With the hope of getting to know our professors more intimately and to learn what they do outside of grading and teaching, The Phoenix started a Professor Profile series where we interview UBCO professors from different disciplines regarding their research and interests. In continuation of the series, The Phoenix reached out to UBCO FCCS Professor and animal rights activist Dr. Jodey Castricano to learn more about their varied interests as a critical animal scholar,
“Jodey Castricano is a Research Fellow with the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics and has published and contributed chapters to three books on the issues germane to critical animal studies: Animal Subjects: An Ethical Reader in a Posthuman World, (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2008) and Animal Subjects 2.0 (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2016). The most recent collection builds on the previous work in the field of critical animal studies, ecofeminism and posthumanism, three intertwining conversations that ask us to reconsider the role of anthropocentrism in the domination of nature, including the “common sense” understandings of other animals, and what it means to be human beyond human exceptionalism. Castricano also co-edited with Rasmus Simonsen to produce and contribute to Critical Perspectives on Veganism, (The Palgrave Macmillan Animal Ethics Series, 2016), a collection that examines the ethics, politics and aesthetics of veganism in contemporary culture and thought.” Dr. Castricano kindly accepted our invitation to feature in the Professor Profile series and discuss their work and pedagogy in a virtual interview via Zoom.
Opinions Editor: Tell us about yourself. What are you most interested in?
Dr. Jodey Castricano: “In 2005, I was one of the first hires at UBC Okanagan when it opened. I was teaching at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, but I’m from BC and I really wanted to come back. I was so happy when UBC opened a campus here, not only because it’s BC but also because it’s UBC—where I had a wonderful graduate experience working towards my PhD. So, there was something kind of serendipitous about the whole thing.
Since then, what I actually do as a professor has a lot to do with my history as a student, even as an undergraduate student, and my research activity, publication, and teaching, are all connected to my lived experience. I teach what is called critical animal studies. In the history of academia, critical animal studies is relatively new. As I see it, critical animal studies is intricately connected with ecofeminism and ecocriticism. There are not many who talk about animal advocacy and whether or not animals have intrinsic value or intrinsic worth that would give them a moral considerability.”
OE: What piqued your interest in this topic? Why does this research matter to you?
Dr. JC: “When I was an undergrad, I was doing two streams: humanities and sciences. I had the idea, at the time, that I wanted to pursue maybe medical school. I had been a draftsperson in civil engineering prior to attending Simon Fraser University and was in the second year of a joint degree, and I was going to be doing Kinesiology and Biology with some English because I was also a writer and a poet—I sought a balance between art and science. In second year, however, my lab partner and I happened to go to a film that was showing on campus called The Animals. When I walked out of that film, it was as though something ruptured in a way that illuminated what I had been missing in the world, especially when I was in Sciences… We were scheduled to do a dissection of a rat and we walked out of there and agreed we would refuse to do it. Mind you, this was in 1986, so you just didn’t do that then. [But] I had lived with animals all my life, horses, dogs, cats, and I always accorded them sentience.
This [film] opened my eyes to how animals are used in research, how animals are factory farmed, and the fact that animals are sentient beings who are capable of not only suffering but of joy. They have family networks, communication systems; they have societies and they have life worlds, in other words. So we refused to do the dissection and we had a long discussion with our professor who said although he did not agree with us, he valued the fact we had questioned the education we were getting. He made arrangements for us to do something else for the final exam. I ended up taking a minor in Kinesiology instead of going on because I learned that we would have had to perform dissection on chimpanzees. These were chimpanzees whose lives, in my view, were immiserated by being used in laboratory research but who had outlived their purpose. So I went fully into the Arts and Humanities. I became vegan, I stopped wearing leather—the whole thing.
Before starting at UBC, I was on sabbatical while at Wilfrid Laurier University and I came upon an assertion that set me on a new path in my scholarship and to which I felt an obligation to respond. The comment was by a scholar in literary and critical theory, Cary Wolfe, who said in spite of the amount of work being done over the last twenty years in ecology, animal behaviour, cognition and ethology, and in spite of new social movements concerned with animal rights, “cultural studies and critical theory have really, really lagged behind …developments in the broader society” in dealing with the “question of the animal.” I suddenly saw this exclusion of the animal as not only sustaining anthropocentrism but also as being a gap in my own scholarship. I began to ask why was speciesism not given the same critical attention that had been recruited against sexism, racism, ableism, queer theory, etc. because not asking the question of the animal was to miss how it stealthily sustains the animalization and exploitation of many peoples, and ultimately, what it has come to mean in terms of human health and environmental degradation in regards the animal industrial complex. [My research] has to do with advocacy for the more than human world, that is to say, for other animals who are worthy of moral consideration and for the “environment” itself . The advocacy for animals, the issue of climate change, and the contribution of animal agriculture and the animal industrial complex to climate change, deforestation, ocean dead zones, pollution, and unsustainable land and water use now forms the basis of my teaching and research, in addition to literary studies and critical theory. Even the 2019 Canada Food Guide is encouraging a plant-based diet in regards human health and it was the first time that the animal agricultural industry did not get to have a say about what this food guide was going to look like.”
Does your research intersect with your professional pedagogy?
Dr. JC: “The concern of critical animal studies begins philosophically with Aristotle, up through Descartes and the vivisectionists, through to deconstruction and Jacques Derrida’s question of animality and feminist philosophers such as Judith Butler and Lori Gruen by which we explore and historicize the rise of critical animal studies in the 20th century, to how speciesism is a question for interesectional theory. In terms of critical theory, the course is demanding because it asks us to reflect on what we think we know about the more-than-human world, including the sentient beings with whom we share this planet. Thus the point becomes one has the opportunity to put into action the principles of responsibility—that is, response ability—and obligation. At our peril, we ignore what we learn. I’ve been teaching variations on posthumanism and critical animal studies for over least a decade at UBC and it’s been challenging because UBC advocates the use of animals in much of its research in comparison, say, with other universities—not many—that are dedicated to developing, validating, and promoting non-animal, human biology-based platforms in biomedical research, education, and chemical safety testing.
In my experience, critical animal studies and ecofeminism asks us to examine the politics of domination, which has brought us to the Anthropocene. A little research shows us that animal agriculture is a major driver of climate change with respect to methane gas emissions, to water pollution, to the exploitation of animals and workers and threats to human health. One might consider the rise of zoonotic viruses now and in the past, including mad cow disease, the avian and swine flu. We’ve all seen images from Europe and elsewhere of thousands of pigs, cows, birds being destroyed, even buried alive to prevent contamination. We’ve seen how workers in slaughterhouses are exploited and subject to trauma and substance abuse. Similarly, we have to accept the fact that vast tracts of land and forest in the Amazon are being cleared for animal agriculture and export to North America markets. We might also ask about the relationship between food scarcity and the ubiquitous feeding of crops to animals raised for human consumption.
At the heart of my work is the principle of compassion and the fact that we really need to think about changing the way we live upon this planet. At this time of the Anthropocene, I feel there's something urgent about a course that asks us to reevaluate our relations to each other and the more than human world. The only thing that can make for change is creating awareness and taking action.
Teaching a course like this requires a certain kind of balance. Obviously, I have to come out as an animal advocate, an activist and a vegan while being aware of difference. In any case, the point of being a critical animal studies scholar, to my mind, is that there is no separation between living what I’m teaching and teaching what I’m living. This is a pedagogical model based on accountability, critical thinking, obligation and compassion. I truly believe, like Socrates, that the unexamined life is not worth living.
Pedagogically, I might play devil's advocate or foster critical thinking by engaging Socratically; that is, to ask and answer questions to encourage critical thinking and draw out underlying presuppositions. I have to say, “Well if you think that, what about this?” It’s a kind of choreography, a response, a way of addressing issues by teaching how to ask questions and activate critical thinking, which doesn’t mean that emotional responses are invalid. That’s what compassion is about. So, [I teach] critical compassion.”
What do you think has been the most valuable part of engaging in this research?
Dr. JC: “Making change. Actually seeing change happen in students. I think being a professor gives the opportunity to be a changemaker by engaging in the issues of our time while recalling history and anticipating the future. After ten years of teaching critical animal studies, I continue to hear from students who are in animal law, communications, literary studies, ecofeminism or ecocriticism who say the course changed their lives. Let’s say over a decade I hear from 5 students a year (which has happened)—that means there’s 50 people out there making change. That really makes me happy.”
Dr. Castricano teaches the course titled, “Posthumanism & Critical Animal Studies,” also known as ENGLISH 457-101/CULT 460-101 and ENGLISH 521/IGS539. Here is a compelling snippet from the course syllabus, kindly provided by Dr. Castricano, for students who might be interested in taking the course in the future:
“It is the aim of this course, therefore, to respond to this “lag” in critical and cultural theory by exploring “the question of the animal” and the “ethical turn” towards this question by providing introduction to historical and contemporary concerns regarding the treatment of non-human animals and exploring our ethical responsibilities towards them especially in light of research which has more or less eroded the tidy divisions between human and nonhuman. This course begins from the philosophical position that animals are worthy of serious intellectual consideration and, thus, a further aim is to attend to how animality and the question of the animal(s) similarly intersect with questions of gender, race, class and ethnicity by introducing students to the necessary intersection of posthumanism and critical animal studies. To this end, we will begin by developing an understanding of the field of posthumanism—aka postanthropocentrism—in its inextricable relation to critical animal studies, postcolonial and cultural studies and eco-feminist theory. We will then move into the question of the animal and discuss how the relations of hierarchy, domination, and exploitation between humans and animals are systematically reproduced in relations of class, race and ethnicity among humans themselves. In addition to materials dealing with posthumanism and critical animal studies, we may be reading literary works which frame the question of the animal in its representational complexity.”