Kerr on Broglio, 'Animal Revolution'

Author: 
Ron Broglio
Reviewer: 
Ashley Kerr

Ron Broglio. Animal Revolution. Illustrations by Marina Zurkow. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2022. Illustrations. 160 pp. $88.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-5179-1243-7; $21.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-5179-1244-4

Reviewed by Ashley Kerr (University of Idaho) Published on H-Environment (January, 2023) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=57849

When scholars turn their gaze to nonhuman animals, they must grapple with the thorny problems of animal subjectivity and animal agency. How can humans narrate the thoughts and actions of nonhuman animals who do not share our communicative strategies? How can we center animals in narratives or recognize them as historical and social actors without imposing human ideas and structures? How can we recognize their oppression at human hands without depicting them as powerless victims who can neither speak nor act in their own defense?

In his new book, Ron Broglio addresses these issues head on. Presented as “creative, speculative nonfiction” (back cover), Animal Revolution weaves together analysis of an enormous range of examples (such as escaped cows in Omaha; Animal Farm [1945]; Japanese monster films; John Cunningham Lilly’s dolphin experiments; and the work of Jacques Derrida, Sigmund Freud, Immanuel Kant, and Donna Haraway) and Marina Zurkow’s delightful and often unsettling illustrations. Tying together these diverse threads is Broglio’s insistence that nonhuman animals are constantly rebelling against human systems, even if we cannot or will not recognize them.

Part 1 consists of seven chapters that explore Broglio’s concept of “revolution,” insisting that humans must look past the animal as allegory and instead focus on how real animal bodies interrupt real human systems. Broglio roots this revolution in animals’ physicality, thus producing a productive workaround for questions of agency and subjectivity. Although humans may laugh off these moments of friction as inconvenience or chance, these are serious moments that point to alternative ways of coexisting. Broglio also brings in Derrida’s concept of “hospitality,” which asks us to peacefully engage the stranger and strange species alike. Departing from this idea, Broglio analyzes a literal bull in a china shop, a “cross-species utopian commune,” works by performance artists Joseph Beuys and Kira O’Reilly, and the De Niro film The Deer Hunter (1978) to argue that instead of designing worlds that respond to our desires alone, humans must listen to the revolution and allow animals to participate in defining physical spaces and human-animal interactions (p. 42).

Part 1 also examines how human and animal perceptions differ and what those gaps mean for our coexistence. Borrowing the concept of the “exploit” from computer science, Broglio argues that despite humans’ attempts to use culture to protect ourselves from the messiness of the natural world, animal revolutionaries find the holes. Jellyfish are sucked into warships and nuclear reactors, clogging their outlets and rendering the billion-dollar symbols of our supposed dominance over the planet (literally) powerless. As Broglio eloquently writes, “With every machine they [animals] break and human they take down, they are letting us know that there are other worlds where time, space, and perception work differently. They will not comply with the way we perceive and our way of world building. The earth is full of other creatures that do not live politely on our terms” (p. 63).

In part 2 Broglio takes a more speculative tone, analyzing George Washington’s “cyborg” teeth, humans as monstrous destroyers of animal worlds, other intelligences (Neanderthal and alien), and strange encounters of the human-animal kind. Here, he effectively points out the limitations of human culture and thought, particularly how overconfidence in human exceptionalism makes us unable to perceive the timeless and omnipresent animal revolution. Regardless of what people do, invasive species will continue to cause economic problems, insects will continue to destroy buildings, and animals will continue to bump up against human projects. By disregarding animals, Broglio argues, humans close themselves off from imagining other ways of living and developing creative cross-species solutions for the future.

Broglio’s book crosses disciplinary, geographical, temporal, and generic boundaries, proving a creative addition to animal studies, environmental studies, and other related fields. Broglio’s writing is clear, and his ability to put disparate examples into conversation is admirable. Indeed, Animal Revolution is proof positive that creativity and play not only belong in academic writing but also benefit it. For example, at first glance, the two-page list of the collective nouns for different animals between parts 1 and 2 is an odd and out-of-place interruption. A closer look reveals Broglio’s cleverness. The title, “Multiplicities,” and the focus on the group underscore his point that the animal revolution is not limited to individual actions by intelligent anthropomorphs or the so-called higher animals but rather encompasses all, from insects to elephants. Furthermore, many of the terms gesture to animals’ rebellious potential: an unkindness of ravens, an obstinacy of buffalo, a mob of kangaroos, a labor of moles, a destruction of wild cats, a deceit of lapwings, an army of frogs, a conspiracy of lemurs, an ambush of tigers, a murder of crows. The animal revolution has been here all along.

Despite these felicities, Broglio’s use of an uncritical and undefined “we” sours the reading experience. In chapter 1, he writes that “When animals behave in ways that would make sense in the allegories of our world, we do not heed them. Surely, human reasoning goes, surely the animals do not speak our language.... We have our God, a human God, who came to us in human form. He did not come as a bovine, and we will not have a god of cattle” (p. 11). Many communities around the world, including numerous Indigenous cultures, would not recognize this description of human-animal relationships. Over a billion practitioners of Hindu would balk at the insistence that God only takes a human form. Although Broglio never acknowledges it, his writing makes clear he is assuming a universal white, Christian first-person plural. Similarly, except for the Guadeloupe raccoon in chapter 13, nearly all Broglio’s examples come from Europe or former English colonies. Africa, the Spanish- or Portuguese-speaking areas of the Americas, and Asia barely appear in the text. Broglio repeatedly argues that recognizing the animal revolution will point to new ways of coexisting and alternative futures, but what if those futures are already here, just outside of Broglio’s narrow definition of humanity? A few sentences in the beginning situating this as a critique of specific cultural relationships to animals would have avoided these issues and allowed Broglio’s constructive interventions to shine; better yet would have been to engage with Indigenous and Global South scholars who are also exploring human-animal relationships.

In the last chapter, Broglio exhorts humans to recognize animals’ potential, to tell stories of their revolutions, and to subsequently change how we see the world. The closing line—“Solidarity, comrades”—urges his audience to shake off human exceptionalism and recognize our animality (p. 136). What is the collective noun for a group of humans? Rise up, Broglio calls, and let us build a multiplicity that works with, not against, the zeal of zebras, the smack of jellyfish, and the bloat of hippopotamuses.

Citation: Ashley Kerr. Review of Broglio, Ron, Animal Revolution. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. January, 2023. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=57849

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