Skip to main content

About this free course

Download this course

Share this free course

Why are nonhuman animals victims of harm?
Why are nonhuman animals victims of harm?

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

4.2 Discourse and resistance

Foucault insists that power is always resisted: prisoners or pupils commonly contest disciplinary regimes and do not meekly submit to being ‘reformed’ according to the goals of a prison or school regime. However, as you have already seen with the ‘cute bunny’ image, the representation of other animals is not geared up to sensitise individuals to their resistance to power relations. Language and imagery typically objectify other animals as ‘things’ rather than subjectify them as an individual ‘someone’ (Adams, 2004).

A group of individuals

One way in which other animals are objectified as things is using the same singular and plural forms, for instance the word ‘fish’ to mean a singular individual, as well as a shoal or entire species. In this course, ‘fishes’ is given as the plural of ‘fish’ and ‘sheeps’ as the plural of ‘sheep’. While fishes is a relatively uncommon plural form of fish, and sheeps is, strictly speaking, grammatically incorrect, these forms highlight how language can subtly affect the way we perceive other animals. The use of identical words for the singular and plural forms can obscure the fact that a shoal of fishes or a flock of sheeps, for instance, are comprised of unique individuals. This is especially salient when groups of other animals are victims of harm, because ‘[s]uch usage blurs the victims together, de-emphasizing their individual sufferings and deaths’ (Dunayer, 2004, p. xii).

The disciplining of nonhuman bodies in the AIC is resisted in the ways in which ‘livestock’ express their distress at confinement, pain and overcrowding, or the ways in which fishes attempt to evade or escape capture (Wadiwel, 2015). Some of the harms documented in Section 2.1 are attempts by humans to counteract this resistance. For example, the ‘debeaking’ of hens is a response to closely confined and distressed hens injuring each other. Similarly, the clipping of piglet’s teeth or the amputation of their tails is a response to biting as expressions of distress.

Foucault used another influential concept that aids understanding of how this misrecognition of nonhuman resistance works: discourse.

Discourse defined

Discourse is described by Colin Gordon as ‘identifiable collections of utterances governed by rules of construction and evaluation which determine within some thematic area what may be said, by whom, in what context, and with what effects’ (Gordon, 2002, p. xvi). When it comes to ‘utterances’, this means more than just spoken or written language. With that in mind, discourse can be defined as an authoritative system of communication, encompassing language, images and symbols, about a specific subject. Discourse is a central concept in the analysis of harm. For instance, harm is used to analyse relationships between crime, harm and the state, as well as to explore relationships between power and resistance.

As well as following the application of discourse to the topic of harms against nonhuman animals, you will need to keep in mind the general features of discourse as an analytical tool. In Gordon’s definition ‘utterances’ can be interpreted broadly so that language and imagery, in fact all forms of human communication, are never neutral. By contrast, discourse shapes communication and even habitual patterns of thought.

The reflective activities in this course highlight the pervasiveness of humanocentric discourse in different ways. You have seen examples of:

  • language that separates ‘humans’ from ‘animals’
  • images, such as the anthropomorphic depictions that distort the lived experience of other animals
  • practices, such as the operations of the AIC, including close confinement as a means to the end of cheaper ‘meat’.

All these are taken for granted and considered as normal; they are just the way things are.

The concept of discourse highlights that mundane social processes such as writing about, drawing, or photographing other animals are, in fact, involved in harms that are often mistakenly recognised as ‘natural’ or inevitable.

Humanocentric discourse makes it difficult to recognise nonhuman distress as resistance to the power relations instantiated within the AIC. Instead, humanocentric discourse reduces distress from the subjective expression of suffering individuals to an objective problem that stands in need of technical resolution in order to maintain profitability. The practices of the AIC police the boundaries of humanocentric discourse. That is, the reduction of nonhuman animals to knowable, calculable ‘things’ is enacted by their confinement, slaughter, dismemberment and packaging as commodities. This is reinforced through advertising and more general media representations of other animals. The phrase ‘police the boundaries’, highlights how dominant discourses, such as humanocentrism, exclude counter-discourses.

Finally, an illustration of this, is the ‘KFC friendship bucket test’ that you saw at the beginning of this course. Here, humanocentric discourse is hidden in plain sight: the expression of the woman’s ‘caring’ identity, through the imagined act of saving ‘animals’ from a fire, sits alongside the consumption of other animals, with no morally significant difference between them. Their constructed difference is inherent in their use as companions for those rescued from the fire, or their use as food for the chickens in the bucket.

This incongruity is pointed out in a YouTube comment about the advertisement: ‘The irony is strong in this advert. Saving animals from a fire yet eating them at the same time (after they’ve been cooked on a fire!!!!)’. This comment is followed by the response, ‘oh be quiet you killjoy’ (cited in Cole and Stewart, 2016). Breaking this down, there are three discursive moves at play:

  1. humanocentric discourse is asserted in the original advertisement, remembering that advertisements are part of the cultural dimension of the AIC
  2. humanocentric discourse is implicitly resisted by a counter-discourse in the ‘irony’ comment
  3. the boundaries of humanocentric discourse are policed by the ‘killjoy’ comment, which attempts to shut down the counter-discursive move.

Although these comments may seem trivial, they are indicative of a wider problem: the pervasive reach of dominant discourses into everyday life and the difficulty of countering them. Dominant discourses enrol wide support as they are taken for granted as ‘just the way things are’. In the example above the ‘killjoy’ comment is typical of the mundane defence and reproduction of humanocentric discourse.

So to conclude Section 4:

  • According to Foucault, power and knowledge are mutually productive, with practices (power relations) generating knowledge, at the same time as knowledge sanctions those practices.
  • Power-knowledge in the AIC reduces nonhuman animals to objects of calculation in relation to profitability: from someone to something.
  • Discourse can be used as an analytical tool to illuminate how humanocentrism is perpetuated.