Keyword: Captivity

I chose to work on the keyword captivity in part because the term was immediately evocative to me; it generated vibrant, distressing images from memory, cultural objects, and imagination as to what it meant and continues to mean in the context of animal studies. I expect that this is a reaction many of us share – that the language alone of captive, captivity, and captor evoke very specific imagery for us.

One of the other more compelling elements of this entry was the way in which captivity shares space and resources with several of the keywords we discuss in these blog posts, but I’ll hint throughout mine at the relationship of captivity and biopolitics, and, not directly cited in the captivity entry but cited in relation to other keywords in this book, Achille Mbembe’s necropolitics, which has become increasingly more important in my reading and research.

It’s clear from Mariano’s writing that captivity is not just what it seems – she is quick to note that despite its spatial (and bodily) resonance, captivity is importantly a mental, psychological, and political state. Mariano writes importantly that captivity is “a persistent psychological state of extreme dependence, tedium, and anxiety” (99). The terminology of “persistent” and “extreme” is especially important and contextually dependent, and I will return to this in a moment.

Thinking through captivity as a state of specifically necropolitical dependence, tedium, and anxiety, I think the designated power to (as it is often informally put) make die and let live maps onto this idea of captivity handily, particularly as it is explored here. Mbembe is, of course, particularly interested in the intersection of the necropolitical and racialization, but the binaried stratification of human and non-human animals is clearly not unrelated, but deserves more time than I can give it in this blog post. The reinscription of dependence (subjugation), tedium (removal of needed stimuli), and anxiety (heightened stress, danger) all seem poised to render captive subjects less than – in uneasy and unwilling subjugation to their captors.

One of the more interesting elements of this chapter was the deployment and clear reliance on – even for Animal Studies – unusually interdisciplinary citations, from moral philosophy to biological and psychological science. I am not highlighting this as a weakness in the entry; rather, I don’t think captivity can be made legible as a concept or a universally ethical issue without these branching interactions. I did find that there was an innate defensiveness to this interdisciplinarity, one that perhaps spoke more to the difficulty with which the sentience, and sanctity of animal life may be defended and respected than it did to the strength of the definition in itself. In my own research, I’m interested in research methodologies and particularly interdisciplinarity for these very reasons – where is it most efficacious? where does it begin to feel particularly purposeful? – so I found the process of tracking citations especially rich here.

The ethics of capturing and keeping captive sentient beings was substantiated by scientific research proving the often very complex social lives of different animals. On one hand, I found the interdisciplinarity to positively enrich my experience of mediating on this keyword; thinking about not just what captivity might conceptually mean or not mean alongside other disciplines only heightened the argumentative power at play. On the other, it was perhaps morally disappointing that so many disciplines had to rely on others to substantiate or bolster that which ought to have been obvious: that keeping animals from their natural habitats, without adequate space to grow, move, hunt, and socialize, was detrimental to their well-being. 

Indeed, the captive nonhuman animal, often enclosed in an area identifiable, perhaps, by its stark differentiation from what would otherwise be the animal’s natural environment and habitat, might seem all too easy to map onto typical examples of exercised biopolitical and necropolitical power: battle fields, internment camps, prisons, factories.

On another note, I’m interested in the way pethood and captivity may intersect, as this wasn’t a question the entry was able to fully answer, though it did make a point to talk about the likely hierarchy of captivities and captive states; the way evolution can be weaponized as a way of softening the blow of captivity itself in order to render decisions to commoditize and keep animals in domesticated environments, adherent to a set of rules and sense of order that they are not naturally inclined or motivated to keep by way of withholding exercise, fresh air, and play.  

One thought on “Captivity

  1. Carrie Hintz

    Alexandra, This engagement with “captivity” was incisive and thoughtprovoking, and the reflection on disciplinary boundaries was particularly engaging. I look forward to reverting back to these questions when we discuss pethood in future weeks. CH

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