'Do Not Disturb': Mundane Reconnaissance #CPAS2012

I think I nearly had a nervous breakdown this weekend. I didn’t, because my friend Jess Groling is one of the most organised and clever people I know, and also because Daniel Van Strien, Nikki Shaw, Lou Squire and Chris Calvert are all excellent to work alongside. But at one point it definitely nearly happened.

Yes, we were the organising committee of Critical Perspectives on Animals in Society, a conference held at Exeter University last Saturday. Click here to see the website.

[Here is Daniel, Nikki and Myself during the opening plenary. Photo taken by Tereza Vandrovcová]

Being an organiser was a tale of twists and turns. As I am based up in Durham, it was very difficult to really know precisely how stuff is working out when the thing you are helping organise is so far away, but I did my best to help as much as I could. In truth, this came mainly in the form of graphic design stuff, offering my thoughts on various decisions during our weekly online meetings, sending the odd email, and taking the lead when it came to organising the after-conference entertainment (a fundraiser for the local Hunt Saboteurs, with live music and poetry).

The conference itself went off without a hitch, thanks largely to Jess’s meticulous planning and problem solving skills. The 6am start wasn’t as awful as I feared it would be, but it did catch up with me eventually. Near to 150 people attended, including academics, activists, other interested parties, and combinations thereof. The keynote speaker was Richard Ryder (who famously invented the term ‘speciesism’). Other speakers included Kim Stallwood, my good friend Lee McConnell, and Nicole Schafer [via Skype from New Zealand]. 

The day consisted of a combination of conventional academic panel sessions, with 15 minute talks followed by questions, as well as hour-long group-discussion focussed workshop sessions, as well as rooms full of stalls from various animal related groups (including the League Against Cruel Sports, Viva! and Farplace Animal Santuary). We even had some poetry and art on display, and we showed some short films too. It was a lot to cram into one day and there were some terrible schedule clashes (which happens at any conference, but feels even worse, when it’s one you’ve helped timetable). As a result I missed some great stuff. But such was the breadth of great stuff happening. 

In addition I was tasked with chairing a panel for the first time, which was a daunting experience. It’s a lot of pressure, more than I would have guessed, especially when you have to cut someone off, or force them to wrap up.

I also gave a paper too, in a panel called ‘Theoretical Perspectives’. The two papers before mine were great, one by Hannah Strommen on applying Derrida to the representation of animals in the Bible, and one by Catherine Duxbury on ecofeminism and essentialism. It was a really good fit. My paper was called ‘Doing Critical Animal Studies Differently: Learning from Lorde’, and it was about how I’ve used Lorde’s insights to guide the epistemology of what I’m doing. I didn’t expect that it would be too contentious in the context of the conference, BUT I was met with my first really hostile response at a conference so far, during the questioning. 

[Audre Lorde]

After I’d finished. an individual raised their hand and said that they were “disturbed by my research" and also, bizarrely, that they imagined I’d be pleased about that (they never elaborated on why I’d be pleased that my work was ‘disturbing’). In the heat of the moment it struck me as pretty sensationalist to describe what I’m doing (i.e. using comics, as well as the written word, in a PhD thesis) as something ‘disturbing’, especially at a conference highlighting the unmitigated horrors of animal abuse and exploitation, and so I immediately felt myself becoming defensive. But aside from that it just felt like there was a genuine malice in the way the criticism was levelled (and a very distracting amount of blustering, sighing and eye rolling as I tried to give my talk). Maybe I was too sensitive after a difficult day, but I really did feel I was being personally attacked.

The source of this individual’s ire was that they felt that using comics as a mode of representation undermined a very serious issue (that is animal exploitation), and that in doing so I risk jeopardising the hard work done by those who have gone before me in getting the issue of animals on the agenda. The individual explained that they had tried for years, unsuccessfully, to get funding for their animal-positive research, and were only now seeing it happen, and they were concerned that I was going to come along and destroy the reputation of human-animal scholars everywhere. And I see the point.

But unfortunately animals aren’t really on the agenda.

And what I’m doing, isn’t likely to undermine anyone. I’m simply asking for a tiny bit of breathing space in the way we represent our work.

Crucially, I think the comments came from someone who sees the medium of comics as something childish and unsophisticated. There is a growing breadth of literature which strongly and fervently argues the exact opposite. But besides that. to write off an entire artistic, literary and journalistic medium as being ‘not serious enough’ seems problematic to me anyway.

The irony is that I usually devote some time to talking about how comics have had a bad reputation in the past, but that they are increasingly being embraced as a potentially very serious, nuanced and multi-faceted medium for communication and narrative, which have, in one form or another, been around for centuries. I assumed that a room full of folks cool enough to give a shit about animals would already be on board with comics as something viable and interesting in an academic context. That’s why you should never assume…

[A few panels from Scott McCloud’s (1993) ‘Understanding Comics’. A strong argument in defence of the medium.] 

As it became apparent that this individual was annoyed at me, I felt something click in my mind. The stress of the build up to the conference, of driving however many hours to get there, of making sure things were running smoothly, of worrying about things going wrong, of ensuring we had a back up plan if they did, etc had made me push my own paper to the back of my consciousness. I assumed it’d be okay.

Then this person had their say, and I thought “why always me?" I made a fight or flight decision and dealt with it quite combatively, but I think that’s what the situation called for. At the time it felt that the person had dispensed with any semblance of respect in the way they were addressing me, so I showed a similar level of concern for their feelings in my response. Which, in the heat of the moment, might have come across as a bit blunt. But whatever. I was ill, and tired, and stressed, and evidently on the verge of hysterics. Eventually a video of the exchange will emerge and I will have a nervous breakdown. I probably drank about 3 pints of water in the space of 3 minutes, just because I didn’t know what to do about my shaky hands. 

I think I defended myself robustly, and that most of the room was on my side (probably). I don’t like the idea of attendees having to pick sides, especially in a panel session, it’s just too simplistic and undermines the complexity of the issues surrounding my presentation. But I feel like the way the way the question was asked created a very antagonistic and adversarial atmosphere for me to respond in. I did my best.

Anyway, after all that, the prospect of a partly ad-libbed closing plenary seemed a breeze, and we managed it somehow. After the conference, I rushed off to pick up a PA system from my friend Rory, and then rushed off to get some (delicious) food at Herbies, then rushed off the the NBI pub, for the gig. This included poetry from Lorraine Parker, and music from Rory (Some Sort of Threat) and my band (ONSIND). I was way too frazzled, ill and tired to have any idea how I performed musically, but I think it was probably okay, and according to the hunt sabs present, the show raised about 3 weeks worth of petrol money (with weekly petrol being somewhere in the region of £70). Pretty good going really.

[Some Sort of Threat, performing live at the NBI Exeter. Photo taken by Tereza Vandrovcová]

Then after some late night shennanigans dropping off equipment etc, and some late night decaffinated cups of tea back at Jess’s house, we all finally got some sleep. The next day, we drove the 6 or so hours back to Durham, and spent the rest of the day in brain-resting mode, slumped in front of a monitor watching mindless, but amusing sitcoms. 

One thing I keep thinking about, is how lucky I am to have the friends I have. It’s a shame they tend to be dotted around the place, but it really was great having everyone together for that day, and in amongst the anxiety and stress, there was a lot of fun and laughter too. It was especially good to have a strong North East contingent there, as well as some of the wonderful Sheffield Animal Friends folks. Sheffield has become a bit of a second home for me lately, so it was amazing to have a few of them in attendance.

I guess by way of conclusion I should say that, now that the dust has settled a little, I feel really proud to have been involved in something that brought so many amazing people together; something that avoided the strong pressure to charge for attendance; something that worked against (and within) dehumanizing bureaucracy to produce something with a genuine humaneness at its core; something that sought to create a positive, productive dialogue between activists and academics, people who share the same goals, but haven’t always had the best relationship in the past; something that sought not just to talk about human-animal relations, but to dismantle cruelty and oppression full stop; I feel tired, and ill (still), but proud none-the-less.  

It’d be great to build on this momentum somehow, and make CPAS something more than just a one off. Who knows, maybe we’ll do it again next year! 

If I can stave off a breakdown, that is.