to pass absolute judgment.

I want to return (at least in part) to questioning everyday life, and to what Sedgwick calls the “the many ways selves and communities succeed in extracting sustenance from the objects of a culture—even of a culture whose avowed desire has often been not to sustain them” (1995/2002, p. 150-151). This, I believe, complements the kind of ‘care’ research that has arisen in response to what Sherry Ortner recently called “dark anthropology”, and draws heavily on practices of care (cf. Mol, Moser & Pols, 2010) that may include, but do not require, a justice-framework to succeed as cultural critiques. After all, there are many other positive actions in the world–love, compassion, kindness, generosity, etc.–that can, and do, sustain people every day.

Works Cited

Lather, P., 2008, “(Post)Feminist Methodology Getting Lost OR a Scientificity We Can Bear to Learn From,” International Review of Qualitative Research, Vol. 1, No. 1, pp. 55-64.

Mol, A., I. Moser and J. Pols (eds.), 2010, Care in Practice: On Tinkering in Clinics, Homes and Farms, Basel: Transcript Verlag.


Thom Van Dooren, one of the wonderful researchers I spent time with at UNSW, has worked extensively on extinction, and I’m particularly taken with his and Deborah Bird Rose’s thoughts on mourning:

“[M]ourning is a process of learning and transformation to accommodate a changed reality. Mourning is about dwelling with a loss and so coming to appreciate what it means, how the world has changed, and how we must ourselves change and renew our relationships if we are to move forward from here. In this context, genuine mourning should open us into an awareness of our dependence on and relationships with those countless others being driven over the edge of extinction. In short, dwelling with extinction in this way – taking it seriously, not rushing to overcome it – might be the more important political and ethical work for our time.”

Applying this to livestock killing and death might compel us to more explicitly acknowledge what we are doing to animals, to the environment, and to each other–all without judging or blaming anyone, and instead “taking it seriously, not rushing to overcome it.”

I’m not sure what that would take, but perhaps we can begin by agreeing to grieve, or carry the burden, together?


Many thanks to the kind and generous researchers who shared their thoughts with me in Sydney this month–especially Judy Motion, Thom Van Dooren, Matt Kearnes, Jennifer Hamilton, Declan Kuch, and Susie Pratt. I am so very grateful for what you all taught me, but accept full responsibility for any misinterpretation of your ideas or work!