Impersonating Animals: Speciesism, Rhetoric, and Ecofeminism
S. Marek Muller writes on race, gender, class, sexuality, and ability.
Posted Oct 25, 2020
I recently learned of the work of Florida Atlantic University's Dr. S. Marek Muller and her seminal new book Impersonating Animals: Rhetoric, Ecofeminism, and Animal Rights Law.1 The book's focus on human-nonhuman interactions—how we communicate about nonhuman beings necessarily affects relationships across species boundaries and among people—resonated with a good number of my own interests and those of many others who study nonhuman animal-human relationships. I was pleased Dr. Muller could take the time to answer a few questions about her wide-ranging work.
Why did you write Impersonating Animals?
The short answer is that I wrote my dissertation on animal rights, rhetoric, and law during my Ph.D. in Communication and wanted to make something “real” come out of all that hard work. The longer answer, though, is that the book is sort of my attempt at a “manifesto” on animal rights.
I’m coming at it from the perspective not of a professional activist, a philosopher, or a cognitive ethologist, but rather as a rhetorician. I felt like it was important to write this book because a lot of discourse on animal rights is premised upon what I find to be somewhat questionable argumentative strategies and tactics. There’s a lot of black-and-white thinking, fallacious reasoning, insidious discriminatory ideologies, and other things that need to be revisited in order to make a stronger case for animal rights, animal personhood, and total liberation.
There’s a similar set of issues with “the law” as a societal construct. There are a lot of “truths” about the law and its influence that need to be deconstructed in order for animal liberation to have a solid chance of success inside and outside of the courtroom—and, for that matter, for frequently dehumanized Homo sapien subjects to get equal treatment under the law.
I also wanted to add another book to the canon of animal rights texts concerned with how animal liberation exists as part of a broader push for interspecies social justice.2 I wanted to bolster the case for anti-speciesism by showing its argumentative intersections with domineering constructs such as racism, ableism, and sexism.
How does your book relate to your background and general areas of interest?
I’m a professional rhetorician. Like a sociologist studies sociology or an ecologist studies ecology, a rhetorician like myself studies the function of rhetoric in everyday life. The problem is not a lot of people know what that means, particularly since “rhetoric” has lost its prior standing as one of the most important academic subjects and is not used as a derogatory term for manipulative, empty political jargon. Rhetoric has many definitions, but I define it as “the study, the act, the ethics, and the inevitability of persuasion.” I’m concerned with animal rights as a discourse, with the law as a rhetorical community, and with arguments as manifestations of ideologies. For that reason, Impersonating Animals focuses on the argumentative minutiae of animal rights and animal law. Far from “nitpicking” arguments, my rhetorical perspective dissects the various components of animal rights discourse to identify their strengths, weaknesses, and potentials for growth.
It’s also important to see how “the law” is not a scientific institution with no relation to the public. Law is thus a professional field and a public conversation. I like to think that my family background and my scholarly background enable me to better explain the intersections between law, public morality, and civic discourse.
Who is your intended audience?
Students, scholars, lawyers, activists, or really anyone who is interested in arguments about animal rights, human rights, and/or the rhetorical nature of the law. There’s a little bit for everyone in this book because of the depth and breadth of case studies. The book delves into the intersections and distinctions between veganism and environmentalism, between single-issue veganism and the total liberation of species, between animal welfare and animal rights, between de jure law and de facto law, between moral rights and legal rights, between personhood and (im)personhood.
What are some of the topics that are woven into your book and what are some of your major messages?
I develop two important concepts in the book—the first is theoretical, the second is methodological. First, I construct Ecofeminist Legal Theory as a means of understanding the potential of animal rights under the law—and, for that matter, understanding the purpose and function of the law itself. Second, I construct Critical Vegan Rhetoric as a means through which we can argue for animal rights inside and outside of the courtroom. I should note that my conception of Critical Vegan Rhetoric views humans as animals too, which means that animal rights and social justice need to be viewed in tandem through the lens of total liberation.
Developing these concepts means assessing some other “big names” in animal rights law. I don’t attempt to attack these other perspectives or, to use the colloquial phrase, “cancel” them. That would be really petty and divisive. Rather, I attempt to parse the extent to which their argumentative strategies and tactics are consistent with animal liberation and/or the total liberation of species. Impersonating Animals “takes on” the rhetorics of Steven Wise (founder of the Nonhuman Rights Project), Gary Francione (the father of vegan abolitionism), and Earth Jurisprudence (a deep ecological theory of law). I find multiple strengths with all three of these schools of thought on animal rights and personhood. Indeed, I believe that the animal rights movement is very lucky to have these practitioners! However, since I’m a rhetorician, I see some serious contradictions inherent in some of these parties’ arguments that need to be resolved. Using Ecofeminist Legal Theory and Critical Vegan Rhetoric is, I posit, a fruitful means by which to take all the good things happening with Wise, Francione, and Earth Jurisprudence and make them even better.
How does your book differ from others that are concerned with some of the same general topics?
There are a plethora of books on animal law, but exceedingly few of them care about animal rights as opposed to mere animal welfare. Of those rights-oriented legal texts that do exist, even fewer take a vegan feminist approach to jurisprudence. And, of those couple of vegan feminist legal texts that have been published, none of them make use of rhetorical studies to make their case. My interdisciplinary approach to animal ethics and the law makes Impersonating Animals a unique contribution to the canon of animal rights literature. I see this book as one that continues long-standing conversations about what constitutes a “person,” which people get which “rights,” and how those moral questions become codified through legal documents and enacted in social settings.3
What are some of your current projects?
I’m currently exploring other areas in which animal rights and the law intersect. In particular, I’m interested in how envisioning the law as a rhetorical community allows us to understand how ideas about legal rights and personhood spread outside of formal legal decision-making processes.
A current project of mine examines People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals’ famous “Monkey Selfie Lawsuit” (formally known as Naruto v. Slater). Instead of analyzing why PETA officially lost their case inside of the courtroom, I assess how they achieved their goals outside of the courtroom by latching themselves onto Naruto the Macaque’s viral selfies. PETA used Naruto’s image virality to transform a quickly-lost civil suit about intellectual property into a still-remembered discussion about the nature of the animal “self” in a selfie. Using theories of rhetoric, internet politics, and social change, I call PETA’s strategy a “litigious event.”
I am also interested in furthering scholarship at the intersection of animal rights and disability studies. Since “personhood” is central to my work, it is important to note how the rhetorical construction of the person is often premised upon the existence of an ideal, healthy human body. Using my subjectivity as an autistic individual with multiple medical comorbidities, currently, I am exploring the rhetoric of Temple Grandin, who is famous not only for being an autistic scholar like myself but also for developing “humane” animal slaughter technologies. By homing in on the rhetoric of analogy, I question the ethics of an autistic person comparing oneself to an animal in order to develop efficient animal slaughter processes. Grandin’s particular means of analogizing the autistic experience to nonhuman animal lives is detrimental to both livestock set for slaughter and autistic people fighting for acceptance.
1) Dr. Muller is a rhetorician interested in human rights, nonhuman animal rights and the humanity/animality dialectic. Specifically, she researches the rhetoric of speciesism (a fallacious presumption of human exceptionalism) as it is used by (1) rhetors looking to exploit nonhuman animals by "animalizing" them; (2) rhetors looking to exploit humans by "dehumanizing" them; and (3) rhetors fighting for social/environmental justice by articulating the intersections of human and nonhuman animal exploitation. Dr. Muller received her PhD in Communication, with a certificate in Women's & Gender Studies, from the University of Utah in 2018. She was introduced to me by my niece, Dr. Nicole Morse, who also teaches at Florida Atlantic.
2) There are amazing authors like Amie Breeze Harper (Sistah Vegan), Aph Ko (Racism as Zoological Witchcraft), Maneesha Deckha (Animals as Legal Beings), Sunaura Taylor (Beasts of Burden), Lisa Kemmerer (Sister Species), and Carol J. Adams (Sexual Politics of Meat) writing about the need to move beyond “single-issue veganism” and instead fight for the total liberation of species, Homo sapiens included. I hope that my book’s conceptions of Ecofeminist Legal Theory and Critical Vegan Rhetoric will demonstrate how animal liberation and human liberation cannot be separated from one another, particularly where matters of law and personhood are concerned.
3) I would like to take a moment, though, to point out what my book doesn’t cover: criminal law. If anyone wants to read about animal rights and its intersections with the carceral system, I recommend reading Justin Marceau’s Beyond Cages.
Bekoff, Marc. Why Are Cages Bad for Nonhumans and OK for Humans? (Interview about a new book, Beyond Cages: Animal Law and Criminal Punishment.)
_____. Animaladies: Gender, Animals, and Madness. (An interview about a unique book on oppression and marginalization.)
_____. Beasts of Burden: Disability and Animal Liberation Revisited. (A new book by a disability and animal activist blends both movements into one.)
Gruen, Lori and Probyn-Rapsey, Fiona. Animaladies: Gender, Animals, and Madness. Bloomsbury Academic, 2020.
Vallortigara G, Snyder A, Kaplan G, Bateson P, Clayton NS, et al. (2008) Are Animals Autistic Savants. PLoS Biol 6(2): e42. These researchers conclude: "We argue that the extraordinary cognitive feats shown by some animal species can be better understood as adaptive specialisations that bear little, if any, relationship to the unusual skills shown by savants."